Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blood to the End

The brethren also asked Abba Agathon "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" He answered "Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him. For they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I have always loved this particular story, and often quote it to people in spiritual direction. The desert father stories tend to exist in various forms, due to the oral nature of the original tradition. The version I like of this story ends with ‘prayer is blood to the end’!

I like this because it helps clarify that there is not something terribly wrong with us if we happen to find prayer difficult, if we are reluctant to go to our time of prayer, find ourselves restless and distracted during that time of prayer, and even find a sensation of relief or easing of tension when we are leaving our time of prayer.

All of that may or may not be the case for you on any day, but all of those are common spiritual experiences, which can cause distress or feelings of guilt or discouragement to a person. The great thing about reading the desert fathers is that we find written in their experience our own experience, but reflected on from a deeply spiritual vantage point.

Prayer is blood to the end. While I have no doubt whatsoever that the devil and his legions have quite a bit to do with our struggle to pray and the kind of temptations and distractions we encounter in that, the evil spirits can gain no traction in us unless there is something in us for them to work with. And in the matter of prayer, unlike some of the other spiritual struggles that are more specific to this or that individual, we all have this weakness for them to exploit.

Namely, prayer is an action that directly counters and remedies that fundamental wound of our humanity, the basic problem out of which all our other problems arise. That is, we are alienated from God. We do not, somehow, even in light of the revelation and saving work of Christ, experience God as one who is near to us, one we can easily and readily be with, talk to, listen to, be in communion with.

Because of Jesus all of these are true and are ours, but the effects of the wound of sin in us remain, and so we do not know them to be true as we should. And so, when we come to pray, we are touching upon and experiencing the precise heart of the wound of humanity, the very place where it hurts, the ground zero of our fractured and fragmented being.

And so of course it is hard. Of course we don’t ‘want’ to pray. Of course we have to struggle to get there, find it hard to stay there, and flee from the battlefield of prayer after a time. A directee of mine likes to use the phrase ‘skittering away from God’, and that’s a pretty fair description of what many of us do. Kind of sidle up close to Him, and then skitter away, then creep a bit closer again, and then skitter away, then approach again… like a nervous horse or dodgy dog.

And yet this story also tells us that there is no more important spiritual work, nothing that is more vital to our growth in God and in virtue than prayer. And of course this all goes together. Since prayer touches the very heart of the wound of our being, of course it is only prayer that heals that wound of our being. 

Only prayer, constant recourse to God, constant turning of our face to Him, constant lifting up our mind and heart to Him, finding time in our day to do this exclusively, but striving from that to do it throughout the day and whatever activity it holds—only this (and we have to be clear about it—ONLY this) provides us with the grace, the help from God, the strength that is needed for the rest of the spiritual life: mastery of the passions and the mind, and from that the keeping of the commandments, and crowning that the practice of charity and works of mercy.

Without prayer, constant prayer, none of that happens, and our condition is a woeful one. But with prayer, with that daily choice to ‘bleed’ a little bit… well, we are not the only one bleeding here, are we? Our blood shedding, our choice daily to turn to God and do this difficult work, mingles with the blood of God who chose to turn to us in this radical way and shed his blood to overcome that division, that alienation.

But you’re never going to ‘feel’ like praying, just like Jesus probably didn’t ‘feel’ like being crucified. And so in all this there is a deep and serious matter of identification with Christ and following of Him, without which it doesn’t make very much sense and our Christian religion is not terribly attractive or persuasive. But in Christ, prayer is Blood to the end, a sharing in the redemptive and saving work of love of God in the world, and that’s something worth shedding a few drops for, don’t you think?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Internet is a Giant Bag of Sand

A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went.

He took a sack, filled it with sand and cut a small hole at the bottom and carried it on his shoulders. The others came out to meet him and said, "What is this, father?"

The Abba said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I haven’t had these on the blog before, and have wanted to for some time. The desert fathers were the first Christian monks, fleeing the dissolute and dissipated life of the cities of late antiquity and going into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to forge a way of life that would be wholly dedicated to God, to achieve a state of constant prayer and mastery of the passions, and to truly begin the life of heaven, as much as is possible, in our earthly condition.

There is much to say about these men (and some women) and the whole evolution of the monastic ideal from the 4th century onwards. The early monks of the desert lived primarily as solitaries, but as time went on it became clear that it was more healthy and fruitful to live in communities with a common rule of life under obedience to an abbot.

The early prodigies of asceticism, extremes of fasting and penance, gave way to the surrender of the will to the superior and the call to fraternal charity and mercy. Throughout the whole period of the fathers their words and deeds were passed on in the form of short stories and sayings. These were gathered into collections over time, and so we have the genre of Christian literature of the ‘desert father story’, pithy little windows into the heart of Christian life and prayer that are truly the primary source after the Gospels themselves of the spiritual theology of the Church.  And this week on the blog I want to share some of my favorites of these.

This one, for example—such a striking image of the call to mercy and non-judgment. Our sins trailing out behind us like sand from a leaky bag and we either don’t see them, or seeing them don’t seem terribly exercised by them, and yet we are so harsh and hard with one another.

This is not moral relativism, of course, which is utterly foreign to the world of the fathers. The brother had, indeed, committed a fault (unspecified, we note). Nobody in this story is saying that his fault may actually have been a virtue or that ‘he’s just being a monk the way he wants to be a monk. Who am I to judge?’

No, right is right and wrong is wrong, and there is no breath of a suggestion that any of that is unclear. The essence of the matter is that we are all sinners together, and God is merciful to all of us, together, and so in our personal dealings with one another we are called to a deep and profound tenderness and gentleness, as God is tender and gentle with each of us.

And in that tenderness and gentleness, our primary responsibility is to watch the sand flowing out from our own bag and do what is in our power to remedy it, to clean it up if we can and weep over it if we can’t—not to aggressively point fingers at every else’s mess in some kind of rear-guard action of self-defense. ‘Sure, I’ve spilled a bit of sand, but look at that guy! Look at those people! They’re much worse than me!’ Why do that? Do we not believe in God’s mercy?

This is a common struggle of humanity, one which few are wholly spared from, and the ones who are, we tend to write down stories about them, like Abba Moses. But I notice that it is exacerbated in Internet culture these days, this tendency to constantly point the figure of accusation at that other group or that other writer or this type of Catholic or that type of ideologue.

Sinners, sinners, sinners! So we cry, our bag of sand leaking out all over our keyboards and touchscreens, intemperance and uncharity, name-calling and downright nastiness far too often being the order of the day.

My fellow bloggers (any who read this little bitty blog), let us look to our own sand a bit more and look to the faults or defects of others a little bit less, or maybe quite a bit less. While controversy and invective may increase traffic to a blog, it is really bad for our souls and bad for the cause of Christ in the world. What profit does it do us if we increase our reader stats and lose our soul?

The desert fathers, in their solitude and seclusion, have a true word of life for the busy and hyper-connected world of today. And that word is to indeed prefer nothing, choose nothing, do nothing, but seek to please God and be one with Him, and we are one with Him when we are in His mercy and extend that mercy to one another.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Real World: Psalter Edition

O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
“There is no help for you in God.”

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy hill.

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord;
may your blessing be on your people!
Psalm 3

Reflection – This is perhaps not a psalm that most of us would gravitate towards as a personal favorite, not one that we would have framed on our walls in a cross-stitch pattern or printed on a backdrop of flowers or rainbows.

We do tend to do that with the psalms, though, don’t we? Domesticate them, that is. Pick out the little verses and bits that have some lovely poetic cadence or striking image and hang those up all over the place, or share on our Facebook walls, and so forth. This is not such a bad thing to do—there is certainly no shortage of genuinely beautiful, consoling, joyous verses in the book of psalms.

But if that’s all we know of the psalms, then we don’t know the psalms, really. And if that’s all we know of the psalms we could well conclude that the psalms are just nice flowery religious poetry—shepherds and rocks and joy coming with the dawn and all that stuff. Nice, but not much to do with my life.

Well, Psalm 3 is a good place to start to broaden out the psalms from that limited experience of them. Psalm 3 is, as they say on MTV, where the psalms stop being nice and start being real—Real World: Psalter Edition. We have foes rising against the psalmist, tens of thousands of them, people getting slapped in the face and their teeth broken, by God no less.

The superscription of this psalm ascribes it to David, during the rebellion of his son Absalom. If we take that as part of the psalm, then, we have here a cry of anguish, fear, and deep sorrow and betrayal, a family falling apart in division and hatred, a man wondering where it all went wrong and crying out to God for help in the most bitter and horrific of situations.

It doesn’t get much more real than that. And no, it doesn’t make for a very nice little cross-stitched pattern hung up on a wall, nor do these sentiments go well against a backdrop of a sunset or a cute puppy or LOLcat. Can I has anguish and heartbreak?

But in the midst of all this, shot right through the bitterness and pain, is sheer and utter faith. The Lord is a shield, glory, the lifter up of his head, his vindicator. And in this, he can sleep—the great image of trusting abandonment in these early psalms especially. The child sleeping in his father’s arms, even while the battle rages all around.

The battle rages upon his awaking, with God fighting on his behalf, and the psalm ends, as almost all such psalms do, with a ringing affirmation of the eventual victory and deliverance that will come from Him. So no, this psalm will probably never rank among anyone’s favorite psalm, never be the go-to psalm for troubled souls looking for consolation and relief.

