I think Nicolas would fit right in at the House of St. Michael. Like Nicolas, we hunger for communion with our Lord, and we question how to go about that, what path to walk to draw us closer to God and to help us overcome the passions. Like Nicolas, we turn to the fathers for help, and the words to Nicolas are words that speak to our journey.
Nicolas asks, where do I begin? And is told, “This, my son, is how you should begin your life according to God. You should continually and unceasingly call to mind all the blessing which God in His love has bestowed upon you in the past, and still bestows for the salvation of your soul.” (148) St. Mark outlines additional steps, but for myself, I know that I am at the beginning. I do not hold my blessings in mind at all times. And yet I have been blessed, and I’ve been challenged by this month’s reading to really sit before the Lord and ponder my blessings.
My blessings are relational: I am from a loving, faithful, strong family. I have a husband to journey with. After a long and difficult road, I have a beautiful son. I am surrounded by love that I do not deserve. How can I ponder these things, the deep love that God must have for me to so fill my life, and not weep for gratitude, weep out of humility and my unworthiness, and be moved to serve the Lord in whatever way possible?
That’s easy: I can’t. I cannot contemplate the way the Lord loves me without experiencing, as St. Mark says, a pricking of the heart, moving it to “confession and humility, to thanksgiving with a contrite soul, and to all forms of sincere effort, repaying God through its virtue and holiness.” And because this is such a surefire way to move closer to the Lord, the enemy works to distract us. We are told to not let any of the three giants of vice to overcome us: “ignorance, the source of all evils; forgetfulness, its close relation and helper; and laziness, which weaves the dark shroud enveloping the soul in murk.” (159) The devil knows that if we focus continually on our blessings, he is powerless, and so he sends forgetfulness and laziness and ignorance to cloud our souls, to enslave us in worry and anxiety and jealousy.
And he is successful – we are easily distracted. Even in reading Mark’s letter to Nicolas, we can be distracted and lose focus, which Mark in his wisdom anticipates, and loops back again and again to tell Nicolas, focus on your blessings, focus on the love of the Lord. I invite you now to take a few minutes to bring to mind the ways you have been showered in your life by the grace of Christ and the love of our Lord. How do you see the proof that you are beloved beyond anything you possibly deserve? “Bring before your eyes the blessings, whether physical or spiritual, conferred on you from the beginning of your life down to the present.” (152)
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Now praise God for these gifts, and experience the way that “by the recollection of all these blessings which you have received through God’s loving goodness, your heart will be spontaneously wounded with longing and love.” (152)
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And finally, I invite you to sit with the Lord and look for practical ways you can hold these blessings before you at all times, not letting yourself be “dragged down unwittingly by vice and laziness.” (152) How can you be pricked by your conscience, how can you conquer forgetfulness? Maybe it is through pictures on your desk that call to mind your blessings, or a stone you carry in your pocket, or a piece of paper in your wallet. For me it is a gratitude journal, a few minutes spent at the end of the day to list five things I am grateful for, five ways I know I am beloved. Any technique that grabs your attention, jogs your memory, and pulls you into prayer will do.
We are talking about a simple practice: gratitude. I imagine Nicolas was surprised, as we are, by the simplicity of the start of our journey. But it is deceptive in its simplicity, easy to underestimate, easy to forget, easy to be swayed away from, so I pray for us that we would have strength, clear eyes to see Christ at work in our lives, and a heart that holds our blessings before us. Amen.