Healed by Audacious Faith

Below is a homily for today’s Sunday Mass written by my dear friend, Deacon Dustin Feddon, PhD, of the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. It is published here with his permission. Those who are being, and who will be served by his ordained ministry are singularly blessed. Deacon Feddon, whose doctoral dissertation tells the story of the political reception of Søren Kierkegaard in Weimar Europe, has a servant’s heart, a brilliant mind, and (to me) incarnates both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis’ spirit. In particular, the time he spent serving death row inmates in Florida’s “Starke” State Prison, and the many remarkable stories he shared with me, revealed to me the true depth of his priestly heart. I feel I can say of our friendship what St. Gregory said in his Funeral Oration of his friendship with St. Basil the Great:

When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

How blessed am I! Here is his pithy and profound homily:

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Christ Healing a bleeding woman, as depicted in the Catacombs of Rome. wikipedia.org

Tom: Thought I’d share with you all a brief homily that I just wrote for this weekend. It was inspired by yesterday’s reading in Matthew where immediately after Jesus finishes his sermon on the mount–his exposition, interpretation of the law, and confessing that he’s come to fulfill the law–he goes to one whom the law excluded–a leper. I’ll never read that passage quite the same way.

In Mark we witness the wide range of Jesus’ ministry. He attends to a prominent Jewish leader in the synagogue, Jairus, and to a nameless, marginalized woman. This woman’s blood disease rendered her impure, ritually unclean and thus vanquished from the community. Some might call her a reject.

We know from Leviticus 15 that a woman experiencing menstrual bleeding causes ritual impurity. To have diseased blood was counter to the natural order of things. And to be considered ritually impure was a humiliating, shamed position of defilement in the Jewish community. One gentile writer at this time describes such diseases as a ‘grievous calamity’ since it not only was a physical disease but also made one childless—one of the more sever stigmas in the ancient world.

Perhaps we can consider some of the harsh realities facing the disgraced and ostracized. Often those marginalized from society feel as though they are a nonperson, worthless and unwanted. These are the low-downs in society. In our “health crazed and happy-centric culture” we view the mentally distressed or other deviants as untouchable. Rather than being seen as a human person created in the image of our Father, they are seen as ‘crazies’, ‘loons’, or ‘psychos.’ In other words they are seen as nonpersons—we only see their disease. They are harmful to look at—we turn or move away from them as though they might infect us as the hemorrhaging woman might infect Jesus with her blood-soaked impurity. These ones, well they move about us ghost-like as though without substance.

But let us not relegate such phenomena only to the extremes—how many of us carry in our souls a darkness of shame and humiliation. How many of us want to disappear ghost-like? Perhaps we often think others are always looking on us disapprovingly. This too can be a form of illness that alienates us from others.

Our marginalized woman is courageous and audacious. So radically so that she reaches out of her twelve-year despair-infested cocoon of sadness to touch Jesus. Audacious because such contact would likely convey the impression that she desired to infect Jesus with her impurity. As she touches Jesus a shock goes throughout her diseased body. Jesus’ curative power now pulsates throughout her infected vessels—she will now become evidential proof of God’s curative, restorative love that emanates from His Son Jesus.

Jesus tells her ‘your faith has saved/cured you.’ How sublime. Her willingness to break through the social, political and religious boundaries and stigmas associated with her kind to now touch Jesus is what saves her! Her illness is transformed into her cure as she opens her disease to Christ.

So what might we gain from this nameless marginalized woman? Her desperation and bold decision to touch Jesus saves her. May we be so bold as her to allow our desperation to inspire us to seek out and touch Jesus knowing that his love never shames nor humiliates. And may we as a Church never erect boundaries and barriers to those willing to be healed, especially those whom the law may exclude and reject. Allow this brave woman to be our model this day as we open our afflictions and infirmities to Jesus who alone can heal us.

Dustin

Deacon Feddon and I just before his Ordination.

Wounded healer

Fr. Jim presiding at a wedding. flickr.com

Re-post 2012

Fr Jim Polich was my boss, my mentor and my friend while I was the director of the St. Joseph Educational Center in Des Moines, Iowa. Over those four short years, I came to love him with a deep and heartfelt filial affection.

He was a priest of 40 years, a brilliant Scripture scholar, a powerful orator, and a highly cultured man. And he was a character. He had a frighteningly accurate memory, what he called “an-amnesia,” the inability to forget even small details. He was raised on a farm (what he called ‘bovine country’) as one of ten children, and was marked by that unique Iowa character that is without pretense, understated, hard-working, self-effacing and very, very direct.

He came down with liver cancer in 2011 and over about 6 months he rapidly declined in strength. The chemo ravaged his body, and eventually his mind. My wife and I would visit him regularly in the hospital, then in the nursing home, and eventually in hospice. Whenever we would visit him, he would ask about our children by name, about my Mom and would always end by saying in his deep and resonant voice, “Now, let me give you a little blessing. It’s all I have left to give these days.”

One of those times he blessed us, he prayed this prayer, which I later jotted down so I wouldn’t forget it:

Dear Lord, you always like to remind us that you are God and we are not; that we depend on you for everything; that without you we can do nothing. Help us see even in sickness, Lord, a call to trust you, and to trust in you just like Patti and Tom’s children trust in them. Help them be good parents, help me be a good priest. And may Almighty God bless you…

A few days after that prayer, my 84 year old Mom, who had recently fallen face-first onto a concrete sidewalk outside St Pius X church and was injured pretty seriously, came with me to visit Fr. Jim in the hospital in her wheelchair. At the end of our brief visit, Fr. Jim said to my Mom, “Now Peggy, let me give you a little blessing.” She wheeled over to his bedside, and there was a scene I will never forget: a dying, emaciated and weak-voiced priest blessing my battered mother. Three days after that blessing – and my Mom claimed this as his first miracle for canonization – her face healed without a scar or bruise.

Truly a wounded healer.

A few days before Fr. Jim went unconscious and entered the hospice where he’d live out the last nine days of his life on earth, I visited him alone in the nursing home. We sat mostly in silence. He said that the hardest part of his decline was the loss of his memory. I thought of all his vast knowledge. He said, “The hardest part is that I know how much I have forgotten, but I can’t tell you what it is.” Then he said to me words of beauty I will never forget, that make me cry as I type them:

Tom, look at me. I’m left here in this tiny room with only a bed and a night stand and a Breviary that I can’t pray well because I’ve forgotten how to use it. How silly. But I can still bless you. Now just kneel down and I’ll give you a little blessing.

I knelt, feeling so small, as if at the feet of Atlas who bore the heavens on his shoulders; as if at the feet of Prometheus who had stolen heaven’s Fire just for me by his own embrace of his powerlessness. He was the shepherd become Passover lamb, he was the priest become victim. He was for me in that moment the emblem of Christ’s gentle mercy.

It’s the memory of moments like that that carry you through life.

Nocturn

pba.org

Notes from my silent retreat: 3:15 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.

June 3rd 2015

The day began at 3:15 a.m. Startled by the cell phone buzz; zzz; zzz.

Downstairs for a shot of coffee, off to the church.

I adore night vigils. Silhouetted monks return in endless rhythms, praying yet again while we sleep. For us.

The Divine Office grinds our home-grown kernels of wheat into leavened Bread for the Sacrifice.

What gritty psalms we pray in the night. Lamenting, groaning, pain, fury, rejection, pleading. I cry aloud to you, O only hope of Israel. There is none to rescue me, save you. Remember your promises, O Lord. Do not cast me away. Let me hear rejoicing. Have you forgotten us?

And those dissonant harmonies, troubling their monotone cant. Haunting, an unreconciled blend saved for the pitch black night. Makes the psalms stick to your bones. Makes you long for a resolve. How long?

A reading from the Book of Wisdom: Folly or wisdom, you choose.

The lights extinguished, vanished.

30 minutes of dead silence. I can hear my breathing.

My mind playing with the words I’ve just heard.

Memories of my life outside flash – no, crash – in. A mix, painful, joyful. I turn them all up, then over.

“Cast your cares on Him for He cares for you” comes to mind.

Silence slowly becomes a thirsty vessel, an unspoken consent.

More psalms. A reading from St. Gregory Palamas – who knew? – on virtue.

We’re sent: Let us bless the Lord.

