Powerlessness

I was working at my computer last night when suddenly everything around me went dark and quiet.

No warning. No explanation. Not even a storm to justify the outage.

I was without power.

In years past, I was not as bothered as I am now by temporary losses of electricity. I used to experience them an opportunity to become quiet and reflect, to have a chat or play a musical instrument.

I no longer am able to maintain such a casual outlook. In fact, though I am loath to admit it, I feel afraid when the power goes off without explanation.

A most disturbing thought enters my mind: is this The Big One?

In the last couple of years, the state of our nation and the world has heightened my concerns. Always such things were possibilities. It is only more recently that they have started to feel like probabilities.

Some opposing nation, some terrorist group, hacking into our power grid and reducing us to helplessness in a second. We cannot deny the possibility, though denying it is what helps us move through daily life with relative calm.

Even when acknowledging the possibility intellectually, it is still rather easy, when everything is working, to minimize the impact such an outage would have.

But I remember, just 15 years ago this month, the great blackout of 2003. Much of the Eastern seaboard lost electricity, most of us for about 2 days. Between Canada and the United States, 55 million people were affected.

Those of us who worked in buildings without windows that opened could not work. The heat quickly became stifling without air conditioning or even fans. Even worse, by the second day, toilets were not flushing as this region relies on electricity to maintain its water supply.

And this shutdown was unintentional, caused by a random software bug.

And it only lasted two days.

We were inconvenienced and we had to throw out a good bit of food. We were worried but we also had some assurance that all would be righted within days.

We were very fortunate. We are very fortunate. If (or when) The Big One occurs, we will indeed be powerless – in more ways than one.

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I recently returned from my pilgrimage to California which always fills me with gratitude. The beauty of the earth and the love of friends combine to help me see God afresh.

Adding to my journey this year was an extraordinary book that I read on the way there and back again: The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom.

I had read quotes from this book and it is such a classic that I thought I had read it before. It did not take long for me to realize that I had not.

I am not sure just why God led me to choose this book for my pilgrimage reading but I am so very grateful that He did.

I have read many Holocaust stories and memoirs but I believe that this one moved me like no other.

For those unfamiliar, the story relates how Corrie and her family, living in the Netherlands, experienced World War II.

As deeply Christian people, when it became increasingly evident what was occurring, they could not refrain from acting. Hiding Jews and growing the Underground to save more people became the center of their lives, despite their own country being occupied and arrests occurring all around them.

When it was their turn to be arrested, they were rendered powerless in every sense – or so it would seem. They were forced to stand for hours in terrible weather, deprived of food, clothing and the last shred of their human dignity.

They had to live amidst stench and vermin and were forced to work even when very ill. They lived in the shadow of the chimney and they were not oblivious to the source of its smoke. Some survived. Some lost their lives.

But what is most extraordinary is that, despite all of this, they never became completely powerless. Not only did they know that God was with them, but they actively sought opportunities to share the Gospel.

It is hard to imagine being in such horrendous circumstances and remaining fully committed to the Good News. One can imagine the people around them questioning: “What’s so good about it?”

Yet people gathered around them in secret, longing to learn and experience the power of the One who had died for them. His truth could not be silenced, even there, where darkness and evil appeared to have control of not only their bodies but their minds as well.

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Last evening, when it became apparent that the power outage was not going to be brief, I considered what to do. Neither my laptop nor my cell phone were charged up.

I could always pray, I thought.

It is not unusual for me to feel spiritually dull after a retreat or pilgrimage. Some of this may be due to travel fatigue, some to the natural ebb and flow of spiritual energy.

The enemy knows how to make use of such vulnerabilities and these last few days were no exception. I was tired yesterday evening and did not feel much like praying.

I could do a round on my prayer rope, I thought. Sometimes pushing myself in this way starts my spiritual engine more effectively than I expect.

It was growing darker inside but the final glow of sunlight lingered outdoors. I saw some people taking walks.

I could do that, I thought, considering the physical benefits more than the spiritual. I won’t go far.

Putting on my walking shoes and locking the door, I headed out. Instinctively, I reached in my pocket for my prayer rope.

I felt it there, familiar in my hand, but there was something else in my pocket that I did not recognize. As I began the Prayer*, I pulled out another thin strand of black cord. I wasn’t sure how it came to be in my pocket but there it was.

As I began to walk, I tied a single little knot at one end of the cord as I said the Prayer. And then another. And still more, one after the other.

I sauntered up the street slowly, undoubtedly a strange sight, tying knot after knot while the Prayer hummed on in my heart.

Since it was getting quite dark, I returned home, still praying and knotting, wondering if the piece of cord would be long enough to include 33 knots. Not quite.

But the engine had indeed gotten started, though I was still without electricity.

I found the original bundle of black cord, cut off a longer piece and began again. A knot and the Prayer, a knot and the Prayer…until there were 33, one for each year of Jesus’ life on earth.

I wanted a Cross for this little rope but did not have one. Ideas came and went from my mind but they had to wait; my heart which was lost in the Prayer.

Lighting a candle, I picked up another prayer rope, this one composed of 100 wooden beads and a Cross from the Holy Land, and sat before my icons. The Prayer continued.

As I moved through the beads without hurry, it was clear to me that God had “roped” me in. My fatigue and moodiness of earlier days had disappeared.

The Prayer felt as automatic as breathing. And I had no desire for it to stop.

Having completed the wooden rope, I found a little Cross and attached it to the tiny knotted rope. Now it felt complete.

 

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In the course of my work, I often hear people lamenting the fickle nature of their minds and moods.

Though we do not generally expect ourselves to be able to direct the workings of our other bodily organs, when it comes to our brains, we expect control of ourselves.

My thoughts, my feelings – how can I say they are truly mine if, in reality, they are the result of brain chemicals that shift capriciously?

And, if they become out of control without the aid of manmade medications, who am I really? Am I no more than a cocktail of neurotransmitters over which I have no control?

It is part of the disordered state of our souls that we link our identity, the nature of our being, with control of each and every nuance of thought and mood we experience.

Some of this desire for control may stem from our sinful pride. If I truly had the power to control all of these variables, everything would go so much better for me and the world around me.

(Implying, of course, so much better than it does when God is in control.)

But our confusion has another level, just as deep as the first. We have been taught that God gave us free will. Does this not suggest that we should be able to control what we think and feel and do?

After all, if we cannot control these things, how can we be considered “free”? How can God judge me at the end of time for how I’ve lived my life if, in reality, I was subject to the whims of genes and early environment?

As I reflect on my experiences over the last few days, two things become apparent:

  1. I am powerless.
  2. I am free to choose God.

I was as powerless to think my way out of my malaise yesterday evening as I was to make the lights go on. I was in darkness and my own strength could not save me.

I could not make myself feel happy, energetic or spiritual.

But I still had a choice before me: given this state of affairs, what am I going to do?

Apart from my human desires, befuddled as they can be by so many biological and environmental factors, there is in me (and all of us) a totally different type of desire – a holy desire.

The desire for God is like a seed that God planted in me at conception. Over many years, my parents cultivated its growth, preparing me for the choice to take over this effort.

Regardless of how I feel, regardless of what happens in the world around me, because of this seed, I can choose how I respond.

Last night, I could make my hand reach for my rope, even in the absence of emotional or spiritual inclination. I could tie a knot and push my way through the words of the Prayer. I could wait and hope and trust that the engine would start so that, once again, I could be free of my inner paralysis.

This was a very small “yes” my will said to God. So small that it hardly seems worth mentioning, especially when viewed alongside the many heroic yeses of the Ten Boom family.

How is it that such feeble desire could produce any spiritual movement at all?

It is in this awareness that I can embrace my powerlessness – for I cannot help but see that God was waiting for this little “yes” from me so that He could shower me with all of the grace I needed in my moment of dullness.

It is not power that I need but an open and willing heart.

May it be so.

