Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Morality of Birth Control



There are few issues so disputed within the Church and between Christians of all kinds as the morality of birth control. Most commonly, the dispute is about whether or not artificial contraception is a moral means of regulating birth, but birth control is not exactly synonymous with contraception. Birth control is the regulation of the number and/or frequency of births. This is done for numerous reasons and by numerous means, both of which need to be evaluated morally. The debate among Christians extends beyond the means of birth control to which, if any, circumstances justify its use. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teachings on this issue differ on significant points, which presents unique pastoral problems to Eastern Catholics. This is in addition to the many problems universal to any who would take a moral stance on this issue.

The means

The means, techniques, or methods of birth control include 1) abortion and abortifacients 2) sterilization, 3) artificial contraception, which includes barrier methods such as condoms and hormonal methods such as “the pill,” 4) behavioral methods that limit sexual activity to infertile acts such as onanism, oral sex, et cetera, 5) periodic abstinence, the most effective method of which is known as natural family planning (NFP), and 6) total abstinence.

The Catholic Church has undertaken to evaluate morally each of these means of birth control. The Second Vatican Council, in its document Gaudium et Spes (GS), defends the competency of the magisterium of the Church to make this evaluation, stating: “Sons [and, presumably, daughters] of the Church may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law” (51.3). The teaching of the Catholic Church on the immorality of certain means is clear in forbidding all but the last two of the six methods listed above.

Drawing from a 13th-century manuscript of Pseudo-Apuleius's Herbarium
depicting a pregnant woman and another holding some pennyroyal. 
Pennyroyal was historically used as an herbal abortifacient.
1) Direct abortion is the willful taking of an innocent human life which began at conception and is an “unspeakable crime” (GS 51.3; CCC 2271). In his encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV), which, from a Catholic point of view, is a foundational document on the issue of birth control, Paul VI writes “Direct abortion... [is] to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children” (14).

2) He continues, “Equally to be condemned, as the magisterium of the Church has affirmed on many occasions, is direct sterilization, whether of the man or of the woman, whether permanent or temporary” (HV 14). Sterilization, which mutilates a healthy body with the intention of disrupting its natural healthy functions, disrespects bodily integrity and consequently is against the moral law (CCC 2297).

3) Regarding artificial contraception, Paul VI unambiguously writes, “Sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive [is] intrinsically wrong” (HV 14; CCC 2370). The primary reason that these acts are immoral is their deliberate disruption of one of the two primary ends of sex in marriage. There is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act” (HV 12). Contraception is a deliberate denial of the procreative significance of sex. While it is true that sex is not only for making babies but also essentially for making love, it remains true that it is also essentially for making babies and that God created it for this great purpose also. For this reason, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV 11).

4) Recent documents of the Church have said little about behavioral methods of birth control. However, for exactly the same reasons as those presented against contraception, the consistent teaching of the Church opposes these methods as well. Their clear prohibition extends from biblical times into the twentieth century, as Pius XI demonstrated in 1930 in his encyclical Casti Connubii. Referring to patristic interpretation of the story of Onan in Genesis, he writes,
Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death. As St. Augustine notes, "Intercourse even with one's legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it" (Casti Connubii 55; Gen 38: 8-10).
Some exegesis is necessary at this point. The story of Onan is the only direct description of birth control in scripture, and the method described is behavioral: “when he went in to his brother's wife he spilled the semen on the ground” (Gen 38:9). The story gives us both Onan’s means – coitus interruptus, sometimes also known as onanism – and his ends: “Onan knew that the offspring would not be his,” so he avoided conception, “lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was displeasing in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also” (Gen 38:9-10). Why did the Lord kill Onan in this story? Both St. Augustine and Pope Pius XI believe that Onan’s crime was his means of avoiding conception. However, Onan’s reason for doing so was also immoral – he did not want to fulfill the conditions of a levirate marriage. He selfishly did not want to sire heirs for his deceased brother. So perhaps this was his crime. I think, however, that it is most reasonable and consistent with Christian tradition to consider that both his reason and his means – “what he did” – were immoral and that the Lord punished him for both of these reasons.

In its prohibition of these four methods of birth control, the Catholic Church is completely consistent with the fathers of the Church, who are universal in their opposition to such acts. However, the fathers went further than the Church does today and would also condemn what we now call 5) NFP. For the fathers, the only moral means of birth control was 6) total abstinence. 

A patristic understanding

Contrary to Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, who writes in his book The Sacrament of Love, “In the age of the Church Fathers, the problem of birth control was never raised,” a study of the teachings of the early fathers of the Church quickly reveals that this controversy is nothing new and that the teachings of the Church on this issue have evolved over time (174). Sex, from a patristic view, is for making babies. For many of the fathers, this is not only its primary end, it is its sole purpose.

This utilitarian understanding of sex may have roots in the Old Testament's emphasis on procreation as well as in Stoic philosophy. At any rate, the patristic understanding more strongly echoes Stoic philosophy than it does Paul. (On this topic, see Roy Ward’s article, “Paul, How he Radically Redefined Marriage.” Bible Review 4:4 (1988) 26-31). When Paul writes, "It is better to marry than to burn," he is not talking about having children, but about having sex (1Cor 7:9). He never mentions children in this passage. Given the imminent eschatology of this letter, it is clear that Paul is not here concerned with progeny or posterity. This reveals that there is more to sex, in his view, than making babies. It keeps us who are weak from burning, whether this is from burning in sexual desire or burning in hell or both, he does not say. The point is that sex, for Paul, is a good thing in service of an end other than having children. The fathers of the Church did not maintain this New Testament understanding.

Icon of St. Justin Martyr, also called the Philosopher,
in the Katholikon of the Stavronikita Monastery.
With a clear preference for celibacy, St. Justin Martyr (c. 160) writes, “If we marry, it is only so that we may bring up children” (ANF 1.172, emphasis mine). Similarly, Lactantius (c. 304-313) writes, “Whatever is sought beyond the desire of procreation is condemned by God” (ANF 7.143). Among these fathers, then, the distinction between artificial contraception and NFP is therefore moot. While they would generally prefer that people remain virgins and therefore not have any children, these fathers oppose any form of birth control within a sexually active marriage. At face value, Justin’s claim that marriage has no purpose other than the begetting and rearing of children would even render total abstinence within marriage an unacceptable behavior (the example of Mary the ever-virgin spouse of Joseph notwithstanding).

Other fathers may not oppose total abstinence within marriage as a means of birth control, but they do oppose limiting abstinence to the periods of fertility, à la NFP, and even require abstinence during periods of infertility. For example, Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 175) forbids sexual activity during the infertile period of pregnancy. Referring to this, he writes,
After throwing the seed into the ground, the farmer awaits the harvest. He does not sow more seed on top of it. Likewise, to us the procreation of children is the limit of our indulgence in appetite” (ANF 2.146).
In reference to the same issue, St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) writes, “To… a spiritual man, after conception, his wife is as a sister and is treated as if of the same father” (ANF 2.503). Two activities recommended by some NFP teachers are having sex during menstruation and during pregnancy, both of which the earliest extant Church canons, the Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390), specifically condemn:
When the menstrual purgations appear in the wives, their husbands should not approach them, out of regard to the children to be begotten. For the Law has forbidden it when it says: “You will not come near your wife when she is in her separation” [Lev. 18:19]. Nor, indeed, let them have relations when their wives are with child. For [in that case] they are not doing it for the begetting of children, but only for the sake of pleasure. Now a lover of God should not be a lover of pleasure (ANF 7.463).
It is interesting to note here that the two reasons for having sex acknowledged by the Apostolic Constitutions are procreation and pleasure, as opposed to contemporary Catholic theology, which generally recognizes unification and procreation as the two purposes of loving marital sex. There is no mention at all here of the expression of marital love as a purpose for sex. St. Augustine (c. 388) also understands sex in this manner. He offers a fairly accurate description of what we would now call NFP in his opposition to calculating and limiting sex to the infertile periods of a woman’s cycle, which was apparently a practice promoted by the Manichæans. He writes,
Is it not you [the Manichæans] who used to counsel us to observe as much as possible the time when a woman, after her purification, is most likely to conceive, and to abstain from cohabitation at that time…? This proves that you approve of having a wife, not for the procreation of children, but for the gratification of passion (NPNF 1.4.86).
Augustine here understands sex as done for pleasure only - “the gratification of passion” - if it is not done for procreation. This is typical of some of the fathers. He offers no mention of love or unification as aspects of the sexual embrace. Again, this is typical. For him, the pleasure of sex is tolerable only because of the good end of making babies. If that end is not present, sexual pleasure is reprehensible and he seems not to recognize the possibility of having sex with one’s spouse as an expression of love. The Church’s teaching about sex has evolved and, I believe, deepened.

Periodic and total abstinence

5) Having acknowledged that the practice of periodic abstinence (NFP) to avoid conception does not square with patristic teaching, how are we to understand the Church’s current promotion and acceptance of the practice? In 1968, a Catholic commission examining married life and birth regulation awaited the publication of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. Speculations ran wild. Catholics of a traditional mind knew that the Pope could not contradict the teaching of the Church. Catholics of a progressive mind hoped for a sweeping reform of Catholic sexual ethics. This is what they received. So outraged were some that artificial contraception was not permitted that they failed to observe that this document does indeed represent a development of the Church’s doctrine about sex. What Paul VI approved, which we now call NFP, was specifically condemned by early Church teaching. Regarding NFP, Paul VI writes,
 Pope Paul VI in 1977
"If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births…, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles" (HV 16).
Furthermore, his acceptance of such a method is based in part on his new emphasis on the goodness of marital sex as a means of unification and an expression of love, which was not often recognized in the early Church with its overemphasis on ascetic renunciation of pleasure for the sake of freedom from the passions. Such renunciation is laudable provided that it is freely undertaken and provided that it is not done in the spirit of condemning those who enjoy certain pleasures in this life. In recognizing the goodness of marital sex as a pleasurable expression of love, the Church has recovered the scriptural understanding of sex as having good ends other than procreation.

If the Church now acknowledges these good ends, why does she persist in forbidding artificial contraception? NFP is permissible while artificial contraception is not because NFP does nothing against the created nature of sex. Artificial contraception, regarded by its users as a form of health care, treats human fertility as one would disease, illness, or injury whereas NFP acknowledges the basic goodness of the created human physiology with all of its natural functions unimpeded. If contraception were health care, that would mean that natural human fertility would be an unhealthy state. NFP leaves intact and unaltered the healthy functioning of the human body whereas contraception attempts to interfere with natural and healthy human fertility. Periodic infertility is a healthy part of created human nature.

6) The most effective method of birth control – total continence – has never received criticism from the Church. All those in an unmarried state are morally obligated to practice total continence (CCC 2349). Furthermore, the Church has always acknowledged that some are called to perpetual continence in celibacy – which is recommended by Paul and exemplified by Jesus himself (1 Cor 7:8, 27, 38). Even within marriage, indefinite periods of continence are permissible – for prayer, as Paul writes (1 Cor 7:5). The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph, of course, were perpetually continent within marriage. Other married saints in the history of the Church have decided, after having had children, to live the rest of their lives in continence.

The ends

Having discussed the morality of various means of birth control, now it is necessary to discuss which reasons for limiting births are morally legitimate. Paul VI identifies “physical, economic, psychological and social conditions,” as in need of attention by spouses who would become responsible, prudent, and generous parents. The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC) clarifies, that in weighing these issues,
The judgment concerning the interval of time between births, and that regarding the number of children, belongs to the spouses alone. This is one of their inalienable rights, to be exercised before God with due consideration of their obligations towards themselves, their children already born, the family and society (234).
Spouses are not to make this decision on this issue on whims or personal preferences, but according to “objective criteria” (GS 51.3). The question of what particular quantity or frequency of births is both responsible and generous is, however, particular to circumstances and so spouses must consider this prayerfully and under the guidance of their spiritual fathers or mothers.

Eastern Christian perspectives

While in most issues Eastern Orthodox theologians pride themselves on their consistency with the patristic witness, current disregard of patristic teaching against most forms of birth control is at least as widespread among Orthodox as among Catholic theologians. Some, if not most, of the Orthodox do permit most forms of contraception, so long as the motives are not selfish and the marriage as a whole includes the desire for children.

Paul Evdokimov holding a cat.
Eastern Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov presents an argument in favor of contraception in his work on marriage, The Sacrament of Love. His support for birth control in general is based on the point that love, and not procreation alone, is the primary reason for sex. Catholic teaching would agree with him, I think, up to this point. He rightly writes, “All reduction of Eros to procreation lowers it to the animal level,” and, “Love includes procreation, but the latter neither defines it nor in any way depletes it” (178). Since there is more to sex than making babies, it is morally licit, at times, for a married couple to have sex without directly intending the conception of children. At times “the intention of limiting birth is right” (178).

In discussing the moral means of controlling birth, however, Evdokimov sees an equivalency between what Catholics call NFP and forms of contraception. Of methods similar to NFP, he writes, “The act that becomes ‘safe’ by means of a computation of days or a by a mastery of the will is in every instance not natural, unless one plays with words” (177). He refers to methods similar to NFP as “mental contraceptives” and states, “The problem is not one of methods, but of the spirit with which one employs the methods” (177-178).

