Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

During the first week of Great Lent in the Holy Orthodox Church, we recite the theologically profound Canon (hymn) of St. Andrew of Crete. This huge hymn is divided into four parts and read Monday through Thursday evenings in the first week of Lent, and in its entirety on Thursday of the fifth week. This hymn, written in the eighth century, is a school for repentance.

The hymn is essentially a meditation consisting of commands and questions addressed to the soul urging it to repent of both mental and bodily sins. Allusions are made to biblical characters and situations, likening the soul to the sinners and urging the soul to flee sin as the righteous have:

By my own choice have I incurred the guilt of Cain's murder. I have killed my conscience...

O my soul, you have followed Ham, who mocked his father. You have not covered your neighbor’s shame.

Flee, my soul, like Lot from the burning of sin...flee from every flame of animal desire.

As you listen to or read this hymn, the observations, commands and questions that St. Andrew addresses to his soul mysteriously become questions you are asking of your own soul. It is as though you are standing outside yourself examining yourself and commanding yourself to repent.

One of my favorite verses typifies the Orthodox Christian understanding of sin and the effects of sin:

David the forefather of God once sinned doubly, pierced with the arrow of adultery and the spear of murder.

Although David himself confesses that his sins, adultery and murder, were primarily sins against God, “Against You only have I sinned and done that which is evil in Your sight” (Psalm 50/51: 4), the problem the sins manifest are not primarily legal or covenantal. This double sin does not create a legal problem before God so much as it manifests a medical emergency of the soul. David had been pierced by the arrow of adultery and the spear of murder. David had been wounded--and wounded people wound others. A wounded soul contemplates sin, and what we contemplate eventually determines what we do.

The remedy for David, and for all wounded sinners, lies in his confession and repentance, not so that God can forgive him in some legal sense of the word; but so that David can see reality as it is, so that he can agree with God (confess/ homolegeo/say the same thing as), and so he can begin to ask God for mercy and thus begin to be healed. Two verses later, St. Andrew writes:

David...composed a hymn setting forth as an icon the action he had done; and he condemned it crying: “Have mercy on me….”

The Canon of St. Andrew, all of Great Lent for that matter, makes no sense so long as one sees sin as legal problem before God. Indeed, if sin were merely a matter of paying a debt--which has been paid once and for all in Christ--why would one need to continually repent? But sin is not essentially a legal problem; rather, it is a wounding of the soul, a wounding of which I may be largely unaware.

Nevertheless,the evidence of this wounded soul exists in my thoughts and actions which, “Like Israel before you...instead of the divine manna...[you] senselessly [prefer] the pleasure-loving gluttony of the passions…. The swine’s meat...and the food of Egypt you…[prefer], my soul, to the food of heaven.” The fact that my thoughts and actions continue to imitate the children of Israel in the desert rather than Moses on the mountain is evidence that I am still gravely ill.

Like David, I must set forth as an icon the thoughts and actions I have entertained and committed, and condemn them. Like a wounded man, I must first acknowledge that I am not healthy, so that I can submit to the Physician and the therapy which will bring me healing.

This is what the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is about. It is about seeing and acknowledging the wounds of our soul, it is about confessing our sickness--even if we do not quite feel sick at the moment. By reviewing the great sins--and the great repentances--of the Bible, St. Andrew helps us see that our soul is indeed wounded by sin. And we also see that no wound is so great that it cannot be healed through repentance.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hellbound and the Prayers of Paradise

On the blog for the movie Hellbound, several arguments are presented for and against various views of hell and related topics.  What struck me as I read through them was that in just about every case, the arguments seemed to hinge on an either/or formula.  
I find this tendency to reduce matters of ultimate importance to mutually exclusive dyads unhelpful.  It is as if we really think that God and the realities beyond the physical as we currently experience it, realities that are only vaguely revealed to us, submit to easily-manipulated oppositions of yes/no, either/or, on/off, heaven/hell.
I admit, such dyadic reasoning works quite well when one is building a bridge.  A certain quality of steel, in a certain shape, under certain conditions, either will or will not hold a certain weight.  However, such reasoning functions quite miserably, for example, when it comes to intimate human relationships.  Here, love/hate relationships are common.  There is very little either/or when it comes to the actual experience of human relationships.  Rather than a cold conclusion, a turbulent sea of shifting and often opposing thoughts and feelings much better describes how human beings actually experience their relationships with one another.  No one ever found love with the proposal: “You either love me or you don’t.”
And if opposing dyads fail as useful tools in understanding human relationships, I submit that they fail colossally as tools in understanding human/divine relationships.  Let me tell you a story.
When my daughters were children, Hannah was “helping” in the kitchen.  After we finished sweeping the floor together she announced, “Now you have to give me a cookie.”  
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I was a good girl.  Good girls get cookies.”
Hannah was a bright girl, and she thought she had figured out the system: good girls are helpful: good girls get cookies: ergo, helpful girls get cookies. The system made sense to her, so now she was working the system.
I think we often do the same thing with divine matters.  We take what little bits of information we have gathered about God and the Heavenly realm, form them into a system that makes sense to us, and then foist them back onto God--declaring those who do not submit to the reason of our steely logic to be either deranged or demonic.
In an ancient Orthodox Christian hymn, we are encouraged to pray to Paradise, that by the “rustling of Thy leaves” it would beseech God to make a way back to Paradise for us.  Asking leaves to pray for you: not very reasonable if you ask me.  But it is very profound.
St. James says that salt water and fresh water do not flow from the same spring.  I wonder what he would have said if he had encountered modern kitchen taps--hot and cold water from the same spring?  Of course I know what’s under the sink and where the pipes run.  However, to one who didn’t know, it might seem a contradiction.
I think our knowledge of the heavenly realm is somewhat like St. James’ knowledge of modern plumbing.  We know that God is just and God is merciful; how they connect under the sink, we do not know.  We know that there is a river of life and a lake of fire, both in the Kingdom of the God of Love; how they connect under the sink, we do not know.  
To say that mercy triumphs over justice (James 2:13) is not to say that there is no justice.  What "eternal" means in our paradigm now, either eternal torment or eternal Life, may be very different from what it means in a realm in which time as we know it has passed away.  What makes perfect sense now, may be meaningless in the age to come.  

Yes, there are situations when it is appropriate to present the reasonableness of the faith; however, we err greatly when we attempt to reduce the faith to what is reasonable.  
I think we would all understand better the things of God and the realm of the Kingdom to come if we spent less of our energy trying to reduce what little we may know about these things to the most reasonable syllogism and spent more time asking Paradise to pray for us by the rustling of its leaves.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Forgiveness Sunday

In the Western Tradition, Great Lent begins on a Wednesday, Ash Wednesday.  In the East, Great Lent begins on a Monday.  The Sunday immediately before Great Lent begins is called Forgiveness Sunday.  The Synaxarion for the day--that is, the reading from Matins that explains the liturgical meaning of each day--explains the meaning of this day as follows:

It is the Sunday of Forgiveness, known also as Cheese Fare Sunday. Today’s lesson from the Holy Gospel [Matt. 6:14-21] teaches us about forgiveness and fasting, and how both are crucial to our own return to Paradise. The divine Fathers also set on this day the anniversary of the exile of Adam and Eve from the Paradise of bliss, at the entrance of Great Lent, to show us by deed as well as word how great is the benefit that accrues to man from fasting and repenting; and, on the contrary, how great the harm that comes from destructive gluttony and from disobedience to the divine commandments. The sin of gluttony resulted in Adam and Eve’s banishment from Paradise, because they disobeyed God by eating from the tree which He had forbidden them. The Church reminds us of this event to encourage us to return to that ancient glory and primeval happiness by means of fasting and obedience to God and His commandments.
On Cheese Fare Sunday, at Vespers, the Orthodox Church has a tradition of actually and personally asking for and offering forgiveness to everyone.  At the end of Vespers, each person present bows before each other person and both asks for forgiveness and gives forgiveness, and assures the other that God forgives: "God forgives and I forgive."  

