Suffering, Love, and a Grateful Heart
On July 17 in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, Bishop Griswold preached at a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Diocese of California. He had just returned from an ecumenical visit to Moscow (see report in Episcopal News Service) and his sermon includes some reflections on that visit.
As your Presiding Bishop and Primate, it is a privilege and a joy for me to be part of this great celebration of the worship, ministry and witness that extend over the past 150 years and include some quite remarkable personalities whose prayer, grace filled vision and commitment to the Gospel have brought you to this moment in your life together as the Diocese of California. I am also grateful to my friend and your Bishop, Bill Swing, who invited me to be with you on this day well before I had been elected Presiding Bishop. It was the first invitation I received based upon what I then perceived to be a somewhat remote possibility. Well, as they say, "The rest is history," so here we are in this great cathedral church as the People of God, to hear God's Word, to renew our faith and commitment to Chris, and to share the eucharistic meal.
Two weeks ago I was in Russia at the invitation of the Patriarch of Moscow. I was there, as I am in many places around the world, on your behalf, representing our church as a community of faith always eager to be in solidarity with churches in other parts of our increasingly interconnected global village. During this ecumenical visitation, I learned that your first bishop, William Ingraham Kip, was instrumental in helping the General Convention in the 1860's to overcome its reluctance to establish a relationship with an ecclesiastical body so seemingly other as the Russian Orthodox Church. As a result of Bishop Kip's efforts, the Russian Church has long regarded the Episcopal Church as a friend, and therefore felt free to call upon us for help in rebuilding the structures of the church in the wake of the Soviet years. The present situation in Russia is filled with complexity and contradiction. At the same time, I experienced in those I met an intensity of prayer purified through suffering which has produced hope transfigured by a joy that can, doubtless, withstand all forms of assault and testing in the future as it has in the past.
As I reflected upon my visit and asked myself- What has this experience taught me, and what am I being invited to share with my own church when I return home?- I thought of Paul's words in the Letter to the Romans: "Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope." Has this not been the experience of the Russian Church; and is not this the gift it has to give us?
One of the most moving experiences for me was to visit the cell of Patriarch Tikon who, in the early years of this century had served as the Russian Orthodox Archbishop of North America, first in this city and then in New York. In the wake of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and in response to a letter he had read in The Living Church, Tikon sent a chalice and paten to the Church of the Advent together with a letter of condolence in which he speaks of "your beautiful and so memorable to our heart Church." In 1917 he was elected Patriarch and subsequently put under house arrest by the Bolsheviks at the Donskoy Monastery in Moscow. Held in virtual isolation until his death in 1925, he was only brought news of churches being destroyed and clergy arrested or killed. His endurance and fidelity to the church's prayer in the face of absolute despair has led to his being declared a saint in the Russian Church.
And therefore, in a very personal way, I am grateful to the first Bishop of California who, through his determined farsightedness, prepared the way for a future saint to be strengthened by friendship with the Episcopal Church, and also sowed the seeds for the warm and trusting welcome I recently received from the present Patriarch, Alexy II, and his people and clergy.
Determined farsightedness is a characteristic I particularly associate with this diocese and many of its bishops across the years down to our own. Indeed, here I think of your various ministries and institutions serving the Bay Area and beyond-some of which I have had the opportunity to visit- as well as your present bishop's vision of the potential force of the world's religions to bind up and bring together, rather than divide and turn the people of the earth against one another. And therefore, on behalf of the Episcopal Church, of which you in the Diocese of California are such a vital part, let me say thank you for all that you have been, and are giving to us all by way of your experience and hopeful imagination; and for what you have yet to become through the grace and driving motion of the Holy Spirit. As John tells us in his first letter, "What we will be has yet to be revealed." Being aware of some of what you are up to and plan for the future, I know that you will continue to be a rich resource and blessing to the larger church.
An occasion such as this is a time for thanksgiving: a time for gathering up the joyful and painful fragments of the past in a spirit of gratitude. "Be thankful," our reading from the Letter to the Colossians urges us, "and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God." A spirit of gratitude opens the way for what is given to appear as gift, as the poet Stephen Mitchell observes with regard to prayer. Gratitude helps us to release our grasp on life: to be grateful is an act of non possession; it is a yielding of control which delivers us from the harsh and unforgiving judgements we so often direct against ourselves and others.
"Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." Opening the present moment; the present circumstance; the present unexpected event; the present challenge or seemingly unbearable burden to the One who is always present, not as rescuer, but as companion, allows gratitude to have its way with us, to reorient us at the level of the heart which, in Scripture and Tradition, represents the core and center of the human person.
Two weeks ago in Moscow, at the end of the Sunday Liturgy, I stood in front of an iconostasis - the screen of icons that sets the altar apart from the nave - and looked into the faces of the congregation as the parish priest introduced us. I understood then what had sustained the Russian Church during the bleak Soviet years: it was the Eucharist- the continual thanksgiving for Christ's death and resurrection into which we are drawn by the Spirit in baptism. I thought of the verse from Psalm 119: "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn your statutes." Through incredible suffering, while being sustained by the eucharistic trajectory of the church's liturgical life, something very profound has been formed in the soul of Russian Christians. I saw it in the faces of those people as they gathered around us and greeted us, and received it both as a gift and a challenge to me and to our church to live the Eucharist more deeply; to be formed by it - to acquire, as it were, a eucharistic consciousness.
There is a prayer I frequently pray. It was composed by a 20th Century Desert Father, Charles de Foucauld. It runs as follows: "Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and all your creatures - I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul; I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands, without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father." What the prayer reveals to me is often how unready and unaccepting I am: the words and phrases search me out and show me how I am bound up in my own agendas, anxieties and resentments. On the other hand, the same prayer can also reveal a liberating availability and gratitude in the midst of circumstances which contradict such emotions. In such moments it becomes altogether clear that grace and not my own unaided courage or endurance is the sustaining energy at hand.
Gratitude is ultimately grounded in love. "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love," Jesus tells us in the gospel. He also says, "Love one another as I have loved you." Notice the progression here: Jesus' love for his disciples which transforms them from servants into friends, flows from his being loved by the Father. Being loved by the Father whom he addresses in the intimacy of an answering love as "Abba," gives Jesus the capacity to love as God loves. What he then asks of his friends is not that they create some sort of self-generated affection, but that they abide, dwell, make their home in the love he has for them, and in the power of that love they will find the capacity to love with Jesus' own love.
Jesus also says, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." Authentic love as Dostoyevsky and Dorothy Day after him observed is "a harsh and a dreadful thing" because it quits the realm of abstraction and enters the realm of flesh and blood; it makes its home in the very concrete world of incarnation. How much we talk about love and loving one another, and yet, when confronted by real life persons, particularly those with whom we disagree or find problematic, what we perceived to be our love collapses in dust and ashes.
"The universe is so organized that only at the price of suffering and persecution can the world be given anything," observes the Russian scientist martyr, Pavel Florensky who was executed before a firing squad December 8, 1937 having chosen to protect his friends at the cost of his own life.
I do not want to suggest that suffering and love and a grateful heart are the special preserves of those who have endured the Soviet years; they are familiar to all who have endured the burden of otherness as persons of faith where ever they have found themselves - otherness which sets them apart from the dominant culture because of such things as color, or community of origin, or sexual self understanding. I would never want to be accused of glorifying suffering either in its most hidden or overt forms, yet, at the same time, I am profoundly aware of how it has shaped and formed persons of incredible faith and resiliency, who, with the peace and love Christ ruling in their hearts, are able to "bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things."
In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist and share the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation. No action could be more appropriate on an occasion such as this, for by so doing we gather up the fragments which represent the life and work of this diocese over the last 150 years and place them within the ongoing and ever unfolding paschal mystery of Christ's dying and rising. In the Eucharist our lives, our struggles, our burdens and our joys are caught up into Christ who, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, extends his victory over all that constrains and constricts and denies the universal freedom and abundant life which have broken loose through his dying and rising from the dead. As one of the ancients, St. Maximus the Confessor, so rightly observes: The death of Christ on the cross is the judgement of judgement, the condemnation of condemnation."
The Eucharist draws us out of ourselves into Christ the risen and the living One; it makes us one with God's cosmic imagination and the labyrinthian ways of Christ's deathless love - Christ who is both the Way itself and the goal, the fullness, the freedom, the Omega Point we seek. It is through an ever deepening participation in the Eucharist that we discover who we are and are called in grace and truth to be. Through the Eucharist "the word of Christ" dwells in us "richly" and expresses itself in wisdom and gratitude and actions that are revelatory of Christ whereby swords and beaten into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks not once but over and over again.
Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, as we give thanks for what has been and look ahead to what shall be, let us keep the feast. But in order to do so with sincerity and truth, let us now call to mind and renew the fundamental identification with Christ which is ours in baptism, whereby we put on Christ in the full force of his dying and rising and, through the Spirit, are clothed with Christ's own compassion and given the grace of a merciful heart - a heart "that burns with love for the whole creation" and impels us to proclaim, by word and example, the good news of God in Christ.
May the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you continue to direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and His kingdom.
The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA