3 December OS 2020 – Wednesday of the 11th Week of St. Luke, Holy Prophet Sophonias (Zephaniah)
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!
29 November OS 2020 – Saturday of the 10th Week of St. Luke, Holy Martyr Paramon
Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 10: 19-21.
The Lord said to His disciples, Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.
Again, today, the Lord speaks of our need to receive His revelation like little children: the Father, Lord of heaven and earth, has hidden His mysteries from the “wise and prudent,” and He has revealed them to “babes.” Only the pure in heart, only the innocent, can really receive the Gospel into their hearts. Any kind of calculation, guile, and dissimulation chases away grace and makes a man blind. He may think himself very clever, but he is the most foolish of the foolish. He sees nothing.
How can we keep our sight intact? How can we retain our warm, childlike vision of Faith and of the Church in this time that is so cold and so cynical? Out there, the vision of Darwin has prevailed – bankrupt as science, it has nevertheless become what it was always intended to be: the world religion. The law of the jungle prevails, and only the “fittest” (i.e., the power hungry and unscrupulous) survive. Where do the babes who love the Gospel fit into such a scenario? What is the answer?
Now, more than ever, we must immerse ourselves in humility. Let us thank God that we live precisely in the times we live in, times in which we can have no illusions of thriving Church life, just civil governance, or decent human culture on the grand scale, times in which only tiny pockets of intact humanity, much less the true Faith, survive. There is no getting around it: life is hierarchical, and when the leaders go astray, the great mass of people will follow. Those who do not go along will be, in the eyes of the world, precisely Nobody. This is who we are: Nobody. And what could be better for our salvation? Glory to God!
We start, then, with humility: let us accept our true condition and give ourselves over to weeping, mourning, and heartfelt prayer for our salvation, for that of those around us, and for the whole world, for suffering mankind which has gone astray. We have no virtues, no great works – nothing to brag about. We must cling to the Lord in simplicity of heart and ask for one thing only, that His holy will be done. May He forgive all of our sins and take us by the hand, leading us securely on the path of salvation.
28 November OS 2020 – Friday of the 10th Week of St. Luke, Holy Righteous Martyr Stephen the New, Holy Martyr Irenarchos
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.”
27 November OS 2020 – Thursday of the 10th Week of St. Luke, Holy Great Martyr James of Persia, Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos “Of the Sign, Kursk-Root”
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 mighty hand of God – and believe!
– from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 263-264
These thoughts, of course, are related to what we were talking about yesterday: 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 LXX] 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. There is a completely revised and expanded edition of the Life of Elder Gabriel now available from St. Herman Press, with a new title, The Love of God.
26 November OS 2020 – Wednesday of the 10th Week of St. Luke, St. Alypius the Stylite, St. Nikon Metanoeite(“Repent Ye”), St. Stylianos of Paphlagonia, St. Innocent of Irkutsk
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Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 18:15-17, 26-30
And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein. And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved? And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.
St. Theophan the Recluse writes that, in order to receive the kingdom of God as a little child, we must have faith with a whole heart, unimpeded by the misuse of the intellect:
…How is one to receive [the Kingdom of God] as a little child? Here is how: in simplicity, with a full heart, without a moment’s thought. A rational analysis is not applicable in the realm of faith. It can have a place only on its threshold. As an anatomist divides the whole body into its parts but does not see life, so also reason, no matter how much it deliberates, does not comprehend the power of faith. Faith itself provides contemplations which, on the whole, show that faith completely satisfies all the requirements of our nature, and obliges our consciousness, conscience, and heart to receive faith. They receive it, and having received it, do not want to break from it… – from Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 262
The saint is not saying that there is no room in an Orthodox Christian’s life for intellectual pursuits, academic studies. He himself was highly educated. What he is saying is that at some point the discursive intellect, having been satisfied that there is nothing unreasonable about our Faith, must accept that there are realities outside its realm of competence, that there is an entire realm of knowledge (real knowledge, not fantasies or myths) accessible only to the spiritual intellect, which is activated through the act of faith and through prayer, in cooperation with the power of the divine grace that energizes in the mind and enables it to transcend not only ignorance (which is contra-natural, below nature) but also the real knowledge available on the natural plane. There is an entire cosmos inside each human soul, an entire universe of things to be known and experienced, which is larger than the entire realm of the visible universe studied by human science.
The saints, in their earthly lifetimes, were content, indeed eager, to suffer many deprivations in their visible lives, in order to experience the happiness of this invisible life, which is actually more real, more solid – so to speak – than the visible. It is the life of the Real Self, the person God wants me to be. It is the Kingdom of God, which, according to the word of the Word Incarnate, is within us. The desire to live in this other realm, the realm of the really real, has motivated countless souls for the past 2,000 years to flee worldly society and embrace the monastic life. And to those of us living in the world, it also constantly beckons, and if we are in any way Christians, we know from experience the truth of St. Augustine’s statement, that the heart is made for God, and it is restless until it rests in God.
