Archive for March, 2008

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

March 11, 2008

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There is a wonderful translation of Jean-Pierre De Caussade’s  Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, which bears the same title as this post. I am borrowing the phrase, not to comment on the volume (though I highly recommend it), but to bring into focus something of at least equal importance.

It is the reality of our moment by moment encounter with God. We confess that God is everywhere present and fills all things, but we still largely walk through the world treating all the things that we encounter as just that – things. We carry no sense within us that God is in fact sharing His life with us in and through all things.

This goes to the very heart of living life as though the world were secular, of living life in a “two-storey” universe – the storey in which we live being the one not inhabited by God.

It has been a common observation that when various reformers set about to reform the Church, they declared “all days to be holy days,” and thus rid the calendar of any particular holy day. The unintended result was that before long not only were all days not holy days, no day was a holy day.

In the same way, the decrees concerning the “priesthood of all believers” rather than making every individual a priest, became a meaningless phrase, for without the sacramental priesthood, the phrase lost its reference of meaning. No one had seen or dealt with a priest so to be told that they had some kind of “priesthood” from Christ was meaningless.

The same has been true of the more recent democratizations of the liturgy where the “people” gather around the altar and God is in our midst. Somehow, God becomes lost. All boundary between myself and the holy disappear and I can no longer know the holy.

Strangely, most of these reforms were not misguided. They were rooted in Scriptural truth and embodied a certain amount of truth. But invariably they were reforms that were lost in the “law of unintended consequences.” The general principle triumphed over the particular instance and the result was the abolition of something important.

But God is indeed “everywhere present and filling all things.” One of the clearest examples of this in Scripture is to be found in the resurrected Christ’s encounter with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They conversed and the disciples did not recognized Him. Indeed, their hearts “burned” within them as they walked along and He instructed them in Scripture concerning the Christ. But things became clear – they recognized the risen Lord when He stopped with them for the evening meal. There He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it to them,” and we are told, “their eyes were opened.” Those four verbs, “take, bless, break, and give,” are always used in Eucharistic encounters in Scripture. They are keys for our understanding. Nonetheless, the Scriptures do not say that there was a “formal” liturgy or even a clearly demarcated sacred meal. Only that Christ was present, and that He “took bread, blessed, broke and gave it too them.” And He was made known to them.

The Eucharist reveals Christ to us. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemann always noted, the Eucharist not only reveals Christ to us, it also reveals the true nature of creation to us. Bread can no longer be the same if Christ has taken it and made it His body.

It is always possible, indeed it has already happened, that we build a fence around that sacred moment and confine it to the liturgy itself. Outside the service, everything returns to “normal and ordinary,” and the Orthodox become as secular as every Christian around them. This is a denial of the Orthodox faith.

God is “everywhere present and filling all things,” thus there is no “normal and ordinary,” no “secular.” Everything is changed. There is no eating of bread that is not a communion with God. There is no encounter with a tree that is not an encounter with the hard wood of the cross, the “weapon of peace.”

In Jeremiah (23:23-24) we read:

Am I a God at hand, saith the LORD, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the LORD. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the LORD.

We do not have a “neutral zone” where we live apart from God. Instead, we have zones of ignorance, where believing Christians live as unbelievers, awaiting their next attendance at a “God permitted” zone.

No, the truth is that God has united Himself not only to humanity in the incarnation, but to matter itself. Man is the “microcosm” according to the Fathers, a “little cosmos” in himself. This is most fully and completely true in Christ, who has truly summed up the cosmos within Himself. Thus we look forward to the redemption and resurrection of the whole created order and not just man (Romans 8). 

Thus we are never separated from God who is freely with us, but also giving Himself to us in everything around us. This is no profession of pantheism. God has not become everything else. But everything else holds the possibility of encounter with God as surely as the holy water within the Church or every sacrament He has given us. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fr. Schmemann said that there were two “no’s” in his life and one “yes.” “No” to secularism; “No” to religion as a human institution; and “Yes” to the Kingdom of God. I am saying nothing different.

This carries us as well to this great season of Lent. We begin by formally asking forgiveness of each member of the Church. But if such a service were confined to Forgiveness Vespers, then not even all the members of the Church would have participated. But, in truth, it only occurs in Church so that we may be taught our true relationship with everyone and everything around us. Repentance is not a legal state in which we say, “I’m sorry,” so that we can hear, “You’re forgiven.” Repentance is part of the true state of human beings, a small part of the larger humility that is our true natural state of being. God Himself is humble (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). In figurative terms, the Old Testament even speaks of God “repenting Himself.” It is the simple openness of ourselves to others and the truth of their existence, and the true existence of all things as revealed in Christ. Only the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:8) and is also true that only the pure in heart see anything as it truly is.

So this brings us to the “sacrament of the present moment.” Everything, everyone, every place, filled with God, becomes a moment of communion and theophany. Thus we pray for the whole world, and finally know the fullness for which God is preparing us.

And lest we forget, forgiveness reaches backwards in time, and thus not even the past is fixed in some secular mode, but is subject to the Spirit of God and may be changed by my forgiveness. As God has promised through His beloved Apostle:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:9-11).

And because the existence of all is underwritten by the Good God (“in Him we live and move and have our being”) we are in no way the lords of our own existence. We do not control history nor its outcome. Acts of murder do not remove the existence of our victims, only increase our own distance from the truth of existence. There is no place to run, to flee, to hide ourselves from the truth which resides in God and it is to this truth that we must finally be reconciled if we are ourselves to stand in the truth at the end of all things. And so to everything that is we announce the goodness of the Kingdom of God and ask forgiveness of everything and everyone and for all time. Less than this would not be the fullness of life. Glory to God for all things.

Living with Ignorance

March 10, 2008

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Faith tells us some things – the Holy Scriptures serve as another source of revelation – the Holy Tradition of the Church also informs us of much – but, nevertheless, in the face of all these things our lives are still largely lived in ignorance. It’s not that we cannot memorize Scripture (some memorize much a wield it lika a “sorcerer’s apprentice” doing all sorts of damage). Neither are we ignorant of many things in Holy Tradition. The ignorance which envelopes virtually all of us is the difference between the general and the particular.

There are many things we can know about the Christian life in general and yet remain quite ignorant when it comes to some important particular.

We do not know ourselves and our hearts in anything like a full manner. We are frequently as enigmatic to ourselves as we are to those around us.

We do not know others who often remain far more enigmatic to us than we are to ourselves.

We do not always know God as we should or as we would like. The “pure in heart will see God,” but few of us are pure in any thing.

So how do we live in the midst of such ignorance?

First, it is important that we admit how much ignorance is a part of our lives. The result can be a much healthier humility than is usually encountered.

Second, recognizing our ignorance, we should refuse to claim knowledge that we do not have. This is a matter of avoiding self-deception.

I believe the important strategy for Christian living in the face of such ignorance is fully accounted for in Scripture itself. We are enjoined to be patient. Patience is a very great virtue for those who live largely in ignorance. With patience we have the opportunity to wait until God makes things known and clear. There is, as I mentioned before, a “slowness” about grace that requires patience. That slowness is only underlined by the ignorance in which we live.

Forbearance becomes an equally important virtue. My ignorance of myself is quickly overmatched by my ignorance of others. Thus, though I may find myself offended by others, I am enjoined to forbear. Putting up with one another is an absolute essential within the Body of Christ. We fail at this, and thus have to return to patience and prayer.

Along with all of this is a corollary: Knowledge is not necessary for the working of grace. In a self-help society, we are caught up in a culture of self-knowledge. There is a tacit assumption that by learning about ourselves, or the etiology of an personality disorder, we can therefore “fix” it. This is simply not true. The healing and saving work of grace – changing us into the image of Christ – is a great mystery – frequently wrought in such a way that we do not see its work in the least. Grace and workings of God tend to be referred to as being “made manifest.” They are true and have always been true, but they are not always “manifest” until the fullness of time. When the time is ripe, God will make them known.

The working of penance and confession, of communion and the many means by which God gives Himself to us is a river of grace – we are surrounded and sustained by grace – though we remain all too often ignorant of this reality.

Thus to live the life of grace – we live by faith – trusting in the Good God who made Himself manifest in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. I like St. Paul’s summary:

Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature be thus minded; and if in anything you are otherwise minded, God will reveal that also to you. (Philippians 3:8-15)

To Care for the Heart

March 7, 2008

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There is a term one runs across frequently, particularly in Russian spiritual writing. It is the word; prelest. I have seen it translated any number of ways – but at its heart it’s meaning is quite simple. It is failing or ceasing to care about the state of one’s spiritual life. It is a sort of lassitutude, as though the spiritual life was of no great import. It could be that we fall into such a state because we have become distracted by other things – or even that we are living in such a state because of personal delusion – that is, not knowing anything about the true nature of the spiritual life.

Thus, continuing to think about forgiveness, I turn also to forgiveness and prelest. It is of the greatest sadness that our modern world has come to think of forgiveness in largely forensic, that is legal, terms. Either a person is guilty or innocent. If I have offended a person I ask for forgiveness as though I owed them something and am now asking a boon, a kindness, that I no longer be in their debt.

Along with the forensic understanding of forgiveness is an inherent set of ideas that belong to the same world. Thus guilt and innocence become important issues for forgiveness. Equally important is punishment and paying for our crimes. This, of course, brings in the entire concept of justice.

Writing as an Orthodox Christian, and anticipating the Sunday of Forgiveness, I tremble at these foreign ideas which have attached themselves to our most holy faith, though they do not have a place in the Church of God, nor in our relationship with Christ.

In general, the concept of justice as we have come to know it, is an inheritance in this part of the world from the Germano-Roman world of late antiquity. The early Germanic tribes (which includes my own English ancestry) had a highly developed since of justice and of how things were to work. The killing of a man, for instance, required that a price be paid, indeed the value of the man. In early Germanic this was known as weregeld, (were being the word for man, and geld, his price). Each person had a geld, depending on age, station in life, gender, etc. Justice was the eradication of such debts. This Germanic understanding was married to the Roman understanding and eventually became the language and world of the Middle Ages, including much of Western Church doctrine. Thus man’s salvation became interpreted in terms of guilt and innocence, punishment and substitution. Forgiveness thus became a transaction – something we do for those who have paid the proper price.

Lost in all of this is the place of forgiveness and the heart. The New Testament parables, such as the Prodigal Son, have no sense of what is owed, of punishment, or restitution. It has only to do with the state of the heart – for it is the heart of man which is in fact the very state of a man’s soul. And it is the heart of man that makes it possible for salvation to be received or causes it to be rejected. This is the consistent teaching of the Church.

Learning to think in the language of the heart – to see that what is important is the state of my heart – and not the balance of payments (if you will) – can be a difficult transition. However, it is utterly necessary if we are to progress in the love of God and man.

You cannot pay your debt. No good deeds are sufficient for such a transaction. And were you to pay your debt – or even if another were to pay it for you – what would the state of your heart be? You indeed, could be a hard-hearted debt-free Christian – but with a hard-heart you would be no closer to salvation than someone whose debt was monumental.

Thus we are told: “Rend your hearts and not your garments!” (Joel 2:13) To become like Christ we are told to forgive even our enemies:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (Matthew 5:44-45).

This is a thoroughly consistent teaching of Christ in the Scriptures. It goes to the very state of our heart before God and before man. The transformation of our heart that is required before we truly love our enemies, is the very transformation which unites us with Christ and manifests us as having been conformed to His image. There is no other test for this in Scripture but love of enemy (and friend). Of course, this transformation can only occur through the working of grace within us. But we put prelest behind us when we turn our attention to the heart and see that it is hard and wretched and desperately in need of healing. To ignore this need is to fall back into prelest and to create a distance between our heart and God. In the worst of cases it is to fall into true apostasy.

