Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kindness is the Key

Sunday, July 13, 2008: 4th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—Tone 3. Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils. Synaxis of the Archangel Gabriel. Ven. Stephen of St. Sabbas Monastery (794). St. Julian, Bishop of Cenomanis (Le Mans) in Gaul (1st c.).

Now when Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, dreadfully tormented." And Jesus said to him, "I will come and heal him." The centurion answered and said, "Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof. But only speak a word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it. When Jesus heard it, He marveled, and said to those who followed, "Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then Jesus said to the centurion, "Go your way; and as you have believed, so let it be done for you." And his servant was healed that same hour.

(Mt 8:5-13)

For my own spiritual life these past few weeks I have been reading the Minor Prophets in Old Testament. In the ordering of the books in the Western canon, the Minor, or the Twelve Prophets, are the last writings in the Old Testament. In the Septuagint, or the Greek text of the Old Testament, used in the Orthodox Church, they come before, instead of after, the Major prophets. But where every they come, they are worth reading.

When I read the Scriptures or the Fathers or any text for spiritual benefit, I use a technique called lectio divina, or "holy reading." Basically this is simply a slowed down way of reading. This is a way of reading that is often used in monasteries—both East and West. The "mechanics" are pretty easy, and "have often been likened to "Feasting on the Word." The four parts are first taking a bite (Lectio), then chewing on it (Meditatio). Next is the opportunity to savor the essence of it (Oratio). Finally, the Word is digested and made a part of the body (Contemplatio)."

More concretely, after I pray, comes the first step, lectio, which "consists in reading the scriptural passage slowly." Next comes meditation, meditating or thinking about what I just read. Often my meditation is on a verse or two that captures my attention. After thinking for a time there comes more prayer, "oratio," a very simple conversation with God in which I ask Him a questions, or confess by shortcomings, or thank Him for what He's given me.

Finally, as in any conversation, there is point of any conversation—getting to know the person. And so the last stage, "contemplation." This has been described as "a simple, loving focus on God." This is the time when I try and let go of words and thoughts and simply enjoy being in the presence of God.

Whenever I read the Twelve Prophets, I always start with my favorite, Hosea. Beside what is recorded in Scripture we know very little about him. Scripture does say that he was called by God to marry a woman, Gomer, who was herself "a wife of fornication." (Hos 1.2) God tells Hosea to marry her as prophetic sign of Israel's own infidelity to God ("For the land will surely go a-whoring by departing from the Lord." 1.2). More importantly though, Hosea is to do this a sign that God will forgive Israel, and by extension, us.

Reading through Hosea, my attention is always captured by the sense of God's gentle mercy toward Israel. But this time through what stood out for me were some different verses. God cries out through His prophet:

"O Ephraim, what shall I do to you?

O Judah, what shall I do to you?

For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud,

And like the early dew it goes away.

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have slain them by the words of My mouth;

And your judgments are like light that goes forth.

For I desire mercy and not sacrifice,

And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (6.4-6)

These verses came to mind as I read the Gospel reading from Matthew.

The Church, the parish, the Christian family, the heart of each Christian are to be place of healing and reconciliation. It is not unreasonable to say that these are all sacraments of healing and reconciliation. As I thought about the words of the prophet Hosea to Israel, I begin to realize what it is that is need for us to actually be who we are.

It is interesting to me that God seems to overlook so many of our failings as long as we practice mercy. The fidelity that God refers to above is hesed, sometime translated as "covenant love," or "loving kindness." At the risk of over simplifying, as God has shown a faithful loving kindness to Israel and through them to all of sinful humanity, we are expected by God to respond in like fashion. When Israel, or the Church or the parish or the family or I, fail to live out that loving kindness, everything grinds to a halt.

It is easy to think that with the right program a parish will thrive and grow. But that's not what Hosea is saying. Jesus heals the centurion's servant because there was in the man, for all that he was probably a man of great violence, a fundamental spirit of hesed in his relationship with his servant. Even his exercise of military might, I suspect, was inspired by his loving for the Empire, the Emperor and its people. Granted none of this was perfect, but the love was there, the kindness however ill expressed at times, was there.

As with the centurion, so to with us; personal and corporate progress in the spiritual life requires from us first and foremost requires from us kindness. That's very good news I think since, of all the Christian virtues, kindness is the easiest to fake. Even if I do not feel kindness, I can act kindly. The great about this is that, eventually, if I am faithful to my play acting, I will actually become kind.

It can often be hard to find the time to pray, to believe in the face of doubt, to hope in the face of life's anxieties, to love when we are hurt by others. But kindness, kindness is easy and there are always opportunities in life for at least small acts of kindness. I don't have to cut you off on the highway. I can let you go first in the grocery store life. I can say "please" and "thank you" to people. I can smile even if that smile isn't from the heart and never quite reaches my eyes.

All this, and you, came to mind as I read Hosea this week. The Apostle Paul, after calling us to repentance, concludes with very simple, practical advice. He writes to the Church at Ephesus, "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you." (4.31-32)

Kindness. There really isn't anything easier.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory