“The ancient fathers counsel the faithful to view life’s reversals and afflictions as a whetstone to sharpen their minds, thereby keeping them active and making them wise. Saint John Chrysostom is even of the opinion that the presence of adversities has blessed humanity with the development of the arts. Full of realistic optimism based on observed experience, patristic tradition regards problems as opportunities that can make people resourceful and even strong.” (Father Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p 171)
“Unless we bear with patience the afflictions that come to us unsought, God will not bless those that we embrace deliberately. For our love for God is demonstrated above all by the way we endure trials and temptations.
First the soul has to surmount afflictions embraced willingly, thereby learning to spurn sensual pleasure and self-glory; and this in its turn will permit us readily to bear the afflictions that come unsought. If for the sake of poverty of spirit you spurn such pleasure and self-glory, and also regard yourself as deserving the more drastic remedy of repentance, you will be ready to bear any affliction and will accept any temptation as your due, and you will rejoice when it comes, for you will see it as a cleansing-agent for your soul.
In addition, it will spur you to ardent and most efficacious prayer to God, and you will regard it as the source and protector of the soul’s health. Not only will you forgive those who afflict you, but you will be grateful to them and will pray for them as for your benefactors. Thus you will not only receive forgiveness for your sins, as the Lord has promised (cf. Matt. 6:14), but you will also attain the kingdom of heaven and God’s benediction, for you will be blessed by the Lord for enduring with patience and a spirit of humility till the end.”
St Gregory Palamas (d. 1439) reminds us that sometimes experiences we do not like are in fact both necessary and helpful for our spiritual growth. We don’t want to suffer, and yet we can benefit from suffering. Forget suffering – let’s be honest, most of us hate inconvenience. We become enraged and wrathful when we experience the slightest inconvenience even when any real suffering is almost non-existent. The tiniest wrinkle in our planned experience of the universe causes us to fly into a rage. Palamas reminds us that many fruit bearing plants will not give us any fruit if there is no cold winter and hibernation. The dead of winter is necessary for the abundance of the fruits of the earth. We, however, completely ignore the benefits to the planet and to all living things of winter cold as soon as the temperature drops to any temperature we hate.
“Then in truth you will be poor in spirit and will gain dominion over the passions and clearly be called blessed by Him who said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’
How, indeed, can those not be called blessed who have absolutely no truck with material wealth and place all their trust in Him? Who wish to please only Him? Who with humility and the other virtues live in His presence? Let us, then, also become poor in spirit by being humble, by submitting our unregenerate self to hardship and by shedding all possessions, so that the kingdom of God may be ours, and we may fulfill our blessed aspirations by inheriting the kingdom of heaven. The Lord has left us certain synoptic statements that express in a succinct manner the Gospel of our salvation, and one of these statements is the beatitude of which we have been speaking. By including so many virtues in that single phrase and excluding so many vices, the Lord has conferred His blessing on all those who through these virtues and through repentance prune the aspect of their souls that is vulnerable to passion.
But this is not all; for in that phrase He also includes many other things, analogous not to pruning but rather to the activity of cold, ice, snow, frost and the violence of the wind – in a word, to the hardship that plants undergo in winter and summer by being exposed to the cold and heat, yet without which nothing upon earth can ever bear fruit.
What are these things? The various trials and temptations that afflict us and that we must gladly endure if we are to yield fruit to the Husbandman of our souls. If we were to feel sorry for earthly plants and build a wall around them and put a roof over them and not allow them to suffer such hardships, then although we may prune and otherwise tend them assiduously, they will bear no fruit. On the contrary, we must let them endure everything, for then, after the winter’s hardship, in springtime they will bud, blossom, adorn themselves with leaves and, covered with this bountiful foliage, they will produce young fruit. This fruit, as the sun’s rays grow stronger, will thrive, mature and become ready for harvesting and eating.
Similarly, if we do not courageously bear the burden of trial and temptation – even though we may practice all the other virtues – we will never yield fruit worthy of the divine wine-press and the eternal granaries. For it is through patient endurance of afflictions deliberately entered into and those that are unsought, whether they come upon us from without or assault us from within, that we become perfect. What happens naturally to plants as a result of the farmer’s care and the changing seasons happens, if we so choose, to us, Christ’s spiritual branches (cf. John 15:5), when as creatures possessing free-will we are obedient to Him, the Husbandman of souls.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 45781-45888)
Praise the LORD from the earth …
fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
I completed this week half of my chemotherapy. I have completed as many treatments as I have left to do. Of course being half done with the chemo itself is not the same as being done with half of the side effects from the chemo. Those side effects linger much longer. But being half way through the actual drug therapy gave me reason to reflect on the word ‘half.’ We find in the Wisdom of Solomon (18:14-20) a retelling of the Passover story, specifically of the Angel of Death passing through the land of Egypt.
For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
I find the course of treatment to be like a continuous night – but now half gone! I am not the cheery positivist who rallies through the chemo by thinking positive thoughts. I have cancer and I have chemo. I don’t like either. In fact I hate the chemo, even if it is doing some good. It is a bitter, venomous drug with noxious effects.
your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed,
a stern warrior
carrying the sharp sword of your authentic command,
and stood and filled all things with death,
and touched heaven while standing on the earth.
Then at once apparitions in dreadful dreams greatly troubled them,
and unexpected fears assailed them;
and one here and another there, hurled down half dead,
made known why they were dying;
for the dreams that disturbed them forewarned them of this,
so that they might not perish without knowing why they suffered.
The experience of death touched also the righteous,
and a plague came upon the multitude in the desert,
but the wrath did not long continue.
The dreaded Angel of Death, so Wisdom has it, is made better by the people knowing why they had to suffer. I know I have to suffer the chemo to overcome the cancer, but it is suffering nonetheless. And I feel half dead as a lingering side effect. The Angel of Death is portrayed as a warrior leaping from heaven. The chemo is a warrior as well, hopefully making it possible for God to work in me. The Angel of Death at least discriminated who would become victim to death. Chemo, not so much, as it destroys good and evil. The medical plan is that it will destroy more evil than good, so the good will survive and revive.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Luke 10:30
There is that half dead again. Technically it is the cancer which is the robbers, but the chemo leaves me in much the same condition as the robbers left the victim in the Good Samaritan parable. I need Christ to pick me up.
I find in my sufferings a great concern for all of those people of the Middle East suffering because of war, civil war, terrorism and Islamists. My trial is half over, but there is no way for any of them to know where they are in their suffering. I have hope that in the end, some good will result, but so many of them have nothing but uncertainty to face no matter how much they endure now. It is not at all clear which of the many battling factions would bring good to the region. May God help them all! Be merciful, O Lord, to those who are suffering throughout the Middle East. There are Your people there, Lord and they are suffering horribly.
For the suffering people of the world, as well as for myself I turn to God with the Prayer in Time of Need:
Almighty God, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, come to my help and deliver me from this difficulty that besets me. I believe, Lord, that all trials of life are under Your care and that all things work for the good of those who love You. Take away from me fear, anxiety and distress. Help me to face and endure my difficulty with faith, courage and wisdom. Grant that this trial may bring me closer to You, for You are my rock and refuge, my comfort and hope, my delight and joy. I trust in Your love and compassion. Blessed is Your name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
And his disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)
The question the disciples ask the Lord Jesus in John 9 has taken on new and personal meaning with me. When some hear that I have been diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer, they often ask two questions:
Were you a smoker?
Is there a history of lung cancer in your family?
The questions are logical – people trying to make sense of the lung cancer diagnosis. Obviously if you were a smoker (you sinned), the lung cancer is the consequence of your behavior. Or if your family has a history of lung cancer, then it is your ancestors who passed the gene along to you (parent’s ‘sin’). What the logic does of course is put the person at ease, for if there is a clear cause and effect of sin to disease, my interlocutor can feel safe that the world is reasonable and logical. People get lung cancer because they smoked/sinned or the inherited the sin from their parents.
Such logic helps people get through the day and helps them avoid thinking about their own mortality, but we all know the world is a bit more unpredictable than our reason allows. The Holy Prophet Job got his story in our Scriptures. Retributive justice is not always at work, or the only force at work, or may not even remotely be the cause of the effect.
My history is I was not a tobacco smoker, and there is no known history of lung cancer. There is no doubt some cause for the lung cancer, but as the doctors have told me, we will never know what caused my lung cancer to begin.
Believers in the ancient world did not have an explanatory category of “natural causes.” For me in the scientific world, I can see there are natural disasters whose causes can be explained by natural forces. The right collection of natural forces will produce a tornado or an earthquake or an epidemic. I don’t have to think that every event is caused by an angry God. The ancients, lacking a “natural disaster” category tended to interpret all things as acts of God. What was not ever certain was exactly what caused God to act in a particularly destructive way. Many theories were proposed: sin, icons, lack of icons, unwillingness of people to change, people too willing to change. The Prophet Jonah, one can recall, was distraught that God didn’t destroy the city of Nineveh. He proclaimed the city would be destroyed, hoped it would happen, and then was disappointed that God didn’t do it. Jonah laments what he knows about God: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2) Sadly many people today share Jonah’s lament and don’t want God to be merciful, abounding in love and ready to relent from punishing. They prefer the God of retribution not the God who is revealed by Jonah or by Jesus.
I believe in a merciful and loving God. I’m not blind to the suffering of the world. I’m experiencing it myself. As a believer, I have to wrestle with the real world, and faith in the God of love. I accept a modern scientific world that some events can be explained by natural causes. I don’t always know where God’s hand is in these events. I know God created this world. God continues to love His creation, despite the many problems created by natural causes. God could have created a different world, but He apparently finds this world a good world in which to love us. Mortality is part of this world, God loves us anyway. Our Christian faith is that God enters into the human condition and dies in order to save us. God does not avoid death. God does not ask us to suffer something He Himself is not willing to suffer.
This week I began my second round of chemotherapy. Yesterday I received two different chemos aimed at destroying the lung cancer cells. I’ve experienced many of the serious side effects of the chemo. I reported that in a previous blog: Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. My first week after treatment was a whole lot rougher that what I’m currently experiencing, though I recognize that symptoms come and go throughout the chemo process. And while things are better this week compared to the first round, better is neither good nor normal. Psalm 107 comes to mind again.
Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (Psalm 107:17-22)
This week, though I experience that loathing of any food, I am thankful to the Lord for His steadfast love and His wonderful works. Christ is present even in the suffering of the world.
And to the question the disciples asked at the beginning of John 9 and at the beginning of this blog,
Jesus answered: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” (John 9:3).
The story of Job is lived many times in the history of the world.
I have been pondering what to say about my sojourn into chemotherapy on Monday. Surgery gives you a starting point from which you can measure your progress. With chemo, at least from what I experienced, there was a descent into new sicknesses caused by the chemo itself. I was going to describe some of what I experienced, but have opted instead to mention three Psalms which in some way capture the experience spiritually for me. I am at the beginning of this sojourn, but it has been a very arduous week.
The first Psalm is 23, referenced in the title of this blog.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
There is no doubt that chemotherapy is connected to death as is the cancer it fights.
In one Orthodox prayer for the terminally ill, there is a petition which says:
“… allow this illness to be for the death only of those things which are the result of evil or sin.”
One needs that prayer for the chemo itself because these drugs cannot discern what they kill. Whether illness or chemotherapy, we want it to terminate in us any evil or sin.
The rod and staff of the good shepherd can be weapons, but they can be weapons that comfort us as well. This is a great paradox.