Keeping in mind the gluttony that cast Adam and Eve from the Garden, each Christian enters the season of the Fast with humility, knowing that the serpent still whispers and that what is forbidden still seems "good for food...pleasant to the eyes, and...desirable to make one wise."  We humble ourselves in fasting.  We fast not because we think we can do what our fore-parents could not do.  Rather, we fast as those who have already eaten too much, recognizing our sin and asking God for mercy.  We fast as the Prodigal Son, who left the pig food looking for the food of his Father's house.  We fast as the Publican prayed, unworthy to lift our eyes to heaven, but beating our breast and saying, "Have mercy on me O God."

Today we forgive those who have sinned against us because we know we cannot carry the heavy load of unforgiveness on this journey.  We forgive because we want our Heavenly Father to forgive us.  We forgive because we are frail and easily mislead.  We forgive because that is what Christians do; and we pray, at least for the next forty days, we may begin to live as Christians.

My Brothers and Sisters who may read this, please forgive me, the worst priest.

Fr. Michael

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Sunday of the Last Judgement

The final preparatory Sunday of pre-Lent is the Sunday of the Last Judgement.  Just as for the previous two Sundays the Church has set before us for our consideration two types, two ways of approaching God; so also this Sunday we are asked to consider two groups and their response to Christ, who is in the guise of the least of His brothers or sisters.
In this parable, the Glorious Second Coming of Christ and the gathering of the nations around Him is likened to a shepherd separating sheep from goats.  The sheep are welcomed into the Kingdom of the Father “prepared for you from the foundation of the world”; while the goats are sent off to eternal fire “prepared for the devil and his angels.”  The criterion for the separation is how each treated Christ--in the guise of the least of the His brothers or sisters.
One point of particular interest here is that neither the sheep nor the goats realize that they are caring for Christ when they do or do not care for their neighbors.  Religious hypocrisy has no place.  Selfish concern expressed as “charity” has no place in the Judgement.  Only genuine love and care survive.  And this is a big part of what Lent is about: repenting of false love and selfishness while nurturing genuine love for God and neighbor.
The hymns that we chant on this day remind us that fasting alone accomplishes nothing: 
Dost thou fast? Deal not treacherously with thy neighbor. 
Wilt thou eschew food? Judge not thy brother, lest thou be sent to the fire and be burned up like the wax.
Fasting is a tool; it is not an end in itself.  The Fathers of the Church advise us to keep in mind that Satan never eats--he keeps the strictest fast.  The goal of the forty days is to draw near to God, and fasting is a tool to help us do that.  However, drawing near to God means attending to the suffering of those around you, for in ministering to these you are ministering to Christ.  
While the focus of this Sunday is the final Judgment on the Last Day, it is important to remember that for Orthodox Christians, eschatological realities (realities of the Last Day) are also realities that we begin to experience and participate in even while we are in this life.  Both Heaven and hell are in varying degrees “tasted” in this life.  What this means for us practically is that the separation of the sheep and the goats referred to in Matthew 25 is not merely a parable about something that will happen in the future.  It is also a revelation of what is constantly happening in the human heart.
In every human heart there are sheep and goats.  Every human heart experiences impulses of compassion and impulses of contempt for those who suffer.  And even now, the Judgement is taking place:  sheep on the right, goats on the left.  How we turn, what we do, the impulses that we nurture, all of this sorting of thoughts, feelings and desires is done before the Throne of the Great Judge, right now.  This is why Jesus told us this parable: not that we would fear a surprise at the End, but that we would recognize what is already happening in our hearts and what will be revealed clearly on the Last Day.
The wearing down of Lent (the extra services, the fasting, the prostrations) helps us see our own heart.  When we are weak, we see clearly our dependence on God’s help.  When we are weak, we are less easily distracted by the unending busyness of the world.  When we are weak, then we are strong, as the Apostle tells us.  Lent teaches us that only by the strength which God provides to the humble will we be able to love even the least of His brothers and sisters.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Souls Saturday

On the Saturday before the Sunday of the Last Judgement, which prepares us for the final week of pre-Lent, the Church holds the first of several universal funeral services.  These “Souls Saturdays” have at least two purposes.  First, they are to provide a funeral for all who have died without one: “Since many have died at sea, in the mountains or wilderness, in the air, or, because of their poverty have died without the prescribed services” (from the Synaxarion of Souls Saturday).  The second is to remind us of our own mortality.
An Orthodox funeral both remembers those who have fallen asleep and begs God to have mercy on them.  Of course in an Orthodox context, “remember” does not mean merely to call to mind--such as is common today in “life celebrations,” which have almost completely replaced funerals even in most Christian contexts.  For Orthodox Christians to remember means to hold in the heart and actually be with that person in a spiritual way.   “Remember” here has the same meaning as remembering Christ in Holy Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”  In Holy Eucharist we do not merely call to mind the facts of Christ’s life; rather, we commune with Christ, we are with Christ in a spiritual way.  Similarly, remembering the departed is to be with them both in the tombs and in the Presence of God.  
Yes, I said be with them in the tombs.  
A consistent spiritual teaching of the universal Church has been that in the remembrance of death (ones own death and death generally) one gains perspective that helps him or her actually live the life of Christ while still in “this body of death,” to quote St. Paul.  
As a priest and confessor I often hear people lament the apparent impossibility of living a holy life, a life in which we sin less, a life in which our attention is kept on the inner life even as we conduct the business of the outer life.  One reason why I think this generation has such a problem even imagining that holy living is possible is that we live in a world in which death is hidden from us.  We don’t kill our own food (or even know that someone had to kill the chicken in the sandwich I had for lunch); we send our grandparents off to die well drugged in institutions for that purpose; and then we “celebrate their life,” either before or after the cremation and the dispersing of the ashes wherever.  
Our culture hides death, so the Life of Resurrection seems impossible to us.  However, the Church will not let us forget.  On this Saturday (and on three more Saturdays during Great Lent), the Church remembers all those who have departed from among us and the death that we must all pass through, the death that we are already passing through in anticipation of the Resurrection that we are already experiencing.
This is the mystery of the Christian experience.  The meek are exalted and the proud are brought low; the dead live while those who live are constantly being given over to death.  And there is nothing at all linear about the experience.  I die that I may live that I may be given over to death and rise again.  I am humbled in one area of my life even as I am raised up in another.  Death is at work in me that life may be at work in others.  
And so the Church prepares us for the arena of the fast (an expression used by several Fathers of the Church) by reminding us of death, which in a churchy sort of way makes sense.  What but death could prepare us for the Resurrection?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pride Masquerading as Confidence

As a pastor, I often feel the tension in the lives of those I care for. And one of the greatest temptations I face is the urge to quickly resolve that tension by suggesting remedies that make sense to me.

Like many people, I tend to think I know what others should do to resolve the tension in their lives. The temptations that I face are really common to all of us. Pastors face the same temptations everyone else face. But some of us, teachers, counselors, pastors and even parents and friends, are in a position of trust and authority; and sometimes based on that trust and authority we delude ourselves into thinking that our thoughts about the lives of others truly contain the bit of insight the other is lacking and that if they would just follow our advice the tension in their life would be resolved. Delusion indeed.

It is true that teachers and pastors and friends often provide a bit of insight or wisdom that helps us work through our issues and come to be at peace with the various awkward circumstances and realities of our lives and relationships. However, the danger comes when the advisor begins to think that he or she necessarily has the wisdom or insight that the other needs. When this happens, all sorts of hell break loose--and I mean that quite literally.

Self confidence is almost always merely culturally acceptable code for pride. And pride is the devil's own calling card. When we are proud, we accept the deceiver's invitation to both deceive and be deceived. And much of the time, since our culture encourages self exaltation (which the Fathers call self esteem), pride does not feel uncomfortable to us--even in prayer. We don't even notice it. We call it confidence.

The Church, on the other hand, encourages us to give up pride masquerading as confidence. And nowhere is this more important than in our caring for one another. We don't know what the other needs--even when we think we really do (maybe especially then!). Sure we may have a piece of the picture, a piece of the puzzle, a bit of wisdom; however, we don't really know. People are way too complicated and the soul (psyche) can be both damaged or healed in a thousand ways we cannot imagine. Humility is called for. Silence is best. We heal others ten times better with our ears and heart than with our mouth.

However, love often constrains us, eventually, to speak. We speak because we love, but we speak very carefully. We speak not as ones confident that we have the answer. Rather, we speak with hope that we may have a piece. We speak knowing that we do not see the whole picture. We speak knowing that our own feelings and experiences may be blinding us to what is really going on. We speak with humility, humility mixed with hope and trust in God.

I cannot change anyone. You cannot change anyone. But God can change those who want to be changed. And because God loves us and treats us as sons and daughters, He often lets us participate in His work in the lives of others. Apprentices we all are. Children just beginning to learn. Yet God shares His work with us.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Prodigal Son

The second week of pre-Lent focuses on the parable of the prodigal son.  It is a week with the typical Wednesday and Friday fasts, and in most respects it is a normal week liturgically.  It is normal in that it calls the believer to a moderate ascetic labouring in the vineyard of salvation. The prodigal son, like the publican, becomes for the believer a paradigm, a paradigm of repentance and approach toward God.
The hymns specific for this week identify the believer with the prodigal son.  Prodigal is what we are not what we were.  The focus of repentance is never on the past.  Repentance is not something the believer did once; it is the ongoing inclination of his or her heart toward God.  While repentance is, and must indeed be, manifest in specific acts of turning away and turning towards, these are but the manifestation of a repentant heart, a heart that continually turns from the wickedness in its own depths and continually turns toward the Father in contrition.  
One of the great mysteries of God’s family is that the sons by Grace are continually returning, full of the painful awareness that they are unworthy to be called sons and begging that they might merely be treated as one of the hired servants.  And with this contrite attitude, the Father greets them and not only calls them sons, but honours them as sons, gives them the gifts and signs of sonship and even ordains a feast in celebration of their return.  
 This is also one of  the mysteries that we see Jesus play out with his disciples at the Last Supper.  After Jesus washes their feet, he says to his disciples, "You call Me Teacher and Lord, and that is right, for so I am.”  But later in the same talk, Jesus says to them, “No longer do I call you servants...but I have called you friends” (John 13:13; 15:15).  The disciples come to Jesus as Teacher and Lord--the only appropriate way to approach Him--but having humbly submitted to Him as Lord and Teacher, Jesus receives the disciples as friends.
The prodigal returns to the Father seeking to be made a mere day laborer and is received as a son; the disciples come to Jesus as Teacher and Lord and are received as friends.  We enter the arena of the forty-day struggle not as the petulant older son in the parable, whining for “a kid that I might make merry with my friends.”  That is, we don’t go into Great Lent with an agenda.  We don’t deserve a special gift because of “these many years I have been serving [God].”  Rather we go into Great Lent as the younger son, unworthy even to be called sons.  We enter the lenten struggle sure of our unworthiness: in the words of the hymns, having “wasted our life in laziness” and having “squandered the riches [our Father] gave us.” 
Unworthy to be called sons, we begin the long journey home, expecting nothing more than to be treated as a hired servant.  And what do we encounter along the way?  Our Father meets us and calls us sons.  And instead of a goat to make merry with our friends, He kills the fatted calf that we might make merry with His friends.  This is the mystery, the great generosity of God.  God does not count what has been lost, only what is found.
The Church teaches us that this too may be our experience in the forty-day journey Home to the Father.  However, before we begin, we must accept that we must make this journey.  We must accept that our hearts are in a foreign land and that we have lost in “loose living” much of the Grace we may have known or experienced in the past.  We must own our waywardness.  We must return claiming nothing for ourselves except the hope that our merciful Father will make us as one of the hired servants.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Lesser Commandments

“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40).  All of God’s commandments are not equal.  Most commandments hang on others.  That is, all commandments are understood in the light of two others or exist as expressions of the two others.  The Old Testament sacrificial laws, for example, existed to instruct those before Christ how their love for God (the first, great commandment) was to be expressed.  The commandments not to murder or steal or commit adultery existed to instruct God’s people how to love their neighbors as themselves (the second, great commandment).
Experience teaches us that love must be expressed in concrete actions.  Love of God and love of neighbour have no meaning if they are merely good feelings.  Children who hear the words “I love you,” but see their parents ignore them know that that love has little meaning.  A wife who hears the words “I love you,” but sees her husband sexually enamored by other women knows that that love has little meaning.  Christian brothers who hear the words “I love you,” but see no one visit them in hospital when they are sick in body or in prison when they are sick in soul, know that that love has little meaning.  And when God hears us say to Him, “I love you,” but sees us busily accumulating wealth, multiplying our bodily comforts, and filling what little discretionary time we have with empty entertainments so that we are too tired or too busy to pray, then God too knows that that love has little meaning.
Yet we do want to love God.  We do want to love our brothers and sisters, our spouses and children.  We do want to love, but we are lost in flood of worldly cares, in a jungle of tangled thoughts, impulses and conflicting cares.  
And this is why we have commandments, commandments to help us stay on track and express our love concretely, to nurture love, and to form us in the two great commandments.  And commandments are multiplied as experience teaches us habits, rituals and guidelines that help us love concretely. Some examples of multiplied commandments are the date-night commandment: to help keep husband and wife focused in their devotion to one another.  The kid’s-hockey-game-is-almost-always-more-important-than-work commandment: to help us attend to our children.  
Then there are the commandments that the Church has given us, commandments that help us love God and neighbor.  These commandments include commandments about worship and prayer, commandments about fasting and alms giving, commandments about morality and appropriate relationships.  All of these commandments exist to help us love God and neighbor.
Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of thinking commandments are an end in themselves.  We think that the goal is to keep the commandments, the lesser ones, and lose sight of the greater ones on which the lesser hang.  We become excellent parents, losing interest in our children; we become model spouses, lacking genuine intimacy; we become faithful Orthodox Christians--never eating the wrong food on the wrong day, never tithing less than ten percent of our income, never compromising our rule of prayer--we do it all and our hearts are cold, our minds proud, and God is far away.

As we approach Great Lent, a time of stricter attention to the lesser commandments of the Church, let us not lose sight of the goal: the greater commandments of love of God and neighbor.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Publican And The Pharisee

