And His own received Him not

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week of Matthew

In today’s Gospel, the Lord’s fellow townsmen are offended because of His teaching them in the synagogue:

At that time, Jesus came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.
And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits. 
– Mark 6: 1-7

         We may often become discouraged, because it seems that even those nearest and dearest to us are not interested in our Faith, or, if they are Orthodox nominally, are not interested in deepening their understanding and practice of the Faith.   If even the Lord Himself was ignored, even derided, by His own (He came unto his own, and his own received him not – John 1:11), who are we to think that we will convert or inspire those close to us? The servant is not greater than his lord…(John 15:20).   We must always be concerned for the salvation of our neighbor, but we must also be humble enough to realize that not everything we say or do to show our concern will be effective.   There are several reasons for this:

  1. Ultimately, the salvation of the other person is in the hands of God. He alone knows what the other person really needs at this or that point. We do our best and put the rest in God’s hands.
  2. The other person has his own mind and his own will. “One man can lead a horse to water, but a thousand men cannot make him drink.” What is in the other person’s heart is, in the final analysis, a mystery known to God alone.
  3. We are but the least of God’s servants. Perhaps we lack something in our own wisdom, or in the example that we give. Let us repent and pray for that wisdom and to become the good example the other person needs.

May the Lord always give us loving hearts which desire the salvation of our neighbor, and may He at the same time give us the desire to seek only His holy will, and to leave all things in His hands.   He loves our neighbor and desires his salvation infinitely more than we do. May He save and have mercy upon us all.

Sermon on the Mount

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Beside ourselves

Wednesday of the 13th Week of Matthew 

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In today’s Gospel, we see both the Lord’s friends and His enemies stating that He is possessed.

      And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils. And he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house. – Mark 3: 20-27

This passage reveals that during His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ had friends who were not His disciples.   They were simply His friends, the relatives and neighbors among whom He had lived during the time before His three-year mission for the salvation of the human race. Perhaps these friends were among the people who, in another place, the Evangelist records as saying, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” or, in other words, “Is this not just another ordinary fellow like ourselves?” Their saying that “he is beside Himself” means, according to St. Theophylact, that they believed He was possessed with a demon.   Being His friends, though uncomprehending ones, they say this out of concern for His welfare. They think Him to be a victim of evil. Being His enemies, the scribes from Jerusalem say the same thing out of malice. They call Him a servant of evil.

Does not the same thing occur to us Orthodox Christians?   We have friends and relatives, both non-Orthodox and nominal Orthodox (or even those who claim to be pious!), who try to dissuade us from a Gospel mindset, an otherworldly life, because they believe that it is bad for us, something evil.   It interferes with having a “good life,” and being our friends they want us to have a “good life.”   They think that we are victims of evil. We have enemies who hate the Faith and claim that we are not mere victims but active servants of evil.   Which kind of person, one wonders, does us greater harm? Often, perhaps, it is the former kind, because we are more inclined to listen to them.

Here is a rule of thumb you can count on: Most human beings – the overwhelming majority, including the overwhelming majority of baptized Orthodox – are, to a greater or lesser extent, in delusion (plani in Greek, prelest in Slavonic). I do not mean that most people are seeing preternatural visions or doing obviously crazy things, though that kind of thing is certainly on the increase.  Most people have garden-variety delusionthat is, they are simply, fundamentally mistaken most of the time about what is really going on outside of them and inside of them.   This includes us. The difference between them and us, if there is a difference, is that we know we are mistaken, we have the means to work on it, and we are working on it. We are crying out day and night, “O Lord, deliver me from delusion!”

If we, who are Orthodox and moreover trying to do something about it (however feebly), are frequently in delusion, what about all the other people out there? In other words, why should we listen to them?   I do not mean that they cannot teach us how to grow vegetables or drive a car or do algebra. I mean that they cannot give us our life orientation. They cannot advise us as to “what it is all about.” Let us not be swayed when they claim that we are out of our minds.   Of course we are, but we know the way back into our minds, and we are trying to go there.   They too are out of their minds, but they do not know the way, and they cannot show it to us.

O Lord, only Truth and only Way, deliver us from delusion, heal our fragmented minds and divided wills, and keep us on the straight path to Thee our Life! Amen.

The Lord exorcises the Gadarene demoniac. Sixth century mosaic, Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

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Repent ye and believe the Gospel

20 August OS 2022 – Friday of the 12th Week of Matthew; Holy Prophet Samuel

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This past 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 the Gospel corresponds to the old Roman character: sober, no-nonsense, and to the point.  St. Mark’s Gospel emphasizes the actions of Christ:  One goes rapidly from one event to another, one miracle to another, right up to the climactic chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, which recount Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.  Some of the Lord’s oral teachings, given to edify us and call us to obedience, are given as well, but the overwhelming impression one receives from reading this Gospel, especially if one will set aside time to read it aloud from start to finish, is that of His active divine power, destroying the reign of Satan and bringing the Kingdom of God into the world.  

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 – physically and mentally read and hear them, while struggling for attention – make an act of faith in their truth, pray for understanding, and resolve to live according to their demands, both those explicitly taught by Christ in words and those implied by His actions. 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 assigned passage or perhaps a whole chapter, going 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 and first step, and the Holy Spirit will grant us understanding, if only 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. The commentaries of the ancient Fathers, pre-eminently St. John Chrysostom, are the most complete, but most of us need something shorter: the normative short commentary is the explanation of the Gospels by St. Theophylact of Ochrid. This essential Orthodox reading was made available in English, in four volumes, from Chrysostom Press in House Springs, Missouri, some time ago, though it is now being published and sold by St. Herman Press.  You can find it here:  https://www.sainthermanmonastery.com/category-s/1896.htm

Besides, or along with, St. Theophylact, the best guide to the Gospels for our time is the commentary by Archbishop Averky, 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.

Today, 20 August/2 September 2022 marks the 40th anniversary of the repose of Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose).  One of Fr. Seraphim’s “quotable quotes” was, famously, “We know they are Orthodox, but are they 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 the Faith that manifest the Gospel and 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 canons, hierarchical structures, church buildings, 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, and their purpose, 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 church organization. Pharisees worship rules and outward 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 shall determine our fate for all eternity. Let each of us hasten to make himself most intimate with the book by which he will be judged, and compare to it daily and continually that other book which shall be opened at the Judgment, the book of his heart.

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Turning to the Lord once and for all

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of Matthew

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. – Matthew 23: 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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

                                                                        – Schema-archimandrite Gabriel

By the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.  Amen. 

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The life within

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Tuesday of the Eleventh Week of Matthew 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord reproves the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, whose entire religion is a calculated method of pretense before the eyes of men, while their souls are filthy  within.   

The Lord said, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.  Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.  Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup ad platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness.  Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.  – Matthew 23: 23-28 

The Lord’s great diatribe against these pretended spiritual guides of the Old Testament Church contains, first of all, a theological meaning:  The revelation of the Gospel is the true interpretation of the Old Testament, and rabbinical Judaism, of which the Pharisees of the time of Christ are the originators, is not the religion of the Old Testament;  it is, rather, a clever distortion thereof, a system of outward conduct that  fosters the most profound disorder within the soul.   St. Theophan the Recluse, however, in his commentary on this passage, explains its practical meaning for the spiritual life of the Christian.  He applies the Lord’s words to us, in order to warn us of the dangers of a purely outward religious life and to encourage us to develop the interior life of the soul:  

