The just shall live by faith

16 May OS 2018: The Third Day of Trinity, Tuesday of Pentecost Week; S. Theodore the Sanctified, Blessed Child Musa of Rome 

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

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

The just shall live by faith.” St. Paul begins his annual tutorial for us on what it means to be a Christian by stating his main thesis.

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

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

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

Start there. 

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The prize of our high calling

12 May OS 2018 – Friday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Leave-taking of the Ascension of the Lord; S. Epiphanios of Cyprus, S. Germanos of Constantinople

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DeerParadiseRest

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He that endures to the end shall be saved.

10/23 May 2018 – Wednesday of the Seventh Week of Pascha; Afterfeast of the Ascension of the Lord; S. Simon the Zealot, Apostle 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trinity

 

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Our life is hid with Christ in God

4 May OS 2018 – Thursday of the Sixth Week of Pascha, The Ascension of the Lord

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

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

St. Theophan the Recluse says the following:

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

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

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

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

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

ascension 

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Adventures in salvation

27 April OS 2018: Thursday of the Week of the Samaritan Woman; S. Symeon, Bishop of Jerusalem and Kinsman of the Lord 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better to be with the Fishermen than with the Sanhedrin!

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Tough love

25 April OS 2018 – Afterfeast of Mid-Pentecost; S. Mark, Apostle and Evangelist

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

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

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

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

Man today recoils at the Church’s strictness in her judgment on such matters, because he does not believe in the soul or eternal salvation or eternal punishment.  “Loving Christians” feel discomfort when the Acts of the Apostles and the Lives of the Saints approvingly chronicle violent corrections – including death – of sorcerers, heresiarchs, persecutors, and other public enemies of men’s souls. The same people also dislike the Church’s disciplinary treatment of grave sins – having to give up sinful habits and relationships, and then having to wait for Holy Communion, and to prepare with a regimen of prayer and fasting.  They will readily undergo all manner of torture – chemotherapy, drastic surgeries, bizarre diets, the myriad pills and potions of “Big Pharma” with their terrible side effects, etc. – in order to eke out a few more years or even months of mere biological existence, but they think it dreadful that the Church uses tough love to save souls for eternity.   It all depends on what you think is real and what you think is important.

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

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

 

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The Wellspring of Life

18 April OS 2018 – Wednesday of Mid-Pentecost; S. Paphnutius, Hieromartyr; S. Agathangelus of Esphigmenou, New-Martyr 

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

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

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

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

St. Theophan writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Man of divine desires

14 April OS 2018 – Third Friday of Pascha; Ss. Aristarchos, Pudens, and Trophimos of the Seventy Apostles; S. Thomais the Chaste, Martyr;  S. Martin the Confessor, Pope of Rome 

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

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

St. Paul at first defended the Old Testament observances as zealously as he did because he was sincerely certain that it was the unalterable will of God that these observances remain unchanged. He was not zealous because it was the Faith of his fathers, but because in being zealous he was offering service to God. In this lay the spirit of his life – to devote himself to God and direct all his energy toward things pleasing to Him… Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 97-98.

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

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

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

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

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Thou Who alone knowest the secrets of our hearts

12 April OS 2018 – Third Wednesday of Pascha; S. Basil the Confessor, S. Akakios of Kafsokalyvia   

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:18-25), St. Peter rebukes Simon Magus for trying to buy the grace of the Holy Spirit:

In those days: When Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me. And they, when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.

St. Theophan the Recluse takes St. Peter’s expression, “…the thought of thine heart…” and expounds upon it:

St. Peter says to Simon: “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” Thou hast no part…But Simon did not even begin to think that he had gone so far astray. Outwardly he had not done anything outrageous; only his thinking was wrong – so wrong, that the Apostle was uncertain as to whether it would be forgiven him even if he repented and entreated God. That is how important the heart’s disposition is, and the thoughts that proceed from it according to this disposition! Judging by this, a person may be one way on the outside, and completely different on the inside. Only God sees this inner state, and those to whom the Spirit of God, Who tries all hearts, reveals it. With what fear and trembling must we work out our salvation! And how sincerely and zealously must we pray to God: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me (Ps. 50:10). Then, at the Judgment, something terrible and amazing will happen. The Lord will say: “I know you not (Matt. 25:12)” to those who not only were sure of their own godliness, but who also appeared godly to everyone else. What remains for us to do? Only to cry out: “Thou who knowest all things, save us, O Lord” As Thou knowest, grant a saving formation to our heart!   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 96

People with depraved minds misuse this teaching of the Church – that we cannot know the inner workings of the heart, that God alone knows the heart – to justify all kinds of evil today.   They proclaim that people performing the most abominable and filthy deeds, leading lives openly opposed to God’s Law, and teaching others to do the same, have “good hearts,” and therefore we must not “judge them,” thus giving a free pass to every kind of evil under the sun. Apparently, to this way of thinking, only those who try to uphold God’s Law are evil, because they are “mean,” and everyone else – especially the most openly defiant of God’s Law – has a “good heart.”   No doubt Theophan the Recluse, not to mention the Apostle Peter, would be extremely surprised by this interpretation.

The truth is quite otherwise, of course. We must believe in the Faith that God Himself has revealed, fulfill the outward Law of God, and in addition cleanse the inner man constantly to fight even the least thought that contravenes His holy Law. Without this foundation – the true Faith (orthodoxy) and the moral struggle to fulfill God’s Law (orthopraxy) – we cannot even begin to work on the heart, which is a fathomless abyss, and in which we will discover new evils every day, if we look closely enough.  A good heart does not mean being “nice” instead of “mean.” It means being cleansed of all the passions and of all ignorance, acquiring profound humility, and being in constant converse with God, constant awareness of one’s sinfulness and unworthiness, and constant gratitude, with tears, for His great and abundant mercy. A person who actually has a good heart constantly regards himself as a debtor to every commandment of God’s Law. Until one acquires this inner state, one should never claim to have a good heart. And if one does acquire such an inner state, the idea that he has a good heart will never occur to him.

The Orthodox concept of salvation, then, is maximalist to an extent inconceivable to modern man, something forgotten or not noticed by many purported apologists for Orthodoxy today.   I do not where the idea started, but I have noticed that one “pitch” that modernized “salesmen” for Orthodoxy use today is that the Western Christian God is “mean,” because He is all about laws and punishment, while the Eastern Orthodox God is “nice,” because He is all about “healing” and “love.” Of course, a one-dimensional paper doll “God” like this, all hugs and lollipops, appeals to people today, who would rather not be inconvenienced: “Give me pleasant experiences, only, please!” The reality, however, is that the Orthodox God makes the Western Christian God look like a pansy. If one really took seriously the lofty ascetical and mystical writings these “salesmen” claim as evidence for their “nice” God, one would doubt seriously the likelihood of salvation for most contemporary Orthodox, much less for most people one meets today.

The right response to this Orthodox maximalism, however, is not gloom and doom, but humility and hope.  If we are really in the Church, and if by God’s grace we stay there, we have therefore a firm hope in our salvation, if only we keep working out our salvation “in fear and trembling.” Humility is the key. We have to put our heads down, accept God’s mysterious judgments with all our hearts, trust in His all-wise Providence over us, and constantly cry with the voice of the Publican, the Thief, and the Harlot: “Have mercy on me!” Hope in salvation will spring up, with the quiet joy of salvation, which we must guard with all the vigilance we can muster. Just never, ever, think that you have arrived, and never, ever, claim to have a “good heart.” Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.

O Thou that alone  knowest the hearts, spare our souls!

O Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!

Thou hast taken to Thyself, O Lord, the firm and divine-voiced preachers, the chief Apostles, for the enjoyment of Thy blessings and for repose; for Thou didst accept their labors and death as above all sacrifice, O Thou Who alone knowest the secrets of our hearts.

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Lifegiving works

6 April OS 2018 – Thursday of Thomas Week; S. Eutychios of Constantinople, Patriarch; S. Gregory of Sinai, Monk

Christ is Risen!

Today’s Gospel reading, John 5:24-30, is the passage we read at the funeral service:

The Lord said to the Jews which came to Him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

 St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on the Lord’s words, elucidates the nature of the Dread Judgment:

“And they shall come forth: they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29).” This is how everything ends! As each river flows into its own sea, so the flow of each of our lives comes, at last, to a place in accordance with its nature. Those who will be resurrected unto life will also be at the Judgment; but the Judgment will only seal their justification and the fact that they are appointed to life, while the others will be resurrected only to hear their condemnation to eternal death. Their life and death are characterized even now – because some perform living works, while others perform dead and deadening works. Living works are those which are done according to the commandments, with joy of spirit, unto the glory of God. Dead works are those which are done in opposition to the commandments, with forgetfulness of God, to please oneself and one’s passions. Dead works are all those which, although, in form they may not oppose the commandments, are done without any thought about God and eternal salvation, according to some aspect of self-love. God is life; only what contains part of Him is alive. And so whoever has only dead and deadening works is bound directly for death, and on the last day will come out into the condemnation of death; but whoever has all living works is bound for eternal life, and on the last day will come and receive it. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 91-92

Neither God nor man needs our works. Works are only a means to an end, a spiritual workout routine, designed to bring about a certain state of soul, but only when used properly. God wants our hearts.

The foundation of our salvation is Faith in the Son of God, from which flow living and life-giving works, characterized by forgetfulness of self, complete dependence on God’s grace, and the determination to do His holy will.   Apart from the true Faith in the Son of God, there is no salvation.   A man who spends his life building a thousand hospitals for the poor and gives everything he has to help others, but who does it not in obedience to God’s Word and without Faith in the Son of God, but based on some humanistic code of ethics, has only dead works, and on the Last Day he will end up where dead works lead. Every good deed he does is another nail in his coffin, because it increases his pride. A man who has led a selfish life but awakens to his spiritual peril, has a profound conversion to the Orthodox Faith, and manages to do a little something for others, in the name of Jesus and for His glory alone, all the while thinking himself utterly unworthy and unable to do anything worthwhile…this one has a firm hope of salvation.

If you are ever tempted to believe that you have “made it,” and that your works make you pleasing to God, pick up St. Matthew, chapters five through seven, and read the Sermon on the Mount. Based on the measuring stick described there – love of enemies, absolute absence of impure thoughts, absolute absence of anger, complete non-possessiveness, absolute forgiveness of those who have wronged you, complete love of neighbor and forgetfulness of self – ask yourself, Do you live up to the Lord’s command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?   No? Well, join the club: St. Ignaty Brianchaninov points out that even the greatest saints are imperfect in regards to the commands of the Gospel. He also points out, however, that it is precisely according to the law code of the Gospel that Christ will judge us Orthodox Christians at the Dread Judgment. Where does that leave us? It leaves us utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God.

Now juxtapose all of this with the Lord’s description of His Second Coming at the Dread Judgment in St. Matthew, chapter 25. The blessed are oblivious to having done any good; the damned are oblivious to their failure. As it turns out, the blessed have accomplished a great deal, but they did not notice. They did not think they were doing anything special. They have acquired humility.

Let us this day, this hour, this minute, resolve to love God above all, and to do His holy will.   It is impossible to exaggerate the power we acquire when we determine to do God’s will.   With this determination comes that forgetfulness of self, that humility, which characterizes all works that are truly pleasing to God. With it comes the power of His infinite, divine grace, which alone saves man.

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