The narrow gate

10 December OS 2017 – Saturday of the Twelfth Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Menas, Hermogenes, and Eugraphos 

Today’s Gospel reading in the daily cycle is Luke 13: 18-29 –

The Lord said this parable: Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like? and whereunto shall I resemble it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and cast into his garden; and it grew, and waxed a great tree; and the fowls of the air lodged in the branches of it. And again he said, Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened. And he went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. Then said one unto him, Lord, are there few that be saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, Lord, open unto us; and he shall answer and say unto you, I know you not whence ye are: Then shall ye begin to say, We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets. But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out. And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. And, behold, there are last which shall be first, and there are first which shall be last.

 Our Lord’s hearers wanted to know, “…are there few that be saved?” He refused to answer Yes or No, as if to say, “Numbers and percentages of other people being saved are not the point.” Instead He told them to pay attention to their own salvation: “…Strive to enter in at the strait [=narrow] gate.” What is the narrow gate? Since we desire to be saved, obviously this is an all-important question.

We may think of the narrow gate in terms of our outer and inner life. In our outer life, the narrow gate is the way of life created by unwavering adherence to the True Faith and by unceasing attempts to live the Way demanded by the Truth, characterized by constant struggles that sometimes bring victories and sometimes bring defeats followed by repentance and renewed struggle. This unremitting warfare must last until death. By the grace of God and His mercy, if we remain on this path we will have a firm hope of our salvation.

Our present circumstances favor this narrow gate approach to life, because, given what is going on around us, we will find that simply by not giving up our Faith and not giving up the struggle to live according to the Faith, we will find ourselves among “the few,” whether we like it or not. We have to remember that fewer and fewer people – both Orthodox and non-Orthodox – are likely to understand us, and that this does mean that we are on the wrong path, but rather the opposite. They will go their way, and we must go ours.   We must ask the Lord constantly for the humility to accept this, and in simplicity of faith we must persevere on this path laid out before us without condemning anyone else or being curious about their ultimate fate compared to ours. This quiet life of faithfulness in the midst of spiritual loneliness is our narrow gate.

This brings us to the subject of our inner life. St. Theophylact comments on the protest of the damned, “…and Thou hast taught in our streets,” as follows: “Observe that it is those whom the Lord taught in the streets, that is, who only received the Lord’s teaching in public, who are rejected. But if we receive His teaching, not just in public, but also within the closeness of our contrite and compunctionate heart, then we will not be rejected” (The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Luke, c. 13, vss. 23-30).” Here St. Theophylact is not addressing the subject of those who are formally outside the Church but rather of those who are inside, whether, as in Our Lord’s time, inside the Old Testament Church or, as in St. Theophylact’s (and our) time, inside the New Testament Church. In other words, being a nominal Christian of the Christmas-and-Easter-only variety, or even being a regular churchgoer who does not have an inner life of prayer, does not save.  We must cherish the Lord’s teaching “within the closeness of our contrite and compunctionate heart,” and if we do, then – rejoice! – “…we will not be rejected.”

These two aspects of the Life in Christ – the outer and inner – are intimately joined.   By striving to remain outwardly faithful, we will invite rejection from the world. The ensuing loneliness will drive us either into apostasy (whether formal apostasy or – what is more common nowadays – lifestyle apostasy, just giving up and living like everyone else) or in the opposite direction – to a more intense inner life of prayer. Which way we go is up to us, but that we must go one way or the other is not in doubt.

One piece of good news is that there is more Orthodox literature about the inner life available to us than ever before. In the midst of the cataclysmic destruction of Christian civilization over the past 100 years, there has yet, by God’s loving Providence, been a rebirth of interest precisely in the spiritual life, manifested by an explosion of new editions and translations of the Church services and of spiritual books, as well as the movement to return to traditional iconography and chant.  It is as if the Lord is saying, “I have given you a tough job, living in these times, but I am giving you tools you to deal with it.”   There are in fact so many of these tools that the difficulty lies in choosing which ones to use. One simple tool that we can all use is to carry a prayer rope around with us constantly and force ourselves to say the Jesus Prayer every spare mental moment.

Let us then take heart. The Lord desires our salvation, far more than we do ourselves.   He does not require from us miracles but rather “…to receive His teaching, not just in public but also within the closeness of our contrite and compunctionate heart.”   This each of us can do and by so doing acquire a firm hope of our salvation.


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Your redemption draweth nigh

8 December OS 2017 – Nativity Fast; Thursday the Twelfth Week of St. Luke; S. Patapios of Thebes

Today’s Gospel reading for the daily cycle is Luke 21: 28-33 –

The Lord said to his disciples, Look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. And he spake to them a parable; Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.

As 2018 approaches, it would be fair to say that great numbers of people – at least those not completely oblivious through substance abuse or the other forms of manufactured delusion provided so generously today to those who wish to be deluded – face the future with dread. The familiar world of yesterday – even the world of ten years ago, much less 25 or 50 or 100 years ago – has disappeared through an engineered cataclysm, an Antichrist revolution in morals, family life, and social structure so systemic and ubiquitous as to make even comprehending it, much less fighting it, seem impossible. Surely, one thinks, the chastisement of God must be around the corner: He has already passed sentence on man, and we are just waiting to learn what form the punishment will take – World War III? Famine? Plague? Anarchy and chaos followed by the police state with its concentration camps, torture, and genocide?   Who knows?

In the midst of these justifiable apocalyptic fears, the Lord tells us today not to fear but to have hope: “Look up and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.”   He has just completed His great discourse about the end of the world, relating the terrors that will precede His Second Coming, but at the end He assures the disciples that all of these things, no matter how terrible, will, like everything in this life, pass away. Indeed, heaven and earth – the entire visible cosmos – will pass away. His words, however, will never pass away. Those who cling to His words, who make Him the foundation of their life and do not leave the house built on this foundation – the Life in Christ – will not perish: “In your patience possess ye your souls (Luke 21:19).”

In the passage immediately following today’s reading, the Lord instructs the disciples how to keep their faith and hope alive in the midst of apocalyptic trials:

And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch ye therefore, and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man. Luke 21: 34-36

Therefore, to survive spiritually, to be still on Christ’s side when He returns and not on the other side, we must take heed to ourselves, which consists of a temperate and moral life characterized by watching and praying always.   Without a continual, conscious spiritual life according to the Church’s teaching, we will not survive spiritually: we will fall.

We see people falling all around us, including “practicing Christians” of various kinds – sadly, not excluding Orthodox people – they throw in the towel and adopt the latest delusion, the latest false teaching, the latest moral “Get Out of Jail Free card” from the teachers of the demonic New Order, some moral or intellectual or religious poison they would not have dreamed of swallowing even a year ago. All is well: there is a big party going on and they do not want to be left out. But they are sheep being fattened for the slaughter. And any day, any time, something inside us could snap, and we could become one of them. Our vigilance must be ceaseless, while our reliance on God must be total.

The means to this ceaseless vigilance are well within our grasp, and they are so well known to us that we take them for granted and fail to use them: daily prayer at set times, the constant struggle for the Jesus Prayer, frequent confession, frequent Holy Communion, spiritual reading, constant examination of conscience and daily inner repentance, and all of the instruments of the spiritual life according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church. This “normal life” of Orthodoxy that has been going on all along has actually always been an apocalyptic life, an eschatological life, a life oriented to the End of the World; we just did not notice.   The times we are living through now and will be living through in the near future are what we have been chanting about and praying about and preparing for all along, if only we had known it.   We have been practicing for the Final Contest. Now, it seems, these practice sessions may be nearly over, and the contest in the arena is about to begin.  How will we play our part?

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.Matthew 7: 22-27  


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Be ye therefore ready also

3 December OS 2016 – Nativity Fast; Saturday of the 11th Week of St. Luke; S. Sophonias, Prophet

In the daily Gospel reading, our Lord commands us to be vigilant, preparing for Judgment:

The Lord said to His disciples: Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; And ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding; that when he cometh and knocketh, they may open unto him immediately. Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. And this know, that if the goodman of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched, and not have suffered his house to be broken through. Be ye therefore ready also: for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not. – St. Luke 12:32-40

These words are most obviously about the Second Coming, but St. Theophan the Recluse relates them to the hour of death and one’s own Particular Judgment as well:

We must be ready at every hour – one does not know when the Lord will come, either for the Last Judgment or to take you from here; for you they are the same. Death decides everything. After death comes the results of your life; whatever you’ve acquired, you’ll have to be satisfied with for all eternity. If you have acquired what is good, your lot will be good; if you have acquired what is evil, then your lot will be evil. This is as true as the fact that you exist. All of this could be decided this moment – here at this very moment, as you read these lines – and then, the end of everything; a seal will be set to your existence, which no one can remove. This is something to think about! But one cannot be sufficiently amazed at how little people think about it. What is this mystery which is wrought upon us? We all know that death will come at any moment, that it is impossible to escape it, but meanwhile almost no one at all thinks about it – and it will come suddenly and seize us. Even then – even when a fatal disease seizes a person, he still does not think that the end has come. Let psychologists resolve this from a scientific aspect; from the moral aspect it is impossible not to see here an incomprehensible self-delusion, alien only to one who is heedful of himself.   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp . 270-271

Incomprehensible self-delusion – that’s it!   Where does it come from, and what can we do about it?

Our blindness to death comes from two places – the inside and the outside of us.   On the inside, despite the grace of baptism, the power of whose grace we do not activate enough by struggling against sin, our fallen nature denies the reality of death. This blindness is instinctive, unconscious, and we are all born with it. It comes from two sources, one natural and one unnatural.   The natural source is the memory of immortality that resides in the human heart since Paradise. We have inherited this psychosomatically from our First Parents, and there is nothing we can do about it. Actually, in itself it is a good thing: It gives empirical proof that man was created for eternal life.   Then there is the unnatural and sinful source of the blindness to death: the inherited Ancestral Sin that we are all born with, which carries the damage to the heart caused by our First Parents’ accepting the lie, “You shall be as gods.” I do not think I am going to die, because I think that I am God, that I am the source of my own life. All of my problems come from this.

The external causes of our blindness to death are illusion and distraction.   Because of modern medical science, we have the illusion that there is a cure for everything. Living in the “First World,” we are not confronted daily with infant and child mortality, and we do not see adults dying young on a regular basis in the homes around us and in our own homes, dying from infections or getting kicked by mules or bitten by snakes, or just malnutrition. We live in an insulated, cosseted environment in which daily physical problems usually do not rise above the level of discomfort and inconvenience. Even when we do become dangerously ill, we are prone to think not about death and God’s judgment, about the shortness of this life and the vanity of all things here below, but about hoping for a cure, so that we can eke out a few more years of biological existence.

Because of the frenzied environment created by the demands of work or school, interrupted only by frenzied “input” from the “news” and entertainment media, we are constantly distracted and agitated.   This world seems to be all there is, because it demands our attention at every waking hour. It won’t go away. We are little rats running on a wheel, and we are not allowed to get off, or so it seems.

How do we get off the wheel, calm down, face reality, and prepare for death?   The key moment comes when we have a break from our duties, and we make the choice either to be distracted by the news and entertainment media or to do spiritual works: spiritual reading, prayer, preparation for confession, and the various activities of spiritual life.   Every one of these moments is a moment of crisis, in the original meaning of the word: not simply an emergency, but an emergency characterized by judgment. It is a moment of judgment – we are being judged at that very moment by the choice that we make.   Life consists of thousands of such moments that interrupt the duties of our work, and the final result of the choices we make at these moments is what St. Theophan refers to above: “After death comes the results of your life; whatever you’ve acquired, you’ll have to be satisfied with for all eternity.” Now we know that we can take nothing from this world with us, except our soul. “What we have acquired” is virtue or vice, grace or separation from God, holiness or sinfulness. It is up to us.

