Quotation

He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Praying with Icons: Christ Heals the Faithful Woman

Lord, how we long to touch You
and be healed of our dire illness
of missing the mark of Your true
and divinely mysterious justice.

Lord have mercy on us, we who
sought the healing offered to us
by the powers of the world, who
found that only Christ saves us.

Lord, we pray that we be given
true faith in You by Your grace
which rains down from Heaven
upon us who seek Your embrace.

Grant this, O Lord, that we may
be healed by drawing near Your
Holy Body and Blood, and pray
boldly for mercy at death's door.




Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of the Gospel story of Jesus healing a woman suffering from a condition that caused her much bleeding.  This icon was purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Fair Questions: What are the implications of God's presence to all Christians?

Recently, it was pointed out to me that God is not limited to a specific group of Christians, and that God moves very powerfully even among those who may be, shall we say, doctrinally off-base.

Whoever one thinks that doctrinally off-base group of Christians is, the ancient Church, modern Post-Reformation denominations, or just everyone who isn't in our tiny house church down the lane, most Christians would agree that God is not limited to moving in the hearts of only orthodox Christians.

Indeed, I think we would all agree that the Good Shepherd seeks out all the lost sheep so that they might be healed and returned to His flock.  One implication of this is that there is indeed a flock to which we ought to return with Christ.

The question, then, is what it means for us that God moves very powerfully among Christians, even those we think have the wrong doctrines, the wrong practices, or terrible music for worship.

But before we answer that, I think it's valuable to take a broader perspective.  Is God limited to those who explicitly profess Christ as their Lord and Savior?  Does God not move powerfully in the hearts even of non-Christians?

If your answer to that question is yes (before or after reading this atheist's conversion story and this Muslim's conversion story, not to mention the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip the Apostle), then I think we're ready to begin examining some of the implications of this.

Does God moving powerfully even in the hearts of non-Christians mean that we shouldn't bother inviting them to become Christians?  If you believe that there's no reason to ask anyone to become a Christian, or that you have no obligation to become a Christian because God moves outside Christian communities, and you also think that there's no reason to change one's beliefs as a Christian, this is a consistent position to hold.

If, on the other hand, you believe that it is important for non-Christians to become Christians even though God moves powerfully in the hearts of non-Christians, then it makes sense to also believe that it is important to be so completely a follower of Christ that our minds, hearts, bodies, and wills be fully conformed to Him.

After all, if it's important to abandon the wrong beliefs about who God is and become a Christian, why isn't it important to continue to abandon wrong beliefs about God after becoming a Christian?  If a child believes that God gives them teddy bears in exchange for being nice, do we not rightly try to get them to a more mature understanding of who God is once they can better understand Him?

If we love someone passionately, we want to know everything we can about them.  And while we never know absolutely everything about someone, we who love rightly want to know as much as we can.  We desire to know our beloved as fully as we possibly can.  We do not stop learning once we know the basics about them.

The same ought to be true of our relationship with God.  The truth of His being should be something we seek for our entire lives, growing through knowing into an appreciation for the profound mystery of God just as we grow into a deeper appreciation of the mystery of a spouse through knowing them a little bit more as we live with them in love.

One of the implications of God's presence to all Christians might be that we ought to never think that God hates them all if they don't agree with us on doctrinal matters.  Another might be that we should always pray for other Christians and treat them as if God's presence is with them...because it is.

That said, one implication I think it would be very difficult to draw from the fact that God moves powerfully in the hearts of all Christians is that we don't need to continue to abandon our wrong beliefs about God, that we can settle into our current understanding and call it good enough.

I never plan to stop abandoning my wrong beliefs about God, His revelation, and His Church.  That may mean changing my religious tradition once again, and I'm entirely willing to do that.  Indeed, I long to abandon anything that keeps me from understanding the Way, the Truth, and the Life inasmuch as I am capable of doing so.




Note: The above is an icon of Christ depicted as the Good Shepherd which I purchased as a gift from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Other Side: In Praise of Pulpit & Pen

Recently, there has been a small tempest in the teapot of a certain corner of the Christian blogosphere.  It started with Hank Hanegraaff the Bible Answer Man's conversion, specifically his decision to enter the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion by way of the Greek Orthodox church.

Jeff Maples, who writes at Pulpit & Pen, wrote some articles about his conversion and how to handle it (by evangelizing Hanegraaff to return to the Christian faith).  Maples mentions that he has received some quite negative and uncharitable feedback as a result of those articles.  Specifically, he mentioned that folks were claiming that he misrepresented the Greek Orthodox faith.

I've read his articles, and he does in fact at various points either have a poor understanding of Eastern Orthodox theology or just flat out gets it completely wrong.  Instead of apologizing and doing several years of extensive research into ancient Christian theology to alleviate his lack of understanding, he doubles down on the strategy of doing at best cursory research and making claims which are far stronger than the evidence he's gathered will support.

He visits the church Hanegraaff is now a member of for the Pascha liturgy and writes what I will charitably describe as a reflection on his experience.   As an aside, his reflections are very similar to what a writer in the Church of Christ penned for Truth magazine in an article I read a few years ago.  Except that he wrote the reflection after visiting a Roman Catholic church once.

Let's suppose that I had read a few articles, gone to the Southern Baptist Convention website and read some of their basic beliefs and position statements, and then visited a Southern Baptist worship service on a Sunday morning and wrote something similar to Maples' reflection as if I had done my due diligence and now understood the Southern Baptist faith enough to critique it effectively.

Would any Southern Baptist intellectuals take me seriously when I wrote my polemic?  No.  And rightly so.  I simply would not have a sufficient understanding of their faith to launch a broad polemical attack on their beliefs.  It would be a waste of perfectly good writing time.

All that conceded, I think we should admit that Maples gets some important things right, and so does JD Hall in his article apologizing to the Eastern Orthodox for overlooking their "grave and damning heresies" and promising to more effectively protest against their heretical cult in the future alongside their protest against the Roman Catholic Church.

This consistency of protest is, I think, something they get right.  If they protest against the Catholic communion, they ought to protest against the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion as well.  And Hall is right to apply that consistency in the terminology he uses, calling our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters an "anti-Christ" along with the usual use of this term to describe the Bishop of Rome.

This is how the Church of Christ which produces Truth magazine views the Bishop of Rome as well, and they are not shy about articulating their opposition to "Romanist" heresies.   Indeed, "Romanist" is a term necessitated by their view that heretics are not actually Christians, and so a different term that is still recognizable enough to communicate the idea arose to fill the void.

Of course, because their view is that we who belong to the ancient churches are not Christians, we are  seen as not part of the Church (in the sense of being the mystical Body of Christ) and thus not saved, which means that from their perspective we are indeed damned to Hell unless we repent of our heresies.

This idea that outside the true Church there is no salvation is a very orthodox (and Eastern Orthodox) doctrine.  In traditional Roman Catholic circles, the Latin phrase extra ecclesiam nulla salus is often used to denote the teaching of the early Church that "outside the Church there is no salvation" and that consequently, we ought to draw others into the Church.

Respecting this principle means that Jeff Maples who, like all of us, believes that he has found the true faith, is correct to advocate evangelizing those of us who, like Hank Hanegraaff, have worked out our salvation in fear and trembling and studying the Bible until we ended up in the ancient churches.

I respect Maples' desire to refute the teachings of those he deems heretics, and whatever good arguments we might have about the effectiveness of his approach or the historical and Biblical evidence for his views, we ought to admire his sincere commitment to defending the truth.

Maples and JD Hall are, at the very least, not lukewarm in their faith, and that I sincerely respect.  I would rather dialogue or even debate with those committed to the truth than those who are willing to accept only a small part of the Truth, Christ who is the Truth and asks us to give all our strength, our mind, and our soul to love Him.

For this lack of lukewarm Christianity, perhaps we should take a moment to praise Pulpit & Pen, appreciating those who have a passion for the Way, the Truth, and the Life, regardless of whether or not we think them uncharitable toward those they deem heretics or sloppy in their research practices.

I will leave the particulars of the defense of the Eastern Orthodox faith to others who are eminently qualified to do so.  Alithos anesti!

*     *     *

Editorial Note: I was recently informed that JD Hall has a long history of bullying and lobbing insults in place of rational debate or dialogue, even with children.  According to the quotations from the Christian post article, he issued an apology for this adversarial behavior and suggested that he ought to have been more pastoral.

Apparently he committed to "walking away from these conflicts" in light of a teen's suicide that appears to have been at least partially motivated or influenced by Hall's bullying.  I'm not sure what conflicts he meant, whether it was social media verbal battles in general or the children of other Baptist intellectuals specifically.

Either way, I do not recommend engaging with him directly online unless you're prepared to slog through a lot of uncharitable behavior at minimum, even if you are a fellow pastor or pastor's wife.



