Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Healing Silence

Sunday, November 30, 2008: 24th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (10th of Luke)—Holy and All-praised Apostle Andrew the First-called (62 A.D.). St. Frumentius, Archbishop of Abyssinia (Ethiopia—ca. 380).

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up. But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, "Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity." And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, "There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day." The Lord then answered him and said, "Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it? So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound-think of it-for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

(Luke 13:10-17)

St Augustine sees in the woman with "a spirit of infirmity," the woman that Jesus heals in this morning's Gospel, a figure of the whole human race. We, each of us, like her, us "bent over and bowed down" Augustine says. But where this is literally the case for the woman, our own infirmity is somewhat different. In the case of humanity the "devil and his angels have bowed down the souls of men and women" causing them "to be intent on temporary and earthly things" stopping us "from seeking the things that are above."

With Augustine's observation in the back of our mind, we might want to ask, what is it that has us bent over? What is it that has caused me to neglect my own spiritual life, my own relationship with Jesus Christ and His Body the Church? Where is it that I have turned inward and away from God and my neighbor?

While the answer for each of us will be, I suspect, a bit different, we nevertheless can speak in a general way of the sign or the symptom of our own personal infirmity. We get a clue as to this in the words of St Cyril of Alexandria. Reflecting on the response of the ruler of the synagogue, the saint says that he is "not angry because of the Sabbath." Turning in his sermon to speak to the ruler of the synagogue St Cyril tells him: "Since you see Christ honored and worshipped as God, you are frantic, choked with rage" and so you "waste away with envy."

And then the saint comes offers his diagnosis: "You have one thing concealed in your heart and profess and make pretext of another." The angry heart is a heart held in the grip of "vain reasoning." Though the context is different for each of us, we are all of us at different points in our lives doubled over in anger, "choked with rage" in Cyril's words. If I am honest with myself, how can I deny that, like the ruler of the synagogue, there are times in my life when Christ can justly call me a "hypocrite, pretender, and insincere"?

And like the ruler of the synagogue, I often make use of the things of God—of the Gospel, of Holy Tradition, and the teachings of the saints to name only three—to justify my anger, my lack of concern for the "things that are above." And more often than not my anger takes the form of my criticism of others, forgetting as I seem to do quite frequently that I am bent over myself.

Looking then into the angry heart, what might be the way out? How can we, like the woman in the Gospel, come to stand upright and be healed of what has bound us? How might we lay aside what St Ambrose calls our own "earthly burdens" and our burdensome lusts and so learn again to stand upright and experience in this life a foretaste of Eternity?

For the first several years as a priest I would encourage people to fast and pray. But what Id didn't realize is that for many the Church's counsel that they fast and pray is just one more burden, another thing on an ever growing to do list. Before any of us can find profit from prayer and fasting, we must first simplify our lives. I don't mean here that we should begin by selling all our possessions and giving to the poor, though God love you if you can do so freely and cheerfully. No what I mean is something different.

Our first step to being restored by grace to spiritual health is to cultivate in our life silence. As I said a moment ago, I would encourage people to pray whose lives were filled with noise and activity. TV, radio, music, internet—all of these constantly going, making noise, distract the person from thing Eternal and enslaving them to things temporal.

So we need first and foremost to cultivate in our lives. Silence is not merely the absence of sound but is, as the philosopher Max Picard writes, the space between sounds that make words meaningful.

Our lives are so filled with noise that it masks the sound of anger and rage in our hearts. Worse, the noises deafen us to the pain and lose to which anger and rage are the typical human responses. Underneath your anger is sorrow, lose and pain. There is in each our lives real suffering that Jesus longs to heal.

The ruler of the synagogue was no doubt an important man in his community, a busy man, a man with great responsibilities. If he is an unsympathetic figure in the Gospel it isn't simply because of his hypocrisy. It isn't simply because they would deny grace to the woman in affliction. No, what makes him such a pitiful figure (to borrow again from St Cyril) is that the ruler stood there in the presence of Him Who by the "glory and the splendor of His works solved all inquiry and doubt in those who sought Him without ill will" and missed the opportunity for healing himself.

Because the ruler of the synagogue would not, could not, still even for a moment his own angry thoughts, his own raging heart, "Shame fell" on him for his "corrupt opinions." Rather than be lifted up, he "stumbled against" Christ "the chief cornerstone" and so was himself "broken" rather than healed.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, amidst all the activity that quite rightly goes along with our preparations to welcome the Birth according to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, let us cultivate in our lives moments of silence. Still, if not the anger at least the irritation, so that, unlike the ruler of the synagogue we will not be covered in shame but rather in the glory of the Divine Light.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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