The things which be God’s

2 December OS 2017 – Friday of the 11th Week of St. Luke;  St. Avvakum (Habbakuk), Prophet 

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 20: 19-26.

And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them. And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor. And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly: Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no? But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me? Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar’s. And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s. And they could not take hold of his words before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace.

Most commentary relates this teaching of the Lord to the relationship that a Christian or the Church as a whole should have to the civil government. St. Theophan the Recluse extends this to examining the relationship we should have to secular society in general:

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” This means that each gets what is his own. In our times, instead of “the things which be Caesar’s,” we should substitute “the things which are worldly,” and say that worldly things have their turn, while the things of God have theirs. But everyone has rushed toward earthly things alone, and they leave the godly things behind. That is why godly things not only are left out of their proper place – that is, in the first place, as they ought to be – but are completely forgotten. A consequence of this supposedly unintentional forgetfulness is that the godly is darkened in one’s consciousness, and then both its content and foundation become unclear. From this come weakness of conviction and vacillation of faith. Then there is alienation from the Faith and the influence of the winds of various teachings. Everyone goes down this path when be begins to be careless about godly things; society takes this path when in its customs it begins to ignore what God requires of it. When godly things are left in the background, then emancipation from godly requirements begins to be established in society, in the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic sense. There occurs secularization (serving the spirit of the time) of politics, customs, entertainment, and then of education and all institutions. At the current time, people do not think, speak, or write about what is God’s, nor do they even keep them in mind – not in any of their undertakings. Is it surprising, given such a state of mind, that teachings contrary to the Faith find access to society and that society is inclined toward mass unbelief? Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 270-271

The author wrote these words in the late 19th century, a time when the nations that dominated the earth were all officially Christian, including Russia, which was not simply any kind of “Christian,” but was in fact Orthodox. He could see that the spirit of worldliness was already so great among a critical mass of the Orthodox people – and especially among the leading classes – that the fall of the old outward Christian structures and their replacement by the rule of some kind of anti-Christian elite was a matter of time, unless there would be profound, nation-wide repentance in Russia and throughout the Orthodox nations – which did not occur. Despite the witness of many holy people, prophets whom God raised up at the eleventh hour, the Orthodox nations as a whole rushed to worship the Golden Calf offered by the apostate West, and they fell into the abyss.

The society we live in today has “progressed” far beyond mere worldliness into purposely engineered demonic insanity – legally sanctioned, inexhaustibly funded, and violently imposed by the single, two-headed monster of big government/big business through its mind-control system, that malevolent thing which has murdered and inhabited the corpses of the mainstream churches, education, the arts, politics, and journalism. We are living with the logical outcome of the systemic fall into worldliness that St. Theophan was writing about in 1881.

All of this, however, should not surprise us or cause us to give up. It should certainly make us sober, but it need not steal our hope. This world has been perishing since our First Parents were expelled from Paradise. Truly Christian societies, in which the influence of the Church was paramount and a critical mass of the people lived by Her standards, are the exception, not the rule, in history.   God’s will to save us is still as great as ever, and His will to save us is far greater – infinitely greater – than our own desire to be saved. He loves us, and He will never abandon us. Lot was saved when he was the only righteous man left in Sodom. Though the world in which we live has turned into Sodom, unlike Lot we are not alone. As at the time of the Prophet Elias, there survive even now the hidden seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal. The Lord, from all eternity, has purposed to put us exactly in this situation, precisely for our salvation, and He is both invincible and all wise. We have only to cooperate.

What, then, must we do?   The answers are, as usual, obvious, and they involve doing what St. Theophan is talking about in the passage above: putting the things of God first. Let us take the energy we spend obsessing over everything that is wrong – like deer staring at the headlights of the oncoming car – and put it into prayer, spiritual reading, going to Church, and giving support to our brethren, who are hurting as we are, through acts of love like spending time with them and listening to them. We have to be proactive about cutting off destructive influences and replacing them with the good things God wants to give us and is waiting to give us, things we still have access to, if only we will choose them over worldly things. It is a matter of setting our priorities and sticking to them.

Let us pray with heartfelt fervor – today, now, the minute we are finished reading this post – for a permanent and insatiable desire for the things of God, and the wisdom and courage to put them first in our lives.

XPrescuesstpeter 

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Serene faith

30 November OS 2017 – Wednesday of the 11th Week of St. Luke, Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 20: 1-8

At that time, as Jesus taught the people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders, And spake unto him, saying, Tell us, by what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority? And he answered and said unto them, I will also ask you one thing; and answer me: The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then believed ye him not? But and if we say, Of men; all the people will stone us: for they be persuaded that John was a prophet. And they answered, that they could not tell whence it was. And Jesus said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.

Of course, these questioners – the chief priests, scribes, and elders – were not asking Our Lord this question because they sincerely sought the truth. Their minds were made up, and they were simply trying to trick Him.   Their minds were poniro, as we say in Greek – sneaky, twisted, and evil-intended – and they could not think straight or see straight or talk straight. For them, language was a tool to get power over others, not a holy medium of heart to heart communication.   St. Theophan the Recluse comments on this encounter to illustrate the difference between the mind of Faith, which is also the deep and reasonable mind, and the mind of hardened unbelief, which is superficial and unreasoning:

The priests, scribes, and elders did not believe in the Lord. In order to raise them up to faith, He offered them a question: “The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?” Consider this without bias, and your reasoning will bring you to faith. What is said about John’s appearing can be said about every event accompanying the Lord’s advent in the flesh, and about His very advent, and all that comes into contact with it. Let each person consider all of this, and the conclusion will be the same: “Truly this was the Son of God (Matt. 27:54).” Various thoughts can come, confusion can arise, what seem like incongruities can be encountered; but at the end of all investigations one universal conviction will result: that it is impossible to think any other way than as is shown in the Gospels and apostolic writings. “Great is the mystery of godliness: God is manifest in the flesh (I Timothy 3:16).” This remains a mystery, but if the mind compels itself by a spiritual need to investigate it, then this mystery will become clear to the mind – and it will confess this way, and in no other way. Unbelievers either do not investigate it at all as they ought to, or they investigate it superficially, with a mind alien to it, or they take on a miserable state of mind that is opposed to what is required by the Faith. To justify their unbelief, they are satisfied with the most insignificant trifle to refute the Faith. The words of unbelievers shake believers, who, being satisfied with simple faith, do not seek clarification of the foundations of the Faith. Those words take them unawares, and hence they are shaken. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 268

Why are we sometimes shaken by the specious (i.e., seemingly valid but actually worthless) arguments of the faithless? It may be that we have not studied our Faith enough, but that by itself is easily remedied – the books are all out there, and we have only to immerse ourselves in the tremendous wisdom and insight of the Church expressed by Her various exponents, in order to see how the Orthodox Faith is far and away the most satisfying explanation to life’s puzzle.   The underlying problem is not lack of knowledge but the lack of godly confidence caused by a passion we all suffer from, which is vanity.

This may be surprising to some people, for they often mistake timidity for humility, and imagine that if they are mealy-mouthed this shows that they are not vain. But what is humility? It is not groveling and acting like the doormat of the human race (a la Uriah Heep, for you English literature fans). True humility is knowing Who God is, who you are, and what life is really about. It is accurate knowledge of reality, that’s all.   If you know white is white and black is black, it is not humble to say that white is black, just because that will stroke someone else’s ego. On the contrary, it is extremely vain and proud, because it means that you think you have permission to overturn reality in order to luxuriate in the good feelings of some other finite creature. It is playing God.

A truly humble person is courageous.   Since he knows that God in His Providence is taking care of him, that nothing can be done to him that will defeat God’s plan for his salvation, he is not afraid of those who attack his Faith or of what they will do to him if he does not go along with them.

A truly humble person is confident in the truth.   Even if he does not understand every detail, even if he cannot answer every specific objection to his Faith, he knows that the Big Picture of Orthodoxy is as good as it gets, insofar as having a worldview, an understanding of what life is all about. If there is some little thing that has not been explained completely, he trusts that it is explainable to the extent he truly needs it to be, and with prayer and trust he seeks to grow in the knowledge of his Faith.

A truly humble person is meek. He does not have to snarl at someone who raises objections to his faith; he does not have to bite.   With the calmness and courage born of heartfelt certainty, he can serenely and patiently ward off the powerless arrows of false objections, even when his critic is unkind to him personally.

A truly humble person is compassionate. When he sees the unbelief of the other person, he says, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Having accurate self-knowledge, he knows the capacity of his own heart for self-deception, and therefore he recoils from condemning another person who has the same problem. With true sympathy, he wants this person in front of him to be delivered from deception, for he wants what God wants, and God is He “… Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4).”

Let us immerse ourselves in the treasures of our precious Faith’s priceless theology, pray for more accurate self-knowledge, and beg the Lord to save our neighbors who labor so painfully in the darkness of unbelief!

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Our true condition

26 November OS 2017 – Saturday of the 10th Week of St. Luke; St. Alypios the Stylite, St. Nikon of the “Repent Ye”, St. Stylianos of Paphlagonia, St. Innocent of Irkutsk

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 10: 19-21.

The Lord said to His disciples, Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.

Again, today, the Lord speaks of our need to receive His revelation like little children: the Father, Lord of heaven and earth, has hidden His mysteries from the “wise and prudent,” and He has revealed them to “babes.” Only the pure in heart, only the innocent, can really receive the Gospel into their hearts. Any kind of calculation, guile, and dissimulation chases away grace and makes a man blind.   He may think himself very clever, but he is the most foolish of the foolish. He sees nothing.

How can we keep our sight intact? How can we retain our warm, childlike vision of Faith and of the Church in this time that is so cold and so cynical?   Out there, the vision of Darwin has prevailed – bankrupt as science, it has nevertheless become what it was always intended to be: the world religion.   The law of the jungle prevails, and only the “fittest” (i.e., the power hungry and unscrupulous) survive. Where do the babes who love the Gospel fit into such a scenario? What is the answer?

Now, more than ever, we must immerse ourselves in humility. Let us thank God that we live precisely in the times we live in, times in which we can have no illusions of thriving Church life, just civil governance, or decent human culture on the grand scale, times in which only tiny pockets of intact humanity, much less the true Faith, survive.   There is no getting around it: life is hierarchical, and when the leaders go astray, the great mass of people will follow. Those who do not go along will be, in the eyes of the world, precisely Nobody.   This is who we are: Nobody.   And what could be better for our salvation? Glory to God!

We start, then, with humility: let us accept our true condition and give ourselves over to weeping, mourning, and heartfelt prayer for our salvation, for that of those around us, and for the whole world, for suffering mankind which has gone astray.   We have no virtues, no great works, no visions, no miracles – nothing to brag about.   We must cling to the Lord in simplicity of heart and ask for one thing only, that His holy will be done.   May He forgive all of our sins and take us by the hand, leading us securely on the path of salvation.

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Our Unfailing Intercessor

22 November OS 2017 – Nativity Fast; 10th Week of St. Luke;  Afterfeast of the Entry of the Theotokos;  Ss. Philemon and Archippus, Apostles

Today we continue to celebrate the Great Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple, on which we recall how at the age of three she was dedicated to the Lord by her holy parents Joachim and Anna, in fulfillment of the vow they had made when beseeching the Lord for a child.   From the age of three until she was betrothed to the Righteous Joseph, she dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, being fed by an angel and contemplating the highest divine mysteries continuously, remaining in ceaseless prayer at all times.

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Second Homily on the Entry, brings to light many remarkable insights of the Church into the great mystery of the Theotokos – who she is and what is her part in the great mystery of salvation.   Here is one profound passage:

She alone forms the boundary between created and uncreated nature, and no one can come to God except through her and the Mediator born of her, and none of God’s gifts can be bestowed on angels or men except through her. As in the case with lamps on earth constructed of glass of some other transparent material, it is impossible to look at the light or enjoy its rays except through the lamp, so it is beyond the reach of all to look upwards to God or be helped by Him to make progress in any direction, except through the Ever-Virgin, this God-bearing lamp who is truly radiant with divine brightness. “God is in the midst of her,” it says, “she shall not be moved (Ps. 45:5).”   – from “On the Entry of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies II,” in The Homilies by St. Gregory Palamas (Mount Thabor Publishing).

