Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thoughts In A Coffee Shop on Sunday Afternoon

While the post title is at least a bit poetic, the same cannot be said for my thoughts.

Today will be a very long day for me. I left the house at 7 this morning and hope to be home by midnight tonight. Some days are just like that I guess.

I've spent the last hour or so catching up on the emails that have stacked up on me this week.

This is a good thing I think.

My wife Mary tells me that correspondence is a very valuable part of my work as a priest. At first I wasn't certain I agreed with her—but I've come to see more and more the value of correspondence, and really writing in general, in my own ministry and for me personally.

While I haven't always been the smartest kid in the room, I have usually have been able to think faster than the smartest kid in the room could. Actually, I could usually even talk faster than the smartest kid could think. And while I'm better, I think I'm better anyway, I can be intellectually just this side of aggressive.

Writing is good because it slows me down—it helps me become more deliberate. And because I put my thoughts down on "paper" (okay, a computer screen) it's easier for me to see my msitkese, I mean my mistakes.

It's odd really, but though the Orthodox Church has an amazing tradition of what in the West is called contemplative prayer, we often seem to value the business of the intellect more than the inner stillness of the Hesychast. Speaking with two inquirers this morning I mentioned that the intellect, reason in both its practical and speculative modes, is given to us to guard the heart. Too often I think I have allowed instead the intellect to lead my heart.

This isn't a good thing at all.

Allowing being lead by my intellect is like letting a junkyard dog slip his leash or jump the fence. A guard dog is only useful when it is properly limited and even restrained. So too the intellect needs to be kept within its proper limits as the guardian of the heart.

Left unguarded, the heart will embrace anything, it will allow anything, any notion no matter how aberrant to take root and grow. When this happens then I am deformed not simply in the core of my being, but from the core of my being. This illness is profoundly crippling. Untreated, it becomes increasingly more difficult to heal, worse still even then a life lived from the intellect.

Princess Illeana (later, Mother Alexandria) writes:

And Jesus taught that all impetus, good and bad, originates in men's hearts. "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh" (Luke 6:45).

The intellect serves to keep sinful images from being planted in the heart. But to abstain from sin, while good, isn't enough.

I need to cry out to God in prayer. One way to do this is by reciting the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner"). St. Hesychois the Priest says that "'The more rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ's holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it." In the oldest traditions of the Church what is important are not the words of the prayer, but that we cry out frequently, in good times and bad, to Christ and ask for mercy.

It is somewhat ironic that, in some circles at least, the Jesus Prayer and the trappings of what people imagine to be monasticism, have become less a living experience and more a mere idea. For many, a life of inner quiet has become an ideology, one rich with trappings and affectations to be sure, but one without existential, personal, substance.

What does it say about my commitment to Christ and the Gospel if I can't find inner quiet and stillness in the coffee shop in the middle of a busy Sunday? Not that I won't have busy, stressful days, I will. But if being busy and being stressed become the whole story of my life, or even my day or hour, well then I think I have to say I've fallen rather short of the ideal.

Liturgy, personal prayer, asceticism, all of these we do to soften the heart as St Hesychois says.

And the sign of a softened heart? St Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part.

But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13).

The true test of my inner stillness, my commitment to Christ and the Gospel, is found in charity.

And if I cannot still my own anxious strivings and intellectual speculations on a busy Sunday afternoon in a coffee shop, so that I can practice charity, or at least not offend against it, can I really say that I have even begun to live the life of faith?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

July Meeting of the Society of St John Chrysostom



"Current Possibilities (and Drawbacks) of Online Ecumenism:

Relations between East and West."


Tuesday, July 8, 2008 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church,

764 Fifth Street, Struthers, Ohio

7 P.M.


(Twins: Saints Cosmas and Damian)

Speakers: David and Jonathan Bennett, Teachers and Writers

(Twin Brothers)



(FOR INFORMATION CALL: 330-755-5635)

Let Not My Love Be Small

Sunday, June 22, 2008: Today's commemorated feasts and saints... 1st SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST — Tone 8. All Saints. Hieromartyr Eusebius, Bishop of Samosata (380). Martyrs Zeno and his servant, Zenas, of Philadelphia (304). Martyrs Galacteon, Juliana, and Saturninus, of Constantinople. St. Alban, Protomartyr of Britain (ca. 287). Hieromartyr Nicetas of Remesiana (414-420). Martyr Nicetas the Dacian (370-372). St. Grigorie Dascalu, Metropolitan of Walachia (Romania).

Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. Then Peter answered and said to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?" So Jesus said to them, "Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name's sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

(Mt `10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30)

For St John Chrysostom (Homily XXXV) Jesus' command to us that we not love our family more than Him, are first and foremost words of great kindness. They speak to us "just at the point [in our life] where love is most tempted to hinder" us. For this reason Jesus counsels fathers "to greater gentleness and children greater freedom." For parents, and really anyone in authority, this gentleness of spirit is essential lest they "attempt what is impossible" by their unwise assumption "that their love of their children can be rightly compared with their [children's] love of God." Likewise, children (and all those under obedience) must take care lest they give to parents (or those in authority over them) the love that should be given to God alone. Again, as St John says, Jesus "instructs the children not to attempt what is impossible by seeking to make their love of parents greater than their love of God."

For children to love their parents as if they were God, or for parents to ask their children to love us as if they were God is more than simply offensive to God. In both cases, we desire either is to desire something that will frustrate us and will lead to the degradation of us and those we so imprudently love. Or, to use Chrysostom's word, it is to desire something which is simply "impossible." Contrary to what we might think it is impossible not because we cannot love each other rightly. No the real impossibility is our attempt to turn love against itself. To attempt this is to ruin "both the beloved himself, and the lover."

The thing about love is that it is not only an expression of my heart, love changes my heart. Simply put, I become like what I love AND I become how I love. Both the object of my love and the way in which I express my love shapes my character. For this reason is always tempting to love in small measures, to love in such a way that my heart is never change. It is always tempting for me to love today within the limits of how I loved yesterday, to keep my love small.

But a small love is a dying love. If I limit my love, I limit myself. In the final analysis, love that does not give everything, gives nothing. And so Jesus tells His disciples, "he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me." And so, Chrysostom tells us in the sermon quoted above, Jesus tells us "not even simply to hate" our life. No He commands us "to expose it to war, and to battles, and to slaughters, and blood." In saying this Jesus tells us that discipleship requires from us "not merely that we must stand against death, but also against a violent death; and not violent only, but ignominious too."

Speaking of Peter's challenge to Jesus, Chrysostom (Homily LXIV) says Jesus "seems to me here to intimate also the persecutions. For since there were many instances both of fathers urging their sons to ungodliness, and wives their husbands; when they command these things, saith He, let them be neither wives nor parents, even as Paul likewise said, 'But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart.'" ( 1 Cor. 7. 15) This theme of self-sacrifice and martyrdom is precisely what the Church puts before us in the hymnography for today's celebration of the Feast of All Saints. For example, we have the troparion for the day:

Clothed as in purple and fine linen with the blood of your Martyrs throughout the world, your Church cries out to you through them, Christ God: Send down your pity on your people; give peace to your commonwealth, and to our souls your great mercy.

The fact of the matter is, love will always require of me a willingness to embrace martyrdom. Why? While it is always I who love, while love is always a personal act, always really and truly mine, love is not mine alone. To love is not only bear witness to God, it is also to participate in the life of God. In human words and deeds, our love makes manifest the divine life and this always requires from me that I subordinate my life to God.

Among the fathers no one is more aware of what it means to love rightly than as St Augustine of Hippo. And there is no one among the fathers who is as aware of the harm of done by a disordered love. In one of his sermons (Sermon 65A.5), Augustine imagines the following bit of dialog:

Let a father say, "Love me." Let a mother say, "Love me." To these words I will say, "Be silent." But isn't what they are asking for just? Shouldn't I give back what I have received? The father says, "I fathered you." The mother says, "I bore you." The father says, "I educated you." The mother says. "I fed you." . . . Let us answer our father and mother when they justly say "love us." Let us answer, "I will love you in Christ, not instead of Christ. You will be with me in Him, but I will not be with you without Him." "But we don't care for Christ," they say. "And I care for Christ more than you. Should I obey the ones who raised me and lose the One Who created me?"

The challenge before us is to not without hold our love from others, but to learn to love one another rightly. This will, necessarily it seems, put us in conflict not only with the powerful in this life, but also with those with whom we are most intimate, and (in the final analysis) ourselves.

And yet there is no other way to love. To love someone simply according to my own desires or theirs, is to love not the person, but my own fantasy of the person. It is, in other words, to worship an idol of my own creation.

Their idols are silver and gold,

The work of men's hands.

They have mouths, but they do not speak;

Eyes they have, but they do not see;

They have ears, but they do not hear;

Noses they have, but they do not smell;

They have hands, but they do not handle;

Feet they have, but they do not walk;

Nor do they mutter through their throat.

Those who make them are like them;

So is everyone who trusts in them. (Psalm 115:4-8)

I said a moment ago, love is not only self-expressive, it forms us after the image of what we love. As David reminds us in the Psalms, if we love an idol, if we love the works of our own hands, then we will become dead things like them. Our love, if it is to be true and life giving, cannot be small in either its object or our commitment. And isn't this what Christ tells us is the greatest commandments of the Law: "So he answered and said, 'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and 'your neighbor as yourself.'" (Luke 10:27)

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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