These words were written that ye might believe

1 August OS 2018: Tuesday of the Twelfth Week of St. Matthew; First Day of the Dormition Fast; the Procession of the Life-giving Cross; the Holy Maccabean Martyrs 

Today’s Gospel passage in the daily lectionary is Mark 1: 16-22.

At that time, as Jesus walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him. And when he had gone a little further thence, he saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the ship mending their nets. And straightway he called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him. And they went into Capernaum; and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue, and taught. And they were astonished at his doctrine: for he taught them as one that had authority, and not as the scribes.

The first day of a fasting season is a good time to renew a spiritual discipline we may have been neglecting.  During this Dormition Fast, let us honor Our Lord in His awesome Transfiguration and Our Lady in her holy Dormition by renewing our resolve to read the Holy Gospel daily. 

Yesterday we began reading from the Gospel According to St. Mark, the shortest and most direct of the four Gospels.  (It is still the season of St. Matthew, because we are still reading from St. Matthew on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the week we have begun reading St. Mark.)

St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter, wrote his Gospel for the Church at Rome, and the terse and concise character of this Gospel corresponds to the old Roman character: simple, direct, and to the point. Yesterday, St. Mark began with the preaching of the Forerunner, briefly recounted the Lord’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and told of the beginning of Christ’s preaching.  Today he relates His calling the first disciples and His preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Tomorrow he will recount the exorcism in the synagogue. Three days, 28 verses, and the mind reels from the impact. The Kingdom is breaking into this world at breakneck speed. 

St. Mark’s brevity brings into relief a fact about all the Gospels.  They are not biographies of Jesus Christ; they simply proclaim Who He is. They contain only what we need to know, to believe, and to do in order to find salvation. We must read and hear these words (literally, physically read and hear them), make an act of faith in their truth, pray for understanding, resolve to live according to their demands, and repent for failing to do so. This must happen day after day, or we forget what a Christian is.

If we have been slack in reading the Gospel lately, this new beginning, with the shortest Gospel, at the beginning of a fast, is a good place to start again. We need to open the Gospel, stand or kneel in front of our icons, and read aloud the appointed daily passage or perhaps a whole chapter, going passage by passage or chapter by chapter, day by day. Read aloud, at a moderate pace. Struggle for attention. The Holy Spirit infuses the words of the Gospel with infinite divine power, and they are self-acting. If we read them and  struggle for attention, they will produce spiritual fruit.

Reading the Gospel itself is the first step, and the Holy Spirit will grant us understanding if we ask for it. If we desire to take another step and study the Gospels as well as read them, we should use a patristic or patristically inspired commentary. Though the commentaries of the ancient Fathers are the most complete, most of us need something shorter, and the normative short commentary is the explanation of the Gospels by St. Theophylact of Ochrid. This is available in four volumes from Chrysostom Presss in House Springs, Missouri, at 

 https://www.chrysostompress.org/explanation_of_the_new_testament.html . 

Besides, or after, St. Theophylact, the best guide to the Gospels for our time is the commentary by Archbishop Averky, available from Holy Trinity Monastery at http://bookstore.jordanville.org/9781942699002. Just reading a page every day from one or both of these commentaries will change us greatly for the good.

Fr. Seraphim Rose used to ask a question we should ask ourselves: “We know we are Orthodox, but are we Christians?” Of course, he did not mean that being Orthodox and being Christian are really two separate things: being Orthodox assumes being a Christian, and to be a Christian in the most accurate sense, to be in the Church, one must be Orthodox. He was using irony to make a point, that one can become fixated on discrete  aspects of the Faith intended to help us live the Gospel while simultaneously disobeying the Gospel itself. If one’s mind is not immersed in the Gospel, and if one does not submit one’s will to the commandments of the Gospel, then the dogmas, canons, liturgical services, liturgical arts, domestic customs – the various manifestations of Church life – easily become idols, ends in themselves. Our understanding of them fragments, we  alienate them from their true meaning and coherence in the light of the Gospel, and instead of using them as instruments for our salvation, we misunderstand and misuse them in such a way that their power – which is indeed great, whether to salvation or damnation – transforms us into Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees worship the liturgical cult and the clerical power structure. Pharisees worship the rules and customs. Christians worship the Holy Trinity.

Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov writes in The Arena that God will judge us – both in the particular judgment after death and in the general judgment at the Second Coming – according to the commandments of the Gospel. This judgment determines our fate for all eternity. Let each of us hasten to make himself most intimate with this book by which he  shall be judged and daily compare to its demands the contents of that other book the Judge shall open on that Day, the book of each man’s heart. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Turning to the Lord once and for all

26 July OS 2018 – Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of St. Matthew; Ss. Hermolaus, Hermippus, and Hermocrates, Hieromartyrs; S. Parasceva, Martyr 

In the Gospel today, the Lord announces to the unbelieving Jews that God rejects them, because of their unbelief and hardness of heart despite all of His mercies to them:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Matthew 23: 29-39

St. Theophan the Recluse applies this example to our spiritual life: God gives us numerous opportunities to repent and form a firm intention to please Him, but at some point, unknown to us, there can be a final turning away from Him and the loss of His grace, if we stubbornly refuse His call:

How many mercies the Lord revealed to Jerusalem (that is, to the Jews)! And, in the end, He was still forced to say, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” It is well known to all what the consequences of this were: the Jews are homeless to this day. [This was written in the 1880’s, long before the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.] Does not a similar thing occur with the soul? The Lord cares for the soul and teaches it in every way. An obedient soul traverses the path indicated, but a disobedient soul remains in opposition to God’s calling. However, the Lord does not abandon even this soul, and uses every means to bring it to reason. If stubbornness increases, God’s influence increases. But there is a limit to everything. A soul becomes hardened, and the Lord, seeing that there is nothing more that can be done with this soul, abandons it to its fall, and it perishes like Pharaoh. Let anyone who is beset by passions learn from this the lesson that he cannot continue indulging himself indefinitely without punishment. Is it not time to abandon those passions – not just to deny oneself occasionally, but to decisively turn away? Indeed, no one can say when he will overstep the limit. Perhaps God’s long-suffering is just about to end.   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 170-171

Sobering words!   Some may object, however: “God’s mercy is without limits!   One can repent until death!” Of course it is absolutely true that God’s mercy is without limits, and, if a man come to his senses, and be in this life still, he can certainly repent. But note the condition: “…if a man come to his senses.” What St. Theophan is pointing out is that at some point before death a man may make a final turning away from God and never come back to his senses. God, for Whom there is no present, past, or future, and Who knows all things, withdraws His grace from such a person, knowing that he will never repent. This is what it means in Exodus when it says, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

We must, then, keep careful watch over the life of the soul and not take God’s long-suffering for granted. Criminal psychologists note that it is a mark of sociopaths that they have no gratitude whatsoever for the many times that others have forgiven their crimes, and they have no remorse. We can be sociopaths in regard to God, taking His mercy for granted and becoming hardened in heart.

Why does this occur?   Of course, there is the obvious explanation, that we cherish our sins and passions and do not want to give them up. But there is also another reason, that God is not real to us.  Even if we feel helpless to fight our sins, even if we feel what is, humanly speaking, an irresistible attraction to them, yet if we had a lively faith in God, and deeply desired to please Him while feeling at the same time that all of our hope is in Him and that without Him we can do nothing – then He would show His might and come to save us. Our enemies would vanish very quickly. But lively faith and the desire to please God arise from a living sense of His presence, that He is right here, close to us, that indeed He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

How do we obtain this lively sense of His presence? We must go to Christ, our Incarnate God, a man like us in all things but sin, and pour out our hearts before Him. We must approach the mercy seat, His Cross, and throw ourselves entirely on His mercy. We must approach Him, cling to Him, and not let go until our hearts are softened, and we are set again on the path to salvation.

In his last testament to his spiritual children, the Elder Gabriel of Seven Lakes Monastery (+1915), gave very straightforward advice to those in spiritual trouble. What is remarkable is how simple the actions he recommends are, while at the same time what transcendent benefits he promises. I would like to reproduce it in full, and I pray that those who read it will take it to heart. It is taken from pp. 234-235 of The Love of God – the Life and Teachings of St. Gabriel of the Seven Lakes Monastery (St. Herman Press, 2016):

Elder Gabriel’s Testament to His Spiritual Children

             Soon, perhaps, I will die. I leave you an inheritance of great and inexhaustible riches. There is enough for everyone, only they must make profitable use of it and not doubt. Whoever is wise enough to make use of this inheritance will live without want.

  1. When someone feels that he is a sinner, and can find no way out, let him shut himself alone in his cell and read the Canon and Akathist to Sweetest Jesus Christ, and his tears will be a comforting remedy for him.
  1. When someone finds himself amidst misfortunes of any kind, let him read the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God (“Distressed by many temptations…”), and all his misfortunes will pass without a trace, to the shame of those who assailed him.
  1. When someone needs inner illumination of soul, let him read the Seventeenth Kathisma [i.e., Psalm 118] with attention, and his inner eyes will be opened. The need to bring what is written in it to realization will follow. The need to cleanse the conscience more frequently in Confession and to communicate of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ will arise. The virtue of compassion for others will be manifest, so that we will not scorn them but rather suffer for them and pray for them. Then, the inward fear of God will appear, in which the accomplishments of the Savior will be revealed to the inner eye of the soul – how He suffered for us and loved us. Grace-filled love for Him will appear with the power of the Holy Spirit, Who instructs us in every ascetic labor, teaching us how to accomplish them and endure. In our patience, we will perceive and sense in ourselves the coming of the Kingdom of God in His power, and we will reign together with the Lord and become holy.

             This world will not appear to us the way it is depicted to us now. However, we will not judge it, since Jesus Christ will judge it. But we will see the falsehood of the world and the sin that is in it. We will see righteousness too, but only in the Savior, and we will partake of it in Him alone.    

            Falsehood! We see it and yet we do not. False is this world with all its quickly passing deceptions, for all will pass away, never to return. But Christ’s truth shall endure unto the ages of ages. Amen. 

                                                                        – Schema-archimandrite Gabriel

 

elder gabriel

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

God of the living

21 July OS 2018: Friday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; S.Ezechias (Ezekiel), Prophet; Ss. Symeon and John, Monks

In today’s Gospel, the Sadducees reveal their hypocrisy and spiritual bankruptcy by asking the Lord a non-question, in order to trip Him up:

The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also.
Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.
Matthew 22: 23-33

Usually it is the Pharisees and scribes, the rabbinical crowd, that we see twisting Scripture to advance a pathological ideology and keep power in their own hands, even if if means, ultimately, killing the God-Man. Here, however, it is the Sadducees who are playing with Scripture and making up a contrived scenario, while pretending to be serious, to justify their practical atheism. Strange to say, though they are the priestly party and have charge of the Temple worship, they do not believe in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection, or life after death. They are practical atheists who make their living by leading a religion (sound familiar?). Knowing that the Lord Jesus preaches the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life, they think they can make Him look silly. Instead, He turns the tables on them, and they look silly, which is what happens when integrity confronts hypocrisy.

For our part, we have to look at the poor old Sadducees and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The siren song of practical atheism – living as if this life were all there is – threatens daily to hypnotize all of us, and we can always dig up some quote from some supposed authority – Bishop So-and-So, “Elder” So-and-So, “Theologian” Dr. So-and-So, etc. – to parrot, or if we are really clever like the Sadducees, invent our own twisted reasoning based on Scripture or Tradition, in order to justify our lack of integrity.

How do we avoid being Sadducees and become – or stay – Christians? Let us undertake a short list:

  1. We have to pray earnestly, daily, for the Lord to reveal to us the extent of our own blindness and proud self-reliance. To motivate this prayer, I strongly recommend reading chapters two, three, and four of Unseen Warfare (if you do not have the book, you can find the text at http://www.stnicholasdc.org/files/Orthodoxy/Unseen-Warfare.pdf).                                                                                                                                                
  2. We have to constantly read and re-read our recent trustworthy Orthodox writers to give us a grip on the kaleidoscopically fragmenting and re-forming churchy landscape out there. For example, we should periodically re-read St. Philaret’s Sorrowful Epistles (http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/sorrow.aspx and http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/sorrow2.aspx), and Archbishop Averky’s writings on the present church situation (for example http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/keepstep.aspx). What you will find here, instead of the Newspeak, obfuscation, coldness, and threats of the new Sadducees of ecclesiastical “officialness,” is the simplicity, clarity, and life-giving warmth of evangelical love. Take your pick.
  1. Remember death daily. Today or tomorrow you will face death and God’s judgment. So live with integrity today. Speak the truth, be not afraid. The Lord loves you and desires your salvation more than you do. But you have to be loyal, and you must not lie to yourself. 

O Lord, the Truth and source of all truth, glory be to Thee! O Lord, give us the light and the strength to live in truth. Amen.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The real universe

20 July OS 2018 – Thursday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; S. Elias, Prophet 

In the daily Gospel reading for the Tenth Thursday of St. Matthew, we see the chief priests and Pharisees refusing to repent and, instead, hardening their hearts against the Lord:

The Lord said to the Jews which came to Him: Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet.St. Matthew 21: 43-46

 St. Theophan the Recluse remarks that the opposition to the Gospel is always irrational:

The chief priests and Pharisees perceived that the Lord was telling parables on their account, that He was opening their eyes so that they would see the truth. But what did they do with this? They thought about how to kill the Lord. If their common sense had not been distorted by their prejudice, then even if they could not believe, as the clarity of the instruction required, they would at least have carefully considered the truth of the Savior’s words. Their prejudice pushed them onto a crooked path, and they then proved to be God-killers. It has always been this way, and it is this way now. The Germans [i.e., the liberal Scripture scholars in the German universities], and our people who have become Germanized in their mentality, immediately cry out whenever they come across a miracle in the Gospels, “Not true, not true; this did not happen and could not happen, this needs to be crossed out.” Is not this the same as killing? Look through all the books of these clever men – in none of them will you find any indication as to why they think this way. Not one of them can say anything against what the Gospel truth proves, and not one cares to comprehend the arguments which sober-minded people use to convict their falseness; they only continue insisting that [what is written] could not be, and that is why they do not believe the Gospels. And you cannot do anything with them – they are ready to defy God Himself. –  Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 164-165

