The Nitty Gritty of the Gospel

The grace/mercy/power of God becomes REALLY NEEDED BY US, REALLY AVAILABLE TO US, and REALLY EFFECTIVE IN AND THROUGH US when we no longer have the capacity to have faith, hope, and love in the midst of everyday life.

We cannot really believe and trust until at least the possibility to not be able to do so becomes a practical reality.

We cannot really hope until despondency is a real possibility.

We cannot really love until we encounter the situation in which our capacity to love is no longer available.

It is then and there (here and now) that God becomes real and active or not and His faith, hope, and love becomes real and active or not.

The unbeliever says, “Where is your God now?” The believer says not from the head but from the heart, “Here and now, do you not see Him?!”

It is when that question is seemingly the most reasonable thing to say that, along with the raw and desperate ‘yes’ of the disciple that God is shown to not only be truly present but victorious in His perfect will.

As long as it is still “I who live” it is not “Christ who lives in me.”

As long as it is I who believe, hope, and love it is not Christ who believes, hopes, and loves in me and through me.

As long as we persevere in reserving something we can attribute to ourselves we will have and enjoy nothing of what belongs to Christ.

“Welcome to the real…”

Fr. Thomas

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The Uniqueness and Power of the Body of Christ in the World

Among the historical documents of the early Church is “The Letter to Diognetus.” A very good friend of mine challenged me recently to find resources that would help elementary grade students understand “Christianity’s appeal to people at every level of society, from the dispossessed to the wealthy, women, common folk and intellectuals, i.e., how it offered a life of purpose and meaning through relationship with God and one’s fellow man.” As I have been reflecting on and responding to that challenge I have found many “attempts” at this articulation. In many cases they are, in my estimation, watered down and oversimplified depictions of the truly miraculous character of the early Church. The tendency to save young students from the “inconvenient difficulties and complexities” of history has always been disheartening to me. I believe this desire is the fruit of a yet deeper tendency to make things too easy for the student. After all, we won’t want them to “strain their brains.” My conviction is that the “spoon feeding” approach to education is not education. Calling the student up and beyond their limits (stressing them educationally) brings with it the possibility for growth and maturity in critical aspects of their character. This is all part of the way God created us to live and grow. There is a certain necessary stress that produces mature and lasting growth. It applies in most areas of life and the endeavors into which the Lord invites us to be fully present and effective.

So much for my not so little “soapbox.”

Now, back to the main point. In my meanderings to find materials to meet the challenge set before me, I came across, after many years,  “The Letter to Diognetus.” This wonderful document articulates, on an adult level, the message of God’s miraculous and world changing power in and through His gathered people – the Church.

The letter was written sometime in the second or early third century. Cyril Richardson characterizes the contents of the letter in his introduction to it.

“The bulk of the Epistle (chs. 1 to 10) constitutes an apology for Christianity, based on the unique part played by Christians in society. This argument is set in the context of a “theology of history,” which emphasizes the divine initiative as decisive for history, and contrasts Christianity as a supernatural factor in human relationships with the man-made religion of Gentiles and Jews alike. The attack on non-Christian religions is sometimes unfair and superficial, and must have had a very mixed effect on pagan readers, but the description of Christian life in the world comes to us across eighteen centuries with an astounding force and fragrance. To this moving statement someone possessed of a remarkable sense of fitness has added the passage from Hippolytus (chs. 11; 12), with its announcement of God’s gifts of grace and truth in Christ’s Church, where at this very moment Christians can renew their life at that divine source from which its unique power flows.

This vivid symbolic expression of the supernatural character of Christian life points up the fundamental theological theme of the body of the Epistle, which is concerned to present Christianity as a supernatural mystery. The writer deals with the first of Diognetus’ supposed questions by affirming that the God whom Christians worship, to the contempt of all so-called gods, is the transcendent Lord of all things, who in his “Child” has revealed himself to men, destroying the divinities of human imagination. He goes on to argue that the nature of Christian life is itself a primary piece of evidence for the intrinsically supernatural basis of the Christian religion. Christians are different and mysterious, because they live by a superhuman power. The reader should note the numerous references to Christianity as a “mystery,” and the realistic doctrine of sanctifying grace with which this emphasis is allied, as again and again the Christian doctrine of God and the glowing portrayal of Christian life are brought together.

The very novelty of Christianity shows its transcendent origin. The description of Christians as the “New Race” reflects, in language widely used in the Early Church, the Biblical expression of the supernatural in terms of the “New Age, Covenant, Creation.” In other words, the Epistle manifests the strong historical sense characteristic of the Bible itself, and sees in the supernatural mystery of Christianity the fulfillment of the divine purpose in the creation of nature, worked out in history in accordance with the possibilities of historical situations. In the exposition of the divine oikonomia in history, this apprehension of the truth that the divine wisdom acts in accordance with the historical kairos is more effectively expressed than in any other writing before Irenaeus’ magnificent picture of the workings of Providence.”  Early Christian Fathers, Editor: Cyril C. Richardson

My excerpt is taken from a rendition of the entire letter at this site. So now, I invite you to take time and listen deeply to the message of God’s miraculous and world changing power in and through His gathered people – the Church as presented in “The Letter to Diognetus.”

“Chapter 5

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity. The course of conduct they follow has not been devised by the speculation and deliberation of inquisitive men. The do not, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of merely human doctrines.

Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

They live in their own countries, but they do so as those who are just passing through. As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers.

They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring.

They share a common table, but not a common bed.

They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives.

They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life.

They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

Chapter 6

To sum it all up in one word, what the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world.

The soul is dispersed through all the parts of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul lives in the body, yet is not of the body; Christians live in the world, yet are not of the world.

The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body. So Christians are known to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible.

The flesh hates the soul and wars against it, even though it is not harmed, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures. In the same way, the world hates the Christians, though not wounded in any way, because they renounce pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, as well as its parts. Christians, in the same way, love those that hate them. 

The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body. Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle, and Christians live as travelers in perishable bodies, looking for an imperishable home in the heavens.

The soul becomes better when it is poorly provided with food and drink. Similarly, the Christians, although subjected to punishment on a daily basis, keep increasing in number.

Chapter 7

God has assigned them this illustrious position, and it is unlawful for them to forsake it because—as I said—this was no mere earthly fabrication which was delivered to them. Nor is it a merely human system of opinion that they judge it right to preserve so carefully. It is not an endowment of merely human mysteries that has been commetted to them, but truly God himself, who is omnipotent, the Creator of everything, and invisible, has sent the Truth from heaven – the holy and unfathomable Word – placed him among men and firmly established him in their hearts. 

He did not, as one might have imagined, send men any servant, angel, ruler, or any of those who influence earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of heavenly things has been entrusted. Instead, he sent the very Creator and Fashioner of all things, the One by whom he made the heavens, by whom he enclosed the seas within its set boundaries, whose ordinances the stars faithfully observe, by whom the sun is told the distance of his daily course to run, whom the moon obeys, being commanded to shine in the night, and whom the stars also obey, following the moon on her route.

He has arranged everything, placing everything within its proper limits. Everything is subject to him—the heavens and the things in it; the earth and the things in it; the sea and the things in it; fire, air, and the abyss; things in the heights, in the depths, and which lie in between.

This is the One he sent to them!

Was it, then, as one might guess, for the purpose of tyranny or of inspiring fear and terror? Never! It was mercy and meekness.

As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so he sent him. As God he sent him. To men he sent him. As a Savior he sent him, and as an attempt to persuade and not compel us.

For violence has no place in the character of God.

As calling us he sent him, not as One pursuing us in vengeance. As loving us he sent him, not as judging us. In the future he will send him to judge us, and who shall endure his arrival?

Don’t you see them exposed to wild beasts for the purpose of persuading them to deny the Lord, yet they are not overcome? Don’t you see that the more of them that are punished, the greater the number of the rest becomes?

This does not seem to be the work of man. This is the power of God. These are the evidences of his appearance.”

________________

God Bless you with the grace to be used for the powerful work of God as proclaimed in this letter.

Fr. Thomas

The Good Shepherd and Our Welfare

Psalm 23

1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

————-

Notice that the Psalmist is not making a request. He is, rather, making a proclamation energized by trust in and the experience of God’s faithfulness. I would conclude that in the Hebrew experiential context the experience upon which the Psalmist is drawing is not only his own personal experience but the experience of the whole covenant community of which he is a part. The experience of God’s faithfulness in the lives of his covenant brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers is HIS experience.

The Psalm can, as a result of this fact, become an effective petition.

Fr. Thomas

“What have you to do with us, O Son of God?”

“And behold, they cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?’” (Matthew 8.29)

This is the question ! ! ALL people, sooner or later, will be placed by God in a position where they MUST ask and answer this question. Life offers us countless opportunities to press into it, find the truth, and be changed.

We have lots of ideas about what Jesus has to do with us. They boil down to two categories. We believe He is encountering us to either condemn us or to save us. That is really it. There is no third option. I know, that sounds awfully drastic. But, condemnation and salvation comes in many shapes and appearances. We may try and try to create an “in between” way of relating to God or a way of avoiding the question all together, but they cannot stand up to the pressures of everyday life. “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” (Matthew 12.30)

“What think ye of Jesus?” What are His intentions regarding you? What does He have to do with you – right now, today?

We can, quite easily, as disciples, fall into the trap of interpreting the specific means the Lord is using to save us as His desire to torment and condemn us. This is tragically too often what we do. It affects, for example, the way we understand prayer. What are we praying for? A particular outcome or insight into the Lord’s will – His way of saving us – and a desire to actively live in agreement with His will to save us?!

Indeed, “What have You to do with us, O Son of God?” In other words, “What in the heck are You up to in Your desire to save me?!” Or, “What adjustments in attitude and behavior do I need to make in order to cooperate in Your perfect saving will?!”

This calls for the kind of courage that only comes by the grace of the Holy Spirit. But, the grace can be ours. All we need do is truly and unreservedly and desperately ask and receive. As long as our life is still manageable without the grace we will not receive because we are not really asking (we haven’t hit bottom – see the 12 Steps). We are, instead, bargaining. And bargaining will never do.

Let me also add that the “bottom” we hit and asking for grace from that place is ongoing. The bottom will be deeper next time if we acknowledge the bottom we have reached today. And, praise be to God, the transformation will also be deeper. Don’t conclude for a moment that I do not understand in a very practical way the mystery of having courage one day and yet not another. Have you ever asked yourself, “Where is the courage I had yesterday?” or “Why couldn’t I have had the courage then that I have today?” Everyday has its need and provision. Jesus invites us deeply into the mystery of the present bottom and His provision when He says, at the conclusion of a lengthy statement about “anxiety,”

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. ‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.’” (Matthew 6.30-34)

Others have wisely said that the Christian life is so often about “grace for today” and “one day at a time.” Truly, God’s way of salvation in our life is Mysterious and requires our utmost trust on a daily basis.

We, ironically enough, need to give some credit to the townspeople. They were honest enough to ask the question and they were willing to embrace the answer, negative and tragic though it was.

Let us be like the townspeople in their honesty. Let us not be like them in their misunderstanding of the Lord’s intention. Let us not be like the townspeople, clinging to our need to live life in relationship with God “on our terms.” Let us let God break in to our lives even more radically and deeply to tell us that “what He has to do with us” is salvation in all facets – body and soul. Let us repent – let go – of our judgment of the particular form that Lord’s saving of us is taking; our temptation to beg Him to deal with us in some other way than He is choosing that is really an avoidance of salvation not an embrace of it; let us say personally and together with one voice, “Abide with us forever and deal with us according to Your will.” Let us cling not only to the Lord but to one another as we seek the courage to live this “Way” which is Life.

“What have You to do with us, O Son of God?”

Fr.  Thomas

“Infused knowledge full of love”

St. Vincent de Paul

In my last post I offered the biblical figure of Job as an example of attentiveness and responsiveness to God’s presence and work or “sacred study.” To be a grace-filled participant in one’s own salvation.

In this post I would like to offer another practical example: St. Vincent de Paul and the Daughters of Charity.

In 1633 a French peasant priest, Vincent de Paul, and an wealthy widow, Louise de Marillac, established the Daughters of Charity in response to the desperate needs of the poor in seventeenth century France.

Vincent de Paul expressed his vision for the Daughters of Charity in this way:

“Let us seek out the poorest and most abandoned among us; and recognize before God that they are our lords and our masters, and that we are unworthy of rendering our little services to them.” St. Vincent De Paul

The website of the Daughters of the Northeast Province of the United States articulates their worldwide mission in this way:

“From the very beginning, the community (sometimes referred to as “Sisters of Charity”) was to serve the needs of the poorest and most abandoned in society. Today we have the same focus – to serve Jesus Christ in those for whom no one else cares. Prayer and community life are essential elements for our vocation of service in the areas of education, health care, social and pastoral services.”

 As I noted previously, “There is a difference … between what we mainly understand in the head, which may not result in LIFE; and what we understand from the heart and a union with the LIFE-giving Holy Spirit.” What we seek in our life as disciples and as the Church is not “…more information about God, but the practical knowledge of God – a knowledge we seek to integrate more and more into our everyday life. This knowledge of God actually BECOMES our life!!”

Daughters of Charity

In an address to the Daughters of Charity during his lifetime, Vincent de Paul offered this reflection on Matthew 11.25-27 which gives you and I the opportunity to delve deeper into the mystery of attentiveness and sacred study:

“You have hidden these things from the wise and the learned and have revealed them to the childlike” (Mt. 11.25)

“My daughters, if only you knew the delight God takes in seeing a poor village girl, a poor [religious] Daughter of Charity speak to him lovingly, oh!, you would walk with even greater confidence than I could advise you. If you knew how much science you would draw from it, how much love and sweetness you would find in it! There you would find it all, dear daughters, because it is the fountain and spring of all knowledge.

Where does it come from that you see unlettered people speak so fluently about God and explain mysteries with more understanding that would a doctor? A doctor who has no more than his doctrine really speaks about God according to the manner his knowledge has taught him; but a prayerful person speaks in an altogether different way. And the difference between them comes, my daughters, from the fact that the first speaks out of a knowledge that is simply acquired, but the other from an infused knowledge full of love, in such a way that the doctor in this comparison is by no means the more knowledgeable. And he is obliged to keep quiet wherever a person of prayer is present because she speaks of God in a very different way than he is able to do.” Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)

Fr. Thomas

What Does Attentiveness and Sacred Study Look Like in Real Life?

In my last two posts, “… let us be attentive” and “Sacred Study – Journey into the Truth” I attempted to portray one aspect of the Spirit-filled and directed Way which is the very life of the reigning Christ Jesus within us and in our midst as the Church and individual believers. My emphasis was on the role of attentiveness, remembrance, and openness to and commitment to addressing the transformative questions the Holy Spirit brings before us.

One might ask, “What does that look like in real life?” A fair question… Today, in the assigned readings from “The Two Year Lectionary Patristic Vigil Readings,” St. Gregory the Great addresses this very question. He gives the example of Job. Job was faithfully attentive; had a spirit of remembrance; and was open to honestly addressing the probing questions put before him by the Holy Spirit in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.

How can I do better than St. Gregory?! Here is his reflection …

“When Job lost everything, at Almighty’s God decree, to pre­serve his peace of mind he remembered the time when he did not yet possess the things he had now lost; in that way, by realising more and more clearly that once he had not had them, he would the more easily moderate his grief over their loss. For indeed whenever we lose something it can be a great consolation to call to mind the days when we did not have it.

So, then, the blessed Job, wishing to cultivate patience as he bewails his losses, carefully considers to what state he is now reduced. To enhance his peace of mind he ponders yet more closely his origins, saying as he does so: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked I shall return whence I came. In other words, the earth produced me naked, and naked will receive me back when I leave it. Since therefore the things I have lost were only what I had received and must leave behind, what have I lost that really belonged to me? But then, because consolation derives not only from thinking about one’s condition but also about the Crea­tor’s uprightness, he is right to add: The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away; as it has pleased the Lord, so has he wrought.

He well says, as it has pleased the Lord. For since in this world we have to put up with things we do not like, it is necessary that we should accommodate our best endeavours to him who cannot will anything that is unjust. If therefore we know that what is just and equitable pleases the Lord, and that we can suffer nothing but what is pleasing to him, then all our sufferings must for that reason be justly and fairly imposed: and it would therefore be very unjust of us to grumble at them.

We should note that, having got all that right, Job ends by praising God. This was so that his adversary might realise, over­come by shame at seeing Job’s plight, that his own attitude in his prosperity is one of contempt for God, the same God to whom even this man, now fallen on evil times, can never­theless sing a hymn of praise. We should realise that the enemy of our race can smite us with as many of his darts as there are temptations for him to afflict us with. For we do battle daily; and daily his onslaught of temptations rains down on us. But we in turn can fire our darts against him if, while buried in our tribulations, we will but react in humility. Thus Job, although suffering in material things, is still a blessed and happy man.

We should not think that our champion merely receives wounds without inflicting any in return. Indeed, every prayer of patience offered by the sufferer in God’s praise is a dart turned against the enemy’s breast: and a much sharper blow is thereby struck than the one sustained. For the man in his afflictions loses only earthly goods, whereas in bearing humbly with his afflictions he has increased many times over his stock in heaven.”St. Gregory the Great, Moralia in Job, 2.17.30-18.31 (SC 32bis:203-205); “Word in Season VII”

Job was attentive to the Lord’s presence and work in the midst of his circumstances, difficult and seemingly void of the Lord’s presence and provision. He was open to the Holy Spirit’s challenge to ask salvific questions in the midst of the very same circumstances and “go the distance” in faithful obedience to what the Lord revealed to him.

