How, then, might one live an authentically anti-racist life? In my view, the crucial first step is to renounce the scapegoat mechanism, which has been an important driver of white identity politics and of white radicalization. This requires serious self-reflection and the development of habits that make for peace. That is, it requires the cultivation of virtue.
Musa al-Gharbi argues that “the most meaningful act of resistance to systemic racism would be for its primary beneficiaries to seek ways to give of themselves… rather than attempting to blame, coerce, cajole or expropriate from others under the auspices of anti-racism.” Such an “ascetic anti-racism” is at once simpler and far more demanding than anything on offer from Robin DiAngelo. Anyone desiring to live an authentic, rather than performative, anti-racism should take al-Gharbi’s recommendations to heart — and then make mulch out of books like White Fragility, which have only served to poison our culture.
Did an interview recently with Brooke Taylor of Good Things Radio a Catholic podcast about “the good that life has to offer while going through the joys and challenges of parenthood, married life, cooking, pop culture, friendship.” Take a listen as Brooke and I talk about asceticism!
Wednesday, March 28 (O.S., March 15), 2018: Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Holy Martyrs Agapius, Publius, Timolaus, Romulus, Alexander, Alexander, Dionysius and Dionysius of Palestine († 303); New Hieromartyr Priest Alexis († 1938); New Hieromartyr Priest Michael († 1940); Hieromartyr Alexander of Side, in Pamphylia († 270-275); Martyr Nicander of Egypt († c. 302); New Martyr Manuel of Crete; Venerable Nicander of Gorodnoezersk.
As we come to the end of the Great Fast, God’s words in Isaiah can feel like a slap in the face. God doesn’t care about how strictly I fast. What matters to God is that whether I “loose the bonds of wickedness” that grip my heart and oppress my neighbor.
Have I undone the “thongs of the yoke … to let the oppressed go free”? Have I shared my “bread with the hungry,” brought the homeless into my home, clothed the naked and all while also caring for my family? Have I, in other words, fulfilled the commandments Jesus gave me at the beginning of Great Fast on the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)?
Mother Maria of Paris writes that Christians are “called to organize a better life for the workers, to provide for the old, to build hospitals, care for the children, fight against exploitation, injustice, want, lawlessness.” Whether we do this “on an individual or social level” what we do must “be based on love” for our neighbor. Such love, the saint concludes, is demanding and requires from us an “ascetic ministry to his material needs, attentive and responsible work, a sober and unsentimental awareness of our strength” and an accurate and truthful evaluation of the “true usefulness” of our efforts on behalf of others.
Fasting, and indeed all our asceticism, is but a preparation for love.
Our ascetical efforts throughout the Great Fast have been at the service of removing from our own hearts anything the would limit our willingness to love sacrificially. This why, after Isaiah’s stern words on fasting, the Church puts before us the example of the Patriarch Joseph.
Betrayed by his brothers, he is sold into slavery, and is falsely accused of attempted rape. Still he eventually rises to be the second most powerful man in the most powerful kingdom of earth: Egypt. By the time of today’s reading, whatever resentment and bitterness he may have had as a young man, has been washed away.
Joseph was healed by prayer, fasting, and work.
Throughout his time in Egypt, he never forgot his God. To keep the Law, he abstained from the rich food and drink enjoyed by the Egyptians. And he worked to make himself a profitable servant even to those who mistreated him. In this way, to return momentarily to Isaiah, he anticipates the God’s promise to Israel that will be fulfilled in Jesus Christ:
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, “Here I am.”
Joseph stands in stark contrast to the wicked man in Proverbs. He also represents for each of us a choice as we now being to shift our focus from the Great Fast to the events of Great and Holy Week.
In the days leading up to the Resurrection, will I be revealed as a “scoffer,” a “haughty man who acts with arrogant pride”? Or will I, like Joseph, forgive my enemies? Will I “do good to those who hate” me, “bless those who curse” me, “and pray for those who spitefully use” me (Luke 6:27-28, NKJV)?
The sign that I have taken the role of the scoffer is this: My asceticism has become an end in itself. When this happens, Mother Maria writes, “All the ugliness of this world, its sores and its pain, are pushed to one side and obscured so that they will not disturb” me. To the scoffer “even the suffering and death of the Lord himself, his human exhaustion, acquires an aura of beauty, inviting admiration and delight” but is emptied of any power to transform me into one who loves as God loves.
What about love? It “is a very dangerous thing. At times it must reach down into the fathomless lower levels of the human spirit, it must expose itself to ugliness, to the violation of harmony. There is no room for it where beauty, when once discovered and sanctioned, reigns forever.”
Our asceticism, our wealth, our power these are all just for this one thing: That we become willing and able to receive and to give God’s love.
When we discuss the ascetical life, we’re generally pretty comfortable with prayer and fasting. In fact, not all that uncommon for Orthodox Christians to brag about the length of our services and the strictness of our fasting–even if we, personally, don’t attend the lenten service or keep the fast all that closely!
But in the tradition of the Church, asceticism isn’t simply prayer and fasting. Almsgiving and manual labor are (or should be) essential ascetical disciplines.
Building on the sacraments, the goal of the ascetical life is to restore us to the beauty we had in the Garden before the Fall of our first Parents. To borrow from the Canon of St Andrew that’ll we’ll hear soon, asceticism is meant to lift from my heart the “heavy burden” of sin and reveal “the beauty of my original image” created to reflect God’s glory.
Asceticism liberates us and makes us beautiful!
Like I said, we usually limit our conversation about asceticism to prayer and fasting and neglect almsgiving and manual labor. But we should introduce young people all four ascetical disciplines. Why do I say this?
Through prayer and fasting, I reshape my heart and make it more sensitive and responsive to God’s grace. The ascetical disciplines of manual labor and almsgiving allow me to shape the world around me and my relationship with others— including the poor— in a manner that reflects Christ. Just as prayer and fasting sanctify soul and body, almsgiving and manual labor are the means by which I sanctify the material world and therefore human society as well.
Look at the desert fathers. What did those great ascetics do?
They would often live in places where they had access to palm leaves. The monks would weave these leaves into mats and baskets while they prayed, then sell their handiwork to support themselves. Whatever was not needed to meet their own, minimal expenses would be given to the poor. So for these first monks, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor, all work together.
Introducing young people to almsgiving and manual labor helps them understand that they can, personally, make a contribution that helps others.
Asking young people to work is very different than asking young people to raise money through raffles or selling candy. Asking them to work to raise money to help those in need communicates to them there is something noble to work.
It also can help young people understand that beyond meeting our own needs, work is something we do for others. I don’t just work to make my life better; I work to make your life better as well.
Epistle: Hebrews 1:10-14; 2:1-3
Gospel: Mark 2:1-12
Before both the epistle and Gospel reading, we are commanded to pay attention. This is sensible. When God speaks I ought to listen.
But God being God, when does He not speak? When is God not speaking to the human heart? When is not revealing Himself to us?
To be sure, God can (at least from my point of view) speak with greater or lesser subtlety. Yes, He appeared to Moses in a burning bush(Exodus 3:2) and lead the Hebrew children to the Promised Land as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).
And yet, when He spoke to the Prophet Elijah, God spoke not in “a great and strong wind” that “tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces.” God didn’t speak in “an earthquake” or “a fire.” No, when He spoke to Elijah, He spoke as ultimately He always does, in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 9:11-12, NKJV) in the depth of the human heart.
This is why, as we heard in the epistle, “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard.” God’s voice is small and still and unless we quiet ourselves and listen so we can hear what He has to say, we will simply “drift away.”
While we might imagine that people make a conscience decision to separate themselves from the Church and to stop following Christ, more often faith—like marriage—dies by a series of small acts of neglect. It is indifference and distraction that usually steals the soul from Christ. Major sins, what the Apostle John calls sins “leading to death” (1 John 5:16, NKJV), are never the starting point. They are rather the fruit of a habit of spiritual or moral negligence; of prayers rushed or skipped, sins of omission rather than commission.
Recall the miracle in the Gospel we just heard.
Like many of our Lord’s miracles, this one was public; Jesus heals the paralytic scribes who only a moment ago accused Him of blasphemy for forgiving a man his sins. Given the times, it isn’t wholly unreasonable that the scribes took offense at Jesus’ words.
But their anger at Jesus is so overwhelming that it causes them to miss what the crowd saw. The crowd was attentive and so when the man ” took up the pallet and went out before them,” they were “amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’”
The difference between the scribes and those in the crowd wasn’t what the eyes saw but what the heart heard. For all their ignorance of the Law, the hearts of those in the crowd were open to hearing the small, still voice of God.
And this brings us the saint who we commemorate today: Gregory Palamas.
There is neither the time nor the place to explore the subtle of the saint’s theology. Suffice it to say that for Palamas the voice that we hear in our hearts is really the voice of God. It isn’t a psychological phenomenon but God speaking to us directly and personally. He was tenacious in his argument that our experience of God in prayer, in the Liturgy and the others sacraments and services of the Church is a real, unmediated and direct experience of God.
What we have, in other words, is not knowledge about God but knowledge of God. A real, unmediated, direct, and personal intimacy or communion with God.
We can summarize the goal of the asceticism that so occupies us during the Great Fast in this way. First, the ascetical life helps us overcome the myriad distractions in our lives that come between us and God. How frequently, to speak only for myself, I become fascinated with some idea I have about God. That this idea is true is, from the point of view of our communion with God, is secondary. The spiritual life isn’t a collection of true ideas or wholesome feelings about God any more than it is about living a morally good life. To be sure, these all have their place but in service of pointing us beyond themselves to God. Or, as St Seraphim of Sarov says:
Prayer, fasting, vigil and every Christian work, however good it is in itself, does not constitute the goal of our Christian life, but serves as a means for its attainment. The real goal of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
As distractions wane, our ability and desire to focus on God, and God alone, waxes. This second goal of the ascetical life is often overlooked. Christian asceticism is not about being able to perform great feats of physical endurance. No, asceticism is rather about learning to fix the heart and mind, indeed the whole person, on the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
Asceticism without love makes me no better than then the demons. Think about it. The demons keep vigil because they don’t sleep, they fast because they don’t eat. Not having physical bodies as we do, their attention never wavers. What they lack is not the elements of asceticism but it’s inspiration and goal, the love of God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we enter now into the third week of the Great Fast, let us ask God to help us grow in our love for Him and in Him for our neighbor and in this way fulfilling the whole of the Law.
To this end, that is to grow in love, let us as well offer to God not only our heartfelt prayers but also our ascetical struggles. We offer them not because God needs them but because we do so that we can celebrate Christ’s Glorious Resurrection a little freer from sin, a little freer to love.
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of-throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!
George MacDonald in C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Walker and Co., 1987), 205.
While the evidence offered is more anecdotal than empirical, the analysis of After Asceticism: Sex, Prayer and Deviant Priests is true. We read in the introduction (here) that “in its early stages at least,” there wasn’t any fundamental difference in the “personality features of [between pre- and post- Vatican II] seminarians or priests … that would account for the nature and the magnitude of the [clergy sexual misconduct] crisis”. The difference was rather that “ascetical discipline was practiced better in the first half of the twentieth century” and almost wholly abandoned by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council.
Taking this as our jumping off point, I suspect that the rise of liturgical narcissism among (Catholic) clergy that Vitz and Vitz (here) criticize reflects not just the rise of a secular psychotherapeutic model of the Christian life but a general neglect of ascetical struggle as foundational to our life in Christ. Again, in After Asceticism:
In its purpose, theory, and practice, the therapeutic mentality stands in stark opposition to religious devotion and personal repentance for sin. Allegiance to the therapeutic mentality has dislodged ascetical habits and manners, and it now holds sway over the attitudes of clergy, just as it strengthened its materialist grip on western societies for nearly a century. … Predictably, when the storm surge in pagan sexuality began to overwhelm the natural defenses of the clergy in the 1950s and 1960s, those without the spiritual anchor of ascetical discipline were set adrift– perpetrators as well as their managers. As the initial storm surge receded, a spawn of the therapeutic mentality remained in the tidal pools.
If this analysis is correct (and I’m afraid it is) our (Orthodox) first line of defense against narcissism–what I would call our self-aggrandizing tendencies–is fidelity to our own ascetical tradition. This, however, raises another issue.
Ascetical discipline is often lax, and even absent, among both the clergy and the laity (I count myself among the lax I’m afraid). But even among those who do a better job, the absence of sound moral and human formation can deform the personality and character of the priest or the layperson.
The ascetical disciplines of the Church arose within the context of what today we’d call virtue ethics (Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy: A Meeting of Minds). Stoic moral philosophy and anthropology figured prominently in how the fathers understood both morality and asceticism. Today, unfortunately, most of us are more beholding to Nietzsche’s will to power or a popular express of existentialism then to virtue ethics.
What I mean is that we don’t understand moral analysis as objective. Nor do we think of virtue as the mean between extremes. When I read what people write on social media it amazes me the ease with which Orthodox Christians don’t just discuss the Fast or the length of our services but actually boast about these things. Comments like this miss the point. Ascetical struggle isn’t about how much I can do (or not do as it were) but helping me find balance in my life. The goal is a life of consonance, of synergy, with God and neighbor. In a word, love.
Deficiencies in moral and human formation also touch on the tension between institutional and charismatic authority in the Church. Metropolitan John (Zizizoulas) has argued that in the early Church (Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries) the ideal was that only men who demonstrated the charismatic dimension of authority we ordained. This means that institutional authority was entrusted to men who had the natural talents and spiritual gifts commensurate with diaconal, priestly or episcopal leadership.
Balancing institutional and charismatic authority is not restricted to the office of bishop. The same problem can exists with deacons and priests. This happens if entrust leadership to men who, whatever else can be said of them, haven’t necessarily demonstrated their ability to teach, to offer wise counsel, or to govern—or what Zizioulas identifies as the three-fold office of the presbyterate. Likewise, if we don’t seek out candidates for the diaconate from among those men who have a demonstrable gift and commitment for philanthropic ministry. The practical result of this is a style pastoral leadership that defaults to the exercise of merely institutional authority.
And all of this, I would suggest, is the fruit of not helping the laity discern and foster the gifts that they have been given personally in Baptism and Chrismation. It is in Baptism and Chrismation that we take on evangelical, philanthropic and deifying work of the Gospel. And this work is ALWAYS personal, it is ALWAYS the fruit of the specific gifts that each of us has been given for the building up of the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).
Are our parishes houses of formation for the laity our parishes or something else? Religious theaters? Museums? Schools of (popular) theology? Rarely do we come to the parish with the expectation that we will go out again better equipped to shape the world of persons, events and things according to the Gospel.
Indifference to the spiritual formation of the laity is spiritually harmful to the laity, it has a negative effect on the ministry of future clergy. This is why I think the pastoral question lurking in the problem of narcissism among the clergy is the nature of the vocation of the laity. To the degree they neglect what they are given in Baptism and Chrismation men will, as clergy, be less able to bear up under the demands of ordination.
Taking to heart the analysis of the struggles in the Catholic Church and among Protestant clergy (here), it seems to me that what is called for is a more systematic, intentional approach to the spiritual formation of the laity. Help the laity live as disciples of Christ who are confident and competent in their ability to shape the world of persons, events and things according to the Gospel and you have gone a long way toward fostering the spiritual and emotional health of the clergy.
Sunday, March 27, 2016: Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas; The Holy Matrona of Thessalonica, Paul, Bishop of Corinth
Epistle: Hebrews 1:10-14; 2:1-3
Gospel: Mark 2:1-12
This world, and all that is in it, is passing away. As we hear in the epistle, “they will perish . . . they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up.” We would be mistaken, however, if we were to conclude from its transitory character that this world is unimportant or that we can remain indifferent to what goes on around us because it is passing away.
The reason for this is that creation is just that, God’s creation. “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands.” And far from passing into non-existence, these things that pass away will, one day, “be changed.”
The author Hebrews is not telling us to turn our backs on the world around us. He is rather contrasting the fleeting nature of this life with the permanence of God. “[T]hou art the same, and thy years will never end.” And it is because God doesn’t change that “we must pay closer attention” to the Gospel, “lest we,” who are prone to change “drift away from it.”
This isn’t to suggest that change is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Change, the ability to be different, is the hallmark of being a creature. St Gregory of Nyssa goes so far as to say “that human perfection consists precisely in this constant growth in the good” (The Life of Moses, PG 44.300 B-301 C). Or, if you prefer, we are called to change and change frequently.
What we are not called to do, is turn our back on the world around us.
We can’t be indifferent either to the material creation or human society. The evidence for this is found in, among other places, this morning’s Gospel as well as in the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, the saint whose memory we celebrate today on the first Sunday of Great Lent.
Let’s look briefly at each.
Jesus comes and proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God not only in His words but also in His deeds. The works serve as evidence of the truthfulness of His words, while the teaching explain the meaning of His actions. Healings are chief among the works that Jesus performs. Jesus restores the human body to its proper function.
He does this not only out of mercy for the afflicted but also to show that “the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Restoring the normative, that is healthy, function of the body is the sign of Jesus’ authority to forgive our sins.
This close association between sign and its meaning extends beyond the merely physical. Jesus also has authority over demons. Through His exorcisms—the same exorcism we hear in the rite of baptism by the way—Jesus demonstrates His power over the Enemy. Jesus is seen in the Gospels commanding the demons, ending their tyranny over humanity and casting them “into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, NJKV).
The physical and spiritual dimensions, however, are not the limit of Jesus’ authority. As much as the human body, the social dimension of human life, chief among these the family and human society, are also in need of being restored, of being healed. This is why together with His re-affirmation of the nature of marriage (Matthew 19:1-10), Jesus tells His disciples to rightly distinguish the things that are Caesar’s from the things that are God’s (see Mark 12:17 and parallels) and cleanses the temple (Matthew 21:12-17). Human society in both its civil and religious dimension need to be re-shaped.
And the point of this restoration?
It isn’t to create a perfect, earthly society since Jesus’ Kingdom “is not of this world” (see John 18:36). It is rather meant (as with physical healings) to transform society into an icon of the Kingdom of God that is to come (see Hebrews 7:26-8:5).
The human body, marriage and family life, civil and religious society, together with the rest of creation are all in need of the healing grace and mercy of God. There is no part of the created order, visible or invisible, divorced from the grace of God. All will one day be transformed into the New Heaven and the New Earth (Revelations 21) where sin and death will be no more and where we will stand in the presence of “the throne of God and of the Lamb.” It is there, in the Kingdom of God that we “shall see His face.” It is there that there will be “no night” no need for lamp or sunlight because God Himself will be our light. And it is there that with Him we shall “shall reign forever and ever” (Revelations 22:3-5, NKJV).
This great, eschatological fulfillment begins here and now. In the sacraments and the worship of the Church we have a foretaste of the Kingdom. Building on this grace our ascetical life, and here we turn to St Gregory Palamas, is our personal preparation for the Kingdom.
St Gregory argued that to see the Divine Light as not simply as an internal, psychological reality, but also something we experience with our physical eyes. This means that, here and now, our bodies participate in the Kingdom which is to come.
So, like Jesus, we don’t simply talk about the Kingdom of God but engage in those deeds that form, reform and transform the creation into a sacrament of the Kingdom of God. The evangelical fruit of our sacramental and ascetical life extends not simply to the soul but also to the body. But it doesn’t end there. Through our work, we also are called to bring the material world and human society into an ever greater conformity to the Kingdom of God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, on this the second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent, let us commit ourselves not only to an ascetical struggle of the body but also to a like struggle in society. Let us by God’s grace and our own efforts work to bring the human body and the body politic into a deeper consonance with the Kingdom of God that is to come.
Sunday, February 28, 2016: Sunday of the Prodigal Son; Venerable Basil the Confessor, companion of the Venerable Procopius at Decapolis; Blessed Nicholas (Salos) of Pskov the Fool-For-Christ; Hieromartyr Proterius the Patriarch of Alexandria; Hieromartyr Nestor the Bishop of Magydos in Pamphylia; Venerable Marana of Syria; Venerable Kyra of Syria; Venerable Domnica (Domnina) of Syria.
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
St Paul in his epistle reminds us that food is for the stomach not the stomach for food. This seems straightforward enough. When we move from the physical to the moral or spiritual dimensions of life, even may Christians have trouble understanding that there is a goal (teleos) to human life and it is that goal, and not my intention, that determines the meaning of my actions. It isn’t my intention that makes my behavior morally good, it is my behavior that makes me good. I become good by doing good things, and doing them consistently,
As we approach the season of the Great Fast, it’s good to remember that our Lenten ascetical disciplines are not ends in themselves. They have a purpose; we pray, fast and give alms for a reason. St John Chrysostom says that “An ascetic effort that is carried out in accordance with the law makes people merciful, restrained, modest, able to keep back their anger, to tame their desires, to give alms, to be kind towards others and to exercise every virtue.” In other words, ascetical discipline is for the moral reformation and graced transformation of the person. While we can distinguish two stages in our change—reformation and transformation—as we grow in the life of Christ, we come to realize that the difference between them is more logical than actually.
Through ascetical I learn to deny my own self-centered and self-aggrandizing tendencies. In other words, I learn, in very practical ways, not to give in to sin. And as sin recedes, virtue grows in me. In fact, what I discover is that virtue is natural to me and it is sin which is the deviation from who God has created me to be.
But what of transformation? Or to use a word maybe more familiar to Orthodox Christians, transfiguration? Does my transformation depend upon a prior moral improvement? No.
There is never a time when the grace of God is absent from the human heart. It is rather the opposite. God is not estranged from me; it is I who am estranged from Him. His grace is always present and available to me though I am not always present and open to His grace.
The reason for this is because of sin. Or maybe it is more accurate to say, sin describes how I am separated from the God Who has joined Himself to me, Who created me and sustains me in each moment of my life. As I enter into the demands of the ascetical life, I discover that God has always been in my life and that what I thought of as my own effort at moral improvement was also the fruit of His presence in my heart. Moral reformation, like physical growth, is the fruit of divine grace.
Chrysostom uses an odd, and potentially disturbing, phrase. He refers to “ascetic effort that is carried out in accordance with the law.” Law in this case doesn’t mean an external juridical mandate but a trusting obedience to the tradition of the Church. But again, this obedient trust has a goal, our growth in mercy, self-restraint, modesty, peacefulness and generosity to others in their need. These are the standards of the ascetical life and it is these that should guide us in how fully we keep the ascetical disciplines the Church puts before us.
If fasting makes me irritable or if attendance at services causes me to neglect those who need me, then I need to re-evaluate carefully my situation. Maybe I need to fast less or attend fewer services. On the other hand, maybe the problem is my attitude. Maybe my fasting is superficial and sloppy. Likewise, it could be that the problem isn’t that I am attending too many services but that I misuse my time when I’m not at church.
Keeping—or rather, not keeping—the Lenten ascetical is not strictly a matter of sin. Yes, the attitude that I bring to my asceticism can be sinful. But what I eat or how much I eat? This isn’t a question of sin but personal circumstances.
Great Lent is a preparation not only to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. It is also a preparation for our personal and shared transformation in Christ; “first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also” (Matthew 23:26, NKJV). God transforms the Christian from the inside out. And why wouldn’t He? In baptism He has not only joined us to Himself, He has come to dwell in our hearts. The ascetical life builds in the presence of Christ in us.
Turning to the Gospel, what do we see?
Hearing as we do the parable of the prodigal son every year as we approach Great Lent, we might allow familiarity to lull us into thinking we know the story. The story breaks down neatly for us into the merciful father, the repentant wayward (i.e., prodigal) son and the resentful older brother. But this is. I think, too easy. We need to reflect on parable in terms of the family.
Like fasting, family life has a goal. In fact, and just like our asceticism, the goal of the family is the reformation and transformation of the person. God the Father gives us the life of the family not simply as a means of communicating physical life but as the means to form us into the likeness of His Son, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s in the family, that we first learn—or at least should first learn—the virtues we need to live life in Christ. So with this in mind, what do we see?
In a word, failure.
Yes, the younger son wastes his inheritance on dissolute living. But remember, his father gave him that money. To us a contemporary phrase, the father enabled his son’s bad behavior. At least in the beginning of the story, the father is not only, not a model of forgiveness, he really isn’t much of dad.
But something happens to the father after his son leaves home. The absence of the son begins to change him. He comes to miss his son. In fact, doesn’t just miss his boy, he longs to see him again. So intense is his longing, the father stands waiting for his son’s return.
And when he sees his son? He runs to embrace him. Father and son both experience a profound change because the experience an absence of love in their lives that couldn’t be filled by either sensual pleasure or the presence of others,
And when that absence is absent? When we don’t feel the absence of love in our lives? Well, then we become like the elder son. Proper and upright but indifferent to the great mystery of divine grace and mercy at work in the human heart. I remain untouched by the work of grace in your heart because I am indifferent to grace in my own.
And like asceticism, and like the family, the life of the Church also has a goal. Like the family and ascetical struggle, the life of the Church is about the transformation of the person. But as we see in the parable, this only happens if we experience the pain of love’s absence in our lives. If we come to church expecting to be filled, or to have the sting of love’s absence taken away, we undermine what God would do for us.
The comfort we are offered in the life of the Church is this: The Church points us to Christ and reminds us that it is only in Christ, that the sting of love’s absence is lifted.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we prepare to enter into the Great Fast and make our annual journey to Pascha, let us ask God to make us aware of the absence of love not only in our own lives but in the lives of all we meet. And, having experienced that absence in ourselves, let us have the courage and the compassion to point others to Christ.
Sunday, September 20, 2015: Sunday after the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Great-martyr Eustathios and his family; Venerable-martyr Hilarion of St. Anne Skete on Athos; Venerable John of Crete; Martyrs Michael, prince of Chernigov, and his councilor Theodore
Epistle: Galatians 2:16-20
Gospel: Mark 8:34-9:1
Especially in the last 100 years or so, many Christians have come to associate the fact that faith in Jesus Christ requires from us specific actions as a betrayal of the Gospel. To say that this or that is required for salvation is backsliding into “works righteousness,” a rejection of what Paul tells us in this morning’s Epistle. How can we say that we must be baptized, go to confession and receive Holy Communion and not, by these very assertions, deny that we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”?
Or so the argument goes.
Whatever it meant for Luther and the other Reformers, the appeal to salvation by grace alone today has become a breezy rejection of dogma, the demands of the moral law, of sacraments and tradition. Of the three great solae of Reformation theology—sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia—the last has become for many Christians—including sadly even some Orthodox Christians—a justification not of sinners before God but simply of indifference to sin itself.
Compare this to Christ’s words in today’s Gospel:
If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.
Sin having “marr[ed] the workmanship of God” St John Chrysostom says, requires not simply a formal act of divine forgiveness but the active restoration of the soul to its original beauty. Sin has obscured, though not destroyed in us, the image of God. We are all of us like icons covered in soot. For the image to shine forth, the icon needs to be cleaned. Dirt and grime need to be removed so that, once again, the image of Christ can be seen.
In the tradition of the Church the ascetical life is the process by which, building on the grace of the sacraments, we are restored to our original beauty. Ascetical struggle is the embodiment of what we are told in the Gospel this morning. We must, daily, deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus.
According to the Venerable Bede after telling His disciples about “the mystery of His passion and resurrection,” Jesus goes on to command them, “as well as the multitude, to follow the example of His passion.” So together with repentance and baptism, Christian discipleship requires obedience to the example Christ. We must imitate in our lives His own obedience to the Father. In other words, I must myself practice asceticism.
Some of our confusion about asceticism, that is prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is the result of a certain tendency to assume that ascetical struggle as such is the point of the Christian life; it isn’t, love is. A “man may suffer,” Chrysostom says, “yet not follow Christ.” Rather than suffering, asceticism is in the service of the sacrificial love that is at the heart of the Christian life. Asceticism fosters in us the discipline we need to follow Christ, to walk after Him and conform ourselves day in and day out to His example.
Turning from the text of the Gospel to our everyday lives, we realize that we know all this already. Even those who live according to the demands of the world and who desire nothing other than success in this life know all this. There is no success in this life without struggle, without a willingness to lay aside the desires of the moment in pursuit of one’s goals. So “if in battles of this world, he who is prepared for death fights better than others” how much more is it the case, Chrysostom asks, “when so great a hope of resurrection is set before him”?
Examples of this kind of spontaneous asceticism are all around us.
Think about those who work long hours for low wages and in harsh conditions to support themselves and their families. Or parents who sacrifice for their children’s future. These men and women, and those like them, daily lay aside their own will for the good of others.
Asceticism is natural to us. Ascetical struggle isn’t something super-added to human life. It is rather the means that God has given us to become who we are already. Or maybe even better, asceticism is our natural response as creatures to God’s love.
And yet, asceticism is still hard to grasp. Why? Because it is nothing more or less that the paradox of the Cross—”whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it”—and it is the Cross, not my own desires, which is the actual foundation of my life.
True happiness, true joy and true and lasting peace come not from imposing ourselves on the world of persons, events and things. No happiness, joy peace and life everlasting are found only in and through the myriad small acts of obedience to God’s will . We must be obedient not occasionally but daily, really moment by moment.
What you and I are called to do is simply this: To abandon ourselves to God. The French Jesuit spiritual writer Jean Pierre de Caussade writes that we never lack the opportunity to abandon ourselves to God.
There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action (Abandonment to Divine Providence, II:1).
Christian holiness he says consisting “in one thing alone, namely, fidelity to God’s plan. And this fidelity is equally within everyone’s capacity in both its active and passive exercise” (I:3).
Or, in the words of St Herman of Alaska, “From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all and fulfill His holy will.” Different words, different men, different times but the same idea; to be a Christian in fact and not just in name requires that we deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him in every moment of our lives until we enter with the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints into His Kingdom.