On The Contemplation of Our Savior, The God-Man, in the Gospel

We are in need of purification so we may be illumined when we approach the Holy Scriptures. Certainly the raising of Lazarus is such a text. “Illumine our hearts O Master Who lovest mankind…”

John Henry Newman offers some reflection on this specific need at the beginning of his wonderful sermon on the raising of Lazarus.

————

“Jesus said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto Him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how He loved him.” John xi. 34-36.

On first reading these words the question naturally arises in the mind—why did our Lord weep at the grave of Lazarus? He knew He had power to raise him, why should He act the part of those who sorrow for the dead? In attempting any answer to this inquiry, we should ever remember that the thoughts of our Saviour’s mind are far beyond our comprehension. Hardly do we enter into the feelings and meaning of men like ourselves, who are gifted with any special talent; even human philosophers or poets are obscure from the depth of their conceptions. What then must be the marvellous abyss of love and understanding in Him who, though partaker of our nature, is the Son of God?

This, indeed, is evident, as a matter of fact, on the face of the Scripture record, as any one may see who will take the trouble to inspect it. It is not, for instance, the text alone which raises a question; but the whole narrative, in which it occurs, exhibits our Saviour’s conduct in various lights, which it is difficult for weak creatures, such as we are, properly to blend together.

…on the whole there is quite enough in the narrative to show that He who speaks is not one whose thoughts it is easy to get possession of; that it is no light matter to put one’s-self, even in part, into the position of His mind, and to state under what feelings and motives He said this or that; in a word, I wish to impress upon you, that our Saviour’s words are not of a nature to be heard once and no more, but that to understand them we must feed upon them, and live in them, as if by little and little growing into their meaning.

It would be well if we understood the necessity of this more than we do… when we contemplate Christ as manifested in the Gospels, the Christ who exists therein, external to our own imaginings, and who is as really a living being, and sojourned on earth as truly as any of us, then we shall at length believe in Him with a conviction, a confidence, and an entireness, which can no more be annihilated than the belief in our senses. It is impossible for a Christian mind to meditate on the Gospels, without feeling, beyond all manner of doubt, that He who is the subject of them is God; but it is very possible to speak in a vague way of His love towards us, and to use the name of Christ, yet not at all to realize that He is the Living Son of the Father, or to have any anchor for our faith within us, so as to be fortified against the risk of future defection.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Sermon 10, “The Tears of Christ at the Grave of Lazarus”

Wheat and Yeast – Bread for the Life of the World

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12.24-26)

33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13.33)

In the Gospel we read: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain ; but if it dies it bears much fruit” (John 12.24). Our Lord Jesus is the grain of wheat but he is also the yeast… When he came, a man and alone, into the world, the Lord Jesus gave everyone the opportunity to become what he is himself. Anyone who is united to the yeast that is Christ also becomes yeast, useful to the self and of value to all. That person will be saved and will save others.

Before it is mixed into a bowl of flour, the yeast is beaten, crushed, and crumbed; it is completely dissolved. But it is then that, in one and the same fermentation, it take on the same appearance as the numerous dispersed grains of flour. It brings together into a solid lump a substance that, of itself, used to be as inconsistent as dust. In fact it creates a serviceable dough out of what seemed to be nothing but a scattering of dust.

Thus the Lord Jesus Christ, yeast of the whole world, has been crushed by much suffering, pierced and destroyed. And his sap – that is to say, his precious blood – was poured out for us so as to solidify all humankind that was scattered by becoming mingled with them,. We who used to be like a people of flour, see how we are now brought together as by yeast. We who were miserably lying all over the earth, scattered and crushed: see how we are reunited with Christ’s body thanks to the power of his Passion. —Saint Maximus of Turin (?-c.420), Homily 111 ; CC Sermon 25, p.97 ; PL 57, 511

Prayer

Oh I am glad, I am glad. And here’s a thing worth recording. Of course I have been praying for you daily, as always, but latterly have found myself doing so with much more concern and especially about 2 nights ago, with such a strong feeling how very nice it would be, if God willed, to get a letter from you with good news. And then, as if by magic (indeed it is the whitest magic in the world) the letter comes to-day. Not (lest I should indulge in folly) that your relief had not in fact occurred before my prayer, but as if, in tenderness for my puny faith, God moved me to pray with especial earnestness just before He was going to give me the thing. How true that our prayers are really His prayers: He speaks to Himself through us.

I am also most moved at hearing how you were supported through the period of anxiety. For one is sometimes tempted to think that if He wanted us to be as unanxious as the lilies of the field He really might have given us a constitution more like theirs! But then when the need comes He carries out in us His otherwise impossible instructions. In fact He always has to do all the things—all the prayers, all the virtues. No new doctrine, but newly come home to me.
–C.S Lewis, To Mary Willis Shelburne, 6 November 1953.

The Folly of Definition and the Wisdom of Communion

“At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, andlearn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-27)

Truth is not merely the purview of reason. To put it another way, truth is not bounded by reason. Truth exceeds reason. Reason’s desire is for truth. But, hidden in that desire is the yearning for communion. Reason desires that which is beyond itself. Communion is the context in which, mysteriously, reason finds the fulfillment of its longing, i.e. the heart. This is what is meant by the Church Fathers when they talk about the head descending into the heart.

The tragedy is that reason has come to the conclusion that it is its own context of definition and fulfillment as well as the fulfillment of all other human longings. St. Hilary speaks lovingly and yet firmly to this tragedy and its resolution. (Emphasis is mine.)

————————–

It is the Father to Whom all existence owes its origin. In Christ and through Christ He is the source of all. In contrast to all else He is self-existent. He does not draw His being from without, but possesses it from Himself and in Himself. He is infinite, for nothing contains Him and He contains all things; He is eternally unconditioned by space, for He is illimitable; eternally anterior to time, for time is His creation. Let imagination range to what you may suppose is God’s utmost limit, and you will find Him present there; strain as you will there is always a further horizon towards which to strain. Infinity is His property, just as the power of making such effort is yours. Words will fail you, but His being will not be circumscribed. Or again, turn back the pages of history, and you will find Him ever present; should numbers fail to express the antiquity to which you have penetrated, yet God’s eternity is not diminished. Gird up your intellect to comprehend Him as a whole; He eludes you. God, as a whole, has left something within your grasp, but this something is inextricably involved in His entirety. Thus you have missed the whole, since it is only a part which remains in your hands; nay, not even a part, for you are dealing with a whole which you have failed to divide. For a part implies division, a whole is undivided, and God is everywhere and wholly present wherever He is. Reason, therefore, cannot cope with Him, since no point of contemplation can be found outside Himself and since eternity is eternally His. This is a true statement of the mystery of that unfathomable nature which is expressed by the Name ‘Father:’ God invisible, ineffable, infinite. Let us confess by our silence that words cannot describe Him; let sense admit that it is foiled in the attempt to apprehend, and reason in the effort to define. Yet He has, as we said, in ‘Father’ a name to indicate His nature; He is a Father unconditioned. He does not, as men do, receive the power of paternity from an external source. He is unbegotten, everlasting, inherently eternal. To the Son only is He known, for no one knows the Father save the Son and him to whom the Son wills to reveal Him, nor yet the Son save the Father. (Matthew 11:27) Each has perfect and complete knowledge of the Other. Therefore, since no one knows the Father save the Son, let our thoughts of the Father be at one with the thoughts of the Son, the only faithful Witness, Who reveals Him to us.

