Friday, March 22, 2013

Where To Look For Consolation

St. Isaac the Syrian in his twenty-fifth homily warns us: "Beware of despair. You do not serve a tyrant, but your service is to a kind Lord."  

If, you may ask, we serve a kind Lord, then why is my experience in this world so despairing? We see the mess the world is in, we see the mess we have made of our own lives, we see the mess others are making of their lives. We want out of the mess. We want God to fix it, to stop the pain, to somehow make everyone be good. And there's the rub. Once God starts "making" people do anything, He becomes a tyrant.

God is not a tyrant, so we have freedom; but freedom comes with responsibility, with consequences. And these consequences are not just individual, they are cosmic. The bullets I shoot in the air in celebration fall on some else's house: the seemingly harmless sins and indulgences I allow myself have unintended but very real consequences on others. So perhaps, we wonder, maybe freedom isn't such a good thing; and thus begins the train of thought that has created ten thousand years of human tyrants. We each want freedom, but we want to limit the freedom of others. We want to celebrate as we like, but we don't want bullets falling on our houses. We want freedom, but we don't want responsibility and painful, hurtful consequences. We are stuck.

And yet, there is more to the story. The cosmos is not a closed system. Despite the suffering and stupidity and pain, there is nonetheless beauty.  There is something more, something transcendent. However, beauty does not reveal itself to us on our terms. We can only look for it and recognize it when we see it. And when we see it, we garner hope: hope because flowers grow from dung heaps, hope because even severe brutality does not extinguish the possibility of kindness, hope because persecutors, thieves, prostitutes and even religious hypocrites can repent, can change, can become new.

St. Isaac says further in homily twenty-five that we should "never seek consolation that lies outside the heart." Most of the time, this is our problem. We despair because we want God to fix everything outside our hearts. We despair because we are only looking outwardly, at what can be seen. We despair because we will not close our eyes, even for a moment, trusting our kind Lord with all that is outside so as to look for a while at what is inside, in the heart where Christ dwells. Here is where consolation is found. Here we see with the eyes of the heart that Something More, that Transcendent Reality who brings resurrection out of death, repentance out of foolishness, consolation out of pain.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Jesus said, "be careful how you hear." I think the same principle can be applied to where we look: "be careful where you look." We have to learn to look in the heart. We have to learn to trust our kind Lord with all that is outside, while we let go of our tight grip on what we see so that we can learn to look quietly into our hearts. It takes practice, and discipline, and guidance. But even now--if you are reading this--you have probably already tasted a little of the peace, of the consolation, that abides in the heart full of Christ. The pain never really goes away, not in this life (at least not so far as I know). But by entrusting what is outside into the care of our kind Lord, entrusting what we are powerless to heal or help in any but the most minimal or symbolic ways, when we entrust all this to our kind Lord, we are able to know and experience the consolation He has provided in our hearts.

And as we are consoled, we are changed. And as we are changed, our kind Lord is able to use us (often in hidden and unseen ways) as ministers of His kindness, ourselves bringing consolation to others.


Barbara said...

Thank you, Fr. Michael. This post is so helpful and encouraging. Do you think you have to learn how to pay attention to the beauty inside the heart as well? Sometimes a heart can also be pretty messy.

Fr. Michael said...

Yes, you are right. One learns to appreciate and recognize beauty. This is a large part of what education (classically) is about. In our own hearts are both heaven and hell, God and the angels, but also the demons and every perversion. This is why we must learn to attend to our hearts, to nurture what is beautiful and turn away from what is perverse.