Note:  The above is a picture of a Greek Orthodox cross icon I acquired recently.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Continuum of Anglican Prayer Beads

I was completely wrong in my assumptions about the origin of Anglican prayer beads.

My best guess, in the absence of having done the relevant research, was that the Anglican tradition had held on to the practice of using Catholic rosaries in prayer and had simply altered the prayers to suit Protestant theology after the fact.

It turns out that the advent of Anglican prayer beads was much more recent.  Only a few years before my birth, in fact, which stunned me when I learned of it.  Though it probably shouldn't have stunned me.

I've been aware for quite a while of a tendency among post-Reformation Christian groups to suddenly discover ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and incorporate them into their lives.  And the existence of Anglican prayer beads (which have been adopted by some other post-Reformation Christians and subsequently been called Protestant prayer beads), seem to fall under that general rubric.

Just as there are many different ways to pray the Catholic Rosary, there are many different ways to pray using the Anglican prayer beads invented in the later part of the 1900s.  I prayed a couple of those ways with some Irish Anglican prayer beads, and I generally found them to good ways of praying.  That said, the Julian of Norwich version wasn't one I was fond of.

Along the continuum of contemplative prayer using Anglican prayer beads, that's where I lost interest. I'm sure that there are folks who would really love it.  I just wasn't one of them.  It struck me as a bit too modern and sentimental.

But to be fair, the whole thing is apparently a quite recent development out of an Episcopal diocese in Texas, of all places.  Instead of returning to the tradition of wool prayer ropes or rosaries with 5 decades (segments of 10 beads), Anglican prayer beads have 4 weeks (segments of 7 beads).

And all references to Mary are omitted in the Anglican ways of praying with the weeks, which is not surprising given the strong tendency of American post-Reformation Christianity to avoid anything that seems vaguely Marian.

One of the limitations of having 4 weeks rather than 5 decades and shorter prayers seems to be that it's more difficult to stay in a mode of contemplative prayer for the same length of time as a Catholic rosary. This could of course easily be remedied by doing what is often done with the Komboskini (prayer rope) used in Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox circles: simply keep repeating the same cycle of prayers over and over.

This continuation of contemplative prayer is a valuable tradition, and I'm glad to see it being restored in part within the Anglican communities.  I'm not sure if the Anglican Continuum (those who hold fast to what they see as authentic Anglican tradition against the modernizations in the last few decades) would want to take up a decidedly non-traditional practice like Anglican prayer beads.

I will be watching with interest to see if the Continuing Anglican movement consistently finds value in the more ancient aspects of the continuum of Anglican prayer beads.




Note:  The above is a picture I took of Anglican rosary beads which I purchased from cordbands.com as a gift.  I highly recommend their rosaries to anyone who wants one that will last.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Praying with Icons: Michael the Archangel

Pray for us, St. Michael, that we might
ask with pure astonishment a question,
of which your name is indeed the right
and most glorious heavenly expression,
"Who is like God?" No one is like God.

O captain of the hosts of Heaven above
who is called upon to battle evil forces,
defend us on behalf of the Son of Love
against the force of the demonic curses
oft spoken against the children of God.

Mighty Archangel, prophesied to fight
for the impassible, immutable, eternal,
divinely simple, wholly transcendent
and yet truly immanent, all-powerful
God on the Last Day, slay the Dragon!



Note: The above is an icon of Michael the Archangel which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for a dear friend.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Praying with Icons: Saint Monica

Saint Monica, pray for us, that we might endure
these trials of loving others in spite of their most
grievous faults. Which cause them to reject Your
grace and hurt those who care for them the most
next to You, God, Lord of all who seek the truth.

Holy Mother of Augustine, pray for us, that our
tears and our pleadings before God would be an
offering of our little sufferings for the holy hour
of the conversion of those we love, our lives an
ever faithful sign of the fullness of God's grace.




Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon of St. Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo, which I purchased as a gift from legacyicons.com.

Praying with Icons: The Wedding at Cana

Lord, at the behest of Your mother Mary,
the finest wine was brought forth within
alabaster jars of water; may Your mercy
bring forth divine love from deep within
our hearts of stone, filled by Your grace.

Lord, may this wine of divine love You
poured out for us on the Cross rain upon
us the graces of the heavenly home You
have prepared for we who love the Son
of our Father in Heaven more than life.

Lord, grant that like old wineskins, our
old lives of sin be unable to hold a new
wine of divine love, and that at the hour
of death we may be made new by You,
becoming wineskins full of divine love.



