True greatness

Saturday of the 14th week of Matthew

In today’s Gospel, the Lord instructs his disciples concerning the humility and service that are the hallmarks of a true Christian:

Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted. – Matthew 23: 1-12

St. Theophan the Recluse comments, “As the Lord tells us, greatness is measured not by birth, not by power, not by the measure of abilities and resources, but by the ability to provide good for others.” Paradoxically, when we forget about ourselves and are concerned only to please God and to serve others, we become our true selves. This is true greatness: to become that which God intends one to be.  Usually this occurs in obscurity:  very few men who are great in the eyes of the world have saved their souls. 

One of the few movies to come out of Hollywood that inspire admiration for genuine virtue is A Man for All Seasons, which – to emphasize how much things have changed in the past 50 years – actually won the Academy Award for best picture in 1966. The playwright and screenplay writer, Robert Bolt, did not aim at portraying the protagonist, Sir Thomas More, as a Roman Catholic saint – Bolt was not a believer – but simply as a courageous man who had the integrity to suffer for his convictions.  And it is not only More’s final sacrifice that conveys the moral message of the play: Several scenes and dialogues that lead up to the final crisis provide a short dramatized catechism in fundamental human integrity. 

At one point early in the story More is concerned that his young admirer Richard Rich will lose his soul by pursuing fame and power at the king’s court, and he tries to save him from the temptations of high office by offering him a position as a teacher at a new school which More has helped to found.  Rich is disappointed, knowing that More – at the time a member of the king’s Privy Council and soon to be Chancellor of England – could instead help him to find a place at court. Their exchange ends like this: 

More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Rich: If I was, who would know it?

More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

“You; your pupils; your friends; God.”  In this age of instant pseudo-greatness via mass media, everyone wants to be a “star.”  Yet the reality is that truly great people are usually known only to God and a few others.  The exception is the few better-known saints, a handful out of all the saints who have lived. And how many people today even know about them?

How do we attain to this kind of greatness: the greatness of authentic charity and self-forgetfulness?   Let us begin by admitting that we often are not seeking God’s will but our own corrupt will.   Let us begin each day by praying, “O Lord, today let me do Thy holy will.”   Then we must admit that we do not see ourselves as we truly are. Let us pray, “O Lord, reveal to me my sins and failings; show me how ego-centric I really am.”   Let us practice self-forgetfulness through two great activities: gratitude to God and service to others. Ingratitude, the mark of an immature and selfish soul, leads inevitably to despondency, depression, and even despair.   Let us force ourselves to thank God constantly for all that He is, for all that He has done for us, and for every single circumstance of our lives, especially the unpleasant ones.   Let us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to what service we must render to others and how we should render it, beginning with our obvious duties according to our state of life, and proceeding to service to the Church and to those around us, as God reveals to us in prayer and the circumstances of life, and as our father confessor blesses us.  There have been great saints who have saved a multitude of souls, but usually the number of people we ordinary Christians can honestly help without losing our own souls will be very few, and we shall not have to search them out; they will find us.

The ultimate goal of every Christian is to dwell forever in the light of the Holy Trinity. Complete self-giving, self-emptying, is an essential characteristic of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in Their relations with each other; thus God is Charity.   If we desire to belong to God, we have to empty ourselves, too.  We have to forget ourselves.

What freedom:  to be forgotten by the world and even by one’s own self!   This is when real life begins.

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Flee the praise of men

Friday of the 14th week of Matthew

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And, behold, there cometh one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name; and when he saw him, he fell at his feet, And besought him greatly, saying, My little daughter lieth at the point of death: I pray thee, come and lay thy hands on her, that she may be healed; and she shall live. And Jesus went with him; and much people followed him, and thronged him. While he yet spake, there came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house certain which said, Thy daughter is dead: why troublest thou the Master any further? As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, he saith unto the ruler of the synagogue, Be not afraid, only believe. And he suffered no man to follow him, save Peter, and James, and John the brother of James. And he cometh to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and seeth the tumult, and them that wept and wailed greatly.  And when he was come in, he saith unto them, Why make ye this ado, and weep? the damsel is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. But when he had put them all out, he taketh the father and the mother of the damsel, and them that were with him, and entereth in where the damsel was lying. And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise. And straightway the damsel arose, and walked; for she was of the age of twelve years. And they were astonished with a great astonishment. And he charged them straitly that no man should know it; and commanded that something should be given her to eat. And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. – Mark 5:22-24, 5:35 – 6:1

“And he charged them straitly that no man should know it; and commanded that something should be given her to eat.”  Immediately after working this great miracle, the Lord  thinks of the child’s simple needs: give her something to eat.   He commands this simple thing just as He commanded her soul to return to her body.   For Him, both are equally easy.

Why did He tell the witnesses of this great wonder to tell no one what had happened? Obviously the word would get out: First century Galilee must have been a very small world, indeed. No doubt even the big people up in Jerusalem must have gotten word through the invisible gossip telegraph within the week. Of course, the Lord had His reasons: He always did and always does. He commanded silence regarding this miracle in order to give us an example of humility, that we should not seek the praise of men.

St. Theophan the Recluse comments as follows:

Having resurrected the daughter of Jairus, the Lord commanded her parents strictly, that no man should know it. Thus are we commanded: do not seek glory, and do not train your ear for human praise, even if your deeds are of such a nature that it is impossible to hide them. Do what the fear of God and your conscience urge you to do, and as to what people say, act as though it had never been said. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Yearp. 187

We may often ask ourselves why we do not feel more peaceful, why we feel agitated or anxious so much of the time.   One reason is that we are always unsure of the approval of other people: “What do they think about me? Do they really love me? Do they think well of me? Are they saying bad things about me?” and so forth.   Because of our vanity – our false image of ourselves based on our own delusions and the opinions of other people – we have a restless, ceaseless hunger for praise, for approval, for the pat on the back, for the assurance that “I’m OK, You’re OK.”   Life turns into the endless search for that perfect mutual admiration society of “friends” who approve of each other and look down on those outside the group.

Peace comes only when we put aside all such concerns and follow those two completely reliable guides to action mentioned by St. Theophan: the fear of God and conscience.   One of the Desert Fathers said that one will have no peace until one realizes that in all the universe there is only one’s soul standing before God.   If we walk always in His presence, what need have we of the praise of men?   If we were really conscious of His presence, and really understood Who He is, and who we are, we would flee praise like fire.

Let us then, daily and frequently, beg the Lord, “Deliver me from vanity! Let me seek Thine approval alone!”   The generous Lord, Who is waiting to give the truly good things to those who ask Him, will no doubt hear our prayer in good time, and He will deliver us from this passion of vanity.   The world will look much different then, and we will begin to understand things as they really are. Losing one’s illusions is like pulling out a rotten tooth: it hurts while it is going on, but there is great relief afterwards.

O Lord, deliver us from vanity and all delusion! Grant us to know ourselves as we really are, to be grateful to Thee, and desire to please Thee alone! Give us the peace which Thou alone can give, and which the world cannot take away! Amen.

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Renouncing Satan

Thursday of the 14th week of Matthew

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In today’s Gospel, the Lord casts a legion of demons out of the Gadarene demoniac.

And they came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes.  And when he was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, Who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains: Because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones. But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not. For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many. And he besought him much that he would not send them away out of the country. Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding. And all the devils besought him, saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea. And they that fed the swine fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that was done. And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid. And they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine. And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts. And when he was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed him that he might be with him. Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee. And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel. – Mark 5: 1-20

A legion in the Roman army numbered 6,000 men.   This man’s being possessed by a legion of demons means, therefore, that there were thousands of demons inside of him.  How could this be?   St. Theophan the Recluse explains:

“My name is Legion: for we are many (Mark 5:9).”  Spirits are bodiless, and therefore they do not fill or take up space like bodies.  This explains why it is physically possible for many spirits to reside in one person.  That it is possible morally for spirits to do this is understandable from their amorality or their absence of all moral principles.  That it is possible for people is understandable from their many-sided contact with the dark realm of the unclean powers, due to the way people’s souls are ordered.  But this only explains what is possible; the reality of demonic possession is subject to conditions which we do not have the ability to determine.  We can only say that spirits do not always enter in a visible way, and possession is not always demonstrated through the possessed person’s actions.  There is an unseen, hidden demonic possession.  There is also a power of spirits over minds, apart from the body, when the demons lead them wherever they wish, through the passions working in them.  People think that they are acting themselves, but they are actually the laughingstocks of unclean powers.  What can we do?  Be a true Christian, and no enemy power shall overcome you.    –  Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 186-187

Apart from the power of true Faith and Baptism, man has always been prey to his passions and to demonic influence working through his passions and sometimes even possessing him bodily.    During the long period of the Church’s direct or indirect influence on society, however, the demonic influence was kept in check.   Now, at the end of over 200 years of open apostasy by the formerly Christian nations, all the world is engulfed in a tide of demonism, and, humanly speaking, there is no end in sight.   We need not fear it, for we belong to Christ.  But we need to be vigilant and to take action.   We do not throw ourselves off a cliff and ask angels to catch us.

It is critical, indeed a matter of spiritual (and perhaps physical) life and death, to cut out demonic influences in our lives and the lives of those for whom we are responsible, chiefly our children.   It is not an exaggeration to say that demonic mental programming, either overt or hidden, pervades contemporary movies, television (including what is called “the news,” which is simply the propaganda of the anti-Christian elite), and video games in the form of hypnotically powerful imagery, words, and ritual actions.  That there may be innocent productions coming out today is a possibility – I hope a probability – but sifting through the pile of toxic waste to find something that will not kill you is a time-consuming and risky process.   Are there not better things to do with our time? If something is not obviously helpful or at least harmless, then just cut it out.

And what about the Internet?  Here I am, using it, to get this message across.  The answer is simple – use it as a tool, for a limited time each day, but do not live in it as an alternate universe.  If it gives you access to good things – good books, good articles, good videos – great!   Thank God we now have such access to many good things that were previously unavailable. But, as we all know, one has to practice enormous discipline and discernment.   Keep track of your time on the Internet for a few days:  How many hours did you spend on useless activity, when you could have been doing something else?   How many temptations arose?   If there were x number of obvious temptations, how many subliminal or unnoticed ones also entered your mind?   Who knows?  Be careful.  I suggest keeping an icon right there in front of you while you are on your “device” (of whatever kind), and always saying a prayer before you turn it on.   I have not yet seen a prayer in the Book of Needs for blessing computers and cellphones, but we certainly should have one that includes an explicit exorcism.   Someone should suggest to our Church authorities that they commission someone to compose it. 

As for children:  Children do not need and will be harmed, often permanently, by video games, television, the computer, and the smartphone.   Be strict.  You will save their minds.  They will probably have to use computers when they grow older, of course.   They can learn what they need to know to get started when they are teenagers, in about fifteen minutes.  If your children go to the government schools, or even private schools, that are replacing the book with the screen, take them out.   They are being programmed, not educated.

As for living inside one’s smartphone all day – this is psychic, not to mention spiritual, suicide.

The good news is that, apart from what our duties force us to, we simply do not need all this stuff.   There are precious and few hours in the day.   The time we do not have to spend at inescapable work demanding Internet use should be spent in wholesome activity:  prayer with the family, reading good books both spiritual and secular, singing good songs both spiritual and secular, taking walks, growing vegetables and taking care of animals, working around the house, and on and on.   There was a long list of good things our very recent ancestors spent their time on, that had nothing whatsoever to do with television, radio, video games, professional sports, social media, or the popular music industry.  Nearly all of these authentically human activities, in some form, are still available to us.   

The further and ultimate Good News is that we are not the hopeless, helpless slaves of this dystopian anti-Paradise, this prison of the mind, this mindless hive of contented monkey-descended sensualists, being constructed before our very eyes at this very moment in history by the visible and invisible rulers of the satanic world-state.   We are children of God, citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and members of the Body of Christ.   By Faith and Baptism, we have been freed forever from service to Satan, whom we renounced at Holy Baptism, along with “…all his works, all his service, and all his pride.”

“Alright, I agree with you,” you might be thinking.  “But what can I do?  I am already enmeshed in x, y, or z you have just described.”

I shall respond with what St. Theophan says above: “What can we do?  Be a true Christian, and no enemy power can overcome you.”  If we are really orthodox Christians (and not just “Orthodox Christians” as a brand name), and we live it, we will spend a lot of time in prayer, in good works for others, and useful occupations.    We will prefer to use our leisure time in wholesome reading and wholesome hobbies, or driving old ladies to the grocery store, or teaching a child to read, or visiting the sick, or helping a priest start a new mission, or teaching catechism at our parish, or starting a spiritual book discussion group for our friends…or…or – you know the list is endless.  If you do not have the strength to give up this or that, or to re-order your priorities, confess it with tears and do not justify it, and keep praying for the strength to change.  The Lord desires our conversion and salvation more than we do.

Do not overthink this and postpone getting started.  Make the Sign of the Cross and charge ahead.

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God and Caesar

Saturday of the Thirteenth Week of St. Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thy Kingdom come!”

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Beside ourselves

Wednesday of the 13th Week of Matthew

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In today’s Gospel, we see both the Lord’s friends and His enemies stating that He is possessed.

At that time, the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils. And he called them unto him, and said unto them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. No man can enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house. – Mark 3: 20-27

This passage reveals that during His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ had friends who were not His disciples.   They were simply His friends, the relatives and neighbors among whom He had lived during the time before His three-year mission for the salvation of the human race. Perhaps these friends were among the people who, in another place, the Evangelist records as saying, “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” or, in other words, “Is this not just another ordinary fellow like ourselves?” Their saying that “he is beside Himself” means, according to St. Theophylact, that they believed He was possessed with a demon.   Being His friends, though uncomprehending ones, they say this out of concern for His welfare. They think of Him as a victim of evil. Being His enemies, the scribes from Jerusalem say the same thing out of malice. They call Him a servant of evil.

Does not the same thing occur to us Orthodox Christians?   We have friends and relatives, both non-Orthodox and nominal Orthodox (or even those who claim to be pious!), who try to dissuade us from a Gospel mindset, an otherworldly life, because they believe that it is bad for us, something evil.   It interferes with having a “good life,” and being our friends they want us to have a “good life.”   They think that we are victims of evil. We have enemies who hate the Faith and claim that we are not mere victims but active servants of evil.   Which kind of person, one wonders, does the greater harm to us? Often, perhaps, it is our friends, because we are more inclined to listen to them.

Here is a rule of thumb you can count on: Most human beings – the overwhelming majority (99.9%?), including the overwhelming majority of baptized Orthodox – are, to a greater or lesser extent, in delusion (plani in Greek, prelest in Slavonic). Most are not seeing strange visions or doing obviously crazy things (though that sort of thing is certainly on the rise these days).  Most have garden-variety prelest; that is, they are fundamentally mistaken most of the time about what is really going on outside of them and inside of them.   This includes us. The difference between them and us (God willing there be a difference!), is that we know we are mistaken but we are working on it. We are crying out day and night, “O Lord, deliver me from delusion!”  We frequently repeat the favorite prayer of St. Gregory Palamas:  “O Lord, enlighten my darkness!” 

If we, who are Orthodox – and moreover trying to do something about our delusion – are nonetheless frequently mistaken about what is going on, what about all the other people out there? In other words, why should we listen to them?   I do not mean that they cannot teach us how to grow vegetables or drive a car or do algebra. I mean that they cannot give direction to our lives. They cannot advise us as to what it is all about. Let us not be swayed when they claim that we are out of our minds.   Of course we are, but we know the way back into our minds, and we are trying to go there.   They too are out of their minds, but they do not know the way back in, and they cannot show it to us.

O Lord, only Truth and only Way, deliver us from delusion, heal our fragmented minds and divided wills, and keep us on the straight path to Thee, Who art our only Life! Amen.

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Thy face, O Lord, do I seek; hide not Thy face

16 August OS – Afterfeast of the Dormition; Feast of the Icon of the Lord “Not Made by Hands”

Today, the sixteenth of August, we honor the Holy Mandylion, the icon “Not Made by Hands.” Here is the account of the icon’s origin taken from the Prologue from Ochrid:

     At the time when our Lord preached the Good News and healed every illness and infirmity of men, there lived in the city of Edessa on the shore of the Euphrates Prince Abgar who was completely infected with leprosy. He heard of Christ, the Healer of every pain and disease and sent an artist, Ananias, to Palestine with a letter to Christ in which he begged the Lord to come to Edessa and to cure him of leprosy. In the event that the Lord was unable to come, the prince ordered Ananias to portray His likeness and to bring it to him, believing that this likeness would be able to restore his health. The Lord answered that He was unable to come, for the time of His passion was approaching. He took a towel, wiped His face and, on the towel, His All-pure face was perfectly pictured. The Lord gave this towel to Ananias with the message that the prince will be healed by it, but not entirely, and later on, He would send him a messenger who would erase the remainder of his disease. Receiving the towel, Prince Abgar kissed it and the leprosy completely fell from his body but a little of it remained on his face. Later, the Apostle Thaddaeus, preaching the Gospel, came to Abgar and secretly healed and baptized him. The prince then destroyed the idols which stood before the gates of the city and above the gates he placed the towel with the likeness of Christ attached to wood, framed in a gold frame and adorned with pearls. Also, the prince wrote beneath the icon on the gates: “O Christ God, no one will be ashamed who hopes in You.” Later, one of Abgar’s great grandsons restored idolatry and the bishop of Edessa came by night and walled up that icon over the gates. Centuries then passed. During the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Persian King Chozroes attacked Edessa and the city was in great hardship. It happened that Eulabius, the Bishop of Edessa, had a vision of the All-Holy Theotokos who revealed to him the mystery of the sealed wall and the forgotten icon. The icon was discovered and, by its power, the Persian army was defeated.

This miraculous image undoubtedly served as the model for all subsequent icons of the sacred face of the Lord. Thus our iconographic tradition is based on an accurate image that Christ Himself gave us: this is what Jesus Christ looks like. This is the face of the God-Man.

When Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai, he asked to see God’s glory. Here is God’s answer:

And [Moses] said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory. And [God] said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock: And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen. – Exodus 33: 18-23

“…for there shall no man see me, and live.” “…but my face shall not be seen.”   In the Old Testament, a chosen few, such as Moses and Elias, were graced with seeing God indistinctly, His “back parts.” If they had encountered God directly, they would have been struck dead.   In the Gospel, we see a multitude of sinful men not only enabled to see God’s face, but to touch Him, to hear Him, to eat with Him and speak with Him. According to His human nature, they were even allowed to murder Him. What more can God do to show that He loves us?

Whenever our faith is weak, whenever the circumstances of life press upon us and we feel alone and helpless, whenever our spiritual life has become something theoretical and abstract, without inner warmth, without life-giving power: Let us go before the Icon of the Face of the Lord and read the Akathist to Our Lord Jesus Christ with attention.   Let us ask God Who became Incarnate for us to renew in us holy zeal and the desire to do His will.   “If you love Me,” says the Lord, “keep my commandments.” And what is the first commandment? “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart.”

Christ gave us this most accurate image of His Holy Face as a lasting pledge of His love for us. May it be a means of our growing in love for Him.

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Repent ye, and believe the Gospel

Monday of the Twelfth Week of St. Matthew

The reading from the Holy Gospel today is Mark 1: 9-15.

And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

Today we begin reading from the Gospel According to St. Mark, the shortest and most direct of the four Gospels.  (It is still the season of St. Matthew, because we are still reading from St. Matthew on Saturdays and Sundays, but during the week we have begun reading St. Mark.)

St. Mark, the disciple of St. Peter, wrote his Gospel for the Church at Rome, and the terse and concise character of this Gospel corresponds to the old Roman character: simple, direct, and to the point. Today, St. Mark briefly recounts the Lord’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and tells of the beginning of Christ’s preaching.  All in seven verses!

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

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

Reading the Gospel itself is the first step, and the Holy Spirit will grant us understanding if we ask for it. If we desire to take another step and study the Gospels as well as read them, we should use a patristic or patristically inspired commentary. Though the commentaries of the ancient Fathers are the most complete, most of us need something shorter, and the normative short commentary is the explanation of the Gospels by St. Theophylact of Ochrid. Formerly these were available in four volumes from Chrysostom Press in House Springs, Missouri, but now they are being distributed by St. Herman Press. Here is a link to the page on the St. Herman Press site:

The best guide to the Gospels by a recent author is the commentary by Archbishop Averky, available from Holy Trinity Monastery at Just reading a page every day from one or both of these commentaries will change us greatly for the good.

Fr. Seraphim Rose used to ask a question we should ask ourselves: “We know we are Orthodox, but are we Christians?” Of course, he did not mean that being Orthodox and being Christian are really two separate things: being Orthodox assumes being a Christian, and to be a Christian in the most accurate sense, to be in the Church, one must be Orthodox. He was using irony to make a point, that one can become fixated on discrete aspects of the Faith intended to help us live the Gospel while simultaneously disobeying the Gospel itself. If one’s mind is not immersed in the Gospel, and if one does not submit one’s will to the commandments of the Gospel, then the dogmas, canons, liturgical services, liturgical arts, domestic customs – the various manifestations of Church life – easily become idols, ends in themselves. Our understanding of them fragments, we alienate them from their true meaning and coherence in the light of the Gospel, and instead of using them as instruments for our salvation, we misunderstand and misuse them in such a way that their power – which is indeed great, whether to salvation or damnation – transforms us into Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees worship the liturgical cult and the clerical power structure. Pharisees worship the rules and the customs. Christians worship the Holy Trinity.

Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov writes in The Arena that God will judge us – both in the particular judgment after death and in the general judgment at the Second Coming – according to the commandments of the Gospel. This judgment determines our fate for all eternity. Let each of us hasten to make himself most intimate with this book by which he  shall be judged and daily compare to its demands the contents of that other book the Judge shall open on that Day, the book of each man’s heart. 

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Turning to the Lord once and for all

Wednesday of the Eleventh Week of Matthew

You can listen to an audio podcast of this post at

In the Gospel today, the Lord announces to the unbelieving Jews that God rejects them, because of their unbelief and hardness of heart despite all of His mercies to them:

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

St. Theophan the Recluse applies this example to our spiritual life: God gives us numerous opportunities to repent and form a firm intention to please Him, but at some point, unknown to us, there can be a final turning away from Him and the loss of His grace, if we stubbornly refuse His call:

How many mercies the Lord revealed to Jerusalem (that is, to the Jews)! And, in the end, He was still forced to say, “Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.” It is well known to all what the consequences of this were: the Jews are homeless to this day. [This was written in the 1880’s, long before the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel.] Does not a similar thing occur with the soul? The Lord cares for the soul and teaches it in every way. An obedient soul traverses the path indicated, but a disobedient soul remains in opposition to God’s calling. However, the Lord does not abandon even this soul, and uses every means to bring it to reason. If stubbornness increases, God’s influence increases. But there is a limit to everything. A soul becomes hardened, and the Lord, seeing that there is nothing more that can be done with this soul, abandons it to its fall, and it perishes like Pharaoh. Let anyone who is beset by passions learn from this the lesson that he cannot continue indulging himself indefinitely without punishment. Is it not time to abandon those passions – not just to deny oneself occasionally, but to decisively turn away? Indeed, no one can say when he will overstep the limit. Perhaps God’s long-suffering is just about to end.   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 170-171

Sobering words!   Some may object, however: “God’s mercy is without limits!   One can repent until death!” Of course it is absolutely true that God’s mercy is without limits, and, if a man come to his senses, and be in this life still, he can certainly repent. But note the condition: “…if a man come to his senses.” What St. Theophan is pointing out is that at some point before death a man may make a final turning away from God and never come back to his senses. God, for Whom there is no present, past, or future, and Who knows all things, withdraws His grace from such a person, knowing that he will never repent. This is what it means in Exodus when it says, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.”

We must, then, keep careful watch over the life of the soul and not take God’s long-suffering for granted. Criminal psychologists note that it is a mark of sociopaths that they have no gratitude whatsoever for the many times that others have forgiven their crimes, and they have no remorse. We can be sociopaths in regard to God, taking His mercy for granted and becoming hardened in heart.

Why does this occur?   Of course, there is the obvious explanation, that we cherish our sins and passions and do not want to give them up. But there is also another reason, that God is not real to us.  Even if we feel helpless to fight our sins, even if we feel what is, humanly speaking, an irresistible attraction to them, yet if we had a lively faith in God, and deeply desired to please Him while feeling at the same time that all of our hope is in Him and that without Him we can do nothing – then He would show His might and come to save us. Our enemies would vanish very quickly. But lively faith and the desire to please God arise from a living sense of His presence, that He is right here, close to us, that indeed He is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

How do we obtain this lively sense of His presence? We must go to Christ, our Incarnate God, a man like us in all things but sin, and pour out our hearts before Him. We must approach the mercy seat, His Cross, and throw ourselves entirely on His mercy. We must approach Him, cling to Him, and not let go until our hearts are softened, and we are set again on the path to salvation.

In his last testament to his spiritual children, the Elder Gabriel of Seven Lakes Monastery (+1915), gave very straightforward advice to those in spiritual trouble. What is remarkable is how simple are the actions that he recommends and yet what transcendent benefits he promises if one does them. I would like to reproduce this Testament in full, and I pray that those who read it will take it to heart. It is taken from pp. 234-235 of a book we should all read: The Love of God – the Life and Teachings of St. Gabriel of the Seven Lakes Monastery (St. Herman Press, 2016):

Elder Gabriel’s Testament to His Spiritual Children

            Soon, perhaps, I will die. I leave you an inheritance of great and inexhaustible riches. There is enough for everyone, only they must make profitable use of it and not doubt. Whoever is wise enough to make use of this inheritance will live without want.

OneWhen someone feels that he is a sinner, and can find no way out, let him shut himself alone in his cell and read the Canon and Akathist to Sweetest Jesus Christ, and his tears will be a comforting remedy for him.

TwoWhen someone finds himself amidst misfortunes of any kind, let him read the Supplicatory Canon to the Mother of God (“Distressed by many temptations…”), and all his misfortunes will pass without a trace, to the shame of those who assailed him.

ThreeWhen someone needs inner illumination of soul, let him read the Seventeenth Kathisma [i.e., Psalm 118] with attention, and his inner eyes will be opened. The need to bring what is written in it to realization will follow. The need to cleanse the conscience more frequently in Confession and to communicate of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ will arise. The virtue of compassion for others will be manifest, so that we will not scorn them but rather suffer for them and pray for them. Then, the inward fear of God will appear, in which the accomplishments of the Savior will be revealed to the inner eye of the soul – how He suffered for us and loved us. Grace-filled love for Him will appear with the power of the Holy Spirit, Who instructs us in every ascetic labor, teaching us how to accomplish them and endure. In our patience, we will perceive and sense in ourselves the coming of the Kingdom of God in His power, and we will reign together with the Lord and become holy.

            This world will not appear to us the way it is depicted to us now. However, we will not judge it, since Jesus Christ will judge it. But we will see the falsehood of the world and the sin that is in it. We will see righteousness too, but only in the Savior, and we will partake of it in Him alone.  

            Falsehood! We see it and yet we do not. False is this world with all its quickly passing deceptions, for all will pass away, never to return. But Christ’s truth shall endure unto the ages of ages. Amen.

                                                      – Schema-archimandrite Gabriel

By the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.  Amen. 

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The life within

Tuesday of the Eleventh Week of Matthew 

You can listen to an audio podcast of this post at

In today’s Gospel, the Lord reproves the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, whose entire religion is a calculated method of pretense before the eyes of men, while their souls are filthy  within.   

The Lord said, Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.  Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.  Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup ad platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.  Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men’s bones and of all uncleanness.  Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.  – Matthew 23: 23-28 

The Lord’s great diatribe against these pretended spiritual guides of the Old Testament Church contains, first of all, a theological meaning:  The revelation of the Gospel is the true interpretation of the Old Testament, and rabbinical Judaism, of which the Pharisees of the time of Christ are the originators, is not the religion of the Old Testament;  it is, rather, a clever distortion thereof, a system of outward conduct that  fosters the most profound disorder within the soul.   St. Theophan the Recluse, however, in his commentary on this passage, explains its practical meaning for the spiritual life of the Christian.  He applies the Lord’s words to us, in order to warn us of the dangers of a purely outward religious life and to encourage us to develop the interior life of the soul:  

Cleanse the inner so the outer will be clean.  Our outward behavior in society is almost always proper – we fear the judgment of people and restrain ourselves. If we give ourselves over to vices outwardly, this is the end – it means that all shame is lost. But when one’s visible behavior is proper, the inner tenor of thoughts and feelings is not always proper.  Here complete freedom is given to pleasing oneself, which is satisfied outwardly to the degree that the eyes of men can bear it and as far as it can hide its works from human sight.  This is precisely what a whited sepulcher is.  Furthermore, inner uncleanness makes what is on the outside unclean.  Cleanse yourself inwardly, and then the exterior will become clean, and you will be entirely clean.  You will be made into a vessel that is fit for all the good uses of a householder.  One must marvel at how the inside remains neglected; after all, no one wants perdition.  Truly,  the enemy keeps such a soul in blindness – [he says] that there is no problem as long as there are no obvious sins, or he teaches the souls to put off what is important until tomorrow.  “Tomorrow we’ll work seriously on ourselves, as we ought; but now let my soul take some pleasure in passionate thoughts and dreams, if not deeds.”  Let us be on our guard that we do not grow old in such a frame of mind, lest correction become impossible for us, like teaching an old man new things.  – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 170 

