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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Book Review: "The Sweetness of Grace"


BOOK REVIEW

St. John the Baptist told us that Jesus Christ would “baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3.11). St. Luke confirmed that reality (Luke 3.16) and told of “tongues as of fire . . . resting on each one” who had gathered in the house in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.3). 



Of course, throughout the Old Testament. fire had long been a sign of the divine presence, especially with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.2), “the pillar of fire by night” that guided the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 13.21) and the “consuming fire on the mountain top” when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 24.17). But what precisely does this fire have to do with us today as Orthodox Christians?
        A recent book from Ancient Faith Publishing by Presbytera Constantina R. Palmer, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, reflects on how we might each experience this fire, not only in baptism, but throughout our lives. The author is the wife of Father John Palmer, serving at St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada. Her frontispiece starts us on our journey of faith and fire:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do? Then Abba Joseph stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, ‘If you wish, you can become all flame.[1]
Presbytera Constantina dedicates her book “to all the struggling and holy monastics, priests, and lay people who, like Abba Joseph, showed me by means of their own bright and brilliant example, that if only I wish, I too can become all flame.” That possibility is open to any of us Orthodox Christians who wish to “become all flame.”

        The author’s approach to faith and fire and living our lives in complete unity with Christ and His Church is set out in eight stories, each linked to one of the Beatitudes. She structures the book on the words of St. John Chrysostom that “in the Beatitudes Christ not only gives us a perfect guide to the Christian way of life, but He forges a gold chain, demonstrating that each virtue, each beatitude, has a foundation in the one preceding it:”
Thus, first, he that is humble, will surely also mourn for his own sins: he that so mourns, will be both meek, and righteous, and merciful; he that is merciful, and righteous, and contrite will of course be also pure in heart: and such a one will be a peacemaker too: and he that has attained unto all these, will be moreover arrayed against dangers, and will not be troubled when evil is spoken of him, and he is enduring grievous trials innumerable.[2]
Reflecting on the beatitudes, Presbytera Constantina adopts a consistent approach in all of her eight stories: “It is through clinging to Christ in all we do that we sow genuine seeds, in our relationships and in the world around us. Sowing is all we can do, all that is asked of us. God reaps.”[3]
        Despite having a Masters Degree in Theology and being married to a Greek Orthodox priest, Presbytera Constantina sees herself not as a theologian, but as a storyteller. She calls her book The Sweetness of Grace
. . . because I feel this title captures the one element of Orthodoxy that does not change, whether one lives in Asia, Europe, or on a Canadian island. Whether one is a priest, monastic, or layperson, the sweetness of grace is offered to us all: through the trials, through the victories, we struggle to acquire and hold onto it, and when we taste it, we want to share that sweetness with others. By sharing these stories I hope to share the sweetness I was blessed to taste.[4]
My own experience is that she succeeds in her quest. However, she confronts every reader with a considerable personal challenge:
These stories are meant to remind us that the rewards for fighting ‘the good fight’ (1 Tim. 6.12) are very great. We are given the means to become saints; the sweetness of grace is offered to each one of us. But I also hope these stories highlight that the onus is on us. The medicine is there for the taking; the question is, will we swallow it? Will we do what is necessary to become receptive to His grace? Will we become poor in spirit, meek, pure of heart, peacemakers? Will we not only read the Gospel but live it and allow the light of Christ to shine through us?[5]
In other words, we each have a choice: face the challenges of life that come our way in the different seasons of life with the Lord, our families, our work and our friends (or even enemies) or avoid and deny any problems that arise.
The limited space available for this book review allows for only one example: “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” Presbytera Constantina stresses that we must each “watch and pray lest we encounter temptations and unwittingly welcome them into our heart.”[6] Her stories about this sixth beatitude focus on her time at the monastery in Athens founded by St. Porphyrios, but she links her experience there to earlier insights she and her husband had gained in their travels, reading and prayer. A few minutes after entering the monastery, she was introduced to Sister Gerontissa who looked at her, and with the gift of clairvoyance and prophecy informed Presbytera Constantina: “Don’t worry, everything will work out, and you [have chosen] a good [husband], too.” And Sister Gerontissa was right with both insights.[7] 
Presbytera Constantina was not overwhelmed by being with someone with the gift of clairvoyance and prophecy. Rather, she cites the advice of Elder Epiphanios of Athens, who was asked “Elder, have you ever seen a vision?” The elder replied: “No, my child, neither have I seen a vision, nor do I ever want to see one. All that I want to see are my own sins.”[8] Presbytera Constantina reflects: “The pure of heart see God; those of us with impure hearts should seek only to see our sins, since it is this sure path that will lead us to gift of true clairvoyance.”[9] This “ability to see spiritual realities [is] something truly only the pure of heart have the ability to do.”[10] A good example of Presbytera Constantina’s insight would be the ability of Jesus Christ to see Nathaniel approaching Him, and say, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom [there is] is no guile” (John 1.47).  
The goal is clear, but the personal path for each of us toward the goal of being fully united with Christ is unique. Presbytera Constantina reflects that:
We were all created in the image of God, but since the Fall, it is only through the grace of God—combined with man’s ascetic struggle—that we can become ‘in His likeness,’ as we were meant to be, and as the first-created man was fashioned. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos wrote, ‘When, through personal struggle and mainly by the grace of God, he attains the likeness [of God], then he is an actual person.’[11] Namely, when a person has become transformed by grace, then he becomes a true person in both the image and the likeness of God.[12]
As always, God’s grace and our own efforts work together. Both are necessary to become pure of heart.
        Not only in considering this sixth beatitude, but throughout the book Presbytera Constantina remembers the words of a professor of theology who explained that “a person will [seldom] make a mistake in theology if they do not first make a mistake in their moral life.” She reminds us that: “It is not enough for us to hold intellectually to the true Faith; we must live well morally in order to safeguard our faith. We must avoid being led astray in our personal lives so we won’t be led astray in our spiritual lives.”[13]
        It is Sister Gerontissa who informs Presbytera Constantina of an important sin: she was judging others too much and had become “a judgmental person.”[14] This was an important insight which Presbytera Constantina came to accept, but only after experiencing a deeply wounded ego which stung for three days. It was another nun, Sister Sarah, who helped her to see that “sometimes it’s difficult when God reveals who we are . . . [so] that’s why God slowly lets us see who we really are.”[15] Presbytera Constantina concludes her reflections on the sixth beatitude with the goal that “I hope and pray that through Gerontissa’s prayers I may begin the process of rooting out the passions in me that cause so much harm to myself, not to mention the harm they cause others.”[16] So may it be for all of us, whatever the different sins and passions that need to be rooted out of each of us. Amen.                                                                                          Father Emmanuel Kahn
                                                                              

                       


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), p. 103.
[2] Homily on Matthew 15, on the web at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200115.htm ; and The Sweetness of Grace, pp. 10-11.
[3] The Sweetness of Grace, pp. 7.
[4] p. 11.
[5] pp.11- 12. The underlining is not in the original text.
[6] p. 177.
[7]  p. 180.
[8]  p. 198.
[9]  p. 198.
[10] p. 204.
[11] Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994), p. 162. Cited in The Sweetness of Grace, p. 193.
[12] p. 193. Here, as in many other places, her stories include numerous miracles which limited space does not permit to be included in this book review.
[13]   pp. 183-184.
[14] p. 204.
[15] p. 205.
[16] p. 207.

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