Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The New and the Old

There has always been an attitude that has plagued me at the completion of Great Lent and throughout the Paschal Season. Growing up in a Roman Catholic household my mother made sure that we didn't just "give something up" for Lent, but that we examine ourselves and make a change in our lives that we wanted to be permanent. In my case I always struggled with wasting time and was typically lacking in obedience. I would determine through Lent that I would give up the little distractions that kept me from doing the things my parents asked of me. I would give up television, limit my time playing music, focus more readily on my farm chores, etc., etc., etc. I have also always been a big fan of food, so I would limit my portions and any snack times.

This was all well and good, but what happened after Lent? In the joy of the Resurrection I would relax the good things I had been focusing on during the fast. Gradually I would slip back into my old habits and it wasn't long before my parents were disciplining me for my lack of obedience, or exhorting me to stop wasting time and get my chores done.

I noticed as well that I wasn't the only one with this problem. Folks who had given up soda or coffee delved back into their habits with renewed gusto. I watched with sadness as others who had more serious habits and addictions returned to those habits as if to an old friend. What is the point of fasting, I asked myself, if after the fast we simply return to those things that were keeping us from Christ?

Sometimes God gives answers immediately; at other times the answers come after a great deal of time. These questions bothered me throughout my childhood and during my early teens. I practically forgot about them during my high-school years. But today, as I was reading St. Theophon the Recluse's letters to a young lay woman in the book The Spiritual Life and how to be Attuned to It, the saint addressed those very questions.

He had been encouraging her in her ascetical practices and inner examinations all through the fast. Never have I read more beautiful, practical, and sound advice. It seems providential that I should pick up and read this book in the midst of the Fast and immediately following. After giving her a couple of rules to employ while working towards inner peace, he then proceeded to give her two precautions.

In the first precaution he simply warns her not to think that she has already arrived at her spiritual destination just because she has succeeded in doing something good. Throughout our spiritual life we may hit milestones, receive some consolation, find that a fault within us has been destroyed after long struggle, experience long times of inner peace, etc. Never during any of this ought we to think that we have reached our goal in the spiritual life. St. Theophan tells us that it is only after years of struggle that we reach this goal. I would add that we never fully reach our goal in this life because this life prepares us for the ultimate goal in the life to come.

The second warning he gives, however, is not to relax one's inner attentiveness after one has completed a period of fasting and intense inner struggle. He says the two most likely times that we relax our interior efforts are during the Paschal Season and springtime. We decide to give ourselves a little break. After all, it is the time of Resurrection. I worked hard and struggled hard throughout Great Lent, I deserve a little break, right? Be careful, the saint warns us. If we relax our watchfulness then it is likely that whatever demon we struggled with throughout the fast will return with some friends to plague us all the more.

But, this is supposed to be a time of joy. Are not Pascha and springtime moments of grace and new life in our year (whether we're speaking of the secular year or the liturgical year)? Are we not to be rejoicing in the new life that Christ as given us? Of course! We must thank God for His gift of new life, and rejoice in that new life. But the whole point of Great Lent is to put to death the old man, the old life, in order that we might rejoice in the new! How can we rejoice in the new life if, after the Fast, we simply return to the old? Ought we not to guard the new life with all the more intensity so as to avoid a relapse into our old ways? In the Resurrection we have been given the freedom of the Sons of God. We have been given freedom from the slavery of sin. Great Lent reveals to us in a very real way just how enslaved we are. Our struggle against our various habits and vices reveal to us how attached we become to our sins. But when we come to the victory of Christ crucified and resurrected, do we really rejoice in that victory (and in our victory in and with Him) by returning to the "old man?"

So I suppose St. Theophan's advice to us today is, rejoice in the Feast of Feasts and Festival of Festivals. Rejoice in the new life of Pascha and springtime. Thank God for the great gifts He has given us. But thank God by keeping on the mind of Christ, by continuing to become more and more the man born anew in Christ, not by indulging the old man.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Spring Rain

This morning, as I was keeping my regular prayer rule, I sat in awe as a great thunderstorm raged outside. The lightning was bright and streaks of it flashed close to my apartment window. The thunder didn't rumble, it crashed with startling volume. Before one bout of thunder had the chance fade off, rumbling in the distance, there would be three more flashes of lightning and more crashing thunder.

