Friday, July 30, 2010

On Guilt and Cluelessness

In my previous blog entry, I said that guilt functions as a red flag for the clueless.  I was thinking that someone might think that "the clueless" was referring to someone other than myself.  No such luck. I am often clueless and blundering into sin here and there, and it is only the crude prod of guilt that awakens me to my folly.  However, having seen my drift away from attention to God in my heart (through the guilt aroused by the sinful thought or action I have fallen into), I leave guilt behind.  It’s done its work.  
Salvation is found (A) in fleeing in my thoughts and actions from the sin-enticing context, and (B) in returning my attention to God in my heart.  Herein lies all of spiritual warfare, at least insofar as I have experienced it.  
I joke sometimes that I am spiritually dyslexic.  As a metaphor, it works for me.  I often get lost and confused and find myself in thought or action where I don’t want to be.  I find the loud shouts of my old man (to use St. Paul’s metaphor) have taken taken my attention away from the silent, peaceful presence of the new man.  It is my sickness.  I do not chide myself too much about it.  Like finding yet another misspelled word in a text I have reread twenty times, I calmly fix it (well, maybe with a tinge of frustration, but not too much--it doesn’t help). 

Peace Despite Pain Overcomes Sin

Someone has asked me to rephrase the “Overcoming Sin by Not Hiding” entry. I don’t think I can, exactly. I’ll try. Let’s start by unpacking the guilt-leading-to-sin-leading-to-guilt syndrome. Certainly guilt is necessary when it functions as a red flag for the clueless that they have so wandered from God in their heart that they are breaking the law. That is, the mind having wandered from attention to God in the heart is seduced by thoughts and passions that lead to sinful actions. If the conscience (heart in this case) condemns the sinner and leads them to Christ through repentance, this is good. However, guilt coupled with self righteousness has the opposite effect.
Self righteousness says “I ought to be able to (not to) do this.” So when I fail, guilt--instead of leading me to Christ through repentance--says to me, “You can’t do this. You will never be able to do this. You will always fail.” This kind of guilt may motivate me to fight. I may try harder. But somewhere deep down I know it is true; and when strong temptation comes again, I fail again. Why? My self righteousness has kept me from fleeing to Christ. I thought, “I ought to be able to do this,” so I didn't flee to Christ.
When helping someone overcome a particular sin, emphasizing to them how terrible the sin is will not help them (e.g. “Don’t you realize how this hurts [your spouse, your children, etc.]”). Such words only increase guilt, and because the person is already confessing the sin, guilt has already done it’s job. Guilt is no longer needed. Transformation only comes in seeing ourselves in Christ as the poor and needy one. This seeing ourselves in Christ is a mystical coupling; it is finding our fullness, our true selves, in who we are becoming in Christ, which is who we already are in Christ. Failure then is not so much my “fault” (because I am spiritually poor and needy--why should I be surprised that the basest sins tempt me?). Failure is evidence of my wandering from Christ, who is the savior of the poor and needy. It is only as I cling to Christ that I can be saved.
Perverted guilt makes us hide from God like Adam in Paradise. And in our hiding, we try and try to do better only to fail again. Our struggle with sin becomes like a broken record, the same triggers leading to the same sinful responses leading to the same guilt leading to the same trying harder leading to the same triggers. Fleeing (warts and all) to Christ we find “rest for our souls.” I do not hide the passions (the pain) that dwell in my heart and mind, but I reveal my pain unashamed because I am the chief of sinners, the poorest of the poor, the most unworthy. And here is where the miracle happens. Just as the Prophet of old marries the harlot, Christ my God comes to me and makes me his own. He embraces me (warts and all) and gives me His Name. He lifts me up, He gives me my higher self, He becomes my refuge, my hiding place, my helper in time of need.
Paying attention to this mystical union with Christ in the heart delivers us from the sin that so easily besets us. Sure, guilt may motivate us to trade a lesser sin for a greater one--gluttony for vanity or drunkenness for pride, for example--but peace in the midst of passion (pain) is only the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the Bridegroom. And it is this peace despite pain that breaks the cycle of sin.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Marriage Will Reveal Your Sins

In one of the workshops I attended during the Archdiocese Clergy Symposium last week, the Fr. George Eber said, "Marriage will reveal your sins."

That sure is true!

I think one of the reasons why marriage is one of the only two paths the Church recommends as lifestyles leading to salvation (the other being monasticism) is because in marriage, it is impossible to hide our weaknesses.  (By the way, people who are neither married nor monastics can be saved too.  Marriage and monasticism are merely the two paths the Church recommends.)

Although marriage will indeed reveal our sins, there is no guarantee that we will see them.  Marriage is a pressure cooker.  The normal pressures of life become intensified in the inescapable closeness of marriage and family life (just as it is in monastic life, by the way).  All our pettiness, selfishness, and lack of patience is squeezed out into the open when we are tired, off our guard and, inevitably, with the ones we love.  But still, it is easy not to see it.  It is easy not to see it because along with our own weaknesses, the weaknesses of our spouse and children become manifest too.

Often in confession a man or woman will spend a lot of time telling me what his or her spouse or children do, as though their own sin was just a response--a sinful response to be sure, but if the spouse or children hadn't [whatever], then they wouldn't have....  Or so they think.  What we fail to realize is that the whole thing is a set up.  Marriage is God's workshop (in my less generous moments, I have called it God's vice, as in clamp) in which he holds us tight and uses our loved ones as a file cutting away the selfishness around our edges.  If we are not careful, instead of benefiting from this opportunity to grow in godliness, we, like Adam and Eve in the beginning, can end up blaming the other.  When we blame, we fail to grow.

Of course all of this about marriage being God's workshop assumes a relatively healthy man and woman.  It doesn't even matter if one is not a Christian.  However, if one of the partners is very sick (mentally, emotionally or spiritually), matters become more complicated--but not essentially different.  If your spouse is violent or you are constantly in fear, get help now.  Fortunately, however, most married people have basic mental health, although they may still be very selfish.

There is a monastic principle that I think has application to married life: "Your cell will teach you to pray."  By staying in marriage and praying for our spouse and children, we learn how to pray.  We cannot change others, but God can.  And much more important than changing others, God can change us.  While marriage reveals sin, it also reveals graciousness.  As we pray for our loved ones and focus on our own repentance, married life can become--at least at moments--filled with Grace.  And Grace is a little bit of Heaven on earth.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Overcoming Sin by Not Hiding

In response to a comment to the blog entry "The Loving Act of Saying No," I say the following:

We don't realize how much God loves us--not as abstract human beings, but as distinct persons. We are all sick and need to be healed and cleaned up (so to speak), but we must never lose sight of the fact that it is us whom God saves. When we get to heaven, God is not going to say to us, "Why weren't you more like St. [fill in the blank]." God will ask, "Why did you hide yourself like Adam in Paradise?"

I spent most of yesterday at the Holy Transfiguration Hermitage and I was able to have a long talk with Fr. Gregory.  One of the topics of our conversation was how to help people overcome sin.  I told Fr. Gregory how I have tried to help people overcome specific sins, and his response was classic.  "No wonder they keep falling into the same sin."  Guilt, summarizing Fr. Gregory, is the mechanism by which we confirm our supposed inability to access our higher selves.  Eventually, like a self fulfilling prophesy, guilt drives us back to the same sin.  It is only as we accept "our fullness in Christ," our higher self, our new being in Christ, that the old man and his ways are left behind.  

I shared with Fr. Gregory the words I had written about hiding ourselves like Adam in Paradise (which are the words from a Theophany hymn).  "That's it," he said.  When we are ourselves in Christ, then we leave behind the darkness.  All is light in Christ, so darkness ceases to exist.  Darkness only increases when we focus on it (this is the guilt-leading-to-sin-leading-to-guilt syndrome).  However, if we turn to the light (even in the midst of our messy darkness-tinged lives) the darkness fades away.  Repentance is a matter of saying, "That's not me.  That's not who I am."  In turning to Christ (rather than hiding behind the fig leaves of the knowledge of good and evil--the guilt and sin dynamic), the Light cleanses us from all darkness.  We only turn to sin when we turn from the Light.  

Sin exists only in the darkness of hiding.  As we accept ourselves in Christ, keeping our face turned to the Light (not hiding like Adam in Paradise), then sin is overcome like snow is melted in the full heat of the sun.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Letter to a Protestant Inquirer

Letter to a Protestant Inquirer
You are right.  It is difficult to be an Orthodox Christian, because Orthodoxy requires that one be a Christian.  However, the difficult part is not what you think.  The fasting, long services, and prayers are tools.  The real struggle is to repent.  Repentance is not something one did in the past, repentance is an attitude toward life.  One must be constantly turning away from self-centered and sinful tendencies and turning toward God.  Fasting, prayer and a self-disciplined life (what the Church calls askesis) are the necessary means to this end.  Nothing is possible without the Grace of God; however, the Grace of God only saves those who want to be saved, those who cooperate with the Grace of God.  Repentance is how we cooperate.
About books, Lossky is very tough stuff.  You might want to begin with Kalistos Ware's "The Orthodox Way." (Bishop Kalistos  Ware used to be Timothy Ware.)  "The Orthodox Way" is a more accessible version of much of the material covered in Lossky's "Mystical Theology."  Another very good little book, and one you will probably read several times throughout your life, is "The Way of the Ascetics" by Tito Colliander.  There is also a great four-part catechism by Fr. Thomas Hopko (anything by him is great) that you can read for free at  Some of it will overlap with what you already know growing up Protestant, but you should at least skim it all.  It will explain a lot.
The most difficult part of becoming Orthodox is not the content of the theology or even the worship practices (standing to recite long prayers or venerating icons), the hardest part is to move from thinking like a Protestant--rational, systematic, categorical (i.e. Aristotelian: either yes or no, on or off, right or wrong, heaven or hell); to thinking as an Orthodox Christian--noetic, mystical, apophatic (i.e. Christ is known in our hearts, not our minds; Christ is both God and man; the language of heaven is silence).  This does not mean that Orthodox Christians are relativists.  Not in the least.  We submit to the Tradition of the Church that we have received.  But this is not a tradition of dogmas set forth with certainty by a central, infallible body.  Rather, it is a Tradition of holy practice and holy life and holy worship.  We look to the saints as our guides--those who have walked the path before us.  Our practices are based on the experience of those who go before us, who have found that these practices are useful to transform our hearts and minds to the image of Christ.  Certain beliefs, behaviours and practices are forbidden because they both create and manifest spiritual illness.  But even here, the Church is a hospital, offering therapy to those who want to be healed.  No one is rejected, but many exclude themselves.
In the end, heaven and hell are how we respond to Reality.  God does not go away.  God is the only Real, and if we hate the Real and cling to fantasy, then life (and afterlife) can be nothing but torment.  But if we turn to God, if we repent and embrace the Real, then life can become Life and the afterlife is Eternal Life.

Monday, July 26, 2010

With The Fear of God

With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!
The fear of God is not just awe.  The fear of God is a kind of fear.  It is the knowledge that God is not to be trifled with, that God’s love is such that He will not shrink from extreme consequences to cure us of our sinful habits.  
It seems as though we can get away with our secret sins.  We are not caught; there is no terrible consequence--at least none that we see.  Our conscience bothers us.  We feel bad about it, but not bad enough to sacrifice whatever it takes to change.  We think that God winks at our “little indulgence.”  We do not realize that God’s patience is providing a space for our repentance, that wrath is being stored up for the day of wrath when God will not pay attention to our weeping.  
Now is the acceptable time.  Today is the day of salvation.  Turn from your wickedness and live.  If your right hand offends you (causes you to sin), cut it off.  It is better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven maimed, than to enter whole into torment where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

The suffering of amputation is severe, yet it is the love for the body that teaches us the wisdom of cutting off that which poisons the whole.  So it is with God.  The Wise Physician will cut and cauterize to heal the festering wounds that we have neglected.  It's good to fear the physician's knife.  It is good to follow the therapy (repentance and confession) the Good Shepherd prescribes. There is yet time to avoid surgery.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Universal Application of Words

[At Pittsburg Airport]
When we speak of spiritual matters, we like to quote the fathers who have been helpful to us. We like these fathers because the way they talk about their inner life helps us identify what seems to be going on in our own inner life. For most of us, these fathers are not men whom we know personally; that is they are not spiritual fathers or confessors to whom we speak and who give us personal advice, but rather these are fathers who have written. We read their works because (in many cases) we do not have access to spiritual fathers and confessors of the calibre we need—or think we need. Certainly there is a lot to be said for a confessor who is a holy man who has spent thirty or forty years in monastic struggle to maintain constant prayer. But most of us have no access to such a holy man, so we read the writings of such holy men, those who have through the centuries left records (or whose disciples have left records) of their insights into the inner life.

