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.
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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)

The Cost of Discipleship and the Discernment of Spirits

28 When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. 29 And suddenly they cried out, saying, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”

30 Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. 31 So the demons begged Him, saying, “If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.”

32 And He said to them, “Go.” So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.

33 Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region. (Matthew 8.28-34)

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This gospel reading has always made me chuckle. If Jesus is in town, fasten your seat belts ! !

It pushes to the surface our desire for God to heal and restore, but without any accompanying cost to us. We don’t want to have to adjust – let go or take up –  as a result.

Sometimes things get worse when Jesus heals and saves us. Take, for example, the healing of the two demon-possessed men. One of the results of the healing was the loss of a whole herd of swine! We can interpret the passage allegorically as an attempt to avoid having to deal with the everyday consequences of the salvific work of Jesus, but the fact remains. Someone lost their source of income.

The people of the town beg Jesus to leave ! ! Can you imagine having Jesus answer your prayer and then begging Him to depart from you as a result of the changes that healing necessitates?!

In another place Jesus is even accused of being inspired by the devil. See Matthew 12.22-30.

Three things stand out as “take aways” or ways in which I need to adjust the way I live.

First, the discernment of spirits is very important. I don’t mean becoming obsessed with the devil, thinking he is lurking around every corner waiting to pounce on me. I think you know what I mean. I do, however, need to have a health remembrance of the spiritual struggle of which I am a part and is going on within my soul.

Second, judging by appearances is seldom, if ever, a good idea when it comes to the saving work of God. Seeking to cooperate in the purification and illumination of my heart is a much more worthy object of my time and energy.

Third, perseverance in keeping the commandments and trusting that God is performing a good and perfect work is the rock upon which I can confidently stand. God’s work of salvation is, quite often, tumultuous. I must learn to hold fast in the midst of the salvific storm of God with a clarity of vision never wavering in my trust. I must learn to be willing to let go of anything that prevents me from consistently following/abiding in Jesus. Cost what it will, lead where it may. See, for example, Matthew 19.16-22 and other passages of a similar theme. There is no “cheap grace,” to quote Bonhoeffer. The saving work of God in my life is costly. If I pray, I need to be ready to embrace the full answer.

St. Ignatius of Loyola offers some guidance for us in this regard:

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Rules for understanding to some extent the different movements produced in the soul and for recognizing those that are good to admit them, and those that are bad, to reject them…

It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.

It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and continual deceptions.

God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause. It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty. I said without previous cause, that is, without any preceding perception or knowledge of any subject by which a soul might be led to such a consolation through its own acts of intellect and will.

If a cause precedes, both the good angel and the evil spirit can give consolation to a soul, but for a quite different purpose. The good angel consoles for the progress of the soul, that it may advance and rise to what is more perfect. The evil spirit consoles for purposes that are the contrary, and that afterwards he might draw the soul to his own perverse intentions and wickedness.

It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.

We must carefully observe the whole course of our thoughts. If the beginning and middle and end of the course of thoughts are wholly good and directed to what is entirely right, it is a sign that they are from the good angel. But the course of thoughts suggested to us may terminate in something evil, or distracting, or less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do. Again, it may end in what weakens the soul, or disquiets it; or by destroying the peace, tranquillity, and quiet which it had before, it may cause disturbance to the soul. These things are a clear sign that the thoughts are proceeding from the evil spirit, the enemy of our progress and eternal salvation.

When the enemy of our human nature has been detected and recognized by the trail of evil marking his course and by the wicked end to which he leads us, it will be profitable for one who has been tempted to review immediately the whole course of the temptation. Let him consider the series of good thoughts, how they arose, how the evil one gradually attempted to make him step down from the state of spiritual delight and joy in which he was, till finally he drew him to his wicked designs. The purpose of this review is that once such an experience has been understood and carefully observed, we may guard ourselves for the future against the customary deceits of the enemy.

In souls that are progressing to greater perfection, the action of the good angel is delicate, gentle, delightful. It may be compared to a drop of water penetrating a sponge.

The action of the evil spirit upon such souls is violent, noisy, and disturbing. It may be compared to a drop of water falling upon a stone.

In souls that are going from bad to worse, the action of the spirits mentioned above is just the reverse. The reason for this is to be sought in the opposition or similarity of these souls to the different kinds of spirits. When the disposition is contrary to that of the spirits, they enter with noise and commotion that are easily perceived. When the disposition is similar to that of the spirits, they enter silently, as one coming into his own house when the doors are open.

When consolation is without previous cause, as was said, there can be no deception in it, since it can proceed from God our Lord only. But a spiritual person who has received such a consolation must consider it very attentively, and must cautiously distinguish the actual time of the consolation from the period which follows it. At such a time the soul is still fervent and favored with the grace and aftereffects of the consolation which has passed. In this second period the soul frequently forms various resolutions and plans which are not granted directly by God our Lord. They may come from our own reasoning on the relations of our concepts and on the consequences of our judgments, or they may come from the good or evil spirit. Hence, they must be carefully examined before they are given full approval and put into execution.

Source: The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Translation by Louis J. Puhl, SJ

Jesus Is Asking, “Who Does Your Life Say That I Am?”

My life is a living testimony – a witness – to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. I cannot choose to not testify to His identity. What I can choose, to a great degree, is the content of that testimony. That is to say, I can testify falsely or truthfully regarding Him.

Is my life a narrative of truth or a narrative of falsehood regarding Jesus?

By what name is He known to the world through me?

Likewise, Jesus testifies to who I am by Who He desires to be in and through me. The specificity of His good and perfect witness through me is the manner in which He saves me. It is crucial, therefore, to submit myself, align myself through repentance and obedience, to this chosen manner of expression.

To press the point even further, Jesus testifies to who others are. I do not have the prerogative to “name” others. Jesus reveals their identity to me in the manner and to the degree He chooses. It is my responsibility to seek and serve first Him in the other person and then serve the person as he or she is revealed by Jesus to me.

It is upon this rock — the harmony of my identity with His and living out of that union in union with others whose life witnesses the same union and a unique expression of it — that Jesus will build His church. For, the church is the body of those who witness in spirit and truth to the fullness of His identity.

Here is what St. Cyril of Jerusalem says on the matter:

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  1. Believe thou In One Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God.  For we say “One Lord Jesus Christ,” that His Sonship may be “Only-begotten:” we say “One,” that thou mayest not suppose another:  we say “One,” that thou mayest not profanely diffuse the many namesof His action among many sons.  For He is called a Door; but take not the name literally for a thing of wood, but a spiritual, a living Door, discriminating those who enter in.  He is called a Way, not one trodden by feet, but leading to the Father in heaven; He is called a Sheep, not an irrational one, but the one which through its precious blood cleanses the world from its sins, which is led before the shearers, and knows when to be silent.  This Sheep again is called a Shepherd, who says, I am the Good Shepherd:  a Sheep because of His manhood, a Shepherd because of the loving-kindness of His Godhead.  And wouldst thou know that there are rational sheep? the Saviour says to the Apostles, Behold, I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.  Again, He is called a Lion, not as a devourer of men, but indicating as it were by the title His kingly, and stedfast, and confident nature:  a Lion He is also called in opposition to the lion our adver58sary, who roars and devours those who have been deceived.  For the Saviour came, not as having changed the gentleness of His own nature, but as the strong Lion of the tribe of Judah, saving them that believe, but treading down the adversary.  He is called a Stone, not a lifeless stone, cut out by men’s hands, but a chief corner-stone, on whom whosoever believeth shall not be put to shame.
  2. He is called Christ, not as having been anointed by men’s hands, but eternally anointed by the Father to His High-Priesthood on behalf of men.  He is called Dead, not as having abode among the dead, as all in Hades, but as being alone free among the dead.  He is called Son of Man, not as having had His generation from earth, as each of us, but as coming upon the clouds To Judge Both Quick and Dead.  He is called Lord, not improperly as those who are so called among men, but as having a natural and eternal Lordship.  He is called Jesus by a fitting name, as having the appellation from His salutary healing.  He is called Son, not as advanced by adoption, but as naturally begotten.  And many are the titles of our Saviour; lest, therefore, His manifold appellations should make thee think of many sons, and because of the errors of the heretics, who say that Christ is one, and Jesus another, and the Door another, and so on, the Faith secures thee beforehand, saying well, In One Lord Jesus Christ:  for though the titles are many, yet their subject is one.
  3. But the Saviour comes in various forms to each man for his profit.  For to those who have need of gladness He becomes a Vine; and to those who want to enter in He stands as a Door; and to those who need to offer up their prayers He stands a mediating High Priest.  Again, to those who have sins He becomes a Sheep, that He may be sacrificed for them.  He is made all things to all men, remaining in His own nature what He is.  For so remaining, and holding the dignity of His Sonship in reality unchangeable, He adapts Himself to our infirmities, just as some excellent physician or compassionate teacher; though He is Very Lord, and received not the Lordship by advancement, but has the dignity of His Lordship from nature, and is not called Lord improperly, as we are, but is so in verity, since by the Father’s bidding He is Lord of His own works.  For our lordship is over men of equal rights and like passions, nay often over our elders, and often a young master rules over aged servants.  But in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ the Lordship is not so:  but He is first Maker, then Lord:  first He made all things by the Father’s will, then, He is Lord of the things which were made by Him.
    –The Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-350), Number 10.

Joy Not Just Happiness

How deep does your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ go? Life forces us to answer the question, “Who do you say and continue to say Jesus is?!”

The epistle readings for today, the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, are, as I am encountered by them, lessons in joy. They remind me that being a Christian isn’t about being happy. It is about being joyful. If my investment in being a Christian is happiness, I will be disappointed. But, if I seek the joyful life, I shall never be disappointed.

Therein lies the struggle. Eternal life can only be gained with effort. Seeking joy rather than settling for happiness. Nothing, in my estimation, defines why the Christian life is an ascetical life than this profound difference.

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1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church.2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword; 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison; but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. 6 The very night when Herod was about to bring him out, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison; 7 and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared, and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your mantle around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him; he did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened to them of its own accord, and they went out and passed on through one street; and immediately the angel left him. 11 And Peter came to himself, and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (Accts 12.1-11)

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6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing…14 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will requite him for his deeds. 15 Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 16 At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the message fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4.6-8, 14-18)

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Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives – but they will not prevail; Easter will. As we Irish claim, “Life is all about loving, living, and laughing, not about hating, dying, and moaning.”

That’s why a crabby, griping, whining believer is an oxymoron! That’s why we say, “Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.”

I saw it in Haiti when I went there with Catholic Relief Services right after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Crying, horror, death, anguish – you bet, in abundance. But still a resilience and a hope in a people clinging onto faith after centuries of oppression and grind.
–the words of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, from the Foreword of The Fire of Christ’s Love, by Raniero Cantalamesa

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“‘Turn, O my soul, into your rest: for the Lord has been bountiful to you’ (Psalm 114:7). The brave contestant applies to himself the consoling words, very much like to Paul, when he says: ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith. For the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice.’ These things the prophet also says to himself: Since you have fulfilled sufficiently the course of this life, turn then to your rest, ‘for the Lord has been bountiful to you.’ For, eternal rest lies before those who have struggled through the present life observant of the laws, a rest not given in payment for a debt owed for their works but provided as a grace of the munificent God for those who have hoped in him.” –St. Basil the Great (329-379 A.D.), excerpt from HOMILIES 22)

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And so, my “take away” from this time of meditation, is a prayer for the grace to give my energy and focus to seeking joy and offering joy in each encounter today.

The Place of Vision

“Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision. Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine; let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley.”
The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions
, edited by Arthur Bennett

Hearers AND Doers

Hearing and doing go together. They depend on one another. Pursuing one without the other or emphasizing one at the expense of the other is not just dangerous, it results in death. Talk is cheap and being “well informed” and learned in and of itself cannot save us. We end up giving what is holy to dogs, throwing our pearls before swine. It is, therefore, antithetical to the gospel.

Our ascetical struggle – our salvation – involves the actualization of both in perfect harmony. And, without a doubt, it is a struggle. The “arena” or “crucible” is the tumult of everyday life in which we practice the disciplines of the Holy Tradition, “in order that the edifice of our life and character might mount up straightly.”

The “arena” or “crucible” is everyday life and we practice the disciplines of the Holy Tradition, “in order that the edifice of our life and character might mount up straightly.”

Let the Word of God through the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Christian ages speak to us in this regard…

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21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many[a]miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ 24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them,[c]may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the [d]floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.” 28 When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; 29 for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7.21-29)

19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear,slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in [w]humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (James 1.19-25)

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Our Lord and our Redeemer Jesus Christ in His living Gospel invited us to draw nigh in wisdom to the work of keeping His commandments, and to lay within ourselves the foundation of His discipline rightly, in order that the edifice of our life and character might mount up straightly. For he who knoweth not how to begin wisely the building of this tower which goeth up to heaven is not able to complete [it] or to bring it to the finish which is of wisdom. For knowledge and wisdom should order, and arrange, and work the beginning and end and founding [of the edifice], and whosoever beginneth thus is called a wise man by the word of our Redeemer, “Whosoever heareth these My words, and doeth them, is like unto a wise man who hath dug, and made deep, and set his building upon the rock: and the rain descended, and the rivers came, and the winds blew, and beat st philoxenus of mabbugupon that house; and it fell not; for its foundations were laid upon the rock. But whosoever heareth and doeth not, is like unto a foolish man who set his building upon the sand, and even if feeble things beat upon his building they will sweep it away”.3 We are therefore bound by the word of our Teacher not to be constant listeners only to the Word of God but also constant doers. For the man who, though listening not, doeth, is better than the man who is constant in listening and empty of works, even as the word of the apostle Paul teacheth us, “For not the hearers of the law are righteous before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified: for if the Gentiles which have no law do by their own nature [the things] of the law, these, having no law, are a law unto themselves; and they show the work of the law written upon their hearts, and their conscience testifieth concerning them”. The hearing of the law is good, for it bringeth to the works thereof, and reading and meditation in the Scriptures, which purify our secret understanding from thoughts of evil things, are good, but if a man is constant in reading, and in hearing, and in the meditation of the word of God, and yet perfecteth not by his reading the labour of works, against this man hath the Spirit of God spoken by the hand of the blessed David, rebuking and reproving his wickedness, and restraining him from taking even the Holy Book into his polluted hands, saying, “For to the sinner speaketh God, What “hast thou [to do] with the books of My commandments, that thou hast taken My covenant in thy mouth? Thou hast hated My instruction, and thou hast cast My words behind thee,” together with the other things which are written after these. Now as for the man who is constant in reading and remote from deeds, his reading is his own condemnation, and he is the more deserving of judgment, in that while he listeneth every day, he mocketh and is contemptuous every day, and he is thenceforth like a dead man and a corpse which hath no feeling, for if ten thousand trumpets and horns were to blow in the ear of a dead man he would not hear [them]; even thus is the soul which is dead in sins. And the understanding, from which the remembrance of God hath perished in the death-dealing error of the thoughts [of evil things], will not hear the sound of the cries of the divine voices, nor will the trumpet of the word of the Spirit move it, but it is sunk into the sleep of death which is pleasant to it; and although dying, it perceiveth not its death that it might turn and seek life for itself. And as the man who hath died according to nature is not sensible of his death, even so the dead man who dieth by his own will to the knowledge of God feeleth not his death, nor perceiveth his destruction, that he might find a way and seek out an invention of life for himself. For also when God saw the dying condition of the Jews who of their own will stopped their ears, and blinded their eyes, and made thick their hearts against the remembrance of the knowledge of God, He stirred up Isaiah to rouse them up, and cried to him to cry into their ears, saying, “Cry with thy throat, and spare not, and lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew My people their iniquity, and the house of Jacob their sins”. And again in another place8 the same prophet saith, “He said to me, Cry. And I said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the glory thereof is like the grass of the field”. Yea, “like the grass” and like the herb which drieth up before the sun, which when once its natural juiciness and moisture have dried up neither the rain nor all the watering of the fountains can make grow green again, even so became the nation which was dead to all the vivification of the Spirit, and like grass and straw it became dry and withered by reason of the noonday heat of error, and by the hotness of evil things. The soul dieth without the remembrance of God, and when it dieth all its discretion dieth therewith, and all its emotions of thought of heavenly things are annihilated therefrom. While the soul liveth in its natural state it is dying by its own desire; and while it is found in uprightness it is lost in respect of its freedom.

The disciple of God, then, should seek to have the remembrance of his Master Jesus Christ fixed in his soul and to meditate upon it day and night. Philoxenus of Mabbug (A.D.485-519), Ascetic Discourses, number 1.

We Need the Living Holy Tradition

I reflected yesterday on the dangers of misreading the Scriptures and passing on that misreading.

While we read and reflect on the Scriptures and the significance of the events of our daily life as individuals, we must do so within the context of the Holy Tradition. The use of hyperbole in Scripture is a good example of the need. See this reflection on the subject.

And, just as it is the responsibility of each disciple to encounter and be encountered by God in the context of the Holy Tradition, it is the responsibility of the Church to offer the Holy Tradition in its authenticity and not as straight jacket of legalism or a leader’s personal agenda or a way for the clergy to control the laity lest they rock the parish boat with their deep yearning for a dynamic relationship with the Lord.

The institution (king and priest) thrives on the paradigm of the “bounded set” and the non-institutional element (prophet) thrives on the “centered set” paradigm. These dimensions of the Church’s life need one another even though, for us finite humans it is a fragile and somewhat troubled union.

This is why, for me, the Scriptures, as they exist for us, are the work of God. They do not represent a pasteurized and homogenized narrative. They reflect the messy and mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit via this troubled union.

This calls for the operation of what is perhaps the most important essential ingredients of the Holy Tradition, humility and love.

As St. Peter says:

12 Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. 13 I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to arouse you by way of reminder, 14 since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me.15 And I will see to it that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. 16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son,[f]with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, 21 because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (2 Peter 1.12-21)

Here are the thoughts of St. Nikolai Velimirovic, from the Prologue for June 24th:

One of the differences between the eloquent philosophy of the Greeks [Hellenes] and the Christian Faith is that Greek philosophy can clearly be expressed with words and comprehended by reading, while the Christian Faith cannot be clearly expressed by words, and still less can it be comprehended by reading alone. When you are expounding the Christian Faith, the example of the one who expounds it is indispensible; and for its understanding and acceptance, both reading and the practice of what is read are necessary. When Patriarch Photius read the words of St. Mark the Ascetic on the spiritual life, he noticed a certain lack of clarity in the author, about which he wisely said: “It [unclarity] does not proceed from the obscurity of expression but from the truth which is expressed there; it is better understood by means of practice (rather than by means of words) and cannot be explained by words only. And this,” the great patriarch adds, “is the case not only with these homilies, and not only with this man, but rather with all of those who attempt to expound the ascetic rules and instructions, which are better understood by deeds (in practice).”

Of Pearls and Dogs and Swine

“Do not give dogs what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under foot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7.6)

I grew up in the South among some pretty stringent Christians. I accompanied my grandma and I heard many sermons issuing out of that paradigm. I have seen movies portraying grandmas bringing their pre-teen grandsons to the “prayer meeting.” I was that little boy…

Among the themes explored in those sermons was the relationship between believers and non-believers. They were not fueled by love but by an infamous “holier than thou” attitude and life style. This passage from the Sermon on the Mount was one of the texts that was used. The “dogs” and “pigs” referred to in it were associated with non-believers (those who drank and smoked and danced and wore makeup, etc. Perhaps you had to have grown up in the South to understand the attitude I am attempting to portray). The story of the Syrophoenician Woman (Matthew 15:21-28) was linked to it to make the point complete.

I was never convinced. I always believed both passages were pointing to something more worthwhile than condemning others in light of one’s own “perceived holiness.”

Here are some words by by Augustine of Hippo, (430-543 A.D.) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 A.D.), that communicate what I believe Jesus might be attempting to communicate.

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“Now in this precept we are forbidden to give a holy thing to dogs or to cast pearls before swine. We must diligently seek to determine the gravity of these words: holy, pearls, dogs and swine. A holy thing is whatever it would be impious to profane or tear apart. Even a fruitless attempt to do so makes one already guilty of such impiety, though the holy thing may by its very nature remain inviolable and indestructible. Pearls signify all spiritual things that are worthy of being highly prized. Because these things lie hidden in secret, it is as though they were being drawn up from the deep. Because they are found in the wrappings of allegories, it is as though they were contained within shells that have been opened.(1) It is clear therefore that one and the same thing can be called both a holy thing and a pearl. It can be called a holy thing because it ought not to be destroyed and a pearl because it ought not to be despised. One tries to destroy what one does not wish to leave intact. One despises what is deemed worthless, as if beneath him. Hence, whatever is despised is said to be trampled under foot… Thus we may rightly understand that these words (dogs and swine) are now used to designate respectively those who assail the truth and those who resist it.” (excerpt from SERMON ON THE MOUNT 2.20.68–69)
(1) The interpretive task is to crack through the shell of the language to its inner spiritual meaning. Copyright (c) 2015 Servants of the Word, source:  www.dailyscripture.net, author Don Schwager

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“What then must we do, we who have been found worthy of the name of Christ? Each of us must examine his thoughts, words and deeds, to see whether they are directed toward Christ or are turned away from him. This examination is carried out in various ways. Our deeds or our thoughts or our words are not in harmony with Christ if they issue from passion. They then bear the mark of the enemy who smears the pearl of the heart with the slime of passion, dimming and even destroying the lustre of the precious stone.” Source: Universalis

Does God Punish?

So much good stuff to read and so little time…

I have just finished reading an excerpt from the writings of St. John Chrysostom relating to the punishment of God.

“For if the wrath of God were a passion, one might well despair as being unable to quench the flame which he had kindled by so many evil doings. But since the Divine nature is passionless, even if He punishes, even if He takes vengeance, he does this not with wrath, but with tender care, and much loving-kindness.” St.John Chrysostom (c.347-407): An exhortation to Theodore after his fall, 1, 4.

It raises the thorny question of language. The Scriptural language and extra-Scriptural language of our faith can be dangerous to our salvation. Our proclamation must, since our faith language is paradoxical and highly approximate, be accompanied with instruction and a context in which what is attempting to be communicated can be more deeply explored and lived out. Thus, the Holy Tradition…

I highly recommend reading the condensed version of Chrysostom’s reflection on the powerful and easily misunderstood theme of “divine punishment” and the comments that are being generated as a result of it, here. Thanks to Mark Armitage for making it available to all of us via his blog, Enlarging the Heart.

The Way of Abraham with a Good Disposition

Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5.8)

Purification includes saying yes to the Abrahamic invitation. It includes letting go of our pre-disposition to judge, using our rational faculties to make distinctions that are life-robbing rather than life-giving. The judging mind tends to be committed to comparing, measuring, based on preferences. We become satisfied or disappointed; approving or resentful. All of this is a distraction to the way of abundant life.

As one of my mentors has recently reminded me: “Our task is to love God, without distraction, to love our neighbor without distraction.”

Being on the way of Abraham and being vigilant regarding our disposition is crucial.

Genesis 12:1-9 (RSV)
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 And Abram took Sar′ai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions which they had gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your descendants I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 Thence he removed to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of theLord. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.

Matthew 7:1-5 (RSV)
7 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

St. Dorotheus of Gaza (c.500-?), monk in Palestine, Letter no. 1

“Then you will see clearly”
Some people change every food they absorb into a bad mood, even if the food is healthy. The fault does not lie in the food but in their temperament, which changes the food. Even so, if our soul has a bad disposition, everything harms it; it transforms even useful things into things that are harmful to it. If you throw a little bit of bitter herbs into a pot of honey, won’t they change the whole pot by making all the honey bitter? That is what we do: we spread a little of our bitterness and we destroy our neighbor’s good by looking at him according to our bad disposition.

Other people have a temperament that transforms everything into a good mood, even bad food… Pigs have a very good constitution. They eat pods, date seeds and garbage. But they transform that food into succulent meat. In the same way, if we have good habits and a good state of the soul, we can benefit from everything, even from what is not beneficial. The Book of Proverbs says it very well: “The one who sees with gentleness will obtain mercy.” And in another place: “For the foolish person, everything is contrary.”

I heard it said of a brother that if, when he went to see someone else, he found his cell in a state of neglect and in disorder, he told himself: “How happy is this brother to be completely detached from earthly things and to carry his spirit on high so well that he doesn’t even have the time to tidy his cell!” If he then went to another brother and found his cell tidy, clean, and in good order, he told himself: “This brother’s cell is as clean as his soul. As is the state of his soul, so is the state of his cell!” He never said of anyone: “This one is untidy,” or: “That one is frivolous.” Because of his excellent state, he benefited from everything. May God in his goodness also give us a good state so that we might benefit from everything and never think badly of our neighbor. If our malice inspires us to pass judgment or to be suspicious, let us quickly transform that into a good thought. For with God’s help, not seeing what is bad in our neighbor brings forth kindness.
Source: Daily Gospel