The still, small Voice

5 July OS 2017: Tuesday of the Seventh Week of St. Matthew; St. Athanasius of Mt. Athos, St. Sergius of Radonezh, Holy New Venerable Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia

Today’s Gospel reading recounts Herod’s wickedly killing St. John the Baptist, which ever after tormented his conscience.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. Matthew 14: 1-13

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that Herod’s immediately concluding that John had been resurrected shows the tyrant’s uneasy conscience:

He could have thought of anything, yet he thought of no one but John. Who led his thoughts in that direction? His conscience. From it you cannot hide unconscionable deeds; you cannot correct its judgment with anything…There is a voice within us that we must acknowledge is not our voice. Whose is it? God’s. He Who gives us our nature, gives us this voice. If it is God’s voice, we must obey it, for creatures dare not contradict their Creator. This voice says that God exists, that we completely depend upon Him, and therefore we cannot but have a reverent fear of God. Having this fear, we must fulfill God’s will, indicated by the conscience… – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 148-149

Three innate attributes of every man’s soul demonstrate undoubtedly that man has a spiritual life, that he is the creature of a personal God Who intends for man to know Him, obey Him, and love Him: conscience, the fear of God, and the thirst for God.

Conscience speaks first: It is the voice of God telling us what is right and what is wrong. Our gnomic will, the darkened, opinionated, and unsteady will we have inherited from our First Parents because of the Fall (ignorantly identified as “free will” by humanistic thinking), may choose to obey or not obey this voice. We must force it always to obey and thereby recover our natural, Edenic will, which always chooses according to conscience and is thus the only free will.

Heeding the voice of conscience energizes man’s potential for the fear of God: Training his will to obey the innate Law of right and wrong, man then naturally falls down before the Lawgiver in reverent awe, humbly acknowledging God’s absolute right to command and to judge him, fearing lest he should displease his Creator and desiring to offer Him the un-hypocritical worship possible only when he has a clean conscience.

Living according to conscience in holy fear, man begins to thirst for God, that is, he begins to energize his potential not only to know and obey God, but to love Him, to be united to Him, to have Him dwelling within. At this point, the spiritual life properly speaking can begin, characterized by attentive, regular prayer and by a periodic but not infrequent reception of Holy Communion correctly prepared for. This spiritual life in turn becomes a foretaste of Paradise, and the Christian acquires a firm hope of salvation, disposing himself to receive the grace of persevering in faith and repentance to his last breath.

Sadly, these instinctual powers – conscience, fear of God, thirst for God – planted in each man by the Creator, find themselves starved, crushed, distorted, and eventually ignored in the life of almost all people, not only those outside the Church, but also those Orthodox Christians who live outside a strict Church environment, and today this is true more than ever.

First of all, only the grace of the true Holy Mysteries, beginning with the true Baptism, can heal these powers of the damage of the Ancestral Sin. Second, once healed, these powers must be energized through practice, in obedience to the Tradition of the Church. The first can take place only in the Church, and the second can take place only within a strict Church environment.

Shallow, confused, modernized, half-hearted practices within Orthodoxy – purposely concocted by false shepherds or simply allowed by lazy ones – lead to the pitiable state in which the masses of nominally Orthodox people find themselves today, which is that they actually belong to the order not of Communicants (whether they are outwardly receiving Holy Communion, real or imagined, or not) but to the order of the Energoumenoi, that is, that demonic energies and not grace constitute the decisive factor determining their choices and their actions, and the baptismal grace resides in the soul only in potential, unenergized, if in fact they were validly baptized to begin with.

It is difficult to discern who is in the worst shape: A) Those who do not have the true Holy Communion available to them because of heresy, B) those who have the true Mysteries available to them and know how to prepare properly but receive rarely because of neglect, or C) those who receive often without the traditional preparation because of modernist ideas. All three states are fearful in the extreme. Most of us true Orthodox (“Old Calendarists”) fall into the B category, and we congratulate ourselves on being neither heretics nor impious, like the poor people in the A and C categories, but we need to stop and think: If we have available the grace of the Holy Mysteries and the correct spiritual guidance on preparing for Holy Communion, we therefore have the greatest responsibility. What are we going to say to Christ after we die, when He asks us why we received His Precious Body and Blood only once a year (or not at all!), because we did not want to fast or go to confession regularly? Because we did not want to give up certain habits? Because movies or parties on Saturday night were more important than Vespers? Because making money on Sunday was more important than God?

It is this situation within the Church that has created the current “apocalyptic” scenario. The outward forces visible and invisible, the dark powers of evil which we love to blame, as real as they are (more real in fact than most can allow their minds to admit), constitute, in the final analysis, mere circumstances allowed by God to test us, fully in accord with His all-wise providence and His sovereign will. We have misused our minds, wills, and desires, and this it is that lets devils rule men, foment this Revolution, instigate this post-Christian revolt against God. If the Orthodox do not live for God, who will?

These thoughts should indeed make us sober, but they should not make us sad, for God is sovereign, the Master over all things. And, what is more, He has told us exactly what we need to think and do and desire, and He gives us the power to do it.

Let us be glad then and fear not. The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. Let us heed the voice of conscience, live in holy fear, and love God with all our hearts. He will take care of the rest.

For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator. I Peter 4: 17-19

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Keeping our harvest safe

21 June OS 2017: Tuesday of the Fifth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Martyr Julian of Tarsus

In the Gospel today, the Lord proclaims that if we are not with Him, we are against Him:

Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him. But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all; And charged them that they should not make him known: Then was brought unto him one possessed with a devil, blind, and dumb: and he healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, Is not this the son of David? But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils. And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand? And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. Or else how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. – Matthew 12:14-16, 22-30

St. Theophan the Recluse asks “Who is with the Lord?” and he answers, “He who lives and acts in His spirit; he who allows himself neither thoughts, nor feelings, no desires, nor intentions, nor words, nor deeds which would be displeasing to the Lord and in opposition to His revealed commandments and decrees (Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 138).”

This answer constitutes a call to Christian life as a never ceasing struggle to conform our minds to the mind of Christ. To the extent that we are not constantly uncovering new areas of our thoughts, feelings, and actions which do not conform to the Gospel, to that extent we are in some measure conducting a deluded existence. To that extent, we are “scattered” – the good that we do have is frittered away, because of lack of self-knowledge.

Thus the critical importance of daily Jesus Prayer, daily Scripture reading, and daily examination of conscience, joined to periodic and regular confession and preparation for Holy Communion. With these, trusting in the Lord, we can continually gather our thoughts, feelings, and deeds into one life of devoted sacrifice to Him, and the virtues we gather will not be scattered to the demonic winds which constantly blow outside the tabernacle of a purified heart.

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The Eternal Day

20 June OS 2017: Monday of the Fifth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Hieromartyr Methodius of Patara

In the Gospel today, the Lord reproaches the Pharisees for distorting the meaning of the Sabbath rest:

At that time, Jesus went into the Jews’ synagogue: And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.- Matthew 12: 9-13

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that while the Pharisees’ insistence on not doing things kept them from doing good works on the Sabbath, Orthodox believers’ doing the wrong things keeps them from keeping the Lord’s Day:

…Not doing things kept the Pharisees from performing good works, whereas the things which Christians allow themselves are what lead them away from good works. On the eve of Sunday they go to the theater and then to some other entertainment. In the morning they oversleep and there is no time to go to church. There are several visits, then lunch, and in the evening again entertainment. Thus all their time is relegated to the belly and to pleasing other senses, and there is no time even to remember God and good works. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 138-139

Our 19th century Russian author here portrays the worldly aristocratic life depicted by Tolstoy: Theater, the opera, balls, dinner parties, frivolous social visits for gossip and flirting, etc. We might say, “Well, my drab, stressed out existence bears no resemblance to that! I use my weekends to ‘catch up’ on all the things I don’t have time for during the week.”

But why does God allow us to fall into this drab, absurd existence, this life on a hamster’s wheel? Is it not because we do not give to God the time God demands for Himself alone? When is the last time we looked honestly at our Sundays and remembered that from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday the day is set aside for three things: worship, rest, and good works? That to use it otherwise is still a sin? That on Judgment Day Christ will demand an account of how we will have used our Sundays?

The Orthodox rhythm of Sunday remains today the same as it ever was: Saturday evening is set aside for Vespers or Vigil at church, for quiet preparation of the soul for the Day of the Resurrection, and, whenever possible, preparation for Holy Communion. Sunday morning is set aside for returning to the church to attend Matins or the Hours, and the Divine Liturgy. On Sunday afternoon we rest and also spend time in God-pleasing activities such as a peaceful dinner with virtuous family and friends -those who provide a good example – with whom we can share God-pleasing conversation and sentiments, study, teaching our children the Law of God, visiting the elderly or ill house-bound brothers and sisters who cannot come to the church, volunteer work to care for the unfortunate, etc. On Sunday evening (not Saturday), or the evening of (not the evening before) feast days, is the time for parties, dances, and entertainment, but even these must always accord with tradition, modesty, and restraint, and are arranged for the sake of love, of community, of true friendship in Christ, and not for coarse pleasure.

Unavoidable limitations in our circumstances may cause us to alter this schedule and this agenda. We may live very far from church, for example, but that does not prevent us from reading services at home on Saturday night instead of going to parties or football games. We may have a vocation to help suffering man in medical or police work that demands we be available “24/7.” But this does not prevent us from saying the Jesus Prayer and being mindful of the Lord when we have to work on Sundays. God knows our circumstances and our limits, and He also knows when we are being honest with ourselves and when we are lying to ourselves. Let us be honest with ourselves and ask the Lord to enlighten us as to what is truly unavoidable and what we pretend to be unavoidable in order to excuse our worldliness. Here is a test: When we think that something is forcing us out of a pious Sunday observance, do we feel oppressed by this world or relieved to be “off the hook”? Are we sad or glad?  Think about it.

A man giving me advice on how to “grow the parish” once described to me, as a model for imitation, the grand entrance of a “successful” priest into a dance very late on a Saturday night, organized by and attended only by Orthodox people: how he had gone from table to table like a politician, smiling, being greeted with acclaim, being, as they say today, a “rock star,” the center of everyone’s attention and admiration. “They were just eating out of his hand,” my volunteer advisor said with awed voice. Perhaps it did not occur to him that he had witnessed, in approving silence, a priest blessing that which is forbidden by God and, if unconfessed and un-repented, could send this priest and his unfortunate flock to hell for all eternity. Perhaps this priest had forgotten that heaven, hell, and eternity are the proper business of priests.

O most beloved Lord, most worthy and above-worthy object of all our love and devotion, Creator and disposer of all the days and hours of this life, enlighten us to keep Thy Day in holiness!

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Creature and Creator

19 June OS 2017: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost; Fourth Sunday of St. Matthew; Holy Apostle Jude, St. John (Maximovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco

The Gospel reading for this Fourth Sunday of St. Matthew recounts the Lord’s healing of the centurion’s servant.

At that time, when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour. – Matthew 8: 5-13

St. Theophan the Recluse remarks that the essence of the centurion’s faith “…is that he confessed the Lord to be the God of all things, the all-powerful Sovereign and Master of all that exists (Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 137).” By his stated conviction that the Lord Jesus could command the healing of his servant by a simple command and from wherever He happened to be, the centurion is acknowledging Him as God Who is everywhere present, creating and sustaining all things by His word. The centurion, though a pagan, has been enlightened by God’s Holy Spirit to know – not abstractly but from the heart – what it means that God is the Creator and that he is a creature, and that this teacher Jesus from Nazareth is that selfsame God become a man. Moreover, because he assumes implicitly that the God-Man would be willing to help him, he is confessing that God loves men. What a beautiful and perfect faith!

How can we acquire such perfect faith? It starts when we realize what it means to be a creature and therefore to have a Creator. In his acceptance speech when nominated to the episcopate, the late Archbishop Theophan of Poltava made a simple, powerful statement which expresses this clearly: “Only a few years separate me from the abyss of non-being from which I came.” Think about it: There was a time when I was not, when I did not exist. That I exist at all is due solely to the will of God, the only self-existent being, Who has absolute sovereignty over all things, on Whom I depend absolutely at every moment.

This one thought, that I am a creature and that God is my Creator, has inexhaustible divine power to motivate me, containing both a consolation and a command. This thought consoles me inexhaustibly, for at every moment it reminds me that I am in the hands of a loving Creator, Who is arranging all things for me. I do not have to be my own god. This thought also implies a constant command, for, knowing that I have a Creator, I unavoidably conclude that I must seek to know and to do His holy will.

What freedom!

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Follow Me

18 June OS 2017 – Saturday of the Fourth Week of Matthew; Holy Martyr Leontius; St. John Maximovich (transferred from 19 June)

The Gospel of the day is Matthew 8: 14-23.

And when Jesus was come into Peter’s house, he saw his wife’s mother laid, and sick of a fever. And he touched her hand, and the fever left her: and she arose, and ministered unto them. When the even was come, they brought unto him many that were possessed with devils: and he cast out the spirits with his word, and healed all that were sick: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses. Now when Jesus saw great multitudes about him, he gave commandment to depart unto the other side. And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead. And when he was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him.

St. Theophan the Recluse makes clear what the Lord’s command to leave all and follow Him means:

…this means that he who wants to follow the Lord should not expect any comfort on earth after following Him, but only deprivations, needs, and sorrows. And it means that worldly cares, even the most legitimate, are not compatible with following Him. It is necessary to decisively renounce everything, so that nothing attaches you to the earth, and then to condemn yourself to every kind of suffering or cross. Having thus prepared yourself, follow the Lord. This is the direct will of the Lord! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 136

The author goes on to make clear that this command is for all Christians, not only for monks.

But how do we, living in the world, follow this command? How can we join such radical discipleship to the duties imposed by Christian family life in the world? Several considerations should serve to make clear that the two are quite compatible:

  1. Note that St. Theophan says that the Lord’s followers should not expect any comfort on earth if they are real disciples. This does not mean that they will never have any comfort on earth. The Lord grants us consolations, both inner and outer, as we need them. He knows our weakness and condescends to give us encouragement in our struggles. But our basic attitude must be that of the soldier in the front lines, who expects to be required to die any minute, and counts every minute of life a gift. So should we, every day on earth, expect the sorrow of the cross but rejoice when we receive the joy of the resurrection. True Christians do not have the “entitlement mentality” (“I deserve happiness on earth”). They expect to carry their cross as the normal mode of life, but they rejoice in God’s good gifts when and how He deigns to give them. And those who carry the biggest crosses enjoy their consolations the most. Think of the ascetic who eats only fasting food all year except for one boiled egg on Pascha. How that egg must taste! We cannot imagine. Think of the young mother who has suffered several miscarriages and finally bears a healthy child. How she treasures that child; how much keener is her delight in her child than that of those who have not suffered as she has!
  2. Worldly cares, the author says, are not compatible with following the Lord Jesus. This does not mean that worldly duties are not compatible with following Him. Even St. Paul, for instance, says that though he would rather die and go to be with the Lord, he still wants to live longer on earth in order to take care of his converts. According to our station in life, we accept duties and perform them, but without care insofar as we truly do them for the Lord, His grace helping us. Blessed duties become sinful cares when we make an idol out of our success, desiring wealth, comfort, and glory for ourselves instead of God’s glory, or do not rely on the Lord but on ourselves. This is true even of the good we intend to do, not only the obviously selfish goals that we have.
  3. In the times we live in, Orthodox Christian family life necessarily involves heavy crosses, if it is truly a God-pleasing life. Those who marry, accept as many children as God pleases to send them, and make every sacrifice to rear these children in strict purity and piety, will doubtless receive a great reward as long as they do not stray from the narrow path, accepting all sorrows, privations, and loneliness as from the hand of the Lord for their salvation. This kind of life is a life of martyrdom, of witness. Such spouses and parents will find their place among those robed in white at the Throne of the Lamb. By the same token, because of the times we live in, many pious single people who deeply desire marriage and family life cannot find a suitable spouse. If they persevere in the Faith, despite the great loneliness they endure, they will find a great reward.Let us resolve joyfully to run the course set for us by the Lord Judge of the contest and Rewarder of those who do His will!

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The light yoke

16 June OS 2017 – Thursday of the Fourth Week of Matthew; Holy Hieromartyr Tychon of Amathus

Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 11:27-30) is our gracious Lord’s invitation to be freed of the burden of sin by taking on the light yoke of His commandments:

The Lord said to His disciples, All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

St. Theophan the Recluse explains the process by which this transformation takes place:

O Divine, O dear, O sweetest voice of Thine! Let us all follow the Lord, Who calls us! But first we must experience something difficult and burdensome for us. We must experience that we have many sins, and that these sins are grave. From this is born the need to seek relief. Faith will then show us that our only refuge is in the Lord and Savior, and our steps will direct themselves toward Him. A soul desiring to be saved from sins knows what to say to the Lord: “Take my heavy, sinful burden from me, and I will take Thine easy yoke.” And this is how it happens: the Lord forgives one’s sins, and his soul begins to walk in His commandments. The commandments are the yoke, and sins are the burden. But comparing the two, the soul finds that the yoke of the commandments is as light as a feather, while the burden of sins is as heavy as a mountain. Let us not fear readily accepting the Lord’s easy yoke and His light burden. In no other way can we find rest unto our souls. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 135

Here is how it happens, then:

Step One: We must experience that we have many sins, and that they are grave. St. Isaac the Syrian says that it is a greater miracle to see one’s sins than to raise the dead. Why? Because of the incomprehensible blindness of fallen human nature, which does not understand itself. We all have it. We must pray to see ourselves as we really are, so that we can really feel the burden of sin and the need to seek relief. We must realize with the entire consent of our being that we need a Savior.

Step Two: Faith shows us that our only refuge is our Savior and that He does forgive our sins. We are Orthodox Christians, and we accept the teachings of the Church, but often we do not feel them, do not have strong Faith welling up from the depths of our being with absolute conviction. This is not mere emotion, but a set of the soul, an experiential knowledge in the center of our being that God is, that God is indeed the Holy Trinity of Orthodoxy, and that Christ our Savior has indeed saved us. To acquire this set of soul, one near-infallible method is the frequent practice of slow, forcefully concentrated prayer. Open the prayer book, or take the Psalter, or take your prayer rope, and, in a quiet place, kneeling before the holy icons, force yourself to say the words slowly, with forceful, even violent, struggle for attention. Set a timer for, say, ten or fifteen minutes, and do not let up until the alarm rings. If you feel the desire to continue, continue for as long as you like. Go on praying in this way until the light dawns in your heart and you know that your sins are forgiven.  Do this frequently…daily. You shall see. The Lord promised to give us good things, and by praying in this way you are asking for the best things, including profound faith with the constant, abiding presence of God in the heart. He is faithful to His word, and He will give according to His promise.

Step Three: We must promise the Lord that we will live according to His holy commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous (I John 5:3).” Yet we must be honest with ourselves and realize what the standard for loving God really is: “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin (Hebrews 12:4).” This struggle unto blood, which ensues upon our promising to keep the commandments, feels perfectly natural, however, to those who have gone through Steps One and Two, and who keep repeating them when faith grows weak. And not only does it begin to come naturally, but it also engenders ineffable relief and inner happiness, often in inverse proportion to the difficulties of our outward life.

Let us, then, struggle skillfully in prayer, energizing the baptismal grace within us, and thus transformed strive zealously for God’s commandments! May we by grace know through experience that the yoke of Christ is easy and His burden light.

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All will be made known

9/22 June OS 2017: Thursday of the Third Week of Pentecost; St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord tells assures His faithful ones that their struggles will not be in vain:

The Lord said to His disciples: When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows (Matthew 10: 23 – 31).

It is a curious feature of our fallen nature that no matter how often we hear Christ telling us that suffering, rejection, exile, etc. mark the life of a true disciple, when we actually do suffer, we conclude that we must be doing something wrong. If we were “good people,” would not everyone like us and praise us? Would we not be, in fact, the toast of the town? Would we not – at least! – have peace and plenty? So we conclude that we must be missing something, that we did not get the memo.

Here Our Lord assures us once again that exile and persecution mark true discipleship, and therefore we should not get rattled when trying to follow Him creates problems for us, even problems that are so great as to seem impossible. No, we do not have perfect discernment, and yes, we make mistakes – too much zeal or too little, speaking out of turn or not speaking at all, making promises to God we cannot keep or being too afraid to promise anything, offending people without need…or not offending them enough (believe it or not, there are people who need to be offended). We are not perfect – well, join the human race. But it is still far better to be like Peter and step out on the waves, though we mostly have no idea what we are doing; all we know is that the Master has said, “Come.” This is enough. With enough hard knocks, discernment will follow, if we humble ourselves and just keep going.

We know that our Orthodox beliefs concerning just about everything run contrary to the way most people think today, and this makes us lonely. But we should rejoice, because the Lord promises today that our witness will some day be vindicated before all mankind at the Dread Judgment. Of course, the corollary to this is that our failure to witness will also be exposed in the light of God. This should motivate us greatly to stay the course.

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Victory and delight

7/20 June OS 2017: Tuesday of the Third Week of Pentecost; St. Theodotus of Ancyra, Martyr; Holy Virgin Martyrs Kyriaki, Valeria, and Maria; Holy Hieromartyrs Marcellus and Marcellinus, Popes of Rome

In today’s reading from the Apostolos (Romans 7:14-82:), St. Paul poetically describes our spiritual struggle with great accuracy and vividness.

Brethren: we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.
For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

For what I hate, that do I.” All of us who love the Lord Jesus and do not want to offend Him experience this, and it can discourage us tremendously. We hate sin, do not want to sin. We see how we disappoint the Lord, those we love, and ourselves. For those of us who are baptized Orthodox Christians, this is really painful, because we think, “I have all this grace available to me through the Holy Mysteries of the Church, and I still have these sinful thoughts, say these bad things, do far less than I am supposed to for my salvation…” Indeed there is a war going on inside of us, a constant tug-of-war between the “inward man” who delights in the law of God and that “other law,” the diabolic “logic” of sin and death, that seems so “logical” when the devil has my ear. How rightly did the Holy Fathers say that our life is warfare to the last breath!

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” This is our victory in the warfare, to be in Christ Jesus and to walk after the Spirit (i.e., live according to the Spirit). Our victory is totally from God and not from ourselves. He requires from us that we

  1. Not rely on ourselves: Every day say, “O Lord, I am so proud and self-reliant I cannot even see how proud and self-reliant I am. Help me to see the depth of my pride, and grant me humility, so that I can rely totally on Thee.
  2. Delight in His law in our inward selves. We will receive the joy of our salvation when our minds are attentive, meditating on divine truths. It is not enough to learn the Law of God (i.e., His Truth, His holy words); we must also delight in the law of God. This comes about when we read and pray with great struggles for attention; it also comes about completely unexpectedly, as a gift of sudden insight welling up with a great joy in the heart. Let us entreat the Lord to give us the “joy of salvation,” especially in our dark and confusing times.
  3. Stay the course.

O Lord our delight and our victory in the battle, glory be to Thee!

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For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God

4/17 June OS 2017: Saturday of the Second Week of Pentecost; St. Metrophanes, Patriarch of Constantinople

In today’s reading from the Apostolos (Romans 3:19-26), St. Paul tells us flat out that no human being is naturally pleasing to God.

Brethren: Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Today everyone is yelling and screaming to prove that they are better than that other person, who is totally evil and needs to be silenced and destroyed. St. Paul has the answer to this: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Today everyone is casting about for materialistic solutions to what are essentially spiritual problems. St. Paul has the answer to this: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Today people think they can discover the roots of evil through psychology or sociology or political science or historical analysis. St. Paul has the answer for this: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

We need to remind ourselves constantly that apart from the grace of God and the forgiveness through Jesus Christ, apart from enlightenment and protection from above, we are naturally in continuous communion with malicious demons who are invading our minds every minute, giving us false opinions, aggravating our sinful passions, and impelling us to bad decisions, sinful behavior, and the destruction of community, family, and self. This is just the way it is. And this is true of everyone, not just the obviously wicked.

Though we are baptized Orthodox Christians, we easily forget this truth, rely on our own righteousness, forget to abide in constant mourning over sin, forget death and God’s judgment, and live in delusion. Every single person is in some measure of delusion, except for those who sincerely believe themselves worthy of every temporal and eternal punishment, who cast their care entirely on the Lord, and abide in constant repentance.

It is now a holy fasting season. Time to wake up.

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The just shall live by faith

24 May/6 June OS 2017: The Third Day of Trinity, Tuesday of Pentecost Week; St. Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain

Having completed reading the Acts of the Apostles on the Saturday before Pentecost, we now begin the great annual cycle of the apostolic epistles, hearing today St. Paul’s opening words to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ: To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles. I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. Romans 1: 1-7, 13-17

The just shall live by faith.” St. Paul begins his annual tutorial for us on what it means to be a Christian by stating his main thesis.

There are people who think that if they strive for justice, they do not need faith in Jesus Christ. These are the humanists, the Freemasons, and the universalists. They think they can be right and do good without the right faith in Jesus Christ. On Judgment Day, they are in for a surprise.

There are people who think that if they have faith in Jesus Christ, it does not matter whether they strive to practice justice or not. These are all they who are smug about having faith, not being humbled by the moral demands of faith. They think that “being saved” gives them a free pass not to struggle with sin. On Judgment Day, they are in for a surprise.

How do you know if you have the capacity to be just? Well, first of all, ask yourself if you are in the True Faith. Apart from the true faith and the true baptism, all of man’s “justice” is worthless. How do you know if you are in the True Faith, not only in potential but in act? Well, ask yourself if you are struggling, with total reliance on the all-sufficing grace of Christ’s Sacrifice, and according to the unerring apostolic and patristic tradition, to overcome your passions and sins, and thereby to attain the Original Justice man had with God in Paradise.

So there you have it.

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