Still The Air I Breathe

I feel this world is pushing me,

pressing me to move on,

move on, just move on.

I need to stop and breathe.

They say they’ve made a better way,

newer means to move us all along,

moving strong, and moving on.

We need to stop and breathe.

You’re still the air I breathe,

be still, my soul, and see.

There is no other air to breathe,

Holy Spirit dwell in me.

I see the world is losing you,

we’re losing you, we’re lost,

step back, we’re losing you.

Clear! We need to breathe.

Our fear is closing every door,

does anyone believe,

faith, can anyone believe?

Only trust in God, and breathe.

You’re still the air I breathe,

be still, my soul, and see.

There is no other air to breathe,

Holy Spirit dwell in me.


Calypso Ray (part 1):

Calypso Ray knew, just like everyone else does, what it takes to be happy. She knew it, but she just couldn’t do it. Either that, or things just hadn’t fallen the right way for her. Yes, she thought, it was obviously some deficiency within herself that caused happiness to elude her; because she had done all the right things, all the things one is supposed to do, ever since she was a little girl; and yet, life still never felt quite right. Maybe she didn’t really know after all. Don’t get me wrong though, it wasn’t that Calypso was unhappy, not exactly. She was fine. That’s what she’d say in fact, when anyone asked her how she was doing. “She was doing just fine.”

But maybe happiness is the wrong measure. Nobody can be happy all the time, right? Maybe what she was seeking was really fulfillment, not happiness; or maybe she wanted her life to have some kind of meaning. Honestly, it sounds mundane to say it, but she was trying to make her life matter. And sometimes it did seem to matter, she could feel it; like when she tucked her daughter into bed, and as she sang to her while she fell asleep. In those quiet moments when their eyes met—her child’s eyes heavy and at peace, and her own, smiling—then the world around her disappeared, and it was then that Calypso felt her life mattered most. But a lot of the time, maybe most of the other times, it didn’t seem to matter much at all. 

And this bothered her, but like most people, she didn’t want to let on that she had this problem. It seems so silly after all, doesn’t it? And she could live without thinking about it, so that’s what she tried to do. She’d hate that I was telling you all of this; and maybe this makes me a bad friend. But I thought you might like to know, because maybe you’ll relate to this; and her story is, at the very least, entertaining. Besides, it is easier for me to make a confession on behalf of a friend, rather than relate my own issues, so telling you about Calypso Ray is a good distraction. Yet, in the end, her story isn’t all that different than my own, I suppose—aside from the particulars and the details. The broad strokes are quite similar. We’re all a lot more alike than different, after all.

Calypso was a swimmer, and a klutz. In the pool and in the surf she was graceful; but get her on land, and then she bumped into things. Perhaps she just didn’t pay enough attention, since her mind was constantly someplace else. There were always so many things to do, to get done, and it was never-ending, the lists, the errands, the work to keep up, to get ahead, to satisfy her loved ones and herself. And she was always late: taking her daughter to day-care, picking up groceries, meeting her husband, meeting her friends, arriving at work, leaving work, waking up, and heading to bed. Occasionally, she tried hard to think about her life but always found it difficult to make any conclusions. For instance, she stopped one day on the sidewalk, with her coffee in hand, and she closed her eyes for a moment to help her think, but suddenly she opened them again—embarrassed to be seen with her eyes closed in public, and feeling like a freak. She pretended to have something in her eye, in case anyone was watching her. She glanced around at the passers-by but nobody seemed to notice. But just in case, she squinted a few more times and closed her eyes again, blinking—to make her subterfuge complete. But what she had really wanted to do when she closed her eyes, was try to think about her life. For instance, why did she just buy the coffee in her hand? Did she even like coffee? Just then several women passed by, carrying their coffee, and they all smiled at her, and she smiled back. “I guess I like coffee,” she thought, as she glanced at her watch and realized she had better get a move on.

She wore her watch on her left wrist, like most people do. She also held her coffee in her left hand, most of the time. So when she turned her wrist to look at her watch, she dumped her coffee down her blouse, and across her skirt. “Crap!” She exclaimed. Calypso had a bit of a foul mouth, but generally she could keep that under wraps, and it only surfaced when something surprised her. As a little girl, this often made adults laugh. As a teen, it bothered her parents, and embarrassed them at holidays and when they attended church. As a young woman though, it became normal. Strange. But all of her girlfriends also had foul mouths. So, it was no longer an issue for her, so she settled into it comfortably, and eventually learned to feel fine when cuss-words came out unexpectedly. At first, she laughed nervously when she swore, because memories of her parents’ reactions flitted across her mind, but when the friends in her company showed no reaction at all, she learned not to worry about it either. So she came to the conclusion: “What’s wrong with an occasional bad word anyway? Who really gives a shimmy-shimmy*!” (*Not Calypso’s actual expression, author’s substitution.) And this made her smile. But she sighed now, as she looked down at the coffee stains all over her clothing, and she knew she’d be late to her meeting, that is, if she could even make it there at all, before it ended.

When I first saw Calypso swim, my heart stopped and my mind raced, as she slid between the waves like a knife. She could slice her way through water while barely leaving a trace, with hardly a ripple left behind. I don’t remember exactly, so maybe it was my mind that stopped and my heart that raced, as she wove her magic through that shimmering water. I never saw anything like her before, nobody quite so beautiful. Maybe it was her swimming which was beautiful to me and nothing more, because I could hardly see her form beneath the surface, and never saw her face. Her arms were exquisite though. They churned smoothly and evenly, a continuous rhythm that first I followed with my eyes, and then my mind, and finally with all of me—it was I that followed in her wake. And time stopped. And was recalibrated to the motion of her hands—rising and falling—lifting out of the water from somewhere near her hips, making a circuit through the sky, and dipping again just beyond her forehead. Round and round they went; and her golden hair streaming behind her like the rays of the sun. For how long did I watch her? I have no idea. Minutes? Hours? Days? She was like a continuous day to me, and there was no night when watching her.


Vincent (part 1):

I’m not going to lie, Vincent had a crappy day. It was a two-scotch, ten-mile bike ride to undo-the-crappiness-of-it kind of day. But, given the fact that he worried about his liver, he cut the scotch in half, and since he was too lazy to ride ten miles, he cut that in half as well. And, if we’re being really honest, he didn’t even ride the five miles I just implied that he’d ridden, but only rode around the block, which was a half-mile at best. After a drink and a bike ride he felt a little bit better but it was hard to get the day out of his mind. A longer ride certainly would have helped to clear his head, but he felt weary and instead just flopped down on the couch and grabbed for the remote. He flipped through the channels, barely paying attention to what he was seeing, and landed on a game show: “What is the capitol of Zimbabwe?” he heard the contestant exclaim. “Harare,” Vincent muttered. But the question was the answer. It was that show.

Vincent smiled as he thought about this game, and how nice it is to be given the answers, when all you have to do is come up with the questions. That’s the way life should work, he thought, like this: Answer: Harare. Question: Where can I ship off all my cruddy clients?… Answer: Tomorrow. Question: When can I can retire?…Answer: Paul McCartney. Question: Who is the person I’d most like to write the soundtrack to my life?…Answer: Ten million dollars. Question: How much is the check made out for that is coming for me in the mail tomorrow?…Answer: Love. Question: What is the meaning of life?…Answer: Who knows! Question: What is the meaning of love?…He turned off the TV and sat quietly for a few moments, contemplating this last question about love, his dogs having jumped onto his lap when he sat down, and now curled up there fast asleep. Remembering a line from his childhood, “happiness is a warm puppy,” he decided that may be the answer for love as well: “love is a warm puppy, or two warm puppies.”

He decided that answer was as satisfactory as any other. His wife would be home soon, she certainly knew the correct answer. He might ask her. His usual question to her was, “How was your day?” This one about love might be more provocative. He pictured it in his mind: she walks through the door and puts her purse on the counter, she gets a glass of water and wipes the sweat from her brow, as he comes downstairs and asks: “Hi sweetie, welcome home, hey, what’s the meaning of love?” She’d be surprised and would smile. Not bad. Besides, he didn’t really care how her day was, it was just a habit to ask. It was always the same anyway—or nearly. Dear reader, don’t get mad, Vincent isn’t a (complete) jerk. She doesn’t care how his day is either, but she asks him all the same. So it goes both ways, and it’s fine, they’ve worked it out. It isn’t that they don’t care about each other, they just don’t care about how each other’s day was. Should they care? It’s the same as every other day, so how excited can we get to hear the same story day after day? Another proof that love probably is a warm puppy or two, because those two little guys go through the same routine day after day, each time when Vincent and his wife get home, and they go nuts to see them—every, single, time.

Vincent was old enough to have seen it all, but young enough to still care. He hadn’t quite gotten to the point where everything bugged him, but he was getting close. He still had a fondness for ice cream, and occasionally his friends didn’t bore him. Each day, life was just like it always had been—or perhaps a little worse than the day before—while everyone around him lied a little more each day. It seemed to Vincent that pretending had become the order of the day, and acting was the national obsession. Nobody was really honest anymore by his estimation, and everyone just said or did whatever they had to in order to get by, or to get ahead, or to make a killing. In disgust, sometimes he imagined himself just walking off into the woods and never turning back; or swimming out to sea and just continuing on, maybe finding a secret island someplace, or maybe a hidden grotto, where he could eat leaves and make friends with the elk and the dolphins. They, at least, seemed sane, which was a lot more than he could say for most of the homo-sapiens that were roaming the earth with him.  

However, Vincent didn’t see his role in life as being a reclusive hermit, at least not yet. He still had some fight in him, and he wanted to use it up—firing away at the depravity, the deceit, and the stupidity the world around him belched up on a daily basis. It is true that he often felt worn out and beaten down by the absurdity of everything; the mindlessness and haughty arrogance of people often made him want to scream out incredulously and cower with a degree of horror. But then, after a good night’s sleep, and a moment or two in prayer, he typically got his second wind, and was ready to play the contrarian once again, which really was the role he felt born to. Ever since he was a child, if everyone wanted to turn right, he’d turn left. If they thought something was a good idea, he was sure they were most likely wrong, and could tell them the myriad reasons why. But it wasn’t because he had to be contrary, because he didn’t have to be—but only when the situation or circumstances called for it. And always in the cause of the downtrodden, or the minority, or the outcast; and always in defense of what is true and right and good, as he saw these things, which now had become the greatest outcasts of all. What is more downtrodden in our world than truth, what is more outcast than righteousness, and what is more maligned than goodness?  Unless truth can be made to serve money, unless righteousness can be made to bow to power, unless goodness can be twisted to serve depravity the world has little use for them.

Before going to bed, Vincent thought about the idiots he had met earlier in the day. They were all idiots, no doubt about it, but they were loveable idiots. Somehow, now that he was comfortable in his own environment, their stupidity didn’t bother him so much and he began to think fondly of them. He really couldn’t help liking people, even the most obnoxious of them. He couldn’t hold a grudge against any of them either; or, he probably could, but he just usually didn’t. Waste of time, what’s the point? At least that’s the way he saw it. No, he really did like them, especially from a safe distance, from a vantage point that protected him from the effects of their humanness. In fact, he probably could love them all quite perfectly, if he didn’t actually have to interact with any of them. If he didn’t have to listen to them, he could imagine them as gracious and noble. If he didn’t have to witness them doing anything, he could pretend they acted selflessly and righteously. If he just didn’t have to be around them all, he could love everyone unconditionally. Oh, if only! He sighed wishfully at the thought of perfectly lovable people; but instead, we have all of these idiots. After acknowledging this woeful state of affairs, Vincent went to bed to recharge for another day tomorrow in the trenches. With a good night’s rest he was sure he could refrain from killing the first moron he met in the morning, perhaps he’d try to ‘kill them with kindness’ instead, as the saying goes. Or, if not that, at least maim them with magnanimity.


Confession Confers The Gift of Living

I don’t hear enough people tell how miraculously liberating the sacrament of Confession is; so I will share a little now. Because it should be made widely known, so that more people might avail themselves of this heavenly cure. I will do my best not to overstate its effects or fall into hyperbole but it is nothing short of a wonder; and the word ‘magic’ captures it’s quality, though that word isn’t really appropriate. It is impossible for my mind to grasp and understand how it actually works. How can the dark night in my soul so suddenly transform into a new dawn? In these very moments—as I bear my sins honestly and without contrivance, and as I utter them out loud for our only judge and redeemer Jesus Christ to forgive—it is as though I am given new life, and renewed hope. In the presence of my priest—who stands beside me and offers support and guidance as I share my inner depths with God—the fears that would have kept me far away from this moment, away from this place, these fears melt away in the love of God, and they are replaced by courage and boldness. The shameful meekness—which I carried for how long now?—or rather, the shame that had encased me in a numbing apathy, cracks, and then shatters, and then falls away, and I feel invigorated! Before Confession I was as though a dead person, moribund and overwhelmed by life; and after Confession I become as though raised from the dead, my mind and heart both active and excited again by the gift of life. Before Confession everything hurt: my nerves were on edge, my mind was befuddled, my heart didn’t care, my limbs were heavy and numb, and my soul felt imprisoned. After Confession my whole being became empowered: my soul felt set free, energy rose from my depths, my mind felt engaged, my heart grew warm, and my extremities could once again carry my own weight. The joy, the freedom and the power of Confession is not widely commented upon, and perhaps is not well-understood. This is too bad because it is not a secret, though it is a mystery. We may none of us fully grasp the reason for its efficacy, or the cause for its miraculous effects, but we can surmise it has a lot to do with the Holy Spirit. Finally, it doesn’t matter that we can’t understand, because what’s better is that we can believe. And believing, we can participate. Participating, we can enjoy renewed life and living!


Waiting In a Dry Barren Place

God, if I didn’t already know you exist because of past experience, today I would doubt you. Where do you go; and why do you hide yourself so fully from my sight? I search my innermost heart and I cannot find you. Your presence is absent from the trees, the wind, the sunlight and the creatures, when I seek you there. My spirit is a desert wasteland and you do not nourish me, you do not quench my thirst, but rather, you allow my desire to nearly drive me mad. I pray the prayer you taught me, but you are not there. My thoughts press hard, trying to penetrate whatever boundary has been erected between us, but to no avail. I cannot pierce the veil, I cannot discern your Spirit. Was it I who erected this boundary? Did I hang this veil? It is a veil of tears, yet I do not shed them. For, even my eyes are a wasteland—dry and arid, and barren. Who can find you, if even the searchers are lost? What then, for those with little or no desire for you, who are content with your absence? With men it is impossible, but nothing is impossible for You. Leave me if you must, but not for long. I surrender to this emptiness, and fall upon the earth in hope. I pray that you will raise me up again before I turn to dust.


A New Declaration of Independence

When in the course of a human life one becomes aware of the bondage and servitude to which his or her inner nature has become ensnared, and it becomes necessary to dissolve these bonds and to reorient them from what is bad towards what is good, and to assume the natural use of the powers granted them by the God of nature, to which His image and likeness entitle them, then for the benefit of this person, and for that of all mankind, it shall be declared, the causes for which this reorientation is required, and for which this new independence is sought. 

These truths remain self-evident—that all people are created free; endowed by God with powers of mind, desire and strength, for the purpose of growing in love, peace and joy.—That by using these powers in the way intended by nature and by God, every person can achieve these ends.—That by the misuse of these powers mankind falls into every kind of difficulty, suffering, pain, deception and entrapment. —That the ruler of this world has used deception, trickery, seduction and malice to corrupt these natural powers to turn humanity from what is good towards what is evil. —That because mankind has fallen into enslavement to this evil, by improper use of our freedom, so that we desire what we shouldn’t, and hate others whom we should love, it is clear that we have become self-destructive and it is our necessity, and our duty to abolish this rule of evil within us, and to lay a new foundation upon Christ, Who’s power will reorganize the powers within us, so as to attain liberty once again. 

By a long train of abuses and temptations, the current ruler of this world has reduced mankind under an absolute Despotism, so that it is now our duty, by the right of our Creator, for each to throw off this tyranny, and shelter under God’ grace for his or her future security. The history of the present ruler is a history of diabolical malefactions and malicious deceptions, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over mankind. To prove this, let facts be submitted to an honest and straightforward world:

…he has rejected, and causes mankind to reject, the law and commandments given us for the public and private good.

…he has confused and confounded mankind into becoming lovers of ourselves, instead of lovers of one another; seeking self-gain first, and then what is good for others only to the degree it benefits us.

…he has manipulated our natural desires, causing us to turn them towards superficial, transient or forbidden things which don’t satisfy our needs and which, after fleeting pleasure, yield greater sorrow.

…he has caused murders, wars and every kind of violence, by turning our natural anger away from evil as its only proper object, and towards our brothers and sisters, and has deluded us into justifying our misdirected anger and our atrocities.

…he has caused us to lose our self-control, so that we are no longer masters of our appetites or our emotions; but have become slaves to the caprice and whim of our emotions, and easily manipulated by our desires.

…for entrapping us in despondency and hopelessness.

…for enticing us with money and fame, which never satisfy our inner longings.

…for mesmerizing us with possessions which we expect should give us joy, but only create a deepening emptiness within us.

…for isolating and dividing us from one another, under every pretext and justification, but yielding only more anger and misery.

…for causing us to see one another as objects, tools, or means for satisfying our own desires, rather than each as unique and precious images of God, with vast inherent worth.

…for using every kind of material deception to draw us out of ourselves, and away from God, so that we become lost and unable to perceive God any longer, so that we lose our relationship with the only One that can heal us and save us.

…he has bewildered us with entertainments, dulled our minds and hearts, and caused us to grow lazy and indifferent towards our spiritual realities.

…he has plundered us, ravaged us, burnt us, murdered us, raped us, and in every way destroyed the lives of mankind, all while hiding in the shadows so that mankind even doubts his very existence.

…he has made himself, thus, our perfect enemy, and turned each of us into unwitting accomplices to our own destruction.

We, therefore, each of us who desire to be truly free, appealing to the Lord of all, do, in His name, solemnly publish and declare, that we are by nature and by right afforded through His mercy and grace, independent and free from all allegiance to the ruler of this world, and that all spiritual connection between us and Satan, is and ought to be totally dissolved, and that as free and independent beings, we have full power, by God’s grace, to live virtuously and in accord with the commandments given for our peace, in control of ourselves, making proper use of all the faculties of our soul which have been given us for our fulfillment and blessing, and to do all things right and proper to those living in spiritual freedom.—And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm and total reliance on the protection of the Triune God, we pledge to God our complete and enduring love, issuing forth from our mind, our heart, our soul and our strength, and we pledge to one another, a love that equals the love we have for our very selves.


Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Conclusion)


Suffering is an inevitable event in everyone’s life. And death and dying presents each of us with an existential problem. How we make sense of these events makes all the difference in how we live through them.  It is normal to dislike and fear painful experiences, so it is understandable that most of us learn to see suffering and death as things to avoid; and few of us learn from others that there can be any value and importance to be found in suffering. In fact, the opposite is typically the case, we learn that suffering has no value at all, and is just something you have to sometimes put up with; and we learn to spend our energy simply trying to fix these problems as best we can, and then get on with living. Our focus and effort is entirely spent upon getting out of the suffering as quickly as possible. But what if we could learn—and teach one another—that suffering, and even death, bring with them a wealth of value for those who understand them in a different way; and that we can do more than simply focus on the remedies for our suffering. In fact, we can actually do vastly more than just work on fixing the problem.

However, the notion that suffering can be valuable is so anathema to the world’s way of looking at it, that even bringing up that possibility can often be met by confused looks, and accusations that one is either crazy or maybe even masochistic. One can be accused of laziness if they accept suffering, or they may be told to ‘pull yourself out of it’ if they spend too much time struggling over death and its effects. These things can be so uncomfortable to people—and seen only as tragedies by them—that they admonish others if they don’t fight against suffering. It is as though the only acceptable way to see suffering is as an enemy. It is common to hear how valiantly someone fought against a disease; but rarely will we hear how valiantly someone sat quietly in their suffering and then discovered a new depth of relationship with our Creator. This isn’t intended to say anything against fighting for health and life—which are very good and desirable things—but only to say that suffering also provides more opportunities than we often give it credit. And without a concept, an intellectual framing of the potential merit that can be found within suffering, it will be more difficult for us to discover the positive possibilities it can reveal to us.

I would like to share several stories of people whom I’ve met that have suffered intensely and have responded in ways that illustrate some of the points I am making here. While volunteering in the neurological trauma wing of a rehabilitation center, I met a young man who had been in a motorcycle accident. After spending several months in intensive care at a local hospital he had finally been transferred for additional help at this rehab center, before hopefully being sent home. He had come a long way, but had a long way further to go in his recovery, and many skills and abilities he would most likely never regain. Among a host of physical issues, he also suffered severe trauma to several parts of his brain. He was no longer able to read or write, though he could still speak well, and remembered enough vocabulary to carry on a conversation. Over several months we became friends and he shared a lot with me about his life, the accident, and his subsequent recovery. He acknowledged that the abilities he had lost were significant but he never seemed to get overcome by despair or sorrow about his suffering. I came to admire him and found his overall cheery disposition in the face of his difficulties very remarkable. I asked him about this and his response was equally remarkable. He told me that the accident was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Prior to it he had been an angry and violent person; none of his relationships were any good. He could never keep a girlfriend because they would always argue, and he was a mean person. But, he continued, since the accident he had become kind and patient, and he was nearly always happy and grateful. His relationships had all improved, especially with his family. Even though his life was harder now, and he probably would never be able to do many things he took for granted before, he said he would never exchange what he had now, to go back to his life before the accident. For this young man, who had endured what would be considered a horrible tragedy, he framed the suffering he endured in a positive way and even saw it as good fortune. The suffering was more than simply something to get through—or to solve—but was the very thing that helped him discover a better life, and had—in his words—turned him into a better person.

In contrast to this response to suffering, there is another young man whom I’ve known for several years who struggles mightily against his suffering, and appears to add immense pain to his experience by his adverse reaction to his circumstances. He suffers from a number of chronic conditions which cause him constant pain throughout his joints, neck, and vertebrate; in addition, he has suffered with intense migraines for years, as well as pervasive joint dislocations due to degenerative connective tissue, the pain of which make work and socializing difficult. Added to these physical issues, he is also very lonely and isolated, with no close personal ties. With no siblings, and parents who suffer from substance abuse and have neglected him since childhood, he has no network of relatives, or friendships to rely upon. The circumstances of his suffering are understandably overwhelming and have worn him down over the years and yet thankfully he is blessed with an acute intellect and a fantastic sense of humor, along with a will to fight. However, due to other emotional challenges he is very prone to anger and reacts as though the world and everyone in it is to blame for his problems; and he is unwilling to accept personal responsibility for his life or his choices. For him, his suffering and pain is seen as completely unfair and unjust, with no meaning or purpose to it at all. He only sees the myriad ways in which his suffering deprives him of the life he wants—and feels he deserves—and he can see no positive potential in it. In many respects he is living in a delusion, somehow hoping that somebody will come and fix everything for him; and it is very much as though he is waiting to start living his life after he is healed of all his sufferings. He sees his suffering as the sole impediment to living his life, and he can’t seem to consider the fact that his suffering is likely to accompany him along his life’s entirety. So, in the meantime—until this fabled cure of all his problems arrives—he isn’t truly living in honest response to the reality with which he is faced.

As a final illustration showing the importance of our response to suffering, I have known a middle-aged woman who for decades has suffered through a number of chronic health issues. They grew so severe that she was eventually forced to quit her job, and they have also greatly impacted her daily activities at home, as well as in her social settings. Her entire life has been drastically impacted by these circumstances and she has struggled to try to maintain living life in the way she feels she should—in the ways which others expect her to live. Because of societal pressures to be ‘normal’, she has often discounted her own experience with her suffering, and has tried to maintain a false façade of health instead, in order to be more acceptable to others. She also misses her old life and what she could do, and who she was, before these chronic issues began. Because of this, she has spent a great deal of energy trying to rid herself of her suffering, by a wide variety of means, at an additional cost to her mental, emotional and financial well-being. She also internalized, to some degree, the notion that her suffering was her own fault. So, she also felt obligated to fight it in order to prove to others that she didn’t accept it and hadn’t given in to it. But since she could find no ultimate victory over her suffering—in the sense of full physical healing—she often felt even more defeated and unhappy, and even despaired because of it. Sadly, much of the pressure to shed her suffering and to fight against it, has come from within the Church. Other Christians have failed to offer acceptance of her, or to express understanding of the role of suffering; but rather they have seen her suffering as an indication of something wrong, possibly a lack of faith, or even as a sign of rebellion against God. Thankfully however, the traditions of the Church, the life of the saints, and the example of Christ have all been a great guide to her as she has navigated through all of these challenges. Recently, she has expressed to me a deepening understanding of the role of suffering in her life. She now expresses a wisdom and understanding of the value of suffering, which would be beneficial for everyone to discover. She has this to say about it:

“Through the example of Christ, the Church, and the saints I’ve learned to agree to suffer for the sake of my continued upward ascent into theosis. First I agreed to submit to it. Later I learned to be grateful for it. Now I am learning to be at peace, with whatever comes, whether health or infirmity. Once I accepted that suffering was inevitable and realized how useful it was, I actually started to experience joy in the midst of it and a gradual movement away from my focus being on my sickness. In a way the sickness has moved to the background of my life. It has become a mere backdrop on the stage where my life story plays out. I am actually grateful for it now because of the things it is teaching me.”

It is clear from these illustrations that we need a better working understanding of the role of suffering in our lives, and the beneficial role it can play in our relationships with others and with God. As Renos Papadopoulos says, “[Suffering] can aid us to transform and widen our epistemology to locate us in the wider context of God’s creation. And this is, in effect, what metanoia means…changing our nous…provided that we open our hearts and follow his will and not our own will, that expands our perspective and time-frame. Then adversity not only will not harm us, but actually it will enrich us.” (Papa, Compliance & Resistance) If we are focused only on the here and now, and if we are convinced that only this world has value for us, then it can be impossible to expand our understanding to include all of God’s creation, including eternal life; but suffering can provide just such an opportunity to widen our perspective. “The pain of suffering can lead us to greater patience, and also deepen the bonds of love between us and others…consolation rises in our heart and can offer a deeper intensity of experience even than that of our suffering.” (cf. Nikolaos, 80) Understanding the role of suffering can help us to refrain from fighting against it quite so much, and to allow it to do its work within us, even as we may also work to alleviate it. “Suffering, death, and the destruction of the life we’ve known, all can yield a new life that is truer, relationships that are more authentic, and a more profound communion with God.” (cf. Nikolaos, 64)

Even though most of us would profess that we desire to live lives that are truer, have relationships that are more authentic, and have a more profound relationship with God, the fact is that most of us like living our lives in this world as we always have, and have little desire to really change. We live in fear of death and we struggle against suffering in order to maximize our pleasure and our other desires in this world; in effect, we live greatly alienated from one another and certainly from God. In order to break free from this alienation, this exile from the kingdom of God, we often need the sort of involuntary help that suffering and death bring. To make the journey out of our isolated and self-centered existence we need the help of God, because most of us would never turn and take such a journey if we weren’t confronted with no other good option. It would appear that our salvation requires sacrifice (but only in the cause of love). “Love corrupted into selfishness or self-centeredness shatters the unity of a single nature from which grows genuine communion. The biblical fall brings about the ruin of the original imago Dei.” (Guroian, 115) To find our way back to our original love means the death of our old nature; as scripture says, our old man must die and be reborn in order to live anew. This process of rebirth, is a transformation of our whole being, “Inasmuch as God is purging the soul according to its interior and exterior faculties, the soul must be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty, and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness.” (Sakharov, 182) As Soren Kierkegaard says: “The self must be destroyed, brought down to nothing, in order for self-transcendence to begin. Then the self can begin to relate to powers beyond itself….to the Ultimate Power of Creation which made finite creatures.” (Becker, 89)

As scripture says, there is a time for everything; there are times for comfort but there are also times for discomfort. Jesus speaks about making our burdens light, and yet we are also called to bear our cross for his sake. In our selfishness, most of us desire to increase our comfort and extend the times for our leisure, while decreasing discomfort and minimizing our time spent in suffering. But God desires deep communion with us and will continue to reach out to us, to draw us out of our self-imposed exile here. Jesus Christ does not only offer to make our burden lighter, but he promises to be our way into the kingdom of God. He offers Himself as the persona of truth, and the essence of home. Christianity and Christology is not so much a doctrine of comfort, and is not intended to be mere comfort, but more importantly it is an existential truth about life and death. (cf. Nikolaos, 210)

“Christ died for the sins of all to remove the curse of guilt and abolish death, with its sting of emptiness and desolation. Through his dying and our participation in it, death has been transformed into a passage to eternal life. Death that was the wages of sin becomes the end of sins. God does not remove all the pain and anguish of living or dying—Christ himself experienced much pain and anguish—but the resurrection means that God reaches even into the hollowness of nonexistence…to confer life.” (Guroian, 100)

Suffering is able to bring many of us to heights of love and faith that we’d otherwise never consider attempting. And “…faith in the divinity of Christ and in His resurrection is the best way to interpret suffering, the best tool for dealing with death, the best instrument of consolation and support.” (Nikolaos, 212) Even Ernest Becker, who lived and wrote from a non-religious and secular point of view agrees with the ultimate value of a religious framework for addressing our existential problem of death and dying:

“…religion solves the problem of death…religion alone gives hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable, the fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach…it relieves the absurdity of earthly life, all the impossible limitations and frustrations of living matter….Religion takes one’s very creatureliness, one’s insignificance, and makes it a condition of hope.” (Becker, 204)

Seeing suffering, death and dying through the lens of Christ can open the doors of our heart, which enables us to see with the eyes of our soul. From this vantage point, temporal life in this world can be seen within its proper context, in relation to our ultimate eternal life with God. As our heart opens in faith, we can begin to heal from the estrangement, alienation and disorientation of a life lived focused on ourselves and this world, and this brings us into deeper relationship with others and with God. Vigen Guroian writes the following beautiful insight regarding this healing:

“The Son brings the love of the Father into this world, and the Holy Spirit inspires this love and spreads it among all who believe in the Son. The gift of the Holy Spirit reduces not only the gap that sin and death have brought about between God and humanity, but also remedies the division of humanity into selves who are existentially alienated from one another and die spiritually for want of love.” (Guroian, 110)

It is a role of suffering and dying to help us open our hearts to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to allow the gift of God’s grace to live within us, making His home in us. And suffering can stimulate the reconciliation within us which helps us to turn away from this worldly place of exile, away from our ‘old man’, and to turn back to ourselves and back to God as a new creature. St Sophrony had great hope in the ability of suffering to help transform the world, as an aspect of mankind’s redemption. He writes:

“…desolation and the tragedy of suffering may well contribute to a vast and widespread spiritual renaissance in a great multitude of souls. The light of this hope is all the brighter in that suffering opens up the way for mighty prayer….Prayer of this kind is worthy of God, and it continually moves man to greater knowledge of God and His action in the heart of man….Prayer of this kind becomes a conductor of divine revelation, redeeming the temporal life of man…” (Zacharias, 79)

Attaining to the love that heals—the God of love—is the goal of man’s life in this world. Most of us live estranged from this truth and are lost in seeking myriad of other ends. Suffering and death can reorient us and bring us into true relationship with the truths of life that are found in the God of truth—Jesus Christ. And this reconciliation is the beginning of a new life lived in the dwelling place of God. “Reconciliation is the most crucial thing for the dying, irrespective of whether or not the person is religious or secular….Forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial for [the] healing process—both reconciliation with others, and reconciliation with one’s own past.” (Guroian, 87) And I would add reconciliation with God as well—the source of all healing.

*  *  *


Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 4)

III. Reconciliation

The Christian understanding makes it clear that were it not for the efforts of God, to draw us to Him, nobody would turn from this world. So we must admit, that first and foremost, our reconciliation is wholly dependent upon God’s action and power. However, the Orthodox Christian understanding further recognizes that man is expected to do his/her part, however small, to work in concert with God towards our salvation. As we’ve already explored, suffering and death are events in the life of every human being which have the power and potential to draw man into closer relationship with God. And if man chooses, he/she can respond positively to this opportunity.

This isn’t to say that the choice is always easy, and by definition struggling through suffering and death can be very painful. Although, suffering often forces us into situations where we begin to make movements within ourselves—in the place of our soul, in our deep heart of hearts—which are salutary and healing. Through suffering and in the face of death we are often brought to our knees, our pride of life is humbled and our hearts are softened. Through suffering we are made more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Throughout scripture mankind is admonished by God and his messengers to give up our hearts of stone and allow them to be turned into hearts of flesh; and to stop acting like ‘stiff-necked’ people, resisting the Holy Spirit. In this world, we learn that a hard heart and a stiff neck can be beneficial in achieving what we desire and for our worldly pursuits; but in God’s kingdom to come, our pride and our passions will no longer be tolerated and will even preclude our entrance. As the apostle Paul says to the Galatians:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries and the like: of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

And he continues, by telling the Galatians (and us) what the beneficial results are for those who have turned from the passions and the desires of this world and have chosen instead to live according to the Spirit of God. For those who have turned back to God and allowed his Spirit to make home within our heart:  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)

St. Sophrony describes the blessing that is granted mankind in working together with God in the work of this reconciliation, bringing each of us back into relationship and communion with God. Our unique individual personhood is brought to bear in this effort, as God created us in his image with the ability to use our free will in service of love. St. Sophrony says:

“But the Son of God, in His infinite lovingkindness, came ‘to dwell with those that had departed from his grace’, in order to renew the dialogue he had had with man in Paradise, but which had been severed by reason of Adam’s transgression. For Christ is a true Hypostasis, a perfect Divine Person, while man also bears within himself the hypostatic principle, since he is created in Christ’s image. Man’s extraordinary privilege, therefore, is that of working with God, towards his perfection, as a person restored.” (Zacharias, 70)

The work of reconciliation—healing and restoration of the person—always involves giving something up, voluntarily or involuntarily. As we’ve already discussed, suffering and death involuntarily provide us opportunity to give up our attachments to this temporal world in favor of God’s kingdom, through the complex processes of metanoia and the softening of our inner spiritual heart. Additionally, we can be humbled through suffering and death, as we realize our powerlessness in the face of them, and our complete dependence on God for healing and victory over death. The spiritual changes that can take place within us now, which were originally stimulated by our suffering, can cause us to turn our soul’s faculties back to God, so that He can begin to heal us. Dr. Larchet describes in detail how this can take place within an individual. He explains in great detail, systematically, how each of our soul’s faculties, which were originally created to draw us into deeper communion with God, were corrupted after the fall, so that our powers of desire, and our will, and our intellect all served our selfish passions. But when we abandon our selfish use of these faculties and allow them to be used as they were originally intended by God: to desire Him, and to fight to return to Him, and to contemplate Him, then we are exercising our freedom in a way that supports His healing of us. As Archimandrite Zacharias writes, “…humility and self-denial become the firm foundations within us, upon which God Himself builds the temple of His Spirit.” (Zacharias, 32) So, for the person who learns to use his suffering to positive effect—not struggling against it, as rather accepting that it brings spiritual value with it—they can find that their heart becomes increasingly receptive to God’s grace. As Zacharias continues: “This sense of our own nothingness produces the right conditions for us to remain in the presence of God. And the more we become empty of ourselves, that is, the more we humble ourselves before God, the more He fills our heart with His divine grace.” (Zacharias, 31)

Like Christ—who emptied himself first by his incarnation, becoming a man though he is God, and then also through dying a humiliating death on the cross and finally descending into hell before his ultimate triumph—we can follow His example, by also emptying ourselves of our pride and passions. For the person who is inspired by Christ, “…he is led along a chain of thoughts, each deeper than the last: from faith he is led to more perfect faith, from hope to firmer hope, from grace to greater grace and from love of God to an ever greater measure of love.” (Zacharias, 6) Christ’s saving actions, and His example, clear the way for our reconciliation and for our ultimate theosis, or union with God. It is because of Christ that we have this opportunity.

“Christ, the only–begotten Son of God, by His passion, cross, death and resurrection, willingly and sinlessly entered into the totality of human pain, transforming it into an expression of His perfect love.” (Zacharias, 68) We can bring Christ to mind when we also are faced with suffering and with sacrificing the life we’ve known. As Vigen Guroian writes:

“Only [Christ’s] sacrifice is pure and completely efficacious for restoring complete communion with God. Christ reclaims and fulfills in his person the vocation that God gave to humankind at creation. The incarnation is the revelation that perfect human love is sacrificial, is sacrifice.” (Guroian, 116)

But sacrifice alone is obviously not the goal; love is the goal of our self-sacrifice. Self-emptying is nothing, if it doesn’t lead us to greater love of God and of others. The exile and alienation that we live in this world due to the fall can be healed through sacrifice, and this leads us back into deeper communion with God. When we think that our losses have no meaning, and are merely tragedy, it can be helpful to remind ourselves and each other that with Christ, even loss through suffering and death can be gain; in a very present and real way our losses can become the fertile field for greater communion in a wider sense. Our field of vision is widened so that our empathy and compassion can extend beyond our previously narrow confines; our love can then extend to all mankind, who we recognize share the same sufferings and the same losses as we do. Vigen Guroian writes something quite beautiful about this love: “Christ reveals to us that the love that is sacrifice and the love that seeks communion are not two loves but the same love…through the incarnation, God and humanity are reconciled and communion is restored…by the power of divine love.” (Guroian, 116)

Not only do suffering and death cause us to sacrifice, but they also bring us to our knees. They confront us with the fact of our true helplessness in this world. Because of this, they can also be among the most efficacious and powerful remedies for mankind’s greatest weakness: pride. Our desire to be our own God and to answer only to ourselves first caused our fall and led to our exile in this world of pain; so it is only fitting that humility would be a primary medicine for healing our spiritual diseases and for preparing us to return to God’s kingdom. When we suffer, most of us want to find the solution as quickly as possible; we try to take matters into our own hands in order to fix the problem and get back to our lives. If the suffering is beyond us—such as suffering the death of a loved one or facing our own death—then we are confronted with the fact that we can’t fix the problem or get back to life as it was before. This realization is very humbling. But in general, we don’t like being humbled, so most of us don’t stop to think of the benefit and value that humbling may have for us. Or if we do consider it, our thoughts rarely go beyond thinking about humility in a theoretical and hypothetical sense, and certainly not as it applies specifically to our current circumstances. We tend to think that humility is good insofar as it applies to somebody else’s life—or in retrospect—but not something we want to truly embrace in the midst of our own pain and suffering. Again and again, most of us just want to fix the problem of our suffering, keeping our focus on this world only; and we ignore the opportunity for developing genuine humility, which has its greatest value as a preparation for our life in the next world.

If we can accept the lesson of humility which comes through our suffering, we can learn additional lessons in patience, endurance and perseverance, all qualities which scripture tells us are valued and desired by God, and which also have benefits to us in this world as well. In our suffering often all we can do is wait; we wait for delayed healing, or for the passage of time to soften the pain. We wait upon God to rescue us, provide a miracle, or simply offer His loving presence to help us endure and overcome. Archimandrite Zacharias offers encouraging words about this:

“We may be suffering from some illness and praying to God for healing. But if our request is not granted, let us know that God can give such grace and power as will enable us to rise above our illness and, through it, to sense the joy of the presence and power of God in our hearts, which is our victory over death.” (Zacharias, 35)

As we wait upon God, we learn to call upon Him as well. People who have never prayed before, or who have prayed very little, often resort to prayer in the midst of their trials. They begin to ask God for help, or if they are already accustomed to talking with God, they do so more frequently and more fervently. And for those of us who may be called upon to offer support to others in their trials, we might consider praying with them, or helping them to pray more themselves. We might inquire lovingly how they view prayer, and possible encourage them to deepen their experience of prayer beyond whatever level they currently practice it. Perhaps more than any other aspect of personal spiritual practice and preparation, prayer is regarded most highly throughout scripture, in the writings of the church fathers, and in church tradition and practice. “Prayer, as Fr. Sophrony says, is an endless creation; it is a school that teaches us to remain in the presence of the Lord. This effort to remain with the Lord is an exercise that finally overcomes death…” (Zacharias, 30)

To remain in the presence of the Lord in this life is a great challenge and blessing; and to remain in His presence in the midst of suffering and death is an even greater challenge. While we wait upon God sometimes it seems He will never come to us; our prayers can sometimes feel futile and a waste of time. But it is important to encourage one another to persevere in prayer, and to keep God in our heart and to refrain from the urge to turn away in frustration. A lifetime of living in exile—to some degree or another, as applies to each of us—isn’t often reversed in a moment. We must train our senses to attune ourselves to the voice of God, and this is done beautifully through the discipline of prayer; but it is not accomplished immediately, and will take effort over time, and will exercise our faith and our hope, and our love. “Prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer….St Silouan identifies love for God with prayer, and the Holy Fathers say that forgetfulness of God is the greatest of all passions [vices]…” (Zacharias, 68) We need to exercise our love and exercise our hearts, to prepare them for God—who is Love—to feel at home within us. Throughout scripture God asks us to sanctify ourselves, to make our inner person holy in preparation for Him to make his home in us. We are made holy and are reconciled with God especially through our deepening prayer life. As John Climacus writes: “Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.” (Climacus, 274)

Maintaining a state of prayerfulness in life, and particularly within our suffering, is often thwarted by the activity of our mind. As we’ve already discussed, our thoughts can lead us astray; and when we follow our thoughts we can become even more disoriented in relation to suffering and death, feeling perplexed and in a daze. There is a long tradition within the Orthodox Church of pairing the practice of ‘watchfulness’ along with our practice of prayer. This tradition of ‘nepsis’, or watchfulness, teaches one to constantly monitor the movement of one’s thoughts, developing an awareness of how they operate within us, yet not allowing them to influence us. Watchfulness allows one to develop a certain detachment from their thoughts, so as to allow one to maintain a stable interior state in relation to God. Often, the ascetic fathers of the church—who wrote and taught extensively on this topic—have said that we are to watch our thoughts come and go within us, but not attach ourselves to any of them, so that we can maintain spiritual sobriety and focus towards our Lord. As Archimandrite Zacharias says: “When prayer is humble, and accompanied by the practice of watchfulness, the mind is concentrated in the heart, that is the dwelling-place of our beloved God, and He grants us a marvelous sense of His closeness that is beyond words.” (Zacharias, 8)

Along with constant prayer, we are also told to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Gratitude and thankfulness are also very difficult to maintain in the midst of suffering and death; and yet they can be truly transformative if we learn to be thankful during these trials. It is important to clarify that we are not asked to be thankful ‘for’ every circumstance, but rather to be thankful ‘in’ all things. Maintaining a state of thankfulness is not something most of us automatically know how to do. However, it is an attitude that can be learned over time as we struggle with our suffering. Thankfulness helps maintain our relationship with God, since as we maintain a spirit of gratitude our heart remains open. We may struggle, like Job did, with the terrible torment of our suffering, but by keeping God in our heart we help ourselves, by not adding the spiritual pain of estrangement from God, to the suffering we are already experiencing. Thankfulness is also an aspect of and result of humility; it is the manifestation of humility in action. Thankfulness is the acceptance of things as they are, and even more, it is an expression of joy and love in response to God’s plan and will for our lives.