I laughed to myself as I remembered a song often sung among Charismatic groups, "Mercy is falling like the sweet spring rain." Whoever wrote that song, I thought to myself, must not have looked out the window very often during a springtime thunderstorm. There was nothing sweet or gentle about what was going on outside this morning. Had I not been indoors, I would've been terrified, running all helter-skelter trying to find some sort of protection from such severe elements.

As I thought about this, however, I realized that there is a great truth here. God's mercy does fall like the spring rain. Sometimes, however, we may experience that mercy as a dreadful mercy. Who among us cannot relate a time where we went through some horrifying difficulty, only to have our true selves revealed to us during that difficulty? Who among us, during our walk through life, hasn't felt the chaos of life's storm swirling around us.

Even for those of us who strive to live a truly spiritual life, there are moments when we see clearly the darkness that remains within. We walk through the hazy morning of our inner life and don't realize just how much we do not see. Suddenly there is a great flash of lighting and all is revealed. The flash is so bright that every shadow is illumined. Everything is laid bare before our eyes. We even feel our own vulnerability. We feel naked before the great Unknown; unprotected from the great Lightning that flashes within. Flash after flash we see ourselves the way we are, with all of our weaknesses and vices.

Then come the winds and the torrential downpours. The lofty thoughts we have of ourselves are blown over, revealing the shallowness of their roots. The flood waters rise, destroying all that we have given birth to in our hearts. The old man within must die. The staleness, the rot, the decay of the winter months must be washed away in the flood waters. The flood carries it all away. Where it goes, we do not know. Where it goes doesn't really matter. What matters is that it is gone.

As the storm rages, the winds blow, and the waters swirl around us, we feel the chaos with great intensity. We can't see beyond the storm. I don't know if there will be anything left after the storm. We only have a vague memory of life before the storm. All that we know now is the chaos around us. In the midst of this chaos there is only one thing that we can do. "Lord, save me lest I perish!"

At first it may not seem as if the Lord is listening. The storm still rages around us. But over time we notice it starting to taper off. The wind is slowly dying down. The flood waters are slowly subsiding. The torrential downpours taper off. It is then that the sweet gentle spring rain begins.

Suddenly we notice new life around us. Have you ever gone for a walk outside shortly after a storm while there is still a gentle rain but you can see the sun coming out from behind the clouds? All of nature seems to rejoice at the fact that it survived such brutality. The leaves on the trees seem to open wider. The grass looks greener. Colors in general seem more vibrant. And the light from the sun breaking through the clouds seems to shine brighter. Resurrection! I believe this is what the soul experiences when we are given reprieve from the turmoils of life. Resurrection!

Perhaps this is just idle wandering on my part. But I know that this is what I've experienced throughout the struggles of my life. There have been times when I've felt abandoned and alone. I've been in the midst of the struggle and turmoil. I've seen what the lightning has revealed within me and watched as that dreadful mercy washed away what once was. I've stood vulnerable to the elements within and been changed by what was taking place. You come out the other side of that storm and you are changed forever. Hopefully that change is for the better. It seems to me that if one is honestly seeking to live a spiritual life, then that change will be for the better. We may have to endure the storm several more times before we are made perfect, but with each passing storm we are slowly perfected by grace.

Yes, mercy falls like the spring rain. Sometimes that mercy is severe. At other times it is gentle and sweet. We must simply stay focused on the Lord, crying out, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." With His presence within us, we can truly endure any storm so long as we are close to Him. May heaven consume us.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Welcome the Springtime!

As we in the Catholic Church - Eastern, Oriental, and Western - conclude the Lenten season and enter into Great and Holy Week, I'd like to reflect for a moment on a central theme of this time of year: repentance. This theme has been weighing on me thanks to some recent conversations I've had, as well as some reading I've been doing and lectures I've been listening to.

"Repentance." For me that word, wrongly, evokes a number of negative connotations: guilt, depression, despair, shame, worthlessness, etc., etc., etc. Judging from recent conversations that I've had with other Catholics, it seems that I am not alone in the evocations that I experience whenever I hear that word. The difference? I understand that the emotional reaction that I have to that word reflects an improper understanding of the word itself. Sadly, however, there are many people who simply have no understanding of what "repentance" actually means. To them it means simply feeling of guilty, inadequate, and shame over their sins. But, as we know, this is not the true meaning of repentance.

