Life with integrity

7 August OS 2019 – Tuesday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; Dormition Fast; Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; S. Dometius, Monk and Martyr

You can listen to a podcast of this blog entry at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/10matttu

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. – Matthew 21: 23-27

St. Theophan the Recluse uses this Gospel passage to describe the mindset of the truth-deniers of every age:

When the Lord asked the question about John the Baptist, the chief priests and the elders thought, “If we answer this way or that, either way is detrimental for us,” and that is why they decided it would be better to use ignorance as a cover. Their self-interest tied their tongue and did not allow them to witness to the truth. If they had loved truth more than themselves, the words would have been different, as would their works. Their interests buried the truth and would not let it reach their hearts. Their interests kept them from forming a sincere conviction, and made their hearts indifferent to the truth. This is how it always is – egotistical strivings are the primordial enemies of truth. All other enemies follow them and act by means of them. If one investigates how all delusions and heresies have arisen, it turns out that this is precisely the source of them all: In words, truth is truth; but in reality, the truth hinders us in one regard or another and must be eliminated, and a lie must be set in its place which is more favorable to us. Why, for example, are there materialists and nihilists? Because the idea of God the Creator, Provider, and Judge, together with the idea of the spirituality of the soul, hinders those people from living in grand style according to their inclinations, and so they push the idea aside. it is clear from the worthlessness of their premises that nihilists are not guided by the truth. They want everything to be just as they think it is, and every phantom that reflects their thoughts is exhibited by them as a witness to the truth. If they would sober up even a little, they would immediately see their lie. But they feel sorry for themselves, and therefore remain as they are. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 164-165

“…egotistical strivings are the primordial enemies of truth.” In the case of both religious and secular power-mongers, this egotism takes the obvious form of the publicly flaunted pursuit of self-interest. But “egotistical strivings” are not the sole property of the rich and powerful. All people, because “…they feel sorry for themselves…” shy away from holding the mirror of truth up to their own lives. Every man has a fallen nature, and therefore every man blinds himself to the truth.   Salvation requires that man assent to the revealed truths of the Faith, receive the grace of faith, and let the light of truth enlighten his darkened mind. The world (society), the flesh (our passions), and the devil fight this every step of the way. But God’s grace is all-conquering, and a man who wills not to feel sorry for himself, who desires to know and to live by the truth at all costs, will receive it in abundance.

Avoiding heresies and delusions, then, is not simply a matter of the mind but also of the will. Someone has to will to know the truth at all costs, no matter what it takes. Then, for that truth to be his glory instead of his shame, he has to live by it, at all costs, no matter what it takes, for to accept the truth in word but deny it by one’s life is the same – or perhaps worse – than never having accepted it at all.

The age we live in, however, in the apt expression of the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, is an age of spiritual fakery par excellence. It is literally a pandemonium, an age in which all the demons of hell have been let loose, for “he that restraineth” (i.e., the divinely anointed Orthodox emperor, and true Christian authority in general) has been removed, evil men rule every nation, and therefore, in the short run, evil seems to have free rein. Every kind of false opinion and phony “goodness” is exalted, and the hard truth of God’s Word is derided, even denounced as evil itself. To fit in, to serve one’s immediate self-interest of societal acceptance and advancement, one must bury the truth and not let it reach one’s heart, or if one does know the truth, one must tie one’s tongue and not witness to it.  The only path open to integrity is therefore not to fit in, to live as Noah before the Flood, Lot in Sodom, Joseph amid the fleshpots of Egypt, and Daniel in the court of Babylon.

Obviously, one can live in this way only by faith, by prayer, and by grace.  Only a “man of divine desires,” like Daniel, can keep the truth firmly fixed in mind and heart – and live by it – while surrounded by the enemies of truth and their witting or unwitting slaves. Only the burning love for Christ can give one the ability to keep going when everything in this world militates against the truth of the Faith.   Therefore conscious, attentive, and heartfelt prayer, on a daily basis, is not an “add-on,” an optional adornment of the obvious saints but not required for salvation. It is the life preserver of every sinner drowning in the sea of life.

The next time, then, you are tempted to skip your prayers, or inattentively to rattle through them, remember that you are, in fact, drowning, but the Lord is holding out His hand. He is saying, “Struggle a bit, pay attention to Me, and I will save you.”

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The scourge of divine love

3 August OS 2019 : Friday of the Ninth Week of Matthew ; Dormition Fast; Ss. Isaac, Dalmatus, and Faustus

You can listen to a podcast of this blog entry at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/9-matt-fri-2019

In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord exercises holy anger:

At that time, Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. And he left them, and went out of the city into Bethany; and he lodged there. Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! Matthew 21: 12-14, 17-20

The wrath of God is not a popular topic today, but the reality is unavoidable. Here the God-Man exercises the divine anger by thrashing those who defiled the Temple and by cursing the apostate Old Israel represented by the barren fig tree. Tough love indeed.

For a long time now, the enemies of our salvation, visible and invisible, have conducted an unceasing brainwashing campaign to make us believe that Christian love consists in accepting lies, condoning sins, and praising ugliness, and this brainwashing has destroyed family and society, for, of course, we must actively oppose evil, or evil will triumph. Militant, intransigent warfare against evil is the calling of the Church on earth. The Scriptures and Fathers have always taught this, and to deny it is to accept the heresy of pacifism, which claims to be a more spiritual kind of religion than Orthodoxy, but is in fact a religion of demonic false love. Recently I have read a powerful article on this theme by the late Archbishop Averky of Holy Trinity and Syracuse, which I strongly encourage you to read as well. Here is the link: http://orthochristian.com/119438.html

The holy archbishop writes, “Resolutely struggling with every tiniest manifestation of evil and sin in our own souls, let us not be afraid to expose and rebuke evil everywhere it appears in modern life—not out of pride or vanity, but only out of love for the truth. Our main task in these evil times of lying shamelessness is to preserve whole our faithfulness and dedication to the authentic Gospel Truth and to the Author of our salvation—Christ the Life-Giver Who rose after three days from the grave, the Conqueror of hell and death.”

We cannot wait until we are perfect, passionless, hesychasts before speaking the truth. There has never been any such teaching in the history of the Church. Qui tacet consentire videtur – “He that is silent seems to give consent.” Let us not consent to evil by our silence, but speak the truth firmly and calmly with that true love that desires to please God and save souls.

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Not to be ministered unto, but to minister

2 August OS 2019: Thursday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; Dormition Fast; Translation of the Relics of St. Stephen the Protomartyr; Blessed Basil the Fool for Christ of Moscow

You can listen to an audio podcast of this blog entry at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/9-matt-th

In today’s Gospel, the mother of James and John demonstrates her radically mistaken idea of what the Messianic kingdom is actually going to look like.

And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father. And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. – Matthew 20: 17-28

We may smile indulgently at Mrs. Zebedee’s crude notion that the Christ would be a worldly king whom old ladies could cozen into making courtiers out of men with the right connections, but we perhaps grasp the Kingdom of God not better than she. On earth we live in the Kingdom of God by living in the Church, but, imitating the mother of the Thunderssons, we also may tend to act as though we are here to use the Church, not to serve Her.

Let us ask ourselves a few questions:

Is the Church my dear Mother, whom I must reverence and obey, or is She (or it, rather) an impersonal thing, a necessary evil essentially unloved, a rusty old contraption for dispensing salvation, to be kicked, tricked, and otherwise abused into compliance with my wishes for pie in the sky at discount prices?

Is the Church the precious Body of Christ, to be cared for and ministered to by me, as the Holy Myrrhbearers ministered to the Body of the Crucified Lord, or is She simply an organized religion business, a vendor to dispense benefits as I decide I want them when I want them, with as little fuss as possible?

Is the Church “we” – my primary place, my primary people, of belonging, identity, loyalty, and love? Or is the Church “they” (bishop, priest, parish council, catechist, coffee hour ladies [fill in the blank]) providing “goods and services” for “customers”… like me.    

When things go wrong in the Church, is it always “they” who are responsible, or do I not have a share in the blame, by my lack of faith, prayer, repentance, dedication, sacrifice, and active doing good to my brothers?

One of my favorite Southern authors, William Alexander Percy, says that the human race is divided into “lean-ers and lean-ees,” those who lean on others and those who get leaned on. Of course, we all need to lean on others sometimes, but those who get into the Kingdom we are discussing here have the primary orientation of being lean-ees. At least they want to be leaned on, even if human weakness prevents it sometimes. Such people have always been the minority, of course, and that makes perfect sense, since the Lord did say that only the few even get into His Kingdom, much less sit next to Him. 

Decide today! Lean-er or lean-ee? Make your choice.

Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Amen.

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If today you will hear His voice, harden not your hearts

1 August OS 2019 – Wednesday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; Dormition Fast; Procession of the Life-Giving Cross; Holy Maccabean Martyrs

You can listen to an audio podcast of this blog entry at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/9-matt-wed

In the Gospel today, Our Lord proclaims His grace and sovereign will to save all men, even those who wait till the eleventh hour to repent:

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. – Matthew 20: 1-16

St. Theophan the Recluse encourages us never to give up hope, even if we have waited until old age to repent:

In the parable about the hirelings, even he who worked only one hour was rewarded by he master of the house the same as the others. The hours of the day in this parable are an image of the course of our life. The eleventh hour is the final period of this life. The Lord shows that even those who lived without serving Him up that that moment can begin to work and can please Him no less than the others. Therefore, old age is no excuse. Let no one despair, supposing that there is no point in beginning to work. Begin, and do not be afraid. The Lord is merciful – He will give you all that He gives others: here, according to the order of grace, and there, according to the law of justice. Just have more fervor, and grieve more contritely about the carelessness in which almost all of your life was spent. You will say, “The master of the house summoned those in the parable – so, let the Lord call me. But is He not calling? Could it really be that you do not hear the voice of the Lord in the Church, saying, “Come unto Me all ye,” and the Apostle’s call, “As though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5:20).”  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 159-160

The Lord did not tell this parable, of course, in order to encourage us to put off repentance, saying, “Great, no problem. I shall live a worldly life, planning to take the salvation of my soul seriously at the eleventh hour and prepare for death.” Those who take this approach usually do not recognize the eleventh hour when they see it, and death takes them at a time they did not expect. The right understanding at all times is to say, “This is the eleventh hour!”   As it is written in the Psalms, “Today if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts (Ps. 94),” and St. Paul exhorts us, saying, “For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2).” Every day, every moment, may be our eleventh hour.   It is never too late or too early to repent. The time is always now.

The aggrieved workers of the first hour did not understand their employer’s seeming injustice because they did not acknowledge his right to do what he wished with what was his own. This is an image of our stiff-necked refusal to fall down before God’s infinite wisdom, accept His judgments, and confess His sovereignty over His creation and our lives in particular.

Both attitudes – “I’ll live as I please until old age, and then I’ll ‘get religion’,” and “God is not fair” – simply manifest the blindness of fallen nature. We live in delusion and do not realize it. If we saw things as they really are, we would be running to confess our sins constantly, commune frequently, and prepare for death daily.   If we saw things as they really are, we would be overwhelmed with gratitude that God, indeed, is not “fair.” He is merciful. If He were not, no one would be saved.

Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness.

For your fathers tempted Me, they proved Me and saw My works.

Forty years long was I grieved with that generation, and I said: They do always err in their hearts.

And they have not known My ways; so I swore in Mine anger: They shall not enter into My rest. Psalm 94:8-11

There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into His rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from His.
Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief. For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. 
Hebrews 4: 9-16

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The sign of Jonas

23 July OS 2019: Monday of the Eighth Week of St. Matthew; S. Phocas, Hieromartyr; S. Ezechias, Prophet; S. Pelagia of Tinos; S. Joseph the New Hieromartyr of Desphina

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 want 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, that if necessary we stay in “dens and caves” in order not to join the great lemming rush to the Great Apostasy. The foundational miracle, the only sign we need, is the Faith itself. Without this, nothing – neither following the latest, skillfully marketed elder or academic theologian, 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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The still, small Voice

17 July OS 2019: Tuesday of the Seventh Week of St. Matthew; Holy Great Martyr Marina

Today’s Gospel reading recounts Herod’s wickedly killing St. John the Baptist, which ever after tormented his conscience.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. Matthew 14: 1-13

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that Herod’s immediately concluding that John had been resurrected shows the tyrant’s uneasy conscience:

He could have thought of anything, yet he thought of no one but John. Who led his thoughts in that direction? His conscience. From it you cannot hide unconscionable deeds; you cannot correct its judgment with anything…There is a voice within us that we must acknowledge is not our voice. Whose is it? God’s. He Who gives us our nature, gives us this voice. If it is God’s voice, we must obey it, for creatures dare not contradict their Creator. This voice says that God exists, that we completely depend upon Him, and therefore we cannot but have a reverent fear of God. Having this fear, we must fulfill God’s will, indicated by the conscience… – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 148-149

Three innate attributes of every man’s soul demonstrate undoubtedly that man has a spiritual life, that he is the creature of a personal God Who intends for man to know Him, obey Him, and love Him: conscience, the fear of God, and the thirst for God.

Conscience speaks first: It is the voice of God telling us what is right and what is wrong. Our gnomic will, the darkened, opinionated, and unsteady will we have inherited from our First Parents because of the Fall (ignorantly identified as “free will” by humanistic thinking but actually alternately enslaved or free depending on the nature of its choices), may choose to obey or not obey this voice. We must force it always to obey and thereby recover our natural, Edenic will, which always chooses according to conscience and is thus the only free will.

Heeding the voice of conscience energizes man’s potential for the fear of God: Training his will to obey the innate Law of right and wrong, man then naturally falls down before the Lawgiver in reverent awe, humbly acknowledging God’s absolute right to command and to judge him, fearing lest he should displease his Creator and desiring to offer Him the un-hypocritical worship possible only when he has a clean conscience.

Living according to conscience in holy fear, man begins to thirst for God, that is, he begins to energize his potential not only to know and obey God, but to love Him, to be united to Him, to have Him dwelling within. At this point, the spiritual life properly speaking can begin, characterized by attentive, regular prayer and by regular – not infrequent, but not automatic – reception of Holy Communion correctly prepared for. This spiritual life in turn becomes a foretaste of Paradise, and the Christian acquires a firm hope of salvation, disposing himself to receive the grace of persevering in faith and repentance to his last breath.

Sadly, these instinctual powers – conscience, fear of God, thirst for God – planted in each man by the Creator, find themselves starved, crushed, distorted, and eventually ignored in the life of almost all people, not only those outside the Church, but also those Orthodox Christians who live outside a strict Church environment, and today this is true more than ever.

First of all, only the grace of the true Holy Mysteries, beginning with the true Baptism, can heal these powers of the damage of the Ancestral Sin. Second, once healed, these powers must be energized through practice, in obedience to the Tradition of the Church. The first can take place only in the Church, and the second can take place only within a strict Church environment.

Shallow, confused, modernized, half-hearted practices within Orthodoxy, purposely concocted by false shepherds or simply allowed by lazy or ignorant ones, lead to the pitiable state in which the masses of nominally Orthodox people find themselves today, which is that they actually belong to the order not of Communicants (whether they are outwardly receiving Holy Communion, real or imagined, or not) but to the order of the Energoumenoi, that is, that demonic energies and not grace constitute the decisive factor determining their choices and their actions, and the baptismal grace resides in the soul only in potential, unenergized, if in fact they were validly baptized to begin with.

It is difficult to discern who is in the worst shape: A) Those who do not have the true Holy Communion available to them because of heresy, B) those who have the true Mysteries available to them and know how to prepare properly but receive rarely because of neglect, or C) those who receive automatically, without the traditional preparation, because of modernist ideas. All three states are fearful in the extreme. Most of us true Orthodox (“Old Calendarists”) fall into the B category, and we congratulate ourselves on being neither heretics nor impious, like the poor people in the A and C categories, but we need to stop and think: If we have available the grace of the Holy Mysteries and the correct spiritual guidance on preparing for Holy Communion, we therefore have the greatest responsibility. What are we going to say to Christ after we die, when He asks us why we received His Precious Body and Blood only once a year (or not at all!), because we did not want to fast or go to confession regularly? Because we did not want to give up certain habits – such as breakfast or television or coffee and a cigarette – before Church on Sunday? Because movies or dances or socializing, or just lying about watching television on Saturday night were more important than Vespers? Because making money on Sunday was more important than God?

It is this situation within the Church that has created the current “apocalyptic” scenario. The outward forces visible and invisible, the dark powers of evil which we love to blame, as real as they are (more real in fact than most can allow their minds to admit), constitute, in the final analysis, mere circumstances allowed by God to test us, fully in accord with His all-wise providence and His sovereign will. We have misused our minds, wills, and desires, and this it is that lets devils rule men, foment this Anti-Christ revolution, instigate this post-Christian revolt against God. If the Orthodox do not live for God, who will?

These thoughts should indeed make us sober, but they should not make us sad, for God is sovereign, the Master over all things. And, what is more, He has told us exactly what we need to think and do and desire, and He gives us the power to do it.

Let us be glad then and fear not. The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. Let us heed the voice of conscience, live in holy fear, and love God with all our hearts. He will take care of the rest.

For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator. I Peter 4: 17-19

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Orthodox Survival Course, Class 40: The Internet

You can listen to a podcast of this lecture at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/osc-40

Above all things, love silence.

– St. Isaac the Syrian

Introduction: The Multi-Dimensional Chessboard

I am very bad at the game of chess, but if the chessboard be a traditional one, I can at least imagine becoming better at the game. When I see a three dimensional chessboard, however, all hope in that direction dies – there is no way I can even begin to comprehend how anyone could do this. Our subject today, the Internet, is a 3-D (or 4-D, or …) chessboard compared to the media we have been discussing – the newspapers, radio, and television. It is not simply a medium, but a means of transmitting various media – print, sound, and visual – so rapidly and so universally, that the mind simply cannot grant grasp the whole of it. And it is not only a multi-media network, but serves billions of people as their social structure, their means of engaging in friendship, their means of doing business, of obtaining information, even finding lovers and spouses… the list goes on, and it keeps growing. It is, in short, a new universe: a new stage in the organization of human society and a new stage in the way we use the human mind. And if all of this be so, and I think that very few would disagree with this assessment, is it not imperative that we arrive at an Orthodox way of viewing this thing and responding to it? For it is not simply a technology, a clever sort of tool that is indeed advanced but still rather dumb and one-dimensional, over which the ordinary user can claim mastery, but rather it is – I would venture to say, more than any previous technology, even the printing press or the automobile – a core element of immediate and continuous daily waking experience that has drastically changed the way people think, learn, feel, and work, the way they see themselves and other people, and, ultimately, they way they relate to God. By now many (most?) people do not simply use the Internet now and then to do this or that discrete and limited task. No, it has gone far beyond that. To a greater or less extent, they have begun to live inside of it.

The following lecture is neither as simple nor as linear as my previous talks, because the subject is so complex and so ramifying – many branches leading off into so many directions. I offer, then, a rambling and incomplete meditation upon, rather than an explanation of, this bewildering topic, organized under sub-topics or insights as they have occurred to me. I pray that you will find some wisdom here.

A) Is It a Tool or Is It Your World?

The original purpose of technology was to give man tools to do this or that task better or more easily than he would otherwise. When all things are in right relationship, then man, the image of God, to whom God has given dominion over other created things, invents and uses only those tools that he truly needs, when he really needs them, and in the most virtuous way possible, that is, in that way most conducive to attaining his ultimate end. The saint, the man in right relationship with God, subordinates all of his choices and activities, including his invention of tools and use of tools, to the ultimate end of man – his salvation, his union with God. One of the arguments used to support the humanistic fallacy of progressivism – the erroneous idea that the human race is getting better, advancing somehow, all the time, and that the present generation is smarter and better than all previous generations – is that ancient and medieval Christian men did not invent even a fraction of all the clever gadgets invented since the Renaissance. The obvious response, of course, is that they had better things to do. The intellectual and artistic classes of these societies were on the whole devoted to pursuing interests higher than the comparatively puerile fascinations of trying to go somewhere faster or flying through the air like birds or building gigantic metal structures or discovering ways of eking out a few more years of one’s doomed biological existence or killing ever-greater numbers of people or inventing better toilet paper. Since the Renaissance, however, as we have discussed in our classes on that period, the physical and natural sciences and their practical expression, technology, have exploded exponentially in their pursuit of the knowledge of material phenomena and the manipulation of these phenomena for the gratification of material desires, precisely because man – i.e., fallen man and his fallen tendencies – replaced God at the center of life.

Now, however, by the beginning of the 21st century, our technology has overwhelmed us – we are no longer master. Striving to make himself God, man has, rather, created this Babylonian statue of himself that he must bow down and worship. The Internet is the ultimate example of a technology that has now replaced life itself for great numbers of people. It is their world, their reality; they live inside of it. It is not simply a tool; it is a World. Inside of this artificial world of unfathomable complexity, this hall of mirrors, this incomprehensible labyrinth, there is not one but many minotaurs waiting to devour us. How do we go on functioning inside this world – and for most of us, there is no choice, or, at least, we can imagine no other – and not be devoured by the monsters inside of it?

A first step is to remind ourselves that the Internet is a tool, a potentially very useful tool, but that it is not our entire world. It is a tool, however that easily takes over one’s life to become one’s entire world. To avoid this requires understanding and disciplined action. We must understand how each of our daily activities either leads us towards or away from God, and we have to take disciplined action first to order and then to conduct our activities towards God. Of course, we have always had to do this – this hierarchical prioritizing and prudent use of one’s time according to God’s Law has always characterized the active Christian life – but now the Internet has become the 3-D chessboard of life, and therefore we must now work harder – and, most importantly, receive greater wisdom and greater power from God, and therefore must pray more – in order to deal with this new factor in the ordering and conduct of our lives.

So let us assume that we need this tool. I suppose that there are a few of us who are so circumstanced or so clever as to need it very little or not at all. Most of us, however, are stuck with the Internet, and, to be realistic – and appropriately grateful – I must say that most of us like it and that we derive real benefit from it: for example, this lecture that you can read or listen to thanks to the Internet. Let us, however, remind ourselves, first of all, that the Internet must be for us simply a tool for living and not a replacement for living. If it ceases to be servant and becomes master, and it probably will over and over again, we have to push back over and over again, and reclaim our sovereignty. Let us ask the Lord daily for the wisdom and strength so to do!

B) In the Matrix

So let us assume we are stuck with the Internet – for whatever reason we simply must use it or cannot imagine living without it or enjoy it so much we are not going to give it up. It may be the case that, as far as we can tell, the benefit demands that we take the risk. Now we know, Yes, it should function for us as “just” a tool. But in its nature, it is not “just” a tool; it is a vast, fascinating, endlessly complex and endlessly ramifying mental universe. Herein lies the rub: To use the tool, you must enter the universe that is the very nature of the tool. This is terribly inconvenient, of course – one would like to have the benefit of the tool without the potential dangers of the tool. But let us borrow some wisdom from that man of many aphorisms, Mr. G.K. Chesterton. He aptly remarks that an inconvenience is simply an adventure wrongly considered, and an adventure is an inconvenience rightly considered. Let us then consider the inconvenience of the Internet’s dangers as a daily adventure, let us remember that we are entering a deceptively familiar but in fact dangerous far country, and armed cap ά pie, so to speak, with prayer and wisdom, let us enter that strange world with sobriety and reserve, with a critical eye, our wits about us.

