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Archive for August, 2008

The Good and the Beautiful

I came from a background in Christianity that emphasized salvation as a matter of justice, of the meeting of divine requirements. Coupled with this was some creeping Pelagianism, which left a contradictory and crippled spiritual life: on the one hand intellectually conscious of the inability of any of us to effect our ultimate salvation, but on the other hand existentially aware of the concomitant ability to lose it at any moment. Add in a dash of biblical hermeneutics that conscientiously did not reach back before the present day, and one was left with a hellish reversal of revivalist altar calls: instead of being saved in a moment, one could be lost at any other. Always there was the divine ledger, and though we were fiercely anti-papal, the odor of merits hung over all. And if God was a Father, he was the sort that was distant, only getting involved in matters of discipline, and doling out favors according to some formula of worthiness that could not be calculated in human terms.

But I have come to see things much differently, thank God. It has been a slow process, involving regular worship in the Divine Liturgy where one hears that God is good and loves mankind, the painful consequences of personal life circumstances, and through those circumstances the clearest realization of my own sins that I have yet come to. There is surely an even greater clarity to come, but this much is what I can endure at this time. But the key to this all is the reward, at last, after four decades of life, to come to truly and to really believe, to know in my heart: God is love. He is all love. I am faced with things which I long feared, and still hope even now do not fully come to pass, things that without melodrama one could describe as ruinous. And yet, I have been given this great and wonderful gift to at last begin–and only to begin–to see that God is good, and that he is love.

It is a costly thing to have come to, and I suspect there is more to be paid. And it is not as though the tears no longer come. Indeed, they come in greater measure than before. There is much, after all, to regret, and sometimes the penances life brings are quite burdensome. But I have been given a gift to finally know, if only the littlest bit, of what it means to say, “God is love.” If perfect love casts out fear, then the fact that the struggle with fears still remains surely means I do not yet know perfect love. But the fears have lost their bite. They no longer sting so much. And, ultimately, even if–or when–they are finally realized in my daily existence, I can at least recall these days, today, and remember, God is love, and that love is full and complete goodness.

Surely all my faults and sins remain. But I know them more clearly now. And I know better what I must do to fight against them. If it please God, some of my fears may not yet come to pass, and he will grant me to fulfill my repentance in more direct ways.

But this glimpse of his goodness and his love is still powerful and pervasive. One can sense in these things the connection of loves, the choir that is prayer, and the beauty that surrounds us all. I cannot adequately express how, by way of one example, much more precious is the glimpse of sunlight in our daughters’ hair, the trill of their laughter, and the tenderness of their embraces. So many more things become every more beautiful and treasured. In such goodness and love, one is given back one’s life and dreams and hopes–even if these ultimately do not materialize, because we still live in a world in which people have freedom to choose other acts and ends–and such a gift puts underneath one the solid foundation of hope. If God is such goodness and love, then in all things, in all his providence, we will find mercy and peace and healing. No matter what.

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Increase and Decrease

“He must increase. I must decrease,” said the Forerunner. “I live, yet not I, but Christ in me,” says the Apostle.

In the great book, The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zosima says to his brother monks, “Truly each of us is guilty before everyone and for everyone, only people do not know it, and if they knew it, the world would at once become paradise.”

I have had cause to reflect on this over the last several weeks. It is a notion that is entirely mysterious, if even one is conscious of it. Perhaps some of us may come, after much prayer and internal struggle, to an apparent humility in which we can admit to ourselves our own sinfulness before others. But it is the next step, the one that ushers us into the entryway of humility, that is the hardest, discovering that we are guilty of the sins of others as well.

Do not misunderstand. I do not ascribe, nor, do I think is the character of Dostoyevsky’s monastic Elder ascribing, direct accountability for someone else’s sins to one. After all, God has given to each of us that wonderful and terrible freedom to choose life or to choose death in all our moments and all our dealings. None of us are ever coerced into sin or into good deeds. The record of our acts are, in the end, our personal authorship.

But in our world, we have failed to remember the inescapable connections that ground all our reality. We are never alone. All that we are and do is connected to everything else and to everyone else, all that is visible and all that is invisible. And thus, like the proverbial wing of the butterfly, we can let loose the tidal wave upon the world. Will it be a force for good and healing, or something else?