Some will say, “But what of justice?” What of it? Have you ever seen justice? Have you ever received justice? Of course the state will make some approximate efforts at justice simply for the sake of order – but we should not internalize these matters as though justice had been achieved. God’s justice is beyond our understanding. He pays those who began work at the end of the day as much as those who worked all day. Where is the justice in that? From the Cross He pronounces forgiveness for all. Where is the justice in that?

St. Isaac the Syrian said, “We know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” I suspect that God’s mercy is His justice and that a heart which has been truly transformed into the image of Christ will rejoice at such a prospect.

My prayer for myself and for all, is that come Forgiveness Sunday, I will truly forgive all from my heart and that all will forgive me. And so shall we be in paradise!

As the service concludes, the choir sings the Paschal verses:

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered.

Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us.

A new and holy Pascha.

A mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration.

A Pascha which is Christ, the Redeemer.

A blameless Pascha. A great Pascha.

A Pascha of the faithful.

A Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise.

A Pascha which santifies all the faithful.

As smoke vanishes so let them vanish.

Come from that scene, O women bearers of glad tidings,

And say to Zion: Receive from us the glad tidings of joy

Of Christ’s Resurrection:

Exult and be glad, and rejoice, O Jerusalem,

Seeing Christ the King who comes forth from the tomb,

Like a bridegroom in procession.

So the sinners will perish before the face of God,

But let the righteous be glad.

The myrrhbearing women at the break of dawn

Drew near to the tomb of the Lifegiver.

There they found an angel sitting upon the stone,

He greeted them with these words:

Why do you seek the living among the dead?

Why do you mourn the incorrupt amid corruption?

Go: Proclaim the glad tidings to His disciples.

This is the day which the Lord has made!

Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Pascha of Beauty!

The Pascha of the Lord!

A Pascha worthy of all honor has dawned for us.

Pascha! Let us embrace each other joyously.

Pascha, ransom from affliction!

For today as from a bridal chamber Christ has shone forth from the tomb.

And filled the women with joy saying: Proclaim the glad tidings to the Apostles!

This is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be illumined by the feast! Let us embrace each other!

Let us call “brothers” even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection,

And so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Forgiveness and the Kingdom

March 6, 2008

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I am grateful for the patience of my readers – I have written less in the past few weeks – instead mostly posting quotes from the Fathers. It’s not a laziness on my part but an opportunity to go to a well that is far deeper than myself and a great help when I am in a very busy season in the parish.

This Sunday we draw to the edge of Great Lent, and inaugurate that fast with the service of Forgiveness Vespers, at the end of which, many Orthodox will practice the “rite of forgiveness” with priest asking forgiveness from each individual in the congregation and each member of the congregation asking forgiveness of each other member of the congregation. There are variations on how the rite is practiced – but that is our pattern in my parish.

Forgiveness is not only a commandment: “Forgive and you will be forgiven;” or even “Forgive your enemies,” etc. It is perhaps among the greatest and most important commandments. For the power of forgiveness can hardly be overstated.

It has the power to change the past. Perhaps that seems like an overstatement – but a wound delivered to me in the past – can be changed and rendered harmless through forgiveness, thus changing the power of the past over the present and the future.

Forgiveness is the triumph of the age to come over all other things. Thus, in our hymnography at Pascha we are told, “Let us forgive all by the resurrection.” For in the resurrection, that is, in the age to come, what grudge would you keep? And if you would not keep it then, why do you keep it now?

In some of the stories concerning Christ’s ministry it is clear that He makes little or no distinction between the forgiveness of sin and physical healing. It is certainly true that sin can have a physical effect. But if you knew that you possessed an elixir, the result of which when taken, would heal any disease, from whom would you withhold it? Why then would we withhold forgiveness from any when in many cases it would be an elixir of health?

Some will say that they would forgive if only the other person would first ask for forgiveness. But the love of God is made manifest to us in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The nature of the forgiveness we are taught does not presuppose that repentance has preceded it. It is a gift freely given without any neccessary deserving. If you believe you are saved by grace, then why do you not extend grace to all around you?

I have made it a practice in my personal life to go back through the years, even to childhood, to remember things that were matters of a grudge. A bully who made life hard for me – a parishioner who spoke evil of me without cause, etc. I make a point of praying (secretly) for them by name each time I offer the Holy Eucharist, while I am also praying for all those others whom I would normally remember. I do not know if I can yet truly forgive all by the resurrection. But I pray for all, and I want to forgive. I pray that nothing I have done to any will be a cause for stumbling, nor that anything that has been done to me will be held against them on the day of judgment. Not for my sake would I see anyone estranged from God.

Forgiveness is the great “allee-allee-in-come-free” (as in the children’s game of hide and seek) of the cosmos. If we forgive all, are we not in paradise?

Why We Fast

March 4, 2008

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I was asked last year by an acquaintance in town: “Does your Church observe Lent?”

I quickly explained that we did. I was then asked how our Church fasted, and I explained something of the general outlines of Orthodox fasting. They then said to me that they needed their nourishment and instead had taken up walking every day as a Lenten discipline. The conversation ended with some pleasantries.

Why do Orthodox fast?

Fasting is far older than Christianity, and has taken various forms, from abstaining from certain foods (as we now do), eating less (as we also do), or refraining from food altogether (which is rarely done except by some monks). Some say that the first fast was commanded by God in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were told that they could eat everything they wanted except fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is also said that the first sin was mankind’s rejection of the fast that God had set. That is true to a degree but the story of Adam and Eve is far richer than the fast that was part of it.

So why do we fast?

Christ Himself fasted and said that His disciples would fast. But what is its point? It can be said that fasting is to the body what prayer is to the soul. We are frequently ruled by our bodies and the demands they make. We do not like to deny them anything, whether it be food, experience, or any other desire. The simple practice of denying food to ourselves, first in the kinds of foods eaten, and also in the amount we eat. Bringing our body and our will into greater submission to God strengthens us in the work of repentance.

But the fast of Great Lent is far more than changing our eating habits. It includes increasing our time at prayer. The services are longer and we should make every effort to attend – at least more services than we have been attending. Fasting includes what we do with the goods of this world. Denying ourselves the benefit of our own riches, we share them with those who have less. This action conforms our heart to the heart of God and teaches us compassion. The fast extends even beyond these few examples. St. John Chrysostom, writing in the early fifth century offered these thoughts on the Lenten fast:

Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.

If you see a poor man, take pity on him.If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.

Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies.

Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.

Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.

Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful.

Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.

Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.

For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers?

May He who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete the fast with humility, have mercy on us and save us.

Forgiveness and Paradise – Dostoevsky

March 2, 2008

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This small passage from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, has always been among my favorites within literature. It is the story of the death of Markel, the brother of Zossima, who will later become a great monastic elder. The words of his brother Markel serve as something of a summary of the elder’s theology and among the most profound thoughts in literature.

From the Life of the Elder Zossima

…but the doctor arrived and quickly whispered to dear mother that it was galloping consumption and that he would not survive the spring. Mother began to weep, began to ask my brother with circumspection (mainly in order not to frighten him) to fast for a little and then attend communion with God’s holy mysteries, for he was at that time still up and about. Upon hearing this, he lost his temper and gave God’s temple a good rating, but then he grew meditative….. Some three days went by, and Holy Week began. And then, from the Tuesday evening, my brother went to fast and take communion. ‘I am doing this, properly speaking, for you, dear mother, in order to please you and to calm your fears,’ he told her. Mother wept from happiness, and also from grief; ‘It means his end must be near, if there is such a sudden change in him.’ But not for long did he go to church; he took to his bed, and so was given confession and communion at home. The days were starting to be bright, serene and fragrant – it was a late Pascha. All night he would cough, I recall; he slept badly, and in the mornings would always get dressed and try to sit in a soft armchair. That is how I shall remember him: sitting there quietly meekly, smiling, in reality ill, but with a countenance of cheerfulness and joy. He had undergone a complete spiritual alteration – such a wondrous change had suddenly begun within him! Our old nurse would enter his room: ‘Let me light the lamp before your icon, dearie,’ she would say. And previously he had not allowed it, would even blow it out. ‘Light it, dear nurse, light it, I was a cruel monster to forbid you earlier. As you light the lamp you say your prayers, and I, in rejoicing for your sake, say mine also. That means we pray to the same God.’ Strange did those words seem to us, and mother would go away to her room and weep and weep, though when she came in again to him she would wipe her eyes and assume an air of cheerfulness. ‘Dear mother, don’t cry, my darling,’ he used to say. ‘I have much time to live yet, I shall make merry with you both, and my life, my life will be joyful and merry!’ ‘Oh, dear boy, what kind of merriment can there be for you, when all night you burn in a fever and cough till your chest nearly bursts apart?’ ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

The Last Judgment

March 2, 2008

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This Sunday, as part of the pre-Lenten calendar in the Orthodox Church, is known as the Sunday of the Last Judgment, because the gospel reading is taken from the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. It is a very proper subject for meditation as the Church makes preparation for Great Lent and its call to repentance.

When I think about the Last Judgment, apart from whatever cosmic images one may draw upon, I’ve often come back to the simple question: “What do you want?” For the Last Judgment has much to do with that question – or at least everything that brings us to that Last Judgment has much to do with that question.

What do we want? By this, I do not mean to say that we are saved by our will but it still matters, “what do we want?”

I could state it another way and say, “What do I desire? or What is the desire of my heart?” For there is some truth in the statement that we all get what we want in the end. By the mercies of God we perhaps get more or less than we want – but that remains in the sovereign hands of God. At least it is true that we “get what we want” in ultimate terms – that is, do I want God – for nothing else will have mattered in the end.

It is confusing for some when they hear “you get what you want in the end,” for we imagine that we want many things. Does this statement mean, “All I have to do is want heaven and I will be saved?” In a manner of speaking, the answer is “Yes,” but it is not as simple (or it is more simple) as it sounds. If by “heaven” someone means a “cosmic pleasure dome” – then the answer is “No,” because there is no such thing as a heavenly cosmic pleasure dome. Such idylls are the product of religious imagination. To say that “I want heaven,” in Christian terms, is to say, “I want God.” And that takes us to the very core of our heart and the nature of our heart’s true desire. “Do I want God?” is a profound question that can never be answered easily or immediately. In many ways the answer to that question is finally only made manifest in the life we have lived.

“Do I want God?” is not the same thing as “I want health,” or “I want prosperity,” or a number of other things that some attach to the Christian religion. If such blessings are given then be thankful. If such blessings are not given, still be thankful.

The Psalmist says:

Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee. My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever. (Psalm 73:25-26).

Many of the spiritual fathers of the Church would speak of the role of eros [desire] in the spiritual life – that is – what drives us? what desire or force lies behind our actions? The right answer to the question – or the saving answer to the question is that we desire God.

This is a very different matter than saying “I like religion” or “religious practices” or “I like thinking about God and arguing about theology.” Such things may have a desire for God in them or they may simply be distractions like any number of other hobbies in which we engage. The test of our desire, of course, is love. Do I love God – do I want to love God? Do I want to know God?

Sometimes such questions can seem abstract. We always do well to remember that Christ is the “content” of God (“He is the fullness of the Godhead bodily” Colossians 2:9). Thus we will not be lost in abstractions about the word “God” but understand the very concrete manifestation and revelation of God in Christ and in His self-sacrificing love.

Christ Himself makes the question even more concrete, or immediate, in His parable of the Last Judgment. There He says that “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” Thus our love of God is as concrete as our love for every other human being around us – down to the very least.

We are a nation whose culture teaches us to consume. Our economy fails when we stop consuming (or so I am told). But we will not be judged on our consumption (how much stuff we have) but our desires do matter. That which is saving is no further away than the next person. My desire for God, if it is truly a desire for God, will manifest itself in love of others. To feed them, clothe them, visit and welcome – whatever love requires. It is in losing ourselves in such a manner that we find ourselves. It is in desiring God (even in the heart of my brother) that we will find heaven.

If we want it.