Ultimately, suffering and death present us with situations in life where we have an opportunity to shift the focus of our faith. Throughout much of our life we have learnt to trust in ourselves and in the things of this world. But through suffering we can be brought involuntarily through circumstances which present us with a new option. Suffering grants us the opportunity to turn away from this temporal world; and to put our faith in eternal God instead. Reconciliation is a tremendous thing; it is difficult in some respects, but made easier by God’s grace.  


It is Good To Know The Bunny-Rabbit

I want to understand the bunny-rabbit. Oh, how I want to understand it, and everything else in creation. What is a bunny…to God? No, not to understand a bunny as the world sees it: not as a little meal, or as a pet, or a mammal, and not as a biological organism, or an element within an ecosystem. But what is a bunny…to me? When the cosmos came into being, what was God’s intent, when He made the bunny? Or the turtle, or the pine tree, and the ocean waves? In the depths of my heart—where I rarely go—could I find there, and remember, traces of the original meanings? Man helped name the creatures, after all. Can we remember; if God graced us with the memories? Living obscures life, as sense obscures essence, and mind occludes the truth. If I could understand the bunny-rabbit, I imagine that I could also understand myself. Not myself as I think I am: not as a citizen of some-such country, or a doer of this, or achiever of that, and not as one who works at such-n-such, or as a biological organism, or a part of a larger civilization or ecosystem. But what I am to God? When the cosmos came into being, what was God’s intent, when he made you and me? When I breathe in the earthly air, and look up into the trees, and as I watch the ravens fly overhead and the hawk carrying its meal, I am struck with a certainty—that I know nothing. Nothing, in the way that things can be known. I believe there is another knowledge; one which can so reveal, and connect us to the squirrel and the moth—that we are brought into fulfillment. This knowledge doesn’t edify the mind alone, but brings peace to the heart as well; it settles the soul and comforts us within the bosom of God.


Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 3)

II. Exile

For most of our lifespan, each of us is in an ongoing process of gathering and accruing. As children we grow in every way imaginable: our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our spirit all gather strength and ability. As young adults and adults, we continue this process by adding friendships, careers, life-partners, children; and we buy cars, homes, and seek to satisfy countless ambitions. We are immersed in a society in which we find meaning, and we have networks of interpersonal connections that are generally engaging and satisfying, or at least preoccupy our time and attention. And we come to expect these things to always be there for us, and we come to rely upon our own abilities and talents which we’ve worked hard over the years to enhance and perfect. But then suddenly, at some stage in our life, something unexpected happens to shatter the world that we’ve created for ourselves. A loved one dies, or we suffer a debilitating illness, or we lose a limb; or we lose our job, get a divorce—or any other number of things like these—and we must now face the difficulties brought on by this loss, and also the psychological and emotional suffering associated with it. 

Renos Papadopoulous in his book, Therapeutic Care For Refugees, describes the depth and breadth that the loss of ‘home’ has on a person who has had to flee their homeland. But in many ways, I think the same kind of suffering applies to anyone who loses the life that they have known and to which they have grown familiar and accustomed. The loss they face, suddenly places them in a state in which they may feel very alone, emotionally isolated, and mentally disoriented, and anxious in a very deep and profound way. Papadopoulous describes it in this way:

“…loss of home is not just about the conscious loss of the family home with all its material, sentimental and psychological values, but it is of a much more fundamental and primary kind, and it creates a disturbance…which is closer to what has been referred to as ‘ontological insecurity’, ‘existential anxiety’, ‘existential angst or dread’ (Kierkegaard). The shared themes of these conditions are a deep sense of a gap, a fissure, a hole, an absence, a lack of confidence in one’s own existence…” (Papadopoulous, 18)

When our lives are going along as normal, most of us don’t consider our lives in these deep ways, nor do we address the meaning of our life or our death. But when faced with losses which break into our daily, normal existence, we are then confronted by uncomfortable questions, and we may feel very helpless and disoriented. The philosopher Martin Hiedegger describes this experience, in this way:

“Hiedegger has the notion of ‘taken-for-granted-at-homeness’ which is destroyed by the ‘dread’ as a condition when we lose the familiarity the world has for us….without the primary ‘taken-for-granted-at-homeness’ state, a serious disorientation takes place which is of a fundamental existential and ontological nature.” (Papadopoulous, 24)

Once our familiar world is shaken, we may begin to question everything. The things that were effectively hidden from us, by our well-constructed world, now crash in upon us. As Ernest Becker writes, “…repression takes care of the complex symbol of death for most people.” (Becker, 20) But death peels away this repression, forcing us to face these existential questions, perhaps for the first time. We’ve very likely embedded ourselves in this world, in part, for psychological safety, to avoid the existential dilemma of death.

Becker claims that there is no fear greater than our fear of death, no matter how we try to gloss over it. For this reason, we seek to gain protection from death through the constructs of our life—giving power and trust to our parents, or other experts, such as doctors or even political leaders; we follow sports teams, or live vicariously in other ways through others, in an attempt to hide from our own existential loneliness and our dread of death. So now, at the moment when death confronts us and tears us from this world, we recognize the truth that we are in exile here, without an unshakable sense of home that can always be relied upon, and we are alone. Others in this world may not be able to save us. Who can help us? At this point, we may begin to realize that human agency is helpless; at some point even the doctors can do nothing more for us. This is the moment when the experts might suggest prayer, as our last resort.

Death has now brought us to the place and moment where most of us, believers as well as non-believers, consider ourselves in relation to God. This suffering, whatever the cause and in whatever particular form it takes for us, is showing us experientially the truth of our life in this world; and death is no longer a theoretical concept, and God is no longer an irrelevant consideration for a future time. We are at the crossroads again, will suffering draw us into a closer relationship with God, or will we shake our fists at him and fall further into our exile? Saint Sophrony describes the temptation to fall further away:

“The proud soul…sees God as the cause of her sufferings and considers Him immeasurably cruel. Deprived of true life in God, she sees everything through the spectrum of her own crippled state…in her despair she begins to consider even the existence of God Himself as hopeless absurdity. And so her estrangement from God…grows and grows.” (Sophrony, St. Silouan 201-202)

One of the best descriptions of our estrangement from God, is the parable of the prodigal son from Luke’s gospel. It describes the self-created exile, of a wealthy man’s youngest son, who takes his inheritance and journeys to a far-off country to live his life as he desires. Finally, when his money runs out and he suffers hunger, he arrives at the crossroads that we are discussing. He has a choice; does he fall further into exile or rather choose to return home? The parable describes this moment of decision beautifully, with these words: “when he came to himself”. (Luke 15: 17) The young man ‘comes to himself’; it is a small, little moment in the parable, but the essential turning-point of the entire story, and the pivotal moment. And to say that he came to himself is not simply a poetic device; it says something very important about mankind, and who he truly is in his relationship to the world, and to God.

