Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Weight of the Cross

This past Monday, I had cataract surgery on my right eye. My cataract wasn’t too severe but glare was becoming a problem and my glasses needed changing just months after getting a new pair. It seemed a good time to get this taken care of. Everyone I talked to remarked about how easy and painless the procedure was, so simple that I could go to work the next day.

Of course the consent form had to inform me that rare complications resulting in blindness can occur. However, most unsuccessful outcomes occurred in patients with other eye diseases.

Even though my eyes are healthy, prior to the operation, I secretly prepared myself for the worst. I prayed and entrusted my eye to God. After all, everything that I have and am belongs to Him and He may do with me whatever He wills.

When the surgery was over on Monday, the doctor told me that everything went exactly as it should. He removed the patch the next morning in his office, warning me to not expect too much. It takes time for the eye to heal and vision to clear after surgery. And so I was grateful that I could indeed see and accepted his assurances that the blurred vision, scratchiness and tearing were normal.

By Wednesday afternoon and going into Thursday, I was ready to rip out my eyeball and throw it at him.

I guess it is a good thing that God did not permit me to be challenged with blindness. Despite my valiant intentions, I never would have survived it.

This was an excellent lesson from the Lord to help me see just how very weak I am. And, in my pride, I desperately need such lessons, though I can’t say that I enjoy them.

I used to think that “pride” was limited to arrogance or conceit. If I kept myself free of those vices, I was doing all right.

How limited was my vision. How subtle is the enemy.

God, in His goodness, has enabled me to see more now – though I’m sure that there is still a great deal about which I am blind.

One of the things that I now realize is that what some people might think is my “goodness” actually has little to do with my own strength or virtue. In reality, it seems that God, discerning how weak I am, has given me an extremely light cross to carry.

Because our ultimate goal as Christians is unity with God through Christ, we recognize that this also means joining in His suffering, pouring ourselves out in love as He poured Himself out in love. Because He died on the cross, we often refer to our own sufferings and hardships as “crosses”.

In considering all of the crosses I have seen people carry in life, I would have to admit that mine weighs about 8 ounces – while others are staggering under loads of 10, 20, 50 or even 100 pounds.

The enemy attempts to lure me into a sort of self-satisfaction of thinking that I am faithful and holy – as I proudly bear my little 8 ounce cross.

Yet add a couple of ounces to the load and I begin to crumple. I’m whining and complaining within. I become irritable and distracted. One would think I was carrying a real burden.

And so, in this lesson, I am taught that I am a mere child on the path to God, carrying my tiny cross and pledging my love, while having little or no understanding of what that really entails.

I am so grateful to have been given St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus as my patron and teacher. For she teaches those of us who are very small to follow her “little way” (read more here). It is perhaps the only way for one such as me.

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However, there is another chapter to this story. Through an online friend, I recently learned of a family who was given one of the 100 pound crosses.

Almost two years ago, sepsis quickly took from a young couple their lovely 18 month old daughter. Her small body was buried on the grounds of an Orthodox monastery, her grave marked by a simple wooden cross. And, as any parents would, they have grieved deeply ever since.

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I do not know why some people are given such very heavy crosses to carry. Although I have never met this couple, I am sure that they would not consider themselves strong enough to bear it. Who could be – except with the help of Christ Himself?

Even then, I do not doubt that there must have been times – many times – when this cross seemed unbearable.

But something very interesting, very extraordinary happened recently.

A member of the faithful, a 65 year old man, departed this life for eternity. His funeral was held at the same monastery where the child was buried. The parents were in attendance and the abbess of the monastery suggested that any there might request that this faithful man carry messages to others who had fallen asleep in the Lord.

And so the father did. While acknowledging that he hadn’t known him well, he asked this man to tell his little girl to “say hi to Mom”.

A few days later, my online friend (the father’s godfather) while looking at the cross for their recently deceased church member, saw something else glinting. Taking a closer look, he saw the child’s cross bathed in light – an exceptionally brilliant light. And he received its image so that he could share it…

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What does all of this mean?

For the parents to see this image must have been a great consolation, though undoubtedly a highly emotional one.