It is easier for me to feel this concerning the Father than to say it. I am well aware that no words are adequate to describe His attributes. We must feel that He is invisible, incomprehensible, eternal. But to say that He is self-existent and self-originating and self-sustained, that He is invisible and incomprehensible and immortal; all this is an acknowledgment of His glory, a hint of our meaning, a sketch of our thoughts, but speech is powerless to tell us what God is, words cannot express the reality. You hear that He is self-existent; human reason cannot explain such independence. We can find objects which uphold, and objects which are upheld, but that which thus exists is obviously distinct from that which is the cause of its existence. Again, if you hear that He is self-originating, no instance can be found in which the giver of the gift of life is identical with the life that is given. If you hear that He is immortal, then there is something which does not spring from Him and with which He has, by His very nature, no contact; and, indeed, death is not the only thing which this word ‘immortal’ claims as independent of God. If you hear that He is incomprehensible, that is as much as to say that He is non-existent, since contact with Him is impossible. If you say that He is invisible, a being that does not visibly exist cannot be sure of its own existence. Thus our confession of God fails through the defects of language; the best combination of words we can devise cannot indicate the reality and the greatness of God. The perfect knowledge of God is so to know Him that we are sure we must not be ignorant of Him, yet cannot describe Him. We must believe, must apprehend, must worship; and such acts of devotion must stand in lieu of definition. St. Hilary of Poitiers (300 –368), On the Trinity (Book II), 6-7.

The Monkey

Christians must arm themselves against the seductions of this world. They must be armed against every attack and every temptation, so that every evil is repelled by them. Such armor is not made in a day or two, but is diligently and laboriously forged by a lengthy process. Of what value is all our virtue if we succumb to the first temptation? Speaking of this, Saint Gregory of Nyssa cites the example of a monkey in Alexandria. He says: “An animal trainer in Alexandria taught a monkey to skillfully impersonate a female dancer on stage. The spectators at the theatre praised the monkey, which was dressed as a female dancer and danced to the beat of the music. But while the viewers were occupied observing such a novel spectacle, some comedian decided to show everyone that a monkey is nothing more than a monkey. While they all shouted and applauded at the skill of the monkey, the comedian threw some sweets onto the stage that monkeys particularly like. As soon as the monkey saw the sweets, it forgot the dance, the applause, and the elaborate costume, and dashed around, groping with its paws for the sweets; and since its dress interfered, it began to tear it apart with its nails, attempting to remove it. And in place of praise and amazement, laughter broke out among the spectators.” For behind the torn mask of the “dancer,” a monkey was revealed. The Prologue of Ochrid, July 14

The Thought Life

I don’t typically quote motivational speakers/authors. However, I heard this quote in a sermon this past Saturday and it just sooo hits the mark:

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The fact is, every sin begins with a thought. So, taking control/dominion over our thought life must be our highest priority. Not easy and not quick. We can muzzle the dog (clean up our act) but the dog (our thought life) is still as vicious as ever.

Jesus, of course, had a lot to say about all of this!

Here is what Elder Thaddeus says in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica.

————–

“Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kin, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.

Everything, both good and evil comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and I the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us. But we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kind of thoughts and desires we breed.

If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us – in our family, in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only heart on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However, when we breed negative thoughts, that is a great evil. When there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go. So you see, we can be very good or very evil. If that’s the way it is, it is certainly better to choose good! Destructive thoughts destroy the stillness within, and then we have no peace.”

Who Receives Our Attention

Who do we pay attention to? To whom is our focus offered? It is those from whom we hope to receive some gain or benefit? Didn’t St. Paul quote Jesus as saying, “…it is more blessed to give than to receive?” So, although we are giving our attention we are actually fishing for something for ourselves. There really is no cost. This would be a form of caring that isn’t real caring.

——————-

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. (Luke 6.32-34)

The Lord said: “Whoever welcomes this little child on my account welcomes me.” (Luke 9:48) The smaller our brother is, the more Christ is present. For when we welcome a great personality, we often do so out of vainglory; but the person who welcomes someone unimportant, does so with a pure intention and for Christ. He said: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And again: “As often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.” (Matthew 25:35.40) Since he is talking about a believer and a brother, no matter how unimportant he is, Christ comes in with him. Open your house and welcome him.

“He who welcomes a prophet because he bears the name of prophet receives a prophet’s reward.” Thus, the person who welcomes Christ will receive the reward of Christ’s hospitality. Do not doubt his words, trust them. He himself told us: “In them, I am presenting myself.” And so that you do not doubt them, he decreed the punishment for those who do not welcome him and the honors for those who do welcome him (Matthew 25:31ff.). He would not do this if he were not personally touched by honor or scorn. He says: “You welcomed me into your house; I will welcome you in the Kingdom of my Father. You freed me from hunger; I will free you from your sins. You saw me in chains; I will let you see your liberation. You saw me a stranger; I will make of you a citizen of heaven. You gave me bread; I will give you the Kingdom as your inheritance that is entirely yours. You helped me in secret; I will proclaim it publicly and I will say that you are my benefactor and that I am in your debt.”

Saint John Chrysostom (c.345-407), Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, no. 45

God’s Timing and Our Obedience

As I am fond of saying, words can foster understanding and they can hinder it.

Take for example the versicle and response from Compline in the Book of Common Prayer: “O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us.”

“make speed to… make haste to”

What in the world do we mean when we say those things?!

Fast (which is what those two words imply) and the words faithful and obedient seldom go together in the same sentence. What do we mean when we pray using the words “haste” and “speed”??

Take another example: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt. 6.10)?? Honestly, can any of what follows that sentence in the Lord’s Prayer rightly characterized by or associated with the word “fast”?!

——————–

“If you should beseech God for a thing and He is slow to hearken to you speedily, do not grieve, for you are not wiser than God. This happens to you either because you are no worthy to obtain you request, or because the pathways of your heart do not accord with your petitions, or because you have not yet reached the measure wherein you could receive the gift you ask for. We must not rush onwards to great measures before the time, lest God’s gift be debased by our hasty reception of it. For anything that is quickly obtained is also easily lost, whereas everything found with toil is also kept with careful watching.”
St. Isaac the Syrian

“No bodily or spiritual activity without pain or toil ever brings fruit to him who practices it, because ‘the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.’ (Mt. 11.12)
St. Gregory of Sinai

Concerning Things Which Befall Christians At Prayer

I am indebted to Mark Armitage at Enlarging the Heart, for reminding me to revisit one of my favorites, St. Macarius the Great (295-392 A.D). Here is a magnificent meditation by the saint on how God governs our “experience of prayer” for our salvation’s sake. It touches my all too active tendency to measure my progress in prayer. What we experience, while it is a journey of maturation/perfection, is not ours to graph.
___________________

1. A man goes in to bend the knee, and his heart is filled with the divine influence, and his soul rejoices with the Lord, like bride with bridegroom, according to that word of the prophet Esaias which says, As the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall the Lord rejoice over thee (Isa. Ixii. 5); and it comes to pass that being all day engaged he gives himself to prayer for an hour, and the inward man is rapt in prayer into the unfathomable deep of that other world in great sweetness, so that his whole mind is up aloft, rapt away thither, and estranged from things below. For the time being forgetfulness comes into him with regard to the interests of the earthly mind, because his thoughts are filled and taken captive to divine and heavenly things, to things infinite and past comprehension, to wonderful things which no human lips can express, so that for that hour he prays and says, “Would God that my soul might pass along with my prayer!”

2. Question. Can any one enter into these things at all times?

Answer. Grace is constantly present, and is rooted in us, and worked into us like leaven, from our earliest years, until the thing thus present becomes fixed in a man like a natural endowment, as if it were one substance with him. But, for the man’s own good, it manages him in many different ways, after its own pleasure. Sometimes the fire flames out and kindles more vehemently; at other times more gently and mildly. The light that it gives kindles up at times and shines with unusual brightness; at others it abates and burns low. The lamp is always burning and shining, but when it is specially trimmed, it kindles up with intoxication of the love of God; and then again by God’s dispensation it gives in, and though the light is .always there, it is comparatively dull.

3. To some, however, the sign of the cross has appeared in light and fastened itself upon the inward man. At another time a man at his prayers has fallen into a kind of trance, and found himself standing in the altar-space in church, and three loaves were offered to such an one, leavened with oil, and the more he ate of them, the more they increased and grew. At another time there was brought as it were a shining garment, such as there is none on earth in the course of this world, nor is it possible for human hands to make the like; for as when the Lord went up into the mountain with Peter and John, He changed the fashion of His raiment and made it to flash with light, so was it with this garment, and the man who was clothed with it wondered and was amazed. Another while, the light shining in the heart disclosed the inner, deeper, hidden light, so that the man, swallowed up in the sweetness of the contemplation, was no longer master of himself, but was like a fool or a barbarian to this world by reason of the surpassing love and sweetness, by reason of the hidden mysteries ; so that the man for that season was set at liberty, and came to perfect measures, and was pure and free from sin ; yet afterwards grace retreated, and the veil of the adverse power came; notwithstanding, grace still shews itself in part, and he stands on the first and lowest step of perfection.

4. There are twelve steps, we might say, which a man has to pass before he reaches perfection. For a season that measure has been attained, and perfection entered upon; and then grace gives in, and he comes down by one step, and stands on the eleventh. Here and there one man rich in grace has stood always, night and day, in perfect measures, at liberty and in purity, always captive and aloft. Well now, if the man to whom those marvellous things were shewn, of which he has had actual experience, were to have them always present with him, he would be unable to undertake the dispensation of the word and the burden of it, nor could he endure to listen to, or take any interest in, any ordinary thing, concerning himself, or concerning the morrow, but only to sit in a corner, aloft and intoxicated. So the perfect measure has not been given, in order that he may be free to take an interest in his brethren, and in the ministry of the word. Nevertheless the middle wall of partition has been broken through (Eph. ii. 14) and death is overcome.

5. The case stands thus, as if some foggy power hangs over and forms a light screen, like a dense air, though the lamp is burning and shining all the while, even as a veil hangs over yonder light. So this man confesses that he is not perfect or altogether free from sin. He says that the middle wall of partition has been broken through and shattered, and yet, at some point not wholly broken, nor at all times. There are moments when grace kindles up and comforts and refreshes more fully; there are moments when it retreats and clouds over, according as grace itself manages for the man’s advantage. But who is there that has come to the perfect measure at particular seasons, and has tasted and had direct experience of that world? A perfect Christian man, one completely free, I have not yet seen. Although one and another is at rest in grace, and enters into mysteries and revelations and into much sweetness of grace, still sin is yet present within. By reason of the exceeding grace and of the light that is in them, men consider themselves free and perfect; but inexperience deceives them. They are under the influence of grace, but I have never yet seen a man that is free. I myself at times have in part come to that measure, and I have learned to know that it does not constitute a perfect man.

6. Question. Tell us, if thou wilt, what measures thou art in?

Answer. After the sign of the cross, grace now acts thus. It calms all the members and the heart, so that the soul, for much joy, appears like an innocent child, and the man no longer condemns Greek or Jew, sinner or worldling. The inner man regards all men with a pure eye, and the man rejoices over all the world, and desires that all should worship and love, Greeks and Jews. At another moment, like the king’s son, he is as bold in the Son of God as in a father, and doors are opened to him, and he enters within to many mansions? (John xiv. 2) and the further he goes in, doors are again opened in progression, a hundred mansions leading to a hundred beyond, and he is rich, and the richer he is, other new wonders are again disclosed to him, and he is entrusted, as a son and an heir, with things that cannot be told by mankind or put into syllables by mouth and tongue. Glory to God. Amen.

Source: Fifty Spiritual Homilies oF St. Macarius the Egyptian, By A. J. Mason, D.D., SPCK, New York, 1921 (pgs. 65-68)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 99 other followers