God Bless you today and everyday with the grace to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in being conformed to the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ like unto Job,

Fr. Thomas

Sacred Study – Journey into the Truth

Just a Note before you read: Every blog post I writerequires perseverance on the part of the reader to “go the distance.” Many of the things I write do not make sense if you read only part of it. This post is no exception. I have never liked sound bytes … When things are in a “manageable size” that is, quite often, what they are, “manageable” – able to be controlled by us. So, short is not necessarily better. Just a thought…

Several days ago, while surfing the blogs I usually follow, I found a post, I believe, the Holy Spirit used to prompt me to revisit two crucial questions.

  • Why did the Son of God become man?
  • “Why did I come to Christ Jesus?” Or, “Why did I become a Christian?”

“Obviously, the two are related,” I think I heard the Spirit say, “But, do they agree?”

It stopped me. Have my answers to these two questions always agreed? If not, did I address it or just ignore it or rationalize it away? Did I reinforce by illusions to the point where I no longer remembered that they were not true? In other words, was and is God’s vision of “salvation” and mine the same? Am I seeking what He desires to give?!

Let me take some space to list both sets of “answers” to these questions – the Divine initiative to reach out to the whole creation including mankind and the human desire for God that is built into his/her humanity by God – as found in the four gospel accounts. Then some reflection…

First, God’s desire and design for relationship summed up and once for all articulated in the incarnation of the Son of God.

Matthew 9.9-13  [9] As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
[10] And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples.
[11] And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
[12] But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.
[13] Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 20.25-28  [25] But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.
[26] It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
[27] and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;
[28] even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 1.32-39  [32] That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons.
[33] And the whole city was gathered together about the door.
[34] And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
[35] And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.
[36] And Simon and those who were with him pursued him,
[37] and they found him and said to him, “Every one is searching for you.”
[38] And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also; for that is why I came out.”
[39] And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Luke 12.49-53  [49] “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!
[50] I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!
[51] Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division;
[52] for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three;
[53] they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

John 3.16-17  [16] For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
[17] For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

John 9.39  [39] Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”

John 10.8-10-16  [8] All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them.
[9] I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.
[10] The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

[11] I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
[12] He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
[13] He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.
[14] I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me,
[15] as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
[16] And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.

John 18.37  [37] Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.”

The second, and just as necessary question is, “Why did you come to Christ Jesus?” Or, “Why did you become a Christian?”

Luke 18.40-43  [40] And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him,
[41] “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me receive my sight.”
[42] And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”
[43] And immediately he received his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.

John 1.35-39  [35] The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples;
[36] and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”
[37] The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
[38] Jesus turned, and saw them following, and said to them, “What do you seek?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
[39] He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying; and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.

John 6.42-47  [42] They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, `I have come down from heaven’?”
[43] Jesus answered them, “Do not murmur among yourselves.
[44] No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.
[45] It is written in the prophets, `And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.
[46] Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father.
[47] Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.

John 6.65-69  [65] And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
[66] After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.
[67] Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”
[68] Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life;
[69] and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Matthew 11.27-30  [27] All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
[28] Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
[29] Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
[30] For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Matthew 20.30-34  [30] And behold, two blind men sitting by the roadside, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”
[31] The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent; but they cried out the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”
[32] And Jesus stopped and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?”
[33] They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”
[34] And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight and followed him.

When you read the passages above you took them into yourself through some sort of entry way. You understood them based on your life – experiences, preconceptions, needs, desires, etc. These filters make a difference. There is a difference, for example, between what we mainly understand in the head, which may not result in LIFE; and what we understand from the heart and a union with the LIFE-giving Holy Spirit.

Making the distinction between the two is of vital importance. It is, a matter of “life and death” in just about every sense of the phrase. This distinction, as I mentioned earlier, is not one we make once. We need to visit the distinction regularly to confirm that we are hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit regarding God’s will and our truest need. Engaging in an exploration of the current state of our relationship with the Lord using these passages and questions (among others) is a vital aspect of growing into the likeness of Christ.

Here is a portion of an address given on Saturday, 21st May, 2011 by His Grace Bishop Iakovos of Miletoupolis, at the 27th graduation ceremony of the Sydney College of Divinity.

“…in the words of St. Silouan the Athonite, ‘it is one thing to speak of God; it is quite another to know God’. And I always remember with fondness my first lecture in Introduction to Theology when myProfessor and Dean Archbishop Stylianos said that theology was not ‘merely intellectualism but actually ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’ from the table of Life of the humble who seek the Lord.’ This for me, at first, was an enigma, but also a revelation, which required nothing less than a revolution.

And it was in this way that I came to see the sacred study more than simply comprehending knowledge but actually humbly trying to understand or better still trying to stand under and with the Lord. For without this revolution, you cannot have metanoia [this radical change of mind], or alloiosis [namely, a deep change from within]. Consequently, we can become guilty, according to St Paul, from the passage we just heard, ‘of always learning and never being able to come to the knowledge of the Truth’ (2Tim 3:1-17, 4:1-5), or worse still, ‘having the form of godliness but denying its power.’

Quite simply and sincerely, more than being immensely informative, this sacred study was deeply formative and ultimately transformative.

But how could it not be so?

This sacred study radically changed my life. It opened my experience and understanding to the reality that God truly is Love, and that out of love He creates, and out of Love He nurtures, provides, suffers, is Crucified and Resurrected, so that we may all experience and abide, in Love, with Him and each other.”

The “sacred study” of which Bishop Iakovos speaks is not limited to those who pursue a seminary education or who are ordained or who embrace the monastic life. “Sacred study” is the responsibility of each and every baptized Christian. When we made our profession of faith at the waters of baptism we were, in essence, saying that we would engage in this kind of “sacred study.” Not the kind of study that is just more information about God, but the practical knowledge of God – a knowledge we seek to integrate more and more into our everyday life. This knowledge of God actually BECOMES our life!!

The questions, “Why did the Son of God become man?”; “Why did I come to Christ Jesus?”; “Why did I become a Christian?” are an ongoing part of “sacred study.” It must be noted that the Holy Tradition is very specific about “sacred study” being the pervue of the gathered Church. We are exhorted to NOT engage in this exploration in isolation. The life of the healthy disciple is life in community – life together as Bonhoeffer termed it – a context of accountability and encouragement.

There are several ways to engage in this regular inquiry: an annual contemplative retreat in which this is the intentionality (such as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius); regular spiritual direction; regular self-examination with confession and the reception of the Holy Mysteries; active ministry which so often reveal to us like nothing else, our true intentions and understandings; and the use of other ancient instrumentations such as the Jesus Prayer under the guidance of an experienced mentor.

God Bless you in this journey of discernment and reaffirmation of your baptismal vows. I pray that what you come to realize regarding the meaning of salvation through addressing these questions will not become just more “information” but a “transformative” encounter with the reigning Christ Jesus and a lived reality for you.

Fr. Thomas

“… let us be attentive!”

“… let us be attentive!”

Three times, in the course of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, worshippers are given this exhortation.

First, just before the reading of the Gospel. Second, at the beginning of the Anaphora (the Great Thanksgiving). And third, after communion before the post-communion thanksgiving.

It is a call away from distraction to single-minded-hearted attention. It is a call out of slumber and sleep of distraction and illusion into the truth of alertness. In other words, “Wake the heck up and pay attention!!” It is a call to remembrance. Paradoxically, this call to remembrance is not a call to retreat into the past or into the future, but into the present. It is the call to be as fully present as possible to God who is fully present to us.

The liturgists of the early Church were offering us the exhortation of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

“Therefore it is said, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5.14-17)

One of the fruits of sin is forgetfulness or distraction. Indeed, the concept of “remembrance” is one of the cardinal themes of the Holy Scriptures.

The Passover meal is the great feast of remembrance.

“And Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place; no leavened bread shall be eaten.’ This day you are to go forth, in the month of Abib. And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. And you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 13.3-8)

In Deuteronomy we hear,

“Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, `My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish.  Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 8.11-20)

The voice of the prophets agree,

“The way of the Godly is straight; and the way of the Godly is prepared. For the way of the Lord is judgment. We hope in Your name and in the remembrance of You, which our soul desires at night. My spirit rises early in the morning to You, O God, for your commands are a light upon the earth.”  (Isaiah 26:7-9)

Jesus says, in the context of the Last Supper,

“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19)

When we forget, we walk in foolishness not wisdom. What does the great verse from the book of Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” mean if it does not mean, simply put, “walk constantly (unceasingly) in the awareness of God’s presence and work?”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is often quoted regarding the danger of forgetting God. In his Templeton Address he says,

“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Templeton Address” March 1983)

Forgetting God in the course of our everyday life – the mundane things – is not trivial. It is not just a personal foible. It is one of the most effective tools of the devil, the flesh, and the world. Forgetfulness of God has, according to Solzhenitsyn, changed the course of nations and, therefore, of the history of the world!

To the voice of this 20th century Russian prophet, if I can call him that, let me add two more voices.

