Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Heedfulness and Our Mortality

Dear Parish Faithful,

"What does is mean that man is mortal? It is certainly not a compliment." (Woody Allen)

In addition to that piece of existential-comedic wit from Woody Allen, there is also another on the subject of death that I have heard from time to time that goes something like this: According to the latest research, the death rate is holding steady at 100%. Truly "there is nothing new under the sun." This absolute inevitability of our own mortality - and the various strategies that have been contrived over time to deal with this fact, from the grimly serious to the comic - is at the heart of the Parable of the Rich Fool heard as the Gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy yesterday. This parable may have been overlooked, as in our parish, because of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple on November 21. However, since our spiritual tradition strongly encourages the "remembrance of death," perhaps what was overlooked yesterday can provide a worthy subject of meditation on a typical Monday morning. The parable is short enough to be presented in its entirety:

And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, 'What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (LK. 12:16-21)

Not only is this parable short, but it is painfully direct. Yet, the obviousness and clarity of the parable's meaning; the timelessness and universality of its application; and the near impossibility of disagreeing with its over-all content, may ironically provide one more reason to really not "hear" this parable when it is proclaimed in the assembly of the eucharistic gathering. Since we are not hearing something "new," we can become complacent in our knowledge of this truth about life and death. In one ear, and out the other ... And yet, we continue to "build our barns" and plan our future with its eating and drinking and making merry, seemingly oblivious to our indistinguishable similarity to the rich man/fool! Perhaps this is why before delivering the parable, Christ first issued something of a warning: "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." (LK. 16:15) Being heedful is counseled by the saints, as something of a careful awareness of our decisions, reflection into the consequences of our choices, and sobriety when assessing our actions. It also means to avoid the dispersion and dissipation of our thoughts amidst a variety of enticing and conflicting distractions. This heedfulness is meant to help us in directing our lives so that they do not spin out of control, and in a thoroughly confused state induced by losing sight of the God-given priorities found in the Gospel, we find ourselves not knowing whether we "are coming or going." Jesus clearly tells us that this can happen when we become "covetous," or obsessed with the "abundance of our possessions."

There is no reason to believe that the rich man of the parable was a particularly sinful person. He is "everyman" in his search for false security and comfort. His "sin" appears to be a lack of the heedfulness that Jesus taught us to embrace. Of course, he was self-reliant and self-absorbed in the way that narrows the mind and shrinks the heart of a person. St. John Chrysostom said that the "barns" he should have been intent on filling, were the empty stomachs of the poor. He planned according to his own will, forgetting what God had "planned" for him according to God's own foreknowledge. (As Tevya the dairyman said: "The more man plans, the harder God laughs"). In the final analysis God declared the rich man a fool in his heedlessness and self-absorption. Such a person cannot be "rich toward God." (A tremendous - and harrowing - artistic expression of the timeless truth found in this parable can be found in Tolstoy's well-known story "Master and Man").

Compounding his and our dilemma, there is the universal human tendency to "forget" about death; though no one actually forgets about it, because the reality of death drives so much of what we do both consciously and unconsciously. As a general principle of life in the fallen world, the Fathers teach that we sin because we die: "through fear of death," we "were subject to lifelong bondage." (HEB. 2:15) So, in our death-denying culture, we are caught in this schizophrenic position of both an awareness of death and a "lust for life" that desires to drive such thoughts from our mind by a "get it while you can" desperation. Filling our "barns" is our solace from the harsher realities of life. The saints teach the opposite by urging us to practice the "remembrance of death" as part of the spiritual life. This "remembrance of death" has nothing pessimistic, gloomy or morbid about it. On the contrary, there is nothing possibly more realistic and clear-sighted. It is a humble acknowledgment of reality; of an awareness of our own mortality. It is meant to bring us back to God, as we realize that we are literally "nothing" without God. The elder Joseph the Hesychast summed up a long tradition with these simple words:

But death is lurking somewhere, waiting for us, too. Some day or night will be the last one of our life. Wherefore, blessed is he who remembers his death day and night and prepares himself to meet it. For it has a habit of coming joyfully to those who wait for it, but it arrives unexpectedly, bitterly, and harshly for those who do not expect it. (Fifty-first Letter)

The only way to "joyfully" await death is through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, for "through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." (HEB. 2:14-15) This is that "good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ" that we pray for over and over in our litanies. And it is our access to the Kingdom of God that reveals that life is stronger than death.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Preparing for the Entrance

Dear Parish Faithful,

This year, the third of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church year - The Entrance of the Theotokos Into the Temple - will fall on this coming Sunday, November 21. This gives us the opportunity to celebrate the Feast in a truly festal manner, with most of the parish present and participating. Yet this also means that the Great Vespers introducing the feast will be on this coming Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. The Great Vespers on the eve of a feast is even fuller, with the special hymnography and the blessing of the loaves and anointing with oil at the end. This liturgical cycle - though we don't serve the festal Matins - allows for a full expression of the Church's life as one "feast" that introduces us into the life of salvation, redemption and glorification. This is the gift of God's saving grace in Christ experienced in the Church.

I encourage everyone to make a point of experiencing our parish celebration of this Feast of the Mother of God in all of its fulness. Add to that fulness with your prayerful presence at Great Vespers. Come and receive the blessed bread and be anointed with the "oil of gladness." If it is simply a matter of other distractions or interests that may entice you away, put aside such temptation, and come to the church and worship with the angels and your brothers and sisters in Christ. If you are tired, recall the words of Christ: "Come to me, all who are tired and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (MATT. 11:28). As we just heard St. John Chrysostom preach: "The Church is the foundation of virtue and the school of spiritual life. Just cross its threshold at any time, and immediately you forget daily cares. Pass inside, and a spiritual ray will surround your soul."

Lately, we have had better attendance at the Saturday evening Great Vespers, so this feast can add to that momentum.

Fr. Steven

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Final Incentive

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I would like to add a final bit of "incentive" for participating in our upcoming Fall Adult Education Class beginning next Monday evening (Nov 8). Here is a paragraph from Sister Nonna Harrison in which she describes the over-all structure and purpose of her book, God's Many-Splendored Image:

Throughout the book we will listen to the prophetic voices of the early and Eastern Christian traditions that proclaim the true value and dignity of every human person and call us back to our authentic identity and purpose. Each chapter of this book explores a different facet of the divine image and likeness and maps out a path that can lead toward wholeness and holiness. We will begin each chapter with one of my childhood questions about human identity and a story that illustrates the question and begins to point toward an answer. Then we will explore early Christian writers, ideas, and stories that flesh out the answer. Each chapter describes a set of gifts included in the divine image and likeness and shows how they can be used and developed rightly and how they can be misused. Each chapter includes practical suggestions about how we can learn to turn away from past mistakes, become as God really intends us to be, and participate in God's loving work in the world.

To "become as God really intends us to be" - now that sounds exciting!

Fr. Steven