It is easy to compare our outward conduct to that of the clueless degenerates who now surround us and conclude that we are doing pretty well in the eyes of God.  In the midst of the present moral chaos, good old fashioned bourgeois respectability seems a miracle of divine intervention, and it probably is.   But we are called to higher things, and the Lord is not satisfied with us until we give Him our hearts.  

Years ago, I was struck by another, related passage from Theophan the Recluse, which I came across in the anthology entitled The Art of Prayer by Igumen Chariton of Valaam.  I repent of not putting it into practice vigorously and consistently, but now, as always, is the time to start.  The saint here teaches that the spiritual father should not wait until his spiritual children have shown regularity in outward prayer rules before teaching them about the interior life of the Jesus Prayer and constant inward attentiveness. Rather he should do this right away, both because the latter is more essential and because without it the former does not bear fruit. Worse, it actually hardens the soul against purity and holiness; it produces the soul of a Pharisee. Here is a section of that passage:  

Gather yourself together in the heart, and there practice secret meditation.  By this means, with the help of God’s grace, the spirit of zeal will be maintained in its true character – burning sometimes less and sometimes more brightly.  Secret meditation sets our feet on the path of inner prayer, which is the most direct road to salvation [emphasis mine].  We may leave all else and turn only to this work, and all will be well.  Conversely, if we fulfill all other duties and neglect this one task we shall bear no fruit. 

He who does not turn within and look to this spiritual task will make no progress.   It would be true to say that this task is extremely difficult, especially at the beginning, but on the other hand it is direct and fruitful in result.  A spiritual father should therefore introduce the practice of inner prayer among his spiritual children as early as possible, and confirm them in its use.  It is even possible to start them in this before any exterior observances, or together with them; in any case it is essential not to leave it until too late.  This is because the very seed of spiritual growth lies in this inner turning to God.  The Art of Prayer, 1997 ed. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, pp. 77-78

To begin is simple:  Set aside ten minutes a day to stand or kneel or sit, alone before your icons, and say the Prayer of Jesus, aloud but quietly, at a moderate pace, and struggle for attention.   As many times as your mind wanders, force it back to the words of the prayer.  Throughout the day, say the prayer mentally as much as possible.   At the end of the day, review your thoughts, words, and deeds of the day, ask God’s forgiveness for your failings, and then go to sleep saying the Jesus Prayer.  As soon as you wake up, start saying it again.   

Do not worry about how to proceed. Prayer teaches itself. If we are faithful, the Lord will give abundant grace, and He will come to dwell in our hearts.   

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us, and save us.  Amen.  

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The God of the living

Friday of the Tenth Week of St. Matthew

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

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

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

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

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

Pray earnestly, daily, for the Lord to reveal to us the extent of our own blindness and proud self-reliance. To motivate this prayer, read chapters two, three, and four of Unseen Warfare, an essential volume for your Orthodox bookshelf which you should acquire if you do not own it already. The early chapters on the absolute necessity of giving up self-reliance and placing all of our hope in God could be re-read with profit frequently throughout the year.                                                                                                                                          

Read and re-read our recent trustworthy Orthodox writers in order to make sense of the kaleidoscopically fragmenting and re-forming ecclesiastical landscape. For example, we should periodically re-read St. Philaret’s Sorrowful Epistles ( and, and Archbishop Averky’s writings on the present church situation (for example What you will find here, instead of the Newspeak, obfuscation, coldness, and threats of the new Sadducees of ecclesiastical officialness, is the simplicity, clarity, and life-giving warmth of evangelical love.

Remember death daily. Today or tomorrow you will face death and God’s judgment. So live with integrity today. Speak the truth, be not afraid. The Lord loves you and desires your salvation more than you do. But you have to be loyal, and you must not lie to yourself. 

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

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