But it’s a real psalm, a psalm coming out of a real situation of deep anguish. And we can pray this psalm, even if we are not in anything like such a situation (as I, for example, am currently not in anything approaching this). We can pray it for the suffering people in Ukraine, in Israel, in Nigeria. We can pray it for all the refugee children streaming into the United States from Central America, passing from desperate poverty through terrible danger into an uncertain future.

We can pray such psalms for and with all these people and all people who are in distress and heartache, in intercession and in a spirit of compassionate care and love. It is a real psalm, set in the real world, and it pulls us (like it or not) into that very aspect of the real world that we don’t much like and would rather not inhabit.

But that’s the psalms for you – they are not written as a soothing syrup or a anesthetic for the world’s pain, but to enter the world’s pain and pray in faith from the heart of it. And it is that prayer of faith, and that alone, that brings the deliverance of God to our sin ravaged, war ravaged, pain ravaged world.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mountains of Silence and Dishes

By invoking the sacred name repeatedly we invite the grace of God to take possession of our hearts and minds, protecting us from harmful effects. As elder Sophrony put it, the Name of Jesus Christ for the believer is like a high fortress-wall that gives the soul the strength to resist harmful influences from outside…
It is easier at the early stage of the practice to recite the [Jesus] Prayer when you do some task that does not require concentration, such as washing dishes. But your inexperience should not discourage you. This is a challenge that you can overcome with time. Keep in mind that at the early stages of spiritual practice you must not be concerned with the quality of the Prayer, whether your mind is focused on the words or not. Whatever you do at that stage, your mind will be wandering. There is no way to avoid that.
But the prayer has its own power and energy. As your repeat it in your mind or aloud it will have a gradual impact within your psycho-spiritual world. Believe me, it will work like a bulldozer which opens up the road, gradually demolishing rocks and pushing the dirt away. That is how the prayer works. It opens the road for grace to visit the heart. And when that happens, then the heart works by itself independently of whatever else you do. It enters into an ongoing relationship with God.
Kyriacos C. Markides, The Mountain of Silence
Reflection – So I am back from my week of family ministry at the Nazareth camp in St Gabriel de Brandon, Quebec. I’ve done dozens of such weeks, either at Nazareth or our own Cana over the past 20 years, but each week has its own character and flow. This week was mostly made up of young families with very young children—lots of toddlers and pre-schoolers and hardly any teens at all. The liturgies were noisy and the evenings ended early with this crowd.
At Nazareth, the priest tends to hang out on the beach in the afternoon, the unscheduled time of the day, off to the side with an empty chair beside him. The chair doesn’t stay empty all that much as people come and go for confession or talk, to be prayed with, and so forth.
But there are lags, and so I bring a book, my own personal ‘beach reading’ for the year. This year it was The Mountain of Silence, a lovely contemporary book about the Orthodox monks of Cyprus and the author’s conversations with one of them, Fr. Maximos, about the Orthodox spiritual way.
It was quite something to go back and forth between these rather esoteric and elevated conversations, and then listening to a harried young mother talk about her struggles with patience and the endless mountain of housework and diapers and dishes to deal with, or a couple their struggle with communication, or a husband his uncertainty about his family’s future. And then back up the mountain of silence for a few more pages…
It was good, though, and this little snippet leapt out at me in this context in particular, confirming what I have always believed to be true about the Jesus Prayer and its immeasurable value in our life. For those who do not know, the Jesus Prayer is the ongoing repetition, aloud or in silence, of the phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As Fr. Maximos explains here, it is easiest to begin this repetitive prayer while doing tasks like washing dishes, preparing a meal, driving somewhere perhaps—things that don’t necessarily take the full energy of our minds. But in time it is meant to be a ceaseless prayer of faith and humility, a cry for mercy, an encounter with Christ in the depths of the human heart.
I do not believe that this is only meant for monks living on some silent mountain, nor (as the book makes clear) does Fr. Maximos. It is indeed for the harried young mother, the anxious young father, the struggling couple, and everyone else besides. It is a prayer of faith—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God”—and a prayer of humility—“have mercy on me a sinner.” A prayer of great poverty and abandonment, and a prayer of great trust and confidence. A prayer of obedience (‘Lord’) and of tenderness (‘mercy’), of joy (God is alive!) and of compunction (we are sinners).
So much of what prayer is, the whole of it, really, is bound up tightly in this one short sentence of prayer, which is at the very heart of the Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. If the Church is meant to breathe with its two lungs of East and West, I can think of no better and simpler way than for Christians of the Latin West to take up the practice of the Jesus Prayer and make it our own.
And so I wanted to offer you my ‘beach reading’, and recommend the book itself if you ever chance upon it. There is much wisdom in it, and good humor, and beauty. And that’s all I’ve got for today—back tomorrow with another thrilling installment of the Monday Psalter, and then we’ll see where we go from there.