Stabat Mater Dolorósa

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

John 19:26-27 (ESV)

To her, he would always be the baby in the manger.  Even up there, beaten, bloodied, and humiliated, he was still her little boy.  And now he’s hurt; now he’s dying.  I cannot really understand or feel the sufferings of Christ — the grand passion of our Lord, the alienation of the only-begotten Son from his eternal Father.  But I understand Mary.  I’m a parent.  My heart breaks when my children get a cold or scrape their knees.  I cannot imagine, I do not want to imagine, I will not imagine watching one of them die.  The memories must have flooded into her mind: his first steps, his first words, his first miracle.  She could close her eyes and see his smile, the way he crinkled his nose when he was thinking, the small mole on his left wrist.  She remembered what it was like when she had first felt him stir in her womb, how the sheer miracle of it all was almost too much to bear.  That overwhelming joy had caused her to burst into song.

And now this.  The ultimate horror.  God’s promise to Israel, the hope of the world, and her little boy dying on a cross.  There is no word big enough to contain this, not sadness or heartbreak or grief or despair.  The God that had appeared in blinding light and had filled her womb was now shrouded in darkness, leaving her empty, alone.  The Mater Dolorosa.  Motherhood is suffering, of course.  It is about slowly letting go, first through birth and then through the transitions of life all the way to adulthood.  But what a letting go this is!  It is a final release of vanity and false hope — all the vainglorious ideals of a triumphal, militant messiah.  This is the cost of salvation: only everything.

The early Church declared Mary to be the Theotokos “the Mother of God” or “the God-bearer”.  Thus she became a symbol for the Church and, by extension, for each one of us.  We are all called to carry Christ within us just as she did.  Therefore, we are also called to suffer as she did, to bear the burden of motherly sorrow.

But there’s one part of the story I omitted.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, he looked down upon his mother and knew her sorrow, more than you or I ever could.  He also saw John, the disciple whom he loved.  And with some of his final breaths, he gave them to each other.  The suffering Christ cared, even then, for the widows and orphans.  Even on the cross, especially on the cross, he comforted and restored.  Jesus did not leave his mother alone.  He gave her to John and, by extension, to the church.  We are still called to care for and be cared for by his mother (and ours).  We care for her by listening to her son, by living his life with him, by suffering alongside her.  She cares for us through Mother Church, that mystical body that sustains us all.  If we are in Christ, if we are his Body, then Mary is our mother, too.  So I pray that we will stand with her today at the cross, hold her close, and love Jesus just as she does.

Below I have included a translation of the Latin hymn Stabat Mater, a 13th-century hymn on this topic that poetically meditates on Mary’s suffering at the Cross.  It is blessedly devoid of Marian heresies (perhaps a whiff of the ever-virgin nonsense), and thus encourages a healthy devotion to the Blessed Mother.  May entering the sufferings of our Lord’s mother deepen your walk on this Good Friday:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.

Christ above in torment hangs,
she beneath beholds the pangs
of her dying glorious Son.

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep,
Christ’s dear Mother to behold?

Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?

For the sins of His own nation,
She saw Jesus wracked with torment,
All with scourges rent:

She beheld her tender Child,
Saw Him hang in desolation,
Till His spirit forth He sent.

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
make my soul to glow and melt
with the love of Christ my Lord.

Holy Mother! pierce me through,
in my heart each wound renew
of my Savior crucified:

Let me share with thee His pain,
who for all my sins was slain,
who for me in torments died.

Let me mingle tears with thee,
mourning Him who mourned for me,
all the days that I may live:

By the Cross with thee to stay,
there with thee to weep and pray,
is all I ask of thee to give.

Virgin of all virgins blest!,
Listen to my fond request:
let me share thy grief divine;

Let me, to my latest breath,
in my body bear the death
of that dying Son of thine.

Wounded with His every wound,
steep my soul till it hath swooned,
in His very Blood away;

Be to me, O Virgin, nigh,
lest in flames I burn and die,
in His awful Judgment Day.

Christ, when Thou shalt call me hence,
be Thy Mother my defense,
be Thy Cross my victory;

While my body here decays,
may my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee.

– Translation by Edward Caswall, Lyra Catholica (1849)

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The Apocalypse of Maundy Thursday

And I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,

–Luke 22:29 (ESV)

The first three words of the Book of the Revelation in Greek are Apokalypsis Iēsou Christou — “[This is] the revelation of Jesus Christ”.  So the “apocalypse” here is not primarily about the end of the world.  It means an unveiling, uncovering, or revealing.  In Christ, the hidden things of God were revealed, and, in John’s prophetic book, the full majesty and dominion of Jesus are uncovered.  The apocalypse has already happened.  God has come down into His world in spectacular fashion, conquered death, freed the righteous from sheol, kicked in the gates of Hell, risen from the dead, and ascended to rule forever on His heavenly throne.  His eternal reign is already here; His triumph is accomplished.  All we await now is His final return, ending the story and declaring His final judgement.  Jesus is king NOW.

I emphasize all this because I think it’s the message of Maundy Thursday.  The Last Supper wasn’t just any old meal — it was the Passover.  By recontextualizing the meal as a feast upon the very Body and Blood of the Lord, He reveals what He is all about.  He makes it abundantly clear that everything that had come before — the first Passover, the Exodus, the sacrificial system, the Temple, the prophetic promises — had all pointed in one direction: to Him.  Jesus was the true Passover lamb whose sacrifice would save the firstborn of God.  Jesus would lead His people out of bondage and into the Promised Land.  Jesus was the new Temple, the point where earth and heaven met.  And Jesus was the promised Messiah who would finally free us from our unforgivable guilt.  That is the apokalypsis found in the Holy Eucharist, the holy food and drink of new and unending life which allows us to partake of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.  That is why we call it the Last Supper — no more sacrifices are needed, the blood that sets us free forever has been shed.  Now the dwelling of God was with man, as God and man at table were sat down.

Then, of course, Jesus disrobed and wrapped Himself in a towel and washed His disciples feet.  This was a demonstration of the apokalypsis that had been going on for three years, the revelation that God Himself came not to be served, but to serve (Luke 22:24-27).  He declared that those who wanted to lead must be slaves to all, that the first should be last, that the meek inherit the earth.  He upended all worldly wisdom and revealed the ultimate truth to be a paradox: strength is found in weakness, wisdom in foolishness, leadership in submission, life in death.  This sort of truth is not something reason can find out; only revelation, only an apocalypse, can show these things to us.  When Jesus knelt as His disciples feet, the world ended, the world of the power-driven and glory-seeking.  Jesus inaugurated a new world of compassion that would feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the prisoner and give the orphan and widow a home.  The first were now last, and the last first.

So, just before leaving for the garden, Jesus gives the disciples one final assignment: the administration of the kingdom of God.  They are to bear the apokalypsis out to the world and rule as regents of the King of Kings.  They are to celebrate the Lord’s supper and wash one another’s feet and, above all, love one another.  We, of course, are heirs of the kingdom with them.  We have our part in bringing on the apocalypse, the revelation of Jesus Christ.  We reveal Christ to the world as we administer His kingdom in our daily lives.  And we pray that His kingdom will come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  That is our mandate on this Maundy Thursday:  “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

 

Spy Wednesday

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd.

–Luke 22:3-6 (ESV)

As a Protestant, I had no idea this was a thing.  The Wednesday of Holy Week was always just Holy Wednesday, but in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions it is called Spy Wednesday.  This is in reference to the tradition that Judas agreed to betray Jesus on Wednesday, becoming a “spy” among the disciples.  If a service is performed tonight, it’s often the tenebrae service, in which the candles in a candelabra are gradually extinguished to symbolize Christ’s journey to His death.  Also commemorated today (especially in the East) is the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-3).  This connects to Judas in that he complained about the cost of the spikenard used, which could have gone to the poor.  However, John the Evangelist notes with evident anger that the only reason Judas cared about this was because he was the treasurer for the disciples and was stealing from the money-box (John 12:6).  The contrast of Mary, who gave an extravagant, expensive offering to Jesus, and Judas, who stole from Christ and betrayed Him for a paltry sum, throws our choices into stark relief.  Will we serve ourselves this week, slaves to greed and self-interest, or will we offer all we have to God as a fragrant offering?

Traditions have sprouted up on this holy day.  In Greece, congregants receive Holy Unction in preparation for the triduum sacrum (that is, the three holy days that follow).  In the Czech Republic, today is called “Ugly Wednesday” or “Soot-Sweeping Wednesday” or just “Black Wednesday” as it is tradition to get your chimney cleaned for Easter today.  In parts of Scandinavia, this day is known as Dymmelonsdagen (a dymbil is a piece of wood).  The metal clapper on the church bells are replaced with the wood dymbil to make a duller sound for the remainder of the week.  These traditions, along with the tenebrae service, demonstrate how today is about preparation.  Nothing much seems to be happening on the surface, but we know the great tragedy and triumph that is about to unfold.  Jesus wasn’t too busy today, but the devil sure was.  It’s a reminder to take to heart Peter’s warning: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  Old scratch is lurking like a spy, trying to stir up trouble while our guard is down.  But we are called to always watch and pray, not because of the devil, but in expectation of the coming of our Lord (Matthew 24:42).  So we clean our chimneys and anoint our heads with oil and quiet our bells, so that all is prepared for Christ’s work in our lives.

I chose to cite the Luke passage above because of two details that only he includes.  One is that Satan “entered” Judas.  I’m not sure what that means exactly, except that clearly Judas, through pride and greed, had made room for the enemy in his life.  After a season of cleaning house in our lives, we ought to be careful today to invite the Holy Spirit into the vacated space, lest the enemy take advantage.  The second detail is that Judas wanted to betray Jesus “in absence of a crowd”.  Sin thrives in darkness.  As Jesus Himself put it, “for everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20).  If you have to sneak around like a spy to do something, perhaps you ought not to be doing that thing.  St. Paul explores this idea in Ephesians:

For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. (5:8-14)

Let us walk in the light as Jesus is in the light (1 John 5:7).  As we participate in Christ’s life, we become beacons of light to the world.  What was said of Jesus could be said of us: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).  Light always overcomes darkness.  That is the ultimate message of Spy Wednesday.  The devil put everything he had into defeating Jesus, even including turning one of His disciples against Him.  But the enemy failed.  Not only did he fail, he unwittingly set into motion the event that would save humanity from his clutches and spell his doom for eternity.  God turned what was meant for evil into the ultimate good.  Let us rejoice in that and prepare our hearts for the celebration of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.

Conclusion: A Prayer at the Hearth of the Heart

[Jesus said] I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!

–Luke 12:49 (ESV)

I just saw a most remarkable picture.  In the midst of the smoke and rubble in the nave of Notre Dame Cathedral, the cross behind the altar gleamed in the firefighters’ searchlights.  Until I saw that, I didn’t really have the heart to write a meditation today, especially about a book called Catching Fire, Becoming Flame.  I don’t know why, but watching Notre Dame engulfed in flames filled me with tremendous sadness, although I am not Catholic or French, and I’ve never even been to Paris.  But, on this first day of Holy Week, to watch this great cathedral succumb to flame seemed symbolic of something.  Perhaps it’s a reminder of what we’ve lost in the West, that our neglect and recklessness toward our heritage of faith is destroying treasures that we don’t even recognize.  Maybe Jesus is lighting a fire on the earth and it’s coming for the Church first.  If so — Lord, have mercy upon us.  Maybe it’s just an accident and a reminder that what we build, no matter how grand, will not stand for eternity, not even Notre Dame.  Whatever the symbolic import, this fire reminds us that on the last day “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13).  We will all be subject to God’s fire.  Perhaps He is encouraging us to submit to it today willingly before we must submit to it unwillingly.

I have found this book to be greatly helpful.  I go into reading these sort of things hoping that something will finally click for me, that I will finally “get it” and understand how to operate my life.  But I always reach the end and say, “oh, yes, that’s right.  It’s not about me.”  There is no magic formula, no secret mantra, no blueprint to unlock the secrets of life.  We learn how to live by living.  We learn to love by loving.  We learn to follow God by intentionally seeking Him.  This book is intensely practical and yet just following those practicalities would leave you with a sum that was lesser than the parts.  But the sum of our spiritual life is greater than the works we do, because the end of life, the goal of our journey, is Christ Himself.  Thus, every journey will look different, for we all relate to Christ differently.  I cannot tie all of this up in a pretty bow because each of us will take away something different from this book and from our Lenten journeys.  Yet we are all united in the goal we seek.  That unity-in-diversity is the secret strength of the Church, and the gates of Hell stand no chance against Her.

A quick, book-review aside:  I like Fr. Haase’s style, or, rather, lack thereof.  So many spiritual writers want to use flowery words or empty a thesaurus to try to preach the gospel.  Haase’s unadorned prose radiates with pastoral care and an internalized sense of Christ’s command to keep our speech and prayer simple.  He summarizes subjects in five pages that would take lesser writers whole books to explicate.  Clarity and directness are the order of the day, without losing any warmth or insight.  Christian authors take note.

So how do we catch God’s fire?  It’s as simple and as difficult as offering everything we have to Him.  Through prayer and discernment, in discipline and surrender, we allow the Spirit to transform us into little Christs.  Just as I found hope in seeing the cross amid the rubble of the cathedral, so must we keep our eyes on the cross of Christ amid the fires and storms of our lives.  Like Peter, if we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can walk on water.  God says to us as He did to Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (43:2).  The fire of God will refine us, not consume us.  But we must submit to His fire; we must walk through the raging waters.  Like the Levites carrying the ark to the Jordan River, we must step out on the water in order to see God part the waters (Joshua 3).  Only then will we see the Promised Land.  God is asking us to have radical faith, but He has not left us comfortless.  His Spirit will be with us through it all.  So let us walk with courage the road to Calvary with Christ this week, believing in faith that if we die with Christ, we will also live with Him (Romans 6:8).

Chapter 33 — Soul Training

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

–1 Corinthians 9:25 (NIV)

There is nothing quite like the energy of a college campus on a Saturday morning.  And today was a home football game at Furman.  The boys in my freshman dorm were all adorning ourselves in purple and white and getting ready to walk to the stadium.  One of my hallmates, a tall, muscular guy, let out a deep sigh.  “You know,” he said, “I was so glad I wasn’t playing college ball when I saw those guys sweating through summer practice and two-a-days.  But on game day…” he paused and shook his head a little, “man, I miss it.”  Despite being neither tall nor muscular, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  When actors are trucking to endless rehearsals, memorizing lines, enduring tedious tech rehearsals and the like, I am very happy not to be part of the process.  But on opening night, I wish I was on stage.  We human beings all want the reward and the glory of the big game or opening night.  What we don’t want to do is all the work required to get there.  We want the crown without the training, the fruits without the self-control required, the Easter without the Lent.

We always want a shortcut.  People search for that one easy trick that melts away the pounds or the surefire way to fabulous wealth or the simple trick for getting the girl or boy.  But we know that’s not how it works.  What we need to hear (and don’t want to) is that pounds melt away through diet and exercise, wealth is accumulated by careful budgeting and prudent investing, and you will win the guy or girl by becoming a better person, the kind someone wants to be with.  The spiritual life is no different.  We want spiritual transformation; we want inner peace; we want wholeness.  But that doesn’t come about through some magic formula or guru’s method.  It comes through discipline, the daily choices we make to reject sin and choose holiness.  There is no shortcut.  Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and, indeed, all the other disciplines train our souls in the same way the practice trains the athlete or rehearsals train the actor.  We are learning how to be citizens of heaven by denying ourselves on earth.  We are killing off that old man, with his self-destructive desires, and taking on Christ, who brings new life.

We’ve already talked about prayer quite a bit, so today I’ll discuss fasting and almsgiving.  Fasting is a big topic (see chapter 4 of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for an excellent discussion of the spirituality and practical concerns of fasting).  Suffice it to say, we should take time, especially during Lent, to reevaluate our relationship with food and abstain from that which is causing us an addiction.  Giving up sugar, coffee, meat, or something similar for Lent can be a way to teach our bodies to desire that which is healthy.  Of course, fasting is not a health plan.  We fast in order to train ourselves to seek our sustenance from God.  Taking specific days to fast entirely from food can be an especially intense way to deny yourself in order to discover God’s grace in your weakness.  I like how Haase points out that fasting is larger than just food.  We can fast from television, the Internet, shopping, etc. in order to reorient our lives away from self-indulgence and toward God.  The motive here is key: we don’t do these things to be seen by others or to punish ourselves for sin.  We fast in order to put God on the throne of our lives.  And in doing so, we too will be lifted up: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).

Almsgiving is basically like fasting from money.  If we commit to giving some of what we have to the less fortunate, it means we will not be able to spend that money on ourselves.  It is a way of saying to God that “all things come from you, and of your own have we given you” (1 Chronicles 29:14).  We are just taking care of that which belongs to God: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).  One easy way to do this is to tithe the first 10 percent of all you earn to your local church.  This is a way to serve Christ’s body directly, and hopefully your local church is also involved in charitable outreach.  We can also give to causes that move our hearts, as a way of living out the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.  There is a great deal of online “slacktivisim” these days, as people post self-righteously on social media about the cause of the day while doing nothing to actually better their fellow man.  We would benefit spiritually, and the world would actually improve, if we put our money where our mouth is.  Moreover, almsgiving reorients our relationship with money, taming our need to hoard and our belief that money buys happiness and security.  Modern consumer capitalism wants us to be servants of our wallets; Christ wants us to serve Him alone.  We must choose between the two (Matthew 6:24).

Self-denial is not punitive or the product self-hatred.  Quite the opposite.  Denying ourselves that which is less than God allows us to receive more of Him.  And in Him is life and light (John 1:4).  Emptying our bellies and our pocketbooks give the lie to the idea that we need to keep either full in order to find fulfillment and joy.  So let us take this final week of Lent to look for opportunities to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.  Let us train in such a way that we will win the crown.  May we die with Christ that we may experience the joy of His resurrection this Easter.

(Suggested Bible reading: Matthew 6, Jesus’ teaching on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving)

Chapter 32 — Pilgrimage

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

–Psalm 84:5 (NIV)

Pilgrim (n.) — 1) one who journeys in foreign lands: wayfarer; 2) one who travels to a holy shrine or holy place as a devotee; 3) one of the English colonists settling at Plymouth in 1620. [from early French pelerin, pilegrin, from Late Latin pelegrinus, altered from Latin peregrinus “foreigner”, from per “beyond” + agri “land, country”]

When I got off the Soviet-style train at the station in Prague, dusk was already beginning to fall over the city.  The journey up from Salzburg was my first solo sojourn on the Continent — having left the group of friends with whom I had been traveling, I was meeting up with two more in the Czech capital.  Since the Czech Republic had not yet joined the EU, there was still a passport check on the train, and the agent made a big scene of carrying off my passport to “verify it”.  After that small hiccup, I spent the remainder of the journey devouring the novel Treasure Island as an attempt to calm my nerves.  Arriving at the station, I stowed the novel and retrieved my Lonely Planet guide to the city, on which I’d mapped a route in pen from the station to my hostel.  I looked up at the signs and saw the inscrutable Slavic script of the Czech language and no translations.  Taking a deep breath, I consulted my map and carefully made my way through the narrow medieval streets, looking every bit the American tourist.  Arriving at last in the darkness at the tiny, hole-in-the-wall hostel I sought, I checked in at the desk and went to the bathroom to scope out the showers (dodgy) and use the toilet (also kinda dodgy).  I felt my entire body relax and a smile bloomed on my face when I saw a sign on the door from the young couple I would be tagging along with.  It said, “Welcome to Prague, Christopher!”  For the first time in a while, I felt at home.

