Tag Archives: St Augustine

Asking for What We Don’t Want

Sunday, October 27 (OS., October 14), 2019: 19th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787); Martyrs Nazarius, Gervase, Protase, and Celsus of Milan (1st c.); Hieromartyr Silvanus of Gaza (311); Ven. Parasceva (Petka) of Epibatima, Thrace, whose relics are in Iasi, Romania (11th c.). St. Mykola Sviatosha, prince of Chernihiv and wonderworker of the Kyiv Caves (1143).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Luke 8:5-15/John 17:1-13

St Augustine in his Letter to Proba observes that when we pray, we ask for what we don’t want. He means by this that when I ask God for mercy or forgiveness, or as we hear in the second Gospel this morning, joy, what I’m asking for is what I understand by mercy, forgiveness, or joy. 

In asking, then, I ask for my will to be done not God’s. I ask for something I don’t want because I ask for something I don’t understand. 

St Paul alludes to this when he tells the Corinthians that the mysteries of heaven are “not lawful for a man to utter.” This isn’t because God forbids us to speak of His “grace and love for mankind” (see Titus 3:4). It is rather that no matter how eloquent the speakers, human words fall far short of reality.

So much of the frustration I experience in the spiritual life comes from my tendency to confuse my understanding of God with God Himself. Again, I ask for what I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. And when God gives me that for which I ask rather than that I imagined I wanted, I’m disappointed and am tempted to become embittered ask Him for answering my prayer!

The reading for Hebrews is helpful here. We are told to remember those “who have spoken the word of God” to us. We remember and reflect on the lives of the martyrs, the fathers, and the saints because like us they asked for what they didn’t want.

But unlike us, unlike me, they received with joy and thanksgiving that which they were given but didn’t want because it outstripped their understanding.

The lesson of those who have gone before us is this: YesI ask for that which I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. But if I ask with humility, if I ask aware of my own limitations, my own lack of understanding of God’s will, I can receive with joy what God would give me.

I must, in other words, learn to stand before God with open hands and an open heart. This is what it means to be, as we heard in the first Gospel, to be that “good ground” that “yielded a crop a hundredfold.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do as Orthodox Christians has only one goal. To help us hear the word of God with a noble and good heart” so that we can “keep it and bear fruit with patience.”

Today God stands ready to give us what we don’t want. But what we don’t want is immeasurably better than that for which we ask.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

A Sign of Contradiction

May 12 (O.S., April 29) 2019: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women; Sts. Myrrh-Bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Nine Martyrs at Cyzicus: Theognes, Rufus, Antipater, Theostichus, Artemas, Magnus, Theodotus, Thaumasius, and Philemon (3rd c.); St. Memnon the Wonderworker of Corfu (2nd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43–16:8

Christ is Risen!

As we’ve seen before, the authors of the New Testament are not afraid to air the Church’s dirty laundry. The weaknesses and moral failings of the Apostles and disciples are there to be seen by all. This is certainly the case in the conflict we hear about today.

In the early days of the Church, there was disagreement about whether or not the two groups of widows–those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek–were being treated the same. Whether it was actually the case or merely a perception, the Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows were being “were neglected in the daily distribution” of food.

If only in passing, it’s worth noting that though they spoke different languages, not only were both groups Christians, they were both ethnically Jewish. In any case, St Luke is silent as to the exact nature of the complaint; it is enough for him to note that there was a division in the Church.

This division was sufficiently serious that it distracted the Apostles from their primary mission of preaching the Gospel. Instead, they had to involve themselves in making peace between arguing factions in the Church.

Events like this frequently cause those outside the Church to say “See! You Christians are no better than anyone else!” Fair enough. The Church is as subject to the kinds of petty–and not so petty–divisions that we see in the world.

And why wouldn’t this be so?

After all, what is the Church but that part of the world that is struggling against the very same sins that afflict all humanity? Put another way, the difference between the Church and the world is that the former struggles against the sins that the latter embraces.

