(Please forgive – I”m posting this a week late. Just re-read it – it was written in 2016 – and it seemed timely; so I decided to re-post it with some minor wording changes, albeit tardily).
Listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/matt13sat
5 September OS 2021 – Saturday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Matthew; St. Zacharias, Prophet, Father of the Forerunner
In the Gospel today, we read the Lord’s well-known command to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” How can we fulfill His holy command today?
At that time,went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way. – Matthew 22: 15-22
The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to trick the Lord into saying that a Jew should not pay tax to the Romans, so that they could accuse him to the Roman governor and have Him arrested as a rebel. Various phony messiahs appeared among the Jews in the period immediately before and after Jesus Christ, and they usually combined their supposed messiahship with political and military revolt against the Romans. They taught a worldly and carnal view of the Kingdom of God, an idea that somehow the Messiah would inaugurate an endless reign of the Jewish people over all races and nations, beginning with the defeat of the Roman conqueror. Our Lord, by contrast, the true Messiah and Savior of the world, says quietly to Pilate, the representative of earthly authority, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”
Our Lord’s command in today’s Gospel is, then, both simple and comprehensible: We are to render to God what is God’s – that is, our faith in Him and the commitment to fulfill our Baptismal vows, to live according to His holy commandments. We must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s: We must submit to the laws of man that do not directly violate the law of God. Our Lord Himself says to Pilate: “You would have no authority unless it were given you from above.” This word of the Lord is a sword cutting two ways: It means both that lawful governments do have authority from God – and thus Orthodox Christians are not anarchists – but also that the legitimacy of a government’s authority is measured by its conformity to the will of Him Who granted its authority, that is, by its laws’ – and the administration of its laws – conforming to the Law of God. In the history of governments, both Christian and non-Christian, we see over and over again that as their behavior becomes more ungodly, God’s favor is withdrawn, and ultimately they lose their authority in the eyes of God and the Church. Ultimately, they fall. It is not a matter of “if” but “when.”
How are we Orthodox Christians in the United States and other formerly Christian countries supposed to deal with our current “Caesar,” seemingly all-powerful and brazenly anti-Christian – indeed, anti-human – a tiny, foreign cosmopolitan oligarchy of finance and corporate power-mongers who believe that they will answer to no one but their father the devil, demonized men who shamelessly manipulate the ever-expanding coercive apparatus of formerly constitutional but now mostly illegitimate governments to impose their will on an increasingly enslaved population? Our Holy Mother the Church, who is “ever ancient, ever new,” still has the answers for our lives, no less than She did when our fathers lived under Christian kings who protected Her and fostered Her children with just laws and the spread of true religion.
Striving as best I can to convey Her holy teachings, I would like to offer a few thoughts:
First of all, we must be convinced that the All-Good God, Who desires our salvation more than we do, has placed each of us in this situation precisely for our salvation. He is both All-Wise and All-Powerful, as well as All-Good, and in His wisdom, He will use even the evil deeds of evil men to save those who love Him and desire to do His holy will. What does Jesus Christ say? “In your patience possess ye your souls.” “He that endures to the end shall be saved.” If we believe resolutely that the Lord is working for our salvation precisely in the midst of our actual circumstances, and if we focus on our salvation and that of those we love, this gives us firm hope in the midst of the darkness of our age, and helpless rage against the agents of Satan is transformed into the quiet determination this day, this hour, to love God above all and do His holy will. As St. Paul writes, “If God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).”
Second, we must recall that we are primarily in a spiritual warfare, that the outer struggles we witness are but the “tip of the iceberg,” the visible signs of a vast, invisible conflict. We Orthodox Christians, a tiny and obscure minority, are in fact – if only we could see it – at the front line of the real conflict, for we are those tasked with the warfare against Satan, and we are the ones who have the weapons to engage in it. St. Paul says,
Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand(Ephesians 6: 11-13).
The “whole armor of God” includes all the gifts of Faith and grace, and the entire moral and ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church. We possess an enormous trove of defensive armor and offensive weapons to choose from.
St. Theophylact of Ochrid, in his commentary on today’s passage, says that, besides referring to the visible earthly ruler, the image of “Caesar” can also represent an invisible, evil “Caesar” – the devil: “…each one of us must render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, namely we must throw to the demon who rules below the things which belong to him. As for example, when you have anger that comes from Caesar [i.e., the devil], throw it back at him, get angry at him. Then you will also be able to render to God the things that are God’s (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, Chrysostom Press 2008, p. 190).” We must struggle courageously and daily against the passions and demons, in a conscious spiritual life undertaken by the grace of God and under the direction of the Orthodox Church and Her divine wisdom. This is our first line of defense against the evils which beset us, and it is the most important. If the devil has no power over us, what can man do to us?
Third, let us resolve to love our neighbor. Our Divine Savior says that in the last times, the love of the many will grow cold. Let us postpone the last times by warming our hearts with the divine love, the true charity that is of God – not a sentimental warmth masking tolerance of evil, but a militant desire for our neighbor’s salvation. Our neighbor is just that – the person next to us, family, friends, fellow parishioners. The global elite uses its brainwashing apparatus to distract and paralyze us by stirring up loves and hatreds of things and people not related to us, far away and beyond our power to affect. Let us turn off the brainwashing, quietly reckon up a list of those whose lives we can realistically affect, and do each day what is truly for their true good, “…committing ourselves, one another, and all our life to Christ our God.”
May God the King of the Ages, the only true Ruler of Heaven and Earth, work His holy will in our lives today and forever!
Again, thanks to our donors. May the Lord reward your love with His grace! To our other listeners: please consider a gift to help me out. If you have PayPal, you can send a gift to my account at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to send a check instead, contact me at that email, and I can give you my mailing address.
Last week on the 20th of August OS (2nd of September) 2021 we marked the 39th anniversary of the repose of Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) in 1982. Though I plan to continue the series of talks on virginity and marriage that were begun in Classes 64 and 65, I thought it appropriate, on the occasion of the anniversary of Fr. Seraphim’s repose, to say a few words about him and the message contained in his writings. This is a debt of gratitude I owe him after all, since his original Survival Course notes were the inspiration for these lectures, and they provided a lot of material for many of them. But moreover, and more importantly, Fr. Seraphim provides us with insights that are critical to our acquiring the discernment we desperately need to read the signs of the times accurately and to respond to what is going on around us in such a way that we will do God’s will, keep our Faith, and not lose our souls. It is these larger insights, these criteria for discernment, that I want to emphasize today, and not any of the controversies that Fr. Seraphim was involved in during his life, or controversies about his life and his real or imagined opinions that still rage years after his repose. We have to refer to the controversies, sometimes, in order to give adequate background to the insights, but the purpose is not to dwell on the controversies, but to use Fr. Seraphim’s response to them in order to illustrate a larger point about acquiring the underlying attitudes, assumptions, worldview, and state of mind and heart that enable one to take a genuinely Orthodox approach to specific questions. This primacy given to acquiring the Orthodox mind and heart is that aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s teaching which everyone can benefit from, regardless of his agreeing or disagreeing with him on the specific points of controversy which arose during his lifetime.
A Personal Note –
Before I begin, I’d like to clear something up: A few people I’ve talked to had the impression that somehow I knew Fr. Seraphim personally and was under his spiritual direction or something like that. I don’t know how widespread this mistaken impression is, but if I’ve ever given that impression it was inadvertent, and I certainly beg pardon for this. Besides reading his books and articles during the years leading up to my conversion to Orthodoxy in 1983 and throughout my early years in the Church, the only connection I had to Fr. Seraphim was friendships with people who knew him well and worked with him closely. Fr. Seraphim’s first convert to Orthodoxy, Fr. Vladimir Anderson, was a priest friend of mine. Also, I spent a lot of time and had many conversations with Fr. Alexey Young (now Hieromonk Ambrose), who had worked closely with Fr. Seraphim from the time of Fr. Alexey’s conversion to Orthodoxy in 1970 until Fr. Seraphim’s repose in 1982. From 1987 to 1989, and then again from 1996 to 2000, Fr. Alexey and I worked together, co-pastoring parishes of the Russian Church Abroad in Denver, Colorado. At that time, of course, memories of Fr. Seraphim were still very fresh, and Fr. Alexey imparted to me his own knowledge and understanding of his reposed spiritual father’s outlook on things. But these friendships with Fr. Seraphim’s direct disciples were my only personal connection. When in the talk today I say, “Fr. Seraphim said this or that” what I mean is that he wrote this or that, or that Fr. Alexey or someone else who knew him told me that he said this or that; I never met him or heard him speak in person.
The Radar Equipment of Discernment
As Fr. Seraphim often wrote, we live in times of great spiritual confusion, and obviously that’s only gotten worse – much worse – in the years since his repose. Therefore, besides learning the objective content of the Orthodox Faith – its dogmas, system of worship, moral teachings, directions on prayer and spiritual life, art and architecture, church history, and so forth – it is more important than ever that we acquire the gift of discernment, which St. John Cassian calls the “hegemonic virtue,” since this is the virtue that guides our practice of all the virtues. One can store up a lot of head knowledge about Orthodoxy, and along with that even great zeal for Orthodoxy, but still lack the discernment to grasp the wholeness of Orthodoxy in its lived reality, and how to live Orthodoxy in the real world around us. The Christian faith is, after all, not a set of propositions, but rather it is life itself, theWay, as St. Luke calls it in the Acts of the Apostles. It is the lifein Christ, Who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Orthodoxy is not simply a religion as a component of life; it is the life of God in us; it is reality.
So I’d like to approach this talk by presenting some insights of Fr. Seraphim in light of their function in providing us with the “radar” equipment of discernment:How can we benefit from his writings and from what we can gather about his personal example, in order to acquire an intuitive sense, a radar, a nose, so to speak, for discerning truth from falsehood as we struggle not to drown in the flood of information and disinformation that surrounds us? I use the expression “a nose” on purpose, because Fr. Seraphim often wrote about something he called the “fragrance of Orthodoxy,” the otherworldly scent of the genuine presence of grace that is perceived by the discerning soul when the wholeness of Orthodoxy – its living, whole, organic, historical reality, its warm and nurturing catholic spirit – is present, rather than a cobbled together, shallow, and lifeless caricature of Orthodoxy based on a punch list of approved opinions within this or that clique, whether “modernist” or “traditionalist,” whose followers become mindless parrots of this approved list of disconnected opinions about lofty realities of which they have only a fragmentary understanding.
When one acquires somewhat this sense of what Orthodoxy is, one also acquires some discernment about the world around us. And this is Fr. Seraphim’s great appeal: He took on the modern and post-modern world head on, with eyes wide open, yet without becoming worldly. In his own life he made a game effort – not a perfect effort, not an ideal effort, but what we old folks used to call “the old college try,” a spirited, earnest, and persistent effort in spite of one’s failures – at living his life according to the real practicality, the true Gospel practicality: that is, an otherworldly approach to real, worldly things. It was thus that he inspired others to do the same. He did not retreat into a falsely spiritual – dare one say gnostic? – retreat from reality on the one hand or give in to the temptation to a secularized neo-Orthodoxy on the other hand. As a result of what they read in the things that he wrote, and what they were able to learn about his life, hungering, lonely, confused, sinful souls who were nonetheless searching for integrity and who were wanting to grapple with the reality around them – not just to escape it – were attracted to the writings of this man who felt as they did and who had pioneered a way for his contemporaries, a way to think about and approach the world around us, with an Orthodox mind and heart, to face the world in all its post-Christian – indeed post-human – horribleness, and to be simultaneously realistic while having all-daring hope in God.
So now let’s get specific: What are some of these tools of discernment I’m talking about? They are nothing spectacular, just homely insights into how to approach aspects of our life and the life around us in an Orthodox way. Here’s a list of eight of these insights that occur to me:
Love to be quiet.
Deeply study history.
See the continuity of organic Orthodox right up to the 20th century; get in touch with it.
Appreciate the good things about Western European culture without losing sight of the Orthodox critique of that culture.
Love the place where you are; don’t get itchy feet.
Choose to do things a harder, older way on purpose.
Be content with a lack of perfection; remember that the “better is the enemy of the good.” Keep trying.
Never compromise your integrity. There’s no use being Orthodox if you’re not even human.
Love to Be Quiet
I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first conversation with Fr. Alexey Young, in his beautiful Victorian home in Englewood, Colorado, right around this time in 1987. We had just moved to Denver and met Fr. Alexey, and, of course, a young buck like me in the presence of the famous Fr. Alexey was bound to ask, “Well, what was Seraphim Rose like?” The first thing he said was “Well, he was something!” Then immediately he said, “He was very, very quiet.” Later on, when I met more people from Russian Church Abroad circles on the West Coast, who had visited Platina, and when I talked to them about the fathers who had lived there, they all said the same thing: When you went there, another monk did nearly all the talking, while Fr. Seraphim was quiet and did not say much, outside of his sermons and lectures, though he tried always to be cheerful, in spite of being tired all the time and having a lot of worries. Moreover, he imparted this spirit of quiet to those who came to see him; he was a calming, cheerful influence.
This combination of quietness and cheerfulness would make for a priceless tool to live our lives today. We talk all the time, and we get upset all the time, and we just end up going around in circles and nothing ever changes. Of course, this shows our lack of prayer and our lack of trust in God. We need to take a hard look at how much we talk and also how much we watch and listen to a lot of nonsense out there, and we must ask the Lord to give us the love of quiet, so that we can hear that still, small voice that Prophet Elias heard on Mount Horeb.
Also, I’d like to point out that quiet is not only needed for prayer, as well as for wise and practical living; it is also an absolute pre-condition for the intellectual life. As we know from his biography – and this is pretty certain, unlike some other things in that book – Eugene Rose was a very serious scholar for years before he became Orthodox, and he took the quietness, steadiness, soberness, and real discipline of a true scholar into his Orthodox and monastic years, which gave him the needed tools to understand what he did and to write the way he did. Today we need genuine Orthodox intellectuals more than ever, and we need to encourage our young men who have the needed intellectual gifts to pursue scholarship as a holy vocation, a way of life, not just a dilettantish or mercenary occupation. One reason that people found Fr. Seraphim, in person or simply as someone they read about, charming and fascinating – though he obviously made no effort to be either! – was that he was a throwback to an earlier time, and he portrayed the image of the monk-scholar, the ascetic intellectual, in the tradition of old Christian Europe. We need to revive that tradition amongst ourselves, both for married and monastic men who want to pursue the intellectual life.
(In our own Church here in North America, we have begun an extremely important effort, in the form of the St. John of Damascus Orthodox Educational Initiative, to educate our Orthodox young people. We pray that at least one, if not several, Orthodox true scholars will emerge from our humble efforts!).
Deeply Study History
Earlier in our Survival Course, we did a series of talks on Fr. Seraphim’s study of Nihilism, which was the only completed and published section of a much longer work he had intended to write in the early 1960s, which he intended to title The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man. He was preparing to write this magnum opus on the basis of studying hundreds of books and articles, and he was struggling to synthesize his knowledge in the light of an Orthodox understanding of history, to produce an Orthodox meta-history of the modern world. Though the finished product never emerged, the notes he prepared over a period of years bore fruit not only in the short finished work Nihilism, but also in his own Orthodox Survival Course lectures and, in general, in the entire viewpoint, the lens through which he saw the signs of the times and how he would write about them in all of his books and articles.
These labors of Fr. Seraphim are bearing fruit right now, as I am speaking with you, because our own little “Survival Course” was of course inspired and informed by his. And it’s very important, really a matter of life or death, that we not become chronological provincials, locked into an obsession with our own time, but that we always recur to the study of history and strive prayerfully and intelligently to acquire its lessons for us. To be truly human – and that’s a prerequisite for being truly Christian – we have to see ourselves within the Great Story of our race, from its creation through the fall, redemption, and working out of our future destiny in the life of the Church as we look forward to the Second Coming and the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. This not only gives us understanding; it also simultaneously gives us comfort and hope. We see that we are really very little people after all, and our troubles are really very small after all, in the great Scheme of Things. We can’t fix everything: We take our part in the battle line, do our little part, and die with our boots on. We leave the rest to God.
A charming but actually very serious and useful aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s sense of being part of history, of living inside of history and not just talking about it, is that he portrayed his continuity with history in his life. He purposely did not adopt trendy fads in dress, speech, or behavior. (We shall speak more about this when we discuss the idea of doing things an older, harder way instead of a newer, easier way.) It is not incidental, but essential, to his sense of what forms the genuine Orthodox personality that as a layman he always dressed very conservatively and that he used very polite and dignified forms of speech. I don’t know what he would make of this current trend of people “Orthodox” motorcycle gangs or “Orthodox” rock bands or “Orthodox” tattoos, but I doubt that he would approve of it. To a great extent, the medium really is the message, and we need to be sober and careful about how we present ourselves. We must always remember that we are, and conduct ourselves as, the bearers of a great tradition. We should attempt in various ways to remain old-fashioned, or, rather, timeless, in our approach to day to day outer life, in order to give a quiet outward expression to, and to protect, the timelessness that should characterize our inner life.
See the Continuity of Organic Orthodoxy Up to the 20th Century; Get in Touch with It
We know that the Church is of divine origin, and we’d like to experience that aspect of Her all the time, but we don’t. Most often we are tempted to a superficial critique of secondary aspects of the Church and think ourselves very wise for making it. We create an idealized picture of the way things should be, and imagine that we can fix the faults we see in order to make that picture come to life, like Pygmalion and his statue. But it just ain’t so. This tendency, to “improving things” all the time, partakes of the spirit of Progressivism, which is one of the great and destructive errors of our time, the idea that God put us here to “make everything better all the time, world without end, Amen.”
Fr. Seraphim dealt with Progressivists within Orthodoxy on two sides: There were the out and out Modernists like Fr. Alexander Schmemann and the people like that, who made no bones about their intention to create a new “Orthodoxy” that embraced the spirit of the modern world, and there were the Pseudo-Traditionalists, like Dr. Alexandre Kalomiros and his group, who claimed to re-create a “pure Orthodoxy” of the past by attacking what they perceived to be corruptions in thought or life over the past thousand years that had obscured some real, real Orthodoxy that did not exist any more, except in their little group. Using his deep and broad knowledge of history – not to mention his common sense – Fr. Seraphim could see through both agendas and realize they were pretty much the same thing: Progressivism and Covert Progressivism.
Fr. Seraphim’s solution to this problem, as far as I can tell, consisted of several things we should do. One of them is what we’ve already talked about – study history seriously and realize that what counts about the Church is the big picture, and that big picture is very good indeed – there’s nothing we could possibly do to improve on it. The more knowledge we have about Church history, the more we read the Scriptures and the Lives of the Saints ancient and recent, the more we realize that we are indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and that we do not have to uphold ourselves: we are being upheld.
Another cure to Progressivism is not to take ourselves too seriously, which is essential to spiritual and psychological health. If you are getting all gloomy and getting tunnel vision about some problem in the Church, that means you can’t see it clearly, and you won’t make good decisions on fighting it (and if it is a real problem, you may have the duty to fight it, but you have to do it wisely, trusting in God, with courage, humor, and a compassionate understanding of the human enemy you may be facing).
Fr. Seraphim was well known – and in some circles disliked – for his fondness for the Russian Church of the 19th century. What is interesting here is that both the overt renovationists and the supposed Byzantine purists disliked him for this. To the renovationists, this revealed him as a White Russian Tsarist reactionary who was stuck in some ideal vision of “the good old days” and opposed the newly revealed social morality of universal rights and social justice. Of course, to a serious Orthodox person, this accusation is a badge of honor, not a negative criticism. For us tradition-minded people, however, what is of greater concern is that some supposed Byzantine purists saw Fr. Seraphim’s love of the 19th century Russian Church as prima facie evidence of his “Latinophrone” corruption, of his not being quite a pure Byzantine true, true Orthodox. But this is as unfair as it is ironic, because no one labored more than this man to show the continuity of the very real Orthodoxy of the 19th century – the Orthodoxy of St. Seraphim, of Optina, of St. John of Kronstadt, etc. – with the school of hesychastic Orthodoxy that Holy Russia had received from Byzantium before the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire, though weaving the bright thread of spiritual and cultural history he showed us in publishing The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit in Ancient Russia by I.M. Kontzevich, his translation of saints’ lives published as the Northern Thebaid, the translation of the Life of St. Paissy Velichkovsky, and the re-publication of the Russian originals and his own English translations of the Lives of the Optina Elders. I won’t go into the details here here, but you can go back to our Orthodox Survival Course #24 and re-read the section on St. Paissy Velichkovsky and the Kollyvades, along with Optina and the Slavophil theologians, to recall how important these books are in forming a genuinely Orthodox meta-history of spiritual and cultural continuity within the Orthodox nations.
So the terribly critical insight of Fr. Seraphim was this: Orthodoxy had a tremendous, easily demonstrable organic unity right up to the disastrous 20th century. To repair the damage done to us by the revolutions, wars, and social engineering of the past 100 years, we don’t have to go all the way back to a reconstructed Golden Age of the Early Church or the Byzantine middle ages – What was essential about the Church of all these ages was still intact prior to the Great War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and what followed. The really life-giving thing about the 19th century Russian Church, and why the demons and evil men fight us when we look at it sympathetically, is that its lessons – its writings and living examples – are not only true, they are also accessible to us, more accessible than the writings and examples of earlier periods, simply because they were modern people in many ways like us. But they were also the authentic bearers of a golden thread that was snapped very recently – not a long time ago – and we have only to pick up the thread and move on. The bad guys – the social engineers, the utopians, the One World cabal – don’t want us to see how accessible this real Orthodoxy really is. There is a great deal more that could be said about this, but that could be a whole talk in itself!
Appreciate the good things about Western European culture without losing sight of the Orthodox critique of that culture.
Closely related to Fr. Seraphim’s approach to the 19th century Russian Church was his approach to the Western European culture that reached its apogee in the 19th century, which approach in turn is related to the Kiryevsky brothers’ and Khomiakov’s thought, which you can read about briefly in Orthodox Survival Course # 24 and in Fr. Alexey Young’s A Man Is His Faith. Like them, Fr. Seraphim, while seeing the wrong direction that heretical Western Europe had taken for centuries – indeed, this wrong direction is the entire subject of his Survival Course, as it is of most of ours! – did not react to the European culture of recent centuries with wholesale rejection, with the saeva indignatio we see in some Orthodox zealot writings or the arrogant, supercilious dismissiveness of modernist renovationists. Instead, with sympathetic sadness, he points out the bad things that did happen while pointing us to the good things that remained. He realized that all of us, whether adult converts from non-Orthodox Christian confessions or cradle Orthodox, are to a greater or lesser extent the products of this received European or European/American culture, and that to simply ignore it, to treat the soul in front of him as a blank slate to be written on from scratch, was neither healthy nor even possible. True, the music of a Bach or Vivaldi or the later Russian romantic composers like Tchaikovsky, the poetry of Pope in one era or Coleridge in another, the painting of the Pre-Raphaelites, the arts and crafts productions of William Morris, the novels of the great 19th century writers…none of these is completely Orthodox (even Dostoevsky, though he gets close!), but certainly none of it is utterly demonic, as some fanatical purists would maintain, and all of it has elements of great beauty that can lead a wounded, brutalized soul to higher things, and ultimately to God.
Fr. Seraphim came to see that the deracinated, uneducated, uncultured converts that came his way needed to be humanized before they could be Christianized – they needed to fill in that gap in the human organism between the bodily and the spiritual, which is the intellectual and psychological. This is why he told his catechumens to read great secular literature and to listen to classical music, while at the same time they were taking the baby steps in that part of their life which is spiritual strictly speaking. It all works together. Of course, there is a point in one’s spiritual development, especially for monastics, when this aspect of life becomes unnecessary or at least can be minimized. But most of us need, to some extent, to keep doing this remedial work on ourselves in simply becoming human, while we are also trying to become Christians.
I see that we are only halfway through my list and I’ve already talked for awhile now. Let’s resume next week, finish our list of Tools of Discernment, and then go on to deal with some controversial but useful aspects of Fr. Seraphim’s thought, specifically his views on ecumenism and on eschatology. See you then!
27 August OS 2021: Thursday of the Twelfth Week of St. Matthew; St. Poimen; Holy Martyr Phanourios the newly-revealed; St. Caesarius, Bishop of Arles
Listen to this commentary as an audio podcast at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/12mattth
On Monday we began reading from the Gospel According to St. Mark, the shortest and most direct of the four Gospels. St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter, wrote his Gospel for the Church at Rome, and the terse and concise character of this Gospel corresponds to the old Roman character: sober, no-nonsense, and to the point, with few words and a lot of action. St. Mark begins with the preaching of the Forerunner, briefly recounts the Lord’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness, tells of the beginning of Christ’s preaching, the call of the first disciples, preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, His exorcising a possessed man in the synagogue, and then, in today’s reading, His healing the mother-in-law of Peter, exorcising and healing yet more people, and then going apart to pray in the deep night long before dawn. All in 35 verses, and the Evangelist has not quite finished Chapter One.
St. Mark’s brevity brings into relief a fact about all the Gospels: They are not biographies of Jesus Christ, but rather a proclamation of Who He is. They contain only what we need to know, to believe, and to do in order to find salvation. We must read and hear these words – literally, physically read them and hear them – make an act of faith in their truth, pray for understanding, and resolve to live according to their demands. This must happen day after day, or we forget what a Christian is.
If we have been slack in reading the Gospel lately, this new beginning, with the shortest Gospel, is a good place to start again. We need to open the Gospel, stand or kneel in front of our icons, and read aloud the daily passage or perhaps a whole chapter, going passage by passage or chapter by chapter day by day. Read aloud, at a moderate pace. Struggle for attention. The words of the Gospel are infused with the infinite divine power of the Holy Spirit, and they are self-acting. If we read them with the struggle for attention, they will bring about spiritual fruits.
This actual reading of the Gospel is the most important, first step, and the Holy Spirit will grant us understanding, if we ask for it. If we desire to take another step and study the Gospels as well as read them, we should use a patristic or patristically inspired commentary. Though the commentaries of the ancient Fathers are the most complete, most of us probably need something shorter, and the normative short commentary is the explanation of the Gospels by St. Theophylact of Ochrid. Originally published by Chrysostom Press, this invaluable commentary is still available in four volumes from St. Herman Press at https://www.sainthermanmonastery.com/category-s/1896.htm Along with St. Theophylact, the best guide to the Gospels for our time is the commentary by Archbishop Averky of Holy Trinity and Syracuse, available from Holy Trinity Monastery at http://bookstore.jordanville.org/9781942699002. Just reading a page every day from one or both of these commentaries will change us greatly for the good.
Fr. Seraphim Rose used to ask a good question that we should periodically ask about ourselves: “We know we are Orthodox, but are we Christians?” Of course, he did not mean that being Orthodox and being Christian are really two separate things: being Orthodox assumes being a Christian, and to be a Christian in the most accurate sense, to be in the Church, one must be Orthodox. He was using irony to make a point, that one can be taken up with the various aspects of Faith that manifest the Gospel but forget the Gospel itself. If one’s mind is not immersed in the Gospels, and if one is not submitted in obedience to the commandments of the Gospels, then the dogmas, canons, liturgical services, liturgical arts, domestic customs – the various manifestations of Church life – easily become idols, ends in themselves. Our understanding of them becomes fragmented, alienated from their true meaning and their coherence in the light of the Gospel, and instead of using them as instruments for our salvation, we misunderstand and misuse them in such a way that their power – which is indeed great, whether to salvation or damnation – transforms us into Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees worship the liturgical cult and the ecclesiastical organization. Pharisees worship the rules and the outward works of piety. Christians worship the Holy Trinity.
Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov writes in The Arena that we will be judged, both at the particular judgment following death and at the general judgment at the Second Coming, according to the commandments of the Gospel. This judgment determines our fate for all eternity. Let us hasten to make ourselves most intimate with the book by which we most certainly will be judged, and compare to it constantly that book which shall be opened at the judgment, the book of our heart.
You can listen to an audio recording of this blog post at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/16-aug
16 August OS 2021 – 11th Sunday of Matthew; Afterfeast of the Dormition; Feast of the Icon of the Lord “Not Made by Hands”, Holy Martyr Diomedes, St. Gerasimos of Cephallonia
Today, the sixteenth of August, we honor the Holy Mandylion, the icon “Not Made by Hands.” Here is the account of the icon’s origin taken from the Prologue from Ochrid:
At the time when our Lord preached the Good News and healed every illness and infirmity of men, there lived in the city of Edessa on the shore of the Euphrates Prince Abgar who was completely infected with leprosy. He heard of Christ, the Healer of every pain and disease and sent an artist, Ananias, to Palestine with a letter to Christ in which he begged the Lord to come to Edessa and to cure him of leprosy. In the event that the Lord was unable to come, the prince ordered Ananias to portray His likeness and to bring it to him, believing that this likeness would be able to restore his health. The Lord answered that He was unable to come, for the time of His passion was approaching took a towel, wiped His face and, on the towel, His All-pure face was perfectly pictured. The Lord gave this towel to Ananias with the message that the prince will be healed by it, but not entirely, and later on, He would send him a messenger who would erase the remainder of his disease. Receiving the towel, Prince Abgar kissed it and the leprosy completely fell from his body but a little of it remained on his face. Later, the Apostle Thaddaeus, preaching the Gospel, came to Abgar and secretly healed and baptized him. The prince then destroyed the idols which stood before the gates of the city and above the gates he placed the towel with the likeness of Christ attached to wood, framed in a gold frame and adorned with pearls. Also, the prince wrote beneath the icon on the gates: “O Christ God, no one will be ashamed who hopes in You.” Later, one of Abgar’s great grandsons restored idolatry and the bishop of Edessa came by night and walled up that icon over the gates. Centuries then passed. During the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Persian King Chozroes attacked Edessa and the city was in great hardship. It happened that Eulabius, the Bishop of Edessa, had a vision of the All-Holy Theotokos who revealed to him the mystery of the sealed wall and the forgotten icon. The icon was discovered and, by its power, the Persian army was defeated.
This miraculous image undoubtedly served as the model for all subsequent icons of the sacred face of the Lord. Thus our iconographic tradition is based on an accurate image that Christ Himself gave us: this is what Jesus Christ looks like. This is the face of the God-Man.
When Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai, he asked to see God’s glory. Here is God’s answer:
And [Moses] said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And [God] said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen. – Exodus 33: 18-23
“…for there shall no man see me, and live.” “…but my face shall not be seen.” In the Old Testament, a chosen few, such as Moses and Elias, were graced with seeing God indistinctly, His “back parts.” If they had encountered God directly, they would have been struck dead. In the Gospel, we see a multitude of sinful men not only enabled to see God’s face, but to touch Him, to hear Him, to eat with Him and speak with Him. According to His human nature, they were even allowed to murder Him. What more can God do to show that He loves us?
Whenever our faith is weak, whenever the circumstances of life press upon us and we feel alone and helpless, whenever our spiritual life has become something theoretical and abstract, without inner warmth, without life-giving power: Let us go before the Icon of the Face of the Lord and read the Akathist to Our Lord Jesus Christ with attention. Let us ask God Who became Incarnate for us to renew in us holy zeal and the desire to do His will. “If you love Me,” says the Lord, “keep my commandments.” And what is the first commandment? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.”
Christ gave us this most accurate image of His Holy Face as a lasting pledge of His love for us. May it be a means of our growing in love for Him.
