Monday, December 03, 2007

Looking Inward

Icon of the "UNEXPECTED JOY" (right).

Then He said, "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches. And again He said, "To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened."

And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then one said to Him, "Lord, are there few who are saved?" And He said to them, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open for us,' and He will answer and say to you, 'I do not know you, where you are from,' then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.' But He will say, 'I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.' There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:18-29).

Jesus' words in the Gospel ought to give us pause: Not everyone who cries out. "Lord, Lord, open for us" will be saved. Jesus goes further and says that some of those who cry out to Him will hear in response "'I do not know you, . . . Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.'" These words, it must be emphasized, are not directed at the unbeliever, but to the believer. Jesus is not speaking to Jew or Greek, but to apostles and disciples, that is, to we who are Christians.

St Cyril of Alexandria takes Christ's words at face value. Turning to his congregation the saint says:

Who again are these? Many have believed in Christ and have celebrated the holy festivals in his honor. Frequenting the churches, they also hear the doctrine of the gospel, but they remember absolutely nothing of the truths of Scripture. With difficulty, they bring with them the practice of virtue, while their heart is quite barren on spiritual fruitfulness. These will also weep bitterly and grind their teeth, because the Lord will also deny them (Commentary on Luke, Homily 99).

I try and imagine myself standing on front of a congregation and repeating in my own way Cyril's words. And every time I imagine this, and in fact every time I've preached this, it ends the same way: People are really, really, angry at me.

But these are not my words or St Cyril's for matter. These are the words of Christ directed to those who of us who follow Him. When this teaching is rejected, it is not me, or Cyril, who is rejected, but Christ.

There is something to be said for every once and a while being remind that I am a sinner and, if given the chance, liable to twist the words of the Gospel to my own liking. Presumption is always a temptation. And if Christ's words in the Gospel evoke in me a certain dread and anxiety, well so what?

Granted, too much attention to these words is liable to plunge me into scrupulosity (an "obsessive concern with one's personal sins, including 'sinful; acts or thoughts usually considered minor or trivial . . . . The term is derived from the Latin scrupulus, a sharp stone, implying a stabbing pain on the conscience") or even cause me to despair of my salvation. But to ignore them all together seems to me even unwise since we are all of us at one time or another "hidden enemies" of Christ (to borrow from St Augustine).

It's hard listening to this Gospel and its explication by the Fathers, and not feel anxious for my own salvation. Do I really recognize Christ is the Eucharist? Have I eaten and drank unworthily? Has the character of my life caused me to appeal unjustly to Christ? Thinking about these questions causes me to turn inward and examine myself. Such an inward turn is essential to living a Christian life. Such an turn can serve to remind me that, left to my own devices, I cannot be saved.

At the same time I need to exercise care when I look within.

As I alluded to above, such an inward turn flirts with despair—my own sinfulness might seem to me so large that it blots out the Sun of Righteousness. Or, seeing the enormity of my sin, I might be consumed with a neurotic attempt to do things the "right way." In either case, whether I am afflicted with despair or scrupulosity, I lose the experience of joy that is a hallmark of the Christian life. The real danger of this inward turn is leaving it unbalanced by conversation with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Deprived of their affection and encouragement, my faith will slowly erode. The experience of anxiety and an increasing unhealthy distrust not only of self, but my brothers and sisters in Christ and eventually even God and His mercy is the fruit of this absent faith.

Whatever the risks, however, I need to take that inward turn and examine myself. St Paul tells us as much when he writes: "Whoever eats and drinks unworthily is eating and drinking judgment upon himself" (1 Cor 11.29). "How can the table which is the cause of so many blessings, and is teeming with life," St John Chrysostom asks, "become a cause of judgment?" He answers his own question:

Not from its own nature, says Paul, but because of the attitude of the one who comes to it. For just as the presence of Christ, which conveyed to us those great and unspeakable blessings, condemned those who did not receive them, so also Holy Communion becomes a means of greater punishment to those who partake unworthily. ("Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians," 28.2)

"All those," Augustine says, "who live unjust and irreligious lives . . . even if they are signed with his name and are called Christians" cannot appeal to their participation in the sacraments to excuse or protect them from the consequence of their actions. Indeed, if Augustine is any guide, the sacraments themselves, they very thing we try to use to bind God's will to our own, will stand in judgment against us since by our actions we reveal that we "did not value [them] very highly."

As Cyril merely rephrases Jesus, Augustine is merely rephrasing Paul, who himself has merely rephrased Christ. The one theme that unites all of these is the value they place on human responsibility, on our ability to shape our own lives for good or ill.

Though central, we must bear in mind that our freedom is always secondary. My only real freedom is to respond to God's mercy. If I lose sight of this, then scrupulosity, despair, complacency and unjust and irreligious habits will follow quickly.

So what about the people who cry "Lord, Lord"? I suspect that they imagined themselves as initiators of the relationship with Christ. Or, if not quite that, then certainly as people who added something to Christ and His ministry. But this is simply speculation on my part.

In the final analysis, our great joy, as I said earlier, is not to say "Lord, Lord," (after all the demons can say this) but "Amen" to God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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