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* “The Prayer”, as used here, refers to the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” (or more simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”).

a poem for my Lord

 

still drunk

on the splendor

of divine communion,

i walked – no, staggered –

to the garden of my delight.

and there, i saw him,

the king,

the little one,

flying and flying

as though unable to stop.

 

i had to meet him…

and so began to whisper

soft butterfly sounds.

“come, rest a moment,

my little one,

drink of the nectar.

see how beautiful it is?”

but he swooped and dove

 in frantic, fervid flutter,

heedless of my call.

 

 “might i receive your image?”

i pleaded. “please?”

his assent was but a pause.

the shutter clicked

and he was on the wing,

his flower-fast intact.

but i had seen him –

and seeing, had gasped,

so like our Master was he

in his affliction.

 

he had no majestic bearing –

no beauty to draw me to him;

pierced, crushed, stricken,

spurned and avoided,

yet even more

did i long for him…

rising to the heights,

descending to the depths,

he raced a course

i could not follow.

 

but i had to follow.

how could i leave him

who was giving everything,

when i had nothing to offer

but my empty heart,

poor burial-place for my lord?

watching, waiting,

his wounds ever before me,

i reached for him –

“if i can but touch…”

 

open and obedient,

yearning to be his home,

my tomb-like heart

awaited the final flutter;

 the king himself cannot elude death

bearing wounds such as these…

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a stillness comes over me.

spirit seeing what eyes cannot,

…his beauty fills my heart.

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amen.

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{Many of you will recognize the allusions to the prophet Isaiah’s words about the Suffering Servant (chapter 53) in the fourth stanza. Not wanting to disrupt the flow of the verse with a footnote, I acknowledge the reference source here.}

a gift received (painting + poem)

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it always begins as something small –

a pair of seeds losing themselves in zygote,

pursuing refuge in uterine darkness;

a tiny spark of light amidst collapsing stardust,

nebulous particles deep in cold black space;

or perhaps just a wish, a dream, a quiet moment,

glowing beneath the surface of life’s chatter.

 

i do not know who or what it is –

or how it will come to birth.

i simply know what is.

 

at first, all i see is that tiny spot of brightness

suspended in abyss, void of shadow or form.

frightened and fearless in its uncertainty,

it waits, it struggles, it pushes forward and draws back,

listening for the gentle whisper of wings,

the hovering from above that will define it.

hearing the Word, the birth begins.

 

listening, i hear.

watching, i behold.

not knowing what is before me.

 

like a spark one blows upon, i see the fire blaze,

an unfurling frenzy of light and life

splashing itself over the naked canvas

yet never quenching its undying thirst for more.

worlds are born and thrown into orbit –

spinning and singing, dancing and laughing,

an explosion of brilliant joy.

 

blinded by the light,

humbled before Him,

i worship.

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(Dear Reader: the first image was the very beginning of a painting; the second, its completion. As a photo reference, I used the image of a galaxy received by the Hubble telescope.)

Universal Salvation?

The question of universal salvation is, perhaps, the flip side of the question that plagues so many who want to believe: can eternal damnation have a place in the plan of a loving God?

A couple of years ago, I ventured to write about hell (see Hell?). Having just re-read the post, I still stand by what the Spirit led me to write on this topic.

Many others have far more knowledge than I do and have written extensively on the topic of universal salvation (see Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog for a wealth of discussion and resources: Eclectic Orthodoxy).

So why should I attempt to write about it, especially given that I have read very little of what has already been written in the circles of the learned? (Sorry, Fr. Aidan, just can’t make it through all of that theology.)

I can only respond to this reasonable question by saying that I feel the inclination to write – and that inclination is one I pray about before I begin. May the Spirit guide me – either to write something that will be helpful to at least a few of us with our faith dilemmas – or to abandon the project altogether if I cannot.

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Let us consider the dilemma itself.

We are told very clearly in the first letter to Timothy that God “…wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2: 4).

This should come as a great consolation to those of us who long for salvation for ourselves and those we love.

It also is in keeping with the central tenet of Christianity: that Jesus, the Christ, died for the sins of all people and rose from the dead with the promise of the new Life to all who believe.

There is no one that falls outside of the net of this salvation. He died for everyone.

While this certainly sounds like universal salvation, there is a catch. What about those who don’t believe? (Or those who sort of, vaguely, kind of think it may be true but aren’t sure?)

We might wonder why believing in Him is so important. If He died for all and He wills for all to be saved, why not leave it at that?

The dilemma is that the Life God is offering us is, at its very heart and by its very nature, Love.

And, as I have written in a number of other posts, for love to be love, it must be voluntary. Forced love is no love at all.

The conundrum is exposed: God wills for all to be saved and to live in His love but, if He imposes salvation universally, the laws of love are violated.

In giving us free will, it seems that God makes virtually inevitable the thwarting of His own will by mere creatures.

How can this be?

+++

Painted myself into a corner again, I have. I knew this was going to happen but, having seen this predicament coming, I could not un-see it.

Let me back up for a moment.

Is salvation universal? I must answer a resounding “yes!”. Our Savior lived and loved, died and rose, for each one of us without exception. The gift has been given and will never be taken back.

But will all step forward and claim their gift? And if some don’t, what will become of them?

As believers, it is hard for us to imagine that anyone would truly reject the gift of eternal love if they knew, unhampered by the afflictions of this world, what it was and that it was truly theirs for the asking .

Who in their right mind would turn away an eternity of love-filled life? Surely those who, in this life, seem to reject it must not be in their right mind. Certainly our loving God would not hold against them their illnesses or their wounds.

What could anyone possibly value more than love? Especially once all of the false allurements of this world that masquerade as the way to love have been removed from the table?

Sadly, there is one thing.

The one thing we just might value more than love is, yes…ourselves.

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We have been told, though the precise story has never been clear, that this is how Satan and his followers came to be the opposition.

The evil one is not in God’s league, i.e. he is not uncreated Being.

No, we are told that he was created by God as were all of the angels, good and beautiful and free.

And that he was cast from heaven because of pride. He wanted his own will, not God’s. He wanted to serve himself and be served as god, rather than serve Another.

This choice, never repented of, made of him the direct opponent of love and of God.

The inherent diversity of love necessitates the outpouring of self for other/Other.

Clinging to one’s self, one’s own will, above all else is thus the antithesis of love. It is ultimate separation from God and it is, indeed, a choice.

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If this sends chills of terror down your spine, please do not stop reading.

In one sense, having such a choice before me should scare me out of my wits. If I had any inkling of how very weak and prideful and selfish I am (and surely in my own mind I minimize the gravity of my sin), my situation would appear hopeless.

But I must remember that the gift of salvation is promised to me. I only need to accept it, to believe.

Yet a voice inside cries out, “But don’t you see that this is the problem? I scarcely believe at all. Sometimes I’m not sure I believe and certainly I don’t believe well enough…”

Would you believe that that “voice inside” is the work of the evil one himself?

What better way to draw me away from salvation than to convince me that I am not good enough to receive it?

Such fears are, strangely, yet another temptation to pride.

This seems paradoxical to our ears. And yet, as one who has extensive personal experience with the sin of pride, I believe it is so.

“I don’t have enough faith.”

“I don’t know how to surrender my will to God.”

“I know that I am selfish – too selfish to truly say yes to God.”

All of these statements begin with “I”. They are all about me and my power to thwart God’s will, His desire to save me.

Take these very same statements to confession, humbly struggling to turn God-ward, and His mercy is poured out upon me. It is no longer about what I can’t do – rather, it becomes all about what He does for me.

In this act of humble confession, all of my doubts and fears and weaknesses become part of the “yes” that God so longs for, a small whispered “yes” from a contrite heart.

This is our salvation. We need not fear.

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But what of those who have been shown the glory of God’s love and still hold onto their own wills? If such creatures exist, what does God do with them?

This, of course, is up to God and unknown to me.

But there are a few things that I believe with considerable certainty.

God never stops loving these dear creatures of His. He does not torture or torment them. He does not abandon them. He does not cast them out of His presence – for where is He not present?

Some say that this is hell indeed, to be ever in the presence of the God one rejects.

Perhaps. But if this is so, even then I believe that God’s mercy is greater than our resistance to it – always greater.

What will His loving mercy do with the unrepentant?

I have no idea – and truly the specifics are no concern of mine. What healing, help or relief He offers another soul is between that soul and God. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, it is not part of my story.

My story is just that – my story.

I walk, I limp, I stumble onward in search of my God.

Lost and confused, I reach out my hand in the darkness, longing for His mercy.

And He is there, always there, wrapping me in the robe of salvation that He has promised me from the beginning…

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God as Eternity

(This is the final segment in a series written for the Lent/Easter season. Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way” – in which he named the epilogue, “God as Eternity”. Unless otherwise noted, the content is mine – so please do not blame this good man for my ramblings.)

What will it be like?

Are there any among us who have not wondered?

Certainly the question of what, if anything, follows death is endemic to our species. For we who  believe the question extends even further – an eternity further.

What will heaven be like? Can we truly hope for everlasting life and love in the Presence of God?

Our Faith teaches us that we can. Yet believing this with the full depth of our being is far from easy. As St. Paul so eloquently described it:

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13: 12)

Our knowledge, our vision at this time is so incomplete that we cannot fathom what it is that God has in store for those who love Him. And it is hard for us to have firm faith in what we cannot imagine.

Have you ever secretly wondered if heaven might be, well… boring?

The thought has crossed my mind, I am ashamed to admit. But I think this is largely because attempts to describe an eternity with God often omit two essential elements – elements that Met. Ware brought to my attention.

(C. S. Lewis brought these same elements to my attention years ago – in the story form of “The Chronicles of Narnia”. However, I don’t think that I had words to describe what it was that I learned when I read this. I simply knew that I was attracted to it.)

Met. Ware indicated that we can be sure of these two things:

First, perfection is not uniform but diversified. Secondly, perfection is not static but dynamic.

Once we turn our attention to the perfection of heaven with this understanding, it no longer has the sound of one extremely long church service.

Instead of picturing God sitting on a throne, choirs of angels singing and the rest of us endlessly bowing down in worship, we can begin to imagine a living, growing relationship that encompasses both individuality and unity.

An eternity of life similar to the relationship within the Trinity…

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Naturally I can only write this with fear and trembling. For who am I to imagine that I understand what is to come – or that I understand life within the Trinity?

Of course, I understand none of this. But what has been revealed to the Church by the grace of the Spirit certainly hints at such a life for us.

As noted earlier in this series, the Holy Trinity includes a diversity – a three-ness of Being. The Father is not the Son, the Spirit is not the Father and the Son is not the Spirit. There are three distinct Persons in our God.

While this is incomprehensible to our human reason, this diversity is necessary for God to be love.

If God were One and only One, God would not be love within Himself.

He could love Himself, the One and only, but that would be an egocentrism rather than a pouring out of life-giving love.

He could love us – but then He would need us in order to carry out His love. In that case, He would be loving, but He would not be love in His very Being.

This suggests to us that we will not cease to be individual persons when we share in the divine Life.

This may be quite appealing to any among us who fear complete annihilation or loss of self in a formless cloud of energy.

But there is another side to this invitation.

And I became particularly aware of it when traveling through airports on my way to visit my mother.

A busy airport is teeming with diversity. I look at the other people waiting in line with me as well as the others milling around me.

There are many sizes and shapes, colors and languages. Some people look pleasant, like I’d enjoy meeting them. Others appear (to my eyes) a bit unusual, puzzling or even threatening.

Despite their considerable differences, each and every one of them was created in the image and likeness of God.

And each and every one of them was created to share in the divine Life, whether they recognize this or not.

Am I ready for an eternity that would include all of them? Is there any person or group that I really don’t want to meet in heaven?

