Thursday, January 31, 2013

Not Grasping Riches

I was cleaning up some old notes and ran across these snippets.  They inspired me this morning.  Maybe they'll encourage you too.  I'll share one today and one tomorrow.

Not Grasping Riches
From Metropolitan Anthony Bloom: Wealth in one area often is accompanied by poverty in another.  What has been given us is our possession, but if we hold on to it, we lose something.  Wealth was meant to pass through our hands, not be held tightly in our grasp.  Wealth of all kinds.
In passing through our hands, it becomes offering.  Thus our whole lives are offering for we did not will oursleves into existence.  We do not have breath and strength and intelligence because we somehow made ourselves have life; our intelligence is something that will pass away; and we did not determine for ourselves in our mother's womb our intelligence, our social grace, our physical beauty, the family into which we would be born, the opportunities in life with which we would be presented.  All of these are gifts given to us, not that we might possess them firmly and permanently, but that they might pass through our hands as gifts from God and now also gifts from us, we participating in God's work of gracious giving.  For If God did not give us something to give, we would have nothing to offer, but God does give richly: to one, one kind of riches to another, another.   Just as Christ did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself...and thus was highly exalted, so we must learn not to grasp, but to empty ourselves (which is our sharing in Cross of Christ) that we may share in Christ's exaltation.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Graced at Tea

Archimandrite Tikhon in Everyday Saints and Other Stories, toward the end of the book, tells several stories about his friend Fr. Raphael. Fr. Raphael was a fearless country priest who drove "his little black Zaporozhets car" like a mad man, played tricks on the KGB, and spent most of his day-time hours drinking tea with whomever came his way. Fr. Raphael spent so much time having tea with whomever that he garnered the reputation, among some, of being an idler. However, Fr. Tikhon points out that Fr. Raphael had a spiritual gift, a charisma for having tea (you might even say) because there was not one person known to have tea with Fr. Raphael-- "from passionate atheist and the intellectual most disillusioned with ecclesiastical corruption to the most desperado criminals devoid of all morals--who after meeting Father Raphael did not afterwards decisively change and turn back to the spiritual life."

Fr. Raphael was not gifted as a public speaker. Fr. Tikhon even jokes about how terrible his homilies were. "But if you chanced to drink tea with him on his little table in his country parish house, he became completely transformed, especially when people exhausted with suffering and heartache from their lost lives in this world came and sought him out." Isn't that the way with the gifts and Grace of God? We must humbly find them and walk in them. God's Grace is at no one's beck and call. No one chooses how, when or even if God will transform them so that through them someone might be touched by God. The graced homilist may be exactly the wrong person to share a long bus ride with. The wise physician of souls in confession may be quite dull at meal time. And the most boring homilist and off-key liturgist might, through his midnight prayers, be the open door through which the Grace of God is working in me or you that we might at all experience some longing for God. Lives are changed when people encounter God: tea is not enough.

"Let's be honest," Fr. Tikhon says, "merely conversing with people who have gotten themselves hopelessly lost in this cold world, and what's worse, in their own selves, is not enough to transform them." One has to actually encounter God; and most usually, people encounter God in other people. Like the Theotokos, we too must learn to be God-beares.  

It is not that God has not come to us. His Spirit is in us at Chrismation. Christ Himself is in us through Holy Communion. God is with us and in us. That's not the issue. The problem, to quote St. Paul, is that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels." We are clay pots of broken humanity housing the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh of God inside ourselves. Learning to let God heal our own broken humanity and in turn learning to let some of that Grace out onto those around us is basically what our whole lives as Christians is about. There is no program for this--each person is unique--we learn by doing, by living our lives "in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world."

And of course we don't generally know when or if or how light shines from us. We just live, and care, and try. We offer ourselves to God. I'm sure Fr. Raphael never thought of himself as one graced to have tea. I think in his heart he continually begged God's mercy, and wondered why God could not have provided a better homilist for his people. And when he sat down for tea, I bet he sometimes felt a tinge of guilt because he liked it so much. And when he listened to the pain and tears and broken lives of those who came to him, I'm sure he felt every pain and tear and bit of brokenness in his own heart.  

And the Light of Christ shone through Fr. Raphael at tea.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Martyrs All Around Me

Bishop Ansgar (+865), called the apostle of the North, wanted to suffer for Christ from his youth, and he even had a vision in which he was promised that he would be a martyr. As time passed, the Apostle of the North worked and toiled for the spreading and defence of the Christian Faith all over northern Europe, but the expected martyrdom didn't come. Finally, Bishop Ansgar fell ill and felt he was going to die. Lying on his deathbed, he complained to his deacon, almost angrily, how Providence did not fulfill the promise that he would die a martyr's death. The deacon answered wisely that Bishop Ansgar had been a martyr his whole life and that his illness would be counted for martyrdom because, he said, a martyr is not only he who dies a violent death, but everyone who suffers through his lifetime for the sake of Christ and His righteousness.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Missionary Letter 279

Today is the feast of Sts. Ephraim and Isaac the Syrians. These holy saints are remembered in the Church primarily because of what they have written and how their writings have inspired those who through the centuries have read them. However, were it not for their writings, they probably would not be remembered as they are. This is particularly the case with St. Isaac who spent almost all of his adult life in solitary prayer. Many holy men and women who have lived lives as holy as Sts. Ephraim and Isaac the Syrians have gone unnoticed by the Church on earth (but not by God in heaven).  

And solitary hermits are not the only saints who often go unnoticed on earth. There are also the everyday saints. These are holy ones who, as the deacon says above, suffer throughout their lifetime for the sake of Christ and His righteousness. I find it interesting that this wise deacon says Bishop Ansgar's illness would be counted for martyrdom. Doesn't just about everyone die of some sort of illness or accident? What distinguishes the illness of a nonbeliever or pagan or atheist from the deifying illness of a martyred saint?  Aren't they the same illness?

Yes, they may be the same illness, but what is different is how one bears the illness. I have often heard our Archbishop Joseph say that illness born without complaining is the same thing as martyrdom. What is different between an illness in a saint and an illness in anyone else is not the illness, but how it is borne. The suffering that produces nothing but suffering in one person can produce holiness and even godliness in another.  

A Christian is not more or less likely to experience accident or disease than anyone else is. However, accident or disease in a Christian can become something much more than merely something painful to be endured. Accident and disease can become a martyrdom. In as much as we are entrusting ourselves to the God of Heaven, then the pain, sadness, infirmity and limitations we endure, we endure for His sake. In as much as we accept our suffering as something God has allowed (not caused, necessarily, but allowed, just as God allows human evil but does not cause it), then our suffering becomes an offering to God. We share in the sufferings of Christ and so are assured that we will share in Christ's resurrection.

Actually saints are all around us. Those who sacrifice themselves to raise children or care for the infirm, those who suffer with illness or handicap while trusting in God, those who pray in secret, and those who give away their wealth or time or labor without anyone knowing it:  All of these are saints--or at least potential saints, saints in the making--even if they don't make it into the Synaxarion.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Suffering, Understanding and The Wrath of God

Anger and wrath are near synonyms in English, wrath often being defined as intense anger.  But in Bible usage, wrath often refers to applied anger, or what one does or would be expected to do when angry.  Thus, to experience someone's wrath is to experience something that you associate with anger--whether or not that person is actually angry.  For example, you can experience the wrath of a king in the form of a military attack on your village, even though the king is not at all emotionally involved.  Nonetheless, the destruction experienced is called the wrath of the king.

This is particularly true of God.  God does not get angry because God does not change.  God's disposition toward His creation is always that of love.  Nonetheless, God has so established and works in the creation to save it.  And how the creation is saved, or how it comes to be purified and to be willingly filled with God's love, depends on human beings.  Human beings are the apex of creation, containing within themselves elements of both the seen and unseen (physical and spiritual) realities.  This is why the fathers of the Church often refer to human beings as microcosms of the universe.  In saving mankind, God saves everything because mankind is composed of everything.

But in that human beings have willingly turned away from God, God works in and through death--the natural consequence of turning away from Life--to turn men and women willingly back to Himself.  And it is this death (in its many forms), this consequence of mankind turning away from God, that mankind often experiences as the wrath of God--or in the language of modern insurance policies, an act of God.

It is a perennial saying among the biblical prophets and in various Church fathers that "God allows war to come upon people just like he allows illness or famine, because of people's sins" (to quote St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Missionary Letter #277).  In cultures that are more aware of God, this suffering is often referred to the wrath of God.  However, in contemporary North American culture, if we think of God at all, we tend to think of Him as a distant manipulator or string-puller: A great heavenly Someone who can manipulate reality for His own purposes.  Both ways of conceiving of God's interaction with our experience in the world are problematic, but the later is much worse than the first.

In as much as we conceive of God as the distant string-puller, we have reduced God to a kind of unfeeling or even maleficent machine, a kind of functionary who for no apparent reason (or worse yet, for ungracious reasons) lets bad things happen to good people.  This kind of God we blame for everything bad that we cannot directly control (earthquakes, diseases, floods, death, etc.), and we basically ignore Him when things are going our way.  We have no relationship with this God.  It is just the God-of-the-gaps, the God of everything we think we don't understand, the heavenly fall guy for all that seriously rocks our boat.

The God of wrath is, at least, a God that can be known; even if misunderstood.  The God of wrath is personally involved in our lives and cannot be ignored.  The God of wrath must be confronted, personally.  And it is in this confrontation, in this encounter with God in the midst of suffering, that we often come actually to know (in some small way) God, and equally importantly, ourselves.  That the God of wrath is not actually angry as human beings are angry may take a lifetime (or more) to understand, but at least a God wrongly conceived as angry is a personal God.  This God is active in the world, in my life; and I have a relationship with this God (whether I like it or not).

As a result of relationship with someone, with God in this case, I can come to know the Other better.  Even if my conception of God is full of errors--often caused by transferring my own fears and passions onto Him--because my relationship with God is an actual relationship, over time many of those false understandings pass away.  I come to know both God and myself as we really are.  

I have noticed in myself, and perhaps you have noticed this in yourself too, that when times are good and everything seems to be going my way, I find myself acting and speaking without reflection.  I do what feels good and say what comes to my mind at the moment.  I don't consider who my actions or words may hurt.  It doesn't even occur to me that others are hurting.  I construct a storyline, an interpretation of reality in my mind, in which I am good and right and innocent and if anyone else in the world has problems, it certainly is not my fault and there is nothing I can do about it.  But when tragedy strikes me (or someone close to me), then--if I am open to the Grace of God at all--I can begin to become aware of my arrogance, I can begin to beg God for mercy and thus begin to become aware of how I too must be merciful.  Death in one form or another, the wrath of God, brings me to my senses and leads me to repentance.

As a priest, when I am trying to help someone work through a crisis, the sufferer will sometimes ask me, "what sin did I do to deserve this."  At that moment, I cannot answer that question.  I cannot answer both because an answer is not what is really needed at the moment, and I cannot answer because I do not know.  To answer that question, we actually have to ask different questions, questions such as who am I, what am I, and what is the purpose of life.  These are questions that are not answerable on demand at a moment of crisis, but they are questions that must be contemplated in prayer in the years preceding or following the crises.  Unfortunately, many of us do not devote much energy to prayerful contemplation in between crises, and so the crises overrun us: we are unprepared.  Jesus likened this to the unprepared householder who does not know when the thief will come.  We must always be preparing for death, for we don't know when the thief will come.

And it is in this preparing that we come to understand who we are, what we are and the purpose of life. We understand not so that we can give answers with discursive logic to others who are suffering or to those who like to play games with hard questions.  We come to understand in the way that we come to know someone, for that indeed is what is happening.  We come to understand in a way that is only known within ourselves and, sometimes with God's help, is communicated silently to others who are suffering.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Spiritual Violence

From activity that demands violence there is born zeal beyond measure.
St. Isaac the Syrian

To someone unfamiliar with St. Isaac, the word above could seem to be advocating physical violence against others. But that is not the activity nor the violence he is talking about. The activity he is talking about is ascetic and spiritual activity requiring a certain violence with oneself in order to accomplish it. For example, you may have to violently force yourself to fast or say prayers, or speak kindly to someone who annoys you. This violence is what the Gospels refer to when they say "The Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force."

Any growth in good requires a certain violence to oneself. You have to make yourself do the good that you know you should want to do, and you do want to do (at some level), but that you are just not motivated to do. There seems to be no energy for it. It doesn't come easily or even seem (at the moment) natural. You just have to force yourself to do it, sometimes with a force that borders on violence.  

But this is not unreasonable. In just about any area of endeavour, a certain amount of self discipline, of violence to the self, is necessary to be successful. There were many a time in my student days when I had to violently grab myself and force myself to study even when nothing in me wanted to do it. Various work responsibilities, household chores, family obligations, and civic duties (filing and paying taxes come to mind) require that one force oneself to do them. And we do force ourselves--sometimes with merely minimal complaining--to do them because we know they must be done. They must be done to keep my job, for the house not to become a dump, to return love to those who have loved me, and to keep out of jail. They must be done, so we force ourselves. And having forced ourselves, we generally discover that what seemed so onerous to begin with, isn't nearly as bad as we feared, and sometimes even interesting or somewhat enjoyable.

