Role models are very important, starting with our first role models, our parents. At some point that tiny circle starts widening to the rest of the family, and, much to the dismay and frustration of parents, by the time children become teenagers they begin taking their role models from their peer groups. In some cases, especially when relationships at home are impoverished, a young person’s peer group, with whom they share values, concerns, and a sense of identity, becomes for them like a new family.
Now if, like Jesus, our primary concern is doing the will of God, then it makes sense that our most important role models, those we might consider our larger family in the world, would be those with the same priority. And when we find those who gladly surrender to God’s will, we naturally relate to them as good role models in Christ.
1 Samuel 17:31-50
In the story of David versus the Philistine giant, Goliath, we’re made sure to understand that David did not defeat his enemy with the normal implements of war. We’re told, for example, that David tried on Saul’s armor and sword, but it just wasn’t working for him. As Goliath approaches, David announces that the Lord does not save by sword and spear, and at the end of the battle we’re reminded again that there was no sword in David’s hand. No, unlike Goliath, armed to the teeth with sword, spear, and javelin, David had picked up five stones from a nearby stream to use with his humble sling.
Besides David’s notable lack of appropriate weaponry, what also caught my attention was the number of stones. It seems oddly specific to say David chose five stones. With a little research I found, as you could imagine, all sorts of theories on what the five stones represent. One of my favorites is that the number five symbolizes the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and in a more general sense the entire set of teachings and law considered the foundation of Jewish identity and culture.
This led me to consider the foundation Jesus gave us, his summation of Jewish law: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. And, in light of today’s story about David and Goliath, we’ll add: love your enemy.
Although very rarely rising to the surface, profound anguish and anger hid within me for a very long time. I was once angry at the ones who tormented me as a child, causing such painful wounds. I was angry at God for allowing it to happen and not intervening. And I was angry at myself. Could I have made different choices? Maybe if I tried harder to be part of the “in” crowd. Maybe if Little Nick had acted more aggressive, or had worked out and took karate. It would be fair to say I was angry at choices made all around, choices the bullies made, choices God made, and choices I made. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that perhaps no one in this story had any choice at all.
Choice, and the freedom to choose, is fundamental to how we see ourselves in the world. We feel powerful when we have choices, and powerless when we have none. There’s an inherent human desire to be powerful, to feel we’re agents of change making choices that impact our lives and the lives of others.
However, whatever we might think of the plethora of choices we make, for good or for ill, we tend to forget an underlying assumption, namely that we really do have the ability to consciously make a decision. We’re assuming we have free will or personal agency, the ability to make decisions on the behalf of what we perceive to be our selves. On closer examination, though, it isn’t at all clear that we do.
Numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, for example, have examined our decision-making process, with some surprising results. In a typical study, researchers measure activity in different areas of the brain while having subjects make various sorts of choices. They found that certain kinds of activity in the brain predicted the subject’s eventual decision, well before the subject was conscious of making a decision.
Perhaps, then, free will, in terms of a person consciously making a decision, is an illusion. Maybe what we call free will is simply the story we tell ourselves after the decision has been made. Some part of my brain begins the process of pushing a button, and then several seconds later my conscious self pushes it. In that scenario my conscious choice is only a story about my own sense of volition in the world, with the real choice happening below consciousness.
These are momentous, stressful times we live in. It may seem that around every corner there’s something to be fearful, angry, or distraught over. Our minds may habitually return to the last article we read, or video we watched, or podcast we listened to. We may feel compelled to stay up-to-date on the latest news, out of a sense of duty, from a powerful curiosity, or a need to be on top of what’s going on so as to feel safe and prepared. And all of this takes a toll on us.
Psychologists have long studied what is called vicarious trauma or vicarious traumatization. This kind of trauma arises not from a first-hand experience of a traumatic event, but from witnessing such an event. Such vicarious trauma has often been seen in professionals who work in fields where witnessing traumatic events or interacting with trauma survivors is common. However, it’s now known that vicarious trauma can also affect those who are regularly exposed to traumatic events in the media. Constant exposure to traumatic events in media has been shown to cause anxiety, difficulties in coping, immense fear, and feelings of hopelessness. This is especially true for those of us who have a history of trauma ourselves or just happen to be particularly sensitive.
Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers,” and as children of God that is our calling. Being a peacemaker, which is so needed is these tumultuous times, begins with being at peace ourselves. A big fan of the beatitudes himself, Gandhi once said that “there is no way to peace, peace is the way.” And Martin Luther King Jr. told us to “be the peace you wish to see in the world.” In other words, one of the very best gifts we can offer a troubled world is letting ourselves rest in God’s presence, resting in the Peace and Joy of Christ.
If you feel yourself caught up in a cycle of fear, anger, and despair, as you digest all the latest news of a world and people in crisis, you owe it to yourself and the world to be kind to yourself, and take a break. And even Jesus needed to be alone every now and then, so you know you’re in good company. In a world inundated with news 24-hours a day, here are some helpful tips on being a peacemaker, beginning with making inner peace:
- Set limits on the consumption of news media, videos, etc. Consider taking a Sabbath from all kinds of media, for a day or even longer.
- If you have trouble setting limits, put notes on the devices you use reminding yourself to ask “Is what I’m doing now nourishing for my soul?”
- Practice noticing patterns in your thoughts and feelings around consuming traumatic news, and take a break when needed.
- Make a list of things that bring you hope, peace, and joy, and practice them.
- If you feel called to do something, then do something! Consider even the smallest gestures that could turn hopelessness and anxiety into action.
- Make time for silent prayer, and practice letting God take on the cares of the world while you rest in God’s presence.
Remember, your greatest contribution to God’s Kingdom is to cultivate the Kingdom within. Stay informed in moderation, be kind to yourself, and be the Peace and Joy of Christ the world so needs.
Peace and Be Well,
Br. Nicholas Bartoli
During our community’s discussions, the aspect of mission that has most caught my attention is that of being a prophetic voice in the Church and the world. A prophetic voice can be seen as both calling from the wilderness or the margins, and calling us to the margins. The margins may refer to either the contemplative aspect of our faith, one often neglected in our busy world, or it may refer to being of direct service to those who are marginalized by society: the poor, outcast, and neglected. These two aspects of prophetic voice are related in the sense that embarking on a contemplative journey, surrendering oneself to God, will naturally lead to a feeling of unity and compassion with all beings, especially those suffering most.
Do not worry and do not be afraid, that’s the basic message of today’s gospel reading. Don’t worry about your life, what you eat, your body, or what you wear. Don’t worry about how long you’ll live, because, after all, worrying won’t help. I suppose we could also add, don’t worry about the coronavirus or our nation’s political and economic woes. Don’t worry about anything, but strive for just one thing, God’s Kingdom.
It probably goes without saying that when Jesus says “don’t worry,” he’s focusing on the subjectively negative experience of anxiety and the feeling of distraction that comes with it, as opposed to just acknowledging a concern for something, and taking appropriate action. The Greek word Luke uses has these negative connotations of anxiety and distraction, and he uses this same word when Jesus tells Martha she’s anxious.
On November 8, 1952 C.S. Lewis responded by letter to a Mrs. Johnson, who had asked him, “Is the Bible Infallible?” Here is what he wrote:
“It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is… Myth (… specially chosen by God… to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible… as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context…) can be taken for use as weapons.”
That quote from C.S. Lewis reminded me of a scene from the 2004 movie, Saved! It’s a movie about a girl named Mary attending a Christian high school, and when she becomes pregnant, she finds herself ostracized and demonized, as all of her former friends turn on her.
In one particular scene Hillary Faye, the most popular girl at school, and her two friends confront Mary in a combination intervention and exorcism. At one point, after Mary points out their hypocrisy, Hilary Faye shoves Mary yelling, “Oh my God, you’re making accusations as we’re trying to save your soul? Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus… he loves you.”
The sixth Temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, was rebuilt at Delphi in 320BC. Inscribed into the temple were the words “Know Thyself,” a popular pearl of wisdom, both then and now, attributed to a host of Greek sages from Pythagoras to Socrates, but whose origin has probably been lost forever. To “know thyself” has a variety of possible meanings, including as a warning against hubris or as a call to control one’s emotional life. But, the most compelling sense of that phrase, especially in light of the Gospel, is knowing who we are in the truest sense, the kind of knowing present in the depths of our heart. It’s this kind of knowing that allows us to claim our inner spiritual wisdom and authority.
In contrast to such inner authority, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day held religious and spiritual authority for the Jewish people. Jesus said they sat on the seat of Moses, possibly referring to an actual seat they taught from in synagogue, but certainly, metaphorically referring to their role in maintaining and passing on the tradition of Moses, particularly as expressed in religious law.
Jesus also said to follow the scribes and Pharisees teachings, but not do as they do, because they did not themselves practice what they taught. I suppose that’s not too surprising given how often Jesus accuses them of being hypocrites, both for their actions and words, even accusing those on the seat of Moses of hindering people on their way to entering God’s Kingdom.
When we’re watching a good movie, and find ourselves swept along by the story, it’s easy to see the movie as having a reality of its own. We forget that what we’re actually seeing is only light dancing on a screen, and we relate intimately with the people and situations of the story as if they were real. We can even become so absorbed in the story that on some level we think we’re in the movie, like when something scary happens and we jump as if we’re in any real danger.
We can describe this shift in perception between what seems real and is real as a loss of a certain kind of freedom living within us. We move from being freely aware of light projected onto a screen to being caught in a misperception, no longer noticing the light or the screen, but only seeing the story as it unfolds. This loss of interior freedom is usually experienced as a fun kind of escapism, and it’s often just what we’re looking for when we need to unwind a little. We might even get annoyed if something gets in the way of that experience, like when filmmakers try showing movies at high frame rates, and people complain that the movie looks “too real.”
The ancient desert monastics had a lot to say on the subject of interior freedom, and the consequences of losing that freedom. They called this interior freedom apatheia, and it meant for them no less than abiding in the Kingdom of God, being free to love God with all one’s heart, and being free from the kind of suffering born from being a slave to sin. They described how this interior freedom allows us to see God’s Light and Truth in the world, as when Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.” Evagrius Ponticus turns our gaze inward to discover our true nature, writing: “If you wish to see the transparency of your own spirit you must rid yourself of all thoughts, and then you will see yourself looking like sapphire or the color of heaven. But to do that without interior freedom is not possible.”
John the Baptist saw Jesus this way, recognizing him as the one who would free us from the slavery of sin. And since Passover celebrated the delivery of the Jewish people out of slavery he thought of Jesus as the Passover Lamb, exclaiming here is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
When we consider sin, what typically comes to mind are the actions we take, or even the thoughts we have, that are judged as immoral or unethical, or that violate some aspect of religious law. Sin can also refer to a state of being. When John says Jesus takes away the sin of the world, he intentionally uses the singular form of the word “sin,” referring to the condition of being a slave to sin, blinded by our own willfulness instead of willingly letting our eyes be opened to God’s Kingdom. In other words, this condition of sin is what the ancient monks would have described as the lack of interior freedom, and Jesus was offering a way back to this freedom.
John’s two disciples don’t seem to have recognized Jesus the way John did, but they did trust John, and so they followed Jesus. Gazing upon them from that place of interior freedom, Jesus felt moved to ask the two what they were seeking. They answered by asking where Jesus was staying, although a better translation of the original text would give the sense of abiding, as in “Teacher, where are you abiding?” Of course, Jesus was abiding in God’s Kingdom, and in what’s probably a reference to Jesus giving sight to the blind, he responds “come and see.”
Then we’re given what might seem like an odd detail. The disciples abided with Jesus at around four o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek text, that line reads as “The hour was about the tenth,” with the dramatic emphasis landing on that final word. Many bible translators must have assumed we’d want to know what time of day that meant by our clocks, but keeping with the original text opens a richer layer of meaning.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann, for example, suggested the tenth hour was symbolic of a coming to wholeness or fulfillment. St. Augustine saw the number ten in a similar way, while also recognizing it as a symbol of ancient Jewish Law. He understood the tenth-hour reference to mean that by abiding with Jesus, the Law had been fulfilled.
The Law had covered the moral and religious transgressions referred to as sins in the plural, while Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law amounted to addressing the underlying condition of sin. As the Passover Lamb of God he offered his disciples the way out of bondage, freeing them from that condition of sin. Interior slavery becomes interior freedom, and this fulfills the Law, because while abiding with Jesus in God’s Kingdom that long list of sins just doesn’t seem like much of a problem.
In chapter 8 of John’s gospel Jesus tells some of his Jewish followers that the truth would make them free. They respond indignantly saying they’ve never been slaves to anyone. And this was one of Jesus’ toughest jobs, convincing people who think they’re free that in truth they’re still enslaved.
Jesus responds to them saying “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
By “free indeed” Jesus means abiding with him in God’s Kingdom, that place of interior freedom from which we see God’s Truth clearly. We’re “free indeed” when we’re no longer enslaved to the sin mentioned in John the Baptist’s original proclamation. Jesus takes away sin, and it is the sin of the world. The world, or more specifically being attached or overly identified with the world, is the sin we’re freed from when we abide with God in Christ.
It may help in describing this interior freedom and the sin of the world to revisit the movie metaphor. Imagine you’re watching a movie and you become so completely caught up in it that you forget, on some level, that it’s only a movie. Your awareness shifts from watching light move across a screen to seeing only the story as it unfolds, a story that seems very real. The movie represents the world, and the enlightened screen represents the Truth of God’s Kingdom.
If we’re in the world, but not of the world, then we participate in the world, experiencing all its ups and downs, while also having the interior freedom to see the world as an expression of God, seeing God’s Truth in all things, including ourselves.
On the other hand, if we’re in the world and of the world, then we’ve become enslaved to the world, forgetting that the world in all its many forms is an expression of God’s Goodness. If we’re of the world, we might even believe that our identity in the world is who we really are, forgetting our Truest selves as children of Light.
The good news is that Jesus offers us a path back to interior freedom. This path, though, is counterintuitive in its simplicity, especially in our culture of extreme busyness, productivity, and the need to always be doing something. The way of Jesus, it turns out, is mostly about doing nothing. That’s one reason Meister Eckhart called the way of Jesus the Wayless Way, because it’s not about getting somewhere or doing something, but about coming to rest where we already are.
It might not seem obvious, but if you’re completely absorbed in a movie, forgetting it’s just light on a screen, your mind is expending energy and effort to sustain that illusion. Or look at it this way, if you’re watching a movie, caught up in the story, how much effort does it take to notice the movie as just light on a screen? It takes no effort at all, just a shift in awareness which happens quite naturally when we’re at rest.
Abiding in Christ, in God’s Kingdom, is the fulfillment of God’s greatest wish for us. God wants us to reclaim our interior freedom and be free from the sin of the world. God wants us to escape the slavery of sin and abide in the eternal Peace and Joy of Christ beyond understanding.
We fulfill God’s wish for us, receiving this amazing grace when we follow where Jesus leads, abiding with him and finding deep rest for our souls. When we let ourselves rest in God’s presence, we let go of all the ways the world has us in its grip, so we’re free to be in the world, but not of the world. From this place of rest, we allow God to heal us and make us whole, dying with Christ, and rising as new creations in Christ.
Abiding in Christ is the fulfilment of God’s desire for us, and the fulfillment Jesus brings us as his disciples. Our hope is that we follow Jesus’ Wayless Way back to our true home, God’s Eternal Kingdom, where we bear witness to God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in all things.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, whom we commemorate today, was born on July 19, 1754 with the given name Prochorus Moshnin, and on November 20, 1778 he arrived at the Sarov wilderness monastery as a new monk. Prochorus was inclined towards solitude and asceticism, and with the blessings of the head of the monastery, Father Pachomius, he would spend Wednesday’s and Friday’s in isolation in the forest, practicing the Jesus Prayer.
Prochorus spent eight years as a novice, and was then given the name Seraphim, after the fiery angels of heaven, and referring to his fiery love for the Lord. After the death of Father Pachomius, Seraphim received the blessing of the new head of the monastery to live a solitary life in the forest a few miles away, returning only for Saturday evening Vigil and the Sunday Liturgy.