19 August OS 2021 – Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of St. Matthew; Holy Martyr Andrew the Commander and the 2593 slain with him
In the Gospel today, the Lord announces to the unbelieving Jews that God rejects them, because of their unbelief and hardness of heart despite all of His mercies to them:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. – Matthew23: 29-39
St. Theophan the Recluse applies this example to our spiritual life: God gives us numerous opportunities to repent and form a firm intention to please Him, but at some point, unknown to us, there can be a final turning away from Him and the loss of His grace, if we stubbornly refuse His call:
How many mercies the Lord revealed to Jerusalem (that is, to the Jews)! And, in the end, He was still forced to say, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” It is well known to all what the consequences of this were: the Jews are homeless to this day. [This was written in the 1880’s, long before the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.] Does not a similar thing occur with the soul? The Lord cares for the soul and teaches it in every way. An obedient soul traverses the path indicated, but a disobedient soul remains in opposition to God’s calling. However, the Lord does not abandon even this soul, and uses every means to bring it to reason. If stubbornness increases, God’s influence increases. But there is a limit to everything. A soul becomes hardened, and the Lord, seeing that there is nothing more that can be done with this soul, abandons it to its fall, and it perishes like Pharaoh. Let anyone who is beset by passions learn from this the lesson that he cannot continue indulging himself indefinitely without punishment. Is it not time to abandon those passions – not just to deny oneself occasionally, but to decisively turn away? Indeed, no one can say when he will overstep the limit. Perhaps God’s long-suffering is just about to end. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 170-171
Sobering words! Some may object, however: “God’s mercy is without limits! One can repent until death!” Of course it is absolutely true that God’s mercy is without limits, and, if a man come to his senses, and be in this life still, he can certainly repent. But note the condition: “…if a man come to his senses.” What St. Theophan is pointing out is that at some point before death a man may make a final turning away from God and never come back to his senses. God, for Whom there is no present, past, or future, and Who knows all things, withdraws His grace from such a person, knowing that he will never repent. This is what it means in Exodus when it says, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”
We must, then, keep careful watch over the life of the soul and not take God’s long-suffering for granted. Criminal psychologists note that it is a mark of sociopaths that they have no gratitude whatsoever for the many times that others have forgiven their crimes, and they have no remorse. We can be sociopaths in regard to God, taking His mercy for granted and becoming hardened in heart.
Why does this occur? Of course, there is the obvious explanation, that we cherish our sins and passions and do not want to give them up. But there is also another reason, that God is not real to us. Even if we feel helpless to fight our sins, even if we feel what is, humanly speaking, an irresistible attraction to them, yet if we had a lively faith in God, and deeply desired to please Him while feeling at the same time that all of our hope is in Him and that without Him we can do nothing – then He would show His might and come to save us. Our enemies would vanish very quickly. But lively faith and the desire to please God arise from a living sense of His presence, that He is right here, close to us, that indeed He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.
How do we obtain this lively sense of His presence? We must go to Christ, our Incarnate God, a man like us in all things but sin, and pour out our hearts before Him. We must approach the mercy seat, His Cross, and throw ourselves entirely on His mercy. We must approach Him, cling to Him, and not let go until our hearts are softened, and we are set again on the path to salvation.
In his last testament to his spiritual children, the Elder Gabriel of Seven Lakes Monastery (+1915), gave very straightforward advice to those in spiritual trouble. What is remarkable is how simple are the actions that he recommends and yet what transcendent benefits he promises if one does them. I would like to reproduce this Testament in full, and I pray that those who read it will take it to heart. It is taken from pp. 234-235 of a book we should all read: The Love of God – the Life and Teachings of St. Gabriel of the Seven Lakes Monastery (St. Herman Press, 2016):
Elder Gabriel’s Testament to His Spiritual Children
Soon, perhaps, I will die. I leave you an inheritance of great and inexhaustible riches. There is enough for everyone, only they must make profitable use of it and not doubt. Whoever is wise enough to make use of this inheritance will live without want.
When someone feels that he is a sinner, and can find no way out, let him shut himself alone in his cell and read the Canon and Akathist to Sweetest Jesus Christ, and his tears will be a comforting remedy for him.
When someone finds himself amidst misfortunes of any kind, let him read the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God (“Distressed by many temptations…”), and all his misfortunes will pass without a trace, to the shame of those who assailed him.
When someone needs inner illumination of soul, let him read the Seventeenth Kathisma [i.e., Psalm 118] with attention, and his inner eyes will be opened. The need to bring what is written in it to realization will follow. The need to cleanse the conscience more frequently in Confession and to communicate of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ will arise. The virtue of compassion for others will be manifest, so that we will not scorn them but rather suffer for them and pray for them. Then, the inward fear of God will appear, in which the accomplishments of the Savior will be revealed to the inner eye of the soul – how He suffered for us and loved us. Grace-filled love for Him will appear with the power of the Holy Spirit, Who instructs us in every ascetic labor, teaching us how to accomplish them and endure. In our patience, we will perceive and sense in ourselves the coming of the Kingdom of God in His power, and we will reign together with the Lord and become holy.
This world will not appear to us the way it is depicted to us now. However, we will not judge it, since Jesus Christ will judge it. But we will see the falsehood of the world and the sin that is in it. We will see righteousness too, but only in the Savior, and we will partake of it in Him alone.
Falsehood! We see it and yet we do not. False is this world with all its quickly passing deceptions, for all will pass away, never to return. But Christ’s truth shall endure unto the ages of ages. Amen.
You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/10-matt-th-2020
13 August OS 2021 – Thursday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; the Dormition Fast; Leave-taking of the Transfiguration; St. Maximus the Confessor; St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
In the Gospel today, we see the chief priests and Pharisees refusing to repent and, instead, hardening their hearts against the Lord:
The Lord said to the Jews which came to Him: Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder. And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet. – St.Matthew 21: 43-46
St. Theophan the Recluse remarks that the opposition to the Gospel is always irrational:
The chief priests and Pharisees perceived that the Lord was telling parables on their account, that He was opening their eyes so that they would see the truth. But what did they do with this? They thought about how to kill the Lord. If their common sense had not been distorted by their prejudice, then even if they could not believe, as the clarity of the instruction required, they would at least have carefully considered the truth of the Savior’s words. Their prejudice pushed them onto a crooked path, and they then proved to be God-killers. It has always been this way, and it is this way now. The Germans [i.e., the liberal Scripture scholars in the German universities], and our people who have become Germanized in their mentality, immediately cry out whenever they come across a miracle in the Gospels, “Not true, not true; this did not happen and could not happen, this needs to be crossed out.” Is not this the same as killing? Look through all the books of these clever men – in none of them will you find any indication as to why they think this way. Not one of them can say anything against what the Gospel truth proves, and not one cares to comprehend the arguments which sober-minded people use to convict their falseness; they only continue insisting that [what is written] could not be, and that is why they do not believe the Gospels. And you cannot do anything with them – they are ready to defy God Himself. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 164-165
St. Theophan likens the blindness of the modern skeptic to the blindness of the Pharisees, and, indeed, it is the same, arising from the same cause: pride and hardness of heart. The materialist outlook, which the humanists and liberals call “rational,” is profoundly irrational, because it cannot explain the existence of mind itself, of knowledge itself. A person would only adopt such a philosophy from the primordial Luciferian urge to pretend to be god in spite of all evidence to the contrary. The offspring of the liberals, the nihilists, are at least honest to this extent: they not only admit but revel in their irrationality, and they not only admit but revel in the fact that the only possible outcome of their philosophy is total destruction.
All of us, living as we are in an “unbelieving and perverse generation,” suffer temptations to doubt, at least now and then. We have available to us excellent works of apologetics to help us overcome this on the intellectual level. But more importantly, we must immerse ourselves in the Orthodox worldview by constant reading of Scripture, of the Lives of the Saints, and other authentic Orthodox sources; by prayer; and by being present, with attention, as at many divine services in Church as possible. Our minds have to swim, as it were, in the Orthodox spiritual and mental universe, because being convinced at one point by an intellectual argument does not give us sufficient strength to stay convinced. Our minds are naturally attracted to what they are exposed to, and our hearts follow our minds. This is simply human nature.
Such an immersion in Orthodox sources rewards us immediately with clarity of the mind and lightening of the heart. In contrast to the heavy burden of worldly thoughts and worldly subject matter, God’s truth is the light burden that gives rest to our souls. In contrast to the mental hell of this world’s confusion, it is Paradise before Paradise.
The next time, then, you are burdened by the world and its “news,” instead of doing something useless and destructive (like surfing to the next website in order to become more confused, helpless, and angry), open the Holy Gospel, stand in your icon corner, and start reading aloud. Read the Life of a saint that has helped you in the past. Grab your prayer rope, take a walk, and glorify God for His beautiful creation. We have an entire spiritual universe open to us, wider than the heavens, which no one else has. We need to show our gratitude by choosing to live in it.
You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/matt10tu
11 August OS 2021 – Tuesday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Deacon Martyr Euplus
In the Gospel today, Our Lord confronts the chief priests and elders with their self-serving hypocrisy:
And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority? And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things. – St. Matthew 21: 23-27
St. Theophan the Recluse uses this Gospel passage to describe the mindset of the truth-deniers of every age:
When the Lord asked the question about John the Baptist, the chief priests and the elders thought, “If we answer this way or that, either way is detrimental for us,” and that is why they decided it would be better to use ignorance as a cover. Their self-interest tied their tongue and did not allow them to witness to the truth. If they had loved truth more than themselves, the words would have been different, as would their works. Their interests buried the truth and would not let it reach their hearts. Their interests kept them from forming a sincere conviction, and made their hearts indifferent to the truth. This is how it always is – egotistical strivings are the primordial enemies of truth. All other enemies follow them and act by means of them. If one investigates how all delusions and heresies have arisen, it turns out that this is precisely the source of them all: In words, truth is truth; but in reality, the truth hinders us in one regard or another and must be eliminated, and a lie must be set in its place which is more favorable to us. Why, for example, are there materialists and nihilists? Because the idea of God the Creator, Provider, and Judge, together with the idea of the spirituality of the soul, hinders those people from living in grand style according to their inclinations, and so they push the idea aside. it is clear from the worthlessness of their premises that nihilists are not guided by the truth. They want everything to be just as they think it is, and every phantom that reflects their thoughts is exhibited by them as a witness to the truth. If they would sober up even a little, they would immediately see their lie. But they feel sorry for themselves, and therefore remain as they are. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 164-165
“…egotistical strivings are the primordial enemies of truth.” In the case of both religious and secular power-mongers, this egotism takes the obvious form of the publicly flaunted pursuit of self-interest. But “egotistical strivings” are not the sole property of the rich and powerful. All people, because “…they feel sorry for themselves…” shy away from holding the mirror of truth up to their own lives. Every man has a fallen nature, and therefore every man blinds himself to the truth. Salvation requires that man assent to the revealed truths of the Faith, receive the grace of faith, and let the light of truth enlighten his darkened mind. The world (society), the flesh (our passions), and the devil fight this every step of the way. But God’s grace is all-conquering, and a man who wills not to feel sorry for himself, who desires to know and to live by the truth at all costs, will receive it in abundance.
Avoiding heresies and delusions, then, is not simply a matter of the mind but also of the will. Someone has to will to know the truth at all costs, no matter what it takes. Then, for that truth to be his glory instead of his shame, he has to live by it, at all costs, no matter what it takes, for to accept the truth in word but deny it by one’s life is the same – or perhaps worse – than never having accepted it at all.
The age we live in, however, in the apt expression of the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, is an age of spiritual fakery par excellence. It is literally a pandemonium, an age in which all the demons of hell have been let loose, for “he that restraineth” (i.e., the divinely anointed Orthodox emperor, and true Christian authority in general) has been removed, evil men rule every nation, and therefore, in the short run, evil seems to have free rein. Every kind of false opinion and phony “goodness” is exalted, and the hard truth of God’s Word is derided, even denounced as evil itself. To fit in, to serve one’s immediate self-interest of societal acceptance and advancement, one must bury the truth and not let it reach one’s heart, or if one does know the truth, one must tie one’s tongue and not witness to it. The only path open to integrity is therefore not to fit in, to live as Noah before the Flood, Lot in Sodom, Joseph amid the fleshpots of Egypt, and Daniel in the court of Babylon.
Obviously, one can live in this way only by faith, by prayer, and by grace. Only a “man of divine desires,” like Daniel, can keep the truth firmly fixed in mind and heart – and live by it – while surrounded by the enemies of truth and their witting or unwitting slaves. Only the burning love for Christ can give one the ability to keep going when everything in this world militates against the truth of the Faith. Therefore conscious, attentive, and heartfelt prayer, on a daily basis, is not an “add-on,” an optional adornment of the obvious saints but not required for salvation. It is the life preserver of every sinner drowning in the sea of life.
The next time, then, you are tempted to skip your prayers, or inattentively to rattle through them, remember that you are, in fact, drowning, but the Lord is holding out His hand. He is saying, “Struggle a bit, pay attention to Me, and I will save you.”
5 August OS 2021 – Wednesday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; Forefeast of the Transfiguration, Holy Martyr Evsignios, St. Eugene of Aitolia, St. John the New Chozebite
Listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/matt9wed
In the Gospel today, Our Lord proclaims His grace and sovereign will to save all men, even those who wait till the eleventh hour to repent:
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. – Matthew 20: 1-16
St. Theophan the Recluse encourages us never to give up hope, even if we have waited until old age to repent:
In the parable about the hirelings, even he who worked only one hour was rewarded by he master of the house the same as the others. The hours of the day in this parable are an image of the course of our life. The eleventh hour is the final period of this life. The Lord shows that even those who lived without serving Him up to that moment can begin to work and can please Him no less than the others. Therefore, old age is no excuse. Let no one despair, supposing that there is no point in beginning to work. Begin, and do not be afraid. The Lord is merciful – He will give you all that He gives others: here, according to the order of grace, and there, according to the law of justice. Just have more fervor, and grieve more contritely about the carelessness in which almost all of your life was spent. You will say, “The master of the house summoned those in the parable – so, let the Lord call me. But is He not calling? Could it really be that you do not hear the voice of the Lord in the Church, saying, “Come unto Me all ye,” and the Apostle’s call, “As though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5:20).” – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 159-160
The Lord did not tell this parable, of course, in order to encourage us to put off repentance, saying, “Great, no problem. I shall live a worldly life, planning to take the salvation of my soul seriously at the eleventh hour and prepare for death.” Those who take this approach usually do not recognize the eleventh hour when they see it, and death takes them at a time they did not expect. The right understanding at all times is to say, “This is the eleventh hour!” As it is written in the Psalms, “Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts (Ps. 94),” and St. Paul exhorts us, saying, “For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2).” Every day, every moment, may be our eleventh hour. It is never too late or too early to repent. The time is always now.
The aggrieved workers of the first hour did not understand their employer’s seeming injustice because they did not acknowledge his right to do what he wished with what was his own. This is an image of our stiff-necked refusal to fall down before God’s infinite wisdom, accept His judgments, and confess His sovereignty over His creation and our lives in particular.
Both attitudes – “I’ll live as I please until old age, and then I’ll ‘get religion’,” and “God is not fair” – simply manifest the blindness of fallen nature. We live in delusion and do not realize it. If we saw things as they really are, we would be running to confess our sins constantly, commune frequently, and prepare for death daily. If we saw things as they really are, we would be overwhelmed with gratitude that God, indeed, is not “fair.” He is merciful. If He were not, no one would be saved.
Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.
For your fathers tempted Me, they proved Me and saw My works.
Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, and I said: They do always err in their hearts.
And they have not known My ways; so I swore in Mine anger: They shall not enter into My rest. – Psalm 94:8-11
There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His. Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. – Hebrews 4: 9-16
You can listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/osc65-2
For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. – Matthew 22:30
Thanks and Request for Donations
Again, thanks to our donors. May the Lord reward your love with His grace! To our other listeners: please consider a gift to help me out. If you have PayPal, you can send a gift to my account at email@example.com. If you wish to send a check instead, contact me at that email, and I can give you my mailing address.
Introduction – Here We Live Betwixt and Between
In this most recent part of our Survival Course, we have been discussing the various errors and delusions which plague not only worldly people, but pious Orthodox people as well, weakening them and pre-disposing them to surrender to the New World Order which is coming into being before our eyes, constructed by the forces of Antichrist. What to do? Our best defense is a good offense: To educate ourselves about the Church’s true teaching and then by grace-filled repentance to be cleansed of these errors and delusions, which cleansing will give us both the right understanding and the strength of will to resist being spiritually compromised by giving in to the demands of the Antichrist system. Probably no single aspect of life has been perverted and destroyed by the current world system as has the life of holy virginity, holy matrimony, the family, and, in general, everything pertaining to the virtue of purity and chastity. Sadly, many Orthodox, even those regarding themselves as religious people, have adopted some or many of the delusions of the present age. So it is time to fight back, and that is why we are now discussing the vocation of Holy Matrimony as well as the life of consecrated virginity.
In our last class, we discussed the origin and character of Christian marriage in light of the Creation accounts in Genesis, the text of the Orthodox wedding service, and the commentary of St. John Chrysostom on the passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians which is appointed to be read at the marriage service. In this class, we are going to talk about the Scriptural and patristic basis for the life of consecrated virginity – monasticism – and how understanding this will in turn refine and clarify our understanding of the married vocation within an Orthodox framework.
As we have often pointed out during our Survival Course, this Orthodox framework involves a chronology, a timeline. Indeed, we originally defined our course as an attempt at an Orthodox philosophy of history, an attempt to understand our origins – Creation – and our final purpose – the Kingdom of Heaven – and, in light of this, how to understand everything in between – history understood as the story of our salvation – and therefore how we should conduct our life in the here and now.
At the center of this history is, of course, the Economy of the Incarnation of the Son of God: How He became man at a specific point in time, died, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to inaugurate the era of the Church of the New Testament. The Early Church, as we discussed in Class 1, had four specific characteristics which, though often obscured in later times and places, nevertheless remain reliable hallmarks of true Christian life. Here’s what we said:
“The early Church had an intense awareness of [the imminence of the Second Coming], and therefore we can characterize her life as intensely eschatological, bound up with the acute sense of being at the very edge of eternity. Being eschatological, the Early Church set the tone for the entire life of the Orthodox Church until now, which is characterized by four related traits: The life of the Church is eschatological, other-worldly, martyric, and ascetical.”
All of Christian life, then, is a life lived betwixt and between, looking back to our Creation and Redemption, and looking forward to our final end, which is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven following the Second Coming of Christ, the General Resurrection, and the Dread Judgment. This eschatological mindset naturally gives birth to an otherworldly, martyric, and ascetical way of living, “the Way” we read of in the Acts of the Apostles, which is the first historical name Holy Scripture gives to the Christian Faith. The Church’s rules for Christian living, contained in the canons and the various descriptions and prescriptions for the active life found in the Church’s literature, can be understood accurately only in light of this eschatological viewpoint, sub specie aeternitatis. If one tries to understand them in a purely temporal and human way, strictly from the viewpoint of the various philosophical schools of ethical theory, one’s understanding always falls short. This is certainly true of the Church’s teaching on virginity and marriage.
Because Orthodox moral theology is essentially eschatological in character, having in mind always our final end, it is maximalist. What the Scriptures and Fathers present to us is simply the Gospel standard prescribed by Christ Himself: “Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” which command summarizes His entire teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, in which this saying occurs. One might say that this sermon of Our Lord in Matthew chapters five through seven is the first collection of “canons” in the Church, that is, the first collection of rules for the active Christian life. They present the ultimate akriveia (strictness)! In The Arena, Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov writes that even the greatest saints fall short of this standard of the Gospel; in other words, no one can live up to them, and yet God does not moderate them. The fallen human mind, entrapped by its vanity, rebels against this and demands that God and the Church lower their standards, so that one can be “even with God,” justified in one’s own mind. But God does not do this. Instead He calls us to constant repentance, until death: “A contrite and humble heart God will not despise.” He knows that we cannot live up to akriveia, and therefore towards us He practices oikonomia, if only we humble ourselves and persevere in repentance until death.
With this understanding as background, let us now return to the Beginning, to Genesis and the Fathers’ reading of Genesis, and try to understand the relationship of virginity and marriage to one another, as the Church understands this.
“In Christ there is neither male nor female…”.
[For the following I have relied on Fr. Seraphim Rose’s Genesis, Creation, and Early Man for the patristic commentaries quoted. I am indebted to the late Fr. Seraphim and to the editors at St. Herman Press for this invaluable aid].
In Galatians 3:28, St. Paul famously writes that in Christ there is “neither male nor female.” “Christian” advocates of feminism, transgenderism, and other disordered ideologies misuse this quote, of course, to advance their twisted ideas of androgyny, equality, sexless humanity, and so forth, which are actually a sacrilegious mockery of the pure and exalted state the saint is referring to. But what St. Paul is talking about is the eschatological perfection of the saints in the Kingdom of Heaven, which is a recapitulation, in fact a surpassing, of the original state of man in Paradise. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in an important commentary we read earlier in our course (Class 62) when discussing the superiority of the soul to the body, states that the image of God does not include the division into male and female, the latter being an economic arrangement made by God in prevision of the Fall:
“That which was made ‘in the image’ is one thing, and that which is now manifested in wretchedness is another. ‘God created man,’ it says, ‘in the image of God He created him.’ There is an end of the creation of that which was made ‘in the image’: then it makes a resumption of the account of creation, and says, ‘male and female created He them.’ I presume that everyone knows this is a departure from the Prototype: for ‘in Christ Jesus,’ as the Apostle says, ‘there is neither male nor female.’ Yet the phrase declares that man is thus divided.
“Thus the creation of our nature is in a sense twofold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction: for something like this the passage darkly conveys by its arrangement, where it first says, ‘God created man, in the image of God He created him,’ and then adding to what has been said, ‘male and female He created them’ – a thing which is alien from our conceptions of God.
“I think that by these words Holy Scripture conveys to us a great and lofty doctrine; and the doctrine is this. While two natures – the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes – are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned – of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female: for each of these elements is certainly to be found in all that partakes of human life. That the intellectual element, however, takes precedence over the other, we learn as from one who gives in order an account of the making of man; and we learn also that his community and kindred with the irrational is for man a provision for reproduction…” – On the Making of Man
This teaching of St. Gregory contradicts a bizarre teaching that in recent years has found its way into Orthodox circles through the “Sophiology” of Soloviev and Bulgakov, that somehow there is some kind of “male and female” within God Himself, a kind of “ying-yang” theology popular with some “Orthodox” modernists. This heresy teaches that the Father and Son are the “male principles” within God, and that the Holy Spirit and the Theotokos (whom they blasphemously say is the incarnation of the Divine Wisdom) are the “female principles.” Marriage, then, following this faulty theology, would have its basis in the uncreated nature of God, a teaching nowhere given in the Holy Scriptures. On the contrary, marriage is an economic dispensation for the life of fallen man, to help him on the path to salvation. Let’s see what the Father say about this:
“In the beginning life was virginal…”
St. John Chrysostom, who so beautifully extols marriage in the commentary on Ephesians 5: 20-33 which we quoted in our last class, nevertheless also puts marriage, as we know it, in its proper perspective, as being among those things arranged by God’s economy for man after the Fall:
“After the disobedience, after the banishment from Paradise, then it was that married life began. Before the disobedience, the first people lived like angels, and there was no talk of cohabitation. And how could this be, when they were free of bodily needs? Thus, in the beginning life was virginal; but when, because of the carelessness (of the first people) disobedience appeared and sin entered the world, virginity fled away from them, since they had become unworthy of such a great good, and in its place there entered into effect the law of married life.” – Homily 18 on Genesis
Now we know from what St. Chrysostom told us last time that he does not regard marriage as sinful or bad; on the contrary, he describes it as a very great good. But obviously he regards virginity as the original state of man in Paradise, and as a greater good than marital union. The Fathers in general agree that marriage as we know it, involving the physical union of man and woman, was arranged for by God in prevision of the Fall; it is part of “Plan B,” God’s oikonomia for the preservation of the fallen human race and the salvation of mankind. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in the commentary we quoted above, agrees with and expands upon this view shared by St. John Chrysostom:
“…He who brought all things into being and fashioned man as a whole by His own will to the Divine image…saw beforehand by His all-seeing power the failure of their will to keep a direct course to what is good, and its consequent declension from the angelic life. In order that the multitude of human souls might not be cut short by its fall…He formed for our nature that contrivance for increase which befits those who had fallen into sin, implanting in mankind, instead of the angelic majesty of nature, that animal and irrational mode by which they now succeed one another.” – On the Making of Man
By this, St. Gregory does not mean to denigrate marriage. He clarifies this in his treatise On Virginity thus:
“Let no one think that we depreciate marriage as an institution. We are well aware that it is not a stranger to God’s blessing…But our view of marriage is this: that, while the pursuit of heavenly things should be man’s first care, yet if he use the advantages of marriage with sobriety and moderation, he need not despise this way of serving the state…Marriage is the last stage of our separation from the life that was led in Paradise; marriage is the first thing to be left; it is the first station, as it were, for our departure to Christ.”
One may at this point rightly ask, “Then, if God intended for the man and woman to remain virginal, why did he command them to ‘increase and multiply’? How else would they increase and multiply than by physical intercourse?” St. John of Damascus answers thus:
“Virginity was practiced in Paradise…After the fall…to keep the race from dwindling and being destroyed by death, marriage was devised, so that by the begetting of children the race of men might be preserved.
But they may ask: What then, does ‘male and female’ mean, and ‘increase and multiply’? To which we shall reply that the ‘increase and multiply’ does not mean increasing by the marriage union exclusively, because if they had kept the commandment unbroken forever, God could have increased the race by some other means (emphasis added). But, since God, Who knows all things before they come to be, saw by His foreknowledge how they were to fall and be condemned to death, He made provision beforehand by creating them male and female and commanding them to increase and multiply.” – On the Orthodox Faith, 4.24
Ss. Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, Maximus the Confessor, and Symeon of Thessalonica all echo this teaching of St. John of Damascus in their writings – that if man had not fallen, God would have increased the human race by some means – unknowable to us – other than physical marriage as we know it. St. Augustine theorizes that there could have been coitus in Paradise, though completely without concupiscence (i.e., the gratification of sensual desire) – something unknown to us – but that Adam and Eve were in fact exiled from Paradise before coming together. In this, as in several other areas, Augustine is in the minority. But whether you accept the consensus of the Eastern Fathers or the minority view of St. Augustine – both of which involve speculation about something unknowable – the reality is that marriage as we know it is an arrangement made for man by God in prevision of the Fall.
Silver and gold
With all of this in mind, then, we can understand why the Church teaches that, while marriage is precious as silver, monasticism is precious as gold. Both are precious, but one is inherently greater than the other, as partaking by anticipation of the angelic state of the saved in the Kingdom of Heaven, by way of returning to the virginal state of our First Parents in Paradise.
Monasticism, that is, consecrated virginity, is a grace-filled state peculiar to the New Testament Church. In the Old Testament, virginity for the sake of one’s salvation is almost unknown, for the Old Testament is the time before the Kingdom of God was made manifest in the world, the time before the cycle of corruption and death was forever broken and the life of the eternal Eighth Day was inaugurated by the Resurrection of Christ.
In our next class, we shall continue this discussion of the nature of monasticism and how understanding monasticism helps us to understand the married life, as well.
16 July OS 2021 – Thursday of the Sixth Week of St. Matthew; St. Athenogenes, Hieromartyr
You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/2019-6-matt-th
In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus teaches the disciples that He permits the existence and intermingling of both the good and the evil during our earthly life, and how this relates to the Dread Judgment:
At that time, Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. – Matthew 13:36-43
St. Theophan the Recluse takes this occasion to explain the role of evil in the spiritual life of the faithful:
…Thus will be carried out the division of good and evil, light and darkness. Now is the period of time in which they are mixed. It pleased the Lord to arrange that the freedom of creatures should grow and be strengthened in good through the struggle against evil. Evil is allowed, both in connection with inward freedom and outside of a person. It does not determine anything, it only tempts. One who feels a temptation must not fall, but enter into battle. He who conquers is freed from one temptation, and advances forward and upward to find a new temptation there – and so on, until the end of his life. Oh, when will we comprehend the significance of the evil which tempts us, so that we might arrange our lives according to this understanding? The strugglers are finally crowned, and pass on to the next life, where there are neither sicknesses nor sorrows, and where they become inwardly pure like angels of God, free from the sting of tempting inclinations and thoughts. This is how the triumph of light and good is being prepared, and it will be revealed in all of its glory on the last day of the world. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 145
One of the stock arguments of atheists is the so-called problem of evil: “How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil? Either He is good but not all-powerful and therefore cannot prevent evil, or He is all-powerful but evil, since He causes or allows evil to exist.” There are several things wrong with this argument, but let us make one thing clear: Only the Christian understanding of evil allows for man’s moral freedom, for man to be a spiritual and free being capable of loving God. No other explanation makes room for this. God does not will evil, but He allows it, so that man may choose freely to obey Him or not, and so that the existence of evil may provide the arena for man’s spiritual struggle; truly do the Fathers say that without temptations no one would be saved. Anyone who has engaged in conscious spiritual life in an Orthodox setting understands this immediately.
Our intellects say, “Yes, now that someone has explained this to us, it is quite reasonable,” but we initially received this lofty understanding of man’s vocation through divine revelation, by grace, not by our own mental efforts. We realize that, being of divine origin, this truth is of course incomparably superior to the explanations that the fallen mind of man has created. We perceive that it gives us both peace of soul and the incentive to fight evil and to do good, and therefore not only is it intellectually satisfying but of the highest therapeutic and moral value. Experiencing this, we ask, “Why would anyone not want to believe in the Faith?”
The answer, of course, is pride of mind, pride of will, and pride of sensuality: Fallen man wants to create his own reality, fallen man wants to disobey God’s law, and fallen man wants to indulge his passions. Even so, man has always wanted to explain evil, and therefore the finite and fallen intellect of man has constructed three basic explanations of evil: either good and evil are illusions because all distinctions are illusions, or all outcomes are determined and you have no freedom, or everything is matter, and so God, soul, mind, and will do not exist.
The Eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and their variants – say that this world is an illusion, that evil is being trapped in the illusory, material world due to some cosmic accident no one can explain, and that you need to go through various incarnations to get rid of your materiality, in order to realize that even your personal existence and the existence of a personal God are illusions (or, conversely, that you are God, which amounts to the same thing), and that once you get rid of all mental distinctions, you will be absorbed into the World Soul, totally lose your individual existence, and feel no pain. One is eerily reminded of the epitaph of the apostate Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, who claimed to have no religion at all: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
Islam – and, to the extent that they are infected by determinism, schools of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought – say that only God’s will is operative in the universe, that He is not interested in explaining anything to us, that what constitutes good and evil is not even a question open to rational discourse, and that your job is to submit without question or thought to the great Divine Steamroller, Allah, or whatever you want to call it. Admit His total sovereignty, do not question anything, and jump onto this cosmic juggernaut before it runs over you. On Judgment Day, all you can do is hope for the best, because you have no idea whatsoever if you have pleased the GUI (the Great Ultimate It) or not.
Materialism says that everything we experience is an accidental concourse of material stuff, and therefore nothing means anything. Eat, drink, and be merry, or seek total power over others for the thrill of it, or commit suicide, or whatever. Since mind does not exist, who cares what good or evil are, anyway, or who could offer a meaningful definition, since what the neurons in your brain invent is an accident, and what the neurons in my brain invent is another accident, and the two do not have anything to do with each other, do they?
What all three explanations have in common, ultimately, is nihilism, “nothing-ism.” At root, all three deny Who God is, deny who man is, and deny the love of God for man. All three, at root, are the fruit of pride, of Satan’s rebellion against the All-Good and All-Loving God Who created him, the fruit of Satan’s choice to “reign in hell rather than to serve in heaven.” To adopt any of these three views and really live by it is to consign oneself to hell in this life, much less the next. Yet people fall very easily into these views, and only with great difficulty, and by God’s grace, do they accept the Truth. Without the miracle of grace, humankind cannot bear too much reality.
The Orthodox Church teaches us the truth, which is that God created man out of love and for love, so that man could freely choose to love God and do His holy will. Advancing step by step from the fear of punishment to the desire for heavenly rewards to the love of God for His own sake, and thereby attaining the freedom of divine friendship, a man becomes a “god by grace,” and in the process, far from being absorbed into the Cosmic One, and far from being the helpless pawn of an inscrutable fate, he becomes more, and more truly, himself. To accomplish this, however, we must be courageous and full of hope in God’s mercy; we must open our hearts and throw ourselves into the abyss of His love, trusting Him to catch us. We have to look evil square in the face and bravely hope in the all-loving and all-wise God, Who cares for us, Who became a man and died for us, and Who rose from the dead, giving us the hope of an everlasting life.
Kazantzakis claimed that he had no fear because he had no hope. This is not courage but the very essence of cowardice. We can choose this way – the way of nihilism – or we can go the path of the saints. Increasingly it becomes clear, from all that is happening around us, that there is no other choice.