Fasting and the Increase of Love

How does fasting, or any other spiritual discipline, increase our ability to love? (Just a note. You can plug in prayer, encountering the Word through the Scriptures, almsgiving, and generosity instead of fasting. What applies to fasting applies to them as well.)

If fasting is designed, as the Scriptures and the Church Fathers proclaim, to be one of the vehicles we use to reach the destination of Christ/love, then perhaps it would be important to focus on the meaning of love. Perhaps knowing the destination would inform how fasting is effective toward that goal.

I remember listening to a CD by Fr. Thomas Hopko, in which he articulated the challenge to “become love” (my term) by speaking of the four degrees of love. I am, of course, paraphrasing his words in which follows. I understood him to say the following:

The Four Degrees of Love
1. Hate evil – over against
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. 9-10)
2. Love good – embrace and holdfast
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 12.9-10)
3. Mourn for your sin as your own and the sin of the other as if it were your own – identify through empathy
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5.4)
4.Be willing to die for the sake of the sin of the other as your own – pour out/share life
“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5.14-15, 21)

This is Christ Jesus. This is the revelation of the heart of God – of God in His entirety – LOVE… Our desire is for the love of God to not only be our goal but to actually become that which we desire.

“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Corinthians 5.14-15)

“For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

The work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (but certainly not begun or ended there for it is an eternal work) and lived out in ordinary time, places, and people, is to manifest the fullness of the love of God the Father, in Christ Jesus, in and through us. It would, therefore, be reasonable to say that we would do well to practice fasting in a “mindful” way or, to quote Jesus, “in remembrance” of Him into whose likeness we desire the discipline to transform us.

The first way in which fasting increases love is by exhorting us to engage in it with a right intent. Of course, that intent is mixed in the beginning. But, we start where we are and offer what we have to offer. Even the intention to have a right intention in practicing the disciplines is a right beginning place. We are exhorted to begin as the publican did in the temple. He started with his meager, but honest, intention. But note, he started ! ! I believe Jesus really loved and honored this publican. “O, Lord, help me to imitate the publican in this way.”

In addition to right intention is interrelatedness. We do not engage in the discipline of fasting in isolation. The disciplines belong together. This discipline works best when practiced in conjunction with other disciplines. What is more, the disciplines are designed to be practiced in community. We journey together toward the full stature of Christ Jesus in our life not just my life.

Fasting addresses our carnal desires or sinful inclinations of the body and mind – passions in Orthodox parlance – which are opposed to God. See Galatians 5 and Ephesians 2. The addressing of them is at least twofold. First, fasting exposes what is hidden. We cannot address what we do not know. Second, it actively opposes the operation of the passions. We build, to put it bluntly, a new set of habits that sink deeper and deeper and go beyond the habitual. They become a new way of life.

Fasting dethrones the exalted “I” and re-enthrones God. This is a “whose in charge” issue. Fasting forces the issue so to speak. I am the creature not the Creator. Love increases as we deliberately bridle the seeking of our own will for the sake of seeking the will of God. We increase in love as we deliberately set our course toward the goal of trusting in the mysterious means of transformation God has set forth instead of the one that seems reasonable and easily measured by the exalted “I.”

Fasting is painful physically and spiritually. It is sacrificial. It will inevitably frustrate us, hook into our secret resentments, love of comfort, etc. As C.S. Lewis said in one of his letters, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Fasting, then, plumbs the depths of the love of Christ that is already being expressed in our life. Where is the boundary within us between our public commitment to love and our secret love of sin and service to it ? ! There are some “false bottoms” and boundaries where we didn’t think there were boundaries in our life. Fasting plumbs the depths for the true bottom (the real edge), finds it, and reveals it to us. The invitation is then issued to break through the false bottom or boundary and deepen/broaden our Christ’s love in our life. We can, by the grace of God, press through (persevere to the end), standing firm, turning neither to the left or the right and save our souls.

Fasting, by developing a new way of life, teaches us the ways of God and alerts/sensitizes us to them within us and around us. A fasting/feasting lifestyle that is in harmony with the rhythms of the life of Christ Jesus helps us get ahead of sin. I can see the strategies and workings of the enemy and be more prepared to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in resisting the devil. Kind of like getting ahead of the curve.

Fasting is like weight lifting. Fasting reminds us that we are weak. But, that is not enough. So we are weak. So we should just quit, right?? No. When we are weak He is strong. Fasting is intended to encourage us not depress us. God reminds us of our weakness so we can be strong! It releases not our strength but the strength (muscle) of the Holy Spirit. What we develop is the muscle of effective cooperation as we embrace our weakness.