When we come up against the apparent impossibilities of living a Christian life in the midst of this world which is perishing, this should not paralyze us but rather console us – God is allowing things here to become impossible for us so that we will realize that our real life is there – hid with Christ in God. At such moments, let us have recourse to fervent prayer, until the light dawns in our hearts, and we are at peace, knowing how to live this day and what to do next. Like little children, we have to take baby steps, for in the spiritual realm we are indeed toddlers at most, and the only way to proceed is to let our Heavenly Father hold us by the hand.
24 November OS 2020 – Monday of the 10th Week of St. Luke, Afterfeast of the Entry of the Theotokos, Holy Hieromartyrs Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria (Holy Great Martyr Catherine, according to the ancient Typicon and the current Slavonic Menaion)
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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 off 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, as in St. Theophan’s day, emanating from those obviously against the Church – atheists, communists, masons, et al. – but in our day, and more grievously, also from those possessing seeming authority in the Church – patriarchs, synods, theology professors, spiritual writers, and so forth – who have made themselves instruments of the currently coalescing global governance long prepared by the atheists, communists, and masons. The enemy is within the gates and pretending 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 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 evolution, for homosexuality, 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 were. 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.
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, and, now, in 2020, with normal social ties and social gatherings being threatened on all sides, the memory of past holiday seasons endues them an aura of even greater remembered wholesomeness and desirability. Yet in recent generations, they became so mixed up with improper, worldly, and foolish things, that much that had been good about them became poisoned or at most empty, and to a Christian with sensitive Orthodox perceptions, this is extremely painful, not because we do not love our family, friends, and co-workers, but because we do. Loving them, 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 burns throughout one’s life, unto 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 became a man and suffered for us, enable us also in our little way to 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.
(Except for the brief reference to the situation in 2020, these words were written on this date in December 2015).
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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Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Rochester Hills, Michigan
Class 59: Return to the Catacombs
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe in the Gospel.
My kingdom is not of this world.
Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.
– the words of Christ
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A Prefatory Note
Lately there has been a lot of controversy in our Church, due to current circumstances, regarding issues like the Church’s relationship to the civil authority and our reading of the signs of the times in relation to eschatological prophecy. It’s good to recall at this juncture that my lectures are the result of my own studies and give my opinion, within a spectrum of allowable opinion that does not violate the dogmas, canons, or moral teaching of the the Church, and whose publication does not hinder Her salvific mission. There are many listeners who have found my talks helpful, and for this, glory to God. Those who do not find them helpful are, of course, under no obligation to listen to them or to agree with them.
Introduction – The Situation
As we speak, during the Nativity Fast of A.D. 2020, it is clear that we must be ready to make extremely difficult choices caused by an impending persecution of the Church and prepare ourselves for a way of life that very few of us – or perhaps none of us who are listening to this – have lived first hand: a hidden Church life, a “catacomb” life. Since, then, we should be ready for a catacomb Christian life, it is now a good time to recall similar periods in the Church’s history, both at Her beginning and most recently during the 20th century, in order to re-acquaint ourselves with the Church’s true character, to acquire discernment in order to read the signs of the times, and to prepare our souls through repentance and attentiveness for the day when we will be asked to suffer for the Faith.
A. Going Back to Basics – The Character of the Early Church
An old priest friend of mine often used to say, “The Church was born in the catacombs, and She knows how to go back to the catacombs.” There is a lot of wisdom here. Though Her outward life, organization, and institutional relationship to society have changed over the centuries to better serve the needs of Her children in different places and times, the Church’s essential virginal character as the Woman who flees into the wilderness to escape the wiles of the devil, as depicted in St. John’s Apocalypse, has always remained. We spoke of this way back at the beginning of our course, three years ago, in Class One. Let’s refresh our memories by re-reading some of our notes from that class, which began with a sticheron from Vespers of the Sunday vigil.
Evening worship do we offer Thee, the Unwaning Light, Who in the end of the ages, through the flesh as in a mirror, hast shined upon the world; and hast descended even unto Hades, and dispelled the darkness there, and hast shown the light of the Resurrection unto the nations. O Giver of light, Lord, glory be to Thee.
The Octoechos, Plagal of the First Tone,
Great Vespers of Saturday (the vigil of the Resurrection)
Why does St. John of Damascus, writing in the 8th century, say that Christ, Who ascended to heaven in 33 A.D., came “at the end of the ages”? Here’s what we said about that in Class 1 –
“Why, in the hymn we read at the beginning of the class, does St. John of Damascus write that the Lord shone upon the world ‘…at the end of the ages’? This world is obviously still here; in what sense did Christ come ‘at the end of the ages?’ What this means is that mere time, time that marks the degeneration and corruption of creation, time ‘winding down’ to the end, the old time of corruption and death, is over. The time we live in now, the time inaugurated by the Lord’s Resurrection, is not ‘mere time’ but time redeemed by the Lord. In a sense, the New Testament Church has always lived after the end of the world – the old dying world of sin and corruption, the world without Christ. We are simply waiting for the Lord to return. In a sense, then, our Orthodox understanding of the entire history of the Christian era is an understanding that the Lord has already taken care of history, and we are living betwixt and between time and eternity. We live in time, but already, in virtue of our Baptism, we are living outside of time; we are not determined by time. This gives us great spiritual security and freedom.
“The early Church had an intense awareness of this, and therefore we can characterize her life as intensely eschatological, bound up with the acute sense of being at the very edge of eternity. Being eschatological, the Early Church set the tone for the entire life of the Orthodox Church until now, which is characterized by four related traits: The life of the Church is eschatological, other-worldly, martyric, and ascetical.
“The early Christians expected the Lord to return any minute. The fact that He did not return in their lifetimes, or the lives between them and us, does not dim the reality that He could return at any minute.
“Thus the entire life of the Church is characterized by an other-worldly attitude. Our life is not ‘here’ but ‘there.’ St. Paul says that our life is ‘hid with Christ in God.’ Since it’s not here but there, the Christian is therefore not afraid to be a martyr, to die for his faith. And while he is waiting to die, either by martyrdom or otherwise, or to ‘meet the Lord in the air’ at the Second Coming, he lives an ascetic life, denying the flesh in order to keep vigil for the Second Coming, to live according to the laws of the Heavenly Kingdom which is not of this world, and to be prepared for martyrdom.
“Though we lament the destruction of Christian, especially, Orthodox, nations and cultures, we must realize that this is allowed by God, and He places us in this position for our salvation and that the Church was born in the catacombs and that She knows how to survive in the catacombs. Ultimately, Orthodoxy is not about anything in this world, which is passing away, but about the Kingdom which has come, comes now among us, and will come.
“All of our study of history must have this as its background and foundation. What we see as historical processes, no matter how vast or grand, are really just the tiny tips of the unseen mountains of spiritual processes, of the spiritual warfare that will end only with the Second Coming.”
End of the notes from Class 1.
So we have to avoid a secular reading of history, in which there are just these random processes that have purely material or humanistic explanations. We know that that is simply not reality. Real history is the history of the spiritual warfare of Christ and the Church against Satan and against the various antichrists who have appeared and keep appearing, until the end of time. This history works itself out both in the invisible and visible realms, because a human being is both an invisible and visible creature, that unique macrocosm that lives in both the spiritual and the material universes. When we go off the rails and try to explain everything from a secular point of view, we lose our perspective and fall into complacency on the one hand or despair on the other hand. When we stand firm in the Church’s reading of history, we do not go into denial and try to justify the latest delusions of worldly society on the one hand or become gloomy and obsessed with evil on the other hand. We look evil straight in the face while remaining cheerful, meek, and courageous, because God is with us. Like the early Catacomb Church, we embrace a way of looking at everything that is eschatological, martyric, other-worldly, and ascetical. All of these aspects of true Christian life work together to support each other; they are inseparable.
Eschatological – We must remain always vigilant, constantly recalling the hour of our death and the hour of Christ’s Second Coming and Dread Judgment. As the Fathers teach us, we should live each day as though it were our last; we should daily say to ourselves, “Tonight I could be standing before the judgment seat of Christ.” In recent generations, two great delusions militate against this vigilance. In regards to the hour of one’s own death, advances in medicine and an idolatrous trust in “science” have tricked people into thinking that death is not real, that somehow it can be fixed by human efforts and avoided. In regards to the end of the world, the inconceivably huge time frame for earth history invented by the Darwinists has taken on a kind of mystical power, giving everyone the idea that the physical universe has been around kind of forever and is going to go on kind of forever, or at least forever for practical purposes. We need to see these myths for what they are and reject them.
Martyric – “Martyr” means a witness. When confronted with the demand that we reject our confession of Faith, either by rejecting the Church’s dogmatic theology or by disobeying Her moral commands, we have to be ready to suffer for what is True and what is Good. If we are not faithful to the True and to the Good, we will never have the un-deluded vision of the truly Beautiful, either in this world or in the life to come. One of the complex of errors in the the 20th century that go under the umbrella of “Ecumenism” and “Sergianism” teaches that only the explicit spoken denial of a specific dogmatic truth found in the Creed or the Ecumenical Councils constitutes a betrayal of Orthodoxy. But this is not true. We have to be ready, like the prophets of old and the anti-Sergianist True Orthodox of the 20th century, who are our Fathers in the Faith, to suffer also for Biblical morality, for the freedom of the Church, and for the Orthodox way of life, because faith without works is dead. “The demons believe, and they tremble (James 2:19).”
