Virtue above nature

12 June OS 2021: Friday of Pentecost Week; St. Onuphrius and St. Peter of Athos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The mystery of the age to come

Wednesday, 10 June OS 2021 – Wednesday of Pentecost Week ; Holy Hieromartyr Timothy of Prusa; Holy Martyrs Alexander and Antonina; St. John, Metropolitan of Tobolsk; Holy New Martyrs of China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaac of Syria
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The just shall live by faith

9 June OS 2021: The Third Day of Trinity, Tuesday of Pentecost Week; St. Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria; St. Columba of Iona

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

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

“The just shall live by faith.” St. Paul begins his annual tutorial for us on what it means to be a Christian by stating his main thesis. First, we must have faith. But also, by the power of that faith, we must be just.

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

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

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

By the prayers of St. Paul and all the Holy Apostles, O Christ God, have mercy on us and save us.

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The prize of our high calling

5 June OS 2021 – Friday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Leave-taking of the Ascension of the Lord; St. Dorotheos Bishop of Tyre, Hieromartyr; St. Boniface (Winfrid) Archbishop of Mainz and Apostle of Germany, Hieromartyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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He that endures to the end shall be saved

3 June OS 2021 – Wednesday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Afterfeast of the Ascension of the Lord; Holy Martyr Lucilian; St. Clothilde, Queen of France; St. Kevin of Glendalough

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This is the last week of the sacred Fifty Days of Pascha during which we read the Gospel according to St. John.   Today we continue reading the sublime words spoken by the Lord to the disciples at the Mystical Supper:

All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you. A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father. Then said some of his disciples among themselves, What is this that he saith unto us, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me: and, Because I go to the Father? They said therefore, What is this that he saith, A little while? we cannot tell what he saith. Now Jesus knew that they were desirous to ask him, and said unto them, Do ye inquire among yourselves of that I said, A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me? Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. John 16: 15-23

St. Theophan the Recluse likens the sadness of the disciples at the Lord’s death and their joy over His Resurrection to the times of crisis and rebirth we experience in the life of the soul:

The Lord said to the Holy Apostles before His sufferings: “A little while, and ye shall not see Me; and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me (John 16:16).” The Lord’s sufferings and death so struck the Holy Apostles that the eyes of their minds became dim, and they no longer saw the Lord as the Lord. The light was hidden, and they sat in a bitter and wearisome darkness. The light of Christ’s Resurrection dispersed this darkness, and they again saw the Lord. The Lord Himself explained His words thus: “Ye shall weep,” He said, “and lament, but the world shall rejoice; and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy (John 16:20).” It is said that every soul experiences a similar defeat on the way to perfection. Universal darkness covers it, and it does not know where to go; but the Lord comes, and changes its sorrow into joy. This is truly as necessary as it is for a woman to suffer before a man is born into the world. Can we not conclude from this that he who has not experienced this has not yet given birth to a real Christian within himself? – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 115-116

Anyone who undertakes the conscious effort of spiritual life knows what the saint is talking about: There are periods in which one’s mind is darkened, the will becomes weak, doubt sets in, and all seems lost. But if one simply hangs on and cries to the Lord in the pain of his heart, and – simply, drily, not waiting for good feelings – makes an act of will to go on striving to have faith, to hope, and to love, light dawns again in the heart, the mind clears, and the will acquires new strength. The soul takes wing and a new day dawns.   All is well.

Each of these times of intense interior struggle, which normally occur periodically several or many times in the life of the Christian, can be likened to the pangs of childbirth. As do labor pains, these crises rise and subside, but each time the pain is greater, until the great moment comes, and birth takes place.   Thus in the life of the Christian: the Lord allows greater and greater temptations, doubts, and sorrows to afflict us periodically, until the last and greatest trial at the hour of death and the departure of the soul from the body. By experiencing the resurrection of the soul throughout the increasingly difficult crises of life, our faith in God’s truth, our hope in His divine aid, and our love and longing for His desired presence increase steadily, and at the time He knows best, when He sees that the set of the soul is as firm as it ever will be, He brings us into the arena of the final contest, there to do battle openly with the enemy of our salvation, when the spiritual senses are opened, the nature of the combat we have previously engaged in blindly now becomes visible, and we face final glory or final disgrace.

At any one of these crises, a man may choose to give up.   This may not be entirely obvious to others – he may continue to attend Church services more or less, observe the greater holidays and family baptisms and weddings, and formally consider himself an Orthodox Christian.   But the switch in his heart has been turned to the Off position, and his real attention is elsewhere. He has decided, though perhaps not in so many words, that the interior struggles of spiritual life are not his cup of tea. Unfortunately such a decision is extremely common; to borrow words from T.S. Eliot, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.” Thus do the majority fulfill Our Lord’s terrible words, “Many are called but few are chosen.”

How can one remain among the few and be saved?   This, of course, is the subject of the Fathers’ entire vast literature on spiritual life. But now and here, today, let us consider one exercise: to get down on one’s knees (remember, starting this Sunday evening we will again be kneeling and making prostrations) and beg the Lord earnestly for the Cardinal Virtue of Courage (Fortitude), for the Theological Virtue of Hope, and for the grace of perseverance.

I heard a talk at a clergy conference twenty years ago by a senior priest, in which he noted something that has always stuck with me, that one often hears sermons touching on Faith and Love, but rarely on Hope. Hope is the grace-filled gift of exercising one’s courage in the conviction that God is taking care of us, that things will get better for us, and that, in the end, all will be well and all manner of things will be well. We see this pre-eminently in the holy martyrs and confessors: they courageously persevered to the end, because they not only believed in God (i.e., believed the truths of the Faith), but they also believed God (they trusted in His promises; they placed their Hope in Him).

On Pentecost Sunday after the Divine Liturgy, we will perform the solemn Kneeling Vespers, at which the bishop or priest reads three great prayers for the descent of the Holy Spirit to renew the Church and our souls.   With the aid of the illimitable grace we will have thereby received, let us begin Sunday night to implore the Lord, with prostrations and tears, for the grace of persevering in the divine Faith with the courage born of Hope, to the end, that we may attain the desired object of all our Love and longing, the vision of the Holy Trinity in God’s eternal Kingdom.

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Our life is hid with Christ in God

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28 May OS 2021 – The Ascension of the Savior

After the high point of Holy Week and Pascha, a lot of Orthodox slack off and start focusing on their worldly plans for the summer, and one does not see much of them until (one hopes) the Dormition of the Theotokos in August, which takes place when the secular school vacation period has ended and people are feeling that “church season,” along with the “school year,” has arrived again. One of the casualties of this unfortunate habit is a profitable celebration of the Ascension of the Lord, a sublime mystery that reveals the true purpose of life and puts everything into perspective.

When Christ ascended in His resurrected human flesh into the heavens, He glorified our humanity by seating it at the right hand of God the Father, and then He sent the Holy Spirit to us so that we can join Him there. What could be better than that? It should make one happy to be alive.

St. Theophan the Recluse says the following:

St. Paul expresses the power of the Lord’s Ascension in this manner: “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men (Ephesians 4:8 [quoting Psalm 67]).” Having satisfied God’s righteousness, the Lord opened for us all the treasures of God’s goodness. This is indeed a capturing or taking of spoils after victory. The beginning of the distribution of these spoils to people is the descent of the Holy Spirit, Who, having descended, always abides in the Church and gives everyone what he needs, receiving all from that captive captivity. Let everyone come and take. But prepare for yourself a repository for that treasure, which is a pure heart; have hands with which to take it, that is, unreflecting faith. Then step forth, searching hopefully and praying relentlessly. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 112.

The Redeemer’s sacrifice on the Cross, in which He offered His Precious Blood to the Most Holy Trinity and satisfied all righteousness, took away our sins.  By His Resurrection, He saved us from the power of death. These mighty deeds, however, as infinitely great as they are, were only the beginning. Not content with saving us, the Lord also glorified to the utmost the humanity He shares with us, ascending beyond every visible and invisible creature and placing our human nature, in His Person, in the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity. Having glorified our nature thus, He then sent the Holy Spirit to enable each of us personally to attain this glory. Knowing this, what steps should we take to get there too and be with Him?