The writings I am referring to include such works as the many books about the lives and sayings of contemporary elders of Mount Athos, the works of the Russian ascetical writers such as St. Theophan the Recluse or the writings of/about the Optima elders, the writings of the Philokalia, or the excellent contemporary works of Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos and others. These works are extremely useful, however they are also dangerous. They are dangerous in at least two ways that I would like to point out in this posting.

The first way that such writings are dangerous is that they are disincarnate. That is, there is no actual relationship between the person reading the book and the holy person who wrote the book. Therefore, the person who reads the book can easily misinterpret what he reads. He can misinterpret it by merely trying to understand what it says and not applying what it says. Spiritual writing is not written like academic writing, with the goal of communicating ideas. The goal of spiritual writing is to communicate life, so to seek merely to understand and not apply what is written is a serious mistake. And even if the reader wants to apply what he reads, the reader can also misunderstand by thinking that he is indeed applying what it says when he really isn’t. Human beings have an almost unlimited ability to deceive themselves. Without the guidance of a flesh and blood confessor who knows us well, it is very easy to delude ourselves into thinking that our spiritual life is more advanced than it is.

The second way such writings are dangerous—and this is the part that I have difficulty articulating—is that they allow the reader to imagine that the ideas written in the book are somehow universal. The written word often has a very different kind of authority than the spoken word, and in the spiritual life this is dangerous. It is dangerous because in the Orthodox Christian tradition the word of the spiritual father, the word spoken by a flesh and blood holy person to a flesh and blood disciple, is the normal way spiritual insight is passed on from one generation to another. “Abba Anthony said to Abba Paul,” the saying goes. Abba Anthony is not speaking a word that he intends to be applied universally; Abba Anthony is speaking a word to Abba Paul. This word to Abba Paul has come down to us in writing because the Church has found that it is a word that speaks to many people, not because the word is a universal principle that applies to all people at all times in all circumstances, a principle that can be issolated and applied, almost mechanically, whenever needed: X spiritual malady is cured by Y spiritual exercise.

An example of this thinking that I have encountered lately has to do with the writings of certain contemporary Athonite elders. When discussing issues in the church as diverse as on what day to celebrate Christmas or how to overcome distracting thoughts in prayer, I have heard someone quote Elder So and So as though that should end the discussion. However, what this or that elder has said on a matter does not end the discussion. The elder’s words certainly add to the discussion and should be considered carefully and respectfully, but the elder’s words do not end the discussion. The words of an elder to specific people in a specific context do not necessarily apply to different people in a different context—that must be discerned. Further, even if the elder was intending to speak universally on a matter, his word is only just that: his word. Whether or not it is the universal word of the Church is, again, a matter of the discernment of the whole Church over time.

A similar example of universal application of the words of a holy man is to take the vocabulary he uses or the categories he sets up as though they were the only ways the church ever talks about certain matters. St. Maximus the Confessor, for example, provides us with the very useful three-stage image of spiritual growth: purification, illumination and deification. Such a way of conceiving and talking about spiritual growth is very useful; however, it is not the only image holy men and women in the Church have used to talk about spiritual growth. Our Lord, for example, used a mustard seed and a lump of yeast as metaphors of spiritual growth. St. John of the Ladder famously uses the image of climbing a ladder with many (much more than three) rungs. Within the Church there are many ways to talk about spiritual growth.

I get nervous whenever I hear someone say, “all the fathers agree...”). No one has read all the fathers. When someone says “the fathers teach” with an air that seeks to shut down discussion, it is a signal to me that this person has read very narrowly. Our inner life, our life with God, is full of ineffable mystery. Words can never fully or universally describe the inner landscape of a human being’s journey to heaven. Words are important, especially the word of a holy person spoken in the context of a life-giving relationship; but words can never be universal. Words are helpful when through discernment they help us see; but without discernment, the same word that heals can also injure. We must be careful when we read books and especially when we try to apply what we have read in books to others. Books, and even words, are just tools. As Abba Anthony asked, “Which came first the book or the knowledge?”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Boring Icons

[From the Antiochian Village in Pensylvania after a glorious game of soccer that was worth the pain]

All that the Church does is iconic. In fact, all of creation is iconic, and the Church functions as our teacher helping us learn how to read with the inner eye the Word of God that surrounds us. This reading with the inner eye is commonly called contemplation. The Fathers of the Church teach us that one way we begin to know God is through the contemplation of the “natural essence of created things.” This is strange language for many of us.

When we contemplate the natural essence of created things, we are contemplating (thinking deeply about) what the things we see and can touch reveal about God, ourselves and what is really real. This contemplation on physical things, what I called above “reading with the inner eye,” is a very different kind of thinking than most of us are used to. Most of us are used to thinking about ideas and theories that describe and explain what we can see and touch. This way of thinking is commonly manifest in explanations of why things are the way they are. Professors in universities are not the only ones who use this way of thinking. Every time we explain to ourselves why someone does something or acts in a certain way, we are creating theories. “She says that because she is jealous.” “The Prime Minister suggests that because he is a neoconservative.” “The priest says that because he thinks he is important.” Such statements are all the fruit of our normal way of thinking—we all automatically create theories to explain to ourselves why the world and the people around us are the way they are.

Contemplation is a different process; we might even say an opposite process. In the contemplation of the natural essence of created things, we look at what we see, and instead of trying to explain it, we try to see it, really see it, see it as it is. And when we begin to see, our seeing becomes much more like reading than mere observing. Just as a book begins to speak to us, so also what we contemplate also begins to speak to us. However, whereas a book speaks to the rational part of our mind (the part that constructs theories), the inner reading of contemplation speaks to our hearts, or what the Church calls the nous. The nous is the part of our mind that knows without reason, that understands without being able to explain.

Contemplation is not something we are good at, so God in His mercy has given us the Church. The Church helps us learn how to contemplate though icons. Everything in the Church, as I have said, is iconic: the liturgy, the architecture, the hierarchy, and yes, even the icons are icons. It sounds like that last example (“icons are icons”) is a truism, but it is not. Many Orthodox Christians have not yet learned to contemplate icons as icons—as physical objects that participate both in the reality of physicality and human art, and also in the spiritual reality of the prototype, the reality of what the icon reveals. Through contemplating the icons that the Church present to us, we come to know reality (what is real and true about God, ourselves, and the universe) in ways that transcend reason. By learning to contemplate what the Church gives us, we begin to be able to contemplate all creatures and discover what the Holy Spirit is saying in them. Doesn’t the Church teach us that the Holy Spirit is “everywhere present and filling all things”?

Perhaps this is the reason why Church services are so “boring.” The Church is teaching us to stop thinking with our reason (at least for a few minutes) and to pay attention to our nous. For people who are used to having the rational part of their mind stimulated at all times (even in their sleep through dreams), this lack of rational stimuli may be experienced as boredom. But what some of us experience as boredom is really the invitation of the Church to contemplation, to knowing beyond reason, to encounter with God through reading with the inner eye the icons the Church has put before us.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Just Not Fair

[From Pennsylvania] Last night at dinner, one of the priests around the table had written an essay, originally for publication in a U.S. journal, in which he suggested the following: Since it is claimed that the Angel Gabriel is the one who appeared and spoke to Mohammed telling him that God had no son, and since the Gospels asserts that it was the Angel Gabriel who appeared to the Virgin Mary telling her that she would conceive a Son by the Holy Spirit who would be Son of the Most High, perhaps it was not the same Gabriel who spoke to Mohammed as the Angel who had spoken to Mary.

The manager of the North American Antiochian website saw the article and posted it on the website. Quickly the author received calls from two different bishops telling him that he needed to be more careful about what he posted on the official Antiochian website. The priest was taken aback. In fact, it took him a couple of days to track down what the two bishops were talking about. He explained that all he had done was suggested that Mohammad’s Gabriel may not have been Mary’s Gabriel. One of the bishops pointed out that such a statement could easily be interpreted as an insult and could result (and has resulted) in the death of a whole village of Antiochian Christians in the Middle East.

The priest immediately had the essay taken off the website. I, however, as I mused on this, had quite an inner conflict. In Canada, we can say almost anything we want. And if some “hate speech” is discouraged, it is done so on the principle of reciprocity: One doesn’t say of others what one would not want said about him/herself. But this is not how Christians live in the entire world. In some parts of the world, even to suggest that a point of the Islamic religion could be mistaken can become the pretext for slaughter and mayhem.

I want to protest how unfair that is. I want rules to apply equally to everyone. I want the Christian principle of “do unto others...” to apply everywhere—even where the overwhelming majority of people are not Christians. But what I find interesting in myself is that I want this Christian principle to apply out of a sense of reasonable fair play, out of an Enlightenment sensibility, not out of a deep Christian conviction. Of course, once I sense the embarrassment of my initial “enlightened” reaction and reasoning, I immediately begin an internal rationalization proving to myself how Christian such a reasonable equality under law is. But really, I am much more concerned—in terms of my initial emotional reaction—with the restriction of my own freedom of speech than I am with the conversion of the Muslim world to Christ.

It is easy to forget that the experiences of Christians throughout the world are quite varied. It is easy to think that the issues that are important to me and to my local community are the important issues of Christians everywhere. It is easy to forget that part of the reason why we have bishops and a patriarch is so that the concerns and needs of the Church throughout the whole world can be taken into account. Our struggles in Langley, BC are not the same struggles of (and in many ways would not be considered struggles at all by) Christians in other parts of the world. This is why we have bishops. This is why we submit to them. This is why my freedom and what seems reasonable to me is not the final arbitrator of action in the Church.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Loving Act of Saying No

Love has boundaries. Sometimes we have to say no to those we love because to say yes would create a condition in which we are no longer ourselves and no longer able to love. Most of us have experienced the pain of having to say no to someone we love. As young adults, many people who love and respect their parents beyond words have to suffer through the anxiety and sometimes misunderstanding of saying no to them. It is often a shock for parents to hear the word no from their adult or near adult children. But at some point the child has to say no; otherwise, the child cannot love: you cannot love as someone you are not, you can only love as yourself, as you are. If a child has to pretend to be something to love, then it is mere pacification, not love.
Even very loving parents are sometimes unable to see who their adolescent children are becoming and who their adult children have become because they are so blinded by who they want them to be. It is very difficult for parents to see who their children are, to separate their hopes and dreams (and fears) for their children from who they are actually blossoming into. We want our children to be putty in our hands. We want to be able to mold them. But human beings are not mere clay--human beings are clay formed in the image of God, in whom God has breathed the Spirit of Life. If we are not careful, if we do not pay attention to who are children are, it is possible to twist or bend them in ways that will not, in the end, keep them from becoming who they are, but will merely put an awkward bend in their psyche--like a great fir tree with a bend in its trunk from a too heavy snowfall while it was still young.
Even between husband and wife, no is a necessary word, a loving word. Even without realizing it, a husband or wife can sometimes overpower his or her spouse with an image of who he or she imagines the spouse to be. Not wanting to make waves, or afraid of the consequences of challenging one’s spouse, an overpowered man or woman can quickly lose his or her ability to love as him/herself. Then all that is left is pacification, a walking on eggshells, an appeasement, anything to avoid trouble, but nothing like love.
I once counseled a couple who were typically blindly in love before they got married. The husband was an only child who had been quite spoiled in many ways and was used to speaking to his mother as though she were his servant. The fiancee noticed this, but since he never spoke to her that way, she thought it was just a quirk in his family, something that had nothing to do with her--until they had been married three months. One evening after a particularly stressful day at work, the husband came home in a foul mood and began ordering his wife around as though she were his servile mother. The wife immediately confronted her husband: “Don’t you ever speak to me like that. I am not your mother and you will not treat me as you treated her!” A shouting match ensued, and a couple hours later I got a phone call from the woman who was spending the night with a girl friend.
She was a wreck, but I encouraged her that she had done the right thing. No one whom her husband loved had ever said no to him before. It was going to take him a bit to get used to it. She had to say no. To become like her husband’s servile mother would have destroyed who she was. And who she was, was who her husband had married, who her husband loved. By giving in, she would be taking away from him the very woman he loves and whom he had married. (And, although I didn’t say this to her, taking away his opportunity to grow up in a way that had been denied him up to that point.)
It was a rough first year, but they worked it out. I spoke with this couple on the phone recently. It’s been almost ten years of marriage and they are doing very well. They love each other as much as ever; they respect each other; and they serve each other--not because one demands it from the other, but because they are both free to love as themselves.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Two Women Who Made A Difference