Maybe they are just a little too different for my taste. I can’t tell if that one is a male or a female. This other one has way too many tattoos. That one dressed in clergy garb? Surely a hypocrite…

Certainly God wouldn’t let them in, would He?

Or perhaps I think they don’t deserve to be there. They were simply too evil. They hurt me too much. They hurt the world too much.

Certainly God would not let them in, would He?

Yet I am assuming that He has let me in…despite my idiosyncrasies, sins and shattered soul.

He wants us all – whatever condition we are in – so that He can cleanse us, heal us, restore us.

And the diversity among us is no accident in His creation. It is, indeed, necessary in order for us to participate in a divine Life that continuously pours Itself out in love for other.

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Of course, none of us will ever become love or become God in His essence.

We who are created can never become uncreated God.

But I do not believe that this limitation in any way represents a deprivation – i.e. a “Keep Out” sign that God has posted for any of us who want to get too close.

While I certainly do not know enough to enter the theological controversies surrounding the notion of God’s essence and His energies, I will offer a simple comment or two.

First, God is not divided into two parts, the energies which we can know and the essence that we cannot know. God is undivided unity of three Persons.

Second, the essence – energy distinction may be helpful to us in our effort to understand what we cannot understand. The distinction is one made for human minds, made of human words.

Our concepts, our words, can never adequately explain or describe God. But they can sometimes guide us away from error.

For example, the well-known words of Church father, St. Athanasius (ca 298–373), “God became man that man might become God”.

To avoid heresy, we must recognize that this statement is both true and false.

Truly we are invited to share fully in the divine Life. If we were not, for what purpose did our Savior die and rise?

At the same time, it would be a grave error to imagine that, in our dying and rising with Him, we become God in the sense that God is God. Or that the Trinity would keep growing in number to include all of us.

It is paradox to our minds. It is mystery.

It is all mystery.

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As we follow the mystery and consider perfection as dynamic and not static, we may, for an instant, think we have found something we can more readily comprehend.

Of course, God is alive and active. He who creates and sustains all living beings could not be otherwise.

But haven’t we all been taught that God is unchanging?

And haven’t I written as much myself, when pointing out that God does not have changing emotional states (The impassibility of God)? And that neither our sins nor our prayers “change” God?

Can God be both dynamic and unchanging?

To our minds, this may seem impossible. But that is only because our direct experience of living beings is that they change. Whether we are observing ourselves or the creatures around us, there is not a one that fails to change as it passes through the stages of its time-bound existence.

But the life of God is necessarily different in at least one very important way.

God’s revelation of His name to Moses, “I AM”, tells us that God is not like us, a created being passing through stages. He is not in the process of “becoming” a better or more perfect being. He is and always has been perfect Being.

His life, His “activity”, does not need to change. His perfection is complete and fully alive.

But how then can we know that He is indeed dynamic? Is it not possible that He created everything and is now detached, disinterested, so to speak?

This is where the notion of God’s “energies” becomes helpful to our struggling human minds.

We know that God is dynamic, alive and active because we are surrounded by evidence of this. Creation is not over but continuously manifesting itself – every time a bud blossoms, every time a baby is born.

To again quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…”

If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we see an endless “Theophany”, not only in creation, but in the day-to-day movements of our lives.

How could I even write, stumped as I am by my own questions, if the Spirit were not actively moving in me, unworthy instrument that I am?

The dynamic nature of God’s Being manifests itself not in Him changing, but in how the “energies” of His Being change us.

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The astute reader will note that I began writing about heaven, eternity and what comes next, but have centered most of this article on God and His perfection.

This, of course, is no coincidence. What comes next, I believe, is God.

Heaven is God and God is heaven.

Heaven is not a place (at least not as we conceive of places) but it is life in God, in His presence. It is union with Him and His creation, a union that allows us to be distinctly ourselves while fully in communion with other/Other.

It is a state of divine perfection, diverse and dynamic.

It cannot be boring because God in His Being is infinite, ever unfolding and made manifest.

To try to imagine this (which certainly we cannot), we might begin with the estimated 400,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Suppose, at my leisure, I could watch each and every one bloom?

