III Lent Wednesday – Esaias

For the Lord Hath Spoken

The Lenten Readings from Esaias 

III Lent Wednesday – Esaias 10: 12-20

Listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/episode/iii-lent-wednesday-esaias-10-12-20–59276785

Thus saith the Lord:  And it shall come to pass, when the Lord shall have finished doing all things on Mount Sion and Jerusalem, that I will visit upon the proud heart, even upon the ruler of the Assyrians, and upon the boastful haughtiness of his eyes. 13 For he said, I will act in strength, and in the wisdom of my understanding I will remove the boundaries of nations, and will spoil their strength. 14 And I will shake the inhabited cities: and I will take with my hand all the world as a nest: and I will even take them as eggs that have been left; and there is none that shall escape me, or contradict me. 15 Shall the axe glorify itself without him that hews with it? or shall the saw lift up itself without him that uses it, as if one should lift a rod or staff? but it shall not be so; 16 but the Lord of hosts shall send dishonour upon thine honour, and burning fire shall be kindled upon thy glory. 17 And the light of Israel shall be for a fire, and he shall sanctify him with burning fire, and it shall devour the wood as grass. 18 In that day the mountains shall be consumed, and the hills, and the forests, and fire shall devour both soul and body: and he that flees shall be as one fleeing from burning flame. 19 And they that are left of them shall be a small number, and a child shall write them.  20 And it shall come to pass in that day that the remnant of Israel shall no more join themselves with, and the saved of Jacob shall no more trust in, them that injured them; but they shall trust in the Holy God of Israel, in truth. 

In commenting on verse 17, “And the light of Israel shall be for a fire,” St. Ambrose teaches us that here the holy prophet Esaias speaks of the Holy Spirit Who will be revealed to the apostles in the form of tongues of fire at Pentecost:  

And Esaias shows that the Holy Spirit is not only light but also fire, saying, “And the light of Israel shall be for a fire.”  So the prophets called Him [the Holy Spirit] a burning fire, because in those three points we see more intensely the majesty of the Godhead; since to sanctify is of the Godhead, to illuminate is the property of fire and light, and the Godhead is customarily pointed out or seen in the appearance of fire: “For our God is a consuming fire,” as Moses said [Deuteronomy 4:24; also see Hebrews 12: 29].   –St. Ambrose of Milan, On the Holy Spirit 

Once again we see how the Holy Fathers view the entire Old Testament as a vast ensemble of prophecies which will be fulfilled not only in the economy of the Incarnate Word, Our Lord Jesus Christ, but also in all of the other great mysteries revealed in the New Testament, including, as we see here, the revelation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit.  

St. Ambrose here reminds us that the power of the Holy Spirit is understood as both fire and light.  The fire of the Godhead consumes what is impure in us, and His light then illuminates both our discursive and spiritual intellects.   

Our stricter fasting during Great Lent is designed to allow the fire of the Godhead to cleanse us of the passions, while our increased prayer and spiritual reading then allow His light to illumine our purified minds.     We need both:  Prayer and study without ascetical discipline lead to delusion, for it takes fasting and prostrations to remind us that we are mere dust and ashes, and therefore to humble our minds to perceive things – both divine and human – as they really are.    But without prayer and study, ascetical discipline leads to self-satisfaction on the one hand, when we succeed in our discipline,  or gloominess on the other hand, when we fail.  One demon is driven out by fasting, but seven more worse than he will occupy the soul if she is not filled with the fragrance of the knowledge of God brought through prayer and reading. 

O All-Holy Spirit, cleanse us of our sins and passions, and enlighten our minds with the knowledge of Christ and the joy of our salvation.  Amen. 

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III Lent Wednesday

The Beginning of Wisdom 

The Lenten Readings from Proverbs 

III Lent Wednesday – Proverbs 9: 12 – 18 

Listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/episode/wednesday-of-the-third-week-of-great-lent–59276405

My son: If thou be wise for thyself, thou shalt also be wise for thy neighbours; and if thou shouldest prove wicked, thou alone wilt bear the evil. He that stays himself upon falsehoods, attempts to rule the winds, and the same will pursue birds in their flight: for he has forsaken the ways of his own vineyard, and he has caused the axles of his own husbandry to go astray; and he goes through a dry desert, and a land appointed to drought, and he gathers barrenness with his hands. 13 A foolish and bold woman, who knows not modesty, comes to want a morsel. 14 She sits at the doors of her house, on a seat openly in the streets, 15 calling to passers by, and to those that are going right on their ways; 16 saying, Whoso is most senseless of you, let him turn aside to me; and I exhort those that want prudence, saying, 17 Take and enjoy secret bread, and the sweet water of theft. 18 But he knows that mighty men die by her, and he falls in with a snare of hell. But hasten away, delay not in the place, neither fix thine eye upon her: for thus shalt thou go through strange water; but do thou abstain from strange water, and drink not of a strange fountain, that thou mayest live long, and years of life may be added to thee. 

This is one of several passages occurring throughout Proverbs in which the sacred author warns his reader against the allurements of the loose woman who would entice him into the illicit pleasures of fornication.   Here she is depicted sitting on the street outside her house, offering the sweet poison of her secret bread and stolen water to those who are senseless enough to partake.  St. Augustine, who, after St. Mary of Egypt, is probably the Church’s best known convert from a life of carnal sin, states that he fell initially because he was outside his own house, the house of the soul:  

I came upon the brazen woman, empty of prudence, who, in Solomon’s obscure parable, sits on a seat at the door outside her house and says, “Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”  This woman seduced me, because she found my soul outside its own door, dwelling externally in the eye of my flesh and ruminating within myself on such food as I had swallowed through my physical senses. – Confessions 3.6.11 

The Christian who would guard himself from sin must dwell within, in the interior life of the soul, through constant prayer and watchfulness.   This has always been the case, of course, but today we have to practice a degree of militant watchfulness surpassing that of our fathers, because the allurements of sin not only confront us in society, where we are surrounded by sinful men and women – although this is certainly still the case – but they also stare us in the face continually through the electronic media that have become the daily mental universe of a critical mass of the world’s population.  

I would like to recommend two books:  one is theoretical, and one is practical.   In The New Media Epidemic, Jean-Claude Larchet examines the problem from an Orthodox patristic perspective, in order to help the reader understand how disastrous the whole thing is in relation to the life of the soul and the struggle for salvation.   In Digital Minimalism, the secular author Cal Newport lays out a practical program for getting one’s media addiction under control.     

We must act, and we must act now.  Today is the day of salvation. Tomorrow may never come. 

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III Lent Monday

The Beginning of Wisdom 

The Lenten Readings from Proverbs 

III Lent Monday – Proverbs 8: 1 – 21 

You can listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/episode/monday-of-the-third-week-of-great-lent–59246724

My son: 1 Thou shalt proclaim wisdom, that understanding may be obedient to thee. 2 For she is on lofty eminences, and stands in the midst of the ways. 3 For she sits by the gates of princes, and sings in the entrances, saying, 4 You, O men, I exhort; and utter my voice to the sons of men. 5 O ye simple, understand subtlety, and ye that are untaught, imbibe knowledge. 6 Hearken to me; for I will speak solemn truths; and will produce right sayings from my lips. 7 For my throat shall meditate truth; and false lips are an abomination before me. 8 All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing in them wrong or perverse. 9 They are all evident to those that understand, and right to those that find knowledge. 10 Receive instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than tried gold. 11 For wisdom is better than precious stones; and no valuable substance is of equal worth with it.  12 I wisdom have dwelt with counsel and knowledge, and I have called upon understanding. 13 The fear of the Lord hates unrighteousness, and insolence, and pride, and the ways of wicked men; and I hate the perverse ways of bad men. 14 Counsel and safety are mine; prudence is mine, and strength is mine. 15 By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. 16 By me nobles become great, and monarchs by me rule over the earth. 17 I love those that love me; and they that seek me shall find me.  18 Wealth and glory belong to me; yea, abundant possessions and righteousness. 19 It is better to have my fruit than to have gold and precious stones; and my produce is better than choice silver. 20 I walk in ways of righteousness, and am conversant with the paths of judgement; 21 that I may divide substance to them that love me, and may fill their treasures with good things. If I declare to you the things that daily happen, I will remember also to recount the things of old. 

St. Bede the Venerable, in commenting on verse 15, “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice,” writes as follows: 

“Those whom it calls ‘kings’ are the apostles and other saints, like the lawmakers and authors of both Testaments and the subsequent writers of the Church.  They have learned first how to rule themselves, and then the Church that was put under their care.  Those whom it calls ‘princes’ are governors and other powerful leaders of the faithful.   But none of these would have anything were it not through wisdom, for He says, ‘without Me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).” – Commentary on Proverbs. 

Here is a twofold lesson for all who have authority over others, a lesson we have all heard before and constantly forget:  “They have first learned how to rule themselves…”   and “…none of these would have anything were it not through wisdom…” and wisdom, of course, is Jesus Christ, whom St. Paul calls the Wisdom and Power of God (I Corinthians 1: 24).  (St. Bede expresses the latter theological truth neatly here, by making “wisdom” the antecedent for the pronoun He -meaning Jesus – in the last sentence of the quotation above).  

Whether as a husband dealing with a disobedient wife or a parent with a recalcitrant child or a priest with an erring parishioner, or a teacher with an obtuse student, or a supervisor with a troublesome employee – nearly all of us have had occasion to despair of being able effectively to rule someone over whom we have been given authority.  The first impulse of one’s fallen nature is, of course, to blame one’s subordinate and curse his dullness and self-will.   He may in fact be dull and self-willed, but that recognition on our part doesn’t get us anywhere.   And the further bad news is that, most of the time, we cannot be relieved of dealing with this person any time soon, or even unto the grave.  We have to keep trying, and in such a way that we do not compound the subordinate’s sin of disobedience with our own sins of anger, condemnation, impatience, and self-righteousness.  As usual, however, the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers give us sound advice in dealing with what often is, humanly speaking, an intractable situation:   We have to rule ourselves,  and we have to beg for wisdom from Wisdom Himself, Our Lord Jesus Christ.  

So there is a kind of spiritual jujitsu here:  When faced with stubborn disobedience or uncomprehending non-cooperation of a seemingly impossible kind, we should first make a strategic withdrawal before returning to the attack.   Here are three steps:  

First, to prepare a good confession, asking our Guardian Angel to reveal to us any hidden passions or unconfessed sins that may be impeding our spiritual power to exercise authority in a godly fashion.  We then go to confession with our father confessor, and the grace that is in the Church will cleanse us of our sins and passions. 

Second, to fall down before the icon of Christ, the Wisdom and Power of God, admit to Him that we have no wisdom of our own, tell Him in our own words, in childlike fashion, of this seemingly impossible situation, and ask Him for words of wisdom to give our erring subordinate.  

Third, when we return to the fray:  Prior to the next encounter with That Difficult Person, to say the prayer “O Heavenly King,” asking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and then, saying the Jesus Prayer continually within ourselves, to engage the erring one with whatever words we may receive from above, submitting the outcome to the judgment of God.    

Often the immediate problem will be solved.   If it is not, and your sufferings continue, you will have acquired peace and patience to deal with them, always keeping in mind the real purpose of all successes and all failures in this life:  your eternal salvation.    

O long-suffering Lord, Thou only true wisdom, so patient with our unwisdom and stubborn self-will, enlighten us by the prayers of the apostles and saints, whom Thou hast truly made princes over all the earth (Ps. 44: 16).  

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III Lent Tuesday

The Beginning of Wisdom 

The Lenten Readings from Proverbs 

III Lent Tuesday – Proverbs 8:32 – 9:11 

You can listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/episode/tuesday-of-the-third-week-of-great-lent–59245657

My son: Now then, hear me: blessed is the man who shall hearken to me, and the mortal who shall keep my ways; 34 watching daily at my doors, waiting at the posts of my entrances. 35 For my outgoings are the outgoings of life, and in them is prepared favour from the Lord. 36 But they that sin against me act wickedly against their own souls: and they that hate me love death.  9:1 Wisdom has built a house for herself, and set up seven pillars. 2 She has killed her beasts; she has mingled her wine in a bowl, and prepared her table. 3 She has sent forth her servants, calling with a loud proclamation to the feast, saying, 4 Whoso is foolish, let him turn aside to me: and to them that want understanding she says, 5 Come, eat of my bread, and drink wine which I have mingled for you.  6 Leave folly, that ye may reign for ever; and seek wisdom, and improve understanding by knowledge. 7 He that reproves evil men shall get dishonour to himself; and he that rebukes an ungodly man shall disgrace himself. 8 Rebuke not evil men, lest they should hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee. 9 Give an opportunity to a wise man, and he will be wiser: instruct a just man, and he will receive more instruction. 10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the counsel of saints is understanding: for to know the law is the character of a sound mind. 11 For in this way thou shalt live long, and years of thy life shall be added to thee. 

Verses 9:1-11 are familiar to everyone who attends Vespers or Vigils faithfully, for they constitute the third Old Testament reading at Vespers for the feasts of the Holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary.   The reading foretells the Mother of God’s part in the economy of the Incarnation of the Word by prophesying that the Logos of God would build a house for Himself – i.e., the human nature which He hypostatically united to His divinity – by taking flesh from the Virgin.    (The fact that the inspired writer speaks of the Wisdom of God as “she” does not mean that the Wisdom of God is feminine; the use of the feminine here is a poetic device, not an ontological assertion, contrary to the teaching of the ridiculous 20th century heresy called “Sophianism.”  St. Paul tells us plainly in I Corinthians 1: 24 that it is Christ, the Incarnate Word, Who is the wisdom and power of God.) 

Thus the image of the house in our reading today refers to Our Lord’s human nature. Now, what do the seven pillars mean? Some of the Holy Fathers, including St. John Chrysostom, say that the image of the seven pillars refers to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated in Esaias 11:2:  Wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, piety, and the fear of God.  Others say that the seven pillars are the holy churches of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church spread throughout the world.  Here, for example, is what St. Gregory the Dialogist (the Great, pope of Rome) says about this: 

We may also not inappropriately interpret “the pillars of heaven” as the churches themselves.  Being many in number, they constitute one catholic church spread over the whole face of the earth.  So, too, the apostle John writes to the seven churches [in the Book of Revelation], meaning to denote the one catholic church replenished with the Spirit of sevenfold grace, and we know that Solomon said of the Lord, “Wisdom has built her a house; she has hewn out her seven pillars.”  And to make known that it was of the seven churches he had spoken, which sedulously introduced the very sacraments themselves also, he says, “She has killed her sacrifices, she has mingled her wine, she has also set forth her table.”Moralia on Job 4.17.43

The “sacrifices,” then, of our reading today, are a prophecy of the Holy Mysteries of the Church.   St. Bede the Venerable writes that the expression “mingled her wine in a bowl” refers to the wine mixed with water that becomes the Blood of Christ in the Mystery of Holy Communion.  The mixing of wine with water signifies the union of the Lord’s divinity with His sacred humanity: 

By divine eloquence, the nature of his divinity and humanity conjoined in Christ’s one person is expressed through this bread and mixed wine, as was said above. …the mystery through which we are satiated at the table of his altar is clearly shown in the bread of his body and in the mixed wine of his most holy blood. – Commentary on Proverbs 

One might add that the writings of the Holy Fathers, such as these, are also a spiritual banquet, laid out for our sake graciously by the divine Wisdom, a banquet that never fails to delight us and nourish our hungry souls. 

It is good to be Orthodox. 

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I Lent Friday at the Sixth Hour – Esaias 3: 1 – 14

3:1 Behold now, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, will take away from Jerusalem and from Judea the mighty man and mighty woman, the strength of bread, and the strength of water, 2 the great and mighty man, the warrior and the judge, and the prophet, and the counsellor, and the elder, 3 the captain of fifty also, and the honourable counsellor, and the wise artificer, and the intelligent hearer. 4 And I will make youths their princes, and mockers shall have dominion over them. 5 And the people shall fall, man upon man, and every man upon his neighbor: the child shall insult the elder man, and the base the honourable. 6 For a man shall lay hold of his brother, as one of his father’s household, saying, Thou hast raiment, be thou our ruler, and let my meat be under thee. 7 And he shall answer in that day, and say, I will not be thy ruler; for I have no bread in my house, nor raiment: I will not be the ruler of this people. 8 For Jerusalem is ruined, and Judea has fallen, and their tongues have spoken with iniquity, disobedient as they are towards the Lord. 9 Wherefore now their glory has been brought low, and the shame of their countenance has withstood them, and they have proclaimed their sin as Sodom, and made it manifest. 10 Woe to their soul, for they have devised an evil counsel against themselves, saying against themselves, Let us take away the just one, for he is burdensome to us: therefore shall they eat the fruits of their works. 11 Woe to the transgressor! evils shall happen to him according to the works of his hands. 12 O my people, your exactors strip you, and extortioners rule over you: O my people, they that pronounce you blessed lead you astray, and pervert the path of your feet. 13 But now the Lord will stand up for judgement, and will enter into judgement with his people. 14 The Lord himself shall enter into judgement with the elders of the people, and with their rulers: but why have ye set my vineyard on fire, and why is the spoil of the poor in your houses? 15 Why do ye wrong my people, and shame the face of the poor? 

St. Justin Martyr (+ ca. 165), one of our earliest great apologists for the Christian faith, once engaged in a lively discussion with a Jewish acquaintance who, like Justin, was a trained philosopher as well as a student of the Scriptures.  We possess a transcript of their debate under the title The Dialogue with Trypho.  At one point, St. Justin quotes from today’s reading from Esaias to bring home to Trypho the enormity of the sin of Old Israel in rejecting their Savior:  

The climax of your sin is that you hate the righteous one whom you killed, as well as those who by his grace are godly, righteous, and loving.  It is for this reason that the Lord said, “Woe to their soul, for they have devised an evil counsel against themselves, saying against themselves, ‘Let us take away the just one, for he is burdensome to us.’ ”  Although you did not offer a sacrifice to Baal, like your ancestors, and did not offer cakes in groves and on hills to the heavenly army, you did not accept the Lord’s Christ.  Whoever does not know Christ does not know the will of God.  Whoever rejects and hates him obviously rejects and hates the one that sent him.  Whoever does not have faith in him does not believe the words of the prophets who preached his good news and proclaimed him to all people. Dialogue with Trypho, 136.  

As often occurs in the writings of the Holy Fathers when they explain the meaning of the Scriptures to us, St. Justin’s words give us a theological lesson and a practical lesson as well.   The theological lesson has several main points, which include the following:  

1.  The prophet’s words about the Just One refer to Christ, the Just One Who was “burdensome” to the corrupt leadership of the Old Testament Church, and therefore they “took Him away,” that is, they caused his unjust execution by the secondary agency of the Roman government.  We shall see frequent prophecies of Our Lord’s Passion in the book of St. Esaias, so precise and so detailed that their exact fulfillment in the Gospel Passion narratives is breathtaking. 

2.  That Trypho and his contemporary fellow religionists had repented of the backsliding ways of their Israelite ancestors and were currently not performing pagan sacrifices but were loyal to the Law of Moses was not sufficient for their salvation.   The prophesied Messiah had indeed come and fulfilled the Law; they had to accept Him as their Savior if they wished to be saved.  

3. This principle does not apply only to the Jews, though it applies first of all to them, since “salvation is from the Jews” (Our Lord’s words to the Samaritan Woman in John 4).  It applies to the whole human race, for all of mankind is called to believe in Christ:  St. Justin says, “Whoever rejects and hates him [Christ] rejects and hates the one who sent him.”   In His discourse at the Mystical Supper, Our Lord Himself said as much:  “Whoever hates me, hates my Father also.”  God wills that “…all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2: 4).” 

4. The correct understanding of the prophets can be known only through Christ, who is the only true, exact, and complete exegesis – explanation, revelation, declaration – of who the Father is. (see John 1: 18: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”  The word translated as “declared” is in Greek exegesato – from which we get the technical term “exegesis,” meaning a learned explanation of a text).  

A practical application of St. Justin’s words to our own lives is this:   When we are having doubts about our faith or lagging in our zeal for the faith, we don’t need – probably don’t want – to run to scholarly explanations and intellectual arguments.  We simply need to be confronted, once again, with Who Christ Is.    The simplest way to do this is to open the Gospel, start reading slowly and aloud, with the struggle for attention, and keep reading until the words of the Gospel, which are imbued with self-acting, infinite divine power, will once again captivate us, and once again Christ will stand before us in all His infinite glory, His infinite beauty, and His infinite love, and He will demand of us, “Who do you say that I am?”  With St. Peter,  we will no doubt reply without hesitation: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  

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The only life worth living

You can listen to an audio podcast of this post at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/theophanyeve

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: http://ibmgs.org/lives.html,  and a good short collection of his known sayings from St. Herman Press – Volume I of their “Little Russian Philokalia” series – here: https://www.sainthermanmonastery.com/product-p/lrp1.htm . 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 orthodoxinfo.com –  http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

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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