Articulation and Experience — Palm Sunday

Today is the day on which we celebrate pilgrimage. In the gospel texts that articulate the events of this day, we witness not only the intersection of a huge variety of journeys but the culmination of them.

They reach their various destinations. Ironically, the journeys and the people on them all end up at the same place. And this is the case even though the journeyers view, the place – destination – in dramatically different ways. They all believe this is the place where what they desire will be accomplished. Same destination but with different goals. How could we have different goals but all end up in the same place?! (I invite you to consider that notion deeply. Indeed, this dynamic is sooo much of our everyday life in relationship with others.)

I have shared my struggle to put words on the experienced reality of my life with and in Christ Jesus.

I have spoken of it as:

  • a journey/pilgrimage
  • an unfolding
  • about identity before it is about behavior
  • a labyrinth
  • a pulsating point (thank you Fr. Serafim)

As a result of spending time with a dear friend over the course of a weekend of retreat, we spoke of the need to articulate authentic experience. The need to put into words what has, is, and will occur.

He sent this quote to me. It is a beautiful articulation of the faithful struggle that is our life in Christ Jesus.

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven.  Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City.  But that is not the way I have done it, so far.  I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.  Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back.  I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times.  I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order.  The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back.  Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.  I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises.  Often I have received better than I have deserved.  Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes.  I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley.  And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will. Wendell Berry, Jaber Crow, p. 133.

The Revelation and Availability of Crucified Love

Contemplate the Lord Jesus crucified on the cross:

1. How His compassionate love for mankind did not diminish because of His sufferings;

2. How, with love, He offered comfort to His mother, commending John to her as a son in place of Himself;

3. How, with love, He prayed to the Father for mankind:  Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (St. Luke 23:24).

Now, inhabit and rest not only in the revelation of Our Lord’s love for you but IN the present availability of His love here and now.

Source: The Prologue for March 23rd

Progress

We should always be wary of applying linear notions of progress to our prayer life and asking ourselves: “What stage am I in?” “How far have I progressed?” Whatever “progress” in prayer is supposed to mean, it certainly doesn’t work like that. This is something Thomas Merton pointed out toward the end of his life. He said, “In prayer we discover what we already have. You start from where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.” Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, Martin Laird, pg. 53

The Witness

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” (Hebrews 1.1-2)Elder Sophrony

“In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself. His Being now for us is the First Reality, incomparably more evident than all the transient phenomena of this world. We sense His divine presence both within us and without: in the supreme majesty of the universe, in the human face, in the lightning flash of thought. He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of His creation. He fills our souls with love towards all mankind. His indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart. And in the hours when His imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die. We know this with knowledge impossible to prove in the ordinary way but which for us requires no proof, since the Spirit Himself bears witness within us.” Elder Sophrony

Soooo Much Always “On the Way”

I am a pilgrim on “The Way.” I am a fellow combatant in the arena of salvation. I bring nothing to the table, so to speak except my fragile “yes”. “… by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” I am no more than a faithful struggler but I am at that at least. I am a son of God and an inheritor of the riches of God my Father, by grace. I am learning what that identity means and to live out that identity in relationship with all things.

I find that the most powerful resource in this journey is not, primarily, the consideration of what I have attained but what is yet to be attained. Not how far I have come but how far I have to go. The inklings of what has been accomplished and how far I have come are for the purpose of “pressing on” in the creative work of God – the artistry of God.

The more I consider myself and my life in Christ in these terms the more I can hear the Lord’s voice and the the Lord can speak and act through me.

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9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

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The higher holy men advance with God, in the dignity of virtues, the more accurately do they discover that they are unworthy; because while they become close to the light, they find out whatever escaped their notice in themselves, and they appear to themselves the more deformed without, in proportion as that is very beautiful, which they see within. For every one is made known to himself, when he is illumined with the touch of the true light, and by the same means as he learns what is righteousness, he is also instructed to see what is sin. Hence is it that though our mind is often benumbed with cold in converse with men’s doings, though it sins and is ignorant in some points, though it regards some sins as though they were none; yet when it raises itself by the compunction of prayer to aim at things above, having been roused by the eye of its compunction, it returns to observe itself with greater vigilance after its tears. For when it deserts itself in neglect, and is torpid with fatal lukewarmness, it fully believes that idle words or unprofitable thoughts are of lesser guilt. But if warmed by the fire of compunction, and touched by the sudden breath of contemplation, it starts from its lukewarmness, it soon begins to dread, as grave and deadly offences, those things which but a little before it believed to be trifling. For it avoids, as most atrocious, all things which are in the very least degree hurtful; because, namely, being pregnant with the conception of the Spirit, it no longer allows any vanities to enter in unto it. For from that which it beholds within, it feels how dreadful are those sins which clamour without; and the more it has advanced when raised up, the more does it shrink from the grovelling pursuits, in which it sank prostrate. For nothing in truth supports it, but that which it has beheld within, and it endures the more heavily whatever thrusts itself on it from without, the more it is not that which it beheld within; but from those inward objects which it has been able to catch a glance of, it forms a standard for judging of those outward things which it has to bear with. For it is rapt above itself, when it contemplates sublime objects, and now beholding itself, by going out of itself more freely, it comprehends more minutely whatever remains to it, of itself, under itself. By which means it is wonderfully brought to pass, as was before said, that it appears the more unworthy to itself, by the very means by which it is rendered more worthy; and that it then feels itself far removed from uprightness, when it is approaching near it. Whence Solomon says, Ihave tried all things by wisdom, and said, I will become wise, and it departed the farther from me. [Eccles. 7, 23] For wisdom which is sought after is said to depart far off, because it seems higher to a person approaching it. But those who do not seek it, think themselves the nearer it, the more they know not also its standard of uprightness; because, living in darkness, they know not how to admire the brightness of the light, which they have never seen, and since they do not tend towards the comeliness of its beauty, they willingly become more deformed every day in themselves. For whoever is touched by its rays, his deformity is more manifestly pointed out to him, and he finds the more truly how much he is distorted in sin, the more keenly, from considering the highest objects, he beholds how far distant he is from uprightness. Source: “An Exposition on the Book of Blessed Job,” Book XXXII, Section 1, by St. Gregory the Great

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I have only just begun to comprehend the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I come to “know and to live” through my experience of repentance. Revelation or illumination is the prerequisite and fruit of repentance. By them, deification occurs. This is the journeying experience of salvation.

In actuality, every time I hear someone truly articulate it or display it, it is as if I am hearing it for the first time. Its freshness and soul boggling infinity of depth, width, and height brings tears to my eyes and opens up an infinite spaciousness and infinitely fullness of spaciousness with me all over again, and it moves me again as if for the first time. I enjoy a contentment and security and “wellness” (Julian of Norwich) that wells up from down deep. Simultaneously, all of this is not just issuing forth from within me but pressing on and into me from all sides as well.

And, I realize anew that am more able to talk about the faith than I am able to actually live it. I yearn afresh for the consummation of my own personhood, everyone else’s, and the renewal of the whole creation. Lord, have mercy.

The promise of more of the fullness and consummation of the love of God I know now, draws me forward. I am amazed, astounded, and so captivated by the grace of God.

Prayer: Lord God, the sacrifices acceptable to You are a broken and a contrite heart. In these O God, You delight. Grant me to be intensely aware of your mercy and deliver me from being conscious of my own righteousness. Glory be to God now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

From Here Unceasingly

“’Let the heart of those who seek the Lord rejoice; seek the Lord and be strengthened, seek his face always.’ (Psalm 105.3-4) Entering into prayer today, I too am seeking the Lord, seeking his face, looking for the signs of his presence in my life, gently guiding me in truth and peace and love.” (“Pray as You Go”)

What stands in the way of this beautiful intention in your life? The revelation and owning (confessing) of that reason is the beginning of freedom. The space of knowing “it” to be means I have stepped out of “it” for a crucial instant. That “place” where I stand, as I know my own hindrances, is the same space from which I can choose over against “it” and live. It is my heart. It is Christ in me and deep within Him it is the true me in Him.

This is what it means for me to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Lord, I desire to know this place, live from this place unceasingly.

