The Mother of all graces

27 June OS, 2018 –  Apostles’ Fast; Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Matthew; S. Sampson the Hospitable

Though at all times it is fitting to praise the wonders of the Holy Virgin, it would seem that on this day, the penultimate of the Fast of Ss. Peter and Paul, one should rather say a few words on the upcoming Feast. Time enough remains for this, however, in the next few days, when we shall devote ourselves to praising the Apostles’ struggles and virtues, and calling upon their prayers. Today let us ponder on the virtues we shall have acquired or failed to acquire when the ascetic struggle of the past six weeks ends at sunset tomorrow, and beg the Most Pure Theotokos to bestow upon us that which we could not acquire for ourselves.

This thought occurred to me as, last night, I resumed studying the second homily of St. Gregory Palamas on the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. It may seem odd to study such a work at such a time – distant from the feast itself – but I am not reading it for homiletic material to draw from on the festal day (21 November OS), but rather as a succinct yet profound catechism on the spiritual life, and therefore one that bears careful and repeated study throughout the year.

The particular passage I read last night is this:

11. In the beginning, when God set the greater light to rule the day, first He made light scattered freely everywhere, then the disc of the sun to receive it (Genesis 1:1-3, 16-18). In the same way, He now displayed His ever-virgin Mother as the lamp-stand of the divine, ineffable light of everything virtuous. Whereas previously goodness had been dispersed among all, later every kind of of virtue was brought together in her in a way past understanding or description, so high had she ascended. All those things which, distributed to the noblest of every age, were sufficient to make them great, and everything which those angels and men who found favor with God were in part, she gathered together. She alone, having brought all these gifts to perfection and multiplied them inexpressibly, pours out abundant grace on those who honor her, also granting that they may reach up to her as the receptacle of great graces, and in her goodness lavishing even more excellent favors upon them. Nor will she cease being mercifully disposed towards all mankind, providing everything beneficial and assisting us plentifully.

12. Anyone who considers how she represents and bestows everything good, will say that the Virgin fulfills the same role as regards virtue for those living virtuously as the sun does in relation to visible light for those who live by it, and that what happened to light in the beginning foreshadowed and prefigured the wonders to be accomplished later concerning her. – from Homily Fifty Three, St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, trans. Veniamin, p. 179

At the end of a fast, the pious usually sigh with regret over that which we did not accomplish. It strikes us, late as usual, that we have passed on a golden chance freely given, disdained a goblet of grace drunk reluctantly or not at all, missed a turn in the road. Shall we live another year? Shall we see this season of grace again? God alone knows.

Even this thought, however, is itself another grace-given moment of salvation, another gracious call from the Lord to repentance, which is, after all, the purpose of any fast. Realizing our utter incapacity for spiritual progress, we must hasten quickly, without hesitation, to her who is the treasury of all the gifts her divine Son wants to give us: We must flee to the Holy Virgin.

As St. Gregory Palamas explains so beautifully, the Lord took all of the virtues, gifts, and graces He bestowed on the various saints, and concentrated them to the highest degree in His Most Pure Mother, who indescribably surpasses every created intelligence, visible and invisible, in the degree of her holiness and purity, in her likeness to God. Everything that her Son has by nature, she has by grace, and it is His will, both the will of the All-Holy Trinity from all eternity and His perfect human will in complete accordance with the divine will, that every grace won for us by the Incarnate Economy of her Son be given to us through her mediation.

If then, we have fallen short in this fast, let the grace freely flowing through her make up what we lack! If we are oppressed by our weaknesses and threatened by our foes, let us flee to her protection! If we desire the grace of repentance, let us cry out to her with tears! If we desire spiritual gifts, let us freely approach her with the full confidence of children in a most loving mother, one who loves us incomparably more than the very best of all other mothers, and who pleads for us with absolute confidence at the Throne of Mercy, which is the Cross of her Son.

She is the Surety of Sinners, the Safe Haven of those in Trouble, the Invincible Champion of the Weak. She will never forsake us.

Through her intercessions, may the grace of the upcoming Feasts fill our hearts with joy and our homes with gladness.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

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The “problem of evil” and real courage

22 June OS 2018 – Friday of the Sixth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Hieromartyr Eusebius of Samosata; S. Alban, Protomartyr of Britain

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 1. Man may choose freely to obey Him or not, to become His servant and friend or not, and 2. 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: 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 false explanations of evil.

The “Eastern religions,” Hinduism, Buddhism, and their variants, along with Platonism, say that this world is an illusion, and that evil is being trapped in the illusory, material world due to some cosmic accident no one can explain. The Hindus say that you need to go through various incarnations to get rid of the evil you have accumulated (karma), 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 undergo suffering no longer, i.e,  feel neither pain nor pleasure. One is eerily reminded of the epitaph of the excommunicated apostate novelist, Nikos Kazantzakis: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Islam says that only God’s will is really 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, don’t question anything, and jump onto the 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 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 anyway 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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The seed of Faith

21 June OS 2018 – Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Matthew; Holy Martyr Julian of Tarsus

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. – 
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!

Mustard-Seed-Icon

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The Eighth Day

12 June OS 2018 – Monday of the Fifth Week of Matthew; Ss. Onouphrios the Great and Peter of Athos 

In today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 12:9-13), the Lord Jesus demonstrates the true keeping of the Sabbath:

At that time, when Jesus was departed thence, he went into their synagogue:
And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him. And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.

 St. Theophan the Recluse comments on this passage to remonstrate with the Orthodox Christians of his (and our!) time:

“It is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.”  After healing the man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, the Lord said this as a reproach to the Pharisees, who took the commandment about Sabbath rest so far that they even measured the number of steps they could walk on that day.  But since it is not possible to do good works without movement, they would sooner have agreed to neglect good works than to allow any extra movement.  The Savior denounced them for this time and again, because the Sabbath required rest from worldly cares and not from works of piety and brotherly love.  In Christianity, instead of the Sabbath, Sunday is celebrated with the same goal: rest from all worldly affairs and the devotion of the day solely to God’s works. Christian sobriety has never reached the point of Pharisaic pettiness concerning not doing things on Sunday.  However, the permissible allowance for doing things on this day has been set far beyond the proper limits.  Not doing things kept the Pharisees from performing good works, whereas the things which Christians allow themselves are what lead them away from good works.  On the eve of Sunday they go to the theater and then to some other entertainment.  In the morning they oversleep and there is no time to go to church.  There are several visits, then lunch, and in the evening again entertainment.  Thus all their time is relegated to the belly and to pleasing the other senses, and there is no time to remember God and good works.  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 137-138

Let us apply St. Theophan’s remarks to our own situation. Today, Orthodox Christians who do not keep Sunday the way they should, are hypocrites to condemn or make fun of orthodox Jews for their legalistic attitude toward the Sabbath, since the result of their own lawless approach to the Lord’s Day is the same:  disobedience to the will of God and the consequent loss of grace.  And they have no excuse, for they are baptized members of Christ’s Church.

How does an Orthodox household spend Sunday?

First – Sunday begins on Saturday night!   We plan Saturdays, so that all tasks and outings finish in time for us to prepare to go to Church for Vespers or Vigil (Vespers/Matins).   Saturday night services are not only for the clergy or chanters or “super-pious.”  They are for everyone.  If we live too far from the church to make it reasonable to make the trip both Saturday night and Sunday morning, we should learn how to read the evening services at home.  Today’s Orthodox Christians plan parties and other events on Saturday nights, or sit around watching movies and TV or practicing self-hypnosis on social media because they have become secularized, not because this is normal for someone who claims to practice the Orthodox Faith.  When one has spent Saturday night in a godly manner, with church services, quiet time at home, spiritual reading, holy conversation, and prayer, the entire experience of Sunday is transformed, rising to a significantly higher spiritual level.  It is a wonderful, life-transforming experience, and it can happen every week! (That’s why God designed the seven-day week).  Try it…you’ll see.   When one adds confession after Vespers and reading the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, Saturday night and Sunday become what they were meant to be:  a taste of Paradise.

Second – We abstain from all food and drink from midnight onward on Sunday, not only when we are preparing to receive Holy Communion, but every week, in order to prepare spiritually to attend divine services and to be eligible to receive the antidoron, the blessed bread left over from the Offering, given to the baptized Orthodox present who have not received Holy Communion.

Third – We arise early on Sunday and prepare ourselves and our children to attend the Orthros or Hours and Divine Liturgy.   We do not eat, drink, smoke, turn on entertainment devices or social media, or otherwise distract ourselves on Sunday morning. The time between arising and going to Church is strictly used for getting ready to go to Church, including some morning prayers and – optimally – pre-Communion prayers.  We clothe ourselves in modest and dignified “Sunday best,” not just any old thing, and go peacefully to divine services, which begin not halfway through the Liturgy, or even with the beginning of the Liturgy, but with Matins (Orthros) or, if Matins took place the evening before, with the Hours.

Fourth – After attending Divine Services with attention and love, we spend the rest of the day in godly fashion.   We socialize in Christian agape with our fellow parishioners and then spend the rest of the day in quiet, happy family activities or in doing good works – visiting an elderly friend, for example, or helping around the Church.  And if on no other day, at least on Sunday, we should have the family around the table at the same time for dinner!  Sunday also is the pre-eminent time to invite our fellow Orthodox to our home for spiritual fellowship.

Thus a true New Testament Sabbath!

For most of us, making the change to doing everything above will seem like a tall order.  The biggest problem is being forced to work on Sundays, a recent phenomenon in the new post-Christian America.  But if you use the Sundays when you do not have to work in the way God wants, and pray to be freed from working on Sundays, He may very well set you free!  At any rate, pick out the easiest change to make from what you are doing now, make it, get used to it, and then make the next change, and go from there…  Life is short, and so why waste your precious Sundays?  The next may be your last.

xphealswitheredhand

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The light yoke

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

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

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

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

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

Here is how it happens, then:

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

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

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

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

Come to Me

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All shall be made known

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enduring with understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Island of saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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No room for sissies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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