This week in the Holy Orthodox Church, we commemorate the parable of our Lord concerning the publican and the pharisee (Luke 18:10-4). This week is the first week of the pre-lenten period. Pre-lent is designed to prepare us to enter Great Lent with a proper attitude so that we can get the most out of the season of abstinence and thus be able to see the Paschal Light.
In preparing for Pascha, humility is the most important thing. In fact, some of our fathers, St. Silouan comes immediately to mind, posit that humility is salvation. Pride is hell, the image of the one who exalted himself against even the Most Hight. Humility is heaven, the image of the One who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather took on the form of a servant. Heaven/Hell. Humility/Pride. The Publican/The Pharisee.
Because in his pride the pharisee recites a litany of his good works, one might get the mistaken impression that fasting, alms-giving and moral restraint are irrelevant in the matter of obtaining humility, that perhaps they hinder the pursuit of humility. However, this is not what the hymns of the Church teach us concerning this parable. They teach us that what justifies the publican is his humility: his realization of his unworthiness and his beseeching mercy. And what condemns the pharisee is his boasting: his comparing himself with others and his rehearsal to himself (for the parables says, “he prayed in himself thus”) of his righteous deeds. Humility saves. Pride condemns.
The hymns of the Church go further. They exhort the faithful both to copy the virtues and to avoid the vices of both the publican and the pharisee. We are called to do all the righteous acts of the pharisee while emulating the humility of the publican.
Done properly, good works produce humility because they destroy self will. Of course good works can be and often are done improperly. That is, they are done as an expression of self will. It is possible to “conquer” lent by the strength of your own will, and thus come to Pascha not in the Light of the Resurrection, but in the light of your own righteousness. It is possible to give alms and blow trumpets--if not in the streets, then in your own heart. It is possible to avoid immorality because of disdain for weakness, thus exalting yourself in a virginity that is merely biological. It is possible to be the pharisee.
In my teen years, when I first was attracted to Christ, I imagined that I could live my whole life in Christ in the words, “neither do I condemn you.” However, the words, “go and sin no more” rang in my ears. How do I sin no more? Or at least, how do I sin less?
The Church teaches us that we avoid sin and grow in the image of Christ by subduing our will through self control (fasting), and considering the needs of others to be more important than our own (alms giving), and prayer. However, in order for these three to subdue our will, they must be practiced in obedience, not according to our will. And this is the reason why Lent is structured the way it is in the Orthodox Church.
In the Church, one does not choose how one fasts or prays or gives. The Church tells you how and when and what and where. You do not make up your own asceticism--that destroys the whole purpose. Certainly, people can submit to the fast to the best of their ability, or not. But you do not make up your own fast. In order for fasting, alms giving and prayer to be effective, to bear the fruit of humility, they must be submitted to, they must be obeyed.
And so this is the meditation for the third week before Great Lent. In this week the Church grants a dispensation from all fasting--as a matter of obedience, one may not fast this week. This week we consider the pride of the pharisee and the humility of the publican, and we prepare ourselves to obey. Fleeing pride and cultivating humility through obedience in fasting, alms giving and prayer, we look forward to the Light of Pascha.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Wheat, Tares And The Age To Come

I've been thinking about the wheat and the tares. I've been thinking that the parable describes the condition of my own heart.

There is a point, at the sowing, when accepting and rejecting seeds (logismoi, thoughts) is possible. With attention and training and by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, one can often recognize the seed being sown by the evil one and reject it before it grows--or grows very much.

However, it seems in my stubborn heart there are many wicked plants that have established themselves among the wheat. The wheat and the tares have grown up together, and I either can't tell the difference very well, or my attempts to root out the established tares in my soul result in anxiety, grumpiness, despondency, anger or other ungodly passions that seem to destroy what little wheat of virtue there is in my soul.

Attempts to pull some weeds only and consistently result in bad fruit. I cannot do it without also killing what I am trying to nurture.

Really, only the angels can separate the well established tares from the wheat without destroying the wheat. And this only happens at the end of the age.

But what does the Church teach us? The end of the age has already begun (e.g. Heb. 9:26). It is now and not yet. Even now, if for a moment we can transcend this age, the angels can work in our hearts. Even now, I can offer my heart and mind to God, full of mixed fruit, and the angels can sort it out.

This is one of the reasons why we need the prayers of the Church. It is often in prayer and contemplation that we, for a moment, seem to transcend this age and (as Mother Victoria said to me) sense the angels' wings. Here the angels work in our heart separating out "all that offends."

We do what we can, and what we can't do, the angels do for us. In the age to come.