In an earlier talk, we discussed the movie The Matrix. One may take the adventures of the hero in this tale as an image of our task. He knows that the universe of the Matrix is not the real world, and that it is full of dangers, but he must enter it to accomplish his mission. While he is in the Matrix, he must constantly remember that this is not reality, this is not the real world, that he must return to the real world or the Matrix will swallow him up. This is what we have to do. We have various missions to accomplish that require our entering the matrix of the Internet: We have a school or work-related report to write that requires quick research, or a friend to send a message to, or a doctor’s appointment to make, or any number of legitimate tasks that require – or at least are made much easier by – entering the alternate universe of the Internet. We must use a little imagination and, before clicking on the little picture on the screen that forms the gateway to that world, remind ourselves that though the task may be innocuous, the means is most certainly not. We armor ourselves with the Sign of the Cross, we take up the sword of the Prayer of Jesus, we sigh a brief but earnest plea for wisdom from above. We have a mission to accomplish – let’s go in, in God’s name, do our job, in God’s name, and get out. We are entering the lair of the dragon to extract the gold within, not to have tea with the dragon. I suggest placing an icon of St. George killing the dragon near or on the device you use to enter this electronic dragon’s den, and ask the saint to protect you.

Further practical steps can include keeping track of the amount of time you spend on the Internet – do a daily reality check, and ask yourself, after this or that number of minutes or hours wandering in the Matrix, “Now, was that really necessary?” Keep an old fashioned pen and paper log, and read it at day’s end with an honest eye. This advice works, of course, only if you are looking at the Internet on a desktop or laptop computer or a tablet, and thus have to sit down, turn the gadget on, and decide to go on the ‘Net. If you are a smart phone addict, staring compulsively at that little screen countless times per hour, all of this advice is absurdly inadequate. You really just have to get rid of the thing.

C) But I’m Lonely – Social Media and Community

The Internet has provided the conditions for this vast thing within the vast thing, which we call “social media” – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth. Instead of the town hall meeting, the family parlor, the front porch, the kitchen table, the village well, and the barn dance, we have the virtual, electronic substitute for all of the above, this chaotic, impossibly undisciplined, and artificial vortex of heartbreakingly fragmentary feeling and thought, claiming to provide social life while simultaneously isolating all of its participants within the closed visual world of the screen in front of them and a truncated mental world of retarded speech. Yet for so many people, this is in fact the only way to be in frequent contact with those with whom they share their most cherished beliefs – traditional Orthodox Christians, for example – or their dearest interests, or the tie of blood itself.

It is the same old story, of course, of the vicious cycle of technology destroying natural relationships and in the process making itself indispensable if one wants relationships at all. The automobile, for example, at least in the United States, destroyed decent public transportation and city planning on a human scale. Then, as much as one might regret it, one had to buy an automobile in order to see one’s relatives and friends, scattered about by the new system of things, and, simply, to go about one’s business. If one then complained about the automobile, there was inevitably the reproach, “Don’t be ungrateful: if you didn’t have a car, how would you do such and such…” Of course, if there were no cars, we could have gone on doing the such and such our ancestors did for millennia, only next door or down the block instead of miles away. And there are various kinds of such and such uniquely enabled by the automobile that frankly never needed to be done at all.

A friend once told me of a conversation he had with an Amish elder about their practice of not having automobiles, and not having a telephone in each family’s home, but only one shared phone for an entire local community. “It’s not that we think the technology is magically evil,” he said, “we are not superstitious about it. It’s just that if everyone had cars and phones, they would move away from each other after awhile, and we’d have no community left.” Bingo.

So here we are, at the tail end of this destructive process, with a situation in which traditional, practicing Orthodox Christians may find themselves isolated, and some kind of social media is the only way they ever get to communicate with like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ. It would be both foolish and cruel to say that these media are not a lifeline of some sort, that the relationships created or sustained thus are completely unreal, that everyone would be better off in low-tech natural isolation than high-tech artificial relationship. The reality here, however, is that the cure helps to perpetuate the disease: Since we have this means to cope with the problem, to ameliorate the symptoms of the disease, we become comfortable with mere coping and do not even try to tackle the root of the problem, the etiology of the disease, itself. How much is our isolation completely beyond our control, and how much is due to laziness or cowardice or lack of imagination or lack of prayer? Have we prayed, begged, cried out to God to get us out of our isolation and into a more natural and normal kind of community life? How much are we willing to sacrifice to live near the Church or our friends or our family? Have we tried to ask other, like-minded people, to pray and think about and tackle this problem with us? I am not prescribing only one possible course of action or condemning those who feel they cannot act. I have not entirely solved the problem for myself. I am simply asking the questions.

Of course, it is also true that strong and relatively natural communities – say, church parishes in which most everyone sees each other at least on Sundays and stays in touch the rest of the week – could use social media as a supplement to actually seeing each other, to post announcements, for example, or to have online discussions about edifying topics. Everyone has to work out a practical arrangement as close to the ideal as possible. The danger, however, is that a fairly normal parish could degenerate into a “virtual parish” in which the members feel less and less need actually to see each other in person, because, supposedly, they can do so “just as well” by social media. The priest may feel justified in not visiting someone because he exchanges Facebook messages instead, and so forth. The technology is so powerful, and it can so rapidly dehumanize our behavior without our noticing it.

Besides the effect of social media in shaping what we think of as our community, what effect does constant activity on social media have on one’s inner life? I do not participate in Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, or whatever else has popped up since those things came into being. A few years ago, however, I reluctantly agreed to get a Facebook account in order to distribute useful material, either my own writing or links to other articles or, occasionally, videos. Therefore, being on Facebook, I notice how most people use it. I must say that it is, for the most part, as used by most people, a self-destroying exercise in regards to the fragmentation of one’s thoughts, the trivialization of one’s concerns, and the destruction of one’s privacy. In all the activities of a man, his inner life is paramount – the most sacred, the most necessary for happiness in this life and the age to come. It will inevitably be, as he lies dying, his only possession. Constant social media activity exponentially aggravates the tendency of modern man, Americans in particular, to unabated, unceasing extraversion, to the point at which the man’s inner life ceases to exist. This, I think, is the most terrible, the most frightening result of the misuse of this technology. Indeed, as the Lord said, what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

In light of all this, what practical steps should we enjoin? One would be to smart phone users, to get rid of the thing, and if they cannot bear the thought of that, at least to turn it off for most of the day and check their messages and so forth at specific times. Treat it as a malicious, captured enemy spy you must lug about with you to guide you through enemy territory, but whom you never trust and with whom you speak or even look at as little as possible. Again, all this stuff is a tool, not the world you live in. To social media users, we could say, among other things that to be constantly posting your opinions on anything and everything is destructive to your own inner capacity for sustained and careful thought, that conversations by this means are of necessity stunted and unnatural, and that only a small circle of those close to you need see or should see dozens of photographs of you, your friends, or your family members. Be circumspect, be reserved, think before you write, write infrequently, and when you do, say something you have really thought about. Never simply react; let your anger cool and pray for guidance if you have been offended. Always speak in charity. Prefer real time with real people in person whenever possible. Do not make social media your usual way of interacting with others, unless you really live in unbreakable isolation. Prefer to do real things.

Above all, prefer reading, silence, and prayer to the unreal world of the Internet and the video screen. You have only one soul. You will answer to God for how you cultivated it.

D) The Two-Edged Sword of Access to Everything

At this point, I’d like to say something positive about the Internet: In our discussion of the newspapers, radio, and television, we pointed out how a small elite controlled public discourse by their increasingly monopolistic control of these media, to the point at which they could brainwash entire populations. Providentially, the Internet has broken this monopoly, and an enormous amount of historical and current information is now available, originating from writers of all shades of opinion and available virtually to everyone. The “tech giants,” Google, Facebook and Co, are doing their best to destroy this freedom of access to information and to the free expression of opinion, but so far the Internet has remained remarkably useful for both learning and saying things that the Anti-Christian elite would prefer not be learned or said. I do not know enough about the technology to say this from an expert standpoint, but my tentative opinion as a non-techie observer of what is going on is that it is going to be awfully difficult for one group of people to corral this beast entirely. The horse is out of the barn. With guarded optimism, I hope, trusting in God, that this entire development is designed by God’s Providence to help us retain our intellectual and spiritual freedom. May it be so.

To illustrate the power of the Internet, when used properly, to preserve and disseminate authentic knowledge, I can offer this example: I have an Orthodox friend with extremely politically incorrect, very old-fashioned opinions on all kinds of matters – religion, race, politics, medicine, you name it. He constantly searches the Internet for out-of-print works of history, philosophy, science, and so forth, old fashioned books that support his convictions, and therefore they are books which the present cultural Marxist Establishment would, one thinks, not want people to read. Yet who has preserved all of these books? Big, bad Google. Google has performed a public service of immeasurable value, scanning, storing, and making available thousands of titles of books you cannot get anywhere else, or at least not without great difficulty. And many, perhaps most, of these books contain views that are anathema to the official Google ideology. As they say, “Go figure.” I do not know how long they are going to go on doing this and how long the present collection will remain available, but I counsel everyone to go there and download everything you can that seems to be of value, especially books that present traditional Christian views of some kind on history, society, and morality. It’s pretty amazing.

And what about current events? The best advice I can give is prayerfully and carefully to look at a variety of sources from writers from different outlooks, and search especially for sites that publish longer and more serious articles that examine current events in the light of history, that exhibit real cultural literacy, and a nuanced, 360 degree view of an issue. That does not mean that the writers should have no convictions – their convictions may be very strong, and the more these convictions line up with the teaching of the Church, obviously the more you can trust the “filter” through which they view the times we live in. But we should not get on the bandwagon of this or that website or commentator as being an infallible source of some kind. Pray for discretion, read carefully, and try to discern if the writer is really interested in the truth, if he suffers over the truth, if he genuinely hates falsehood.

There are websites run by Orthodox Christians, as well as those run by people sympathetic to Orthodoxy, that offer a view of the news quite other than the mainstream media of the left or the secular right. I do not, however, in this podcast want to take the possibly controversial step of recommending this or that website over others in the realm of this touchy subject of current events, but if anyone wants to write me privately, I could make some suggestions.

Access to information is a two-edged sword, of course. Information is not the same as wisdom, or even as knowledge. An overload of undigested and misunderstood information could actually, paradoxically, make you more deluded, more ignorant, more paralyzed and hopeless than when you started. Again, discipline with prayer is the key. Use your Orthodox “filter” to discern the coherence and trustworthiness of anything you read. Try to discern the belief system that underlies the author’s or commentator’s interpretation of events. Reserve judgment, don’t overreact to bits of data that may be presented out of context or be outright untrue. And always remember that God is over all – His Providence is directing all things according to His plan. Remember, when it comes to evil, you will never get to the bottom of it all, because there is no bottom, even in Hell. So do not exhaust yourself trying to “figure it all out” when it comes to the Bad Guys in this world and their plans for us. Do not collect information in a state of fear, but in a state of hope in God, and only seek to learn enough in order to make prudent decisions to help those for whom you are really responsible.

And, once, again, love prayer, silence, and reading. Limit your Internet time, even in the pursuit of good things. There are, after all, much better things!

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Real courage

12 July OS 2019 – Thursday of the Sixth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Martyrs Proclus and Hilarius; S. Michael Maleinos; S. Golinduc, Confessor; S. Veronica; Holy Martyrs Theodore and John of Kiev

You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at http://orthodoxtruth.org/uncategorized/the-problem-of-evil-and-real-courage-3/

In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus teaches the disciples that He permits the existence and intermingling of both the good and the evil during our earthly life, and how this relates to the Dread Judgment:

At that time, Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house: and his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.Matthew 13:36-43

St. Theophan the Recluse takes this occasion to explain the role of evil in the spiritual life of the faithful:

…Thus will be carried out the division of good and evil, light and darkness. Now is the period of time in which they are mixed. It pleased the Lord to arrange that the freedom of creatures should grow and be strengthened in good through the struggle against evil. Evil is allowed, both in connection with inward freedom and outside of a person. It does not determine anything, it only tempts. One who feels a temptation must not fall, but enter into battle. He who conquers is freed from one temptation, and advances forward and upward to find a new temptation there – and so on, until the end of his life. Oh, when will we comprehend the significance of the evil which tempts us, so that we might arrange our lives according to this understanding? The strugglers are finally crowned, and pass on to the next life, where there are neither sicknesses nor sorrows, and where they become inwardly pure like angels of God, free from the sting of tempting inclinations and thoughts. This is how the triumph of light and good is being prepared, and it will be revealed in all of its glory on the last day of the world. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 145

One of the stock arguments of atheists is the so-called problem of evil: “How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil? Either He is good but not all-powerful and therefore cannot prevent evil, or He is all-powerful but evil, since He causes or allows evil to exist.” There are several things wrong with this argument, but let us make one thing clear: Only the Christian understanding of evil allows for man’s moral freedom, for man to be a spiritual and free being capable of loving God.   No other explanation makes room for this. God does not will evil, but He allows it, so that man may choose freely to obey Him or not, and so that the existence of evil may provide the arena for man’s spiritual struggle; truly do the Fathers say that without temptations no one would be saved.  Anyone who has engaged in conscious spiritual life in an Orthodox setting understands this immediately.

Our intellects say, “Yes, now that someone has explained this to us, it is quite reasonable,” but we initially received this lofty understanding of man’s vocation through divine revelation, by grace, not by our own mental efforts. We realize that, being of divine origin, this truth is of course incomparably superior to the explanations that the fallen mind of man has created. We perceive that it gives us both peace of soul and the incentive to fight evil and to do good, and therefore not only is it intellectually satisfying but of the highest therapeutic and moral value.   Experiencing this, we ask, “Why would anyone not want to believe in the Faith?”

The answer, of course, is pride of mind, pride of will, and pride of sensuality: Fallen man wants to create his own reality, fallen man wants to disobey God’s law, and fallen man wants to indulge his passions. Even so, man has always wanted to explain evil, and therefore the finite and fallen intellect of man has constructed three basic explanations of evil: either good and evil are illusions because all distinctions are illusions, or all outcomes are determined and you have no freedom, or everything is matter, and so God, soul, mind, and will do not exist.

The Eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, and their variants – say that this world is an illusion, that evil is being trapped in the illusory, material world due to some cosmic accident no one can explain, and that you need to go through various incarnations to get rid of your materiality, in order to realize that even your personal existence and the existence of a personal God are illusions (or, conversely, that you are God, which amounts to the same thing), and that once you get rid of all mental distinctions, you will be absorbed into the World Soul, totally lose your individual existence, and feel no pain. One is eerily reminded of the epitaph of the apostate Greek novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis, who claimed to have no religion at all: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Islam – and, to the extent that they are infected by determinism, schools of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought – say that only God’s will is operative in the universe, that He is not interested in explaining anything to us, that what constitutes good and evil is not even a question open to rational discourse, and that your job is to submit without question or thought to the great Divine Steamroller, Allah, or whatever you want to call it.   Admit His total sovereignty, do not question anything, and jump onto this cosmic juggernaut before it runs over you.   On Judgment Day, all you can do is hope for the best, because you have no idea whatsoever if you have pleased the GUI (the Great Ultimate It) or not.

Materialism says that everything we experience is an accidental concourse of material stuff, and therefore nothing means anything. Eat, drink, and be merry, or seek total power over others for the thrill of it, or commit suicide, or whatever. Since mind does not exist, who cares what good or evil are, anyway, or who could offer a meaningful definition, since what the neurons in your brain invent is an accident, and what the neurons in my brain invent is another accident, and the two do not have anything to do with each other, do they?

What all three explanations have in common, ultimately, is nihilism, “nothing-ism.”   At root, all three deny Who God is, deny who man is, and deny the love of God for man.   All three, at root, are the fruit of pride, of Satan’s rebellion against the All-Good and All-Loving God Who created him, the fruit of Satan’s choice to “reign in hell rather than to serve in heaven.”   To adopt any of these three views and really live by it is to consign oneself to hell in this life, much less the next. Yet people fall very easily into these views, and only with great difficulty, and by God’s grace, do they accept the Truth. Without the miracle of grace, humankind cannot bear too much reality.

The Orthodox Church teaches us the truth, which is that God created man out of love and for love, so that man could freely choose to love God and do His holy will.   Advancing step by step from the fear of punishment to the desire for heavenly rewards to the love of God for His own sake, and thereby attaining the freedom of divine friendship, a man becomes a “god by grace,” and in the process, far from being absorbed into the Cosmic One, and far from being the helpless pawn of an inscrutable fate, he becomes more, and more truly, himself. To accomplish this, however, we must be courageous and full of hope in God’s mercy; we must open our hearts and throw ourselves into the abyss of His love, trusting Him to catch us.   We have to look evil square in the face and bravely hope in the all-loving and all-wise God, Who cares for us, Who became a man and died for us, and Who rose from the dead, giving us the hope of an everlasting life.

Kazantzakis claimed that he had no fear because he had no hope. This is not courage but the very essence of cowardice. We can choose this way – the way of nihilism – or we can go the path of the saints.   Increasingly it becomes clear, from all that is happening around us, that there is no other choice.

pilgrims walking up a hill to a church in Serbia
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Growing our souls

11 July OS 2019 – Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Matthew; Holy Great-Martyr Euphemia the All-Praised; Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Great Princess Olga

In today’s Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus tells the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Leaven:

The Lord spake this parable: The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world. Then Jesus sent the multitude away, and went into the house.St. Matthew 13:31-36

St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on Our Lord’s words, explains how we can apply the images of the mustard seed and the leaven both to the Church and to our own spiritual lives:

The Kingdom is like a grain of mustard seed and leaven. A small grain of mustard seed grows up into a large bush; leaven penetrates a whole lump of dough and makes it leavened. Here, on the one hand, is an image of the Church, which in the beginning consisted only of the Apostles and a few other people. It then spread and became more numerous, penetrating all of humanity. On the other hand, it is an image of the spiritual life revealed in every person. Its first seed is the intention and determination to be saved through pleasing God in accordance with faith in the Lord and Savior. This determination, no matter how firm, is like a tiny speck. Its movement and strength multiply and mature within its own self, and it begins to penetrate all the powers of the soul – the mind, will, and feelings – then fills them with itself, leavens them according to its spirit, and penetrates the entire constitution of the human nature – body, soul, and spirit – in which it was engendered.  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 144

The seed, then, of spiritual life, is the “intention and determination to be saved through pleasing God in accordance with faith in the Lord and Savior.” There are three elements to this: Intention and determination to be saved, pleasing God, and faith.

We can check ourselves every day, and ask ourselves, “Do I intend to be saved, am I determined to be saved?” It cannot be a vague wish, as we would vaguely wish for someone to hand us a million dollars, though we neither think it likely nor make any efforts towards obtaining our wish. We have to intend it, choose it, set out decisively to get it, with determination. When our intention becomes unsteady or our determination weakens, we must ask the Lord to clarify our minds and strengthen our wills.

Every day we should ask ourselves, “Do I desire to please God?” and we should ask the Lord to strengthen this desire in us. It is impossible to overestimate the power of the desire to please God, to do His holy will.   Once someone is irrevocably committed to the doing of God’s will, he will receive very great power from God to do so.   The Lord will strengthen his will, and he will experience the truth of the words that with God nothing is impossible.

“Very well,” you may say, “I do intend and I do will, but weakly, and sometimes it seems like such a dry experience.  Often I approach it as though it were a Stoic self-improvement program.”  At this point we must recall the third element in the “program” St. Theophan outlines:  Faith.   We must beg with tears for Faith, which,  in addition to being the voluntary assent of the mind to divine Truth, is also – and more importantly – a free gift of God’s grace. When our will grows weak and the clarity of our intention grows blurry, let us open the Holy Gospel and start reading slowly aloud.  Let us read the Life of a saint.  Let us kneel before the holy icons and carefully, slowly, read the Akathist to Our Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ or His Most Pure Mother.  Let us confess and prepare for Holy Communion.  The sweetness of His love, the vision of His divine beauty, will once again captivate our hearts, and we will remember why we have made our act of will, and that will shall grow strong again.  We will remember the end of Faith, which is Charity – Divine Love – and, unable to forget the Beauty of that Divine Love, we will open our hearts to Faith,  and the Hope born of courage will be not barren but a fruitful act of the will.

O Lord, Who desires our salvation, make to grow the seed of Faith in our hearts!

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The granary of the heart

10 July OS 2019 AD – Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Matthew; Holy 45 Martyrs of Nicopolis; S. Antony of the Kiev Caves; Deposition of the Robe of the Lord in Moscow

In today’s Gospel, the Lord instructs the disciples on two levels: How to understand heresies and schisms in the Church, and how to understand the warfare between good and evil in the heart.

Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.
But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
Matthew 13: 24-30

St. Theophan the Recluse guides us into an understanding of the Lord’s words as relating to the Church and as relating to our inner life:

The good seed was sown, but the enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat. The tares in the Church are heresies and schisms, while in each of us they are bad thoughts, feelings, desires, and passions. A person accepts the good seed of the word of God, decides to live in a holy way, and begins to live in this way. When such a person falls asleep, that is, when his attention toward himself weakens, then the enemy of salvation comes and places evil ideas in him which, if not rejected at the start, ripen into desires and dispositions, introducing their own spheres of activity, which mix themselves in with good works, feelings, and thoughts. In this way, both remain together until the harvest. This harvest is repentance. The Lord sends His angels – a feeling of contrition and the fear of God – and they come in like a sickle, then burn up all the tares in the fire of painful self-condemnation. Pure wheat remains in the granary of the heart, to the joy of man, the angels, and the Most Good God worshiped in Trinity. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 143-144.

In the Church, the “tares” (weeds) are heresies and schisms. Today clever people have fabricated a novel teaching that the Lord’s command not to tear up the weeds means that we are not allowed to separate from the heretics, that the orthodox who separate from bishops because they are heretics thereby become schismatics, because (according to this interpretation) the orthodox must remain together with the heretics in the Church, like the wheat among the weeds, until the Dread Judgment. Therefore (according to this idea), to remain in the Church, one must continue indefinitely in communion with heretics, commemorating unrepentant heretical bishops, obeying them and receiving what purport to be sacraments from them, perhaps until the end of time. St. John Chrysostom, however, corrects this error in his 46th Homily on Matthew, which you can read online here, http://newadvent.org/fathers/200146.htm, and which you can listen to here, https://archive.org/details/parables_jesus_christ_commentary_gospel_matthew_1511_librivox/parables_03_chrysostom_128kb.mp3

The great Chrysostom here relates not only his own teaching but also the consensus of the Fathers: The Lord in this passage is not forbidding us to separate from the heretics; He is not forbidding us even from actively opposing them with non-lethal, legal methods of coercion if necessary (and if possible – not likely nowadays!). He is simply saying, “Do not shed their blood; do not slay them.”

St. Theophan, in his commentary on this passage, however, spends only one sentence – less than one sentence, only one clause – on this ecclesiological theme, which he mentions more or less in passing. His chief topic, as usual, is the spiritual life of the Christian soul. The wheat consists of our good works, feelings, and thoughts, and the tares are our bad thoughts, feelings, desires, and passions. Just as, at the end of the world, the Lord will send His angels to gather His enemies and burn them, so now, in this life, He sends His messengers – contrition and the fear of God – to burn up our evil inclinations and gather our spiritual goods – our good thoughts and habits of mind and action, our virtues – into the barn of the heart, where they are kept safe by grace and induct us into the Heavenly Kingdom, which we begin to experience by anticipation even here on earth.

St. Isaac the Syrian also connects our salvation today, in the heart, with our eternal salvation in the Kingdom that Is To Come:

…Be a persecutor of yourself, and your enemy will be driven from your proximity. Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Be diligent to enter into the treasury that is within you, and you will see the treasury of Heaven: for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The ladder of the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend. – The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 2

Paradise and hell, then, both begin in this life. Let us beg the Lord for His good messengers – contrition and the fear of God – to burn up our sins and passions, and to collect our scattered thoughts into one thought – the Name of Jesus – concentrated in the granary of the heart. There we will have Paradise, both in this life and in the Age to Come.

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