Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Alone Have Sinned

In his book, The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov has a remarkable piece of advice.

While living in a monastery with brethren, regard only yourself as a sinner and all the brethren without exception as angels.

I've found from experience that this applies equally to everyone, not just monastics. In married life, if I have this attitude towards my wife, any bitterness or resentment that may have built up disappears. If I spend my time focusing on my own sins and failings, regarding my own wife "as an angel," I find peace in myself and peace in my family. Why should I worry, after all, about the sins of others when I have a host of my own personal sins to deal with? Didn't Christ tell us to remove the board from our own eyes before removing the splinter from our brother's? St. Ignatius goes on to tell us:

Through humility in your dealings with your neighbor, and through love of your neighbor, hardness and callousness is expelled from your heart. It is rolled away like a heavy rock from the entrance to a tomb, and the heart revives for spiritual relations with God for which it has been hitherto dead.

I have always found it sad whenever I've seen spouses - whether in real life or as portrayed in the media - living in little more than a passive-aggressive relationship with years of bitterness, resentment, fault-finding, pettiness, etc., etc., etc. I've seen women roll their eyes every time someone mentions their husband's name. I've seen men's gaze turn cold at the sight of their wife. I know of couples who divorced and families that were torn apart because the spouses were overly concerned with each other's faults and sins rather than focusing on their own.

Obviously I would not condone that one spouse become the doormat of the other, allowing the other to trample them down and oppress them. Obviously couples need to work together for the betterment of each other on the physical/material, emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels. But an unhealthy focus on the other's faults does not lead to such betterment, especially when such a focus leads us to ignore our own faults.

St. Ignatius' advice could be equally applied to the workplace, parish life, our network of close friends, our extended family, etc., etc., etc. St. Seraphim of Sarov had a saying that has since become quite famous in Byzantine spirituality: "Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved."  That, I believe, pretty much sums up the teaching the St. Ignatius is presenting to us in his book.

I remember a story from St. Therese of Lisieux's diary Story of a Soul. It seems that while in the convent there was one nun who was particularly nasty towards Therese, whether because of her youth, her innocence, or what we do not know. But Therese, instead of responding in kind, went out of her way to be kind to this nun and to treat her with the utmost love and respect. Over time Therese's love wore down the walls of anger in this old nun's heart and drew her not only to a love and affection for Therese, but also into a deeper love for Christ. Here we see a wonderful illustration of St. Ignatius' teaching in action.

In closing I would simply like to point out how we can apply this to our praying the Jesus Prayer. Common English translations of the Jesus Prayer would have us say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," as though we were simply one sinner among many. But it is possible for the Prayer to be translated from the Greek as, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner." This would perhaps be more in keeping with the vision of St. Ignatius, and would give us a solid grounding in prayer to treat all our neighbors as though they are angels and we are the only sinner among them. May heaven consume us!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What To Do? What To Do?

For some years now I have been more or less involved in the Charismatic Renewal, a movement that has a presence in both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. As with any movement in any Church there are certain catch-phrases that one hears among "charismatics." One that has been on my mind recently is, "The Spirit moved me to...," or "I felt called to...," or again "God told me to..." The vast majority of the time the one(s) who utters this phrase will then go on to tell you some good thing that they feel called to do. There is, however, a certain danger here. The great saints and mystics of both East and West show us that it is possible to feel drawn to some great good at an inappropriate time, or one that is inappropriate for one's circumstances.

In his excellent work, The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov gives concrete examples of people - some of them saints - who felt called to a great good at an inappropriate time. He mentions a number of people who felt drawn to the life of solitude and, against the will of their monastic superiors, entered such a life. Some of them became completely duped by Satan and his wiles. Others literally lost their sanity for a number of years before returning once again to themselves. In my own life I know that there have been times when I've felt called to some good, but the time was either inappropriate or the specific good was not right for me and my circumstances. My family has had to suffer in the past because of decisions I've made for a good that was wrong for us.

The great saint of the Western tradition, Francis of Assisi, was known to be a very impulsive person. He would feel these great "movements of the Spirit" and jump in head first without fully discerning the will of God. Sometimes he made the right decisions, other times not so much. He learned from his mistakes, however, and as he grew in the spiritual life God tempered this impulsive aspect of his personality and he became much more discerning.