The first step is to understand, accept, and internalize the meaning of our Baptism. St. Paul says in Romans 6, the reading we hear at every baptism, that we have died in Baptism. He says in Colossians 3:3, “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” So, to begin with, let us remember that, for all ultimate purposes, in relation to anything that really counts, we are already dead. Once we have put everything in this perspective, we can actually get started. Knowing that we are dead, we have nothing to lose, and we can with absolute freedom and perfect faith do what St. Theophan says:   “…step forth, searching hopefully and praying relentlessly” for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today, after you read this, tell yourself that in fact you are already dead, and therefore all the things you worry about do not matter that much. Then pray earnestly for the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. Then pray for the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Make a strong act of will to put absolute trust in the Lord, that He will bestow these seven gifts.  Do it again tomorrow and every day.

You will realize that, indeed, your life is “hid with Christ in God,” and that, far from being dead, you really have begun to live.

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Adventures in salvation

21 May OS 2021: Thursday of the Week of the Samaritan Woman; Holy God Crowned and Equals to the Apostles Constantine and Helena

Today’s reading for the Paschal cycle from the Acts of the Apostles is Acts 14: 20-27.

In those days: As the disciples stood round about Paul [after he had been stoned and left for dead], he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. And after they had passed throughout Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia. And when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down into Attalia: And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.

In the passage immediately previous to this (Acts 14: 6-19), Paul has just been in the city of Lystra, where in short order he…

  1. renders ambulatory a man unable to walk since birth, simply by a word of command, like Christ Himself;
  2. gets worshipped as Hermes by the local pagans;
  3. gets stoned near to death by some angry Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who, not content with running him out of town, have pursued him in order to kill him, so determined are they to shut up this fellow Jew who keeps telling everyone that the crucified Nazarene is the Messiah Who rose from the dead; and (at the beginning of today’s passage),
  4. gets up and goes about his business as if nothing special had happened.

How is that for contrast? Never a dull moment! Having left the comfort of the Sanhedrin for the poverty of the Fishermen, Saul become Paul is having an adventure like no other.

When, today, we hear Paul’s words, “…that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,” we know we are dealing with a man who knows whereof he speaks.   He is both continuously enduring much tribulation and continuously living in the power of the kingdom to come, even in this life.   He is walking proof of the Resurrection.

Amid our present trials, it is tempting to look back on this or that previous “normal” period of Church life, imagine that it was a Golden Age of unchanging tranquility, and conclude that if our lives are not tranquil we must be doing something wrong.   When we study the Scriptures and Church history carefully, however, we realize that those whom God is saving are always hanging on to their faith and even their sanity by their fingernails, and that simultaneously God is saving them by His sovereign will and power in the kind of circumstances He always decrees for the saints: impossible circumstances. It is always a near thing, it often appears that all is lost, and one never knows the outcome until the end.  Salvation is always an adventure.

When, therefore, we suffer the fragility, loneliness, and limitation of real Orthodox life in the 21st century, created by the straitened circumstances and limited resources that fall to the lot of those who do not join the lemming rush into betrayal, theological indifference, and worldly accommodation, this is not a sign that God has left us, but rather that He is with us.

Better to be with the Fishermen than with the Sanhedrin!

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You don’t take a knife to a gunfight

19 May OS 2021: Tuesday of the Week of the Samaritan Woman; Afterfeast of Mid-Pentecost; S. Patrick of Proussa, Hieromartyr; S. Dunstan of Canterbury, Bishop

You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul deals with a sorcerer:

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark. Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus. And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister. And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord. – Acts of the Apostles 12:25-13:12

People today – even, strange to say, some Orthodox Christians – would regard St. Paul’s blinding the sorcerer as an act of “intolerance” or being “mean.”    If only St. Paul had preached Luv and Peace, perhaps old Elymas would have realized the error of his ways and come to his senses! Thank goodness – so goes this new and improved line of thought – today we have kinder, gentler methods to deal with people who are, you know, diverse!

Elymas was not simply different; he was evil in the extreme. Not only was he evil, but he also actively sought to rob Sergius Paulus of the truth of Jesus Christ.   What could be worse than that – to destroy another man’s soul on purpose? Someone who would do that is not open to gentle persuasion, for his heart is hard, he is given over to the service of the devil, and he needs to be “taken out,” as they say. According to the Mosaic law, St. Paul could have justifiably slain him. The treatment he chose was mild by comparison.

Man today recoils at the Church’s strictness in her judgment on such matters, because he does not believe in the soul or eternal salvation or eternal punishment. People who readily undergo all manner of torture – chemotherapy, drastic surgeries, the myriad pills and potions of “Big Pharma” with terrible side effects, etc. – in order to eke out a few more years or even months of mere biological existence, think it dreadful that the Church would endorse severe measures to save their souls for eternity.   It all depends on what you think is real and what you think is important.

We are not sorcerers, and we pray that we will never require the Elymas treatment. But we will never have peace until we accept every pain and sorrow in this life as the necessary correction for our sinfulness, a correction willed by God from all eternity. And when Holy Church, in the person of a bishop or a confessing priest, decides to correct us by her ecclesiastical and spiritual methods, how grateful we should be: We can suffer here for a time and not there for eternity!

O All-Wise Lord, Who has given us the Apostolic Church to guide us to salvation, glory be to Thee!

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Come to Me and drink

13 May OS 2021 – Wednesday of Mid-Pentecost

Today we celebrate Christ as the Wisdom of God. In the Gospel, the Jews ask, “How can this uneducated man have such wisdom?” And the Lord responds that it is because His wisdom is from the Father, not from men. When He says that His doctrine is “not mine,” He means that it is not from His humanity but is divine, flowing from the divinity He shares with the Father.

About the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him. Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? The people answered and said, Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee? Jesus answered and said unto them, I have done one work, and ye all marvel. Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is. Then cried Jesus in the temple as he taught, saying, Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am: and I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not. But I know him: for I am from him, and he hath sent me. Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come. – John 7: 14-30

Inspired by and expressing the Divine Wisdom, today’s hymns and readings are a theological feast, bringing together and glorifying the three great acts of Christ – the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Giving of the Holy Spirit – by which He saved us from the devil, sin, death, and hell, glorified our human nature, and established His Holy Church. Being the mid-point of the sacred Fifty Days (the Pentecost) between Pascha and Pentecost, it gives us a moment to pause, so to speak, and marveling, to behold as with a single glance all that the Lord has done for us. St. Theophan the Recluse, in his commentary for today, refers to the Dismissal Hymn for the feast, which looks forward to Pentecost:

At Mid-feast give Thou my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of piety, for Thou, O Savior, didst cry out to all: Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. O Well-spring of Life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

St. Theophan writes:

On Mid-Pentecost a cry is heard from the Lord: “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink (John 7:37) [from the Gospel reading at Pentecost].” If that is the case, then let us all go to Him. Whoever thirsts for anything, as long as it is not contrary to the Spirit of the Lord, will find satisfaction without fail. You who thirst for knowledge, go to the Lord, for he is the only Light that truly enlightens every man. You who thirst for cleansing from sins and the soothing of your conscience, go to the Lord, for he has lifted up the sins of the whole world upon the tree (cf. I Peter 2:24) and torn up their handwriting (cf. Col. 2:14).   You who thirst for peace of heart, go to the Lord, for He is the Treasure, the possession of which will make you forget all deprivations and despise all goods in order to possess Him alone. You who need strength – He has every strength. If it is glory – He has glory on high. If it is freedom – He is the giver of true freedom. He will resolve all of our uncertainties, break the bonds of the passions, disperse all sorrows and grieving, enable us to overcome all the impediments, temptations, and snares of the enemy, and will smooth out the path of our spiritual life. Let us all go to the Lord! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 101

The Lord, then, is everything to us, and He wants to give us what we truly need. Notice to whom St. Theophan directs his encouragement: Those who thirst for knowledge, those who thirst for a pure conscience, those who thirst for peace of heart, those who need strength, those who desire certainty, those who wish to break the bonds of the passions, those who wish to overcome all grief, those who want to overcome the devil, and those who want a smooth path for spiritual life. In other words, the saint is saying, Our Lord will give everything needed to those who want what He wants for them – true spiritual life. Everything needed for life and salvation, He will give in abundance, if only we heed His words, “…let him come to me and drink.”

Reflect on the stunning, paradoxical reality that the Lord is waiting to give us the very highest, most desirable things in life, and we do not ask for them. When is the last time we asked Him to give us the four cardinal virtues – Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude?   When is the last time we asked Him to give us the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord? When is the last time we asked Him to give us the three theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (Αγάπη, spiritual love)? Think about it.

The Holy Apostle James writes, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (James 4:3).” We have to learn from Our Lord, the Wisdom of God, what to ask for and how to ask for it. 1. What to ask for: We must ask for spiritual things, those virtues that please the Lord above all, as well as those earthly things which we truly need, which contribute to doing His holy will. 2. How to ask: We must ask with thirst for spiritual knowledge, with thirst for a pure conscience, with thirst for certainty of theological faith, with thirst for freedom from the passions, in short, with thirst for doing the will of God, as the Lord thirsted and hungered to do the will of His Heavenly Father.

Suggestion: The next time you are in a practical bind of some kind, and you are really asking God to help you, and nothing seems to happen, put aside the immediate, earthly problem you are worried about, and beg God for all the good things listed above, for the virtues.   Tell Him that you want, above all, to do His most holy will. This will be very pleasing to Him, and surely He will give you (as much as you can receive according to your state of soul at this point in your life) these holy gifts. And – you know what? – you may very well see, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Gordian knot of your earthly predicament cut as well.

O Wisdom of God and Well-Spring of Life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee!

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The man of divine desires

8 May OS 2021 – Friday of the Third Week of Pascha; St. John the Theologian; St. Arsenius the Great

You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:40-9:19) is the famous account of one of the most far-reaching events in the Church’s history, the conversion of Saul, who became St. Paul:

In those days: Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea. And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth, And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.

St. Theophan the Recluse goes to the heart of St. Paul’s motivation, which was zeal for doing the will of God:

St. Paul at first defended the Old Testament observances as zealously as he did because he was sincerely certain that it was the unalterable will of God that these observances remain unchanged. He was not zealous because it was the Faith of his fathers, but because in being zealous he was offering service to God. In this lay the spirit of his life – to devote himself to God and direct all his energy toward things pleasing to Him. Thus, in order to bring about his conversion, or to make him stand for the New Testament order of things rather than that of the Old Testament, it was sufficient to show him tangibly that God no longer wanted the Old Testament but rather the New, and that He transferred all of His goodwill from the former to the latter.   The Lord’s appearance to him on the road accomplished this. There it became clear to him that he was not directing his zeal where he ought, that he was not pleasing God by acting as he did, but was acting contrary to His will. This vision of the state of things, with the help of God’s grace, immediately changed his strivings, and he cried out, “Lord what wilt Thou have me to do (Acts 9:6)?”   And from that moment he directed all of his zeal toward what was shown to him, and he did not forget this event for his entire life, but thankfully remembering it, stirred up his zeal with it – not sparing anything to work for his Lord and Savior. This is how all people act who have sincerely turned to the Lord. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 97-98.

If we were born into an Orthodox family, we should love Orthodoxy, among other reasons, because it is the Faith of our fathers. Filial piety demands no less. This reason, however, is not enough to enable us to find our salvation through Orthodoxy. To love Orthodoxy only as the tradition of our ancestors, and for no higher reason, puts us on the same spiritual level with the Shintoists of Japan, with the same eternal consequences, or perhaps worse, since more is expected of us than of Shintoists. To be Christians truly, we must love Orthodoxy because every man, regardless of his birth, must be obedient to this Faith and no other if he desires to conform his will to the will of God.

This was the great driving force, one might say the only driving force, in the life of St. Paul: to do the will of God.  With the great Elias, he could honestly say, “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts (III Kings 19:10).”   To desire to please God, to do His will, to defend His honor, to give Him glory – this was all in all to both of them and those like them.   When the Incarnate God, Jesus, revealed Himself to the zealous persecutor Saul, that was all it took for him to make a 180 degree turn and go 100 miles per hour in the other direction.   “Done,” as they say.

This kind of person, “the man of divine desires,” may make mistakes, even big ones, but he does not risk hearing those terrible words of the Son of Man to the Laodiceans: “…because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth (Revelation 3:16).” As we increasingly appear to be facing apocalyptic circumstances, it is probably time to get off the Laodicean fence and be the good zealots that all Orthodox should be.

The late Archbishop Averky of Jordanville wrote an essay on the virtue of zeal which should be required annual reading for everyone in our generation.   You can find it at Let us all read it (or re-read it), and pray for the determination to put it into practice and the prudence to know how.

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