Putting God first

1 December OS 2018 – Nativity Fast; Friday of the 11th Week of St. Luke; Holy Prophet Nahum; St. Philaret the Almsgiver

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 20: 19-26.

And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them. And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor. And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly: Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no? But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me? Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar’s. And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s. And they could not take hold of his words before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace.

Most commentary relates this teaching of the Lord to the relationship that a Christian or the Church as a whole should have to the civil government. St. Theophan the Recluse extends this to examining the relationship we should have to secular society in general:

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” This means that each gets what is his own. In our times, instead of “the things which be Caesar’s,” we should substitute “the things which are worldly,” and say that worldly things have their turn, while the things of God have theirs. But everyone has rushed toward earthly things alone, and they leave the godly things behind. That is why godly things not only are left out of their proper place – that is, in the first place, as they ought to be – but are completely forgotten. A consequence of this supposedly unintentional forgetfulness is that the godly is darkened in one’s consciousness, and then both its content and foundation become unclear. From this come weakness of conviction and vacillation of faith. Then there is alienation from the Faith and the influence of the winds of various teachings. Everyone goes down this path when be begins to be careless about godly things; society takes this path when in its customs it begins to ignore what God requires of it. When godly things are left in the background, then emancipation from godly requirements begins to be established in society, in the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic sense. There occurs secularization (serving the spirit of the time) of politics, customs, entertainment, and then of education and all institutions. At the current time, people do not think, speak, or write about what is God’s, nor do they even keep them in mind – not in any of their undertakings. Is it surprising, given such a state of mind, that teachings contrary to the Faith find access to society and that society is inclined toward mass unbelief? Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 270-271

The author wrote these words in the late 19th century, a time when the nations that dominated the earth were all officially Christian, including Russia, which was not simply any kind of “Christian,” but was in fact Orthodox. He could see that the spirit of worldliness was already so great among a critical mass of the Orthodox people – and especially among the leading classes – that the fall of the old outward Christian structures and their replacement by the rule of some kind of anti-Christian elite was a matter of time, unless there would be profound, nation-wide repentance in Russia and throughout the Orthodox nations – which did not occur. Despite the witness of many holy people, prophets whom God raised up at the eleventh hour, the Orthodox nations as a whole rushed to worship the Golden Calf offered by the apostate West, and they fell into the abyss.

The society we live in today has “progressed” far beyond mere worldliness into purposely engineered demonic insanity – legally sanctioned, inexhaustibly funded, and violently imposed by the single, two-headed monster of big government/big business through its mind-control system, that malevolent thing which has murdered and inhabited the corpses of the mainstream churches, education, the arts, politics, and journalism. We are living with the logical outcome of the systemic fall into worldliness that St. Theophan was writing about in 1881.

All of this, however, should not surprise us or cause us to give up. It should certainly make us sober, but it need not steal our hope. This world has been perishing since our First Parents were expelled from Paradise. Truly Christian societies, in which the influence of the Church was paramount and a critical mass of the people lived by Her standards, are the exception, not the rule, in history.   God’s will to save us is still as great as ever, and His will to save us is far greater – infinitely greater – than our own desire to be saved. He loves us, and He will never abandon us. Lot was saved when he was the only righteous man left in Sodom. Though the world in which we live has turned into Sodom, unlike Lot we are not alone. As at the time of the Prophet Elias, there survive even now the hidden seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal. The Lord, from all eternity, has purposed to put us exactly in this situation, precisely for our salvation, and He is both invincible and all wise. We have only to cooperate.

What, then, must we do?   The answers are, as usual, obvious, and they involve doing what St. Theophan is talking about in the passage above: putting the things of God first. Let us take the energy we spend obsessing over everything that is wrong – like deer staring at the headlights of the oncoming car – and put it into prayer, spiritual reading, going to Church, and giving support to our brethren, who are hurting as we are, through acts of love like spending time with them and listening to them. We have to be proactive about cutting off destructive influences and replacing them with the good things God wants to give us and is waiting to give us, things we still have access to, if only we will choose them over worldly things. It is a matter of setting our priorities and sticking to them.

Let us pray with heartfelt fervor – today, now, the minute we are finished reading this post – for a permanent and insatiable desire for the things of God, and the wisdom and courage to put them first in our lives.

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Paying our rent

30 November OS 2018 – Nativity Fast; Thursday of the 11th Week of St. Luke; Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 20: 9-18

At that time, Jesus began to speak to the people this parable; A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others. And when they heard it, they said, God forbid. And he beheld them, and said, What is this then that is written, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner. Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.

The vineyard in the parable is the Old Testament Church, and the husbandmen (farmers) are the priests, scribes, and other leaders of the Old Testament Church. The servants sent to collect the rent are the prophets, whom the leaders of the Old Israel consistently persecuted and killed, and the son of the master is, of course, Our Lord Himself, whose judicial murder was the crowning achievement, so to speak, the ultimate logical outcome, of Old Israel’s long career of betraying their God. God took the vineyard, the Church, from these people, and He gave it to the Gentiles, or rather, to all, Jew and Gentile alike, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, are baptized in the Name of the Holy Trinity, and profess the Orthodox Faith.

This is the theological meaning of the parable. But the parable has also a moral message, a warning for us: the leaders of the New Testament Church, and by extension those who follow them, can also fall away and be cut off from the True Vine, Who is Christ.   Is this not what we see going on today, an apostasy of unprecedented scale and rapidity?   Supposedly Orthodox hierarchs can publicly teach just about anything – that belonging to  Luciferian organizations (the World Council of Churches, etc.) does not constitute apostasy, that the Vatican II Wacko Circus “church” of Pope Francis (“Who am I to judge homosexuals…” “Atheists go to heaven too…” etc.) is our “sister church,” that Mohammed is a true prophet, that Christians, Jews, and Moslems all worship the same God, that the Fourth Ecumenical Council is true for us but not true for the Monophysites (who are not really Monophysites but Orthodox like us only without the 4th through the 7th Councils but that’s OK), and on and on – and after a few scattered voices make a namby-pamby little protest with no teeth in it, most everyone just shuts up and keeps following them.   They will not break with these people because they believe these ecclesiastical potentates to be not tenants but owners of the Vineyard, and that nothing they say or do –  no matter how outrageous, public, un-repented, and long-enduring, (indeed generational) – can possibly change that.   On Judgment Day they will have another think coming.

Meanwhile what are we doing, the True Orthodox who are not following the apostate “husbandmen”?   Are we diligently working in God’s vineyard or just hunkering down in personal comfort, tut-tutting the wickedness of others and hoping the bad times will pass? We have bishops and priests. We have the wonderful divine services and above all the Divine Liturgy, Holy Communion, and all the Holy Mysteries. We have our prayer books, to help us say our daily prayers. Here in the “Western” world, we have varied and abundant food, making it easier than ever to keep the fasts, if only we tried a bit. Orthodox literature is more abundant and available than ever, both in print and on the Internet.   In short, God has given us our talent, and we have to put it to work. He is without any doubt going to demand it back with interest; we have His word for it.

Try this exercise: At the end of the day, write down what you did that day for God and for the salvation of your soul and other people’s souls.   How long will the list be?    Think about it.

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Serene faith

29 November OS 2018 – Wednesday of the 11th Week of St. Luke;  Ss. Paramon and Philoumenos, Martyrs

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 20: 1-8.

At that time, as Jesus taught the people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders, And spake unto him, saying, Tell us, by what authority doest thou these things? or who is he that gave thee this authority? And he answered and said unto them, I will also ask you one thing; and answer me: The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say, Why then believed ye him not? But and if we say, Of men; all the people will stone us: for they be persuaded that John was a prophet. And they answered, that they could not tell whence it was. And Jesus said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.

Of course, these questioners – the chief priests, scribes, and elders – were not asking Our Lord this question because they sincerely sought the truth. Their minds were made up, and they were simply trying to trick Him.   Their minds were poniro, as we say in Greek – sneaky, twisted, and evil-intended – and they could not think straight or see straight or talk straight. For them, language was a tool to get power over others, not a holy medium of heart to heart communication.   St. Theophan the Recluse comments on this encounter to illustrate the difference between the mind of Faith, which is also the deep and reasonable mind, and the mind of hardened unbelief, which is superficial and unreasoning:

The priests, scribes, and elders did not believe in the Lord. In order to raise them up to faith, He offered them a question: “The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men?” Consider this without bias, and your reasoning will bring you to faith. What is said about John’s appearing can be said about every event accompanying the Lord’s advent in the flesh, and about His very advent, and all that comes into contact with it. Let each person consider all of this, and the conclusion will be the same: “Truly this was the Son of God (Matt. 27:54).” Various thoughts can come, confusion can arise, what seem like incongruities can be encountered; but at the end of all investigations one universal conviction will result: that it is impossible to think any other way than as is shown in the Gospels and apostolic writings. “Great is the mystery of godliness: God is manifest in the flesh (I Timothy 3:16).” This remains a mystery, but if the mind compels itself by a spiritual need to investigate it, then this mystery will become clear to the mind – and it will confess this way, and in no other way. Unbelievers either do not investigate it at all as they ought to, or they investigate it superficially, with a mind alien to it, or they take on a miserable state of mind that is opposed to what is required by the Faith. To justify their unbelief, they are satisfied with the most insignificant trifle to refute the Faith. The words of unbelievers shake believers, who, being satisfied with simple faith, do not seek clarification of the foundations of the Faith. Those words take them unawares, and hence they are shaken. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 268

Why are we sometimes shaken by the specious (i.e., seemingly valid but actually worthless) arguments of the faithless? It may be that we have not studied our Faith enough, but that by itself is easily remedied – the books are all out there, and we have only to immerse ourselves in the tremendous wisdom and insight of the Church expressed by Her various exponents, in order to see how the Orthodox Faith is far and away the most satisfying explanation to life’s puzzle.   The underlying problem is not lack of knowledge but the lack of godly confidence caused by a passion we all suffer from, which is vanity.

This may be surprising to some people, for they often mistake timidity for humility, and imagine that if they are mealy-mouthed this shows that they are not vain. But what is humility? It is not groveling and acting like the doormat of the human race (a la Uriah Heep, for you English literature fans). True humility is knowing Who God is, who you are, and what life is really about. It is accurate knowledge of reality, that’s all.   If you know white is white and black is black, it is not humble to say that white is black, just because that will stroke someone else’s ego. On the contrary, it is extremely vain and proud, because it means that you think you have permission to overturn reality in order to luxuriate in the good feelings of some other finite creature. It is playing God.

A truly humble person is courageous.   Since he knows that God in His Providence is taking care of him, that nothing can be done to him that will defeat God’s plan for his salvation, he is not afraid of those who attack his Faith or of what they will do to him if he does not go along with them.

A truly humble person is confident in the truth.   Even if he does not understand every detail, even if he cannot answer every specific objection to his Faith, he knows that the Big Picture of Orthodoxy is as good as it gets, insofar as having a worldview, an understanding of what life is all about. If there is some little thing that has not been explained completely, he trusts that it is explainable to the extent he truly needs it to be, and with prayer and trust he seeks to grow in the knowledge of his Faith.

A truly humble person is meek. He does not have to snarl at someone who raises objections to his faith; he does not have to bite.   With the calmness and courage born of heartfelt certainty, he can serenely and patiently ward off the powerless arrows of false objections, even when his critic is unkind to him personally.

A truly humble person is compassionate. When he sees the unbelief of the other person, he says, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Having accurate self-knowledge, he knows the capacity of his own heart for self-deception, and therefore he recoils from condemning another person who has the same problem. With true sympathy, he wants this person in front of him to be delivered from deception, for he wants what God wants, and God is He “… Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4).”

Let us immerse ourselves in the treasures of our precious Faith’s priceless theology, pray for more accurate self-knowledge, and beg the Lord to save our neighbors who labor so painfully in the darkness of unbelief!

sermon-on-the-mount mosaic
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Working for the Lord

24 November OS 2018 – The Nativity Fast; Afterfeast of the Entry of the Theotokos; Friday of the 10th Week of St. Luke;  St. Clement of Rome and St. Peter of Alexandria (Slavonic Menaion: St. Catherine and St. Mercurius) 

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 19: 12 -28.

The Lord said, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return. And he called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come. But his citizens hated him, and sent a message after him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us. And it came to pass, that when he was returned, having received the kingdom, then he commanded these servants to be called unto him, to whom he had given the money, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained ten pounds. And he said unto him, Well, thou good servant: because thou hast been faithful in a very little, have thou authority over ten cities. And the second came, saying, Lord, thy pound hath gained five pounds. And he said likewise to him, Be thou also over five cities. And another came, saying, Lord, behold, here is thy pound, which I have kept laid up in a napkin: For I feared thee, because thou art an austere man: thou takest up that thou layedst not down, and reapest that thou didst not sow. And he saith unto him, Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant. Thou knewest that I was an austere man, taking up that I laid not down, and reaping that I did not sow: Wherefore then gavest not thou my money into the bank, that at my coming I might have required mine own with usury? And he said unto them that stood by, Take from him the pound, and give it to him that hath ten pounds. (And they said unto him, Lord, he hath ten pounds.) For I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him. But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me. And when he had thus spoken, he went before, ascending up to Jerusalem.

 This parable of the Lord summarizes all history between the First and Second Coming of Christ.   The nobleman who goes into a far country to receive a kingdom is Christ, Who ascends to His Father, and Who will return at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. By sending the Holy Spirit and beginning the economy of the New Testament Church, He gives “pounds,” that is, all the gifts of grace which constitute the life of the Church, to His faithful followers, who are expected to multiply what they have received through faith and good works. The enemies of the returning king are those who oppose Christ and the Church, who will be dreadfully punished at the time of the Second Coming.

We are among the faithful followers, who have received our “pounds,” our gifts of grace. These gifts are indescribably great, coming from the Infinite God by means of His uncreated energies. Having received them, we are supposed to put them to work for the Lord, to bring ourselves and other souls into His Kingdom, as any good workman is expected to use the assets his employer gives him – tools, training, materials – to enrich his employer. How can we go about this?

One chief reason that we do not multiply our “pounds” is that we forget that we have them. Therefore a good first step is to take inventory of our “assets,” and to thank God for them. If we were conscious always of the gifts of nature and of grace that He has lavished on us, we would be constantly grateful as well as hopeful, and with both courage and humility we would set out each day to do His holy will. We should periodically sit down and enumerate all of these gifts, perhaps even writing them down to make this point to ourselves, and glorify and thank God for them.

It is very easy, indeed the “default position” of our fallen nature, for us unconsciously to ascribe both our good qualities and our good works to ourselves.   This is another chief reason we do not grow in grace, do not multiply the “pounds.” Therefore, a second necessary step is to acknowledge that without the Lord we would have nothing, indeed be nothing, and without His help we can do nothing. We must immerse ourselves in humility.

A third step is to seek to know and to do His holy will each day.   Yes, we have these “assets,” but we need the wisdom to know how to use them, for a third obstacle we have to using our gifts is lack of discretion.   Each day, let us set out saying, “O Lord, enable me to know and to do Thy holy will. I am blinded both by my own lack of understanding and by the distractions of the world. Enlighten my mind and my heart at every moment, so that in all that I do, I act in accordance with Thy holy will and for Thy glory.”

A cautionary word: The Lord does indeed work in us and through us, but most often He does not let us see it, lest we would lose our salvation because of pride. We must be content to trust that He is doing His work in us and through us, and wait in hope to be revealed on the Day of Judgment as His good and faithful servants.

Let us, then, set out this day and every day to multiply the gifts that our gracious Lord has given us!   Let us be grateful, immerse ourselves in humility, and pray for enlightenment. Let us live in hope and trust in His mercy, desiring fervently to hear His blessed words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of Thy Lord.”


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Enlighten the eyes of our heart

23 November OS 2018 – The Nativity Fast; Afterfeast of the Entry of the Theotokos; Thursday of the 10th Week of St. Luke; St. Amphilochios, Bishop of Iconium; St. Gregory, Bishop of Agrigentum

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 18: 31-34

At that time, Jesus took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.

 Here is something we see at various times in the Gospel: Our Lord’s most intimate followers often did not understand about the most important things, the central mysteries of the Gospel teaching. Only after His Resurrection and Ascension, and after they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, were their eyes opened to receive the light of the great mysteries of the Lord’s economy for man’s salvation. St. Theophan the Recluse relates this experience of the apostles to our own spiritual life:

The Lord told the disciples about His suffering, but they did not comprehend anything He said: “This saying was hid from them.” Later, the faithful “…determined not to know anything except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified (I Corinthians 2:2).” Before the time came, they did not understand any of this mystery; but when the time came, they understood, and taught everyone, and explained it to everyone. This happens to everyone, not only with regard to this mystery, but to all the other mysteries as well. What is not understood in the beginning becomes understood with time; it is as if a ray of light enters the consciousness and brightens what was formerly dark. Who is it that elucidates it? The Lord Himself, the grace that lives in the faithful, or one’s guardian angel – but in no way is it the person himself. He is the recipient, not the cause. On the other hand, something else might remain incomprehensible for one’s whole life – not only for individuals, but for all of humanity. Man is surrounded by things he does not understand. Some are cleared up over the course of his life, while other are left until the next life – they will be seen then.   This applies even to minds enlightened by God. Why are things not revealed here? Because some things are incomprehensible, so there is no point in talking about them. Others are not proclaimed out of considerations for health – that is, it would be harmful to know about them prematurely. Much will become clear in the next life, but other subjects and other mysteries will also be discovered then. A created mind will never escape inscrutable mysteries. The mind rebels against these bonds, but whether you rebel or not, you cannot sever the bonds of mystery. Humble yourself, proud mind, beneath the might hand of God – and believe!

– from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 263-264

These thoughts are related to the need to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, according to Our Lord’s words.   God gave us a mind, and we naturally want to figure things out – this is understandable.   But we have to remember that our minds are both limited, because we are finite creatures, and, moreover, damaged, for, even after Holy Baptism, we still struggle with the effects of the Ancestral Sin upon our nature, though it does not have final power over us.   Thus we cannot understand even created things, much less God, without God’s illumination, which comes, as St. Theophan explains, either directly from His Holy Spirit or through the inspiration of our Guardian Angel.   We have to ask for this illumination constantly, both in order to receive this help, and also in order to come into a right relationship between God and ourselves as rational but limited creatures.   Nothing is worse than a proud mind; nothing prevents us so effectively as this from being saved. This is especially true when the mind is proud about religious matters, when somebody thinks he “knows it all” and refuses to be taught – this is the worst! An un-teachable person, no matter how outwardly pious, is incapable of effectual repentance: the harder he tries to perform the deeds of religion, the worse he gets!

The thought of all this should humble us and sober us up.   Every day we should ask Our Lord to enlighten us a little more, to reveal to us a little more what we need to know for our salvation, and especially to give us a little more self-understanding, which is the hardest thing of all. St. Isaac the Syrian says somewhere that it is a greater miracle to see your own sins than to raise the dead. Never was a truer word spoken!   We want to understand all kinds of mysterious things – how God could have created all things in six days, how Jesus could have risen from the dead, how some people are saved and others are not, when will be the end of the world, etc. – but we cannot understand even our own most elementary faults, and our own hearts are to us a closed book!

When I am in need of enlightenment, I like to recall the Spiritual Testament of the Elder Gabriel of the Kazan-Seven Lakes and the Pskov-Eleazar Monasteries, who reposed in 1915. This testament was his final word to his spiritual children, composed shortly before his repose:

Soon, perhaps, I will die. I leave you an inheritance of great and inexhaustible riches. There is enough for everyone, only they must make profitable use of it and not doubt. Whosoever will be wise enough to make use of this inheritance will live without want.

 First: when someone feels himself to be a sinner and can find no way out, let him shut himself alone in his cell and read the Canon and Akathist to Sweetest Jesus Christ, and his tears will be a comforting remedy for him.

