Sunday, July 26, 2015

"Solitude and seclusion are good, when we are to pray to God."

Jesus was a man among the people. He is God become man and come to save us. And so he dwelt among us – he spent time among us – he was present to us. This is an important model of ministry – but every bit as important is something that he does in today’s gospel.
 Christ feeding the multitude
Coptic Icon

After much time among the people – teaching, preaching, and feeding the five thousand – Jesus dismisses the crowds. He dismisses them and goes by himself up the mountain to pray. He even sends away his closest disciples – telling them to go before him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. There is much to learn from this, I believe.

Some of us like to be always among people – or at least among friends. These extroverts are inspired and energized by the company of others. And they quickly get lonely and long for companionship if left alone. Others of us prefer to be alone. More introverted, these find energy and inspiration in times of solitude. And they are emotionally drained by being too much around people.

But whether we’re introverted or extroverted, and whether we consequently seek God more readily in silence or in our neighbors, I think we must learn from Jesus the need for both of these aspects of our lives. He teaches us that when we pray, we ought to go into our inner chamber, shut the door, and pray in secret so as not to make a show of our prayer (Matt 6:5-6). He also teaches us that whatsoever we do to the least of his brethren that we do unto him (Matt 25:40, 45), which means that serving others, attending to their needs, and spending time with them is also a means of prayer – of communing with Christ our God. And Jesus models both of these behaviors himself – both ministering to the people and taking his leave of them to spend time in undistracted prayer with his father.

I believe it is important for us to imitate Christ in both of these ways.

Even if we prefer to be alone, we should also devote some of our time to working out God’s mercies among his people – feeding the hungry, consoling those who grieve, visiting the sick, defending the faith, and in all those countless ways God has given us to love one another – face to face and heart to heart with one another – with the image of God in each other person.  

And, on the other hand, times of solitude with God are also essential, even if we prefer the company of the crowd or our friends and even if we get uneasy when we’re alone – when anxieties soar & restless thoughts and passions disturb us – even waking us up in the middle of the night.

About such times, my mother used to say that if you wake up in the middle of the night it is because the Lord wants you to pray. My father therefore, who woke in the middle of most nights with anxiety, would pray, “What are you doing, Lord, waking me up in the middle of the night?”

The Lord’s purposes are not always easily discernable and it is good, I believe, to be frank with him. The middle of the night can be a good time to be alone with God. Sometimes he just wants to be with us.

I once heard a story of a young man who, after some time away, returned to his father’s house to borrow some money. His father greeted him joyfully and quickly agreed to give him the desired sum. ‘But first,” he said, “come in and sit with me and talk for a while.” And so the son came in and they went to the sitting room and sat and spoke with each other for a while. After some time had passed, the son again brought up the question of money. The father said, “Yes, yes, of course, but now it’s time for dinner. First, let us eat together.” And so the son agrees and they go into dinner together and they eat and drink and talk. An after dinner, the father suggests that it is getting late and that perhaps the son would like to stay for the night. At this point, the son becomes irritated and says to his father, “why do you keep delaying? Why don’t you give me the money as you agreed?” The father answers, “My son, of course I will give you the money and whatever else you desire, but I love you and it has been so good to see you and to be with you, and I don’t want you to go.”

Sometimes God just wants to be with us. Don’t go to the Lord our Father only when you need something, but make time every day simply to be with him – to dwell consciously in his loving presence.

Even if it is difficult for us, we must devote some time daily, I believe, to being alone with God. We must find some moment of silence in which the still small voice of the Lord may be heard over the din of the thousands and millions and billions of distractions that plaguily vie for our attention, especially in our ever noisier technological world with the endless beeping of our “distraction machines”[i] which call for attention and away from attending to the one thing that matters – to the voice of God, which, as was read at the recent Vespers for St. Elias,  came to Elias upon the mountain not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire, but as a still small voice (1Kings 19:11-12).

To hear this voice, both Elias and Jesus went up the mountain alone to pray. The Lord wishes to speak to each of us also and we too must seek a quiet place if we are to hear him. I assure you, none of us are better than Jesus, nor even Elias, his second forerunner. None of us are above this need.

“For what purpose does [Jesus] go up … the mountain?” John Chrysostom asks. “To teach us that solitude and seclusion are good, when we are to pray to God.… We find [Jesus] continually withdrawing into the wilderness. There he often spends the whole night in prayer. This teaches us earnestly to seek such quietness in our prayers as the time and place may afford. For the wilderness is the mother of silence; it is a calm and a harbor, delivering us from all turmoil.”[ii]

Speaking of turmoil, what is happening while Jesus is alone praying on the mountain? All night, his disciples row against the wind in toil and turmoil in the sea. Then, in the fourth watch of the night – that is, just before dawn – Christ returns from his time alone with his father and he walks on the stormy water to the disciples.

Jesus walks on water
ink and pigments on laid paper
by Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (Egyptian, active ca. 1684)
Walters manuscript W.592
I don’t think his walking on water is unrelated to his time alone with his father on the mountain. The mountain is like heaven and the sea is like the world. We must spend some time on the mountain if we are to weather the storms of the sea – if we are to be able to rise above the waters of this life forever threatening to drown our faith, our hope, our love for God and one another in so much evil and emptiness. Only by going occasionally to the mountain to pray alone can we keep the faith needed to walk on water.

If Jesus needs periodically to pray alone, so much more do we need to do the same. To maintain connection to God in the midst of this sea of distraction and turmoil, to know inner peace even as strife rages all about us, seems impossible. It is like walking on the windswept water of the sea.  

In Christ, all things are possible.

[i] Tim Wu, “How Today’s Computers Weaken Our Brain,” The New Yorker.
[ii] John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50.1.”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jesus Opens Our Eyes

Today Jesus asks the two blind men, “Do you believe I can do this?” (Matt 9:28)

Christ healing the two blind men
Mosaic  in Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th century
Do what exactly? Heal them of their blindness? Well, yes and no. The blind men do not exactly and directly ask for sight or for healing. Rather, they follow Jesus, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” So Jesus is not only asking them “Do you believe I can heal you?” but also, “Do you believe I can have mercy on you?”

They do believe and, according to their faith, Jesus opens their eyes. This is marvelous and extraordinary just on the face of it, but the more we meditate on this exchange and this miracle, the more profound we realize it is. Scripture is like this – with layers upon layers of revelation from the Holy Spirit to us, his Church.

Maximus the Confessor
mosaic in Nea Moni, 11th century
When Jesus asks the blind men if they believe that he is able to have mercy on them – he is not asking them if, in their opinion, he can do this. His words are stronger than that. He is asking them if they have faith in him. In English, the word “belief” can connote either faith or opinion, which is unfortunate because faith and opinion are almost antonyms. St. Maximus the Confessor rightly teaches that “faith is a true knowledge[i] – a gift of knowledge of the truth – which is not only an intellectual assent to authentic dogmatic propositions, but also relationship with him who says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” – Jesus Christ our Lord (Luke 14:6). To have faith is to know the Lord, who is the truth and love himself – whereas to have an opinion is merely to regard an idea as probable – not certain and not known. So, again, Jesus is not asking these blind men merely what they think of him or who he is in their opinion – he is asking them about their faith – about who they know him to be and they confess their faith that he is the one who can have mercy on them in their blindness.

I ask you, who is it that can open the eyes of the blind and give voice to the dumb? It is the Messiah and the Lord. Because the blind men had faith in this Son of David, as they professed, I believe that they know this too. Though they call him son of David, for that is who he is, they know that they ask for mercy from the Son of God – for that is who he is.

What drove Jesus to ask the two blind men about their faith? Well, first they followed him, crying aloud for mercy. They followed him for quite some time, it would seem, as he walked from the house of a ruler to his own house. This in and of itself is a marvel: though they were blind, they were able to follow Jesus to his house. They could not see him, but yet they went wherever he went. Now, maybe they had help, or maybe they were following him by sound, or maybe they simply knew the way to his house – the Gospel doesn’t say – but regardless, I think it is a good image of faith that, though blind, they could still follow Christ. They could see him, not with the eyes of the body, but with the eyes of faith. According to their faith, they could see already.

And all the while as they were following him, they were crying out, “Have mercy on us, son of David!” This kind of prayerful petition ought to seem familiar to us in the Byzantine Church – for here is one of the roots of the Jesus Prayer. I hope you all know the Jesus Prayer and pray it daily:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

We can hear in this, I think, an echo of the blind men’s prayer: “Son of David, have mercy on us.” But it is also similar in the way that they prayed it – crying and saying their prayer while following after Jesus. The words here – κράζοντες καὶ λέγοντες – are present participles which describe continuous, ongoing action. In other words, they did not cry out their prayer only once, but continuously and repeatedly as they followed Jesus. In our hesychast tradition, under the guidance of our spiritual fathers and mothers, we pray the Jesus prayer so frequently that the prayer becomes a part of our very breathing – and of the beating of our hearts  so that we can aspire to pray unceasingly, as Paul teaches us (1 Thess 5:17). Again and again in peace we pray to the Lord for mercy – as did these two blind men before us.

Their way of prayer also evokes to me the uncomfortable parable of the widow and the unjust judge in Luke (18:1-8). Not once does the widow plead for justice, but repeatedly. Not once do the blind men cry out for mercy but they cry aloud continuously.

It seems sometimes like we have to nag the Lord, that we have to bend his ear, or that we have to keep after him. Of course, this is only how it seems to us from our limited human perspective. Repetition, I think, helps to simulate the eternal for us temporal creatures. And it helps us forgetful creatures to remember – in this case – our creator. Anyone memorizing lines for a play or multiplication tables for a math test knows the necessity of repetition for a human mind. If we humans are to remember God, we must often repeat our prayer to him and our calling upon his holy name. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

It is only after the widow has often plead for justice that the judge gives her what is good and right and it is only after the blind men have followed Jesus quite a way calling out for mercy and followed him even into his house that he asks them if they have faith. Only after they have demonstrated faithfulness to some extent are they asked if they have faith. We must be persistent. We must persevere in the faith even when we get no answer to our prayer the first time or the second time or the seventh time we pray. Pray again! Do not lose heart. Keep following after Jesus with a pure heart – not just in the hope of some material reward, mind you, but in the hope of mercy – of healing, eternal life, and union with God.

The physical blindness of these two men has also for us, I believe, a spiritual meaning. We are the blind men – until we through faith receive the grace and mercy of the Lord, for which we must continually cry out. Our vision of all things is darkened until we see them in the light of Christ.

Only in the light of Christ is it possible to see things as they really are.

Only in the light of Christ can we understand the true meaning of the Torah and the prophets.

Only in the light of Christ can we see and love our enemies as images of God.

Only in the light of Christ can we find any meaning in our suffering because without Christ and his cross, all suffering is meaningless. Only in Christ and in his cross can suffering become a means of union with God – because only in Christ and in his cross does the impassible God suffer.

Only in the light of Christ can we see that for us death is but falling asleep in the Lord and that the great dawn of resurrection is coming.

And so, without the light of Christ, we are blind. And, according to our faith, Christ will open our eyes.

[i] Maximus the Confessor. “Chapters on Knowledge.” Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1985. 1:9; 130.

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