The light yoke

8 June OS 2018 – Thursday of the Fourth Week of Matthew; S. Theodore the Commander, Great-Martryr; S. Kaliope, Virgin-Martyr

Today’s Gospel reading is our gracious Lord’s invitation to be freed of the burden of sin by taking on the light yoke of His commandments:

The Lord said to His disciples, All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. – Matthew 11:27-30

St. Theophan the Recluse explains the process by which this transformation takes place:

O Divine, O dear, O sweetest voice of Thine! Let us all follow the Lord, Who calls us! But first we must experience something difficult and burdensome for us. We must experience that we have many sins, and that these sins are grave. From this is born the need to seek relief. Faith will then show us that our only refuge is in the Lord and Savior, and our steps will direct themselves toward Him. A soul desiring to be saved from sins knows what to say to the Lord: “Take my heavy, sinful burden from me, and I will take Thine easy yoke.” And this is how it happens: the Lord forgives one’s sins, and his soul begins to walk in His commandments. The commandments are the yoke, and sins are the burden. But comparing the two, the soul finds that the yoke of the commandments is as light as a feather, while the burden of sins is as heavy as a mountain. Let us not fear readily accepting the Lord’s easy yoke and His light burden. In no other way can we find rest unto our souls. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 135

Here is how it happens, then:

Step One: We must experience that we have many sins, and that they are grave. St. Isaac the Syrian says that it is a greater miracle to see one’s sins than to raise the dead. Why? Because of the incomprehensible blindness of fallen human nature, which does not understand itself. We all have it. We must pray to see ourselves as we really are, so that we can really feel the burden of sin and the need to seek relief. We must realize with the entire consent of our being that we need a Savior.

Step Two: Faith shows us that our only refuge is our Savior and that He does forgive our sins. We are Orthodox Christians, and we use our intellect and will to know and accept the teachings of the Church, but often we do not feel them, do not have strong Faith welling up from the depths of our being with absolute conviction. This is not mere emotion, but a set of the soul, an experiential knowledge in the center of our being that God is, that God is indeed the Holy Trinity of Orthodoxy, and that Christ our Savior has indeed saved us. To acquire this set of soul, one near-infallible method is the frequent practice of slow, forcefully concentrated prayer. Open the prayer book, or take the Psalter, or take your prayer rope, and, in a quiet place, kneeling before the holy icons, force yourself to say the words a bit more slowly than usual, and forcefully struggle for attention, ruthlessly casting out every distracting thought. Set a timer for, say, ten or fifteen minutes, and do not let up until the alarm rings. If you feel the desire to continue, continue for as long as you like. Go on praying in this way until the light dawns in your heart. Do this frequently…daily. You shall see. The Lord promised to give us good things, and by praying in this way you are asking for the best things, including profound faith with the constant, abiding presence of God in the heart. He is faithful to His word, and He will give according to His promise.

Step Three: We must promise the Lord that we will live according to His holy commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments: and His commandments are not grievous (I John 5:3).” Yet we must be honest with ourselves and realize what the standard for loving God really is: “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin (Hebrews 12:4).” This struggle unto blood, which ensues upon our promising to keep the commandments, feels perfectly natural, however, to those who have gone through Steps One and Two, and who keep repeating them when faith grows weak. And not only does it begin to come naturally, but it also engenders ineffable relief and inner happiness, often in inverse proportion to the difficulties of our outward life.

Let us, then, struggle earnestly in prayer, that the Lord may energize the potential of the baptismal grace already within us, and then being transformed strive zealously for God’s commandments, for His glory and for our salvation. May we by grace know through experience that the yoke of Christ is easy and His burden light.

Come to Me

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All shall be made known

1 June OS 2018: Thursday of the Third Week of Matthew; S. Justin the Philosopher, Martyr 

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord tells assures His faithful ones that their struggles will not be in vain:

The Lord said to His disciples: When they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come. The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household? Fear them not therefore: for there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known. What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light: and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. – Matthew 10:23-31

It is a curious feature of our fallen nature that no matter how often we hear Christ telling us that suffering, rejection, exile, and so forth, mark the life of a true disciple, when we actually do suffer, we conclude that we must be doing something wrong. If we were “good people,” would not everyone like us and praise us? Would we not be, in fact, the toast of the town? Would we not – at least! – have peace and plenty? So we conclude that we must be missing something, that we did not get the memo.