But let me take a step back for a moment. In the Gospels both Jesus and St. John the Baptist tell us to repent. They call us to repentance because, as they say, the kingdom of God is in our midst. Some translations have it as the kingdom of God is "within" us. I think a good balance of both translations is in order. As a worshipping community, whether Catholic or Orthodox, the kingdom of God is certainly in our midst, particularly when we celebrate the Eucharist, but certainly in all of our actions as a community. However, as the great mystics of the East and West all point out, the kingdom is also within us, because Christ dwells in us. If you are seeking the kingdom of God, therefore, it is necessary to turn both to the worshipping community and within oneself. It is not possible to be a "solo-Christian." We need our brothers and sisters in Christ, because it is with them that we encounter God's kingdom in a very real way. But similarly we also need to enter within.

The problem of entering within, similar to entering a community, is that we encounter more than Christ there. We also encounter our own fallenness. Just as when we enter any community it become quickly apparent that we are a fallen people, so also when one enters one's own heart it becomes soon apparent that I am a fallen person. We seek Christ within. We seek His kingdom within. We seek His light within. But what we encounter is our personal demons and the kingdom of darkness. St. Teresa of Avila divides the "inner mansion" into rooms, some of those rooms are filled with snakes and reptiles, others with angels. St. Makarius of Egypt (or is it Evagrius of Pontus???) also speaks of the reptiles one encounters within one's heart. And so we have light blending with darkness. Even though we see the light within, so often we are overcome by the shadows within. It's as if one wakes up on a misty or foggy morning. We can see the light, but the density of the fog prevents us from seeing clearly.

As a Christian people we know that we have a certain goal in life. The old Baltimore Catechism sums it up something like this: "The goal of the Christian life is to love and serve God in this life that we might enjoy Him in the life to come." While this is certainly a good enough summary, for me personally it seems rather cold. I prefer St. Seraphim of Sarov's wording of our common goal: "The aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit." Later in the conversation in which St. Seraphim made that definition, he provides an example of what the goal looks like: he is transformed into fire and light! The aim of the Christian life, therefore, is to live in the light, to rejoice in and reflect that light in this world, and to rest in that light in the world to come!

Encountering the darkness within us, therefore, can be discouraging. We long for the Light. We love the Light. We want nothing more than to bathe in the Light of Life, to be fully alive in Christ. And yet, when we enter within - whether within a community or within ourselves - we find shadows mingled with the Light. Here is where we encounter that sense of sorrow and perhaps even guilt and shame over our own sinfulness.

But that is not the end of the story. The darkness we encounter is not permanent, unless we allow it to be. And now enters the true meaning of repentance. Repentance, according to St. John Climacus, is not the mother of despair, but the daughter of hope! Why do we repent of the darkness within? We repent because in Christ we have hope that the light of Christ, the fire and light of the Holy Spirit, will prevail over the darkness. Through His Resurrection Christ raises us to new life; through His Ascension He introduces us into the Kingdom; and through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fire and light descend in our midst and within us to cast out all shadows and to inflame us with new life!

This winter was a particularly hard winter in many areas of the U.S. Places that don't normally see any snow saw huge amounts of it. Arctic cold descended upon us time after time after time. It seemed as though the winter would never end. Darkness seemed to reign over our world because there were always clouds and heavy snow blocking the light of the Sun. I am one who loves winter. I love snow. I love cold weather. I love cloudy days (my poor Irish skin cannot handle sunlight for too long). But even I was happy to see this winter go. I was happy to welcome warmer weather and more sunlight. I was happy to welcome the new life that is now budding forth as I write this post.

In the Byzantine tradition Great Lent is referred to as a "springtime." Why? Because spring means new life bursting forth. It means more daylight. It means warmer weather. It means the joyfulness of the birds singing. It means color bursting forth in the budding trees and blooming flowers. It means movement and freedom after the frozen rigidity of the winter. This is what repentance is supposed to be. We are called to turn from ("repentance" comes from the Greek word "metanoia" which means to "change direction" or to "turn around") the darkness and coldness of our fallen humanity, of our sinfulness, and to turn toward the warmth and light offered us in Christ. This is why the Pascal season culminates in Pentecost! The warmth and light of the Holy Spirit descend upon us. Repentance, therefore, isn't gloom over our sinfulness. Rather, repentance is joy. It is embracing this new Springtime. It means movement, light, dancing, color, music. To repent is to turn from death and embrace life!

So as we enter into the Great and Holy Week, we should redouble our efforts of repentance. The winter  of our sinfulness is casting one last storm, but the joy of the Resurrection follows. Let's weather the storm keep our eyes fixed on the Resurrection. May heaven consume us!