St. Theophan likens the blindness of the modern skeptic to the blindness of the Pharisees, and, indeed, it is the same, arising from the same cause: pride and hardness of heart. The materialist outlook, which the humanists and liberals call “rational,” is profoundly irrational, because it cannot explain the existence of mind itself, of knowledge itself. A person would only adopt such a philosophy from the primordial Luciferian urge to pretend to be god in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The offspring of the liberals, the nihilists, are at least honest to this extent: they not only admit but revel in their irrationality, and they not only admit but revel in the fact that the only possible outcome of their philosophy is total destruction.

All of us, living as we are in an “unbelieving and perverse generation,” suffer temptations to doubt, at least now and then. We have available to us recent works of apologetic to help us overcome this on the intellectual level. But, more essentially, we must immerse ourselves in the Orthodox worldview by constant reading of Scripture, the Lives of the Saints, and other authentic Orthodox sources; by prayer; by standing with attention in as many divine services at the parish church as possible; and, as the keystone of this structure of life, frequent confession as part of preparation for and reception of Holy Communion, which is the most powerful means of grace-filled enlightenment after our Baptism.  Our minds have to swim, as it were, in the Orthodox spiritual and mental universe, because being convinced at one point by an intellectual argument does not give us sufficient strength to stay convinced if we pay more attention to things that are not true than to things that are. Our minds are naturally attracted to what they are exposed to, and our hearts follow our minds. This is simply the way God made us.

Such an immersion in Orthodox sources rewards us immediately with clarity of the mind and lightening of the heart. In contrast to the heavy burden of worldly thoughts and worldly subject matter, God’s truth is the light burden that gives rest to our souls. In contrast to the mental hell of this world’s confusion, God’s truth is Paradise before Paradise.

The next time, then, you are burdened by the world and its “news,” instead of doing something useless and destructive (like surfing to the next news website in order to become more confused, helpless, and angry), open the Holy Gospel, stand in your icon corner, and start reading aloud.   Read the Life of a saint or a book about prayer that has helped you in the past. Grab your prayer rope, take a walk, and glorify God for His beautiful creation.   We have an entire spiritual universe open to us, wider than the heavens, which no one else has. We need to show our gratitude by choosing to live in it.

treesofparadise

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life with integrity

18 July OS 2018 – Tuesday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; S. Emilian, Martyr

In the Gospel today, Our Lord confronts the chief priests and elders with their self-serving hypocrisy:

And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things. – St. Matthew 21: 23-27

 St. Theophan the Recluse uses this Gospel passage to illustrate the bad will of all those who refuse to live by truth:

When the Lord asked the question about John the Baptist, the chief priests and the elders thought, “If we answer this way or that, either way is detrimental for us,” and that is why they decided it would be better to use ignorance as a cover. Their self-interest tied their tongue and did not allow them to witness to the truth. If they had loved truth more than themselves, the words would have been different, as would their works. Their interests buried the truth and would not let it reach their hearts. Their interests kept them from forming a sincere conviction, and made their hearts indifferent to the truth. This is how it always is – egotistical strivings are the primordial enemies of truth. All other enemies follow them and act by means of them. If one investigates how all delusions and heresies have arisen, it turns out that this is precisely the source of them all: In words, truth is truth; but in reality, the truth hinders us in one regard or another and must be eliminated, and a lie must be set in its place which is more favorable to us. Why, for example, are there materialists and nihilists? Because the idea of God the Creator, Provider, and Judge, together with the idea of the spirituality of the soul, hinders those people from living in grand style according to their inclinations, and so they push the idea aside. it is clear from the worthlessness of their premises that nihilists are not guided by the truth. They want everything to be just as they think it is, and every phantom that reflects their thoughts is exhibited by them as a witness to the truth. If they would sober up even a little, they would immediately see their lie. But they feel sorry for themselves, and therefore remain as they are. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 164-165

“…egotistical strivings are the primordial enemies of truth.” In the case of both religious and secular power-mongers, this egotism takes the obvious form of the publicly flaunted pursuit of self-interest. But “egotistical strivings” are not the sole property of the rich and powerful. All people, because “…they feel sorry for themselves…” shy away from holding the mirror of truth up to their own lives. Every man has a fallen nature, and therefore every man blinds himself to the truth.   Salvation requires that man assent to the revealed truths of the Faith, receive the grace of faith, and let the light of truth enlighten his darkened mind. The world (society), the flesh (our passions), and the devil fight this every step of the way. But God’s grace is all-conquering, and a man who wills not to feel sorry for himself, who desires to know and to live by the truth at all costs, shall receive grace in abundance.