Cleanse the inner so the outer will be clean.  Our outward behavior in society is almost always proper – we fear the judgment of people and restrain ourselves. If we give ourselves over to vices outwardly, this is the end – it means that all shame is lost. But when one’s visible behavior is proper, the inner tenor of thoughts and feelings is not always proper.  Here complete freedom is given to pleasing oneself, which is satisfied outwardly to the degree that the eyes of men can bear it and as far as it can hide its works from human sight.  This is precisely what a whited sepulcher is.  Furthermore, inner uncleanness makes what is on the outside unclean.  Cleanse yourself inwardly, and then the exterior will become clean, and you will be entirely clean.  You will be made into a vessel that is fit for all the good uses of a householder.  One must marvel at how the inside remains neglected; after all, no one wants perdition.  Truly,  the enemy keeps such a soul in blindness – [he says] that there is no problem as long as there are no obvious sins, or he teaches the soul to put off what is important until tomorrow.  “Tomorrow we’ll work seriously on ourselves, as we ought; but now let my soul take some pleasure in passionate thoughts and dreams, if not deeds.”  Let us be on our guard that we do not grow old in such a frame of mind, lest correction become impossible for us, like teaching an old man new things.  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 170 

It is easy to compare our outward conduct to that of the clueless degenerates who now surround us and conclude that we are doing pretty well in the eyes of God.  In the midst of the present moral chaos, good old fashioned bourgeois respectability seems a miracle of divine intervention, and it probably is.   But we are called to higher things, and the Lord is not satisfied with us until we give Him our hearts.  

Years ago, I was struck by another, related passage from Theophan the Recluse, which I came across in the anthology entitled The Art of Prayer by Igumen Chariton of Valaam.  I repent of not putting it into practice vigorously and consistently, but now, as always, is the time to start.  The saint here teaches that the spiritual father should not wait until his spiritual children have shown regularity in outward prayer rules before teaching them about the interior life of the Jesus Prayer and constant inward attentiveness. Rather he should do this right away, both because the latter is more essential and because without it the former does not bear fruit. Worse, it actually hardens the soul against purity and holiness; it produces the soul of a Pharisee. Here is a section of that passage:  

Gather yourself together in the heart, and there practice secret meditation.  By this means, with the help of God’s grace, the spirit of zeal will be maintained in its true character – burning sometimes less and sometimes more brightly.  Secret meditation sets our feet on the path of inner prayer, which is the most direct road to salvation [emphasis mine].  We may leave all else and turn only to this work, and all will be well.  Conversely, if we fulfill all other duties and neglect this one task we shall bear no fruit. 

He who does not turn within and look to this spiritual task will make no progress.   It would be true to say that this task is extremely difficult, especially at the beginning, but on the other hand it is direct and fruitful in result.  A spiritual father should therefore introduce the practice of inner prayer among his spiritual children as early as possible, and confirm them in its use.  It is even possible to start them in this before any exterior observances, or together with them; in any case it is essential not to leave it until too late.  This is because the very seed of spiritual growth lies in this inner turning to God.  The Art of Prayer, 1997 ed. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, pp. 77-78

To begin is simple:  Set aside ten minutes a day to stand or kneel or sit, alone before your icons, and say the Prayer of Jesus, aloud but quietly, at a moderate pace, and struggle for attention.   As many times as your mind wanders, force it back to the words of the prayer.  Throughout the day, say the prayer mentally as much as possible.   At the end of the day, review your thoughts, words, and deeds of the day, ask God’s forgiveness for your failings, and then go to sleep saying the Jesus Prayer.  As soon as you wake up, start saying it again.   

Do not worry about how to proceed. Prayer teaches itself. If we are faithful, the Lord will give abundant grace, and He will come to dwell in our hearts.   

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, and save us.  Amen.  

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The believing mind

Thursday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew

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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.

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Life with integrity

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Tuesday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew

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. – StMatthew 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 grace 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 the nations, 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 did 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, done daily without fail, is not an “add-on,” an optional adornment of the obvious saints but not required for the salvation of us sinners.  On the contrary, 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 indeed drowning, but the Lord is holding out His hand. He is saying, “Struggle a bit, pay attention to Me, and I will save you.”

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Avoiding the millstone

Monday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew

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In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord states the penalty for defiling the innocence of children: 

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. – Matthew 18: 1-11

I emphatically recommend the careful study of The Path to Salvation by St. Theophan the Recluse. It may be difficult to carry out the concrete program for spiritual life he details in the latter part of the book. One has to glean that which one can and put it to use. But the English translation of the book, published by St. Herman Press, does something essential for us – perhaps uniquely so in English language Orthodox literature – because the earlier chapters describe precisely the right way to rear children, the psychological and spiritual process by which adolescents and college-age students fall away from the Faith, and the path of return after one has fallen away.  These chapters, excerpted and printed as a separate volume, have been republished in the form of an inexpensive booklet named Raising Them Right, that is readily available to be ordered online.

The willful refusal of contemporary parents, including churchgoing Orthodox Christians, to combat the influences destroying their children, is astounding. It provides prima facie evidence that we have passed beyond the post-Christian age to the post-human age, a time in which those in power have succeeded in destroying not only spiritual aspirations, but even ordinary human instincts and reactions in a critical mass of the population. Those of us who still act on these normal instincts constitute a dwindling race of human beings living in the midst of a growing zombie population who are human only according to their human nature but not according to the energetic expression of their human potential. They have become post-humans.

One looks over one’s shoulder and wonders, “Who is next?” Which friend or neighbor whom one values as a fellow Christian – or at simply a reasonable person – will say, “We know this soccer league has Sunday morning games, and Junior will miss a lot of church services, but that’s just the price you have to pay for him to have a ‘normal’ childhood,“ or “We have to give our ten year old a smartphone because all of his friends have one…” or, far worse, “Our daughter threatened to move out and live with her boyfriend, and we invited them to live with us, and we’ll give them their own bedroom [next to the younger daughter’s bedroom, perhaps?], because we feel that we need to ‘support her choices,'” or, even worse, “Our son told us he is ‘gay’ [i.e., a sodomite] and, well (sigh), we don’t like it, but we just feel that we need to ‘support his choices,’” or, horror of horrors, worst of all: “Our thirteen year old girl believes she is a boy, and therefore we will begin to use chemical and surgical means to mutilate her and destroy her life.   God made a mistake, and we are going to fix it.”

Judgment is at the door for the hierarchs and clergy who just feel  they need to support such “choices,” by their silence if not their open encouragement, as well as for the parents who make such choices. Since such irrational behavior evinces a total loss of reason and common sense, much less Christian morality, one starts to wonder if repentance is even possible, not because God is unwilling to receive the sinner, but because a formerly rational person who has destroyed his mind on purpose is highly unlikely to recover his senses. When people poke their own eyes out, when the eye of soul has become darkness, then, in Our Lord’s own words, “how great is the darkness.”   At some point argument no longer penetrates such minds, and one can turn only to weeping and to prayer.

How shall we avoid joining this great zombie army of the post-humans? The best defense is a good offense. As the world around us goes ever more radically in the wrong direction, we have to go ever more radically in the opposite direction. Monasticism or faithful monogamy (of a man and woman, of course) or celibate virginity in the world are the only three options for an Orthodox adult who does not want to go to hell. It’s really that simple. Let us diligently study and cheerfully embrace the life-giving teachings of the Church, and strive more energetically both inwardly and outwardly: Inwardly in a more attentive and sober spiritual life, and outwardly in forming monastic communities, parishes, and families that provide a support system for all those who are striving valiantly to lead a pure life in the midst of a corrupt generation. Let us state the Church’s immemorial and divinely revealed commandments openly, and let us live by them courageously.

It is impossible to overestimate the grace you receive when you firmly resolve to do what is pleasing to God.

Yes, God is with us. We may be a minority in the eyes of the world, but with us are the real majority: countless angels and saints who look upon our struggles rejoicing, and who by their intercessions will call down upon us inexhaustible wisdom and strength from the infinite God Life is short, death is certain, judgment is eternal. Let us run the race set before us, with firm hope in the invincible Victor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we may escape the fate of those whom He condemns today in the Gospel and find eternal joy in the light of His countenance.

The destruction of Sodom.
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To know and to do the will of God

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Thursday of the Eighth Week of Matthew 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord calls His disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. 

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.  For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.  Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. Matthew 16: 24-28 

What does it mean to deny ourselves?   St. Theophan the Recluse tells us that this is quite straightforward and simple:  We have to put aside our own preferences and obey the commandments God has revealed to us: 

The Lord demands decisive self-denial of those who want to follow Him: Let him deny himself, He says. It could be expressed like this: Cast aside your interests and pursue only the interests of the Lord. You will be fulfilling this when you always do what is pleasing to Him. How can one do this? Mind carefully what is in you, and what around you on the outside, and discern strictly in one or another situation, be it internal or external, how to act in the way that is most pleasing to God—then, not pitying yourself and not inserting your own calculations, act accordingly, with complete self-denial. You say, “It is hard to determine this.” No, it is not hard. We have been given clear and fixed commandments— they express what we can do to be pleasing to the Lord. All that remains is to apply them to the given situation, and this does not present any great problem. Having common sense is enough. If you cannot figure something out, ask your spiritual father or someone else whose words you respect, and act according to his directions. But it is always better to sharpen your discernment through reading the word of God and writings of the fathers, so that you will always have a decision-maker with you. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 155-156

The saint’s advice given here is old-fashioned, straightforward, and simple:  Study God’s word and the writings of the fathers, use some common sense, and obey the commandments in every situation.  When we live this way, life becomes simple:  Every day when we wake up, we make our cross and say, “O Lord, today enable me to do Thy will, to do what is pleasing to Thee.”  Then at every moment we obey the voice of conscience enlightened by diligent study of the truth of God taught by the Church.  If we fail, we repent and move on.  We live this way daily until we die, with the Lord imperceptibly granting us the grace of perseverance, and we thereby acquire a firm hope in our salvation.  

St. Theophan concludes his comments with advice that may surprise us:  Don’t rely on other people all the time to tell you what to do.  Take responsibility for your own discernment for daily situations.   This seems to contradict the oft-repeated teaching that we should not trust our own judgment but rather always defer to the judgment of our priest confessor or other spiritual authorities.  In reality, however, there is no contradiction here.   St. Theophan is writing here not for monks living in strict obedience in monasteries, who reveal every thought to their superiors and get permission for the smallest actions.   For us living in the world, this is not possible, nor is it even desirable or healthy for us to treat our spiritual fathers as if we were monks and they were our monastic elders.  (And, to tell the truth, constant revelation of thoughts and asking permission for minute daily functions is not possible even in many monasteries).  A good spiritual father will always encourage us to stand on our own two feet.   Yes, he will pray for us, but we have to pray too!   Yes, he will study and give advice to us, but we have to study too, and use our common sense to make daily decisions!    The mark of a good spiritual father is the same as the mark of a good earthly father:  He is always there for us, but he enables us to live independently, without needing his constant support and advice.  He wants us to grow. 

What we see in real life is that those who study, pray, and constantly sharpen their consciences also have the best relationship with their father confessors, seek their advice when it is really needed, and act prudently on the counsel that is given.  They try to stand on their own two feet, but they alsoopen their minds to their spiritual fathers regularly in confession and seek their counsel on occasion when difficult situations arise.  By contrast, those who do not do their own spiritual homework will either get stuck in a childish relationship with their spiritual fathers, depending on them for everything and never growing up, or they go to the opposite extreme, isolate themselves, and abandon the practice of regular confession, with the result that they fall into pseudo-spiritual delusion or give up on spiritual life altogether. 

Our All-Provident Creator has endowed each of us with mind, conscience, and will, and, moreover, He has resurrected these faculties of the soul when they were dead through sin, and He has enlivened and empowered them with divine power by His grace.  Let each of us resolve today to be a good steward of these priceless powers bestowed upon him, to take responsibility for his own soul, and to act according to the divine commandments given him by God. 

Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.  Blessed is he that searcheth out Thy commandments, that he should keep them most diligently.   O, how I have loved Thy law, O Lord!  It is my meditation day and night.  – Ps. 118 

Amen. 

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The sign of Jonas

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Monday of the Eighth Week of St. Matthew

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord refuses to give the leaders of the Jewish nation a “…sign from heaven,” but He instead tells them that they will receive “…the sign of the Prophet Jonas,” that is, as Jonas was in the belly of the whale for three days and came forth alive, Jesus would die, be buried in the earth, and rise from the dead on the third day.

The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed. And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. – Matthew 16: 1- 6

Now think about this. These men, no doubt the best informed people in that country, knew perfectly well that Christ had been working a great number of miracles that were both demonstrations of divine power and eminently useful and compassionate – exorcisms, healing, feeding the hungry, even raising the dead. But they still demanded that He prove Himself by something as spectacular as it was pointless, a “sign from heaven,” i.e., lightning bolts, an eclipse, shooting stars, etc. It strikes one as incredibly immature and shallow. Why would the leaders of this captive nation not rejoice that the poor and suffering of their own people, their own flesh and blood, were already receiving a truly great consolation? Why did they so oppose the one who was bringing them, both through tangible physical help and the liberating truth of His preaching, a real deliverance from oppression and sorrow?

Their hatred of Jesus sprang primarily from envy. The patristic commentaries and the services of Great Week state this over and over again. They knew deep down that Jesus was the Real Thing, while they were spiritually bankrupt phonies and power-seekers, and instead of bringing them to repentance, this knowledge filled them with envious hatred. Both parties, the Pharisees and Sadducees, had made idols out of some outward thing: the Pharisees were busily constructing a nitpicking, complicated, oppressive, and ultimately meaningless code of behavior to replace the true practice of the Mosaic Law, while the Sadducees worshipped their own authority as the priestly caste and the glories of the Temple worship over which they presided. Both parties were determined to project a false image of their supposed spiritual superiority, which gave them power over others.

The resulting emptiness of their inner life corresponded precisely to the inanity (literally “emptiness”) of this absurd cosmic fireworks show they were demanding from the God-Man to prove His credentials. Their brand of religion was all about outward show. Today we might say that it was all about marketing.

How do we prevent ourselves from falling prey to false religious leaders who maintain their authority through outward show but are actually apostate by reason of their having renounced the confession of the Orthodox Faith? It get backs to the basic question: Do I want my faith to be the Real Thing? The Real Thing requires the narrow way Christ speaks of in the Gospel. Do I want that, or do I want a reasonable facsimile thereof, a pleasant and, yes, convincing, simulacrum that offers a broad and smooth highway on which one can enjoy the sensations of a pretended spiritual, intellectual, and cultural superiority (“Orthodoxy, the Coolest Religion Ever!”) combined with worldly advantage?

Hebrews, chapter eleven, gives us a criterion of discernment. We must ask ourselves if we honestly agree to pay the price required to spend eternity among that “cloud of witnesses” of whom the Apostle writes that they

…had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. – Hebrews 11: 36-40

We must daily search our hearts and ask the Lord to enlighten our minds to see our true motivation. The bedrock, essential, and eternally efficacious miracle of our times is simply that we keep the Orthodox Faith, and that we receive the grace to stay in “dens and caves of the earth” in order not to join the great lemming rush to the Great Apostasy. The foundational miracle, the only sign we really need, is the Faith itself. Without the pure Faith, nothing – neither the following of a supposed holy elder on the right nor a fashionable academic theologian on the left, nor seeking security in the historical titles of patriarchs and synods – will save us. The Lord did not say, “When I return, will I find monasteries and cathedrals?” He did not say, “When I return, will I find elders with visions and miracles?” He said, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find the Faith on the earth?”

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

P.S. A suggestion for spiritual reading relating to this Gospel text: “On Miracles and Signs” by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, which you can find at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/st-ignatius-brianchaninov-miracles-and-signs.aspx.

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