Sunday, September 1, 2013

His Tender Arms

Have you ever felt as if God has abandoned you? Have you ever looked around the world in fear, feeling as though God was not carrying you in His arms to safety? Have you ever felt as if God has just completely withdrawn from you and left you to the attacks of the world, the flesh and the devil? If so, you're in good company. I believe all Christians who are actively seeking a deeper relationship with God have gone through this at some point. In fact, all of the great mystics - East and West - have stated that such abandonment is a stage in the spiritual life. Our spiritual life begins with great consolations - the "honeymoon phase" I call it - but we eventually get to the point where any and all consolation ceases and we must just press on in hope.

What I've come to realize is that these aren't stages that we progress through, so much as they are intermittent phases. God gives us consolation as we need it and desolation when it will do us some good. Sts. Ignatios and Kallistos Xanthopoulos mention this in their wonderful writings on the spiritual life contained in the Philokalia. But what I'd like to discuss here is an image that they presented that has given me a great deal of comfort and that I will certainly continue to meditate upon as I attempt to progress in the spiritual life.

First, they mention that God never fully withdraws His grace and presence from us, unless we ourselves have first withdrawn from God. Only when we have withdrawn from God does He allow us to go our own way - like the father of the prodigal son allowing his son to abandon him and make his own mistakes, all the while hoping he will come to his senses and return home. No, under normal circumstance God withdraws from us in order to keep us from becoming puffed up, full of ourselves wrongfully proud of the progress that we have made in the spiritual life (as though any progress is a result of our efforts alone). God withdraws from us in order that we might more clearly see just how much we depend on Him.

This is the way they put it. God is like a mother nursing her child. The child becomes fidgety and wants to be put down. It thinks that it will be fine on its own and does not need its mother to protect it. So the mother, in order to teach the child just how much it relies on her, puts the child down. When the child is confronted by the faces of strangers and roaming animals, it perceives the danger that exists beyond its mother's loving arms and comes running back to her, and crying and screaming and reaching up to her until she picks it up.

What a powerful image! God's attentiveness to us and His tenderness towards us is like that of a mother towards her baby. How many mothers can let their child cry for very long before picking up her little baby and comforting it? If our earthly mothers scoop us up so quickly, how much more quickly will our heavenly Father, who's tenderness is beyond that of any earthly mother, come to our aid when we cry out to Him.

We all experience abandonment, desolation, "spiritual aridity," spiritual dryness, etc. Whatever name we may label it with, remember, we have a loving Father. He has only set us down for a short time so that we might come running back to Him with a renewed realization of how much we depend on Him for any progress in the spiritual life. This may only happen once during our lifetime, or it may happen multiple times. It may be of shorter or longer duration, depending on what we need to grow. I know for me it is an almost regular occurrence. I guess I just get puffed up too quickly. I've experienced dryness that has lasted years, and I've experienced dryness that has lasted only a few days. The point isn't the dryness. The point is that we realize just how much we need our loving Father, and we come back to Him begging for His mercy and grace.

In this context, the Jesus Prayer is a wonderful remedy. When we really focus on the words of the prayer and take them to heart, when we descend with our mind into our heart with this Prayer, we realize just how much we are in need of God's mercy. We are constantly admitting to it and asking for it. But we must pray the Prayer in humility and with attention. Otherwise it, like any other prayer, can serve to puff us up, to inflate our self-image and make us think (at least subconsciously) that we do not need God's grace and mercy, His tender embrace. So meditate on the Prayer, think it over, take it to heart. We will still experience those times of abandonment, but when we do we will know that it's for our own good and we will come running back to God with this Prayer, and we will find ourselves again in His tender arms. May heaven consume us.

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