Interestingly, this is in agreement with one aspect of patristic teaching. The fathers oppose having sex without intending conception, regardless of the means used to avoid it. For them, it is not about means, but intentions. If we now say that it is morally permissible to have sex without directly intending conception, why should we introduce a distinction between means that the fathers would not have recognized? Augustine directly opposed what we now call NFP because he consistently opposed sex without the direct intention of procreation. If we now permit the use of NFP, why should we not accept other means of limiting birth while still having sex? These are questions Evdokimov raises, which challenge a Catholic reader. I believe the Catholic teaching given in a previous post has good answers to these questions, but they are coming from a different premise. While the Catholic teaching has maintained a prohibition of contraception and behavioral methods of birth control that the fathers would have approved of, the Orthodox teaching has maintained a patristic understanding of the equivalency of means. The contemporary teachings of neither the Catholic Church nor the Orthodox Church represent the patristic teaching on this issue. I doubt there are many Christians of any kind who believe and live as the fathers taught on this issue. Teaching about birth control has clearly developed in the Church over time.

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his study
Not all of the Eastern Orthodox accept Evdokimov’s view. There are some few Eastern Orthodox opponents of contraception. For example, Bishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion Alfeyev of the Russian Orthodox Church, in his Statement to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, on 13 February 2008, mentioned contraception among a list of evils such as abortion and euthanasia. Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, an archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, has made unambiguous statements against contraception (see video above). There are others opposed to it as well, but they seem to be in the minority.

More prevalent is the perspective expressed in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) document, Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life. It agrees with Catholic teaching, up to a point, when it states,
"The procreation of children is not in itself the sole purpose of marriage, but a marriage without the desire for children, and the prayer to God to bear and nurture them, is contrary to the 'sacrament of love'" (Orthodox Marriage Service; St. John Chrysostom, On Ephesians, Homily 20).

However, the teachings diverge when it comes to the issue of which means are morally appropriate for the responsible regulation of births. The document states, “Only those means of controlling conception within marriage are acceptable which do not harm a fetus already conceived.” On face value, this statement would appear to permit abstinence – periodic or total, behavioral methods, most forms of contraception – including some kinds of abortifacients, and sterilization. It would appear to forbid only direct abortion. However, I do not think that this is its intention. Elsewhere the document states, “Sexual love in marriage is to be chaste and pure, devoid of lewdness, lechery, violence, and self-gratification.” This may well be taken to exclude at least some behavioral methods of birth control and sterilization – which is a kind of violence to the body. However, this is an interpretation, and the document does not clearly prohibit these practices. The document’s use of the term “fetus,” which is usually understood as a person about eight weeks after conception, combined with its failure to identify conception as the beginning of human life brings into question whether or not it intends to forbid abortifacients along with other kinds of abortion. Concerning abortion, the document states,
Orthodox Christians have always viewed the willful abortion of unborn children as a heinous act of evil. The Church’s canonical tradition identifies any action intended to destroy a fetus as the crime of murder (Ancyra, Canon 21; Trullo, Canon 91; St. Basil, Canon 2).
Again, the persons protected by this statement are described as “fetuses.” If the OCA also morally opposes the willful destruction of embryos and zygotes, as I suspect it does, greater clarity on this teaching would be helpful.

The Russian Orthodox document, Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church, presents a clearer total opposition to abortifacients: “Some contraceptives have an abortive effect, interrupting artificially the life of the embryo on the very first stages of his life. Therefore, the same judgments are applicable to the use of them as to abortion” (XII. 3). This seems to be a more complete expression of the Orthodox teaching on this matter.

Regarding non-abortifacient types of contraception, this Russian Orthodox document agrees with the OCA document that they are permissible and “cannot be equated with abortion in the least” (XII. 3). However, it uses stronger language in support of the essential relationship between marriage and procreation and it particularly recommends periodic abstinence as a means of birth control.

This document further emphasizes an important aspect of moral behavior in this area of life, perhaps neglected by official Catholic teaching: “Clearly, spouses should make such decisions mutually on the counsel of their spiritual father” (XII. 3). Spiritual direction has an essential role to play in the application of objective moral standards regarding birth control to the myriad subjective situations in which spouses find themselves. It is spiritually and morally unhealthy to “go it alone” on such important moral issues and it is necessary to seek personal spiritual guidance from the pastors of the Church. While the CSDC may be right that only the spouses themselves can ultimately make decisions about the proper use of birth control in their particular situation, the Eastern tradition is also right to point out the essential relationship spouses must maintain with the Church community in every aspect of their lives, even the most intimate. If our communion with the Church is not with us at all times, even in our bedrooms, then we are not truly in communion with the Church.

While there is much information from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic perspectives on this subject, there is none, that I have been able to find, from a specifically Eastern Catholic perspective. On an issue like this, where there is such significant disagreement between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, this is a problem. Many times in my experience, the Byzantine Catholic faithful do not know who to listen to on this issue. In my opinion, the pastors of the Byzantine Catholic faithful owe it to those faithful to be conversant in both viewpoints on this issue, while also needing to defend the Catholic teaching faithfully.


There are a few teachings about birth control consistently maintained by the fathers of the Church, the contemporary Catholic Church, and the contemporary Eastern Orthodox Church: 1) Procreation is a good and essential purpose of married life. 2) There are times for avoiding conception. 3) Abortion by any means is an immoral method of birth control. For the fathers of the Church, the only moral means of birth control is total abstinence. Current Catholic teaching would also permit periodic abstinence. The Orthodox are less clear, but, in addition to periodic abstinence and total abstinence, they would overwhelmingly also permit non-abortifacient contraception.

1) Those who would enter into Christian marriage must never do so with an attitude completely closed to having children nor indeed without the hope of having children. Without some desire for children in a marriage, there is arguably no reason to marry. Loving each other is enough, but marital love necessarily includes the desire for children.

2) Every month in the life of a marriage between the physically healthy and sufficiently young presents an opportunity for conceiving a child, if one has not already been conceived. The couple, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and their spiritual fathers or mothers, must prayerfully and reasonably discern whether they are called to seek the fulfillment of that opportunity each time it is given. In making this determination according to the dictates of their consciences, they must seek to live in the balance between generosity and responsibility.
One recognized method of avoiding conception for
the unmarried is to wear standard issue BCGs. 

While the married should sometimes avoid conception, the unmarried should always avoid conception. The moral teaching of the Church has always required the unmarried and the celibate to practice the most effective form of birth control - complete continence.

3) No one should ever resort to an abortion regardless of the difficulty of the situation, whether they are married or unmarried, whether they are rich or poor. If a conception has taken place, the question about whether or not it was God’s will to conceive a child has already been answered. God creates no children that he does not love and want to live. It is therefore the couple’s moral responsibility, after conception has taken place, to love and provide for the newly conceived person even as Christ has first loved them.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Prayer

Two blind men follow Jesus, “crying aloud, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David’” (Matt 9:27). And later they call him “Lord” (9:28). And Jesus opens their eyes. This is one of the scriptural roots of the Jesus Prayer.

Even those of us who can see with the eyes of the body are often spiritually blind. We do not know where we are going in life. We cannot see where God is in all of this. Note that the blind men were blind in body but that they could nonetheless follow Jesus from one place to another (Matt 9:27-28). Following Jesus set them on the right course. First, they followed. Then they could see. It is the same with us. If first we will follow Jesus (even for our whole earthly lives), then we will spiritually see.

Our vision of God’s presence in our lives will be 20/20 if we first live faithfully and then look back upon it. Perhaps we cannot always see where God is in our lives right now, but we know by faith that he is present and, if we follow him, he will give us eyes to see that he was with us all along. I have experienced this already in my own life. Most of the time, I know where God intends me to go only after I get there, like a blind man following him through the streets of the city.

But how can I begin or continue to follow Jesus if I am blind and do not see where he is? It would help then to call out to him, like the blind men do. I promise, it will help us just to call out his holy name – the name of Jesus. Let us pray the Jesus prayer:

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

Can you hear how this is like the prayer of the blind men? “Have mercy on us, Son of David,” they pray. This is, as I say, one of the scriptural roots of the Jesus Prayer. There are also others:
  • Another blind man sits outside of Jericho and similarly calls out to Jesus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:38; cf Matt 20:30–31).
  • The publican (unlike the Pharisee in Jesus' parable) shows us how to pray when he bows his head, beats his breast, and says, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner” (Luke 18:13).
  • In a village between Samaria and Galilee, ten lepers stand at a distance, lift up their voices and say, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Luke 17:13).
From these examples, I think we can see that the prayer of Jesus has been with us from the very beginning of Christianity. From these scriptural roots, the prayer developed further.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt would frequently repeat short and simple prayers like these – “arrow prayers” we sometimes call them because, as St. Augustine observed, “the brethren of Egypt offer prayers that are frequent but very brief and suddenly shot forth” – rather like arrows meant to pierce heaven.

Of these short prayers, St. Diadochus recommends we constantly repeat the utterly simple prayer, “Lord Jesus.” The frequent repetition of the divine name of Jesus serves as a constant reminder of his divine presence with us and helps us fulfill St. Paul’s instruction that we pray unceasingly (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

We are beset constantly by distracting thoughts and temptations, which threaten to remove remembrance of God from our minds and hearts. A short and simple prayer like this, that can be called upon at any moment and for any need, is a powerful tool against these thoughts and temptations. The prayer must be as constant as are the thoughts. It must be unceasing.

There are many ways to approach unceasing prayer. The Jesus Prayer is not the only way, but it is a great help and it may be the best way.

A benefit of constantly repeating this prayer is that it then enters into the unconsciousness and you begin to find it there behind the noise of life. It joins with your breathing and the beating of your heart – the rhythms of life itself – and helps us in this way to approach unceasing prayer and the constant remembrance of the presence of God.

Pray it at home and in church and in your car. Pray it a few times first thing in the morning and throughout the day as often as you can think of it and again before you go to bed. Pray the prayer while you do the dishes or the laundry. It was a great aid to my wife Pani Katie while she was in labor. There is no time when it is not a good time to pray the Jesus prayer.

Sit quietly and pray it slowly again and again for 5 minutes or for thirty minutes. Use a chotki or don’t use a chotki. A chotki can be a helpful aid – a physical reminder to persist with the prayer when we become distracted by intrusive thoughts and imaginings. If you don’t have a chotki, get one. Some have 33 knots - one for each year of Jesus’ earthly life, others have 100 , or others 300. On each knot, you pray the Jesus Prayer. Simple.

There’s more than one way to say the Jesus Prayer. The formula of the Jesus prayer as we know it now –

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

– is good and was pretty well set already by the seventh century, but this is not to bind us and it’s not the only way. There’s no need to change it – all its elements are already there in the scriptural roots of the prayer, which I listed – but at the same time we may find other ways helpful.

We may want to pray as simply as St. Diadochus recommends: “Lord Jesus.” The holy name of Jesus itself is a saving cry.  It means “the Lord saves” or “the Lord is a cry for salvation”. Or, you can add to it, as do some of the nuns at our Christ the Bridegroom Monastery, saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” Or, we can simplify it a bit and pray “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” as do many of the monks on Mount Athos. Or, we may wish to pray for others as well as ourselves and so pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us” – in the plural. (In this case, I personally recommend that we omit the word “sinners” because, while we accuse ourselves of sin, I find it better not to accuse others of sin while we pray). All this is to say that there are many good ways of praying the Jesus prayer. Pray it whichever way you will pray it. The important thing is to pray it.

The Jesus Prayer is the central private prayer of our spiritual tradition. So much so that some simply call it “the prayer.” It is profound, versatile, and life-changing. This is due above all to the holy name of Jesus, which is the name above every other name (Philippians 2:9). St. Theophan the Recluse says “The Jesus Prayer is like any other prayer. It is stronger than all other prayers only in virtue of the all-powerful name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.” In his name and by his name, we find salvation. “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Much information was provided by Kallistos Ware, “Foreword,” in On the Prayer of Jesus (Boston, Mass.: New Seeds, 2006)

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Fasting for Vocations

We are now in the midst of the Apostles Fast. Several years ago, when my sister was first learning about the Byzantine tradition – we didn’t grow up in this tradition, you see – she asked me what this fast is all about and, because I didn’t really know, I said, “Well, we’re Byzantine and Byzantines love to fast. You might as well ask why we’re not fasting at any given time as why we are fasting.”
And that really is true. Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, in his excellent article titled “Fasting for Non-Monastics,” which I recommend you all read, estimates that there are approximately 250 fasting days each year in our calendar. That’s more than half the year! Now, this varies depending on how you interpret the Typikon (I count closer to 190 days) and it varies quite a bit from year to year – mainly because of this fast – the Apostles Fast – which is a different length each year. It can be anywhere from two to six weeks in length. But my answer to my sister – that we fast because we love to fast and because it is good to fast – is really insufficient, I think, even if it is true. I mean, I want there to be something that makes this fast distinctly meaningful. And I believe there can be.
Historically, I am told, this fast developed to give those who were unable to fast during the Great Fast for various reasons – such as pregnancy or illness – an opportunity to fast. It’s sort of like summer school – a chance to catch up with those who may have gotten ahead of us last semester. But I also find this to be an insufficient reason for us all to continue observing this fast year after year – even those of us who did keep the Great Fast.
We call this the Apostles Fast simply because we fast until the great feast of the Holy and Preeminent Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29th. However, perhaps it is also meaningful that the first Sunday of this Apostles Fast, which is always the Second Sunday after Pentecost, we always read about the calling of the first apostles: Simon, who would become Peter, and Andrew, his brother, and then James and John, the sons of Zebedee. This fast, it would seem, from its movable beginning until its fixed end, is apostolic in its liturgical focus. And, indeed, we have much to learn from the apostles about ascetic practices like fasting and their role in our vocations.

Calling of Peter and Andrew
by Duccio di Buoninsegna
between 1308 and 1311
tempera on wood

Today, Andrew and Peter and James and John show us how to respond to vocation: immediately they leave behind everything they have – those fishing nets and boats were their livelihood – and they follow Jesus (Matt 4:20, 22). This is a pure ascetic act – an act of self-denial.
One thing that fasting can help teach us is detachment from the things of this world. Let us not be enslaved to a small sack of flesh[i] in our bellies. Then perhaps we will not even be enslaved to our employers, for example, or to any power in this world, even if it is our livelihood, but we will be free and ready to respond to the call of Jesus Christ in our lives when we hear it. If we train in this way (which is what the word askesis originally meant – training or exercise) during this Apostles Fast, we will be more ready, like the first apostles, to respond immediately, to immediately walk away from whatever worldly attachments we have accrued, and to follow our Lord wherever he goes, even to the cross, through which is everlasting life.
Peter immediately leaves everything to follow Jesus, but he did not always follow through. Just before Jesus was to be delivered up to death, Peter said that he would follow Jesus, even to death. “I will lay down my life for you,” he says to Jesus (John 13:37). These are good words, but when death is truly imminent, when Jesus is arrested and suffers imprisonment, lies, interrogation, spit, and beatings, Peter reveals his weakness – a weakness many of us share. His earlier words were only so much bravado and three times he denied even knowing Christ, let alone being his disciple and apostle.
This is not Peter’s finest hour. But it is an hour that many of us can relate to. Sad to say, I’ve heard lies come out of my own mouth before – merely to avoid an awkward situation regarding trivialities, let alone to avoid torture and death. Lord, have mercy on me the sinner. Perhaps the lies of my mouth have not been so weighty as Peter’s lie about not knowing Jesus, but what we practice in small things become the habits that inform our large decisions and responses. So, again, it is important to fast so that we are well-trained not to give in to our every impulse, but to watch carefully and discern in our hearts whether they are from the Lord or our passions or the demons.
After Peter’s denial will come his repentance and in this he is once again a good model for us during the Apostles Fast, which is a season of repentance. After his denial of Christ, Peter hears the rooster crow and he remembers that the Lord predicted his denial before the crowing and then he weeps bitterly (Matt 26; Luke 22). In the Greek prayer of absolution after the confession of sins, the priest recalls, “The Lord forgave Peter his denial when he wept bitterly.” Repentance and confession of our sins during this Apostles Fast and each of the four fasts is an essential part of our tradition and it is an essential part of our vocations, inasmuch as each of us are sinners and at times fail to follow the Lord wherever he goes.
We do all have a vocation, each and every one of us is called by the Lord, just as Peter and Andrew and James and John are called by the Lord today. We are not all called to be apostles, of course, but we are all called by Christ to a life in Christ. It will take its own shape as he intends for us and as is best for us. Whatever shape our vocation takes, the fasting, prayer, and repentance that we emphasize during this Apostles Fast are necessary tools for walking the narrow way he calls us to.
The word “vocations” is often bandied about, misused, and over-specialized. When people talk about vocations – we need to pray for vocations, they say, or, the Church is suffering from a vocations crisis, you will sometimes hear – they are often actually talking only about vocations to the priesthood.
Sadly, the vocations crisis extends well behind the priesthood. There should be more deacons than there are priests, if you ask me, and the opposite is the case. There’s a long-lasting crisis in the vocation to the diaconate. I’ve only been a priest for a few years, but it is still disturbing that in this time I have celebrated only one baptism and only one crowning in marriage. There is a crisis in the vocation to marriage and even to the life in Christ.
It’s an error to say that there is a shortage of vocations. That would imply that God is not calling – that God is not doing his job, not holding up his end of the deal and, frankly, I find that a blasphemous suggestion. God is calling to the priesthood, to the diaconate, to the monastic life, to marriage, but we are not responding. We are not answering God’s call. We are not immediately leaving behind our nets – our earthly toils and vain anxieties – and following him wherever he goes.
One reason so many of us are ignoring the call of the Lord is that we have failed to train to be at the ready to respond to his call by a life a prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance. We’re not taking this seriously, when in fact there is nothing more important. Our priorities are out of whack. We seek immediate comfort rather than everlasting life. Let us take this Apostles Fast as an opportunity to reverse these tendencies in our lives.
Our Lord is saying to us all, “Come, follow me.” Let us train and ready ourselves like soldiers at attention to respond to that call.

[i] “If you cannot be in control of your stomach, if this simple sack of flesh is the ruler your life, how can you hope to be in control of more complex physiology, or your mind, or your soul?!” (Sveshnikov)

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Unknown Saints

When I was an art student in college, I was particularly fascinated by medieval art and iconography. And I spent a lot of time poring over books of medieval art. The art of this time, in my opinion, expresses the spiritual reality more effectively than what would come later beginning in the Renaissance, which, with its classicism and humanism began to exalt the merely human over the divine. That’s a controversial opinion in the western world, which tends to look more favorably upon the works of Michelangelo and Da Vinci then it does upon the unknown artisans of the centuries before them.
Right there is highlighted a cultural difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the most part, the artisans of the Middle Ages are, as I say, unknown. It is in the Renaissance that the personality of the artist becomes exalted above the subject they are portraying in their art. When art historians are commenting on David or the Mona Lisa, they often have a lot more to say about Michelangelo and DA Vinci than they do about David or the Mona Lisa. The anonymity of most artists before this makes that kind of analysis impossible.
To this very day, iconography is traditionally left unsigned. Though, that tradition is unfortunately beginning to wane. The humility before the subject we portray is an act of veneration. How can I paint an icon of the Theotokos – and then sign my name to it? As if to call attention to myself rather than to my subject who is, in this case, “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim”?
And so, perhaps understanding this, (though I am well aware of other economic and cultural forces at play, including the higher value given to the patron then to the artisan at the time), the artists and iconographers usually remained anonymous in the Middle Ages.
The anonymous iconographer is not concerned with exalting himself, but with exalting Christ; with acknowledging Christ before all; with loving Christ even more than himself (cf. Matt 10:32, 37). I think, if we are to become saints, which is what our Lord calls us to and makes us for, we can learn something from this idea of the anonymous iconographer. That is, we can focus our efforts not on calling attention to our own good work, but, by our good work, we can call attention to Christ – with both words and deeds. And we can focus on him rather than on ourselves. In fact, we will find our true selves in Christ. If we acknowledge him before all others, he will acknowledge us before his Father, he assures us today (Matt 10:32).
Preferring to acknowledge Christ rather than themselves, the medieval iconographers were intentionally anonymous, but another kind of anonymity also soon captivated me as I pored over those medieval art books. Medieval art is, as you know, very old. As a result, a lot of it is in significantly damaged condition. And a lot of it is decontextualized from having been moved around through various collections and its provenance is lost. For these reasons, and simply due to centuries of forgetting, sometime not only the artist, but also the subject is unknown. And so, quite often, one finds in books of medieval art a beautiful picture filled with images of saints. They’re clearly saints, being haloed figures in a medieval Christian artwork, but it is no longer clear who they are, specifically, if it ever was. Very often, in the description of the image, it will read something like, “Christ with the Virgin and John the Baptist and four unknown Saints.” Or, even just, “unknown saint.”
An Archangel and Three Unknown Saints
I love these figures. Often on the periphery of a scene filled with greater and better-known figures, they are saints too, but they are unknown saints. Personally, these unknown saints have become for me representative of all the saints we do not know by name. The saints who lived and worked and died for Christ in obscurity, which, I believe, is most saints. And today, we venerate them all.
I love to commemorate all the saints in a general way, as we do on this final Sunday of the Pentecostarion, the Sunday of All Saints, because it gives us the opportunity to remember in some way even the unremembered holy ones. Every day of the year, the Church lifts up a long list of saints we do know by name. These holy men and women are presented to us as inspiring examples of life in Christ worthy of our imitation. Yet, at the same time, it seems to me that most Catholic and Orthodox Christians I know hold in their hearts a saint they knew personally – often a member of their own family – who is perhaps not likely to be raised to the altars of the Church for public veneration. Most saints, it seems to me, are unsung, except on this day, on which we “celebrate a solemn feast of all those who from the ages have found grace before God.”
The unknown saints should encourage us in our own vocation, which is our own path to holiness and union with God. Because, like them, most of us are not prominent or famous or likely to be. Most of us will not be glorified in the churches with our own feast days or any such thing. Does this mean that we are not saints? Or that we are not called to sanctity? God forbid that we should fail to understand that we are created for holiness and union with God. And that this is attainable to us by his grace. I dare say that fame and prominence actually diminish our prospects of sanctity. Our relative obscurity is an opportunity to grow in humility. Of course, obscurity alone will not make us holy, but it is a helpful gift and not an impediment.
We are known to God. And there are no saints unknown to God. He knows them all. And to be known by God is all that matters. It is of no significance whether or not we are remembered by the world. To be remembered by God is to be remembered eternally and to live forever in him. Thus we pray for all those who have died in Christ, that the Lord God remember them forever. And for them we sing, “eternal memory.” This is nothing less than a prayer that God make them saints. Perhaps we don’t know what a saint is. A saint is holy person, made holy by grace, and eternally alive in Christ
How then can we access this grace and become holy and live forever? I can think of no greater grace than to be acknowledged by Jesus Christ before his Father. And he tells us today that, if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. Evangelization, then, is mandatory for our salvation, then. It can take many forms, but it must take some form in our lives if we are to be acknowledged before the father.
But what if we have denied him? All of us who are sinners have denied him in some sense. He says that if we have denied him before others, he will deny us before his Father. Those are sharp words we need to hear. But if you have denied Christ, do not despair. “He forgave Peter his denial when he wept bitterly.” The Lord is kind and merciful and eager to forgive those who repent.
Beginning this evening, this repentance of Peter is our model of repentance. Tonight, we begin the Apostles Fast in preparation for the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th. It has come to my attention that some of us do not even know about this fast. This is one of four seasons of repentance in our Church and it is not to be neglected by us. Our Church imposes no mandatory means of observing this fast, but neither does it permit us to ignore it. It is given to us as a season of repentance, which we all sorely need in our lives. Repentance is a way of life and not a momentary act.
Let us take this opportunity to increase in our lives the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. To do no fasting at all during this season is unacceptable. Neither is it acceptable to fast perfectly while continuing in our sins. St. Ambrose of Optina instructs us, “People have to answer greatly for not keeping… the fasts…. They repent and consider themselves sinners in every other respect, but they do not think to repent about not keeping the fasts.”
Meanwhile, St. Basil the Great observes,
Beware of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meats. Real fasting is alienation from evil. ‘Loose the bands of wickedness.’ Forgive your neighbor the mischief he has done you. Forgive him his trespasses against you…. You do not devour flesh, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but you indulge in outrages. You wait for evening before you take food, but you spend the day in the law courts. Woe to those who are ‘drunken, but not with wine.’ Anger is the intoxication of the soul, and makes it out of its wits like wine.
Take heart. We all have much work to do, and this is an opportunity for us to do it together as a Church helping one another to grow in holiness and become saints, known to God alone perhaps, but saints nonetheless.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Prayer in the Temple

The recent confluence of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Great Feast of the Meeting of our Lord Jesus Christ with Simeon and Anna is rare. (I think it’s even cooler than the fact that it fell on the date of 02/02/2020, which is a palindrome to boot!) In any case, it struck me as an unusual and difficult challenge to try to say something about both of these very different themes. That is, until I read the gospels (Luke 18:10-14 & Luke 2:22-40). The gospels have a way of bringing everything together.
File:050 Presentation of Jesus at the Temple Icon from Saint Paraskevi Church in Langadas.jpg
Jesus begins his parable saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray” (Luke 18:10).
And Simeon, “inspired by the Spirit…, came into the temple” and there, when he met Jesus, he “blessed God” and prayed to the Lord (Luke 2:27-29).
And the prophetess Anna, “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37).
You see the theme here? Here are four examples of prayer in the temple – three with something to teach us of how to pray in the temple and one with something to teach us of how not to.
But first of all, a question: What does praying in the temple have to do with us? Do we pray in the temple? Remember, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23). Now, the temple is in Jerusalem, so to say that we’re no longer to worship the Father in Jerusalem but in the Spirit is to move our prayer away from the Jerusalem temple, isn’t it? So what does praying in the temple have to do with us?
It’s true that we no longer limit our spiritual sacrifice either to the place of the mountain, as the Samaritans do, or to the temple in Jerusalem, as the Jews did. But still we do go up to the temple to pray in the Spirit. Because the Word became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, our bodies have become the temples of the Holy Spirit and the place that we worship God (John 1; 1 Cor 6:19). So, yes, we still go up to the temple to pray and, yes, we have much to learn about it from the gospels.
Now, the embodied temple is always with us, making possible the unceasing prayer to which we are called and which is modeled also for us especially by the prophetess Anna (1 Thess 5:17).  She “did not depart from the temple” (Luke 2:37). Now, all who are in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit never depart from the temple of our bodies. We are like Anna in this. Let us also be like her “with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37). Let us also imitate her devotion in coming to the place of prayer. She was always in the temple, let us come constantly to church.
The church, understand, is the gathering of God’s people together in worship of him. Gone is the place of the Jerusalem temple as the exclusive or preeminent place for that worship and prayer, but not gone is the gathering of the people of God. Where two or three of us gather in Jesus’ name, there he is in our midst! Contrariwise, if we do not gather in his name, he will not be in our midst. If we do not come often to the church, like Simeon and Anna went often to the temple, we will not be here to meet Jesus.
It was probably not a Sabbath when Simeon and Anna came to the temple that day. Simeon came to the temple that day not because it was his habitual time to come, but because he was inspired to do so by the Spirit (Luke 2:27). Let us like Simeon listen to the Spirit’s inspiration to come and gather and pray to the Lord here with our fellow believers, even if it’s not a Sunday or a holy day of so-called “obligation.” Come because the Spirit moves you to - which is not the same thing as coming when you feel like, but it’s also not the same things as coming because you think you have to. Come in the freedom of the Spirit. When you come in the Spirit, like Simeon, you will meet the Lord Jesus here and bless God his Father.
Come constantly like Anna. Because she was constantly in the temple, she was there to meet the Lord when he came. Let’s take advantage of any free time we have and offer that time to the Lord in prayer – more time to Lord and less to the endless distractions our culture has on offer. I’m preaching here also to myself. When you retire, or if you have already retired from a full-time schedule of work, consider whether some greater offering of your time belongs to the Lord. The truth is, it all belongs to the Lord. Anna understands this and so went constantly to the temple, not only on the Sabbath and Holy Days.
The Spirit descends upon us in our parish churches even on weekdays, you know. And that Spirit makes present to us the very Lord God Jesus Christ there even when it’s an ordinary day. Even when there really are only two or three of us. Even when all we do is gather in his name to pray. We don’t need to limit our participation to those days highlighted on our calendars. Are we more motivated to go to church by the colorful shading of the calendar date on our wall calendars from the Byzantine Seminary Press than we are by the presence there of Jesus Christ our God? Jesus is there waiting for us every day. Don’t you yearn to be there with him? Doesn’t your heart ache to return when you must stay away? Let’s stir up the fervor in our hearts by prayer and fasting night and day, like Anna.
Whenever we do go up to the temple to pray, spiritually speaking, whether it is in the church or alone in our prayer corners, let us do so with humility like the publican, and without judging others in any way. The publican can teach us how to pray: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Notice something else about the publican’s prayer: he does not mention the Pharisee at all. The Pharisee mentions the publican – saying, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this publican.” But the publican makes no comparison at all – not even in an inverse way. He does not say, “O Lord, this Pharisee is so much holier that I am,” or any such thing. Even that is a judgment we are not fit to make. The publican does not compare himself at all. Comparison to others may not be the best way, when it is time to pray. The publican says only and simply, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Humbling yourself is not the same thing as tearing yourself down or beating yourself up or demeaning yourself. Those things are an insult to the God who made you and made you his good image. Humility, rather, is truth. A recognition in the presence of the Lord of what we really are – his children made in his image – and what we have done. We are sinners, it is true – all of us – and if we acknowledge this in our prayer, crying out to God for mercy, he will justify us, as a father who longs to reunite with his child.
When we go up to pray in the temple, therefore, let our prayer be humble like the publican’s, constant like Anna’s, and filled with the Spirit like Simeon’s. In this way, we will encounter the Lord Jesus in our prayer and give thanks and praise to God his Father.

Sunday, January 26, 2020


It appears to Zacchaeus and to us that he is searching strenuously to see Jesus. The crowd gets in his way so he runs on ahead and climbs up a tree so that he will be able to see him. He’s doing some real work to accomplish this goal. But, in the end, Jesus tells us that it is he who is searching for Zacchaeus. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” he says. Zacchaeus seeks to see Jesus, but at the time and more importantly Jesus seeks to save Zacchaeus.
Orthodox icon showing Zacchaeus in the sycamore,
behind, the tree is believed to be the ancient sycamore of Zacchaeus.
Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Prophet Elisha,
Jericho, Palestine.
While we are looking for the Lord in our lives, it is good to remember that he is the one looking for us. He has been looking for us ever since we hid from him in the garden because of our shame over our sin. Then he went looking for Adam and called out to him, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). He is calling out to us still today – searching for us among the trees.
Some of us, like Zacchaeus, are looking for the Lord, but some of us, like Adam, are hiding from him. Some of us are climbing our trees to get a better look while some of us are hiding among the trees (Gen 3:8).
The Venerable Bede connects the tree Zacchaeus climbs to that of the Cross. Some of us embrace that cross while some of us shun it.
But notice that whether we make ourselves conspicuous like Zacchaeus or hide like Adam, one thing remains the same: The Lord finds us. He finds Adam who is hiding as easily as he finds Zacchaeus in the tree. The Lord is seeking for us and the Lord is the one who finds what he’s looking for. He comes to seek and save the lost and we can count on him to accomplish his purposes. Still, it will be better for us if, when he finds us, he finds us also searching for him. Things went better for Zacchaeus that day than they did for Adam, as you might recall.
While we’re working to find the Lord in our lives, it can seem to us that we’re all alone – that he isn’t with us, or searching for us, but that we’ve been abandoned. Even Jesus, who is God, knows what it is to feel forsaken by God as he hangs upon a tree seeking the will of his Father. So, if we, like Zacchaeus, are looking for the Lord, have embraced our cross, and climbed our tree and now we feel forsaken and that it was all for naught (there is no darker or more painful feeling) we may rely on the hope that the Lord has gone even into that desolation and is there with us in it. He is with us even when it doesn’t feel like it – and not only passively, but is actively seeking us with an infinitely greater fervor than that with which we seek him. The truth of it is not how it appears to us, but is how the Lord knows it to be.
It appears to the crowd and us that Zacchaeus is a great sinner. And maybe he is. The tax collectors of that time and place grew rich by taking more than was owed. By dishonesty. Zacchaeus was both a chief tax collector and rich. So you do the math I guess.
Still, who is the judge of other men’s sins? The crowd murmurs about the sins of Zacchaeus when the Lord goes to stay with him. Did they forget their own sins while the Lord was walking among them? Were they not in awe that he would stoop to associate with them in their sins? Do we forget our own sins when other’s sins come to light? “Lord, help me to remember my own sins, and not judge my brother and sister.”
In any case, our judgments are worthless. We do not see things as they really are. We see only appearances. It appears to us that we and Zacchaeus are searching for the Lord, when really it is the Lord who is searching for us. It appears to us that Zacchaeus and others are great sinners, while our own sins are paltry. But the truth is that Zacchaeus is penitent while the crowd (and maybe some of us) are oblivious to our own need to repent. Meanwhile impenitence, as long as it lasts, it is the unforgivable sin. If our impenitence were to last forever, so would our estrangement from the God we claim to seek.
Listen to Zacchaeus: “Behold, Lord, half my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” He repents and makes restitution. One of the fathers calculates that after Zacchaeus gives away half his goods and then restores any dishonestly acquired wealth fourfold, he’ll be left with nothing. He’ll have given everything to the poor.
Contrast him to another rich man – the rich ruler who kept all the commandments, but was unwilling to give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus (Luke 18:18-25). That man seemed to all to be a godly man, but he was unwilling to grow any further toward the perfect and eternal life Jesus is calling us to.
We do not see things as they really are. Jesus does. Jesus proclaims salvation to Zacchaeus, whom the crowd thought a sinner. And Jesus laments how difficult it will be for the other rich man to enter the kingdom, though the crowd thought him a saint. Remember, when Jesus observes how hard it would be for him to be saved, those who hear it ask, “Then who can be saved?” (18:26). In their judgement, if the rich man who kept the commandments cannot be saved, then no one can.
Our judgments are worthless. It is the Lord who sees things as they really are. So let us not trust in appearances, but trust rather in the Lord. Let us repent of our own sins rather than judging others. Let us trust the Lord to find us, even when we are lost.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The True Desire of our Hearts

A blind man sat by the road near Jericho begging (Luke 18:35). What do you think he was begging for? Money, right? Or food. Or clothing. Or perhaps a place to stay. He was not begging for his sight, surely. That would be a strange sight, no? A blind beggar by the road begging for sight? Whereas most of us have encountered beggars begging for money and food, I expect. People tend to ask for something they think they can get. And who could expect to get sight or healing of any real and lasting kind from random passersby. The gospel doesn’t tell us what the blind beggar is begging for before he hears that Jesus is passing by, but I think we can infer.
Begging is rather like prayer. In fact, the Latin word meaning “to pray” – orare – also means “to beg.” In archaic English also, you might hear someone say, for example, “Please, I pray you, give me something to eat.” We don’t really talk that way anymore, but it shows the relationship between these ideas.
So, this gospel passage is about prayer, from the very beginning. And the prayer of the beggar at the beginning – his begging – has a lot in common with the prayers that we sometimes pray. We ask God for what we want, and for what we think we need, and for what we think we can get.
The prayers of our liturgy are not so timid. For example, at every Divine Liturgy, and also at Vespers and Matins, we pray for peace in the whole world. When has there ever been peace in the whole world? And yet we go on boldly praying for it every day. And we’re right to do so. It is the earnest desire of our hearts, which we are to express to the Lord in prayer.
Sometimes, we don’t get the thing we explicitly pray for. Whether it is peace on Earth or winning the lottery or a Hail Mary for a football pass. Sometimes, we don’t even get the healing we ask for. My father asked God to heal my mother of cancer, and yet, she died anyway at the age of 52. And believe you me, he was explicit in what he God asked for in prayer. And this is good. I maintain, this is good to express the earnest desires of our hearts to the Lord in prayer. To beg him for healing.
The blind beggar raised his begging to a higher caliber when he heard that Jesus was passing by. He began to beg, not for mere money or food, but for mercy, crying out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Crying this out ceaselessly, even when those around him tried to make him stop. Do we go on with our prayer, even when those around us discourage it? How long is it been now since we began to tuck our tails and cease our prayers in schools and public places? Have we internalized the heresy that religion is a private affair? The gospel and the faith are to be proclaimed in every nation, even this one, believe it or not. So let us cry out all the more when we are asked to be silent, “Jesus, have mercy on us.” Let us move, from the stage of timid begging, which represents a less mature prayer, to boldly crying out for mercy with faith.
In response to his bold crying out, Jesus then asks the beggar, what do you want me to do for you? And the beggar asks for sight. “Lord, let me receive my sight.” Now this is a prayer offered in faith. We continue to beg for what we think we can get, so a prayer for something as great as sight indicates faith that Jesus is a giver of good things that not just anyone can give. Surely the beggar didn’t ask the random passersby for his sight, but he knows he’s now speaking to someone who can make him see.
That takes faith, which is the ability to see things as they really are. By faith, the beggar could see who he was talking to, even while he could not yet see with the eyes of his body. When we come to appreciate something of the majesty the power and the glory of the one to whom we pray, we can get a little bolder in the things we pray for. There’s nothing wrong with that asking God for little things, but let’s remember who we’re talking to, to the one who gives us life, who can deliver us from oppression, who can heal our diseases and drive out demons, who can give us everlasting life. Let’s ask him for the healing we seek and all the true desires of our hearts. Just as this blind beggar did outside of Jericho. And also just as my father did for my mother. And also, just as Jesus did himself in Gethsemane, when he prayed to his Father, “Let this cup pass from me.”
To our eyes, the outcome for the beggar looks different than the outcome my father got. The beggar received his sight but my mother died of cancer. But also remember that first petition of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The outcome of that prayer looks more like the one my father got.
Here’s the thing: we pray for what we want, for the healing our heart desires, and our Lord God is listening to the true desires of our true hearts, which he knows better than we do ourselves. He’s the one that made your heart. He knows what it really is – unclouded by the passions. And he made it to desire one thing.
All our pure desires are reflections of the one true desire of our hearts. They are like rays of light bursting through the clouds of our passions. And they are to be venerated as glimpses of that one true desire, which burns as bright and hot as the sun behind the clouds. And that one true desire of our hearts is God himself.
You want healing – he is healing. You want life – he is life. Even the small things, the seemingly petty things we want, he is the true fulfillment of all that represents. You want wealth – the wealth of this world is garbage next to the mansion he has prepared for you in his house. You want food – he is your food. He becomes your food and drink today.
He is the true desire of your heart. And he will answer your prayer the same as he did for the blind man in Jericho – the same as he did for his own son Jesus in Gethsemane. If we see the outcome for Jesus and for the blind beggar as different, it’s because we are blind and do not yet see with the eyes of faith.
When we look at our suffering, our poverty, or our illnesses from which we desire to be healed – when we look at the cross, we see death. And we rightly abhor death, which is our enemy. That is a glimpse of our true desire. Our true desire is life, which is Christ. So when we pray for a way around the cross, as Jesus did, that is like a shadow of our hope for life. And God is going to give you life. He is giving you life right now. And he is giving you life unto the ages of Ages. And he is giving it to you – through the cross.  Through your cross and his. Not around it but through it, the true desire of your heart will be fulfilled.
May the Lord give us sight to see it, the faith to know it, and thanking him for it as already received, let us glorify God and give him praise. 

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