Attaining our purpose

The Forefeast of Theophany, 2019

On the Saturday before Theophany, and again at the Great (Royal) Hours on the eve of the Feast, we read these words from St. Matthew:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6

Repentance is at the heart of the Gospel. Everything begins with it, and ultimately, at the end of a man’s life in this world, everything here ends with it: our hope is precisely to die in repentance.   Our life, then, is, or should be, one of constant repentance. What then is it, and how can we attain it? How can we live a life of repentance?

The Greek word we translate by “repentance” is metanoia, which we need to translate as both “change of mind” and “change of heart” to capture the full meaning, since what the words means is “change of the nous,” the nous being the spiritual intellect, whose entire reality we cannot grasp unless we think of it as the mind joined to the heart. It is the center of one’s personality and existence, the “real me.” St. Macarius the Great says that when someone is truly living in grace, the soul becomes “all nous” – in other words, everything about the person becomes spiritual, even in this life.   This state is also what we call theosis.

Even – especially – the greatest saints never stop repenting, even when they are in theosis. How can this be? What do they have to repent of? They keep repenting because they keep on turning their minds to God, and they keep weeping over their sins and the sins of the whole world, right up to their last breath.

It is in the light of this reality, of what a saint is and how a saint lives, that we can understand what repentance is: the constant turning of the mind and heart back to God, away from the ego (the false self), away from love of this world, and away from demonic thoughts.    The mind, captivated by the divine beauty, desires to think of God always and His holy commandments, by which one lives, using one’s will and energy to inject one’s love of God into one’s daily activities. The heart, desiring God and longing to be united to Him, unites with the mind in prayer and in action, and puts warmth and life into the actions of the mind and will.

When we hear, “Say your prayers! Fast! Do spiritual reading! Go to Confession! Prepare for Holy Communion!” and the rest of the whole list of do’s (and don’ts) that the Church’s preachers and teachers are always “throwing at us,” it will help us to recall that these activities are not external badges of being “good little boys and girls,” so that others will approve us.   They are indispensable means to attaining the purpose of our entire existence. We have to decide between heaven and hell; we have to decide if we wish to attain our purpose and live forever with God in endless growth in love for Him and for all people and all creation, or if we wish for our minds and hearts to revolve now and for eternity around the idol of the ego, an existence which can be named best and simply by that old-fashioned word – hell.

So when we get up in the morning and say our prayers rather than indulging our fallen nature, we are not merely checking off an item on a list (though checklists are an excellent thing); we are taking a step towards a blessed eternity.   We have turned the mind to God. We have repented.

What then, is repentance? It is the constant turning of the mind and heart to God, and living our lives according to His commandments. How do we do it? Do what the Church says. As they say, “It’s not rocket science.”

May the prayers of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John be with us, as we prepare to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord! May this great Mystery renew in us the desire to live according to our baptism and be truly pleasing to God Who is Manifest for our sake.   May we live in repentance.

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Faithful witness

The noble Joseph, taking Thine immaculate Body down from the Tree, and having wrapped It in linen and pure spices, laid It for burial in a new tomb.

– The Dismissal Hymn of Great and Holy Saturday

St. Joseph of Arimathea and the Glastonbury Thorn

Amid the hills and marshes of southwest England lies the picturesque town of Glastonbury. Though today, sadly, Glastonbury is best known for rock festivals and attracting practitioners of the occult, its true significance is that here the Christian Faith was first planted in the British Isles. The Righteous Joseph of Arimathea came here to preach the Gospel, and one year, on the day of the Nativity of Christ, he planted his staff (which, according to some traditions, was that of the Lord Himself), which took root and budded into flower. St. Joseph pointed to this miracle as a sign that Christ was born as the flower of the fruit of Jesse, as the prophets had foretold. 

This tree, which came to be known as the Glastonbury Thorn, continued to grow and to flourish throughout the centuries, and it became a marvel to all by blossoming twice a year, both in the spring around the time of Pascha, and also, remarkably, in the dead of winter, around the time of Christ’s Nativity. In so doing it became a type not only of the Resurrection, of life overcoming death, symbolized by the blossoms of spring returning after winter, but also of the Birth into the world of Life Itself, the Birth of the God-Man in the midst of death, the spiritual winter of sinful man, symbolized by the winter of the physical world. Over the centuries, the tree’s fortunes – its flourishing and its periodic destruction – would symbolize the rise and fall of the Church in Britain.

With the tree, St. Joseph also planted the first church, which became a monastery. The holy tree attracted pilgrims throughout the centuries, and the monastery grew to be one of the greatest in Britain, second only to Winchester, which was the original episcopal seat of the British Church, prior to the founding of the English Church by St. Augustine, after which the primatial see moved to Canterbury. Glastonbury remained a key spiritual center during the period of the English Church, as it had in the British Church: We have historical evidence that the monastery was thriving in the seventh century.

Sadly, the 1066 invasion of William the Conqueror, with its imposition of papism by the Normans, ended the Orthodox period of the Old English Church, but nevertheless Glastonbury Abbey, with its precious treasure, the holy Thorn Tree, remained a place of pilgrimage and veneration. By the 14th century, it had grown to be one of the largest and most powerful monasteries in England, but its glorious history had by this time reached near its end: the despoliation and destruction of the monasteries by Thomas Cromwell’s henchmen in the 16th century, under the unhappy Henry VIII, reached to Glastonbury also. Her last abbot was hanged, drawn, and quartered, the brotherhood was disbanded, and all the abbey’s wealth was “Swept into the laps of parasites and whores,” i.e., the founders of the ruling class of modern England, as T.S. Eliot aptly describes it in Murder in the Cathedral. The lackeys of the apostate king destroyed the abbey, and without its spiritual center and higher purpose, Glastonbury became a backwater. The holy Thorn Tree, however, though orphaned of its monastic guardians, continued year after year to perform its sweet miracle of blossoming in “bleak mid-winter,” as though in reproach to the pride and rationalism of the dawning secular age.

A portion of the abbey ruins.

Though no more than a man-made sect cut out from an already-heretical church, yet Henry VIII’s church organization at least remained faithful to the patristic calendar long after the popes had changed it. When Gregory XIII imposed the unlawful alteration of the ancient calendar in 1582, it seems that the practical “Queen Bess,” Elizabeth I, was willing to go along, but her bishops, in a rare show of independent spirit, would not accept the change, resenting anything arbitrarily invented by the pope. At the same time, the instinctively old fashioned simple people, still clinging to Orthodox habits of mind inherited from their long-fathers, pointed to the miracle of the Thorn blossoming on “Old Calendar Christmas” as proof that this was the true day of Christ’s Birth, and that the Julian calendar was the legitimate calendar of the Church. From the reign of Elizabeth’s successor James I onward, a flower-laden branch of the blossoming Thorn was sent to the English king at Christmas every year. James’s son Charles I, made these telling remarks one year when the courier from Glastonbury brought the flowers:

“Well, this is a miracle, isn’t it?” said the king.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” someone replied, “a miracle peculiar to England and regarded with much veneration by the Roman Catholics.”

“How?” said the king, “when this miracle opposes itself to the Roman pope? You bring me this miraculous blossom on Christmas Day, Old Style. Does it always observe the Old Style, by which we English celebrate the Nativity, at the time of its flowering?”

“Always.”

“Then the pope and your miracle differ not a little, for he always celebrates Christmas Day ten days earlier by the calendar of the New Style…”

Tragically and significantly, King Charles I and the Glastonbury Thorn shared the same fate during the English Civil War (1642-1651), when a more sectarian, iconoclastic, and fanatic spirit possessed a large portion of the already Protestant nation. The Puritan rebel leadership staged a show trial and beheaded their king, and partisans of the possessed regicides cut down and burned the holy Thorn. The local faithful, however, preserved the roots of the Thorn, which they separated and planted in several different locations, where they grew into trees that continued to bloom on “Old Christmas.”

In 1752, the British government decided to accept the papist calendar in order to be in sync with Western Europe. The new regime that had engineered the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which destroyed the power of the monarchy and effectively made a greedy oligarchy of merchants and usurers the true rulers of the English nation and her global empire, had no use for pious customs, if they impeded lucrative trade and geopolitical ambition, and the calendar was one of these. The people did not easily accept the change, however, and there were riots in various places. Even in faraway British America, isolated communities such as the “hillbillies” of Appalachia continued to keep “Old Christmas” (see www.ludwell.org/old-christmas-virginia-2017).   And every year, on the true Christmas, crowds continued to gather around the Glastonbury Thorn to see what it would do, and the miraculous blooms continued to appear.

Time passed, the Thorn continued to be propagated in Glastonbury, and its descendants continued to bloom twice in the year, on or close to the days of Our Lord’s Birth and Resurrection. In 1951, townsmen planted one of these trees at the original site on Wearyall Hill. It made for a beautiful site seen from all over the town, and again became a center of pilgrimage. But this brief return of normality after World War II marked the last generation of a recognizably Christian England, and a new period, darker than any preceding, was about to begin.

The cultural revolution of the 1960’s with its concomitant final, utter apostasy of the Church of England into the madness of postmodern unbelief and immorality, set loose an aggressive anti-Christian spirit in the land, and demonized partisans of this anti-Christianity – public secularists and private, or not-so-private, occultists as well – began a career of destroying what was left of the old culture, in a campaign worthy of their Puritan antecedents. These were soon to be joined by fellow demoniacs, the Mohammedan invaders now welcomed and coddled by an apostate government in service of the Satanic global elite, which is using the possessed Saracens to destroy the native English people.

It is only natural that this evil spirit would reach even unto Glastonbury, for the holiest places always attract the worst demonic activity, and Glastonbury has become a favorite haunt of witch covens, neo-Druids, and all kinds of practitioners of the demonic arts. In 2010, someone viciously cut off the crown of the tree on Wearyall Hill, and he or his fellows later came back to destroy even the shoots that continued to appear. It was clear to one and all that this was a public attack on the Christian faith. Finally the town removed the tree entirely.

Another tree was planted on Wearyall Hill in 2012, but this one died also at the hands of evil vandals. There was a descendant tree of the Holy Thorn at the ruins of the abbey as well, but this was pronounced dead in 1991. To this day, however, at yet a third location, the Church of St. John, a few trees of the holy Thorn lineage can be found, and they still faithfully repeat their two annual acts of homage to the King of Life. The present Queen still receives a blossoming branch at “Old Christmas,” which is cut with special ceremony.

The present tree at St. John’s. 

Thus for two millennia, the Glastonbury Thorn, planted by the same hands that took the Lord from the Cross and laid Him in the Tomb, has witnessed the planting, blossoming, decline, and near-death of the Christian faith in Britain. Despite every attempt to destroy them, both this tree and this faith continue to live, albeit in quietness and obscurity. By the inscrutable wisdom of God, the true Faith, Orthodoxy itself, has returned to Britain, whose truth has been witnessed to silently, through all of these centuries, by the holy Tree that blossoms according to the true calendar. Though few in number, the True Orthodox on this isle, a blessed and beautiful land converted by St. Joseph and sanctified by innumerable saints, must continue to bear witness as well. Like the silent, hidden roots of the Holy Thorn, so too the silent, hidden relics of the saints, the blood of martyrs and tears of the ascetics that soak the soil of this blessed isle, the innumerable holy wells, the mossy wayside crosses – all of these too bear witness. Like the silent, hidden roots of the Holy Thorn, the True Orthodox remnant on this isle may one day bear beautiful fruit, if only they too will bear witness, if only they too will remain faithful, faithful as the merry little tree planted by St. Joseph on that Christmas Day long ago.

We thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption

by blood. For the blood of Thy martyrs and saints

Shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.

For wherever a saint has dwelt, wherever a martyr has given his

blood for the blood of Christ,

There is holy ground, and the sanctity shall not depart from it

Though armies trample over it, though sightseers come with

guide-books looking over it;

From where the western seas gnaw at the coast of Iona,

To the death in the desert, the prayer in forgotten places by

the broken imperial column,

From such ground springs that which forever renews the earth

Though it is forever denied.

T. S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, Act III

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A ten point program

21 December 2018 AD – Nativity Fast; Thursday of the 32nd Week after Pentecost; Holy Martyr Juliana of Nicomedia

In the reading from the Apostolos today, St. James the Just calls us to live a Gospel life, before it is too late:

Brethren: Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up. Speak not evil one of another, brethren. He that speaketh evil of his brother, and judgeth his brother, speaketh evil of the law, and judgeth the law: but if thou judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another? Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin. Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you. Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh. Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.  – James 4:7-5:9

Here is a comprehensive set of instructions for the evangelical life, the true Orthodox life. We can summarize it in a list of bullet points:

  1. Submit to God.   Tell Him every day that you want His will to be done, but that you know that you often do not see it, or, seeing it, resist it, and you need His grace to discern it and do it, and to accept whatever involuntary crosses come your way.
  2. Resist the devil. The only people who lose the invisible warfare are those who turn coward and quit.   Keep fighting. If you sin every hour, repent every hour, and you will be numbered among the martyrs and saints.
  3. Cleanse your hands and purify your hearts. Go to confession and cleanly confess all of your outward sins and inner sinful thoughts. Examine your conscience daily, hate your sins, and resolve to fight them.
  4. Mourn and weep. Ask for a real Orthodox heart, for real sorrow over the sins of the world and one’s own sins. Grieve for sinful mankind, who has rejected God.
  5. Speak not evil of one another. Cut out gossip.   Take the high road of peace of heart which comes from looking up, to God, to resolve your problems with others, and cut out all the analysis, which leads inevitably to condemnation, since everyone does indeed deserve condemnation, including you.
  6. Humble yourselves. Ask the Lord to make you see how helpless you are and cut out all of your self-satisfaction and arrogance.   Train yourself to say always, “If God wills…God willing…if I live until tomorrow…”
  7. Your gold and silver is cankered. Face it, you’ll never have enough money, but you will always have what you need.   Trust in God.
  8. Be just. You cannot be “spiritual” if you don’t even obey the Ten Commandments.
  9. Be patient, therefore, brethren until the coming of the Lord. The Lord is coming in your lifetime, no matter what, either in the Second Coming or the hour of your death.   Endure, keep the faith; it’s later than you think.
  10. “…the judge standeth at the door.” Why waste time pondering other people’s relative guilt or innocence? You are about to stand before the Judge. This should concentrate your mind.

What a joy and relief it would be to live like this!

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Thoughts on Spiritual Life, Class 7

You can now listen to a podcast of Class 7 of our “mini-course,” Thoughts on Spiritual Life, at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/thoughts-on-spiritual-life-class-7_1

Here are the notes from the website describing this class:

“As we continue our Thoughts on Spiritual Life, we begin Part II, Chapter 1 of *Unseen Warfare*, on the Holy Eucharist. Tonight we read only the very beginning of the chapter and then were sidetracked onto several topics concerning Holy Communion that were of concern to those attending the class. I made at least one factual mistake: the last elder of Optina was not Nazary but Nectary. Because tonight’s discussion was unplanned and completely spontaneous, it is rather disjointed and fragmentary, and, at times, emotional. There is some controversial matter and some opinions expressed by me – with serious misgivings – about the currently controverted question of frequency of and preparation for Holy Communion. . But there is probably something to be gained by listening to the talk – useful things here and there. For the specifics on preparing for Holy Communion, speak to your own spiritual father.”

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, receive me today as a communicant.
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A cloud of witnesses

17 December OS 2018 – Sunday of the Forefathers; Holy Prophet Daniel, Holy Three Youths Ananias, Azarias, and Misael, St. Dionysios of Zakynthos and Aegina, Holy New Martyr Deacon Avvakum of Serbia

The reading from the Apostolos for December 17th, the feast of the Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Youths, is the conclusion of the great paean to the saints of the Old Testament from Hebrews 11. Because the feast of St. Daniel falls this year on the Sunday of the Forefathers, its readings are replaced by those of the Sunday, but the Apostolos reading of the Menaion is also most appropriate to this day on which we recall all the saints of the Old Testament:

Brethren: All the saints through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. –Hebrews 11: 33-40

During this period of the holy Nativity Fast, the Holy Church holds up to us the example of the Old Testament saints on the two Sundays preceding the Nativity as well as on the Menaion feasts of several Old Testament prophets, most notably today’s saints: Prophet Daniel and the Three Youths.   As we await the feast of the birth of the Christ, it is well to remember those who awaited His birth in history, and their great faith and hope.

When we feel alone in our Faith, we should recall that the Old Testament saints kept their Faith despite being always a tiny remnant of perpetually apostate Israel. When we are tempted to give up our Hope in eternal life, we should recall that the Old Testament saints kept their Hope while knowing that at death, no matter how righteous and faithful they had been in life, they would go down into Hades.   When we feel powerless, we should recall that within us lies the infinite power of baptismal grace, while the Old Testament saints had no such help.   When we lose historical perspective and feel trapped in our present circumstances, we should recall century by century, event by event, and saint by saint, all the glorious history of the New Testament Church of the past 2,000 years – and then remember that the Old Testament righteous had far less in their past to encourage them. Yet they persevered, strong in their hope, for they believed that God was faithful to His promise.

God has indeed “…provided some better thing for us…”: salvation by Jesus Christ our Lord, Who raised the souls of the righteous of the Old Testament from Hades on that first Great Saturday and perfected them with us by the grace for which they had longed and in which they had hoped.

A good exercise for today would be to re-read (or read!) the Book of Daniel.   Make sure to read the Septuagint version, which contains important sections left out by the rabbinical-minded Protestant editions. If you do not own a translation of the Septuagint (or a King James with “Apocrypha” or a Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate), you can read a translation of the Septuagint version of Daniel online at http://ecmarsh.com/lxx/Daniel/index.htm

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.Hebrews 12:1-2

Amen! Holy Prophet Daniel, Holy Three Youths, and all ye righteous of the Old Testament, pray to God for us!

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Hide thyself for a little season

15 December OS 2018 – Nativity Fast; Friday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Luke; S. Eleutherios, Hieromartyr

Today’s Gospel reading for the daily cycle is Mark 9:33-41 –

At that time, Jesus came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way? But they held their peace: for by the way they had disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest. And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all. And he took a child, and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me. And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.

The commentary of St. Theophan the Recluse on this teaching of the Lord, that we should be humble and childlike, provides such good advice for our current situation, that I thought I would reproduce it in full:

The Savior sets forth a child as a model of faith and life. Simplicity of faith gives birth to simplicity of life. From both of these comes an exemplary moral system. If you let philosophizing in, it will produce disorder within, and under the appearance of a better arrangement of things, it will throw one’s entire life into disorder. Philosophizing alway cries, ‘This is not right; that’s not right. Let me arrange everything in a new way; the old is worthless, boring.’ But it has never yet, in any place, arranged anything good; it only throws things into confusion. The mind should obey what is commanded by the Lord. True, the mind is called ‘the king in the head’; however, this king is not given legislative power, only executive power. As soon as it starts making laws, it piles up who-knows-what. Moral, religious, worldly, and political orders are thrown into confusion, and everything turns upside down. It is a great misfortune for society when its mind is given freedom to soar, with no restraint by divine Truth! This is God’s wrath [i.e., it brings upon us God’s wrath]. About this it is said, ‘Hide thyself for a little season, until the anger of the Lord hath passed away (Esaias 26:20).’ During this apex of intellectual willfulness it is best to seek shelter in simplicity of faith. Just as during a storm it is better to sit at home and not step out in arrogance to fight with it, so during a time of stormy trust in one’s own thoughts it is better not to enter into battle with it, or to seize the weapons of philosophizing in order to resist it. Simplicity of faith is stronger than philosophizing; clothe yourself in it, as in armor, and you will keep your balance. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 281-282

Here the saint addresses two arenas of conflict, society and the believer’s inner life. They mirror each other. Just as, when society leaves off trusting in God’s Law and makes new theories, it throws itself into chaos, so also, when the Orthodox believer leaves the narrow path of the Scriptures and the Fathers, and tries to “figure everything out” with his “brain,” he becomes confused and throws his mind, and therefore his life, into chaos. Most of us learned a long time ago that Holy Tradition does not violate our reason, that Orthodoxy provides the most satisfying answers to the questions about the things we really need to know, and that there are things we simply do not need to know. That should be enough to satisfy us, and the temptation to keep analyzing the Faith is just that, a temptation. Nowadays we just need to live and not keep re-inventing the wheel.

“Mainstream life” is an insane asylum, and today most Orthodox people mostly act like most everyone else, and because this entails bad habits of mind, will, and desires, they are exhausted like everyone else, leading fragmented and distracted lives that do not make sense. It is no wonder that a brutal, crude, and irrational ideology like Islam, along with myriad strange cults – belief in “aliens,” Scientology, Wicca, “enlightenment” through drugs, whatever – now spread like cancer in formerly Christian societies, for, having rejected the Truth, people are desperate for someone to tell them what to do, desperate for answers – no matter how erroneous – to hold onto. In the name of “freedom,” they have renounced obedience to the lovely simplicity of the Gospel that elevates the mind and frees the will for the good, that governs everything in our inner and outer lives with harmonious order and happiness. So now, terrified by the chaos they have created, they run to enslave themselves to disgusting and demonic revelations that crush the mind and paralyze the will. Orthodox young people are not immune.

The simple answer that St. Theophan offers is to “hide a little while,” as the Prophet Esaias cries to us daily in the Fifth Ode of Matins. Let us enclose our minds, with a firm act of will, in the words of Holy Scripture, daily prayer, and the Offices of the Church. First, the emotions are calmed. Then the mind becomes clear. Finally, the mind and heart unite in a whole vision of reality that makes complete sense, though during this temporal life there are some things we simply cannot know, and with this we are content. This forms a firm basis for daily life.

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Let us live in hope

14 December OS 2018 – Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Luke; Ss. Thyrsos, Levkios, and Kallinikos, Martyrs; Ss. Philemon, Apollonios, and Arrianos, Martyrs

As the New Year approaches, naturally everyone is thinking about 2019 and what it will bring. Today we read the Gospel passage assigned to the Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Luke in the daily cycle, and providentially St. Theophan the Recluse, while commenting on today’s reading, offers an insight into our situation as we face a new year.

The Gospel reading is Mark 9: 10-15

At that time, the disciples kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean. And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed [wanted], as it is written of him. And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them. And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him.

When the Lord says that Elias has already come, and “…they have done to him whatsoever they listed…” He is referring to St. John the Baptist. The Baptist came, and the evildoers – Herod and his crowd – did whatever they wanted to him: they imprisoned and murdered him. St. Theophan the Recluse takes this event, along with the sufferings of Christ Himself, as a starting point for a meditation on the place of man’s choices in the flow of history:

History flows on and, it seems, inexorably determines individual events. How many preparations there were to receive the Savior! At last, His closest witness, John, came – but what came of it? “They have done…whatsoever they listed” to John, and the Son of man suffered and was humiliated. The flow of events could not be broken; it took its own course. So the flow of history always draws everything after it. People now ask, “Where is freedom? What would it be, given such an order of events? Nothing but a phantom?” Thus do fatalists usually reason. But this all-determining necessity of the flow of events is only an appearance. In reality all human events, both common and individual, are the fruit of man’s free undertakings. The common [history] flows exactly the way it does because everyone, or a majority, want this. And individual events enter into agreement with common events because someone or other in particular wants this. The proof of this is obvious: in the midst of general good there occur bad elements, and in the midst of general bad there occur good elements. Also, in the midst of a firmly established commonality are born elements which, spreading and becoming stronger and stronger, overpower the former commonality and take its place. But these elements are always a matter of freedom. What did Christianity have in common with the character of the time in which it was conceived? It was sown by several individuals who were not a result of the necessary flow of history; it attracted those who desired it, spread vigorously, and became the common cause of the humanity of the time, yet all the same it was a matter of freedom. The same is true in a bad direction: how did the West become corrupted? It corrupted itself. Instead of learning from the Gospel, they began to learn from pagans and adopt their customs – and they became corrupted. The same will happen with us: we have begun to learn from the West which has fallen from Christ the Lord, and have transferred its spirit to ourselves. It will end with us, like the West forsaking true Christianity. But in all of this there is nothing that necessarily determines the matter of freedom. If we want to, we will drive away the Western darkness. If we do not want to, of course, we will immerse ourselves in it. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 280-281

The author was writing in the 1880’s, a time when the intelligentsia in Russia were running after the latest false teachers from Western Europe, including Darwin and Marx, who taught that history is an impersonal and unstoppable process of evolution, a juggernaut that will crush you if you do not jump on the bandwagon and go along for the ride. Of course, this error was really nothing new, for man without Christ, without the revelation found in Holy Scripture, had always believed in Fate.   But in St. Theophan’s time, because Christian Europe had been falling away from the Gospel for several centuries, this old delusion took on a new form as a powerful idea gripping everyone’s mind.   It certainly grips everyone’s mind today: How often do we hear that we must go along with the times and there is nothing we can do about it? We all know Christians – sadly, including nominally Orthodox Christians – who neither combat the spirit of the age nor even admit that it viciously opposes the Faith.

As we face the new year of 2019, we must decide if we shall exercise our freedom to make spiritual and moral choices opposed to the spirit of this age…or not. The good news is that this freedom still exists and that the Lord will give us the grace we need to exercise it. But we have to make the choice to exercise it: He does not force us. We are not fated to go one way or the other. What steps should we take? How shall we avoid getting crushed by that juggernaut of the times we live in?

The first step is to tear our minds away from the things that the world tells us are the real things.   Perhaps we are content to be mesmerized by the so-called news from the mainstream media, as if it represented reality and were not what it really is, a gigantic mechanism of mass hypnosis. Or perhaps, being more discerning, we busy ourselves daily hunting through myriad Internet sites in the alternative media to find out the “secrets” behind what is “really going on out there.” Though here we may find more accurate knowledge (along with plenty of false leads), we easily become deer in the headlights, paralyzed by the specter of an omnipotent, unstoppable, and incomprehensible evil which demands that we surrender or be destroyed.   We have to tear ourselves away from this suicidal fascination and feed our minds on God’s Truth.

For there really is no secret to what is going on out there. God is working out His plan in history, and we can freely choose to cooperate with Him or not. Yes, there are extremely evil people who have gotten the levers of worldly power into their hands, and they are freely choosing to cooperate with their god, Satan. Their time is short, and they are in a frenzy to accomplish their master’s will before he and they are cast into the lake of fire where they will burn for all eternity.   It will certainly be rough for us while this short-lived frenzy endures, but we look forward to a better time, to eternity, where we hope to live with God forever.

This word – hope – is the key. We often hear sermons about Faith and Love, but rarely about Hope. Yet in our time how essential it is to practice Hope!   Along with Faith and Love, it is one of the three supernatural virtues, and we must pray for it. But what is it? The supernatural virtue of Hope is linked intimately with the cardinal virtue of Courage (also called Fortitude). It is the grace-filled habit of believing courageously that God will in fact take care of us, that God’s promises are true, that God is to be trusted, that everything will turn out all right, just as He said. Faith is the virtue of believing in God. Hope is the virtue of believing God, trusting in His promises.

Let us choose to be the Church of Philadelphia from the Apocalypse. We are little people after all; we are not even remotely serious players in the great game of worldly power. Let us rejoice in living as the little ones who in humility, despite our obvious human weakness, choose the path of faithfulness, of loyalty to God and love for the brethren (philadelphia). Let us live in Hope.

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. Revelation 3: 7 -13  

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The narrow gate

9 December OS 2018– Saturday of the Twelfth Week of St. Luke; the Conception of the Theotokos by St. Anna

Today’s Gospel reading in the daily cycle is Luke 13: 18-29. 

The Lord said this parable: Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. And he went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the narrow gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.

Our Lord’s hearers wanted to know, “…are there few that be saved?” He refused to answer Yes or No, as if to say, “Numbers and percentages of other people being saved are not the point.” Instead He told them to pay attention to their own salvation: “…Strive to enter in at the narrow gate.” What is the narrow gate? Since we desire to be saved, obviously this is an all-important question.

We may think of the narrow gate in terms of our outer and inner life. In our outer life, the narrow gate is the way of life created by unwavering adherence to the True Faith and by unceasing attempts to live the Way demanded by the Truth, characterized by constant struggles that sometimes bring victories and sometimes bring defeats followed by repentance and renewed struggle. This unremitting warfare must last until death. By the grace of God and His mercy, if we remain on this path we will have a firm hope of our salvation.

Our present circumstances favor this narrow gate approach to life, because, given what is going on around us, we will find that simply by not giving up our Faith and not giving up the struggle to live according to the Faith, we will find ourselves among “the few,” whether we like it or not. We have to remember that fewer and fewer people – both Orthodox and non-Orthodox – are likely to understand us, and that this does not mean that we are on the wrong path, but rather the opposite. They will go their way, and we must go ours.   We must ask the Lord constantly for the humility to accept this, and in simplicity of faith we must persevere on this path laid out before us without condemning anyone else or being curious about their ultimate fate compared to ours. This quiet life of faithfulness in the midst of spiritual loneliness is our narrow gate.