Who or What? — New Being or Just Nice Actions?

There are endless “what statements” that can be made about us and what we should do and not do. Smoke screen. The one statement that matters is, “And I say you are ….” God is not primarily interested in our morality. He is primarily interested in our identity. Morality follows. “What” statements are often mistaken for “who” statements and cause us to lead lives of “noisy desperation.”

The law of the Lord is Who God is. It is a character sketch of His identity. In Christ, it is the character sketch of you and me. Out of Christ, it is a list of “do’s and don’ts” that frustrate and condemn us over and over.

The law of the Lord. Is it about identity and what identity proclaims? It is difficult to think of the law that way. Perhaps that says something about how deeply rooted our misconception and misappropriation of the law of the Lord really is.

The interplay between identity and law in the gospel of St. John speaks volumes in this regard. Here is another example of the identity (who) and doing (what) interplay:

Psalm 19
1The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

2One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

3Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

4Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.

5In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

6It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

7The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

8The statutes of the LORD are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the LORD is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

9The fear of the LORD is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.

10More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.

11By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.

13Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.

14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.

 

Purification and Illumination

I am learning SO much this lent, thanks to a coterie of very good friends who are my God chosen companions in the gospel pilgrimage of salvation. Most local, but two more distant.

Lent is a microcosm of our entire life of discipleship. The season in which that which is always true, our struggle for salvation, is emphasized. We choose it in these days in these circumstances so we may be able to choose it in all times and in all places. It is not intended to be a breathless race of moral athleticism but a realization and loving embrace of our authentic personhood.

The “what” question will always lead us to “now what?” and “what’s next?” The “who” question seeks to live in the “there is ‘now’ and ‘this’ and no ‘next.’” The “who” question is one eternal delight. The “what” question is an endless series of disappointing “not enough’s.”

The Prayer of St. Ephrem

O Lord and Master of my life,
give me not a spirit of sloth, despondency,
lust for power, and idle talk.
But give to me Thy servant
a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.
Yea, O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own transgressions
and not to judge my brother;
for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen. St. Ephrem (306-373)

Prayer of St. Botheius

Grant then, O Father that this mind of ours may rise to Your throne of majesty; grant us to reach that fount of good. Grant that we may so find light that we may set on You unblinded eyes; cast You from there the heavy clouds of this material world. Shine forth upon us in Your own true glory. You are the bright and peaceful rest of all Your children that worship You. To see You clearly is the limit of our aim. You are our beginning, our progress our guide, our way, our end.

“O Holy One, give the spirit power to climb to the fountain of all light, and be purified.  Break through the mists of the earth, the weight of the clod, shine forth in splendor, thou that art calm weather, and quiet resting place for faithful souls.  To see thee is the end and the beginning, thou carriest us, and thou dost go before, thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.” St. Boethius (c. 480-525)

 

Receive Mercy, Become Mercy, Offer Mercy

When we celebrate the Divine Liturgy during Lent, our practice is to recite the Beatitudes.

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.  Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return.” (Luke 6.36-38)

The Son of God became like us that we might become like Him.

Us. All of us alike have gone astray, each to his own way. One is not “less astray” than the other. I am not better than my fellow human. I am not worse either. We are all encountered by God in love in our common condition of lost-ness – of hell.

When we begin our life of Christian discipleship, we realize that categories of sin are, in many ways, an attempt to not to achieve justice but to excuse myself and make myself feel “less bad.” We realize that when we judge our brother or sister (see the story Pharisee and publican) we are actually condemning ourselves.

It doesn’t mean we throw judgment out the window and adopt a “whatever” attitude. No, judgment is necessary. It is just that God is the only judge. And, His judgment is not from afar but from the midst of us. Christ is in our midst as the merciful judge. Mercy is the law that governs the whole universe. It is the power that saves the whole universe. It is the law that is at the heart of every authentic relationship. Perhaps that is why, in the Holy Tradition, “Lord have mercy” is the most frequently repeated phrase.