 Second: when someone finds himself amid misfortunes of any kind whatsoever, let him read the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God, “Distressed by Many Temptations,” and all his misfortunes will pass unnoticed from him to the shame of those who assailed him.

 Third: when someone needs inner illumination of soul, let him read the 17th Kathisma [Psalm 118] with attention, and his inner eyes will be opened. The realization of what is written in it will follow. The need to cleanse the conscience more frequently in Confession and to communicate of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ will arise. The virtue of compassion for others will be manifest, so that we will not scorn them but rather suffer and pray for them. Then, inward fear of God will appear, in which will be revealed to the inner eye of the soul the accomplishments of the Savior – how He suffered for us and loved us. Grace-filled love for Him will appear with the power of the Holy Spirit, Who instructs us in every ascetic labor and teaches us how to accomplish His will for us and to endure. In our patience, we will perceive and sense in ourselves the coming of the Kingdom of God in His power, and we will reign together with the Lord and become holy.

This world will not appear to us then the same as it appears to us now; however, we will not stand in judgment, but Jesus Christ will judge. We will see the falsity and sin in the world, but only through the Savior’s eyes, and we will partake of truth in Him alone.

Falsehood! We see it and yet we do not. This world with all its deceptions will pass away never to return, for it is a lie. Christ’s truth shall endure unto the ages of ages. Amen.

– from One of the Ancients, by Holy New Hieromartyr Simeon Kholmogorov (St. Herman Press, 1988), pp. 169-170

One of the Ancients cover

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I am a sojourner on the earth; hide not from me Thy commandments

20 November OS 2018 – The Nativity Fast; Monday of the 10th Week of St. Luke; Forefeast of the Entry of the Theotokos; St. Gregory of Decapolis; St. Proclus, Archbishop of Constantinople

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 17: 20-25.

At that time when Jesus was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it. And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them. For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day. But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.

 St. Theophan the Recluse uses the example of the Lord’s own suffering to illuminate the path of suffering of His true followers:

Having said that the Son of Man will appear on His day like lightning, instantly illuminating everything under heaven, the Lord added: “But first He must suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation…” He suffered in His person at one specific time [i.e., at His Passion and Crucifixion], after which sufferings continue in the person of believers. There is suffering as they are born, as they are brought up in the spirit, and as they ward of the actions of the enemy, both inward and outward…The sorrows, temptations, and wavering of faith due to unbelief are continual arrows. Words and writings that exude unbelief are the flaming arrows of the evil one. These days, the evil one has led many blacksmiths to forge such arrows. The hearts of believers ache when they are struck by them and see others struck…But the day of the Lord’s glory will appear – then all the secret darkness will be revealed, and those who have suffered will rejoice with the Lord. Until that time we must endure and pray. – from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 260-261

We live in hope, awaiting the return of the Lord, the revelation of the secret thoughts of the hearts, and the Great Judgment.   Until then, we suffer outwardly and inwardly, especially because we are so few, because those outside the true Faith are so many, and because the propaganda of the Father of Lies grows stronger every day, not only emanating from those obviously against the Church in government, big business, the media, education, etc., but also, and more grievously,  from those who have power over the historical Church institutions – patriarchs, synods, theology professors, spiritual writers, and their “groupies” – who have made themselves instruments of the currently coalescing world kingdom of Antichrist.  The enemy is within the gates and pretends to be our friend.

When we hear deceptive and seductive arguments against our pure confession of Faith, especially very clever ones with a “holy” covering, our hearts may waver – “Maybe I am wrong, maybe it is alright to compromise in order to get along…these seem like nice people…they print nice books…they have nice YouTube videos, they have a lot of resources to do good…” and so forth. But deeper within our hearts, we know that these thoughts are exactly what we have always known them to be: lies from the Evil One.

And we may still suffer, as well, from wavering in the face of the overtly anti-Christian propaganda: propaganda for the descent of man from apes, for the destruction of the traditional order of the family, for infant sacrifice masquerading as “healthcare,” for the normalization of sodomy,  for the equality of all beliefs, for “tolerance” of every kind of sin and disorder, for…you name it.

The Lord allows all of this, so that we may go more deeply into prayer and into studying our Holy Faith, in order to be strengthened more and more as the attacks increase more and more. We will either grow stronger or we will fall, but there is no standing still, no option to remain just as we are. We are on a pilgrimage, and we have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We must feed on courage and hope from the Lord, obtained as His free gift after fervent prayer. We alternate between moments of darkness, when all seems lost, and brilliant flashes of light, when the gracious Lord, seeing our steadfastness in the midst of darkness while knowing our utter weakness and absolute dependence on grace, gives us the consolation of absolute assurance of His Truth, of the forgiveness of our sins, and of His loving presence in our hearts, whose sweetness is so great that we will endure anything rather than to lose it.   He becomes everything to us.

pilgrims walking up a hill to a church in Serbia

During the Nativity Fast, there is a peculiar kind of warfare deriving from our desire for the legitimate human consolations of the Christmas and New Year celebrations – the company of family and friends, the warmth of happy social gatherings, decorations and presents, and so forth. In their proper place, all of these are indeed good things. But today they have become so mixed up with improper, worldly, and foolish things, that even what was once good has become poisoned or at most empty, and to a Christian with sensitive Orthodox perceptions, this is extremely painful, not because we do not care about our family, friends, and co-workers, but because we do.  We desire their true good, and the nature of their true good is exactly what it seems most often impossible for us to convey or for them to understand.

In the face of all this, we must have recourse ever more deeply and persistently to our refuge, which is prayer. We must go into the closet of the heart and there “break ourselves” before God, pouring out our sorrows, our faith and lack of faith, our desire for the salvation of our loved ones, and our grief over the sins of all this perishing world.   We must surrender ourselves to Him and live only for Him. We must realize what it means to become not only servants but also friends of God. This process causes both great pain and great joy. It is a flaming crucible that lasts all of one’s life and climaxes in the last trial of death, until every impurity, every alloy of sin, worldliness, doubt, and unbelief is burned away.   This must be so, for to ascend unscathed between the awaiting ranks of demons at the hour of death, the soul must have already known by experience the meaning of the Lord’s words, “…for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

O dear Savior Who suffered for us, let us also in our little way suffer for Thee, that we might live and reign forever with Thee! To Thee be the glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages.   Amen.


 When the soul of a man departs from the body, a certain great mystery is there enacted. If a person is under the guilt of sin, bands of demons and fallen angels approach along with the powers of darkness which capture that soul and drag it as a captive to their place. No one should be surprised by this fact. For if, while a man lived in this life, he was subject to them and was their obedient slave, how much more, when he leaves this world, is he captured and controlled by them? You can understand this, however, from what happens to those on the better side. Indeed, angels even now stand alongside God’s holy servants, and holy spirits surround and protect them. And when they leave their bodies, the bands of angels receive their souls and carry them to their side into pure eternity. And so they lead them to the Lord. Homily 22 of St. Macarius the Great, “On the two possible states of those who depart from this life.”


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Avoiding the millstone

17 November OS 2018 – Nativity Fast; Friday of the Ninth Week of St. Luke; St. Gregory, Bishop of Neo-Caesaria the Wonderworker; St. Lazarus, the Iconographer and Confessor; St. Gennadios I, Patriarch of Constantinople 

In today’s Gospel, the Lord warns us sternly against offending our brother: 

The Lord said, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail. Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.   Then said he unto the disciples, It is impossible but that offenses will come: but woe unto him, through whom they come! It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. St. Luke 16:15-18, 17:1-4

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that we offend and condemn others all the time, and we do not think about it, and yet these two sins are very hateful to God:

…Two sins which are very great in the eyes of God are not regarded as anything by people: offending and condemning. The offender, according to the word of the Lord, would be better off dead; he who condemns is already condemned. But neither the one nor the other think about it, nor can they even admit that they are sinful in any such thing. Indeed, what blindness surrounds us, and how carelessly we walk in the midst of death!   Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 258-259

How can we avoid these extremely common falls? The most powerful antidote is attentiveness. Let us assume that we are not uncommonly malicious (i.e., that our bad will is weak, just as our good will is weak- the state of most people, including the baptized), that we fundamentally intend to think and do well towards others, and that we fall into condemning and offending through the weakness common to all men. This usually occurs because we are not leading an attentive life. When we are not in a prayerful state, our minds being drawn out of ourselves, broken, and scattered over a thousand shifting impressions, we lose control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.   In such a state, we cannot help but say and do that which offends, and at the same time condemn others in our thoughts and speech.

As we begin this holy fast to prepare for the Lord’s Nativity, let us ask the Lord to strengthen our weak will, and let us make a firm resolve to lead an attentive spiritual life, whose foundation is continual prayer.   Having said our morning prayers, let us take the Prayer of Jesus with us through the day, repeating it as often as possible – silently, of course, when in the midst of others, but repeating it nonetheless. This all-powerful weapon, the Name of the Lord, will cleanse and concentrate the mind, make us more aware of ourselves, and give us the lively sense of the Presence of the Lord, so that we will fear to offend Him and drive away this most desired Guest of the soul, by any offensive thoughts, words, or deeds directed to our neighbor.



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Merry Nativity Fast!

15 November OS 2018 – Holy Martyrs Gurias, Samonas, and Abibus; St. Paisi Velichkovsky; New-Martyr Catherine of Mandra

…when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto Thy Father who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

 – The words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 6:16-18

Today we begin the Nativity Fast, and we must look ahead to the temptations ahead and make a firm resolve to be cheerful and spiritually attentive. A lot of Orthodox Christians who sincerely try to keep this fast (which all too many neglect!) find it harder to stay motivated and cheerful during this season than during the Great Fast before Holy Week.

The temptation to be discouraged arises for several reasons, and when we understand them and take action, the Fast goes much better.

First of all, we struggle with the physical reality all around us: the short days and long nights of winter with their cold and gray weather. The best antidote to despondency is to devote the last hour of the night, before bed, to prayer, and then to rise early, before sunrise, again to pray. After a peaceful night’s sleep begun with prayer, we rise before the sun, concentrate our mind and heart on God, and then, when the sun rises, we have a full day ahead of us – none of the hours of light is lost. Also, we should take time during the day – if we are not forced to work indoors all day in a windowless space – to pause quietly outdoors or by a window, and gaze at the exquisite winter light as it touches God’s creation,  especially trees and other plants. The winter light glows with a graceful, blessed quality of gentleness and joyful sadness: it calls forth interiority and prayer from the human heart.   The bright sorrow of repentance and the nostalgia for the lost Paradise prick the heart suddenly, and we realize how precious light is, and how precious are the fleeting hours of this life. We recall the Lord’s words: “Walk while ye have the light of life…”

Secondly, we also suffer from the distraction of the obligations imposed (really or seemingly) by the secular “holiday season,” when a lot of people become obsessed with buying presents they cannot afford for people whom they fear will not like them, all the while trying to project good cheer at an exhausting round of obligatory and superficial social gatherings. The baptized soul and mind of the Orthodox Christian who is sincerely looking forward to the Feast of the Incarnation of the Word cannot help but feel burdened by the crushing meaninglessness of this exercise in futility, this absurd chase after a “good cheer” which keeps retreating with every shopping trip and every drink at some party imposed by work or social contacts.   One mental exercise I have used in the past, when I had a secular job and was forced to interact more continuously with the world, is simply to look forward every day, with longing, to an intermediate goal before the Orthodox Nativity – to 12/25 December, the ancient feast of St. Spyridon (and more recently, especially for our Russian-American brethren, St. Herman of Alaska). I think that most of us “veteran” Orthodox know the feeling of relief that I always have on that day, when the madness of phony Christmas finally dissipates, and we can look forward to a quiet thirteen days to prepare our souls with prayerful vigilance for the Great Feast we are about to celebrate. Having an intermediate goal is encouraging – it is like having incremental goals in an exercise or diet program rather than just looking ahead to the final outcome.   Motivated by this, we make a more strenuous effort to take the Jesus Prayer with us throughout the day, so that even in the midst of “holiday season,” we can keep our hearts pure.

Finally, we also feel the social pressure created by anti-Christian power elites who claim that Christmas decorations, greetings, school events, and TV programs that explicitly celebrate the Birth of Christ (the ones that are respectful and not blasphemous) are “unfair” to non-Christians, while non-Christian symbols and customs must be imposed on everyone, especially the Christians, in order to “celebrate diversity.” We know, of course, that this word “diversity” is Newspeak which means the opposite of diversity. It is code language that really means the depraved – not to mention boring and extremely stupid – mono-culture of globalism: a numbing, flattening uniformity of materialism, sensuality, and the ever-despairing power struggle for the “survival of the fittest” in a merciless, endless, and impersonal universe. We fight this most effectively by prayer first of all – it does not do any good to rant about the leftist “war on Christmas” on Facebook if you are not even saying your evening prayers. With the foundation of prayer and an attentive spiritual life, we can smile and cheerfully say “Merry Christmas” to the poor fellow human beings around us, for whom such a simple, old-fashioned greeting may be the only ray of light in a very dark day.

Being Orthodox Christians, we choose not to get steamrolled by “holiday season.” We know what this season is for: to prepare to celebrate the Birth of Christ. And we know how to keep it, though because of our circumstances we often fail. Let us remind ourselves, however, how to keep it, and, when we fail, get up again and keep trying, trying to

+Fast for the forty days. (When obliged to go to parties, stick with the veggie tray!)

+Prepare for Holy Communion.

+Go to more services (When is the last time you went to Vespers on Saturday evening or got up early on Sunday to go to Matins?).

+Force ourselves to be cheerful and kind to everyone (especially tired retail clerks!).

+Say “Merry Christmas” and refuse to be intimidated by the “diversity” propaganda.

+Keep thanking God for everything we have and not get caught up in consumerism. Keep our shopping and present giving simple, in order to focus on the Birth of our Savior, and on sincere love for our family and friends, which is the real purpose of the gifts, anyway.

A blessed Nativity Fast to all!


“…and on earth, peace…”

Since God is peace surpassing every mind, it is necessary that the heart which desires to receive Him be peaceful and undisturbed. As David has said: “His place has been established in peace (Ps. 75:2).” Hence you ought in the first place to establish your heart in a peaceful state.

Before everything else, have that peace and staidness in your five senses. That is, do not look or talk or move your hands or walk disturbedly, but in a peaceful and orderly manner. For when you become accustomed to preserve that peace in your outer movements, you shall easily and effortlessly be led to a peaceful inner state. For according to the Fathers, the inner man conforms to the outer man. Accustom yourself to love all men and be at peace with all, if this is possible, as Paul says: “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18).   Guard your conscience so that it does not accuse you with regard to anything, but rests at peace in relation to God, yourself, your neighbor, and external things, and especially does not accuse you that you have neglected some commandment of God. For the guarding of the conscience begets peace of heart. Accustom yourself to bear insults without being disturbed.