Getting free of heresies and delusions, then, is not simply a matter of the mind but also of the will. Someone has to will to know the truth at all costs, no matter what it takes. Then, for that truth to be his glory instead of his shame, he has to live by it, at all costs, no matter what it takes, for to accept the truth in word but deny it by one’s life is the same – or perhaps worse – than never having accepted it at all.

The age we live in, however, in the apt expression of the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, is an age of spiritual fakery par excellence. It is literally a pandemonium, an age in which all the demons of hell have been let loose, for “he that restraineth” (i.e., the divinely anointed Orthodox emperor, and therefore legitimate authority in general) has been removed,  the malicious – which literally means those with an evil will – rule every nation, and therefore  evil has free rein. Every kind of lie and phony “goodness” is exalted, and the hard truth of God’s Word is derided, even denounced as evil itself. To fit in, to serve one’s immediate self-interest of societal acceptance and advancement, one must bury the truth and not let it reach one’s heart, or if one does know the truth, one must tie one’s tongue and not witness to it.  The only path open to integrity is therefore not to fit in, to live as Noah before the Flood, Lot in Sodom, Joseph amid the fleshpots of Egypt, and Daniel in the court of Babylon.

Obviously, one can live this way only by faith, by prayer, and by grace.  Only a “man of divine desires” like Daniel can keep the truth firmly fixed in mind and heart while surrounded by those man-devouring lions, the enemies of truth. The  burning love for Christ powers him to stay alive when the world says to curl up and die. He knows that conscious, attentive, and heartfelt prayer, done daily with no excuses, is not extraneous to existential survival.  It is the life preserver for every sinner drowning in the sea of life.

The next time you are tempted to skip your prayers, or inattentively to rattle through them, remember that you are drowning, but the Lord holds out His hand. He says, “Struggle a bit, pay attention to Me, and I will save you.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the Law of Christ

13 July OS 2018: Thursday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; S. Gabriel, Archangel

In today’s Gospel, the mother of James and John reveals her comically mistaken idea of what the Messianic kingdom is actually going to look like.

And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father. And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. – Matthew 20: 17-28

We may smile indulgently at Mrs. Zebedee’s crude notion that the Christ would be a worldly king whom old ladies could cozen into making courtiers out of men with the right connections, but I fear that we may not grasp the Kingdom of God better than she. On earth we live in the Kingdom of God by living in the Church, but, imitating the mother of the Thundersons, we may assume that we are here to use the Church and not to serve Her.

Let us ask ourselves a few questions.  How do we see the Church?

Is the Church my dear Mother, whom I must reverence and obey, or is She (or it, rather) an impersonal thing, a necessary evil essentially unloved, a rusty old contraption for dispensing salvation, to be kicked, tricked, and otherwise abused into compliance with my wish for pie in the sky at discount prices?

Is the Church the precious Body of Christ, to be cared for and ministered to by me, as the Holy Myrrhbearers ministered to the Body of the Crucified Lord, or is She simply an organized religion business, a vendor to dispense benefits as I decide I want them when I want them, with as little fuss as possible?

Is the Church “we”:  my primary place, my primary people, of belonging, identity, loyalty, and love? Or is the Church “they”: priest, council, catechist, coffee hour ladies… [fill in the blank] providing “goods and services” for “customers,” of whom I am one?  

When things go wrong in the Church, do I confess that I have a share in the blame, by my lack of faith, prayer, repentance, dedication, sacrifice, and actively doing good to my brothers?  Or is it always “they” who are responsible?

One of my favorite Southern writers, William Alexander Percy, says that the human race is divided into “lean-ers and lean-ees,” those who lean on others and those who get leaned on. Of course, we all need to lean on others sometimes, but those who orient themselves primarily to being lean-ees in the Church on earth are the ones who get into the Church in heaven. At least they want to be leaned on, even if human weakness prevents it sometimes. Such people have always been the minority, of course, and that makes sense, since the Lord did say that only the few get into His Kingdom, much less sit next to Him. 

Decide today! Lean-er or lean-ee? Make your choice.

Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Amen.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts

12 July OS 2018 – Wednesday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; Ss. Proclus and Hilarius, Martyrs; S. Michael Maleinos, Monk;  the Icon of the Theotokos, “Of the Three Hands” 

In the Gospel today, Our Lord proclaims His grace and sovereign will to save all men, even those who wait till the eleventh hour to repent:

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. – Matthew 20: 1-16

 St. Theophan the Recluse encourages us never to give up hope, even if we have waited until old age to repent:

In the parable about the hirelings, even he who worked only one hour was rewarded by he master of the house the same as the others. The hours of the day in this parable are an image of the course of our life. The eleventh hour is the final period of this life. The Lord shows that even those who lived without serving Him up that that moment can begin to work and can please Him no less than the others. Therefore, old age is no excuse. Let no one despair, supposing that there is no point in beginning to work. Begin, and do not be afraid. The Lord is merciful – He will give you all that He gives others: here, according to the order of grace, and there, according to the law of justice. Just have more fervor, and grieve more contritely about the carelessness in which almost all of your life was spent. You will say, “The master of the house summoned those in the parable – so, let the Lord call me. But is He not calling? Could it really be that you do not hear the voice of the Lord in the Church, saying, “Come unto Me all ye,” and the Apostle’s call, “As though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5:20).”  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 159-160

The Lord did not tell this parable, of course, in order to encourage us to put off repentance, saying, “Great, no problem. I shall live a worldly life, planning to take the salvation of my soul seriously at the eleventh hour and prepare for death.” Those who take this approach usually do not recognize the eleventh hour when they see it, and death takes them at a time they did not expect. The right understanding at all times is to say, “This is the eleventh hour!”   As it is written in the Psalms, “Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts (Ps. 94),” and St. Paul exhorts us, saying, “For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2).” Every day, every moment, may be our eleventh hour.   It is never too late or too early to repent. The time is always now.

The aggrieved workers of the first hour did not understand their employer’s seeming injustice because they did not acknowledge his right to do what he wished with what was his own. This is an image of our stiff-necked refusal to fall down before God’s infinite wisdom, accept His judgments, and confess His sovereignty over His creation and our lives in particular.

Both attitudes – “I’ll live as I please until old age, and then I’ll ‘get religion’,” and “God is not fair” – simply manifest the blindness of fallen nature. We live in delusion and do not realize it. If we could see ourselves as we are, we would run to confess our sins constantly, commune frequently, and prepare for death daily.   If we could see ourselves as we are, we would thank God that He is not fair. He is merciful. If He were not, no one would be saved.

Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.

For your fathers tempted Me, they proved Me and saw My works.

Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, and I said: They do always err in their hearts.

And they have not known My ways; so I swore in Mine anger: They shall not enter into My rest. – Psalm 94:8-11

There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His.
Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
– Hebrews 4: 9-16

christ-judge-sheep-and-goats

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Millstones aplenty

10 July OS 2018: Monday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; Holy 45 Martyrs of Nicopolis; S. Anthony of the Kiev Caves 

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord states the penalty for defiling the innocence of children: 

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. – Matthew 18: 1-11

I emphatically recommend the careful study of The Path to Salvation by St. Theophan the Recluse. It may be difficult – extremely difficult – to carry out the concrete program for spiritual life he details in the latter part of the book. One has to glean that which one can and put it to use. But the English translation of the book does something essential for us – perhaps uniquely so in English language Orthodox literature – because the earlier chapters describe precisely the right way to rear children, the psychological and spiritual process by which adolescents and college-age students fall away from the Faith, and the path of return after one has fallen away.  

The willful refusal of contemporary parents, including churchgoing Orthodox Christians, to combat the influences destroying their children is astounding. It provides prima facie evidence that we have passed beyond the post-Christian age to the post-human age, a time in which those in power have succeeded in destroying ordinary human instincts and reactions in a critical mass of the people. Those who still have these instincts constitute a dwindling race of human beings living in the midst of a growing zombie population.

One looks over one’s shoulder and wonders, “Who is next?” Which friend or neighbor whom one values as a fellow Christian – or at least a normal person – will say, “Our son told us he is ‘gay,’ and, well (sigh, simper, melting phony-pious lovey-look), we don’t like it, but we just f-e-e-l that we need to support his choices,” or “Our daughter threatened to move out and live with her boyfriend, and we invited them to live with us and we’ll give them their own bedroom [next to the younger daughter’s bedroom, perhaps?], because that way we can ‘influence’ them…” or “We know this soccer league has Sunday morning games, but…” or “We have to give our ten year old an IPhone because all of his friends have one…”   The list goes on. 

Judgment is at the door for the hierarchs and clergy who just f-e-e-l they need to support such “choices,” as well as for the parents who make them. Since such blatant nonsense evinces a total loss of reason and common sense, one starts to wonder if repentance is even possible, not because God is unwilling to receive the sinner, but because a formerly rational person who has made himself into an idiot is highly unlikely to recover his senses. When people poke their own eyes out, “how great is the darkness.”  

It is later than we think.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Mother of all graces

27 June OS, 2018 –  Apostles’ Fast; Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Matthew; S. Sampson the Hospitable

Though at all times it is fitting to praise the wonders of the Holy Virgin, it would seem that on this day, the penultimate of the Fast of Ss. Peter and Paul, one should rather say a few words on the upcoming Feast. Time enough remains for this, however, in the next few days, when we shall devote ourselves to praising the Apostles’ struggles and virtues, and calling upon their prayers. Today let us ponder on the virtues we shall have acquired or failed to acquire when the ascetic struggle of the past six weeks ends at sunset tomorrow, and beg the Most Pure Theotokos to bestow upon us that which we could not acquire for ourselves.

This thought occurred to me as, last night, I resumed studying the second homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. It may seem odd to study such a work at such a time – distant from the feast itself – but I am not reading it for homiletic material to draw from on the festal day (21 November OS), but rather as a succinct yet profound catechism on the spiritual life, and therefore one that bears careful and repeated study throughout the year.

The particular passage I read last night is this:

11. In the beginning, when God set the greater light to rule the day, first He made light scattered freely everywhere, then the disc of the sun to receive it (Genesis 1:1-3, 16-18). In the same way, He now displayed His ever-virgin Mother as the lamp-stand of the divine, ineffable light of everything virtuous. Whereas previously goodness had been dispersed among all, later every kind of of virtue was brought together in her in a way past understanding or description, so high had she ascended. All those things which, distributed to the noblest of every age, were sufficient to make them great, and everything which those angels and men who found favor with God were in part, she gathered together. She alone, having brought all these gifts to perfection and multiplied them inexpressibly, pours out abundant grace on those who honor her, also granting that they may reach up to her as the receptacle of great graces, and in her goodness lavishing even more excellent favors upon them. Nor will she cease being mercifully disposed towards all mankind, providing everything beneficial and assisting us plentifully.

12. Anyone who considers how she represents and bestows everything good, will say that the Virgin fulfills the same role as regards virtue for those living virtuously as the sun does in relation to visible light for those who live by it, and that what happened to light in the beginning foreshadowed and prefigured the wonders to be accomplished later concerning her. – from Homily Fifty Three, St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, trans. Veniamin, p. 179

At the end of a fast, the pious usually sigh with regret over that which we did not accomplish. It strikes us, late as usual, that we have passed on a golden chance freely given, disdained a goblet of grace drunk reluctantly or not at all, missed a turn in the road. Shall we live another year? Shall we see this season of grace again? God alone knows.

Even this thought, however, is itself another grace-given moment of salvation, another gracious call from the Lord to repentance, which is, after all, the purpose of any fast. Realizing our utter incapacity for spiritual progress, we must hasten quickly, without hesitation, to her who is the treasury of all the gifts her divine Son wants to give us: We must flee to the Holy Virgin.

As St. Gregory Palamas explains so beautifully, the Lord took all of the virtues, gifts, and graces He bestowed on the various saints, and concentrated them to the highest degree in His Most Pure Mother, who indescribably surpasses every created intelligence, visible and invisible, in the degree of her holiness and purity, in her likeness to God. Everything that her Son has by nature, she has by grace, and it is His will, both the will of the All-Holy Trinity from all eternity and His perfect human will in complete accordance with the divine will, that every grace won for us by the Incarnate Economy of her Son be given to us through her mediation.

If then, we have fallen short in this fast, let the grace freely flowing through her make up what we lack! If we are oppressed by our weaknesses and threatened by our foes, let us flee to her protection! If we desire the grace of repentance, let us cry out to her with tears! If we desire spiritual gifts, let us freely approach her with the full confidence of children in a most loving mother, one who loves us incomparably more than the very best of all other mothers, and who pleads for us with absolute confidence at the Throne of Mercy, which is the Cross of her Son.

She is the Surety of Sinners, the Safe Haven of those in Trouble, the Invincible Champion of the Weak. She will never forsake us.

Through her intercessions, may the grace of the upcoming Feasts fill our hearts with joy and our homes with gladness.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The “problem of evil” and real courage

22 June OS 2018 – Friday of the Sixth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Hieromartyr Eusebius of Samosata; S. Alban, Protomartyr of Britain

In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus teaches the disciples that He permits the existence and intermingling of both the good and the evil during our earthly life, and how this relates to the Dread Judgment:

At that time, Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. – Matthew 13:36-43

 St. Theophan the Recluse takes this occasion to explain the role of evil in the spiritual life of the faithful:

…Thus will be carried out the division of good and evil, light and darkness. Now is the period of time in which they are mixed. It pleased the Lord to arrange that the freedom of creatures should grow and be strengthened in good through the struggle against evil. Evil is allowed, both in connection with inward freedom and outside of a person. It does not determine anything, it only tempts. One who feels a temptation must not fall, but enter into battle. He who conquers is freed from one temptation, and advances forward and upward to find a new temptation there – and so on, until the end of his life. Oh, when will we comprehend the significance of the evil which tempts us, so that we might arrange our lives according to this understanding? The strugglers are finally crowned, and pass on to the next life, where there are neither sicknesses nor sorrows, and where they become inwardly pure like angels of God, free from the sting of tempting inclinations and thoughts. This is how the triumph of light and good is being prepared, and it will be revealed in all of its glory on the last day of the world. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 145