This brings us to the subject of our inner life. St. Theophylact of Ochrid, in his commentary on this passage, responds to the protest of the damned, “…and Thou hast taught in our streets,” as follows: “Observe that it is those whom the Lord taught in the streets, that is, who only received the Lord’s teaching in public, who are rejected. But if we receive His teaching, not just in public, but also within the closeness of our contrite and compunctionate heart, then we will not be rejected” (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke, c. 13, vss. 23-30).” Here St. Theophylact is not addressing those formally outside the Church but rather those on the inside, whether, as in Our Lord’s time, inside the Old Testament Church or, as in St. Theophylact’s and our time, inside the New Testament Church. In other words, being a nominal Christian of the Christmas-and-Easter-only variety, or even being a regular churchgoer who is outwardly decent but does not have an inner life of prayer, does not save.  We must cherish the Lord’s teaching “within the closeness of our contrite and compunctionate heart,” and if we do, then – rejoice! – “…we will not be rejected.”

These two aspects of the Life in Christ – the outer and inner – are intimately joined.   By striving to remain outwardly faithful, we will invite rejection from the world. The ensuing loneliness will drive us either into apostasy (whether formal apostasy or – what is more common nowadays – lifestyle apostasy, just giving up and living like everyone else) or in the opposite direction – to a more intense inner life of prayer. Which way we go is up to us, but that we must go one way or the other is not in doubt.

One piece of good news is that there is more Orthodox literature about the inner life available to us than ever before. In the midst of the cataclysmic destruction of Christian civilization over the past 100 years, there has yet, by God’s loving Providence, been a rebirth of interest precisely in the spiritual life, manifested by an explosion of new editions and translations of the Church services and of spiritual books, as well as the movement to return to traditional iconography and chant.  It is as if the Lord is saying, “I have given you a tough job, living in these times, but I am also giving you tools you to deal with it.”   There are in fact so many of these tools that the difficulty lies in choosing which ones to use. One simple tool that we can all use is to carry a prayer rope around with us constantly and force ourselves to say the Jesus Prayer every spare mental moment.  (More advice on learning to say the Jesus Prayer is available at our podcasts at https://www.spreaker.com/show/thoughts-on-spiritual-life).   

Let us then take heart. The Lord desires our salvation, far more than we do ourselves.   He does not require from us miracles but rather “…to receive His teaching, not just in public but also within the closeness of our contrite and compunctionate heart.”   This each of us can do and by so doing acquire a firm hope of our salvation.

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My words will not pass away

7 December OS 2018 – Thursday of the Twelfth Week of St. Luke; St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

Today’s Gospel reading for the daily cycle is Luke 21: 28-33.

The Lord said to his disciples, Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

As 2019 approaches, it would be fair to say that great numbers of people – at least those not completely oblivious through substance abuse or other forms of manufactured delusion provided so generously today by those who wish to delude us – face the future with dread.The familiar world of ten years ago, much less 25 or 50 or 100 years ago, has disappeared through an engineered cataclysm, an Antichrist revolution in morals, family life, and social structure so systemic and ubiquitous as to make even comprehending it, much less fighting it, seem impossible. Surely, one thinks, the chastisement of God must be around the corner: He has already passed sentence on man, and we are just waiting to learn what form the punishment will take.World War III? Famine? Plague? Anarchy and chaos followed by the police state with its concentration camps, torture, and genocide?  Who knows?

In the midst of these justifiable apocalyptic fears, the Lord tells us today not to fear but to have hope: “Look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.”   He has just completed His great discourse about the end of the world,relating the terrors that will precede His Second Coming, but at the end He assures the disciples that all of these things, no matter how terrible, will, like everything in this life, pass away. Indeed, heaven and earth – the entire visible cosmos – will pass away. His words, however, will never pass away. Those who cling to His words,who make Him the foundation of their life and do not leave the house built on this foundation – the Life in Christ – will not perish: “In your patience possess ye your souls (Luke 21:19).”

In the passage immediately following today’s reading, the Lord instructs the disciples how to keep their faith and hope alive in the midst of apocalyptic trials:

And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life,and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. Luke 21: 34-36

Therefore, to survive spiritually, to be still on Christ’s side when He returns and not on the other side, we must take heed to ourselves, which consists of a temperate and moral life characterized by watching and praying always.   Without a continual,conscious spiritual life according to the Church’s teaching, we will not survive spiritually: we will fall.

We see people falling all around us, including “practicing Christians” of various kinds – sadly, not excluding Orthodox people: they throw in the towel and adopt the latest delusion, the latest false teaching, the latest moral “Get Out of Jail Free card” from the teachers of the demonic New Order, some moral or intellectual or religious poison they would not have dreamed of swallowing even a year ago. All is well: there is a big party going on out there and they do not want to be left out. But they are sheep being fattened for the slaughter. And any day, any time, something inside us too could snap, and we could become one of them. Our vigilance must be ceaseless, while our reliance on God must be total.

The means to this ceaseless vigilance are well within our grasp,and they are so well known to us that we take them for granted and fail to use them: daily prayer at set times, the constant struggle for the Jesus Prayer, frequent confession, frequent Holy Communion, spiritual reading, constant examination of conscience and daily inner repentance, and all of the instruments of the spiritual life according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church. This “normal life” of Orthodoxy that has been going on all along has actually always been an apocalyptic life, an eschatological life, a life oriented to the End of the World; we just did not notice.  The times we are living through now and will be living through in the near future are what we have been chanting about and praying about and preparing for all along, if only we had known it.   The rehearsal is over: it is Show Time.  The curtain has risen, and we stand in the full glare of the lights. How will we play our part?

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.Matthew 7: 22-27  

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The Son of Man cometh at an hour when ye think not

2 December OS 2018 -Nativity Fast; Saturday of the 11th Week of St. Luke; Holy Prophet Avvakum (Habbakuk)

In the daily Gospel reading, our Lord commands us to be vigilant, preparing for Judgment:

The Lord said to His disciples: Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth,neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord,when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so,blessed are those servants. And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not. – St. Luke 12:32-40

These words ring clear in this present season of Advent, the Nativity Fast, for as we prepare to celebrate the First Advent (=Coming, Arrival, Presence) of God in the Flesh, we recall his great and terrible Second Advent as well, when He shall come to judge the living and the dead. To help us in our practical spiritual efforts,St. Theophan the Recluse relates these words of Christ also to the Advent of the Lord each of us will encounter at the hour of death:

We must be ready at every hour – one does not know when the Lord will come, either for the Last Judgment or to take you from here; for you they are the same. Death decides everything. After death comes the results of your life; whatever you’ve acquired,you’ll have to be satisfied with for all eternity. If you have acquired what is good, your lot will be good; if you have acquired what is evil, then your lot will be evil. This is as true as the fact that you exist. All of this could be decided this moment – here at this very moment, as you read these lines – and then, the end of everything; a seal will be set to your existence, which no one can remove. This is something to think about! But one cannot be sufficiently amazed at how little people think about it. What is this mystery which is wrought upon us? We all know that death will come at any moment, that it is impossible to escape it, but meanwhile almost no one at all thinks about it – and it will come suddenly and seize us. Even then – even when a fatal disease seizes a person, he still does not think that the end has come. Let psychologists resolve this from a scientific aspect; from the moral aspect it is impossible not to see here an incomprehensible self-delusion, alien only to one whois heedful of himself.   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp . 270-271

Incomprehensible self-delusion – that’s it!   Where does it come from, and what can we do about it?

Our blindness to death comes from two places – the inside and the outside of us.   On the inside, despite the grace of baptism, the power of whose grace we do not activate enough by struggling against sin, our fallen nature denies the reality of death. This blindness is instinctive, unconscious, and we are all born with it. It comes from two sources, one natural and one unnatural.   The natural source is the memory of immortality that resides in the human heart since Paradise. We have inherited this psychosomatically from our First Parents, and there is nothing we can do about it. Actually, in itself it is a good thing:It gives empirical proof that man was created for eternal life.  Then there is the unnatural and sinful source of the blindness to death: the inherited Ancestral Sin that we are all born with, which carries the damage to the heart caused by our First Parents’ accepting the lie, “You shall be as gods.” I do not think I am going to die, because I think that I am God, that I am the source of my own life. All of my problems come from this.

The external causes of our blindness to death are illusion and distraction.   Because of modern medical science, we have the illusion that there is a cure for everything. Living in the”First World,” we are not confronted daily with infant and child mortality, and we do not see adults dying young on a regular basis in the homes around us and in our own homes, dying from infections or getting kicked by mules or bitten by snakes, or just malnutrition. We live in an insulated, cosseted environment in which daily physical problems usually do not rise above the level of discomfort and inconvenience. Even when we do become dangerously ill,we are prone to think not about death and God’s judgment, about the shortness of this life and the vanity of all things here below, but about hoping for a cure, so that we can eke out a few more years of biological existence.

Because of the frenzied environment created by the demands of work or school, interrupted only by frenzied “input” from the”news” and entertainment media, we are constantly distracted and agitated.   This world seems to be all there is, because it demands our attention at every waking hour. It won’t go away. We are little rats running on a wheel, and we are not allowed to get off, or so it seems.

How do we get off the wheel, calm down, face reality, and prepare for death?   The key moment comes when we have a break from our duties, and we make the choice either to be distracted by the news and entertainment media or to do spiritual works: spiritual reading, prayer, preparation for confession, and the various activities of spiritual life.   Every one of these moments is a moment of crisis, in the original meaning of the word: not simply an emergency, but an emergency characterized by judgment.It is a moment of judgment – we are being judged at that very moment by the choice that we make.   Life consists of thousands of such moments that interrupt the duties of our work, and the final result of the choices we make at these moments is what St. Theophan refers to above: “After death comes the results of your life; whatever you’ve acquired, you’ll have to be satisfied with for all eternity.” Now we know that we can take nothing from this world with us, except our soul. “What we have acquired” is virtue or vice, grace or separation from God, holiness or sinfulness. It is up to us.

Life is short, death is certain, judgment is eternal. Let us wisely use the free moments given us by the All-Merciful God, Who desires our salvation infinitely more than we do, and Who is waiting with invincible love to give us spiritual gifts, so that He may find us watching when He comes.

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