Joy Restored!


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#24 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “Restore unto me the joy of salvation.“

Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal. 5:22f)  

We all want to be happy, and since the time of Aristotle[i], it has been the stated goal of human life for multitudes. But who is really happy?  What is joy? How is it found?  And lost?

Since my early training in metallurgy, I’ve always been interested in mining and minerals, so a TV series about gold mining adventurers caught my attention a few years back. Called ‘Gold Rush[ii]’ the series focuses on rough and tumble adventurers who are on the quest for gold by learning how to mine for it in remote, harsh wilderness settings.  Their foibles and successes are entertaining, and their demonstrable courage at times to follow their pursuit admirable (despite the end goal perhaps). 

In one episode, the miner was in an Indonesian outland, where friend and foe could not always be distinguished.  But there is a profound scene, where the penniless natives who often helped the heavily equipped Western miner-strangers,) happily bailed them out of countless dangerous situations and untenable circumstances.  One of the goals of the miners was to show the natives that they could be find wealth literally under their own feet and become rich.  And in this scene, the miner – tired, discouraged, and sad – was directly contrasted to the simple, happy, native he’s trying to ‘convert’ to his way of thinking that somehow his life would be better and worthwhile if he just could get his hands on gold.  The simple smile on the face of the native, stooped on the ground, contrasted starkly with thediscouraged face of the miner who pitied the poverty of his helpers, as he continued his search for happiness by acquiring the bright colored metal.

Of course, Christianity has countless stories of people discovering spiritual joy in an even more profound and deeper way by coming to Christ and renouncing the world.  The lives of the saints tell the story again and again. As we come to this time of the year, we remember St. Nicholas as a man of joy, sharing that joy, healing and love of Christ with others. And many of the Fathers of the Church speak of this joy as a tangible and unmistakable gift for Christians.

Is it just that easy?

Well, for us fallen mortals, the experience of joy in this world may seem to be quite elusive. I would say, even for Christians.[iii] Spiritual joy (as in the New Testament) is different from what we would call ‘happiness’, which in this world can be quite fleeting.   I’m thinking here of the ecstasy of the Transfiguration[iv] moment for the Apostles – filled with an abiding sense of God’s presence and a desire to ‘park it’ right there, pitch a tent and take it in a good long time.  This needs to be contrasted with what came after (as discussed heretofore) when Jesus then takes his disciples aside, rebukes them and teaches them about his forthcoming Crucifixion and resurrection.  Their bewilderment was seemingly not at all ‘joyful.’ I would suggest this is more like the ebb and flow of the emotional tide of most Christians  go through where we have moments when we are seemingly ‘on fire’ for the Lord, and other times, when barely a lukewarm coal can be found.

When we base our perception of Christianity on this feeling of happiness or joy, or ascribe our Christian walk in those terms, we can sometimes lose our spiritual bearings and begin to seek the ‘happiness’ as for the sake of that feeling alone. And in the spirit of the previous discussion on delusion, we can try to ‘whip ourselves up’ into a false happiness or sense of security, which is not of God because it is fundamentally false.  

As Psalm 23 (22) reminds us, there are valleys of the shadow of death in this life that are invariably frightening or disheartening.  People, including good Christians, experience the same things as everyone else – like the grisly darkness and evils of violence and war – and have the resultant PTSD to prove it.  This is a perilously heavy cross to be born – and it’s not a seemingly ‘happy’ one.

There’s No Happiness in Sin?

It can be said, I think accurately, that happiness has fled because of sin.  I can remember in my seminary days, a vehement discussion among the students who were contrasting the Eastern Paschal texts (from the Easter season) with one peculiar line from the Western Paschal Rite (in the RC Church) at Easter, which proclaimed, ‘Oh happy fault, (in Latin – Oh Felix Culpa) that merited such and so great a Redeemer.”  How in the world can the ‘fault’ be ‘happy’, let alone ‘merit’ the coming of the Redeemer? And the previous verse, ‘O truly necessary sin of Adam, which the death of Christ has blotted out!”  is equally troubling. Much of this thought can be traced to St. Ambrose, and subsequently to St. Augustine whom he taught.[v]  Cynically, one can read this in such a blasphemous way to see sin as a ‘plaything’ of God – creating man to sin so that He can ride in on His white horse and save him through Jesus.  I’m sure that this is not what the saintly Ambrose had in mind, but he does seem to say that sin was almost a given, and because of it (alone?), did the entirety of salvation history unfold, including the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection. 

It must be said that St. Ambrose is emphasizing the overwhelming graciousness of God, that while we were yet in sin, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).  Much of what he writes points to how God uses the events of one’s life (including the ones where sin is at work) to nonetheless draw us to salvation and life.  When St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, “God makes all things work for the good for those who love Him”  he means all things. God is not afar, waiting for us to figure things out and turn to Him, but is knee-deep in our mess, and prompting us, showing us, and pulling us out of it.

The Eastern Fathers, from what I’ve read, take a different view from St. Ambrose.  The Original Sin was a catastrophic, dehumanizing event utterly rupturing the relationship between God and man. There could be nothing essentially ‘good’ about it because it was essentially ‘not God’.[vi]  It was in no way ‘necessary’ for as a number of Fathers explicitly said, the Incarnation of Christ would have happened, as God’s extension of His love to humankind, even if there had been no sin.[vii]  And salvation from sin would have not been necessary, and the sense of exaltation (happiness) and fulfillment of the human relationship with God would not have proceeded from Hell (through the Cross) but in another form of spiritual ‘resurrection’ and eternal communion with the Trinity – effectively what one might call a ‘theosis’ moment.

Can sin be ‘happy’.  No, not in my experience anyway.  Sin always (eventually) brings discouragement, misery and death.

Can Happiness be restored?

David experienced personal misery deeply because of his sins, beginning with adultery and murder and adding anger, doubt, etc. into the mix.  David’s joy was gone.  But with his repentance came the hope, of a restored joy.  Here is where the holy Prophet David stands up and stands out – by asking God to restore his joy!  This is one of the first fruits of repentance – the inner prayer based upon restored trust that in God while we have sinned (in the past) penance gives us a way to be restored.  The burden of his heart is being lifted and turning to God, he seeks a return of the joy that he knew before.

David’s joy is not in anything external – but in His relationship with the Holy One, and in salvation.  While much can be said about the sense of what ‘salvation’ is, in the Old Testament – deliverance from terrible circumstances (e.g. The Exodus, or from enemies (e.g. the Babylonians), the sense of this is always, in an underlying way, spiritual.  Salvation is salvation from that which is Evil, the fallen world and the Prince of this World who is our enemy.  David personalizes this, because he has experienced the ‘enemy within’ but through repentance that enemy is being cast out.  This anticipates, and prophecies in fact, the ultimate salvation that would happen through the coming of Christ, His Cross, Death and Resurrection.

So, if we are not joyful, could it be that we are in need of penance?  Maybe.  But we are not to seek penance because we are seeking joy. This is akin to us just trying to patch things up (superficially) and make everything ‘OK’.   But perhaps even our less-than-pure motives can move us in the right direction! It’s like the addict who is so miserable he’ll do anything to lift him from his misery – including even turning to God.

Penance is not merely external, nor is it emotional in essence.  It is fundamentally born in the recognition of Truth, that surely then bears fruit in sorrow when we become aware of personal[viii] sin, the bearing the burden of that in the soul, and the turning to God to seek forgiveness.  The tears of penance are sad and bitter.  In time, as the fruits of penance begin to be realized, they can be transformed by grace to tears of joy. The path to lasting joy leads from the gate of sorrow.

Closing Thoughts

As a priest I don’t think I’ve ever suggested to anyone who was sad or depressed that they should go to Confession (unless I was aware of serious sin.)  Maybe I should have?  I do know this, that countless people have approached the icon of Christ in confession filled with sorrow and remorse and unburdened themselves of their sins, and heard the words from the Gospel, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’  (Lk. 7:48)

And many, so many, have walked away light-hearted and filled with joy.

And didn’t even have to ask God for the restoration of their joy and inner peace, but just to give thanks to Him for it. Ω


[i] Per Aristotle when posed with the question what is the supreme good for man, from the , Nicomachaen Ethics: “And of this nature happiness is mostly thought to be, for this we choose always for its own sake, and never with a view to anything further: whereas honour, pleasure, intellect, in fact every excellence we choose for their own sakes, it is true, but we choose them also with a view to happiness, conceiving that through their instrumentality we shall be happy: but no man chooses happiness with a view to them, nor in fact with a view to any other thing whatsoever. “  As quoted from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201301/aristotle-happiness

[ii] In what might have been a Freudian error (?), as I typed, ‘Gold’ I ended up typing ‘God’!  The difference cosmically between ‘gold’ and God is immeasurable, but in this world, they are too often, confused.


[iii] I’ve been reading lately St. Simeon the New Theologian, who reflects on how the joy of Christians is unmistakable sign, and many other Fathers spoke in the same way. (References upon request.)

[iv] It has been said that the Transfiguration can best be understood in light of the darkness of the Cross, and those who are immersed in it with Christ.

[v] An interesting reflection on this by Brian Kelly can be found here: https://catholicism.org/o-happy-fault.html  It is a reflection on a series of Lenten reflections and the writings of Cardinal Biffi of Milan, the city of St. Ambrose.

[vi] I would like to hear a Protestant take on this.  If the Original Sin resulted in the ‘total depravity’ of mankind, could it ever be seen as good in any way?  Do weigh with a comment if you have any thoughts on this.

[vii] This is, of course, totally speculative.  But St. Maximus among others attests to it, and even later, Duns Scotus, in the West, gives credence to the idea. https://publicorthodoxy.org/2018/06/21/theology-without-the-fall/

[viii] An oft-overlooked aspect of our whole perception of sin is that it is only personal.  Sometimes this seemingly gets amplified in Christianity.  But much of the sin of the Old Testament was seen to be corporate, and a cursory look at the warnings of the Apostle John in Revelation to the Churches of Asia, spoke of corporate sins.  Where and how do we reflect on ‘corporate’ sin in our own age?  The systemic sins, especially in the Church, are borne from the individual failings in conscience, but united with others become very powerful and damaging, especially in the Church. Wars are never caused by just on person. There is always a simmering hatred/violence/pride among many that promotes it.

Losing the Holy Spirit?


Courtesy- Cerzone.com

#23 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  “Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.”

There is probably nothing worse to say about a person than, ‘He’s lost the Spirit.’  It’s the essence of being truly lost. But can we actually lose the Holy Spirit? How?

As was mentioned earlier, the Holy Spirit was active and present in the world from the beginning of Creation and particularly through the Hebrew Covenant, of which David was a central figure.  But it is also clear that David’s perception of the work of the Spirit was much keener than most, and arguably even most today. While what would say today as the norm of the reception of the Holy Spirit through purification, Baptism and Chrismation was obviously not the case with David, it is clear that the Spirit was quite present and active in many ways, not the least of which was through His prophetic ministry.  Only the Holy Spirit can inspire a true prophet.  But our perspective is from the New Testament, the old has passed away and all things are made new[i].

Much is said in Christianity[ii] of the acquiring the Holy Spirit and it has been a bit of a focus of these reflections as well.  In Orthodoxy, there is great theological focus on the personal reception of the Holy Spirit through the sacramental Mystery of Chrismation (akin to Confirmation in the West and in an ongoing way through the practice of the Orthodox Way).  We celebrate as a Major Feast the Gift of the Spirit to the Church, at Pentecost as inaugurating a new age of His sustaining presence forever.  There’s no taking that away.  The Fathers speak of ‘acquiring the Holy Spirit’ personally through the whole of the Christian discipline process (read spiritual discipline) – Church life/worship, prayer, ascetical practices, virtuous deeds, charity, etc.[iii]  

The Church teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit once ‘sealed’ in the soul is a forever gift, God will never forsake his servants whom He so loves as to give Himself as a Bridegroom gives himself to a Bride.  This is the innermost quality of the relationship that is established in Chrismation. So how is it that the Holy Spirit could be taken?

The Gift of the Spirit – To be Stewarded

Our relationship with God, actualized by the Holy Spirit, must be attend to lest it be lost.  So many biblical examples come to mind here –  for example, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, wherein we learn that the life of grace is planted by God, but it will either thrive or die depending on living circumstances and environment.  Of course, the parable as subsequently explained by the Lord Jesus, shows us that the ‘environment’ consists of spiritual attacks of things like spiritual immaturity (wilting in the drought) and succumbing to the ‘cares, riches and pleasures’ of life. (Lk. 8:1-15)

Christians are assaulted with temptations of every sort which can unravel the discipline (discipleship) of our spiritual life. When that happens, the ever-present Spirit seems distant or unknown.  We feel cold. The relationship grows cold – the gift seems to be slipping away. After a while a spiritual apathy overcomes us, and we don’t care if we are losing our spiritual center.  In stewarding the gifts of God, we do well to understand certain movements in this process.[iv]  The Gift of the Spirit is a relationship, and relationships must be stewarded by constant communication, attentiveness, purification (leading to a deeper relationship) and love.  The Spirit responds inwardly, prompting the heart to pray, and indeed the Fathers have identified the ‘heartbeat’ as something of a bodily metaphor for the intimacy and presence of the Spirit.

Grieving the Holy Spirit

When a relationship is going south, it causes grief.  St. Paul describes it in this way,

“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not grieve God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live…. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.”    (Eph. 4:29 – 32)

As with any relationship, when the sins above are present it is impossible to live in peace.  The relationship with God is different though.  God is the Giver of peace of heart, sweet words, truth, and love.  To act in this way is to respond not to the presence of the Spirit in the heart, but to the promptings of the Devil and submission to Him in our actions.

Just as an aside, it is worthwhile to note the proliferation of foul talk in our culture.  Christianity always fights the proliferation of foul talk. This is especially true regarding the holiness of the name of the Lord, the Name above every other Name, Jesus Christ.[v] When someone speaks thus to animate their words, they instill them not only with vehemence, but evil.  Once this is started (I know from experience) it becomes increasingly difficult to control. As it becomes commonplace (sometimes even in ‘churches’) it further coarsens society. It’s worst effect?  It grieves the Holy Spirit!   Note that, like Peter in the Garden when he denied Christ three times, he ‘cursed and swore’.  Thankfully, the beginning of his healing began soon after when he ‘wept bitterly.’ (Mk.17:71ff)

When we hear our outer language growing coarse or utterly sinful in using the Lord’s name in vain, the Spirit is not empowering our words and is far from our hearts from which the words precede.

Presumption and Delusion

There are two other sins to mention that are particularly harmful regarding our relationship with the Holy Spirit.  Of course, all sins tend to spiral into a single vortex – as David found out – lust can join to anger leading to murder. The sins of presumption and delusion often work as a pair.

While both arise from a self-centered ego, spiritual presumption affords to oneself that which is a gift from God.  It can affect anyone and pop up quickly. One scenario might be this – a person is baptized as a child and given the wondrous gift of Life in Christ and the Spirit. For whatever reasons, she carries on the outward activity (even highly engaged) of Christianity but does not examine herself – words, deeds, motivations – and soon begins to assume her ‘Christianity’ is her own, giving her a ‘boldness’ from her ego, not from God.  This can lead to all sorts of bad things  where the outward profession is increasingly different from the inner heart.  Presumption usually leads one to think of oneself as better than others.  The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is a fine example of how presumption is manifest.  While applied to a ‘Pharisee’ it can be true of a Christian just as easily, but to even more harmful effect because, bearing the very name of Christ, others identify not just ourselves with Christianity, but worse, identify Christ with us! Saying in effect, “If that’s what Jesus Christ is about I want nothing to do with it!”  

I find it necessary to mention that this is a great temptation in Christianity today because the systems established in the early Church to get us to do self-examination (as the Apostle commands – 1Cor. 11:28-29) have drifted from our praxis.  The self-examination and confession of sins is at the heart of this discipline.  The discipline of personal confession was pretty much lost in Protestantism in practice, except for a very individualized  form, which denied the not only the value of external counsel and discernment, but the very forgiveness of sins in the power of the Spirit offered sacramentally.  But even in the Roman Church as well as Orthodoxy, the value of confession has waned in various places and times, and with that, the advice of St. Paul goes unheeded.

The Sin of Delusion

Delusion (Gr. prelest) is the evil sister of Presumption, is essentially self-centered flattery which, like presumption, makes us think more highly of ourselves than we should, about which St. Paul warns decisively. (Rom.12:3)  The thing about delusion is that while self-inflation is at its core, it leads, literally to a ‘deluded-false’ view of self and subsequently, the world. This then opens the heart to demonic inspired thoughts of one’s spiritual greatness and the demons will even provide visions and other forms of self-exaltation in dreams and the like. This can lead to serious mental illness.  It could be said that all religious charlatans who lead countless people to their destruction, are suffering from this truly mortal (deadly) sin.

In fact, delusion and presumption are horrific temptations for priests and those in ministry because we are so close to great and wondrous truth and sacred gifts of God that we can get our egos entangled terribly in it all. This is especially true in preaching, and the road from the church is littered with the souls of deluded preachers and those who paid heed to them.  The problem is that, because they (we) can become so ego-centered, in human terms ‘ powerful,‘  that the message seems to be convincing and compelling.  Roll in the thunderous sound of one’s own voice electronically amplified in an auditorium, the applause of people, or thousands of adoring social media fans and ‘likes’, increased money, power, etc. and t becomes an extremely dangerous cocktail.  This was one sin that St. John Chrysostom continuously and vehemently warned about in his day.

But all this arises, not from the Holy Spirit but from the demonic spirit of prelest.  In this case, it could be said that the Holy Spirit has been ‘taken’ from the preacher, or perhaps seen another way, the preacher’s failure to humble himself and be vigilant has led to falsehood and delusion in both his message and presentation.  This is often then accompanied by other moral failures (like sexual misconduct) then end up in the end, bringing him down – which is a good thing, because the evil is confronted and repentance is possible.

I would only add that among the greatest needs in the Church is that of discernment for priests – not just within ourselves (which can be deluded) but from others, whether laity, other clergy or, ideally, hierarchs.  One example for me was when a parishioner asked me about a passage which I had preached about.  Through the discussion it became clear to me that I had been wrong, and needed to be humbled and change my thinking. This is how the Spirit sometimes come to us and confront not only the misunderstanding, but the spiritual weakness and sin. So don’t be afraid to ask your priest about what he is preaching about.  Rightly done, it can lead to a rich dialogue and correction of errors, misunderstanding and with it, humility.

Conclusion

I cannot begin to say where the Spirit is, or is not, or how existentially the Spirit may be taken from a person.  These things are beyond me – the state of souls and particularly the Spirit who moves where He wills.  But I cannot think of a worse Hell than from one which the Spirit of God has in some way withdrawn, in which all goodness has vanished.

Take not O Lord, thy Holy Spirit from me!


[i] Cf.2Cor.5:17

 

[iii] Wisdom 1:5 shows this relationship: “the Holy Spirit of discipline flees deceit and withdraws from senseless counsel”

[iv] I refer to these movements elsewhere as the ‘Spiritual Cycle of Stewardship’ as consisting of eight such movements.

[v]As a kid, the Catholic churches almost always had a ‘Holy Name Society’.  I never knew what it was about, it was seemingly a pious confraternity. From Catholic.org: “The primary object of the society is to beget due love and reverence for the Holy Name of God and Jesus Christ. The secondary object is to suppress blasphemy, perjury, oaths of any character that are forbidden, profanity, unlawful swearing, improper language, and, as far as the members can, to prevent those vices in others (Pius IV, April 13, 1564).” 
In today’s society, I can think of no other more valuable task force of committed Christians of all Churches and denominations to take on than the restoration of the respect for the name of the Lord and the saints, and speech in general.