Thursday, July 24, 2014

Peace in the World, Brick by Brick

There were two old men who dwelt together for many years and who never quarreled. Then one said to the other: "Let us pick a quarrel with each other like other men do. "I do not know how quarrels arise," answered his companion. So the other said to him: "Look, I will put a brick down here between us and I will say "This is mine." Then you can say "No it is not, it is mine." Then we will be able to have a quarrel." So they placed the brick between them and the first one said: "This is mine." His companion answered him: "This is not so, for it is mine." To this, the first one said: "If it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way." And so they were not able to have a quarrel.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – This is another favorite of mine, the story of the two monks unable to have a quarrel. It brings out with light humor the humanity of these men who at times seem so remote from us, so strange and odd in their utterances, so extreme in their way of life.

But these two guys decided that they really should have a quarrel, and so gave it their best shot. And in their utter failure to do it, they show us what all quarrelling is about, all the acrimony and strife and general nastiness of life. “I want it!” “No, I want it!” And so it goes… out come the boxing gloves and we go at it.

Acquisitiveness, possessiveness, self-will, self-seeking—this is the root of so much of the war of the world, the conflicts that tear and twist and ravage the human race. On the individual level, on the family level, on the national and international level, it is covetousness, selfishness, greed that cause us to hate, attack, and kill one another.

I want what I want when I want it how I want it. This is the attitude that sets us on a collision course with our neighbor, especially if he wants what he wants when he wants it how he wants it. Two people set on having their own way and unwilling to give in—‘if it is so and the brick is yours, then take it and go your way’—are going to be locked in a fight to the death.

Now it may seem like I am writing in a veiled and indirect way about the recent conflicts dominating the news—Israel and the Gaza, Ukraine and Russia—and I could rightly be accused of over-simplifying these large and complex struggles. But I am not actually writing about them.

As far as I am concerned, it all comes down to the individual, living next door or in the same house as another individual, and the deep choices we make about our own relationship to the world, to the other, to what we have and what we want to have and what is actually important enough to fight for. Peace in the world begins when I decide that what I want is to love God and my brothers and sisters in Madonna House, and that nothing else in my life even ranks a distant second to that desire.

But it is so easy to fall into all sorts of other desires, if not for physical possessions than for my agenda, my plans, my will to be done on earth and in heaven, too. It is a stubborn stain in our humanity that asserts itself repeatedly to insistently seek our own will in things, to grab that brick and bash the other guy over the head with it if need be.

To live without desires, or rather the only desire being to love, is the key to peace in the world, and this can only happen on an individual level. It is a person who chooses to love, not a group.

But this personal choice to love and surrender all other desires to love is only possible if we have entered the whole path of spiritual purification, asceticism, contemplation. Selfishness is far too deeply engrained in us otherwise. So the desert fathers are not just some nice esoteric study, some odd historical group who lived a very strange life a very long time ago, and maybe there are some monks today who live similarly and are equally odd and esoteric to us.

Rather, the monastic ideal, and the practices of monastic life, while they must be adapted to lay circumstances and exigencies, are utterly vital for the peace of the world, for the reconciliation of enemies, for the healing of ruptures in families, in communities, and yes, ultimately between nations and peoples.

While this is daunting for us, naturally, at the same time it means that we are not powerless in the face of the world and its apparent descent in our days into violence and hatred. Yes, the headlines are really quite grim these days coming out of Eastern Europe, Israel, and Iraq, and it is hard to see how things are going to turn around in a peaceful direction. We can and must pray for peace in the world. But I can also choose today to emulate these two holy monks in the story-take the brick and go in peace, my brother-and strive for detachment, dispossession, indifference towards my own will. And in doing so, I become an agent of peace in the world, part of the solution and not the problem.

Good idea? I think so. How about you?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Blood to the End

The brethren also asked Abba Agathon "Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?" He answered "Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him. For they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I have always loved this particular story, and often quote it to people in spiritual direction. The desert father stories tend to exist in various forms, due to the oral nature of the original tradition. The version I like of this story ends with ‘prayer is blood to the end’!

I like this because it helps clarify that there is not something terribly wrong with us if we happen to find prayer difficult, if we are reluctant to go to our time of prayer, find ourselves restless and distracted during that time of prayer, and even find a sensation of relief or easing of tension when we are leaving our time of prayer.

All of that may or may not be the case for you on any day, but all of those are common spiritual experiences, which can cause distress or feelings of guilt or discouragement to a person. The great thing about reading the desert fathers is that we find written in their experience our own experience, but reflected on from a deeply spiritual vantage point.

Prayer is blood to the end. While I have no doubt whatsoever that the devil and his legions have quite a bit to do with our struggle to pray and the kind of temptations and distractions we encounter in that, the evil spirits can gain no traction in us unless there is something in us for them to work with. And in the matter of prayer, unlike some of the other spiritual struggles that are more specific to this or that individual, we all have this weakness for them to exploit.

Namely, prayer is an action that directly counters and remedies that fundamental wound of our humanity, the basic problem out of which all our other problems arise. That is, we are alienated from God. We do not, somehow, even in light of the revelation and saving work of Christ, experience God as one who is near to us, one we can easily and readily be with, talk to, listen to, be in communion with.

Because of Jesus all of these are true and are ours, but the effects of the wound of sin in us remain, and so we do not know them to be true as we should. And so, when we come to pray, we are touching upon and experiencing the precise heart of the wound of humanity, the very place where it hurts, the ground zero of our fractured and fragmented being.

And so of course it is hard. Of course we don’t ‘want’ to pray. Of course we have to struggle to get there, find it hard to stay there, and flee from the battlefield of prayer after a time. A directee of mine likes to use the phrase ‘skittering away from God’, and that’s a pretty fair description of what many of us do. Kind of sidle up close to Him, and then skitter away, then creep a bit closer again, and then skitter away, then approach again… like a nervous horse or dodgy dog.

And yet this story also tells us that there is no more important spiritual work, nothing that is more vital to our growth in God and in virtue than prayer. And of course this all goes together. Since prayer touches the very heart of the wound of our being, of course it is only prayer that heals that wound of our being. 

Only prayer, constant recourse to God, constant turning of our face to Him, constant lifting up our mind and heart to Him, finding time in our day to do this exclusively, but striving from that to do it throughout the day and whatever activity it holds—only this (and we have to be clear about it—ONLY this) provides us with the grace, the help from God, the strength that is needed for the rest of the spiritual life: mastery of the passions and the mind, and from that the keeping of the commandments, and crowning that the practice of charity and works of mercy.

Without prayer, constant prayer, none of that happens, and our condition is a woeful one. But with prayer, with that daily choice to ‘bleed’ a little bit… well, we are not the only one bleeding here, are we? Our blood shedding, our choice daily to turn to God and do this difficult work, mingles with the blood of God who chose to turn to us in this radical way and shed his blood to overcome that division, that alienation.

But you’re never going to ‘feel’ like praying, just like Jesus probably didn’t ‘feel’ like being crucified. And so in all this there is a deep and serious matter of identification with Christ and following of Him, without which it doesn’t make very much sense and our Christian religion is not terribly attractive or persuasive. But in Christ, prayer is Blood to the end, a sharing in the redemptive and saving work of love of God in the world, and that’s something worth shedding a few drops for, don’t you think?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Internet is a Giant Bag of Sand

A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went.

He took a sack, filled it with sand and cut a small hole at the bottom and carried it on his shoulders. The others came out to meet him and said, "What is this, father?"

The Abba said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.
Desert Father Stories

Reflection – I haven’t had these on the blog before, and have wanted to for some time. The desert fathers were the first Christian monks, fleeing the dissolute and dissipated life of the cities of late antiquity and going into the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine to forge a way of life that would be wholly dedicated to God, to achieve a state of constant prayer and mastery of the passions, and to truly begin the life of heaven, as much as is possible, in our earthly condition.

There is much to say about these men (and some women) and the whole evolution of the monastic ideal from the 4th century onwards. The early monks of the desert lived primarily as solitaries, but as time went on it became clear that it was more healthy and fruitful to live in communities with a common rule of life under obedience to an abbot.

The early prodigies of asceticism, extremes of fasting and penance, gave way to the surrender of the will to the superior and the call to fraternal charity and mercy. Throughout the whole period of the fathers their words and deeds were passed on in the form of short stories and sayings. These were gathered into collections over time, and so we have the genre of Christian literature of the ‘desert father story’, pithy little windows into the heart of Christian life and prayer that are truly the primary source after the Gospels themselves of the spiritual theology of the Church.  And this week on the blog I want to share some of my favorites of these.

This one, for example—such a striking image of the call to mercy and non-judgment. Our sins trailing out behind us like sand from a leaky bag and we either don’t see them, or seeing them don’t seem terribly exercised by them, and yet we are so harsh and hard with one another.

This is not moral relativism, of course, which is utterly foreign to the world of the fathers. The brother had, indeed, committed a fault (unspecified, we note). Nobody in this story is saying that his fault may actually have been a virtue or that ‘he’s just being a monk the way he wants to be a monk. Who am I to judge?’

No, right is right and wrong is wrong, and there is no breath of a suggestion that any of that is unclear. The essence of the matter is that we are all sinners together, and God is merciful to all of us, together, and so in our personal dealings with one another we are called to a deep and profound tenderness and gentleness, as God is tender and gentle with each of us.

And in that tenderness and gentleness, our primary responsibility is to watch the sand flowing out from our own bag and do what is in our power to remedy it, to clean it up if we can and weep over it if we can’t—not to aggressively point fingers at every else’s mess in some kind of rear-guard action of self-defense. ‘Sure, I’ve spilled a bit of sand, but look at that guy! Look at those people! They’re much worse than me!’ Why do that? Do we not believe in God’s mercy?

This is a common struggle of humanity, one which few are wholly spared from, and the ones who are, we tend to write down stories about them, like Abba Moses. But I notice that it is exacerbated in Internet culture these days, this tendency to constantly point the figure of accusation at that other group or that other writer or this type of Catholic or that type of ideologue.

Sinners, sinners, sinners! So we cry, our bag of sand leaking out all over our keyboards and touchscreens, intemperance and uncharity, name-calling and downright nastiness far too often being the order of the day.

My fellow bloggers (any who read this little bitty blog), let us look to our own sand a bit more and look to the faults or defects of others a little bit less, or maybe quite a bit less. While controversy and invective may increase traffic to a blog, it is really bad for our souls and bad for the cause of Christ in the world. What profit does it do us if we increase our reader stats and lose our soul?

The desert fathers, in their solitude and seclusion, have a true word of life for the busy and hyper-connected world of today. And that word is to indeed prefer nothing, choose nothing, do nothing, but seek to please God and be one with Him, and we are one with Him when we are in His mercy and extend that mercy to one another.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Real World: Psalter Edition

O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
“There is no help for you in God.”

But you, O Lord, are a shield around me,
my glory, and the one who lifts up my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy hill.

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.

Rise up, O Lord!
Deliver me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord;
may your blessing be on your people!
Psalm 3

Reflection – This is perhaps not a psalm that most of us would gravitate towards as a personal favorite, not one that we would have framed on our walls in a cross-stitch pattern or printed on a backdrop of flowers or rainbows.

We do tend to do that with the psalms, though, don’t we? Domesticate them, that is. Pick out the little verses and bits that have some lovely poetic cadence or striking image and hang those up all over the place, or share on our Facebook walls, and so forth. This is not such a bad thing to do—there is certainly no shortage of genuinely beautiful, consoling, joyous verses in the book of psalms.

But if that’s all we know of the psalms, then we don’t know the psalms, really. And if that’s all we know of the psalms we could well conclude that the psalms are just nice flowery religious poetry—shepherds and rocks and joy coming with the dawn and all that stuff. Nice, but not much to do with my life.

Well, Psalm 3 is a good place to start to broaden out the psalms from that limited experience of them. Psalm 3 is, as they say on MTV, where the psalms stop being nice and start being real—Real World: Psalter Edition. We have foes rising against the psalmist, tens of thousands of them, people getting slapped in the face and their teeth broken, by God no less.

The superscription of this psalm ascribes it to David, during the rebellion of his son Absalom. If we take that as part of the psalm, then, we have here a cry of anguish, fear, and deep sorrow and betrayal, a family falling apart in division and hatred, a man wondering where it all went wrong and crying out to God for help in the most bitter and horrific of situations.

It doesn’t get much more real than that. And no, it doesn’t make for a very nice little cross-stitched pattern hung up on a wall, nor do these sentiments go well against a backdrop of a sunset or a cute puppy or LOLcat. Can I has anguish and heartbreak?

But in the midst of all this, shot right through the bitterness and pain, is sheer and utter faith. The Lord is a shield, glory, the lifter up of his head, his vindicator. And in this, he can sleep—the great image of trusting abandonment in these early psalms especially. The child sleeping in his father’s arms, even while the battle rages all around.

The battle rages upon his awaking, with God fighting on his behalf, and the psalm ends, as almost all such psalms do, with a ringing affirmation of the eventual victory and deliverance that will come from Him. So no, this psalm will probably never rank among anyone’s favorite psalm, never be the go-to psalm for troubled souls looking for consolation and relief.

But it’s a real psalm, a psalm coming out of a real situation of deep anguish. And we can pray this psalm, even if we are not in anything like such a situation (as I, for example, am currently not in anything approaching this). We can pray it for the suffering people in Ukraine, in Israel, in Nigeria. We can pray it for all the refugee children streaming into the United States from Central America, passing from desperate poverty through terrible danger into an uncertain future.

We can pray such psalms for and with all these people and all people who are in distress and heartache, in intercession and in a spirit of compassionate care and love. It is a real psalm, set in the real world, and it pulls us (like it or not) into that very aspect of the real world that we don’t much like and would rather not inhabit.

But that’s the psalms for you – they are not written as a soothing syrup or a anesthetic for the world’s pain, but to enter the world’s pain and pray in faith from the heart of it. And it is that prayer of faith, and that alone, that brings the deliverance of God to our sin ravaged, war ravaged, pain ravaged world.