Friday, October 30, 2009

Adam Bede (Remember Him?)

I began many months ago to read and comment on George Eliot’s Adam Bede. After only one post a few chapters in, I became so annoyed by the moralizing put into the mouth of Dinah, that I put the book down and only picked it up at points of extreme necessity: long waits in airports, mostly. I finally finished a few weeks ago.

It is not Eliot’s fault that Dinah’s moralizing bothered me so much. In fact, I was very pleased that Eliot did not present Dinah as a hypocrite. She practiced what she preached. I was bothered, nonetheless, because of my own history: Dinah reminded me too much of myself in a certain season of my life.

As a young Charismatic Evangelical, I used to sound terribly similar to Dinah in my moralizing words and thoughts, only I didn’t have the godly life to back it up. It was not that I didn’t what to live a holy life—I followed scrupulously all of the don’ts and whatever do’s I could find. It was that in the Charismatic Evangelical world in which I lived there were no saints, no real living Dinahs. The nearest thing to saints and lives of saints I had in those days (as far as I could make out) were missionaries and missionary stories, which I devoured. Bonnie and I for years were sure we were called to be missionaries, if for no other reason than the fact the we wanted to give God our whole lives and, it seemed to us at the time, missionary endeavor was the only recognized way to do that. Missionaries were the heroes of the faith, the saints.

Bonnie and I encountered two hurdles in our attempt to become Evangelical missionaries. First, we could not figure out where we were called. God “put on our heart” a different country or even a different continent every two or three months. The second problem was that we got to know various missionaries and missionary endeavors through short term mission trips. As far as I could tell, the formula was the same: enthusiastic singing, inspiring preaching and moralistic strictness. The only difference was the country. Gentleness, humility, self control, and kindness: the odds of finding these traits were no better in Bogotá than in Los Angeles.

Although Dinah’s penchant for personal revelations fit right in to my Charismatic Evangelical expectations, her self-sacrificing service to others evidences a saint-like quality that I had never encountered until I started reading, well…, the lives of saints. I don’t know if turn of the (19th) century Methodist theology could actually produce people with the self-denying holiness evidenced in Eliot’s Dinah. One thing I must give Eliot (and the Methodists) credit for, however, is that at least they held such holiness up as an example, whether or not there were actual Methodist saints. Holding up such an ideal is much better, in my opinion, than the cynical tendency of many novelists in the 19th century and almost all in the 20th of presenting all seriously religious people as hypocrites, fools or mad men.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blessed Are Those Who Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness

Blessed are the hungry and the thirsty. Having tasted the comfort of the Comforter, we hunger and thirst for more. The forth rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes moves from the meekness that comes from mourning to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Our life is never static. To stand still, or to imagine we are standing still, is to slip into despondency (“what’s the use?”) or complacency (“I already have enough; I’ve already done enough”). The blessings of Grace lead us to longing for more, not to satisfaction.

The third rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes, the comfort that comes to those who mourn, is quite a slippery rung (Barbara made this comment on yesterday’s blog). It is slippery because we want to leave our poverty and mourning behind us. We want to take possession of meekness as if it were a bicycle that we could lock up in our garage: “Now that I’m meek….” But meekness is not a possession, it is a fruit. Meekness is produced by the contrite and broken heart of the poor. And these poor are the ones to whom the Holy Spirit comes as the Comforter. But having been comforted, having experienced a little success in our spiritual lives or a little prosperity in our temporal circumstances, we are tempted to say to God, “Thank you very much, I’ll take it from here.”

When this happens we fall into a worse condition than from which we began. It is worse because we no longer see ourselves as poor, and the very weaknesses and sins that revealed our poverty to us before have lost their power to do so again. It is like we have been inoculated. Jesus likens it to a dog returning to its vomit; or a pig, having been washed, returning to wallow in the mire. Satiety is our enemy.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. The mourning of penthos must transform into different kind of inner pain: the pain of hunger and thirst. Some of the Fathers of the Church have called this hunger divine longing, divine eros. Those who experience the Grace of God hunger and thirst for more. There is a parallel in the world of education. It is often said that the more one knows, the more one knows how much he doesn’t know. The same is true for one’s relationship with God. To know God a little is to know so much more than before how little you know God. To love God a little is to know how little you love God. To experience just the smallest amount of God’s Grace and the comfort of the Holy Spirit is to know how little I am by myself and how very willing God is to fill me with His Greatness.

