Build your house on rock

4 October OS 2018 – Wednesday of the 3rd Week of St. Luke; St. Hierotheos, Bishop of Athens 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord exhorts us to match our actions to our confession of Faith in Him:

The Lord said: And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say? Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like: He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great. Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum. Luke 6:46-7:1

If you are a sincere Orthodox Christian trying somehow to have a conscious spiritual life, these words are always hovering around you, and there is always (at least a slight) twinge of conscience.   We know we do not fulfill Our Lord’s commandments, and yet we continue to say, “Lord, Lord.”   How can we place the house of our soul more firmly on the rock of His commandments?

The first thing to remember is that we must not stop saying, “Lord, Lord,” even if we look silly doing it. We have to keep confessing our Faith in Jesus as our Lord and God. If you say, “Well, I do not want to be a hypocrite; I cannot fulfill the Lord’s commandments and therefore I give up calling Him my Lord,” you will still be a hypocrite (who is not a hypocrite?) and will have also become a coward and traitor as well.

So here we are, still crying out “Lord, Lord,” and yet imperfectly and unsteadily fulfilling His commandments. What to do? St. Theophan the Recluse, with his unerring sense of the essential, zeroes in on the problem, which is the conversion of the heart:

“Why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” Why do they call Him Lord, but do not do the Lord’s will – that is, why do they not acknowledge His lordship in their works? Because they only call with their tongue, and not with their heart. If their heart were to utter, “Lord, Thou art my Lord,” then complete readiness would abide therein to submit to the One Whom they confess as their Lord. But since this is not the case, their deeds do not match their tongues; whereas, deeds always match the heart. Well, what then – is there no use in calling “Lord, Lord”? No, that’s not it. But it is necessary to make the external word match the inner word, which is the feeling and disposition of the heart. Sit and reflect upon the Lord and upon yourself; what is the Lord and what are you? Think about what the Lord has done and still does for you, why you live, and how it will end. You will immediately come to the conviction that there is no other way than steadfastly to fulfill the Lord’s entire will. There is no other path for us. This conviction gives birth to a readiness to fulfill in deed what is expressed by the word “Lord.” With such readiness a need for help from above will be awakened, and from it the prayer: “Lord, Lord! Help me and give me strength to walk in Thy will.” And this call will be pleasing to the Lord.” Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 221

St. Theophan here lays out a simple plan:

  1. Sit for a bit and reflect on Who God is and who you are. Think about all that He has done for you: He brought you into existence; without Him you would not exist.   He became a man and died for you.
  1. You will realize quickly that you depend on Him for everything, that you owe Him everything, and that you must do exactly what He wants at all times, or you will perish.
  1. Cry out to Him and beg Him for help to know and to do His will.

The saint concludes, “And this call will be pleasing to the Lord.” In other words, by the very act of asking Him to help us do His will, we are already doing His will. We are acknowledging His lordship over our lives, admitting our inability to do His will, showing our utter dependence on Him, and fulfilling His commandment to pray and ask Him for that which we need. We have begun to pray from the heart, which is man’s essential function, and therefore at one stroke we have begun to do God’s will in the most essential way.

If we keep at it, then little by little our actions will match our words, because now our words will be coming from the heart and therefore our own created energies are focused on what needs to be done instead of being scattered in the pursuit of myriad inessentials, and we will simultaneously and directly be invoking the power of God, and therefore His divine and uncreated energies will accomplish what our poor strength cannot do.

Here indeed is in brief a program for the Christian life.

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Discretion, the governing virtue

27 September OS 2018 – Wednesday of the Second Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyr Kallistratos; Holy New-Martyr Aquilina

The reading today for the Holy Gospel, according to the daily cycle, is Luke 5:33-39.

At that time, the Pharisees came to Jesus and said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink? And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days. And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old. And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish. But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved. No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.

Fasting is good, of course – the Lord does not deny that. But there is a time for fasting, and a time for not fasting. During His time on earth, the disciples did not fast, for He was with them. After His Ascension, they began to fast, to keep watch for His Second Coming. And so we still do today.

St. Theophan the Recluse derives a general lesson for us: that all good works must be practiced with discretion, and in harmony with each other:

It is unbecoming for the children of the bridechamber to fast while the bridegroom is with them, said the Lord, and thus He pronounced the law that even with virtues and spiritual endeavors everything has its place and time. And this is so crucial that an untimely and inappropriate deed loses its value, either entirely, or in part. The Lord arranged everything in visible nature with measure, weight, and number. He also wants everything in the moral realm to be decent and in order (cf. I Cor. 14:40). Inner decency consists in a joining of each virtue with all the virtues in conjunction, or a harmony of virtues, so that none stand out needlessly, but all are in accord, like voices in a choir. Outward decency gives each deed its place, time, and other connections. When all of this is properly arranged, it is like a beautiful lady dressed in beautiful clothes. Virtue which is decent both inwardly and outwardly is desirable. It is Christian good sense that makes it this way. With elders it is discernment acquired through experience and the sensible examination of the Lives of the saints in the light of the word of God. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 215-216

How does one acquire discretion, the ability wisely to order the priorities and activities of one’s life?   Both in the specifically spiritual arena of our life – our prayers, fasting, preparing for confession and Holy Communion, Church attendance, etc. – and in our practical daily lives, we often experience that things are out of joint.   We do not know what to put first, second, and third. We start new projects or activities with enthusiasm and do not finish them.   We emphasize one aspect of life to the exclusion of others, and life becomes unbalanced. And so forth.

There are countless self-help books from secular writers about prioritizing, planning, and organizing. But what we need is deeper: the profound wisdom by which we know intuitively what to do and when to do it; to keep in mind always that which is most important; to be attentive and conscious in our daily activities and not to “go on auto-pilot.” If we are in order inwardly, whatever outward order needed will naturally arise.

The first step in acquiring discretion is the same as the first step in acquiring all spiritual gifts: We must ask for it!   Let us not fail each day to begin our day with prayer, and as part of our prayers, to ask the Lord to give us prudence, discernment, and practical wisdom to order our lives aright inwardly and outwardly. We must ask the Lord to show us the way, to give us the light of understanding His holy will, and the resolve to do His will come what may.

Another simple step is to write down our core duties, first spiritual duties and then practical ones, and ask if we are doing them.   Resolving to say 1000 Jesus Prayers on the prayer rope every day does not make sense if, so far, we have failed to say five minutes of morning prayers in the morning.   Resolving to help the poor in a faraway country does not make sense if we are not helping our relatives and our fellow parishioners. We need to make a short list of the ABC duties of our Orthodox life, resolve to fulfill them, and ask God’s help to do so.

Another simple step is to seek counsel.   There may be ways in which our life is out of balance, in which we are being imprudent, that we cannot see ourselves, but that others who love us and understand us can see. Let us not forget to seek counsel from our priest and from the one or two very trusted and close spiritual friends upon whom we can truly rely.

May Christ, the Wisdom of God, bestow upon us His divine understanding, so that our hearts will sense naturally what to do and when to do it, both inwardly and outwardly.

Sermon on the Mount

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The beloved disciple

26 September OS 2018 –   St. John the Theologian

Today is the feast of the Beloved Disciple, the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian. St. John is called “Theologian” because the theology of the Fourth Gospel that he authored flies far above earthly things, like the eagle that is his symbol.   Pre-eminently among the Apostles, he was given the vision of divine things, culminating in his old age with the awesome visions he saw while exiled on the isle of Patmos, which he set down in the Book of the Apocalypse.

Why did the Lord Jesus choose John as His best friend, and why did the Holy Spirit reveal to him the highest mysteries? The answer lies in St. John’s great purity of body and of soul. As well as being the Beloved Disciple, he is also the Virgin Disciple; that is, alone among the Twelve, he was a lifelong celibate. This is not to say that the married state of the other Apostles was in some way against the will of God; no, marriage is blessed, as Our Lord demonstrated at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. Marriage is precious, like silver.   But virginity is precious like gold.

We have two great needs in the Church today, for our salvation and for the salvation of the world: to raise up godly children to be stalwart and faithful married people, and to raise up godly children to enter the monastic life. We must firmly resolve to shield children from the earliest infancy from impure images, words, and music, and to keep their souls pure.

There are two excellent books that every Orthodox parent, prospective parent, grandparent, and godparent should read and put into practice: Raising Them Right, which is composed of the early chapters of The Path to Salvation by Theophan the Recluse, the chapters on infancy, childhood, and adolescence; and Orthodox Christian Parenting, a book published by Zoe Press consisting of a collection of short passages from the Fathers and from recent Orthodox writers. I encourage everyone to obtain them, read them, and provide them to those you know who are in any way involved in rearing children.

May the Savior of the world, Our Most Pure Lord, preserve us in the purity of consecrated virginity and sacramental marriage, so that our bodies and souls may be preserved unto the resurrection and eternal life.

detail_mysticalsupper_johnonLord's breast

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How to make a good start

24 September OS 2018 – 1st Sunday of St. Luke, Holy Protomartyr Thekla

Today is the first Sunday on which we shall read the Gospel according to St. Luke.   We shall begin, appropriately, with a reminder that without the Lord’s help we can do nothing: 

At that time, as the people pressed upon Jesus to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. Luke 5: 1-11

Here in miniature is a model for the whole struggle of our Christian life!   We toil and toil, trying to do our own will – or even what we imagine to be God’s will – our own way on our own steam, and nothing comes of it. Then we finally decide to seek and do God’s will, and to rely on Him, and suddenly all things are possible – things start falling into place. But when good things start to happen, do we fall down like Peter and say, “I am not worthy of all these mercies of the Lord! This is entirely His work and His grace!”? Or, rather, do we secretly become puffed up and think, “Ah, look at what a good Christian life I am leading, and therefore God is blessing me!”?   All too often it is the latter.

The author of that wonderful classic of spiritual life Unseen Warfare, lays out a simple formula for beginning the spiritual life. At the very foundation is distrust in ourselves and all-daring trust in God.  

Finally, after learning what constitutes Christian perfection and realising that to achieve it you must wage a constant cruel war with yourself, if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer. Unseen Warfare, Chapter One, “What is Christian Perfection?”

How do we acquire this gift of not relying on ourselves? It is very difficult, since the deepest delusion, the last stronghold of Satan in the human heart, is the illusion that we are the source of our own existence – that we keep ourselves in existence. The author of Unseen Warfare (assisted by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Theophan the Recluse) gives this advice:

(a) realise your nothingness and constantly keep in your mind the fact that by yourself you can do nothing good which is worthy of the kingdom of heaven. Listen to the words of the wise fathers: Peter of Damascus assures us that “nothing is better than to realise one’s weakness and ignorance, and nothing is worse than not to be aware of them” (Philokalia). St. Maximus the Confessor teaches: “The foundation of every virtue is the realisation of human weakness’ (Philokalia). St. John Chrysostom says: ‘He alone knows himself in the best way possible who thinks of himself as being nothing.’ (b) Ask for God’s help in this with warm and humble prayers; for this is His gift. And if you wish to receive it, you must first implant in yourself the conviction that not only have you no such consciousness of yourself, but that you cannot acquire it by your own efforts; then standing daringly before the Almighty God, in firm belief that in His great loving kindness He will grant you this knowledge of yourself when and how He Himself knows, do not let the slightest doubt creep in that you will actually receive it. (c) Accustom yourself to be wary and to fear your innumerable enemies whom you cannot resist even for a short time,. Fear their long experience in fighting us, their cunning and ambushes, their power to assume the guise of angels of light, their countless wiles and nets, which they secretly spread on the path of your life of virtues. (d) If you fall into some transgression, quickly turn to the realisation of your weakness and be aware of it. For God allows you to fall for the very purpose of making you more aware of your weakness, so that you may thus not only yourself learn to despise yourself, but because of your great weakness may wish to be despised also by others. Know that without such desire it is impossible for this beneficent self-disbelief to be born and take root in you. This is the foundation and beginning of true humility, since it is based on realisation, by experience, of your impotence and unreliability.  – Chapter Two, “One should never believe oneself or trust oneself in anything”

“Ask for God’s help…” We have to ask God to help us realize that we have to ask God to help us! In other words, our pride is so deep we do not even see how deep it is. We have to say, “O Lord, I do not even see how deep my self-reliance goes in my heart. Help me to see and hate my pride and false sense of self-sufficiency. Help me to rely on Thee alone!”

The Lord loves prayers like these. He is waiting to give us abundant spiritual gifts, and we usually do not ask for them.   The first gift we should ask for is this gift which is the foundation of spiritual life: A complete conviction that we are nothing and He is everything, a complete conviction that of ourselves we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible.   And with this realization, when good things do come our way from the right hand of the Lord, may we also have the sense to say with Peter, “O Lord, I am a sinful man.”

May all the holy Gospel readings during this time of St. Luke sink deep into our ears, our minds, and our hearts. Let us fall down before the Lord Who made us and proclaim from the depths of our hearts: “Thou art our God, and we know none other beside Thee; we call upon Thy Name.”

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The mark of Cain

22 September OS 2018 – Friday of the 1st Week of St. Luke; Holy Hieromartyr Phocas 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord’s own relatives and townsmen reject Him out of envy:

At that time, the people wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of Jesus’ mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son? And he said unto them, Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself: whatsoever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in thy country. And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; But unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian. And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way.   – Luke 4: 22-30

There is something inconsistent here: First they marvel at the Lord’s gracious words, but then they turn against Him.   First they think, “How marvelous, how beautiful, how true!” Then they think, “Wait a second: this is just some other ‘guy’ from our own town, not anyone important. Who does he think he is, anyway? He is not better than we are!” In other words, they were envious. They were so envious that they tried to murder Him.

It was envy that caused the Nazarenes to reject the Lord Jesus Christ.

It was envy that caused the high priests, Pharisees, scribes, and rulers of the people to hate Him.

It was envy that caused Judas to betray Him.

But this is not surprising, because it was envy, at the beginning of creation, which caused Satan to tempt our first parents. God had created man to take the place of the fallen angels, and they cannot rest until they destroy us.   Or, rather, they will never rest for all eternity, because the more they destroy, the more envious they become.  Their hunger grows the more it is satisfied, and they will be endlessly more and more tortured for all eternity.

In the same way, an envious person – and, sadly, such a person may be an Orthodox Christian – cannot rest until he destroys the person he envies. He is constantly thinking about him with anger: “Who does he think he is? Why does the think he is so great?   Why does he get to have such-and-such or be such-and-such?” And this hatred, this anger, this internal torture has no end. Even if he succeeds in utterly destroying the happiness of the other person, even murdering the other person: Far from having rest, he will grow even more tortured, constantly revolving in his mind how bad the other person was and justifying himself. And this torture continues after death and increases endlessly for all eternity.

Today, on a global scale, we are suffering from the consequences of envy.   Once the Christian nations lived under a legitimate and God-blessed hierarchy of Church, king,  aristocracy, intellectual class, merchant class, working class, peasantry, and so forth.   This hierarchy reflected the hierarchy in creation itself, in which God is the king, and the angels and saints in heaven are His ministers, and on earth all men are arranged in stations, ranks, and classes according to the divine constitution of the Church and according to age-old, organically developed and traditional laws of those nations whose laws reflect the Law of God, and according to their birth and ability. Some men are necessarily higher than others. Some cultures are higher and more beautiful than others.   There are men and cultures and traditions that are high and noble, and others that are low and ignoble.   This is reality.

For generations now, however, the formerly Christian nations have listened to the siren song of envy, and now they have handed themselves over to the power of wicked demagogues who promise “equality” and teach, “No one and nothing is better than or different from anyone or anything.” With all boundaries, all standards, all traditions, all true hierarchy abolished, we are now reduced to the law of the jungle: Power is all, and might makes right.  Darwinism, utterly bankrupt as a science, has certainly succeeded as a maniacal religious and political ideology, for we are ruled by a criminal class of demonized and envious predators.   This is the politics of envy: if I can destroy you, this is the only justification I need.   This is the “revolutionary justice” of Marxism, of “civil rights,” of the sexual revolution, of feminism, homosexualism, and every other -ism that overturns the Christian order of society. It is a revolt against reality itself, ultimately against God.   And – apart from a miracle of repentance by a critical mass of mankind – we are living in the final stages of it. This is the end game.

For our part, let us courageously refuse to be part of this demonic anti-hierarchy of envious pseudo-justice. The first step in refusing the politics of envy is to cleanse our own hearts of all envy of other people, the great and the small. We have no worldly control over the vast changes that are overturning normal life all around us. But we do have the kind of control that counts: We can choose to stay in the Faith, to pray, to obey the commandments, to order our households according to God’s Law as best we can, and to tell others the truth and obey our consciences in the choices that face us on a daily basis.   We do have control over our minds and wills, to turn away from evil and do good.

Let us ask ourselves, “Do I nurture envy in my heart against those who seem to prosper while I suffer? Do I wish evil to others?” And let us fall down and beg the Lord to cleanse our hearts, to give us that peace which He alone can give, which the world cannot give and the world cannot take away. Let us forgive our enemies, and like St. Stephen we will see the heavens opened and Christ standing at the right hand of God.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

sacrifice of abel and melchisedec_ravenna

 

 

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Becoming acceptable to God

This morning (Friday) I discovered that I had written two commentaries on yesterday’s Gospel reading, both inspired by the same commentary by St. Theophan the Recluse! Here, a day later, is the second commentary: 

21 September OS 2018 – Thursday of the First Week of Luke; Apodosis (Leavetaking) of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross; Holy Apostle Codratus

In the cycle of the daily readings, today we read once again the Gospel passage that we read on the Church New Year: St. Luke’s account of the Lord’s entering the synagogue at Nazareth and announcing His Messiahship by proclaiming the acceptable year of the Lord.

At that time, Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. And they said, Is not this Joseph’s son? Luke 4: 16-22

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that, unlike all the prophets before Him, the Lord Jesus Christ not only could preach about the acceptable year of the Lord, He could – and did – make it happen; He brought it with Him.

The Lord not only came “to preach the acceptable year,” but He brought it as well. Where is it? In the souls of believers. The earth will never become a Paradise under the current state of affairs; but it is and will be an arena of preparation for the heavenly life. The rudiments of heavenly life are placed in the soul, and the possibility for this lies in God’s grace – Who brought, consequently, the acceptable year for souls. He who listens to the Lord and fulfills all that is commanded by Him receives grace, and with its power enjoyes the acceptable year within himself. This truly occurs in all who sincerely believe and act according to faith. You will not fill your souls with “acceptableness” by thinking; you must act, and it will enter in on its own.   There might not be any outer peace whatever, just inner peace, yet it cannot be separated from Christ. But it always happens that as soon as inner peace is established, outer disturbances are neither bitter nor heavy. Consequently, the acceptable year is there even in this respect – it only seems like a cold winter on the outside. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 210-211

These brief words of St. Theophan address a spiritual malaise most of us share: sluggish inactivity based on a dreamy desire for a phony paradise both without and within.   The phony external paradise we dream of is an earthly life with no problems, in which everyone is just and kind to us.   The phony internal paradise we dream of is a state of inner purity, calm, and happiness based simply on thinking and not on doing.   The heresies associated with these delusions are, respectively, chiliasm and gnosticism, and the two work together and feed each other.

As St. Theophan rightly points out, this earth will never become a paradise in the present, fallen state of affairs prior to the destruction and re-fashioning of the cosmos into a New Heaven and a New Earth.   This earthly life, rightly understood, is an arena in which we struggle for our salvation, a very short trial in which we choose to do or not do that which is acceptable to the Lord. Chiliasm – derived from the Greek word for “a thousand” – is, strictly speaking, the heresy that teaches that the thousand-year reign of Christ spoken of in the Apocalypse is a future event that will take place here on earth, in the form of an outward, global political order.  But there is also a broader application of the concept: anyone who wants “the Kingdom of God on earth” in the literal sense partakes of the chiliast spirit and the chiliast delusion.   Surely we desire for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven – the Lord Himself told us to pray for this. This takes place, prior to the end of the world, in the lives of those who do God’s will, and certainly there have been families, monasteries, parishes, whole national Churches and kingdoms in which God’s light, the light of Orthodoxy, showed forth more brilliantly than in other places: these people and communities were (and, we pray, will be) little icons of the heavenly kingdom, little foretastes of what is to come in eternity.   But there will never be a time in which Christ will reign on earth as an earthly king, either directly or through a vicar like a pope or emperor, or through a “chosen race.”

The ever-present spirit of chiliasm distracts the pious from what they have control over – struggling for their salvation – by entertaining them endlessly with the demonically orchestrated struggles of financiers, politicians, parties, races, and nations for dominance.   Today this is far truer – quantum leaps truer – than ever.   I say “quantum leaps,” because global communications technology has given worldly powers the ability to distract and delude everyone 24 hours per day in such an addictive fashion, it is a wonder there is anyone left who can think straight. Facing this state of affairs realistically, we must beg God for the grace to re-double our efforts to pray and work in a disciplined fashion, simply to pay attention to that over which we have control, and deal with it. We must remember, always: this life is short, death is certain, and judgment is eternal.   Seen in this light, promises of an earthly paradise will not entrap us in the cycle of excitement, failure, disappointment, and despair.

When one despairs over the phony, chiliast earthly paradise, then one is tempted to retreat within selfishly, give up on the moral struggle, and desire a phony, gnostic internal paradise.

Gnosticism is the idea that if you have a certain secret knowledge about “what’s really going on behind the scenes,” you are among the elect.   A gnostic does not have to be moral or receive God’s forgiveness or even try to do anything good. He just has to sit around smugly and say to himself, “I know what’s really going on, unlike all those suckers out there.” And with this he is content. We are not going to join sects and secret societies that offer such a bogus salvation, but, as with the chiliast temptation, we all have the gnostic temptation: to try to think our way to salvation instead of seeking and doing God’s holy will. We can spend endless hours on websites to “find out what is really going on” and thereby feel secure through our “knowledge.” We can turn Orthodoxy into a kind of gnosticism in which, despite the manifest reality that we are enslaved to various passions, we read books on spiritual life and, instead of being brought to repentance, we imagine that we are thinking or feeling the thoughts and feelings of the saints, or in which we read the canons and derive satisfaction from knowing that so-and-so over there is breaking them, and since we are not (or think we are not), we are the good guys. All the while, we are wasting time, skipping prayers, fasting poorly, gossiping, not supporting our parish, neglecting our family, spending money on stupid things, and looking at some kind of screen x hours per day far in excess of what is necessary.