– from Unseen Warfare, as edited by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and St. Theophan the Recluse


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To be rather than to seem

8 November OS 2018 – 8th Week of St. Luke; Synaxis of the Holy Archangel Michael and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven 

The Gospel reading from the daily cycle today is Luke 12: 48-59

The Lord said, For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more. I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass. Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time? Yea, and why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right? When thou goest with thine adversary to the magistrate, as thou art in the way, give diligence that thou mayest be delivered from him; lest he hale thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and the officer cast thee into prison. I tell thee, thou shalt not depart thence, till thou hast paid the very last mite.

Most of us have experienced precisely what the Lord describes above: we endure uneasy, strained, or even broken relationships with family and friends because we have chosen to follow our conscience in regards to the Orthodox Faith regardless of the earthly consequences. When this happens not once but several times, perhaps many times, we can certainly start to feel worn out, alone, and discouraged, and may be tempted to think, “What’s the use? It’s time to throw in the towel.”

It helps greatly, however, as Christ Himself says, to “…discern this time.”   It does not require that one be a clairvoyant elder or a theologian or even a pious Orthodox Christian to see that the times we live in are times of extreme spiritual deception coupled with social disintegration of unprecedented scale and rapidity.   When everyone around us is bending to the demonic winds that are blowing, and we do not, they are bound to think us uncongenial.   But their discomfort in our presence does not amount to an argument for the validity of their choices.

In order to deal with the constant, kaleidoscopically shifting changes going on around us, you should start with the question: “Do I still believe as I have always believed?”   If the answer is “Yes,” proceed to the next question, “Am I acting according to my conscience, to the best of my ability, God helping me?”   If the answer is “Yes,” then be at peace. As the saying goes, “Either they’re crazy or I’m crazy, and I know that I’m not crazy.”

When we are tempted to sentimental or pragmatic compromises to resolve the tension of spiritual and moral conflict over what is real and what is not, we need to crucify emotions, imagination, and curiosity, fall down before the holy icons in our prayer corner, and abandon ourselves entirely to God’s Providence, placing everyone we love in His hands.   There really are no halfway solutions, and we cannot make a separate peace in order to escape the inescapable: the war between truth and falsehood, between good and evil, between the justly lovable and that which justly deserves our hatred.  There is no via media between the real and that which pretends to be real.

There is an old Latin expression: Esse quam videri, “To be rather than to seem.” May the Lord grant us the clear conviction and steadfast will to love reality over appearance, as the gap between the two widens daily.

Here is a suggestion: When asking God for discernment in regards to your situation in life, read the Seventeenth Kathisma (Ps. 118), beginning “Blessed are the blameless in the way…” and struggle for attention while reading. May the Lord, through this holy practice, grant all of us clarity of mind and peace of heart!

King David Playing Harp

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Let us act for the Lord

7 November OS 2018 – Tuesday of the 8th Week of St. Luke; Holy 33 Martyrs of Melitene; St. Lazarus of Mt. Gelasius 

The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 12:42-48.

And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season? Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath. But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken; The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers. And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required…”   The Lord makes the same point in another place, in the Parable of the Talents. He entrusts much to His faithful servants, and He expects much in return.   Recall all that the Lord has given us:

He created us, bringing us from nothing into being, and he upholds us in existence at every moment.   Nothing separates us from the abyss of non-being except His sovereign will, His decision that we continue to be.

When we had fallen away from Him, He became a man like us in all things but sin, and He suffered a terrible death on the Cross for our salvation.

By rising from the dead, He has destroyed the power of sin, death, the devil, and hell.   In Holy Baptism He has granted us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

By ascending into Heaven, He has placed our human nature in the bosom of the Uncreated Godhead, the Holy Trinity.

By sending the Holy Spirit, He has granted us the grace-filled life of the Church. We have infinite divine help for all of our needs and activities, given us in prayer, in the Holy Mysteries, in the intercession of the Mother of God, the Holy Angels, and the choir of the saints. We have access to the countless blessings bestowed on the Church, all of the treasures of Her unsurpassed worship, art, music, and theological and spiritual literature.   We have detailed and supremely wise instructions for conducting the struggle of this earthly life.

All of this is ours, our inheritance.   We are the richest people on earth.   Let us give thanks for this inheritance and at the same time ponder how we may take advantage of all these inestimable blessings, in order to do real work for the Lord, to be his active and vigilant servants.   How can we do this?

First, every day dedicate your day to the Lord. Ask Him to show you His holy will, and express your desire to please Him in all you do in your duties at home and at work.

Second, ask how you can more actively serve your parish, help your priest, and serve the brethren. Do you see the parish as a “vendor” to supply your needs, or as a precious inheritance for which you are responsible, an arena where you serve God and fight for your salvation?   In other words, are you a taker or a giver?

Third, recall that without the Lord we can do nothing. Beg Our Lord, as you dedicate yourself to more active work for His glory, to remind you constantly that all is from Him and for Him, so that you do not become puffed up with pride in achievement or fall into despondency over failure.   Be at peace regardless of outcomes: the duty to act is ours, but the consequences are God’s.

 The True Vine

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