His desire is for you and me to be in the midst of the life of others in the same way by grace. The unceasing phrase within us needs to be, “Lord have mercy.” Be merciful as your Father is merciful. The mercy we receive is the exact mercy we offer. Not a skimpy mercy. That is not mercy. That is judging in noble clothing. Mercy is overflowing, outrageous, and astonishing. It is not, therefore, the mercy I would end up offering. My version of mercy must be crucified. What is raised — born — is the mercy of God in me that I choose to be expressed through me. The mercy I offer is the mercy I have become by grace.

If that is the case, my task is to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit’s desire to address everything in my life that hinders such an inward-outward flow or operates instead of it or contradicts who I am in Christ — my life-giving identity by grace.

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“For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4.15-16)

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You see, then, that Christ has two natures in one Person, one which always was and another which began to be. And according to that nature which was eternally his, he always knew everything. But according to that which began in time, he experienced many things in time. In this way he began to know the miseries of the flesh, by that mode of cognition which the weakness of the flesh instructs.

Our first parents were wiser and happier when they did not know that which they came to know only foolishly and in wretchedness. But God their Creator, seeking what was lost, came down in mercy in pursuit of his wretched creatures, to where they had miserably fallen. He wanted to experience for himself what they were suffering because they had gone against his will. He came not out of a curiosity like theirs, but out of a wonderful charity. He did not intend to remain wretched among them, but to free those who were wretched as one made merciful.

Therefore Christ was made merciful, not with that mercy which he who remained happy had had from eternity, but with that mercy which he discovered in our fleshly garb as he himself went through our misery. SourceSaint Bernard (1091-1153), The Degrees of Humility and Pride, §12

Readiness – Hear See, Understand, and Keep

Text: John 16.16-33

There are no parables in the St. John’s gospel. Strange. And yet it would be accurate to say that St. John’s gospel is deeply parable-like in character. All through the gospel, people are mystified, confused, hard-pressed, and bewildered by Jesus’ words and deeds. That is, after all, the purpose of a parable.

Some people think a parable is a story that seeks to make a point clear using everyday examples. But, nothing could be further from the truth.

“As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4.10-13)

“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15.8-9)

Jesus was speaking to those who had a readiness of heart to hear and understand and follow. So, really, receiving, understanding, and living it out are all aspects of the same reality. Hearing the word and keeping the word cannot be separated (John 12.47; 14.21).

The prerequisite for receiving the gospel AND living it out is a readiness of heart. A perceived need and desperation. The cost of discipleship must be outweighed by the benefit to put it bluntly (see Philippians 3.8-10).

Understanding a parable — the Gospel — IS THE POINT, of the parable, but only for those who are ready for it. Yep, a paradox.

Understanding the gospel is not related to high intelligence, or years of seminary study.  One can understand only when the heart – the very life of the person — has been broken open to truth – by the Holy Spirit (see Mark 2.17).

It is the way of the Spirit. It is, therefore, a dangerous tendency to artificially attempt to make the gospel “easy to understand” or “easy to receive” or even “easy to follow.” Jesus didn’t fudge on this and neither should we.

“These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’” (John 6.59-65)

Let’s take a step farther into this mystery of readiness. Such openness is not, however, just a prerequisite. It is essential to our ongoing life of discipleship. We grow/maturity in our capacity to understand as well as what we understand. We need a “ready heart” or a heart that yearns to hear more and more.

In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, there are several times in which the priest says, “let us be attentive.” In addition, the priest prays this before the reading of the Scriptures appointed for the day:

“Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

It is important to remember, then, that the Christian faith is a revelatory faith. Story after story in both the Old and New Testaments are about revelation, its prerequisite, and its fruit (illumination, purification, and deification). The narrative of the Scriptures are the “Church’s book.” It is certainly offered to the world. But, it is offered with the conviction that only those who are ready or “drawn by the Father” will hear and respond positively.

And, of course, the Scriptures are for those who do believe that they may mature in their faith, hope, and love, being transformed into the likeness of Christ Jesus. As we allow the Holy Spirit to continue to break our hearts open, to soften our hearts, to “purify our hearts,” then, we will be illumined. We will “see God” more and more and be conformed to His likeness from one degree of deification to another.

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