Being “in the know” does not save. The Lord said that the truth will set us free, but this comes true only if, having learned the truth, we obey it.   “If you love Me, keep My commandments (John 14:15).” St. James says that the demons believe – and tremble (James 2:19). Not falsehood only is demonic. Accurate knowledge without repentance, without humility, without morality, without the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, is also demonic.

Therefore, with the ever-present help of the divine grace so abundant in the Church, let us make a short list of our real, daily spiritual and earthly duties, and do them, praying always.   Let us heed the admonition of our Venerable Father Herman of Alaska, and if God be with us, we cannot fail:

“For our good, for our happiness, let us at least make ourselves a vow: that from this day, from this hour, from this minute, we shall strive to love God above all and do His commandments!” – from “Little Russian Philokalia,” Vol. III, St. Herman, St. Herman Press, 1989, p. 108

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The Kingdom within, the Kingdom to come

21 September OS 2018 – Thursday of the 1st Week of St. Luke, Leavetaking of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross;  Holy Apostle Codratus of the Seventy 

 In today’s Gospel, the Lord inaugurates His public ministry in His hometown of Nazareth, announcing that the prophecies are fulfilled, and that He, the Savior, has come.

At that time, Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. Luke 4: 16-22

 The Lord had come to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven promised by the prophets. But what kind of Kingdom is it? How can we on earth participate in it?   St. Theophan the Recluse says the following:

The Lord not only came “to preach the acceptable year,” but He brought it as well. Where is it? In the souls of believers. The earth will never become Paradise under the current state of affairs; but it is and will be an arena of preparation for the heavenly life. The rudiments of heavenly life are placed in the soul and the possibility for this lies in God’s grace, while grace was brought by our Lord Jesus Christ – Who brought, consequently, the acceptable year for souls. He who listens to the Lord and fulfills all that is commanded by Him receives grace, and with its power enjoys the acceptable year within himself. This truly occurs in all who sincerely believe and act according to faith. You will not fill your soul with the “acceptableness” by thinking; you must act, and it will enter in on its own. There might not be any outer peace whatever, just inner peace, yet it cannot be separated from Christ. But it always happens that as soon as inner peace is established, outer disturbances are neither bitter nor heavy. Consequently, the acceptable year is there even in this respect – it only seems like a cold winter on the outside. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 210-211

St. Theophan here presents a framework for understanding our entire situation, in a few weighty words, and his message is indeed Good News.   I would like to summarize his message point by point and apply it to our current situation:

  1. The Kingdom of heaven is not a Paradise on earth.   We must resist getting involved in any utopian dreams and schemes to create heaven on earth.  The messiah who promises such a thing is the false messiah, the Antichrist.   The entire revolt against God we see reaching a climax today is based on the idea that this world must become perfect, a paradise, and that man’s efforts will bring this about.   Christ and His Church preach the opposite: The only Paradise is in the next life, and this life will always be imperfect. It is an arena of struggle, a test, not a permanent resting place.
  1. In this life, the true Kingdom of God is experienced within, in the soul of the one who has Faith. This is a gift of grace and not anything man can possibly create.   Faith leads to grace, and grace establishes the Kingdom in the soul. This Kingdom of the soul, if it is real, will naturally manifest itself in family life, parish life, community life, and even national life, but this is not the same as some kind of Utopia, some kind of permanent heaven on earth. Outward results come and go, until the end of this world, but faith and grace must remain within the soul always.
  1. We must act, i.e., lead the Orthodox Christian life of prayer, fasting, and charity.   The life of grace is not an ideology, not a secret knowledge for insiders, and not a mere philosophy. It is not some “ah-hah!” moment we have while reading something on the Internet. It is not Peter Pan thinking happy thoughts. It is not sitting around and feeling pseudo-spiritual feelings. The life of grace is precisely that: life.   Do what the Faith teaches, and the Kingdom of God will warm you from within.
  1. Outer disturbances usually increase in proportion to the inner peace growing within, but they are felt less.   It is like living in a warm house and looking out at the bitter winter weather. The acceptable year of the Lord has been inaugurated in the soul, and it is a time of joy, regardless of outer circumstances.

Let us then resolve, with God enabling us – for we can do nothing of ourselves – to…

Be realistic about the times we live in, not getting caught up in the lies of the rapidly developing New Religion and New Order, while simultaneously…

Acting on our Faith, not just sitting around and wringing our hands: Daily prayer, worship at Church (you don’t know how much longer it will be available or even legal), keeping the holy fasts established by the Church (to keep us detached from earthly pleasures), confessing and preparing for Holy Communion, doing the good you can do, the good you have control over, for those for whom you are responsible, including speaking the truth in love to those around you, even if it seems uncomfortable, and …

Always being grateful to God and not feeling sorry for ourselves.

“Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven!”

 

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Reality check

20 September OS 2018 – Wednesday of the 1st Week of St. Luke; Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross; Holy Great-Martyr Eustace Placidus 

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In today’s Gospel we read S. Luke’s account of the Lord’s temptation by Satan:

At that time, Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, Being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God. And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence: For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee: And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season. And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified of all. Luke 4: 1-15

The Logos of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, assumed our human nature completely and truly, but without sin. In His true human nature He did that which we had to do to be saved but could not do because of the Ancestral Sin:  He fulfilled all righteousness. One of the ways in which He fulfilled the telos – goal, end, purpose – of our humanity was His completely defeating Satan.   He underwent temptation as a man, and He completely defeated the tempter.   In all generations, those who defeat Satan do so only in union with Him, and He gives them the divine power to do so, if only they will believe in Him and follow Him on His path to the Cross.

Look at the three temptations of Satan in this passage, and you will see three great delusions of mankind today: to turn stones into bread, to live only for this temporary life, and to presume on God’s mercy.

Man revolts against God, nature, and common sense; he wants to turn stones into bread. He believes that he can violate every law of God and every moral and social tradition from the beginning of the world. He believes that he can dominate, distort, and re-make nature itself, to gratify his passions. He believes that he can call black white and white black, and declare that 2+2=5, and that nothing bad will happen to him.   He is in for a bad surprise.

Man desires only this world and its pleasures. He calls eternal life “pie in the sky,” and he calls eternal torment a trick invented by priests to control the masses.   He has gladly made the bargain of Faust with the devil: “All this will be yours if only you fall down and worship me.”   He is in for a bad surprise.

Man presumes on God’s mercy: “God is love, and therefore I can do whatever I want. I will throw myself off the moral cliff, and God will catch me. If you do not think so, that is only because you are full of hate and intolerance.”   He is in for a bad surprise.

Let us firmly resolve to confront reality, to accept it from the right hand of God, and to do penance in this life for our sins and the sins of the world. There is no other way, no Separate Peace; there is No Exit except the doorway of death, through which each of us shall pass into eternal joy or eternal torment. Let us take up our cross and follow the only One Who has defeated sin, the devil, death, and hell.   Let us kiss and embrace His holy commandments, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, by obeying which we take His Cross upon our shoulders and follow Him to Golgotha and beyond, to the Resurrection and the Eternal Kingdom which will know no evening.

The time for lies is over.

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Purer than gold and sweeter than the honeycomb

19 September OS 2018 – Tuesday of the 1st Week of Luke; Holy Martyrs Trophimos, Sabbatios, and Dorymedon; S. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Today’s Gospel reading is the genealogy of Our Lord according to S. Luke:

At that time: Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli, Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph, Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge,Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri, Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er, Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim, Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David, Which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson, Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda, Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor, Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala, Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech, Which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan, Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God. And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.   – Luke 3:23 – 4:1

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When we get to the genealogies in Holy Scripture, either in Genesis or in the Gospels – the beginning of St. Matthew’s Gospel and here in St. Luke – we may be tempted just to skip over them, thinking, “These names are exotic and difficult, and I am not sure why they are here, anyway.” It may be difficult to derive a spiritual lesson of some sort, and we move on.   But this of course, we should not do. The Holy Spirit told the inspired writers to write down these genealogies, and the same Holy Spirit inspired the Church to appoint the genealogies in both St. Matthew and St. Luke to be read at the Divine Liturgy every year. There must be a reason.

One thing I would like to point out is that we acquire grace through reading Holy Scripture, and especially the Gospels, whether we think we are deriving a clear meaning from them or not. When we read Scripture, we should read aloud, at a measured pace – not too fast, not too slow – and let the words sink in.   Every word of Holy Scripture is invested with infinite divine power, and the very experience of reading it will change our hearts, confirm us in faith, and bring peace to our souls.

Another thing to remember is that when we read Holy Scripture piously and reverently, especially when we do not understand what we are reading (or why it is there), we are making an act of faith in God’s wisdom, which placed these very words before us, for our salvation.   This small effort, made in Church or made in our private prayers, is an act of quiet militancy against the skeptical and materialistic views of “scientific” Biblical critics, who are always reducing God’s Word to a random product of cultural evolution. There is nothing random or evolutionary about Holy Scripture. Every word was put there at a specific point in history by a specific man specifically inspired by God, Who determined this from all eternity in infinite wisdom. Compared to the endlessly flowing, fresh and pure river of God’s wisdom, the prattling of the critics is a cup of polluted water. From which do we wish to drink?

The genealogies, by the way, do have profound theological meaning.   Here St. Luke, by taking the genealogy of the Lord back to Adam, is saying that Jesus is the new Adam, Who in his sinless but actual human nature restores man to the communion with God that he lost in Paradise. Both evangelists who record the genealogy of Jesus – Matthew and Luke – are also demonstrating that Jesus Christ really is a man like us, with human ancestors. This was necessary to counter the Docetist heresy, which taught that Christ only appeared to be human but really was not.  By showing that Christ was descended from King David, they were demonstrating that He was of the line from which the Messiah was supposed to come.  There is no end to the theology concealed in the Scriptures, even the most seemingly routine or obscure passages.

Let us resolve firmly to drink the pure water of God’s Holy Word every day!   May His Word, purer than gold and sweeter than the honeycomb, enliven us and strengthen us always!

 

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A program for life

 

2 September OS 2018 – Saturday of the Sixteenth Week of Matthew;  S. Mamas, Martyr; S. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople

In today’s Gospel, the Lord commands His disciples to be vigilant until His coming:

The Lord said to His disciples: Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. Who then is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. But and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; And shall begin to smite his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, And shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. – Matthew 24: 34-44

We await the coming of Christ in two senses: 1. He will come in glory at a time known to God alone, at the end of the world, to judge the living and the dead at the General Judgment.    2. If we die before His coming, we will face Him at the judgment seat of the Particular Judgment, when all of the deeds of our life will be laid bare, and He will place us in Paradise or Hades to await the General Resurrection and Dread Judgment. This brief life is given us to prepare for these encounters with our Judge.   How do we prepare?

St. Theophan the Recluse comments thus:

“Watch, therefore; for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come (Matthew 24:42). To be vigilant does not mean to sit with your arms folded, but rather to keep in mind that the Lord will come suddenly, and so to behave and conduct your affairs so as to be ready to meet Him at any instant, not fearing reproach and condemnation. How is one to do this? Very simply.   Walk in the commandments without breaking a single one. And if it happens that you break one, immediately cleanse yourself through repentance and by fulfilling what needs to be done. Then everything in you will be clean. Do not leave sin on your soul for even a minute: immediately repent, weep in your heart, and run to your spiritual father to confess and receive absolution, and then get down to business again, in accordance with God’s commandments. If you set out zealously to have your life in good order, it soon will be; just do not remain in a fall for long. In such a case, falls will become ever rarer and will eventually cease completely, with the help of the all-healing grace of God. Then the joyful assurance will dwell in you that you will not meet the Lord unprepared. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 200-201

Here is a program for life!   In short:

  1. Obey the commandments.
  1. If you fall, repent immediately.
  1. Get back to your spiritual work.

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“…run to your spiritual father to confess and receive absolution.” Is this what we do? Or do we store up our sins in a great sack on our backs and trudge from year to year, performing a perfunctory and woefully incomplete confession during Holy Week and maybe before the Nativity or another feast, receiving Holy Communion as if it were a burdensome duty of some kind, and then going back to “business as usual” – not the “business” St. Theophan is speaking of above, the business of a conscious, daily spiritual effort, but the “business” of worldliness?

If one were to ask me why the world has gone so astray, I would answer, “Because Orthodox Christians do not frequently confess and receive Holy Communion.”   The Church is the charity of the world, the gate through which the grace of God flows to mankind, the pillar and foundation of the Truth, the place where man meets God, the means God has given for the salvation of man.   When the life of the Church in the world is strong, when vast numbers of Orthodox Christians are daily repenting, weeping over their sins, frequently confessing, receiving absolution, receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion – then evil is restrained, rulers and nations repent, thousands or millions of souls are saved.   When the life of the Church is weak, then God’s grace, though infinitely abundant and readily available, slows to a trickle in the life of the world, not because God is not all-powerful and all good, but because the men He has chosen out of the world to be His sons refuse to receive what He has to give.

Calculate the number of hours per week you read or watch the news on the Internet or television, seeking to know the latest evils in order to wring your hands and say how bad things are.   Organize next week so that you will spend the same number of hours in the combination of the following activities: attending Church services, saying daily prayers at home, doing spiritual reading, examining your conscience and going to confession, and receiving Holy Communion or undertaking the further preparation prescribed by your spiritual father.   Then do it.  By this, you will go from being a helpless victim (and worse, an addicted voyeur) of the world’s evils, to being a free child of God and, moreover, a spiritual warrior who has now begun to combat the evil rather than be hypnotized by it like the deer in the headlights. As they say, do not be part of the problem, be part of the solution.

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