This similarity sometimes causes us to act unwisely and make common cause with the world. While there are times when we can work together with those outside the Church, we need to do so prudently. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Church is fundamentally a sign of contradiction to the world that the world can never embrace without thereby ceasing to be the world (compare, Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22).

Take, for example, what happens today in the Gospel.

Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. For all the glory of the Roman Empire, it was a brutal and cruel regime that ruled not only by instilling fear but by humiliating its enemies. In times of social unrest, one could walk along the fabled Roman roads and see mile after mile of crucified criminals and rebellious slaves.

As enemies of the State they were also denied one of the universal marks of respect in the ancient world. The crucified were not buried but disposed of like garbage. There were as humiliated in death as in their dying.

By their quiet acts of piety for their dead friend, Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing women stood in opposition to the Empire.

We shouldn’t think that the cruelty of the Roman Empire was a peculiarity of the times. While not always so dramatic in form, the world–and those who embrace the intentions and purposes of the world–are equally cruel.

Though sympathetic to the real virtues of the Roman Empire, St Augustine in The CIty of God is clear that the City of God and the City of Man are locked in competition for not only the human heart but also material resources and social authority.

To bring home to his readers the willingness of the City of Man–that is, the world–to act unjustly and even cruelly in its competition with the City of God, the Church, he quotes an exchange between Alexander the Great and an unnamed pirate.

In their conversation, the pirate tells Alexander, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply this. The size of their navies. That difference aside, they are in all other respects the same since both are willing to act savagely in pursuit of their goals.

And so back to Acts.

What is surprising is not that there is conflict in the Church. And while it might sadden us to see it, we ought not to be surprised or discouraged when now or then we glimpse pettiness our even cruelty in our Church leader, in our brothers or sisters in Christ, or in ourselves. Again, the Church is simply the world in the process of being redeemed. To not see serious sin in the members of the Church is like not seeing serious disease in a hospital. Both are built to heal, the latter the body, the former the soul.

No, the surprise in Acts is not the conflict, not the willingness of Christians to ape the empire. The surprise is not division but reconciliation. The surprise is not that Christians are afflicted with the same passions that lead to war in the world but that we struggle against them  (see James 4).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never lose sight of the dignity of our great calling in Jesus Christ to be a sign of contradiction to the world. To borrow from St Leo the Great:

…recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.

By our fidelity to our calling, we not only contradict the powers of this world, but we also offer those enslaved to these powers the possibility of true and lasting freedom in Christ Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration: Love

People are renewed by love. As sinful desire ages them, so love rejuvenates them. Enmeshed in the toils of his desires the psalmist laments: “I have grown old surrounded by my enemies.” Love, on the other hand, is the sign of our renewal as we know from the lord’s own words. “I gave you a new commandment—love one another.”

St Augustine

Obscured But Not Destroyed

June 25, 2017: Third Sunday of Matthew, The Holy Venerable Martyr Febronia

Epistle: Romans 5:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 6:22-33

St Paul’s command that we rejoice in our suffering has always been a hard sell.

Yes, we can see how “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” But until we have experienced “God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” the positive potential of suffering is lost to us.

Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter those who encourage us to endure suffering but fail to tell us about God’s love for us. But, again, apart from the experience of God’s love for us, suffering–whether physical or emotional, social or spiritual–has no positive value. It is the experience of God’s love that transforms suffering into something of value.

Jesus tells us to not be “anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” There are two conclusions we can draw from our Lord’s words.

In other words, deprivation–like suffering–can’t separate us from the love of God. We are always tempted to imagine that when life isn’t what we want it to be that we’ve been abandoned by God. But listen to what Jesus tells us:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

St John Chrysostom telsl us, Jesus’ words here remind us of “the dignity of the human race.”

Our dignity, the saint tells us, is precisely this: that God has given us not simply a soul but a body. And not just these. God has also sent us “Prophet and gave His Only-Begotten Son (Homily on St Matthew, xxii). This brings us to our second point.

Just as faith transforms suffering, it transforms how we view ourselves and our neighbor. Seen in the light of the Gospel, human life is more than food and drink, more than clothes and material possessions. Our true and lasting dignity is found in God’s love and care for us. To understand who we truly are, to be the men and women God has created us to be, we must “seek first” the Kingdom of God “and his righteousness.”

Commenting on this passage, St Augustine tells us that we ought not “to preach the Gospel” so “that we may eat” but rather “eat… that we may preach.” To do otherwise he says is to “reckon the Gospel of less value than food.” It is here that we find the cause human suffering, of the myriad crimes and offenses, great and small, committed against human dignity.

Again, listen to what Jesus tells us in the Gospel:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

The pursuit of wealth instead of a life of obedience to God, the fathers say, turns us into robbers and slaves. Robbers because we will take from others even the little they need to survive; slaves because we become increasingly ruled not by reason illumined by faith but by the ever-changing cascade of our own desire.

When we fail to seek first the Kingdom of God, Chrysostom says, we make ourselves vulnerable to “strifes and toils.” Most “more grievous of all,” we become unfit for “God’s service” which is “the highest blessing.”

So how do we avoid this? How do we transform suffering into something positive and the necessity of body life into service to God? The answer is found in the opening lines of this morning’s Gospel:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

St Gregory the Wonderworker says that by “eye” is meant “love unfeigned.” Such love is nothing less than a glimpse of God’s glory and our sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

For the fathers of the Church, we grow in virtue by first laying aside vice. In this case, to transform suffering and to grasp our true dignity, we must first lay aside what Gregory calls “the pretended love which is also called hypocrisy.” Yes, we can, he says, “produce words that seem to be of light” but these are “in reality wolves… covered in sheep’s clothing” but when we do, we alienate ourselves from God and enslave ourselves to our own will.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

God has poured out His grace into our lives through the mysteries. It belongs to us to accept what we have been given and then to act on it.

We do this not only through our participation the sacraments and the worship of the Church but also a life of personal prayer and ascetical struggle. Taken together, all these work to first uproot hypocrisy and then to teach us what it means to love as Christ loves.

As we grow in love, we come to find meaning not only in suffering but even the most ordinary aspects of human life. In turn, this allows us to see the depth and breadth of human dignity.

To borrow from C.S. Lewis, after the Eucharist “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” While suffering may obscure this holiness from our sight, it can’t destroy the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. And this why that, with St Paul, we can rejoice in our suffering. Simply put, suffering and sin can’t destroy the image of God that is our true and lasting identity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Come Forth!

Saturday, April 8, 2017: Lazarus Saturday; The Holy Apostles of the Seventy Herodion, Agabus, Rufus, Asyncritus, Phlegon, and Hermes, Rufus the Obedient of the Kiev Caves, Celestine, Pope of Rome, The Holy New Martyr John the Ship-Builder who was martyred in Kos.

Epistle: Hebrews 12:28-29; 13:1-8
Gospel: John 11:1-45

There are two masters of the psychology of the spiritual life, one Latin, the other Greek. I mean of course St Augustine of Hippo–a saint often and uncharitably criticized and even dismissed because of the opinions of his poorer students–and St John Chrysostom–a saint we tend to honor more in the gap than in fact. Both these men come to mind as I listen to today’s Gospel and reflect on the events recounted for us.

The Apostle and Evangelist John is, rightly, called the Theologian because of the lofty nature of his teaching about the divinity of Christ. His Gospel stresses one, central insight: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, NKJV).

Though the Apostle John focuses our attention on the divinity of Christ, that He is the Word of God,  the Son of God and Himself God, this morning he reminds us that Jesus is God become Man. John does this by simply.

Standing at the tomb of His friend, “Jesus wept.”

Yes, He will in a moment–as God–restore His friend to life, But in this one moment, it is His humanity, not His divinity that shines through.

St Augustine says that while we “pray to him as God, He prays for us as a servant.” The One Who hears our prayer, “is the Creator,” but the One Who prayers for us is “a creature.” Though in all this He remains unchanged” by taking on “our created nature” He changes us making us “one man with himself, head and body.”

But there is a temptation here that we must resist. 

We can become so enamored, so in awe, of “the divinity of the Son of God” of His “supremely great and surpassing … greatness” that when, as this morning, we hear His “sighing, praying, giving praise and thanks,” we “hesitate” as Augustine says.

We pause is because “our minds are slow to come down to his humble level when we have just been contemplating him in his divinity.” Not from pride or lack of faith but because of the awe we feel we imagine that we might be “doing him an injustice in acknowledging in a man the words of one with whom we spoke when we prayed to God.” And so, again not from a surfeit of pride or a poverty of faith, but from overwhelming joy when we hear that “Jesus wept” as any of us would weep for the loss of a loved one, we find ourselves “at a loss and try to change the meaning” of the Gospel that God became flesh and dwelt among us.”

And yet, that’s exactly what we see this morning in the Gospel. 

Not just God become flesh but the glory of God. We this the divine glory in the humility and humanity of Him Who for our sake became the son of Mary, a carpenter, a teacher of the apostles, a friend to Mary., Martha and their brother Lazarus. 

And, of course, to all the poor and to each of us.

And as “Jesus wept” for the death of His friend, He weeps for us, for our sin and for the many ways in which sin has disfigured our beauty. 

And though we rarely see this beauty in ourselves, Jesus always sees it in us and He weeps for the scars sin leaves on our hearts.

As for that other great psychologist of the spiritual life, St John Chrysostom, what does he tell us today?

Focusing our attention on the words of the enemies of Jesus–“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”–Chrysostom says that the miracles which are the evidence of Jesus’ divinity, His enemies “turn against Him as if He had not done them.” It is because of the hardness of the human heart rather than the death of Lazarus, that causes Jesus groan, to be “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

Like Augustine, Chrysostom reminds us that the Apostle John not only ascends higher than any of the other Evangelists in his contemplation of the Jesus’ divinity, he “also descends lower than any other in describing His bodily affections.”

The sorrow Jesus feels, Augustine says, is not simply because of His enemies’ hardness of heart. Even His intimate friends, among them Martha and Mary, don’t “fully believe” that Jesus can raise Lazarus from the dead.

This why, Chrysostom says, Jesus commands the crowd to “Take away the stone.” Jesus wants “the miracle to take place in the sight of all” so that later people can’t say, as they did “in the case of the blind man, ‘This is not he.’”

Both Augustine and Chrysostom take pains to remind us of both Jesus’ divinity and humanity. They both likewise are concerned that our awe at His divinity does not overwhelm the intimacy we have with Jesus in His humanity. If we are to be saved, both of Christ’s natures are needed. Necessary as well are our two responses to God becoming flesh and dwelling among us–awe and friendship.

Yes, we must have awe at His Godhead. But this awe can’t be allowed to overwhelm the warmth and the affection that comes from an intimate friendship with our Brother Jesus.

Just as the division, separation, admixture or confusion, of the divine and human natures in Christ, is heresy, so too with awe and friendship.

Love Him, Augustine says, because “Our Lord came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” As both God and Man, as Lord and Friend, as Creator and Brother, Jesus in His great mercy and love for us says to us as He said to Lazarus: “Come forth!”

Augustine says Jesus calls us to come forth “to new life.”

Jesus says “Come forth!” to all of us who are “weighed down by any vicious habit.”

Jesus says “Come forth!” to all of us who, though “guilty under the Law,” long to be made “righteous.”

Jesus says “Come forth!” He weeps and groans so that we can live as His disciples and more than His disciples.

Today Jesus says to each of us, “Come forth!” and live as His true and intimate friend.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory