Where There is No Struggle, There is No Virtue

Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really and faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.      (John of Kronstadt, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 391)

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.

A Thorn in the Flesh

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.  

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  (2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9)

St. Silouan writes:

The love of God gives strength to continue in prayer the whole night through, but pain in my head wears me out and I am obliged to give up and rest. These headaches have been given me because I insisted on having my own way, and left my task as steward to go into the ‘desert’ to have great freedom for prayer; but the Lord wanted me to spend my life in the Monastery as steward. Twice they would have made me prior, and once senior steward, but each time I refused, and for that God punished me. It was only later that I understood that everyone is needed in the place where he is, and we may all be saved whatever our office. (St. Silouan the Athonite, pgs. 465-466)

Christian: Obey Christ

Among Christians no one is unaware that he is under obligation to undertake the whole task. All alike, when they joined Him [Christ] in the beginning, vowed to follow Him through all things, and it was after they had thus bound themselves by those covenant that they underwent the sacred rites [of Baptism].

Since the Saviour’s commands are thus binding on all the faithful and are capable of fulfilment by those who are willing, they are most necessary. Apart from them it is impossible to be united with Christ, otherwise we should be at variance with Him in that which is greatest and noblest, will and purpose. If we share in His blood we must share in His will. We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 160-161)

God So Loved the World: Unlimited Love

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.   (John 3:13-17)

Fr Lev Gillet writes:

Limitless Love forces open doors. Perhaps I had not achieved some sort of peaceful coexistence with God. Perhaps I had succeeded in believing that, as far as my soul was concerned, I was more or less “in good order,” and so had come to feel more or less at rest…And now all those presuppositions have been turned upside down by a divine intrusion. God asks something from me that I am quite unprepared for. It is like the news of an unwanted child..to listen to this demand, to take the costly decision, ah, but why?

Everything seemed to be going so well! Must I have new uncertainties and anxieties?…And now limitless Love wants to erupt into my life. It comes to upset everything in it. It comes to break up what seemed stable and to open new horizons to which I had never given a thought.

(in Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church, p. 94)

Be Mary, or at Least be Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”   (Luke 10:38-42; the Gospel lesson for the Nativity of the Theotokos)

St Theophylact of Ochrid comments:

Understand that Martha represents active virtue, while Mary represents divine vision. Action entails distractions and disturbances, but divine vision, having become the ruler of the passions (for Maria means mistress, she who rules), devotes itself entirely to the contemplation of the divine words and judgements…therefore, whoever sits at the feet of Jesus, that is, whoever steadfastly follows and imitates Jesus, is established in all active virtue. Then such a man will also come to the listening of the divine words, that is, he will attain to divine vision. Mary first sat, and by doing this she was then able to listen to Jesus’ words.

Therefore you also, O reader, if you have the strength, ascend to the rank of Mary: become the mistress of your passions, and attain to divine vision.  But if you do not have the strength, be Martha, and devote yourself to active virtue, and by this means welcome Christ.

(Hillarion Alfeyev’s Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 453)  

Teaching as a Ministry of the Church

One can learn to play the piano by oneself, but one cannot deny the obvious value of a knowledgeable teacher if one really wishes to excel. Books don’t talk back to us – a teacher very often will, and this makes all the difference. In some respects, the teacher is like a coach, spurring the athlete to run more efficiently. “Wake up!” “Pay attention!” Though the coach cannot do the running for the runner, the runner achieves his best when the coach does his job. So it is with us – if we are open and unthreatened enough to listen and hear.

…Certainly there will always be those who teach us skills and provide us with facts, but here we are speaking of a relationship in which someone can point out something about ourselves that we are blind to, who is experienced enough in life to see where we are going and to provide firm, effective guidance in the wilderness. Sometimes what they tell us will pierce us to the heart. We think of the arrogant monk who never listened or took to heart anything his abba taught him. One day, in the midst of a crisis of faith, he went to the abba and said, “Abba, give me a word.” The abba replied, “No.” The brother, shocked, retorted, “Why not?” The abba looked at him calmly. “‘No’ is not good enough?” And the brother repented.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 54 & 55)

Jesus Himself had a relationship with His disciples – He taught them, he modeled behavior to them.  But He never wrote any kind of manual for them to cover every contingency they might encounter.  At the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t drop a book from heaven answering all questions or giving rules for every occasion.  Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and live the Gospel and proclaim the Gospel through their own lives.  He never told them to write a book and hand out directions to people.

Jesus taught us to love which requires us to enter into every situation and every relationship with a heart united to His.  Some mistakenly think Christianity is just some information that is to be handed on from one generation to the next, unsullied by those receiving it.  But that isn’t what Jesus taught – for ultimately the faith is lived in the heart and is founded on the blood of the martyrs.  It is messy.  It is not law but wisdom and love. The Gospel has to be lived in new situations and requires us to constantly and continually interacted with, like salt on food.  The faith is not meant to be kept pure and pristine in a salt shaker.

Obeying the Gospel When Life is Complex

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.

