Monday, June 07, 2010

Fallen Thoughts, Fallen Feelings

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 4:18-23], we heard the account of our Lord calling four fishermen from Galilee to become His disciples. The men eagerly responded to His call, leaving their nets behind to become followers of Jesus. At the end of that period, on the day of His ascension into heaven, Jesus gathered His closest disciples and charged them to carry His call around the world, saying to them: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you”. Ten days later, on that great feast of Pentecost that saw the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, Peter exhorted the crowd to repent and be baptized to receive the promise of the kingdom of heaven. “For the promise,” he declared, “is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call”.

From these few examples we can see that Christianity begins for each of us as a call from Jesus Christ to become His disciple. Notice that the call is not to become believers, but to become disciples. By definition, a disciple is one who follows, who obeys, who submits to the master’s teaching and way of life and imitates it. There are many who claim to believe in Jesus, but do not follow Him. To them, Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” [Matthew 7:21]. It is the will of the Father that we become true followers of Jesus Christ, observing all that He commanded.

To that end, a Christian disciple must lay aside and forsake all personal obstacles to obedience. The fishermen gave us a spiritual symbol of this when they abandoned their nets at Christ’s call to follow Him. In their case they clearly could not have followed Jesus all about the Holy Land to become witnesses of all that He said and did unless they left their occupations, their families, and all else behind during that time. Christ does not usually ask the exact same thing of us, but He does ask of us something rather more difficult. He asks us to abandon our love and devotion to all that stands in opposition to God and which hinders us from following Him.

This would include our love of sin and of all uncleanness which drives purity and holiness from our lives. It includes our love of pleasure and comfort which begs us to go easy on ourselves and forsake the bearing of our cross along the difficult way of salvation. And just as importantly--though often overlooked by us--it includes the love of our own fallen thoughts and feelings, which we mostly always obey without question, though they nearly always lead us away from God.

Every human being has thoughts and feelings, but the Christian disciple is called to submit even these to the Lordship of Christ. This is not easy for us. We don’t live in a monastery where we might expect daily life to be structured and shaped by the Holy Tradition of the Church to draw us to God as much as possible. We live in our own lives, in a world that is shaped by many forces that are in opposition to God; a world which has in turn shaped us and influenced far too many of our ideas about life and how it should be lived. This is the universal human problem and part of the reason St. Paul wrote: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” [Romans 12:2].

Notice that the blessed St. Paul says that our minds are in need of transformation. Until such a holy transformation begins to take place in us, would this not suggest that most of our own thoughts are in error? This certainly means trouble for us because we are deeply conditioned to uncritically listening to our thoughts and to trusting absolutely our inner feelings. No one is more aware of this than the father-confessor, for he not only witnesses his own internal struggle to be transformed to the mind of Christ, but he often sees those he cares for set aside the instruction or penance he prescribes in the holy sacrament of confession, to continue to follow their own thoughts and feelings in all things. In the medical world this would be called “non-compliance” and every doctor has patients who--perhaps out of willfulness, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of denial of their condition--refuse to follow the instructions he gives or take the medicine he prescribes. If we allow our own thoughts and feelings to make us medically non-compliant, nothing worse can happen to us than to die sooner. However, if we are non-compliant to the will of God, the Holy Tradition of our Church, and the penance and counsel of our father-confessor, we may suffer eternal death.

This is why the call of Christ is to set aside all obstacles to following Him, including our own misguided thoughts and feelings. Some might call this mind-control, but my mind is frankly in need of being controlled by the good and perfect and acceptable will of God, isn’t yours? My feelings also need to be controlled by something higher than my own self-love, which always makes lame excuses for not obeying God. If I am told to pray, I am too busy. If I am told to fast, I am too hungry. If I am told to make tithes and offerings, I am too poor. If I am told to come to church, I am too tired. If I am told to forgive, I am too deeply hurt. If I am told to regard others as more important than myself and to place their needs above my own, I am too inconvenienced. If I am told to read the gospels or other holy books to awaken my spirit to God, I am too bored. If I am told to be mindful of God and cautiously watchful over my thoughts and feelings, I am too used to obeying them, and too forgetful of my need to be inwardly transformed.

Ultimately, when we follow our own thoughts and feelings and the path in life they dictate to us, we are still followers, but no longer followers of Christ. Instead we are followers of the prince of darkness who rules over those in bondage to their own flesh. Freedom comes when begin not to trust and rely on ourselves as much, when we even learn to mistrust our thoughts and oppose our feelings and set them aside whenever they conflict with the will and guidance of God.

Let’s be honest; this is not an easy thing for us. Even if we are 100% convinced that this is the teaching of the Church--even if our own hard-won experience has demonstrated to us time and again that our thoughts and feelings are fallen like the rest of us and cannot be trusted--what do we tend to do? We tend to lay all this aside the very instant some thought or feeling suggests that we should follow it instead of Christ, His Church, or our spiritual father.

We need to understand that we have a choice. God has called us to become disciples of Christ, and the call of God is not without power. His call is accompanied by the new birth of baptism and the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. By these great spiritual operations, God has granted us the entirely new option of following Christ in obedience. Read Romans 8 and understand that we now have the freedom to walk not according to the flesh--including the fallen thoughts and feelings of the flesh--but according to the Spirit of God who brings light and life and transformation.

The habit of following our own thoughts and feelings--of being led by them instead of by God--is deeply ingrained in us. And breaking any bad habit is undeniably hard. But by the grace of God the choice is ours whether to be led by fallen things, or to be led by Christ. The one will keep us forever confused and ensnared by sin; the Other will grant freedom and the eventual fulfillment of the promise of the kingdom of heaven. It is this Other, Jesus Christ Himself, who we must follow.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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