Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Great Asceticism

There’s a fairly long section of the sayings of Amma Syncletica in my Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Here’s one “saying” of Amma Syncletica:

She also said, “If illness weighs us down, let us not be sorrowful as though, because of  the illness and the prostration of our bodies we could not sing, for all these things are for our good, for the purification of our desires. Truly fasting and sleeping on the ground are set before us because of our sensuality. If illness then weakens this sensuality the reason for these practices is superfluous. For this is the great asceticism: to control oneself in illness and to sing hymns of thanksgiving to God.”

It is much easier to bear the mortifications we choose of our own free will than it is to accept in humility and gratitude those which God Himself sends us, is it not? I know I have found this to be the case.

At times, when I read of great saints and the heroic penances and mortifications they engaged in, I find myself wanting to take on some of those same penances. My spiritual director has pointed out to me, however, that the Lord has sent me plenty of opportunity for penance and grace and growth in holiness. He names some of them. And I know he is correct, and I get a little embarrassed because I have to admit that I essentially have told the Lord, “But I don’t want those mortifications! I want these!

Why do I want the ones I’ve concocted for myself, and not the ones He has imposed? Well, because I can control the ones I have chosen! The monk who wears a hair shirt can, after all, take it off if he so desires. Not so with the mortifications which come with daily life. The irritating co-worker that one must put up with day after day, the chronic allergies one might experience, even the very state of life one has been admitted to…often, these cannot be shed on a whim, or even for a good and just reason. Some unpleasant and inconvenient things are permanent fixtures in our lives; accepting our lot in life for the love of God gains us grace and virtue.

That’s not to say that fasting and other mortifications aren’t warranted. I think Amma Syncletica’s words are more of a warning not to pursue mortifications simply for the sake of mortification. Life is full enough of troubles as it is… “Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Matthew 6:34).  Take the graces God makes available. Amma Syncletica says, we should “control ourselves in illness and sing hymns of thanksgiving to God”; in our modern day lives, might the word “illness” really encompass what we might consider “all the inconvenient and uncomfortable circumstances of our lives”? That’s how I look at it.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Did Wallenda Commit the Sin of Presumption?

The other day I watched the video of Nik Wallenda walking across the Grand Canyon on a tight rope.

It made me queasy.

I don’t like heights, really. I’m okay looking down from the window of an airplane (though I haven’t even done that in quite a few years), but apart from that…not so much. I’m not sure why I watched the Wallenda video. Did I wonder if he had fallen to his death? Did I just enjoy the thrill of the danger of the moment? No… I don’t think so.  But I have no explanation for watching it through to the point almost at the end where he says, “Yeah, I’ll take it slow”, and then jogs the next few steps to safety. Maybe it was my disbelief that he was actually doing this.

It bothered me. It bothered me that he was willing to risk his life in this way. At least, I did not see any kind of safety plan in place, and I believe the Wallendas are famous for not taking such precautions, aren’t they? But to perform a tightrope walking act over a canyon so deep that death will surely result from a fall…well, that seems sinful to me.

And it is, I think. I believe it falls under the sin of presumption, though I have always thought of this as referring primarily to the salvation of one’s soul. My “old” Catechism says

A person sins by presumption when he trusts that he can be saved by his own efforts without God’s help, or by God’s help without his own efforts.

…We must not tempt God by exposing ourselves to sin and its occasions in the hope that God will protect and save us; this is presuming on God’s mercy.
But is it not a sin to put oneself in a situation of grave physical danger, too? The kind of danger that Wallenda exposed himself to was very real – and it certainly exposed him to the sin of pride. After all, why does a professional dare devil engage in such activities if not to further his name and reputation? God only knows what kind of emotional or psychological or spiritual “high” he gets from it. Whatever. The point is, he exposed himself to more than a little danger – the kind of danger where 99.99% of people (at least) would be expected to die. 

I suppose it could be argued that he didn’t just trust his own efforts, because he prayed. And he didn’t just trust God to keep him safe, because he had trained himself in tightrope walking for many years. Still, even Our Lord, who of course could have saved himself in any situation, chose not to engage in physical danger needlessly. Matthew 4:5-7 tells us:

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: 'He will command his angels concerning you and 'with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”

And that brings me to another point that bothered me about the video of Nik Wallenda, and which highlights, in my eyes, the sinfulness of his behavior. Throughout the video, one can hear people praying – I think we hear Wallenda’s voice, but I’m not sure, and I think I heard more than one voice praying. At any rate, they are praying for his safety, for his successful completion of his walk across the abyss – a deep abyss subject to unpredictable gusts of winds, on a narrow cable. We would assume that anyone other than a professional daredevil would be attempting suicide by such a move.

He walks across a deep, deep canyon on a narrow cable, with no safety net, no safety cables, no way of saving himself should he stumble and fall. He does this of his own volition; no one is forcing him to do it.

And he implores God the whole time to protect him and keep him safe.
If he fell to his death, what do you think God would say to him? I can hear God’s voice now, saying, “What were you THINKING?!”

Many will say he did it for the glory of God, and we know that because he was praying to God to protect him. And God did, so it all turned out all right, and we see how great God is.

Do we? Or perhaps we realize that very, very few people in the world could have – or even would have – performed that feat, and that Nik Wallenda relied more on his own ability and experience than he did on God for success in his “mission”. It matters not that he prayed for Our Lord’s protection! That’s like a child saying, “Mom, I’m going to play on the freeway now, but don't worry; Jesus will keep me safe!”

It doesn’t work that way. Nik Wallenda was testing God. I don’t see any other way to describe it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Remaining with God When He is Within You

This is from the writings of Nil Sorsky, where he is discussing the “prayer of the heart” – the Jesus prayer; he calls it “pushing the mind into the heart”:

Take your mind and enclose it in your heart while you control your breathing by breathing as seldom as possible…Call on the Lord Jesus with ardent desiring and patience as you resist all thoughts.

…However, if you cannot pray without thoughts in a silenced heart, but you find the thoughts multiplying, do not become discouraged, but remain in prayer…

If you see, Gregory says, the impurity of evil spirits in the thoughts that are presented in your mind, do not be frightened… Do not give any attention to them, but control your breathing as much as you can and enclose your mind in your heart, as you arm yourself by calling on the Lord Jesus…

Later, he adds this, under a section entitled “Continue to Pray in Times of Consolation”:

If, therefore, you see that your prayer is operating unceasingly from the depths of your heart, and you are deeply centered, do not leave your prayer ever to rise and chant, lest your prayer will leave you, due to your negligence. For to leave God within you in order to seek him from outside is like leaving him from the heights to call on him by stopping lower.

I like that. If one has been given the grace to be fully enveloped in the Jesus prayer, he says, it would be foolish to leave that communion with God in order to rise and pray the Divine Office… “leaving God within you in order to seek him from outside”.

When I pray the Divine Office, of course, I am usually alone. That gives me some freedom to adjust the times when I pray, and also to adjust my behavior to whatever God allows to happen in that time of chanting the office. Especially during vigils, I am sometimes struck by the meaning of a particular verse – a flash of insight will come over me. At times, I pause and meditate for a few moments on that insight. Since I am alone, I have that liberty. My spiritual director once told me that when those moments come, I should stop and let the thought/prayer complete itself; if you just keep forging ahead, you will never recapture that moment and the meaning you grasped at that time.

I guess we need to strive to be aware of God’s grace at work in our prayer life so that we can take full advantage of the ways in which he seeks to speak to us.

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

(The quotes are from Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings, Paulist Press)

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Getting Bit by a Chained Dog

Last Sunday, the fourth Sunday after Pentecost in the old calendar, the following selection from St. Augustine was read at Matins:

For before Christ came, my dearly beloved brethren, the devil was at large. But when Christ came, He did to him what is written in the Gospel, where it is said "How can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man?" Christ therefore came, and bound the devil.

But some man will say: If he is bound, why is he still so powerful? It is quite true, my dearly beloved brethren, that he is very powerful but his lordship is over the lukewarm and the careless, and such as fear not God in truth. He is chained up like a dog, and can only bite those who are such suicidal fools as to go within the length of his tether. Look you, my brethren, what a dolt a man must be who getteth himself bitten by a dog that is chained up. Let not the desires and lusts of the world draw thee within reach of him, and he will not be able to get at thee. He can bark, he can whine but he can only bite those who are willing to be bitten. He assaileth us, not by violence, but by persuasion he asketh, not seizeth, our consent.
 I like that image: the demons are dogs tied up, with a restricted range. We’re safe from them – unless we venture close enough to get bit. So often, we enter into the radius of their influence, sometimes willingly, sometimes just out of carelessness.  “What a dolt a man must be who getteth himself bitten by a dog that is chained up”! Indeed!

I guess that’s like putting oneself in a near occasion of sin. If we venture near the sin, then the demons are likely to find us within their limited radius.
There are lots of ways to venture near sin, I suppose; and it seems we don’t always recognize them before the fact. I know I don’t. That dog tied to the stake in the middle of the yard looks so harmless and friendly, doesn’t it? It begs you to come close and just give it a little pat on the head. It wags its tail as if it is friendly, and sometimes you just can’t resist getting a little closer…

Then…bam! The bite comes, and you realize you’ve been conned.
So, the man who gets himself bitten by a chained dog may be a dolt, but then, the dog is pretty clever in its own turn. O God, grant me greater discernment!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Consequences of Sin

I know a young man who recently had the unfortunate experience of receiving a few fist blows to the face, and being thrown down a few porch steps.

He wasn’t really a victim in this; he was drunk, and he actively provoked the “attacks”. In fact, a couple of the blows came because he was the one attacking. But since he was very drunk, he was not able to attack effectively, nor protect himself from retaliation.
I feel bad for him, more so because I know him personally, I guess. When I think about a fist smashing into his face, I cringe; I haven’t seen him since his little adventure, but I can only imagine it will not be a pretty sight.

Greater than my empathy for the physical damage he sustained, though, is my empathy for his spiritual pain. He knows he acted stupidly. He knows that he alone is responsible for his drunken state, and although the men who inflicted the physical pain could certainly have made the decision not to, the young man knows that in their eyes – and even in his own – he deserved exactly what he got.
The young man is not Catholic. He can’t go to confession and tell the priest his sins, and experience the relief (and release) of absolution. No, instead, he will have to look in the mirror every day for some weeks to come, and be reminded of a stupid mistake – a sinful set of behaviors – that led to his current physical discomfort. The bruises on his face, and the other physical vestiges of the ordeal, will remain for some time to come an outward sign of the pain he feels in his soul.

He can’t “take back” getting drunk. He can’t “take back” the provocative things he said and the aggressive behavior in which he engaged. He’s already apologized over and over to the people involved: “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry. I was so stupid.” And even though they say, “It’s okay”, and even “I forgive you”, he’ll re-live it and kick himself even more for it, at least for a while. Slowly, the acute pain will fade, but there will be scars. He can’t rid himself of the pain because he’s not talking to the right Person.
I know the feeling. Even with the sacrament of confession, it is sometimes hard to forgive ourselves. We may know, intellectually, that God forgives us, but on a more gut level, we are hanging onto that sin, poking it and prodding it, feeling guilty, wishing we’d acted differently. Part of that is pride; after all, if God can forgive us, why can we not forgive ourselves?! Not to do so is to deny the saving grace of confession and absolution!

But the stain of sin remains, of course, and that’s why we do penance. And it is good, at times, to remember past sins, even when they have been confessed and forgiven and the debt paid through penance imposed by the priest – because we too quickly forget what sinners we are, and start judging others by a standard different from that which we want for ourselves. Yet, it’s a juggling act, I think, because of course satan would like us to dwell on our sins and come to despair over them, thinking that God can never forgive the likes of us!
Sometimes I feel intensely aware of the stain on my soul, and I feel that I cannot bear to be enclosed by it a moment longer; and yet, it is impossible to scrub that stain away on my own merits. It is impossible to escape the reality of the sins I have committed. I think purgatory must be like that; the mirror is clean and bright, and it reflects in perfect clarity every bruise, every stain of sin, that the fists of time have left on our cheeks…and there’s nothing we can do to rid ourselves of that stain. We must allow God and the flames of purgatory to burn it away and leave our souls pure and whole.

It must be very painful…and yet so very desirable.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Tale of Two Birdies

St. Francis, your help is needed!
We seem to have lots of robins around here, and every year they build nests and lay eggs and hatch baby robins. Some of the babies actually grow into adult birds, though many of them meet an early demise, one way or another.

One day I heard birds chirping merrily outside my chapel window and peaked out. The babies were running around on the ground, and the momma bird was doing the same; only she was picking up bits of something and running to each "baby" and feeding them. For heaven's sake, they were actually bigger than she was! Talk about over-protective mothers!

A couple of weeks ago, I had the dogs out in what used to be our sheep pasture; there's a water trough out there that I keep filled for the dogs to "swim" in – they take a dip when they get hot from chasing the ball. Well, this particular day, one dog started to get in, then changed her mind, and was staring intently at something in the water. Meanwhile, two adult robins were in a frenzy, swooping and chattering at the dogs. I went over to investigate, and there was one of the "babies" – about the same size as the adult birds, but with different "baby" coloring – sitting in the water. It must have fallen in, and was sitting motionless, as if in shock…which it probably was, as the day was cool and the water was downright cold.

I shooed the dogs away, and fetched a net my husband uses when cleaning extraneous hay out of horse troughs. I scooped out the bird and set it on the ground in the sun, hoping it would warm up and recover. Then I left it. I figured it would die.

But…it didn't. The parent birds kept an eye on it and even brought it food. A few hours later, it was gone.

After that, I became aware of two of these babies constantly running around the yard – mostly running around and not flying, though they would fly if I got too close to them.

Enter my most aggressive dog – the one who is insecure in her top-dog-ness and so is constantly trying to prove it (mostly to herself). She has always chased birds. She thinks that one day she will actually catch one. Turns out...

I was trying to make sure the birds were not on the ground when I let the dogs out into the front yard to run around. The other day, I knew one of the babies was out there, but it was around the corner of the house, and I figured with the commotion the dogs make when they burst through the gate, it would fly away.

It didn't. The culprit dog ran around to the front of the house, and she spotted that bird. She killed it instantly; I don't even know how, because she finished it off in the few seconds it took me to get around the corner to see what was happening. Who'd'a thunk? A border collie that thinks she's a bird dog! Sigh. I really just hate it when things die, and I hate it when my dog kills them.

Well, the other baby bird is still alive and kicking...and running around the yard. I am trying to make sure this one doesn't succumb to my dog’s jaws. If I go outside and I see it, I run at it and shoo it away, hoping to teach it to get off the ground a little faster than it’s been doing. I think maybe it has “issues”. It runs, and then flies at about 2 feet off the ground, and it doesn’t move very fast. The dog will catch it at that rate!

Now, if I were a good “desert mother”, I’d be able to make a “saying” out of this.

Let’s see…all that’s coming to mind is something about a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush…no, that doesn’t work…

Oh well. Draw your own spiritual lessons from this story!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Anger and Forgiveness

I have just “discovered” Nil Sorsky, a 15th-century Russian spiritual master, whose writings can be found in  Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings (The Classics of Western Spirituality series; Paulist Press).

I had recently found myself in a state of on-going anger, and sometimes even rage. In the writings of Nil Sorsky, I found some good counsel.  Writing on anger as one of the “eight principal vices of the soul”, the master says:

If the temptation of anger assails us, it means we are forced to recall the wrongs done to us and are moved to a rage in order to seek revenge for the evil done to us. At such times we must remember the words of the Lord: “If brother does not forgive his brother with all his heart, then your heavenly Father will not pardon you sins” (Mt 18:35; Mk 11:26). And likewise, everyone who wishes to receive pardon of his sins must first forgive from the heart his brother…Moreover, we must also understand that even if we think we are acting rightly, but we do not give up our anger, this is offensive to God.

I was angry at one person because of “the wrongs done to me”. I was reluctant to forgive him. But why? Well, I suppose that fault issues from the sin of pride.

Forgiveness was the answer to my rage. Of course…if I’d thought about it at all, I would have known that. I have even taught that to other angry people. But the cloud of anger had obscured my inner vision, and I had fallen into sin. Thanks to Nil Sorsky and my own spiritual director, I was able to make a correction and confess my sin.

Forgiveness…because if we want to be forgiven, we must forgive others. Who has not sinned? Who does not need forgiveness?!

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Distracted by Nature

There’s a story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers about Abba Silvanus working in the garden. His disciple had gone away on an errand and had asked the Abba to water the garden in his absence.  Abba Silvanus went out with his face hidden in his cowl, looking down at his feet. A brother, passing by, saw what was going on, and asked Abba Silvanus why he kept his face hidden while working in the garden. Abba Silvanus replied:

So that my eyes should not see the trees, my son, in case my attention should be distracted by them.

I read a similar story about two Eastern nuns – hermitesses – who, while traveling in search of a new place to live, kept their eyes averted from the grandeur of the majestic mountains they were passing by, for fear of enjoying the sight too much…or something like that.  When I read the Abba Silvanus story, I thought he was basically doing the same thing as those two hermit sisters.

But that seems, actually, a rather Calvinistic idea, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it is more of an Eastern point of view, and perhaps there is something there that I am missing. As for myself, I cannot refrain from admiring God’s handiwork in the physical surroundings of the place where I live, and I don’t feel that I am worshiping the creature rather than the Creator in so doing – quite the opposite. I see God’s greatness in the views I’ve photographed and placed on this blog; I am inspired to praise Him more than ever when these scenes touch me!

On the other hand, there is a “distraction” factor involved in admiring nature. At one church I know of there was a day chapel that for a long time just had plain glass windows, through which you could see everything going on outside, and there was something of a view of the sky, at least. Any human activity outside the windows was, of course, a distraction from Mass or Adoration, or private devotions…whatever was going on inside the chapel. When there were some spectacular cloud formations or spring-time greenery visible, the distraction factor was great, too. Even though we see God’s greatness in “nature”, I don’t think we should be allow it to distract us from worshiping Him in our public liturgies.  In that sense, I agree with Abba Silvanus.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Death Seems Nearer

I found out last night that a friend had died.

Actually, she died a year and a half ago, but news does not always travel swiftly in this internet age, I guess!

It was an email message that conveyed the news to me – a message from the member of my high school graduating class who takes care of such alerts. Yes, the deceased was a friend from high school days.

I hadn’t stayed in touch with her much after graduation, but we had been friends since the fourth grade. We didn’t spend much time together outside of school, but during recess and breaks, we could often be found together, with the rest of a small circle of friends. We weren’t the “popular” kids, and that didn’t bother us at all.

Jean was funny. Now, reading her obituary, I remember things I’d forgotten – like how she was constantly making puns. She had quite a knack for it, and always enjoyed any kind of word play. She loved to read, and she grew up to become a librarian, which had been her childhood dream.

I remember her laugh, too; I can picture her, as if I’m watching a video, laughing and assuming a typical posture that she took when she had made what she considered to be a particularly clever pun.

We never shared intensely personal things, that I can recall, though. We were just friends sharing the journey through grade school, junior high, and high school. We helped each other have some fun along the way.

Anyway, her death strikes me differently than the deaths of other class members – people who weren’t really friends, but just people I knew slightly or was aware of as members of the class. There’s something about having all those memories from very early years… 

Jean’s death makes death itself more real to me, I guess. 

Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.