The only life worth living

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5 January OS – The Eve of Theophany

On the Saturday before Theophany, and again, today, at the Royal Hours on the eve of the Feast, we read these words from St. Matthew:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6

Repentance is at the heart of the Gospel. Everything begins with it, and ultimately, at the end of a man’s earthly life, everything in this world ends with it: our hope is precisely to die in repentance.   Our life is, or should be, one of constant repentance. What then is it, and how can we attain it? How can we live a life of repentance?

The Greek word we translate by “repentance” is metanoia, which we need to translate as both “change of mind” and “change of heart” to capture the full meaning, since what the word means is “change of the nous,” the nous being the spiritual intellect, whose entire reality we cannot grasp unless we think of it as the mind joined to the heart. It is the center of one’s personality and existence, the real me. St. Macarius the Great says that when someone is truly living in grace, the soul becomes “all nous” – in other words, everything about the person becomes spiritual, even in this life.   This is the state that is called theosis.

Even – especially – the greatest saints never stop repenting, even when they are in theosis. How can this be? What do they have to repent of?  They keep repenting because they keep on turning their minds to God, and they keep weeping over their sins and the sins of the whole world, right up to their last breath.

It is in the light of this reality, of what a saint is and how a saint lives, that we can understand what repentance is: the constant turning of the mind and heart back to God, away from the ego (the false self), away from love of this world, and away from demonic thoughts.    The mind, captivated by the divine beauty, desires to think of God always and of His holy commandments, by which one lives, using one’s will and energy to inject one’s love of God into one’s daily activities. The heart, desiring God and longing to be united to Him, unites with the mind in prayer and in action, and puts warmth and life into the actions of the mind and the will.

When we hear, “Say your prayers! Fast! Do spiritual reading! Go to Confession! Prepare for Holy Communion!” and the rest of the whole list of do’s and don’ts that the Church’s preachers and teachers never tire – or, at least, should never tire – of repeating to us, it will help us to recall that these activities are not external badges of being good little boys and girls, so that others will approve of us.   They are indispensable means to attaining the purpose of our entire existence. We have to decide between heaven and hell; we have to decide if we wish to attain our purpose and live forever with God in endless growth in love for Him and for all people and all creation, or if we wish for our minds and hearts to revolve now and for eternity around the idol of the ego, an existence which can be named best and simply by that indispensable and old-fashioned word – hell.

So, for example, when we get up in the morning and say our prayers rather than indulging our fallen nature, we are not merely checking off an item on a list (though checklists are an excellent thing); we are taking a step towards a blessed eternity.   We have turned the mind to God. We have repented.

What then, is repentance? It is the constant turning of the mind and heart to God, and living our lives according to His commandments. How do we do it? Do what the Church says. As they say, it’s not rocket science.

May the prayers of the Holy Forerunner and Baptist John be with us, as we prepare to celebrate the Baptism of the Lord! May this great Mystery renew in us the desire to live according to our baptism and be truly pleasing to God Who is Manifest for our sake.   May we live in repentance.

O Lord Jesus, Our Incarnate God, baptized for our sake, glory be to Thee! 

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In Thy light shall we see light

2 January OS – Forefeast of Theophany; St. Sylvester, Pope of Rome; St. Seraphim, Wonderworker of Sarov

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Today, the second of January, is the day of the repose of a great saint of recent times, Seraphim of Sarov, who passed over into the heavenly kingdom on this day in 1833. You can obtain a good short hagiography of St. Seraphim by Constantine Cavarnos – Volume V of his “Modern Orthodox Saints” series –  from The Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek studies – here:,  and a good short collection of his known sayings from St. Herman Press – Volume I of their “Little Russian Philokalia” series – here: . The saint did not leave any of his own writings, as far as we know – what we have are recollections of his disciples, as is the case also, for example, with St. Cosmas Aitolos and St. Herman of Alaska .

In recent times, St. Seraphim has played a critical part in converting many non-Orthodox Christians to the Faith. His Conversation with Motovilov is a short summary of the entire spiritual life from the Orthodox point of view. It tells the potential convert, in a few thousand words, without saying so directly, why non-Orthodox Christians should leave Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and become Orthodox. For the pious cradle Orthodox, it might explain to you, in a few thousand words, “Yes, that is why I could never be anything but Orthodox, though I never thought about it in exactly this way.”

In this conversation with Nicholas Motovilov, St. Seraphim teaches that the goal of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and at the end of the conversation, a visible epiphany of the saint’s attainment of this goal is granted to his disciple. Here is a portion of Motovilov’s description of what happened:

...Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?”

I replied: “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”

Father Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: “Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don’t be afraid! The Lord is with us!”

After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!

“How do you feel now?” Father Seraphim asked me.

“Extraordinarily well,” I said.

“But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?”

I answered: “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.”

You can read the entire conversation with Motovilov in Volume I of “The Little Russian Philokalia.”   It is also available online at –

Of course, the light that Motovilov saw is the light of Mt. Tabor, the light of the Transfiguration. It is the uncreated light of God. What sets authentic, Orthodox, spiritual experience apart from false spiritual experience is precisely the reality that it is spiritual, properly speaking, that is, that it takes place in the realm of the spirit; it is above and other than a purely psychosomatic experience; it is from above, a gift of grace, and grace is the uncreated energy of God. This authentic spiritual experience occurs when, by the free gift of God, the spiritual intellectthe nous, is joined to the heart – that is, when un-deluded logos, thought, is united to a pure will and pure feeling – and a man becomes, in the words of St. Macarius the Great, “all spirit.”

Extraordinary psychic experiences, which take place in the realm of the fallen intellect, imagination, and emotions – even, or especially, those that take place in out-of-body experiences – are not spiritual, and they are dangerous, because they take place on the level of the fallen human nature and the fallen creation, which is under the rule of the prince of this world, the devil. Just as the Son of God came into this world once to break the devil’s chains from us and lift us up to heaven, so the Spirit of God comes today, at every day and every hour, to lift up above this world our baptized human organism, which by baptism now partakes of Christ’s death and resurrection, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit partakes of authentic holiness.

For this to happen, however, a man must confess the right faith and receive baptism. St. Seraphim explains it like this:

“And whoever lives and believes in Me shall not die for ever (Jn. 11:26).” He who has the grace of the Holy Spirit in reward for right faith in Christ, even if on account of human frailty his soul were to die from some sin or other, yet he will not die for ever, but he will be raised by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ Who takes away the sin of the world (Jn. 1:29) and freely gives grace upon grace. Of this grace, which was manifested to the whole world and to our human race by the God-Man, it is said in the Gospel: In Him was life, and the life was the light of men (Jn. 1:4); and further: And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not overpower it (Jn. 1:5). This means that the grace of the Holy Spirit which is granted at Baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in spite of men’s falls into sin, in spite of the darkness surrounding our soul, nevertheless shines in the heart with the divine light (which has existed from time immemorial) of the inestimable merits of Christ. In the event of a sinner’s impenitence this light of Christ cries to the Father: ‘Abba, Father! Be not angry with this impenitence to the end (of his life)’. And then, at the sinner’s conversion to the way of repentance, it effaces completely all trace of past sin and clothes the former sinner once more in a robe of incorruption woven from the grace of the Holy Spirit, concerning the acquisition of which, as the aim of the Christian life, I have been speaking so long to your Godliness.

In another place in the same conversation, the saint says that this gift of being in the Spirit of Godis available both to the monk and to the non-monastic, provided both are Orthodox. 

Let us, then take great consolation and hope from the words of our great saint of recent times! Though we sin a thousand times a day, yet we are Orthodox Christians, and we belong to Christ, Who has already bestowed upon us through baptism the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit, which pleads for us even when we are in sin, which cries for us, “Abba, Father!” In one moment, the thief won Paradise. In one moment, like Nicholas Motovilov, we can be in the Spirit, by the merits of Christ and through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, St. Seraphim, and all the saints. It is the free gift of grace, ours for the asking. Let us cry out to the Lord day and night, in gratitude for the gift we have already received and with earnest desire for its increase within us.

Holy Father Seraphim, pray to God for us!

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The circumcision of the heart

1 January OS – The Circumcision of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ; St. Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesaria in Cappadocia

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Though the liturgical New Year is on September 1st, the civil New Year for centuries has been on January 1st.   Today is the civil New Year according to the Orthodox calendar, and on this occasion St. Theophan the Recluse reflects on how we should begin another year of service to the Lord:

Since New Year’s Day is the beginning of the days of the year, we ought to gather in our soul those thoughts, feelings, and dispositions that would direct our affairs throughout the year in a Christian way. We will find these the moment we bring to mind the meaning of New Year’s Day in the spiritual life. In the spiritual life, New Year’s Day is when one who has been living carelessly becomes zealous about salvation and pleasing God. When one makes this resolution, then all is rebuilt afresh both internally and externally, upon new beginnings – the old passes away and all is new. If you have this, renew it; if not acquire it – and for you this will be a New Year’s Day.

 A worthy celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord and of the commemoration of St. Basil the Great is also connected with this. The essence of the change we have mentioned is that a person begins from this moment to live solely for his salvation, for God; whereas previously he lived exclusively for himself, preparing destruction for himself. Now he abandons former habits, all comforts, and all in which he found pleasure. He cuts off passions and lustful dispositions and takes on works of strict self-denial. Such a change precisely represents that which, according to the Apostle, the circumcision of the heart should be. The celebration of the Circumcision of the Lord reminds us of this and obligates us to do it, while St. Basil the Great provides us with an example to follow. So all the themes which crowd our consciousness on New Year’s Day come together into one – our inner renewal through the circumcision of the heart. If it pleases the Lord to give someone this mind-set on New Year’s Day – that is, not only to think in such a way, but also to bring all of this into his life – he will celebrate New Year’s Day in a most perfect Christian manner, and will prepare for a Christian passage of the whole year. On the subsequent New Year’s Day he will have only to renew and enliven what he has now taken on. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 25-26

The saint sums up the theme of today in one expression: “circumcision of the heart.” In today’s reading from the Apostolos for the Feast of the Circumcision, St. Paul speaks of this:

Brethren: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. – Colossians 2: 8-12

 In the fleshly circumcision He received on the eighth day of His birth, Our Lord fulfilled the Old Covenant and made way for the New: not a circumcision according to the flesh, but of the heart, of the spirit.   This had always been the real meaning of circumcision anyway, even in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of the Old Israel,  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked (Deut. 10:16).” And again, “… the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live (Deut. 30:6).” Later, the Holy Prophet Jeremias warns the people of Judea and Jerusalem, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart, ye men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem: lest my fury come forth like fire, and burn that none can quench it, because of the evil of your doing (Jeremiah 4:4).” In other words, mere physical circumcision was never sufficient to make a man the Lord’s true servant. Throughout the Old Testament, we see the Lord commanding, begging, persuading: “Serve Me with all your heart.”

In Acts 15, we read how the Holy Spirit inspired the first council ever held in the Church, the council of the Holy Apostles in Jerusalem, to abrogate the obligation of physical circumcision for the Gentile converts to the Faith.   The Church had a new and far greater initiation into the life of grace: Holy Baptism, which was not for men only but for women as well. But the image and true meaning of the old circumcision still remain: We must cut away our fleshly passions, which enslave us and prevent spiritual life, and we must be totally dedicated to God in body and in soul.   The baptismal grace is always there, but it does not energize in us unless we cooperate. Thus in his meditations for today, St. Theophan exhorts us to examine our lives and to re-dedicate ourselves to doing the Lord’s holy will with all our hearts.

On this day also the Lord received His name, the name above every name, the Name of JESUS, which the archangel had foretold to the Holy Virgin and commanded to be given to the Child by St. Joseph at His circumcision.   We can regard this day, then, also as the day on which the Lord Jesus gives us His name as an invincible weapon against the enemies who fight against us, and re-dedicate ourselves to the Prayer of Jesus.   This is an essential weapon in our struggle to acquire the true circumcision of the heart.

On this day also the Lord Jesus shed His Precious Blood for the first time, foreshadowing His divine Passion for our salvation.   One drop of this Blood is more precious than the whole universe, and yet He did not hesitate to mount the Cross and shed all of His Blood for us. How can we not desire to return such love with all our hearts?

This profound Feast of the Lord coincides by God’s Providence with the day on which St. Basil the Great departed this earthly life at the age of 49, having been a baptized Christian for less than 20 years and a bishop for less than ten.   In those few years, he fought ceaselessly for the Orthodox Faith against the Arians, Eunomians and other heretics, struggled constantly for the unity of the Church in the East, established monasteries and hospices for the poor, rooted out corruption in the clergy, ordained many worthy bishops and priests, wrote commentaries on Holy Scripture and composed divine services, and, in short, became the perfect model of the bishop, combining the life of intense prayer and extreme fasting with ceaseless activity for the salvation of souls. And throughout this time, he was almost constantly ill: at one point, according to one of his letters, he had a fever continuously for 50 days.   By the age of 45, he had lost all of his teeth. At age 49, utterly worn out by a life of total self-denial, he reposed in the Lord.

As he was dying, did he see “success” crowning his life? By no means.   Many heresies and schisms were still tearing the Eastern Church apart: reposing in 379, he did not live to see the triumph of the Orthodox Faith with the accession of the Emperor Theodosius the Great and the Second Ecumenical Council in 381.   But what was important to him was that he reposed in the grace of Christ, in repentance, in the secure knowledge that he had done everything possible, with all his strength and every last breath, to do God’s holy will. What more could any of us ask for?  

By the prayers of Great Basil, let us love the Lord with all our hearts and do His holy will. He will take care of the rest.

A blessed New Year to everyone!  

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Let us live in hope

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Luke

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The daily Gospel reading for today is Mark 9: 10-15 –

At that time, the disciples kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean. And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed [wanted], as it is written of him. And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them. And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him.

When the Lord says that Elias has already come, and “…they have done to him whatsoever they listed…” He is referring to St. John the Baptist. The Baptist came, and the evildoers – Herod and his crowd – did whatever they wanted to him: they imprisoned and murdered him. St. Theophan the Recluse takes this event, along with the sufferings of Christ Himself, as a starting point for a meditation on the place of man’s choices in the flow of history:

History flows on and, it seems, inexorably determines individual events. How many preparations there were to receive the Savior! At last, His closest witness, John, came – but what came of it? “They have done…whatsoever they listed” to John, and the Son of man suffered and was humiliated. The flow of events could not be broken; it took its own course. So the flow of history always draws everything after it. People now ask, “Where is freedom? What would it be, given such an order of events? Nothing but a phantom?” Thus do fatalists usually reason. But this all-determining necessity of the flow of events is only an appearance. In reality all human events, both common and individual, are the fruit of man’s free undertakings. The common [history] flows exactly the way it does because everyone, or a majority, want this. And individual events enter into agreement with common events because someone or other in particular wants this. The proof of this is obvious: in the midst of general good there occur bad elements, and in the midst of general bad there occur good elements. Also, in the midst of a firmly established commonality are born elements which, spreading and becoming stronger and stronger, overpower the former commonality and take its place. But these elements are always a matter of freedom. What did Christianity have in common with the character of the time in which it was conceived? It was sown by several individuals who were not a result of the necessary flow of history; it attracted those who desired it, spread vigorously, and became the common cause of the humanity of the time, yet all the same it was a matter of freedom. The same is true in a bad direction: how did the West become corrupted? It corrupted itself. Instead of learning from the Gospel, they began to learn from pagans and adopt their customs – and they became corrupted. The same will happen with us: we have begun to learn from the West which has fallen from Christ the Lord, and have transferred its spirit to ourselves. It will end with us, like the West forsaking true Christianity. But in all of this there is nothing that necessarily determines the matter of freedom. If we want to, we will drive away the Western darkness. If we do not want to, of course, we will immerse ourselves in it. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 280-281

The author was writing in the 1880’s, a time when the intelligentsia in Russia were running after the latest false teachers from Western Europe, including Hegel, Darwin, and Marx, all of whom, in one way or another, taught that history is an impersonal and unstoppable process of evolution, a juggernaut that will crush you if you do not jump on the bandwagon and go along for the ride. Of course, this error was really nothing new – man without Christ, without the revelation found in Holy Scripture, had always believed in Fate.   But in St. Theophan’s time, because Christian Europe had been falling away from the Gospel for several centuries, this old delusion took on a new form as a powerful idea gripping everyone’s mind.   It certainly grips everyone’s mind today: How often do we hear that we must go along with the times and there is nothing you can do about it? To a great extent, Christians, including nominally Orthodox Christians, have given up fighting the spirit of the age or have even reached the point at which they cannot recognize that it is diametrically opposed to the Faith.

As we approach the beginning of another year, we must decide if we will exercise our freedom to make spiritual and moral choices opposed to the spirit of this age…or not. The good news is that this freedom still exists and that the Lord will give us the grace we need to exercise it. But we have to make the choice to exercise it: He does not force us. We are not “fated” to go one way or the other. What steps should we take? How will we avoid getting crushed by that juggernaut of the times we live in?

The first step is to tear our minds away from the things that the world tells us are the real things.   Perhaps we are content to be captivated by the so-called news from mainstream media, as if it represented reality and were not what it actually is: a gigantic brainwashing machine. Or perhaps, having grasped the reality that the official establishment organs – the so-called state, the media, the medical establishment, the big corporations, the “official” church structures, et al – hate us and are simply lying to us all the time in order to destroy us, we busy ourselves daily hunting through the alternative media to find out what is really going on out there. The latter is far preferable, of course, and if we are discerning, we can find valid and useful information. But if we spend all of our time on this, and not on the ABCs of Christian life – including prayer, serious study, and doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – we can still become the proverbial deer in the headlights, paralyzed by the specter of an omnipotent, unstoppable, and incomprehensible evil which demands that we surrender or be destroyed.   We have to tear ourselves away from this suicidal fascination and feed our minds on God’s Truth.

For there really is no secret to what is going on out there. God is working out His plan in history, and we can freely choose to cooperate with Him or not. There are evil people who have now gotten all the levers of worldly power into their hands, and they are doing the will of their god, Satan. Their time is short, and they are in a frenzy to accomplish their master’s will before he and they are cast into the lake of fire where they will burn for all eternity.   It will certainly be rough for us while this short-lived frenzy endures, but we are looking forward to a better time, in fact to eternity, where we hope to live with God forever.

This word – hope – is the key. We often hear sermons about Faith and Love, but rarely about Hope. Yet in our time how essential it is to have Hope!   Along with Faith and Love, it is one of the three supernatural virtues, and we must pray for it. But what is it? The supernatural virtue of Hope is linked intimately with the cardinal virtue of Courage (also called Fortitude). It is the grace-filled habit of believing courageously that God will in fact take care of us, that God’s promises are true, that God is to be trusted, that everything will turn out all right, just as He said. Faith is the virtue of believing in God. Hope is the virtue of believing God, trusting in His promises.

Let us choose to be the Church of Philadelphia from the Apocalypse. We are not big people. Let us choose freely to be the little ones who in humility, despite our obvious human weakness, choose the path of faithfulness, of loyalty to God and love for the brethren (philadelphia). Let us live in Hope.

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth; I know thy works: behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it: for thou hast a little strength, and hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name. Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee. Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth. Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. – Apocalypse 3: 7 -13  

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And I meditated on Thy commandments, which I have greatly loved

Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Luke

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Today’s Gospel reading for the daily cycle is Mark 8:22-26.

And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw aught [anything]. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.

St. Theophan the Recluse comments on the gradual healing of the man’s sight as an image of the gradual enlightenment of the human race in the Old and New Testaments:

The Lord did not heal the blind man of Bethsaida immediately – He first healed him a little, and then completely, so that he began to see everything clearly. Why the Lord did this is known to Him alone. We can take from this the following thought: if it was considered necessary to heal bodily vision gradually, then even more so is such gradualness indispensable in the enlightenment of the eyes of our mind. That is how it has been. During the period of the [Old Testament] patriarchs, Divinely revealed knowledge was not complicated. During the period under the law it became more complex and detailed. In our Christian period, it is even more detailed and exalted; but is this the end? Do not expect anything higher on the earth, but in the other world there will be [something higher]. Two Holy Apostles assure us of this: Sts. John and Paul. “Now we see everything through a glass, darkly (I Cor. 13:12),” but then we will see everything clearly. But even there, there will be degrees of enlightenment of the mind, for the realm of the knowledge of God is boundless. God’s revelation on earth is already complete; there is no point in dreaming about something higher. We have everything we need; learn it and live by it. Christian revelation does not promise new revelation in the future, but only that the Gospel will be known in the whole world, and that this universality and generality of the knowledge of the Gospel is the limit of the current order of things. After this, faith will weaken, love will dry up, life will become difficult – and God’s goodness will put an end to the world. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 279

There is a lot for thought here, but three main points are as follows:

1. After the original knowledge of God in Paradise had been lost to man through sin, the Lord gradually, patiently revealed Himself to the human race, not in spectacular announcements to entire populations, but to a few people, His chosen ones before the Law (the patriarchs) and after the Law (the prophets and holy ones of the Old Israel). When He deemed the time was right, He Himself came in the flesh He took from the Virgin, and this is the complete and perfect revelation of Who God is: the God-Man Jesus Christ. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, it was not to give a new revelation, but to enlighten the minds of the Apostles to understand what they had already received.

2. Through the Apostles and the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, we have been given everything we need to know – in the Orthodox Faith.   No new revelations are needed, and none will be given, and we could spend all our lifetimes studying the Faith that has already been revealed and only scratch the surface.   All “new revelations” after the New Testament, such as the Koran and the Book of Mormon, are full of falsehood and deception, coming as they do from the Father of Lies. The true Fathers and Teachers of the Church never claimed to have a new revelation but rather only expounded on what they had received. All that remains is for us to live our Faith and to share it. When it has been shared to the extent possible – according to the foreknowledge and plan of God – God will put an end to this present, temporal order of things, for this world will have served its purpose.

3. In the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be unlimited and eternal progress in the knowledge of God.   God is not only infinite but also infinitely knowable, and He made our minds to know Him.   The nous, the mind, does not perish with death. Between the Particular Judgment and the General Resurrection, the souls of the saved will use their minds to know God more and more, and this will be all the more true after they will have received their immortal bodies at the Resurrection.   Eternity for the blessed will be – is – an infinite progression in the knowledge and love of God.

If we do not like to pray and to do spiritual reading, this is because our fallen nature and the demons fight it, in order to prevent our becoming who we really are and are supposed to become.   We must force ourselves to pray and to study our Faith, and by so doing we will attract God’s grace, by whose power alone we can acquire a steady appetite for spiritual things. If we do not acquire such an appetite before we die, heaven will be quite uninteresting for us – as a matter of fact, we will not want to go there. Think about it.

We are about to celebrate the Birth of Our Lord from the Holy Virgin.   Was she an automaton, a robotic tool of God’s purpose, as many Protestant sectarians seem to think?   Did God merely use her as if she were an uninvolved, indifferent bystander to His plan for the salvation of mankind, some random woman among any number of random women He could have seized upon? By no means – perish the blasphemy!   Quite the opposite is true, as St. Gregory Palamas makes clear in the following passage from his great Second Homily on the Entry of the Theotokos:

Who ever loved God more than she, whom we now extol? What other creature could ever be purer than she, or equal to her in purity, or anywhere near as pure? For this reason, she alone of all mankind throughout the ages was initiated into the highest mysteries by these divine visions, was united in this way with God, and became like Him. She then accomplished the super-human role of intercessor on our behalf, and brought it to perfection by herself, not just acquiring this indescribable exaltation of mind, but using it for the sake of us all, and doing this supremely great deed by means of her boldness towards God. For she did not merely come to resemble God, but she made God in the likeness of man, not just by persuading Him, but by conceiving Him without seed and bearing Him in a way past telling. Having been fashioned by God through grace – which is why she was addressed as “thou that art full of grace” by the Angel – she shaped God in human form – which is why she was given the good tidings with the greeting, “Rejoice” (Luke 1:28). – from Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas (Mount Thabor Publishing 2005), pp. 48-49.

In other words, Panagia was incomparably the greatest created person of prayer who ever was and ever will be, the greatest doer of hesychastic prayer. And she is also therefore the greatest theologian, for she used her created mind to the utmost, to do what the mind was made to do: to know God. Through her incomparable purity of soul and mind, she acquired the utmost boldness before God, and she interceded all-powerfully, invincibly, for the salvation of man. In response to this prayer, God came to save us, by becoming a man in her womb.

When we have no appetite for divine things, when we are sluggish and dull, uninterested in prayer and divine study, let us run to the Holy Virgin and beg her to ask her Divine Son to give us that divine eros, that burning desire to know and to love Him, which she possessed to the utmost. Let us push ourselves, as well – we have to do some of the work! – and the Lord, seeing our humble efforts, will graciously give us the divine desire to know Him, not only in His mighty works, but also in His infinite perfections – to love Him not only because of what He has done, but pre-eminently because of Who He Is, because He is worthy of all love.

This will be a fitting gift to the Christ-Child at this holy season!

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The gate of heaven, the door of the heart

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Friday of the 12th Week of Luke

In today’s Gospel, we read that Satan entered into Judas, and he decided to betray the Lord Jesus Christ:  

At that time Jesus was teaching in the temple; and at night he went out, and abode in the mount that is called the mount of Olives. And all the people came early in the morning to him in the temple, for to hear him.  Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people.  Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them.  And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.  And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.  Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed.  And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat. – Luke 21:37-22:8

St. Theophan the Recluse, in commenting on Judas’s betrayal, teaches us how not to become Judases ourselves:  we must watch constantly over the door of the mind and heart, and consistently repel bad thoughts:  

Satan entered into Judas, and taught him how to betray the Lord; he agreed, and betrayed Him. Satan entered because the door had been opened for him.  What is within us is always closed; the Lord Himself stands outside and knocks, that we might open it. What causes it to open? Sympathy, predisposition, and agreement.  If all of this is inclined in the direction of Satan, he enters.  If, on the contrary, it is inclined toward the Lord, then the Lord enters. If Satan enters, and not the Lord, the person himself is guilty.  If you do not allow thoughts pleasing to Satan, if you do not sympathize with them, or dispose yourself to their suggestions and agree to do them, Satan will come near, and then leave.  After all, he is not given authority over anyone. If he takes possession of anyone, it is because that person gives himself over in slavery to him.  The source of all evil is in one’s thoughts.  Do not allow bad thoughts, and you will forever close the door of your soul to Satan.  That bad thoughts come – what can you do?  No one in the world is without them, and there is no sin here.  Chase them away, and that will end everything.  If they come again, chase them away again – and so on for your entire life.  When you accept thoughts and become engaged in them, it is not surprising that sympathy for them appears as well; then they become even more persistent. After sympathy come bad intentions for some sort of bad deeds. Vague intentions define themselves later by an inclination toward one thing or another. Acceptance, agreement, and resoluteness set in, and now sin is within!   The door of the heart is opened wide.  As soon as agreement forms, Satan jumps in and begins to tyrannize.   Then the poor soul, like a slave or a pack animal, is driven and wearied into doing indecent things.  If it had not allowed bad thoughts, nothing of the sort would have happened.  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 275-276.   

We imagine the great events in history as dramas played out by people we have never met on a vast stage outside of ourselves:  Bloody battles, fateful decisions by famous rulers, stock market crashes, royal marriages and divorces, civil wars and revolutions, political assassinations, scientific discoveries, leaps in technology, and so forth.  Here, however, in today’s Gospel, we see that what is beyond measure the greatest event in history, whose effect on us eclipses that of all other events combined, from the beginning to the end of the world – that is, the world-saving, infinite Sacrifice of the God-Man for our salvation – comes about, on the human level, when an obscure and finite man gives in to a bad thought.   God, of course, turns this finite evil to infinite good in His divine Providence.   But, in the words of Christ Himself, it had been better for Judas had he never been born.  He has destroyed himself by allowing one evil thought – the envy of the goodness of Jesus – to capture his mind and darken his heart.  

St. Theophan provides a short primer on guarding ourselves from doing what Judas did.  He describes the stages of sin:  First, there is the thought, which is involuntary and is not a sin.  Sin ensues and gradually worsens when we engage the thought, then sympathize with it, then agree with it, and then do what the thought suggests.  Finally, one who keeps doing this becomes enslaved to evil habit and becomes helpless to resist temptation altogether, which is a foretaste of hell.  

What must we do to avoid this terrible fate?  Very simple:  as St. Theophan says, “Do not allow bad thoughts, and you will forever close the door of your soul to Satan.”   The real Christian life entails continuous warfare within the mind to resist every evil thought, even the slightest.  The Orthodox Church teaches its children how to do this, and the grace in the Church gives them the power so to do.   All the writings of the saints on the ascetic life keep getting back to this central point:  resist evil thoughts!   Keep your heart pure!   Do not sin for one moment even by engaging an evil thought to dispute with it; just drive it away.    

We cannot, of course, do this on our own; it is humanly impossible.   Only by the grace of Jesus Christ, and the power of His holy name, can we drive away the enemies at the gates ever fighting against us.   If we repeat His holy name – the name of Jesus – continually, and cry out to Him for aid, admitting our powerlessness, He will come and abide in us, and He will save us.  The soul that has Christ within will not fear death, and at the hour of death will joyfully leave the body and fly unhindered to its beloved Lord.   Here is what St. Hesychius of Jerusalem says:  

When after death the soul soars into the air to the gates of heaven, it will not be shamed by its enemies even there, if it has Christ with it and for it; but then, as now, it will boldly “speak with the enemies in the gate.”  So long as it does not grow weary of calling to Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, day and night till death itself, He will avenge it speedily, according to His true promise, given in the parable of the unjust judge: “I tell you that he will avenge them speedily” (Luke 18: 8) – both in this life and after leaving the body. – Texts on Sobriety and Prayer, No. 149, by St. Hesychius of Jerusalem. 

The door of the heart and the door of Paradise are the same door.  Our enemies wait at the gate of the heart to enter in, in this life, as they will wait at the gate of heaven, in the next life, to prevent our entry there.    Let us resolve never to abandon the Jesus Prayer, to make time daily for the Prayer at set times, even for a few minutes a day, when we are alone, and then to carry it with us through the day.   The holy name of Jesus has infinite, divine power, because it is the human name of the Incarnate God, and it conveys to us all the grace of God.  It cannot fail. 