Two hours till Mass. I step outside. Let me gather my life up for the coming Sacrifice. A procession of faces, requests, struggles, fears, smiles come to mind: “My son-in-law. For strength. He’s in despair, needs hope. We’re getting married, for fidelity. She’s afraid, for peace. That I’ll know what to do next.” “Yes, I’ll pray for you.” I must. I am. Fitfully, buoyed by small acts of love. I can hear a pin drop. I pick it up for those faces, with love.

I can hear outside awaken as dawn breaks: cardinals, chipping sparrows, chickadees, towhees, catbirds, barn swallows, a wood thrush, to name a few. Their uncoordinated chorus seems a psalmody: “Bless the Lord!” The birds return in endless rhythms, un-waning joy, greeting dawn as if for the first time. The crickets, too, now fade away as they complete their night watch.

These all I gather for the awful Sacrifice.

Is it not all under my dominion?

I, priest of nature and grace, boundary of Old and New, lift all things now back to God.

“Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.”

The sun rises, its warm rays sifting through the tangled slash pine needles.

I can feel a cool breeze – from the east, I think.

The monastic bells toll, calling laborers to return in endless rhythms. To offer.

Into the church we stream, called out from our scattered lives, gathered into One.

The Sacrifice has begun. I brought my Bread.

The Dawn from on high has broken. I can see it through the stained glass.

Let us rejoice.

Spiritual Virtuosos

“Wisdom and her three daughters: Faith, Hope, Charity” Icon by Karp Zolotaryov, c. 1685. wikimedia.org

As I’ve read and re-read the Pope’s new encyclical, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation of the role played by the virtuous life in developing an authentic vision for the right stewardship of creation. No matter how convincing are the arguments for moral principles, without virtuous people to incarnate them no lasting difference can be made in the world. Only when we possess the virtues — which are really various facets of charity, the “soul of the virtues” — are we able to rightly relate rightly to neighbor, self, all of creation and God. Hence virtues, which are habitual and firm dispositions to do the good, are a big deal in Christianity.

The pope notes throughout Chapter Six that at the heart of an authentic spirituality stands the life of virtue. So often in (post)modernity, spirituality is equated with subjective states of consciousness or self-centered notions of personal fulfillment. Such a spirituality gives rise to a god who is really the self, writ-large as an all-affirming deity blessing my preferences and canonizing my worldview. The God of Israel, on the other hand, judges all such gods to be idols and calls idolaters to repentance and reform, i.e. to the life of virtue based on the Law. For Christianity, what especially distinguishes authentic spirituality are the “hard” virtues that Christ evinces in their perfect form; virtues such as prudence, justice, charity, temperance, mercy, chastity, obedience and fortitude in the face of suffering. The truly “spiritual” are the truly virtuous, and the surest measure of spiritual growth is not the heightened experience of a refined or ecstatic consciousness, but the increased ability to freely forgive harm done to you or cheerfully give alms to the undeserving.

St. Teresa of Avila, in describing the different states of active and passive prayer in The Way of Perfection as different means of gathering water, argues that the real purpose of prayer is to grow the virtues: “The water [the graces of prayer] is for the flowers [the virtues].” Union with God, she contends, is not some ethereal union or rarefied state, but rather natural and theological virtues in sync with God’s will and attributes. We are in union with God when our justice harmonizes with His Justice, our charity with His Charity, our patience with His Patience, our mercy with His Mercy, our purity with His Purity, our generosity with His Generosity, et cetera ad infinitum.

So, the Pope says, if you want to be spiritual, be virtuous. And if you want to be virtuous, work with and pray for grace. Let me let the Pope speak for himself…

Christian spirituality proposes an alternative understanding of the quality of life, and encourages a prophetic and contemplative lifestyle, one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption. We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

Sobriety and humility were not favourably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong.

We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, “he looked at him with love” (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers. (#222-224, 226)

Theology of Bodily Pain

“Dear Celine, sweet echo of my soul! If you knew my misery! Oh! If you knew… Holiness does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, in feeling them! … It consists in suffering and in suffering everything. Holiness! It has to be conquered at the point of the sword, one has to suffer, one has to agonize!” — St. Therese of Lisieux

Re-post from 2013 in honor of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist, Martyr

I shared in a post the other day some of the insights had I gained from Dr. Veronica Rolf’s book, Julian’s Gospel, that I read over Christmastime. It’s a scholarly book about the 15th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Reading this book made me re-appreciate the incredibly rich and unique theological vision of this solitary hermit. Most people who have heard of Julian would associate her with her highly popularized saying, “All will be well in all manner of being well.” What is usually not noted is that for Julian this affirmation of “ultimate wellness” refers to the end of history when Christ will return in glory to shepherd his people into the New Creation and bring evil to a final Final Judgement.

What really struck me as I read Rolf’s book was Julian’s sharp emphasis on the theologically positive meaning of bodily suffering. For Julian, and for her Christian contemporaries, bodily suffering was seen as a privileged — even the highest — means of entering into intimate communion with Christ.

Let’s take a moment to think about this astonishing affirmation together.   

Holy Communion

In the Christian spiritual tradition, the path to union with God is an irreducibly rich reality that embraces every aspect of human life. Some spiritual authors have emphasized the primacy of intellectual communion with Christ (e.g. knowledge of God in faith), others free will (e.g. love of God through the virtues), while others emphasize affectivity (e.g. spiritual feelings of longing for God or compunction over sins). Still others emphasized the primacy of devotion to the Liturgy and Sacraments. That said, within the Catholic spiritual tradition it is bodily suffering that plays a privileged role in opening us to intimate union with God. Whether it be the martyr’s pains or the agonies of  those who suffer from chronic pain or the hardships of the penitent or the countless daily discomforts that attend life, physical pain offers the faithful a singularly graced opportunity to commune with the suffering of God in Jesus Christ Crucified. 

The Visitation

Theologically speaking, every aspect of Christ’s human life opens up for humanity a fresh portal into the mystery of God’s limitless love. God clothed himself in human frailty in order to achieve a union in love with each human person. From the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, God’s Son made every detail of human life capax Dei, “capable of God.” Conception, gestation and birth; childhood and adulthood; marriage and family life; eating and drinking; manual labor and study; art and play; weariness and sleep; boating and fishing; growing angry and grieving; feeling joy and laughing; being tempted and afraid — all of these human realities were taken up by God in Jesus. Absolutely everything of the human experience of life, in Jesus, is shot through with God. Even sin (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). But above all, it is in the violent Passion of Christ — in its every detail — that the veil between God and humanity is torn open and we are granted unfettered access to the deepest mysteries of God.

Because the Passion of Jesus stands at the center of God’s saving plan, Christians have understood that bodily communion with Christ’s own pains are rife with spiritual power. Wonderfully subverting the twisted logic of sin and death, God transforms — through sacrificial love — that which is worst into what is best. In Christ, victimized Lambs defeat victimizing Dragons, and the inglorious specter of human suffering unveils a vision of divine glory. The suffering bodies of those joined to Christ in Baptism are made earthen vessels of celestial glory. For medieval Christians like Julian, this theological vision transformed physical suffering into a veritable “liturgy of the body,” as St. Paul’s admonishes us in Romans 12:1:

I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.

For saints like the stigmatized Francis of Assisi, Christ’s violent Passion was a nuptial event of divine-human communion. The Cross was the supreme moment of Christ’s self-emptying love for his Bride, the Church; his consummatum est. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, drawing from this tradition, refers to Christ’s cross as “our marriage bed.”

There was a powerful awareness in the middle ages that the Holy Eucharist — the “wedding feast of the Lamb” — wholly contained the Passion of Christ, and to receive the Sacraments of Christ’s Body and Blood was to receive the wound-bearing Risen Christ.

Fr. Aidan Nichols, in his book Epiphany, offers a vivid description of this link between the Eucharistic liturgy and the details of Christ’s Passion:

Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the “aversio” of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy.

Our suffering, united to Christ’s suffering opened out to us in the sacramental Liturgy (especially the Mass), becomes a co-redemptive self-offering that deepens our union with Jesus and brings life to the world. To embrace bodily pain in the economy of divine love is to embrace God in Christ — or, rather, to be embraced by God in Christ. This is the spiritual power hidden in the Morning Offering prayer:

O Jesus,
through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
I offer You my prayers, works,
joys and sufferings
of this day for all the intentions
of Your Sacred Heart,
in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
throughout the world…

St. Francis of Assisi’s vision of Christ, Francisco Ribalta, c. 1620. Taken from caravaggista.com

That said, orthodox traditions of redemptive suffering never consider pain as a good in itself, and do not require that Christians accept suffering that can be legitimately avoided. Neither does our tradition not bind us to heroism in embracing suffering that can be avoided. Heroism, while always an option that can be chosen in response to one’s personal vocation, is never strictly required of anyone. In addition, Christians also confess that palliative acts of mercy to relieve human suffering are equally essential to a holistic understanding of salvation.

What the tradition we speak of here does affirm, though, is the wildly hopeful Good News. Life inevitably brings to us bodily sufferings, and a fully-lived Christian life brings with it its own hardships. The Good News? All of these can become not merely privations of health or well-being, but sacrificial offerings and experiences of profound intimacy with our crucified and risen Savior. On the Cross and from the empty Tomb Jesus secures for us a good greater than we could have ever imagined: nothing in life, no matter how bad, if given to Him, is wasted.

The act of faith opens to you this vision of bodily suffering, allowing you to see and experience the world in this way. Julian, who begged God to allow her to taste Christ’s bodily sufferings in her own body, wrote later that the terrible bodily illness she suffered opened to her the grace of “oneing in suffering love with God.” In other words, her pain became an instance of sacramental communion with the God’s supreme act of love for humanity on the Cross.

This vision of faith is radically foreign and strange to the eyes of a modernity that sees in bodily suffering only a meaningless enemy to be eradicated. But this insight bears within it faith’s most radiant mystery: the saving meaning of human suffering. It infuses ultimate meaning into a universal human experience, revealing to us that indeed God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

I will leave you with a quote and a musical piece. The quote was written by a Deacon, now deceased, whom I had the privilege of coming to know in Iowa. He was suffering the last stages of a painful terminal illness when he wrote these words to his children, and copied to me.  The musical piece is by Mozart, and is his musical setting for the liturgical text, Ave Verum Corpus, which reveals in only a few lines the exquisite beauty of the suffering that abides in God’s human love.

United with the cross of Christ, we are gifted with the blessing of sharing in His cross and participating in our own sanctification…

Paint my life beautiful, O Lord

iconreader.files.wordpress.com

There is a quote from St. John of the Cross that I have referenced here many times over the years, and I’d like to reference it again today.

Over the last ten years, I have many times offered it to people who have come to me for advice about a difficult set of circumstances in their life. For me, it offers a universally applicable insight for those who are seeking to define their lives as disciples of Jesus, desirous to abandon themselves entirely to the His will, but believing they face seemingly innumerable and insuperable obstacles along the way. “If only,” we say, “this person or that circumstance were not there, then I could really advance in my life of faith; grow in prayer; trust in God; forgive my father; love my spouse.”

I recall once using the “if only” argument with my very first spiritual director, saying that “if only I had not experienced X and Y, I’d be so much better off and able to do what God is asking of me.” He responded (thank God for journals that preserve such wisdom!):

But don’t you see that your ‘if onlys’ are rejecting the precise shape of the cross Jesus is offering you now. If you simply accept what is, you can truly say, “I have been crucified with Christ” (cf. Gal 2:20). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus faced his supreme ‘if only’ temptation, but he triumphed over it by accepting the gnarled wood of the cross. From the cross and the grave, joined to his obedience, love, trust, surrender to the Father, came the re-creation of all things. Jesus turns ‘If only I didn’t have this cross’ into ‘only if you take up your cross and follow me…’  You don’t become a saint by constantly seeking freedom from all of your uncomfortable constraints and irritations. As with any good work of art, edges and limits give life its beautiful form. And holiness is all about the right edges and the right form. Think: grace transforms, conforms, reforms, informs our life with the form of Christ’s cross. Your ‘if onlys’ are the hemmed in frame within which God can paint his masterpiece — you! You’ll become holy by allowing God to frame your life, cut your edges and paint away. Even in the starvation bunker at Auschwitz, Maximillian Kolbe was able to create a work of art the church later canonized.

But as not all hardships and sufferings are willed by God for our life, he taught me to discern which were which (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). “Much of discernment,” he said, “is the art of discerning limits; of judging what the proper limits are that are needed to protect your primary vocational commitments. And when you face trials and hardships, you need to learn your limits. That’s one of the great gifts of life’s crosses, they expose our weaknesses and limits. It’s what I think, in part, Jesus means when he said to St. Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient; for power is made perfect in weakness.’ Power is made perfect because in our exposed weaknesses — our limits, exposed by trials — we learn the what are the delimiting borders of the ‘holy land’ within which we are to live out God’s will. The river runs swift and powerful and clean because it has sharp edges that define it. Without them, your life diffuses out into a murky swamp filled with deadly and poisonous creatures.”

Having worked as a chaplain with Alcoholics Anonymous, he would frequently refer to the Reinhold Neibuhr prayer to help me sort through which hardships in my life I should seek freedom from and which I had to make peace with:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

“That serenity,” he commented, “is what St. Ignatius called ‘holy indifference.’ You want God to help you learn to not simply be resigned to, but to embrace your life’s limitations. If you learn to embrace, nothing will touch you — neither praise nor criticism, success or failure, because you know what you are.”

An even deeper transformation of mindset, though, came to me when years later I discovered this quote from St. John in his Counsels to Religious as I was preparing for my dissertation research. I immediately copied and framed it, bracketing his specific references to “monastic life” so that, on any given day, I would remember to replace “monastery” or “religious life” with my job, my marriage and family life, my parish, and so on. It has allowed me to grow in a vision of every space and time in my life as a potential “theater of redemption” within which God can forms me to be a man “worthy of heaven.” It allows me to see more clearly that, in the words of St. Teresa, “all the way to heaven is heaven,” if I can see God’s hand at work in every detail of life.

My hope is that one day I won’t simply believe this to be true, but I will come to see the world this way. May it be so for us all.

To practice the second counsel, which concerns mortification, and profit by it, you should engrave this truth on your heart. And it is that you have not come to [the monastery] for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone that must be chiseled and fashioned before being set in the building. Thus you should understand that those who are in [the monastery] are craftsmen placed there by God to mortify you by working and chiseling at you. Some will chisel with words, telling you what you would rather not hear; others by deed, doing against you what you would rather not endure; others by their temperament, being in their person and in their actions a bother and annoyance to you; and others by their thoughts, neither esteeming nor feeling love for you. You ought to suffer these mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God and understanding that you did not enter [the religious life] for any other reason than for others to work you in this way, and so you become worthy of heaven. If this was not your reason for entering [the religious state,] you should not have done so, but should have remained in the world to seek your comfort, honor, reputation, and ease.

Forgiving and being forgiven, Part II

Fr. Tom Hopko, continued…

I already quoted John Climacus who said, “Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t pick it up. Don’t engage it.” That would be a technical term, because the holy Fathers teach us that when we have these predispositions and we have these temptations, sometimes they’re called “provocation”:prosvoloi, but provocations come. Then what we must never do is engage them. We have to flee from them to God and not engage them. And there’s even a technical term for that in the Greek writing, The Philokalia writing. It’s called “syndiasmos.” They call it “coupling” or “joining.” If you join it, if you couple with it, if you accept it, if you let it into you, and certainly if you nurture and cultivate it, if you keep sitting there watching the stupid TV program or the stupid computer or you keep drinking the drink or something, or taking the drug, then of course you just become impassioned and you become possessed and you become enslaved.

But the warfare is all about not taking the first drink, so to speak. And sometimes, we used to say at St. Vladimir’s when I worked there, the same way an alcoholic cannot take the first drink, a Christian cannot take the first think. You can’t take the first thought. You can’t engage the thought. You let it go; you let it go; you let it go again. You let it go again and again. As the recovery movement says, “You let go and you let God.” You let go of that and you turn to God, but you do not couple, because if you join and couple with it, if you have syndiasmos, then you have what the holy Fathers call “synkatathesis” which is assent. You actually give assent to it. You not only do not resist it, but you assent [to] it. You affirm it. You receive it. You nuture it. You act out on it. And every time you act out on it, you give it more power and more strength.

St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.

And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.

What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.

But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.

But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.

St. Silouan said you know the Holy Spirit is in you if you’re a brave fighter. If you hate your sin and struggle against it. And when you do that, it’s a long battle and you’re not going to be victorious in two days.

I heard once a bishop tell some young people that if they had firm resolve, they could come to dispassion and quiet and peace in one month. I frankly don’t believe that. I think the bishop was wrong. Sometimes it’s a lifetime. But you should never say or put a timetable on it. Even [in] the 12-step program, you learn that you can’t do that. You’ve got to say, “Just for this minute. Just for this day. Just for this time.” Just with this breath, I’m not going to engage that memory. I’m not going to engage that feeling. I’m not going to engage that thought. I’m not going to surrender to it. I’m not going to act out on it.

But I can’t do it by myself, so I’m going to flee to the grace of God. I’m going to read the Scripture. I’m going to read the saints. I’m going to read an Akathistos. I’m going to say a prayer. I’m going to walk around. I’m going to get occupied in work. I’m going to care for some sick person. I’m going to do those things that keep the thoughts, the feelings, and the memories from crushing me. And then I’m going to beg God, “Please don’t let me choose them. Please don’t let me actually will to engage them, affirm them, and to go where they are thriving and where they are destroying people.”

And of course, that means we’ve got to cut off relations with certain people. We just can’t be—and St. Paul said this: “If you go into bad company, you’re going to end up with bad morality and bad behavior, and you’re going to be crushed.” And it’s no sin simply to say, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just can’t hang out with you, because if I do, I’m going to be poisoned by your own darkness and your own sin.”

So it’s violent. And the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent person takes it by force.” He said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off. Better to enter the kingdom with one hand than to perish with two. If your eyes offend you, pluck them out.” Now, of course, this was not meant to be literally taken. You don’t take a knife, and—people who are very troubled, they sometimes cut themselves and so on. This is not—this is of the devil. But spiritually, with the sword of the Lord, to cut off all that is evil, all this gangrenous, all this poison, to take the medicine, the pharmakon that is the antidote to the evil poison in our system. We have to do that.

But we have to do that firmly, gently, not hysterically, not with panic. We do it one step at a time. We do it by [being] faithful in the little things. And the most important point for today’s meditation: There’s only one way we can do it, and that is by cutting it off when it first comes. And that’s how the Fathers, like Nilus of Sinai and Evagoras and others, interpreted that line in the psalm, “On the Waters of Babylon”: “Blessed are they who smash your little ones on the rocks. Alleluia.” Because they say if we don’t smash the passions and temptations and thoughts and memories when they’re still little, when they first come, then they will grow up and they will kill us.

You might even say, following the Fathers, like Porphyrios, don’t even try to smash them. Just run away from them. Flee to God. Don’t engage them at all. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about not letting the poison in. It’s all about not engaging the vision, the image, the fantasy, the memory, the imagination, the thought. The cause of it all are logismoi: thoughts, feelings, fantasies, imaginations, provocations. But we can only be victorious when, by the grace of God and by faith in God and by the Holy Spirit, we do not engage them at all. The minute we engage them at all, we’re lost. Sooner or later, we can fight, we can battle, we can struggle, but they’ve got us. So the key is: know that they’re there. Let them babble and buzz all they want, but don’t engage them. Don’t engage them.

Unite the mind and the heart and call upon the Lord and flee to him. And beg for grace. It’s not going to be magic. It’s not always going to work, but this is the only way it does work when it does work. And as they say in the 12-step program when they—you know, sex addiction and food addiction and drug addiction and alcohol addiction—“It works if you work it, so work it. You’re worth it.” But what is the working? The working is to know that there is a power greater than ourselves. There is God Almighty; there is grace.

We can’t do it, but what is impossible with human beings is possible with God. And it’s impossible even not to engage and to join and to assent to all those evil thoughts, memories, and feelings that assail us day and night. With God, all things are possible. And so, it is possible not to live without these thoughts, memories, and feelings, but it is possible not to allow them, by God’s grace, to destroy and to crush us and, ultimately, even to kill us. There is a victory. It belongs to Christ. It’s given to us. We have to plug into it. And we do that by faith and grace in God, and by an unseen warfare, to take every thought captive for the sake of Christ and by Christ.

And not to engage any thought, memory, or feeling that is destructive. In fact, some of the Fathers say that we shouldn’t even engage the good ones, because we can be deceived. It’s better simply to be calling upon the name of the Lord and seeking the light without actually getting into many of these things.