This is why prayer is not only vital but truly powerful. This is why it not only transforms us, those who pray, but our world. As St Therese of Lisieux points out in her autobiography, when we are drawn to Christ, all our connections are affected, and we draw all our loves with us. But prayer is powerful and effective only and precisely because it connects us with the Holy Trinity, the communal ground of all that is. The foundation of reality itself is the God who is Trinity. And as St Therese writes, “Archimedes said: ‘Give me a fulcrum and with a lever I will move the world.’ What he could not get, the saints have been given. The Almighty has given them a fulcrum: Himself, Himself alone. For a lever they have that prayer which burns with the fire of love. Thus they have moved the world, and it is with this lever that those still battling in the world move it and will go on moving it to the end of time.”

This love and the Holy Trinity meet in the act of prayer, and in the Sacraments which are quintessential acts of prayer, and the connection of ourselves with God and with all persons is enlivened. And such connections cannot but have their affect. The consequences may not conform to our wishes and desires, but we know that this God with whom we unite in prayer, and who condescends to unite with us, will work all things towards the ends of love and peace and mercy. And in such conformation, through our prayers, we find ourselves transformed.

The great mystery is that in the pathways of prayer we recognize, though we do not fully understand, how it is that love binds us to all. In Forgiveness Vespers we ask the mercy of all present, because we know that all our acts are ripples on the water that go far beyond what we know. But so, too, do our acts of love and kindness, and so, too, do our prayers.

And as we discover this co-responsibility for one another, and especially in prayer, we discover the law of humility: I must decrease, He (Christ) must increase. Prayer is the fire of love which inflames the candles of our souls, and the brighter the flame, the more our candles diminish. If God allows, our candles will become all flame, and love and joy.

I confess I am certain I don’t fully grasp this–indeed, I’m sure I’ve said things in error. May the Lord correct what’s wrong, and confirm what’s right.

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Tending the Flower Garden

Lyrics below the jump.

[H/T: Vox Stefani]

(more…)

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The Family that Prays Together . . .

I just had a most wonderful and heart-warming experience with my younger daughter, Delaina. I had come home mid-morning so that I could watch her for the rest of the day. We played and had some lunch, and while Delaina colored on the floor, I went to our icon corner to observe a brief set of sixth hour prayers. I had no sooner started than Delaina went to my bookshelf and grabbed one of the volumes to my Loeb edition St. Bede the Venerable (i.e., the li’l red books), and stood right next to me.

So, I prayed the office in a quiet voice, and she did the same, crossing herself when I did, and bowing when I bowed. And when I began to pray Panagia‘s on the prayer rope, she took the smaller prayer rope and attempted to continue to imitate me.

I’m not a monk, so the office was very short, only a few minutes. But it will stay in my memory for a long time to come. A wonderful gift of God’s providence to me today.

In about a half hour, my fellow little prayer warrior and I will go pick her sister up from the Orthodox school, and then we’ll all three enjoy the remainder of the afternoon together.

Deo gratia.

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That They All May Be One

After Holy Communion one day [Jesus] made me understand the significance of these words in the Canticle of Canticles: “Draw me: we will run after thee to the odour of Thy ointments.” So, Jesus, there is no need to say: In drawing me, draw also the souls I love. The simple words “Draw me” are enough! When a soul has been captivated by the intoxicating odour of Your ointments, she cannot run alone. Every soul she loves is drawn after her–a natural consequence of her being drawn to You.

As a river sweeps along it carries with it all it meets down to the depths of the sea, and so, my Jesus, the soul which plunges into the boundless ocean of Your love carries with it all its treasures. You know that my treasures are those souls which You have linked with mine. You have entrusted these treasures to me and so I dare borrow Your own words, those You used on the last evening You spent as a mortal traveller on earth. . . .

Jesus does not demand great deeds. All He wants is self-surrender and gratitude. . . .

This is all Jesus asks from us. He needs nothing from us except our love.

St. Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul

From a brief life of St. Moses the Ethiopian (emphasis added):

He was a slave, but was cast out by his master due to his evil life. He then became the leader of a murderous band of robbers in Egypt. He came to repentance and took up monastic life in the desert under St Isidore of Sketis. For many years he struggled tirelessly, through prayer, fasting and vigils, with lustful and violent thoughts; he was finally freed of them through the prayers of St Isidore. He was revered by all the brethren for his ascetical life, his wisdom, and his deep humility. Once a brother committed some sin and the monks gathered to judge him. Moses at first refused to go at all, but when they insisted, he filled an old, leaky basket with sand and carried it into the assembly on his back. When the brethren asked him what his action meant, he said “My sins run out behind me, and I do not even see them, and I have come to judge my brother.” The monk was forgiven.

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Would You Push the Button?

The interconnectedness of sin and death. None of us sins alone. All our sins affect others.

Button, Button (Part 1 of 2) (9:49)

Button, Button (Part 2 of 2) (9:46)

(From an old eighties Twilight Zone)

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This’ll rock yer world if you think house churches were all about sitting around in the first-century equivalent of jeans and tee-shirts, groovin’ to some guitar-strummin’ praise songs, and just chillin’ fer Jeeezuss.

Architecture of the Ancient House Church [H/T: kevinburt]

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Seen and Unseen

In a previous post, I remarked on the struggle of the Christian who is anchored in the world of seen and unseen realities. Our deacon approached me last night at Vespers and gave me a psalm which highlights this struggle, Psalm 36 (37 MT), here, in part:

Hope in the Lord, and do good, and dwell on the earth, and like a shepherd shalt thou be fed with its riches. Delight thyself in the Lord, and He will give thee the askings of thy heart. Disclose unto the Lord thy way, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. And He shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light and thy judgement as the noonday. Submit thyself unto the Lord and supplicate Him; fret not thyself because of him that prospereth in his way, nor because of a man that doeth iniquity. Cease from wrath and forsake anger; fret not thyself so as to do evil. For evil-doers shall utterly perish, but they that wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. And yet a little while, and the sinner shall not be, and thou shalt seek for his place, and shalt not find it. But the meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves in an abundance of peace. . . . By the Lord are the steps of a man rightly directed, and His way shall he greatly desire. When he falleth he shall not be utterly cast down; for the Lord upholdeth his hand. I have been young, and now indeed I am old, and I have not seen the righteous man forsaken, nor his seed begging bread. All the day long the righteous showeth mercy, and lendeth, and his seed shall be unto blessing. Decline from evil and do good, and dwell unto ages of ages. For the Lord loveth judgement, and He will not forsake His holy ones; they shall be kept for ever. . . . Wait on the Lord and keep His way, and He shall exalt thee to inherit the earth; when sinners are utterly destroyed, thou shalt see it. I have seen the ungodly man highly exalted and lifting himself up like the cedars of Lebanon. But I passed by, and lo, he was not; and I sought him, and place was not to be found. Keep innocence, and behold uprightness, for there is a remnant for the peaceable man. But the transgressors shall be utterly destroyed together, and the remnants of the ungodly shall be utterly destroyed. But the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord, and He is their defender in a time of affliction. And the Lord shall help them and shall deliver them, and He will rescue them from sinners and will save them because they hoped in Him.

He also pointed me to the commentary of our priest, Father Patrick.

In this psalm, one part of the soul admonishes the other, reminds the other, cautions the other, encourages the other. And this inner conversation of the human spirit takes place in the sight of God, the giver of wisdom.

This inner discussion is rendered necessary because of frequent temptations to discouragement. As far as empirical evidence bears witness, the wicked do seem, on many occasions, to be better off than the just. By the standards of this world, they prosper.

Our psalm is at pains to insist, however, that this prosperity is only apparent, in the sense that it will certainly be short-lived. As regards the workers of iniquity, “they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb . . . For evildoers shall be cut off . . . For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be . . . For the arms of the wicked shall be broken . . . The transgressors shall be cut off together.”

The suffering lot of the just man is likewise temporary and of brief duration. He need only wait on the Lord in patience and trust: “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He will give thee the desires of thy heart. Commit your way unto the Lord, and trust in Him, and He shall bring it to pass . . . But the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord; He is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord will help them and deliver them; He will deliver them from the wicked and save them, because they trust in Him.”

This, then, is a psalm of faith and confidence in God, without which there is no Christian prayer. It is also faith and hope under fire, exposed to struggle and the endurance that calls for patience. After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1), and “We were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope . . . But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance” (Rom. 8:24, 25). Our psalm is a meditative lesson on not being deceived by appearances, and a summons to wait patiently for God’s deliverance. (Father Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms [Conciliar Press], p. 72)

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Thy Kingdom Come

The school of prayer is not one from which one ever graduates. And it is, because of our sins, sometimes a most difficult course. Among the difficulties in this school is the mystery of petitionary prayer. We know the verses:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” So Jesus answered and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ it will be done. And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:19-22)

Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8 )

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)

These are among the very well-known verses Christians bring out with regard to petitionary prayer. But there is another set of verses, in many ways, it seems to me though I cannot say for sure, much more foundational, which frame our prayerful petitions:

Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily [supersubstantial] bread.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from [the] evil [one].

And normally in private prayers, we add, “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.” (A priest will usually instead say, “For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”)

When we think of petitionary prayer, we usually think in terms of specific requests: heal my mother, provide me a job, keep my children safe as they travel, and so forth. And that is right and holy and proper. But sometimes, and this was certainly the case in my evangelical background, petitionary prayer can become something like a shopping list: please do this, grant me that, and help me avoid this other. Prayer was considered “powerful” when one could present prayer requests which had been answered. Christians were considered “prayer warriors” the more often they could cite answered prayers. But when viewed from the perspective of the Lord’s Prayer, we are granted, if you will, a more cosmic view.

Thy Kingdom come

That is to say, all our requests are to be framed in the context of personal and corporate salvation. There is a phrase one often finds in traditional prayers, but not so much in present-day liturgies: “grant us that which is for our salvation,” or “grant my request if it be for my salvation.” The more intense is our need, the deeper our hurt, the stronger our confusion, this is a prayer most difficult to pray with an undivided heart. And thankfully, perfect purity is not absolutely required. The Lord hears us from our point of need and not from a requirement of saintly perfection. This, too, is our salvation. As we keep “banging on the doors of heaven,” the Lord saves us, purifies us, in our petitions.

It is that perspective of personal and corporate salvation that moves us from a childish naivete to a child-like faith. It humbles us, ensuring we are mindful of our self-centeredness and myopia. We begin to recognize that some things for which we ask are not for our salvation, or, even if they are, that God’s love and mercy are so deep and so powerful that even what appears to us to be “temptation” and “the evil one,” can be more truly salvific for us, for those closest to us, and for all the Church than the requests we present in faith to God. This is not to say that we will see this, even obliquely, in this life. Sometimes our suffering is so wrapped in salvific mystery that we cannot but see this deeper view until on the other side of death’s dividing line.

This realization is not necessarily comforting. At least not at first. It is just the condition of our mortal lives that our hurts and needs and desires are so intertwined with our loved ones, our enemies, perfect strangers, and so deeply embedded in our hearts, that any thought which does not include the full granting of our requests is so painful one may well feel overwhelmed. But as one continues to pray through these tear-filled and endless moments, one begins to see that truly, all our petitions are and ought to be pointed to the salvation of each and of all: Thy Kingdom come.

There is, then, when one comes to this point, a change in one’s mind, if not yet fully in one’s heart. One sees the sins and evil that have been done to those one loves so deeply, and sees, too, the sins and evil done by them and us, and the heart’s cry becomes “Make Thy good, Thy love, Thy mercy and kindness, to triumph over the sin and evil done to us, and that we do.” We invoke the Spirit to renew our hearts and minds, to heal us of our inner demons and the passions lodged so firmly in our hearts. We see the despair of those who are nearer to us than our own flesh, and we pray the light of hope into their hearts and minds. Thy Kingdom come.

And when we return to the Kyrie, pacing in the darkened corner away from the rest of the world, the woolen knots traveling through our fingers, the “Lord have mercy” becomes a call for light and peace and hope to enter our hearts and the hearts of all our loves, banishing the sin and darkness, the wounds and scars, so that in receiving light, we might become all light.

Lord, have mercy. Thy Kingdom come.

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If you get depressed, then cry out ‘Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!’ Just like a child. The Lord will hear, and will console you.

Schemamonk John the Silent (in The Orthodox Word, no. 251, November-December 2006, p. 278 )

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