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)

True Lenten Charity

He gave Himself up for the life of the world (from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

“Strive to acquire humility, and charity – the real charity, which never limits itself to gifts no matter how generous, but, consuming the heart with infinite compassion for all creatures, generates a pure flame of good will and the firm decision to help every single one of the great host of unfortunates.”  (Macarius, Russian Letters of Spiritual Direction, 56)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”  (Genesis 9:8-17)

God’s covenant relationship is not just with the chosen people, but with all creation, which God repeats again and again as God talks to Noah:  with every living creature (Genesis 9:10, 12, 15, 16), with the earth (9:13),  with all flesh (9:15, 16 and 17).  If God so loves the world which He created, shouldn’t we?

Looking Death in the Face, Seeing Christ

Now it happened, the day after, that He went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd. And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”

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Then He came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried him stood still. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” So he who was dead sat up and began to speak. And He presented him to his mother. Then fear came upon all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us”; and, “God has visited His people.”    (Luke 7:11-16)

In any given week any of us might hear about a tragedy which has struck someone we know.  Someone is diagnosed with cancer, a young couple suffers a miscarriage, mental illness interrupts a family’s plans, a father loses his job, a wife is told her husband plans to divorce her.  A death occurs and we must attend a funeral.

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Many of us have experienced such news, and perhaps we felt totally sick deep inside because of what was going on.

In today’s Gospel, we see our Lord Jesus moved to compassion for a woman when he learns that she is already a widow and now her only son has died.  Jesus was deeply moved by the grief he observed in others.  Thirteen times in the New Testament we read about Jesus being moved to compassion when he encounters the suffering of others.  And we might note the word compassion is used in the New Testament only of Jesus.  No one else in the New Testament is said to be compassionate except Jesus.

When Jesus encountered this widow, the text of the Gospel says Jesus felt the loss in a gut wrenching way.  His stomach tightened.  His throat constricted and he swallowed hard.  His body was moved by the pain he saw in another.

And yet, he was not defeated by death, as Isaiah the Prophet had said of God:

He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the LORD has spoken.   (Isaiah 25:8)

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And we who are united to Christ are to bring the compassion of the Savior to all of those who weep and grieve, to all of those who cause us to be moved to compassion. We can pray:

O Lord, be merciful to each person who is suffering pain or loss.  Bless those who mourn.  Comfort those who grieve.  Give us the gift of compassion so that we too might care for those who are sick or grieving or suffering.  Give us courage not to look away from them or their need, but to approach them and offer them our hand in fellowship, to help us care for them with co-suffering love, so they may know that they are not alone in their sorrow.  Grant us to be your servants, caring for your people.

Jesus  who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, tells this sorrowful widow not to weep.  He knows the pain of loss and separation.  He is not telling her it is wrong to weep for He Himself wept.  He comes to take on Himself our pains and sorrows and to heal our broken hearts.  He wants her to hear His words of hope.  As Jesus proclaimed:

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  . . .   So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  (John 16:20, 22)

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Jesus says to all His disciples including us that we will weep and lament  in life.  He says we will experience sorrow – He does not promise constant prosperity.  He does not promise that we will be spared the  trials of life or the sorrows of this world.  However, He says He has overcome the world, and Christ promises that we will have a joy which will not be taken away from us.  His promise is echoed in the words of St. John:

and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelation 21:3-4)

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Every year at Pascha we go with the Myrrhbearing women to the tomb of Christ.  And we hear the same words that Mary Magdalene was told by Jesus:  Go tell my brothers what you’ve seen and heard.  That is our task.  To look into the face of death and see the Risen Christ, and then to find the way to share that  vision with friend and neighbor, family or enemy so that they in turn might believe that Jesus is Lord.

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We cannot lock ourselves up in the safety of our private worlds.  We cannot protect our faith by running away from life’s trials and tribulations.  For if we know Christ, we know that suffering and the trials of life are part of His existence.  We are able to stand with all those who suffer in the world if we are in Christ.  We can offer the hope of Christ to all those who suffer.  We have been with Mary at Christ’s tomb, and realize that tomb is empty because Christ is risen.  The grave is not the end of life.

Compassion & Empathy For Others

“A person who, by such love, draws near to the image and likeness of God, will rejoice in the good because of the joy of the good itself. Possessing the same feeling of patience and gentleness, he will not be angered by the faults of sinners, but rather, sympathizing with and co-suffering with their infirmities, he will ask for mercy on them. For he remembers that he was long opposed by the impulses arising from similar passions until he was saved by the mercy of the Lord.”   (St. John Cassian, found in Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 139)

A Cure for Nightmares

The 4th Century monk Evagrius teaches that doing charity work can calm the mind and rid it of nightmares.  Quoting Proverbs he writes:

If you sit down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet. And you will not be afraid of alarm coming upon you, nor of approaching attacks of the ungodly (Proverbs 3:24-25):

By this we know that compassion dispels the terrifying visions that befall us at night.

Meekness,

angerlessness,

patience, and

everything that is able to pacify the aroused irascibility, have the same effect, since these visions of terror tend to arise from the provocation of irascibility. […]

[One of these fathers] delivered a certain brother from the disquieting specters by which he was visited in the night by ordering him to minister to the sick and to fast while he did it. When asked about his rationale from employing this procedure, he replied:

‘Such afflictions are extinguished by no other remedy so well as by mercy.’”

(Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread by Gabriel Bunge, pp 91, 90)

Thirsting for Righteousness

“The key for many of my secular friends is to understand this pathway has been the clarification of our thinking around ‘value’ and ‘virtue’. Arete, virtue, for the ancients including the Church Fathers who lived in and through the Greek language, carries within it the sense of our longing and quest for excellence and our in-born righteousness (Heb. tsedeq and tsedaqah  ‘justice’ implying a restoration). For the ancients sharpness was the arete of a knife and strength the arete of the boxer. For the Church Fathers compassion was the arete of human nature. We were created to be in love. We come to know ourselves in love and we come to know the world, with ourselves in it but not at the center of it, in cosuffering love. This is the personal experience of the communion the Church articulates in its teaching on the Trinity: the divine communion that is at once creative, incarnate and the ‘Life of life.’” (David J. Goa in Freedom to Believe by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, pp i-ii)

St  Patrick of Ireland (d. 461AD) prayed:

“I bind to myself today God’s power to guide me,

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to teach me,

God’s eye to watch over me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to give me speech,

God’s hand to guide me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to shelter me,

God’s host to secure me…”

(Breastplate of St  Patrick of Ireland, Prayer Book – In Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Kindle Loc 184-188)

Prayer for a Sick Animal

“What is a compassionate heart?  It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists.”   (St. Isaac of Nineveh)

In the long and rich prayer tradition of the Orthodox Church, one can find prayers for many aspects of life on earth, including various prayers for animals.  I mentioned in previous blogs about prayers for bees.

I’ve had people ask me through time if it is OK to pray for their pets or if that is somehow impious.   Fr. John McGuckin collected in a prayer book a number of ancient prayers including the following prayer for a sick animal.    Obviously in the Orthodox tradition it is good to pray even for animals.

Lord Jesus Christ, our God, you are strong and majestic, and carry in your hand the power of life and death. You alone are the salvation of both humans and beasts. Hear us graciously who call upon you in this time of need, for we bow down before you with humility and in sorrow of heart. In your time on earth you were sheltered by ox and donkey, you rode into Jerusalem on a young foal, and told your disciples that the birds of the air were protected by your Father’s holy providence. Look down now upon this sick creature that has been brought low because of its infirmities. By the power of your life-giving blessing, heal it and calm its sickness. Drive away from it all that is evil and restore it to health. We ask your mercy through the prayers of your Most Holy Mother, the Ever-Virgin Mary, by the power of your holy cross . . .

 + Make the sign of the cross over the sick animal, and gently lay your hands upon it if possible. +

through the prayers of your saints who through the ages have delighted in mediating your grace of healing to the church: saints Cosmas and Damian, Cyrus and John, Panteleimon and all your saints.

For you are the Giver of our Life, and you are the salvation of both humans and beasts, and to you we ascribe glory:

+ to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.  

(Prayer Book of the Early Christians, Kindle Loc. 1395-1406)

Comforting the Widow of Nain

Luke 7:11-16 is the Gospel lesson on the widow of Nain:

Soon afterwards Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!”

St. Nikolai Velimirović comments on the Gospel lesson:

“… the Lord took the boy out of the coffin and delivered him to his mother. When his mother knew him, and took him and embraced him, then all fear and doubt left the onlookers. The Lord also took him by the hand and delivered him to his mother in order to show her that He was giving him to her as a gift, now as when she had given him birth. Life is God’s gift. God gives life to every man from His own hand; He does not hesitate to take any single created man by the hand and send him into this earthly, temporal life. The Lord, moreover, took the boy He had raised and gave him to his mother to show her that He had not said ‘Weep not!’ to her in vain. When He said this to her, He already had in mind to offer her comfort; not only with these words, that the grieving mother could have heard that day from many of her acquaintances, but also by an act that produced an unforeseen and perfect comfort.” (Homilies: Volume 2, Sundays after Pentecost, pg. 207)

A Compassionate Heart

What is a compassionate heart?

It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation,

St. Seraphim of Sarov

for humanity,

for the birds,

for the animals,

for demons,

and for all that exists.”

(St. Isaac in The Spiritual Word of Isaac the Syrian by Hilarion Alfeyev, pg. 9)

See also my blogs –  Chrysostom: Creation’s Witness to God, Augustine: Creation’s Witness to God, and In Praise of God our Creator