Here Our Lord assures us once again that exile and persecution mark true discipleship, and therefore we should not get rattled when trying to follow Him creates problems for us, even problems that are so great as to seem impossible. No, we do not have perfect discernment, and yes, we make mistakes – too much zeal or too little, speaking out of turn or not speaking at all, making promises to God we cannot keep or being too afraid to promise anything, offending people without need or not offending them when they need it (believe it or not, there are people who need to be offended). We are not perfect – well, join the human race. But it is still far better to be like Peter and step out on the waves, though we mostly have no idea what we are doing; all we know is that the Master has said, “Come.” This is enough. With enough hard knocks, discernment will follow, if we humble ourselves and just keep going.

We know that our Orthodox beliefs concerning just about everything run contrary to the way most people think today, and this makes us lonely. But we should rejoice, because the Lord promises today that our witness will some day be vindicated before all mankind at the Dread Judgment. Of course, the corollary to this is that our failure to witness will also be exposed in the light of God. This should motivate us greatly to stay the course.

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Enduring with understanding

 31 May OS 2018 – Wednesday of the Third Week of Matthew; Holy Martyr Hermias, S. Petronilla, Daughter of S. Peter 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord promises His disciples that they who endure to the end shall be saved:

The Lord said to His disciples, Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved – Matthew 10: 16-22

 St. Theophan the Recluse gives us a to-do list of concrete measures to take in order to endure wisely unto salvation:

…Do we have anything to endure? In this no one is lacking. Everyone’s arena of endurance is vast, and therefore our salvation is at hand. Endure everything to the end and you will be saved. However, you must endure skillfully – otherwise you may not gain anything by your endurance.

 First of all, keep the Holy Faith and lead an irreproachable life according to the Faith. Immediately cleanse with repentance every sin that occurs.

 Second, accept everything that you must endure from the hands of God, remembering firmly that nothing happens without God’s will.

 Third, give sincere thanks to God for everything, believing that everything which proceeds from the Lord is sent by Him for the good of our souls. Thank Him for sorrows and consolations.

 Fourth, love sorrow for the sake of its great salvific power, and cultivate within yourself a thirst for it as for a drink which, although bitter, is healing.

 Fifth, keep in your thoughts that when misfortune comes, you cannot throw it off like a tight-fitting garment; you must bear it. Whether in a Christian way or in a non-Christian way, you cannot avoid bearing it; so it is better to bear it in a Christian way. Complaining will not deliver you from misfortune, but only make it heavier; whereas humble submission to God’s Providence and a good attitude relieve the burden of misfortunes.

 Sixth, realize that you deserve even greater misfortune. Recognize that if the Lord wanted to deal with you as you rightly deserve, would He have sent you such a small misfortune?

 Seventh, above all, pray, and the merciful Lord will give you strength of spirit. With such strength, when others marvel at your misfortunes, they will seem like nothing to you.

 from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 129-130

Now there we have a handy to-do list to print out and put on the refrigerator!

St. Theophan makes several points here, but I should like to expand on three: That we all have something to endure and therefore our salvation is at hand, that we actually deserve greater misfortunes than those which we receive, and that above all we must pray.

  1. “…therefore our salvation is at hand.”   The spiritual struggler will lose hope if he sees this life as a dark tunnel with no end in sight. The devil would certainly like for us to see it this way. But this is an illusion.   When one thinks of the thousands of years since the Creation, and all the human generations before us, and the illimitable expanse of the aeons of the invisible universe inhabited by the angels, and the endless joy of the saints in heaven…one realizes that one is a very little person after all, that this life is short, and that all that matters is whether we please God in our short trial or not. This life is a sprint, not a marathon. Soon all will be over here, and our real life – or real sufferings – will start there. Is it not worth our while to endure for this short time?
  1. “…realize that you deserve even greater misfortune.” St. Ignaty Brianchaninov, in The Arena, is more explicit: One should realize that one deserves every temporal and eternal punishment.   Why is this? It is because the infinitely holy and good God has lavished His love on us, but we sin against Him. What misfortune would be sufficient to punish such ingratitude?   But the Lord does not visit such misfortune upon us – nothing we suffer is commensurate with what we deserve.   The proud human mind says that this teaching is a false image of a cruel god. The humble mind realizes that this is very Good News indeed, for it signifies that God desires our salvation, and that the misfortunes He sends us are not only for the retribution that we justly deserve because of our sins, but also for the cleansing of our souls from our sins, for our salvation, because He wants us to be with Him once more in Paradise. He desires our salvation more than we do.
  1. “…above all, pray…”   The time of misfortune is actually the most opportune time for prayer, because it is a crisis, a moment of judgment, when we either go more deeply into prayer or we run away from God into illusory solutions to our predicament. When we do turn to God in great pain of heart, in the midst of suffering, our prayer deepens, we feel His presence, and we understand that we are made not for this life but for another world, that our home is not here but there, and this thought becomes the source of inexhaustible consolation. Prayer changes from being an interruption to our supposedly real life to the content of our really real life. We start praying more frequently, even constantly, and with greater fervor and attention.  This in turn gives us greater strength to endure the present misfortune and those yet to come.

Living in this way, we come to know in our experience the meaning of St. Paul’s words, “…we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose… For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:28, 38-29).”

christ-being-led-to-the-crucifixion-monastery-decani-detail

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For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God

27 May OS 2018: Saturday of the Second Week of Matthew; S. Therapon of Sardis, Hieromartyr; S. John the Russian 

In today’s reading from the Apostolos (Romans 3:19-26), St. Paul tells us flat out that no human being is naturally pleasing to God.

Brethren: Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Today everyone is yelling and screaming to prove that they are better than that other person, who is totally evil and needs to be silenced and destroyed. St. Paul has the answer to this: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Today everyone is casting about for materialistic solutions to what are essentially spiritual problems. St. Paul has the answer to this: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

Today people think they can discover the roots of evil through psychology or sociology or political science or historical analysis. St. Paul has the answer for this: For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

We need to remind ourselves constantly that apart from the grace of God and the forgiveness through Jesus Christ, apart from enlightenment and protection from above, we are naturally in continuous communion with malicious demons who are invading our minds every minute, giving us false opinions, aggravating our sinful passions, and impelling us to bad decisions, sinful behavior, and the destruction of community, family, and self. This is just the way it is. And this is true of everyone, not just the obviously wicked.

Though we are baptized Orthodox Christians, we easily forget this truth, rely on our own righteousness, forget to abide in constant mourning over sin, forget death and God’s judgment, and live in delusion. Unless we sincerely believe ourselves worthy of every temporal and eternal punishment, cast our care entirely on the Lord, and abide in constant repentance, we are deluded.

It is now a holy fasting season. Time to wake up.

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Island of saints

26 May/8 June 2018:  Friday of the Second Week of St. Matthew;  Holy Apostle Carpus of the Seventy; S. Augustine of Canterbury, Enlightener of the English 

Since today is the feast of St. Augustine of Canterbury, I thought it appropriate to re-post something I wrote in 2015 about England and Orthodoxy, to honor another English saint, the Righteous King Edward the Passion-Bearer:

3 September OS 2015 – Wednesday of the Sixteenth Week after Pentecost (Sixteenth Week of Matthew), Holy Hieromartyr Anthimus of Nicomedia, Holy Righteous Theoctistus, the Translation of the Relics of the Holy Passion Bearer Edward King of England

The Holy Orthodox Church is not the property of this or that group of people. It is the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, into which Jesus Christ calls men of every nation, race, and tongue, unto their salvation. In recent centuries, Orthodoxy has been relegated – even, or rather especially, by many of its supposed adherents – to the mere status of this or that tribal religious tradition, a view eagerly agreed with by secular anthropologists and other, less savory, people.  But the truth is otherwise.

epitaphios

We know from Holy Tradition that the isle of Britain received the Gospel in the Apostolic generation, from no less a missionary than St. Joseph of Arimathea, along with St. Aristobulus the Apostle.   In other words, the Orthodox Church in Britain, though its existence was interrupted for a millennium, is as old as the great Orthodox Churches of the various Greek-speaking peoples, and far older than important national churches such as the Russian and Serbian. At the time of its founding, its people were Britons, Celts related to today’s Irish and highland Scots, but they were in the process of being Romanized. Today their descendants live in Wales and in Brittany on the coast of France. Who drove them into the little corner of Britain we call Wales, and who chased them across the Channel to Gaul? Why, the English, of course.

During the fifth and sixth centuries, barbarians from the north of Germany – the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians – sailed over to Britain and gradually conquered most of what we call England, driving the provincial Roman Christians (for that is what the Britons had become) into the borderlands and setting up their own pagan societies. One of these groups, the Angles, eventually gave their name to them all, thus “England” and “the English.” Now and then a Roman nobleman (like King Arthur, if he really existed) would give them a beating and win the Christians a breathing space, but by the year 600 AD these pagan Germanic people had thoroughly taken over. They called the Roman provincials they had conquered wealas – “foreigners” – and thus our modern words “Wales” and “Welsh.” (Thus also, strangely enough, “Wallachia” and “Vlach,” because the Slavs who conquered the Romans in the eastern half of the Danube region had borrowed the same word from the Germans. Now, I am descended from Welsh people, and therefore my Romanian friends will be happy to know that I am a Vlach too!).

Icon-St.-Bede

Anyway, why did God let this happen? An Orthodox saint, Bede the Venerable, in his great Ecclesiatical History of the English People, says that it is because the Roman Christians in Britain 1. Were morally corrupt, and 2. Did not love the pagan invaders, but only dealt with them on the fallen human level, as enemies, and made no efforts to convert them to the Faith.   We various Orthodox of the 21st century should ponder their fate and why it came upon them.

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Who, then, made the English into Christians?   Other Romans did it, Romans from Old Rome herself, directed by no less a person than St. Gregory the Great (whom we Easterners call “the Dialogist”), Pope of Rome, another Orthodox saint, who reposed in the year 604 AD.   One day in the 590’s, walking through the slave market in Rome, St. Gregory saw some handsome Old English youths up for sale.   He asked his companion, “Of what race are these men?” Upon hearing that they were Angli (Angles, i.e., English), the saint, struck by their innocent faces and noble bearing, replied, “Call them, rather, angeli (angels),” and he resolved to send missionaries to (what had become) England to convert their nation.   Not one to waste time (St. Gregory is one of those great “action men” of history), he sent one of his hieromonks, Augustine, to England with a group of priests and monks, to carry out this resolve.   They landed at Canterbury in Kent on the east coast of Britain and converted the local king, Ethelbert. Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and thus began a new Orthodox local Church, which lasted until 1066, when Normans from France, carrying an authorization in writing from the by-then-heretical-and-schismatic pope of Rome, conquered the English and made them into what people today would call “Roman Catholics” (though Eastern Orthodox polemicists have usually preferred less polite, albeit more accurate terms like “filioquists, papists, rantizmates, azymites, etc.” It is actually we who function as the Catholics and the Romans when we are behaving ourselves, but that is another story).   Around 500 years after that, an evil king destroyed all the monasteries, desecrated the relics of the saints, and made the English into Protestants. Today, it seems, his successors, directed by the same spirit or spirits, wish to see them made into Mohammedans. But let us return to the Old English.

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This Old English Orthodox Church produced many saints in its nearly 500 year history, one of whom we celebrate today, which is, to cut to the chase, why I have given this little history lesson: the young King Edward, the Passion-Bearer, a pious and Orthodox king who encouraged monastic reform and general spiritual renewal among his people. He was foully murdered by courtiers who hated his spiritual direction and wanted a king they could corrupt for their own ends, and so Holy Church regards him as a “Passion-Bearer,” a holy man who suffered in the Christian manner for the sake of piety. In other words, non-Christians did not kill him for being a Christian; bad Christians killed him for acting like a Christian.   He entered the heavenly kingdom in the year 979, and immediately he began to perform miracles for those who prayed to him and venerated his holy relics. Today, believe it or not, these same relics, through an amazingly providential history, lie enshrined in the beautiful little church of a monastic brotherhood that belongs to our True Orthodox Church of Greece, in Brookwood, Surrey, England.   You can read more about St. Edward at their website, at http://www.saintedwardbrotherhood.org/edward2.html.

God is wondrous in His saints, of every nation, race, and tongue. As we witness the building of a new global Tower of Babel by those who hate Christ, we who love Him will not defeat them by hating the true, Pentecostal, global unity with our true Orthodox brethren of every nation, race, and tongue, but by loving them, and by loving, yes, even our enemies, and desiring their salvation.   Our God, the true God, is He “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4).” It is a curious turn of God’s providence that the global language of the new Babel descends from the tongue spoken by those angelic invaders from north Germany.   There is no “chance” in life; there is only the working out of God’s plan in history.   Without putting aside the rich languages of our various national heritages, we must perforce use this English tongue to convert the nations. We have no choice, and let us therefore use it well.

Once, when He descended and confounded the tongues, the Most High divided the nations; but when He divided the tongues of fire, He called all men into unity; and with one accord we glorify the All-Holy Spirit.   

– The Kontakion of Pentecost, by St. Romanus the Melodist

B085JB mosaic of the Pentecost, Katholikon church, Hosios Loukas monastery Greece

B085JB mosaic of the Pentecost, Katholikon church, Hosios Loukas monastery Greece

 

 

 

 

 

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No room for sissies

24 May OS 2018: Wednesday of the 2nd Week of Matthew; S. Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain, S. Vincent of Lerins

Today’s Gospel reading is Matthew 7: 21-23:

The Lord said, Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

If we want to enter the Kingdom of God, we must do His holy will. This should seem obvious – Christianity 101, so to speak – but the obvious bears repeating. No amount of prayer or good works is pleasing to God apart from obedience to His will.

A lot of present-day verbiage intended to attract non-Orthodox Christians to Orthodoxy emphasizes Orthodoxy as a path to healing and spiritual fulfillment. This accords with the spirit of our age, in which everyone fixates on a little god called the individual and his imagined needs. Every potential convert is a “needy” little victim of something or other, and the Church is “reaching out” to him to “fill his needs.” This effeminate approach attracts effeminate converts and produces effeminate Christians, not warriors for God’s Kingdom. The Church is a place of healing, of course, but only as a field hospital for those wounded in battle, not a “safe space” where conscientious objectors to spiritual warfare can feel better about their separate peace with the devil.

In another place, the Lord says that many are called but few are chosen. The “few” are those who have forgotten about themselves and care about God: His honor, His glory, doing His holy will. A true Christian is someone who struggles daily to crucify his delusions and his passions, and he seeks only to do the will of God. The journey of his life often proves unpleasant, and he often proves unpleasant company for the small of soul who conduct their pilgrimage on earth as a shopping trip for lollipops.

The call to conversion is a trumpet call to battle, not an advertisement for a spa. Let the small of soul suck their thumbs somewhere else. The Church is for those who want to be heroes.

This day, this hour, this minute, let us seek to love God above all and to do His holy will.

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Virtue above nature

19 May OS 2018: Pentecost Friday; S. Patrick of Proussa, Bishop and Martyr; S. Dunstan of Canterbury, Bishop

In today’s Gospel, Our Lord continues His Sermon on the Mount, telling us to turn the other cheek and other humanly impossible deeds:

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. – Matthew  5: 33-41

What does it mean to turn the other cheek? The Church does not teach absolute pacifism, for there are times when we resist evil on behalf of others: for example, a Christian man who does not resist someone invading his home to kill his family is not only not virtuous but rather the opposite. An Orthodox warrior who fights for his nation to resist alien conquest fulfills Christ’s words that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And we must always struggle fiercely, with unwavering intransigence, against the enemies of the Church who devour men’s souls. It is to one’s own enemies that one must turn the other cheek; no one has given us the right to practice non-resistance to the enemies of God, family, and nation. We must practice meekness towards the person right in front of us whom we see every day, the one we live with, work with, worship with. It is he who is constantly offending our self-love, whom God has sent to help us find our salvation.

Furthermore, meekness gives birth to courage: the man who – not from some defect of his incensive faculty but out of a conscious choice to practice evangelical meekness – does not repay with slander the colleague who slanders him at work, or who does not voice resentment against his brother-in-law for not repaying a loan, or who practices absolute silence in regard to his wife’s defects of character, is more, not less, likely to lead the charge when the battle trumpet sounds. Self-sacrifice has become his fundamental orientation, and virtue to virtue gives birth.

To acquire both the discernment and the power to start practicing lofty evangelical virtues like meekness, however, we must have a conscious inner life. There is no external calculus one can apply infallibly to every single moral situation – you have to construct an inner compass. In the introduction to his Russian translation of the Philokalia, St. Theophan the Recluse states that cultivating the inner life of attentiveness is required of every Christian, not only consecrated ascetics:

Secret life in our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the truly Christian life, begins, develops, and rises to perfection (for each in his own measure), through the good will of God the Father, by the action of the grace of the Holy Spirit present in all Christians, and under the guidance of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who promised to abide with us for all time…God’s grace calls all men to such a life; and for all men it is not only possible but obligatory… – Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Kadloubovsky and Palmer trans., Faber and Faber 1951, p. 13

The Sermon on the Mount, with its demand for perfection above nature (“Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”), is comprehensible only to those leading the grace-filled life of the Church in the manner intended by God, that is, with the struggle for unceasing attention and prayer, under the guidance of the Church and in conjunction with the life of the Holy Mysteries. Teachings on moral philosophy, social reform, or political utopias created by minds functioning outside of this context all contain fatal flaws. The only way back for us, the only return to sanity – for ourselves, our families, our nations, our civilization – is through the strait gate of the heart.

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The mystery of the age to come

Wednesday, 17 May OS 2018 – Afterfeast of Pentecost; Ss. Andronikos and Junia, Apostles 

After the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost, the Church immediately gives us our marching orders, in the words of the Lord at His Sermon on the Mount, so that we will put to work the grace we have received. Today’s section of the Sermon is Matthew 5:20-26.

The Lord said to His disciples, For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

St. Theophan the Recluse explains what it means for our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees:

Characteristic of the scribes is knowledge of the law without concern for life according to the law. Characteristic of the Pharisees is correctness of outward behavior without particular concern for correctness of thoughts and feelings in the heart. Both attitudes are condemned to remain outside the Kingdom of Heaven. Let everyone receive the lesson he needs from this. If you want to learn the Gospel law, do so – but in a way that enables you to establish your life according to this knowledge. Try to be correct in your behavior, but keep your inner feelings and dispositions correct at the same time. If you have gained some knowledge, do not stop there, but go further and understand the demands such knowledge makes of you – then act appropriately. Let your behavior show that your feelings and dispositions are not the result of externals, but that your external behavior proceeds from your feelings and dispositions, and actually expresses them. If you establish yourself this way, you will be higher than the scribes and Pharisees, and the doors of the Kingdom will not be closed to you.  Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 120

The interior life has become foreign territory for most people, including Orthodox Christians. Busyness is the order of the day. If we are not at work, or getting trained to do some kind of technical or business job unrelated to humane (much less spiritual) concerns, or running around doing errands, we are distracting ourselves with sporting events or “news,” entertainment, and social media.   The mind, made to dwell within the heart, gets broken up and scattered over a thousand concerns, and the heart languishes in hard dryness, locked up and ignored.

St. Isaac the Syrian says that stillness is the mystery of the age to come; people addicted to busyness would not like heaven if they got there. By stillness, of course, he does not mean mere inactivity, laziness, not using the gifts God gave us. He means that we must center our lives within, with the mind in the heart, and live from there.   Then, whether “in the body or out of the body,” we will be living for the Lord, and we will become the true and lasting selves God means us to be. When the time comes for the soul to leave the body, the transition will be “painless, blameless, and peaceful,” as we pray in every Vespers, Matins, and Divine Liturgy.

To live in this way, we must take both negative and positive steps. The negative steps include turning off electronic devices except for strictly planned and structured use, and cutting out unnecessary busyness and idle talk.   The positive steps include being faithful to daily prayer and spiritual reading, learning the Jesus Prayer from the right sources and doing it, frequent confession, and frequent Holy Communion with attentive preparation. It is really a simple program when you think about it.

I recall a visit we made a few years ago to a women’s monastery in Greece. The elderly nun who came to the reception room to greet us – who had lived in the monastery from six years of age – sat down and looked at us, with a slight smile and twinkling eyes, for several minutes, before she said anything. She was at peace within herself and gave us credit for being so as well. There was no rush. It was the deeper courtesy born of profound respect for what it means to be alive, to be human, and to be God’s children.

The people in charge of worldly affairs today would like for us not to think or pray at all, but simply be robotic cogs in this vast, lifeless, and boring contraption they are constructing to replace human society. I suppose that once they figure out a way for the actual robots to do everything, they plan to do away with us altogether. The most fundamental counter-revolutionary act we can perform to sabotage this anti-human takeover is to do the most human thing possible: to go within ourselves and pray with the mind in the heart. All of our outward resistance must flow from this.

Isaac of Syria

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The just shall live by faith

16 May OS 2018: The Third Day of Trinity, Tuesday of Pentecost Week; S. Theodore the Sanctified, Blessed Child Musa of Rome 

Having completed reading the Acts of the Apostles on the Saturday before Pentecost, we now begin the great annual cycle of the apostolic epistles, hearing today St. Paul’s opening words to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (Which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead: By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for his name: Among whom are ye also the called of Jesus Christ: To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that oftentimes I purposed to come unto you, (but was let hitherto,) that I might have some fruit among you also, even as among other Gentiles. I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. Romans 1: 1-7, 13-17

The just shall live by faith.” St. Paul begins his annual tutorial for us on what it means to be a Christian by stating his main thesis.

There are people who think that if they strive for justice, they do not need faith in Jesus Christ. These are the humanists, the Freemasons, and the universalists. They think they can be right and do good without the right faith in Jesus Christ. On Judgment Day, they are in for a surprise.

There are people who think that if they have faith in Jesus Christ, it does not matter whether they strive to practice justice or not. These are all they who are smug about having faith, not being humbled by the moral demands of faith. They think that “being saved” gives them a free pass not to struggle with sin. On Judgment Day, they are in for a surprise.

How do you know if you have the capacity to be just? Well, first of all, ask yourself if you are in the True Faith. Apart from the true faith and the true baptism, all of man’s “justice” is worthless. How do you know, furthermore, if you are in the True Faith not only in potency (possessing the grace) but also in act (energizing the grace), that is, unto salvation and not damnation? Well, ask yourself if you are struggling, with total reliance on the all-sufficing grace of Christ’s Sacrifice, and according to the unerring apostolic and patristic tradition, to overcome your passions and sins, and thereby to attain the Original Justice man had with God in Paradise.

Start there. 

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The prize of our high calling

12 May OS 2018 – Friday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Leave-taking of the Ascension of the Lord; S. Epiphanios of Cyprus, S. Germanos of Constantinople

In today’s Gospel, we are privileged to hear very words of the God-Man addressed to His heavenly Father on the night before He died, the conclusion of the Great High Priestly Prayer which is the entire content of chapter seventeen of the Gospel according to St. John:

At that time, Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven and said, “As thou, Father, hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me. And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them. John 17: 18-26

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that the Lord’s words here mean that it is all or nothing for us, union with the Holy Trinity or total damnation. No one gets to settle for anything in between.

“As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us…I in them, and thou in me (John 17:21-23).” This is the golden chain that ties us with the Divinity! We have fallen away and a Mediator has arisen, Who is one with God the Father and has become one with us. Becoming one with Him, we are united in Him, and through Him with God the Father. Glory to Thy boundless mercy toward us, O Tri-hypostatic God, Who was well-pleased to establish for us such a bright path to deification! The Lord raises us up high; do not refuse His good gift. Confess His mercy and praise His unspeakable goodness! You think it humble to refuse such a height, but you are actually revealing crude ingratitude and carelessness toward a lofty gift. Know that there is no middle ground – it is all or nothing. If you do not want this loftiness, you will remain outside in bitter abasement, both temporally and eternally. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 117

A little scary, is it not?   Well, we need to be a little scared. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” after all.  But St. Theophan is not saying here that we all have to become strict ascetics and hesychasts immediately, or we are doomed. What he means is that wherever we are spiritually, and whatever the duties required by our station and state of life, we always have to be looking upwards, remembering what our ultimate destiny and our true calling is, and always pushing ourselves a bit, prudently but definitely. “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).”

It is not humble, the saint remarks, to refuse union with God; it is base ingratitude.   It is also completely unrealistic, for there is no “safe place,” no middle-ground where those uninterested in spiritual life who are nonetheless moral citizens of the world of man may retire in anesthetized spiritual indifference for the duration of this life and for all eternity after death. It really is all or nothing. Every being in existence is truly happy only when fulfilling its purpose, its telos, says Aristotle, and the Holy Fathers agree with him. Our purpose is to attain the indwelling grace of the Trinity and abide in God’s bosom for all eternity. Those who attain this purpose will be forever happy, and those who do not will be forever sad.

One of the telltale marks of the image of God in man, prima facie evidence that man is made according to the image of God, is man’s thirst for God, experienced as the thirst for spiritual life. St. Augustine says famously that our hearts are made for God and that they are restless until they rest in Him.  It is of utmost importance that we not quench this thirst but slake it daily and hourly. As we slake it, we feel delight, and yet – behold – the thirst grows. We must drink more deeply, and then more deeply, constantly, always, until we come to the Fountain of Life in Person and behold Him face to face. Then, according to the words of Truth Himself, spoken to the woman at the well, we will thirst no more.

“In Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light shall we see light. O, continue Thy mercy unto them that know Thee!”

DeerParadiseRest

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