My best wishes in this Second Week of Advent. I am writing this on December 6, although who honestly knows when it will be posted. Today is, in any case, the day the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Nicholas; good ol’ Saint Nick…Santa! But St. Nicholas was obviously much more than a jolly man with a beard dressed in red flying around with radio-active deer. If he wasn’t, all of those knock off mall Santas would be saints. St. Nicholas was a man of charity. Again, before seminary I thought charity was simply giving money to organizations or volunteering your time. But that caused me to question why the theological virtues are Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith, understandable; Hope, absolutely; but what does my donation to the Special Olympics of Illinois have to do with my spiritual life? Well, fellow journeyers, charity is LOVE; another name for charity is love. Now it makes sense when my brothers here tell me to “be more charitable” to my brother who had done something stupid (I also wondered why they made such a big deal when, being charitable, I threw quarters at him). St. Nicholas gave what he had to the people who had nothing and he showed great love while he was doing it. He was truly putting on persona Christi, the person of Christ. So that’s the first thing. We can all learn a valuable lesson from St. Nick about treating our brothers and sisters with love, as Christ is calling us to do.
Back to Way of the Ascetics. Chapter Six has a funny and deceptive title: “On Eradicating the Desire for Enjoyment.” When this book was a required text for my Christian Ethics class last year at North Central, I loathed it because it was so blunt and honest…and true. Chapters like this that discuss my joy and eradicating desire for it sound as enjoyable to read as, perhaps, a book about the embalming process or a photo tour of the colon. This year, taken out of the context of a classroom, this chapter has provided a unique insight into a battle I feel each of us must undergo, especially during transitional seasons like Advent when we are waiting in joyful hope for the Savior of the World.
From the book: “It is said that only a few find the narrow way that leads to life and that we must strive to enter by the narrow door. For many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able (Luke 13:24)” (Colliander 17). It’s all fun and games until a scripture quote like that one, no? Many of us will seek to enter the Kingdom of Heaven upon our retirement from this earth, but many won’t be able to get in. Why do we suppose that is? There are a variety of causes, of course, but one of the main causes is that we, as humans, love ourselves and love to be stuck inside of ourselves where it is safe and fun and familiar. In my last writing (or, “encyclical” as my seminarian brothers call them) I brought up reasons why it might be hard to get on our hands and knees to really work in the garden of our hearts. It is tough in some sense because we are afraid of what we might find so we have to take great pains to really dig deep. This concept, friends, provides exactly the explanation which we seek.
“The explanation is to be found precisely in our unwillingness to persecute ourselves,” and Colliander continues later, “we overcome, perhaps, our serious vices, but there it stops. The small desires we freely let grow as they will” (17). Look at that very frank language; “persecute ourselves.” Well no duh, Colliander, we sure are unwilling to persecute ourselves. But it is necessary! Without this inner-persecution of our heart and will, the “roots of all ill” continue to grow inside of us. We might chop down the bad plant, but unless we actually pull out the roots, the problem will continue to grow…often out of sight and unbeknownst to us until it is too late. Colliander offers these examples for clarification: “We neither embezzle nor steal, but delight in gossiping; we do not “drink,” but consume immoderate quantities of tea and coffee instead. The heart remains quite as full of appetites” (17). So while we are able to rid ourselves of the strong vices, being shot with a million tiny needles is often more painful than a single bullet. I had a hard time understanding what the big deal was about having too much tea or gossiping until I read further. These things lead us toward, what I like to call, the anti-virtues: vanity, pride, and self-pity.
Before we know it, our hearts become wrapped in self-pity and set under the tree for all of the world to open. “If you were not full of self-pity you would soon observe that we ourselves are to blame for all this evil”(18). Self-pity is a dangerous thing because it is the very cause of prevention against our self-persecution. With this pity, we can no longer see through our own selves and into the world; the things we say and do and their effects on others no longer mean anything because we are too pitiful, self-absorbed, and uncharitable to notice how our words and actions impact our brothers and sisters.
Allow me to introduce this example: Picture your interior as a vast open field at sunset when the horizon is far away and very clear. This is the interior of someone who has persecuted himself and is able to make the other things in the world be the main focus. The man who is full of self-pity however, has no open field; instead his horizon is inches from his face and he is completely absorbed in it. The open field represents peace of mind, humility, and charity. When we allow our horizons to close in on us, our love becomes inwardly focused. But, if we are able to set that love free and become an outward sign of our inward relationship with Christ, “all evil departs” from us (18).
All of the things with which we struggle (attractions, temptations, the virtues, doctrines of the Church, etc) are all vastly different (yet similar) forms of the same thing: our own efficacious yearning for self-satisfaction. It is such a difficult concept to grasp, but we have to be able to accept our own persecution and enjoy our own sadness, poverty, hardships, and pain; luckily we have four wonderful weeks of Advent to do it.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself” (Matthew 16:24). All of these things (attractions, temptations, lack of virtue, struggles with Church doctrine, etc) are all a part of us! If we want to follow Christ, carry our crosses, and embrace our life vocations we have to be able to persecute and deny ourselves of these struggles and temptations and, even more, of the things that bring us the most enjoyment; until our enjoyment comes directly from doing the will of God, our short time here is being wasted. Colliander says it best: “For all these biddings are given us not in order for us to act as if they did not exist, but for us to follow: otherwise the Lord of mercy would not have burdened us with them” (19). These struggles are gifts from the Lord so that we have something to deny so that a) we have a reason to pick up our crosses and deny ourselves so that we might live for Christ now enabling us to live with Christ later and b) so our success in this endeavor becomes the very object of our enjoyment. This, friends, is a beautiful concept.
I’m talking a lot about roots and gardens and horizons and fields, but please don’t mistake me for a vegetarian. I am but a Christian with a Christ-given metaphoric mind. Advent is about the image of the Incarnate Christ coming to save the world. Let us find all of the things which we must deny in order to pick up our crosses and follow the Lord to the glory He has promised.
St. Nicholas, pray for us!
Still the same, I remain,