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.

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.

The Fatherhood Chronicles CXIX

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.

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.