When a man detaches his mind from earth and opens it toward God with the desire to please Him, then God reveals His will in various ways. St. Peter of Damascus writes: “If a man has a full intention to please God, then God teaches him His will either through thoughts, through some other person, or through Holy Scripture.” Such a man becomes attentive and keen, and awaits God’s promptings from within and from without. For him, chance ceases to exist. The whole world becomes as a ten-stringed harp, which does not give out a single sound without the finger of God.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall not only see in truth but speak in truth. No longer will they seek practices to build themselves up – to glorify themselves. They will join the whole creation in glorifying God in all things – with their entire being.
“Now when Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go as at other times, to seek to use sorcery, but he set his face toward the wilderness. 2 And Balaam raised his eyes, and saw Israel encamped according to their tribes; and the Spirit of God came upon him.
3 Then he took up his oracle and said:
“The utterance of Balaam the son of Beor,
The utterance of the man whose eyes are opened,
4 The utterance of him who hears the words of God,
Who sees the vision of the Almighty,
Who falls down, with eyes wide open..” (Numbers 24.1-4)
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19.1-4, 14)
Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land,[b] beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out for fear. 27 But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” 28 And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; 30 but when he saw the wind,[c] he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14.22-33)
We are in need of purification and Illumination regarding our expectations about our life circumstances, our needs, our provider, and our provision. This is because we have a lot of preconceived notions and the content of our efforts about all these things that are, to put it bluntly, quite deluded. We get caught up in a dedication to having things turn out the way we think they should and when they don’t we become discouraged or think ourselves a failure or doubt God’s care. Disappointment in God, ourselves, others, society and humanity in general is a tricky and dangerous thing.
With such purification and illumination, for those who dare to embrace it in faith and exercise that faith in synergistic obedience in union with the Lord Jesus, comes deification.
Our perfect circumstance and provision is one in which we are in conscious synergistic obedient union with Christ Jesus by grace. The aspects of the circumstance will, at the appointed time in our life, cease to be of primary concern to us. For we will more deeply know more consummately that He is “the Son of God” and that “all manner of things [are and] shall be well.”
“When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said to them, ‘With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’” (Matthew 19.25-26)
Dare we pray for such a day and life?! Where else can we turn? He has the words of eternal life Now that takes courage ! !
…let us remember, if ever we fall into distressful temptations, that Jesus has constrained us to enter into their boat, wishing us to go before Him unto the other side; for it is not possible for us to reach the other side, unless we have endured the temptations of waves and contrary wind. Then when we see many difficulties besetting us, and with moderate struggle we have swum through them to some extent, let us consider that our boat is in the midst of the sea, distressed at that time by the waves which wish us to make shipwreck concerning faith or some one of the virtues; but when we see the spirit of the evil one striving against us, let us conceive that then p. 436 the wind is contrary to us. When then in such suffering we have spent three watches of the night—that is, of the darkness which is in the temptations—striving nobly with all our might and watching ourselves so as not to make shipwreck concerning the faith or some one of the virtues,—the first watch against the father of darkness and wickedness, the second watch against his son “who opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God or thing that is worshipped,” (2 Thess. ii. 4) and the third watch against the spirit that is opposed to the Holy Spirit, then we believe that when the fourth watch impendeth, when “the night is far spent, and the day is at hand,” (Rom. xiii. 12) the Son of God will come to us, that He may prepare the sea for us, walking upon it. And when we see the Word appearing unto us we shall indeed be troubled before we clearly understand that it is the Saviour who has come to us, supposing that we are still beholding an apparition, and for fear shall cry out; but He Himself straightway will speak to us saying, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.” (Matt. xiv. 27) And if, warmly moved by His “Be of good cheer,” any Peter be found among us, who is on his way to perfection but has not yet become perfect, having gone down from the boat, as if coming out of that temptation in which he was distressed, he will indeed walk at first, wishing to come to Jesus upon the waters; but being as yet of little faith, and as yet doubting, will see that the wind is strong and will be afraid and begin to sink; but he will not sink because he will call upon Jesus with loud voice, and will say to Him, “Lord, save me;” (Matt. xiv. 30) then immediately while such a Peter is yet speaking and saying, “Lord save me,” the Word will stretch forth His hand, holding out assistance to such an one, and will take hold of him when he is beginning to sink, and will reproach him for his little faith and doubting. (Matt. xiv. 31) Only, observe that He did not say, “O thou without faith,” but, “O thou of little faith,” and that it was said, “Wherefore didst thou doubt,” as he had still a measure of faith, but also had a tendency towards that which was opposed to faith.
—Origen, Commentary on St. Matthew, Book XI, Chapter 6
We are in need of purification so we may be illumined when we approach the Holy Scriptures. Certainly the raising of Lazarus is such a text. “Illumine our hearts O Master Who lovest mankind…”
John Henry Newman offers some reflection on this specific need at the beginning of his wonderful sermon on the raising of Lazarus.
“Jesus said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto Him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how He loved him.” John xi. 34-36.
On first reading these words the question naturally arises in the mind—why did our Lord weep at the grave of Lazarus? He knew He had power to raise him, why should He act the part of those who sorrow for the dead? In attempting any answer to this inquiry, we should ever remember that the thoughts of our Saviour’s mind are far beyond our comprehension. Hardly do we enter into the feelings and meaning of men like ourselves, who are gifted with any special talent; even human philosophers or poets are obscure from the depth of their conceptions. What then must be the marvellous abyss of love and understanding in Him who, though partaker of our nature, is the Son of God?
This, indeed, is evident, as a matter of fact, on the face of the Scripture record, as any one may see who will take the trouble to inspect it. It is not, for instance, the text alone which raises a question; but the whole narrative, in which it occurs, exhibits our Saviour’s conduct in various lights, which it is difficult for weak creatures, such as we are, properly to blend together.
…on the whole there is quite enough in the narrative to show that He who speaks is not one whose thoughts it is easy to get possession of; that it is no light matter to put one’s-self, even in part, into the position of His mind, and to state under what feelings and motives He said this or that; in a word, I wish to impress upon you, that our Saviour’s words are not of a nature to be heard once and no more, but that to understand them we must feed upon them, and live in them, as if by little and little growing into their meaning.
It would be well if we understood the necessity of this more than we do… when we contemplate Christ as manifested in the Gospels, the Christ who exists therein, external to our own imaginings, and who is as really a living being, and sojourned on earth as truly as any of us, then we shall at length believe in Him with a conviction, a confidence, and an entireness, which can no more be annihilated than the belief in our senses. It is impossible for a Christian mind to meditate on the Gospels, without feeling, beyond all manner of doubt, that He who is the subject of them is God; but it is very possible to speak in a vague way of His love towards us, and to use the name of Christ, yet not at all to realize that He is the Living Son of the Father, or to have any anchor for our faith within us, so as to be fortified against the risk of future defection.
John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Sermon 10, “The Tears of Christ at the Grave of Lazarus”
28 When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way. 29 And suddenly they cried out, saying, “What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”
30 Now a good way off from them there was a herd of many swine feeding. 31 So the demons begged Him, saying, “If You cast us out, permit us to go away into the herd of swine.”
32 And He said to them, “Go.” So when they had come out, they went into the herd of swine. And suddenly the whole herd of swine ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and perished in the water.
33 Then those who kept them fled; and they went away into the city and told everything, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. 34 And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus. And when they saw Him, they begged Him to depart from their region. (Matthew 8.28-34)
This gospel reading has always made me chuckle. If Jesus is in town, fasten your seat belts ! !
It pushes to the surface our desire for God to heal and restore, but without any accompanying cost to us. We don’t want to have to adjust – let go or take up – as a result.
Sometimes things get worse when Jesus heals and saves us. Take, for example, the healing of the two demon-possessed men. One of the results of the healing was the loss of a whole herd of swine! We can interpret the passage allegorically as an attempt to avoid having to deal with the everyday consequences of the salvific work of Jesus, but the fact remains. Someone lost their source of income.
The people of the town beg Jesus to leave ! ! Can you imagine having Jesus answer your prayer and then begging Him to depart from you as a result of the changes that healing necessitates?!
In another place Jesus is even accused of being inspired by the devil. See Matthew 12.22-30.
Three things stand out as “take aways” or ways in which I need to adjust the way I live.
First, the discernment of spirits is very important. I don’t mean becoming obsessed with the devil, thinking he is lurking around every corner waiting to pounce on me. I think you know what I mean. I do, however, need to have a health remembrance of the spiritual struggle of which I am a part and is going on within my soul.
Second, judging by appearances is seldom, if ever, a good idea when it comes to the saving work of God. Seeking to cooperate in the purification and illumination of my heart is a much more worthy object of my time and energy.
Third, perseverance in keeping the commandments and trusting that God is performing a good and perfect work is the rock upon which I can confidently stand. God’s work of salvation is, quite often, tumultuous. I must learn to hold fast in the midst of the salvific storm of God with a clarity of vision never wavering in my trust. I must learn to be willing to let go of anything that prevents me from consistently following/abiding in Jesus. Cost what it will, lead where it may. See, for example, Matthew 19.16-22 and other passages of a similar theme. There is no “cheap grace,” to quote Bonhoeffer. The saving work of God in my life is costly. If I pray, I need to be ready to embrace the full answer.
St. Ignatius of Loyola offers some guidance for us in this regard:
Rules for understanding to some extent the different movements produced in the soul and for recognizing those that are good to admit them, and those that are bad, to reject them…
It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy.
It is characteristic of the evil one to fight against such happiness and consolation by proposing fallacious reasonings, subtilties, and continual deceptions.
God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause. It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty. I said without previous cause, that is, without any preceding perception or knowledge of any subject by which a soul might be led to such a consolation through its own acts of intellect and will.
If a cause precedes, both the good angel and the evil spirit can give consolation to a soul, but for a quite different purpose. The good angel consoles for the progress of the soul, that it may advance and rise to what is more perfect. The evil spirit consoles for purposes that are the contrary, and that afterwards he might draw the soul to his own perverse intentions and wickedness.
It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light. He begins by suggesting thoughts that are suited to a devout soul, and ends by suggesting his own. For example, he will suggest holy and pious thoughts that are wholly in conformity with the sanctity of the soul. Afterwards, he will endeavor little by little to end by drawing the soul into his hidden snares and evil designs.
We must carefully observe the whole course of our thoughts. If the beginning and middle and end of the course of thoughts are wholly good and directed to what is entirely right, it is a sign that they are from the good angel. But the course of thoughts suggested to us may terminate in something evil, or distracting, or less good than the soul had formerly proposed to do. Again, it may end in what weakens the soul, or disquiets it; or by destroying the peace, tranquillity, and quiet which it had before, it may cause disturbance to the soul. These things are a clear sign that the thoughts are proceeding from the evil spirit, the enemy of our progress and eternal salvation.
When the enemy of our human nature has been detected and recognized by the trail of evil marking his course and by the wicked end to which he leads us, it will be profitable for one who has been tempted to review immediately the whole course of the temptation. Let him consider the series of good thoughts, how they arose, how the evil one gradually attempted to make him step down from the state of spiritual delight and joy in which he was, till finally he drew him to his wicked designs. The purpose of this review is that once such an experience has been understood and carefully observed, we may guard ourselves for the future against the customary deceits of the enemy.
In souls that are progressing to greater perfection, the action of the good angel is delicate, gentle, delightful. It may be compared to a drop of water penetrating a sponge.
The action of the evil spirit upon such souls is violent, noisy, and disturbing. It may be compared to a drop of water falling upon a stone.
In souls that are going from bad to worse, the action of the spirits mentioned above is just the reverse. The reason for this is to be sought in the opposition or similarity of these souls to the different kinds of spirits. When the disposition is contrary to that of the spirits, they enter with noise and commotion that are easily perceived. When the disposition is similar to that of the spirits, they enter silently, as one coming into his own house when the doors are open.
When consolation is without previous cause, as was said, there can be no deception in it, since it can proceed from God our Lord only. But a spiritual person who has received such a consolation must consider it very attentively, and must cautiously distinguish the actual time of the consolation from the period which follows it. At such a time the soul is still fervent and favored with the grace and aftereffects of the consolation which has passed. In this second period the soul frequently forms various resolutions and plans which are not granted directly by God our Lord. They may come from our own reasoning on the relations of our concepts and on the consequences of our judgments, or they may come from the good or evil spirit. Hence, they must be carefully examined before they are given full approval and put into execution.
Repentance opens up the space to receive Illumination, which is the gift of God’s grace to behold the truth of God, the creation, circumstances, and persons. As we accompany this illumination with our grateful obedience, in whatever, form is most appropriate, we are deified.
“Everything that lives and breathes is sacred and beautiful in the eyes of God. The whole world is a sacrament. The entire created cosmos is a burning bush of God’s uncreated energies. And humankind stands as a priest before the altar of creation, as microcosm and mediator. Such is the true nature of things; or, as an Orthodox hymn describes it, ‘the truth of things,’ if only we have the eyes of faith to see it.” -His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, quoted in, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, p 185, edited by John Chryssavgis.
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” (Hebrews 1.1-2)
“In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself. His Being now for us is the First Reality, incomparably more evident than all the transient phenomena of this world. We sense His divine presence both within us and without: in the supreme majesty of the universe, in the human face, in the lightning flash of thought. He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of His creation. He fills our souls with love towards all mankind. His indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart. And in the hours when His imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die. We know this with knowledge impossible to prove in the ordinary way but which for us requires no proof, since the Spirit Himself bears witness within us.” Elder Sophrony
I am learning SO much this lent, thanks to a coterie of very good friends who are my God chosen companions in the gospel pilgrimage of salvation. Most local, but two more distant.
Lent is a microcosm of our entire life of discipleship. The season in which that which is always true, our struggle for salvation, is emphasized. We choose it in these days in these circumstances so we may be able to choose it in all times and in all places. It is not intended to be a breathless race of moral athleticism but a realization and loving embrace of our authentic personhood.
The “what” question will always lead us to “now what?” and “what’s next?” The “who” question seeks to live in the “there is ‘now’ and ‘this’ and no ‘next.’” The “who” question is one eternal delight. The “what” question is an endless series of disappointing “not enough’s.”
The Prayer of St. Ephrem
O Lord and Master of my life,
give me not a spirit of sloth, despondency,
lust for power, and idle talk.
But give to me Thy servant
a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.
Yea, O Lord and King,
grant me to see my own transgressions
and not to judge my brother;
for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen. St. Ephrem (306-373)
Prayer of St. Botheius
Grant then, O Father that this mind of ours may rise to Your throne of majesty; grant us to reach that fount of good. Grant that we may so find light that we may set on You unblinded eyes; cast You from there the heavy clouds of this material world. Shine forth upon us in Your own true glory. You are the bright and peaceful rest of all Your children that worship You. To see You clearly is the limit of our aim. You are our beginning, our progress our guide, our way, our end.
“O Holy One, give the spirit power to climb to the fountain of all light, and be purified. Break through the mists of the earth, the weight of the clod, shine forth in splendor, thou that art calm weather, and quiet resting place for faithful souls. To see thee is the end and the beginning, thou carriest us, and thou dost go before, thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.” St. Boethius (c. 480-525)
Text: John 16.16-33
There are no parables in the St. John’s gospel. Strange. And yet it would be accurate to say that St. John’s gospel is deeply parable-like in character. All through the gospel, people are mystified, confused, hard-pressed, and bewildered by Jesus’ words and deeds. That is, after all, the purpose of a parable.
Some people think a parable is a story that seeks to make a point clear using everyday examples. But, nothing could be further from the truth.
“As soon as He was alone, His followers, along with the twelve, began asking Him about the parables. And He was saying to them, ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but those who are outside get everything in parables, so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand, otherwise they might return and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4.10-13)
“You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. ‘But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Matthew 15.8-9)
Jesus was speaking to those who had a readiness of heart to hear and understand and follow. So, really, receiving, understanding, and living it out are all aspects of the same reality. Hearing the word and keeping the word cannot be separated (John 12.47; 14.21).
The prerequisite for receiving the gospel AND living it out is a readiness of heart. A perceived need and desperation. The cost of discipleship must be outweighed by the benefit to put it bluntly (see Philippians 3.8-10).
Understanding a parable — the Gospel — IS THE POINT, of the parable, but only for those who are ready for it. Yep, a paradox.
Understanding the gospel is not related to high intelligence, or years of seminary study. One can understand only when the heart – the very life of the person — has been broken open to truth – by the Holy Spirit (see Mark 2.17).
It is the way of the Spirit. It is, therefore, a dangerous tendency to artificially attempt to make the gospel “easy to understand” or “easy to receive” or even “easy to follow.” Jesus didn’t fudge on this and neither should we.
“These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?’ But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, ‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, ‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.’” (John 6.59-65)
Let’s take a step farther into this mystery of readiness. Such openness is not, however, just a prerequisite. It is essential to our ongoing life of discipleship. We grow/maturity in our capacity to understand as well as what we understand. We need a “ready heart” or a heart that yearns to hear more and more.
In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, there are several times in which the priest says, “let us be attentive.” In addition, the priest prays this before the reading of the Scriptures appointed for the day:
“Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
It is important to remember, then, that the Christian faith is a revelatory faith. Story after story in both the Old and New Testaments are about revelation, its prerequisite, and its fruit (illumination, purification, and deification). The narrative of the Scriptures are the “Church’s book.” It is certainly offered to the world. But, it is offered with the conviction that only those who are ready or “drawn by the Father” will hear and respond positively.
And, of course, the Scriptures are for those who do believe that they may mature in their faith, hope, and love, being transformed into the likeness of Christ Jesus. As we allow the Holy Spirit to continue to break our hearts open, to soften our hearts, to “purify our hearts,” then, we will be illumined. We will “see God” more and more and be conformed to His likeness from one degree of deification to another.
Everyday experience is the revelatory and “terri-fire-ing” crucible in which we are called by the Holy Spirit to repentance. As we answer the call with our “yes,” our judgments and judging are reduced to so much ash and dust. They cease. The crucible becomes the garden in which illumination grows from the “humus” of our previous convictions, by Gods’ mercy, the fertile earth of our humility.
“May He Who rose from the dead, Christ our true God, a good, loving, and merciful God, have mercy upon us and save us, through … the power of the precious and life-giving Cross.” The Divine Liturgy
“Why do you fear then to take up the cross, the way that leads to the kingdom? In the cross you are saved, revived, protected. In the cross you are showered with sweetness from on high, your mind is strengthened, your spirit rejoiced. In the cross is virtue’s sum, and perfect holiness. In the cross alone is the hope of life eternal, the soul’s salvation. So take up your cross and follow Jesus; and you will enter eternal life… For if you die with him, you shall also likewise live with him. If you are his companion in punishment, so shall you be in glory. Everything is founded on the cross… There is no other way to life, nor to true inner peace… Walk where you will, seek what you will; you will find neither a loftier way above nor a safer way below, but only the way of the holy cross.” The Imitation of Christ, Book II, ch. 12, by Thomas a Kempis
The cross shows our judgments — our wisdom — to be what it is, silliness, folly, foolishness, and life-robbing.
 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”  Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1.17-20)
Where and when shall this occur?
Experiences of suffering and death are, I am convinced, the best examples.These, and all others in their own way, are the creative edge of God’s saving work into which we are invited to participate as co-creators.
“I thought,” we say, “but know I know.”
“His death has had the very unexpected effect of making death itself look quite different. I believe in the next life ten times more strongly than I did. At moments it seems almost tangible. Mr. Dyson, on the day of the funeral, summed up what many of us felt, ‘It is not blasphemous’, he said ‘To believe that what was true of Our Lord is, in its less degree, true of all who are in Him. They go away in order to be with us in a new way, even closer than before.’” From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II