Sunday, November 23, 2008

Love is First A Turning Away from Anger & Harshness

Sunday, November 23, 2008: 23rd SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (9th of Luke): Afterfeast of the Entry Into the Temple. St. Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium (394). St. Gregory, Bishop of Agrigentum (6th-7th c.). Repose of Rt. Blv. Great Prince Alexander Nevsky, in schema Aleksy (1263). St. Mitrophán, in schema Makáry, Bishop of Vorónezh (1703). Martyr Sisinius, Bishop of Cyzicus (3rd c.). Martyr Theodore of Antioch (4th c.).

(Above: Rembrandt's, The Rich Fool)

Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?' So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. 'And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry."' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.
Glory to Jesus Christ!

There is, as I sometimes forget, a seeming harshness to the Gospel. We see that harshness in the parable that we hear in the parable of the rich fool from St Luke's Gospel.

Look what happens in the parable, judgment is simply pronounced. There is no dialog, no discussion, or exploration of options. There is none of those little ways we have of avoiding, or at least softening, the truth of our situation. Jesus is brutally straightforward: The rich man is self-satisfied fool who has placed his faith in himself, in his own abilities and the wealth he has accrued. But when seen in the Divine Light, all these things are revealed as without substance. "There is no there, there," as Gertrude Stein once said in a rather different context.

At this point though we must exercise great caution; we ought not to think that the harshness we hear in the parable and in our Lord's words reflect any anger in God. Speaking of how God calls the sinner to repentance, St Ephrem the Syrian says that

Our Lord gives most of his assistance with persuasion rather than with admonition. Gentle showers soften the earth and thoroughly penetrate it, but a beating rain hardens and compresses the surface of the earth so that it will not be absorbed. "A harsh statement evokes anger" [see, Prv 15.], and with it comes injury. Whenever a harsh word opens a door, anger enters in, and on the heel of anger, injury.
The harshness, the anger, we hear in the parable belongs not to God, but to the rich fool. Or, as St John Chrysostom has it, "All things depend on our decision, certainly also to raise anger or to soothe."

Thinking about the parable, and how the fathers understand anger, I begin to ask myself what it is about the rich man, about his heart, that becomes a source of damnable anger?

I think that the answer is to be found in the rich man's trust in himself. His self-confidence is a confidence that he purchases at the expense, as St Cyril of Alexandria reminds us, of charity. Let me be clear here, it is not wrong to have confidence in the talents and gifts God has given you. But this is not the situation of the rich man; (again from St Cyril) he

does not look to the future. He does not raise eyes to God. He does not count it worth his while to gain heaven. He does not cherish the poor or desire the esteem it gains. He does not sympathize with suffering. It gives him no pain nor awakens his pity. Still more irrational, he settles for himself the length of his life, as if he could reap this from the ground. . . . "O rich man," one may say, "You have storehouses for your fruits, but where will you receive your many years? By the decree of God, your life is shortened."
His self-confidence, his trust in himself, comes at the expense of trust in God and compassion for his neighbor. I suspect that, in the beginning, his lack of trust in God was, as it is for many of us, more passive than active, more a matter of a certain flaccid thoughtlessness rather than vigorous malice. So to with how we respond to our neighbor. Rarely do we hate our neighbor or wish him ill. My lack of pity typically reflects carelessness on my part than any hardness of heart.

But slowly my lack of trust in God, my lack of compassion for my neighbor can, and does, becomes an active distrust and even an open hostility toward others whether human or divine. More at first from carelessness than malice, I come to see God and neighbor as opponents, as obstacles to the expression of my will and the fulfillment of my desires. It is this carelessness, that the fathers of the desert called acedia, or (to use a more modern terms), a forgetful indifference to the spiritual life and a preference for my own will. In a word, the rich man's folly is the fruit of the sin of sloth.

And what the desert fathers call acedia the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls "the natural atheism of the soul." Or, to use another of Levinas's images, acedia sees life as a "warm bath," comfortable, without demands, but also without challenges and progress and which is lived in isolation from all others, be they God or neighbor.

But for all that it fosters in us a spirit of passivity and isolation acedia is also the well-spring of anger and harshness. I cannot live passively and in isolation. Eventually the ebb and flow of daily life will challenge my delusions. It is in that moment of challenge that the anger in my soul will flare to life and, even if I do not utter a harsh word, I will entertain harsh and horrible thoughts against my neighbor and even against God.

The rich man in the parable is a fool; he sees God and neighbor as opponents, as thieves and enemies. But, as it often is in the spiritual life, there is hidden within even the darkest sin a hint of grace and mercy. Try as he might the enemy of souls can never quite obscure the path back to God—and how could it be otherwise? Since he has always been a liar; he never creates, but only corrupts; he can never reveal the truth, but rather always works furiously, and purposelessly, to obscure what God has made manifest, in creation, in Christ and in each and every human heart.

And if this is true generally, it is especially true in the parable of the rich fool.

If my spiritual death is a dying by degrees, well, so too is our salvation something that is accomplished by grace and equally small changes. By divine grace and our own small acts of gratitude toward God and compassion for our neighbor in need we can be healed of the anger and harshness that grips our lives. And we can even in this way be healed of the passive indifference to the spiritual life we call acedia. And all of this can be done here and now, in even the most ordinary and humble circumstances of everyday life.

How are we to begin? Humbly, by small steps that we take right now.

"Love sinners," St Isaac the Syrian to us, "and do not despise them for their faults. Remember that you partake in an earthly nature, and do good to all. Let your manner be always courteous and respectful to all. For love does not know anger or lose its temper or find fault with anyone out of passion." He continues by telling us that we must "not reprove anyone," that we must "avoid laying down the law," and "shun impudence in speech," and above all we must "Be subject to all in every good work, except to those who" like the rich fool in the parable, "love possessions or money."

To God be the Glory!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory
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