How else could they (or we) interpret it but as an assurance that their loving message was received and that their daughter is indeed enjoying the fullness of light and joy in heaven?

While it does not bring their daughter back to them, it may make the unbearable a bit more bearable as the “things unseen” that they know by faith are, for a moment, made visible to their aching hearts.

But I think that there is an additional message in this image for all of us.

I wonder why God chose the child’s cross to carry the message of consolation. Certainly there were an infinite number of ways He could have accomplished this.

Of course, it marked her grave and thus would seem a logical choice.

But also, it is a cross.

At the time we carry them, all of our crosses feel heavy to us, whether they weigh 5 pounds or 100 (or just 8 ounces). We feel overwhelmed and discouraged and alone with them.

We cry out to God, as did the Lord Jesus when He hung from His, and we feel lost in unending darkness.

And yet, here – here – it seems that God lifted the veil for a moment. For just a moment in time, He has given us a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the crosses we carry.

“Come, see what I have done. I have gathered to Myself all of your pain, your anguish, your tears and sleepless nights. I have taken your cross and drawn it into Mine, and the darkness is no longer dark but light, My light – My glorious and eternal Light. Come, My love. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid…My joy awaits you.”

It is this cross, this cross of light that I will keep ever before me as I stumble through the darkness.

God is with us. Yes, He is with us always.

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(Many thanks to my online friend, the parents of the child and the abbess of the monastery for permission to use here their story and photographic images for the greater glory of God.)

The sluggish prayer life

We Christians are often unhappy with our prayer lives – or so it seems. I hear this from friends, read it on blogs and have certainly felt it myself.

We seldom feel like we are doing prayer “right” and we may even feel that God is as dissatisfied as we are. We cannot help but recall Jesus’ expression of disappointment with His closest friends in the garden, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour?” (Matthew 26: 40).

What does it mean to have a sluggish prayer life? Why does this happen to us and what can we do about it?

I must admit this topic came to me in a rather humorous way. I recently returned from a weekend stay at the hermitage I frequent – where my spiritual life was anything but sluggish.

While there, God both challenged me and showered me with gifts. Among them were a number of nature images, including the one below:

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Of course, the text was playfully added later. Last night, I was searching online for something a bit more inspirational to go with this photo when I happened upon a blog a deacon had posted on spiritual sluggishness. I decided to have a read.

To be honest, I wasn’t particularly edified by the post. However, in my typical ridiculous fashion, I wrote a lengthy and ponderous response – only to discover that the site wouldn’t accept my comment!

Nevertheless, perhaps God allowed me to stumble onto this topic for a reason. And so, tonight, I type…

The slug is a slow-moving creature. Hence, our term “sluggish” is frequently used to describe a lack of activity or a feeling of lethargy, listlessness, weariness or apathy.

Thus, the “sluggish prayer life” may be a state in which we have trouble getting ourselves to pray at all. Or when we do, our efforts feel sleepy and lifeless. We may say our prayers mechanically or start saying them and discover that we are thinking about something else altogether.

We feel aren’t getting anywhere with our prayers. Certainly not closer to God.

When this happens, we feel discouraged. “What’s wrong with me?” we ask.

Should I try a different type of prayer? Maybe I need to be in a different posture or position. Perhaps I pray better alone, with others, in church, outdoors – anywhere other than where I am right now.

If we are distressed that this condition befalls us, it means that, at some level, we want to pray. If we truly did not care about prayer, we would readily accept its absence or superficial production.

So how is it that something I want to do so very much can elude me in the doing? Where does this sluggishness come from?

Sadly, the sources of spiritual torpor are innumerable. However, to make consideration of them a bit more manageable, we might view them in terms of the basic aspects of our selves, knowing that these aspects continually interact with one another.

So I begin with my body. Too much of this, too little of that and I am tired or lethargic. Illness or injury, major or minor, and my focus turns inward rather than God-ward. It is a capricious thing, this body. I often have no idea why it feels as it does.

As trying as this can be, however, I do not believe that it is the primary culprit in my sluggish prayer life.

