Sunday, December 15, 2019

Awakening the heart to God (6) - Actions Needed

Often we think about changing our way of life so we can come closer to God. We even wonder if we will be prepared for the judgment that will come at death. We say we believe in God, but the cares of the world overwhelm us. We do nothing to change our way of life. Mostly, God feels distant, yet there is still a lingering thought that something must be done to change the current situation, but the magnitude of the perceived change discourages us. Unfortunately, these good thoughts we have never leads to substantive changes in our lives. Why?

We procrastinate, thinking we will do something later on. The result is that we remain rooted in our old habits. We know we should go to church more often, that we should be prepared to receive Holy Communion when we go and we should be there when the service begins. We are aware that we should go to confession, that we should pray daily, that we should fast, and that we should read Scripture or the writings of the Fathers, but, we say, “Later.” This we must never do if we desire to be united with God! We need to fight against this ailment called procrastination.

Saint Theophan recommends that we recognize the senselessness and the danger of procrastination. We need to keep in mind our ultimate destination. We may die tomorrow and God may not know us, just like with the virgins who did not have enough oil. The door to the banquet may be closed and if we try to enter He will say, “I do not know you.” (Mt 25: 1-13)

The thoughts we have about our spiritual condition must be taken seriously and not allowed to remain only thoughts. We must give these thoughts about our salvation top priority and act on them.

We must not be impeded by laziness or indecisiveness. We need to remind ourselves how actions in even the simple matters of daily life can be destructive. We must be ready to act with energy and decisiveness on these thoughts regarding our spiritual well being. Any procrastination is jeopardizing our eternal life in His kingdom.

In addition to procrastination we have many habits that imprison our will to respond to a wake-up call from the Spirit. Our heart is hardened by many layers that cover it.  Saint Theophan identifies the first layer as “self-deception, insensitivity and carelessness.” We become blind to our sinfulness, he says. 

He tells us that first we need to discipline the body by restricting our pleasures and indulgences. We need to fast, make time for prayer and participate in the Liturgies and the sacraments. Saint Theophan says the “physical ascetic labors weaken these bonds and eliminate their effects.”

Next are the cares and scattered thoughts that consume our inner energy. We need to make time to work on ourselves. This means creating periods in our day when we protect ourselves from all our worldly cares. We need to be able to quiet our mind from all its thoughts. The discipline of the Jesus prayer can help us in this regard. 

We need to create regular periods of true solitude so we can begin to open to a higher mind. It is in solitude that we will be able to see our sinful habits and then able to root out the causes of our habits. It is these habits that keep us chained to our current way of life. To move forward we need to uncover our prejudices that are etched in our brain and identify the patterns of action, our habits, that they cause. Once we can understand what is taking place deep within ourselves, we can begin what is called, "spiritual struggle." We will begin to recognize when the heart feels the movement of spirit, but becomes blocked by our habits limiting our ability to make changes in our life. With awareness we can begun to change.

Thought Processes
There are certain thoughts that we have to reject. Saint Theophan points out a few such as, “Contenting yourself with saying:
“I am a Christian.” 
 “After all, we are not the worst.” 
“We are not that bad.” 
“So, there is badness in me—am I the only one.”
I can add a few: 
I am not a sinner, I haven’t stolen anything, I haven’t killed any one, I am a good person.
I go to church, I pay my dues.
I volunteer at Meals on Wheels or ...
I am a good parent and provide for their needs.
 These are all good, but more is necessary. It’s an intimate relationship with God that is needed.

We need to stop making excuses and attack our passions of the body, our prejudices, our bad habits, our bad thoughts. We need through ascesis and solitude to open ourselves up and expose our blindness to our sinful nature. Saint a Theophan says, “Take away one false support after another for your blindness. Little by little you will cease making excuses in sins...”

Hard Heart
Our ailment is a hard heart that is insensitive to our sinfulness. We can soften our hardened heart by pursuing each insight we gain about our sinful condition. To keep us motivated, we must remember that our fate is death. St Theophan says, 
Convince yourself that the angel of death has already been sent; he is coming and draws near. Or imagine yourself to be a person who stands with a sword drawn over their head, ready to cut it off. 
Imagine that the judge is waiting to take up you case, that your life in heaven is on the line. Saint Theophan says to do this until you are “filled with fear and trembling.” Then you will be able to turn toward God whom you know to be all merciful, to surrender to Him, seek His help, to ask for divine grace to be sent to help, and begin to make the needed changes in your life.

You can go one step further. “Ascend in thought upon Golgotha and crucify yourself.” Ask yourself, will you be the one crucified next to Christ who mocks him, or will you be the one who seeks forgiveness and asked to be raised with Him to paradise. Saint Theophan says, “choose one or the other: either crucify Him, then perish eternally—or crucify yourself, and inherit eternal life.” Remember always, that it is your sin that separates you from God.

One who has not given proper attention to their spiritual life and lives unaware of their sinful ways, has a weak will, and is insensitive to thoughts that are meant to awaken us. It is necessary to develop inner motivation to create the desire to move toward what is good in the eyes of God and away from everything against them. Saint Theophan says, 
We need to recognize kind of thoughts “on the side of good that leads to salvation is loftiness, usefulness, ease of fulfillment and the removal of obstacles, the consolation being prepared and mainly—necessary. On the other side is everything contrary to the forgoing.”
Here is what Saint Theophan says we need to tell our soul:
1. You must choose one or the other: either perish eternally should you remain as you are, or if you do not want that, then repent and turn to the Lord and His Commandments... 
2. Just begin, just push forward. The Lord is near, and all manner of His aid is prepared for you. 
3. You will throw off that yoke and those fetters, and emerge into freedom of a child of God. 
4. Why do you torment yourself like some kind of enemy? You know no peace either day or night. All around you is confusion and anxiety... 
5. Everything around you is alive and everything calls you to life. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Go drink of the spring of living water.
Always keep in mind the blessing that awaits you when you choose to change you life. There is an easier way of living and you are very capable of making the needed changes. God is continually calling you to do so. Think about all those who you can be like and associate with here and in heaven. Remember all these good things that you can be, and your weak will can become stronger desiring what is truly good for you.

Unwillingness to Struggle
Awakened to your sinfulness and separation from God and His salvific grace, commit yourself to labor over yourself. Make this an unending commitment, to never relax in seeking ways to become more like Christ. 

Saint Theophan says, 
No one can be master over your inner life besides yourself. Enter there and break yourself; startle, instruct, carry on the work with yourself before the face of God; persuade and convince yourself. This is why we say that conversion, reasoning with one’s own self is the only way in.
Reason About Salvation 
When you reason with yourself, reason about salvation. Reorient your way of thinking to desire the good, to be united with your loving God, and about your commitment to follow His truth. Saint Theophan gives us some guidelines for doing this:
1. When you reason with yourself, do not intellectualize, posing various questions, but having clarified a subject to yourself, take it to heart from the perspective that you feel will be most impressive, and contemplate it thus. 
2. Do not run quickly from one thought to another... Bring every thought into feeling and do not let go until it penetrates the heart. 
3. Do not leave a thought naked in a reasoned form, as it were, but robe it in some sort of image and then carry it into the head as a constant reminder. 
4. Fall to the ground and make prostrations—many, many—and beat your breast. 
5. For prayer, just as for contemplation, make short cries and repeat them often: “Have mercy on thy creation, O Master! God be merciful to me a sinner! O Lord, save me! O Lord, hasten to my aid!

God Provides the Means
God will listen to those who are persistent and force themselves to beat at the door until it is opened. You are seeking His mercy by His grace. Saint Theophan says the following:
1. God’s Grace has chosen the churches of God and church rubrics for His activity. You too should go to church, and patiently, attentively and reverently listen to the services; for the church and it’s structure, the order of services, the singing and reading—all of this can have an effect... 
2. Grace has worked through the Word of God. You too should take it and read it... 
3. The hearts of other sinners have been softened by discussions with pious people. You, too, go and have a discussion... 
4. The prayers of the poor are powerful. You, too, go and multiply your alms: wipe out tears of the unfortunate, shelter if you can the destitute...
These actions prepare you to receive the gift of awakening of your heart to God. Be patient. When the grace-filled awakening comes, then you will see significant changes in your way of life. Saint Theophan says, “Labor is expectancy and the hope of Faith. Grace will come and arrange everything.” When it comes this will be only the beginning of the work of a sinner.

Reference:Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 124 - 153

Awakening Our Heart to God (5)

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