Fr. Thomas Hopko Hit the Nail on the Head

When I first began to be seriously interested in Eastern Orthodoxy, my first Orthodox friends suggested that I read everything written by several contemporary Orthodox authors: Bp. Kallistos Ware, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and Fr. Thomas Hopko. They said that reading what they had written would get me started in the right direction. They also suggested that I just hang out at the monastery (there was one just down the road) and get to know Orthodoxy by getting to know the Orthodox. Of course these several people were faithfully responding to what they saw as my deepest need at the time. They were right. I have never, for one second, regretted taking seriously the advice of those wise souls.

((Have I read everything written by these three? No way. That would be way too linear for me! As those of you who know me well enough have found I live spirally not linearly. That may be why, now that I think of it, that Orthodoxy is the great fit that it is for me. It is also why the Gospel of St. John is my favorite gospel account.)) Sorry for that little tangent… Back to my point…

Is reading these three authors a general prescription I would recommend for everyone? No. What you should read depends on what God is doing in your life and your deepest needs. I pray that you have wise and caring men and women who can sensitively come alongside you and speak in harmony with what they see the Lord doing in your life and recommend the right things to read and do to get you started or keep you going ever more fruitfully in the right direction.

“The Very Reverend Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko is an Orthodox priest and theologian of the Orthodox Church in America. He was the Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary from 1992 until 2002, having also taught there from 1968 until 2002.”

He delivered the commencement address at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary on May 19, 2007. I highly recommend that you read his speech online here.

I will refrain from making any more interpretive remarks about the speech other than to say, it is elegantly simple and complete in its precise proclamation of what I believe needs to be said.

Fr. Thomas

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The Power of Our Thought Life: The Counsel of Two Elders – Part 1

Okay, so this is a really long post.

But, the intention of this blog is to provide you, its readers, with resources that I have “gleaned.” My hope and prayer is that you will find them helpful as you pursue transformation into the likeness of Christ Jesus. So, I ask your patience with this one. You might find it most helpful to cut and paste the whole text and print it out to make it easier to read and digest. With that disclaimer I offer the following:

The Power of Our Thought Life: The Counsel of Two Elders – Part 1

I love to read the counsels of various holy Elders before turning off the light and falling asleep each night. Their words are so refreshing, so “not of this world” and yet very available and present to me.

Recently, I have been reading the counsels of Elder Thaddeus of Vitonvnica1 and Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Both have a lot to say about our “thought life.” They both are proponents of the value of “positive thinking.”

In this post – Part 1 – I will share the words of Elder Thaddeus which will be MORE than enough for one article. In Part 2, I will share some Elder Paisios’ counsels on the same subject.

But first, some words of caution and clarification.

Elder Thaddeus

Before you make the immediate association of the term “positive thinking” with Norman Vincent Peale, let me assure you that is not what these Elders are talking about. Nor are they talking about “positive confession,” a movement in the Western Church that advocates a kind of “name it and claim it” strategy. Another movement in the Church is the “prosperity gospel.” The prosperity would include such things as money, love, health, long life, fame, and influence. In other words, the thinking goes, God wants us to have everything we want for ourselves. In a manner of speaking these are all manifestations of the “spirit of entitlement.” And make no mistake it is a “spirit.”Nor is it a version of the New Age movement in which it is taught that you can create your own reality through the power of your thoughts – “manifestation.” That is related to another very dangerous way of thinking of the power of our thoughts; the idea that we can actually change material reality through the use of our minds alone. All of these teachings essentially proclaim that we can manifest whatever we want in our life by just consistently thinking correctly.

Make no mistake, the reality of our life is, indeed, affected by our thoughts. That is the tricky thing about all of this. There is a sense in which we do create our own reality, to some degree by our thoughts. They do become reality in the way we perceive people, circumstances, and the meaning of experiences; and the way we respond to them in words and deeds. That is why it is sooo important to be rooted in Christ when dealing with the whole matter of thoughts and their power. In Christ, our powerful thought life can be life-giving because they result in actions that build up and bless. Outside of Christ, our powerful thought life can be, and is, terribly life-robbing.

The quotes I am going to include in this post can sound a lot like the movements I have mentioned above. But, they are not!! This calls for maturity and considerable reflection in the context of the Holy Tradition in which these counsels are intended to be heard and practiced.

The underlying principle informing the counsels of the elders regarding our thought life is humility as it expresses itself in love for God and love for neighbor. They presuppose and emphasize the complete submission of one’s thought life to the governance of the Holy Spirit on a consistent basis. They assume that you are actively seeking to live a life characterized by:

“… take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5)

“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” (James 4.10)

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3.1-2)

“For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.  For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12.3-10)  

When the Elders speak of the Christian thought life they are talking about the mind of Christ. Thinking positively is synonymous with having the mind of Christ. Our goal is to attain the mind of Christ by letting go of our delusional thinking – darkened thought life – by means of the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is not about being “optimistic” which the term “positive thinking” seems to mean. Christians are not called to be optimistic. They are called to be hopeful.

Hope and optimism are not the same thing. Let me give you an example. I am not optimistic that I will be raised from the dead by Christ. I do have a reasonable and holy hope in the resurrection of the dead based on the faithfulness of God.  Optimism is man-centered based on how well we think we or others will perform. It concerns a likelihood of something. Hope is Christ-centered based on God’s faithfulness. One is “relatively likely” (emphasis is intentional). The other is “certain.” (See Hebrews 10.19-23, in which hope is spoken of not in terms of a heart “filled with optimism” but “a true heart in full certainty of faith.”) Our optimism is dashed continually but “hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5.5). Henri Nouwen sheds light on the difference.

“Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things-the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on-will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands”2

Transformation of the thought life does not issue forth from an optimistic heart but rather a heart filled with the certainty (full confidence) of faith in hope. A life based on the law can be associated with optimism at best (it offers no hope). A life based on grace in Christ Jesus can be associated with confidence, boldness, and certainty. This is the difference between the authentic (positive) and inauthentic (darkened) thought life. Positive thinking as the Elders describe and define it is thinking based on and submitted to the Truth of Christ. Having said all of that, I can now share some of their counsels, with you:

“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.”

Are you comfortable with the power that Elder Thaddeus assumes our thoughts have over those around us and, as we will see, the whole created order?? Our thoughts always find expression in words or deeds that reflect our thoughts and perceptions. We may not be comfortable with the idea that our thought life has that much power, but we know it by experience only too well.

I hear something more than just the power of words and actions. I hear something about attitudes and dispositions. People can feel our unrest, resentment, peace, or kindness. And, we can feel theirs. Those attitudes and dispositions radiate out in a very powerful way too. Perhaps the secular word for it is “our vibes.” How many times have you said to someone, “Man that was an oppressive environment!! I couldn’t way to leave. You could cut the tension with a knife!!”  Only a rough approximation, but you get the idea. Or, here is another one, did you ever have anyone say to you, “You didn’t have to say anything, your attitude spoke volumes.”

I am reminded of the passage from which is taken, the final blessing at the end of the Divine Liturgy: “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4.7-8)

I need to take a look at my starting point, the thought patterns, preconceived convictions that govern my attitudes, words, and actions. What is my “default setting,” to use computer lingo?

“Our starting point is always wrong. Instead of beginning with ourselves, we always want to change others first and ourselves last. If everyone were to begin first with themselves, then there would be peace all around! St. John Chrysostom said that on one can harm the man who does not injure himself – nor even the devil. You see, we are the sole architects of our future…

You can see now how it goes. When we nurture evil thoughts, we become evil. We may think that we are good, but evil is in us. We do not have the strength to resist it. And we know that, as Christians, we must not even think evil, let alone do it.

We, however, have Divine power, Divine life, and Divine energy. On the day of the Final Judgment we shall have t give an answer for the way we have used this Divine power, life, and energy which have been given to us: whether we have contributed to the harmony in the universe, or have sown disharmony…

A man who has the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, Divine thoughts. The Kingdom of God creates within us an atmosphere of heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in the world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.

We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will imperceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us; they will want to be near us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak about this. The atmosphere of heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things. It will radiate from us even though we may not be aware of it.”

Really powerful words! So, we, by virtue of our thought life, row with or against the flow of the “eternal flood tide” of the Kingdom of God. That fills these statements that our by our Lord new meaning:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 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? 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? 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… So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.1-5, 12-14)

 “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18.8-9)

Elder Ephraim,archimandrite and former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, said about judging others: “Each person must bear the weaknesses of others. Who is perfect? Who can boast that he has kept his heart undefiled? Hence, we are all sick, and whoever condemns his brother does not perceive that he himself is sick, because a sick person does not condemn another sick person.”