Life is short, death is certain, judgment is eternal. Let us wisely use the free moments given us by the All-Merciful God, Who desires our salvation infinitely more than we do, and Who is waiting with invincible love to give us spiritual gifts, so that He may find us watching when He comes.


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The things which be God’s

2 December OS 2017 – Friday of the 11th Week of St. Luke;  St. Avvakum (Habbakuk), Prophet 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Serene faith

30 November OS 2017 – Wednesday of the 11th Week of St. Luke, Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sermon-on-the-mount mosaic

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Our true condition

26 November OS 2017 – Saturday of the 10th Week of St. Luke; St. Alypios the Stylite, St. Nikon of the “Repent Ye”, St. Stylianos of Paphlagonia, St. Innocent of Irkutsk

Today’s daily Gospel reading is Luke 10: 19-21.

The Lord said to His disciples, Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.

Again, today, the Lord speaks of our need to receive His revelation like little children: the Father, Lord of heaven and earth, has hidden His mysteries from the “wise and prudent,” and He has revealed them to “babes.” Only the pure in heart, only the innocent, can really receive the Gospel into their hearts. Any kind of calculation, guile, and dissimulation chases away grace and makes a man blind.   He may think himself very clever, but he is the most foolish of the foolish. He sees nothing.

How can we keep our sight intact? How can we retain our warm, childlike vision of Faith and of the Church in this time that is so cold and so cynical?   Out there, the vision of Darwin has prevailed – bankrupt as science, it has nevertheless become what it was always intended to be: the world religion.   The law of the jungle prevails, and only the “fittest” (i.e., the power hungry and unscrupulous) survive. Where do the babes who love the Gospel fit into such a scenario? What is the answer?

Now, more than ever, we must immerse ourselves in humility. Let us thank God that we live precisely in the times we live in, times in which we can have no illusions of thriving Church life, just civil governance, or decent human culture on the grand scale, times in which only tiny pockets of intact humanity, much less the true Faith, survive.   There is no getting around it: life is hierarchical, and when the leaders go astray, the great mass of people will follow. Those who do not go along will be, in the eyes of the world, precisely Nobody.   This is who we are: Nobody.   And what could be better for our salvation? Glory to God!

We start, then, with humility: let us accept our true condition and give ourselves over to weeping, mourning, and heartfelt prayer for our salvation, for that of those around us, and for the whole world, for suffering mankind which has gone astray.   We have no virtues, no great works, no visions, no miracles – nothing to brag about.   We must cling to the Lord in simplicity of heart and ask for one thing only, that His holy will be done.   May He forgive all of our sins and take us by the hand, leading us securely on the path of salvation.


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Our Unfailing Intercessor

22 November OS 2017 – Nativity Fast; 10th Week of St. Luke;  Afterfeast of the Entry of the Theotokos;  Ss. Philemon and Archippus, Apostles

Today we continue to celebrate the Great Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple, on which we recall how at the age of three she was dedicated to the Lord by her holy parents Joachim and Anna, in fulfillment of the vow they had made when beseeching the Lord for a child.   From the age of three until she was betrothed to the Righteous Joseph, she dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, being fed by an angel and contemplating the highest divine mysteries continuously, remaining in ceaseless prayer at all times.

St. Gregory Palamas, in his Second Homily on the Entry, brings to light many remarkable insights of the Church into the great mystery of the Theotokos – who she is and what is her part in the great mystery of salvation.   Here is one profound passage:

She alone forms the boundary between created and uncreated nature, and no one can come to God except through her and the Mediator born of her, and none of God’s gifts can be bestowed on angels or men except through her. As in the case with lamps on earth constructed of glass of some other transparent material, it is impossible to look at the light or enjoy its rays except through the lamp, so it is beyond the reach of all to look upwards to God or be helped by Him to make progress in any direction, except through the Ever-Virgin, this God-bearing lamp who is truly radiant with divine brightness. “God is in the midst of her,” it says, “she shall not be moved (Ps. 45:5).”   – from “On the Entry of the Mother of God into the Holy of Holies II,” in The Homilies by St. Gregory Palamas (Mount Thabor Publishing).

What this means practically for us is that we must wholeheartedly pray to Panagia (the Most Holy Theotokos) for our salvation and that of those whom we love. No one comes to the Father apart from Jesus Christ, and no one comes to Jesus Christ apart from the Holy Virgin Mary.  There is a mistaken notion among modernist Orthodox that we have a core of beliefs in common with the iconoclasts (today represented by the Protestants), to which core the veneration of the Holy Virgin and having a relationship with her is a secondary or optional addition, good but not necessary, an “enrichment.”  This is false.  There is no salvation for a Christian who refuses honor, homage, and childlike supplication to the Holy Virgin. True Christian life includes not only assenting to the dogmas about the Mother of God, but also having a lively relationship in prayer with the Mother of God.

The Church’s treasury of prayer provides us with the means to acquire this relationship. The two pre-eminent and most beloved forms of prayer to the Theotokos are the Salutations (Hairetismoi) of the Akathist Hymn and the Small Canon of the Supplication (Paraklisis) to the Mother of God.   Many pious families throughout the centuries have made a practice of saying one or the other (or both!) of these every day.   We could resolve to do this, or to adopt another practice, such as saying the prayer “Theotokos and Virgin, Rejoice…” (Theotoke Parthene) so many times per day, or a daily prayer rope of 33 or 100 prayers, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!”

We also have the great, inestimable gift of being able to run to the Holy Virgin with all of our sorrows in time of need.   When we are at our lowest, when things seem at their worst, when we see no way out of this or that situation, let us run to our icons, fall down on our knees in prayer and prostrations, and beg Our Most Pure Lady to help us. She is truly our Mother, and she cares for us incalculably more than our own mothers according to the flesh. She is the Joy of All Who Sorrow and Quick to Hear all those in need. Let us lay bare our souls and hearts before her in prayer, and we will receive speedy consolation through the grace of Her divine Son, whose virginal and immaculate Nativity from the immaculate Virgin we are now preparing to celebrate.

My most holy Lady, Mother of God, by thy holy and all-powerful prayers banish from me, they humble, wretched servant, despondency, forgetfulness, folly, carelessness, and impure, evil, and blasphemous thoughts out of my wretched heart and my darkened mind. And quench the flame of my passions, for I am poor and wretched, and deliver me from my many cruel memories and deeds, and free me from all their bad effects; for blessed art thou by all generations, and glorified is thy most honorable name to the ages of ages. Amen.   – from the Morning Prayers in the Prayer Book published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville NY, 1960 edition.


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How not to offend and condemn

18 November OS 2017 – Nativity Fast; Friday of the Ninth Week of St. Luke; Holy Martyrs Plato and Romanus

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

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

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

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

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

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



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The hour of reckoning

17 November OS 2017: Thursday of the Ninth Week of St. Luke; St. Gregory of Neo-Caesaria, the Wonderworker

The daily Gospel reading for the Divine Liturgy this morning is Luke 16: 1-9.  

The Lord said this parable: There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.  And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

The Lord Jesus Christ is not, of course, recommending that we cheat our employers. The master in the parable has been cheated, but he shows himself bighearted and demonstrates a sense of humor: he commends the steward for his cleverness though not his dishonesty. The steward realized that he was facing disaster, and he took practical steps to deal with it.

The steward’s approaching dismissal symbolizes the hour of death, and the Lord commands us to “make friends” by means of “the mammon of unrighteousness” to prepare for death. He commands us in particular to give alms and in general to steward wisely the good things He gives us, using them for His glory and for our neighbor, so that by wise use of material things, we will inherit heavenly things. We may have misused the gifts our Master has given us, but we have time yet before death to use them for His glory and obtain His reward. How much time? We know not, and therefore we must begin today.

In commenting on this parable, St. Theophan the Recluse remarks on man’s reluctance to face and prepare for death:

Death could overtake us at any moment, and then: Give an account of thy stewardship (Luke 16:2). Everyone knows this, but almost no one budges. What is this blindness? No one thinks he will die right now, but all suppose that they will live another day or two. They do not know the time, but are certain that death will come sometime later…No one intends to remain careless his entire life; he simply puts off changing for the present day. But since one’s entire life is composed of present days and hours, he does not take the trouble to put things in order for the future. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 258

“…one’s entire life is composed of present days and hours.” The Lord’s command to live in the present and take no thought for the morrow (Matthew 6:34) does not contradict his command to remember death: the two commands are two sides of the same coin. The Lord wants us to think constantly on what is actual, to occupy the mind with reality not delusion. He wants us constantly to think about the events of today and the hour of death, and to take action based on this certain knowledge, for only these events are certain to take place. The rest, the imaginary “in-between” now and death, is the demons’ mental playground. There may be no in-between.

How can we return to this fundamental Christian activity, the remembrance of death, that overriding thought that so occupied our Christian forbears and yet does not make an impression on contemporary man, does not seem to enter his practical calculations?

We can begin, as Orthodox Christians should always do, with prayer, and specifically prayer for the reposed and night prayers directed to the remembrance of death. By more frequent prayers for the faithful departed, both in Church and at home, we both fulfill the commandment to love our neighbor and we remind ourselves that we need to prepare for death. By reading the Compline and/or the Night Prayers with attention, we are reminded at least daily, once every night, that sleep is an image of death, and our rising every morning an image of the resurrection.

We should take advantage of illness to glorify the Lord Who allows us to fall sick, that we may recall our mortality, weep over our sins, admit our total dependence on Him for our very existence, and resolve to live in repentance.

We should read pious accounts regarding the death of just and unjust men, the reality of their spiritual agony at that hour, the activity of angels and demons, and the particular judgment of the soul by Christ.

Truly, as the Holy Fathers say, he that remembers death will not sin.

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Happy Nativity Fast!

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

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

We have recently begun the Nativity Fast, and perhaps already it is getting us a little down.  A lot of Orthodox Christians who sincerely try to keep this fast (which all too many neglect) find that it is more difficult to stay motivated and cheerful during this season than during the Great Fast before Holy Week and Pascha.

This is probably for several reasons.  There are the short days and long nights of December with their cold and gray weather.  There is the distraction of the secular “holiday season,” which seems to make people a little nutty as they become obsessed with buying tons of presents they cannot afford for people whom they fear will not like them, all the while trying to have good cheer at an exhausting round of obligatory and superficial social gatherings.

Lately, we also have the political and social tension created by anti-Christian power elites who claim that Christmas decorations, greetings, school events, and TV programs actually related to the Birth of Christ are “unfair” to non-Christians and should be eradicated from public life, while non-Christian symbols must be imposed on everyone, especially the Christians, in order to “celebrate diversity,” which is code for worshipping the rapidly spreading reign of the Antichrist global government, under which, of course, there is no real diversity, but only the mind-numbing uniformity of materialism, sensuality, and the ever-despairing power struggle for the “survival of the fittest” in a merciless, endless, and impersonal universe.

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

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

Prepare for Holy Communion.

Go to more services.

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

Say “Merry Christmas” and don’t get intimidated by the propaganda into that “Happy Holiday” nonsense.

Keep thanking God for everything we have and not get caught up in consumerism.

Keep our shopping and present giving simple, in order to focus on the Birth of our Savior, and on sincere love for our family and friends, which is the real purpose of the gifts, anyway.

A blessed Nativity Fast to all!


“…and on earth, peace…” 

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

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

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

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