Being in a foreign land is simultaneously exhilarating, terrifying, and disorienting.  Everything from the language to the food to the customs throws you out of your usual rhythms and makes you question that which you take for granted.  To be a pilgrim is to travel to a foreign land (even if it is in your own country) to seek out the “thin places” where God can be more easily found.  By getting out of our usual routine and comfort zones, we discover much about not only God but ourselves.  I have never been on a pilgrimage myself (my travels in Europe were part of a college study abroad program).  But I sometimes try to seek ways to get outside my comfort zone in order to stretch myself and let God change me.  That’s the important distinction that Haase points out between being a tourist (where comfort and pleasure are paramount) and being a pilgrim.  Traveling to the Holy Land or other sacred sites is just another way to discover God hidden in plain sight.  As for the practical matters of the journey and the spiritual preparation for it, I bow to Haase’s greater expertise; his advice seems sound.

Of course, not all of us have the time, money, or physical capability to go on a physical pilgrimage.  But there is more to this discipline than just geographical travel.  First off, we must remember that we are already foreigners.  The Bible reminds us repeatedly that the earth is not our home:

  • For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were… (1 Chronicles 29:15)
  • I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not your commandments from me!
    (Psalm 119:19)
  • [Jesus said] they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. (John 17:16)
  • These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. (Hebrews 11:13)
  • Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

All of these verses emphasize that we are living on earth temporarily, not as residents, and that the customs of this world are antithetical to those of our true home.  “But our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).  We are all, every day, on the pilgrim way.  To go on a physical pilgrimage is simply to remind ourselves of our true citizenship, our true identity.  Just as the passport checks and foreign signs remind the traveler that they are far from home, so do the inconveniences and suffering of our daily lives remind us not to get too comfortable down here.  The journey of our life is the journey back home, prodigal sons and daughters returning to our Father’s house.

When the Pilgrims of England traveled across the Atlantic for the shores of the New World, they were certainly headed into foreign territory.  But they also saw it as a journey home, a chance to create a “city on a hill” that would shine with God’s light.  Indeed, their permanent residence would be in Massachusetts rather than England.  But they had to leave where they lived to find their true home.  That is the message of pilgrimage.  By the Spirit, we must be willing to travel beyond the place where we find ourselves in order to find where we truly belong.  Our home is not the house we live in, our city of residence, or even the United States.  Our home is in Christ and wherever we find Christ.  That is why the Church is such a gift, for no matter where we are in the world we are not foreigners as long as there are other believers to be found.  “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).  Perhaps the pilgrimage we need to make this Lent is to our local church, to discover a home and a family with those whose citizenship is in heaven.  And may we always keep the “welcome” signs up on our church doors as we minister to the strangers and sojourners in our midst.  For we are all on this journey together.

[By the way, if you are in the CEC, our Patriarch Craig Bates is taking a group to the Holy Land next year.  If you’re interested, let your rector know and he can get your information to Abp. Bates.]

(Suggested Bible reading: Luke 10:1-20)

Chapter 31 — Sabbath Rest

Then Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath. He’s in charge!”

–Mark 2:27-28 (The Message)

Human beings can be so hardheaded and stiff-necked sometimes.  The Lord gives us a command to relax, and we somehow construe that as an order to make a bunch of rules to follow.  In Israel, there are elevators that stop at every floor of buildings because some ultra-Orthodox Jews will not “work” on the Sabbath by pressing the buttons of the elevator.  One Jewish website opens up its discussion of this topic with these two sentences: “The Shabbat laws are quite complex, requiring careful study and a qualified teacher. At first, it’s often overwhelming and seems like an impossible number of restrictions.” (link to the complete article here)  All this, I feel a need to repeat, for a day of rest.  The sabbath story from Mark (quoted above) might as well begin with an audible sigh from Jesus.  His disciples were picking grain because they were hungry.  But good Jews don’t harvest on the Sabbath, so God will be angry with them.  Jesus rightly retorts that the Pharisees have made themselves slaves of their own rules.  As He says later in Mark’s gospel, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (7:8).  If you need years of study and a qualified teacher to tell you how to relax, I’m afraid the god you have been following is your own legalism and workaholism.  The whole point of the Sabbath is not about what you do or don’t do, but who you are.

That said, what are we supposed to do on the Sabbath?  Is a day spent on the couch watching t.v. a sabbath pleasing to the Lord?  Well, no, but not because He’s mad that you’re not working.  The Sabbath is about doing that which brings us life, restoring the parts of ourselves that get worn down by the daily grind.  Doctors will tell you that sitting in front of the t.v. all day is not good for your health, and thus does not bring life.  Not that watching t.v. or a movie is necessarily bad in moderation, but Sabbath- keeping should be done thoughtfully.  A good question to ask is “what activities bring me joy?”  Do things that you enjoy doing on the Sabbath, simple as that.  For some people that could be gardening or yard work; for others sewing or cooking or painting; for others playing sports or hiking in the woods; for still others reading a book or writing in a journal.  Thinking about your Sabbath activities should give you something to look forward to.  Ideally, this intentional time off will also allow you to spend time with those you love be it your spouse, kids, parents, or close friends.  The Sabbath is about restoring our relationships with God and each other, fulfilling the Great Commandment.  Spiritual pursuits are, of course, a part of this, but if they are done with a sense of obligation and striving (“I better catch up on my Bible reading”) than you have slipped into serving the Sabbath rather than letting it serve you.

The story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) is instructive here.  Martha did not do anything wrong; she was just attempting to be a good host for Jesus.  She was trying to do everything “right”.  But she missed the point of Jesus’ visit.  Mary sat at Christ’s feet and listened to Him, soaking in His presence.  Mary did what was “necessary” and received the “good portion” precisely because she wasn’t trying to earn it.  We get so busy trying to earn God’s love that we don’t realize that it’s there for the taking all the time, it “endures forever” (Psalm 136).  God wants to pour out his peace, his joy, and his love upon us — we just have to be open enough to receive it.  That is the “work” of the Sabbath.  As Jesus succinctly puts it: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29).  The radical work of the Sabbath is that we take a day not to work, believing by faith the God can run His world without our help.  Our pride would like us to work ourselves to the bone, believing to the bitter end that we are indispensable.  But God calls us to the humility of resting in His arms, finding our value not in what we produce but in our identity as sons and daughters of God.

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).  The revolution of Jesus Christ is still ongoing in the world today.  But to participate in changing the world for Christ, we must be changed by Christ.  Sabbath-keeping is an integral part of how Jesus makes us (and the world) new.  We get burned out by our hectic lives and sometimes it feels like all we have to give Him is ashes.  But, like a phoenix rising, the Spirit can use the Sabbath to make those ashes into something beautiful (Isaiah 61:3).  We cannot do that work on our own; no book will teach you how to do it; there are no teachers wise enough to guide you through.  Only by the Spirit will we discover the heart of Jesus Christ, which is to lead us to His Father.  So how do we practice this discipline again?  We slow down.  We stop.  We relax.  We listen.  And we just live.  By doing this, we get a preview of heaven.  For when we die, we will see Jesus face-to-face and hear those happiest of words: “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21).

[For a good book on this topic with many practical suggestions, I highly recommend Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath]

(Suggested Bible Readings: Mark 2:23-28 and Luke 10:38-42)

Chapter 30 — Silence and Solitude: The Retreat

For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.

–Psalm 62:1 (ESV)

Solitude can be found even in the midst of a crowd, and silence means more than not speaking.  In the same way that peace is greater than a lack of war, both solitude and silence are good in themselves and not just for what they lack.  In a noisy, distracted world where being constantly connected is the norm, these two linked disciplines stand as a way to reach for something deeper in the Spirit.  Depth is the ultimate fruit of solitude and silence.  We are spread so thin by life, by our jobs, our families, our ministries, our obligations, our hobbies, our distractions, and our addictions.  It’s like trying to drink from a fire hose.  I don’t think I need to say much to convince you of the value of slowing down every once in a while to take stock and to recalibrate your life.  Burnout is inevitable unless we spend contemplative and restorative time with the Holy Spirit.

I don’t have a lot to add to what Fr. Haase says about retreats.  How often you need to (and are able to) go on retreats will vary from person to person.  I would say that a full weekend at minimum is needed to really benefit from a retreat.  If you can spare a full week, all the better (those 30-day retreats that Haase mentions sound great, but few of us can take that much time off — that would be a literal once-in-a-lifetime event).  How much guidance you would need on a retreat is also a matter of your personal comfort level and needs.  If you have never taken a retreat before, or it’s been a long time, I highly recommend it.  You often don’t know how stressed and distracted you are until you get away from it all.  If nothing else, a retreat helps bring perspective to the hamster wheel of modern life.  Changing your routine, even for a weekend, can have a salutary effect on both your mental health and your spiritual development.  If you don’t know where to start, ask your local church for ideas, or, failing that, take a weekend by yourself away somewhere.  As with so many other disciplines, one piece of advice holds:  just do it.

The real trick of silence and solitude is bringing them into the hullabaloo of our daily lives.  The discipline of silence is particularly difficult because of how many ways we can keep ourselves distracted.  I won’t belabor the point, but I will remind you that our devices, especially our smart phones, hinder our spiritual development.  Learning to keep your own company without having to check your feed, be it social media or texts or emails or the news or whatever, is the first step in the discipline of silence.  Doing this leaves us alone with our thoughts, which means that the next step is learning to still our thoughts (I discussed this a bit in the meditation on resisting temptation).  Practicing the presence of God throughout the day will help our mind to calm down, and point our heart, like the needle of a compass, toward the “true north” of Christ.  If we discipline our minds, then we can begin to discipline our mouths.  As James exhorts us: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  I have mentioned before that we should listen to others as a way to practice listening to God.  It’s also central to the discipline of silence.  We talk so much because we think our many words will make people like us.  But studies have shown that people who make others feel listened to (e.g. by not interrupting, asking relevant questions, etc.) are actually more liked than those who are charismatic talkers.  This world needs less talking and more listening.  Being a good listener can also mean appreciating God’s creation or taking time to read a book.  Learning silence and stillness has many benefits, including improved physical and mental health.  But most importantly, it puts us in the position to hear the voice of God in our lives.

Solitude is also a lost art.  To get a misconception out of the way right off, solitude is the opposite of loneliness.  In the 21st century, we are more connected than ever and we are more lonely than ever (drug addiction and suicide are at all-time highs in this country).  The discipline of solitude involves having a secret place in our heart that only God has access to that we carry with us wherever we go.  So, whether we are alone or in a crowd, we always have solitude in the Spirit.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his wonderful book Life Together, talks about the balance of solitude and community:

Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . We recognize, then, that only as we are within the fellowship can we be alone, and only he that is alone can live in the fellowship. Only in fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in fellowship. . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.

We need a balance in our lives of fellowship with others and solitude.  If you are an extrovert, the temptation is often to seek out people at all times, even when it is not healthy, while introverts tend to flee from others at every opportunity, only to wonder why we’re lonely.  So extroverts need to look for opportunities to be alone, while introverts need to intentionally seek community.  But we all need both.  We can’t minister to others unless we allow God to minister to us, but we also can’t minister to others if we never leave the house.  So, whether we go on a retreat or not, we can begin to practice the disciplines of solitude and silence today.  Let us hear the Lord’s call to us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

(Suggested Bible reading:  1 Kings 19, Elijah’s extreme “retreat” where he learned to hear the still, small voice of God)

Chapter 29 — Reveal Everything to God

O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.

–Psalm 139:1-4 (ESV)

In the Rite II Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer, the service begins with what is called the Collect for Purity.  It begins:  “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”  So the title to this chapter is a bit of a misnomer.  God knows every sin you have to confess; He knows your prayer requests before you ask them; He knows your heart better than you do.  So why confess, pray, or keep a spiritual journal?  It’s not because God needs to know your heart but because you do.  Keeping a journal is not about recording facts any more than prayer is an information session with the Almighty.  It is about deepening our relationship with Christ, sinking our roots ever further into Him.

This may seem ironic, but I haven’t kept a journal in years.  I found it indispensable in high school and college as I tried to navigate those stressful, transitional years.  I think part of the reason God prompted me to start this blog was to get me writing again.  But a spiritual journal is different from a blog or a Bible study.  Haase lays out some good questions to ask yourself as you keep a record of your walk with God.  It’s less about exactly what happens in your day than about the state of your heart and what you’ve discovered about God and yourself.  And, as with so many other disciplines, it looks different for different people.  How you write, what you write about, how often you write, and any number of other factors will depend on your personality, time constraints, and place in life.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, doing the discipline is more important than how you do it.  No one else is going to read what you write; even you don’t have to read what you write.  Just pour your heart out to God on the page.  As Ernest Hemingway said, “there is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I really like the idea of using your journal to write letters to others, either people you admire or those you need to forgive.  It’s a great place to write what you really want to say to someone before you send an email you’ll later regret.  It can be a healthy way to deal with grief — writing a letter to a loved one who is gone can allow you to let them go.  A journal can be a place where you wrestle with Scripture, as I have tried to do on this blog.  Or it can be something more unorganized:  try free writing, which means just writing down everything that comes to mind, stream-of-consciousness style.  Alternatively, if you have a more organized or engineering sort of temperament, perhaps you’d prefer to make an orderly list of the pros and cons of your day, what you learned, and what you will try to apply in your life moving forward.  No two journals look alike, and even your own journal will change with you as you grow in the Spirit.

Ultimately, I feel like this chapter is an addendum to the previous one.  In order to surrender our lives to God, we must be entirely open to him, willing to let Him work down into the deepest parts of who we are.  We should remember Jesus’ warning: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:2-3).  We can become accustomed to living with hypocrisy, showing a brave face to the world while everything inside us crumbles.  Keeping a journal helps combat this temptation by putting into print the secrets of our hearts.  Satan wants to keep us bound up in the darkness of our secrets; by exposing ourselves to the light, we defeat his schemes (1 John 1:5-9).  So journalling isn’t the point — it is a means to an end.  That end is our transformation into the image of Christ.  Anything that makes our lives more transparent to Him (and to ourselves) will speed the process of becoming all flame.

 

Chapter 28 — Surrender and Abandonment

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

–Philippians 3:10-11 (NIV)

Corrie ten Boom and her sister Betsie were Dutch Christians who harbored Jews during World War II.  They were arrested and ended up in Ravensbruck concentration camp.  The conditions were, as you might expect, squalid.  Packed like sardines into the barracks, they soon discovered a further indignity: fleas.  Corrie felt that there was no way she could live in such conditions until Betsie remembered the Scripture they had read just that morning.  It was 1 Thessalonians 5, which includes the famous admonition to “give thanks in all circumstances”.  So the sisters began thanking God for what blessings they had, from the fact that they were together to the Bible in their hands.  Then Betsie said thank you for the fleas.  Corrie balked; she would not be thankful for fleas!  But soon she relented and thanked God even for the tiny pests.  Time would prove Betsie right.  The concentration camp guards, known for breaking up Bible studies and abusing and raping prisoners, never touched the women in that barrack because of the fleas.  God’s blessings often come disguised as suffering.

Surrender and abandonment both seem like negative words.  We valorize soldiers that don’t surrender, even under impossible circumstances (think of the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae).  And we despise those who abandon their responsibilities, like deadbeats dads and AWOL soldiers.  This is why atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzche called Christianity a “slave morality”.  He said that it encouraged subservience and meek acquiescence when what is truly needed is strength and willpower.  Indeed, the idea of surrendering to God and abandoning ourselves runs against everything our culture tells us about how to succeed and live a good life.  The cross of Jesus Christ is still a scandal.  For who wants a savior that is beaten, humiliated, abandoned, and killed?  What sort of inspiration is that supposed to provide?  Just accepting the circumstances of your life feels like weakness and laziness.  Surely we are meant to fight against suffering with all our might, gritting our teeth in the face of a harsh, uncaring universe.  What other option do we have?

In his book Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey lays bare a painful story:

So far I have avoided writing about a most difficult period of my life, time of serious physical complications when I could not talk or walk.  I lay in bed all day, barely able to move my arms and legs.  My eyes did not focus.  I could not feed myself and was incontinent.  I had little comprehension of what was going on around me.  Resigned to my state I could not imagine any improvement.  I outgrew that condition and now look back on it as a necessary transition time: human infancy (p.213)

As infants, we understand our total dependence upon God and others.  It is only when we become adults that we begin to believe that we control our lives.  But such control is an illusion.  Some day, I know not when, I will die.  Simply remembering the fact of our mortality should give us the humility to accept that God is God and we are not.  Surrendering to God’s will and abandoning our lives into His hands is not so much giving up as it is an admission of our own powerlessness.  I like Haase’s image of floating in water — the more we “try” to float, the faster we sink.  After all, the only true source of life is Jesus and the only way we will live fruitful lives is through the Holy Spirit.  None of us can escape suffering.  The only question we have is how we deal with that fact, how we attempt to overcome it, and with whom we share it.

The cross of Jesus Christ represents hope because it shows us that even the death of God’s own Son can be redemptive.  At His moment of greatest weakness, Jesus was strongest.  The paradoxes don’t end there: by surrendering to the will of the Father and submitting to death, Christ was raised to the highest heights of heaven (Philippians 2:5-11).  We are called to take this journey with Christ.  If we are to attain the resurrection of the dead, we have to die first.  That is why St. Paul says that “for the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).  More than being content, he calls on us to “rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3) for such experiences produce perseverance, character, and hope.  We can try to avoid suffering and strive to succeed, but it all amounts to nothing if we do not have Christ.  Surrendering to God means thinking in terms of eternity, realizing that “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Think about the stories we tell.  All of the stories that last are not about Nietzschean supermen, but about simple folk who, by surrendering to the call on their lives, transform themselves and their world.  It’s Frodo Baggins taking the ring to Mordor, despite it costing him everything.  It’s Luke Skywalker, his surrogate parents killed, agreeing to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi.  It’s Harry Potter striding into the forest to meet his death, knowing that only his death will rid the world of evil.  It’s Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy putting aside their pride and prejudice to live in a loving marriage.  And on and on.  Even those Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae, paragons of not surrendering, accepted their deaths as the inevitable sacrifice needed to save Greece.  And save Greece they did.  Surrender and abandonment, far from being acts of weakness, are actually heroic works that transform the world by allowing the Spirit to work through us.

So how do we go about this work?  I believe that is equal parts gratitude, trust, and perseverance.  Betsie ten Boom could thank God even in a concentration camp because she trusted His goodness and mercy.  By persevering through many trials, Corrie and Betsie witnessed to the gospel, not only in the camp, but to this very day.  By following the prompting of their conscience and seeing their ministry through even the worst times, these two women give us a model of surrender and abandonment as acts of courage, hope, and love.  May we too willingly accept our share of Christ’s suffering, dying to ourselves each day, that we may also share in Christ’s glorious resurrection.

(Suggested Bible reading: Matthew 16:21-28)