Sunday a week ago a dear friend of my wife’s took her life. It was senseless not in the way that most people talk about, but from the perspective that no one saw it coming at all, even her closest friend, her cousin with whom she spoke frequently. There were all sorts of reactions, from confusion to anger. Some anger was of the blackest and darkest kind, consigning this poor lady to Hell for what she had done, a lady who had spent all her life helping and working with others: bringing food to the sick (she brought meals to our house when my wife went through a bout of thyroid cancer), and working with the teenage girls in her parish and at a local college. In short, no one can figure out why this happened. She despaired, and in that one moment she acted as though she had no hope.
But as senseless as this was, yesterday I heard the horrible news that Fr. Matthew Baker, a brilliant young scholar and priest, died in a car accident on his way home from Vespers. His six children were in the van with him, but they are all alright. I had only met Fr. Matthew a couple of times, but those times were grand: we had an especially wonderful afternoon together last winter in Manhattan sharing some pints, joined by the affable presence of both Bill Tighe and David Mills, and Fr. Matthew’s oldest, Isaac. We had often communicated via messages and Facebook also since then. What a brilliant mind! He was someone not just Orthodoxy needed, but the world needed. At least, in the immediacy of the moment, this is how I am thinking. My priest, Fr. Andrew Damick, expresses much the same HERE. How could this have happened? The wicked prosper all around us, as does such incredible ignorance, and here someone who has already done so much to dispel this is gone. Some of my friends have already reflected on Fr. Matthew here, here, and here. And I urge you all to help Fr. Matthew’s family by giving as liberally as you can by going HERE and donating. He had spent years in education, and had only received his first parish just this past year. He and his wife, Katie, had just bought their first house.
My Mom, requiescat in pace, once told me she thought God had made a mistake in taking my Father to Himself before her, as she had always thought, frail as she was, that this would not have been the case. I quickly tried to correct her, but since then, such things as Fr. Matthew’s repose, and all the other items that have intervened, make me empathize with my Mother’s sentiments so much more. Trying to get me head around all this, especially since learning last night of Fr. Matthew, I have been driven only to prayer. I have posted a number of things on Facebook, and I have called two of Fr. Matthew’s dearest friends (the one my priest, the other my goddaughter’s father) trying to get my head around this evil, but I keep coming back to prayer.
St. John Climacus, whom we shall commemorate on the fourth Sunday of Lent, in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, wrote of prayer:
Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves reconciliation with God. Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears. It is an expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of angels, and is the nourishment of all bodiless beings. Prayer is the future of gladness, action without end. Prayer is the wellspring of virtues, the source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated , sorrow done away with. It is a wealth for monks, treasure of hermits, anger diminished. It is a mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one’s condition, the future revealed, a sign of glory.
There is so much to write about this, and I hope over the next weeks leading to Pascha to write more. I have neglected this blog to pursue other things, about which you all know. Yet this is one thing I should be doing, along with all those other things I need to do. But for today, I wanted to think about three of the items St. John lists in what prayer is: an axe against despair, hope demonstrated , sorrow done away with.
Historically, and rightly, the Church has taken a strict line about suicide, for it is a form of despair and a denial that our life is not our own, but is God’s. Suicide denies that God can overcome any circumstance, and problem, that with Him all things are possible. Yet, just as we are told to not judge in this life, so we should not judge people who for whatever reason take their own lives, though still seeing it as a serious and even sinful matter. You can read more here.
I want instead to consider prayer for the living, those left in the midst of anguish, trying to piece together what has happened. As a young man I fell in love with a girl who accepted my proposal of marriage, only to balk at the years she saw ahead in my studies. I was devastated when she broke it off. I moped about for weeks, never talking to anyone. But I finally spoke to a friend and mentor, Dr. Ronald Cooke, who told me that “he had known a girl,” and I immediately thought this was going to be “another fish in the ocean” lecture. It wasn’t. He then traced me through the series of tragedies in his life, ending with the loss of his wife to cancer. Dr. Cooke was a man of intense prayer, and though I have my differences with him – – he’s an adamant Ulsterian Presbyterian – – I never will forget what he said to me: God was there in all those circumstances leading up to his wife’s death, in a way making him ready for that moment: but it was only prayer that allowed him to see it. Like Martha at the grave of her brother, lack of faith, in this sense lack of prayer and reliance upon God, clouds God’s glory, and leads us to despair. Prayer is that which pristinates (to use an old English adjective as a verb) the world, removes the filth and dross of the familiar that we might see that which the world is becoming and will become. It teaches us that whatever darkness now surrounds our soul, darkness is not the norm, the glory of God is. Thus prayer acts as an axe against despair by cutting it to the root and laying it bare, showing us that despair, that lack of hope, is, like evil itself, not any positive thing at all, but a negative. Despair can only exist when we have lost sight of God’s glory. This failure of vision comes so easily at times of loss, for the loss itself creates an emptiness that cannot help but distract us from God, as we know only that we miss that person whom we love so much, feeling embittered at an unfulfilled promise.
It is at this very moment, in the midst of loss, that prayer becomes a hope demonstrated. We hear little about hope these days, and I for one have heard preciously few sermons on it, even though it is one of the three theological virtues. But we are saved in hope says St. Paul (and a title of one of John Paul II’s encyclicals), and it would seem that hope is what animates courage in a Christian. I cannot think that those twenty-one men martyred by the Islamic fanatics in Libya could have gone to their deaths without hope. They did not despair of the resurrection, but faced death in the sure hope of its coming. This is all the more trenchant a truth, in that only twenty of them were Coptic Christians, for the twenty first was a man who seeing their faith professed Christ as his God on the eve of the executions, and he thus gave up his life based on the hope he saw in those valiant martyrs. We flippantly use the word hope to mean “wish”, but this is not how the Christian Church has used the term. Many of us are familiar with the phrase, first used I believe in the burial rites of the Edwardian Prayer Books, of the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection.” Here hope has nothing to do with desires or druthers, but with confidence of the final end of a matter. Thus, in prayer we enter into God’s presence, into God’s life, not with wavering standing, but vested in the full imperium of the very life of God. Too often we have come to think of prayer as largely involving petition (which it does) but almost to the exclusion of that prayer that we frequently most need: the silent resting in God. Often I have no words to pray, as has been the case the past few days in thinking about my wife and her grief for her friend, and especially in the last day in thinking about my own grief, but more so the grief of my dear friends, and the grief of Fr. Matthew’s family. But we don’t need words to pray, for the mystery of God, as St. Gregory of Nazianzen (among many others) leaves us in silence. Hope allows us to stand before this mystery, to be party to the communion that transcends time, to live with the saints in light. Hope is not the opposite of despair, as if God were the opposite of evil. We are not Manichees! Hope instead is the very substance of our confidence in God, the confidence of love and faith. When we pray, we demonstrate that hope which cannot be shamed, and which admits that all promises find their end and fulfillment in God.
Lastly, prayer is a sorrow done away. And sorrow is what we all feel now. When I talk to people about their grief, I tell them that this is nothing to be ashamed of. I have students who tell me about their sadness over many issues, especially the untimely loss of parents. They can’t understand why things are so hard, and why even after months or years they still feel sad. I tell them that grief is natural to this world in which we live. My father has been gone almost eleven years, my mother seven, but I still grieve them. Why? Death, for one, is not what we were made for. We are not naturally immortal, for only God is. But we were created to be suited for life. God has united himself to our nature, and thus given us immortality. Through Christ’s death, as the prayer of Matins after the Gospel proclaims, joy has come into all the world. We have to be given immortality. Prayer, the prayer that St. John talks about in his Ladder, repudiates not only this sorrow over death, but also death itself, for it is a union with life; indeed, it is life. Certainly this state of prayer (and truly it is a state) that does away sorrow is not something we obtain easily. Death surrounds us, and our own we should think about constantly. Many of my students recoil from this, some even saying if they knew they had but a day to live, they would go out and partake of all the world’s pleasures. This tells us how dreadfully lost we are in our modern day and our contemporary sensibilities. But the thought of death should drive us to pursue life. The end of this pursuit, its goal, ultimately puts away sorrow, for it is an affirmation of life in its fullest, a confession that as a disciple I have died to my own life and its idioms, its trifles, and now live to Life Himself. Prayer initiates the removal of sorrow, and perfect prayers, from which I am very far, is that removal that St. John talks about.
We should grieve Fr. Matthew’s passing, a promise that now seems unfulfilled. But Fr. Matthew would not want us to think that he was unique, for he was far too humble for that. No, our duty, the duty that Fr. Matthew’s life imposes on us, is to take up the care of his family, to take up the mantle of his scholarly work in the service of the Church and to find the others gifted as he, and to see to their education. I will miss him, indeed do miss him already at just the thought. He was one of the few Orthodox who had the appreciation I have for Bouyer, de Lubac, the Rahners, von Balthasar, Benedict XVI, and Aidan Nichols, and this formed much of the substance of our discourse and messages. In fact, I can’t think of any other Orthodox with whom I shared this affection. He told me once I should write an essay on the contributions of these minds to modern Orthodox thought and how they could help us, and I am now setting aside my summer to do this (where such an essay would be published I can only guess).
Remember Fr. Matthew’s soul in your prayers, and also his family in your charity, as it is Lent. And Fr. Matthew, ora pro nobis as we continue through the Lents of this life.