Other-worldly – Our true life is the life of the soul and the life of the age to come. But if we surround ourselves with physical comfort and constant distraction, our bodies and souls drown in the great delusion that this-worldly life is all there is. We have to re-order our priorities now to simplify our lives and focus on the One Thing Necessary. Soon our enemies may take everything we value in this world away from us. Are we ready? By detaching ourselves voluntarily now, we prepare ourselves to be detached involuntarily then.
Ascetical – Therefore we must engage in ascesis, which is, simply put, spiritual training. We have to apply ourselves to the ABC’s of Orthodox life. There is abundant literature on this, we know what the building blocks are, and we just have to do it. And we all know we have to do it! Daily prayer, fasting, confession and correcting our thoughts, preparation for Holy Communion, etc. We often lose perspective, lose our focus, and just don’t do it. But if we remember that we are preparing for the hour of death, for the Dread Judgment, and possibly for martyrdom, we will have a lot more motivation!
B. Some Advice
All of this is kind of overwhelming – a tall order, so to speak. But remember, it is all the Lord working in us. Orthodoxy is not a self-improvement program! He will give us strength in our weakness, light in our darkness, wisdom amid our confusions, and joy amidst our sorrows. We simply have to humble ourselves and dispose ourselves to do His holy will. In this regard, I have always found chapters two through six of Unseen Warfare tremendously helpful, because they lay out very beautifully what it means not to trust in oneself but rather to rely totally on God. In addition to advising reading or re-reading these chapters, I’d like to offer a few more points of advice to give you perspective and focus from an Orthodox point of view:
1. View everything sub specie aeternitatis, from the point of view of eternity. Think for a minute. How old are you? 15? 25? 75? 105? No matter your age, just a few brief years separate you from the moment when God, in His absolute sovereignty over your existence, brought you into being from the abyss of non-being. And only a few brief years – or a few brief moments – separate you from the moment when you will leave this world and enter the next. When we realize that all the history of the entire physical universe is a tiny speck compared to the aeons of angelic time, much less compared to eternity, we stop ascribing almighty importance to current events and overcome our idolatry of “What’s happening now.” The world, the flesh, and the devil are not in control. God is. Our real life lies in our eternal destiny. Let’s focus on that.
In my own life, the second psalm read at the First Hour, Psalm 89, helps me on a daily basis to see this life from an eternal perspective. When you are overwhelmed by current events, read Psalm 89 with attention and let it soak in! It will give you peace.
2. Realize that the spiritual universe is far larger than the physical universe, and that it exists inside of us. The human heart is potentially greater than the entire physical universe, because it can hold the infinite, uncreated energies of the Holy Trinity. We think that the antichrist world-system is so scary because it’s so big. But He that is inside of you, a baptized Orthodox Christian with grace in your heart, is infinitely bigger than all of that.
3.Never violate your conscience – you may never get it back. As you know from my earlier talks on the movies, there are very few movies I recommend or am willing even to watch. Among the few I like is a movie version of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, which dramatizes the choice of Sir Thomas More to accept prison and death rather than violate his beliefs in the inviolability of marriage and the freedom of the Church. There is a scene toward the end in which More’s daughter Margaret attempts to persuade him to give up and go along, to violate his conscience by taking a false oath, stating one thing with his mouth and his pen while holding to his true beliefs silently in his heart. He says, “What is an oath but words which a man speaks to God?” and he goes on to say that at the moment of crisis, when one is faced with choosing to speak truth vs. falsehood, you are holding your soul in your hands, like a man holding water in his hands. If you spread your fingers for the briefest moment, the water is gone for good. You can lose your soul, just like that. Be vigilant over your conscience in little things every day, so that when the big crisis, the life and death moment, arrives, you are ready. It can come any moment.
4. Do what you have control over. We are very little people after all: little, finite people with little, finite duties given to us by God. The world has a Savior; it doesn’t need us to save it. Let us discern our own finite duties and do them. The duty is ours, the consequences are God’s. Let us obey conscience, do what we have control over, and leave the rest to Him.
5. Make short lists and act on them. Part of doing what we have control over is simply sitting down and making a short list every day of what we should do, and doing it. But we must make our list and do it with prayer to God to show us what we must do and how to do it, and to give us the ability to do it. There is a beautiful Prayer Before Work in the Jordanville prayer book that I try to say every morning before I plan my day, and I find it very helpful:
O Lord Jesus Christ, Only-begotten Son of Thy Eternal Father, Thou hast said with Thy most holy lips: “Without Me you can do nothing.” My Lord and my God, in faith I embrace Thy words with my heart and soul, and bow before Thy goodness; help me, a sinner, to do in union with Thee this work which I am about to begin, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
6. Be tough – Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Self-pity is a huge part of why we become anxious, confused, and upset. It paralyzes us and sends us into a downward spiral, into the pits of hell. We don’t want to lose our comfort; we want everything arranged around our desires, and so we pity ourselves when these things are taken away. But if you feel sorry for yourself, no one can help you, not even God, not because He doesn’t want to, but because you won’t let Him. In his Second Epistle to St. Timothy, St. Paul exhorts his spiritual son to embrace the virtue of hardihood:
Thou, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life; that he may please him who hath chosen him to be a soldier. – II Timothy 2: 1-4
You can be a good soldier only if you think of yourself as already dead, if you count your life as nothing. That gives you inexhaustible courage. If we would just forget about ourselves and sacrifice ourselves for God and our neighbor, we would become both strong and cheerful – nothing could defeat us, because then God would be our strength.
7. Speaking of courage: We all need courage with meekness, combined with the forgiveness of our enemies. But only grace can enable us to do this, for to the fallen human mind, courage and meekness seem to be opposites. It’s the paradox of the Gospel at work here, and we have to pray for this paradoxical gift, which can be given only by God. When you are not enslaved to resentment, you gain even greater power over your enemy, because your mind becomes clear and you make wise choices, and the energy you used to devote to hating is given now to acting, to actually doing something. Again – if I’m already dead to this world, what does it matter what they do to me? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
The result of all this is clarity of mind, firmness of purpose, and peace of heart. “Yes, I might be going to the scaffold, but I know why, and I have a firm hope of my salvation. I rejoice to follow the Lord in His sufferings. I am at peace.”
C. What do we have control over?
First, we have to start with our own souls and minds, and we have to have metanoia, we have to repent.
Remember that metanoia means a radical change of mind. We have to do metanoia not only for the things we did consciously but also for the ignorance and false beliefs and assumptions we have. It does not matter if it is not our fault that we have these false ideas – we still need to scrub out the falsehoods in our minds and replace them with the truth. It is not only obviously evil people who believe wrong things – they have power over others because the other people also believe wrong things, or do not believe the right things with enough conviction and are embarrassed to oppose the wrong things, and therefore they have no spiritual power to oppose falsehood and evil.
Second – We have to care for the people we are actually responsible for. “Small is beautiful.” Sit down and list the people who are actually your responsibility. Forget yourself, while you serve God and the people on that list.
Let’s start with One – our own repentance. Besides our usual sins, there is something we don’t pay much attention to (which is our big problem after all – lack of attention): We don’t realize or pay attention to the false and delusory beliefs which have been hardwired into our minds by the Great Stereopticon.
D. Back to the Great Stereopticon
1. Remember the Great Stereopticon! (Go back and review Classes 34-40). It is essential to realize that you are living inside of a mental cage of illusion crafted by the media, “education,” the opinions of other people, perhaps substance addictions, and so forth. You are inside of Plato’s cave, tied up and looking at a shadow play on the wall, and thinking it’s reality. If you just uncritically adopt the mainstream interpretation of reality popular at any given moment, you cannot think like an Orthodox Christian, because people who hate God and hate you are always shaping and re-shaping this mainstream view to lead you further and further away from the truth.
2. The Great Stereopticon is both the instrument and the goal. As an instrument its purpose was and is to brainwash the masses of people to believe the wrong things and thereby be rendered easy to control, because of their false assumptions. As the goal, it is a completely delusional reality, a fake world manifesting in the visible realm the demonic world of the invisible realm. It is an entire, all-encompassing virtual world of plani/prelest – demonic delusion – that traps people by making them think that it’s reality, and that this reality is all there is, and you can’t escape. Our situation is that nearly all of us Orthodox Christians, to a greater or lesser extent, believe some or many of the lies of the Great Stereopticon, or at least are not clear about them, and therefore we cannot oppose them. We have to repent, and as we become free of falsehoods, we will receive spiritual power from the Lord to persevere in the True Faith and in right conduct.
E. The Pain of Repentance
Several of the fundamental errors we will be discussing in the next few talks are ideas that are deeply implanted in the minds of many if not most Orthodox Christians, and therefore it will be painful to hear that they are errors. Some of those to whom one would try to reveal the error of these ideas will react in self-righteous anger, because they have been taught to believe that these errors are actually good and that to oppose them is evil. Others know that they are errors but will say, “Nothing can be done, and so don’t talk about it.” In other words, even if one is right, rather than speak the truth, it is more virtuous to avoid being a troublemaker, to commit the cardinal sin in this age of the worship of comfort and the pseudo-virtue of tolerance, which, as Aristotle points out, is the last virtue of a dying culture. Nevertheless “the duty is ours, the consequences are God’s,” and so we have to plow ahead and do our duty.