One of the stock arguments of atheists is the so-called “problem of evil”: “How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil? Either He is good but not all-powerful and therefore cannot prevent evil, or He is all-powerful but evil, since He causes or allows evil to exist.” There are several things wrong with this argument, but let us make one thing clear: Only the Christian understanding of evil allows for man’s moral freedom, for man to be a spiritual and free being capable of loving God.   No other explanation makes room for this. God does not will evil, but He allows it, so that 1. Man may choose freely to obey Him or not, to become His servant and friend or not, and 2. The existence of evil may provide the arena for man’s spiritual struggle – truly do the Fathers say that without temptations no one would be saved.  Anyone who has engaged in conscious spiritual life in an Orthodox setting understands this immediately.

Our intellects say, “Yes, now that someone has explained this to us, it is quite reasonable,” but we initially received this lofty understanding of man’s vocation through divine revelation, by grace, not by our own mental efforts. We realize that, being of divine origin, this truth is of course incomparably superior to the explanations that the fallen mind of man has created. We perceive that it gives us both peace of soul and the incentive to fight evil and to do good, and therefore not only is it intellectually satisfying but of the highest therapeutic and moral value.   Experiencing this, we ask, “Why would anyone not want to believe in the Faith?”

The answer, of course, is pride: pride of mind, pride of will, and pride of sensuality. Fallen man wants to create his own reality, fallen man wants to disobey God’s law, and fallen man wants to indulge his passions. Even so, man has always wanted to explain evil, and therefore the finite and fallen intellect of man has constructed three false explanations of evil.

The “Eastern religions,” Hinduism, Buddhism, and their variants, along with Platonism, say that this world is an illusion, and that evil is being trapped in the illusory, material world due to some cosmic accident no one can explain. The Hindus say that you need to go through various incarnations to get rid of the evil you have accumulated (karma), in order to realize that even your personal existence and the existence of a personal God are illusions (or, conversely, that you are God, which amounts to the same thing), and that once you get rid of all mental distinctions, you will be absorbed into the World Soul, totally lose your individual existence, and undergo suffering no longer, i.e,  feel neither pain nor pleasure. One is eerily reminded of the epitaph of the excommunicated apostate novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Islam says that only God’s will is really operative in the universe, that He is not interested in explaining anything to us, that what constitutes good and evil is not even a question open to rational discourse, and that your job is to submit without question or thought to the great Divine Steamroller, “Allah,” or whatever you want to call it.   Admit His total sovereignty, don’t question anything, and jump onto the cosmic Juggernaut before it runs over you.   On Judgment Day, all you can do is hope for the best, because you have no idea whatsoever if you have pleased or not.

Materialism says that everything we experience is an accidental concourse of material stuff, and therefore nothing means anything. Eat, drink, and be merry, or seek total power over others for the thrill of it, or commit suicide, or whatever. Since mind does not exist, who cares what good or evil are, anyway, or who could offer a meaningful definition, since what the neurons in your brain invent is an accident, and what the neurons in my brain invent is another accident, and the two do not have anything to do with each other, do they?

What all three explanations have in common, ultimately, is nihilism, “nothing-ism.”   At root, all three deny Who God is, deny who man is, and deny the love of God for man.   All three, at root, are the fruit of pride, of Satan’s rebellion against the All-Good and All-Loving God Who created him, the fruit of Satan’s choice to “reign in hell rather than to serve in heaven.”   To adopt any of these three views and really live by it is to consign oneself to hell in this life, much less the next. Yet people fall very easily into these views, and only with great difficulty, and by God’s grace, do they accept the Truth. Without the miracle of grace, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

The Orthodox Church teaches us the truth, which is that God created man out of love and for love, so that man could freely choose to love God and do His holy will.   Advancing step by step from the fear of punishment to the desire for heavenly rewards to the love of God for His own sake, and thereby attaining the freedom of divine friendship, a man becomes a “god by grace,” and in the process, far from being absorbed into the Cosmic One, and far from being the helpless pawn of an inscrutable fate, he becomes more, and more truly, himself. To accomplish this, however, we must be courageous and full of hope in God’s mercy; we must open our hearts and throw ourselves into the abyss of His love, trusting Him to catch us.   We have to look evil square in the face and bravely hope anyway in the all-loving and all-wise God, Who cares for us, Who became a man and died for us, and Who rose from the dead, giving us the hope of an everlasting life.

Kazantzakis claimed that he had no fear because he had no hope. This is not courage but the very essence of cowardice. We can choose this way – the way of nihilism – or we can go the path of the saints.   Increasingly it becomes clear, from all that is happening around us, that there is no other choice.

pilgrims walking up a hill to a church in Serbia

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment