Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Fr Touma (Bitar): The Mystery of the Heart is Greater!

My translation doesn't do this justice. Arabic original here.

The Mystery of the Heart is Greater!

"Whether people like it or not, there will come a time when all people believe because they will arrive at an impasse and Christ will intervene."

These are unusual words spoken by an unusual person who lived in God's Spirit in an unusual way. By this I mean, the elder Paisios the Athonite.

Every sin, whatever it may be, an error in thought or a stumbling along the path, bears in its folds its own hell. What a person sows, he reaps. Thus the sin that separates from God itself disciplines... from this very moment! How does it discipline? Through anxiety, through pain, through fear, through confusion, through emptiness, through the haunting feeling of needing to escape...! The life of one who has surrendered himself to sin is constant escape! Everything that he deals with, he deals with so as to escape. Even if it is not this way on the outside, it is still necessarily so! Philosophy, knowledge, art, sports, money, and also sex, food, drink, clothing and possessions... But the chief land of escape is the body and the imagination! With the body, one seeks to forget, using it up for enjoyment. This is because there is no narcotic like pleasure and no escape like narcotics. As for the imagination, it immerses you in a world that you make out of your desire, as you desire it, escaping to something resembling outer space without the reality of flesh and blood. The  body is the sinner's consolation and the imagination is his wishful, delusional horizon. If not for the  body and the imagination, the sinner would end in sorrow and despair. Escape is a visceral need for the sinner!

There is no solution for the sinner's problems as long as he abides in his sins. The world, on the one hand, is the theater for sin's struggle among people and on the other hand it is is the agglomeration of the legacy of sin shaped by imagination and sprinkled with truth as though like salt. This causes sin to pile up and multiply causing anxiety to sharpen, pain to increase, fear to reach panic and confusion total chaos! When it looks as if humanity has been used up by sin and gone over to decomposition and decay, we encounter it, in light of the quote from the elder Paisios the Athonite, recoils from sin. First, this is because it has brought humanity to the point of bankruptcy and it is no longer within a person's capability to recover himself from the point of perdition that he has reached. Second, it is because Christ the Lord does not abandon His creation without recourse, but rather He recovers it, since once man has reached the point of boredom, meaninglessness and despair over himself, it is possible to recover the peace of his soul!

This becomes clear when the Lord God allows sin to intensify in someone who is stubbornly unrepentant. Sin is a sort of curse, but in terms of the repercussions it causes in a person's soul, it is subject to a path of self-destruction. The reason for this, on the one hand, is the nature of the human heart and, on the other hand, the nature of God's heart. No matter what inflated dimension sin reaches, the heart, when confronted with great pain, is prepared to cast sin out because it is not of its nature. The heart may long remain unable, but it does not completely lose a feeling of authenticity, even if it is very slight. To put it more clearly, there is no such thing as a person who truly desires to sin before God (Saint John Klimakos)! The heart, in distress, cries out in its near-paralysis and the Lord God hears the voice of the heart that is oppressed, helpless and silent in its own sin. "I cried out to the Lord in my distress and the Lord heard me" (Psalm 119:1). Christ the Lord did not come to the righteous because no one is righteous, not one. Rather, He came to sinners! Man does not need anything more than a groaning in the heart toward the Lord, no matter how weak, for the Lord God to take the initiative! For your Lord, suffering is the home for the cross of salvation! The mystery of the heart requires the mystery of suffering! Thus no one who suffers is far from his Lord, who is love and who knew the cross in the body and identifies with the one suffering! If repentance is the acceptance of suffering and of the cross for the sake of the Teacher, then suffering outside of repentance is fertile ground for bringing about repentance, no matter how dessicated one's soul. Thus it is said, "Cause me to repent and I will repent, for you are the Lord my God... I was humiliated and ashamed because I bore the reproach of my youth" (Jeremiah 31:18-19)!

However, I am given pause by the saying of the Lord, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" At first glance, it seems that the saying means that the door of salvation is shut, or almost so. If we read it in light of Father Paisios' assertion, then perhaps the saying means that a time will come when delusion spreads to the point that it is impossible, except for a very tiny few, to preserve themselves. But this points to the near-total inability of humanity to respond to God's call to faith in Jesus, not to God's inability! Is it not true that everything is possible for God? Even before that, is it not true that God desires that all be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth? Naturally, the question is right: If man does not come to salvation through faith, then by what does he, if he does? The answer, in light of what we have explained above, is the suffering that results from sin! Sin is not of man's nature, no matter how much it spreads within him! It comes from a perversion, that, in the course of life, changes into delusion, as though from nature or from a sort of second nature. The Shepherd came to bring back the lost sheep! Thus it is sin's fate to reach an impass in emptiness and suffering. It seems that this prepares man for salvation, if repentance has not prepared him! The heart's groaning reaches the ears of the Most High and He takes the initiative to lift  His creature out of the depths of the abyss! "Save me from my hidden stumbling!" On that day, God's love will be completely manifest in man who is paralyzed in his spirit. Arise, carry yourself and your body and go home! This home that is the Lord Himself because in love the beloved only dwells in his Lover, and in Him alone he has rest forever!

A person's choice, in light of the above, is not between faith and the absence of faith or between repentance and the absence of repentance. In reality, his choice is between on the one hand voluntarily suffering pain in the world of sin, with faith and repentance, yearning for the Lord and being filled with the God who is love and on the other hand being immersed in sin, with pain and emptiness intensifying, then crying out to the Lord in his heart. The heart, no matter how much it strays, desires the Lord, even if only weakly. Otherwise it perishes. So the Lord takes the initiative towards him and treats him, filling him with love from Himself! In the worst sinners, God's greatest love is made manifest because it is limitless! Is it not the case that the angels rejoice more over a single sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance? Repentance is your knowing in the depth of your being that sin does not do any good. There are some people for whom repentance is easier than for others. Then there are some people whose  sins are trickier, harder and more complicated. Even those who have gone to distant lands, far from their Lord, are pursued by their Lord's mercy, even to hell. It does not leave them and does not rest until suffering empties sin in every soul, until the heart repents to its Lord, no matter what it has become, reaching upward like a smoking fuse.

I once asked a man, once when I was on a visit to the Soviet Union, "Do you believe in the Son of God?" How did he respond? He said, "I have a heart." This is equal to speaking the faith, and even more! Every person has a heart, no matter how much he himself, his history, his time, and his world has rebelled against it! Here lies the mystery of existence! Here is made manifest the mystery of salvation!

I convey these words as an opinion, but on the evidence of the spirit manifest in Father Paisios! The truth, even without the quote we started with at the opening of our talk, is that the feeling of the friend of God, no matter how small this friend's stature, is that God is greater in love and as Love, than to allow sin, no matter how great, to snatch away one of the Heavenly Father's beloved (cf. John 10:29)-- and all are His beloved! What was not said does not mean that it is not there. It is implied. I was struck on more than one occasion by a pair of stories. The first is about Saint Gregory the Great, in the West, how he fasted and prayed for one of the ancient emperors of Rome until God granted him the emperor's salvation. The second is about Saint Paisios the Great to whom, on account of his love, humility and prayer, God granted the salvation of a pupil who had perished in his sin and whose master had come to Paisios the Great seeking help. The logic of God's love does away with every other logic if we know and insist on seeking help in God, with God, through God's love! Blessed and exalted is His Name! He is merciful and quick to help in every situation! In ways that You alone know, Lord, have mercy on me and save me, Your unworthy servant, and have mercy on your world and save it!

Archimandrite Touma (Bitar)
Abbot of the Monastery of Saint Silouan the Athonite
Douma, Lebanon
July 6, 2014

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