Struggling to Love One’s Enemies

“Everyday experience shows that even people who in their inner depths accept Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies do not put it into practice. Why? First of all, because without grace we cannot love our enemies. But if, realizing that this love was naturally beyond them, they asked God to help them with His grace they would certainly receive this gift.

Unfortunately, it is the opposite that prevails. Not only unbelievers but people who call themselves Christians are afraid of acting toward their enemies according to Christ’s commandment. They think that to do so would only be of advantage to the other side, seeing the enemy refracted through the distorting prism of hatred as having nothing good in him, that he would take advantage of their ‘indulgence’ and respond to their love either by crucifying or shamelessly crushing and subjugating them, thus letting evil, as generally personified by this enemy, triumph.

The idea that Christianity is ‘wishy-washy’ is profoundly mistaken. The saints possess a force powerful enough to sway people, influence the masses, but theirs is the reverse method – they make themselves servants of their brethren, and thus win for themselves a love in its essence imperishable. By following this course they gain a victory that will obtain ‘world without end’, whereas a victory won through violence never lasts and by its nature is more to the shame than to the glory of mankind.”   

(St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 224-225)

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St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

Remembering 9/11

Even 16 years after the events, when I see any documentaries on TV about the terrorist attack on the United State on 11 September 2001, I find myself hypnotized by the images on the screen.  A paralysis of disbelief takes over as I watch in horror the events unfolding and experience the terror and sorrow of the victims and their families – images that seem burned into my memory.

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I have not been moved to hatred or thoughts of revenge.  My reaction has been a total sorrow that we in the world are in such condition that hatred takes over our lives and that we humans can do such horrendous acts of murder.  Such dehumanization is hard to fathom – both that we dehumanize those we see as enemies and that we ourselves become dehumanized and come to think that murder and mayhem and evil are somehow godly.  They are inhuman acts, why do we imagine they can be godly?  Unless of course we think God is tyrannical, maniacal and demonic.  From the time Cain murdered his brother Abel, humans have been willing to kill and murder on such a scale that is should trouble every human . . .  but doesn’t, tragically enough.

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So, how are we to understand such inhumanity?  Here are some words from a 4th Century Christian bishop, St. Basil the Great, whose saintly parents had lived through the Roman persecution of Christians:

“An enemy is by definition one who obstructs, ensnares and injures others.  He is therefore a sinner.  We ought to love his soul by correcting him and doing everything possible to bring him to conversion.  We ought to love his body too by coming to his aid with the necessities of life.

That love for our enemies is possible has been shown us by the Lord himself.  He revealed the Father’s love and his own by making himself ‘obedient unto death‘, [Phil 2:8] as the Apostle says, not for his friend’s sake so much as for his enemies.  ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.‘ [Rom 5:8]

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And God exhorts us to do the same. ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.‘ [Eph 5:1-2]

God would not ask this of us as a right and proper thing to do, if it were not possible.

On the other hand, is it not perhaps true that an enemy can be as much of a help to us as a friend can?

Enemies earn for us the beatitude of which the Lord speaks when he says: ‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.‘ [Matt 5:11-12]”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 232-233)

It is no easy task to be a Christian in the face of terrorism.  It is not impossible as St. Basil says to do what Christ commands us to do.  But it is for us very had and seems like a great burden . . .  like taking up our cross to follow Christ.

Jesus said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)

Holy Tuesday (2017)

The events of Christ’s life some 2000 years ago are remembered in order to make Christ alive for us today. The events are history, but their importance lies not so much in being ancient history, but because they are alive in the Church today and help orient all believers to the coming Kingdom of God.   Our Gospel proclamation is: “Christ is risen!”  We don’t celebrate that He was risen but rather that He is risen and is alive right now, as of this moment.  His life means the power of death is overthrown. We remember the life of Christ to seek Christ, because Christ is alive now, and because He seeks us.

In the days of Holy Week we remember Christ coming again, as a Bridegroom seeking His beloved – seeking us! – inviting us into His Paschal Banquet.  Our orientation is toward the eschaton, and life in the world to come, far more so than toward past events.  The past has happened and can’t be changed, but the present and future are becoming reality, and in our interactions with God, we are shaping that reality.

“In a series of marvelous images, St. Makarios told us why Christ was born, lived on earth, suffered, died, was buried, and rose. Why? In order to stand and knock at the door of our heart (Rev. 3.20). The fact that he knocks is a sign the He does nothing without our consent: He cannot enter unless I want Him to. Christ seeks us out and knocks on our door, waiting patiently outside like a stranger seeking warmth and shelter. In so doing, He creates within us the sense and experience of His kenosis, His self-emptying (Phil 2.7).

Why does the God of the universe stand outside in the cold, day after day, knocking on our door? Because He can’t do without us. Just as a married woman can’t do without her husband, or a married man without his wife–because each partner is integral to the identity of the other–so too has Christ arranged things so that He can’t do without us. Without us, He is naked, hungry thirsty, and has no place to rest his head (Mt 8.20). He has made us His food and drink, His clothing and shelter: He has made our hearts His only place of repose. And when we open the door and welcome Him in, He fills us with His life and light. But make no mistake: without Him we are dead; a dark, empty place, designating only His absence.”  (Archimandrite Aimillianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 249)

Christ is our food – we eat His Body and drink His blood. We are today His hands and feet and eyes and ears in the world. We carry out His work and ministry. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, we are doing this to and for Christ.  The practice of Lenten self-denial has the goal of freeing ourselves from enslavement to the self so that we can serve others.  Abstinence and asceticism have the goal of freeing us from enslavement to the self so that instead of being self oriented and engaging in constant self-love, we can become like Christ and live to love and serve others.

 

The Canaanite Woman is My Sister

The Gospel reading of Matthew 15:21-21 presents a hard lesson both because Jesus appears to treat the woman harshly and because we are challenged to think about people like this woman who might appeal to the parish for help but whom for various reasons we feel justified in just wanting to be rid of them.

Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” But He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

In the Gospel text, the word rendered in English as “knelt before” or in some versions, “worshipped”, is the Greek word prosekunei which has the implication of humbly submitting like a dog before its master by being down on the ground on all fours and waitinganxiously for the master’s command.

It is the way she submissively kneels before Jesus, on all four, like a dog, that apparently elicits the response from Jesus reported in the Gospel.  (see also my blog You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks)

But He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered and said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.

The Children’s Bread

The woman asks from Christ, like so many other people in the Gospel, for mercy – not for herself but for her daughter.  Jesus appears to either mock her by comparing her to a little puppy that follows its master around hoping to get some crumbs of food dropped by the master, or Jesus out and out is comparing her and her daughter to nothing more than dogs.

In the desert fathers, there is a very interesting comment about this Gospel lesson.  Abba Poemen reminds us that such unwanted nuisances such as the Canaanite woman are actually our brothers and sisters who we are commanded to care for.  The Canaanites were no friends of the Jews and often were hostile to them.  The Jews forbade intermarriage with the Canaanites.  Whatever the Canaanites represented, even as a religious threat to each Israelite, the Lord Jesus responds favorably to her, seeing in her something the Twelves Disciples cannot see.

 “Abba Poeman said:

‘We are in such trouble because we are not taking care of our brother who the Scripture stipulated we are to take in. Or do we not see the Canaanite woman who followed the Savior, crying and beseeching for her daughter to be healed – and that the Savior looked with favor on her and healed [her daughter]?’”

(Poeman in Give Me A Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 260)

Today, many Syrian, Mideastern and Muslim refugees are very much like the Canaanite woman to us.   But it is not only them, for many of us have a distrust and dislike for any migrants, any poor, any people of different culture or color.  We want them to go away, or maybe we, like the apostles, hope God will make them go away.  But He might, instead, mercifully answer their prayers.  And He might expect us, His servants, to do the same.

A Beloved Saint: Nicholas of Myra

“Little is known for certain about the life of St. Nicolas, bishop of Myra in Lycia (Asia Minor). It is believed that he suffered imprisonment during the last major persecution of the Church under Diocletian in the early fourth century, and that he attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325. Christian tradition has come to regard him, in the words of an Orthodox hymn, as ‘an example of faith and an icon of gentleness.’ His place in the Church’s conscience is explained by a contemporary Russian Orthodox icon-painter, Leonid Ouspensky:

The quite exceptional veneration of St. Nicolas is well known. He is revered not only by Christians but often by Muslims. In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, among the days of the week dedicated to the Savior and to different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only three persons are singled out by name: the Mother of God, John the Forerunner and St. Nicolas. The reason for the special veneration of this bishop, who left neither theological works nor other writings, is evidently that the Church sees in him the personification of a shepherd – of one who protects and intercedes.

According to his Life, when St. Nicolas was raised to the dignity of bishop he said: ‘This office demands a different type of conduct, so that one may live no longer for oneself but for others.’ This ‘life for others’ is his characteristic feature and is manifested by the great variety of forms of his solicitude for men: his care for their preservation, their protection from the elements, from human injustice, from heresies and so forth. This solicitude was accompanied by numerous miracles both during his life and after his death. Indefatigable intercessor, steadfast, uncompromising fighter for Orthodoxy, he was meek and gentle in character and humble in spirit.” (The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, Selected and edited by George Every, Richard Harries, Kallistos Ware, p 69)

The Nativity Fast and Forgiveness

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) offers us some spiritual wisdom for the Nativity Lenten season.  Chrysostom acknowledges it is counter intuitive, but those who hurt and offend us actually benefit us on our journey to the kingdom.  How is this possible?  If we forgive them and are reconciled to them, Chrysostom says God forgives our sins simultaneously.  It is those who offend us who give us opportunity to practice the virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness.  Thus, he says, they become our benefactors as they are giving us opportunity to practice the Gospel commandments.   The people  who offend us give us the chance to behave like God.  Chrysostom thinks we ought to be grateful for the opportunities their bad behavior affords us!

“Consequently, I beseech you, let us keep this in mind and no longer bear to hold a grudge against those who have done us an injury or otherwise wronged us in some way, nor be badly disposed towards them; instead, let up consider of how much kindness and confidence for us with the Lord they prove to be instruments, and before all else the fact that reconciliation with those who injure us turns out to be a discharge of our sins. Thus let us show all enthusiasm and effort, and out of consideration of the gain accruing from this let us display as much care of those who injure us as if they were really our benefactors. In other words, if we look at things in the cold light of reason, those kindly disposed towards us and those anxious to serve our every need will not succeed in benefiting us a service of those others, which will render us deserving of favor from above and will lighten the load of our sins. Consider, dearly beloved, how important is this virtuous behavior to judge from the rewards promised by the God of all things to those who practice it.

He said, remember, ‘Love your enemies, bless those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you,’ since these directions were very demanding and aspiring to the very summit of perfection, he added, ‘so that you may be like your Father in heaven, because he makes his sun rise on good and evil, and sends rain on just and unjust.’ (Matthew 5:44-45)  Do you see whom that person resembles – as far as is humanly possible – who not only takes no vengeance on those who harm him, but even shows zeal in praying for them? Accordingly, let us not deprive ourselves through indifference of such gifts and rewards surpassing all description, but rather evince enthusiasm for this kind of virtue by every means and, by disciplining our thinking, respond to God’s command.” (Homilies on Genesis 18-45, pp 180-181)

Christ forgave His tormentors.

Imitating Christ

When he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

“If we wish to share in Christ’s lordship, we do so by serving others as he did. If we wish to share in his power, we do so by following him on a path of meekness, turning the other cheek. If we wish to share in his life, we do so by taking up his Cross. If he gives us a way out, it is not by avoiding the reality of our condition, but a way of using this condition – a condition of frailty, of limitedness, of mortality – of using all this to share in his peace, life, and love and so extend it to others.” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, p 120)

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But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28)

Christians: Edify Others by Your Behavior

“You see, I wish and pray that you would all hold fast to right order as teachers, that you would not simply be listeners to what is said by us but also transmit it to others, casting  your net for those still in error so as to bring them to the way of truth – as Paul says, ‘Edify one another,’ and , ‘With fear and trembling work out your own salvation.’ In this way we will have the satisfaction of seeing the Church grow in numbers, and you will enjoy more abundant favor from above through the great care you show for your members. God, you know, does not wish Christians to be concerned only for themselves but also to edify others, not simply through their teachings but also through lifestyle and the way they live it; after all, nothing is such an attraction to the way of truth as probity of life – in other words, people pay less attention to what we say than to what we do.  As proof that this is the case – I mean, even if we debate the issue thousands of times and argue about forgiveness but do nothing to demonstrate it in practice, the good our words do will not match the harm done by our behavior; whereas if we give demonstration of it in practice before our talking and after our talking, we will be shown to be trustworthy in preaching what we practice, since Christ also declared such people blessed in the words, ‘Blessed is the one who does and teaches’ – as proof, then, consider how he put doing before teaching. You see, provided practice comes first, even if teaching doesn’t follow, the actions themselves suffice to teach more conspicuously than words to the people observing us.”    (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, pps. 112-113)

Continuing the Spiritual Fast

The hymns of the Orthodox Church during the week days of Great Lent continually remind us that we are engaged in a spiritual fast, not just a physical one.  This is a theme I’ve mentioned in previous blogs this year during Lent (see for example Fasting: The Rules and the Individual, Fasting: It’s Not About the Food, Perfect Image of Fasting or Great Lent as Banquet).  Here are some hymns from the 2nd Week of Great Lent to help shape our idea of what the Great Fast is and should be.

HAVING UNDERTAKEN THE SPIRITUAL FAST, BRETHREN, LET US SPEAK NO LIES WITH OUR TONGUES, NOR GIVE EACH OTHER A CAUSE FOR SCANDAL.  BUT ILLUMINING THE LIGHT OF OUR SOULS THROUGH REPENTANCE, LET US CRY TO CHRIST WITH TEARS: REMIT OUR FALLS IN SIN, LOVER OF MANKIND.
IF WE SET OUR HANDS TO DOING GOOD, THE EFFORT OF LENT WILL BE A TIME OF REPENTANCE FOR US, A MEANS TO ETERNAL LIFE, FOR NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED. ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH. LET US EMBRACE THIS, FOR IT HAS NO EQUAL; IT IS SUFFICIENT TO SAVE OUR SOULS!

Spiritual fasting, so the hymn tells us, includes speaking no lies and also not scandalizing other Christians by what we do or say or fail to do.  Not giving scandal is a behavior based in love – it requires us to be ever attentive to how our behavior – what we do or say or fail to do or say – affects those around us.   Attentiveness to the spiritual health of others is a main part of Lent:  we are to abstain from sin and even from scandalizing others!  We are to do good – not just abstain from certain foods – but actually do acts of goodness and beauty as signs that we truly repent of our sins.  We change our lives and show the change by the good we do.  Among the most important acts of Great Lent is giving charitably to those in need.  As the hymn emphasizes: “NOTHING QUITE SAVES THE SOUL AS MUCH AS GIVING TO THOSE IN NEED.  ALMS, INSPIRED BY FASTING, DELIVER MAN FROM DEATH.”  Nothing saves as much as giving in charity – not even fasting from foods!  We should consider this in our Lenten effort.  More important than changing diet is giving to the poor.  Giving alms saves us from death!  How can the hymns make the purpose of Lent more clear?

Perhaps the best fast we could do is not spending hours coming up with “lenten” recipes (especially the oxymoronish “gourmet lenten” recipes!) but rather so simplifying our diets that we actually reduce our food budgets and give that extra money to the poor.  We take the money we normally spend on ourselves and give it to the hungry poor.

Allow Lent to be the time when you spend less time and money on food and rather give your time and money in charity to others less fortunate than yourself or your family.  That would be a fast well-pleasing to God (Isaiah 58!)

OF OLD, OUR PARENTS DID NOT FAST ACCORDING TO THE CREATOR’S COMMAND AND RECEIVED DEATH AS A FRUIT OF THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. THEY WERE BANISHED FROM THE TREE OF LIFE, AND FROM THE SWEETNESS OF PARADISE! THEREFORE, FAITHFUL, LET US FAST FROM CORRUPTING SNARES, FROM HARMFUL PASSIONS, SO THAT WE MAY ACQUIRE LIFE FROM THE DIVINE CROSS, AND RETURN WITH THE GOOD THIEF TO OUR INITIAL HOME, RECEIVING GREAT MERCY FROM CHRIST OUR GOD!

The two hymns from the 2nd week of Great Lent present an interesting contrast.  Adam and Eve did not obey God’s command in Paradise, the only commandment which was a fasting rule: do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Adam and Eve did not fast according to God’s commandment.

Compare that with the thought in the first hymn that charitable giving inspired by fasting delivers us from death.  And we know Christ’s Gospel commandments are that we love God and love neighbor and love others as He has loved us.  The commandment of the Gospel is that of love.  To fast according to God’s commandment in the New Testament is to love – this is the spiritual fast we keep singing about in the Lenten hymns.  It is what makes for a joyful fast as the fast is not so much about inflicting suffering on ourselves as it is about loving others.  Adam and Eve did not fast according to God’s commandment and neither will we if our fasting is nothing but obsessing over what foods we eat.  We are not trying to change our intestinal tracts but rather we are trying to convert our hearts to conform to the Gospel commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The fasting from food is minor compared to the far more important fasting from our passions.  We fast in order to receive mercy from Christ – and the way to God’s mercy is by our own being merciful  (Matthew 18:23-35).   We are to fast from passions, selfishness, self-centeredness and self-love; that is how we are to deny ourselves in order to follow Christ (Mark 8:34-38).  AND we are to replace these behaviors with mercy, love, kindness and charity.

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.'” (Matthew 25:23)