And so I move on to my emotional life. If I thought my body was hard to understand and manage, certainly my psychological life is many times more difficult. In addition to all of the conscious thoughts and emotional reactions of the moment, there are many more reactions and memories stored in my brain outside of awareness. Some old memory may be causing a shut-down of response that I know nothing about. What I think is a simply stomach ache may be tension about the future that my organism is automatically anticipating.

Dreadfully complex, but not likely to be the primary culprit either.

And lastly, my spiritual self, undeniably interwoven with the physical and emotional fabric of my being. Sluggishness here emerges from many directions as well, ranging from demons to desires to distractions.

With so many potential root causes, how might we ever find the source of our trouble so that we can address it?

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Pardon me. I had to take a break. I was growing tired and sluggish. How easily this happens.

But what occurs to me is that this is not nearly as important as I imagine it to be. Of course, I can make it important – but it doesn’t need to be.

A number of assumptions about prayer may lead us into the unnecessary distress that defines the sluggish prayer life. Here are a few:

  1. If I have a good prayer life, it should feel gratifying to me. I will feel close to God. I will feel consoled and joyful when I pray.
  2. Praying well means praying with the frequency and in the manner of those whose holiness I observe and admire.
  3. There is such a thing as “a good prayer life”. There is such a thing as “praying well”. I can attain them if I work at it.
  4. Feeling sluggish (apathetic, tired, distracted, etc.) when I pray is bad. Particularly if I don’t feel that way when it is time to do other things.

I’m so sorry. I must take another break. I have a dreadful headache. I will return, perhaps tomorrow.

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I’m back. My head is still grieving me over the sudden change in weather but, alas, such things happen.

For now, I am interested in that first assumption. If I have a good prayer life, it should feel gratifying to me. I will feel close to God. I will feel consoled and joyful when I pray.

Intellectually, I suspect that most of us can rather quickly identify this expectation as being without basis. Nowhere in the Bible or the Church traditions are we led to believe that the purpose of prayer is to make us feel good. There may be times when it does but this is a side effect, a blessing. It is not the reason we pray.

In fact, great saints in both the Eastern and Western Church have documented for us how prayer can often become “arid” or “empty” as one moves more deeply into the spiritual life. So, at the very least, we should expect this absence of good feeling and sense of God being close. Perhaps we should even give thanks for it.

So I wonder why we don’t. Why instead we pass negative judgment on ourselves.

But let’s move on to our next assumption. Praying well means praying with the frequency and in the manner of those whose holiness I observe and admire.

Upon closer examination, this too seems rather obviously misleading. No two people can have exactly the same prayer life. Even when the externals of prayer are uniformly shared as in a monastery, each person has an individual relationship with God within that structured prayer. What goes on in the heart of each monk is unique, not to mention what is said or pondered when back in his cell.

Out in the world, our lives are so much more diverse that one person could not pray like another even if they made it their life’s goal. And to try , of course, would destroy the entire nature and purpose of praying.

Relationships among people cannot be developed and maintained by imitating others. How can we imagine it would be so with God?

And so it is curious that sometimes this is what we expect of ourselves – and what we imagine God expects of us as well.

Yet a third most fascinating assumption awaits us: that there is such a thing as “a good prayer life” and there is such a thing as “praying well”. And I can attain them if I work at it.

With the first two assumptions, I have been operating as though this third assumption were a given. But is it? Is there really such a thing as a “good prayer life”? Is it truly possibly for me to “pray well”?

I am about to call these assumptions into serious question.

“But certainly there is such a thing as a bad prayer life, isn’t there?” the reader might ask.

And my response to this legitimate question is that perhaps the only bad prayer life is the one that does not exist at all. (And then we can hardly call it “a prayer life”, can we?)

So back to the assumptions. Since we have observed that prayer cannot be rated as “good”, either by noticing how it makes us feel or by comparing it with the prayer of others, how can we possibly ascertain if a prayer life, our own or another’s, is good?

It seems that we cannot know. Perhaps God can know – but our understanding of such things is very limited.*

The notion of “praying well” is bound by the same limitations. While I might most enjoy the prayer that brings me a joyful sense of God’s presence, the prayer said faithfully through a time of darkness or intense struggle may well be the better prayer, both in the eyes of God and in its value for my soul.

Yet another part of this third assumption is important to examine: that I can attain the good prayer life (or praying well) if I work at it.

This is one of those notions that demonstrates the rich paradox of Christian spirituality. I will never grow in my prayer life if I do not work at it. Yet working at it will not cause me to grow or attain anything.

So, no, I cannot attain this mythical “good prayer life” by working at it – but still, I must work at it. Apart from God, I can do nothing. And so I pray to be able to pray and trust in His promises.

Ah – there is yet another assumption on the list, a fourth one: feeling sluggish when I pray is bad. Particularly if I don’t feel that way when it is time to do other things.

Someone taught me a long time ago a simple but important lesson – that feelings are not bad or wrong. And I think that applies here as well, especially because this sluggishness that descends upon us is not voluntary.

In most cases, what we do when we experience it is much more important that the fact of its occurrence.

(I say “most cases” because there are those occasional instances where the fact of its occurrence may be an important signal about how we are trying to pray. If no one has ever told us, for example, that trying to pray after eating a large meal is likely to result in sleepiness, we may need some education before proceeding.)

When I find myself in spiritual sluggishness, what then am I to do?

I cannot, of course, come up with answers that can help every person under every circumstance – or that can even help me.

But as I type here something is emerging, is it not?

Assumptions about what is “good” prayer, the labeling of my current state as “bad”, all of these judgments have no place in my life of prayer.

“But, wait,” you say, “aren’t I supposed to be repenting? How can I repent if I am not judging myself?”

Yes, yes, of course, I am repenting. And to repent I must turn toward God.

Unfortunately, the negative self-judgments and criticisms that sometimes pass for repentance often result in me turning my focus on myself instead of on Him.

Let’s imagine the sluggishness of my prayer as though it were occurring in conversation with a good friend. My friend and I are talking and I begin to yawn, finding I can barely stay awake… What do I do?

Well, this might depend on the circumstances. If it is late in the evening, I might say, “I’m so sorry, dear friend, I want to keep talking but I just can’t keep my eyes open. I must get to bed. Can we continue tomorrow?” I give them a hug and we go our separate ways. Soon I am fast asleep and hopefully my friend is not offended.

If it is not bedtime, however, I might say, “I sorry, dear friend, I don’t know why I’m so sleepy. Perhaps some fresh air would help me continue enjoying our conversation. Would you be up for taking a walk with me?”

I am genuinely sorry and try to repair the situation as best I can – but do not need to berate myself in order to repent. Similarly, I do not imagine that God wishes our repentance to consist of self-abasement as much as a loving movement toward Him.

But what if our sluggish temper is such that we feel little motivation to pray? Does that not merit a sharp rebuke from within?

Of course, all people differ in what motivates them but I personally think that the sharp rebuke is vastly overrated, whether in the context of raising children or trying to change one’s own behavior.

At best, it seems that the offender’s attention is caught for a short time but soon it slips away again and there is a return to old patterns. Nothing has been learned on deeper levels.

With both disorderly children and errant souls, certain practicalities such as routines are often helpful. However, in our prayer lives there is another dimension.

We can bring anything to God.

If I feel too sluggish or tired or irritable to pray, I can tell God that this is the case. After all, I can only begin where I am. And in the telling, I have actually begun my prayer.

I may say more, I may not. I may ask Him what He would have me do, given this state that I’m in.

If having no desire to prayer distresses me, this is not a sign of how “bad” I am. Rather it is a sign of a tiny little wish hidden deep within.

And even the smallest, weakest desire to pray is a prayer. Wanting to pray is the soul calling out for God from wherever it may be – from darkness or light, from boredom or energy.

The very weakest of desires may be little more than a groaning, barely audible, that the torpid soul lets out in response to the Spirit’s whisper.

Little slugs that we are, we cannot tell if we are moving forward. And we should not try to.

For we move “by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

And God is in charge of our movement on the path. And He Himself is the Path.

May I be content to remain on the Path forever, if He so desires, for He is my love and my hope.

And my prayer is the journey, an unending journey into Him.

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*This comment is not meant to suggest that a gifted spiritual father/mother/director is unable to discern whether a person’s prayer is progressing as it should. Rather, it is assumed that their guidance comes from the Holy Spirit, not their own human understanding.