Repentance is always painful: If what you think you are doing is repenting, and it’s not painful, it’s not repentance. But before we go on to a partial catalogue of errors, let’s keep a few things in mind:
1. We are all subject to these errors and delusions, to a greater or lesser extent. Neither I nor nearly anyone else living today can claim the moral high ground from which to condemn others. But that we are all guilty does not mean that we should be silent. Qui tacet videtur consentire (He who is silent is seen to consent). The fact that we don’t think straight is all the more reason to try to think straight for a change, come clean, and see where we really stand. That’s the starting point for repentance.
2. These subjects are emotional, and therefore there is even greater reason to deal with them on the basis of logos, rationality, enlightened by God’s revealed truth and by grace. That hearing something arouses negative emotions proves nothing about it, except that one finds it unpleasant. Emotions do not prove or disprove truth. The problem is that certain verbal triggers have been implanted in people’s minds that cause them to have negative Pavlovian responses to words and ideas that are actually true and good, but that the Stereopticon says are not only bad, but so evil and so horrible that no discussion is possible. His pre-programmed negative emotion, over which the brainwashed person has no control, disables rational discourse.
3. Some of these errors are so deeply ingrained, and we have all been forming our way of life based on them, or at least some of them, for so long, that it is probable that in this life we will not be able to reform our way of life to the extent that we theoretically should. But we must at least acknowledge the truth of the situation, live in humility, and make some attempt to correct ourselves. “Yes, my ideas have been wrong, and my way of life was not pleasing to God, but I repent and beg forgiveness. Let me today take at least a small step on the way to correct myself and those for whom I am responsible.” We should not give in to the temptation from the right, of perfectionism. “The better is the enemy of the good.” Let’s humble ourselves down, admit where we are at, and take baby steps in the right direction. The Lord sees our good intentions, and He will multiply our efforts 100 fold. After all, this is ultimately His work, and for His glory.
F. An Upcoming Catalogue of Errors – Stay Tuned
We can organize the errors that the Stereopticon has wired into our conscious and unconscious minds under three categories: Church, Society, and the Family. We dealt with the great errors of our age which affect the Church – Ecumenism and Sergianism – in previous classes, in the section of our course we called “Faith Comes First.” Now let’s talk about Society and the Family. We must refer to the Church, constantly, of course, as we go through these topics, but shall do so insofar as She relates to the Society and Family.
All of the errors we will discuss have something in common, which is that they all entail disobedience – the rejection of the express will of God, the rejection of the plan of God for man known for centuries to our fathers either by Divine Revelation or simply the common sense of the human race. And they are all radical errors, in the sense that they go to the root (radix) of Christian and even simply human life. They are radically anti-God and anti-human.
What are these errors? As the announcers of the Great Stereopticon used to say on television when I was a child, “Tune in to our next episode” and you will find out!
Conclusion: Be not afraid!
When the disciples found themselves adrift in a tiny boat, in a great storm on the Sea of Galilee, the Lord of all, master of winds and waves, came walking on the water, and He repeated the words He had once spoken to Moses at the Burning Bush: Ego Eimi. “I AM.” “It is I; be not afraid!” If we but trust in Him, the demonic winds that now blow against us, and the waves of life that threaten now to overwhelm us, will have no power over us, for He is with us. “Be of good cheer,” saith the Lord, “I have overcome the world.”
19 November OS 2020 – Wednesday of the Ninth Week of Luke; Holy Prophet Abdias (Obadiah), Holy Martyr Barlaam
The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 15: 1-10.
At that time, there drew near unto Jesus all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them. And he spake this parable unto them, saying, What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
St. Theophan the Recluse takes our Lord’s words in the Gospel today both to comfort and to warn us. He comforts us by reminding us how God Himself, the Almighty and All-Wise, is doing everything He can at every moment for our salvation, and he warns us by reminding us that, if we keep putting off repentance…then, one day, at a time we know not, it shall be too late, and we shall not even notice that we have lost our souls:
…The Lord seeks a sinner by guiding him to repentance. He arranges everything around him so that the sinner comes to his senses and, seeing the abyss into which he has been rushing, returns. All the circumstances of life are directed in this way – all encounters with moments of sorrow and joy, even words and glances. And the inner actions of Go through the conscience and the other righteous feelings that lie in the heart never cease. How much is done to convert sinners to the path of virtue, yet sinners still remain sinners! The enemy covers them in darkness, and they think that everything is all right, and all will pass. If anxieties arise, they say, “Tomorrow I’ll stop,” but they remain in their current state. Thus day after day passes; indifference to their salvation grows and grows. A bit more and it will pass over into being hardened in sin. Who knows whether conversion will come? – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 257
There is a constant paradox running throughout the entire New Testament: Salvation is easy – “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” “Everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord shall be saved.” “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Salvation is hard – “The kingdom of heaven is taken by violence.” “Strait is the gate and narrow the way that leadeth to salvation, and few find it.” “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling.”
Salvation is easy. Salvation is hard. Both are true.
Salvation is easy, because it is the work of God Himself, Who is All-Wise, All-Good, and All-Loving, and, moreover, is All-Powerful. His infinite and perfect wisdom is not only truth but also enables our weak minds to know His truth. His infinite and perfect goodness is not only the true good but also strengthens our weak wills to fulfill His commandments. His perfect, boundless, and eternal love is not only worthy of all love in return, but it also inspires our hearts with an unquenchable desire to behold the beauty of His countenance. He desires our salvation infinitely more than we do, and He has done, is doing, and will do everything for us. He is everything to us.
Salvation is hard, because God, desiring our free friendship, allows us to make it so if we so choose. Our first parents made it hard for all of us by the ancestral sin. And, despite the fact that Christ has overcome their sin in Himself and has given us every grace to overcome it in ourselves, we go on making it hard for ourselves, because we choose not to pay attention to what God has done for us, what He is doing for us, and what He shall most certainly do for us in the future and in eternity, if only we let Him. We choose to imprison ourselves in a dark cave, the incomprehensible blindness of fallen human nature.
“Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts,” says David in the Psalms. Today, this moment, let us violently extract our minds from their infantile fascination with the vain and absurd epiphenomena of man’s vain strivings and lift them up above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. Do something, anything: Read a psalm, say a prayer rope, take a walk and bless the Lord for His glorious creation. Kneel in repentance and cry to God to awaken you from the deadly state of insensibility, which the Fathers teach us is more dangerous even than great and obvious sins. He awaits you with love. Run to Him with all daring trust in His mercy.
How delightful! To be with God. What are we waiting for?
15 November OS 2020 – Saturday of the 8th Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Gourias, Amonas, and Abibus; St. Paissy Velichkovsky; Holy New Martyr Katherine of Mandra: Beginning of the Nativity Fast
Listen to a recording of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/lk8sat
The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 9: 37-43.
At that time, it came to pass, that on the next day, when they were come down from the hill, much people met Jesus. And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child. And, lo, a spirit taketh him, and he suddenly crieth out; and it teareth him that he foameth again, and bruising him hardly departeth from him. And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not. And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you, and suffer you? Bring thy son hither. And as he was yet a coming, the devil threw him down, and tare him. And Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the child, and delivered him again to his father. And they were all amazed at the mighty power of God.
The “hill” in this passage is Mount Tabor, and “they” are the Lord with Peter, James and John. They have just come down from the mountain after the Lord’s Transfiguration. The apostles’ joy at beholding the Lord in glory before their very eyes had caused Peter to ask if they could not perhaps pitch little tents for Christ to dwell there with Moses and Elias, and all of them could just stay there for a bit…”Lord, it is good for us to be here.” This, however, was not to be, for Christ had yet to go forth and complete His awesome exploit for our salvation. They had had to descend the mountain.
When they come down, immediately they find distressing evidence that fallen man does indeed need a Savior: a boy possessed by an evil spirit. The Lord does quite easily, with but a word, what the disciples could not, delivering the child from the devil and giving him back again, healed and whole, to his father. He verifies by divine power the words of the Father heard on the mountain: “This is my beloved Son.”
We do not understand our real situation unless we fully comprehend and accept the reality that this world we live in is fallen, occupied not only by billions of sinful men – who, apart from divine intervention, would keep doing evil willy-nilly till the end of time off their own bat, with no encouragement to do so whatsoever – whom we can see, but also by malignant spirits – far outnumbering the men and far more powerful than they, who are constantly aggravating each man’s tendency to sin in a thousand artful ways, occupying men’s minds and even their bodies – whom we cannot see. Out of His mercy and love for man, the Lord closed the spiritual eyes of our first parents after the Fall, and subsequently those of all their descendants, so that we cannot see these creatures. But there they are.
This realization should, to put it mildly, give us a sober outlook on life. It puts all of our Orthodox customs and practices into the only context in which they make sense: this short earthly life as an arena for spiritual combat. When understood fully, it confronts us with The Choice: God or the devil, heaven or hell. There is no Third Way, no separate peace. No one is allowed to sit this one out.