The second Psalm is 91.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge… (91:1-4)
Chemotherapy is risky, a deadly pestilence, because it is toxic. Navigating through the living experience of chemo is mentally and spiritually challenging. It puts the body to a real test. The protection we need from God is both through our sojourn in this life and in the sojourn to the world to come. God’s will be done.
Finally, I mention Psalm 107
Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy! (107:17-22)
I experienced this through the chemo, especially the loathing of food. And I felt that I had come near to the gates of death. I did not find my first treatment to be pleasant. I had a very serious adverse reaction to the anti-nausea meds being given in the IV – this was before the chemo even started. It was very painful, and colored my entire day and contributed to a difficult week. And there are many months to go. I thank God for bringing me to this day. Psalm 107 continues describing a rough voyage, which no doubt the months to come will be.
Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded, and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men, and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders. (107:23-32)
In the end, despite sorrow and even despair, God is the Lord. Even in the valley of the shadow of death or in Hades itself, Christ is present as Lord.
St. Paul writes in Romans 5:1-5 –
Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
“If not for sufferings, the unknowable
Providence of God would not be apprehended
as acting on the crowd. And we would be
unable to approach God with boldness,
unable to learn the Spirit’s wisdom,
or to be assured of divine love in our souls.
Prior to sufferings, the poor man prays
as to a stranger; but if, out of love, he struggles,
soon he observes a stirring change.
Before this, he held God as a taskmaster,
but now becomes God’s true friend.”
(Love’s Immensity, p 125)
St. Paul continues his thoughts in Romans 5:6-10 –
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
Christ did not die for the righteous, but for sinners. Christ did not descend into Hades to save the righteous, but sinners. Christ did not wait for us to abandon sin before dying for us. He did not die for us to reward us for our goodness. He did not die for us to save us from sinners, but rather died for us while WE were still sinners. Christ died for us while we were enemies of God. Christ died for those who are still enemies of God. He died for those are still sinners.
This is the most amazing love of God for us. And we are to love others as Christ loves us (John 13:34; 15:12).
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
The Holy Prophet Elijah encountered the Lord God and Creator of the universe in a “still small voice.” As the passage suggests, one might think one will encounter God in some event of great power – in hurricane force winds, in an earthquake, or a blazing fire. But God doesn’t need Hollywood techniques to make His presence known. The still small voice is God’s.
The challenge for us is to become silent enough in our hearts and minds to hear that still small voice. And then to be prepared, not for some great revelation, but for a question from God: “What are you doing here?”
Good question. One really has to know one’s self to know that answer. Why do I want to be in God’s presence? What am I doing here? Am I ready to do whatsoever God might tell me to do? Am I ready spiritually to encounter holiness? Am I able to be in God’s presence or will my own sinfulness repel me from God? Am I ready to hear what God wishes to say to me – not what I hope or imagine God would tell me, but to hear God’s voice and God’s message? Or am I there only to try to get the Lord God to be my servant and do what I need some god-servant to do?
Then comes that still small voice. Is my mind so full of its own thoughts and preconceptions, that it could even hear a still small voice? I mean, would I end up saying, “Huh?” “What?” Could you repeat that, Lord, I must be deaf for I couldn’t quite hear You?
Are we not in this situation every time we hear Scripture proclaimed in church? The voice sounds so human, sometimes it is small. And often it is just so hard to pay attention, to listen. The minds wanders, I’ve heard it all before. It is speaking to the congregation but not really me personally. Or is it true that God is speaking in a still small voice? Right in church, any day of the week? What does it take for me to really listen, to hear God and not be distracted by the wind, earthquake and fire of my thoughts or of the people (the children!) who are all around me? Can I discern the still small voice even with all of these distractions around me or in my head?
Dr. Daniel B. Hinshaw makes an interesting observation as he reflects on the writings of C.S. Lewis:
“The English academic, writer, and great twentieth-century apologist for Christianity, C.S. Lewis, described the role of pain and suffering in the Divine economy this way:
‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscious, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’
If pain and suffering are used by God to attract the attention of a deaf world, to what should the newly roused world attend?
‘As we rise daily, let us suppose that we shall not survive until evening, and again, as we prepare for sleep, let us consider that we shall not awake. By its very nature our life is uncertain, and is meted out daily by Providence. If we think this way, and in this way live – daily – we will not sin.’
St. Anthony the Great was not alone among the early fathers of the Church in admonishing Christians to remember their mortality. The pain and suffering that are such common features of the human experience are intimately connected to human mortality. It is the unique understanding of this problem and its resolution through the suffering and death of the Incarnate God that is the core of the Christian faith.”
(Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p 229)
“The love of our Divine Savior, Jesus Christ, of God the Father, and of the Holy Ghost to us is so great, so immeasurable, that, in comparison to it all human dislike, enmity, and hatred against us become insignificant, and seem to vanish entirely. It is because of this boundlessness of God’s love towards us and the insignificance of human enmity that the Savior commanded us to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and to pray for them which despitefully use and persecute us (St. Matthew V. 44). We are in the love of God; does it greatly matter to us if men are not well disposed towards us? What can they do against us when God has so loved us?” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p 229)
The Paschal season in the Orthodox Church offers us several weeks to sing and absorb the message: Christ is risen form the dead, trampling down death by death. And every year we read the Gospel of the man born blind in the context of our celebrating the resurrection of Christ:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”(John 9:1-5)
The Gospel begins with the disciples attempting to impose a moral order on the world they live in. A man born blind – even before he had a chance to sin, he is already afflicted with disease. Is the universe really so unfair, unreasonable and random that someone can be afflicted without having done anything wrong? Doesn’t that very idea cast doubt upon not only the goodness of God, but God’s very existence?
The disciples endeavor to place a moral order on what they see – there must be a reason for the man’s blindness! Perhaps forgetting that the story of Job is part of their scriptures. The innocent are at times victimized by irrational forces in the universe.
The disciples expecting order in God’s universe, want to make sense of a baby being born blind – surely there must be a just reason which caused and thus explains such a tragedy. God would not be so unjust as to inflict blindness of an innocent baby! If a tragedy like blindness occurs it must be part of the moral universe: retribution for sin. The book of Job, however, shows even a righteous man – not just an innocent man – can suffer, however unfair and unjust that is. Suffering is not always related to retribution, but is always related to the distorted world of the Fall in which powers, some alien or hostile to God, do operate.
We cannot always know the reason for suffering. Job never learns the truth about his suffering. His faithfulness to God remains even without that knowledge. Knowing God is enough for him. He believes in God and that is Job’s righteousness
The book of Job is good Lenten reading. It prepares us for understanding how it might be possible that Jesus is Lord and Christ, and yet God, His Father, allows Him to suffer. There is no retribution there, no loss of love. They mystery of incarnate love, revealed in Jesus Christ, gives hope and meaning to Job and to all who suffer. Suffering does not mean or imply that one is forsaken by God. That is a lesson of Job and Jesus and the man born blind from birth.
Christ is the light of the world, even for those physically blind. Christ is the light of the world, even when we can’t quite see Him. Christ is the light of the world even for those spiritually lost, or who are walking, whether fearfully or hopelessly, in darkness.
It does happen that our need for a moral order in the universe and for complete justice cause us to impose a meaning on events and an understanding of the universe that are not theologically correct. It remains a fact that some things in the universe are beyond our comprehension. Our effort to impose a moral order on events in fact take us further away from understanding God or the universe. We who are so impatient, have to wait on the Lord. Thankfully, God is not limited by or to our sense of justice, purpose and meaning.
Do not think that every affliction befalls people on account of sin, because there are some who are pleasing to God who are still tempted. It is written that the impious and lawless will be persecuted [Ps 36.28 (LXX)]; it says as well that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ will be persecuted [2 Tim 3.12].” (St. Mark the Monk, Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle 2137-2139)