Monday, August 11, 2008

In Our Beginning We Find Our End

Summer, 2008 will end for me in much the same way it began—with my serving the funeral of a friend.

In May, I served the funeral of Khouriya Joanne Abdallah, the wife of Fr John Abdallah. The service itself was large, 8 bishops, 20 (or more) priests, several deacons, and over 200 people in the congregation.

Tomorrow I will serve the funeral for another friend, Charlene Cannon. Like Joanne, Charlene lived with cancer for many years—for almost the whole of the 15 years I've known her in fact. And like Joanne, Charlene was usually cheerful and optimistic in the face of her illness.

Unlike Joanne's funeral, tomorrow's for Charlene will not be as grand. There will only be two priests serving Divine Liturgy for her funeral, her pastor Fr Jonathan Tobias and me. And yet, for all the service will be smaller, it will be no less significant for that fact. In the Gospel Jesus challenges us: "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?" He then asks us more directly: "Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?" (Mt 6.26-27)

The great paradox of the Gospel is that our trust in God arises not out of intellectual reflection or study, but from the living sense of our own powerlessness:

"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. (vv. 28-33)

St Irenaeus, in his reading of the fall of humanity recorded in Genesis, makes much of the fact that God closes our first parents in "garments of skins." As did some of the Fathers who would follow him, Irenaeus saw God clothing us with these garments as an act of divine compassion. God eases the burden of my shame. But He does so in a way that will remind me of my powerlessness, my absolute dependence on Him and my relative dependence upon others.

The "garments of skin" are all of those experiences of my own contingency that I would turn away from; primarily sickness and mortality, but also failure and my seeming insignificance in the eyes of the world.

Both Khouriya Joanne and Charlene lived for many years with a more intense experience of the "garments of skins." Bearing up under their own illnesses as they both did with grace and good humor, allowed God to use their illnesses to transform them those around them.

Thinking about both women, I realize that they were both open-hearted and hospitable. Certainly they were hospitable in the sense of welcoming others into their homes. There was also in a more fundamental hospitality that both embodied however.

This more basic hospitality is one that welcomed people into their hearts and allows their presence there to shape their lives. Hospitality of home allows the host to do for the visitor; hospitality of the heart allows the visitor, to transform the host; to allow visitors in their need and with their own gifts to become someone through whom Christ can redeem their host.

These two hospitalities are not opposed to each other; far from it. But of the two, it is the hospitable heart that is the more demanding ascetically. Why? Unlike a hospitable home, which in Charlene's case was always welcoming, but cluttered, a hospitable heart must always remain empty of the passions and any hint that I would impose my own will and desires on you. This certainly was the case with both Charlene and Joanne's hearts—their hearts were always empty in order to make room for others.

Years ago I heard a tape of a lecture given by Fr Henri Nouwen on the spirituality of marriage. Reflecting on the Ark of the Covenant, he pointed out that the cherubim that God ordered to be placed on the Ark faced each other. And it was there, in the empty space between them, where the Glory of God dwelt. Charlene and Khouriya Joanne each in her own way and in a manner compatible with the circumstance of her own life, where able to create in their own hearts that empty space in which God's glory was able to dwell among us.

These women whose death serve as bookends for the Summer of 2008 embody for me the great mystery of the Christian life—it is only by self-emptying that I am able to fulfill my own unique vocation. How could it be otherwise? What else does the example of Christ tell us but that the Glory of God dwells among us only in human poverty? For me at least, it is easy to lose sight of this. To forget that the failures, the disappointments, the miss opportunities, are all part and parcel of how God makes room in my heart and life for His Glory.

Thinking of how Summer 2008 began and now ends, I am put in mind of the hymns sung at Matins for women martyrs:

Made radiant with the beauty of the noblest contest, you were revealed as shining lamps, Maidens of Christ, with shining rays making resplendent those who cry: Glory to your power, O Lord! You were made beautiful, O Virgins, and radiantly glorified, having loved without limit the glorified Word, wounded by whose love you most valiantly endured the assaults of sufferings. By your intercession with Christ drive away the attack of the varied temptations and dangers of me, who fervently celebrate with you all-festive memorial, O worthy of praise. (Ode 4, Matins for Women Martyrs)

Except for those who knew them, and unlike to the women martyrs of old, Joanne and Charlene, wives and mothers both, lived and died in relative obscurity. And granted as well, the "lawless tyrant" that caused their deaths was illness and not Caesar. But for all these and other differences of time and place between those ancient women martyrs and them, I think Joanne and Charlene both stand now before Christ wearing a martyr's crown. Not because they suffered Caesar's lash, but because they suffered with nobility and charity under their long illnesses and in so doing bore witness to

"the beauty of the Bridegroom, with an unswerving intent towards him God-bearing Maidens, you contemplated immortality while in mortal bodies, therefore you are fittingly called blessed. You appeared as spotless lambs in the midst of tyrants like ferocious wolves, overthrowing their savagery, and being brought to Christ as acceptable sacrifices. Together you wove a garland that does not grow old, O Virgin. You attained divine glory and were found worthy, as Martyrs, to obtain a truly unshakeable kingdom with the Martyrs. As you have freedom of access to the Master, holy Virgins, intercede that those who celebrate your memory with love may attain the glory of which you were found worthy and the choir which you attained. ." (Ode 9, Matins for Women Martyrs)

As we sing in the Funeral Service:

May he who has authority over the living and the dead, as immortal King, and who rose from the dead, Christ, our true God, through the intercessions of his most pure and holy Mother, of the holy, glorious and all-praised Apostles, of our venerable and God-bearing fathers, of the holy and glorious forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of the holy and righteous Lazarus, dead for four days, the friend of Christ, and of all the Saints, establish in the tents of the righteous the soul of his servants Khouriya Joanne and Charlene who have gone from us, give them bith rest in the bosom of Abraham, and number them with the righteous; and have mercy on us and save us, for he is a good God and loves mankind.
Eternal your memory, our sisters, worthy of blessedness and ever-remembered.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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