In what order the Psalms are to be said (I)

Let this verse be said: “Incline unto my aid, O God;
O Lord, make haste to help me,” and the “Glory be to the Father” then the hymn proper to each Hour. Then at Prime on Sunday four sections of Psalm 118 are to be said; and at each of the remaining Hours, that is Terce, Sext and None, three sections of the same Psalm 118. At Prime on Monday let three Psalms be said, namely Psalms 1, 2 and 6. And so each day at Prime until Sunday let three Psalms be said in numerical order, to Psalm 19, but with Psalms 9 and 17 each divided into two parts. Thus it comes about that the Night Office on Sunday always begins with Psalm 20.

Instead of writing something myself on today’s reading, I would like to share a passage from St. John Cassian’s Conferences which was brought to my attention on the Vultus Christi blog. The passage pertains to the introduction of the hours – Deus in adjutorium meum intende – a prayer that has been very dear to me ever since visiting Silverstream.

For keeping up continual recollection of God this pious formula is to be ever set before you. O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me, for this verse has not unreasonably been picked out from the whole of Scripture for this purpose. For it embraces all the feelings which can be implanted in human nature, and can be fitly and satisfactorily adapted to every condition, and all assaults.

Since it contains an invocation of God against every danger, it contains humble and pious confession, it contains the watchfulness of anxiety and continual fear, it contains the thought of one’s own weakness, confidence in the answer, and the assurance of a present and ever ready help. For one who is constantly calling on his protector, is certain that He is always at hand.

It contains the glow of love and charity, it contains a view of the plots, and a dread of the enemies, from which one, who sees himself day and night hemmed in by them, confesses that he cannot be set free without the aid of his defender. This verse is an impregnable wall for all who are labouring under the attacks of demons, as well as impenetrable coat of mail and a strong shield. It does not suffer those who are in a state of moroseness and anxiety of mind, or depressed by sadness or all kinds of thoughts to despair of saving remedies, as it shows that He, who is invoked, is ever looking on at our struggles and is not far from His suppliants. It warns us whose lot is spiritual success and delight of heart that we ought not to be at all elated or puffed up by our happy condition, which it assures us cannot last without God as our protector, while it implores Him not only always but even speedily to help us.

This verse, I say, will be found helpful and useful to every one of us in whatever condition we may be. For one who always and in all matters wants to be helped, shows that he needs the assistance of God not only in sorrowful or hard matters but also equally in prosperous and happy ones, that he may be delivered from the one and also made to continue in the other, as he knows that in both of them human weakness is unable to endure without His assistance.

I am affected by the passion of gluttony. I ask for food of which the desert knows nothing, and in the squalid desert there are wafted to me odours of royal dainties and I find that even against my will I am drawn to long for them. I must at once say: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I am incited to anticipate the hour fixed for supper, or I am trying with great sorrow of heart to keep to the limits of the right and regular meagre fare. I must cry out with groans: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. Weakness of the stomach hinders me when wanting severer fasts, on account of the assaults of the flesh, or dryness of the belly and constipation frightens me. In order that effect may be given to my wishes, or else that the fire of carnal lust may be quenched without the remedy of a stricter fast, I must pray: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. When I come to supper, at the bidding of the proper hour I loathe taking food and am prevented from eating anything to satisfy the requirements of nature: I must cry with a sigh: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

When I want for the sake of steadfastness of heart to apply myself to reading a headache interferes and stops me, and at the third hour sleep glues my head to the sacred page, and I am forced either to overstep or to anticipate the time assigned to rest; and finally an overpowering desire to sleep forces me to cut short the canonical rule for service in the Psalms: in the same way I must cry out: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. Sleep is withdrawn from my eyes, and for many nights I find myself wearied out with sleeplessness caused by the devil, and all repose and rest by night is kept away from my eyelids; I must sigh and pray: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. While I am still in the midst of a struggle with sin suddenly an irritation of the flesh affects me and tries by a pleasant sensation to draw me to consent while in my sleep. In order that a raging fire from without may not burn up the fragrant blossoms of chastity, I must cry out: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I feel that the incentive to lust is removed, and that the heat of passion has died away in my members: In order that this good condition acquired, or rather that this grace of God may continue still longer or forever with me, I must earnestly say: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

I am disturbed by the pangs of anger, covetousness, gloominess, and driven to disturb the peaceful state in which I was, and which was dear to me: In order that I may not be carried away by raging passion into the bitterness of gall, I must cry out with deep groans: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I am tried by being puffed up by accidie, vainglory, and pride, and my mind with subtle thoughts flatters itself somewhat on account of the coldness and carelessness of others: In order that this dangerous suggestion of the enemy may not get the mastery over me, I must pray with all contrition of heart: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

I have gained the grace of humility and simplicity, and by continually mortifying my spirit have got rid of the swellings of pride: In order that the foot of pride may not again come against me, and the hand of the sinner disturb me, and that I may not be more seriously damaged by elation at my success, I must cry with all my might, O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. I am on fire with innumerable and various wanderings of soul and shiftiness of heart, and cannot collect my scattered thoughts, nor can I even pour forth my prayer without interruption and images of vain figures, and the recollection of conversations and actions, and I feel myself tied down by such dryness and barrenness that I feel I cannot give birth to any offspring in the shape of spiritual ideas: In order that it may be vouchsafed to me to be set free from this wretched state of mind, from which I cannot extricate myself by any number of sighs and groans, I must full surely cry out: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

Again, I feel that by the visitation of the Holy Spirit I have gained purpose of soul, steadfastness of thought, keenness of heart, together with an ineffable joy and transport of mind, and in the exuberance of spiritual feelings I have perceived by a sudden illumination from the Lord an abounding revelation of most holy ideas which were formerly altogether hidden from me: In order that it may be vouchsafed to me to linger for a longer time in them I must often and anxiously exclaim: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

Encompassed by nightly horrors of devils I am agitated, and am disturbed by the appearances of unclean spirits, my very hope of life and salvation is withdrawn by the horror of fear. Flying to the safe refuge of this verse, I will cry out with all my might: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me. Again, when I have been restored by the Lord’s consolation, and, cheered by His coming, feel myself encompassed as if by countless thousands of angels, so that all of a sudden I can venture to seek the conflict and provoke a battle with those whom a while ago I dreaded worse than death, and whose touch or even approach I felt with a shudder both of mind and body: In order that the vigour of this courage may, by God’s grace, continue in me still longer, I must cry out with all my powers: O God, make speed to save me: O Lord, make haste to help me.

We must then ceaselessly and continuously pour forth the prayer of this verse, in adversity that we may be delivered, in prosperity that we may be preserved and not puffed up. Let the thought of this verse, I tell you, be conned over in your breast without ceasing. Whatever work you are doing, or office you are holding, or journey you are going, do not cease to chant this. When you are going to bed, or eating, and in the last necessities of nature, think on this. This thought in your heart maybe to you a saving formula, and not only keep you unharmed by all attacks of devils, but also purify you from all faults and earthly stains, and lead you to that invisible and celestial contemplation, and carry you on to that ineffable glow of prayer, of which so few have any experience. Let sleep come upon you still considering this verse, till having been moulded by the constant use of it, you grow accustomed to repeat it even in your sleep. When you wake let it be the first thing to come into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts, let it when you rise from your bed send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to all your work and business, and let it follow you about all day long. This you should think about, according to the Lawgiver’s charge, at home and walking forth on a journey, (Deuteronomy 6:7) sleeping and waking. This you should write on the threshold and door of your mouth, this you should place on the walls of your house and in the recesses of your heart so that when you fall on your knees in prayer this may be your chant as you kneel, and when you rise up from it to go forth to all the necessary business of life it may be your constant prayer as you stand. (Conference X, Chapter 10)

As a Bridegroom having come forth from the chamber

And so, another Advent season has come  to an end. As I write this, I Vespers of the Nativity of Our Lord have already been said, beginning the liturgical festivities of Christmastide.

Advent this year was marked by sense of eagerness, of expectancy, of urgency. It seemed as though Advent this year was a seamless continuation of the end of the liturgical year. For the first time, I was able to pray most of the Hours of the Office throughout the 4 weeks of Advent. I believe it was this assiduousness in praying the Office that impressed me with the sense of apocalyptic (in the biblical sense) urgency.

All the propers for the season speak of the coming of Christ, of the promise of the redemption of Israel.

Taking a sample from the antiphons:

“Behold, the great Prophet shall come; and He shall renew Jerusalem, alleluia.”

“The Lord will come and not delay. He will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will manifest Himself to all nations, alleluia.”

“Rejoice, Jerusalem, with great joy, for thy Saviour will come to thee, alleluia.”

“Behold, our Lord shall come with power, to enlighten the eyes of His servants, alleluia.”

“Let us live justly and piously, looking for the blessed hope and the coming of the Lord.”

“Fear not, Sion, behold, thy God cometh, alleluia.”

“Behold, the King shall come, and He shall take away the yoke of our captivity.”

“Turn again, O Lord, at the last, and delay not to come unto Thy servants.”

“Be prepared to meet Thy God, O Israel, for He cometh.”

“Awake, awake, arise, Jerusalem; loose the chains from off thy neck, O captive daughter of Sion.”

The O Antiphons, addressing Our Lord by Old Testament titles, voice the prophets’ and the patriarchs’ deep desire for  the coming of the Messiah with their continual entreaty – “come”.

The Excita collects, which begin, not with the usual address, but with an audacious demand that the Lord arise and come, further inculcate the sense of urgency.

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Finally, the hymns of Lauds and Vespers speak to us of the Second Coming:

Secundo ut cum fulserit
mundumque horror cinxerit,
non pro reatu puniat,
sed nos pius tunc protegat.

So that at the Second Coming when He will shine and dread will gird the world,
He will punish us not for sin,
but, merciful, will then protect us.
-4th stanza, Vox clara ecce

Te, Sancte, fide quaesumus,
venture iudex saeculi,
conserva nos in tempore
hostis a telo perfidi.

In faith we beg You, O Holy One,
You the Judge of the world about to come,
guard us in this era
from the weapon of the treacherous enemy.
-5th stanza, Conditor alme siderium

Praying more of the Office, and more continuously, has made me realize that just going to Sunday Mass is not enough to impress the “spirit of the season” upon one’s soul; that, if a wider picture is wanted, if one desires to live it more intensely, then one has to pray with the Church, to give primacy to Her words, to Her feelings. She is, after all, our Mother. It is she who educates us in the faith, that mediates the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to pray through her. Loving the Liturgy, praying with the Church, one inevitably finds that, with time, one comes back to it time and again to express one’s own prayer.

 

During these four weeks we read the chapter on Advent in Bl. Columba Marmion’s Christ in His Mysteries. There was a particular passage which lept out at me when reading it:

And nevertheless the Holy Spirit, who directs the Church and is first author of our sanctification, wills that the Church each year dedicate a period of four weeks to a remembrance of the amazing length of the divine preparations, and to put it all to work in order to redispose our souls to have the inner dispositions in which the faithful Jews lived when awaiting the coming of the Messiah.

[…]

[…] God wishes us to find in these preparations a confirmation of our faith.

For some time now the renewal of the baptismal vows during the Paschal Vigil has been a pet peeve of mine, as it seems to me to interrupt the natural flow of the liturgy. The aforementioned  description of Adventide by Bl. Marmion seems to imply, rather, that it is during this season that we “renew” our baptismal vows; that, as long as we live the season properly, as long as we do as the Church instructs us to, then those vows are renewed implicitly by our actions – we are living “liturgically”, and thus there is no need for an explicit renewal. This is just my take on the matter, so I could be wrong and am open to correction.

 

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Our Nativity set. I especially like the seemingly Proto-Evangleium of James-inspired St. Jospeh.

This year we began what we hope will become a family Advent tradition. As of December 18th, the first day on which the O Antiphons are sung with the Magnificat at Vespers, the whole family gathered before the nativity scene to sing Veni veni Emmanuel by candlelight. We were, in a sense, the virgins with lamps awaiting the Bridegroom, anxiously awaiting for Him to come.

An Advent prose

To see the Cross is to see Life. To come  to the Cross is to come to Life. And yet why do I run from Life? Why am I so afraid of Life; why do I embrace Death? Oh sweet Death that comes to me by my mouth, my eyes, my ears, my nose, my hands and my feet! What manner of master are you that the slave loves the chains keeping him in bondage? And yet the sweetness soon turns bitter, and while once the chain was as a melodious chord, now it is yanked and one is dragged in the mire.

The lamps have gone out, their oil spent foolishly. The walls are in disrepair. The watchman has fallen asleep at his post, leaving the roaring lion to have free rein, prowling about. How long, O Lord, how long, will you leave the temple of my heart in abandon? Arise, oh my soul, awaken from your slumber! The Lord is coming, and shall not long delay! He is coming from the East, to enlighten your eyes! Your Saviour is coming, and He shall build up the walls again – open wide the gates!

Lord, that I may not fear the Cross. That the Life-giving Wood may be as a plough on this stony heart of mine. Work this arid soil, O Lord, that it may be found a worthy temple as that virginal womb which saw You come into this world; rain down on it your mercy and grace, that it may see You finally come to dwell therein.

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A surprise from the King of Love

Today we received a surprise from our son’s godfather. When I opened the envelope I was quite astonished to see a representation of Jesus, King of Love, of which Silverstream Priory has a confraternity. When I inquired if he knew about the Silverstream connection, our son’s godfather was  quite ignorant of it. He mentioned it had caught his eye some months ago on Daniel Mitsui‘s website, as he found it semi-iconographic (our son’s godfather is a Romanian Greek Catholic, who also happens to be a monastic associate connected with Holy Resurrection Monastery).

Divine Providence pushing him along…?

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“O Jesus, King of Love, I put my trust in Thy loving mercy.”

 

If you would like to know more about Silverstream Priory’s Confraternity of Jesus, King of Love please click here.

Pax Christi [I]

This past Sunday’s Epistle reading managed to capture my attention much more than the Gospel, especially the following part:

Brethren: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience. Bear with one another and forgive one another, if anyone has a grievance against any other; even as the Lord has forgiven you, so also do you forgive. But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts; unto that peace, indeed, you were called in one body.

Col 3:12-15

What was it about the reading that made me pause? While I try as best as I can to accompany the readings in the missal, looking after two fidgety children makes for a distraction-ridden Mass. Still, as  the priest intoned the words pax Christi, suddenly my attention re-directed from the kids to the reading. Since reading Chapter IV of the Rule some weeks ago, instrument no. 25 – “Do not give a false peace” – has stuck in my mind, almost as though a splinter, a source of constant “irritation”. What does it mean to give a false peace? And before we can even speak of a false peace, what is the peace that St. Benedict speaks of?

I will be dividing this topic into two posts as a matter of practicality, allowing me to flesh out the ideas as I write.

A much forgotten aspect (at least in the Western world) of the spiritual life is that it is a struggle, a combat. I say this at the risk of sounding repetitive, but it bears repeating again and again. The Christian spiritual life is not something merely therapeutic, a form of spiritual hygiene, the finding of an inner equilibrium. Our communion with God, our participating in the life of the Trinity is to be fought on three fronts – the Devil, the World, and the Flesh. It is a prize that does not come cheaply. If I was already aware of this, the reading of the Desert Fathers has hammered the lesson home quite emphatically. In the words of the Apostle Paul:

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.

Eph 6:12

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If we do think of the spiritual life of a struggle at all, then perhaps we relegate it to the monastic life. After all, aren’t monks and nuns the ones’ who have answered the call to remove themselves from the world to do spiritual battle? “I’m OK aren’t I? Sure I may gossip and get drunk and vent my frustration on others and completely forget to pray, but I haven’t killed anyone; I haven’t done any of that negative stuff explicitly stated in the Decalogue. I don’t notice any struggle at all…” In such a case, of course there is no struggle because the demons need not bother with one in such a state. Monastic literature speaks constantly of how material complacency is an enemy of the spiritual life, that it deadens the fear of the Lord, of how it lulls the soul into a torpor, and how one goes on to become little better than the beasts. I often wonder if that is not was has happened with us in the modern world, if we have not become too soft, too puny, too lethargic due to all the comfort that is available to us if only we have the ability to purchase it.

But if one does decide to be faithful to one’s baptismal vows, if one does decide to take up the standard of Christ, then one will see how much of a struggle the Christian life is, not only exteriorly, but interiorly as well. Are there not days when one can almost feel the struggle within? Days when it is as if a fierce war is being waged in one’s heart, that temptations of all sorts come in wave after wave, that the passions inflame, either individually or in concert, and beat down relentlessly upon one’s heart? And in these moments one realises how utterly fragile, utterly weak one is, and one’s only defence is to cry out “O God come to my assistance; o Lord make haste to help me”! No, spiritual warfare is not only the portion of the monastic.

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We fight then to attain peace, but this peace is not the absence of conflict. The conflict will be within till our last dying breath, for the Enemy is a relentless one and will not give quarter until then end. Paradoxically, we are fighting so that we may die in order to live. We are putting to death the Old Man each and every day, so that the New Man may be born within and, in His being born, bring us to life.

 

 

 

The Psalms and the married life [I]

The Introit of the Missa pro sponsis is one of my favourite Gregorian chants, perhaps since it made quite the impression on me on our wedding day (when I walked into the church the choir was rehearsing it, and the acoustics of the place really hit home).

Deus Israel conjungat vos, et ipse sit vobiscum, qui misertus est duobus unicis: et nunc, Domine, fac eos plenius benedicere te.  Ps. Beati omnes qui timent Dominum: qui ambulant in viis ejus.

Unfortunately, I tend to glance over the psalm verse that goes with the Introit at Mass, paying more attention to the opening verse. Only very recently, then, did it dawn on me that I know the psalm from which the verse of this particular Introit was taken: I encounter it several times a week when praying None according to the Monastic Diurnal. The Psalm in question is Psalm 127, Beati omnes. This Psalm figures in a few of the Propers of the nuptial votive Mass and can be found in quite a few other uses’ and rites’ nuptial votive Mass: the Bragan use is very similar to the Roman, and as such the Psalm verse appears in the same places; a 16th century Ambrosian sacramentary shows the entire Psalm being said during the nuptial blessing, while the missal has some Propers taken from it; the Byzantine rite also has recourse to Psalm 127.

What is this Psalm then? What does it have to say about Matrimony that it should find its way into so many matrimonial rites? While the imagery about the married life is pretty straightforward, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to offer a Christological reflection.

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[1] Beati omnes qui timent Dominum, qui ambulant in viis ejus.
[2] Labores manuum tuarum quia manducabis, beatus es, et bene tibi erit.
[3] Uxor tua sicut vitis abundans, in lateribus domus tuae; filii tui sicut novellae olivarum in circuitu mensae tuae.
[4] Ecce sic benedicetur homo qui timet Dominum.
[5] Benedicat tibi Dominus ex Sion, et videas bona Jerusalem omnibus diebus vitae tuae;
[6] et videas filios filiorum tuorum, pacem super Israel.

[1] The bridegroom in this Psalm is Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom. He is the one that is Blessed, the Holy One; He is the one who not only walks in the ways of the Lord, but is the Way.

[2] To be content to eat the labours of one’s hands means that the fruit of one’s labours are good. This signifies that all that Christ does is good. Christ himself said that His food is to do the will of His Father.

[3] Because the Chuch is the Mystical Body of Christ she can be said to be the fruitful vine as well, as her Bridegroom is the Vine. She is fruitful because she abides in Him. The Church is Our Lord’s spouse, having been born of His side, just as Eve was taken from Adam’s, while both slept. And just as a vine can only grow having support, so the Church grows from the life-giving wound on His side from which she was born. The fruit of the vine is wine, which is His Blood, His Life, and that is which the Church mediates to all men. We adopted sons and daughters, though we are part of the Bride, are mystically the sons and daughters of the Church as well; we are the fruit of the love between the Bridegroom and His beloved. We are as young olive trees, that is, we are to give fruit which will become oil – if we be fruitful, then we will become conduits for the Lord’s grace. The table is a reference to that of the wedding feast of the Lamb, where all who are fruitful will gather around. We see here a reference to a garden – we are reminded of Eden. Christ is the New Adam, and just as the Old before the Fall, His is to guard and till it, so that it be fruitful and multiply.

[5,6] The Lord blesses Him from Sion, that is, from the most Holy of Holies, from the sanctuary not made by human hands. Christ is in the Father, and the Father in Him, and so these He receives all the blessings which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, but which are stored up for those who love Him. He is the Beloved, Only-Begotten Son. He shall see the good of the Jerusalem, that is, the heavenly Jerusalem, all the days of His life because Death has no dominion over Him; His children’s children are the multitude of the saints, which are with Him in this heavenly Jerusalem.

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Linking this back to Ephesians 5 (specifically, the pericope which has had such an important impact on our understanding of Matrimony), what are we as a couple supposed to take away from the Psalm? As a husband (and at the moment the only bread-winner for the household), I have to provide for my family while walking the Lord’s ways. I may not being doing the job I’d love to, or even the one I studied for, but I have to do His will where I am now, in my concrete situation. The daily bread I earn must be gotten honestly, through honest work, no matter how “below me” I might at times be tempted to think it is (and it is during those times that the words of the Rule on humility come to mind, about accepting whatever task is set before one). To do what is right, to stay the straight and narrow, when all around one sees corners being cut, is not something within one’s own power. How many times do I fall because I think I can do it on my own? And yet, in accepting what is, in eating the sweat of the brow, a certain peace is to be found. My spouse is to be at my side, to find support in me, to grow in holiness, and in growing to help support myself as well. Our love is to be a fruitful one, open to life; children are to be welcome always. Though they be “ours”, in truth we are only their stewards; ultimately, they belong to God. We are to till and guard them, that they may grow and bear fruit. The most important part of that is passing on the Faith to them. We are the olive trees as well, and as olives are pressed to give  healing chrism, so through our daily trails, we hope to be channels of Our Lord’s grace to them, so that they in turn may be to others. We try to conform to one another, to love each other more perfectly, so that we too may one day, when we have reached the end of this time of trial, by God’s grace, may be introduced into the heavenly tabernacle; we try to love eachother so that we may find Christ in one another, and that others may find the love of Christ for His Church in us.

Following the heart – Sursum corda!

In our daily reading of the sayings of the Desert Fathers the following attributed to Abba Isidore stuck out:

The same Abba Isidore said, ‘It is the wisdom of the saints to recognize the will of God. Indeed, in obeying the truth, man surpasses everything else, for he is the image and likeness of God. Of all evil suggestions, the most terrible is that of following one’s own heart, that is to say, one’s own thought, and not the law of God. A man who does this will be afflicted later on, because he has not recognized the mystery, and he has not found the way of the saints in order to work in it. For now is the time to labour for the Lord, for salvation is found in the day of affliction: for it is written: “By your endurance you will gain your lives.”‘

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“Follow your heart”. How many times have I heard this? It seems of late to have become a mantra of sorts, a justification for all kinds of actions, especially selfish ones (I’ve heard it employed even in abandoning one’s spouse after years of marriage). The premise seems to be that the heart cannot err, that it is the best compass to one’s happiness. Yet, is this the truth? My take on it would be yes and no.

A saying attributed to St. Macarius sheds some light on my position:

[T]he heart itself is but a little vessel, and yet there are dragons, and there lions, and there venomous beasts, and all the treasures of wickedness ; and there are rough uneven ways, there chasms ; there likewise is God, there the angels, there life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures, there are all things.

First, let us address the No. From what I am able to ascertain, those who use “follow your heart” as their rationale tend to identify the feelings which spring from there as the most genuine, and so they act on them. These are people who tend to simply act on their passions, saying that they are free to do what they want. Generalizations? Perhaps, but not unfounded, I believe, given what I’ve been able to glimpse from conversations. Is acting on the passions an expression of freedom? Is it even wise? Do the passions, as they are, bring us happiness? One need not be a Christian to know that this is not the case. Even the ancient pagan philosophers knew that obeying one’s passions is not freedom, but slavery. If one wanted to live a virtuous life – it is the virtuous life which brings about happiness – then the passions had to be mastered; they had to be subject to reason; they had to be re-ordered.
This kind of “follow your heart” stems from a solipsistic mindset of sorts: man is an island; my actions have no impact on others; I am the master of my destiny; my happiness comes before all other considerations; I am a law unto myself. Has not happiness in this case been turned into an idol? The heart, which is indeed the compass of happiness, is not free; it is a slave of the passions. It is like a compass near which metal has been placed, pointing every which way, acting erratically, throwing one forever off course, making happiness an elusive thing. The happiness sought this way is not happiness at all, but fleeting pleasure.

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So will obeying the heart not bring us happiness? It will, but it requires discipline – askesis – and prayer. The happiness that comes from this, however, might very well not be the kind which those who use the mantra envision. One might compare the heart to a garden: if the garden is not maintained, if the weeds are not extracted, if the plants are not watered, eventually the garden becomes derelict, overrun by the weeds and the flowers die. Anyone who has tried to cultivate even the smallest patch will know this is true. The saints show us that purifying the heart, ordering the passions, is a lifelong struggle, which depends not only on our own powers, but most of all on the Lord’s grace.
Do I want to obey my heart? Do I want it to bring me to eternal happiness? As an aspiring Benedictine oblate obeying and listening are very much an integral part of my spiritual life. If I want to obey my heart then it must become like one which I know is the purest heart of all, the humble heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. To follow my heart then will mean to follow the Lord. I will follow my heart because I know that He will be abiding within me.

It is especially during Holy Mass that this is brought home for me. When the priest hauntingly intones Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), that is when I am especially reminded of the need of purification of the heart. Sursum corda – here, O Lord, is my heart. Here is all that I am, here is my totality, which broken and maculate as it is, I offer up to you. Sursum corda – take it, o Lord, into the furnace of your love and burn away the dross. Sursum corda – that I may be able to offer it you, through your Son, ever purer, O heavenly Father.

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Sursum corda!

Do you wish to follow your heart? Then follow it on high. Sursum corda!

Light (or, the Ascent) – Part II

Picking up from the previous post: what exactly did I believe, and which was the God that had answered my prayers?

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At that moment I simply knew that the God who had answered my prayers could be only one, and that monotheistic God could only be He who had given up His only Son. I did not know what that meant at the time – I couldn’t perhaps even articulate it – but I was certain of it, almost intuitively you might say. There was only one God, and He was the God of the Christians.  And remember, at this point I knew next to nothing about the Christian faith; I could hardly recall  anything of my Sunday school upbringing, and  studying for several years in a Catholic school did not really impart any profound or significant Catholic teaching.

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I did not return to the Church all at once. For a while, all I could do was pray Psalm 23 (22). For a time, that – and the promise to lead a virtuous life – sufficed. Christ’s death and resurrection were to be understood allegorically. Though I did believe that He had died on the Cross, His resurrection was something that my reasoning abhorred. If He did “come back”, it couldn’t have been in body; maybe it was a spirit or such. And how could His death do anything for me? Why was His passion effective for me if He had undergone it? (Remember, radical individualism was still in my system) No, if His death and resurrection  were to have any import on my life, it was that they signified all those times that I die to myself and arise anew after hardships, purged and a better/stronger man. And yet, reading through the entries of that period, I see that the conversion was a gradual process. Coupled with the desire for a virtous life, there were still pagan elements in it, thoughts and desires which  were still quite opposed to Christian morality.

At the same time this was going on a Russian and a Dane came into my life. I can no longer remember exactly, but I think I discovered Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard in relation to Nietzsche. From the Dane I learned that following Christ was something “radical”: that there had to be a change in my life, that following Him could not be a merely intellectual exercise, with no impact on the way I lived my life. Either I would follow Him and my life would change, or I would follow Him not at all. There was to be no middle ground. From the Russian’s novels came the subtle fragrance of the Gospel, stories of repentance and forgiveness. I was puzzled at the belief of a physically resurrected Christ that came across in the novels, but I decided not to mock it and remain “open”.

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Somewhere along the line I realised that this one man show was not tenable, and so I began to consider my options. If I were to be a Christian, I needed to belong to a body of believers; I could not make it up as I went along. Christ had certainly left something behind which would have lasted to the present and which could be easily identified. I saw three options: Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism. As for Protestantism, I dismissed it straightaway. The idea that Christians had been wrong up until the Protestant “reformers” came along was absurd, and that Protestants could not even agree among themselves was enough to convince me that that such a position was ridiculous and a recipe for disaster. That left Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Orthodoxy at the time was a bit of a mystery to me. All I knew was that the Orthodox believe pretty much what Catholics believe, only expressed it differently, and have no Pope. Given that I had been baptised into the Catholic Church, was culturally connected to it and the fact that there was a “final arbiter” in the person of the Pope, (re-)joining the Catholic Church seemed like the logical thing. Here was an institution that had been around for two millennia; if it didn’t know human nature and how to help one lead a virtuous life, who would? I decided from then on to start going to Mass. And though I knew I didn’t believe everything the Church taught, I considered that day my “official” return.

Doctrinally, I held (without my knowing it) many heretical/Protestant ideas in the beginning. The Church was just a human institution with a common faith and Mass was just a gathering of the faithful where they celebrated their common faith; the sacraments were merely symbols; infant baptism was “invalid” or at least pointless (one needed to understand the sacraments); the three persons of the Trinity were “masks” for the same Person; Jesus was not God, but He was the greatest Creature;… These I held because they made sense to me, but I had always remained open to what the Church actually teaches and eventually, as I began to learn what she does teach, I gave up these ideas in favour of her doctrine. The Eucharist was perhaps the hardest of all, even more than the Resurrection of the Dead. I was open to believing that it truly was the Body and Blood of Our Lord, but I did not believe it. Knowing that I did not believe what the Church did kept me from receiving Holy Communion. Then, one day, out of the blue, it just flashed within that it could only be His Body and Blood and from then on I never once doubted.

Upon returning to the Church and learning more about her, I discovered that what I had despised for so many years was not her, but the image I had of her, of what I thought she was, especially morals-wise. Morally, there was a lot that had to change with me. There were many ideas and beliefs that I had to give up. Some have told me that I am merely being reactionary, reacting against the beliefs I once held merely to distance myself from them and the person I was. And for a long time I did question if that was in fact the case. But eventually I came to realise that it wasn’t a reactionary impulse; that I had always been searching for Truth, and that in finding it (or rather, having allowed Him to find me) I could only submit to it and act accordingly. It took quite some time to make peace with myself, to come to terms with who I had been and who I was to become. Paradoxically, it was “necessary” for me to be without of the Church to come to the conclusion that all I had ever wanted was within it. I had gone on a journey across foreign lands and discovered a wonderous kingdom which was, in fact, the home from which I had left. The prodigal son had finally come home.

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And so, here I am 9 years later, a different man than I had once been, and yet at the core, still the same. I have come a long way, and yet each day seems as though I’ve just begun. I walked in darkness, and now am slowly coming to the light. And while the initial zeal and fire (and naivety) has long burned out, with God’s grace I carry on because I have experienced the love of the Son who gave Himself up for me.

Darkness (or, the Descent) – Part I

This week marks 9 years since I returned to the Church. With the 10 year mark coming up, and with news of friends and acquaintances losing their faith in these past few years,  I decided to dig up my journal from the period before and during my conversion so that in looking back I can understand how I have gotten to where I am.

Reading through those pages, at times I did not recognize the person who wrote those words. It wasn’t due to the fact that certain passages were vague and I no longer remember what events they refer to (though there are plenty of those); rather, it was the tone, especially of the period before. So much anger, hubris, lust, envy… So much confusion swirling about at the time, and no compass to point the way out of the fog.

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Where was I in the period just before I converted? I was a man searching for meaning, for the meaning of life, and a meaning to my life. Having left the Church at a young age not knowing what she is, I tried reading up on other religions. Buddhism and Toaism especially interested me, but shorn of any mysticism or anything that might smack of esoteric. (This desire for something with a lack of the supernatural element might have been due, in part, to experiences growing up, with my own relatives’ beliefs.) Eventually these did not satisfy me and I moved on to Philosophy (though I did hang on to what I called “Philosophical Taosim”). For a time Philosophy satisfied that hunger and I tried to read as much as I could, trying to make sense of life. Eventually I came upon Nietzsche. (I can’t recall how I came upon him; perhaps due to some of the company I kept at the time.) Nietzsche opened the door to Camus (and, to a lesser degree, to Schopenhauer, to radical individualists, etc.). I drank all of it in. Looking back now I realise the dangers of reading things which one is not equipped to read, especially without a guiding hand to show the way. Reflecting on this (among other things) would later on make me look to the Fathers – trustworthy guides to  interpreting the Scriptures.

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I wanted to live a meaningful life, a virtuous life, but, at the same time, I wanted to indulge my passions. Yet what was this virtous life? I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker the German’s talk of morality as something of weaker men (and Christianity as being the morality of the weakest of all), and from the Frenchman I took that life was absurd and only I could give it meaning (the opening lines of The Myth of Sisyphus are still engraved in my mind all these years later, even after I have seen through their emptiness). From a political-philosophical point of view, I recognized no authority except that which I admitted. The Individual was supreme above all else, free from the fetters of society, of history, of culture, and whatever he entered into with another Individual was licit as long as it was agreed upon by both parties. Yet there was a small, almost imperceptible sensation that wanting to live a virtuous life was not exactly in conformity to giving into my desires, and that unrestrained “freedom” – the ability to choose whatever I wanted – was not in fact liberty, but a form of slavery to the raging, disordered appetites. Enter cognitive dissonance. Factor into that the inability to indulge in most of those passions (especially the one that consumed me the most), the hubris of an inflated ego that resulted from the authors I was reading, and ending a 5 year relationship and you get an unstable situation to say the least. I believed myself to be a one-eyed man deserving to be king in the land of the blind. For all my knowledge, I could not even recognize my own blindness; I could see no one, nor move from where I was.

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Though I never wrote down the event in my journal, the memory of my “conversion moment” is still vivid in my mind. Not wanting to go into too much detail, as it is a very personal matter, it should suffice to say that one night, after returning home from work, I melted down; my walls of Jericho came crashing down. I, who up until then was no longer a believer in anything, who prided myself on being an “agnostic” (but was in fact an atheist), fell to my knees in tears and prayed what a friend years later would say is the one prayer that one can be certain the Lord will always answer, the prayer of the broken, of one who has reached rock bottom and has seen himself for what he really is, immersed in sin, fettered, unable to do what is right. I recall praying “God, I don’t know if you exist of not, but if you do, please save me from myself.” Immediately, a calm as I had never known came over me. I do not know how to put it into words, except by saying that while this calm was within me I realized that is was something from without, i.e., that it could not be and was not a product of my own psychological state or anything else of my own mind. All the confusion, all the anger and sadness and everything else that was inside at that moment ceased. It was as though I had experienced the Psalm verse “Be still, and know that I am God” (which I only heard of years later). I got up, went to bed and had the first night’s rest in a long time. I had fallen to my knees an unbeliever. I had arisen a believer.

But what exactly did I believe? Which was the God that had answered my prayers?