Monday, March 02, 2009

The Heart’s Hidden Depth

So it was, when the days of feasting had run their course, that Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all. For Job said, "It may be that my sons have sinned and cursed[a] God in their hearts." Thus Job did regularly.
For Great Lent, I have encouraged my catechumens to read the book of Job. Since I generally follow the counsel I give, I began today to read Job.

For my first reading, I am using the new Orthodox Study Bible's (OSB) English translation of the Septuagint (LXX). Afterwards, I go back over the text a second time, but this time using the volume dedicated to Job in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) series. This series allows me to get a bit of the flavor of patristic commentary on the book. While I am of two minds about both texts, I think it is good now and then to look at a familiar text of Scripture from a different perspective. But, this is really neither here nor there.

Reading through the commentary of chapter 1, my attention was drawn to the words of Didymus the Blind (ca. 313 – ca.398) Reflecting on the verse at the top of this post, Didymus says that, "the text stresses the great purity of Job's children." He then something interesting, while Job "did not perceive any sin" in his son, he nevertheless offered sacrifices because of the sons' "disposition." The explanation for this is straightforward: "Job was aware that the human weakness and sluggishness that mark young persons often escalates. This is also what St. Paul said, 'I am not aware of anything against myself.' (1 Cor 4.4) And the psalmist, 'Forgive my hidden faults.' (Ps 19.12/18.13 LXX)"

Thinking about this, two thoughts came to mind.

First, I am aware that I often do not have any sense of my own sinfulness. Or rather, my awareness is often limited to only my surface sinfulness. Yes, I know that I am a sinner, but I do not know this in depth. This why I think that not only the season of the Great fast, but all the penitential periods and disciplines of the Church can be beneficial. They can help me come to know a bit more of the depths of my own sinfulness. In words of the Great Canon of St Andrew that the Orthodox Church celebrates during Lent (9th Ode):

The mind is wounded, the body is feeble, the spirit is sick, the word has lost its power, life is ebbing, the end is at the doors. What then will you do, wretched soul, when the Judge comes to try your case?
I have reviewed Moses' account of the creation of the world, my soul, and then all canonical Scripture which tells you the story of the righteous and the unrighteous. But you, my soul, have copied the latter and not the former, and have sinned against God.
The Law has grown weak, the Gospel is unpractised, the whole of the Scripture is ignored by you; the Prophets and every word of the Just have lost their power. Your wounds, my soul, have multiplied, and there is no physician to heal you.
For many, including man Orthodox Christians, these words are hard to say. And they are even harder to apply to oneself.

But they don't exhaust the hidden depths of the human heart. Yes, there is in my heart profound sin but not only sin. Again, in the words of tonight's service:

I am bringing before you examples from the New Scripture, my soul, to lead you to compunction. So emulate the righteous and avoid following the sinners, and regain Christ's grace by prayers, fasts, purity and reverence.
Christ became man and called to repentance robbers and harlots. Repent, my soul! The door of the Kingdom is already open, and the transformed Pharisees, publicans and adulterers are seizing it ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31; 11:12)
Christ became a babe and conversed in the flesh with me, and he voluntarily experienced all that pertains to our nature, apart from sin; and He showed you, my soul, an example and image of His own condescension. (Matthew 1:25)
Christ saved wise men, called shepherds, made crowds of infants martyrs, glorified old men and aged widows, whose deeds and life, my soul, you have not emulated. But woe unto you when you are judged! (Matthew 2:12; Luke 2:9-12; Matthew 2:16; Luke 2:25-38)
When the Lord had fasted for forty days in the wilderness, He at last became hungry, showing His human nature. Do not be despondent, my soul, if the enemy attacks you, but let him be beaten off by prayer and fasting. (Matthew 4:1-11; 17:21; Mark 9:29)
The human heart, my heart conceals within itself not only sin and death, but also the possibility of repentance and renewal in response to God's grace. If I may speak this way, not only sin but also repentance is a possibility for me. I suspect that, to the degree people turn inward at all, most of us remain on the surface.

But if I go deeper and see the sinfulness that is right underneath the surface of my respectable life, I am tempted to turn away from the ugliness with me and retreat once more into a life of mere respectability. Or else, if I avoid flight, I can find myself mired in the reality of my own sinfulness, my own pettiness and shortcomings.

The real anthropological genius of the Church's liturgical tradition is that it takes me even deeper into myself and shows me the image of God that is obscured by my sinfulness. It is at that point, when I see my life as it has come to me from the Hand of God that I can begin, by God's grace, the upward climb that is the life of repentance and theosis.

The great paradox though is that I cannot ascend unless I first descend into the "weakness and sluggishness" that characterizes not only the life of young people, but my own life as well.

A blessed Lent and a glorious celebration of Christ's Resurrection.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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