Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Some Doubted, Part 1

Recently, I resumed a correspondence with an old friend. We had lost touch when I entered the monastery, but I was rediscovered thanks to this blog, of all things. In one email exchange my friend asked, "Do you ever doubt [your vocation]?"

The question reminded me of a strange off-hand remark at the end of St. Matthew's gospel. The Risen Christ appears to the Apostles on the mountain top to commission them to spread the gospel. St. Matthew tells us that when the Apostles saw him they worshipped him, though some doubted. If they are blessed who have not seen and have believed, what can we say for those who have seen and not believed?

In any case, we should not at all be surprised if our own faith meets with strong challenges, even strong temptations to doubt: doubt God's goodnees, the reality of the Resurrection, the reality of the soul, the Real Presence, the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church, on and on. What we make of this doubt is up to us, I suppose. I have many thoughts on this problem, hence the 'Part 1' of the title.

In the end, the question as posed to me is related to discernment. How can I be certain that I am doing God's will by living as a monk? One would imagine that this is especially a problematic question on those inevitable bad days, bad weeks, even bad years in the monastery (St. Benedict warns us that it is a via dura et aspera, a 'hard and difficult way' by which we go to God in the monastery).

On the other hand, an earlier generation would undoubtedly figure that we were privileging our feelings too much in the discernment process if this is the case. If every day were sweet and void of any struggle, where would the virtue of hope enter?

One of the disciplines of the monastic life, silence and its attendant sifting of thoughts, is meant to expose to us the radical disorder that is in our passions. The passions were meant to be good: anger gives us the strength to oppose evil and injustice, sadness the power to repent of sin, hunger the desire to go on living, sexual attraction the desire to give life to a new generation and to unite with another. The disorder of the passions falls under the general vice of concupiscence, that state of affairs where we precisely privilege our feelings above our reason. So we lust after bodies that do not belong to us, we eat simply for pleasure and not for health, we direct anger at sinners and not at sins, we are sad over the loss of present enjoyment and not over the potential loss of eternal joy.

In this state of affairs, discernment of God's will becomes almost impossible, were it not for God's saving mercy. When we get upset about something, instead of cultivating the interior awareness that names this as my vice, we figure that we are in a 'toxic community' or 'bad relationship'. The answer? Run away! Those more sensitive souls among us may come up with really good rationalizations for running away (Evagrius, under the thought of accedia, mentions the pious thought that we feel that we can serve God better elsewhere). Others just bolt and slander the community (or spouse or friend) they left thus compounding the problem.

What are rational reasons for staying? I will leave that for tomorrow. Let me conclude today with one observation about prayer that will point us in the right direction.

I have discovered, over several years of spiritual direction, that we often confuse prayer with our feelings. When asked, How is you prayer? many today are apt to respond to the question without actually mentioning prayer at all. Rather, if the person has been in a good mood of late, then 'prayer' is going great. Every moment feels like prayer! After all, prayer is supposed to feel good, is it not?

The Desert Father and Mothers insisted that prayer is a war, in fact. To pull away from an activity that feels good, that is self-affirming, that 'is doing so much good' in order to praise God and seek His will is quite often going to feel less than satisfactory--at first. We see in the Life of Antony that prayer is a time in which we are often beset by all kinds of temptations to give up prayer, but if we are persistent, God will eventually reward us with His presence and His peace. Can we really think of something better than prayer, in which we reconnect with the God Who is our Life? So the feelings we have at prayer (or outside of prayer) say little about the actual effectiveness of praying. We must rationally understand that an omnipotent, all-loving God will meet us in prayer. From this follows that feelings that oppose this reasonable action are temptations. Similarly observations can be made when we turn to discernment proper, as we hope to tomorrow.

God's blessings to all who read this. I promise you my prayers this day.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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