(Proverbs 3:27-28)

There was a certain brother who lived a life of very strict seclusion, and the devils wishing to lead him astray appeared to him when he was sleeping at night in the form of angels.  They woke him up to sing the Psalms and pray and they would show him a light.  So, he went to an elder and said unto him, “Father, the devils come to me with a light to wake me up to sing and pray.”   The elder said unto him, “Don’t listen to them, my son, for they are devils – if they come to wake you up, say to them, “When I wish to rise up I will do so, but I will not listen to you.” And when they came to wake him he said to them what the old man had told him, and they immediately said to him, “That wicked old man is a liar, and he has led you astray. For a certain brother came to him and wished to borrow some money promising to pay it back, and although he had the money to lend, he lied and said, “I have none”, and he gave him nothing. Learn from this that you can’t trust his word.  Then the brother rose up early in the morning and went to the elder and related unto him everything which he had heard.  The old man said to him, “This is what happened. I did have some money, and a brother came and asked to borrow money from me.   I would not give him any because I saw that if I did so we would both lose our souls. So I made up my mind that I would treat with contempt one of the commandments, rather than the Ten.  Thus, we came to enmity with each other.  However,  don’t believe the devils who wish only to lead you astray.”  When he had been greatly confirmed by the old man, that monk departed to his cell.

(adapted from The Paradise of the Holy Fathers Vol 2,    Kindle Loc 1150-61)

The above story from the desert fathers shows just how complex the spiritual life can be.  Even a monk who strictly keeps the ascetical life can be bothered by demonic thoughts.  This monk, though having committed himself to living alone, knows enough to talk to an elder when the demons are bothering him.  He does not rely on his own mind to solve his problem, but humbles himself and turns to his brother for help.  The elder gives him sound advice, but then the demons tell the monk that the elder himself has been involved in scandal and failed to be honest and do the right thing (as according to the Proverbs quotes at the beginning of this post).  The demons endeavor to plant mistrust between the brother monks by pointing out that the elder has faults and is not himself perfect.  Still, the story shows it is better to trust a fellow Christian with known faults than ever to listen to demons or demonic thoughts.  The elder admits the truth of the accusation against him but also has an explanation for why he chose to do what he did.  He admits he had to choose between evils, and had to ignore what he believes to be a godly commandment.  He felt to give the money would produce even worse spiritual results than to withhold the money.  Nevertheless, his decision ended badly as he and the other part parted in enmity.  Even when we do what we believe to be the best thing in a difficult situation, there can be some negative consequences.

Still, he tells his younger brother in Christ, no matter how you judge me for what I did, never listen to demons.   The monk agrees with that wisdom.  We are to rely on one another for wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that our brothers and sisters in Christ will be without fault in some matters.  And because someone may have done something wrong in one thing, doesn’t mean they are wrong about everything else.  We always have to practice discernment as Christians.  But discernment also requires us to make difficult judgments – we might not know the whole story, we have to consider the motives of those who tell us the faults of others, we might have to choose between the lesser of evils, we might have to make a choice even without having all the information we need to know.   Remaining faithful to Christ and His teachings are what we always need to do, but sometimes life is complex and we have to discern as best we can what we need to do to fulfill the Gospel.

When We Fail as Disciples

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.  (Matthew 17:14-23)

It was a tough day for the Apostles.  First, they were not able to perform a miracle and heal a boy. Worse yet, the father of the boy goes and brokenheartedly reports their failure to the Lord Jesus.  Second, Jesus seemingly piles on to their woes by lamenting having to bear with them.  Third, Jesus then tells them the real bad news – He is about to be killed by these people.  Did the Apostles even fear that perhaps they contributed to people wanting to kill Jesus because they failed to heal the boy?  The crowd is turning against their Lord because they cannot do something He promised them they could do:  “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.‘”  (Matthew 10:5-8)  The Gospel lesson begins with the Apostles in dismay and ends with them being filled with sorrow.

“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Like the Apostles, we who are Christ’s disciples today may not be able to heal a child, or to do other miracles for those who come to us, but there things we can that will fulfill Christ’s commandments to us.  We don’t want people coming to Christ complaining to Him about how we fail in the most basic things.    We shouldn’t let it happen that people could come to Christ and say about us:   “Lord, I came to the members of Your parish and they didn’t minister to me.  We don’t need to worry about  “I was sick, and they didn’t heal me.”  But what about “I was sick and  they didn’t even visit me or pray for me.”  These are things we as Christ’s disciples must never fail in because they really are within our power to do.  We don’t need any miraculous powers to pray for others or visit them.

There are many other complaints people might make about us to our Lord:

I came to Your disciples and . . .

They weren’t patient with me or my child.

They weren’t merciful to me

They didn’t forgive me.

I was hungry, they didn’t feed me

I was homeless or poor and they didn’t welcome me.

I was sick or in prison and they didn’t visit me.

I was naked and they didn’t clothe me.

I was thirsty but they gave me no drink.

I was a stranger and they didn’t welcome me.

Or even

…. They gave me no peace.

They brought me no joy.

They showed me no kindness.

They did not practice self-control.

I was an addict and they fed my addiction .

I was an alcoholic and they didn’t help me stay sober.

I was addicted to porn and they sent me dirty jokes.

The Lord Jesus invites all kinds of people into His Church with all kinds of needs and imperfections:

And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”   (Mark 2:15 -17)

As Christ’s disciples, we are to minister to them in the ways that Christ commanded us, and many of those ways are not miraculous, but simple things well within our powers.

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.  (1 Peter 2:24-25)

The Heart: Where God Can Reign

“A disciple should always carry

the memory of God within.

For it is written:

You shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart.

You should not only love the Lord

when entering into the place of prayer

but should also remember him with deep desire

when you walk or speak to others

or take your meals.

For scripture also says: Where your heart is,

there also is your treasure;

and surely, wherever a person’s heart is given,

wherever their deepest desire draws them,

this is indeed their god.

If a disciple’s heart always longs for God,

then God will surely be the Lord of the heart.”

(Makarios the Great, The Book of Mystical Chapters, p. 21-22)