And then suppose we move on to the butterflies on earth. With about 15,000 species of butterflies, I might discover each one as it hatches from its egg, feeds as a larva, spins its cocoon and emerges with its uniquely beautiful wings.

I think you get the picture. But of course I have only listed a few of the known created things on one planet in the estimated trillions of galaxies of the universe.

And, rather than discovering these temporary little created lives, I am writing of the infinite unfolding of the One who creates them all.

Contemplation of the boundless beauty and creative love of God overwhelms the human mind.

Our little brains, temporarily tools of our souls, cannot fathom such Being. Nor can I as an individual fathom that this glorious life is intended for me personally.

But He made us for Himself. He made us for an eternity of life and beauty and love unfolding.

Let us rejoice and be glad in Him who gave Himself up that we might share in this life.

Praise and glory and honor to Him forever.

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while it is still April (2018)

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Lenten/Easter series (which, BTW, has one more segment to go) to present our second annual “while it is still April” post in honor of National Poetry Month. The poem I am posting below is a prose poem, another happy reject from the local literary magazine. So good, so healthy for the soul, to be rejected! 

I would consider it an honor if you, dear reader, care to critique this poem or post one of your own in the comment section. While it is still April…  (The invitation extends to any original poem you wish to share – it need not have a spring or Paschal theme.) Enjoy!

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there is a darkness, a starkness, in me and around me, a nighttime of nothing, seeking something for which there is no fill. in its hunger, torn asunder, the heart impales itself upon a tree. “wait here,” the prophets whisper, “the holy One is near”. heeding, bleeding, the heart howls its pain, surrendering in vain the last of what it clings to. “i cannot bear it alone!” the heart’s final moan, soul from body rending, in the end descending – until there is no air. it is finished.

(at this point, the poet pauses…”dare i tell them what happens next? will anyone believe me?”)

there is a calm, a balm, in the morning’s breezing. from night’s despair, a fresh new air tells of life unceasing. living light, dawning bright, pierces cloud unknowing; death retreats in its defeat, everything is growing. from their height, birds take flight, beyond the river’s flowing. flowers blooming, unassuming, set the bees a-buzz. arise! arise! the angel cries, do not be afraid. love unfolds, my heart beholds a King whose name is beauty. beneath the shadow of His wings, all is as it should be.

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God as Prayer

(This is the sixth article in a series written for Lent. I’m a bit slow in my writing so here we are, well into the Easter season. But this is, I think, a good thing… Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s chapter title in his book, “The Orthodox Way”. However, unless otherwise noted, the content is mine.)

I finally understand why God led me to Met. Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” for my Lenten/Easter reflection.

When I first started reading the book, I had begun to wonder whether I had misunderstood the signs and selected the wrong book.

However, I persisted in reading and decided that I would use the chapter titles for my posts – since they were what had first drawn me to the book.

Certainly I’m not suggesting that this is not a fine publication. It just wasn’t quite what I had expected.

From the chapter headings, I had imagined the book to be perhaps a bit more mystical in nature. Yet, up to this point, I had experienced it as being a bit more informational, i.e. a guide to the Orthodox faith.

But now, having encountered Chapter 6, I understand why God wanted me to read this book now. Wow.

I must say I was, from the beginning, intrigued by the notion of “God as Prayer”. Like most, I am accustomed to thinking of prayer as a human activity, not something that God is. Hmm…

Allow me to lay a bit of groundwork, before leading you to what spoke to my heart.

Met. Ware first outlines the customary three stages of the spiritual Way: first, practice of the virtues; second, contemplation of nature; and third, contemplation of God Himself.

He notes that these stages should not be considered too literally nor are they necessarily sequential, requiring one to be mastered before proceeding on to the next.

My spiritual life is first and foremost a living relationship, my small person relating to the fullness of divine Person.

Mine is a life of repentance. It is necessarily sustained by the sacramental life of the Church. It is a life of love.

Such a dynamic interplay between my small efforts and the grace of God cannot be dissected and classified without something vital being lost. Yet words are all we have to help us conceptualize and share – so we use them, aware of their inadequacy.