Fasting creates space, physically and spiritually. Real space. Spaciousness is Christ-like. Jesus had infinite space for others. Indeed, He had enough space to contain the whole universe in His heart in a personal manner. I believe that fasting creates and enlarges the space in our life for the creation and especially other people. The church fathers speak of the “enlargement of the heart” as the fruit of the spiritual disciplines when practiced with increasing humility and a right heart. Our hearts are, if they need ongoing transformation, in some way hardened, rigid, and inflexible. This is a heart governed under the domination of the law. The heart of God is a heart of grace. Not over against the law, but beyond the law in the sense of fulfillment. Our hearts are intended to be supple, flexible, stretchable, and exhibit a graceful elasticity. Responsive to the subtle movements of the Holy Spirit. This is the graceful heart, full of compassion, mercy, and patience – in short the fruit of the Spirit in all His fullness. By fasting and all other disciplines in conjunction with it, our hearts are broken open and drained of sin. They are made supple and all the rest. They are filled with the love of God that contains all persons and the whole creation. They become, mysteriously the one and the same heart of God – a Divine/human heart.

St. Benedict knew this. He says, in the Prologue of his Rule: “We are therefore now about to institute a school of the service of God; in which we hope nothing will be ordained rigorous or burdensome. But if in some things we proceed with a little severity, sound reason so advising, for the amendment of vices or preserving of charity; do not straightway for fear thereof, flee from the way of salvation which is always strait and difficult in the beginning. But in process of time and growth of faith, when the heart has once been enlarged, the way of God’s commandments is run with unspeakable sweetness of love; so that, never departing from His teaching, but persevering in the Monastery in His doctrine until death, we share now by patience in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve afterwards to be partakers of His kingdom.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me … The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51.10, 17)

As the clean, grace-filled heart continues to be created and expands, we realize the love of God for us. “Thou art my beloved…” We realize what “all things come of Thee” really means. All good and perfect gifts come from God. All life and all things become gift. Gratitude blossoms on the far side of our perseverance through resentment and frustration with the discipline, God, ourselves, and others.

Fasting, as it participates in bringing the rhythms of my life in sync. with the rhythms and content of the life of Christ Jesus, changes my vision and priorities. We begin to see the other person and circumstances in a way that is more like how Christ Jesus sees them. In turn, as we do, we find that mysteriously (and slowly) we are developing a desire to see people and circumstances in just that way. We begin to enjoy the different way of seeing. And why is this the case? In time, the new way of seeing we enjoy turns into a behavior. We begin to actually do not just think or feel or passively intend.

And how can we do what we could not do before? Well, the capacity has been developed to be available when the desire for the utmost and highest good (the will of God) that has developed turns into a desire to act. And, because of all the other lessons we have been learning and the other changes that have been occurring as a result of fasting, the love of Christ Jesus, which is now our love, is actually released into the world for the life of the world and the glory of God.

Fasting sets us free. Free to really choose what we were created by God to not only desire but with which to unite ourselves and practice. St. Raphael Arnaiz Baron puts it this way: “Where, then, is true freedom? It is in the heart of one who loves nothing more than God. It is in the heart of one who is attached neither to spirit nor to matter, but only to God. It is in that soul which is not subject to the “I” of egoism, which soars above its own thoughts, feelings, suffering and enjoyment. Freedom resides in the soul whose one reason for existence is God, whose life is God and nothing else but God. The human spirit is small, impoverished, subject to a thousand changes of mood, ups and downs, depressions, disillusionments, etc., and the body to so much weakness. Freedom, then, is in God, and the soul which truly, in soaring above everything, makes her abode in him, can say that she enjoys freedom to the extent that is possible for one still in the world  to do so.” The bending of the exalted “I” with all of its “yes but” statements. Baron speaks of the freedom to love that results from pressing/persevering through the transformative warfare between “I will” and “Thy will,” here. It is deeply instructive and inspiring.

All of this is, of course, under the governance of the Holy Spirit. It is not programmatic but relational. It is not linear and mechanical but more holistic and organic. It is a matter of trust. Fasting is always spoken of by the great elders as being practiced in the context of a living trust in God. Love increases as the result of practical trust in the one who points the way, provides for our needs on the way, and accompanies us on the way. The increase of love is, ultimately, the fruit of our “yes” to the question, “Do you trust me enough to just do what I say in the confidence that it will result in an increase in love no matter what; or is your trust really in all the reasonable ways of accounting for the increase of love instead of Me?” Learning how to trust in the word (invitation-promise-mandate) that issues forth from the mouth of the  Son, and continue to REALLY trust no matter what things look like or how they seem or how they turn out, is what causes the increase in love. For, in as much as we do, we will find love flowing forth as a stream of living water from deep within.

How does fasting operate to increase love in YOUR life ? !

Fr. Thomas

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The Goal of Fasting (or any other spiritual discipline)

“Why fast?”

Those of us who attended an worship over the last several Sundays and/or an Ash Wednesday service this past week, probably heard this question in some form or another, “Why fast during Lent?” The preacher/homilist probably attempted to make certain you understood the real point of fasting. At least I hope they did ! !

And what is that reason? The defeat of sin and establishment of true righteousness. Being more completely conformed to the likeness of Christ Jesus in all areas of our life.

Duh ! ! That sounds obvious enough.

Nonetheless you and I have, doubtlessly, had conversations with people whose teeth are set on edge by any talk of formal or “institutional” practices of spiritual discipline like fasting, almsgiving, and more intense prayer and scripture reading. Why? Because the lives of the people and church they hear that exhortation from and encountered did not reflect a lessening of sin and increase of righteousness. And, as a result they ran as far as possible away from any such disciplines and the church that sponsored them.

How can I blame them ? ! I can’t… The people they saw practicing these disciplines were not showing any signs of being any less mean and rotten. What they did on Sunday had nothing to do with how they lived their life Monday-Friday. Jesus had some harsh words to say about the very same behavior (see Matthew 6.1-24). But “before” He said those words, our Lord spoke through the prophet Isaiah and other prophets, saying the very same thing. Today and tomorrow we read Isaiah 58. Here it is in total just because:

Isaiah 58
[1] “Cry aloud, spare not, lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
[2] Yet they seek me daily,
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
[3] `Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
[4] Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
[5] Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
[6] “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
[7] Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
[8] Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
[9] Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
[10] if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
[11] And the LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters fail not.
[12] And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
[13] “If you turn back your foot from the sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
[14] then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

What am I to make of this? Well, first off, any exhortation to practice spiritual disciplines without taking the time to instruct the hearer about the real point of the discipline and its connection with real transformation is a waste of time and doing more harm than good. Spiritual disciplines are not about proving something to God. It is about the consummation of practical union with Christ Jesus, the defeat and abolition of sin and death in and around our life, and the freedom of Christ Jesus to make His appeal through us to those who remain alienated from God.

Here are some quotes from the Church Fathers, elders, and the worship heritage of the Church that reiterates this as the goal of our Lenten disciplines:

“I know a man who kept no long strict fasts, no vigils, did not sleep on bare earth, imposed on himself no other specially arduous tasks; but, recollecting in memory his sins, understood his worthlessness and, having judged himself, became humble – and for this alone the most compassionate Lord saved him; as the divine David says: ‘The Lord is near to them that are of a broken heart; and saves such as be of a contrite spirit’ (Ps. 34:18). In short, he trusted the words of the Lord and for his faith the Lord received him.” St. Simeon the New Theologian

“Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the [increasing] acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.” St. Seraphim of Sarov

“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.” St. 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?” St. John Chrysostom

“True fasting lies is rejecting evil, holding one’s tongue, suppressing one’s hatred, and banishing one’s lust, evil words, lying, and betrayal of vows.” St. Basil the Great

“While fasting physically, brethren, Let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity. Let us tear up every unrighteous bond. Let us distribute bread to the hungry. And welcome into our homes Those who have no roof over their head, So that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God.” From The Lenten Triodion, Wednesday of the first week of Great Lent

“Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.” St John Cassian

“While fasting physically, brethren, Let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity; Let us tear up every unrighteous bond; Let us distribute bread to the hungry, And welcome into our homes those who have no roof over their heads. So that we may receive great mercy from Christ our God!” The Lenten Triodion, Wednesday of the first week of Great Lent

