As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

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“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?”

Peter’s question is one that passes through our hearts multiple times every day. We encounter coworkers, neighbours, family members even who have hurt us in some way, who have serious visible flaws, who are maybe just annoying. Rather than being a small chance for purification, this frequent encounter with them becomes to the soul like the clawing of nails on a board. We ask ourselves in a holier than thou attitude how much more we should bear.

Christ answers with the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in which He reveals to us the worth of Repentance in purifying us of sin. The servant had a debt of 10,000 dinaris and was being made accountable for it. Being unable to pay, he falls to his knees and begs for extra time to fulfill the entire debt. In this act the servant displays to us the Sacrament of Reconciliation, a beautiful Sacrament through which we, too, fall to our knees, admit our debt against God, and promise to pursue our sanctification. However, as both the Catholic penitent and the servant would have known, there is no means for us to pay back all this debt. What human act can fulfill the wound of the smallest of sins against the Image of God within us? None. Still, the Parable strengthens us by proclaiming that Nothingness IS what fulfills our debt. We, like the Servant, have only to accept, admit, and offer our nothingness and utter inability to the Merciful King, and He will not only give us time to pay the debt, but rather forgive it entirely. “A crushed and humbled heart,” a heart completely emptied of itself by recognizing the burden of its sin in honesty, is the nothingness that will erase the debt.

The Master “let him go”, as He lets us go upon receiving absolution, upon weeping before our Icons true tears of Repentance, when we humbly offer acts of love… He turns to us and says, as He said before: “Go, and sin no more!”

But we do sin again. And our debt would still be forgiven if we return once more in humble repentance. Take a moment and try to calculate how many times you have been to Confession in your life? If you are leading a healthy spiritual life, the number should be immeasurable to you! And still, Christ speaking through the priest and the Church never says: “This time, your debt is too great.”

However, as we leave the Master’s house and run into our neighbours and “fellow servants,” we remember their minor debt, their 100 dinaris compared to the 10,000 we were just forgiven. We, too, take them by the neck with all our bitterness, pride and anger (as I spoke of in the last Musing), and DEMAND they pay us back the respect, the obedience, the love, the money, the debt we think they owe us.

We who pray “forgive us our ‘debt’ as we forgive those ‘indebted’ against us” finally receive the answer to our prayer. The Master sees our wickedness and asks: “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Indeed, in a sense the Master punishes the servant not for his own debt per se, but for his brother’s debt which he held on to. Christ contrasts this with His encounter with the sinful woman. He says: “She was forgiven much; hence she loves much.” Indeed, her love is a fruit of the forgiveness she encountered. Unlike the Unforgiving Servant, she has received the Master’s mercy and gone out to share it with the world. It is a testament that her repentance has been true. She was shown and forgiven her brokenness, and thus she humbly sees and forgives that of others. She sees her brother who owes her 100 dinaris and gently embraces him.

Is this not what the Church asks of us when we are given acts of Charity to perform as a sign of repentance and penance after Confession? Our priests and spiritual fathers assign to us acts of Charity according to the gravity of our sins, not so we can “fix” them! Our debt is too great to pay! It is the Master’s mercy that already forgave our sins through  taking our debt on the Cross, and offering this mercy through Absolution. We do acts of love to heal the lack of love that first led us to sin. We pray, we fast, we give aid not because we are scrupulously paying our debts and crossing off sins. We do these things because we have encountered Love Himself in the Sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession,  He has forgiven us much, and in that has taught us to love much.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, but also teach us to forgive those who trespass against us as You forgive us our trespasses.   

As such, let us have mercy on sinners in the same way we ask for it, saying:

“Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Seeing God With Blind Eyes

Last week, during the Sunday in which our Melkite Church repeated the words of Christ: “You are the light of the world,” I went to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. One of my confessed sins was the violent temptation of disgust towards people’s weaknesses. It is a sinful temptation deeply rooted in pride, so the point of this post is neither to discuss my spiritual state nor give excuses for it. It is to share what I learned from my deep brokenness and weakness. It started with the priest’s answer: “focus well on today’s Gospel.”

“You are the light of the world.” That was an easy one: the priest, and Christ, were telling me that I was to be a light to others, to draw them out of their sinfulness into a genuine encounter with Christ.

In my pride I could NOT have been more wrong!

It was noteworthy that on the Sunday that speaks of being a light unto the world, there was an electric blackout during our Liturgy. The church was dark, the still-impressive choir not as powerful without the microphones, and extremely hot without AC. This immediately reminded me that at some point during the year, I had gone to Liturgy at a Roman parish, and the Gospel on their Liturgical Calendar was also the Light of the World reading. Interestingly enough, we also experienced an electric blackout during the Mass. These two blackouts have been the only ones experienced at a Liturgy this year, both of them during the Light of the World reading.

Also during Liturgy, the priest spoke of Saint Charbel whose feast we were celebrating in Lebanon. He drew our attention to the fact that Saint Charbel is the only one among the Maronite Saints depicted with his eyes closed. He lived his life as a hermit, completely detached from the world with his eyes fixed on the Lord. It made me realize something else: Saint Rafqa, another Maronite saint, lived the final years of her life lacking an eye and completely blind in the other. Yet, her iconography depicts her with healthy and beautiful eyes. Perhaps one can even say that her eyes are what draws you the most in her icon.

And thus I came to this realization: the saints are often glorified in the most unexpected way. One would expect Saint Charbel to be depicted with his eyes wide open and looking towards Heaven, as he spent his life on earth doing. Yet, he is known in his most humble state, eyes towards the ground. On the other hand, one would expect Saint Rafqa’s heroic suffering, which started with severe pain in her eyes, to be glorified through icons focusing on her blindness and the remarkable event of her voluntarily undergoing eye surgery without anesthesia. Again, it is the contrary: she is glorified with beautiful eyes.

Still… as I pondered all of this, I found it lacking as a blog post and finally decided not to write it. Sure, I could write about how we should all trust Christ in our weaknesses and turn them to Him. Just as the Liturgy during both blackouts was still a Liturgy and a Sacrifice pleasing to the Lord, even without aesthetic beauty, so too we are to be sacrifices of humility in our weakness, our darkness, our ugliness as we turn them to Christ. All of this is well known, and I’ve previously written about it: we are to be a light unto others, despite their weakness. Why should I write about this again?

But then, as I read yesterday’s Gospel, it hit me: when Jesus asked His Apostles to feed the multitude, they answered “with what could we feed so many here in the wilderness?” I was asking Christ the same thing, but regarding others! With what exactly should I expect them to feed the multitude in this desolate wilderness their lives seemed to be (in part because I judged them to be so)? I realized that the priest didn’t ask me to focus on the reading to be a light to others. I was supposed to realize THEY probably ARE in many ways, can be, and will be that light to the world. Some nuns used to remove their sandals while passing by a paralyzed Saint Rafqa’s room in order to avoid having her hear them and ask for a service. They probably also did that on their way to the chapel to pray. They thought that this wonderful saint had too many weaknesses for them to deal with. This Apostle of Suffering and Teacher of Generations was deemed too much of an annoyance to live with! The saint was a burden to what I assume were far less holy nuns. Isn’t this exactly what I was doing? What we all sometimes do? We avoid the weakness of our brothers and sisters who may be far holier, while on our way to so hypocritically tell Christ that we love Him so completely weak and broken on the desolation of His Cross? I can only imagine the nuns’ surprise when they realized how Sister Rafqa’s bothersome weakness they tried to avoid is exactly what Christ used to make her a saint. Would we want to be in that same situation when someone’s darkness is finally transfigured by Christ into the light of the world? When someone’s limited intellect is crowned by Grace through the person’s heroic meekness? When someone’s talkativeness is transformed by Grace into exceptional and life-converting sermons? When someone’s blindness and paralysis and constant demand for support… end up being their crowning glory? Our weaknesses ARE our strengths, because that is where we allow ourselves to stop interfering in everything, where we let it go and give it to Christ. Our weaknesses are the foundation laid out for Christ to come and build, while our strengths often fill us with pride and ruin His work. I was a thousand times mistaken in turning away from the brokenness of others. However, I was above all deciding that Peter’s denial of Christ will never be transfigured into the Rock of Faith, that the Samaritan woman’s adulterous life will never be transfigured to the point of her being called Saint Photini, the Enlightened One. I decided that the darkness of people is too dark for the Grace of Christ to sanctify, for that Divine Spark to light it up, to take the most broken among us and make them the Light of the World.

Saint Charbel’s physical eyes were healthy and saw all things, but his spiritual eyes were closed to all and turned only to Christ. Saint Rafqa’s physical eyes were blind and dead, but her spiritual eyes were wide open and beheld Divine Glory as her icon shows. What of our eyes then? In being so quick to see the sin of others, they are blind to the transfigurative Grace of the Holy Spirit! In being dark they see only darkness. Let us metaphorically pluck out this rotten spiritual eye that sees only sin and darkens the spiritual heart. Let us not be so quick to judge those who may very well be the next Saint Rafqa, the next Saint Mary of Egypt, the next Saint Augustine. Let us not be so quick to declare that Christ cannot transform blindness to the Beatific Vision, the depths of unchastity to the angelic heights of purity, the darkness of ignorance and sin to the light of the world!

For having been so undeserving of our brothers and sisters, we say:

“Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Icon Of “Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church” [Part 2]

Title: Icon of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church

Author: Melkite Catholic Carmel of the Theotokos and of Unity, Harissa-Lebanon

Date Finished: 17 July, 1997

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Reading the Icon

The Upper Section of the Icon

Sealing the intimacy of His Heart with the union of love, the Lord reveals to Therese all the mysteries of His Person and His creation. Secrets so often approached but never penetrated. What beatitude it is to “understand the intimate secrets of Our Spouse”.

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The miniature that presides over the entirety of the icon is the scene of “Christ in the Temple at the age of twelve” (Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΔΩΔΕΚΑΕΤΗΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΝΑΩ). Here, the Child-Jesus, quite small, is nevertheless Wisdom itself, the God before all ages (Ο ΠΡΟ ΑΙΩΝΩΝ ΘΕΟΣ). Jesus, said Therese, is “the Doctor of doctors” Who “teaches with the noise of words”, and she adds: “I feel that He is in me, at every moment, He guides me, inspires me with what I should say or do”. According to Saint John of the Cross, God, while remaining unchangeable, changes and directs: “It is as such that Wisdom is more active than all active things; which is why we must say that, in this movement, it is the soul which changes and wakes from the slumber of the natural live to the supernatural life”. The mystery of the miniature {above the icon} brings us closer to the Christocentric vision of Therese.

In the East, the Child-Jesus is always contemplated as God before all ages. He is always the same, unchanging, without beginning, without end, One and Triune… Which is why, in byzantine iconography, the facial features of the Child-Jesus are always those of an adult. In this same vision, Therese conceives of her name: “Therese of the Child-Jesus and the Holy-Face”, name inscribed in the icon on gold, symbol of God Who is Love. The Child-Jesus and the Holy-Face are the same Jesus contemplated in the movement that embraces both His fragile humanity made Child, and His redemptive sufferings in the Face of the Man of Sorrows. Therese’s name achieves the entirety of Christ, summarizing as such His vocation: “the Redemptive Incarnation”.

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Mary, the All-Holy (Η ΠΑΝΑΓΙΑ), as in the majority of icons, is found by the side of Her Son Jesus. Indeed, in His Economy, God willed that She be associated to every act of the Redemption, from the Annunciation till the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of the Saviour, then from the birth of the Church till the glorious Second Coming of Jesus-Christ. Therese, conscious of the privileged place that Mary occupies, dedicates to Her a poem of 25 stanzas, “Why I Love You, O Mary”. Therese was never satisfied with the sermons she heard regarding the Virgin Mary. She said: “We depict Her as being unapproachable, we should depict Her as being imitable, bring out Her virtues, say that She lived of faith as we do, give proofs from the Gospel in Which we read: ‘they did not understand what He told them'”. The episode of the life of Jesus represented in the icon, the Finding at the Temple, highlights Mary’s life of faith, according to the Theresian Mariology. Jesus “wants Her to be the example of the soul that searches in the Night of Faith… in the anguish of the heart”.

In the school of the Mother of God (Η ΘΕΟΤOΚΟΣ), Therese learned: to banish all her fears, to follow through the common way, to practice all the virtues, to love Jesus, to suffer in love… Does not her face reflect a certain expression that speaks of her participation in the Passion of the Saviour? In the example of Mary, Therese lived only to “please the Good God” in her continual Fiat. The virtues of Mary became those of Therese, because the life of Mary became that of Therese. We may say, in all truth, that Therese became a small icon of Mary.

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To the side of Jesus and Mary, we see Saint Joseph. His presence reminds us of Little Therese’s love for him and the Holy Family. This is not surprising for a daughter of the ‘Santa Madre’ {Saint Teresa of Avila}, which is why, in the icon, Large Therese is placed on the same side as Saint Joseph.

Through her remarkable penetration of the Evangelical events, the Little Therese underlines throughout all her writings the role that God has assigned to Saint Joseph. He is the servant of the Mystery of the Incarnation, humble and hidden, poor and obedient, diligent and contemplative. The Son of God being submitted to him, and even though Jesus was all in prayer, God willed that His humanity grows in an ambience that was, between Mary and Joseph, all in prayer.

Therese lived in the ambience of a holy family. Her father and mother were profoundly Christian and of great virtue. They watched with a lot of attention over the Christian and humane education of their children. Therese gives witness to that: “With a nature like mine, had I been raised with virtue-less parents, I would have become very evil and possibly would have lost myself… Have only good examples around, I naturally wanted to follow them”. What a model for our families nowadays!

[To be continued…]

Icon Of “Saint Therese Of The Child Jesus And The Holy Face, Doctor Of The Church” [Part 1]

Title: Icon of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Doctor of the Church

Author: Melkite Catholic Carmel of the Theotokos and of Unity, Harissa-Lebanon

Date Finished: 17 July, 1997

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Introduction

Therese of the Child Jesus, as a “word of God for the world” as Pope Pius XI defined her, reveals to us through her icon the excellence of her teaching and the evangelical depth of her doctrine. The doctrine is a light guiding humanity on the path of sanctity by revealing it to be accessible to all. Her desire to “enlighten souls like the prophets, like the doctors” continues to be realized, more and more among a multitude of diverse social classes and varied cultures. Was not “to make the good God loved as [she] loves Him, [and] give [her] little way to souls” her greatest wish?

In this icon of Therese doctor, icon intended to represent the transparency of her teaching, we see the saint standing and we recognize:

+To her right:

-Sitting: Pope Saint Leo, Saint Ambrose and Saint Cyril of Alexandria.

-Standing: Saint John of the Cross near the saint, Saint Augustine, Saint John Damascene, Saint Catherine of Sienna and Saint Thomas Aquinas.

+To her left:

-Sitting: the three holy hierarchs: Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint Basil the Great.

-Standing: Saint Teresa of Jesus presents to us her daughter; Saint Robert Bellarmine, Saint Ephrem, Saint Bernard and Saint Anthony of Padua.

In the background, we see on each side two buildings representing the Church in Her two lungs: East and West. Any event pertaining to Saint Therese occurs within the “One” (unified) Church of Christ.

Child-Jesus, the “Doctor of Doctors”, is present in the superior section of the icon, surrounded by the Theotokos and Saint Joseph during the Finding in the Temple.

Graphic Structure

The icon is a mirror in which the Church can contemplate, through lines and colours, the mystery it represents and makes present. In this icon we’re contemplating, Therese emerges from a gold background, Gold being the symbol of God Who is Light, Life and Sanctity. In Him and through Him, is inscribed and realized all vocation, mission and event in the Church. Very often the icon is supported by graphics. Here, the graphics are delivered to us by the Little Therese. Since her childhood, she would see her name written in the sky. “I looked to the stars… there was especially a group of golden pearls I noticed with joy, realizing it had the shape of a T. I would point it out to my father, telling him that my name was written in the sky.”

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The T that Saint Therese saw had a tilted top, an important detail to understand the icon.

The body of Saint Therese forms this T. The saint is located in the extension of the line from Jesus-Doctor, Wisdom itself. It is the vertical line of the T that continues virtually into the infinite. It is indeed infinite in both its directions where its pinnacle, Christ, is reflected in the inverted infinite, being the All and filling all. It evokes Saint Therese’s direct relation to God Who renders her firm, unshakable. He is her rock. Through her Science of Love and her perception of God, Therese takes Him by the heart. She understood how to love Him and reveals to us her secret.

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The form of the T shaped by Saint Therese’s body. It is the same T-form she saw in the sky as a child, looking at Orion’s Belt.

As for the horizontal line, it is remarkable by its tilt, symbol of this simple and continuous movement under the action of the Holy Spirit in Saint Therese: the desire to bring back souls to God. His compassion went so far as to sit at the table of sinners. The right side of the axis is directed downwards: the earth, the sinners and the left side upwards: the heavens, God. Additionally, this line suggests, even evokes, the corollary movement, that of God towards man. He Who is in the heights, is He not the same Who descended into the caverns of hell?

This axis speaks to us as well of the universal event that is Therese. She joined the East and West, “everyone will love me”, she exclaimed in a prophetic manner. The two lines, one vertical and the other horizontal, intersect in the centre of the Gospel grafted onto the heat of the saint to the point of substituting it by assimilating it. The fire blazing the Gospel signifies the interior flame which the Gospel itself produces in the heart of Therese.

Therese synthesizes the graphics of her icon through these words alone: “Lord […] when a soul has allowed itself to be captivated […] she can not run alone, all the souls she loves are drawn after her; this is done without coercion, without effort, it is a natural consequence of its attraction to You.”

[To Be Continued…]

Setting the Table of Feasting With the Silverware of Fasting

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One of the greatest virtues taught by fasting, and a most needed reminder to the young souls of our day, is the Virtue of Gratitude. If anyone still questions the wisdom of Our Mother the Church, they should give fasting a try.

On Saturdays and Sundays of the Apostles’ Fast, as we rest in the Lord and celebrate His Resurrection and our salvation, the Church eases the fast and permits consumption of beverage and food all day long. One who has never fasted will struggle to understand what a blessing it is to be able to sit down and have one’s coffee/tea/juice with a small snack in the morning. It helps remind us that even your morning beverage that you normally don’t even finish or possibly forget completely about as you rush to work or drop off the kids, this beverage comes as a gift from the infinite Mercy of Our Lord. You don’t have a ‘right’ to it and should thank Him for this gift as much as the next.

Even more sad is the help that people who do not fast miss out on, when they do not have this immediate added joy on Saturdays and Sundays in all the Love of Our Creator, just due to this newfound appreciation of the smallest of things and an ability to enjoy them freely, in a spiritual freedom that is detached from material things and rejoicing in the blessings of God. If even before your Liturgy, before your Jesus Prayer, before your spiritual reading, before your act of charity on Sunday, you are already this spiritually happy and rejoicing in the Lord, then how much more will all these have added by Sunday night?

I say this from experience: being able to have your morning snack on weekends, and an evening glass of wine as the Church permits, the very wine that “gladdens the heart of man” as the Psalm says, will teach you the Virtue of Gratitude faster and more deeply than listening to 3 sermons on Detachment and Thanksgiving. I say this not to diminish the value of sermons, but to stress the impact and importance of following the Church’s guidelines and regulations, because they’re here as a mercy to teach us the faith, not as an obligation to restrain us. So let us continue, or start, our Apostles’ Fast today with renewed zeal, asking with hope and joy:

“Lord Jesus Christ Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and always and unto the ages of ages. Amen.