I will not attempt to summarize all the Met. Ware has written, but to say that practice of the virtues involves our struggle, with God’s help, to break free of all that enslaves us.

And that contemplation of nature enables us to know the Creator as we recognize each created person, material object and moment as a unique and holy sacrament of God.

Met. Ware writes much that is beautiful on these topics. But there is more…

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I have long experienced an affinity for the Jesus Prayer – well before God gave me an up-close introduction to Orthodoxy.

Whether one calls it contemplative prayer or prayer of the heart, something deep within me has always longed to know God, to experience Him, to gaze upon Him, to rest in Him.

When I think back, I am astonished to think how much He has loved me, drawing me to Himself, when I have been so undeserving and lacking in gratitude.

All of my life He has been calling me to union with Him, courting me, enticing me with glimpses of His glorious beauty.

And I have been so slow to answer.

It is not that I haven’t prayed or attended church. But there has always been something of a decision being made, a choice of doing something when I feel like it.

And when I don’t feel like it, I do something else. Not something bad necessarily but something that is for me, not for us.

After all I can’t be praying all of the time, can I? I must work and certainly it is normal to want to play now and then.

Or so I thought until I came face-to-face with the counsel to “pray without ceasing”.

The thought of praying without ceasing lights my heart afire with joy.

But I confess that I have not understood it – not really.

I have learned that I must be watchful lest I interpret this admonition as meaning that I must always be doing “religious” things – compulsively attending every church service available, reading only spiritual books and resenting anything that pulls me away from these observances.

I may not know what it means to pray without ceasing – but I know that this is not what it means. At least for me, such compulsivity is more likely feeding some aspect of my ego, luring me into imagining myself to be holy – and holier than thou. Ugh…

And so it was with considerable interest that I read Met. Ware discussion of the Jesus Prayer, contemplation of God and union.

He predictably notes that it begins as a prayer of the lips which gradually “grows more inward”, becoming a mental prayer or prayer of the intellect. The intellect then “descends” into the heart and becomes united with it, so that it becomes a prayer of the heart.

All of these things I have read before, particularly in the lives and writings of the saints. But it was what Met. Ware wrote next that opened a door of understanding for me:

At this level it becomes prayer of the whole person – no longer something we think or say, but something we are: for the ultimate purpose of the spiritual Way is not just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all of the time. The Jesus Prayer, that is to say, begins as a series of specific acts of prayer, but its eventual aim is to establish in the one who prays a state of prayer that is unceasing, which continues uninterrupted even in the midst of other activities. 

“A state of prayer that is unceasing…” Unceasing even through my variable moods, energy levels and motivational lapses?

Or perhaps I am not supposed to have those anymore?

No, I am human and they will always attempt to disrupt my communion with God until, in the end, He grants me complete liberation from them.

But I suspect that, if God so wills that I ever experience this state, I will pay a lot less attention than I do now to these surface ripples on the ocean of my heart’s prayer.

And yet Met. Ware takes me a step further:

Beyond this there is a further stage, when the hesychast’s prayer ceases to be the result of his own efforts, and becomes – at any rate from time to time – what Orthodox writers call “self-acting” and Western writers call “infused”. It ceases, in other words, to be “my” prayer, and becomes to a greater or lesser extent the prayer of Christ in me

I can think of no greater joy: Christ our risen Savior, resting in the Father’s love, communing in their Spirit, all from my poor and lowly heart.

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Quite naturally, Met. Ware does not tell me what I am to do in order for this to come about.

It is not something I can do or that I have any control over. And that is good…

It is completely and utterly up to God what He allows, what He brings about, in the life of my spirit.

And it is completely up to me to follow Him, whether He allows my heart to grow dull and dry or He grants me a glimpse of Christ loving Him from within me.

He who knows both my longings and my weakness will set me on the path that leads unfailingly to Him.

He asks only that I give Him myself, my entire will and being, trusting in the fullness of His love.

May it be so…