There is a lot of “logging,” “cutting off,” and “plucking it out” that needs to happen in my thought life!! How about yours?

Once again, our thoughts radiate in the form of attitudes and dispositions as well as words and actions. Our thoughts have the power to give life or take life away in a huge variety of ways.

Elder Thaddeus continues.

“A person who is entrapped in the vicious cycle of chaotic thoughts, in the atmosphere of hades, or has only so much as touched it, feels the torments of hell. For example, we read the newspapers or take a walk in the streets, and afterwards we suddenly feel that something is not quite right in our souls; we feel an emptiness; we feel sadness. That is because by reading all sorts of things, our mind becomes distracted and the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds.”

Yikes, “the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds”?! I need, as Johnny Cash used to sing, “… to keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Jesus said, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15.17-19) Cleanse our thought life, oh God so that our words and actions will radiate love and peace not hate, fear, and discord. Hear also these words:

“Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4.23)

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” (Genesis 6.5-8)

The power of our thought life – as it finds its way into words or actions – has cosmic significance. This sheds new light on the flood story but the story of the tower of Babel.

The thought life is a two way street. We not only affect others by our thoughts – the words and actions that are the fruit of them – but we are affected by them as well. We interpret, based on our thought life, the actions and words of others. Depending on the state of our thought life, this could be a blessing or a curse. But, it is not just the words and actions of others. It is also what we suspect and believe about people and what we believe about their attitudes toward us. We second guess the thoughts of others whether they say or do anything or not. People don’t have to do or say anything for us to have a huge set of convictions about them based on a thought life that is chaotic and affected by life robbing passions.

“Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure and peaceful thought that would have come from your. If your are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good thoughts and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy?…

Thoughts are planted in our minds all the time, from all sides and directions. Were it given to see the radii of thoughts, we would see a real net of thoughts. Everyone has a ‘receiver’ in his mind, one that is much more precise and sophisticated than a radio or a television set. How wonderful is the mind of man! Unfortunately, we do not appreciate this. We do not know how to unite ourselves with the Source of life and to feel joy. The adversary is always planting seeds in our minds. St. Anthony was permitted to see the nets of thoughts around him, and when he saw them, he exclaimed, ‘Lord, who can be saved?’ And he heard a voice saying, ‘Only those who are meek and humble of heart.’ The evil spirits cannot touch those who are meek and humble of heart, for they are united with peace and silence. They have no negative thoughts.”

A very famous example of the difference between positive thinking as the Elders conceive of it and the “darkened” thought life we are addressing can be depicted in the story of two monks:

“Two monks were making a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a great Saint. During the course of their journey, they came to a river where they met a beautiful young woman — an apparently worldly creature, dressed in expensive finery and with her hair done up in the latest fashion. She was afraid of the current and afraid of ruining her lovely clothing, so asked the brothers if they might carry her across the river.

The younger and more exacting of the brothers was offended at the very idea and turned away with an attitude of disgust. The older brother didn’t hesitate, and quickly picked the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the river, and set her down on the other side. She thanked him and went on her way, and the brother waded back through the waters.

The monks resumed their walk, the older one in perfect equanimity and enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger one grew more and more brooding and distracted, so much so that he could keep his silence no longer and suddenly burst out, ‘Brother, we are taught to avoid contact with women, and there you were, not just touching a woman, but carrying her on your shoulders!’

The older monk looked at the younger with a loving, pitiful smile and said, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river; you are still carrying her.’”3

We see that one monk had a positive thought life that shone with the light of Christ in his words and deeds toward the woman, while the other had a “darkened” thought life in which he, in essence, lusted after the woman and was trapped in sin.

The real life examples given by the Elders are extraordinary. The advice the Elder gives doesn’t seem to be at all practical. The advice, at times, seems to promote weakness, compromise, being a “door mat,” or acting in ways that I would judge as “mean spirited.” They often offend my sense of fairness and justice. But, the fact that they have that effect on me when I read them might (just might) mean that I have some “governing thought patterns” that are not “positive,” i.e. Christ’s own thoughts. Elder Thaddeus tells a story of a woman who was bother by the behavior of her neighbor.

“An old woman came to me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things into her yard, so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. But the old woman said that she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, ‘You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever it is she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.’”

Here is another example from the lives of the saints. In this case, St. Dennis.

The Forgiveness & Compassion of St. Dennis of Zakynthos

 “There was at one time, as confirmed by the records of the Republic of Venice, a deadly enmity between the Mondinos family and the family of St. Dennis, the Sigouros. The efforts of the saint to effect reconciliation between the two families had been in vain. Things had reached a point where murders had been committed and the population was divided into two factions.

Furthermore, the hatred between the two families eventually led to St. Dennis’ brother, Constantine, being murdered. Fearing his victim’s relatives, the murderer (who was a complete stranger to St. Dennis), by chance or by God’s will, sought refuge in the monastery where St. Dennis was the abbot. When the saint asked the fugitive why he was so frightened, he confessed his sin and revealed the name of the man he had murdered, asking to be protected from the family’s vengeance. St. Dennis wept for his only brother, as was natural. Then he comforted the murderer and hid him, showing him great compassion and love.

Soon the saint’s relatives came to the monastery with a group of armed men and told him what had happened. He pretended to know nothing about it. After weeping with them and trying to console them, he sent them off in the wrong direction. Then he told the murderer that he was the brother of the man he had killed. He admonished him as a father, and brought him to repentance. After forgiving him, St. Dennis brought him down to the shore and helped him to escape to another place in order to save his life.” 

Like I said, the counsels and examples of the Elders issue from a depth of truth and surrender and trust in God that few of us have touched. There is wisdom in the Elder’s counsel to the old woman that sets aside the “immediate” and “logical” answers we would be led to offer. I believe it is because we have not allowed the Lord to crucify enough of our thought life and baptized it in His death and resurrection. There is a difference between acting out of knowledge that is lodged in the head and out of wisdom that proceeds from the heart of Christ.

They are not, to be sure, advocating the sponsoring or advocating sin in either our life or the life of others. But, what they are doing is pointing us to the root of sin that the axe might be effectively laid to it!! In the end, a much more practical, albeit mysterious, approach.

Let me conclude with one last word that is actually the combination of two separate statements from Elder Thaddeus.

“This is how we must live – controlling our thoughts. It is not good to dwell on every thought that comes to us; otherwise we lose our peace. If we learn to refuse such proposals, we are quiet. We do not fantasize or create any images in our mind… We must struggle for our own good and strive for peace to take root in our souls – peace, joy, and Divine love. Our Heavenly Father wants all of His children to have His Divine properties. He wants us to be full of love, peace, joy, truthfulness, and kindness. He wants us to be able to comfort others. We also want to become meek and humble, for only such a person radiates goodness and kindness. Such a person is never insulted even when you shout and scold him; you can even hit him and all he does is pity you for tormenting yourself so. There are very few such people on this earth, but they are the reason why the sun still warms planet Earth and why God gives us His blessing to go on living and to have everything we need in order to live. You see now why our thoughts must change.”

Our thought life is of immense importance. The discipline of positive thinking and the specific actions that issue out of it, which the Elders recommend as a way of addressing (purifying and ordering) our impure and chaotic thought life is a tricky thing.

It is not to be entered into without a solid fellowship of accountability. Heresy and delusion begin, usually, with a kernel of truth. They have just enough of the truth mixed in to them to cause the unwary to be attracted to them. Be careful! The truth always, if properly followed, leads to Christ, never “alongside” Him or in addition to Him. Only to Him and forever in Him. We must not stop along the way and settle for the embracing of any “truths” that we do not submit to Christ. The several interpretations of this discipline of “positive thinking” or “ordering our thought life” I mentioned at the beginning of this article are only some of the traps we can fall into unintentionally. “The faith” is not a smorgasbord of truths from a variety of sources in which we have permission to bring aspects of those sources along with the truth that we encountered there. One of my mentors used to say, “Many ways to Christ, but only one way to the Father.” If you find a jewel in the mud, take it out of the mud, wash it, set it in a beautiful setting, and treasure it. So also with positive thinking. Our thoughts are powerful. The ancient ways of addressing our thought life by the Holy Spirit are powerful disciplines. But, this work of the Holy Spirit must be saved from the setting that hinders its right use and the blessing it was designed to provide. It must be washed and placed in the setting where it can give shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory and give light to all.

Be careful. As you approach or come into contact with disciplines that have to do with addressing the thought life, ask this question, “Does it conform to the Holy Tradition – the fullness of the faith once for all delivered and lived by the Apostolic Church over the last 2000 years?”

Obviously, there is more to say about the thought life as the Elders conceive of it and how to address it. In Part 2, we will hear what Elder Paisios has to say and the examples he offers.

 God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Notes:

  1. All quotes from the Elder are taken from Chapter 1 of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, St. Herman Press, 2009.
  2. I found this quote on several websites. However, none of them offered a citation for it.
  3. Admittedly, this story comes out of the Buddhist tradition. I have chosen a Christianized version of it. But, the truth of the difference between the thought life that is filled with the light of Christ’s love and the darkened thought life is beautifully depicted.
  4. This story is taken from “Milk and Honey,” a wonderful blog. http://theinnerkingdom.wordpress.com/

The Mystery of the Church and Our Vocation

Last Sunday, January 16, 2011, I heard a superb sermon on vocation, ministry, and the Body of Christ. It was entitled “Believers Ministering to the Body of Christ” and was based on Ephesians 4.7-16. I highly recommend that you listen to it or watch it here

Zach Vestnys, the head pastor, pointed to:

  • the Mysterious character of the vocation of all and the vocation of each (“on behalf of all and for all” even though he didn’t say it that way)
  • the interrelationship between these unique vocations
  • our need to submit to God and His ordering of His Body
  • the need to submit to one another in love and truth in the Body
  • the God ordained essential character of our participation in the Mystery
  • the traps of “consumerism” and the “perfect church”

Interestingly (mysteriously) enough, last Friday I came across a reflection by a great saint that touched on this mystery to some degree. I offer the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux as a “cloud of witnesses backdrop” to Zach’s proclamation of the mystery.

Text:

But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ;  so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4.7-16)

Reflection:

“The mystery of vocation”
I’m going to be doing only one thing: I shall begin to sing what I must sing eternally: “The Mercies of the Lord!” (Ps 89[88].1)… Opening the Holy Gospels my eyes fell upon these words: “And going up a mountain, he called to him men of his own choosing, and they came to him.” This is the mystery of my vocation, my whole life, and especially the mystery of the privileges Jesus showered upon my soul. He does not call those who are worthy but those whom he pleases or as St. Paul says: “God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and he will show pity to whom he will show pity. So then, there is question not of him who wills nor of him who runs, but of God showing mercy” (Rom 9.15-16).

I wondered for a long time why God has preferences, why all souls don’t receive an equal amount of graces. I was surprised when I saw him shower his extraordinary favors on saints who had offended him, for instance, St. Paul and St. Augustine, and whom he forced, so to speak, to accept his graces. When reading the lives of the saints, I was puzzled at seeing how Our Lord was pleased to caress certain ones from the cradle to the grave, allowing no obstacle in their way… Jesus deigned to teach me this mystery. He set before me the book of nature; I understood how all the flowers he has created are beautiful… And so it is in the world of souls. He willed to create great souls comparable to lilies and roses, but he has created smaller ones and these must be content to be daisies or violets destined to give joy to God’s glances when he looks down at his feet. Perfection consists in doing his will, in being what he wills us to be. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus (1873-1897), Carmelite nun

The Church – Body of Christ. It is not a democracy. It is not an institution. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann is quoted as having said, “The Church is not an institution that has mysteries; it is a Mystery that has institutions.”) It is a living Body – a relational entity in this world but not of this world, transformative by its presence and work, for the life of the world. But, it does not just transform the world, it transforms its members by stages. It is a “Living Mystery,” in which is displayed the union of divinity and humanity. It is the new humanity. It is the greatest ongoing miracle of our Lord Jesus.

Fr. Thomas

Shine Jesus Shine – Shine Church Shine

Two Sundays ago, during the Divine Liturgy, we sang, “Shine Jesus Shine.” I was moved. I began to ruminate. I began to connect the dots. Here is the fruit of my ruminations and “dot connecting” regarding “Shine Jesus Shine” and our singing of it.

During the season of Epiphany (Theophany) we celebrate the “showing forth” of Jesus as “the Christ,” the Son of the Living God,” “the Savior of the world.” He is the Light of Life.

But, it is also the season in which we say our “yes” to the challenge to live out our baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection; and become, by grace, all that He is by nature. Will we engage the mandate to be what He is – “the light of the world” for the salvation of the world?

Here is a passage and reflection by St. John Chrysostom that you might like to use. Allow this invitation and mandate to sink deep into the place where you make your decisions at any given moment (especially the ones that are filled with fear, frustration, and/or helplessness). “What am I going to say?” “What am I going to do?” “How then must I live?” “I HAVE A CHOICE.”

“…you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Romans 8.9-21)

From The Homilies on Romans of St. John Chrysostom

All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. The Spirit you have received does not enslave you and make you afraid. No; you have received the Spirit of sonship so that you cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The baptized know the power of this word, for they are rightly instructed to use it for the first time when they say the Lord’s prayer after their Baptism. You may ask if the Jews did not also call God Father, if Moses did not say, You forsook the God who was your Father and if Malachi did not remind those he was reproaching that they all had one Father and were created by one God. But despite these and many similar texts, we never find them actually addressing God thus in prayer.

Yet this is how we, both priests and lay people, both rulers and subjects, are all commanded to pray. Our Father is the first word we speak after our marvellous rebirth in Baptism. We have been taught that as the Spirit gives the wisdom that enlightens the foolish, the power by which weak human beings have raised the dead and cast out devils, the gifts of healing, of prophecy and of tongues, so also the Spirit makes us sons of God. And just as we recognize the Spirit’s gift of prophecy from the fact that those possessing it foretell the future, speaking not from their own knowledge but under the inspiration of grace, so also we recognize the Spirit’s gift that makes us God’s sons from the fact that he inspires whoever receives it to call God ‘Father’. In his desire to make us realize that we really are sons of God, Paul made use of a Hebrew word. He said not only ‘Father’, but ‘Abba, Father’, which is the word used in addressing a father by one who is in actual fact his son.

Then, after speaking of what we gain from our new way of life with its gift of grace and freedom, he shows in still another way the dignity of divine adoption. He says: The Spirit of God joins with our spirit to declare that we are sons of God. But if we are sons we are also heirs, heirs of God. And we are not only heirs but something even greater: we are coheirs with Christ. See how he strives to bring us close to the Lord! Since not all sons are heirs, he declares that we are both sons and heirs. And since not all heirs have a very great inheritance, he shows the greatness of ours by saying that we are heirs of God. If it is an inexpressible grace to be a son of God, think what it means to be also an heir! And if this is something great, how much greater it is to be a coheir with God’s only Son!

Then, to show that grace is not the only factor upon which this gift depends and at the same time to make his words more credible, he continues: provided we suffer with Christ, in order that we may also be glorified with him. In other words, if we share with him in what is painful, much more shall we share in what is blissful. Since God bestowed such great blessings upon those who had no good deeds to their credit, when he sees that they have endured trials and much suffering he can hardly fail to repay them with even greater blessings. — St John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 14.3 (Bareille 16:36-8); Word in Season V.

It is in the intense “moment of choice” that we either participate (suffer with Him so we may reign with Him) or opt out of the gospel challenge and promise one more time. Our participation requires that we “cry out boldly” for the strength we need to walk in the light and become one with the light by grace so He may shine forth through us. I have a choice.

In those moments, God supplies the grace to meet our need. As Paul says,

“Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me.  Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedo’nia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving except you only; for even in Thessaloni’ca you sent me help once and again. Not that I seek the gift; but I seek the fruit which increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more; I am filled, having received from Epaphrodi’tus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (Philippians 4.11-20)

Choose this day… Today is day of salvation.

Fr. Thomas

The More I Live it the More I Love It

Bp. Nikolai

When speaking with others about the Christian faith, debating the subject has never gotten me very far. What I want to say is, “Just try it and you will come to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Savior of the world. You will agree that this is just the best way to live as a human being.”

 

Now actually doing that would take a lot of courage on the part of a person who is skeptical of the faith. But, I would say that the above statement is not only true for those who are investigating the faith but those who are already believers. The depth of the truth of the faith intensifies as it is lived. 

 

I am more and more amazed and delighted by the truth of the Christian faith as I continue to strive to live it faithfully. It never ceases to delight and satisfy…

 

St. Nikolai makes a similar point regarding our deepening experience of the beautiful truth of our faith in his reflection for today in The Prologue

 

“About Understanding through Doing” – January 21, 2011

 

“Whoever chooses to do His will [God’s Will] shall know whether my teaching is from God.” (St. John 7:17)

 

It benefits little to prove by human logic and words that the teaching of Christ is the teaching from God. The fastest and most reliable way to know this is truth is to do the will of God in the same way that Christ proclaimed it and testified to it. Whosoever would do this, that one will know that the teaching of Christ is the teaching from God.

 

If you cry for the sake of God, you will know what kind of comfort He is. If you are merciful, you know the mercy of God. If you build peace, you will know how it becomes you to be called the Son of God. If you forgive men, you will know God forgives you.

 

Never can anyone be able to know that the teaching of Christ is the teaching from God, except he who does the Will of God. For only doing the Will of God, fulfilling the commandments of God, that is the key for unlocking Paradise in which God is seen. That is the key for understanding Holy Scripture and all the mysteries of revelation.

 

St. Basil writes: “In order to understand that which is hidden in Sacred Scripture, purity of life is needed.”

 

What else does the Lord want from us when He teaches us that through doing His will, we arrive at the understanding of the divinity of His teaching? He simply wants that we, by our deeds, become convinced of the divinity of His teaching. He does not want that we be convinced of this in an easy manner, but rather in a more difficult manner, not only by listening but by doing, because whoever is convinced in an easy manner will easily waver and change his mind and for him who is convinced in a difficult manner, it would be difficult for him to change his mind. Brethren, that is why we must endeavor to fulfill the Will of God in order that we may know God and save our soul.

 

O Lord, All-Wise, help us by the power of Your Holy Spirit to do Your will.

 

To You be glory and thanks always. Amen.

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic, The Prologue from Ochrid 

More about Revelation and Discernment – Mutterings Overheard at the “Eagle and Child”

Imagine we are sitting in a corner of the “Eagle and Child” pub in Oxford, England. We are enjoying the ambiance and history of the room, it being the location of the meetings of the “Inklings.” The following mutterings, are my “thinking out loud” while in that location. They belong in the realm of the corner of the “Eagle and Child,” the realm of fantasy literature, not the pulpit or any other official site. Please do not make these thoughts into anything more than that. So, I was thinking…

In his reflection for January 11th from The Prologue, St. Nikolai Velimirovich, speaks of the relationship between spiritual development and discernment. This reflection provides a good follow up to my article about discernment.                      

“About the progressive growth in spiritual development”

“Everyone who lives on milk lacks experience of the word of righteousness, for heis a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties are trained by practice to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:13-14).

Those who feed on the food of the milk of sensual reflection cannot easily distinguish between good and evil. They usually come to the conclusion that all Faiths are equally the same in value; that sin is the indispensable shadow of virtue; that evil, in general, is the unavoidable companion of good. A true Christian cannot come to such erroneous conclusions. A true Christian is a mature person who is not fed of milk, one who is distrustful of the senses, one who judges much finer and makes a finer distinction between the values of all that is and all that was. To the Christian, indeed, is given clear distinction of God’s Revelation for distinguishing good from evil; nevertheless, for him [the Christian] a long and laborious study is necessary in order that he, as being perfect, could in every given case know what is good and what is evil. This knowledge should pass over into feeling in order to be trustworthy and without error. Both good and evil wish to touch the heart of man. That is why man should be trained, with his feeling in the heart, to immediately recognize what approaches him in the same manner, as with his tongue he immediately senses the salty and the unsalty, the sweet and the bitter.

Brethren, let us endeavor every day and every moment to sharpen our heart that the heart could always distinguish good and evil. For everything that happens to us, the question is posed: What is good and what is evil? Precisely everything that happens to us, happens to us so that we could realize what is good and to follow after good. We place ourselves in such temptations even a hundred times a day. He who has eyes to see, let him see.

O Lord, Lover of mankind, warm our hearts with good which is from You. Make us wise, O Lord, to be able to distinguish good from evil. O Master, strengthen us that we should always embrace good and discard evil for the sake of Your glory, O Lover of mankind, and for the sake of our salvation.

Bishop Nikolai brings into the consideration a phrase which you will immediately recognize, “distinguish between good and evil.” Remember that Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? And yet, in our discipleship we are commanded by the Lord to distinguish between good and evil! The Lord even upbraids His disciples for their inability to make this distinction. Indeed, St. Paul and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews exhorts us to have not only a knowledge of good and evil but to be adept at making the distinction between the two.

Doesn’t that seem contradictory to you? It does to me. But why? The seeming contradiction lies in the frame of reference I bring to the question. If, as I contended in my previous article that we have been taught to think of discernment and the will of God as something that we must figure out and an ability that we bring to the table, then these statements from Scripture are, in fact, contradictory. But, if we understand the knowledge of good and evil and the ability to distinguish between the leading of God and the leading of the evil one as a gift, a fruit of our consistent submission to the Holy Spirit and living union with Christ Jesus, then they are great news!

In other words, is distinguishing between good (God’s will and purpose) and evil (the will and purpose of the evil one) an ability I possess or a gift I receive?

Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden. Does the story hold any clues? Does the story have anything to do with MY everyday life? Does God want me to take away from my reflection on the story of “the fall” any practical learning? Am I supposed to live differently as a result of reading and reflecting on the story? Yes, of course!! Okay, so let’s press into the story.

As I come to the story, I have some questions: How am I supposed to live in the world and with the other members of the Brindley family? How are we, as Brindley’s, going to make decisions in our family life? What are the parameters of those decisions? Those are REAL questions I bring to the Garden of Eden account…

So, I wonder. 

————————

There, standing before me, is a tree. On that tree are the “answers” to all these questions and more!!! I can see them hanging there, ripe for the picking. They are indeed, delightful to my physical eye and the eye of my heart. I desire to know so I can live!! I can already taste them! They not only look good, I KNOW they will taste good. I KNOW they will be satisfying and fulfilling to eat and “inwardly digest.”

God says, “Hey, Tom. How is it going?”

I say, “Things are difficult. They’re kind of tough right now. Sometimes it is good and sometimes it all seems to go downhill.” 

God says, “Yes, I know. I see that. I also see that you really need to know what I desire in the whole situation. I know you really need that. I know it is making you think about picking the fruit from that tree. Don’t do it. Don’t reach out and take it. Let’s talk instead.”

I say, “But God, you created me to desire that knowledge. Without it how can I live with my children and my wife in this world?! 

God says, “I know. You’re right. I created you to desire to know my will and receive the knowledge of good and evil that you need to live everyday life. I know what you are facing and I know your need. Trust me.”

I say, “What I need is to know how to relate to my son in a situation he is facing at school and how to relate to my wife and two other children in the middle of it all.”

God says, “Yes, I know that situation. Let me share with you what is going on there.”

I say, “Okay. But, I need to know…”

God says, “I know you need to know. Let me tell you what you need to know. You see, it is like this …”

I say, “Really ?!!!”

God says, “Yep. And here is what I want to do…………………. And here is how I want you to be involved and here is what I want you to do…………………. If you do, then you will be doing my will. Actually, what I really want is to express myself and touch and minister to the circumstance through you. You will be my hands and feet and voice. Does that make sense? In other words, we will do it together as one person.”

I say, “Okay, so I don’t go out and do it FOR you. I know what you are up to and I let you fulfill your will and purpose that you have shown me in me and through me?”

God says, “Yes. Are we agreed?”

I say, “Yes.”

God says, “Okay, eat this.”

I say, “Hey that is the fruit of the tree you told me not to eat of.”

God says, “Yes. I know. But, you’re not taking it and eating it. I am offering it to you and you’re eating it.”

I say, “What’s the difference?”

God says, “The difference is it is the fruit of this conversation; it is the fruit that I gave you as a gift and not the fruit you reached out and picked for yourself in order to try and figure out what I wanted you to do; it is the fruit of your radical dependence on me and trust in me; and it is the fruit of your complete joyful union with me and my authority in your life, not of your desire to walk alongside me.”

I say, “Oh. Well since you put it THAT way… I didn’t think of it that way. You mean I can eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil if it is a gift from you that you measure and choose for my current need?”

God says, “Yes. I will set a table before you in the midst of whatever you are facing each day. My table is here for you, filled with all the food you need for what you are facing. Eat it all. Don’t leave anything. Consume it all, it is for you. Don’t bring any food with you. Eat just this food. No more and no less.”

I say, “Okay so you will give me the food I need for each day?”

God says, “Well, yes and no. When I say I each day, I mean each circumstance you face in which you need the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. A day equals a complete situation in which you need a complete provision. 

I say, “So a day to you is a unit of time in which I have a need and you make the perfect provision for that need?”

God says, “Yep. I will give you your daily bread.”

I say, “What if a day in that sense is only three minutes? Do I come back and meet with you a hundred times every day??”

God says, “As many times as you need. Every time a new table will be set with just the right selection of food from that tree as my gift to you… “

——————-

My frame of reference makes all the difference in terms of how I related to the knowledge of good and evil and the ability to distinguish between what is of God and what is not of God.

I find, in the story of the Garden of Eden the reference to two trees. I find a statement that Adam and Eve are free to eat of every tree in the Garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That would include the “tree of life.” To eat of that tree is to enjoy eternal life. Unless Adam and Eve ate of the tree of life, they would die. ? If it really was the “tree of life” then that has some obvious associations with the cross and Jesus’ statements among others, “Abide in me.” and “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” and “unless you eat my flesh and drink my life you have no life in you.”

And conversely, if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would surely die. What does that mean? Perhaps the prohibition was not about having the knowledge but the means by which it was acquired. After all, the means that the tempter had chosen to lead Adam and Eve astray was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Thus, the prohibition. It was a warning to Adam and Eve. “Be careful!!”

I wonder how Adam and Eve ate of the tree of life or any tree in the Garden? Did they just go and pick from them whenever THEY felt like it? Was there, as there appears to be in other parts of the Scriptures a banquet table in Paradise, then it would have been there in the Garden as well. If Adam and Eve did not, in fact, eat whenever they felt like it, then perhaps they were fed by God from His banquet table in the Garden, that is consistent with other indications of the great banquet in Paradise. It has some rather obvious Eucharistic connections.

I am led to wonder if God is available to Adam and Eve in and through both trees. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What if, through one tree they were to receive “the Life” and through the other tree they were to receive “the way and the truth?”

Remember, what they receive is God Himself in and through the Son of God – the way and the truth and the life. So, the food of the banquet in the Garden is the Son of God. Definitely Eucharistic.

What if they RECEIVE it instead of TAKE it or GRASP it? What if they let God provide it (Himself as their food and strength and every provision) with celebration and thanksgiving for His faithfulness?? Now that really IS Eucharistic.

Notice, that God warned Adam and Eve of the temptation that was to come. He told them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To not grasp it. To not take it. To not be self-providers.

If we are intended to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is in the form of a God measured, God given amount and quality to be eaten and digested and lived out in union with God. Not alongside God not apart from God. But eating of the tree is the fruit of my growth in union with God.

The “how” of the knowledge of good and evil is “by the hand of God.” The context of this divine provision of discernment is submission and growth in the likeness of Christ Jesus who is – “the way, the truth and the life.” We grow by eating and exercising. We are (become) what we eat – Christ Jesus (the way, the truth, and the life) by grace. We take on the likeness of the goal of our exercise program  – Christ Jesus (the performance of the disciplines of the Holy Spirit with a right heart and the doing of the will of God in union with Him according to His revelation.)

The conversation is, obviously, imaginary. In the “perhaps” and “I wonder” I do not presume to be making definitive statements of theology. “I just wonder…”

Fr.Thomas

Unseen Warfare: Our Struggle toward Perfection – Chapter One

In Chapter one of Unseen Warfare, it is stated clearly from the outset that “perfection” is the goal of the Christian life.

“We all naturally wish, and are commanded to be perfect. The Lord commands: ‘Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. V. 48).”

But the meaning and content of “Christian perfection,” is not necessarily understood by all. The danger of a misunderstanding of what our Lord and the Apostles mean by Christian perfection should be a concern to us. If you have ever sailed a boat or gone on a hike, you know the disastrous effect of being off course by 5°. Over time, the miscalculation will result not only in missing your desired destination but becoming completely lost. The spiritual application of this analogy is obvious.

“But if you, my reader beloved in Christi, wish to attain to such heights, you must first learn in what Christian perfection consists. For if you have not learnt this, you may turn off the right path and go in a totally different direction, while thinking that you make progress towards perfection.”

So, what is Christian perfection?

“I will tell you plainly: the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.”

Such a statement, while brief and to the point, is not enough. There are many practices that can seem like the pursuit of perfection but miss the mark. It is easy to confuse means and ends. As a result, the author(s) makes it clear what does not qualify as the right pursuit of perfection.

“There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflexions, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority, limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all those virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.”

To practice the spiritual disciplines as ends in themselves is worse than not practicing them at all! They fall into the trap of pride. This is an extremely dangerous condition for a disciple.

“On the other hand, these same virtues may do more harm than their open omission, to those who take them as the sole basis of their life and their hope; not from their nature, since they are righteous and holy, but through the fault of those, who use them not as they should be used; that is, when they pay attention only to the external practice of those virtues, and leave their heart to be moved by their own volitions and the volitions of the devil…”

Righteousness doesn’t consist in mere outward observance of the disciplines.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Matthew 23.23-28)

“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth — you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law; but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2.14-29)

 “Fasting and vigils, prayer and psalmody, acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good, but when performed for the sake of self-esteem they are not good.  In everything that we do, God searches out our purpose to see whether we do it for Him or for some other motive.” Saint Maximos the Confessor

“Going through the fast does not consist in merely going through the time, but in going through it with amendment of manners (behavior and motive).  Let us consider this; whether we have become more diligent; whether we have corrected any of our defects; whether we have washed away our sins?” Saint John Chrysostom

“Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being saved must be based on God’s mercy and His love for men.  Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.” Saint John Chrysostom

“Love sinners, but hate their works, and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same.  Remember that you share the earthly nature of Adam and that you are clothed with his infirmity.” St. Isaac the Syrian

The disciplines, in as much as they have been created by the Holy Spirit to bring about our salvation, are a matter of the heart. Why? Because salvation is a matter of the heart before it is a matter of words and deeds (Matthew 7.13-29 and Romans 10.8-10). The disciplines are a necessary means to a greater end. The end cannot be achieved without them but they are not the end in themselves. You cannot be saved by them but you cannot be saved without them.

The fault in this scenario lies not in the spiritual discipline but in the disciple who practices it. That is of immense importance. Over the course of the history of the Church, effective disciplines have been mistakenly and tragically excluded because of their misappropriation by errant Christians. The Christian who practices the disciplines as ends and not means, eventually begins to judge others as inferior to him. What is more, this confusion of means and ends begins to be taught to new believers, leading them astray as well.

The disciplines of the Holy Spirit are, therefore, a two edged sword. They are designed to save but they can serve to destroy. For those who diligently seek the Lord with all of their heart (even though they struggle to be faithful), the disciplines purify and establish in joy. But, for those who seek to only to promote and themselves and their own interests, they serve only to further separate the wayward from the Lord (see, for example, St. Paul’s intense exhortation regarding the spiritual discipline of Holy Eucharist – 1Corinthians 11.17-30).  The result of practicing the disciplines of the faith in a manner that doesn’t proceed from a spirit of humility and gratitude in response to God’s mercy is spiritual delusion.

“Experiencing with this certain spiritual stirrings and consolations, such people begin to imagine that they have already reached the state of angels and feel that God Himself is present in them. And at times, engrossed in the contemplation of some abstract and unearthly things, they imagine that they have completely transcended the sphere of this world and have been ravished to the third heaven…

If desirous of bringing them to self-knowledge and leading them to the right path of perfection… they refuse to bend their necks to the yoke of God’s will and to trust in His righteous and secret judgments. They do not want to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Who humbled Himself and suffered for our sakes, and they refuse to be humble, to consider themselves the lowest of all creatures, and to regard their persecutors as their good friends, the tools of the divine bounty shown to them and helpers in their salvation.”

Delusion is accompanied by an almost complete refusal to submit to and receive correction.

“Thus it is clear that they are in great danger. Their inner eye, that is their mind, being darkened, they see themselves with this and see wrongly. Thinking of their external pious works and deeming them good, they imagine that they have already reached perfection and, puffing themselves up, begin to judge others. After this it is impossible for any man to turn such people, except through God’s special influence. An evident sinner will turn towards good more easily than a secret sinner, hiding under the cloak of visible virtues.”

So, having been given an example of the dire consequences of misunderstanding the meaning and content of perfection and how to pursue it, the author proceeds to outline the proper understanding and approach toward the disciplines. What should the attitude of our heart and mind? So now the author takes up where he left off.

“Now, having seen clearly and definitely that spiritual life and perfection do not only consist in these visible virtues, of which we have spoken, you must also learn that it consists in nothing but coming near to God and union with Him, as was said in the beginning. With this is connected a heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God, together with consciousness of our own nothingness and our proneness to every evil; love of God and dislike of ourselves; submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God; renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God; and moreover desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Cor. X. 31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.”

Wow… Now that is clear and to the point! No wiggle room. As was said above, this must be “heartfelt.” External observance that doesn’t issue from a heart of humility and gratitude is worthless. Less than worthless, down right damning!

It is worth listing them again just to be crystal clear: 

  1. A heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God
  2. Consciousness of our dislike (distrust) of ourselves
  3. Submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God
  4. Renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God
  5. Desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Cor. X. 31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.

Now, just to make sure that we GET IT, the author(s) says:

“This is the law of love, inscribed by the finger of God Himself in the hearts of His true servants!”

Get it?! Love… Not the law of self but the law of Christ. Not the law of merit and performance that issues from self, but the law of merit and performance that proceeds from Christ Jesus – the power of the Holy Spirit to do all things in and through disciples who abide in Christ and have Christ abiding in them (Isaiah 40.28-31; Jeremiah 31.31-34; Ezekiel 36.25-27; Romans 5.5; Philippians 4.7-13; 2 Timothy 1.8). The law of freedom and power in Christ Jesus.

This law of love involves a mandate to obedience that is filled with grace and yet unwavering in its demands.

“This is the renunciation of ourselves that God demands of us! This is the blessed yoke of Jesus Christ and His burden that is light! This is the submission to God’s will, which our Redeemer and Teacher demands from us both by His word and by His example! For did not our Master and the Author of our salvation, our Lord Jesus Christ, tell us to say when praying to the heavenly Father: ‘Our Father, … Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. vi. 10)? And did not He Himself exclaim on the eve of His passion: ‘Not my will, but thine, be done’ (Luke xxii. 42)! And did not He say of His whole work: ‘For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me’ (John vi. 38)?”

Do you hear the power behind and within these words? Do you hear the excitement and zeal? If the author were here in flesh and blood, I imagine him to be standing on tip-toe with hands outstretched, deeply desiring to have me join in his excitement!! These words thrill my heart every time I read them!

“Blessed be your zeal!”

But, be aware of the cost of this zeal and desire. It is not a cheap grace to which we have married ourselves…

“But prepare yourself also for labour, sweat and struggle form your first steps on the path. You must sacrifice everything to God and do only His will. Yet you will meet in yourself as many wills as you have powers and wants, which all clamour for satisfaction, irrespective of whether it is in accordance with the will of God or not.”

Remember? It is a warfare, unseen though it be.

“Therefore, to reach your desired aim…”

And what is the aim?? “…coming near to God and union with Him.”

“Therefore, to reach your desired aim, it is first of all necessary to stifle your own wills and finally to extinguish and kill them altogether. And in order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own wills, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown – attainment of your desired aim – is given to none except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers.”

I love those words too!! I hear the echoes of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” in the background, don’t you. I know, it is not the “in thing” or the “spiritually politically correct thing” to couple the spiritual life with images of warfare. But, you know, it is what it is. Who am I to call it anything else?! I believe one of the reasons we don’t enjoy a certain quality of transformation lies in this squeamishness regarding the language and the images.

Is it ALL about warfare? Are those the only images we have been given by our Lord to use? By no means! We have a myriad of images and analogies and stories. But, let us not shy away from this one and think we can use another just as well. It does not work that way. If it did, then Jesus would have told only a couple of parables and they would have sounded pretty much the same. But, He drew on a huge variety of images and plot lines to portray the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s ministry within and among us. Here is a point of obedience that you and I need to heed.

This unseen war is a hard war. Why? Because it is against OURSELVES! As the little possum in the old “Pogo” comic strip said on one occasion, “We has met the enemy and he is us.” Or as Charlie Brown said on a lot of occasions, usually flat on his back after having been convinced by Lucy to try and kick the football that she was holding, “Good Grief!”

But if this is the hardest of all wars – since in fighting against ourselves it is in ourselves that we meet opposition – victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God.

Are we willing forsake all to gain mastery over ourselves by the power of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God? Are we willing to take “the road less travelled?” Are we willing to join St. Paul in saying:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith;  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3.7-11)

The author(s) of Unseen Warfare echo St. Paul’s distinction between a false righteousness, the kind that proceeds out of self powered obedience, and a true righteousness that is the fruit of a grace powered obedience that is a synergy of our will and the will of God.  Once again, we are reminded of that self-powered observance of the spiritual disciplines is a dead end (it avails us nothing).

“For if, inspired by fervour, you overcome and put death your unruly passions, your lusts and wills, you will please God more, and will work for Him more beautifully, than if you flog yourself till you draw blood or exhaust yourself by fasts more than any ancient hermit of the desert. Even if you redeem hundreds of Christian slaves from the infidels and give them freedom, it will not save you, if with this you remain yourself a slave to your own passions. And whatever work you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may accomplish it, it will not lead you to your desired aim, if you leave your passions without attention, giving them freedom to live and act in you.”

Truly, we may do great deeds in the name of God but if our passions are left unaddressed and our hearts are darkened and enslaved by them, they are as filthy rags in the sight of God (Isaiah 64.6).

So, having defined perfection, enlightened us regarding the danger of using the spiritual disciplines as ends rather than means, and the rewards of joining the Holy Spirit in confronting our passions the author(s) bring the first chapter to an end. We are presented with four dispositions and activities that arm us for the warfare.

“…if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer.”

In the following chapters, our guide(s) will instruct us in the meaning, content, and conduct of these dispositions that constitute the weapons of our unseen warfare.

“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!                          (Refrain)                                                                                                                                                                                             Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.”

Note – All quotes from Unseen Warfare are from Chapter One, pgs. 77-81

Fr. Thomas

Discernment – Sudoku Anyone?

This past week we celebrated the feast of the Theophany in the Eastern Church and Epiphany in the Western Church. In this season, which falls in between Christmas and Lent, we celebrate and reflect on the unveiling of the identity of Jesus – the revelation that He is the only begotten Son of God, the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. The season also focuses how to receive and respond to that revelation.

The historical event that is the focus of the feast is the baptism of Jesus. In St. Mark’s gospel, revelation and repentance are identified with one another. You can’t have one without the other, St. Mark implies. In the midst of the ministry of John the Baptist – a ministry of repentance – Jesus is revealed as the Christ. Jesus Himself identifies revelation with repentance when He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1.1-15)

So, revelation, discernment, repentant responsiveness, and trust are the keynotes of the season of Theophany. But, these words prompt some hard questions. What is discernment? What is revelation and the discernment of God’s will all about? What does my response to God’s revelation involve? What is the role of trust?

This may seem pretty straightforward to you. And it may be. Alleluia… But is it for everyone? I don’t think so.

Many people are confused by the subject of “discerning God’s will.”

Is “knowing God’s will” a giant spiritual Sudoku puzzle? Is it a puzzle to be worked at and solved – figured out? Is God looking for adept puzzle solvers to serve Him and inhabit His Kingdom? Is that one of the missing beatitudes?

“Blessed are the clever puzzle solvers and strategic planners, for they shall know My will and build My kingdom. Blessed are those who are crystal clear about the will of God.” (Okay, so perhaps I am overstating it. But, how much of an overstatement is it after all?)

It is my conviction that many have been taught that this is the case. Or, maybe they have taught themselves that this is the case.

I disagree.

God’s will involves revelation and discernment and a certain kind of responsiveness. I believe revelation and discernment and our response are the catalyst and fruit of spiritual transformation.

There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. There are many people who have lots of knowledge but little wisdom.

Discernment is wisdom not knowledge or the application of strategies. It is something beyond such things. Does it include them? Yes, of course. But, discernment is bigger or deeper than knowledge. The Scriptures counsel us to seek wisdom not to acquire more knowledge. Once again, knowledge is important but penultimate. Wisdom is one of the gifts we receive in due course… We become wise, we “grow in wisdom,” don’t start out that way. Increased knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to wisdom. There is something else involved… Something mysterious and deep. And it is NOT about strategy or aptitude with puzzles.

Why do I believe this is the case?

Two “simple” reasons.

First, the Judeo-Christian faith is solidly revelatory. It is not a “figure it out” faith or a “guessing game” faith or a “solve the puzzle” faith or a “outwit the Almighty” faith. It is not a “my strategy for evangelism is better than yours” faith either. It is not a competition at all. God is not in the business of playing guessing games with us or pitting us against each other for members and programs. He does not hide anything that we need to know in order to obey/join Him at any given moment in our discipleship. In fact, the prophets, basically say that God yearns for us to live in such a way that we can see what God is displaying in a huge variety of ways – His will and purpose. The prophetic mission was to call people to repent – to change their way of living so they could see/know His will and purpose and join Him in it. The prophets called the people of God to renew their trust in God instead of continuing to trust in themselves – to once again walk by faith (a living trust in a God who provides and guides). Simple as that. Really, it is that simple.

The will of God is on a “need to know” basis in a manner of speaking. God resists the proud – the folks who want to know more than they need to know and trust in themselves. Why? Because, they have a secret (probably not so secret) desire to be “god”. What in the world are we going to do with the knowledge of the will of God that does not involve us anyway?? It is useless and you and I need to mind our own business. We need to get on with do what has told us before we ask for more. (See the parable of the talents.) If you need to know, you can be sure, God will be doing everything possible to have you know!!  Jesus, and the Apostles specifically assert that what we need to know is plainly visible and knowable to those who “have ears to hear” and “eyes to see”.

Revelation is both a catalyst and a fruit.

The Kingdom of God – His will and purpose – is present and crashing into the midst of our little and big kingdoms that we have fashioned. The primary example is Isaiah. Read Isaiah 6… It is ALL ABOUT revelation and discernment. It encapsulates a journey that takes longer than one day or a single encounter.

In the passage, the revelation of God somehow collides with Isaiah’s life. That revelation of God demands a response. Isaiah makes the life giving response – he repents. He allows (submits) himself to the cleansing (transformative) power of the revelation (dare I say it “overshadows” him?!). As a result, he hears – discerns the voice of God articulating His purpose. Isaiah is able to not only hear, but to positively respond.

The collision of God’s revelation with Isaiah’s life as it truly was at that moment was both terrible and delightful. It was bitter and sweet at the same time. It was filled, perhaps, with the urge to run away and run toward God. Isaiah stayed because He trusted that this awesome God who was revealing Himself to Him was not doing so in order to condemn him but to save (restore) him. The positive response of repentance issues forth from that seed of trust, no make how fragile and meager. Madame Guyon, in her classic work, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ speaks of God’s desire to reveal Himself in this way,

“Your Lord is more present to you than you are to yourself! Furthermore, His desire to give Himself to you is greater than your desire to lay hold of Him… The Lord’s chief desire is to reveal Himself to you and in order for Him to do that, He gives you abundant grace. The Lord gives you the experience of enjoying His presence. He touches you, and His touch is so delightful that, more than ever, you are drawn inwardly to Him.” (pg. 4 & 13)

Revelation and discernment are both the catalyst and fruit.

Without the positive response of repentance on Isaiah’s part, the revelation would not have been seen as a revelation but as an offense (see Matthew 11.6 & 13.57). Isaiah would have “taken offense” at God. Revelation becomes consummately revelatory in synergy with the character of our response. It is, of course, still God unveiling Himself and His will to me, but my predisposition to resist such unveilings (showings to use Julian’s language) turns my experience of the revelation into an offense. It is still a revelation in the objective sense but an offense in the subjective sense. (This leads to a wonderful corollary discussion on the subject of recognizing “God’s provision” as “God’s provision” and the meaning of “enough-ness.” But I will reserve that for another time.)

Madame Guyon says of this positive predisposition and response,

“Inside your spirit there is an act going on. It is a sweet sinking into Deity. The inward attraction – the magnetic pull – becomes more and more powerful. Your soul, dwelling in love, is drawn by this powerful attraction and sinks continually deeper into that love. The experience of union begins very simply when there is born in you a desire for God.” (pg. 111)

Revelation and discernment in this context have a cumulative effect. A journey begins and continues that involves the fruitful interplay (marriage) between revelation and repentance. Repentance takes on a certain character of “sweetness” or “joyful sorrow.” The reason is that we know where our repentance will lead. We know the fruit it will bear in due season. So, our desire for the in-breaking of God’s revelation of Himself becomes more intense, subtle, and defined.

The key is a desire for God. The key is repentance. Isaiah recognizes that it is God who is revealing Himself because of His readiness to repent. The two do go together. (Read the part of Isaiah 6 that says, “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.”)

The second reason follows naturally from the first. If the will of God is plainly visible and clearly audible, then the difference between hearing and not hearing, seeing and not seeing, understanding and not understanding is not a matter of strategy but of character. Once again, the prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles specifically place discernment in the context of a disciplined way of life under the authority of the Holy Spirit. The Judeo-Christian faith is the disciplined “Way which is Life and bears the fruit of more Life in the midst of life.” It is not a collection of strategies that can be used by any and all to arrive at the unlocking (solving the “Divine Sudoku”) of God’s will. The fruit of this “Way of Life,” among other things, is wisdom – the knowledge of God and His purposes not only for the long term future but for the present and short term future.

Revelation and discernment of God’s will and purpose involves the development of our character as it comes into conscious contact with God’s character. Revelation and discernment are identity driven.

Character development involves abandonment (It is to the Lord — into His care — that we abandon ourselves). It involves submission. It involves obedience. It involves living under authority. Now, THAT is counter cultural. It runs counter to the secular culture and most of the current Christian culture as well. Submission hurts. It is designed to hurt. It is designed to kill. Hurt what? Kill what? Pride and control… Jesus makes it clear and so does St. Paul that we need, for the sake of our salvation and usefulness in the service of the Kingdom, to take a big dose of submission. “It will kill what ails you.” Submission is a big dose of “the cross.” The result is LIFE that bears the fruit of more LIFE. Guyon says,

“Here is a true spiritual principle that the Lord will not deny: God gives us the cross, and then the cross gives us God… abandonment is the means that the Lord will use to give you revelation. The revelation you receive will come to you as reality  rather than knowledge. This is made possible only by abandonment… Is abandonment the only thing necessary to bring us into godliness? No… but do not forget that suffering is included in the experience of abandonment. It is the fire of suffering which will bring forth the gold of godliness.” (pg. 41 & 46)

Abandonment is filled with trust and fellowship not certainty in isolation. Our goal with regard to the will of God is not certainty and absolute clarity. It is not about certainty in the knowledge. It is, rather, about confidence in the one who reveals and guides. Remember the “need to know?” We need to know Him in whom we have believed – into whose hands we have entrusted our whole life – who is able to keep us perfectly… God invites us to trust Him as He reveals Himself and His will and purpose. Wisdom includes relational trust. Maybe that is what distinguishes raw knowledge from wisdom – multidimensional relationship. The relationship involves God, me, and the fellowship of believers in which I live and minister. They need to be an arena of encouragement and accountability. It is we who walk together into whatever God indicates as His will and purpose. Isolation from the fellowship is not abandonment and submission. It is the enemy of discernment.( I highly recommend reading pages 90-92 of Scott Bessenecker’s book, How to Inherit the Earth, with regard to the relationship between God’s will and certainty.)

If you are anything like me, all of this makes your brain hurt. And, what is more, you may (as I did) think this is all a matter of trivial semantics.

Actually, it is not so much my brain that hurts but my conscience. The center of my chest aches as I type these words. It aches with the recognition that all of this is WAY TRUE. Too true for my own comfort. It is blatantly discomforting. It is the comfort of the one Jesus calls “the comforter” – the Holy Spirit. Some comfort…

You may want to ask this question: “Does this mean that discerning the will of God is easy? Is it just the natural result of living a righteous life?” But think about the question. We are SO used to thinking of discernment as a task rather than a fruit, that we even ask the question, “Does that mean it is easy? Does it mean that if I do this then this will happen?” These questions presuppose the desire for a strategy instead of yielding to becoming fruitful. Knowing the difference between these two and living the distinction is very subtle and not at all easy. We can, and do, manipulate the discipline of the Holy Spirit into a strategy for figuring out the will of God. You will, as I have on SO many occasions, catch yourself doing that very thing.

You may be making this statement: “You are oversimplifying a complex subject.” You are right, I admit it. I am doing it in order to make a simple point. I contend that sometimes we never get the point if it is not made in a clear and oversimplified manner. (Maybe I am a slow learner, but some of the deepest learnings I have experienced were the result of just such a methodology by a teacher who said, in the beginning or somewhere along the way that that was the case, which is what I am doing right now.)

You may want to make the statement: “This all sounds very passive.” But, remember, I am proposing that receiving revelation and  discerning, which includes “interpretation,” is the fruit of an actively disciplined life under the submission of and in obedience to the Holy Spirit. Passive? I don’t think so. Once again, Madame Guyon,

“We are not promoting the idea that the soul should be lazy or inactive. We are encouraging the highest activity the soul can engage in: total dependence on the Spirit of God. This should always be your main concern. It is ‘In Him alone that we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17.18)” (pg. 97)

Motivation,  motivation, motivation…

Now, before I close, I want to let you know that there is a LOT that now begs to be said and discussed about all of this. For example, “What is the role of the fellowship? Can discernment really occur in isolation?” Or, here is another big one, “What is the motivation? Is it service or gratitude or both and in what order?” Discernment, as a/the fruit, exists in the context of the living Holy Tradition – the fullness of the discipline of the Holy Spirit. This includes daily prayer, daily Scripture reading, consistently allowing the Lord to use you in ministry, and a consistent fellowship of encouragement and accountability.

Let me reiterate the one “take away point” of this post, in case you missed it. Discernment, coming to know the will and purpose of God, is the catalyst and fruit of the Holy Spirit’s ordered work in which He conforms you and me to the likeness of Christ Jesus, who is the eternal Will and Purpose of God in flesh and blood. Discernment is the catalyst and fruit of God’s work of recreating you into the “flesh and blood, living, Will of God” by grace. Discernment (revelation received and lived) is the catalyst for and the fruit of, the living wisdom of God in flesh and blood, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

Lectio, meditation, oratio, contemplation…

Fr. Thomas

Christ’s Invitation, Promise, and Mandate to Love

I spoke, recently, with some wonderfully zealous young men in the Lord. I love those guys and their ministry. But, it was a difficult conversation. They were saying (I think) that the Christian life should not be one of struggle if we have faith. The Christian life is a matter of “just do it”. Believe and do. No struggle if you really believe. I asked them about “struggle” and they responded with more victory. Full of victory. Full of triumph. Full of zealous  youth. I do not yearn for those days any more. Those days ended up leaving me empty and shallow. They led me to a place of “if then” spirituality. The reason? The exclusion of struggle rather than the legitimate inclusion of it. Is the struggle of a believer to obey an aspect of faith action or prior to faithful action?! If it is “prior” then where is the humility? I believe the “face set on Christ” struggle to act in faith is part of faith not prior to it. 

Now, let me be fair… I understand (I think) what they were saying. Faith IS a “just do it” kind of thing. But, the point of decision that leads to action, I have come to find, is always (dare I use that word) in the context of a struggle – an unseen and seen warfare between light and dark, righteousness and iniquity, self-sacrificial love and self-preserving fear. The decision to “do” in the face of all things and against all odds IS a struggle to get to, but once you are there, it is a matter of “do or do not, there is no try.” I may struggle again and again, but what I am looking for each and every time is the moment of trusting abandon that is filled with faith and peace (the kind that “passes all understanding”). If that is what they meant, then great…

 The older I get the more pragmatically true to me are the words of Lord Tennyson and C.S. Lewis. They sink deeper and deeper every time a circumstance stirs my lethargic will – that will that so very often shrinks back in the face of the essential sacrifice and risk that love requires of the person who desires to be most truly human, that is so say, Christian. The deeper they sink, the more profound the accompanying pain and release that comes with obedience (willing and active submission) to their counsel. Let me share their convictions with you along with a closing comment.

“In Memoriam A.H.H”, XXVII, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I envy not in any moods

The captive void of noble rage,

The linnet born within the cage,

That never knew the summer woods:

 

I envy not the beast that takes

His license in the field of time,

Unfetter’d by the sense of crime,

To whom a conscience never wakes;

 

Nor, what may count itself as blest,

The heart that never plighted troth

But stagnates in the weeds of sloth;

Nor any want-begotten rest.

 

I hold it true, whate’er befall;

I feel it, when I sorrow most;

’Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all.

The Four Loves,  (pg. 120-121), C.S. Lewis

In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (Confessions IV, 10). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away. 

Of course this is excellent sense. Don’t put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”  

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a Friend—if it comes to that, would you choose a dog—in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic “apathy” or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he “loved.” St. Paul has a higher authority with us than St. Augustine—St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil. 2:27).

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself off them? Apparently not. Christ comes at last to say “Why hast thou forsaken me?”

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

This is “ancient wisdom”. It flies in the face of current worldly wisdom – whatever the latest “thing” might be that proposes to save us from the risk of love.  It flies in the face of some of the “wisdom” within the Body of Christ, although, perhaps, that is a more subtle thing to discern and articulate and resist. It makes a mockery of my inordinate need to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful; that are, in reality, my chosen tools of self protection – the ability “to play it safe” and make it through without “the scars of love.”

I find myself seeking/desiring to rely, more and more, on this “ancient path” and listen more to the “ancient voices” of those who have lived Christ and commend such a life of risky love to me. These are the truly wise men and women. I do not claim to have achieved what they advise, but I do press on, having my “drooping hands and … weak knees” strengthened by the Holy Spirit.

And when I choose this strength and the actions He mandates, I realize I have lost nothing and gained everything…

Fr. Thomas

Listen Up and Live it Out

Stop… Listen…

Just listen…

Don’t just quit talking. Listen…

Don’t be on your way to the next thing… Focus. Concentrate. Listen…

Listen to what follows… Listen deeply to it about 6 times and then just be quiet and listen some more without the words… (Refer back to them if you need to, but only for the purpose of listening more deeply…)

**Try listening to this with others as well…

————–

Ephesians 5.10

“…try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Sirach 6.32-37

“If you are willing, my son, you will be taught,
and if you apply yourself you will become clever.

If you love to listen you will gain knowledge,
and if you incline your ear you will become wise.
Stand in the assembly of the elders.
Who is wise? Cleave to him.
Be ready to listen to every narrative,
and do not let wise proverbs escape you.
If you see an intelligent man, visit him early;
let your foot wear out his doorstep.
Reflect on the statutes of the Lord,
and meditate at all times on his commandments.
It is he who will give insight to your mind,
and your desire for wisdom will be granted.”

A reflection by Patrick Henry Reardon on the example of Enoch, an example of one who sought to hear, listened, heard, and lived what he heard:

{In the Genesis 5, we have the} “..first biblical genealogy we draw special attention to the figure of Enoch. The Epistle to the Hebrews, after it gives its initial definition of faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1), begins the famous list of the “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1), those “elders” who “obtained a good testimony” by exemplifying such faith (11:2). Early among these is Enoch.

Living before Noah, Abraham, and Moses, Enoch was participant in none of the covenants associated with these men. Not a single line of Holy Scripture was yet written for him to read. Much less did Enoch ever hear the message of salvation preached by the apostles.

Yet, he was so pleasing to God by his faith as to be snatched away before his time, not suffering that common lot of death from which the Almighty spared not even His own Son.

What, exactly, did Enoch believe, that he should be such a champion of faith, an example for the Church until the end of time? The Epistle to the Hebrews explains: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6). This was the sum total of all that Enoch’s faith told Him—God’s existence and his own duty to seek God in order to obtain the singular blessing that Holy Scripture ascribes to him.”

A reflection by a holy elder on the subject of listening:

“Question yourself as to whether this faith is within you, or perhaps you are led by worldly wisdom. And if you leave all things in the hands of God, behold! You have acquired faith and undoubtedly, without any question, you will find God to be your helper. And so, even should you be tried a myriad of times and should satan tempt you to abandon faith, prefer death a thousand times more and don’t obey worldly wisdom. In this way the door of the mysteries will be opened to you and you will be amazed how the chains of worldly wisdom previously bound you. Now you will fly with divine wings above the earth and breathe the new air of freedom, which, of course, others are deprived of. If, however, you see that within you, you are governed by worldly wisdom, and in the smallest danger you lose hope and despair, know that you have not yet acquired faith, and consequently also hope, in God.” (Excerpted from the book- Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit.)

Psalms 105.1-4

“O give thanks to the LORD, call on his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples!
Sing to him, sing praises to him,
tell of all his wonderful works!

Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!
Seek the LORD and his strength,
seek his presence continually!”

Colossians 3.15-17

“And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” God Bless,

Fr. Thomas