When I was a teenager, I hated reading. Yes, it's true. I was (and still am somewhat) dyslexic and very hyperactive. The reward was just too small for the amount of effort it took me to focus my mind on page after page of text with no pictures. I was sixteen when I read my first book (with no pictures!). The book was Brother Andrew's God's Smuggler, and the stories were so engaging that I made it all the way through to the end--a feat I did not repeat until college, and still not often. I became a great skimmer and guesser through college and grad school--which served me well in most courses, but resulted in C-'s in lit classes ("You need to make more use of the text in your analysis," the prof would write under my C-.  How could I?  I hadn't read much of it).

But somewhere in my late twenties and early thirties I forced myself to start reading. Part of it had to do with work. I was teaching composition and I had no idea what I was doing: I read everything on the subject that I could get my hands on. Part of it had to do with the fact that we had to homeschool our children. Just because I didn't read didn't mean I wanted my kids to be ignorant. I had to read to know what to have my kids read (and to my surprise I discovered that classics are generally called that because they are well worth reading). And part of it had to do with my spiritual search. Although I met many wise and helpful guides along the way, there were no spiritual fathers. My spiritual fathers were found in old books, old books that eventually led me to the Orthodox Christian Church. 

And now in my fifties I can't stop reading.

What's my point? My point is this: the discipline and struggle of the spiritual life and ascetic discipline is not much different from any other worthwhile activity in life. Once you make yourself do something long enough for it to become a habit, it comes to have meaning for you that you had never imagined. Or to use the words of St. Isaac, "there is born a zeal beyond measure," "from activity that demands violence."

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Les Miserables

Bonnie and I saw Les Miserables (the film) last night.  It was almost a spiritual experience for me.  Why isn’t everyone who sees that film in Church the following Sunday?  Light shines in darkness.  I have not read the novel, but based on the plot of the movie, this film should be considered Christian propaganda, an evangelistic tool, a proclamation of the Gospel.

[Spoiler Alert! Skip the next four paragraphs to avoid the summary]

An absolutely miserable man, Jean Valjean, who has vowed to hate and never forgive is changed through the Christ-like kindness of a priest.  Valjean assumes a new identity and eventually becomes a successful businessman and mayor.  When his nemesis, Javert, a police officer obsessed with the law, tells him that another man has been caught and will go to prison in his stead, Valjean goes to court and confesses that he, the mayor, is actually the convict.  No one believes him, except Javert.

Meanwhile a single mother, Fantine--played convincingly by Anne Hathaway--unjustly loses her job in Valjean’s factory and in her desperation to continue to support her daughter, sells everything (including her body) to send support to the corrupt inn keepers who are caring for her.  Valjean learns of Fantine’s plight and on her deathbed vows to raise her daughter as his own.  Over the next ten years, Valjean raises Cosette as his own daughter even as he must flee from place to place hiding from Javert.

Cosette eventually falls in love with a wealthy young man, Marius, who is involved in an attempted revolution.  Valjean learns of this love and joins the revolutionaries in an attempt to save Marius’ life.  While he is among the revolutionaries, he discovers that Javert has been captured by them and convinces the revolutionaries to allow him to “deal with him.”  However, Valjean refuses to take vengeance on Javert, and rather lets him go with no strings attached--he makes no deal with Javert.  It is merely an act of mercy, something Javert does not understand.

Valjean is able to save the wounded Marius by escaping through the sewers, but is confronted again by Javert who is unable himself now to kill the criminal who saved his life.  Once Marius recovers, Valjean leaves Cosette in his care and flees to a monestary to die alone so that his past will not bring any scandal to Marius and Cosette’s new life together.

Wow.  Now if that is not Christ-like, self sacrificial love, I don’t know what is.

So why aren’t the Churches packed?

Well one reason, perhaps, is that what people see in Churches generally looks very little like sacrificial love.  Most of us in the Church are what I imagine the character Valjean would have been like in the early days of his conversion: convinced that God’s love is real, but an absolute mess himself, confused and not sure what to do.  After his conversion, the huge turning point in Valjean’s life, the the point at which is revealed whether the Grace shown him would die in him or be shown to another, is eight years later when Valjean has to sacrifice everything to try to save a poor wretch who has been falsely accused of being him.  Would Valjean give up everything to save an innocent man?  Yes.  Grace does not die in him, the “talent” is not buried.  However, Christian life is not just one cross and that’s it.  St. John Chrysostom said that if God saves you from death on one cross, it is only so that you can bear others.  And Valjean goes on courageously bearing the crosses that fall to him.

I imagine that many people who see this film wish they could encounter real Christianity.  They wish there really were men like the priest who initially showed Valjean kindness, really men like Valjean who change from being a man full of hate to being a man who lived a life of self-sacrificing love.  They wish that the possibility of such love were real.

And yet, I imagine that they probably don’t wish too hard or too long for such a reality.  They don’t wish hard and long enough themselves to sacrifice much.  Like many of us in the Church, the non-Churched who watch this film may appreciate the beautiful ideal portrayed through the plot--call it good, call it virtue, call it true--but they themselves are not ready to give very much, to sacrifice their comfort, and certainly not to jeopardize their illusion of control over their life and destiny.  And this unwillingness does not even make us weep.

That’s probably the saddest part.  The worst thing is not to fail, to fail to live up to our own standards, our own plainly stated standards of what is good, right and true.  The worst thing is not to be sad that we fail.  I’m not talking about the sadness of shame or even guilt, not the sadness of “I could have done better if I tried harder.”  Such sadness is often merely a form of pride coated with regret and sprinkled with self-pity.  No, the sadness I’m talking about is the sadness of the moral cripple, the spiritual epileptic, the one who has tried and failed, who knows that only God in His mercy can save no matter how hard he tries.  Trying is necessary, but not sufficient.  

But even this, even trying, we eventually come to know is also a matter of Grace.  

We live in a fallen world.  That there is so much evil in the world should not surprise us.  We need only look into our own souls to see why so much evil is around us--it comes from within us.  However, that there is any light, that there is any kindness, that love is possible at all, this should surprise us.  That some kindness, some gentleness, some generosity and goodness is there, does shine in this messy, messy world, this should give us pause.  This should give us pause to consider that perhaps God still saves.  Perhaps saintliness is still possible--in some modest form.  Perhaps I too may be healed, if only a little, of my own moral stumbling and spiritual epilepsy.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

We Keep Walking

The exodus is a central metaphor of the Christian experience. In the feast of the Theophany that we have just completed, multiple references liken the baptism of Jesus to the exodus of Israel through the Red Sea. St. Paul says our baptism is a participation in Christ's death and resurrection. Christ's death itself is referred to as His exodus when he speaks with Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration. In a sense, our entire life and death as Christians is a participation in an exodus: a leaving of one place and going to another.

This leaving and going is sometimes manifest in physical actions or change, as in our physical death or in deeds and words led by the Spirit and motivated by love. However, the inner exodus, the change from darkness to light, from self-centred to other-focused, from passion-driven to peaceful rest, this is the change, the exodus, that transfigures us. And just as the biblical exodus was hindered by Pharaoh and his horsemen, so our inner exodus is hindered.

It is essential to recognize that unlike the external, historical exodus of the Israelites four and a half millennia ago, the exodus of our transfiguration is not hindered by enemies outside us. The biblical exodus is a type; it is a pattern, a schematic.  It is a type that has passed through the lens of Christ.  What was outward has become inward, or as St. Paul puts it, "first the natural, then the spiritual."

The enemies that hinder our transfiguration, our movement from passion to peace, these enemies are inside us. Those who are around us may incite certain fears, passions or other enemies within us, but those around us are not our enemies. Our Kingdom is not of this world. Otherwise, Jesus said, we would fight. Fighting is always a sign that we are striving for the wrong kingdom. Our Kingdom is not of this world.

And yet we have enemies, enemies that are too strong for us. How do we defeat these internal foes, these fears and false selves that lust and push and scream so forcefully inside us that we often cannot find our true selves, our peaceful core resting in the Presence of Christ? How do we defeat these foes?

I'd like to suggest that we look to the type of the Exodus, which is also our baptism, the same water that is our death and resurrection. I'd like to suggest that the water (which, by the way, is always plural in the original languages) is the world--life in this fallen world with all of its death-dealing tragedies, inequities, injustices, and forces that rust, decompose and corrupt. This is the water, the Red Sea, we must pass through to get to the Promised Land, to renew the image of God within us, to be transfigured and become full of Light. Just as the Red Sea was a barrier for the people Israel as they fled both from Egypt and to the Promised Land, a barrier impossible to cross, for if a man submerges himself into the water, he will die. Just as this deadly barrier blocked Israel's way, so too the circumstances of our lives block our deification, they seem to strangle us, to suffocate us, to keep us from making any progress in the spiritual life.

And yet we are not dead. A dead man no longer struggles. A dead man does not know that he is being resisted, that there is something to resist, that there is a light, a hope, a promise to lean toward, to seek, to flee to. No we are not dead. We are surrounded by water, but we are not drowned. We are in the midst of a miracle. God has parted the sea of this world for us--otherwise we would have no awareness of God whatsoever. God has given us a hope. God has given us a promise, a vision, a foretaste of something better to come (something much, much better).

But the sea is right there. We can reach out and touch it. We can see the monsters of the deep swimming so threateningly nearby. And all of Pharaoh's army, the voices and urges and fears that sometimes scream inside us, they are on our heels. We hear their threats, we feel the fear. Our minds play tricks on us--"Ah, for the leeks and fishpots of Egypt!" We find ourselves longing for the very things we hate, the very things we don't want. What do we do?

We keep walking. We set the promise firmly before our eyes. We call to remembrance "our most blessed and glorious Lady, Theotokos and every virgin Mary, with all the Saints." We forget what is behind and press on to what is ahead. We endure the cross of the passage of this transient age, we despise the shame--we don't think it worthy to be compared to the joy, the promise, set before us.  

The crucified and resurrected Christ had scars in his hands and feet and side. We too will have our scars. None of us makes it through the passage of this life without mistakes, serious mistakes, these cause the wounds--some self inflicted, some inflicted by others. And yet He who promised, He who has parted the sea of this age for us, He it is that heals even the broken hearted. He who was crucified and bears those wounds, now healed in His resurrected body, is not put off by our wounds. We have nothing to fear, there is no shame, only wounds, wounds that will be healed.

And so we keep walking. And as we walk, we learn. We try again. We get advice. We pray. And we keep walking.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Faith in the Trenches of Love

Faith is the evidence of unseen things.  This is what the New Testament tells us.  It's the opposite of "seeing is believing."  It's not-seeing is believing.  We so much want to see, but to see is to no longer have faith.

We suffer in faith because we are assailed by doubt. In fact, it is only those who believe that experience doubt. Those with no faith have nothing to doubt. But those who believe also suffer doubt. They suffer because they must live in the tension of what they believe together with what they see (or don't see). There is a cultural myth that true faith is blind, blind to the obvious reality, blind to what is seen. However this is not so. Those with faith--real faith, not delusion--see as clearly as everyone else the realities of life, the practical circumstances, the hard facts of the matter. And yet there is something else, something more, something that evidences what is unseen: and that something is faith.

After the passing of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, quite a big deal was made in the media about her personal journal and letters in which she expressed the doubts she wrestled with. It seemed to me to be a kind of media feeding frenzy. There was sort of a rejoicing that if Mother Theresa struggled with doubt, then her faith wasn't strong and thus faith had little to do with her life of compassion. However, faith is not measured by the absence of doubt. Faith is measured by faithfulness, by obedience, by what we do in spite of all that resists us.

Faith can grow. The church teaches us that faith grows, it can be cultivated. Certainly there are better and worse soils for faith, people seem to have different natural FQs (faith quotients). Nonetheless, just as other abilities can be trained and cultivated, faith also can be trained and cultivated. St. Isaac the Syrian suggest this rule: "To refrain from glancing here and there with your eyes, but always to look steadily on what lies before you."  Faith will grow as we learn to attend to what is before us, as we attend to our own struggles, and not to the struggles of those around us. And while on the one hand this is a good rule to avoid busybodiness, on the other hand this is a kind of revelation of a spiritual economy: the best conditions for the growth of personal faith require a kind of pulling away from others. There is a kind of tension between love and faith.

Those who love, those who are in the trenches of love, those whose lives are intertwined with others in the world--others with little or no faith, others suffering in darkness--for these it is difficult not to glance here and there, it is difficult to merely look steadily on what lies before them. And thus it is difficult to develop a faith that overcomes every doubt. No wonder Mother Theresa struggled so much: she loved so much.

Despite this tension, love and faith do meet. In saints like St. Seraphim of Sarov we see this. The pattern in Orthodox monasticism seems to be first a lifetime spent in single-minded devotion and prayer, a life spent steadily looking on what lies before you. And then at the end, for a few, there is a season of public giving away. I say "public" because there are others whose giving away is unseen. In this giving away, in this losing of oneself in the other, faith and love kiss. It is possible. It does happen.

However, those of us in the world are left with the encouragement of the saints, experiencing ourselves a Christian struggle that seems far, far away from this. We are encouraged by St. Seraphim's praying for a thousand nights on a rock, though we ourselves struggle to pray twenty minutes in our slippers. We are encouraged by St. Seraphim's clairvoyance, though we struggle even to know ourselves. And we are amazed by St. Seraphim's great love for all, the love of Christ flowing from a heart purified by a lifetime of prayer; while we struggle to love the few God has placed in our lives, also with the love of Christ, but flowing from a heart that has barely begun to be purified. And yet, it is still the same love. It is Christ's love.

And so this is the life of faith, the life of faith lived in love, lived in the midst of a broken, hurting, crying world. It is full of doubts and occasional brief moments of crystalline faith (the kind of moment when you wonder how you could have ever doubted). It is a life full of Christ's love, flowing from our confused and not-yet-purified hearts (a love of mixed motives, and awkward and sometimes misguided expression, but love nonetheless). It is the faith of Abraham, who went out not knowing where. It is the faith Ananias, who with fear obeyed the vision and laid hands on Saul that he might receive his sight. It is the faith of a father and mother who struggle to bring up their children in the Church even though it seems like years since they have really prayed, since they have felt a strong assurance of faith in their heart. This is faith in the trenches of love.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What Do We Do When The Lights Go Out?

What do we do when the lights go out?

So much of life is a roller coaster of ups and downs, sudden curves and unexpected jolts.  At times it can even seem pointless--a lot of drama going nowhere: around and around, up and down and back to where we began--only more exhausted.  Why does God seem so far away?

Saints in the Church have had this same experience.  They too did not understand their sufferings; their long, slow obediences, the darkness in their mind, the sluggishness of their heart. St. Isaac the Syrian (homily 16) says in his prayer to God: "I have not a mournful heart wherewith to seek Thee, I have no repentance, I have no compunction, which brings the children into their proper inheritance.  O Master, I have not a comforting tear.  My mind is darkened by the affairs of this life, and has no strength to look toward Thee with groaning.  My heart is grown cold from the multitude of temptations, and cannot warm herself with tears of love for Thee."

Even the saints struggle.  

In fact, this struggle--the fact that they did and do struggle--is much of what reveals them to be saints.  What can we do when there are no resources left in ourselves?  What can we do when the well is dry, when we don't even care, when our "mind is darkened by the affairs of this life and has no strength to look to Thee with groaning [and our] heart is grown cold from the multitude of temptations"?  What can we do?

We can do only what saints have always done.  We acknowledge the truth about our weakness and ask God to do for us what we cannot do ourselves.  St. Isaac continues his prayer: "But Thou, my Lord and God Jesus Christ, the Treasury of God gifts, grant me thorough repentance and a sorrowing heart, that with all my soul I may go forth to seek Thee.  For without Thee, I am a stranger to all that is good.... I have forsaken Thee, do not forsake me.  I have gone out from Thee, come out to seek me, and lead me up to Thy pasture, and numberer me among the sheep of Thy chosen flock..."

When we are empty, we offer even our emptiness to the One who is fullness, and beg for mercy, for grace, and for the light that shines in darkness.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Monastery and Orphanage

Here is a link to an award-winning Russian documentary movie (with subtitles in English) about a Ukrainian monastery, Holy Ascension, that also cares for 140 orphaned children, some with serious disabilities.

I am truly amazed by this monastery, not that such a place is possible, but that it does indeed exist.  I am sure it is not perfect--if anyone looked closely, serious problems could be found.  What good is ever done in this world that does not involve the effort of broken human beings?  Nevertheless, because it is seemingly impossible to do uncontaminated good, should we therefore not make an effort?  Certainly not!  And if we make an effort, broken as we are, with God's help sometimes much good comes of it.  Much light shines in the darkness.

Please watch this film (about an hour long) and let it inspire you.  In spite of our weaknesses and brokenness, it is possible to love.  It is possible to be thankful.  It is possible to pray.  It is possible to give.  It is possible to be a little less selfish.

Fr. Michael