Friday, October 25, 2013

Captivated by God's Word

There is a prayer from Safro (Maronite Morning Prayer) for Thursday morning that I've been mulling over in my mind and heart for the past couple of weeks. Let me quote the complete prayer as it appears in Prayer of the Faithful.

Lord, in your goodness have compassion on sinners and bring back to your truth those who are wandering.
Draw us to yourself,
enrich our voices with your praises and our tongues with inspired songs.
Captivate us by your teachings.
Drawing from your treasure of compassion,
grant us the consolation that gives healing to body and soul.
Lord and God, to you be glory forever.

"Captivate us by your teachings..." Think about that for a moment. Let that phrase sink in good and deep. How many of us can truthfully say that we are captivated by the teachings of Christ? If you look up some synonyms for "captivate" you'll discover the following: enthrall, charm, enchant, fascinate, enrapture, delight, attract, allure. Can we apply these words to ourselves and the level of our captivation with Christ's teachings? More specifically, can we apply these words to ourselves and our reading of the Scriptures?

I bring this up because the daily reading of the Scriptures is something that was central to the spirituality of the Eastern Church Fathers and Mothers. Universally they encourage us to read the Scriptures on a daily basis. St. Seraphim of Sarov is known to have read through all four Gospels once a week. I'll admit that I have a hard time getting through just one Gospel in a week. But we are talking about the Word of God here! Just as Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, so too the Scriptures are the Word of God in the words of man. Are we captivated by the words of Scripture? Are we enthralled by the Word of God? St. Jerome says that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ! Do you delight in the pages of Scripture? Do you encounter Christ there?

I know that I personally struggle with the daily reading of the Scriptures. To me so much of it seems so far removed from our time and space that I feel as though there is no possible way I can understand the text. So I turn to commentaries if I'm having a good day. Otherwise I put down any pursuit of knowledge of the Scriptures and turn once again to that which is comfortable for me - the spiritual writings of the Fathers. But ought not the Scriptures take huge precedence over the writings of the Fathers? After all, the Bible is the inspired (Spirit-breathed) Word of God; the writings of the Fathers are not. Plus, the writings of the Fathers are so steeped in the Scriptures that one would be hard-pressed to accurately understand their teachings without a firm foundation in the Scriptures.

It seems to me that many Christians like the idea of the Scriptures and of reading them daily. But when it comes to the work of actually daily reading the Scriptures and encountering Christ there, I think we all shy away from it. I may be presuming too much here, but this has been my own personal experience. I've made excuses such as, "Oh, I hear the Scriptures every Sunday in the Liturgy," or, "I read a passage from the Scriptures every day in the Liturgy of the Hours," or, "Tradition is so steeped in the Scriptures that I can gain knowledge of them simply by being attentive at Liturgy and reading the writings of the Fathers," etc., etc., etc. All of these are excuses to avoid actually picking up a Bible and reading it. Is this being "delighted" in the Word of God? Is this being "enthralled" by what God has spoken to us? Is this being "captivated" by the teachings of Christ? Certainly not!

Perhaps there are folks out there who are afraid that they will not understand the Scriptures. I know I'm certainly afraid of that every time I pick up a Bible (and I've taken multiple university courses on the Scriptures at both the undergraduate and graduate levels). I begin reading and I just become confused. I wonder why certain passages were retained. I wonder what the significance of certain stories are. Some books I wonder why they're in there at all.

Don't be afraid of the Bible. Pick it up and start reading. If you are actively engaging the Word of God, then questions will start to form. Be attentive for answers. Just as the Scriptures are God's Word in writings, the Liturgy is the Scriptures in action. Being attentive at the Liturgy (and I mean the entire liturgical life of the Church, not just the Divine Liturgy/Mass/Qurbono) does so much to open up the Scriptures to us and reveal their meaning. Also, having a good commentary, or concordance, or Bible dictionary (or all three) can do wonders to aid our understanding. The main thing is that we need to engage the text. We need to start asking questions and seeking answers. This is our conversation with God through His Word. If we don't understand what He is saying to us, then we must as Him what He means and trust Him to reveal the answer. But we must be willing to do the work. To engage the text. To read prayerfully and, yes, even to study prayerfully.

The Fathers of the East and the West all encourage us to read the Scriptures daily. The only way you are going to gain knowledge of the Scriptures is to sit down and read them. May we be captivated by them. May we be enthralled and delighted by the Word of God. And may heaven consume us.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From the Mountain to the Cross

One thing that has always attracted me to the spirituality of the East is the balance between mysticism and the daily grind, between a focus on this world and a focus on the world to come. Growing up in the Roman Church there often seemed to be an emphasis - at least at the popular level - of escaping this world; of running away from the trials and miseries of daily life and running too a prayer life that was less about communion with God and neighbor and more about escaping from problems. I'm not saying that this is the predominant spiritual attitude of the West, nor am I saying that this attitude doesn't exist in the East, I'm simply stating that this was my experience growing up around very devout (if somewhat misguided) Roman Catholics.

In the East, however, there is an attitude that in order for the spiritual life to be truly authentic, it must have applications in this world. Christ went off to pray by Himself, but He always came back to minister to others. The pinnacle moment of the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mt. Tabor was immediately followed by Christ coming down off the mountain and healing a demoniac. Incidentally the Transfiguration was also followed by Christ predicting His death and starting on His way towards Jerusalem where he would be crucified (a very "this worldly" event). Even in the saints, those saints who went off to be alone with the Alone very often came back to guide others to the Other. Hermits often amassed throngs of followers seeking wisdom and a deepening of their spiritual life. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who lived as a hermit for many years, was called out of his hermitage and became one of the greatest startsi of Russian Orthodox history. St. Theophan the Recluse spent a great deal of time in his reclusion writing letters of spiritual guidance to people who wrote to him. He also wrote numerous books and translated numerous spiritual texts (as well as philosophical texts if memory serves me correctly).

The point is that authentic spirituality always has an impact on our day-to-day living. In speaking of the effects that reception of the Eucharist ought to have in us, Archbishop Joseph Raya says,

"In the Eucharist the Son of God penetrates our bodies and souls, minds and feelings, moral behavior and artistic talents, and all the powers of our personality. Thus nourished by Christ we are empowered to extend his presence on earth. With Christ we can radiate healing, and help inaugurate the era of the Kingdom of  God." (Theophany and Sacraments of Initiation, 131; emphasis mine)

If this can be said about receiving Holy Communion, then it must be said also about personal prayer and the spiritual life, because the reception of the Eucharist is the source and summit of prayer. Why? Because what is prayer if not entering into communion with the Trinity? And what is reception of the Eucharist if not a true and full communion in the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Jesus and, through Him, an entry into the inner life of the Trinity?

So our prayer and spiritual life must not be used as an escape from this world, but as a reordering of this world to its original purpose - life in the Trinity - by first reordering ourselves to that purpose. Through prayer we develop - with the help of God's grace - this constant communion with God. We learn to work constantly in synergy with God's ongoing transformative actions in our life. We then take not only that experience, but God Himself out into the world. To paraphrase St. Teresa of Avile, through our divinization in prayer we become the hands and feet, the eyes and ears, the mouthpiece of the risen Christ in this world. No one knew this more than the saints.

I was reminded of this in a particular way this week while praying Safro/Morning Prayer in the Maronite tradition. Yesterday, on the Maronite and Roman calendars, was the feastday of one of my all-time favorite saints, St. Francis of Assisi. In the Sedro of the Hoosoyo at morning prayer on the feasts of confessors we find this beautiful prayer:

"O God, we offer you praise and glory on this blessed morning, the feast day of Saint N. You have chosen him as a light for the Church, a model for believers, and a witness to you in the world.

Already at the beginning of this prayer we discover the very "this-worldly" emphasis in the spirituality of the saints as celebrated in the East. God is glorified through the saint because the saint was a witness to God in this world. The saints make God present in this world and allow us to see the face of God. But at this point the prayer continues on with a shift in address. As you will see we address God and then shift to addressing the saint:

Blessed are you who distribute your gifts on those whom you wish and in the measure which you desire, and give a generous part to the saints.

Blessed are you, who did well with the talents you have received, because your Lord has now confided much in you!

Blessed are you who understood the gospel and have put it into practice!

Blessed are you because you have loved God and your neighbor, and observed the commandments and counsels."

We are here reminded of the "Parable of the Talents" found in Matthew's Gospel 25:14-30 in which the master doles out talents to three servants, two of whom invest those talents, and one of whom buries his portion until his master returns. God bestows on us certain blessings or "talents" that are meant to help draw us closer to the Kingdom. Do we invest those talents? As Christians we are called to be stewards of the Gospel. In Christ we have been given the Good News of salvation. This Good News is not meant to be hoarded by us like some old miser hoarding his wealth. We are called to share this Good News with others. But we are each called to share this Good News in ways consistent with the gifts, the "talents," that God has given us. Not all are called to preach. Not all are called to lives of scholarship. Not all are called into the monastery. And not all are called to the priesthood or religious life. So it is important in our spiritual lives that we discern the gifts that God has given us in order that we might more effectively go out and share the Good News of salvation in Christ.

St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans: "Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship." He then exhorts us on to generosity, giving of the gifts which we have been given, investing the talents that have been entrusted to us. But first St. Paul exhorts us to humility:

"Thus, in virtue of the favor given to me, I warn each of you not to think more highly of himself than he ought. Let him estimate soberly, in keeping with the measure of faith that God has apportioned to him."

Already we are called to discern. What have I been given? What is my portion? How can I best invest that portion so as to bring the most souls to Christ? We must look upon ourselves with humility and not presume that we have been given gifts which are not ours. I am not a priest, and so I cannot go about acting as if I have the specific graces of a priest. Nor am I good accounting. It would be an act of pride for me to take on the role of an accountant even in the service of Christ. St. Paul goes on:

"Just as each of us has one body with many members, and not all the members have the same function, so too we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the favor bestowed on each of us. One's gift may be prophecy; its use should be in proportion to his faith. It may be the gift of ministry; it should be used for service. One who is a teacher should use his gift for teaching; one with the power of exhortation should exhort. He who gives alms should do so generously; he who rules should exercise his authority with care; he who performs works of mercy should do so cheerfully."

And here's the real clincher. After all this St. Paul tells us, "Your love must be sincere." We each have our gifts. In prayer we discern what those gifts are so that we might then come down off the mountain of prayer and be stewards of the Gospel according to the gifts which we have been given. But our stewardship must be in sincere love of God and neighbor.

How do we "do well with the talents we have received?" For those of us who are married our witness to the Gospel is first to our family. Are we generous with our family? Is our love sincere. In ministering to our family do minister cheerfully? Do we use our gift of ministry to our family for selfless service to them, or do we "keep score," expecting something in return? I know there are times when I just don't want to be bothered to change yet another diaper. And while I may go ahead and change that diaper, I am all but cheerful about it. This is not a generous giving of myself. It is not a good exercise of the gift of ministry that has been given me by virtue of the graces of marriage. You can apply this to any aspect of married life. Perhaps you hate doing the dishes, or sitting down to work out the family budget, or running the vacuum cleaner, or shopping for groceries. Perhaps you feel as though you would come closer to God if you could just skip all that and go pray. But this is a deception. We must pray, of course, but our prayer must lead us to action in the world. For us married folks this action starts within our own family and the duties of family life.

Priests, monks, and nuns can apply this to their lives as well. Monasticism has always had a strong emphasis on balancing work and prayer. What is your gift within your monastery or convent? How can you apply that gift to exhort your brethren to deeper holiness? Priests, I'm sure there are days where you just don't want to go out there and hear confessions for the millionth time, knowing that you're probably going to be hearing the same things that you've heard over and over again. Perhaps you don't want to make yet another trip to the hospital to visit that one person who just gets under your skin. Or perhaps there is a young know-it-all punk like me in your parish that you would just rather not talk to, but who seems insistent on coming over once or twice a week for a chat. But what is the gift that has been given to you by virtue of your ordination?

I was challenged this past week by a dear friend of mine. I've been told time and again by numerous people that I have a gift for writing. This friend told me I needed to sit down and start writing some books. I must admit that while I'd love to do this, I am a bit frightened at the prospect of writing a book. I don't really know why, but I am. But I have to discern. Is this really a gift that God has given me? Will my use of this gift be for my own pride's sake, or is this going to be an act of genuine love for Christ and service to my neighbor?

"Blessed are you, who did well with the talents you have received, because your Lord has now confided much in you!"

It seems like something so simple. But what are your talents? How can you invest them? Seek this out in prayer. It may take years, but you will get an answer. Once you have the answer, do not remain on the mountain. St. Peter wanted to remain on Mt. Tabor, to extend that mountain-top experience and to keep it for himself. But Christ, through His action, reminded Peter (and He reminds us) that this mountain-top experience has to be brought down into the world. Christ came down off the mountain of His Transfiguration and shortly thereafter poured out His very life for the salvation of the world. We too are called to come down off the mountain of prayer and pour ourselves out, in sincere love of God and neighbor, for the life of the world. May heaven consume us.