Righteousness is an interesting word. It has almost no meaning nowadays outside of a religious context; and, unfortunately, in a religious context it has taken on so much baggage that as a word in English, it has very little practical use. Righteousness is a relational word. It describes a right relationship, a right relationship with God and a right relationship with one another (that’s the “right” part of righteousness). Under the Old Covenant (the Law), righteousness had to do with keeping the obligations of a covenantal relationship. In the Psalms and the Prophets, the meaning of righteousness becomes deeper than just the observance of obligations but is extended to mean both God’s faithfulness to love mankind despite his people’s failure to remain loyal to Him and the faithful trust in God of the poor, those who have suffered because they did not receive the righteousness (justice) that was due them. In the New Testament, righteousness is the life of Christ and the life of those who are born of Him. Under the New Covenant, righteousness is both a commandment to love God and neighbor and a gift of God’s Grace.

Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness realize that the Grace to keep the commandments of righteousness is a gift. I cannot make myself righteous (although I can do things that make me appear righteous before others and in my own eyes). And yet, I have an important part to play. Those who are hungry and thirsty look for food and drink, even if they are unable to manufacture it themselves. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness look for chances to do right. They look for opportunities to give in anonymity. They look for places and times and ways to pray in secret. They notice when a judgmental thought comes to their minds and they quietly ignore it. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness begin to see opportunities that they hadn’t seen before, opportunities to loan without expecting any return, to go the extra mile and even to turn the other cheek. And finding these opportunities is the promise of Jesus, for those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be filled.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blessed Are The Meek

There’s nothing like a good cry to calm one down. Mourning brings about a clam peace. Mourning over our sin and the lack of God’s Grace in our lives leads us to the third step on the ladder of the Beatitudes. Meekness is the quiet calmness of accepting myself as I am and where I am. Inwardly, a meek person can let go of pretending, can let go of the fear of being found out, for a meek person sees his poverty and is no longer afraid that others will see it. Outwardly, meekness manifests itself in gentleness and consideration of others. Having looked my own shortcomings in the face and mourned over them, it is pretty difficult to get angry over the shortcomings of others. In fact, suffering over my own sins helps me to realize that others may also struggle over their shortcomings.

Humility is often used as a synonym for meekness. A meek person is certainly humble, or learning to be humble—learning not to hold on to things or rank or position, for such things do not define a humble person. A meek person knows who she is, so she doesn’t rely as much on the affirmation and praise of others. After all, having been comforted by the Holy Spirit, the calumnies or adulations or indifference of our friends, coworkers or family just don’t carry as much weight as they used to. Knowing my poverty and having experienced the comfort of the Comforter, I am secure in who I am. If God accepts me in spite of my poverty, then my need for the acceptance of my peers—and the accompanying need to posture myself for the sake of appearance—starts to melt away.

This is the third rung on the ladder. The meek person begins to understand from within himself, from his own inner struggle, that (for example) the person who has struck him on the cheek may be struggling too. Moreover, someone who has just finished or is still in the process of mourning is very unlikely to explode in anger at an affront. Poverty and mourning, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, have led us to the place of humility. The passions of anger and lust, while still at work in us, don’t seem to have the pull they used to have. The same person who a short while ago I might have looked upon as an object to satisfy my lust is now becoming a person to me, a person who suffers too.

Another aspect of meekness is what I like to call “teachability.” The meek person is willing to listen to others, to be instructed and to learn. The proud think they already know, but the meek know that they do not know, or at least do not know as well as they should or could know, to paraphrase St. Paul (1 Cor. 8:2). A meek person begins to seek wise counsel. More precisely, the meek begin to see the wise counsel that God has already placed in their lives: the wise people who, because they were not perfect, were in the past ridiculed and rejected. Humble and teachable people begin to have eyes to see and ears to hear; and consequently, they begin to succeed in various areas of life. This, I think, is why Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth. The meek are willing to learn, to grow, to change—not just spiritually, but in all areas of their life.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Spiritual poverty and tears lead to humility, and the humble are able to change. Having reached the third rung of the ladder of the Beatitudes it is important to remember that meekness must be continually renewed in us. Having experienced some of the blessedness of meekness, it is easy to slide back into pride. Blessings, both material and spiritual, if we are not very careful, will set us off our guard, will make it a little more difficult to see our own spiritual poverty which is the foundation of the ladder ascending into the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, the meek person, to remain meek, must continue to push into righteousness to see ever more deeply and in new ways her poverty. But this is the next rung.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Once we have seen and accepted that we are poor in spirit, we begin to see ourselves as we really are. Christ comes to us where we are, not where we wish or imagine we were. Christ meets us as we are, not as we pretend to be. But most of us spend a good deal of our life and energy pretending to be somewhere and be someone we are not. Coming to see our poverty is to come to see ourselves as we really are, to see that we are not who we wish we were, to see that, in fact, we are far from where we think we should be.

Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed mourning, or compunction (penthos in Greek), is a sadness of heart that comes from an awareness of sin. It is not necessarily an awareness of having broken a rule or law, but rather it is the awareness of the distance created between oneself and God (or/and our brothers and sisters) because of sin. Sometimes it is a sadness somewhat like longing, longing for a loving relationship with God but feeling only distance. This mourning is especially painful when we have experienced the Grace of God in our lives in the past and have somehow lost it. Here the mourning is deep indeed. God has given us his Gift, and we have lost it.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Comfort comes to those who mourn. The Holy Spirit is the Comforter (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit comes to those who are contrite, who feel compunction in their hearts. The second step up the ladder ascending Christ’s commandments is divine sadness coming from the knowledge of our poverty. When we allow the knowledge of our weakness to dwell in our hearts, it produces mourning, or compunction. Compunction draws the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Once the Holy Spirit begins to dwell in our hearts, we begin to transform. Outwardly, we may still not be able to turn the other cheek or love our enemy very well, but inwardly, the acknowledgement of our poverty and the tears that it has produced have draw the Holy Spirit into our hearts. And in our hearts, we are beginning to change.

Mourning is key to growth in the divine life, which is why the fathers of the Church put so much emphasis on tears. Weeping over our sins creates room in our hearts for the Holy Spirit. It is as if the tears wash away the pride that keeps the Holy Spirit away. Tears are sometimes called a second baptism, a washing away of sins. Weeping, of course, is merely a physical manifestation of psychological pain (literally, pain in our soul). Some people do not weep easily, yet feel great compunction; others weep easily over trivial or even selfish matters. It is not the physical tears that bring the Holy Spirit, but the compunction: the mourning of soul over the separation caused by sin. Any attempt to sidestep compunction, to seek a way to grow in God and walk the way of His commandments without first finding compunction is doomed to failure. Without the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, any apparent success in the spiritual life will only produce arrogance and pride. But if we weep over our poverty, then we know that any success we may experience down the road is purely Grace. It is the work of the Comforter in our lives, who comes to those who mourn.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

I have ignored my blog the past two weeks because I have been preparing for the visit of His Grace Bishop Joseph (which, by the way, went very well) and a young adult retreat coming up in two weeks. The original speaker, Mother Melania, had to cancel suddenly; and after several days of trying to find a good replacement, the bottom of the barrel was reached.
I have been studying the Sermon on the Mount, which I plan to use as the outline for my talks entitled, “Living the Christian Life.” One thing that has struck me as interesting is a certain reading of the Beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon. One way to read these Beatitudes (“Blesseds”) is as a kind of ladder or way to approach the rest of the sayings in the sermon. That is, each of the difficult sayings of Jesus can be “climbed” by beginning with the first rung of the beatitudes (blessed are the poor in spirit) and followed by the rest.
Take for example the commandment to turn the other cheek when someone strikes you. This commandment makes no sense to us who live in a culture in which children are taught martial arts (remember, “martial” means “of war”) and the ability to defend oneself is considered a basic trait of manhood—and nowadays many women take courses in self defense. How do we make our own this commandment which seems to us so contrary to common sense? If we are not careful, we will reject the word outright, claiming either that it is an ideal—something for the heavenly kingdom but not practical on earth—or just for monks (and even then in only the most extreme examples). However, understanding the Beatitudes as a ladder provides us a means to accept and even begin to put into practice the Law of Christ in spite of our first impression that to turn the other cheek is impossible in the “real” world. In fact, the first rung on the ladder requires us to see this apparent impossibility.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The first step to turning the other cheek is to recognize that I am unable to do so. I lack the spiritual resources. It doesn’t work for me, in my life, in my circumstances, it doesn’t work: I am poor in spirit. The alternative response for most people when faced with the extreme commandments of Christ is to find a way to say, “it doesn’t apply to me.” But the response that Christ teaches us is to say, “I am poor in spirit.” You or I may not be able to turn the other cheek in many circumstances in our life, but instead of ignoring, blaming or postponing Christ and his commandment, the first rung on the ladder to a blessed life and the Kingdom of Heaven is to acknowledge that the problem lies with me, not the commandment. I am poor in spirit; I am somehow unable to do what Christ has asked me to do.
And here is the great irony of the Kingdom of Christ: once we admit our poverty, our weakness, our inability to live the life of the Kingdom of Heaven; then we are already in the Kingdom. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
There are seven more rungs, each a condition led to by the previous, each another step in climbing the commandments of Christ. And of course, the end is Christ himself: the divine image implanted in us at our creation is fulfilled in fully actualizing our calling as the Body of Christ. And the commandments of Christ, like all commandments, are the means to this transformation. Step by step we grow in the image of Christ, but the first step is to recognize where we fail to reflect Christ’s image and there to acknowledge our poverty.