Note:  The above is a picture of an icon which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for recently married friends.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Praying with Icons: The Last Judgment

Lord, let me remember Your words
about the Last Judgment, when the
sheep and the goats, bowing heads
before the King of Heaven, see the
Good Shepherd who tended them.

Lord, let my heart be open to gaze
upon all of Your least brothers and
sisters with tenderness in my eyes
just as You do, and offer my hand
to help them on Your narrow way.

Lord, let Your mercy be on all of
us who were made to be the sons
daughters of the great God above
in Heaven, He who takes the sins
of the world away, judging justly.




Note:  The above is an icon of the Last Judgment which I purchased from legacyicons.com as a gift.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fair Questions: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

Previously, I addressed the question asked by Michael Shermer: What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

I did not think it was actually a very useful question, and so I would like to ask a better question that actually gets at the root of the issue: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?

There's no particular reason that Shermer and other materialists and/or physicalists can't just assume that there's a natural, material explanation for someone rising from the dead and wandering around.  After all, that's what they assume about many scientifically unexplained events.

So it's not necessary for so many of them to reflexively deny that someone rose from the dead.  What is necessary for the materialist who believes that all things have a natural cause to deny is any claim that some phenomenon (or all phenomena) has a supernatural cause.

And this is, I think, precisely why they object to religions which claim that there are supernatural causes, whether for specific events, or as a first cause of all things.  It would also explain why, when I have asked them specifically what sort of evidence they would accept for claims about the existence of a deity, the responses have been...interesting.

One example from a dialogue I had many years ago with a very bright agnostic atheist.  I asked him what sort of evidence would be sufficient for believing in extraordinary claims.  He proposed video evidence (presumably with audio as well).

So, with some new additional details to make the story a bit more fully-fleshed, I described something very similar to the following scenario as a hypothetical example of an extraordinary claim with video evidence of it:

A woman's mother was dying from a very aggressive cancer, and all the doctors in the United States whom she had been diagnosed by said that there was nothing to be done except make her as comfortable as possible for the last few months of her life.
She found a clinic in Mumbai that was willing to try a new treatment on her mother, and so she and her mother booked a flight to India and got a ride to the clinic in Mumbai.  Because the patients were part of a study which was testing the efficacy of the new treatment, there were video cameras in the rooms.
After they had spoken with the nurses and doctor who was primarily responsible, her mother was placed in one of the rooms, where she would be prepared for treatment.  The day before the treatment was to begin, while the woman was there with her mother in the room, there was a flash of light which temporarily overwhelmed the video camera.
After the light faded, the video recorded a blue-skinned, four-armed figure dressed very strangely who had suddenly appeared in the room.  The figure identifies himself as Vishnu, tells the woman's mother that she is healed, refers to himself as the divine preserver and sustainer of the cosmos, and leaves with her a gold trinket in the shape of a lotus blossom.
There is another flash of light, and then the blue-skinned, four-armed figure is gone again.  The doctor is concerned when the woman tells him of these events that were captured on video, and he has the video checked.  He also has her re-checked for the cancer, and can't find any cancer remaining.
When the woman and her mother return to the United States, none of the doctors they've seen before can find any cancer either.  The woman dies peacefully many years later in her sleep.

So, I asked, in this hypothetical scenario, is the video of these events sufficient evidence to believe that a deity named Vishnu healed the woman of her cancer?

The answer I was given was a resounding, "No."  I was advised that the more plausible explanation is that an extraterrestrial intelligent and super-humanly competent life form had healed her.  Personally, I would accept such evidence as described in the above scenario as evidence of the existence of Vishnu, in the same way that I would accept similar kinds of evidence for other phenomena.

But given the assumptions of a person who believes that all things have natural causes, this is a perfectly understandable response.  It's quite coherent with that worldview.  And it shows us something important about the consequence of that belief: there is no room for any supernatural cause as an explanation for anything if one holds to materialist metaphysics.

For someone who believes that everything has a material/natural cause, there is no possible evidence that is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause.  They are simply not open, at least intellectually, to belief in supernatural beings or supernatural phenomena.

Even if such a person witnesses, at the end of the age, a bearded Jewish carpenter named Jesus of Nazareth coming with the clouds from Heaven and surrounded by angels with flaming swords, they would have to conclude only that they were suffering from a vivid hallucination, or perhaps that these were just extra-terrestrial life-forms whose origin is purely a natural process of evolution on other planets.

On the other hand, for those of us who have a common-sense standard of evidence, we actually have the ability to be open to evidence of both natural and supernatural causes of phenomena.  And I think that open-mindedness is valuable so long as we have critical thinking processes to help us mitigate our quite powerful and perfectly normal human confirmation bias.




Note: The above is a picture I took of an icon I purchased from legacyicons.com which is depicting Michael the Archangel in Heaven.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Fair Questions: What could prove that Jesus rose from the dead?

In the April 2017 issue of Scientific American, Michael Shermer asks a pointed question just before the celebration of Easter.  What would it take to prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this question is just a distraction.  Why?  I'm so glad you asked for a lengthy explanation.

Let's start by thinking about other medically unexplainable phenomena.  There have been plenty of medically anomalous healings in human history.  Sometimes there was a plausible natural explanation.  Sometimes there was no plausible natural explanation.

In cases of healings and recoveries without a plausible natural explanation, people choose to believe one of two general options based on the assumptions that under-gird their worldviews.

  1. There was a natural cause and we just don't know what it was.
  2. There was a supernatural cause of some kind (generally one that fits their existing beliefs about the supernatural).

These are also two options taken with regard to belief in the death by crucifixion and subsequent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  There are others, of course.  Some propose that Jesus didn't really exist at all.  Or they propose that the Gospel account of his death and resurrection were all lies.

To be fair, that's much easier than being honest and just observing that documentation of eyewitness accounts by people who were risking death by publicly professing Christianity and rejecting the imperial religion of Rome is indeed evidence for his life, death, and resurrection.

Some skeptics seem to think that accepting the Gospels as evidence is proof of the resurrection (and thus they want to claim that the Gospels don't count as evidence at all). But I don't think that's actually the case, which we can see if we carefully consider how evidence works to support a belief.

Let's take as an example the claim that the Earth is round as opposed to a flat plane.  I've seen ships suddenly appear on the horizon, which gives me an intuitive sense that the Earth is not a perfectly flat plane.  I have read written accounts of astronauts journeying to space and looking at the Earth, and I've seen pictures of the Earth looking awfully round from the perspective of one who is orbiting it or moving far away from it.  I've read physicists' accounts of the observational evidence.  Et cetera.

Of course, it's possible that the photos are doctored to give a false impression, that the written accounts are government propaganda, and that my intuition about the ships is wrong and their sudden appearance on the horizon is simply due to my poor eyesight.

I could be wrong about the earth being round, and I'm not sure I would say that it has been proven to be round given that the evidence I have is not the direct evidence of the experience of seeing it for myself.  Nonetheless, the preponderance of evidence I have available to me strongly suggests that the earth is round, and I believe that it is.

We can see from this example that evidence, even what we might think of as strong evidence, is not the same thing as a deductive proof (from geometry, for example).  A correctly-written proof cannot possibly be wrong, given the axioms of geometry.  This is not the case with the wider world.  It can be described in geometric terms, but this would be a paltry description of only a small portion of phenomena.

It would be wrong by being overly simplistic, not because geometry isn't quite valuable.  All this is to say that while we can't straightforwardly prove things in the wider world in the same way that we can in the confines of geometry or other formal logico-mathematical systems, it makes little sense to say that the kinds of things we generally count as evidence are suddenly not evidence at all when we find the claim implausible based on our experience and philosophical assumptions.

That makes about as much sense as many religious folks suddenly lowering the standard of evidence for belief when something strikes them as plausible given their philosophical assumptions and life experience.  After all, the benefit of having a consistent standard of evidence is that it allows us to check our beliefs even when our life experience and philosophical assumptions lead us astray.

But having a consistent standard of evidence cannot serve us well in that regard if we conveniently modify our standard of evidence when it suits our desire to maintain our existing worldviews.  I'm not aware of any public intellectual who applies the same epistemic standards to events they deem extraordinary that they apply to events that seem ordinary to them.

But that's not a crazy thing to do.  It's probably the only way we can defeat our confirmation bias.  At the very least, altering our standard of evidence immediately upon encountering something that seems implausible is just giving confirmation bias an opportunity to work its magic, and it's a terrible way to do science as well.

So when I read of the principle of proportionality which Shermer invokes with regard to the ethics of belief, though I recognize that it's intuitively appealing as an axiom, I suspect that it just helps us confirm whatever we already believe by ignoring evidence we would rather not acknowledge.

