It is I; be not afraid

2 September OS 2017 – Friday of the Fifteenth Week of St. Matthew; S. Mamas, Martyr; S. John the Faster, Patriarch of Constantinople

Last year I posted these thoughts on today’s Gospel.  This is a slightly edited version. 

In the Gospel today, the Lord tells us, along with the Apostles, “Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid!”

At that time, Jesus constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people. And when he had sent them away, he departed into a mountain to pray. And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land. And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them. But when they saw him walking upon the sea, they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out: For they all saw him, and were troubled. And immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them, Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid. And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened. And when they had passed over, they came into the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore. –Mark 6:30-45

St. Theophan the Recluse exhorts the reader to abide peacefully in the Lord within, even when the seas of life threaten to overwhelm him:

“Be of good cheer: it is I; be not afraid.” Here is the pillar of our hope! Whatever misfortune or sorrow there might be, remember that the Lord is near, and be inspired through courageous patience. As He then suddenly appeared before the Apostles who were in danger on the sea, so will he show His help and protection suddenly to you when you are in danger. He is everywhere and is always ready with His protection. Only stand with Him or before Him in faith, prayer, hope, and devotion to His holy will. Your spirit will be joined to the Lord, and from this comes every good thing. However, this does not mean that there will immediately be dignity, glory, and honor, and other such things. External things might remain as they are, and but there will arise a courageous and placid abiding in the order of event which it pleases the Lord to arrange for a person. And this is the main thing that everyone in danger should seek: happiness on the inside, not the outside. Inner blessedness always exists among those who are in a living union with the Lord. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 193-194

Years ago, when I was a much younger priest, our deacon’s wife told me of an encounter with a visitor to our little parish church. A neighbor was walking by one day and noticed that the church was open, and the diakonissa welcomed her to come inside and look around.   She did so, and then she remarked as she left, “You know, I have walked by this church hundreds of times, and I always thought it small. But now I see that the inside is larger than the outside.”

One secret the saints understand is that what is inside of us is bigger than what is outside of us. No saint would be moved by the late Carl Sagan’s appeal to “billions and billions of stars” as evidence that man’s existence is an arbitrary and meaningless accident of evolutionary history.  The sheer quantity of material things in the universe says nothing, one way or the other, about the existence of that which cannot be seen, the life of the soul.

One reason we have such trouble becoming saints is that the world has boondoggled us by its constant harping on quantity and mass, on making and buying and having and enjoying and worrying about more and more and more stuff until one cannot think straight.  The powers that be want to reduce our entire education to some of kind of training that makes us better robots to produce and consume the material stuff out there, and the parents who want their children to “succeed” increasingly agree with this goal as the ultimate purpose of life. Poor children.

People who think and live like this regard St. Theophan’s words as essentially meaningless. What is the sense of abiding placidly on the inside if there is no inside, if life is simply a constant stream of sense impressions, of pleasure and pain?

We are Orthodox Christians, and we believe that the spiritual life is real, but to the extent of our immersion in the busyness of the materialist society, we do not experience or live by this belief. Our real life is, in fact, going on deep inside of us, all the time, but all too often it is untended, undirected, un-purified, and frankly, for the most part, unknown. It is a very real, indeed our permanently real life, but it is likely heading off into a very bad direction, indeed to an ultimate disaster of eternal dimensions. Meanwhile we check our text messages, post videos on Facebook, and feel constrained, even morally obliged, to agree or disagree with countless opinions offered by the ignorant about countless acts of evil orchestrated by the demonized people in charge of what they call “the planet” and served up as the latest “news.”

The good news is that this is not necessary.   We simply have to withdraw our attention, at least periodically, from the show going on out there, and pay attention to what is going on inside of us, to the life of the soul. The Church offers us many helps to do so, a vast treasure trove of spiritual reading, prayer books, service books, visual aids such as icons, auditory aids in the form of Church chant, you name it. We all know what these things are, and currently it is considered fashionable to admire them.   But they are not there simply for us to admire, because they are not exhibits in a museum.  They are tools, and if we do not use them, our admiring them will not save us.

When the winds and waves of life overwhelm us, we will abide placidly in happiness if we will have prepared ourselves for the crisis by a conscious spiritual life, by a conscious struggle to live according to the commandments of Christ. Saying daily prayers, the struggle to cleanse the conscience, to repent of sins of thought, word, and deed – the entire active effort of Christian life – yes, these things are difficult for our fallen nature, but they are not impossible. Indeed, they are most possible, because God gives us the power to do them. And, furthermore, when we do them, we acquire a happiness that the world cannot give and cannot take away.

This is not an impersonal self-help program to attain a static inner peace; it is active friendship with a Person Who is showing us the way, giving us the strength for the job, and Who is the goal of our efforts, Who comes to us and says, “Be of good cheer:  it is I; be not afraid.”

christandpeterintheseamosaic

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Rendering what is due

This is a re-posting of last year’s commentary:

20 August OS 2017 – Saturday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Prophet Samuel

In the Gospel today, we read the Lord’s well-known command to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” How can we fulfill His holy command today?

At that time, went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not? But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
When they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.
– Matthew 22: 15-22

The Pharisees and Herodians wanted to trick the Lord into saying that a Jew should not pay tax to the Romans, so that they could accuse him to the Roman governor and have Him arrested as a rebel.   Various phony messiahs appeared among the Jews in the period immediately before and after Jesus Christ, and they usually combined their supposed messiahship with political and military revolt against the Romans. They taught a worldly and carnal view of the Kingdom of God, an idea that somehow the Messiah would inaugurate an endless reign of the Jewish people over all races and nations, beginning with the defeat of the Roman conqueror.   Our Lord, by contrast, the true Messiah and Savior of the world, says quietly to Pilate, the representative of earthly authority, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”

Our Lord’s command in today’s Gospel is, then, both simple and comprehensible: We are to render to God what is God’s – that is, our faith in Him and the commitment to fulfill our Baptismal vows, to live according to His holy commandments. We must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s: We must submit to the laws of man that do not directly violate the law of God. Our Lord Himself says to Pilate: “You would have no authority unless it were given you from above.” This word of the Lord is a sword cutting two ways: It means both that lawful governments do have authority from God – and thus Orthodox Christians are not anarchists – but also that the legitimacy of a government’s authority is measured by its conformity to the will of Him Who granted its authority, by its laws’ – and the administration of its laws – conforming to the Law of God.   In the history of governments, both Christian and non-Christian, we see over and over again that as their behavior becomes more ungodly, God’s favor is withdrawn, and ultimately they fall.   It is not a matter of “if” but “when.”

How are we Orthodox Christians in the United States supposed to deal with our current “Caesar,” seemingly all-powerful and brazenly anti-Christian – indeed, anti-human – a tiny foreign oligarchy of finance and corporate power-mongers who believe that they will answer to no one but their father the devil, who shamelessly manipulate the ever-expanding coercive apparatus of our formerly constitutional government to impose their will on an increasingly enslaved population? Our Holy Mother the Church, who is “ever ancient, ever new,” still has the answers for our lives, no less than She did when our fathers lived under Christian kings who protected Her and fostered Her children with just laws and the spread of true religion.

Striving as best I can to convey Her holy teachings, I would like to offer a few thoughts:

First of all, we must be convinced that the All-Good God, Who desires our salvation more than we do, has placed each of us in this situation precisely for our salvation. He is both All-Wise and All-Powerful, as well as All-Good, and in His wisdom, He will use even the evil deeds of evil men to save those who love Him and desire to do His holy will.   What does Jesus Christ say? “In your patience possess ye your souls.” “He that endures to the end shall be saved.” If we believe resolutely that the Lord is working for our salvation precisely in the midst of our actual circumstances, and if we focus on our salvation and that of those we love, this gives us firm hope in the midst of the darkness of our age, and helpless rage against the agents of Satan is transformed into the quiet determination this day, this hour, to love God above all and do His holy will. As St. Paul writes, “If God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).”

Second, we must recall that we are primarily in a spiritual warfare, that the outer struggles we witness are but the “tip of the iceberg,” the visible signs of a vast, invisible conflict. We Orthodox Christians, a tiny and obscure minority in America, are in fact – if only we could see it – at the front line of the real conflict, for we are those tasked with the warfare against Satan, and we are the ones who have the weapons to engage in it. St. Paul says,

Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Ephesians 6: 11-13).

The “whole armor of God” includes all the gifts of Faith and grace, and the entire moral-ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church. We possess an enormous trove of defensive armor and offensive weapons to choose from.

St. Theophylact of Ochrid, in his commentary on today’s passage, says that, besides referring to the visible earthly ruler, the image of “Caesar” can also represent an invisible, evil “Caesar” – the devil: “…each one of us must render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, namely we must throw to the demon who rules below the things which belong to him. As for example, when you have anger that comes from Caesar [i.e., the devil], throw it back at him, get angry at him. Then you will also be able to render to God the things that are God’s (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, Chrysostom Press 2008, p. 190).”   We must struggle courageously and daily against the passions and demons, in a conscious spiritual life undertaken by the grace of God and under the direction of the Orthodox Church and Her divine wisdom. This is our first line of defense against the evils which beset us, and it is the most important. If the devil has no power over us, what can man do to us?

Third, let us resolve to love our neighbor.   Our Divine Savior says that in the last times, the love of the many will grow cold.   Let us postpone the last times by warming our hearts with the divine love, the true charity that is of God – not a sentimental warmth masking tolerance of evil, but a militant desire for our neighbor’s salvation. Our neighbor is just that – the person next to us, family, friends, fellow parishioners. The global elite uses its brainwashing apparatus to distract and paralyze us by stirring up loves and hatreds of things and people not related to us, far away and beyond our power to affect. Let us turn off the brainwashing, quietly reckon up a list of those whose lives we can realistically affect, and do each day what is truly for their true good, “…committing ourselves, one another, and all our life to Christ our God.”

May God the King of the Ages, the only true Ruler of Heaven and Earth, work His holy will in our lives today and forever!

“Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven!”

“Thy Kingdom come!”

pantocrator2

 

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Living between hope and fear

18 August OS 2015 – Thursday of the 13th Week after Pentecost (13th week of Matthew), Holy Martyrs Florus and Laurus

In today’s Gospel, the Lord teaches about the sin that cannot be forgiven:

Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit. There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.  Mark 3: 28-35

What is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Since it is the sin that cannot be forgiven, we should be very eager to find out what it is and to flee it by all means.

St. Theophan the Recluse, quoting a standard Orthodox catechism of his day, relates the following answers: “Great or excessive hope in God’s grace; despair or lack of hope in God’s compassion; contradicting manifest and confirmed truth, and rejection of the Orthodox Christian Faith… (Orthodox Confession, part 3, question 38).”   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 181

Let us examine these one by one.

The first two ways of sinning against the Holy Spirit are related: they are the opposites of each other.   A Christian lives between hope and fear: hope in God’s mercy and fear of God’s judgment. If we lose the fear of God, we will say, “Oh, God forgives, God forgives” carelessly, assuming that anything we do will be forgiven no matter what, and we will live as if God’s judgment does not exist. This is excessive hope in His mercy, taking it for granted. This attitude is typical among certain Protestant sects as part of their teaching, but each of us can consciously or unconsciously adopt this attitude and thereby give up any efforts at repentance.   “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Scripture. We must live in Godly fear and have an intense hatred of sin, revulsion to sin. To adopt a careless attitude about one’s sins and to presume on God’s forgiveness makes forgiveness impossible, because one is not repenting. This is a form of the sin against the Holy Spirit. To combat this, we must ask God for a healthy hatred of sin, for the desire to please Him and do His holy will, and for constant remembrance of death and God’s judgment.

The opposite of this excessive hope is excessive grief over sin, as if God cannot forgive us. To fall into despair and give up all hope is spiritual suicide. It comes from intense pride, a pride so great that we believe that our sin is greater than God Himself.   We must pray daily for true humility, in order to accept completely, with all our hearts, that God alone is the source of our life, while everything that is from us, including sin, is something finite and subject to God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.  There is nothing more powerful than God’s love. There is nothing He cannot overcome. Despair is a denial of God’s love, of His omnipotence, and of His sovereignty over His creation.   It is the ultimate fruit of listening to the lies of the master accuser and liar, Satan. When dark thoughts of hopelessness assail us, we must go into action immediately with prayer, reading psalms, prostrations, and thanksgiving and praise to God.   We should chant Church hymns and psalms that we know, since singing spiritual songs is a great help against despondency. We must run to confession and carefully confess all of our sins in detail, with compunction, since usually depression and despair arise from unconfessed sins.  We should also apply ourselves assiduously to productive work, and manual labor especially, which acts very powerfully to drive away despondency.

“Contradicting manifest and confirmed truth” leads ultimately to “…rejection of the Orthodox Christian Faith.” If one stubbornly rejects the teaching of the Church, one loses the saving effect of one’s baptism, even if one does not formally renounce one’s identity as an Orthodox Christian. How many times do we hear, “Oh, yes, I am Orthodox, but, you know, I think the Church is wrong about such-and-such,” or “I just cannot accept such-and-such that the Church teaches because it just does not seem right to me,” and so forth.   To deny Truth is to separate the soul from grace, to kill the soul. If one chooses to kill one’s own soul, God does not force us to “be forgiven.” Holy Tradition is not a cafeteria from which we choose the items we like, in order to make up our own lunch tray of tasty religious beliefs, leaving off the “dishes” we find unpalatable. We must wholeheartedly embrace all that the Church teaches.

Let us open our minds and hearts to the Faith. One does not have to understand everything…we cannot understand everything! One certainly may and should ask questions, in order to deepen one’s knowledge and strengthen one’s commitment to the Faith. But one must do this with the disposition to be obedient and docile to the Church, to be her child, not her critic, accuser, and judge.

May the All-Holy Spirit, sent by the Lord Jesus Christ to lead us into all truth, open our minds and hearts to all the saving truths of our Holy Faith, give us the grace of the fear of God coupled with all-daring hope in His mercy, and guide us securely on the path of salvation, right up to our last hour.   Believing wholeheartedly, repenting humbly, and hoping in God with childlike trust, may we find Paradise. May He bring us all together to life everlasting.

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

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

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These words were written that ye might believe

10 August OS 2017: Wednesday of the Twelfth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Martyr Lawrence, Archdeacon of Rome

On Monday we began reading from the Gospel According to St. Mark, the shortest and most direct of the four Gospels. St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter, wrote his Gospel for the Church at Rome, and the terse and concise character of the Gospel corresponds to the old Roman character: sober, no-nonsense, and to the point. St. Mark begins with the preaching of the Forerunner, briefly recounts the Lord’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness, tells of the beginning of Christ’s preaching, the call of the first disciples, preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, and then (in today’s reading, Mark 1:23-28) His exorcising a possessed man in the synagogue. All in 28 verses, and he has come only midway through Chapter One.

St. Mark’s brevity brings into relief a fact about all the Gospels: They are not biographies of Jesus Christ, but rather a proclamation of Who He is. They contain only what we need to know, to believe, and to do in order to find salvation. We must read and hear these words – literally, physically read and hear them – make an act of faith in their truth, pray for understanding, and resolve to live according to their demands. This must happen day after day, or we forget what a Christian is.

If we have been slack in reading the Gospel lately, this new beginning, with the shortest Gospel, is a good place to start again. We need to open the Gospel, stand or kneel in front of our icons, and read aloud the daily passage or perhaps a whole chapter, going chapter by chapter day by day. Read aloud, at a moderate pace. Struggle for attention. The words of the Gospel are infused with the infinite divine power of the Holy Spirit, and they are self-acting. If we read them with the struggle for attention, they will bring about spiritual fruits.

This actual reading of the Gospel is the most important, first step, and the Holy Spirit will grant us understanding, if we ask for it. If we desire to take another step and study the Gospels as well as read them, we should use a patristic or patristically inspired commentary. Though the commentaries of the ancient Fathers are the most complete, most of us (99% of us?) need something shorter, and the normative short commentary is the explanation of the Gospels by St. Theophylact of Ochrid. This is available in four volumes from Chrysostom Presss in House Springs, Missouri, at https://www.chrysostompress.org/explanation_of_the_new_testament.html Besides, or after, St. Theophylact, the best guide to the Gospels for our time is the commentary by Archbishop Averky, available from Holy Trinity Monastery at http://bookstore.jordanville.org/9781942699002. Just reading a page every day from one or both of these commentaries will change us greatly for the good.

Fr. Seraphim Rose used to ask a good question we should ask about ourselves: “We know we are Orthodox, but are we Christians?” Of course, he did not mean that being Orthodox and being Christian are really two separate things: being Orthodox assumes being a Christian, and to be a Christian in the most accurate sense, to be in the Church, one must be Orthodox. He was using irony to make a point, that one can be taken up with the various aspects of Faith that manifest the Gospel and forget the Gospel itself. If one’s mind is not immersed in the Gospels, and if one is not submitted in obedience to the commandments of the Gospels, then the dogmas, canons, liturgical services, liturgical arts, domestic customs – the various manifestations of Church life – easily become idols, ends in themselves. Our understanding of them becomes fragmented, alienated from their true meaning and their coherence in the light of the Gospel, and instead of using them as instruments for our salvation, we misunderstand and misuse them in such a way that their power – which is indeed great, whether to salvation or damnation – transforms us into Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees worship the liturgical cult and the institution. Pharisees worship the rules and practices. Christians worship the Holy Trinity.

Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov writes in The Arena that we will be judged, both at the particular judgment following death and at the general judgment at the Second Coming, according to the commandments of the Gospel. This judgment determines our fate for all eternity. Let us hasten to make ourselves most intimate with the book by which we most certainly will be judged, and compare to it constantly that book which shall be opened at the judgment, the book of our heart.

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How can ye escape the damnation of hell?

3 August OS 2017: Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of St. Matthew; Ss. Isaac, Dalmatus, and Faustus

In today’s Gospel, the Lord pronounces sentence on that portion of His own nation that had rejected Him: their house will be left desolate. A few decades later, the Romans will come, conquer Jerusalem, and scatter them over the face of the earth, as the result of their hardness of heart:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell? Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. – Matthew 23: 29-39

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that a similar thing occurs in the soul:

…Does not a similar thing occur with the soul? The Lord cares for the soul and teaches it in every way. An obedient soul traverses the path indicated, but a disobedient soul remains in opposition to God’s calling. However, the Lord does not abandon even this soul, and uses every means to bring it to reason. If stubbornness increases, God’s influence increases. But there is a limit to everything. A soul becomes hardened, and the Lord, seeing that there is nothing more that can be done with this soul, abandons it to its fall… Indeed, no one can say when he will overstep the limit. Perhaps God’s long-suffering is just about to end. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 170-171

Just as God’s grace abandoned the Old Israel, it will abandon the Christian at some point if he hardens his heart. This is not the case only with the obvious sinner, but also with the lukewarm soul who is nominally Christian but actually lives according to his passions on the inside and according to the standards of human respect on the outside, who abandons conscious spiritual effort on the inside and confession of the Faith on the outside, and has settled for being nice and having others be nice to him. Such a person seems nice to others but is actually impervious to repentance, and, if he does not change before death, is destined for hell. Someone else may seem rough and difficult, but he actually may be struggling with his passions, trying to repent, making no secret of his Faith and total dependence on God, and crying to God for mercy. He knows that he is bad and only God is good. He has a firm hope of entering Paradise.

The Church is not a club of nice people who never offend anyone. She is a spiritual hospital for sinners, and She is an arena in which we do combat with the passions. Everyone in this hospital must admit his disease, or he cannot be healed. Everyone in this arena must be willing to be knocked down, or he cannot win the contest. The fundamental disease which we all have is pride, and the Cerberus of pride, its implacable guardian, is hardness of heart. If we are pleased with ourselves and claim that we have a “good heart” or a “pure heart,” we will not be saved. If we really think we can look at others and see a “pure heart” or a “bad heart,” we are deluded, and we will not be saved. It is equally deluded to say that someone has a good heart as to say that he has a bad heart. Either statement implies that the speaker believes that he is God. Either statement is both blasphemy and delusion.

Today Orthodox Christians, shell-shocked by a nihilistic culture which denies all virtues, retreat into something that is marginally better but is not the Gospel, a humanistic “feel-good” mode in order to be nice and get along, both with others and with their own self image. They do this rather than choose courageously to speak the truth on the outside and see how bad they are on the inside. They uncritically accept the idea that those who value tolerance and good feelings above all are somehow pleasing to God, though God Himself said that He will spew such people out of his mouth (Revelation 3:16). They avoid the combat with the passions on the inside and the combat of confessing the Faith on the outside. Even Aristotle, a pagan, noted that tolerance is the last virtue of a dying culture. If our distinguishing virtue is tolerance, we are indeed almost dead. Humanism is better than nihilism, but it also leads to hell. You will be in a higher circle of hell than the nihilists, but you will be in hell.

We do not believe with Calvin that we are totally depraved, but we certainly must believe that we are extremely and helplessly bad, and that, apart from divine grace, the eternal outcome will be the same as if we were totally bad. Until we get that, we do not get anything. Until we get that, we are hard of heart, whether we are nice to others or not. The Lord will spew us out of His mouth.

The Scripture calls to us today, saying, “Today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts (Psalm 94:8) .” Let us confess that the Lord is our righteousness, that He is our salvation, that He is our Creator, Savior, and God. He is everything to us, and we are nothing. Only then can we begin the cure for the fatal disease of pride. Only thus will we not hear those dread words, “Your house will be left desolate,” and instead hear His most sweet voice calling us to Paradise.

What can be sweeter to us, dearest brethren, than this voice of our Lord inviting us? Behold, in His loving mercy, the Lord showeth us the way of life (St. Benedict, Prologue to the Rule).”

O most sweet Lord, our life and hope, glory be to Thee!

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The God of the living

29 July OS 2017: Friday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Martyr Kallinikos

In today’s Gospel, the Sadducees reveal their hypocrisy and spiritual bankruptcy by asking the Lord a non-question, in order to trip Him up:

The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother.
Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also.
Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.
Matthew 22: 23-33

Usually it is the Pharisees and scribes, the rabbinical crowd, that we see twisting Scripture to advance a pathological ideology and keep power in their own hands, even if if means, ultimately, killing the God-Man. Here, however, it is the Sadducees who are playing with Scripture and making up a contrived scenario, while pretending to be serious, to justify their practical atheism. Strange to say, though they are the priestly party and have charge of the Temple worship, they do not believe in the immortality of the soul, the resurrection, or life after death. They are professionally religious materialists. (Sound familiar?) Knowing that the Lord Jesus preaches the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life, they think they can make Him look silly. Instead, He turns the tables on them, and they look silly, which is what happens when integrity confronts hypocrisy.

For our part, we have to look at the poor old Sadducees and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The siren song of practical atheism – living as if this life were all there is – threatens daily to hypnotize all of us, and we can always dig up some quote from some supposed authority – Bishop So-and-So, “Elder” So-and-So, “Theologian” Dr. So-and-So, etc. – to parrot, or if we are really clever like the Sadducees, invent our own twisted reasoning based on Scripture or Tradition, in order to justify our lack of integrity.

How do we avoid being Sadducees and become – or stay – Christians? Let us undertake a short list:

  1. We have to pray earnestly, daily, for the Lord to reveal to us the extent of our own blindness and proud self-reliance. To motivate this prayer, I strongly recommend reading chapters two, three, and four of Unseen Warfare (if you do not have the book, you can find the text at http://www.stnicholasdc.org/files/Orthodoxy/Unseen-Warfare.pdf).                                                                                                                                                
  2. We have to constantly read and re-read our recent trustworthy Orthodox writers to give us a grip on the kaleidoscopically fragmenting and re-forming churchy landscape out there. (Keep in mind that the people in charge are always finding new ways to fool you, and that simultaneously their “stuff” [church buildings, vestments, publications, videos, podcasts…] will always be heavily funded and attractive.) Here is a concrete example: The Moscow Patriarchate is soon to authorize a Catechism that states that those who oppose the ecumenist activities of the “official” hierarchies do so on the basis of “unreliable information” and, furthermore, that these activities have “always” been based on the Tradition of the Church (!). (See http://nftu.net/proposed-moscow-patriarchate-catechism-opponents-of-ecumenism-should-be-subject-to-canonical-rebuke/). Wrap your mind around that one! No, don’t. Instead, to scrub out the you-know-what they have just put into your mind, go back and read St. Philaret’s Sorrowful Epistles (http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/sorrow.aspx and http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/sorrow2.aspx), and Archbishop Averky’s writings on the present situation (for example http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/keepstep.aspx). What a difference! On the one hand: Newspeak, obfuscation, coldness, and threats. On the other: the boldness and life-giving warmth of evangelical love. Take your pick.
  1. Remember death daily. Today or tomorrow you will face death and God’s judgment. So live with integrity today. Speak the truth, be not afraid. The Lord loves you and desires your salvation more than you do. But you have to be loyal, and you must not lie to yourself. 

O Lord, the Truth and source of all truth, glory be to Thee! O Lord, give us the light and the strength to live in truth. Amen.

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Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ

21 July OS 2017: Thursday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; Holy Prophet Ezechias (Ezekiel), Ss. Symeon and John of Emesa, Holy Martyr Victor of Marseilles

In today’s Gospel, the mother of James and John demonstrates her comically mistaken idea of what the Messianic kingdom is actually going to look like.

And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again. Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children with her sons, worshipping him, and desiring a certain thing of him. And he said unto her, What wilt thou? She saith unto him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on the left, in thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able. And he saith unto them, Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: but to sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give, but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father. And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren. But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. – Matthew 20: 17-28

We may smile indulgently at Mrs. Zebedee’s crude notion that the Christ would be a worldly king whom old ladies could cozen into making courtiers out of men with the right connections, but we perhaps grasp the Kingdom of God not better than she. On earth we live in the Kingdom of God by living in the Church, but, imitating the mother of the Thunderssons, we may tend to assume that we are here to use the Church, not to serve Her.

Let us ask ourselves a few questions:

Is the Church my dear Mother, whom I must reverence and obey, or is She (or it, rather) an impersonal thing, a necessary evil essentially unloved, a rusty old contraption for dispensing salvation, to be kicked, tricked, and otherwise abused into compliance with my wishes for pie in the sky at discount prices?

Is the Church the precious Body of Christ, to be cared for and ministered to by me, as the Holy Myrrhbearers ministered to the Body of the Crucified Lord, or is She simply an organized religion business, a vendor to dispense benefits as I decide I want them when I want them, with as little fuss as possible?

Is the Church “we” – my primary place, my primary people, of belonging, identity, loyalty, and love? Or is the Church “they” (priest, council, catechist, coffee hour ladies [fill in the blank]) providing “goods and services” for “customers”… like me.    

When things go wrong in the Church, is it always “they” who are responsible, or do I not have a share in the blame, by my lack of faith, prayer, repentance, dedication, sacrifice, and active doing good to my brothers?

One of my favorite Southern authors, William Alexander Percy, says that the human race is divided into “lean-ers and lean-ees,” those who lean on others and those who get leaned on. Of course, we all need to lean on others sometimes, but those who get into the Kingdom we are discussing here have the primary orientation of being lean-ees. At least they want to be leaned on, even if human weakness prevents it sometimes. Such people have always been the minority, of course, and that makes perfect sense, since the Lord did say that only a few folks get into His Kingdom, much less sit next to Him. 

Decide today! Lean-er or lean-ee? Make your choice.

Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. Amen.

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Millstones aplenty

18 July OS 2017: Monday of the Ninth Week of St. Matthew; St. Emilian, Martyr

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord states the penalty for defiling the innocence of children: 

At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. – Matthew 18: 1-11

I emphatically recommend the careful study of The Path to Salvation by St. Theophan the Recluse. It may be difficult – extremely difficult – to carry out the concrete program for spiritual life he details in the latter part of the book. One has to glean that which one can and put it to use. But the English translation of the book does something essential for us – perhaps uniquely so in English language Orthodox literature – because the earlier chapters describe precisely the right way to rear children, the psychological and spiritual process by which adolescents and college-age students fall away from the Faith, and the path of return after one has fallen away.

The willful refusal of contemporary parents, including churchgoing Orthodox Christians, to combat the influences destroying their children is astounding. It provides prima facie evidence that we have passed beyond the post-Christian age to the post-human age, a time in which those in power have succeeded in destroying ordinary human instincts and reactions in a critical mass of the people. Those who still have these instincts constitute a dwindling race of human beings living in the midst of a growing zombie population.

One looks over one’s shoulder and wonders, “Who is next?” Which friend or neighbor whom one values as a fellow Christian – or at least a normal person – will say, “Our son told us he is ‘gay,’ and, well (sigh, simper, melting phony-pious lovey-look), we don’t like it, but we just f-e-e-l that we need to support his choices,” or “Our daughter threatened to move out and live with her boyfriend, and we invited them to live with us and we’ll give them their own bedroom [next to the younger daughter’s bedroom, perhaps], because that way we can influence them…” or “We know this soccer league has Sunday morning games, but… [fill in the blank].”

Judgment is at the door for the hierarchs and clergy who just f-e-e-l they need to support such “choices,” as well as for the parents who make them. Since such blatant nonsense evinces a total loss of reason and common sense, one starts to wonder if repentance is even possible, not because God is unwilling to receive the sinner, but because a formerly rational person who has made himself into an idiot is highly unlikely to recover his senses. When people poke their own eyes out, “how great is the darkness.”  

It is later than we think.

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The sign of Jonas

11 July OS 2017: Monday of the Eighth Week of St. Matthew; St. Euphemia the All-Praised, Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Great Princess Olga

In today’s reading from the Holy Gospel, the Lord refuses to give the leaders of the Jewish nation a “…sign from heaven,” but He instead tells them that they will receive “…the sign of the Prophet Jonas,” that is, as Jonas was in the belly of the whale for three days and came forth alive, Jesus would die, be buried in the earth, and rise from the dead on the third day.

The Pharisees also with the Sadducees came, and tempting desired him that he would shew them a sign from heaven. He answered and said unto them, When it is evening, ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowring. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given unto it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. And he left them, and departed. And when his disciples were come to the other side, they had forgotten to take bread. Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. – Matthew 16: 1- 6

Now think about this. These men, no doubt the best informed people in that country, knew perfectly well that Christ had been working a great number of miracles that were both demonstrations of divine power and eminently useful and compassionate – exorcisms, healing, feeding the hungry, even raising the dead. But they still demanded that He prove Himself by something as spectacular as it was pointless, a “sign from heaven,” i.e., lightning bolts, an eclipse, shooting stars, etc. It strikes one as incredibly immature and shallow. Why would the leaders of this captive nation not rejoice that the poor and suffering of their own people, their own flesh and blood, were already receiving a truly great consolation? Why did they so oppose the one who was bringing them, both through tangible physical help and the liberating truth of His preaching, a real deliverance from oppression and sorrow?

Their hatred of Jesus sprang primarily from envy. The patristic commentaries and the services of Great Week state this over and over again. They knew deep down that Jesus was the Real Thing, while they were spiritually bankrupt phonies and power-seekers, and instead of bringing them to repentance, this knowledge filled them with envious hatred. Both parties, the Pharisees and Sadducees, had made idols out of some outward thing: the Pharisees were busily constructing a nitpicking, complicated, oppressive, and ultimately meaningless code of behavior to replace the true practice of the Mosaic Law, while the Sadducees worshipped their own authority as the priestly caste and the glories of the Temple worship over which they presided. Both parties were determined to project a false image of their supposed spiritual superiority, which gave them power over others.

The resulting emptiness of their inner life corresponded precisely to the inanity (literally “emptiness”) of this absurd cosmic fireworks show they were demanding from the God-Man to prove His credentials. Their brand of religion was all about outward show. Today we might say that it was all about marketing.

How do we prevent ourselves from falling prey to false religious leaders who maintain their authority through outward show but are actually apostate by reason of their having renounced the confession of the Orthodox Faith? It get backs to the basic question: Do I want my faith to be the Real Thing? The Real Thing requires the narrow way Christ speaks of in the Gospel. Do want I want that, or do I want a reasonable facsimile thereof, a pleasant and, yes, convincing, simulacrum that offers a broad and smooth highway on which one can enjoy the sensations of a pretended spiritual, intellectual, and cultural superiority (“Orthodoxy, the Coolest Religion Ever!”) combined with worldly advantage?

Hebrews, chapter eleven, gives us a criterion of discernment. We must ask ourselves if we honestly agree to pay the price required to spend eternity among that “cloud of witnesses” of whom the Apostle writes that they

…had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. Hebrews 11: 36-40

We must daily search our hearts and ask the Lord to enlighten our minds to see our true motivation. The bedrock, essential, and eternally efficacious miracle of our times is simply that we keep the Orthodox Faith, that if necessary we stay in “dens and caves” in order not to join the great lemming rush to the Great Apostasy. The foundational miracle, the only sign we need, is the Faith itself. Without this, nothing – neither the skillfully-marketed sanction of certain elders nor the inherited power and material assets of patriarchs and synods – will save us. The Lord did not say, “When I return, will I find monasteries and cathedrals?” He said, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find the Faith on the earth?”

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12: 1-2

P.S. A suggestion for spiritual reading relating to this Gospel text: “On Miracles and Signs” by Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, which you can find at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/st-ignatius-brianchaninov-miracles-and-signs.aspx.

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The still, small Voice

5 July OS 2017: Tuesday of the Seventh Week of St. Matthew; St. Athanasius of Mt. Athos, St. Sergius of Radonezh, Holy New Venerable Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia

Today’s Gospel reading recounts Herod’s wickedly killing St. John the Baptist, which ever after tormented his conscience.

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. Matthew 14: 1-13

St. Theophan the Recluse points out that Herod’s immediately concluding that John had been resurrected shows the tyrant’s uneasy conscience:

He could have thought of anything, yet he thought of no one but John. Who led his thoughts in that direction? His conscience. From it you cannot hide unconscionable deeds; you cannot correct its judgment with anything…There is a voice within us that we must acknowledge is not our voice. Whose is it? God’s. He Who gives us our nature, gives us this voice. If it is God’s voice, we must obey it, for creatures dare not contradict their Creator. This voice says that God exists, that we completely depend upon Him, and therefore we cannot but have a reverent fear of God. Having this fear, we must fulfill God’s will, indicated by the conscience… – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 148-149

Three innate attributes of every man’s soul demonstrate undoubtedly that man has a spiritual life, that he is the creature of a personal God Who intends for man to know Him, obey Him, and love Him: conscience, the fear of God, and the thirst for God.

Conscience speaks first: It is the voice of God telling us what is right and what is wrong. Our gnomic will, the darkened, opinionated, and unsteady will we have inherited from our First Parents because of the Fall (ignorantly identified as “free will” by humanistic thinking), may choose to obey or not obey this voice. We must force it always to obey and thereby recover our natural, Edenic will, which always chooses according to conscience and is thus the only free will.

Heeding the voice of conscience energizes man’s potential for the fear of God: Training his will to obey the innate Law of right and wrong, man then naturally falls down before the Lawgiver in reverent awe, humbly acknowledging God’s absolute right to command and to judge him, fearing lest he should displease his Creator and desiring to offer Him the un-hypocritical worship possible only when he has a clean conscience.

Living according to conscience in holy fear, man begins to thirst for God, that is, he begins to energize his potential not only to know and obey God, but to love Him, to be united to Him, to have Him dwelling within. At this point, the spiritual life properly speaking can begin, characterized by attentive, regular prayer and by a periodic but not infrequent reception of Holy Communion correctly prepared for. This spiritual life in turn becomes a foretaste of Paradise, and the Christian acquires a firm hope of salvation, disposing himself to receive the grace of persevering in faith and repentance to his last breath.

Sadly, these instinctual powers – conscience, fear of God, thirst for God – planted in each man by the Creator, find themselves starved, crushed, distorted, and eventually ignored in the life of almost all people, not only those outside the Church, but also those Orthodox Christians who live outside a strict Church environment, and today this is true more than ever.

First of all, only the grace of the true Holy Mysteries, beginning with the true Baptism, can heal these powers of the damage of the Ancestral Sin. Second, once healed, these powers must be energized through practice, in obedience to the Tradition of the Church. The first can take place only in the Church, and the second can take place only within a strict Church environment.

Shallow, confused, modernized, half-hearted practices within Orthodoxy – purposely concocted by false shepherds or simply allowed by lazy ones – lead to the pitiable state in which the masses of nominally Orthodox people find themselves today, which is that they actually belong to the order not of Communicants (whether they are outwardly receiving Holy Communion, real or imagined, or not) but to the order of the Energoumenoi, that is, that demonic energies and not grace constitute the decisive factor determining their choices and their actions, and the baptismal grace resides in the soul only in potential, unenergized, if in fact they were validly baptized to begin with.

It is difficult to discern who is in the worst shape: A) Those who do not have the true Holy Communion available to them because of heresy, B) those who have the true Mysteries available to them and know how to prepare properly but receive rarely because of neglect, or C) those who receive often without the traditional preparation because of modernist ideas. All three states are fearful in the extreme. Most of us true Orthodox (“Old Calendarists”) fall into the B category, and we congratulate ourselves on being neither heretics nor impious, like the poor people in the A and C categories, but we need to stop and think: If we have available the grace of the Holy Mysteries and the correct spiritual guidance on preparing for Holy Communion, we therefore have the greatest responsibility. What are we going to say to Christ after we die, when He asks us why we received His Precious Body and Blood only once a year (or not at all!), because we did not want to fast or go to confession regularly? Because we did not want to give up certain habits? Because movies or parties on Saturday night were more important than Vespers? Because making money on Sunday was more important than God?

It is this situation within the Church that has created the current “apocalyptic” scenario. The outward forces visible and invisible, the dark powers of evil which we love to blame, as real as they are (more real in fact than most can allow their minds to admit), constitute, in the final analysis, mere circumstances allowed by God to test us, fully in accord with His all-wise providence and His sovereign will. We have misused our minds, wills, and desires, and this it is that lets devils rule men, foment this Revolution, instigate this post-Christian revolt against God. If the Orthodox do not live for God, who will?

These thoughts should indeed make us sober, but they should not make us sad, for God is sovereign, the Master over all things. And, what is more, He has told us exactly what we need to think and do and desire, and He gives us the power to do it.

Let us be glad then and fear not. The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s. Let us heed the voice of conscience, live in holy fear, and love God with all our hearts. He will take care of the rest.

For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator. I Peter 4: 17-19

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