Persecution, struggle and theosis - A Lenten reflection

When the Christ Child was born in Bethlehem, among the joy of the shepherds and that of the angels, within months a terrible sorrow gripped the city. Herod, known for his brutality, massacred a host of children, all under two years of age. We can only guess at the heartbreak of the mothers, fathers, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents, and the numbness of the whole city at the terrible events that had suddenly come upon them.

In many ways this cycle of blessing and curse has been repeated time and again in countless generations where Christ has manifested His Divine Presence, His sacred Face and people have dared to believe. Something profoundly evil unleashes itself in its wake. From the first centuries, Christianity has been proclaimed, believed, and then faced persecution often of the cruelest and most vicious kind. Nero's infamous burning beacons of living Christians comes to mind. According to the Roman historian Tacitus:
Besides being put to death they [the Christians] were made to serve as objects of amusement; they were clad in the hides of beast and torn to death by dogs; others were crucified, others set on fire to serve to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open his grounds for the display, and was putting on a show in the circus, where he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in his chariot. All this gave rise to a feeling of pity, even toward men whose guilt merited the most exemplary punishment; for it was felt that they were being destroyed not for the public good but to satisfy the cruelty of an individual. {13}

Christianity today, it is estimated, is the most persecuted religious faith on the planet. An astonishing claim. While we might want to challenge the extent of what is called persecution, there are certainly accounts of cruelty and death aimed at good men and women, and indeed children, simply for adhering to the belief that in the man Jesus you meet God fully, personally and redemptively. Most recently reports have abounded of priests killed(see here for some of the confusion but nevertheless confirmation of the sort of thing taking place), nuns intimidated, kidnappings of bishops etc. Elsewhere in the Middle East video clips can be found of Christians forced to convert at knifepoint only to then be beheaded. The savagery involved is stomach churning. War is war, and often times these events are part of a wider splurge of violence, but nevertheless they are there and they are bloody and have an edge of menace which certainly is felt by Christians living in the region. They breed fear of something malevolent which is seeking to crush the life out of the followers of Christ, and in a very personal manner.

But this manifestation of evil in response to the Presence of the Holy One is also mirrored in ourselves. When we come to faith, or when we reach moments of crisis which take across another ridge in our ascent to theosis, to communion with God, a reaction often comes from within. Thoughts and passions which tear at our will, our hope, our sense of purpose, that fill us with self-loathing (rather than a healthy repentance) can be unleashed as the old man in us refuses to die. As Jesus warns us in the Gospel, an exorcised demon seeks to return to the washed and tidied house to create even more havoc, perversely bringing even more to desecrate the soul that seeks true life: 
Luke 24“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
 St Seraphim of Sarov explains that we must in such circumstances take the Kingdom of God by force. 

"And if we were never to sin after our Baptism, we should remain for ever Saints of God, holy, blameless and free from all impurity of body and spirit. But the trouble is that we increase in stature, but do not increase in grace and in the knowledge of God as our Lord Jesus Christ increased; but on the contrary, we gradually become more and more depraved and lose the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God and become sinful in various degrees, and most sinful people. But if a man is stirred by the wisdom of God which seeks our salvation and embraces everything, and he is resolved for its sake to devote the early hours to God and to watch in order to find his eternal salvation [12], then, in obedience to its voice, he must hasten to offer true repentance for all his sins and must practice the virtues which are opposite to the sins committed. Then through the virtues practiced for Christ's sake he will acquire the Holy Spirit Who acts within us and establishes in us the Kingdom of God. The word of God does not say in vain: The Kingdom of God is within you (Lk. 17:21), and it suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Mat. 11:12) [13]. That means that people who, in spite of the bonds of sin which fetter them and (by their violence and by inciting them to new sins) prevent them from coming to Him, our Saviour, with perfect repentance for reckoning with Him, yet force themselves to break their bonds, despising all the strength of the fetters of sin—such people at last actually appear before the face of God made whiter than snow by His grace. Come, says the Lord: Though your sins be as purple, I will make them white as snow (Is. 1:18).

He also speaks about the way in which even among those who have faith much goodness is wasted through ignorance and vanity about how God works in us, and how our own vain will as well as the desire of Satan works in us to crush the Holy Spirit and drive His Presence from our souls: 
"Antony the Great in his letters to Monks says of such virgins: 'Many Monks and virgins have no idea of the different kinds of will which act in man, and they do not know that we are influenced by three wills: the first is God's all-perfect and all-saving will: the second is our own human will which, if not destructive, yet neither is it saving; and the third is the devil's will—wholly destructive.' And this third will of the enemy teaches man either not to do any good deeds, or to do them out of vanity, or to do them merely for virtue's sake and not for Christ's sake. The second, our own will, teaches us to do everything to flatter our passions, or else it teaches us like the enemy to do good for the sake of good and not care for the grace which is acquired by it. But the first, God's all-saving will, consists in doing good solely to acquire the Holy Spirit, as an eternal, inexhaustible treasure which cannot be rightly valued. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is, so to say, the oil which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish just because they had forgotten the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is or can be saved, for: 'Every soul is quickened by the Holy Spirit and exalted by purity and mystically illumined by the Trinal Unity.' [4]
In other words, Christian life is focused on a struggle, both a struggle without and a struggle within. We can see this clearly enough in the life of the Church. Pope Francis speaks about a 'spiritual wordliness' in the Church, neatly summarised in a report in the Catholic World Report:
 The Church, when it is self-referential, without realizing it thinks that it has its own light; it stops being the “mysterium lunae" and gives rise to that evil which is so grave, that of spiritual worldliness (according to De Lubac, the worst evil into which the Church can fall): that of living to give glory to one another. To simplify, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that goes out from itself; that of the “Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans" [the Church that devoutly listens to and faithfully proclaims the Word of God - editor's note], or the worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself. This should illuminate the possible changes and reforms to be realized for the salvation of souls.
 All of this struggle began the moment Christ was manifested in the flesh, and having lived in Bethlehem on and off since 2008, I have come to think that it is, in a special manner, a struggle which has continued to be focused here with a special intensity. The current spluttering of the 'peace process' is just one aspect of how this insignificant town is under all sorts of pressures and negative energies which crush faith, breed fear and sow conflict between communities, faiths, families and within each of our souls. Yet it is a struggle which purifies, which gives us very clear moments to exercise or free will against evil and for what is good, to smell the aroma of Paradise and to sense the sheer beauty of the New Creation founded in Christ, and to savour that and desire that with an ever increased intensity. As with the martyrs, that moment of intense choice puts choosing the best within our grasp, and choosing it something more of the Kingdom of God is made real on earth, the foretaste of things to come breaks through into the soiled reality of our fallen world which convulses at the call to embrace the Holy Spirit, the ways of God that are true, good and just. In this sense these times of trial are made blessings, what seems to be the triumph of evil without relief in fact moments that offer grace greater victories. This is surely what we see on Good Friday with Christ nailed to the Cross, rejected, reviled, abandoned, lambasted, humiliated, desecrated...yet it is Good Friday, not Bad Friday...


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