The Fear of God and God’s Love

In some cases, the sensitivity of the elders toward those who were lost in despair or confusion was such that they were willing to adopt whatever position necessary to lead the others out of their pain. In a story alluded to earlier, some old men who had heard of Abba Sisoes’s reputation for wisdom came to consult him on the matter of the coming judgement. This first two cited texts having to do with eternal judgement, and the third, obviously troubled by the thought of this, asked: “Father, what shall I do, for the remembrance of the outer darkness is killing me.” Sisoes himself was not troubled by these thoughts and tried to encourage the brothers by speaking of his own experience: “For my part, I do not keep in mind the remembrance of any of these things, for God is compassionate and I hope that he will show me his mercy.”

However, the old men were offended by this answer, which seemed to them to make light of the issue of the final judgement, and got up to leave. Realizing the effect that his response had had upon them, Sisoes quickly changed course, and said to them: “Blessed are you, my brothers; truly I envy you. The first speaks of the river of fire, the second of hell and the third of darkness. Now if your spirit is filled with such remembrances, it is impossible for you to sin. What shall I do then? I who am hard of heart and to whom it has not been granted so much as to know whether there is a punishment for men; no doubt it is because of this that I am sinning all the time.” They prostrated themselves before him and said, “Now we have seen exactly that of which we have heard tell.” One could argue that Sisoes was being disingenuous with these old men. Did he really believe what he was telling them in his second response?

In a sense he did – he knew that a constant awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the uncertainty of the judgement to come could kindle real moral acuity. Yet his response is more important for what it shows us about his capacity to empathize with his visitors’ concerns. His desire to reach them and draw them out of their paralyzing fear about the final judgement was stronger than his attachment to any particular position about that judgement. It was Siseos’s willingness to move toward his visitors in love which touched them most deeply. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 284-285)

Apocalyptical Times

 

There are periods in history in which apocalyptic thinking comes to the forefront of some people’s minds as they are convinced the end of the world (or at least the world as they know it) is imminent.  Such apocalyptic rhetoric is often popular and can catch on like wildfire  and consume the attention of groups of people.  This thinking has become common even in the extremely polarized culture  of American politics in which both Democrats and Republicans want to so demonize each other that they try to convince their base that the election of “the other party” will bring on a cataclysmic catastrophe for the country.   Certain forms of American Protestantism with its literal reading of Scripture sometimes makes the book of Revelation its centerpiece for interpreting current events.  It can strike a fervor in the hearts of some believers, even if it is completely misguided.

The Orthodox Study Bible offers a few thoughts on reading Revelation or apocalyptic literature in general that might help us see the literature in a bigger context which can help us understand the text and the see the context for what it is.

“The apocalyptic texts are offered to Christians in every generation to encourage them in their struggles against sin, the principalities and powers of darkness in this world (Eph 6:12) and the fear of death. These writings assure us that even in the midst of the cosmic cataclysms and battles against evil powers occurring just before Christ returns—the time of “great tribulation” (Mt 24:21)—the Lord will strengthen and guide His people (Mt 28:20), bringing them to final victory over all forces of evil (Rev 20:7–10). ”  (Kindle Loc. 65918-23)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem explains that as in the persecutions, God will again permit these things. Why? Not because He wants satanic power to hinder His people, but because He desires to crown His own champions for their patient endurance—just as He did His prophets and apostles—so that having toiled for a little while, they may inherit the eternal kingdom of Heaven.”   (Kindle Loc. 65924-26)

“So the essential purpose of the apocalyptic writings is to encourage the faithful to be full of hope and prepared to persevere to the end, no matter what happens (Mt 24:3–13; Lk 21:25–28). All are inspired to look through the darkness of the present age and to behold the ultimate victory of Christ and the joyful consummation that awaits His Bride—the Church—who, through Her sacraments, has prepared herself for the coming of the Lord (2Pt 3:7–14; Tts 2:11–14). The closing words of the New Testament express this very sense of expectation: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).”  (Kindle Loc. 65926-31)

Reading the book of Revelation or any of the apocalyptic literature is not meant to induce panic or offer a panacea for all that ails the world.  The literature is a reminder that no matter what happens in the world or in history, God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us!  It is to give us faith and hope so that we can persevere, trusting God in all circumstances, even when darkness seems to prevent us from seeing the Light.  Throughout Great Lent, we pray and fast to prepare ourselves for the celebration of Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  We celebrate this victory of God because it prepares us to await the Coming Again of Christ.