What this means practically for us is that we must wholeheartedly pray to Panagia (the Most Holy Theotokos) for our salvation and that of those whom we love. No one comes to the Father apart from Jesus Christ, and no one comes to Jesus Christ apart from the Holy Virgin Mary.  There is a mistaken notion among modernist Orthodox that we have a core of beliefs in common with the iconoclasts (today represented by the Protestants), to which core the veneration of the Holy Virgin and having a relationship with her is a secondary or optional addition, good but not necessary, an “enrichment.”  This is false.  There is no salvation for a Christian who refuses honor, homage, and childlike supplication to the Holy Virgin. True Christian life includes not only assenting to the dogmas about the Mother of God, but also having a lively relationship in prayer with the Mother of God.

The Church’s treasury of prayer provides us with the means to acquire this relationship. The two pre-eminent and most beloved forms of prayer to the Theotokos are the Salutations (Hairetismoi) of the Akathist Hymn and the Small Canon of the Supplication (Paraklisis) to the Mother of God.   Many pious families throughout the centuries have made a practice of saying one or the other (or both!) of these every day.   We could resolve to do this, or to adopt another practice, such as saying the prayer “Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice…” (Theotoke Parthene) so many times per day, or a daily prayer rope of 33 or 100 prayers, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”

We also have the great, inestimable gift of being able to run to the Holy Virgin with all of our sorrows in time of need.   When we are at our lowest, when things seem at their worst, when we see no way out of this or that situation, let us run to our icons, fall down on our knees in prayer and prostrations, and beg Our Most Pure Lady to help us. She is truly our Mother, and she cares for us incalculably more than our own mothers according to the flesh. She is the Joy of All Who Sorrow and Quick to Hear all those in need. Let us lay bare our souls and hearts before her in prayer, and we will receive speedy consolation through the grace of Her divine Son, whose virginal and immaculate Nativity from the immaculate Virgin we are now preparing to celebrate.

My most holy Lady, Mother of God, by thy holy and all-powerful prayers banish from me, they humble, wretched servant, despondency, forgetfulness, folly, carelessness, and impure, evil, and blasphemous thoughts out of my wretched heart and my darkened mind. And quench the flame of my passions, for I am poor and wretched, and deliver me from my many cruel memories and deeds, and free me from all their bad effects; for blessed art thou by all generations, and glorified is thy most honorable name to the ages of ages. Amen.   – from the Morning Prayers in the Prayer Book published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville NY, 1960 edition.

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How not to offend and condemn

18 November OS 2017 – Nativity Fast; Friday of the Ninth Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Plato and Romanus

In today’s Gospel, the Lord warns us sternly against offending our brother: 

The Lord said, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail. Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.   Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offenses will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. St. Luke 16:15-18, 17:1-4

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that we offend and condemn others all the time, and we do not think about it, and yet these two sins are very hateful to God:

…Two sins which are very great in the eyes of God are not regarded as anything by people: offending and condemning. The offender, according to the word of the Lord, would be better off dead; he who condemns is already condemned. But neither the one nor the other think about it, nor can they even admit that they are sinful in any such thing. Indeed, what blindness surrounds us, and how carelessly we walk in the midst of death!   Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 258-259

How can we avoid these extremely common falls? The most powerful antidote is attentiveness. Let us assume that we are not uncommonly malicious (i.e., that our ill will is weak, just as our good will is weak- the state of most people, including the baptized), that we fundamentally intend to think and do well towards others, and that we fall into condemning and offending through the weakness common to all men. This usually occurs because we are not leading an attentive life. When we are not in a prayerful state, our minds being drawn out of ourselves, broken, and scattered over a thousand shifting impressions, we lose control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.   In such a state, we cannot help but say and do that which offends, and at the same time condemn others in our thoughts.

During this holy fast, let us ask the Lord to strengthen our weak will and make a firm resolve to lead an attentive spiritual life, whose foundation is continual prayer.   Having said our morning prayers, let us take the Prayer of Jesus with us through the day, repeating it as often as possible – silently, of course, when in the midst of others, but repeating it nonetheless. This all-powerful weapon, the Name of the Lord, will cleanse and concentrate the mind, make us more aware of ourselves, and give us the lively sense of the Presence of the Lord, so that we will fear to offend Him, fear to drive away this most desired Guest of the soul, by any offensive thoughts, words, or deeds directed to our neighbor.

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The hour of reckoning

17 November OS 2017: Thursday of the Ninth Week of St. Luke; St. Gregory of Neo-Caesaria, the Wonderworker

The daily Gospel reading for the Divine Liturgy this morning is Luke 16: 1-9.  

The Lord said this parable: There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.  And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

The Lord Jesus Christ is not, of course, recommending that we cheat our employers. The master in the parable has been cheated, but he shows himself bighearted and demonstrates a sense of humor: he commends the steward for his cleverness though not his dishonesty. The steward realized that he was facing disaster, and he took practical steps to deal with it.

The steward’s approaching dismissal symbolizes the hour of death, and the Lord commands us to “make friends” by means of “the mammon of unrighteousness” to prepare for death. He commands us in particular to give alms and in general to steward wisely the good things He gives us, using them for His glory and for our neighbor, so that by wise use of material things, we will inherit heavenly things. We may have misused the gifts our Master has given us, but we have time yet before death to use them for His glory and obtain His reward. How much time? We know not, and therefore we must begin today.

In commenting on this parable, St. Theophan the Recluse remarks on man’s reluctance to face and prepare for death:

Death could overtake us at any moment, and then: Give an account of thy stewardship (Luke 16:2). Everyone knows this, but almost no one budges. What is this blindness? No one thinks he will die right now, but all suppose that they will live another day or two. They do not know the time, but are certain that death will come sometime later…No one intends to remain careless his entire life; he simply puts off changing for the present day. But since one’s entire life is composed of present days and hours, he does not take the trouble to put things in order for the future. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 258

“…one’s entire life is composed of present days and hours.” The Lord’s command to live in the present and take no thought for the morrow (Matthew 6:34) does not contradict his command to remember death: the two commands are two sides of the same coin. The Lord wants us to think constantly on what is actual, to occupy the mind with reality not delusion. He wants us constantly to think about the events of today and the hour of death, and to take action based on this certain knowledge, for only these events are certain to take place. The rest, the imaginary “in-between” now and death, is the demons’ mental playground. There may be no in-between.

How can we return to this fundamental Christian activity, the remembrance of death, that overriding thought that so occupied our Christian forbears and yet does not make an impression on contemporary man, does not seem to enter his practical calculations?

We can begin, as Orthodox Christians should always do, with prayer, and specifically prayer for the reposed and night prayers directed to the remembrance of death. By more frequent prayers for the faithful departed, both in Church and at home, we both fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor and we remind ourselves that we need to prepare for death. By reading the Compline and/or the Night Prayers with attention, we are reminded at least daily, once every night, that sleep is an image of death, and our rising every morning an image of the resurrection.

We should take advantage of illness to glorify the Lord Who allows us to fall sick, that we may recall our mortality, weep over our sins, admit our total dependence on Him for our very existence, and resolve to live in repentance.

We should read pious accounts regarding the death of just and unjust men, the reality of their spiritual agony at that hour, the activity of angels and demons, and the particular judgment of the soul by Christ.

Truly, as the Holy Fathers say, he that remembers death will not sin.

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Happy Nativity Fast!

…when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. VerilyI say unto you, they have their reward.  But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto Thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

– The words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:16-18

We have recently begun the Nativity Fast, and perhaps already it is getting us a little down.  A lot of Orthodox Christians who sincerely try to keep this fast (which all too many neglect) find that it is more difficult to stay motivated and cheerful during this season than during the Great Fast before Holy Week and Pascha.

This is probably for several reasons.  There are the short days and long nights of December with their cold and gray weather.  There is the distraction of the secular “holiday season,” which seems to make people a little nutty as they become obsessed with buying tons of presents they cannot afford for people whom they fear will not like them, all the while trying to have good cheer at an exhausting round of obligatory and superficial social gatherings.

Lately, we also have the political and social tension created by anti-Christian power elites who claim that Christmas decorations, greetings, school events, and TV programs actually related to the Birth of Christ are “unfair” to non-Christians and should be eradicated from public life, while non-Christian symbols must be imposed on everyone, especially the Christians, in order to “celebrate diversity,” which is code for worshipping the rapidly spreading reign of the Antichrist global government, under which, of course, there is no real diversity, but only the mind-numbing uniformity of materialism, sensuality, and the ever-despairing power struggle for the “survival of the fittest” in a merciless, endless, and impersonal universe.

Being Orthodox Christians, we choose not to get steamrolled by all of this.  We know what this season is for:  to prepare to celebrate the Birth of Christ.  And we know how to keep it, though because of our weakness in the face of our circumstances we often fail.  Let us remind ourselves, however, how to keep it, and, when we fail, get up again and keep trying, trying to…

Fast for the forty days.  (When obliged to go to parties, stick with the veggie tray!)

Prepare for Holy Communion.

Go to more services.

Force ourselves to be cheerful and kind to everyone (especially tired retail clerks!)

Say “Merry Christmas” and don’t get intimidated by the propaganda into that “Happy Holiday” nonsense.

Keep thanking God for everything we have and not get caught up in consumerism.

Keep our shopping and present giving simple, in order to focus on the Birth of our Savior, and on sincere love for our family and friends, which is the real purpose of the gifts, anyway.

A blessed Nativity Fast to all!

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“…and on earth, peace…” 

Since God is peace surpassing every mind, it is necessary that the heart which desires to receive Him be peaceful and undisturbed. As David has said: “His place has been established in peace” (Ps. 75:2).  Hence you ought in the first place to establish your heart in a peaceful state.

 Before everything else, have that peace and staidness in your five senses.  That is, do not look or talk or move your hands or walk disturbedly, but in a peaceful and orderly manner. For when you become accustomed to preserve that peace in your outer movements, you shall easily and effortlessly be led to a peaceful inner state. For according to the Fathers, the inner man conforms to the outer man. Accustom yourself to love all men and be at peace with all, if this is possible, as Paul says: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).   Guard your conscience so that it does not accuse you with regard to anything, but rests at peace in relation to God, yourself, your neighbor, and external things, and especially does not accuse you that you have neglected some commandment of God. For the guarding of the conscience begets peace of heart. Accustom yourself to bear insults without being disturbed. 

 –   from Unseen Warfare, edited by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Theophan the Recluse

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The Choice

12 November OS 2017 – Saturday of the  8th Week of St. Luke, St. John the Almsgiver, Archbishop of Alexandria 

The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 9: 37-43.

At that time, it came to pass, that on the next day, when they were come down from the hill, much people met Jesus. And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child. And, lo, a spirit taketh him, and he suddenly crieth out; and it teareth him that he foameth again, and bruising him hardly departeth from him. And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not. And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you? Bring thy son hither. And as he was yet a coming, the devil threw him down, and tare him. And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the child, and delivered him again to his father. And they were all amazed at the mighty power of God. 

The “hill” in this passage is Mount Tabor, and “they” are the Lord with Peter, James and John. They have just come down from the mountain after the Lord’s Transfiguration.   The apostles’ joy at beholding the Lord in glory before their very eyes had caused Peter to ask if they could not perhaps pitch little tents for Christ to dwell there with Moses and Elias, and all of them could just stay there for a bit…”Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  This, however, was not to be, for Christ had yet to go forth and complete His awesome exploit for our salvation.   They had had to descend the mountain.

When they come down, immediately they find distressing evidence that fallen man does indeed need a Savior: a boy possessed by an evil spirit.   The Lord does easily, with only a word, that which the disciples could not, delivering the child from the devil and giving him back again, healed and whole, to his father.   He verifies by divine power the words of the Father heard on the mountain: “This is my beloved Son.”

We do not understand our real situation unless we fully comprehend and accept the reality that this world we live in is fallen.  Billions of sinful men, whom we see, occupy it, and by their own power they can do only evil or good mixed with evil – the result, ultimately, is the same – and they will keep doing evil till the end of time, and they would do so with no encouragement whatsoever.  They do, however, receive such encouragement, from malignant spirits, whom we cannot see,  far outnumbering the men and far more powerful than they, who constantly aggravate each man’s tendency to sin in a thousand artful ways, and actually inhabit men’s minds and even their bodies.   Out of His mercy and love for man, the Lord closed the spiritual eyes of our first parents after the Fall, and subsequently those of all their descendants, so that we cannot see these creatures. But they are there.

This realization should, to put it mildly, give us a sober outlook on life. It puts all of our Orthodox customs and practices into the only context in which they make sense: this short earthly life as an arena for spiritual combat. When understood fully, it confronts us with The Choice: God or the devil, heaven or hell.   There is no Third Way, no separate peace. No one is allowed to sit this one out.

The Good News is that the billions of devils and sinful men are outnumbered by One – the Almighty God Who created them and holds them in unbreakable chains, subject to His sovereign will. This One loves us, and He has done, is doing, and will do everything for our salvation.   We have only to believe in Him as He desires to be believed in, worship Him as He desires to be worshipped, and serve Him as He desires to be served.   This belief, this worship, and this way of life constitute what we call Orthodoxy.   They are the invincible armor and irresistible weapons that enable us to overcome the World, the Flesh and the Devil. We can deflect anything the bad guys throw at us.

In a few days, we shall begin the holy fast for the Lord’s Nativity.   What a wonderful and simple weapon the Lord through Holy Church has given us: to deny ourselves in this very basic, very simple way, and so in simple and humble obedience acquire His grace to overcome our invisible foes. In both St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s account of the exorcism related above by St. Luke, the Lord afterwards explains to the disciples that “this race [in Greek γένος – literally this genus, this type of creature, a demon] cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting.” When we fast, we are joining ourselves to the Lord Himself, Who as a man really and truly fasted while on earth. When we pray, we are uniting ourselves to Christ, Who as a man really and truly prayed to His heavenly Father.   What an immeasurable honor – to do as the God-Man did!   What invincible weapons – those wielded by the God-Man Himself!   With Him, we cannot fail.

Let us “serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in Him with trembling (Ps. 2).” We live in godly fear until the end of our earthly pilgrimage, and we simultaneously rejoice, living in hope of our eventual victory.   May the Lord, Who revealed our true destiny in His Transfiguration, give us the grace to serve Him in prayer and fasting this Nativity Fast and all the days of this temporal life, so that we may tabernacle with Him on the summit of the heavenly Sion, where our vision of His beauty will have no end.

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The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s

11 November OS 2017 – Friday of the 8th Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Menas, Vincent, Victor, and Stephanida; S. Theodore Studite; Righteous King Stephen of Decani

The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 13: 31-35

At that time, the same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

The Pharisees imagined they could frighten the God-Man with the threat of Herod’s evil intentions, but they were mistaken.   He announces calmly that He knows that He will be killed, and that it will happen in Jerusalem, the city that always murdered the prophets.   He also announces that, until this happens, He will continue to “walk,” that is, to carry out His mission of teaching, preaching, healing, casting out devils, and raising the dead – His mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.   He is in complete control of the situation, and He is going to His voluntary Passion to fulfill the will of the Father, to fulfill God’s providential plan for our salvation from before the ages.

Today we may feel that matters are out of our control, involving both the Church’s situation and society in general, in many ways that affect our lives directly.  This chaos, however, is limited and temporary – a trial we must pass through, our Golgotha.   We must “set our face towards Jerusalem” as the Lord did (And it came to pass, when the time was come that He should be received up, He steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem – Luke 9:51) – we must voluntarily join ourselves to Him in His Passion.   And, as we resolve to endure whatever the Lord allows for our salvation, we must resolve with equal determination to go about our mission as well, to do the Lord’s work, the Church’s mission.

How does one acquire courage to carry on when the outlook is grim?   Here are three considerations:

Perspective – From God’s point of view – sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity) – the entire history of this whole world, much less one’s lifetime, is the blink of an eye.   He is the King of the Ages, the Sovereign of History. All is unfolding according to His plan for our salvation, which He desires infinitely more than we do.   We have only to do our part in history; we have no responsibility for controlling history.   He will arrange everything for our true good.

Consolation in Prayer – When external circumstances are at their worst is precisely the time when consolation in prayer is greatest, if we are faithful to prayer and wholeheartedly resolve to grow closer to God in our trials.   Many Orthodox Christians who suffered in the communist hell of the 20th century testified that ultimately their time in prison, living in the utmost humiliation and deprivation, became the happiest time of their lives, precisely because it was at this time that they experienced what prayer really is and what a human being is really made for – most intimate union with the Lord, Who becomes everything to us when we have lost everything else.   We cannot conceive of the unspeakable consolation such people experienced…but we may have the opportunity to do so in future.   Let us begin now to deepen our life of prayer!  The next time we are anxious over the future course of events, let us turn to a favorite book on prayer and spiritual life that has motivated us in the past, rather than to this or that website to read the latest spin on the absurd epiphenomena of man’s vain strivings.