First, St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th century Russian elder.  He reminds us that prayer is, in essence, being attentive to God.

“The recollection (or remembrance) of God is mentally standing before God in the heart. Everywhere and always God is with us, near to us and in us. But we are not always with Him, since we do not remember Him; and because we do not remember Him, we allow ourselves many things which we would not permit if we did remember. The more firmly you are established in the recollection of God, the more quiet your thoughts will become and the less they will wander. Remembrance of God is something that God Himself grafts upon the soul. But the soul must force itself to persevere and to toil. Work, making every effort to attain the unceasing remembrance of God, and God, seeing how fervently you desire it will give you this constant remembrance of Himself. To succeed in this remembrance it is advisable to accustom oneself to the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ holding in mind the thought of God’s nearness, His presence in the heart. [If one prays the Jesus Prayer when one is idle for a time, while driving, doing dishes, etc., will help greatly in building prayer in the heart and mind.] To pray does not only mean to stand in prayer. To keep the mind and heart turned towards God and directed towards Him…this is already prayer.” (St. Theophan the Recluse “The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It”)

“I have explained to you briefly two aspects or two levels of prayer, namely: prayer which is read, when we pray to God with the prayers of others, and one’s mental prayer, where we ascend mentally to God through contemplation of God, dedicating all to God, and often crying out to Him from our hearts.1

But this is still not all. There is a third aspect or level of prayer, which makes up true prayer, and for which the first two aspects are only preparation. This is the unceasing turning of the mind and heart to God, accompanied by interior warmth or burning of the spirit. This is the limit to which prayer should aspire, and the goal which every prayerful laborer should have in mind, so that he does not work uselessly in the work of prayer.” (St. Theophan, “Homily 3, On Prayer”)

Second, St. Justin Popovich, 20th century theologian, writer, and critic of the church’s life. He reminds us of the struggle that attentiveness requires.

“It is by the ascesis of faith that the treatment and cure of a soul which is sick with the passions is begun. Once faith begins to live in a man, the passions begin to be uprooted from his soul. But ‘until the soul becomes intoxicated with faith in God, until it comes to feel faith’s power,’ it can neither be healed of the passions nor overcome the material world. There is both a negative side to the ascesis of faith, freedom from sinful matter, and a positive side, oneness with God.

The soul, which was dispersed by the senses among the things of this world, is brought back to itself by the ascesis of faith, by fasting from material things and by devoting itself to a constant remembrance of God. This is the foundation of all good things. Freedom from enslavement to sinful matter is essential for advancement in the spiritual life. The beginning of this new way of life is found in the concentration of one’s thoughts on God, in incessant pondering on the words of God, and in a life of poverty.

Through faith the mind, which was previously dispersed among the passions, is concentrated, freed from sensuality, and endowed with peace and humility of thought. When it lives by the senses in a sensual world, the mind is sick. With the help of faith, however, the mind is delivered from the prison of this world, where it has been stifled by sin, and enters into the new age, where it breathes in a wondrous new air. “The sleep of the mind” is as dangerous as death, and it is therefore essential to rouse the mind by faith to the performance of spiritual works, by which man will overcome himself and drive out the passions. ‘Drive out self, and the enemy will be driven from your side.’

In the ascesis of faith, man is asked to act according to a paradox that denies understanding: ‘Be dead in your life, and you will live after death.’ By faith the mind is healed and acquires wisdom. The soul becomes wise when it stops ‘consorting shamelessly with promiscuous thoughts.’ ‘Love of the body is a sign of unbelief.’ Faith frees the intellect from the categories of the senses and sobers it by means of fasting, by pondering on God, and by vigils.

Intemperance and a full stomach cloud the mind, distract it, and disperse it among fantasies and passions. The knowledge of God cannot be found in a body that loves pleasure. It is from the seed of fasting that the blade of a healthy understanding grows–and it is from satiety that debauchery comes, and impurity from excess.

The thoughts and desires of the flesh are like a restless flame in a man, and the way to healing is to plunge the intellect into the ocean of the mysteries of Holy Scripture. Unless it is freed from earthly possessions, the soul cannot be freed from disturbing thoughts, nor feel peace of mind without dying to the senses. The passions darken the thoughts and blind the mind. Troubled, chaotic thoughts arise from an abuse of the stomach.