Such is the nature of confirmation bias, a bias which Shermer has studied at some length among other cognitive biases.  Perhaps for this reason, he might be sympathetic to my concerns about suddenly changing our standards of evidence with regard to claims we believe are highly implausible.

So if we can't really prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the way that we prove other things,  rather than cooking up another standard of evidence that will be more difficult to meet, I think that we should use the standard of evidence that we use for evaluating other claims.

Depending on what precisely that standard of evidence is, we may end up believing that Jesus rose from the dead or we may not believe it.  But at least we would be intellectually consistent because we used the same standard.

All this is to say that there's no particular reason for anti-religion folks to try to claim that the Gospels don't count as evidence (because counting it as evidence doesn't mean one needs to be a Christian), and there's no reason to think that one could prove the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth inductively by way of textual evidence.  Or anything else, for that matter.

The real question at issue here is not one of proving that a specific event took place.  After all, we can just assume that the Gospel accounts are correct that Jesus was walking around after having been seen dying and dead by many eyewitnesses, and still account for that event by stating that it must have had natural causes (i.e. concocted illusions, eyewitnesses being drugged, et cetera).

The real question at issue here is the question of what sort of evidence could possibly be sufficient to justify belief in a supernatural cause.

Related: What evidence is sufficient to believe in a supernatural cause?




Note:  The above is a picture I took of an icon of the Resurrection I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com a while ago.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Praying with Icons: St. Edward the Martyr

Pray for us, St. Edward, that we may emulate you
in striving for holiness from a young age, pouring
out our lives for Christ and His Holy Church who
support the souls who are ever zealously seeking
to rebuild the Church militant for the King's sake.

Pray for us, holy Martyr, that we may be granted
a holy death, the best defense before the dreadful
judgment seat of Christ, following a life suffused
with the grace of Love Himself, a more powerful
weapon than those wielded by an assassin's hand.

Have mercy on us, O Lord of Lords, that we may
be granted the strength to die nobly for Your sake
so that we might be borne up to Heaven, adopted
as sons and daughters of God the Father, granted
then the final gift of the glorious Beatific Vision.




Note:  The above is a picture of an icon of St. Edward the Martyr which I purchased from bostonmonks.com as a gift for a friend.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Love it to Death: Nothing Shall I Want

This past weekend, I was on a retreat at a Franciscan ashram.  From the fact that it's called an ashram, you might suspect that it's the home of friars from India, and that's true.  Like all Franciscans, they know how to have a good time enjoying nature and eating good food.

One of the exercises we performed on the retreat was putting a label on a candle so that it might continue the act of prayer for our intention.  We were told to write an intention that reflected something we wanted to gain from the retreat.

I was, because of my own mistake, without a pen with which to write out an intention.  And it occurred to me that this was very appropriate, that I was not able to write on it, that I was left to ask for nothing that I wanted.

After all, what I have been struggling with so much with is that I am goal-oriented.  I'm always wanting to achieve something.  This is, for the most part, a very good thing in my life.

It's good for my fitness level, my nutrition, my general work performance, the consistency of my prayer life, and many other things.  But like all good things, it can become an obstacle in our spiritual life if we rely too heavily on it.  This happens because at a certain point it takes an unhealthy precedence with regard to our relationship with God.

This may be because we genuinely place our own goals ahead of the ultimate goal of full communion with Love Himself, or because we rely too heavily on our own techniques for achieving goals and leave little room for the role of God's grace, which is ever being showered upon us.

As we hear it in the liturgy, the Psalmist says that when "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."  This is indeed a very difficult thing to live, and yet it is so necessary to the Christian spiritual life.

Christ further explains this in the Gospel of Matthew:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;  and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

He exhorts us not to worry about anything, and to want for nothing, simply accepting what is given by God.  And the reason for this is that God will care for us in ways that we do not understand from our limited human perspective.

When we want nothing, it is then that we begin to realize that we already have everything that is important.  When we want nothing, we leave our hands and hearts open to receive everything that God generously gives to us.

It is in wanting nothing that we love to death our egotistical desires which keep us clinging to our possessions and fearing their loss.  It is in wanting nothing that we abandon the fear of death and enter into the divine life of love.

It is when we want nothing, instead practicing gratitude in all circumstances, that our souls are disposed to hear and know the voice of the Good Shepherd, speaking gently to us of the gifts of love which await us in the heavenly household, so full of all that is good, true, and beautiful.

Thus it is that in the end, when the Lord is my shepherd, nothing shall I want.




Note:  The above is an icon I purchased from orthodoxmonasteryicons.com as a gift.