Fasting According to Jesus

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:16-18)

“Now, the symbolic purpose of fasting in Second Temple Judaism was to express mourning. Religiously, if extended its significance to become a demonstrative way of adding force to prayer, to invoke the pitiful mercy of the Most High who would look upon the self-humbling lamentation of his servants in need. This was exactly why stress was placed in ancient Israel on the need for externally observable signs of distress when fasting. In simple terms, fasting was meant to force God’s hand, as it were, and was a fitting prelude if one expected a reconciliation with God…

In Jesus’ understanding of the covenant, fasting served the purpose of lamenting the absence of God and pleading for his return to his people in living experience. If God has returned (the dynamic force of the Kingdom preaching of Jesus), then fasting no longer has a place, and the wedding feast must surely be the more appropriate spiritual exercise to celebrate that belief.”om, pp. 284-285)

Acting Spiritually Reacting

“If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction. Something happens and we respond, someone speaks and we answer.

But when we are left without anything that stimulates us to think, speak or act, we realize that there is very little in us that will prompt us to action in any direction at all.

This is really a very dramatic discovery. We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

(Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, The Modern Spirituality Series: Metropolitan Anthony, p. 38)

Following Christ from the Desert to the Crucifixion

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From the beginning of Great Lent this year I have been framing the Great Lenten experience as a journey.  I mentioned Israel’s departure from Egypt into the desert as a model for our own journey into Great Lent.  And today the Gospel reading reminds us that the journey of Great Lent takes us to other destinations even to Jerusalem, not the heavenly one, but the city in which Christ will be crucified.    As Mark 10:32-33 reports:

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. 

We might imagine many reasons why the disciples were both amazed and afraid as they follow Jesus, the text only tells of their spiritual and emotional state without giving us an explanation as to why.  They are clearly walking behind Jesus, who is leading them to Jerusalem where he tells them He is going to be killed.  But we don’t know if they follow reluctantly or are trying to slow their journey down.  We know there will be a surprising welcome for Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and no doubt that gave the Disciples a moment to hope that maybe things would not be as a bad as they feared.

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In one of the hymns we sing from Monday of Holy Week, we are given an interpretation of this Gospel lesson in which we ourselves participate in the events.

AS THE LORD WAS GOING TO HIS VOLUNTARY PASSION, HE SAID TO THE APOSTLES ON THE WAY, BEHOLD, WE GO UP TO JERUSALEM, AND THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE DELIVERED UP, AS IT IS WRITTEN OF HIM.  COME, THEREFORE, LET US ALSO GO WITH HIM, PURIFIED IN MIND.  LET US BE CRUCIFIED WITH HIM AND DIE THROUGH HIM TO THE PLEASURES OF THIS LIFE.  THEN WE SHALL LIVE WITH HIM AND HEAR HIM SAY: I GO NO MORE TO THE EARTHLY JERUSALEM TO SUFFER, BUT TO MY FATHER AND YOUR FATHER, TO MY GOD AND YOUR GOD.  I SHALL RAISE YOU UP TO THE JERUSALEM ON HIGH IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. 

Like the Twelve Disciples, we too might both be amazed and afraid when we consider that we are going to Jerusalem not to watch Christ die for us but rather so that we might die with Christ.  We are going there in the words of St Paul to have the world be crucified to us and ourselves to the world  (Galatians 6:14).  Crucifixion even if it is intended to mean spiritually crucified, still means death,  which should give us pause and cause us to cringe at the thought that to follow Christ means we must choose to die with Him.

We Christians do not come to Holy Week to be spectators watching a passion play unfold like a nicely done drama, we are here to die with Christ.   The annoying inconveniences of the Great Fast were reminding us that death involves the body and the soul.

St. Paul says in Romans 5:6-8 –

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

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Indeed He died for us, the sinners, but not so that we could enjoy a passion play each year, but so that we too would die to sin, die to the world, die to ourselves, so that we might live with Him.

Our Lenten sojourn takes us like the Israelites out of the great Egyptian empire into the desert to encounter our God free of the distractions and temptations of civilization.   In the desert we are able to free our minds of all the cultural and nationalistic ideas about God  – the One who has unlimited power sending forth His invincible armies, or the One who destroys His enemies in the eternal fires of hell, or the One and pours out unending abundance upon His people.  In the desert where there are no comforts of civilization to prop up these ideas of God, we are freed of our false images of God so we can encounter the God of love who humbly dies on the cross for sinners.  Not only is He nailed to the cross and executed like a common criminal, He invites us to share in His death!  We are to die to the world in order to live with Christ.

The Lenten sojourn, however, doesn’t keep us in the desert but rather the desert is the way to Jerusalem, where Christ is crucified.  We don’t like this idea of a crucified, suffering Lord any better than the Twelve did.  We like them don’t want to go to that Jeruusalem in which God is crucified.  We want the triumphant Jerusalem where God reigns in power from on high, not nailed to a cross.  We prefer not to think about it.  We prefer victory, triumph, blessings and glory, but the Way who is Christ is through the Cross.  Through the Cross joy  comes into all the world.

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If we want to follow Christ, we have to listen to what the Lord Jesus actually taught, and then we will know our life will not be one of being served and pampered or of having all our needs met or of having all our prayers instantly answered, but rather our life in Christ will be one of constantly looking in love to serve others, which means we each have to practice self-denial and put others ahead of our self.  Lent tries to free our minds from the images we receive from the culture about God and to encounter the God who is revealed dying on the cross.   For example, America does give us an image of God and it usually is an image of prosperity and power as in “God bless America”, but the Gospel calls us to see the God revealed in the Scriptures.  The God who humbles Himself and dies on the cross for all sinners.

We should be able to discern that the images of God which are shaped by the culture are often distorted and serve the purpose of the culture.

Thomas Merton once commented about the monastic movement of the 4th Century which started as a reaction not against pagan culture but against imperial, prosperous Christianity.  The men and women who fled the conveniences and comforts of the Roman Empire also moved into the desert, in imitation of Israel of old, in order to find God who was not subverted by the state nor subservient to the state.

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“Society … was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.   . . . These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.    . . .   The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world. And thus to leave, the world, is in fact, to help save it in saving oneself. This is the final point, and it is an important one. The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them. . . . We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.”   (Thomas Merton)

The call to leave Egypt, civilization, the greatest nation on earth, and go into the desert (Great Lent) reveals to us the nature of civilization itself.  Culture wants to shape us into its own ideal about what it is to be human or Christian, and into people who are willing to serve the needs of the culture, and to enslave themselves to it.  Nations want us to accept their nationalistic ideas of God, so that God too serves the goals of the nation.  This is why the desert fathers thought the society was a shipwreck and the only way to find their true self, the self which God intended each of us to be, was to separate themselves from all of the benefits, temptations and allurements of society.  It is only when we get a new perspective and aren’t totally immersed in or dependent on our culture that we come to understand the Gospel of Christ, not the Gospel mediated by the culture.  Republicans and Democrats both think they know best what the Gospel really means.  We as Christians need to hear Christ, not what others say about Him.   An example of this is to think about Christ’s words to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, 35).  Christ’s words are simple and straightforward, but our culture will do its best to explain away the most straightforward meaning so that the words are practical, doable, sensible and reasonable and made to justify and serve the values of the culture.  But the cultural understanding and explanation is not necessarily the one offered by Christ in the Gospel.

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Some years ago, I read the book A STRANGER TO MYSELF: THE INHUMANITY OF WAR, in which a young German man describes how he was shaped from what he was, a youthful German citizen into a cog of the Nazi war machine. He was brutalized in order that he would be brutal – dehumanized so that he would be inhuman for the benefit of the Third Reich.   He indeed became a stranger to himself, and not only to himself but lost all feeling for the people around him whom he no longer saw as humans.  He was willing to serve the war machine no matter what it did to himself or to others.    He did what he needed to do to survive in that state.  He became the person the state needed him to be for the state to attain its goals.   He tried to save himself by adapting to what the state demanded of him, but in this process he lost his soul and lost any shred of humanity.  His story is exactly what the monks feared was happening to themselves even as the Roman empire became Christian – the Empire told them it was OK to be Christian, but only to be Christian to the extent and in the way that the Empire approved in order that they be the kind of citizens that benefited the Empire.

Great Lent challenges us to think like the desert fathers thought as they contemplated the empire they lived in.  They had to ask themselves if they could in fact be Christian if they limited themselves to what the “Christian” Empire defined and approved?   They asked themselves whether being a Christian simply meant serving the Roman Empire, or did they have allegiance only to the Kingdom not of this world? They were in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16).   They questioned whether accepting the protection and Lordship of Caesar meant that they no longer lived under the sole protection and Lordship of God.   They had to find a way to remember the self-sacrificing love of Christ rather than see love as self-serving or a way to benefit the empire’s insatiable needs.

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These are the same questions we need to ask ourselves. We still live in the same world that the apostles and desert fathers lived in.   Many like to think about America as being a Christian nation, but does that serve the Kingdom of Heaven or does it mostly serve the goals of America?   Some might say but it’s not an either or, why can’t it be both?

And then we hear 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.”  (Matthew 6:24)

It is because of the Gospel that the Roman Government persecuted the Christians, the Muslims persecuted the Christians, and the communists persecuted the Christians.    All of these governments heard the Gospel as a challenge to their authority and power.  And the Christians did not work to overthrow those governments, rather they chose to live as lights to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world.  No wonder the disciples were afraid as they followed Christ into Jerusalem.  They accepted Jesus as Lord, but were walking into a City in which Caesar and Herod both laid claim to that title, and the religious authorities were beholden to Rome and Herod for maintaining their own positions.

It is not only the state that wants us to temper the Gospel to meet the goals of the state.  Our own self-interest can demand that we make the Gospel subservient to our own personal interests.

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John and James ask of Jesus:  Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”   Isn’t that so like us and how we pray and approach God?  God give me what I want, what I demand, what I lust for, what I think I’m entitled to.  Be my servant God, do my bidding and do it now.  We make ourselves our own Lord and Master and demand that God serve us.

We convince ourselves that discipleship, faithfulness to Christ, certainly will be rewarded in this world not just in the world to come.  Christ reminds us of the cross, that He came to serve, not be served, and we are supposed to imitate Him.

And when we realize that Jesus tells us that to follow Him means to love one another, to deny the self, to die for Christ, then we might decide like Peter that we want to follow Christ but only at a safe distance: Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance …  (Luke 22:54)

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Or we might decide that we really want to live for Christ, with Christ and in Christ.  And that will help put all other values and blessings in perspective, and we will live by and for the eternal Kingdom of God.

Remembering Mary of Egypt in Lent

A bit of history as to how and why St Mary of Egypt became the focus of one of the Sundays of Great Lent.  As is well known, the themes of the Sundays of Great Lent changed through the centuries and earlier biblical themes were replaced by monastic figures as monasticism began to dominate the church after the restoration of the icons.  As the Byzantine Empire disappeared, monastic  rubrics and practice became the church norm in the 14th Century and beyond.

“The Fifth Sunday in Lent was formerly dedicated to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), and later, probably by the end of the fourteenth century, assigned to St. Mary of Egypt (5th century). A model of repentance, St. Mary’s commemoration was moved from 1 April, which would often fall in the Lenten period, during which time the celebration of the saints was forbidden (Canon 51, Council of Laodicea, 4th cent.).”  (Footnote, The Homilies, p. 554)

The story of Mary of Egypt was a popular one in monastic circles and she was upheld as a true hero of the monks – a model of the monastic life.  Her feast day, April 1, often fell during Great Lent.  The 4th Century Church had forbidden the celebration for saints on the week days of Great Lent as inconsistent with the more solemn nature of the fast.  The 14th Century solution of the monastics was to move her feast to the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, ensuring it would be celebrated every year without breaking the ancient canon forbidding the celebration of saints on the weekdays of Great Lent.   Commemorating Mary of Egypt on a Lenten Sunday  occurred during a time in which the traditional biblical themes for the Sundays of Great Lent (the Prodigal Son, the Publican and the Pharisee and Last Judgment) were displaced and moved into what we now call the pre-Lenten period.  It is a sign that liturgical practice – the rubrics and typikon – have always been undergoing change.  There is no reason to think that what we are doing now is the way Great Lent must always be kept.  The liturgical practice has changed through history and can be changed to better suit the contemporary pastoral ministry of the Church.

Commemorating Mary of Egypt annually during Lent enabled the monks to reaffirm certain themes important to them and to honor a Christian woman who exemplified to them the Christian life.

The story of the Desert Fathers and Mothers begins with the Bible itself. They based their lives on a distinct theology of the desert found on the pages of the Old and New Testaments. For example, the Old Testament speaks of Moses, who went up on a mountain forty days and forty nights to receive God’s revelation of the covenant (Ex. 24:18). The children of Israel later wandered in the wilderness for forty years under Moses “to humble and test you [Israel] in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deut. 8:2). Later prophets such as Elijah (1 Kings 19) lived in the desert as they warned the Israelites to forsake their worship of false gods. On the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the high priest laid the sins of Israel on the head of a scapegoat and sent it into the wilderness as a sign of repentance and God’s forgiveness.    (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 199-205)

The desert fathers and mothers reinforced certain themes which the monks felt need to be brought into the forefront of the minds of others monks.

Above all else, theirs was a life that sought God, and God alone. That is why they declared a virtual war on the inner adversaries that hid secretly in their hearts, and they were watchful of their stealth attacks (Prov. 4:23). They concentrated their energies on the source of their problems, the inner person—its selfish orientation, dark impulses, sexual preoccupations, greed, lust, anger, unforgiveness, hatred, and other “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19 – 21 NRSV).  (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 284-88)

Asceticism: For the Love of God

Cassian John“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’”   (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

Denying the Self

Throughout our life, we go through many changes, experiences many ups and downs. Today we are children of the light (cf. Jn 12:36), but tomorrow we are filled with doubts and wonder: ‘Who is God? Where is God? God has forgotten me.’ This happens because the ego has placed itself in opposition to God, has made a god of itself, and it is impossible for the two to coexist. The presence of one requires the absence of the other. It’s as if two mighty gods, the God of my salvation and the god I have made out of myself, have come into conflict. If the ego wins, I will experience psychological isolation, which will include isolation from those around me, along with feelings of bitterness and sorrow. These feelings are the proof that the ego has rejected the God of salvation. The ‘ego’ – taken to include body, soul and spirit – has sent God into exile. Before this happens I am locked in a struggle with God, and woe to me if I should win.

…If, however, I am victorious; if I decide to put my ego to death, then the King of Glory will rise from the dead (Ps 23:7), the Lord of my salvation (Ps. 87:1; Is 38:20) for whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt 16:24). The darkness of my isolation will be dispersed by the light of God, and He Himself will be my companion; He will grant me genuine spiritual life, which is something greater than my life, for it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20). I shall discover that Christ lives in me. His experiences shall become mine. This is the goal of my struggling; this is why I wrestle with God. And it is not just my struggle, but the struggle of every soul, and of the Church as a whole.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 218-219, 219-220).

In the Canon of Repentance of St Andrew of Crete we contemplate the following words which mark the same struggle between ego and God:

I have become an idol to myself, utterly defiling my soul with the passions, O compassionate Lord.  But accept me in repentance and allow me to behold your presence.  May the Enemy never possess me; may I never fall prey to him.  O Savior, have mercy on me.

The Joy of Repentance

 

Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes this as the sorrow that pervades the Lenten services that lead up to Pascha. He calls it “bright sadness.” Is not Lent itself a joyous gift from God? The Church Fathers refer to it not as a season of misery but of joy, a “springtime of the soul.”

It is a time to weed out the passions that trip us up on life. It is a time to focus on Christ and to find in Him our greatest joy. It is a time to ask God to heal us of all those things we hate about ourselves, all those things that mess up our lives and destroy us. Let us rejoice every time we discover a new imperfection because through repentance and godly sorrow that imperfection (sin) can lead to forgiveness, joy and newness of life. Bishop Kallistos Ware observes that the purpose of repentance “is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God, I can yet become.”

Lent was not given to us by the Church to make our lives miserable. It is a God-given opportunity to remove from our lives all those passions that enslave us to set us free to experience “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” It is this “joy-creating sorrow” or “bright sadness” that leads to repentance which, in turn, leads to salvation and explodes with joy at Pascha.

(Anthony M. Conairis,Holy Joy: The Heartbeat of Faith, p. 36-37)