The ‘gift of God’

September 25, 2003

Recently I spent several days at a Benedictine monastery in upstate New York. I have known the community there for the last 39 years, and its hospitality and brotherly affection have been an anchor in the various seasons of my life and ministry. As the events of our recent General Convention continue to unfold, I found myself drawn back to this place where I have prayed and struggled from time to time over the years to discern what God was up to and how best I might respond. I hoped that spending time in this familiar and welcoming place might allow things to settle and order themselves in my consciousness.

It is the custom of the monastery, and one which is common in monastic communities, for a member of the community to read aloud during the meals. In addition to a book about the writer Flannery O’Connor, and another about the present situation in the Middle East, the monks and their guests are presently being treated to a collection of the sayings of St. Isaac of Syria. St. Isaac lived in the seventh century and served briefly as a bishop in what is now northern Iraq. He is well known in the churches of the East, and his writings continue to shape and form the hearts and minds of believers to this day.

In one striking passage, Isaac declares that the death of Jesus on the cross was not primarily about the forgiveness of sins. God could have brought that about in some other way, he says. Rather, the cross is the way God reveals in the person of Jesus the unfathomable depths of God’s love. The cross, as the enduring sign of Christ’s deathless love, able to gather up and embrace all things, was the ground of St. Isaac’s theological vision.

This insight of Isaac put me in mind of a collect in our Prayer Book appointed at the end of Morning Prayer. It is addressed to Christ and reads: “You stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.”

What is particularly interesting to me about St. Isaac is that he lived at a time of intense controversy in the life of the church. Doctrinal disputes were writ large and Christians of one perspective were not reluctant to call others heretics. His message, in the midst of a climate of judgment and division, remained one of compassion and love.

Furthermore, Isaac was able to see and warn against the dangers of the zeal born of one’s assumed rightness. “A zealous person never achieves peace of mind,” Isaac observed. “And he who is deprived of peace is deprived of joy.” Isaac also said: “Someone who has actually tasted the truth is not contentious for truth…The gift of God and of knowledge of him is not a cause for turmoil and clamor; rather this gift is entirely filled with a peace in which the Spirit, love and humility reside.”

In the chapel of the monastery a wooden processional cross stands in front of the altar facing the congregation. Fastened to the cross is a bronze figure of Jesus crucified, arms extended, not in suffering but in an all encompassing embrace. Early one morning I stood before the cross and had a profound sense of Christ’s love reaching out to me.

At that moment, I realized that by looking through an open door on the other side of the altar you can see another cross. This second cross is situated at the far edge of the monastic graveyard. In front of the cross stands a life-sized wooded figure of the risen Christ, his arms extended in the same gesture of welcome and embrace.

As I looked out past the first cross and through the open door to the second cross, it struck me that these two crosses – one Jesus crucified and the other the risen Christ – represent different dimensions of one love: the love of God revealed in Jesus’ willingness to be lifted up upon the cross, and the deathless love of the risen Christ who continues to unfold, within the church and in the world around us, the mystery of love.

I came away from the monastery deeply refreshed and renewed, and more aware than ever that our work these days is to articulate in all aspects of our life as a church the power of that love. This means bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s hopes and fears. It means looking beyond ourselves to the broken and hurting world that surrounds us. It means opening ourselves to the Spirit who works in us the work of love and enables us, in union with Christ, to be ministers of reconciliation.

It is my prayer that in these days we might claim, in the words of St. Isaac, “the gift of God,” and may that gift lead us not into “turmoil and clamor” but render us “entirely filled with a peace in which the Spirit, love and humility reside.”

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate

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