The Good News is that the billions of devils are outnumbered by One – the Almighty God Who created them and holds them in unbreakable chains, subject to His sovereign will. This One loves us, and He has done, is doing, and will do everything for our salvation. We have only to believe in Him as He desires to be believed in, worship Him as He desires to be worshipped, and serve Him as He desires to be served. This belief, this worship, and this way of life constitute what we call Orthodoxy. They are the invincible armor and irresistible weapons that enable us to overcome the World, the Flesh and the Devil. We can deflect anything the bad guys throw at us.
Today we begin the holy fast for the Lord’s Nativity. What a wonderful and simple weapon the Lord through Holy Church has given us: to deny ourselves in this very basic, very simple way, and so in simple and humble obedience acquire His grace to overcome our invisible foes. In both St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s account of the exorcism related above by St. Luke, the Lord afterwards explains to the disciples that “this kind” (i.e., this type of creature, a demon) cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. When we fast, we are joining ourselves to the Lord Himself, Who as a man really and truly fasted while on earth. When we pray, we are uniting ourselves to Christ, Who as a man really and truly prayed to His heavenly Father. What an immeasurable honor – to do as the God-Man did! What invincible weapons – those wielded by the God-Man Himself! With Him, we cannot fail.
Let us “serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in Him with trembling (Ps. 2).” We live in godly fear until the end of our earthly pilgrimage, and we simultaneously rejoice, living in hope of our eventual victory. May the Lord, Who revealed our true destiny in His Transfiguration, give us the grace to serve Him in prayer and fasting this Nativity Fast and all the days of this temporal life, so that we may tabernacle with Him on the summit of the heavenly Sion, where our vision of His beauty will have no end.
14 November OS 2020 – Friday of the 8th Week of St. Luke, Holy Apostle Philip, St. Gregory Palamas
The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 13: 31-35
At that time, the same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
The Pharisees imagined they could frighten the God-Man with the threat of Herod’s evil intentions, but they were mistaken. He announces calmly that He knows that He will be killed, and that it will happen in Jerusalem, the city that always murdered the prophets. He also announces that, until this happens, He will continue to “walk,” that is, to carry out His mission of teaching, preaching, healing, casting out devils, and raising the dead – His mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God. He is in complete control of the situation, and He is going to His voluntary Passion to fulfill the will of the Father, to fulfill God’s providential plan for our salvation from before the ages.
Today we may feel that matters are out of our control, involving both the Church’s situation and society in general, in many ways that affect our lives directly. This chaos, however, is limited and temporary – a trial we must pass through, our Golgotha. We must “set our face towards Jerusalem” as the Lord did (And it came to pass, when the time was come that He should be received up, He steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem – Luke 9:51) – we must voluntarily join ourselves to Him in His Passion. And, as we resolve to endure whatever the Lord allows for our salvation, we must resolve with equal determination to go about our mission as well, to do the Lord’s work, the Church’s mission.
How does one acquire courage to carry on when the outlook is grim? Here are three considerations:
Perspective – From God’s point of view – sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity) – the entire history of this whole world, much less one’s lifetime, is the blink of an eye. He is the King of the Ages, the Sovereign of History. All is unfolding according to His plan for our salvation, which He desires infinitely more than we do. We have only to do our part in history; we have no responsibility for controlling history. He will arrange everything for our true good.
Consolation in Prayer – When external circumstances are at their worst is precisely the time when consolation in prayer is greatest, if we are faithful to prayer and wholeheartedly resolve to grow closer to God in our trials. Many Orthodox Christians who suffered in the communist hell of the 20th century testified that ultimately their time in prison, living in the utmost humiliation and deprivation, became the happiest time of their lives, precisely because it was at this time that they experienced what prayer really is and what a human being is really made for – most intimate union with the Lord, Who becomes everything to us when we have lost everything else. We cannot conceive of the unspeakable consolation such people experienced…but we may have the opportunity to do so in future. Let us begin now to deepen our life of prayer! The next time we are anxious over the future course of events, let us turn to a favorite book on prayer and spiritual life that has motivated us in the past, rather than to this or that website to read the latest spin on the absurd epiphenomena of man’s vain strivings.
Love for Others – Typically fear for the future is mixed with self-pity. Let us forget ourselves and act determinedly each day for the true good of those for whom we are in varying degrees responsible. A man becomes a good soldier only when he counts his own life as nothing, when he thinks himself already a dead man. Let us be good soldiers in the Church Militant, counting our lives as nothing, determined to lay down our lives for our friends, in order to practice that love than which there is no greater. With this option clearly open to us, how can we say that our lives are out of control?
The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. Let us set our faces serenely to go to Jerusalem, and on the way, each day, seek simply to know and to do His will.