Shame and the fear of God steady the tumult of the mind; the lack of this shame and this fear disturb the balance of the understanding, making it fickle and unstable. The mind is only on a firm foundation if it keeps the Lord’s commandments and is ready to endure suffering and affliction. It is enslaved by the things of life, it is darkened. Collecting himself through faith, a man awakens his intellect towards God, and by prayerful silence cleanses his mind and overcomes the passions. The soul is restored to health by silence. It is therefore necessary to train oneself to silence–and this is a labor that brings sweetness to the heart. It is through silence that a man reaches peace from unwarranted thoughts.

Faith brings peace to the intellect and, in bringing it, uproots rebellious thoughts. Sin is the source of restlessness and strife in the thoughts and is also the source of man’s struggle against heaven and with other men. “Be at peace with yourself, and you will bring peace to heaven and to earth.” Until faith appears, the intellect is dispersed among the things of this world; it is by faith that this fragmentation of the intellect is overcome. The wandering of the thoughts is provoked by the demon of harlotry, as is the wandering of the eyes by the spirit of uncleanness.

By faith the intellect is confirmed in pondering God. The way of salvation is that of the constant remembrance of God. The intellect separated from remembrance of God is like a fish out of water. The freedom of a true man consists in his freedom from the passions, in his resurrection with Christ, and in a joyous soul.

The passions can only be overcome by the practice of the virtues, and every passion must be fought to the death. Faith is the first and chief weapon in the struggle with the passions, for faith is the light of the mind that drives away the darkness of the passions and the strength of the intellect that banishes sickness from the soul. Faith bears within itself not only its own principle and substance, but the principle and substance of all the other virtues–developing as they do one from the other and encircling one another like the annual rings of a tree. If faith can be said to have a language, that language is prayer. (St. Justin Popovich [Trans. Asterios Gerostergios], Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, (Institute For Byzantine And Modern Greek Studies, 1997), pp. 123-127)

The ascesis that salvation requires is the struggle (warfare) to live “in the present” and “in The Presence,” and to “be present.” To be attentive and awake is to become open, receptive, and responsive to God, others, and the world around us. In essence, it is to live “in spirit and in truth”; to obey the command of our Savior to do what can only be done if we are all of these – to love.

Fr. Thomas

Encounter with the Word in the Scriptures – Bread in the Wilderness

There is no end to the nourishment we can receive from the Scriptures.  This nourishment is, to be sure, for the mind (informational, intellectually integrative, and profound). But, it is also nourishment for the heart (Mysterious, alive, filled with personal consolation and challenge).

So nourished, we, with mind and heart united in the joy of the Lord encountered through His Word, are transformed daily in the inner and outer man. We live, in practical terms, the Way and the Truth that is the Living Christ Jesus. If our transformation is a journey then our encounter with the Word in the Word is an endless feast of beatific delight. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Our daily bread, His mercies, are new every morning. There will never come a day when, as it were, the Lord says, “Eat leftovers.”

Let’s hear what one of the great saints of the Church had to say about this endless feast of delight. St. Ephrem, the Syrian…

“Lord, who can grasp all the wealth of just one of your words? What we understand is much less than what we ­leave behind, like thirsty people who drink from a fountain. For your word, Lord, has many shades of meaning just as those who study it have many different points of view. The Lord has coloured his words with many hues so that each person who studies it can see in it what he loves. He has hidden many treasures in his word so that each of us is enriched as we meditate on it.

The word of God is a tree of life that from all its parts offers you fruits that are blessed. It is like that rock opened in the desert that from all its parts gave forth a spiritual drink. As the Apostle says, All ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.

He who comes into contact with some share of its ­treasure should not think that the only thing contained in the word is what he himself has found. He should realise that he has only been able to find that one thing from among many others. Nor, because only that one part has become his, should he say that the word is void and empty and look down on it; but because he could not exhaust it he should give thanks for its riches. Be glad that you were overcome and do not be sad that it over­came you. The thirsty man rejoices when he drinks and he is not downcast because he cannot empty the fountain. Rather let the fountain quench your thirst than have your thirst quench the fountain. Because if your thirst is ­quenched and the fountain is not exhausted you can drink from it again whenever you are thirsty. But if when your thirst is quenched the fountain also is dried up your victory will bode evil for you.

Be grateful for what you have received and do not grumble about the abundance left behind. What you have received and what you have reached is your share, what remains is your heritage. What, at one time, you are not able to receive because of your weakness, you will be able to receive at other times if you persevere. Do not have the presumption to try and take in one draught what cannot be taken in one draught, and do not abandon out of laziness what you may only consume little by little.” (From Sunday of the Fourteen Week of Ordinary Time, Year II, St Ephrem, Commentary on the Diatessaron, 1.18-19)

A closing word from the Word:  2 Timothy 3.14-17 “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Fr. Thomas