Love for Others – Typically fear for the future is mixed with self-pity.   Let us forget ourselves and act determinedly each day for the true good of those for whom we are in varying degrees responsible.   A man becomes a good soldier only when he counts his own life as nothing, when he thinks himself already a dead man.   Let us be good soldiers in the Church Militant, counting our lives as nothing, determined to lay down our lives for our friends, in order to practice that love than which there is no greater.   With this option clearly open to us, how can we say that our lives are out of control?

The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s.    Let us set our faces serenely to go to Jerusalem, and on the way, each day, seek simply to know and to do His will.

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Just do it

5 November OS 2017 – Saturday of the Seventh Week of St. Luke; Ss. Galaction and Episteme, Martyrs 

In today’s Gospel (Luke 9:1-6), we see the Lord gathering and sending out His Holy Apostles to preach, heal, and cast out demons:

Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick. And he said unto them, Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money; neither have two coats apiece. And whatsoever house ye enter into, there abide, and thence depart. And whosoever will not receive you, when ye go out of that city, shake off the very dust from your feet for a testimony against them. And they departed, and went through the towns, preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere.

St. Theophan the Recluse encourages us by reminding us that this very same apostolic preaching is with us, alive and active, to this very day:

“And He sent them to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:2).” Then, it was only throughout Palestine, but later they were sent throughout the whole world. The preaching which was begun then has not ceased to this day. Every day we hear what has been handed down by the Holy Apostles and the Lord Himself as if they were before us, and the power which acted in them acts to this day in the Church of God. The Lord has not deprived any believers of anything: those who are the most recent have everything the first ones had. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 246-247

We all know that this is true, but generally we do not feel it to be true in our daily lives.   How do we cure this, how do we once again experience the lively, life-giving joy of Faith we had when we were first converting to the Faith or, in the case of those baptized as infants, when we were first coming to an adult awareness of the power of our Faith and experiencing its power?   We know from past experience that, if only we can have this lively awareness, life is 100% better: no problem seems too great, because we know that the Risen Lord Jesus is walking with us, that the Holy Virgin and our saint and our guardian angel and all the hosts of heaven are with us. Life is bright on the inside even when not on the outside.   But we often fail in this awareness and think about life as if our worldly problems were all that there is, and our Faith is something abstract.

I would like to suggest three activities to help us receive the grace of a lively awareness and happiness that we, no different from the early Christians, have the power of the Apostolic Faith within us:

  1. Gratitude:   We must frequently, daily, force ourselves to glorify the Lord for all that He has done for us. When feeling far from God, we should get down on our knees before the holy icons and start recounting all that He has done for us, from the Creation of the world through all the history of the Old and New Testaments, the Lives of the Saints, and then our own life and all the good things He has given us, and above all the infinite gift of being in His Holy Church.   The fog will lift, and we will “taste and see how good the Lord is.”
  1. Daily Scripture Reading: All right, I have said this a million times, but it is still true. Read your daily Scriptures!   Every day throughout the year Holy Church prescribes two Scripture readings from the New Testament or, during the weekdays of Great Lent, three readings from the Old Testament.   Get a calendar with readings listed for every day (hard copy or online), get out your Bible or New Testament (or, if you are really “with it” liturgically, your Apostolos and Evangelion!), and read. Read standing before the icons, read aloud and slowly, and let the divinely inspired words sink into your ears, your mind, and your heart. They are living and active, and they will act! “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).” Day by day, the Holy Apostles will preach once again to us, as they did 2,000 years ago. The same truth and the same power are present.
  1. Confession and Holy Communion: Usually we do not feel the Lord’s presence because of our sins. It is really that simple.   We have the solution: to confess our sins, receive His forgiveness, and partake of His Precious Body and Blood. What could be simpler? What could be better?   As they say: “Just do it.”

God is with us.

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