Dr Jean-Claude Larchet, in his important three volume survey of the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church entitled, Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, describes in detail the original anthropology of man in relation to God, and what transpired subsequent to the fall. In the beginning, man is made in the image and likeness of God, and this fact informs everything about man’s person; all of man’s faculties, his mind and his soul are oriented towards God. But after the fall, man turns his being and all of his faculties away from God, and out into the world, and subsequently he became lost in the world. Mankind became exiled from God, by his own choice, and as a result of his own will and action. As Larchet writes, “He [became] ignorant of his true destiny, no longer knowing what his real life is, and has lost almost every idea of what his original health was.” (Larchet, vol.1: 21) So the moment when a person ‘returns to him or herself’ is the moment when they essentially turn back to God, and is also the moment they begin to know themselves in a true way—as the person whom they were created to be. And this is the beginning of the journey back home and out of exile, spiritually speaking.

Ernest Becker quotes the Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega Y Gasset, as he describes this pivotal moment in similar, though slightly different terms:

“The man with a clear head is the man who…looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost….he who accepts [this] has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground….he who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission…” (Becker, 89)

Without suffering, would the prodigal son still have come to this crossroads and to this moment of self-discovery? Had he not spent all his money and fallen into hunger and discomfort, would he have been willing to stop of his own accord, and turn from his self-created exile in the world? It is possible. And there are many ways God can reach out to his creation, to touch each of us; however, suffering is one of the most common and powerful ways mankind ‘returns to himself’. For a person who is living in and for this world alone, suffering has no intrinsic value. It becomes an enemy to the aspirations of this world, and the nemesis of all we build our lives around and towards. However, in the context of a life lived for and towards God, in the hope of his eternal kingdom, suffering can be integral and facilitate this relationship, and can even be a blessing and a gift for us, as many of the saints came to understand, and have explained to us.

Interestingly, Ernest Becker, who was not a man of faith and who maintained skepticism of religion in general, came to a surprising conclusion in his book, The Denial of Death. After making his lifelong comprehensive survey of modern psychologists and philosophers’ thoughts on the topic of man in relation to death, he comes to the following conclusion:

“Once the person begins to…refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, of real freedom….One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense…Kierkegaard repeats the basic formula of faith: one is a creature who can do nothing, but one exists over against a living God for whom ‘everything is possible.'” (Becker, 90)

In the Christian tradition, this refashioning of our links away from the world and back towards God, has an important role, and is spoken about often in scripture. Christ himself teaches his apostles that love of God should take precedence over love of self and family. We are told that he who loves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for God’s sake, will find it. Consciously and intentionally putting our own lives in relation to God, and turning from the typical human life based upon solipsism and narcissism, and abandoning our worldly focus on hedonistic pleasure-seeking, is the goal of Christian living. When St. Paul speaks about renewing our mind, or John the Baptist and Christ call us to repentance as a prelude to the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, they are all speaking about this important change of the inner state of man; metanoia is the turning of the heart or mind, which describes this spiritual change of state in a person.

Death and suffering offer us a great opportunity for metanoia. Not that any of us should necessarily, intentionally seek suffering; but when it comes, we can be prepared to make use of it to the utmost, if we are framing it in a positive light. To understand that death and suffering can be an opportunity to turn our lives more fully back towards God, and not to see them only in a negative way, can make a great difference for us. Archimandrite Nikolaos in his book, When God is Not There, describes the lessons he learned while working in a Children’s Hospital for several years, where he saw parents and children grapple daily with issues of loss and death. God’s imminent presence, Nikolaos said, could be experienced only as we silenced our mind and abandoned our expectations of what God should do, or our ideas about how he should reveal himself within the midst of our suffering. For most of us, God speaks very quietly, through a stillness and presence that can often be unrecognizable to us. Often, only in retrospect do we become aware of just how God was with us in our suffering; and yet, he is always present and fills all things, as scripture tells us.

Because we want answers when we suffer—or when death takes someone we love—our minds can run wild. Why is this happening to us? Why would God allow this? How can a loving God let this happen? Countless questions, and accusations such as these may flow through our mind. But it is best to let these thoughts continue on their way, and flow right back out again, as the ascetic fathers of the Church teach us regarding our thoughts. Nikolaos comments to this point: “reasoning when working in isolation can disorient us and lead us astray.” (cf. Nikolaos, 94) Silencing our thoughts about the injustice of our trial, can allow us to seek the truth found in our heart, spoken by the Holy Spirit, which can resolve our pain and bring us greater peace, hope and faith, so we can become aware of God’s presence. Nikolaos goes on to say that this can transform death, “…from an experience of human loneliness into an awareness of the divine presence.” (Nikolaos, 119)

Death and suffering cause us to shed the life we have known, and yet, when this occurs, we aren’t suddenly transported into a new world; but rather, it can be as if we are stuck between worlds. We no longer can orient ourselves to the world of our past, because that world is gone now, in a very tangible sense. However, we are also unable to navigate our new reality either. Perhaps this is why so many people who have lost a loved one talk about feeling in a daze or a fog. A real awareness of the divine presence may not be accessible for us, so we are confronted with a feeling of loneliness and emptiness as we turn away from the old world, and we may even feel as if God has forsaken us. We might ask, why would God leave us now, especially in our moments of greatest need? It is as if we are now in exile from the world we have known, as well as from the kingdom of God. In this state of Godforsakenness we can feel utterly bereft of any true home, or any sense of belonging anywhere.

This is such an important moment for us to consider, for anyone who is close to others who are suffering or confronting death. What support can we offer them in the depth of their pain? Knowing that they may be facing a loneliness and an isolation previously unknown to them can be valuable insight to bring forward to the relationship; and hopefully this can help us offer the love, the tenderness and acceptance, that are needed to help them find stable ground, so to speak, and to heal. Often, it is simply our presence that is most needed; a silent presence without words, without advice, can be the greatest expression of God’s love that we can offer to one another, while in the depths of our pain.

St Sophrony, in his writings pays particular attention to Godforsakenness. He emphasizes Christ’s own experience of feeling alone and abandoned as he prayed in Gethsemane, and then culminating on the cross as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” St Sophrony, in his analysis of this, and from his own similar experiences of feeling forsaken by God, comes to the conclusion, that as we struggle to keep God in our heart, even through the experience of feeling abandoned, we develop our own personal, human strength of love. It can forge in us a determination to love God at all cost, and actually can draw us closer to Him in the long-run. St Sophrony considers it a test which can strengthen our own human capacity of love and faithfulness, and one that allows us the fullest realization of our human freedom. In this process, our faithfulness “grows through a succession of experiences of Godforsakenness, into unshakable stability, which is associated with salvation….Thus man abides in the ‘unshakable kingdom’.” (Sakharov, 180) So, while the experience of suffering is never joyful in the moment as it is occurring, it still has the power to bring us to greater heights of love. And it helps us to claim Christ’s victory over death as our own, as our own faith is strengthened through our struggle.

The Christian worldview is that this world is estranged and at enmity with God. As inhabitants here we live much of our lives in exile from God’s kingdom but we rarely recognize this fact. Oftentimes, only through suffering and death do we confront this reality. Out of this experience we may have an inner change of heart and mind, and a desire to return to our true spiritual home, to deepen our relationship with God. It is possible that through our struggles with suffering and death that we may join that great cloud of witnesses, who St Paul wrote about in Hebrews:

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

In the following section I would like to explore how we approach that heavenly country, and how we prepare ourselves for dwelling in the city that God has prepared for us.