Asking for What We Don’t Want

Sunday, October 27 (OS., October 14), 2019: 19th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787); Martyrs Nazarius, Gervase, Protase, and Celsus of Milan (1st c.); Hieromartyr Silvanus of Gaza (311); Ven. Parasceva (Petka) of Epibatima, Thrace, whose relics are in Iasi, Romania (11th c.). St. Mykola Sviatosha, prince of Chernihiv and wonderworker of the Kyiv Caves (1143).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9/Hebrews 13:7-16

Gospel: Luke 8:5-15/John 17:1-13

St Augustine in his Letter to Proba observes that when we pray, we ask for what we don’t want. He means by this that when I ask God for mercy or forgiveness, or as we hear in the second Gospel this morning, joy, what I’m asking for is what I understand by mercy, forgiveness, or joy. 

In asking, then, I ask for my will to be done not God’s. I ask for something I don’t want because I ask for something I don’t understand. 

St Paul alludes to this when he tells the Corinthians that the mysteries of heaven are “not lawful for a man to utter.” This isn’t because God forbids us to speak of His “grace and love for mankind” (see Titus 3:4). It is rather that no matter how eloquent the speakers, human words fall far short of reality.

So much of the frustration I experience in the spiritual life comes from my tendency to confuse my understanding of God with God Himself. Again, I ask for what I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. And when God gives me that for which I ask rather than that I imagined I wanted, I’m disappointed and am tempted to become embittered ask Him for answering my prayer!

The reading for Hebrews is helpful here. We are told to remember those “who have spoken the word of God” to us. We remember and reflect on the lives of the martyrs, the fathers, and the saints because like us they asked for what they didn’t want.

But unlike us, unlike me, they received with joy and thanksgiving that which they were given but didn’t want because it outstripped their understanding.

The lesson of those who have gone before us is this: YesI ask for that which I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. But if I ask with humility, if I ask aware of my own limitations, my own lack of understanding of God’s will, I can receive with joy what God would give me.

I must, in other words, learn to stand before God with open hands and an open heart. This is what it means to be, as we heard in the first Gospel, to be that “good ground” that “yielded a crop a hundredfold.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do as Orthodox Christians has only one goal. To help us hear the word of God with a noble and good heart” so that we can “keep it and bear fruit with patience.”

Today God stands ready to give us what we don’t want. But what we don’t want is immeasurably better than that for which we ask.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Chaste Affection

October 28 (O.S., October 15) 2018: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Ven. Euthymius the New of Thessalonica, monk of Mt. Athos (889). Martyr Lucian, presbyter of Greater Antioch (312). Martyrs Sarbelus and Bebai (Barbea) of Edessa (2nd c.). St. Sabinus, bishop of Catania (760). Hieromartyr Lucian, presbyter of the Kyiv Caves (1243).

Epistle: Galatians 6:11-18
Gospel: Luke 8:5-15

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Jesus frequently describes the Kingdom of God has hidden or overlooked.

Though the Kingdom of God is among us (Luke 17:21), it is also a treasure buried in a field. It is “a pearl of great price” the value of which is unknown by its owner (Matthew 13:44-46).

As for the members of the Kingdom, though “many are called,” they are few in number (Matthew 22:14). A subject of the Kingdom is “a lost sheep” that requires the Shepherd to leave the 99 in order to find. We are likewise, “a lost coin” that causes its owner to extravagantly light all the lamps to sweep the house (Luke 15:3-10).

We overlook the Kingdom of God because we search for it in the world around us when in fact it “is within,” in the one place we are least likely to look. Our own hearts (Luke 17:20-21).

For the fathers of the Church, the hidden or obscure character of the Kingdom of God was deliberate. God hides the Kingdom. He hides His presence among us and, as we hear in today’s Gospel, His does this not out of malice but to capture our attention. God speaks in a “whisper in the wind” (1 Kings 19:11-13) not to frustrate us but to woo us.

In human words, God speaks to us in words of chaste affection. This divine flirtation is chaste because God respects our limitations. Unlike the old gods, He doesn’t impose Himself on us. God is not Zeus, the human soul is not Leda.  For all that God loves and desires us to draw close to Him, He is not impatient.

But what about us? What about me?

Like everyone else, the great secret I keep is this: I am better able to hear words of condemnation than affection. Scorn bothers me less than love because love calls me to be not just better but my best self.

And again, this is true not only for me but all of us.

We are all of us intimidated by love, by that invitation to become our best selves through sacrifice. And if this is true in our relationships with each other, it is even more so in our relationship with God.

When finally we surrender to God, we become not only our best selves, we find a true and lasting freedom that even death can’t undo. But this lasting freedom means I must give up to the illusory independence this world offers me.

So God woos us. He flirts with us. He slowly and patiently reveals to us not only His great love for us but also are true and lasting dignity.

And what is true for each of us here today, is true for all humanity.

St Justin Martyr tells us that God is seminally present in all cultures. Just as He reveals Himself through the Law to the Jews, He reveals Himself through philosophy to the Greeks.

And just as God was present among those ancient peoples, He is here among contemporary men and women. But His presence is, as always, hidden.

It is our tasks, our vocation, to reveal the hidden presence of God to all we meet. This, not mere correction, is the evangelical mission of the Church. We are called to leave the Liturgy this morning, go out into the world, and find Christ there waiting to greet us hidden in the hearts of those we meet.

To do this we must find the presence of the Kingdom of God in our own hearts. This inward turn is only possible if we cultivate silence in our lives.

First, we must cultivate silence around us. Turn off the tv, the radio. Not only no video or no music but also no books. Just silence.

As silence grows around us, we become able to listen to our own hearts.

What we hear first is that incessant, internal monologue that reminds us–again and again–that we are unworthy of love. What this monologue fails to say is that we are unworthy of love because, whether human or divine, love is always a free gift. We are never worthy of love because love is given freely or not at all.

Slowly we learn to cultivate inner silence, we learn first to ignore and then stop our internal monologue. And when we do, we begin to hear the quiet whisper of God’s chaste affection for us.

It is at this moment that we become able to hear God’s word to us.

It is at this moment that we become able to speak as God speaks to us. First to ourselves, then our brothers and sisters in Christ, then our neighbor, and finally God.

It is in silence that we learn to speak those words of chaste affection that are the sum and only content of our evangelical witness.

It is this word spoken out of silence, that those we meet need to hear from us.

It is this word spoken out of silence, that allows us to love with a chaste affection that respects the weakness of others in a manner that doesn’t break “the bruised reed,” that doesn’t “quench the smoldering wick” (Matthew 12:20).

It is this word spoken out of silence that “binds up and heals” the wounds of those we meet (Psalm 147:3).

And it is this, our word spoken out of silence, that allows others to find Christ in their hearts.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! All those we meet need from us words and deeds of chaste affection. Without these words, these deeds, they cannot find the presence of Christ in their own hearts.

And us? Me?

If I fail to speak in a chaste and affection manner? Then their condemnation is on my head.

Why? Because these words and deeds of chaste affection that are the fruit of silence are not only for the salvation of the world. They are for our salvation as well.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory