A program for life

 

2 September OS 2018 – Saturday of the Sixteenth Week of Matthew;  S. Mamas, Martyr; S. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople

In today’s Gospel, the Lord commands His disciples to be vigilant until His coming:

The Lord said to His disciples: Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; And shall begin to smite his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24: 34-44

We await the coming of Christ in two senses: 1. He will come in glory at a time known to God alone, at the end of the world, to judge the living and the dead at the General Judgment.    2. If we die before His coming, we will face Him at the judgment seat of the Particular Judgment, when all of the deeds of our life will be laid bare, and He will place us in Paradise or Hades to await the General Resurrection and Dread Judgment. This brief life is given us to prepare for these encounters with our Judge.   How do we prepare?

St. Theophan the Recluse comments thus:

“Watch, therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come (Matthew 24:42). To be vigilant does not mean to sit with your arms folded, but rather to keep in mind that the Lord will come suddenly, and so to behave and conduct your affairs so as to be ready to meet Him at any instant, not fearing reproach and condemnation. How is one to do this? Very simply.   Walk in the commandments without breaking a single one. And if it happens that you break one, immediately cleanse yourself through repentance and by fulfilling what needs to be done. Then everything in you will be clean. Do not leave sin on your soul for even a minute: immediately repent, weep in your heart, and run to your spiritual father to confess and receive absolution, and then get down to business again, in accordance with God’s commandments. If you set out zealously to have your life in good order, it soon will be; just do not remain in a fall for long. In such a case, falls will become ever rarer and will eventually cease completely, with the help of the all-healing grace of God. Then the joyful assurance will dwell in you that you will not meet the Lord unprepared. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 200-201

Here is a program for life!   In short:

  1. Obey the commandments.
  1. If you fall, repent immediately.
  1. Get back to your spiritual work.

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“…run to your spiritual father to confess and receive absolution.” Is this what we do? Or do we store up our sins in a great sack on our backs and trudge from year to year, performing a perfunctory and woefully incomplete confession during Holy Week and maybe before the Nativity or another feast, receiving Holy Communion as if it were a burdensome duty of some kind, and then going back to “business as usual” – not the “business” St. Theophan is speaking of above, the business of a conscious, daily spiritual effort, but the “business” of worldliness?

If one were to ask me why the world has gone so astray, I would answer, “Because Orthodox Christians do not frequently confess and receive Holy Communion.”   The Church is the charity of the world, the gate through which the grace of God flows to mankind, the pillar and foundation of the Truth, the place where man meets God, the means God has given for the salvation of man.   When the life of the Church in the world is strong, when vast numbers of Orthodox Christians are daily repenting, weeping over their sins, frequently confessing, receiving absolution, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion – then evil is restrained, rulers and nations repent, thousands or millions of souls are saved.   When the life of the Church is weak, then God’s grace, though infinitely abundant and readily available, slows to a trickle in the life of the world, not because God is not all-powerful and all good, but because the men He has chosen out of the world to be His sons refuse to receive what He has to give.

Calculate the number of hours per week you read or watch the news on the Internet or television, seeking to know the latest evils in order to wring your hands and say how bad things are.   Organize next week so that you will spend the same number of hours in the combination of the following activities: attending Church services, saying daily prayers at home, doing spiritual reading, examining your conscience and going to confession, and receiving Holy Communion or undertaking the further preparation prescribed by your spiritual father.   Then do it.  By this, you will go from being a helpless victim (and worse, an addicted voyeur) of the world’s evils, to being a free child of God and, moreover, a spiritual warrior who has now begun to combat the evil rather than be hypnotized by it like the deer in the headlights. As they say, do not be part of the problem, be part of the solution.

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God, the King of the Ages

1 September OS 2018 – Friday of the Sixteenth Week of Matthew; the Church New Year (the Indiction); S. Symeon the Stylite;  S. Jesus Son of Navi (Joshua Son of Nun)

Today begins the Church’s New Year, and it is a good time to reflect on the use we make of our time.

Though we live amid great material abundance, most of us – perhaps all of us – still experience a great poverty, the poverty of anxiety. This is not simply a psychological problem, but a spiritual one, for it shows that we do not yet fulfill the Gospel commandment of Jesus Christ:

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.   – Matthew 6: 33-34 

If we believed in the Lord’s words and fulfilled them, we would not worry so much. How can we truly believe in His words and fulfill them in the actual circumstances of our lives? What does the Church’s tradition have to teach us?

The month of September marks the beginning of the Church Year.  Today, September the first, is the Church New Year. In the entry for September 1st in his great collection of the Lives of the Saints, our holy hierarch father Demetrius of Rostov relates the following about the way of life commanded by God through Moses in the Old Testament:

            …Every seventh year was called a sabbath, a year of rest, as the Lord said through Moses to the sons of Israel: “Six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof; but in the seventh year shall there be a sabbath of rest unto the land; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. If ye shall say, What shall we eat the seventh year, if we sow not, neither gather in our grain? I will send My blessing upon you in the sixth years, and ye shall eat of the old stores (Leviticus 25: 3-4, 20-21).”

All those years in which the Lord ordained that man allow the land to rest began in the month of September. The Lord commanded: Do ye proclaim, saith the Lord, the year of repose in the seventh month, that is, in the month of September. This month is the seventh after March, which was the first month after the creation of the world. Not only did the year begin in September, according to the commandment given in the Old Testament, but the pagan indiction likewise began on the first day of the month of September.  – The Great Collection of the Lives of the SaintsVolume I  (Trans. Fr. Thomas Marretta,  Chrysostom Press, House Springs, Missouri)

             Thus speaking to Moses, 1500 years before His coming in the flesh, the Lord gives even His Church of the Old Testament a strict, liberating, evangelical command: Trust Me so much that every seventh year you will not even plant your fields. Every seventh year, like every seventh day, was a time of rest, so that man could experience once again, as he did in Paradise, that it is the Lord, and not he himself, Who provides for all of his needs. Instead of striving – repose. Instead of worry – peace of mind. Instead of constant activity – prayer, reflection, and gratitude.

Though we are not bound literally by this command of the Mosaic Law, and though our circumstances are different from those of ancient agricultural peoples, we are bound spiritually to fulfill this precept, and the needs of our souls are the same as the men of all generations. How can we fulfill this command of the Lord, and how will this heal and enlighten our souls?

  • We have to recognize that acquisitiveness, and its concomitant, “workaholism,” are very serious spiritual problems. They separate us from God. We have to subject our preconceptions about our material needs to ruthless scrutiny and consciously try to re-order our priorities to the point at which there is ample time for prayer, for Church, and for family.
  • We have to honor the Lord’s Day with gathering for the Divine Services and a prayerful atmosphere at home. Just as in the Old Testament, the Sabbath belonged to the Lord, so in the New Testament, the Day of the Resurrection belongs to the Risen Christ. This is not optional; when we use this day for something else, we are stealing from God. We do not think about it this way; we do not “mean” to do it. But it does have that effect on our lives.
  • We must stop running around like madmen in our leisure time. When one sees how people dash about from one activity to another in their “free” time, one wonders how they ever have time for quiet and peace at all. Do a calculation: what percentage of your leisure time is spent in prayer and spiritual reading, or even reading good literature and listening to good music, or just sitting down at real, leisurely meals with your family and talking to them? The constant desire for entertainment and distraction is a sickness of the soul, and when we keep feeding it, we get sicker.

The whole point of this is to create the pre-conditions in which prayer can take place, not simply prayer at the appointed times, but a constant atmosphere and mentality of prayer throughout the day. The constant dwelling of the mind in the heart, and the heart in God, is what heals man.

Here is one thing everyone can do: Before bed in the evening, let the whole household sit down quietly before the icons and listen as one family member says the Jesus Prayer for five minutes. This sounds simple, does it not? Try it: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!

Let us use this Church New Year to start afresh, to re-order our priorities and our lives. We cannot change everything all at once, of course, but we can take at least one step and then stick to it. May God, the King of the Ages and Creator of time itself, enlighten us to use our time as He intends, during the year which today begins.

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What reward do we seek?

31 August OS 2018 – Thursday of the Sixteenth Week of Matthew; the Deposition of the Cincture of the Most Holy Theotokos

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         Because tomorrow is the Church New Year and the feast day Gospel replaces the daily Gospel reading, we read today, in addition to the assigned Gospel of the 16th Thursday of St. Matthew, tomorrow’s daily Gospel reading, in which the Lord feeds the four thousand by a miracle, and then He departs quietly, as if nothing special had occurred:

In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples unto him, and saith unto them, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven. And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people. And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them. So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets. And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away. And straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, and came into the parts of Dalmanutha. Mark 8:1-10

St. Theophan the Recluse points out how the Lord Jesus treated this as if it were a perfectly ordinary occurrence:

Having filled four thousand with seven loaves of bread, the lord “…straightway…entered into a ship, and came into the parts of Dalmanutha,” as if nothing special had been done. Such is the true doing of good – to do it continually, not paying attention to what has been done and, always forgetting what is past, to stretch forward to what is ahead. This comes naturally for those who are filled with goodness. Just as a strong man lifts heavy weights without noticing, while a weak man who has lifted a small weight cannot seem to forget it, so one who is strong in goodness does every good without strain, whenever the occasion arises, while one who is weak in goodness cannot manage without straining. The good is memorable to him, and he keeps glancing at it and looking back. A good heart craves to do good, and is not satisfied until he has eaten his fill.   While hunger is felt, dinner is remembered, but when the hunger has been satisfied, all is forgotten. So it is with a truly good person: a good deed is remembered before it is completed, but once it is done, it is forgotten.   – from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 199-200

We are Christians, and we know that we are supposed to love our brother and to do good to him. Even when we do good, however, the demons work through our passions to rob us of the grace that we should receive when we perform acts of love.

For example: We do good to someone – give him some money, let him use our automobile or stay in our house, give him a job when he is out of work, take food over when the family is needy, etc.   Do we do it for Christ’s sake, because we see Christ in our brother, hoping to avoid the pains of hell and inherit Paradise, or, what is even higher, out of love for Christ, to please Him alone, because He is worthy of all love? Or do we write a red mark in the debit column of a calculating heart: “Ah, now so-and-so owes me something”? How many family and social relations which men regard as normal are actually fundamentally corrupt, because they are based on such a calculus! God designed family and friendship to lead us to heaven, but when they function as a marketplace of endless haggling over who owes what to whom, they drag us down to hell instead.

Of course, we on our part should always render due gratitude to our benefactors: of this there is no question. Ingratitude, whether to God or to man, is base and ignoble, a quintessentially Luciferian attitude. We must always show gratitude, and we must teach this essential virtue to those for whom we are responsible. When it is we, however, who are the benefactors, our only thought should be of pleasing Christ, Whom we see in our brother, and we should seek both praise and payment from Him alone.

Let us pray to escape the calculating heart of fallen nature by the grace of that good hunger of which St. Theophan writes above: the insatiable hunger of a loving soul to do good, to do good without measure and without calculation, striving forward towards the finish line of death and God’s judgment in the continual doing of good, thinking only of the reward and the Rewarder, Who shall render to each man according to his deeds.

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The world is going its way; let us go ours.

26 August OS 2018 – Saturday of the 15th week of Matthew; Ss. Adrian and Natalia, Martyrs

Today’s Gospel reading is the beginning of the Lord’s great eschatological discourse towards the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Here it is:

          And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.Matthew 24: 1-13  

         The Lord states very clearly why the love of the many will grow cold in those days: “…because iniquity shall abound.” Here the Lord directly contradicts the preachers of the new “love” we hear about everywhere today, “love” that “blesses” every manner of evil and perversion: infanticide, sodomy, adultery, fornication, atheism, devil worship, false religions, usury, the endless pursuit of mindless vanity in the entertainment industry, the ever-spreading cancer of gambling, and on and on. The only “sin” today is to denounce evil, which proves that “you have no love.”

Today materialists call themselves “humanists” and state that they condone sin because they “love people,” and that the Church is “anti-human.” The Lord states otherwise. The true humanist, that is, the person who truly loves other human beings, is not the person who condones their self-destructive sin, but he who points it out and tries to fight it. St. Theophan the Recluse, in his commentary on this verse, says the following:

Love is destroyed by transgressions; the more sins there are, the less love there is. Where all is sin, do not look for love. Therefore, he who seeks the spread of love and the diminishing of the lack of love ought to be concerned with decreasing sin and curtailing the love of sin. This is the true foundation of humanism! Having taken up this work, one must use all means to oppose sin. Outward sins are the fruit of inner sinfulness. Inner sinfulness is rooted in egoism and its offspring. Consequently humanists need to make it a rule for themselves to suppress egoism by all means. Egoism is suppressed most forcefully by not allowing one’s own will. Do not allow yourself to have your own will, and soon you will overcome egoism. On the other hand, no matter what means you want to use against egoism, you will not be able to do anything if you give freedom to your will. Hence it follows that wherever people seek their own little will in all things, they are seeking an expansion of egoism and the drying up of love, and they are seeking greater evil. Yet such is the spirit of the current time – and evil is growing. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 194

By re-defining what love is and what sin is, today’s “wisdom” is destroying man.   “Love” = condoning the other person’s selfishness. “Sin” = calling it like it is. The only sin is “intolerance.”   The only permitted intolerance is intolerance of the truth.

The most obvious sins condoned today by the new “love” advocates are the sins involving sexual immorality.   Not only the Church, however, but even honest secular psychologists and physicians can tell you that the more – and the more varied -“partners” someone has, the more fragmented and ruined a person he becomes.   This is common sense. Illicit sexual behavior hardens the heart, darkens the mind, and ruins the person.   Such a person cannot love. After awhile, such a person cannot even think. All the “love” they believe they feel with this or that “partner” (another ruined word!) is simply the delusive warmth arising from the mutual approval of sensuality and self-worship.   It is a diabolic shadow play, a hellish dance of destruction.

True love is seen above all in the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.   This love is made manifest in the world in the lives of the Saints, who crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts, and arrived at purity of heart, at holiness, apart from which no man will see God. The only path to true love is the path to Golgotha. There is no other way.

Now how do we, in 2018, fight the evil that St. Theophan said was growing in his time (1881!)? First of all, we must reject the least concession to any new definitions of what love is, what good is, what evil is, and what sin is.  We must give wholehearted and absolute adherence to the teachings of the Church, which have not changed in thousands of years. “We do not serve the times, but God,” as St. Athanasius once said. Simultaneously we must apply ourselves wholeheartedly to rooting out the egoism in our own hearts, by heartfelt prayer to God, by repentance, by crying to Him with tears for our sins and the sins of the world.   God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men. Let us try, by the grace of God, to be one of the ten righteous men. And if there are not even ten, let us imitate the Righteous Lot and flee up to Zoar in time.

There is no use pretending that the love of the many has not grown cold. It has.   We must recognize our situation and deal with it.   But we cannot dwell on the evil in the world. The world will go its way, and we will go our way, and the two ways have always diverged; today it is simply more obvious. We must dwell in our minds there, where our true life is. Face it – if we are really Christians, we are already dead men: “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).” Whatever short span of life is given to man after Baptism is simply a working out of the implications of that reality. Let us, then, rejoice, for the Lord is nigh, even at the door.

     He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely. For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.  – Apocalypse 22: 11-20

Amen.

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Thirst for God

24 August OS 2018 – Thursday of the 15th week of Matthew;  S. Eutyches, Bishop Martyr; S. Cosmas Aitolos, New Martyr and Equal-to-the Apostles; S. Maxim (Sandovich), New Priest-Martyr 

Today’s reading from the Holy Gospel is Mark 6:30-45, which is St. Mark’s account of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. In his commentary on this passage in Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, St. Theophan the Recluse does not comment on the text recounting the miracle itself, but on verse 33: “And the people saw them departing, and many knew him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto him.”   St. Theophan reflects thus:

What drew the people to the Lord? A feeling for the Divine. The Divinity of he Lord, hidden under the cover of human nature, revealed itself in word, deed, gaze, and in all that was visible in the Lord. The manifestations of the Godhead awakened a feeling for the Divine hidden in the heart of the people, and through it drew them to the Lord… A small sign of the Divine draws people to itself. What can one conclude from this universal experience of our spirit’s aspiration for the Divine, which takes place at all times? One can conclude that the source of this experience is the Divine, the supernatural, the Godhead. This aspiration lies at the foundation of our spirit, and constitutes its nature, as anyone can see from our intellectual, aesthetic, and practical concerns. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 192-193

This “feeling for the Divine” is a mark of the presence of spirit in man. The spirit is not a separate thing from the soul, but the highest faculty of the soul, by means of which the baptized soul has direct communion with the energies of the Godhead. Every human being is born with spirit, which is characterized by this “feeling for the Divine,” this thirst for God, and God’s grace uses this natural function of the spirit in order to draw man to Faith and Holy Baptism, which enable the spirit to house the indwelling grace of God.   Archbishop Averky, in an article quoted in The Law of God (English edition, pp. 100-103), notes three aspects of human psychology that point to the existence of spirit: Fear of God, Conscience, and the Thirst for God.   It is this Thirst for God that Bishop Theophan is referring to above.   Archbishop Averky writes:

It is inherent in the nature of our soul to seek God. Our spirit cannot be satisfied with anything created and earthly. No matter how many and how varied the earthly goods we might have, still we long for something more. This eternal human dissatisfaction, this constant insatiableness, this truly unquenchable thirst demonstrates that our spirit possesses a striving for something higher than all that surrounds it in earthly life, for something ideal, as it is often said. Since nothing earthly can quench this thirst in man, the spirit of man is restless, not finding any rest for itself until it finds complete satisfaction in God, with Whom the human spirit is always striving consciously or unconsciously, to have living communion.  

How, then, do we draw people to the Church? Only by manifesting the holiness of God, the divine beauty for which the human soul thirsts.   Preaching, teaching, articles, argumentation, etc. – all have their proper place, but the “clincher” is always that the spirit of the man thirsts for the actual divine grace present in the real Church, and he is not satisfied until he drinks from that fountain.   Our job is to do our little part in making this present to him.   We do this in several ways, including the following:

  1. We must all make sacrifices in order to make possible the regular celebration of the Orthodox Divine Services in fitting parish churches, monastic oratories, and mission chapels. This includes the building of the church, outfitting it, and supporting the clergy, so that they are free to serve frequently and not only on Sundays and a few feast days.
  1. We must so order and adorn our homes and our family life, so that the distinct fragrance, the “feel” of Orthodoxy permeates them.
  1. We must manifest in our speech and personal bearing that we are indeed different, citizens not of this world but of the heavenly kingdom. This comes about only when we are faithful to the life of prayer and to prayerful and moral attentiveness throughout the day.

When an honest, thirsting soul encounters these things – the Orthodox divine worship, Orthodox home life, and Orthodox personal behavior – it senses the presence of grace.   A person may be seeking the true Faith and discovering Orthodoxy through books (or, as is likely nowadays, the Internet), but he needs to encounter the reality in the flesh. This is where real conversion to the Faith begins.

Let us resolve today to take steps in doing our part to help these thirsting souls.   We need to pick one of the three activities above and make a short to-do list in order to pursue it. We should tell the Lord that we are weak and unable to do it, and that we beg Him to help us, for His glory and for the salvation of souls.  Since He desires our salvation and that of our neighbor infinitely more then we do ourselves, surely He shall speedily help us.

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True greatness

19 August OS 2018 – Saturday of the 14th week of Matthew; Afterfeast of the Dormition; S. Andrew the Commander, Martyr

In today’s Gospel, the Lord instructs his disciples concerning the humility and service that are the hallmarks of a true Christian:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. – Matthew 23: 1-12

St. Theophan the Recluse comments, “As the Lord tells us, greatness is measured not by birth, not by power, not by the measure of abilities and resources, but by the ability to provide good for others.” Paradoxically, when we forget about ourselves and are concerned only about pleasing God and about the welfare of others, we become our true selves. This is true greatness: to become that which God intends one to be.  Usually this occurs in obscurity:  very few men become great in the eyes of the world and yet save their souls.

All of the movies that I like are decades old, from the era in which sometimes the people in charge relented and allowed someone to produce something not designed to pervert Christian souls.  Such is Man for All Seasons, the last movie innocent of creating any immediate occasion of mental sin to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (1966).  At one point early in the story, Sir Thomas More, concerned that his young admirer Richard Rich is hungry for fame and power, tries to save him from the temptations of high office by offering him a position as a teacher at a new school More has helped to found.  Rich is disappointed, knowing that More, a high-ranking royal officer, could help him rather to find a place at court:

More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Rich: If I was, who would know it?

More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

“You; your pupils; your friends; God.”  In this age of instant pseudo-greatness via mass media, everyone wants to be a “star.”  Yet the reality is that most truly great people are known only to God and a few others.  The exception is the few better-known saints, a handful out of all the saints who have lived. And how many people today even know about them?

How do we attain to this kind of greatness: the greatness of authentic charity and self-forgetfulness?   Let us begin by admitting that we often are not seeking God’s will but our own corrupt will.   Let us begin each day by praying, “O Lord, today let me do Thy holy will.”   Then we must admit that we do not see ourselves as we truly are. Let us pray, “O Lord, reveal to me my sins and failings; show me how ego-centric I really am.”   Let us practice self-forgetfulness through two great activities: gratitude to God and service to others. Ingratitude, the mark of an immature and selfish soul, leads inevitably to despondency, depression, and even despair.   Let us force ourselves to thank God constantly for all that He is, for all that He has done for us, and for every single circumstance of our lives, especially the unpleasant ones.   Let us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to what service we must render to others and how we should render it, beginning with our obvious duties according to our state of life, and proceeding to service to the Church and to those around us, as God reveals to us in prayer and the circumstances of life, and as our father confessor blesses us.  Usually those we can serve with any integrity will be few, and we shall not have to search them out; they will find us.

The ultimate goal of every Christian is to dwell in the light of the Holy Trinity. Complete self-giving, self-emptying, is an essential characteristic of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in Their relations with each other; thus God is Charity.   If we desire to belong to God, we have to empty ourselves, too.  We have to forget ourselves.

What freedom:  to be forgotten by the world and even by one’s own self!   This is when real life begins.

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Freedom from vanity

18 August OS 2018 – Friday of the 14th week of Matthew;  Afterfeast of the Dormition;  Ss. Florus and Laurus, Martyrs; S. John of Rila, Monk

In today’s Gospel, the Lord commands the disciples to be silent about the most astounding miracle: the raising of the dead.

And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him, he fell at his feet, And besought him greatly, saying, My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed; and she shall live. And Jesus went with him; and much people followed him, and thronged him. While he yet spake, there came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house certain which said, Thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Master any further? As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, Be not afraid, only believe. And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James. And he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and seeth the tumult, and them that wept and wailed greatly.

And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying. And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment. And he charged them straitly that no man should know it; and commanded that something should be given her to eat. And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.Mark 5:22-24, 5:35 – 6:1

“And he charged them straitly that no man should know it; and commanded that something should be given her to eat.”   You can imagine the scene when that young woman stood up and walked out of the room.  Here is the crowded home of a great personage in a Middle Eastern village, packed with emotional relatives, friends, and dependents, many of them no doubt women. The formerly dead girl walks out the door of the death chamber into this crowd. In the middle of the indescribable hubbub that must have ensued, only the Lord Himself retains complete composure.   He thinks of the child’s simple needs: give her something to eat!   He commands it, just as He commanded her soul to return to her body.   For Him, both are equally easy.

Why did He tell the disciples to tell no one what had happened? Obviously the word would get out: First century Galilee must have been a very small world, indeed. No doubt even the bigwigs down in Jerusalem must have gotten word through the invisible telegraph of gossip within the week. Of course, the Lord had His reasons: He always did and always does. One of them was to give us an example of humility, that we should not seek the praise of men.

St. Theophan the Recluse comments as follows:

Having resurrected the daughter of Jairus, the Lord commanded her parents strictly, “…that no man should know it.”  Thus are we commanded: do not seek glory, and do not train your ear for human praise, even if your deeds are of such a nature that it is impossible to hide them. Do what the fear of God and your conscience urge you to do, and as to what people say, act as though it had never been said.Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 187

We may often ask ourselves why we do not feel more peaceful, why we feel agitated or anxious so much of the time.   One reason is that we are always unsure of the approval of other people: “What do they think about me? Do they really love me? Do they think well of me? Are they saying bad things about me?” and so forth.   Because of our vanity – our false image of ourselves based on our own delusions and the opinions of other people – we have a restless, ceaseless hunger for praise, for approval, for the pat on the back, for the assurance that “I’m OK, You’re OK.”   Life turns into the endless search for that perfect mutual admiration society of “friends” who approve of each other and look down on those outside the group.

Peace comes only when we put aside all such concerns and follow those two completely reliable guides to action mentioned by St. Theophan: the fear of God and conscience.   One of the Desert Fathers said that one will have no peace until one realizes that in all the universe there is only one’s soul standing before God.   If we walk always in His presence, what need have we of the praise of men?   If we were really conscious of His presence, and really understood Who He is, and who we are, we would flee praise like fire.

Let us then, daily and frequently, beg the Lord, “Deliver me from vanity! Let me seek Thine approval alone!”   The generous Lord, Who is waiting to give the truly good things to those who ask Him, will no doubt hear our prayer in good time, and He will deliver us from this passion of vanity.   The world will look much different then, and we will begin to understand things as they really are. Losing one’s illusions is like pulling out a rotten tooth: it hurts while it is going on, but there is great relief afterwards.

“O Lord, deliver us from vanity and all delusion! Grant us to know ourselves as we really are, to be grateful to Thee, and desire to please Thee alone! Give us the peace which Thou alone can give, and which the world cannot take away!” Amen.

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Renouncing Satan

17 August OS 2018 – Thursday of the 14th week of Matthew; Afterfeast of the Dormition; S. Myron, Martyr

 In today’s Gospel, the Lord casts a legion of demons out of the Gadarene demoniac.

And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes.  And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many. And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea. And they that fed the swine fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that was done. And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. And they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine. And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts. And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him. Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee. And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel. – Mark 5: 1-20

 A legion in the Roman army at full strength numbered 6,000 men.   This man’s being possessed by a “legion” of demons means, therefore, that there were thousands of demons inside of him.  How could this be?   St. Theophan the Recluse explains:

“My name is Legion: for we are many (Mark 5:9).”  Spirits are bodiless, and therefore they do not fill or take up space like bodies.  This explains why it is physically possible for many spirits to reside in one person.  That it is possible morally for spirits to do this is understandable from their amorality or their absence of all moral principles.  That it is possible for people is understandable from their many-sided contact with the dark realm of the unclean powers, due to the way people’s souls are ordered.  But this only explains what is possible; the reality of demonic possession is subject to conditions which we do not have the ability to determine.  We can only say that spirits do not always enter in a visible way, and possession is not always demonstrated through the possessed person’s actions.  There is an unseen, hidden demonic possession.  There is also a power of spirits over minds, apart from the body, when the demons lead them wherever they wish, through the passions working in them.  People think that they are acting themselves, but they are actually the laughingstocks of unclean powers.  What can we do?  Be a true Christian, and no enemy power shall overcome you.  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 186-187

Today acts of demonic evil invade our minds daily through mass media:  endless wars presented as entertainment, mass shootings, children murdering their parents, parents murdering their children, men who say they are women, women who say they are men, and so forth, not to mention the everyday legally sanctioned and publicly funded satanic rites of abortion and sodomy.  Of course,  apart from the power of true Faith and Baptism, man has always been prey to his passions and to demonic influence working through his passions and sometimes even possessing him bodily.    During the long period of the Church’s direct or indirect influence on society, however, she kept the demonic influence in check.   Now, after 200 years of open apostasy by the formerly Christian nations, a tide of demonism engulfs all the world, and, humanly speaking, there is no end in sight.   We need not fear it, for we belong to Christ.  But we need to be vigilant and to take action.   We do not throw ourselves off a cliff and ask angels to catch us.

It is critical, indeed a matter of spiritual (and perhaps physical) life and death, to cut out demonic influences in our lives and the lives of those for whom we are responsible, chiefly our children.   One does not exaggerate in saying that demonic mental programming, either overt or hidden, pervades contemporary movies, television, and video games in the form of hypnotic and addictive imagery, initiatory verbal formulas, occult symbols, and ritual actions.  That decent people still exist who produce benign “entertainment” is a possibility – I hope a probability – but sifting through a pile of toxic waste to find something that will not kill you is a time-wasting and risky process.   Are there not better things to do with our time? If something is not obviously helpful or at least harmless, then just cut it out.

And what about the Internet?  Here I am, using it, to get this message across.  The answer is simple – use it as a tool, for a limited time each day, but do not live in it as an alternate universe.  If it gives you access to good things – good books, good articles, good videos – great!   Thank God we now have such access to many good things that were previously unavailable, and, providentially, this technology has enabled ordinary people to break the occult elite’s monopoly on communications media.  But, as we all know, one has to practice enormous discipline and discernment.   Keep track of your time on the Internet for a few days:  How many hours did you spend on useless activity, when you could have been doing something else?   How many temptations arose?   If there were x number of obvious temptations, how many subliminal or unnoticed ones also entered your mind?   Who knows?  Be careful.  I suggest you keep an icon right there in front of you while you are on your  Internet device, and always say a prayer before you turn it on.   I have not yet seen an Euchologion prayer for blessing online devices, but we certainly should have one which includes an explicit exorcism.   I should ask the bishop about it.

As for children:  Children do not need and most often will be harmed by video games, television, the computer, and the “smart” phone.   Be strict.  You will save their minds.  They will probably have to use computers when they grow older, of course  (unless the catastrophe we deserve does strike, and those who are left will be forced to spend all their waking hours growing food and finding potable water.) But no one needs to learn how to use computers in childhood.  Young people can learn what they need to get started on computers in one semester very cheaply before they go to college or – preferably for most –  before they get married at a traditional age and start their own families debt-free, supporting themselves with skilled productive work.   If your children go to the “public” schools or “progressive” private schools that are replacing the book with the screen, take them out.   Why should you let strangers turn your child into an idiot?

As for walking around staring at one’s portable telephone all day long – this is psychic, not to mention spiritual, suicide. (It could actually be physical suicide, when, for example, you are run over by an overwrought Uber driver because while crossing the street you were tweeting, urbi et orbi, a photograph of the friends you met at lunch.)

The good news is that, apart from what our job forces us to, we simply do not need all this stuff.   There are precious and few hours in the day.   The time we do not have to spend at income-producing work should be spent in wholesome activity:  prayer with the family, reading good books both spiritual and secular, singing good songs both spiritual and secular, taking walks, growing vegetables and taking care of animals, working around the house, and on and on.   There is a long list of good things that our recent ancestors spent their time on that have nothing to do with television, radio, video games, the Internet, professional sports, or the popular music industry.  Nearly all of these “old” activities, in some form – which are not outdated but in fact perennial and alive – are still available to us.   As they say, “Just do it.”

The further and ultimate Good News is that we are not the hopeless, helpless slaves of this dystopian anti-Paradise, this prison of the mind, this mindless hive of contented monkey-descended sensualists that the rulers of the satanic world-state are this moment constructing in plain sight before us.   We are children of God, citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and members of the Body of Christ.   By Faith and Baptism, the Lord has freed us forever from service to Satan, whom we renounced at Holy Baptism, along with “…all his works, all his service, and all his pride.”

“Alright, I agree,” you might be thinking.  “But what can I do?  I am already enmeshed in x, y, or z you have just described.”

I shall respond with what St. Theophan says above: “What can we do?  Be a true Christian, and no enemy power can overcome you.”  As Orthodox Christians who are actually orthodox and not just “Orthodox,” we will spend our time in prayer, in good works for others, and useful occupations.    We will prefer to use our leisure time in wholesome reading and wholesome activities that are skilled and productive, or driving old ladies to the grocery store, or teaching a child to read, or visiting the sick, or helping a priest start a new mission, or teaching catechism at our parish, or starting a spiritual book discussion group for our friends…or…or – you know the list is endless.  If you do not have the strength to give up this or that in order to do better things, confess it with tears and do not justify it, keep praying for the strength to change,  get advice from others who have made the switch (or never had to), and talk about your concerns with Orthodox brethren or just other decent people who are also struggling to convert their priorities.

The Lord desires our conversion and salvation more than we do.   As they say, “Just do it.”  Let us make the Sign of the Cross and charge ahead.

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Thy face, O Lord, do I seek; hide not Thy face

16 August OS 2018 – Wednesday of the 14th Week of Matthew;  Afterfeast of the Dormition; Feast of the Icon of the Lord “Not Made by Hands”

Today, the sixteenth of August, we honor the Holy Mandylion, the icon “Not Made by Hands.” Here is the account of the icon’s origin taken from the Prologue from Ochrid:

     At the time when our Lord preached the Good News and healed every illness and infirmity of men, there lived in the city of Edessa on the shore of the Euphrates Prince Abgar who was completely infected with leprosy. He heard of Christ, the Healer of every pain and disease and sent an artist, Ananias, to Palestine with a letter to Christ in which he begged the Lord to come to Edessa and to cure him of leprosy. In the event that the Lord was unable to come, the prince ordered Ananias to portray His likeness and to bring it to him, believing that this likeness would be able to restore his health. The Lord answered that He was unable to come, for the time of His passion was approaching took a towel, wiped His face and, on the towel, His All-pure face was perfectly pictured. The Lord gave this towel to Ananias with the message that the prince will be healed by it, but not entirely, and later on, He would send him a messenger who would erase the remainder of his disease. Receiving the towel, Prince Abgar kissed it and the leprosy completely fell from his body but a little of it remained on his face. Later, the Apostle Thaddaeus, preaching the Gospel, came to Abgar and secretly healed and baptized him. The prince then destroyed the idols which stood before the gates of the city and above the gates he placed the towel with the likeness of Christ attached to wood, framed in a gold frame and adorned with pearls. Also, the prince wrote beneath the icon on the gates: “O Christ God, no one will be ashamed who hopes in You.” Later, one of Abgar’s great grandsons restored idolatry and the bishop of Edessa came by night and walled up that icon over the gates. Centuries then passed. During the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Persian King Chozroes attacked Edessa and the city was in great hardship. It happened that Eulabius, the Bishop of Edessa, had a vision of the All-Holy Theotokos who revealed to him the mystery of the sealed wall and the forgotten icon. The icon was discovered and, by its power, the Persian army was defeated.

Holy Mandilion

This miraculous image undoubtedly served as the model for all subsequent icons of the sacred face of the Lord. Thus our iconographic tradition is based on an accurate image that Christ Himself gave us: this is what Jesus Christ looks like. This is the face of the God-Man.

When Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai, he asked to see God’s glory. Here is God’s answer:

And [Moses] said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And [God] said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen. Exodus 33: 18-23

      “…for there shall no man see me, and live.” “…but my face shall not be seen.”   In the Old Testament, a chosen few, such as Moses and Elias, were graced with seeing God indistinctly, His “back parts.” If they had encountered God directly, they would have been struck dead.   In the Gospel, we see a multitude of sinful men not only enabled to see God’s face, but to touch Him, to hear Him, to eat with Him and speak with Him. According to His human nature, they were even allowed to murder Him. What more can God do to show that He loves us?

Whenever our faith is weak, whenever the circumstances of life press upon us and we feel alone and helpless, whenever our spiritual life has become something theoretical and abstract, without inner warmth, without life-giving power: Let us go before the Icon of the Face of the Lord and read the Akathist to Our Lord Jesus Christ with attention.   Let us ask God Who became Incarnate for us to renew in us holy zeal and the desire to do His will.   “If you love Me,” says the Lord, “keep my commandments.” And what is the first commandment? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.”

Christ gave us this most accurate image of His Holy Face as a lasting pledge of His love for us. May it be a means of our growing in love for Him.

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The good earth

11 August OS 2018 – Friday of the 13th week of Matthew; Dormition Fast; S. Euplus, Deacon and Martyr; S. Nephon of Constantinople, Patriarch

In the Gospel today, the Lord illustrates the several types of soul who fall away and the one type that endures, by means of the Parable of the Sower:

At that time, Jesus began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land. And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine, Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. – Mark 4:1-9 

St. Theophan the Recluse tells us very simply how to be the good ground that yields spiritual fruit:

…How do you make yourself into the good ground? With attention and study of the word of God, sympathy and love toward it, and readiness to immediately carry out what you learn. With such a mind-set, not a single word will lie on the surface of your soul, but all will enter within. Uniting with the elements of the spirit which are dear to it, it will take root and sprout. Then, being nourished – from above through spiritual inspirations, and from below through good desires and labors – it will grow into a tree and will flower and give fruit… – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 182.

Notice that St. Theophan says that the word of God will unite with the elements of the spirit which are dear to it. In other words, God made the soul for Himself, to hear Him, to delight in Him, to want to do what He wants.   And furthermore, souls enlightened by Holy Baptism have the power to overcome the fallenness of human nature and to do all this. This is not impossible, by any means, but rather quite natural. We simply do not take advantage of the gifts we already have.

So let us begin on the basis of the assumption that our souls are designed to be the good soil, not the other way around.   What steps do we take? St. Theophan says 1. Attention and study of the word of God, 2. Sympathy and love toward it, and 3. Doing what it says.   These three activities correspond to the three powers of the soul: The reasoning power (ὁ λόγος – logos, mind, understanding, reason), the desiring power (ἡ επιθυμία – epithymia, desire, attraction, love), and the incensive power (ὁ θυμός – thymos, drive, anger, ambition, will to action). We simply have to turn the soul in the right direction as it performs its natural functions – to understand, to love, and to act. The soul is going to do this with or without guidance: there is no question that it will understand, love, and act. The question is whether it will understand, love, and act based upon the true or the false, the beautiful or the ugly, the good or the bad.

Let us, then, resolve each day, with God helping us, to spend time in prayer and sacred study, with the struggle for attention. Our hearts will naturally be attracted to the beauties of holiness depicted therein, if only we give it enough time and attention. Then we must listen to the promptings of conscience and do what the mind and heart are inclining towards. Thus we become the good earth that yields spiritual fruit.

 

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