But how is it possible for something to be good, but not good for me, especially when it involves some sort of spiritual good? The pastor of my parish has a great homily he likes to give during the Great Fast (Lent). He speaks of our fasting practices as Eastern-Byzantine Catholics and mentions how we give up certain foods not because they are bad, but because we want to be able to focus our attention on a greater good. We acknowledge that the foods we give up are in themselves good, but by giving them up we free ourselves to focus on the greater spiritual good. He then goes on to give an example. Almost everyone will admit that chocolate cake is good... some will admit that it is VERY good. But for a diabetic chocolate cake, although good in and of itself, can be very harmful, even life-threatening. A severe diabetic can go into a diabetic coma simply by eating a piece of chocolate cake. So they "give up" eating chocolate cake for the greater good of one's health. The cake is good, but "not for me; not now."

I've found this "not for me; not now" to be a very handy phrase to remember when discerning the movements of my own heart. Yes, whatever presents itself to me may be a great good indeed, but is it appropriate to my situation, my circumstance, my greater vocation, etc., etc., etc. The advice that my spiritual father gave to me some years ago always rings in my head during these moments: "Calm down, Phillip." St. Ignatius Brianchaninov has this to say:

Has some good thought come to you? Stop! Whatever you do, do not rush to implement it or carry it out over hastily, without thinking. Have you felt some good impulse or inclination in your heart? Stop! Do not dare to be drawn by it. Check it with the Gospel. See whether your good thought and your heart's good impulse tally with the Lord's holy teaching.

By checking our good impulses against the Gospel we learn to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and submit even our good impulses to His will. We risk falling into great pride and arrogance when we do not submit such impulses to God's Word.

I remember hearing a story about the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. Apparently when they were first married they decided to sleep in separate rooms and not to engage in marital relations. They chose to live together "chastely" as brother and sister. Now celibacy is a good thing in and of itself. But married couples are not called to celibacy, and marital chastity is not the same as celibate chastity. After some time of living in this way St. Therese's parents began to experience a good deal of marital discord, to the point that they went to speak to their local priest about it. When he learned that they were not sharing the marital bed he promptly corrected them. From then on out they lived their marriage according to the Gospel teaching on marriage and marital chastity. In the end one of their children became one of the greatest saints of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century, another one of their children is on the path to canonization, and they themselves have been held up as role-models for married couples through their beatification! Although they felt a great impulse to the good of celibacy, celibacy was not good for them. They submitted their wills to the will of God shown forth in the Gospel's teachings on marriage and lived a much happier life because of it.

We who read the writings of the Fathers and great mystics of the East and West often feel drawn to the way of life that these men and women lived, especially since so many of us are beginners on the spiritual journey. St. Ignatius warns us that we need to read the writings of the Fathers and mystics with great caution. (Notice he doesn't tell us not to read their writings, but to read them with caution and discernment). We need to learn to adapt the teachings of the great spiritual masters to our condition, our times, our circumstances, our vocation, etc. The Fathers may speak of the glories of monastic life, but a married person is not a monk or nun. They may speak of the glories of external silence and solitude, but most lay people living in the world are not called to that amount of silence and solitude. I remember hearing a priest once recommend that all lay people should spend at least two hours a day in prayer! In my own life I personally have a hard time getting in my 20 minutes in the morning for my prayer rule before going about my daily obligations as a husband and father, let alone two whole hours.

What we need is discernment. Check your impulses against the commands and demands of the Gospel. Put on the mind of Christ and allow Him to form even your good and holy desires. More reward is given for submitting to God's will - He seeks the greater good for us, after all - than for following our own impulses and inclinations, even when such impulses are good. In all things may God bless us with this spirit of discernment. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Memento Mori

I wrote most of the following meditation yesterday (Saturday) but was unable to finish it as I had to rush off to work. Since I'm posting it on a Sunday I attempted to end it on a note of hope in the final resurrection. :)

In the Byzantine and Maronite traditions, Saturday is considered the memorial of the faithful departed. It is on Saturdays in particular that we remember "those who have gone before us marked with the sign of Faith." It is on Saturdays, too, that we remember our own mortality, the shortness of our own lives, and that we too shall soon join those who have already departed this life. The reading from Safro - Maronite "morning prayer" - this morning was taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:1 - 11. In this reading St. Paul reminds us, "You know very well that the day of the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. Just when people are saying 'Peace and security,' ruin will fall on them with the suddenness of pains overtaking a woman in labor, and there will be no escape." The Byzantine funeral service reminds us:

Our life indeed is but a fragile flower, a vapor, a drop of dew in the morning. Let us approach and contemplate the grave: where now is the graceful form? Where is youth? Where are the bright eyes? Where is the moving beauty of the face? All has withered as the grass of the field and has vanished. Come, brethren, let us fall on our knees in humble prayer before Christ... Vain and perishing indeed are the pleasures and honors of this life. We shall all die because we are destined to decay: kings and princes, rich and poor and all human beings. Those who had been among the powerful of this world now are stretched lifeless in the graves. Let us pray to the Lord our God that He may give rest to their souls.

Most folks don't like to be reminded of the fact that, sooner or later, they will die. But the mystical traditions of both Eastern and Western Christianity are universal in their focus on the importance of the remembrance of death. At one time in the Western monastic tradition monks used to proclaim "memento mori" (remember your death) as they would walk past one another. While I was studying in a defunct monastery in Austria there was still a painting in the courtyard of skeletons with the saying "We were once like you, you shall soon be like us" painted on the wall of the courtyard. Saints such as Alphonsus Liguori wrote quite explicit meditations on death. I remember reading the first bit of his book Preparation for Death many years ago. In it the first couple of chapters/meditations are devoted totally to describing a rotting corpse. Not the most pleasant imagery, but it really drove home the fact that one day we will all die, and this body that we worry so much about will decay. Have we prepared ourselves sufficiently for what will come after death?

Even the great Byzantine mystics tell us over and over again that we must remember our death. This is not in order to have a morbid fixation on death, but to reveal to us the futility of our sinful ways in order that we might fix our hope on Christ. Continuing the reading from Safro this (Saturday) morning, St. Paul reminds us, "You are not in the dark, brothers, that the day should catch you off guard, like a thief. No, all of you are children of light and of day... We who live by day must be alert, putting on faith and love as a breastplate and the hope of salvation as a helmet. God has not destined us for wrath but for acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us, that all of us, whether awake or asleep, together might live in him."

This is the whole purpose of our spiritual and moral lives; to be ready. We live lives filled with love of God and love of neighbor because, frankly, in the life to come God and neighbor is all that we will have (and incidentally all that we will need). God will be all in all. Heaven is not just going to be "God and me, and to hell with thee" as my spiritual father used to say. "One Christian is no Christian." This holds just as true for the life to come as it does for this life. Heaven will be "God, me, and thee" so to speak. But we have to prepare ourselves in this life.

The Maronite prayers of Hoosoyo in both Ramsho (Vespers) and Safro (Matins) paint a very vivid picture for us of what the final judgment will be like.

On the awesome day of judgment, the foundations of the universe will be shaken; the sun will be darkened and the moon hide itself when you, O just Judge, will be seated at the tribunal of judgment. You will call all people to stand before you, and will open the register which lists all their deeds. With your piercing look, you examine consciences and heart and nothing will be hidden from you; works will appear in the light of your justice, in all their truth... (Safro)

Christ our God, on the last day you will come in glory to judge the living and the dead, each person will stand before your throne to hear judgment from your mouth and receive retribution from your hand. Then the light of truth will shine on the secrets, consciences will be revealed, and men and women will be divided to your left and right. The just will be in glory and joy and raise up songs of praise and glory. The evil ones will be in confusion and, full of sadness; they will burst into tears and sobbing with no one able to help them.

To me such imagery is both powerful and horrifying. Knowing that everyone who has ever been shall know every one of my thoughts and actions - miserable sinner that I am - makes me want to run and hide. But there will be no hiding from God's judgment on that day.

The Byzantine liturgical texts paint a somewhat more hopeful picture while being just as realistic:

O God of all spirits and of all flesh, who have destroyed death, overcome the devil, and given life to the world: grant, O Lord, to the soul of your servant N, who has departed this life, that it may rest in a place of light, in a place of happiness, in a place of peace, where there is no pain, no grief, no sighing. And since You are a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind, forgive him every sin he has committed by thought, or word, or deed, for there is not a man who lives and does not sin: You alone are without sin, your righteousness is everlasting, and your word is true. You are the Resurrection and the Life, and the repose of your departed servant N, O Christ our God, and we send up glory to you... etc.

Here the Byzantine tradition focuses on the fact that as sinners we are in constant need of God's mercy. How wonderful for us that our God is "a gracious God and the Lover of Mankind." I believe it was St. Symeon the New Theologian who spoke about how we ought not to put so much emphasis on God's justice, because each of us justly deserves eternal damnation for even the slightest sin. Rather, he says, we ought to speak of God's mercy, because it was out of mercy that God sent His Son to die for us that we might have eternal life. Obviously this is not an endorsement for "loose living," but rather encouragement that every time we fall, so often as we get up and repent, our heavenly Father is waiting there for us with open arms.

Hoosoyo from Safro/Matins in the Maronite tradition concludes the prayer in the following manner:

On this day, treat with mercy your believing servants who partook of your body and your blood as their final food and now rest in the hope of resurrection. Forgive them the sins they have committed on this earth; save them from eternal loss and temporary suffering; open to them the gates of your heavenly dwelling through the intercession of Mary your Mother, queen of the universe, and through the prayers of your pure apostles and saints; then we will praise and glorify you, for ever.

Here there are a number of exclamations of hope for us. First, we who have partaken of Christ's Body and Blood as our spiritual food, so long as we have done so worthily, have also a special hope to receive His mercy. We also rest in the hope of resurrection. If the liturgical week is a miniature of the liturgical year, and Sunday is the day of Resurrection, Saturday is the day that we not only are reminded of Jesus time in the tomb as well as ours, but also the day that we look forward to the resurrection to come. We lie in the tomb in the hope of one day being raised from there unto new life! Death no longer has the final word over us, nor does our sinful nature have the final word. As we sing on Easter Sunday in the Byzantine tradition, "Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tomb!"

So in remembering our death, in order to avoid any morbid fixation and/or despair, it is also vitally important that we remember in hope the promise of resurrection. This promise has already begun in Christ Jesus, who was raised from the dead. "Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon death, and has given life to those who were in the tombs!"

May heaven consume us.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Failure to Communicate

I had what I found to be a rather sad realization at work yesterday. We are a society that no longer knows how to communicate. We have all of this technology that enables us to be "plugged in" at almost all times; we have all this "social media" so that we can stay in touch with friends and family; we have all this information at our fingertips, and yet when it comes down to it we don't know how to communicate. Everyone's talking, but no one's listening.

I was watching a family eat dinner in Panera. The whole time the son was texting someone on his cell phone. I've watched friends have "conversations" with one another without even looking at one another. The whole time they were staring at their iPhones or iPads or whatever the latest craze is. They were saying a lot, but not listening, not being present to either the one they were talking to face-to-face, nor to the one they were communicating with over the phone.

This made me wonder, what kind of effect does such "communication" have on our prayer life? The Fathers are always talking about giving God our undivided attention during prayer, turning our heart away from all distractions and focusing on God alone. It was hard enough during times when communication was either done face-to-face, or through a very slow system of mail. How hard it is today when we are accustomed to "communicating" with four or five people simultaneously!

I know I personally tend to relegate a good chunk of my prayer time to my drive to work. There's nothing wrong with this, of course. It's good to pray whenever you have a chance to pray. But by limiting a good portion of my prayer time to that drive, I've realized how much my prayer life in general has suffered. Not only am I more distracted while I'm driving, I find that I have also become more distracted when I actually have the time to sit down and concentrate my attention on God in prayer. I find myself thinking of all the other things in need to be doing or getting done that day. I find myself thinking of other conversations I've had with folks. Heck, I even find myself interrupting my prayer time simply to make a phone call! What a failure on my part! I've allowed myself to turn from the one relationship, the one conversation in the day that matters most. But isn't this typical in our society of "mass communication?" Isn't this how we all converse now; always thinking about the next conversation we need to have with someone else?

It has always bothered me whenever I'm talking to someone, and instead of looking at me and paying attention, they're looking over my shoulder at the next person they need to talk to. But I know I've been guilty of doing that to others as well. How horrible! Here we are face-to-face with someone giving themselves to us by giving us a small bit of their time, and we're not willing to return the favor by giving ourselves to them by focusing our attention on them! And here, in prayer, we have God, our Creator, our Master, our Father, Brother, Spirit, etc., giving us their undivided attention, and we half-heartedly mumble a few words while looking over their shoulders so to speak. What a way to treat the one who suffered and died for us so that we might have life in the fullest in this life and the next!

Sts. John of Kronstadt (thank you Kim and Seraphim) and Theophan the Recluse are both very adamant; half-hearted prayer mumbled without the slightest attention in the heart is no prayer at all, but merely empty words. So during our prayer, they tell us, if we find ourselves becoming distracted, pause, take a moment, collect yourself, admit your failing and ask for God's mercy, then continue your prayer. In the Western tradition Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross spoke of turning distractions into prayer as well. Fr. Robert Taft mentions talking to God about your distractions, admitting that you're weak and can barely focus for more than two minutes before a new thought pops into your head. I've found that sometimes, when I'm tempted during prayer, if I talk to God about the temptation or pray for the person causing the temptation, that I can actually turn the distraction itself into prayer. Sometimes it's best to gently bring your attention back into focus in this manner than to violently force yourself from distraction to focus. But the point is, we need to remember to redirect our attention to God during prayer, especially when we find ourselves tempted to distraction. May heaven consume us.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Prayer Request

Hello Everyone,

I have a special prayer request today. Fox news reported on a priest from Indiana who had been sent by Rome to study in Greece. Apparently that priest's life had been threatened. As he was trying to escape from Greece with his translator, he called his family and told them that if they didn't hear from him within the next 12 - 24 hours, then they should presume he's been killed. That was on Monday and no one has heard from him since.

It just so happens that this priest, a Fr. Kappes, was not only my high school Latin teacher (he offered Latin classes for the local home schoolers), but was also a good family friend and my mother's spiritual director. Please pray for his safe return; and if God has called him into eternity, then please pray for his blessed repose. Knowing this priest, it wouldn't surprise me to discover that he'd been martyred preaching the truth of Christ.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Prayer and Presence

This morning as I rocked my daughter back to sleep - she woke up at 6:00ish because her brother was crying - I was reminded of a personal story St. Therese of Lisieux relates in her diary Story of a Soul. It seems that at one point after she entered the convent she had a difficult time staying awake during the long vigils and prayer services required of monastics. It upset her that she would often fall asleep in the midst of these services. One day, however, she realized that children are just as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake. Sometimes even more so because when the child sleeps all fussing ceases. A mother can then shower her little boy with kisses without him saying, "Ewww! Mom!" and pushing her away. I like to simply hold my daughter's hand or stroke her curly blond hair. After she came to this realization, St. Therese no longer felt guilty about falling asleep during prayer. Of course, she would never go into her prayer time with the intention of falling asleep; but if she happened to doze off, she wouldn't let that bother her. It was enough, she figured, that she was in the Presence of God and that she was focused on that presence.

The Servant of God, Catherine Doherty, speaks similarly of the "poustinik" in his solitude. In her book Poustinia, she speaks of how the poustinik is free to work at manual labor, read some spiritual text, sit quietly and listen to the sounds of nature, or simply lie down and sleep. This is so because all is done with an attentive and loving awareness of God's Presence. Sometimes it is enough simply to be in God's Presence without words. Indeed, these can be the moments when God is most able to fill us with His love, work in our hearts, heal us from our spiritual infirmities, etc. When we are simply with Him and lovingly attentive to Him without putting up a fuss over words, or making petitions, or whatever else, then we become more docile to His actions in our hearts and lives.

I may have mentioned this before, but I have a friend who is currently renting a room in a monastery. In the morning he takes his breakfast and coffee with him down to the chapel. There he simply sits in Christ's Presence in the Eucharist, quietly eating his breakfast and enjoying the Lord's company. What an ingenious use of one's prayer time! There is not always a need for words. Sometimes God just wants to be with us, and wants us to be with Him.

Another friend of mine, a father of two with a third on the way, observed how one's participation in Sunday Mass changes after one has children. With little ones to keep in order during Mass or Divine Liturgy a parent's participation is split between paying attention to the prayers and keeping their young ones in order. Attendance at Mass, he said, becomes more like a simple presence. You may not be able to pray all the prayers or even hear the homily, but at least you are there.

Perhaps those of us who have busy lives can learn something from all this. Perhaps it would be best if we kept our prayer rules short and simple. Stick to them, of course, but keep them simple. Don't get upset if you can't spend two or three hours a day in prayer. Rather, after you have completed your prayer rule, try to maintain this sense of loving awareness to God's Presence, and try to be docile to His workings within you just as a sleeping child is docile in his parents arms. Sometimes it helps to stop and take a very brief moment throughout the day just to re-focus yourself on God's Presence, and to simply be present to Him.

May heaven consume us.