“For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” – Romans 10:13

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not

9 December OS 2022 – The Conception of the Theotokos by St. Anna 

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Today we celebrate the conception of the Most Pure Virgin Theotokos in the womb of St. Anna, who by her husband St. Joachim conceived in great old age after a lifetime of barrenness, by the will of God.

The Gospel reading for today’s Feast is Luke 8: 16-21 –

The Lord said: No man, when he hath lighted a candle, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but setteth it on a candlestick, that they which enter in may see the light. For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad. Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for the press. And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.

These words of Our Lord apply most fittingly to His holy grandparents. Their virtues were hidden for many years before being made known – their prayer, their almsgiving, their fervent trust in God in the midst of their great sorrow – and they were derided by their neighbors for being childless, for many of the Jews (especially those who belonged to the sect of the Sadducees, which included the priestly and aristocratic classes) had no belief in eternal life, thinking that immortality meant only living on through one’s descendants and believing therefore also that childlessness meant that one was cursed by God.

The Lord in His great wisdom indicated two things through His miraculously giving St. Anna the ability to conceive by her husband in her old age: He indicated that the Holy Virgin so conceived was His elect vessel, chosen for a very specific role in the salvation of mankind, and He indicated that Ss. Joachim and Anna were not cursed but indeed blessed above all others before them, for their hope and courage were greatly rewarded, indeed rewarded beyond all expectation: they became the parents not simply of a saint but of the flower of the human race, of the human person who, in the expression of St. Gregory Palamas, stands at the boundary of the created and the uncreated realms, the Mother of God Incarnate, who is more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim.

We cannot compare our level of piety to that of Ss. Joachim and Anna. Their example, however, does give us hope, for often we feel that we labor for our salvation in isolation, and that no one understands us.   There are those who not only do not understand our Faith but also believe that we are bad somehow for practicing it!   When we try to help them by telling them the truth about God or morality or society or any other important topic, they may even hate us somehow for it, recalling St. Paul’s experience with the Galatians when trying to correct them: “Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? (Galatians 4:16).” But we must remember that their hatred should cause us not to hate them in return, but rather to grieve over them, for they are trapped by their fallen nature, fallen human society, and the fallen spirits. The degree of their anger reflects the corresponding degree of their misery.

Let us, therefore, pray to Ss. Joachim and Anna when we are experiencing spiritual loneliness, when no one, even perhaps our Orthodox brethren and relatives, seems to sympathize with our spiritual struggles.   The Lord sees, and the Lord will judge! “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest…” Let us only humble ourselves and be faithful, as they were faithful in their loneliness.

Also, let us all pray to our dear St. Anna that she will, in particular, intercede with her divine Grandson to send good spouses to our Orthodox young people.   It is so hard today to find the right person to marry, the person who will help us find our salvation!   St. Anna, pray to God for us!

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Serene faith

Wednesday of the 11th Week of St. Luke

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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. 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!

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Going to Jerusalem

Friday of the 8th Week of St. Luke

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The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 13: 31-35

At that time, the same day there came certain of the Pharisees, saying unto him, Get thee out, and depart hence: for Herod will kill thee. And he said unto them, Go ye, and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to day and to morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to day, and to morrow, and the day following: for it cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and verily I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until the time come when ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

The Pharisees imagined they could frighten the God-Man with the threat of Herod’s evil intentions, but they were mistaken.   He announces calmly that He knows that He will be killed, and that it will happen in Jerusalem, the city that always murdered the prophets.   He also announces that, until this happens, He will continue to “walk,” that is, to carry out His mission of teaching, preaching, healing, casting out devils, and raising the dead – His mission to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.   He is in complete control of the situation, and He is going to His voluntary Passion to fulfill the will of the Father, to fulfill God’s providential plan for our salvation from before the ages.

Today we may feel that matters are out of our control, involving both the Church’s situation and society in general, in many ways that affect our lives directly.  This chaos, however, is limited and temporary – a trial we must pass through, our Golgotha.   We must “set our face towards Jerusalem” as the Lord did (And it came to pass, when the time was come that He should be received up, He steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem – Luke 9:51) – we must voluntarily join ourselves to Him in His Passion.   And, as we resolve to endure whatever the Lord allows for our salvation, we must resolve with equal determination to go about our mission as well, to do the Lord’s work, the Church’s mission.

How does one acquire courage to carry on when the outlook is grim?   Here are three considerations:

Perspective – From God’s point of view – sub specie aeternitatis (from the perspective of eternity) – the entire history of this whole world, much less one’s lifetime, is the blink of an eye.   He is the King of the Ages, the Sovereign of History. All is unfolding according to His plan for our salvation, which He desires infinitely more than we do.   We have only to do our part in history; we have no responsibility for controlling history.   He will arrange everything for our true good.

Consolation in Prayer – When external circumstances are at their worst is precisely the time when consolation in prayer is greatest, if we are faithful to prayer and wholeheartedly resolve to grow closer to God in our trials.   Many Orthodox Christians who suffered in the communist hell of the 20th century testified that ultimately their time in prison, living in the utmost humiliation and deprivation, became the happiest time of their lives, precisely because it was at this time that they experienced what prayer really is and what a human being is really made for – most intimate union with the Lord, Who becomes everything to us when we have lost everything else.   We cannot conceive of the unspeakable consolation such people experienced…but we may have the opportunity to do so in future.   Let us begin now to deepen our life of prayer!  The next time we are anxious over the future course of events, let us turn to a favorite book on prayer and spiritual life that has motivated us in the past, rather than to this or that website to read the latest spin on the absurd epiphenomena of man’s vain strivings.

Love for Others – Typically fear for the future is mixed with self-pity.   Let us forget ourselves and act determinedly each day for the true good of those for whom we are in varying degrees responsible.   A man becomes a good soldier only when he counts his own life as nothing, when he thinks himself already a dead man.   Let us be good soldiers in the Church Militant, counting our lives as nothing, determined to lay down our lives for our friends, in order to practice that love than which there is no greater.   With this option clearly open to us, how can we say that our lives are out of control?

The duty is ours; the consequences are God’s.    Let us set our faces serenely to go to Jerusalem, and on the way, each day, seek simply to know and to do His will.

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Righteous art Thou in all that Thou hast done to us

Friday of the 5th Week of St. Luke

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The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Luke 10: 1-15.

At that time, the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come. Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you: And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment, than for you. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell.

St. Theophan the Recluse comments on the ultimate fate of those who reject the apostolic preaching:

In the next world, will there be such condescension toward those who do not accept the Lord as He showed toward those living on the earth?   No, there will not be. Sending the Seventy to preach, the Lord commanded them that when they were not received, they should say in the streets: “Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding, be ye sure of this, that the Kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.” That is, we do not need anything of yours. It is not with self-interest that we walk and preach, but to proclaim peace and the Kingdom of God unto you. If you do not want to receive this blessing, then let it be as you wish – we will go on. Thus it was commanded for the present time; but how will it be in the future? “It will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city.”  Therefore, unbelievers have nothing to give them hope of the Lord’s lenience. While on the earth they take their liberties, but as soon as death comes, the entire storm of God’s wrath will come down upon them. It would be a great misfortune to be as the unbelievers!   They do not even have joy on the earth, because without God and the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer, even here everything is dismal and dreary. As to what will happen there, it is impossible to describe it in words or to imagine it. It would be more tolerable to be destroyed, but even that will not be given to them. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 234

Thoughts like these are very difficult for us.   It is terrible, unthinkable, that people we love – relatives, friends, even spouses and children – would be condemned for their lack of faith in Christ.   On the other hand, the alternative is even more unthinkable – that the words of Christ are not true. For if these hard words of His about the necessity of Faith and the reality of His Judgment are not true, why should any of His words be true? And if He is not the Truth, nothing and no one is, and there is no truth. And if there is no truth, life is not worth living.

The only way out of the painful state of mind caused by juxtaposing these two alternatives is complete humility and surrender to the will of God.   We have to “commit ourselves, one another, and all our life to Christ our God.” The knowledge of Who He is, the conviction that we have a Creator and a Redeemer, is by itself the source of limitless joy, a never-failing fountain of happiness for every moment of the day, if only we thought about it.   Clinging to Him, walking the narrow path with Him and to Him – for He is our constant companion on the very road to Himself – should occupy all of our mental energy for spiritual matters.  Why waste energy and risk getting lost by wandering off the path to indulge in theological speculation about the fate of the faithless?   They have a Creator and Redeemer, Who knows them better than we do and Who loves them better, as well.   Let Him take care of it.

We certainly can pray for God’s mercy for those who have died outside the Church: make a list, read their names every day, and say, “O Lord have mercy on them!”   You can also say the Trisagion Prayers and the psalms for their souls –  especially Pss. 90, 50, and 118.  Say the Prayer of Jesus on the prayer rope, and offer a certain number of prayer ropes for their salvation.  Make prostrations for them.  Give alms in their memory.  

In regards to those among the living whom we deeply desire to convert to the Orthodox Faith, again:  pray for them every day – make a list, read their names, and say, “O Lord have mercy on them!”   You can also say the Trisagion Prayers and the psalms for them.  Say the Prayer of Jesus on the prayer rope, and offer x number of prayer ropes for their salvation.  Make prostrations for them.  Give alms for their sake.  

When you are actively engaged in helping the departed by prayer and in helping the living to find their salvation, all of these speculations about the justice of God in condemning those outside the Church, etc, fall away – we are too busy for that.   We have to do our job, and that is helping others not be condemned. This, and – which is more essential – paying attention to the state of our own souls,  should occupy our minds sufficiently until we draw our own last breath. And we should never give up: as the great American philosopher Yogi Berra reminds us, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Let us cast away all of our logismoi – our dark, troubled, and confused thoughts – and let us cast ourselves into the abyss of God’s inscrutable wisdom and absolute love for mankind.   His peace, which the world cannot give, shall envelope us, calm our troubled minds, and give us the courage to confess our Faith, share it with others if they want it, and persevere to the end.

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