There are two more people I remember from my days as a “disturbed” child, both women.
The first woman is Mrs. Srpage (one of the very few names I remember).  She was the morning staff person responsible for getting the boys in my wing of the dorm up and dressed and out to breakfast most mornings.  She was also responsible for washing our clothes.  Washing and cleaning was a gift of love I never understood or appreciated until my late teens.  Really, I thought some people cleaned and washed just because they liked to do it.  It seemed crazy to me.  Why would anyone wash clothes just because they got dirty?  I was shocked when several years later a foster mother said to me, “Do you think I clean up after you because I enjoy cleaning?”  I gave the wrong answer.  
I just didn’t get the concept: clean is good.  Eventually marriage helped, not because my wife nagged (she did nag a little at first, but nagging has never worked very well on me). In marriage,  I began to see cleaning up as a necessary act of love.  Keeping things relatively clean was a blessing to my wife.  It really wasn’t until the kids came along that clean for me became a good in itself (not squeaky clean, but just relatively clean).  But even today, I just don’t see things that need to be picked up or cleaned.  It’s not an excuse, it’s just my experience.  When Bonnie is gone, I wait until the day before she returns and spend the day washing the dishes and clothes, mopping the floor, cleaning the bathroom and changing the bedding.  I never plan to do this.  I don’t say to myself, “Now that Bonnie’s gone, I don’t have to clean for two weeks.”  The thought doesn’t occur to me to clean until just before Bonnie comes home because I think, “Bonnie won’t be able to relax if she finds the house in this condition when she gets home.” Some people tell me that they can’t stand to see a pile of dirty dishes in the sink.  I take their word for it.  For me the thought of washing dishes doesn’t occur until there are no clean dishes left in the cupboard.  Again, I’m not saying this is a good thing, I’m just describing my experience.
I want to be careful not to blame my bad habits on others.  I may just be wired as a slob, a genetic human weakness that I need to struggle to overcome for Christ’s sake--like one genetically predisposed to alcoholism must work harder than most people not to abuse alcohol. However, I have noticed at several points in my life when I have been living or staying with men, that a certain formula occasionally comes up: “Didn’t your mother ever teach you to [fill in the blank].”  For example, didn’t your mother ever teach you how to hang up your clothes, to comb your hair, to flush the toilet (and put the toilet seat down), to put away your things, not to X, Y, or Z in public, etc.  I usually do not respond to didn’t-your-mother-ever-teach-you comments, but I do make a mental note; and I think, “No, my mother didn’t teach me.”
I am telling you this not so that you can better understand the sloppiness of my life, but so that you can better appreciate motherhood.  Mothers (or aunts, older sisters, and perhaps others--maybe even fathers) are acting as saints when they lovingly and patiently teach their little children (boys particularly) to put down the toilet seat, to see what they don’t see (i.e. what needs to be picked up), not to belch in public, and a hundred other little matters of public manners and personal hygiene.  They are saints particularly because little boys--well at least little boys like I was--just do not see these things.  They are irrelevant matters that can become significant and remembered because they are connected to a mother’s love.  They can also be learned through painful life experience and/or harsh discipline; but love is a better way. 
The other woman who made a long-lasting impression on me during those years was a school teacher.  In our Monday through Friday routine, we used to eat breakfast and head off to another part of the campus for school.  Since it was all special ed, a boy who was bright enough to work the system could easily get out of learning or studying anything--except studying the people and the system and learning to manipulate both: not a honorable pastime I admit, but neither was it without its life applications.  I do not remember any of the teachers except one young woman with a British accent whom I was in love with--I often had crushes on younger women teachers (It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out why that might be).   Toward the end of my time in this institution, she was one of my teachers and her gift to me has never been lost.
She read out loud to me and a few other boys The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Her soft British accent and gentle tones stayed in my head long into adulthood.  I eventually read the whole series myself as a college student and her voice was the voice I heard in my head as I was reading.  I was surprised when a few years later I read the books out loud to my own children and my voice was not like hers, the voice in my head.  I had just assumed that Lewis’ words could sound no other way: a gentle woman’s voice with a soft British accent. 
I have often wondered if this woman was a Christian and if she had intentionally chosen that book in the hope of opening up our minds to Christian ideas about virtue, faith and sacrifice.  Maybe she just liked the story.  Maybe it was assigned and she had no choice.  There is one thing I am convinced of.  She cared about the story, and she cared about her students.  I know this is true because she entered my heart and brought something good, something that bore fruit many years later in a desire to know God, a willingness to believe what others saw even if I didn’t, in a love of reading, and in an ability to find meaning in a story, to see my story in the Story, the Bible.
I have only recorded in these pages my memories of people who had a positive impact on my life.  There were others, but it does not seem edifying to relate those stories.  Just about everyone I’ve known has been abused, tormented or corrupted by people who should have loved and protected them.  My experiences of abuse and corruption are just the same as everyone else’s--only the details are different.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Counsellors And A "Disturbed" Boy

Thinking about my past has opened a floodgate.  I hope you don't mind.  It feels good for me to write these things down.  Perhaps it will help someone.

In the institution for "disturbed" children there were, as far as I could make out, two kinds of staff: counsellors and high-level counsellors.  I say "high level" because these were the ones you very seldom saw except by appointment (these were probably the staff psychologists and psychiatrists).  The other counsellors were the ones whom you saw almost daily--the morning shift, who were the motherly counsellors and who kept us and our clothes somewhat clean; the afternoon counsellors, who were mostly college students and who kept us busy through the afternoon and evening; and the night staff, who were mostly ignored except when you wanted to play around at night and had to wait until they checked the rooms before you jumped out the window and snuck around in the dark.  I had had very little contact with these high level counsellors after my first few months in the institution.  I had quickly figured out that our "talks" were actually evaluations and in my pre-adolescent peevishness I would try to turn the tables and figure out who this person was who was evaluating me.  I would say things like, "If I said A, you would probably think B, but if I said C you would probably think D.  As the counsellor got frustrated, I would begin to comment on what I thought his or her issues were.  My meetings with high-level counsellors came quickly to an end.

There was, however, an old man--a retired naval officer, as it turns out--who was different.  I would have never gotten to meet with him except that one of the other kids told me that this counsellor had taken him out for an ice-cream cone.  I wanted in on that action, so I nagged the staff until I got an appointment.  At the first appointment, the old man said, "What do you want to talk about?"  All I could think about was how I might manipulate him into taking me out for ice cream.  He wasn't an easy man to manipulate.  He spent our first appointment telling me stories about the navy and asked me to tell him about what my dad did in the navy.  Somehow he made it sound like what my dad did was important and that I too could be a sailor if I wanted.  I told him that I didn't want to be like my dad (who was a submariner), so he asked me what I wanted to do.  I said I wanted to fly jets.  He told me that the navy had jets, but that only officers could be pilots.  When I understood that an officer was a higher rank than my father (who was a petty officer [like a sergeant in the army]), I had a sense for the first time that there was something I could do, something I could become, that would "show" that I was better than my father.  In my childish mind I imagined myself as a naval officer making my father's life hell, "court-martialing" him (what that meant, I had no idea, but I had heard the term in movies and I knew it was bad).

Over the weeks, that followed, I began to feel like this man was my friend.  He taught me how to play backgammon (which he said was a game naval officers played--this man was a genius!).  He took me out to hit golf balls.  He took me to meet his wife and pick loquats in his back yard.  He even bought me a few ice-cream cones.   And then the day came when he said that he couldn't meet with me any more.  I had had my turn, he explained to me, but now there were other boys who needed to have their turn with him.  I understood that, so I wasn't bitter that our meetings had to come to an end.

The influence this man had on me was huge.  He made me feel like I could have a high goal to shoot for.   It was a goal mixed with all of the anger and confusion of my young life, but it was nonetheless a goal.  I eventually came close to attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.  I was eighteen years old, an athlete, and because I had been in high school ROTC and my father was a career enlisted man, the recruiter was sure I would get in.  All I had to do was write a letter to my state senator in Washington, D.C.  I didn't write the letter--but not because I did not want to be a naval officer.  I wanted to get married, and your were not allowed to be married while attending a U.S. military academy.  I knew I couldn't wait four more years--at least not as a Christian.

[Two paragraphs omitted here because they are not appropriate for this context.  If these blog entries ever become a book, the paragraphs will appear there.]

I would like to mention two other counsellors who had a good influence on me.  One was an older black man who was a pastor of some sort.  Religion, at least any specific religion, was a forbidden topic in this institution.  However, somehow this man was able to organize occasional Sunday outings to visit various churches.  I always wanted to go.  We visited several different kinds of churches.  The vague feeling I experienced visiting these churches stuck with me and motivated me once I was in foster homes to want to go to church.  My most vivid memory is of the visit to a black Holiness Pentecostal Church.  The feelings that it stirred in me almost scared me to death.  Just a couple of years after I began foster homes, I would again be in a Pentecostal setting (Charismatic, actually) and have the same feelings.  However, this time I was drawn by a strong desire to know God mixed with the same deep fear.  This fear only left after a demon was cast out of me (another story I will have to tell you sometime).

The last counsellor I'd like to tell you about got me hooked on the Bible.  This counsellor was a Christian  student at Westmont College.  He occasionally came to my room and talked to me about Jesus.  It was our secret because he could lose his job if I told anyone.  He "smuggled" in for me a copy of the New Testament (Good News For Modern Man) and one evening at bed time he explained it to me.  He even drew pictures on the inside covers of the high priest and the holy of holies and of the veil being torn in two and of the crucifixion.  He only worked in the boys' dorm for a short time, but I kept the New Testament, and with a flashlight I occasionally read it at night.  The stick figure drawings in the text helped me to understand what I was reading.  I could not understand a lot of the words, but the drawings, it seemed to me, explained everything.  I was only eleven or twelve years old.  In many ways the Gospel was nothing more than stories to me, but they were just about the only stories I had.  They were stories that created wonder in me.  Stories that brought peace to me when I read and thought about them.  But they were also stories that I quickly found out could not be easily applied to my life: when a boy turns the other cheek, he often gets another black eye.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Me and God and the Bible