“’This fasting,’ saith he, ‘if the commandments of the Lord are kept, is very good. This, then, is the way that thou shalt keep the fast. First of all, keep thyself from every evil word and every evil device, and purify thy heart from all the vanities of this world. If thou keep these things, thy fast shall be perfect for thee. And thus shalt thou do. Having fulfilled what is written, on that day on which thou fastest, thou shalt taste nothing but bread and water; and from my meals which thou wouldest have eaten, thou shalt reckon up the amount of that day’s expenditure, which thou wouldest have incurred, and shalt give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to one in want, and so shalt thou humble thy soul, that he that received from thy humiliation may satisfy his own soul, and may pray for thee to the Lord. If then thou shalt so accomplish this fast, as I have commanded thee, thy sacrifice shall be acceptable in the sight of God, and this fasting shall be recorded; and the service so performed is beautiful and joyous, and acceptable to the Lord.’” The Shepherd of Hermas

“Fasting is acceptable to God when abstention from food is accompanied by refraining from sins, from envy, from hatred, from calumny, from vainglory, from wordiness, from other evils. He who is fasting the true fast `that is agreeable’ to God ought to shun all these things with all his strength and zeal, and remain impregnable and unshakeable against all the attacks of the Evil one that are planned from that quarter. On the other hand, he who practices abstention from food, but does not keep self-control in the face of the aforesaid passions, is like unto one who lays down splendid foundations for a house, yet takes serpents and scorpions and vipers as fellow-dwellers therein.” St. Photios the Great

“Let us present a good fast, well-pleasing to the Lord! A true fast is alienation from the evil one; The holding of one’s tongue, the laying aside of all anger, The removal of all sensuality, Of accusation, falsehood and sins of swearing. The weakening of these will make the fast true and well-pleasing.” The Lenten Triodion, Tuesday of the first week of Lent

“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.” St. John Chrysostom

Now you might be saying to yourself, “Father Thomas is saying I should be perfect when Pascha arrives.” Or “Unless I have some identifiable proof of my progress then I have failed and am the enemy of the Gospel.” God forbid that you this should be your conclusion. That kind of conclusion is the very misinterpretation of the Holy Tradition that is the point of this blog post. Push beyond the “this world” either or type conclusion to embrace another conclusion. This is what I believe St. Paul is asking the believers to do. What I do mean can be summed up by quoting St. Paul:

Philippians 3
[1] Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is not irksome to me, and is safe for you.
[2] Look out for the dogs, look out for the evil-workers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
[3] For we are the true circumcision, who worship God in spirit, and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh.
[4] Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:
[5] circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee,
[6] as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.
[7] But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
[8] 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
[9] 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;
[10] that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
[11] that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
[13] Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
[14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
[15] Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you.
[16] Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
[17] Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us.
[18] For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
[19] Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
[20] But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,
[21] who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Ephesians 4
[1] I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,
[2] with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love,
[3] eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
[11] And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
[12] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,
[13] 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;
[14] 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.
[15] Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
[16] 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.
[17] Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds;
[18] they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart;
[19] they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness.
[20] You did not so learn Christ! —
[21] assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus.
[22] Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts,
[23] and be renewed in the spirit of your minds,
[24] and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
[25] Therefore, putting away falsehood, let every one speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
[26] Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,
[27] and give no opportunity to the devil.
[28] Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.
[29] Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.
[30] And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
[31] Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice,
[32] and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Let us heed the exhortation of our Lord through Isaiah, St. Paul, the Church Fathers and elders, and worship heritage that is our dearest treasure. Let us struggle together with understanding and directionality, not as uninformed wanderers whose life serves to hinder the progress of the Gospel in our own life and, perhaps, the life of others. Let us embrace the disciplines not with a self-centered desire to “prove something” to ourselves or the world but a humble and radical trust in the faithfulness and power of God to do all things that are good and perfect in our life as we also radically cooperate with Him. Let us cleave not only to Him with this intentionality, but to our brothers and sisters of the faith. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…” (Heb. 10.23-24) Let us testify with our behavior not just our words that Christ Jesus is Lord and is able to transform/save those who commend their entire life into His hands on a daily basis. Let this be our Lenten prayer for one another.

Fr. Thomas

Ash Wednesday in My Rear-view or Re-view Mirror

I have been reflecting/ruminating, this Ash Wednesday evening, on the tradition in the Western Church of inscribing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful with ashes.

What does it mean to me? During the course of the day, the following associations occurred to me:

  • The profound identification/connection it proclaims with the other two impositions that occur over the course of our life of discipleship – baptismal chrism and anointing for healing.
  • The profound identification/solidarity with the men and women of the Old and New Covenants who have used ashes as a sign of their repentance in hope.
  •  The ashen remains of the triumphant but not kept proclamations of faithfulness to the end from Palm Sunday last year that I am exhorted to acknowledge in the presence of a “good and loving God.” Looking back with honest in the embrace of such a God is life-giving and freeing not life-ending and condemning. So looking back in that way is looking forward in truth.
  • My forehead (my life) as the place where God desires for the apocalyptic battle to occur between the His victorious cross and sin and death in this world. After all, the face is the outward and visible statement of our identity.
  • The reminder that I am created – made from the dust – and that my salvation is a matter of my physical existence not just my spiritual existence. God loves His creation (me/you) and I will continue, for eternity, to be made of dust. What is more, He loves me enough to continue to breath into it His own life so that I am not “just dust”; and that “… and to dust you shall return” will not be followed by a period but a comma.

What meaningful associations did the ceremony provide for you? My prayer is that if you did attend an Ash Wednesday service and receive the ashes that it was a significant action instead of another empty ritual that will just turn into more ashes!

Fr. Thomas

The Invitation-Promise-Mandate of Lent

Psalms 1Follow_Me pilgrim icon
[1] Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
[2] but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
[3] He is like a tree
planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
[4] The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff which the wind drives away.
[5] Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
[6] for the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.

——————–

Acts 2.12-21
[12] And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
[13] But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
[14] But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.
[15] For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day;
[16] but this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
[17] `And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
[18] yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days
I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
[19] And I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth beneath,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
[20] the sun shall be turned into darkness
and the moon into blood,
before the day of the Lord comes,
the great and manifest day.
[21] And it shall be that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall
be saved.’Be not drunk with wine but with the spirit.

——————–

Love Divine
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit,
Into every troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
Let us find that second rest.
Take away our bent to sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its Beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, Almighty to deliver,
Let us all Thy life receive;
Suddenly return and never,
Never more Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
Pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
Glory in Thy perfect love.

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Charles Wesley

——————–

The Aim of the Christian Life
“The Lord has revealed to me,” said the great elder, “that in your childhood you had a great desire to know the aim of our Christian life, and that you have continually asked many great spiritual persons about it.”

I must admit, that from the age of twelve this thought had constantly troubled me. In fact, I had approached many clergy about it, however their answers had not satisfied me. This could not have been known to the elder.

“But no one,’ continued St. Seraphim, ‘has given you a precise answer. They have said to you: “Go to church, pray to God, do the commandments of God, do good – that is the aim of the Christian life.” Some were even indignant with you for being occupied with such profane curiosity and said to you, “Do not seek things which are beyond you.” But they did not speak as they should. Now humble Seraphim will explain to you of what this aim really consists.

“However prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Mark my words, only good deeds done for Christ’s sake brings us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. All that is not done for Christ’s sake, even though it be good, brings neither reward in the future life nor the grace of God in this life. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said: “He who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 11:23). Not that a good deed can be called anything but gathering, even though a deed is not done for Christ’s sake, it is still considered good. The Scriptures say: “In every nation he who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:35). Saint Seraphim of Sarov, On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit

——————–

Divine Sweetness Tasted by Man
When a man progresses in good discipline and succeeds in mounting the step of repentance, when he draws nigh to the experience of the divine vision that results from is righteous works, and when a gift from on high descends upon him that he may taste the sweetness of spiritual knowledge, a second activity after the first will arise.

First he becomes certain of God’s providence for every man, he is illuminated by His love for creation, and he is filled with wonder at His governance of rational beings and His great care for them. This is the beginning of the sweetness of God and the fire of His love, which is kindled in the heart and consumes the passions of the soul and body. A man will be conscious of this power when, in all the natures in creation and in everything that he encounters, he ponders them with understanding, and searches them out, and discerns them in a spiritual manner.

Wherefore, through such zealous and divine diligence and through his good conscience a man begins to be stirred to divine love, and straightway he is made drunk by it as by wine; his limbs become limp, his mind stands still in awestruck wonder, and his heart follows God as a captive. He becomes, as I said, like a man drunk with wine. The more the inner senses grow strong, the more this divine vision gains in strength. And the more a man struggles to live a righteous life, to be watchful, and to labor in reading and prayer, the more its power is established and made fast within him. In very truth, O brethren, a man comes to this at times when he does not remember himself, that he is clad with a body, and he does not know that he is found in this world.

The second activity is the beginning of spiritual theoria (divine vision – the activity of the Holy Spirit in the soul, giving it spiritual vision and understanding beyond the reach of human efforts) in man and this is the beginning of every revelation in the understanding; by this activity the understanding grows and becomes powerful in hidden things, and by this the understanding advances to other revelations that surpass the nature of man. In a word, guided by the hand of the second activity, all divine theoria and all revelations of the Spirit that the saints receive in this world, and whatever gifts and revelations human nature can come to know in this life, pass over to a man. This is the root of our perception of our Creator. Blessed is the man who has kept well this good seed once it has fallen into his soul, and has given it increase, and has not lost it by scattering it in vain concerns and in the distractions of transient and fleeting things! But to our God be glory unto ages. Amen. Saint Isaac the Syrian – Homily Forty-Nine

The Value of a Right Fear of God
“There is a humility that comes from the fear of God, and there is a humility that comes from the fervent love of God. One man is humbled because of his fear of God; another is humbled because of his joy. The man humbled from fear of God is possessed of modesty in his members, a right ordering of his senses. and a heart contrite at all times. But the man humbled because of joy is possessed of great exuberance and an open and irrepressible heart.” Saint Isaac the Syrian – Homily Fifty-One

——————–

If I were to sum up the fruit I desire this year to be born from the Spirit’s tending the garden of my soul and body during lent, it would be summed up in the previous quotes. I desire an increase in genuine humility and love that issues from the sweet joy of union with God and the members of His Body.

Have a great and transformative lent!

God Bless you mightily,

Fr. Thomas

Words By Which to Die and Live

“Into thy hand I commit my spirit; thou hast redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” Psalm 31.5

Pure and Entire Resignation of Self to Obtain Freedom of Heart
The Voice of Christ:      MY CHILD, renounce self and you shall find Me. Give up your own self-will, your possessions, and you shall always gain. For once you resign yourself irrevocably, greater grace will be given you. The Disciple How often, Lord, shall I resign myself? And in what shall I forsake myself? The Voice of Christ Always, at every hour, in small matters as well as great — I except nothing. In all things I wish you to be stripped of self. How otherwise can you be mine or I yours unless you be despoiled of your own will both inwardly and outwardly? The sooner you do this the better it will be for you, and the more fully and sincerely you do it the more you will please Me and the greater gain you will merit. Some there are who resign themselves, but with certain reservation; they do not trust fully in God and therefore they try to provide for themselves. Others, again, at first offer all, but afterward are assailed by temptation and return to what they have renounced, thereby making no progress in virtue. These will not reach the true liberty of a pure heart nor the grace of happy friendship with Me unless they first make a full resignation and a daily sacrifice of themselves. Without this no fruitful union lasts nor will last. I have said to you very often, and now I say again: forsake yourself, renounce yourself and you shall enjoy great inward peace. Give all for all. Ask nothing, demand nothing in return. Trust purely and without hesitation in Me, and you shall possess Me. You will be free of heart and darkness will not overwhelm you. Strive for this, pray for this, desire this — to be stripped of all selfishness and naked to follow the naked Jesus, to die to self and live forever for Me. Then all vain imaginations, all wicked disturbances and superfluous cares will vanish. Then also immoderate fear will leave you and inordinate love will die. My Imitation of Christ, Book III, Chapter 37, by Thomas à Kempis

God is faithful in accomplishing His Word, in keeping His promises. In keeping you and me. It is out of this fertile soil that words such as these grow. Words used by Christ in His dying because He used them in His everyday living. Words we must learn to use in our Lenten dying that we may live lives of Paschal rising. Everyday words for everyday life.

Fr. Thomas

The Doors of Repentance — The Gates of Paradise

The readings from the Roman Catholic lectionary for today are the following:

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8
Psalm 138:1-2a, 2b-3, 4-5, 7-8
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or 15:3-8, 11
Luke 5:1-11

These texts and the reflections attending them from a variety of sites I use on a regular basis nourish me in several ways this morning.

First, they remind me of the revelation-repentance-commissioning/revelation pattern of the Jesus Prayer. I am struck by the archetypical pattern displayed in both the calling of Isaiah and Simon (see also the calling of Saul of Tarsus?!)  not surprisingly, therefore, this is the order of the Divine Liturgy. The “order” speaks of the life-giving Lord. See below, #3,regarding the term “ordinary.” The reflection that confirmed and deepened that realization can be found here.

Second, the readings also speak, when read in a larger “order” offered in the gospel of Luke, of the gradual (orderly) call not sudden (isolated and individualist) call of Simon. A reflection that nurtures this revelation can be found here:

Third, I am always delightfully blessed by the term “ordinary” in its liturgical/sacramental usage. Scott P. Richert, offers these words:

Definition: Ordinary Time refers to all of those parts of the Catholic Church’s liturgical year that aren’t included in the major seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter). Ordinary Time is a feature of the current (post-Vatican II) liturgical calendar. In the traditional Catholic calendar (before 1970), the Sundays of Ordinary Time were referred to as the Sundays After Epiphany and the Sundays After Pentecost.

Ordinary Time is called “ordinary” simply because the weeks are numbered. The Latin word ordinalis, which refers to numbers in a series, stems from the Latin word ordo, from which we get the English word order. Thus, Ordinary Time is in fact the ordered life of the Church…

Spiralling to a revisiting of the first reflection to which I referred you, by Larry Gillick, S.J. we hear this about “ordinary”:

We move along ordinary, (the word means “ordered” or “orderly” not boring), days which have their unordinary moments. The liturgy of the Eucharist is an ordinary exercise of an extra-ordinary event. The grace of the Eucharist experienced in community, moves us out and back to the orderly living of this unusual vision of life which is Christianity.

We prepare for the celebration of this weekend’s liturgy by receiving the sacraments of each moment, each person, each invitation and interruption. God is never not-giving, not-offering, not preparing us for living what we receive. Grace orders or gives form to chaos and disorder.

The Divine Liturgy is essential and normative for many reasons. Among them is the fact that it offers us the vocabulary to refer to everyday life as “ordinary life.”  ordinary life is Eucharistic life.

So, the “order” of a thing or person is the pattern or larger progression or movement of which it is a part. I remember taking the math section of the standardized tests -SAT, ACT, etc. – and being asked to “name the next number in the following series.” (1, 3, 11, 43, ?) the idea was that each of the listed numbers was included because it spoke of a larger progression of which it was a part (4a-1=x). The numbers were included and received their meaning/identity because they were in harmony/union with a larger prototype or master definer. Numbers can be related to as isolation things or as part of a set. 3 is 3 because of 1, 2, and 4… 3 can never mean anything outside of that relational context… What is more, the 1,2, and 4 don’t mean much without 3. So also each of us and the events of our life. There is a mutual interdependence – a union – spoken of that transcends the individuality. The individual/isolational dies and the personal/relational is born.

God bless you today as you stand knocking at the doors of repentance in response to the voice within that offers the promise of new life — the Gates of Paradise (ongoing transformation) — in the Lenten/Pascha Pilgrimage (the journey of “joyful sorrow” – the “Lenten Spring”).

“Open unto me, O Giver of Life, the gates of repentance: for early in the morning my spirit seeks Thy holy temple, bearing a temple of the body all defiled. But in Thy compassion cleanse it by Thy loving-kindness and Thy mercy.”
(From: Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, trs., The Lenten Triodion (London 1978), p. 101.)

Fr. Thomas

God Snuck Up on Me

I was reminded, via the daily reflections I read, of a pivotal time in my life not that long ago. I was encouraged to take stock of it anew and share it with you.

Somewhere back in 1999-2000, as a result of spending time with the Brotherhood of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and the birth of our third child, Joshua, I began to recognize a pattern/rhythm/dynamic at work in my life. I shared it with my spiritual director, the abbot of the monastery, and submitted it to the standard of Word and Sacrament in as comprehensive a manner as possible to ascertain if it was what has been believed and proclaimed by the Church at all times, in all places, by all. It has and is (In other words I didn’t want my little paradigm to become the judge of something that seemed to be more profound and deeper than it. That would, according to my formation, have been “a fool’s errand.” I wanted to submit it to criteria that bridged the artificial barriers of time, sect, and personal preferences and my petty dislike of being challenged in ways that would mean I didn’t already know everything that I needed to know or have in place everything that completely fostered a healthy Christian life.)

What I came to recognize was the pattern/rhythm/dynamic had been there all along. It was like I knew it and I didn’t know it. I had been aware of the pattern/rhythm/dynamic in varying degrees since my childhood owing to the fact that I was raised in the Anglican Communion. But, somehow the knowledge was moving inside me. What was new was my way of accessing it. I was accessing it from a different place inside me. I can now say that the knowledge was proceeding — issuing forth — in a determinative way from my heart and not my head. That, I also realized, was very important. It meant that the character of my cooperation was essential to my salvation and growth is part of salvation not additional to it. God was about the business of doing a “hidden work” that the new way of “seeing” had made visible. Both the new way of seeing and the unveiling of what I saw were, I realized, a gift from God. Indeed, the gift of God Himself.

I first offered the a large portion of what I had sensed during a retreat in the spring of 2003. (Why did I wait so long? I needed time to assimilate it for myself…  Bits and pieces had been articulated before then…) It was very well received. People came up to me after the retreat and said it “named something mysterious” that they had known but had never been able to put words on. As a result, it became a standard part of the retreats I conducted from that point forward either implicitly or explicitly. It has been the blessing of my life to enjoy some union with Christ and have Him make His direct appeal to folks through me. (not that I have achieved it, but I press on and strive toward that end – Lord have mercy upon me)

We are the beloved of God from eternity. We are unconditionally and eternally loved. We belong to God by His choice and not by any attribute of our own. We were created in love according to His image and likeness as a result of our belovedness. We belong to Him. Belonging is a matter of God’s unconditional favor and creative energy. The question of whether or not we will choose to be a person who belongs is ours. It is a choice that involves our acceptance of God’s acceptance of us. That has eternal relational consequences. What are not ours to determine are the conditions and responsibilities and benefits of being beloved and belonging and so on. The fruit of saying yes to the fullness of our belonging is, over time, is believing. Our believing involves repentance which is both relinquishing and taking up. It is the movement of freedom and new life within. It results in clarity of vision and discernment – beholding (we continue to see Him within and begin to see God without – “everywhere present and filling all things.” We see more clearly our Lord and our God; we see clearly our own condition and need for redemption; we see clearly (even though through a glass darkly) the condition of the world and God’s desire to redeem it using us – His people – as leaven of life and transformation. We are illumined. As our spiritual and physical blindness and brokenness begins to be healed, we can begin to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” We become united to Him in Whom we have believed and to Whom we belong and in whose sight we are beloved by grace – partakers of the Divine Nature [without separation and without confusion]. We become Christ without ceasing to be who we are. In fact, who we are is impossible without becoming partakers of His Divine Nature. We become ourselves by becoming Christ by grace. (My language and articulation are clumsy. Lord have mercy…) We enjoy some degree of theosis and embark on the pilgrimage of deification. That is a good way to describe what it means to be a blessing. For, seeking and serving Christ in another person as Christ, by pouring out our life toward them and for them and allowing them to choose to do the same thing, gives them the opportunity to know (encounter in spirit and truth) Him as Savior and Lord. They can grow in that saving knowledge. And, of course, as we sow, so shall we reap. We sow blessing and we are blessed. We consider the blessing we receive as the word of the Father – “well done my beloved son/daughter.”

So, let me reiterate… The Christian life can be described as the way of LIFE involving a dynamic interrelationship and flow/progression. This progression or pilgrimage begins in the heart of God (the secret place). It is revealed and an invitation is made that carries a promise of new life and involves a challenge to receive and give. As the invitation is accepted and embraced, the secret takes up residence (abides in the heart of the person). The belief grows like a seed in the heart of the person where it abides and bears fruit. This fruit is not only a life of ongoing transformation but of leaven/salt/light. That love received from the heart of God is brought into contact with all things in the world of the person who has received it and transforms that world and all in it. Nothing shall prevail against the power of such love. In light of the truth that God has blessed and is blessing through them, the person considers herself/himself blessed.

Beloved
Belonging
Beholding
Believing
Becoming
Blessing
Blessed

The aspects of this inter-dependence are our “belonging in/with/to God” (Is. 43.1) and our “belonging in/with/to each other” in fellowship (He. 10:24-25)

The Invitation – Belong and Behold
Acknowledging a yearning for “more”
Presence and receptivity
“Come and see …”
“Come unto me all …”
(walk and live with me and among us)

The Promise – Believe
Be open, honest, and receive illumination
“I will give you rest … you will find rest”
“… and you will be free indeed”
(You will come to know and trust)

The Challenge – Become
Make adjustments and embrace ongoing transformation
“take my yoke … and learn from me …”
(You will receive life – become a new person)

Do you have regular opportunities to deepen the realization (ongoing revelation) and embrace of the pattern/rythm/dynamic of the living Christ in your life? Do you know that you belong to God in love and become who you truly are in Him? Are you part of a group of people who are watching out for one another, supporting each other in difficult times, weeping and struggling alongside one another, and Eucharistically celebrating all of life, the accomplishments and disappointments, as occasions, when placed trustingly in the hands of a good and loving God, of joy in your life? I encourage you to do so.

God Bless,
Fr. Thomas