Thursday, November 26, 2009


Some of you may have noticed that in my last post I attached the reward of step eight to step seven: one of the dangers of writing about a text without having it open before you. Step seven, being peacemakers, reveals the children of God. On the ladder of the beatitudes, poverty and mourning draw the grace of the Holy Spirit who produces meekness and hunger and thirst for righteousness. Righteousness, because it is nothing else but the love for God, leads to mercy, the willing sharing in the pain of others, because the love for God leads to the love for neighbour. Mercy purifies the heart so that we can see God there. Seeing God makes us like God: we are transformed into peacemakers bringing the light and peace of God where ever we go and thus we are called children of God. This is the fullness, the seventh step.

The eighth step is persecution for righteousness sake. St. John Chrysostom says that Jesus added this verse so that we would not think that one should seek peace (lack of conflict) at all costs. Chrysostom goes on to clarify that when we help others we are being righteous.

The eighth step has the most explanation: it goes on for three verses. Persecution is expanded to include reviling and evil speaking. “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad” Jesus exhorts us, “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” This eighth step is the eschatological step, the new day, the day transcending all days, the day that colors all days. Persecution, misunderstanding, slander: these are the ways we bear with Christ the burdens of our neighbour. We share in the sufferings of Christ; we truly are His body.

We are surprised when those we love do not see what we see, when what brings us so much joy and peace is perceived only as a threat. How could it be any other way? Christ came to His own and His own did not receive him: as with the head, so with the body. It is in bearing the death of rejection that we with Christ conquer death. It is in passing through suffering that we shine with the Light of the Transfiguration so that in the end even our persecutors (perhaps especially our persecutors) see the light—whether in this life or the next.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Please notice that it does not say, “Blessed are the good negotiators.” Peacemaking is not about negotiating resolution between hostile parties. Peacemaking is about being peace. Now, the ability to negotiate the end of a dispute is a great gift and I do not disparage it, but this is not what this beatitude is talking about. One need not be a Christian at all to be a good negotiator, one who can bring about the cessation of hostilities, and certainly this can be called peace. We might even call it the peace of this world. But Jesus offers us a different kind of peace: “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives” (John 14:27).

The peace that Jesus gives is himself, “He is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). The peace of Christ passes understanding; it is a reconciliation of our very being with God and neighbor and even with the various forces that we find at work within ourselves. The peace of God is a peace of heart that does not necessarily translate into a cessation of external hostility, as the next verse will tell us. The peace of God is the fruit of righteousness: right relationship with God and neighbor. It is the rest we enter when we cease from our own labor. A person filled with such peace makes peace wherever he or she goes.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they enter a house, their peace will come upon it, if the house is worthy to receive it. Peacemakers bring peace with them. St. James says that peacemakers sow the fruit of righteousness in peace. Their hearts are free from envy, self seeking, partiality or hypocrisy so they are full of a wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, and full of mercy and good fruits: what St. James calls the “wisdom from above” (James 3:13-18). Such a peacemaker is a man or woman with a pure heart, who has seen God and from whom the life of God radiates.

But peacemaking has a cost. Jesus made peace through his flesh, suffering the unjust attacks of those whom he loved. St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians says that Jesus made peace by breaking down the wall that separates men, “to create in himself one new man” (Eph. 2:15). However, not everyone wants peace. Those who fear put their trust in walls, and those who tear them down become a threat to them. The peaceful man or woman will tear down walls, not necessarily by any external action, but by merely being themselves, full of the life, light and love of God. Consequently, they will be persecuted by those who put their trust in walls.

Advice on Prayer

Prayer requires a certain longing of the heart. Certainly discipline is involved; but, and this is merely my opinion, forcing yourself to say prayers may not be the answer either. People seem to make too big a deal about prayer rules. Like the Sabbath keeping that made some of the Jews miss Christ in their midst, so I think prayer rules sometimes keep us from growing in our relationship with Christ. A prayer rule exists to help us, we do not exist to keep the prayer rule. If my prayer rule is not working, I change it.

The goal of a prayer rule is to produce prayer, not merely to say prayers. Jesus tells us that we are not heard because of our many words in prayer. A prayer rule that is drudgery and continually dry is no prayer rule at all, for it is not producing prayer. Prayer is communion with God, not saying words. Words are useful, they can help us pray; but what our soul longs for is connection—communion—with God. Sometimes (and this may go on for several days at a time) all I can do during my prayer time is stand before my icons and say “Lord have mercy.” I say “Lord have mercy” again and again until my heart is pained and I feel a little sadness, a little longing for God in my heart. If this feeling doesn’t come, then I kiss my icons, ask the forgiveness of Christ and all of the Saints and go on with my day gently repeating “Lord have mercy” and carrying a little sadness that I have not been able to connect with God. Sometimes, I need to read an inspiring book or passage to help me pray. There are times when I spend my whole prayer time reading, which creates a longing in me and produces prayer that stays in my heart throughout the day.

Keep in mind that the “ideal” prayer life that seems to influence most of us is based on a very regulated life, a life based on a monastic pattern. Most of us do not live such a life. And even in a monastery, not everyone attends every service (someone has to be cooking dinner during vespers) and not every season is the same (when the monks have to do hard manual labor, the prayers are greatly shortened, and sleep and food are increased). And yes, even monks fall asleep during services or saying the Jesus Prayer in their cells. We read the stories about saints who after a lifetime of labor (and with their unique graces and calling) are able to keep vigilant prayer alive in their hearts at all times. Who are we? We are beginners. We haven’t even yet begun to learn how to repent. In fact, it is only as we accept our failure, our inability to make ourselves pray, that we can start to know our dependence on God for help. This is where repentance begins: in accepting our failure. So long as we keep saying to ourselves, “I just have to try harder,” we are only extending our miserable delusion. Once we allow our hearts to be broken by our weakness, our lack of love, our inability to pray, then we can begin to find God’s help.

It wouldn’t hurt most of us who struggle in prayer to repeat continually the words of psalm 50, “A broken and a contrite heart You will not despise.” Let your own weakness break your heart, and God will accept that as an offering of much greater worth than any mechanically pumped out prayer rule.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Blessed Are the Pure In Heart

Although I have with God’s help at times ascended to the high plains of mercy, I cannot say that I have ever walked the plateaus of purity of heart nor the peaks of peacemaking. I have gazed upon them. And in this I derive hope. The promise of the sixth beatitude it nothing less than deification, the beatific vision, to see God. To see God is to become like God, as St. John says, “When He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” The hope for such a vision leads us to purify ourselves, which is its prerequisite, a vision bearing the fruit of transformation: “we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”

A pure heart is a heart with undivided loyalties, a heart that has but one Master. Most of the time our hearts are scattered with longings and loyalties, and fears and resentments pushing and pulling us one way and then another. Generally we don’t even know what’s underneath it all, what the roots of our fear or anger or lust are. Sometimes, a good counselor can help us identify some of the underlying causes of our fears or inordinate lusts. But knowing, for example, that abuse I experienced as a child contributes to this or that tendency in my life, does not go very far in helping me purify my heart of its lust-driven and anger-driven and fear-driven tendencies (what in Orthodox spirituality is called “the passions”). I cannot go back and undo the past. I cannot change what I or someone else has done. I can, however, forgive and repent. I can do this in the present, regardless of the past.

Anyone who has sincerely tried to forgive someone who has deeply hurt them knows that it is not possible without God’s help and a lot of time. When it comes to forgiving, we are truly poor in spirit. We must return to the beginning, the foundation that we have actually never left; we must see and accept our poverty. I try to forgive, yet my wounded heart won’t let me; so I return to God offering Him my poverty. Brokenness and tears is an offering that God accepts. The Holy Spirit comes to us as the Comforter who teaches us meekness that leads to a hunger for righteousness; that is, instead of merely being willing to forgive, the Holy Spirit creates in us a desire to forgive.

But the real turning point in forgiveness (in my limited experience) is mercy: willingly taking the pain of another into ourselves. When I see only my own pain, I become a slave to the passions that are produced by that pain. When I see the pain of others—and not just see, but enter into the pain of others by weeping with them—then my pain seems to melt away. And with the pain, the power of the passions slips away too. When my life is caught up in caring for others (when I am “losing my life,” to use Jesus’ expression), I find my life returning to me. In serving and loving others, I become more myself.

Someone recently asked me, in the light of this path of transformation, “But how do you keep from becoming a doormat?” No one wants to be dehumanized by another; yet the fear of being a doormat is evidence that one is already a doormat, a doormat to fear. The false masters that dominate us do not live outside us, they live inside us. So long as we are driven by fears and lusts and anger to protect ourselves, to build walls, to not let the other so near that we too might feel their hurt and have to bear some of their burden, then our hearts are not our own, but we are slaves of multiple masters. It is true that many relationships are very sick, so sick that one person “walks all over” the other. But why do we allow such relationships to continue as they are? Why don’t we see our way clear to say “no”—not the “no” of self assertion, but the “no” of love, the “no” that acknowledges that I am not loving you if I let you continue to dehumanize me? We cannot lovingly say “no” to a dehumanizing relationship because we are already doormats to fear and a multitude of other kinds of brokenness in our hearts. And even if we are powerless in a relationship, so that our "no" cannot be heard; still, "no" can be said in our hearts: the "no" of a heart that belongs completely to God and cannot be compromised or owned or dehumanized by anything that comes from the outside.

St. John Chrysostom said that no one can hurt us unless we let them. For the first three hundred years of its existence, Christianity was the religion of the slaves. Slaves have no choice about what happens to them, the relationships they are forced into, or the oppressions they endure. Yet St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “The one who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave.” And this truly describes our condition, for whether we become a slave by economic, political or other sorts of external oppressions, or whether we become a slave by passions and fears and a past full of bad choices, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of my past, regardless of my circumstances, regardless of what others do or do not do, I can give my heart to God right now. I can offer to God my poverty. I can mourn my weaknesses. I can receive the Holy Spirit. And I can change.

Change is never easy. It is a process, a ladder that we climb. But we can climb it, even if our husband or wife or children or parents or employer or even our priest or pastor do not seem to be climbing it. I cannot change them, I can only offer myself to God and be changed. And yet there is a promise that if I offer my heart undividedly to God, if with a pure heart I begin to see God, then I may ascend even higher, to become a peacemaker, one whose very presence reveals God to others and draws them toward peace.