"Trust not in princes or the sons of men….The Lord makes wise the blind…. He will adopt for himself the orphan and widow…."
In my last blog, I revealed a little about my childhood and my rough start in life. I’ve often wondered not just why God saved me from a life of drugs, crime and institutionalization--a trajectory that I avoided by a mere hair’s breadth on a couple of occasions--but I have also thought about how God saved me. That is, there was a therapy (you might call it) by which God helped me become a fairly normal human being, a condition that I have never taken for granted. Having spent a couple of years in an institution for “disturbed” children and all of my teen years as a ward of the state, I know how easy it is (or would be) to just let go of sanity, of responsibility, of love of neighbor and slip into an insulated and slowly suicidal selfishness. Lots of people do it.
But by God’s Grace, I have not gone that way. I can isolate two factors that have made a huge difference. The first has to do with my relationship with myself and God, and the second has to do with the good people who have loved me along the way (and it is no exaggeration to say that at some points I was very difficult to love).
“I have been cast upon you from my mother’s womb,” the psalmist says. Somehow from about eight years old, I was aware of God. In my early teens this awareness blossomed into a desire to go to church (mixed, by the way, with a desire to meet pretty girls) and the discovery of life in reading the Bible. What I mean by “life” is hard to describe. Somehow the words in the Bible connected me to what was real--what was real in myself and what was real around me. I felt something other than despair or anger or lust when I read the Bible. I understood very little. Reading the Bible was somewhat like mushroom hunting. I would read and read until I found something that spoke to me. Then I would stop reading and think about it, trying to hold on to that feeling of ecstasy (literally, the feeling of transcending myself in some small way). I hesitate to use that word, ecstasy, because you might think that I am talking about an overwhelming feeling. It is not an overwhelming feeling. In fact, (and “feeling” is not a very good word for it either, but I can think of no better word), it was a feeling that I could easily miss and that I would lose quickly. It think it is what St. Silouan calls Grace.
I actually prayed very little, but that, in my experience, is normal for Protestants. I knew nothing more of prayer than “Dear Jesus I just want (fill in the blank).” Nevertheless, in my heart prayer was happening. I was somehow coming to know God: the blind was becoming wise. One of many pivotal events in my inner journey (this one particularly related to the Bible) took place as I was spending a few days in Juvenile Hall (jail for minors) after a botched burglary attempt (I was about fifteen years old). The whole story is interesting and I might tell it sometime; but for the purpose of this blog, let’s just jump to the crux. After a very disappointing conversation with someone who visited me and for whom I had an immense amount of respect, I went back to my cell and picked up a little paperback New Testament (Good News For Modern Man) and began reading it--something I often did when I was very upset. I got nothing from the reading--I seldom did when I was upset--but when I set it down I said a prayer that sounds very foolish, but God tricked me.
I prayed, “God I will never trust another human being again in my life. I will only trust the Bible.” Although my deep mistrust of people lasted for a year or more after this experience, eventually I had to concede to God that the Bible commanded me to trust people; or put another way, to trust God I had to trust people because God almost always comes to us through people. Like I said, God tricked me, and I will be eternally grateful.
One more interesting anecdote related to me and the Bible. Less than a year after the Juvenile Hall prayer, I was scheduled to be shipped off to the “Boy’s Camp” to wait out the more than two years until I turned eighteen in a fenced compound with military discipline. I had worked through six foster homes in four years. My social worker told me that he just couldn’t find anyone who would take me: He would pick me up in a week. I knew that at the Boy’s Camp I would have to be tough and fight a lot (It was fighting that had gotten me into this last bit of trouble). I felt that it would be impossible to continue growing in my nascent Christian faith in that very tough environment. I didn’t know what to do. I prepared for the worst.
In my distress I read my King James Bible (my latest foster father had insisted that if I was going to read the Bible, then I should at least read the “real” one, not the sugar-coated modern ones). In my upset state, something atypical happened. I found a mushroom. I read one of the verses that says, “Children, obey your parents.” I stopped. I thought, “What a strange idea.” It had never occurred to me before to obey anyone. Anything up to that point that looked like obedience in my life was mostly just pain avoidance. And so I made a deal with God (many of my most fruitful prayers in the early years were in the form of deals with God). I told God that if He worked it out so that I could have another chance in a foster home, I would obey my foster parents. God kept his end of the deal.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you how it worked out. That’s a part of the therapy that involved a whole family that loved me--a very strange experience for me.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Unresolved Grief and Forgiving Again

Occasionally, when I am with my spiritual father and the topic of my childhood comes up, he suggests that I am unaware of how much my childhood experiences affect me. He never pushes me, and I usually say nothing. I don’t know what to say. I can talk about my childhood without feeling anything in particular. It is to me as though it were someone else’s childhood. I seldom think about it. The only context in which I intentionally bring it up is when I am talking to someone else and trying to help them deal with their painful past. Every now and then it comes up accidentally. For example, I will say something about my “mother” and then contradict it a moment later and have to explain that there were several “Moms” in my life.
This morning I was reading a paper written by one of my parishioners for his “Care for Dying, Grief and Loss” course. As I was reading it, I let myself feel a little. I didn’t like what I felt. Anger was close to the surface, the kind of anger that could easily and quickly get out of control.
I am disappointed in myself for still having such a strong emotional response to memories that I have dealt with again and again throughout my life. A few days ago (in helping someone else work though painful memories) I summarized the phases I have gone through (as though such phases were commonly known by all priests and confessors, not revealing that I was merely speaking from personal experience). My parishioner seemed helped. But this morning's experience confirms that there are yet more phases of forgiveness for me to go through.
When I was a child, I was mostly sad and confused. It’s not that I was trying to make sense of life, I just lived. People around me acted, I responded--I did my best to survive, to avoid getting hurt, to make the best I could of whatever advantages I had. It was a selfish existence. I didn’t feel connected to anyone. My mother left when I was five, my father was mostly at sea in the navy, and we moved every year or so staying with grand parents, a stepmother or other relatives (and combinations thereof). Although I felt emotionally unconnected, I did connect briefly with a few kind people along the way. The most prominent example of kindness (that I recognized) was my fifth grade teacher (I don’t remember his name). What I remember is that he was smart and thought I was smart, and he didn’t focus on my mistakes. I was a year behind my one-year younger brother who was in same math class. I had a focus problem. Today they call it ADD, but then it was just misbehavior. A sheet of twenty, four-digit addition problems was overwhelming. Of course I could do it, I just didn’t care.
One day my teacher took me aside and said, “I know you can do this. I’ll make a deal with you: If you do the first three correctly, you don’t have to do any more. You can go on to the next lesson.” What a gift. In a matter of a few months I went from adding four-digit columns to dividing fractions. Math was easy, so long as it wasn't too boring. And in the process I learned that I could force myself to concentrate for a few minutes in a row, and I learned that I could be successful. This was a good thing to learn at that moment because before the end of fifth grade I was to find myself abandoned by my family and living in a large institution for “emotionally disturbed” children.
People usually say at this point that “that must have been terrible,” but really at the time it seemed an adventure--all of my childhood seemed an adventure. It had emotionally tough aspects. I really didn’t get that I had been abandoned until my dad told me to stop calling him. I cried for a while and beat my head against a wall (because it made me dizzy and that felt better than thinking). But the next day I was myself again. Not being nearly as crazy as most of the kids there, I was able to keep a pretty high position in the social hierarchy of my peers. This was a lot of fun for me. I had never been a leader before. Toward the end of my two years in this institution, I was beginning to disappear for whole days at a time, spending the day walking the beach or hanging out at the university that was a couple of miles away. It was clear to everyone that I wasn’t “disturbed” enough to stay there. I was finally placed in a foster home and finished the last month or so of sixth grade in a public school (a year older than my school peers).
During the early teenage years, my numbness regarding my family turned into hate. But in God’s mercy, during the same period, I was beginning to develop an interest in God. As I slowly became a Christian, I slowly began forgiving. Now by forgiving, I mean forgiving not to forgive. At first, all I knew about forgiveness was that God forgave my sin and that I had to forgive everyone who sinned against me. I could say the words, “I forgive” (at first only because I had to), but what those words meant changed over the years. After a couple of years, strong feelings of hate (including homicidal fantasies) gave way to mere anger. Anger took many forms. Sometimes anger was self righteous, sometimes self pitying, sometimes just broken and helpless. I got to know anger pretty well, and I came to realize that it was not a friend I wanted to hang out with. Anger’s the friend who takes over your life: you lose yourself and there’s only the anger.
I eventually learned that I could let go. One meaning of forgiveness is to no longer have to figure it out, make it fit, or even the score. One meaning of forgiveness is just to let it go and move on with your life, wounds and scars and all. This stage of my life involved a certain amount of intentional denial. I looked forward, not back. I trusted God with my life. I trusted God that if I gave Him everything and just went forward as best I could, God would guide me and take care of the rest. And God has. In fact, overall my adult life has been very sweet.
Throughout my early adult years, the past interrupted the present only every now and then (at least that’s how it seemed to me). Now I understand that the past colored everything, yet at the time (in God’s mercy) I thought that I was free from my past except for scattered and occasional interruptions: a memory and a flash of anger would appear in my heart; an overly harsh response to my wife or children would, upon reflection, connect me to something from my past; a rare letter from a blood relative would appear evoking a terse, unreasonable response. Whenever I became aware of anger, I forgave again, I let go again, I shut it down again. I had gotten anger on a chain of sorts and I wasn’t about to let it off again.
As I moved through my late thirties and forties, I came to realize that I was my parents and my parents were me. What I mean is that I realized that given the exact same circumstances in life, I might have made exactly the same choices they did. I began for the first time to be able to see all of life (and particularly my life) from my parents’ perspective. Anger was slowly replaced by pity. When I thought about my parents (which, admittedly, was not often), I felt sorry for them. I realized that theirs was a tough lot--in many way tougher than mine had been. I felt like I understood. I didn’t understand something, I just understood.
I was beginning to think that I had reached the end of the forgiveness road, but my father confessor--lightly, occasionally--would not let me think this. There are still stages of forgiveness to go through. Now is not the time to write about what may be next. Maybe in ten years I will be able to write about a stage of forgiveness that I now only see from afar. God knows. The same God who forgives me and forgives my parents and forgives all the parents of parents of parents will teach me what's next. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

War and Peace and Suffering

"The wondrous love of God toward man is recognized when man is in misfortunes that are destroying his hope. Here God manifests His power for man's salvation. For man never recognizes the power of God in tranquility and freedom." -- St. Isaac the Syrian
I have almost finished War and Peace--300 pages to go is almost finished.  When asked to summarize the novel, my first response was that it is about a few aristocratic families in Russia between 1805 and 1812.  Then I thought a moment.  That’s not really what it's about.  Tolstoy’s point, in my opinion, if I were to put as fine a point on it as possible, is that it’s all God’s fault (although I cannot give you a specific quote to support this summary).
To understand what I think Tolstoy would mean by this, you have to not think like a Calvinist (or like a German, Tolstoy’s preferred foil throughout the novel).  For a Calvinist--and most Roman Catholics and Protestants generally—"fault” refers to direct (responsible) cause.  That is, to say that something is God’s fault is to say that whatever happened is not someone or something else’s fault:  “God caused it to happen, and nothing else could have happened because God caused it to happen the way it happened.” But for Tolstoy, nothing is clearly this or that, yes or no, fault or faultless.
For Tolstoy, God made the world a certain way and gave human beings a certain power of self determination.  Thus things happen because of the half-conscious choices of human beings; not so much in the sense that individual choices produce individual consequences (although that also happens, but specific lines of cause and effect are very tricky--perhaps impossible--to trace).  In War and Peace, Tolstoy makes the case that thousands upon thousands of human choices create consequences that are out of the control of any individual.  The arch-example of this is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.  Napoleon did not invade Russia because he chose to do so.  That the invasion took place at all, the way it did, when it did, and with the results it had, is because of the choices of thousands of people, each person being influenced by the choices of thousands of others.  And because God created human beings thus dependent upon the actions of one another, we can say it is God’s fault.  It is God’s fault in the sense that my broken toe is God’s fault: sure, I dropped the rock, but God created gravity.
Moreover, throughout the novel God’s involvement in the affairs of mankind is more intimately and mystically intertwined with human causes than even the word “fault” implies.  God somehow is at work in the hearts and minds of the characters. Through the painful sufferings they endure, God opens for them the potential to transcend their selfish preoccupations and see themselves and others as God sees them. One of the many heart-wrenching examples is Prince Andrei, who returns to the army in search of Anatole Kuragin, the blackguard who seduced his fiancee.  Unable to find Anatole, the Prince eventually finds himself in charge of a regiment that must stand its ground during a French cannon and mortar bombardment.  Throughout the day the Prince watches a third of his dead and wounded men being carried from the field, awaiting  the command to attack.  Finally a mortar lands near the Prince--and then a bright flash and a loud roar.
Prince Andrei awakes from another pain-induced faint now after surgery in a battlefield medical tent. He notices the man in the stretcher next to him weeping in child-like broken sobs at the sight of his mud and blood caked boot containing his amputated leg.  The Prince realizes that this weeping man is none other than Anatole Kuragin.  But laying on that stretcher listening to him weep, Andrei “remembered everything, and a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart”:    
Prince Andrei could no longer restrain himself, and he wept tender, loving tears over people, over himself, and over their and his own errors.  “Compassion [Prince Andrei says to himself], love for our bothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies--yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Mary taught me, and which I didn’t understand…."
For Tolstoy all of the suffering that human beings inflict on themselves and on each other may not be meaningless.  Rather, suffering may often be a means to sanity, to clear sight, to understanding that everything is God’s fault, is my fault, is our fault. Suffering may help us see; and then again, it may not.  Some, like Napoleon, delude themselves to be convinced that whatever happens around them is the result of their personal power, their choices, their wisdom, their greatness. Others, like the German General Pfeul, are deluded by a well-constructed theory, convinced that all consequences are mere matters of scientific fact, of laws that they themselves understand (much better than anyone else) and by which they interpret everything--for whatever cannot fit into their theory, in their mind, does not exist.
The sun rises on the just and the unjust.  God’s revelation is always evident, but the delusion of control, of independence, of power is too strong.  Sometimes pain can open our eyes.  Sometimes it can’t.  Certainly, as St. Isaac says, very few recognize God’s mercy in tranquility and freedom.