Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What Makes Things Beautiful?

When we think of beautiful places we tend to think of a seaside beach, a mountain peak, a high waterfall, a beautiful flower, a beautiful home, a beautiful city and so forth. But what is beauty?  Jesus lived in a beautiful place, the city of Capernaum on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, a large lake in Israel through which flows the Jordan River. Did Jesus choose this place to live because of this beauty? Probably not.  Jesus was not like those who admire natural beauty alone and who almost deify it. Jesus was attracted more to moral beauty than natural beauty. The natural beauty that we enjoy is not so significant when compared with the beauty of a person worthy of the name human. An ancient philosopher said "What a beautiful being a human is when he is human."

Bishop Augustinos of Florina in Greece writes,
There are very beautiful homes, mansions, and buildings. We see them and are awestruck; but what good are they if they are inhabited by families who, by the misdeeds of their members and by their quarreling and feuding, have turned them into pits of hell. Then again, there are huts, contrary to their humble external appearance, contain miniature paradises inside––poor but Christian families whose members have the love of Christ. There are beautiful cities, delights to the eyes, built according to all the laws of architectural design, but what good are they? In today's beautiful cities dwell human animals more vicious than the ones in the African jungle. St. Chrysostom observes that cities are made beautiful not by their buildings, but by the people living in them. Are the people superior in thought and sentiment? Do they love God and do good for their community? If so,then the city is a beautiful and good place in which to live. If, however the city's people are not as God wants them to be––if they live in violation of the commandments of moral law, both in private and in public, then the city, according to St. Chrysostom, cannot be called beautiful; rather it is a city that provokes God's abomination and the disgust of those who think and feel in a godly way.
Jesus was in Capernaum because it was a beautiful city in a moral sense. You would have thought He would have chosen Jerusalem, a place with beautiful buildings and the great Temple, a place where there were people with political power, men of wealth and great philosophers, as the place to launch His new kingdom. While Jerusalem was a beautiful city in a physical sense, in its great buildings lived people like Anna, Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate. In the great Temple were corrupt clergy who offered sacrifices turning the temple into a market place, a den of thieves. In Galilee on the shores of the lake were cities that were quite different. They contained poor, humble, hard working people who lived by the sweat on their brows. There were farmers, shepherds and fishermen. It was these humble and simple people who first heard the sermons of the Incarnate Logos.

So what is beauty? What do you think is beautiful?  If you only think of physical things or places you need to think deeper. To you what is ugly may in realty be the greatest beauty. What kind of parish do you participate in? Do people like it because of the beautiful building, the glorious paintings inside, the melodious voice of the Choir or the the priest. A beautiful parish is one where there is harmony among the members, where they struggle together in love and respect for each other, helping each other when needed. It is a community where God is supreme in their thoughts.  When the parish council meets they first discuss the moral nature of their community and how to help it grow to live more congruently with the teaching of Christ.

How about your own family. Are you known for the beauty of your house and its possessions, or for the way each member behaves in relation to others?  Do they radiate the teachings of Christ in their actions? When the family gathers for meals is there a common prayer? In the evening is there a collective prayer giving thanks to God and seeking forgiveness for the mistakes of that day?

To understand beauty think about these things. Think of beauty in a moral and spiritual sense instead of a physical sense. We can of course appreciate the wonder and beauty of God's creation, but this is only of benefit if it leads to our love of Him and our desire to carry out His commandments.  In this way we become beautiful people.

Remember always we have been created in the image of God. We have the perfect beauty within each of us. Our life is about bringing this potential within each us to shine through all our actions. We live a full life of repentance for we know how imperfect we are, yet know the mercy of our loving God. We strive always to better our actions by seeking His help. We do this through our prayer, our watchfulness, and our participation in the sacramental life of the Church. In this way we find the greatest beauty of all, being perfected in the image of Christ.

Reference: Follow Me by Bishop Augoustinos of Florina, pp 3-9

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Can Your Political Views Undermine your Spiritual Growth?

Do you find yourself arguing with the television set, being angered by Facebook political postings, or stupid comments from your friends?  Well consider the following two findings from social research.
1. "Americans cited "hearing about what the government or politicians are doing" as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling." (survey conducted by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio.)
2. "Partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”" (from Yale law school professor Dan Kahan’s research  paper is called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.”)
Apparently when we harbor fixed political beliefs we do not act rationally when we hear talk from others that goes against what we believe.  We will deny facts that are against our beliefs. The bottom line is that we are easily subject to unnecessary stress if we let ourselves engage in such political drama.

The answer is simple, avoid all forms of such dialogue and you will find you will have a more peaceful and loving life.  You will not be so angry, negative, or offensive to others. For most of us one simple action we can take is to not watch cable news.  These channels play to our fears and stroke our latent political beliefs. They pick stories that will arouse our worst instincts and therefore draw your loyal viewship so they can attract advertisers to sell you products and make more profits. They understand how our minds really work (or don't work) and use this knowledge to make greater profits.

What is the spiritual angle here? Spiritually, when we are aroused by anger and feel stress we are separated from God. The solution our Church Fathers tell us is to become watchful about what we let enter into our heart. Our sinful tendencies come from the thoughts that enter our minds and we choose to engage with them. Once we engage these thoughts we are led to some kind of action. The source of sin is thoughts.

The skill to stop such a chain of events is called watchfulness. This requires a well disciplined mind and God's grace which comes from regular prayer. Whenever we sincerely call on the name of Jesus we have the power to ignore thoughts and instead direct our attention to God and what He wills for us.

The challenge for a life lived according to God's will is developing a life of continual prayer so we will always have God on our mind. We need to be able to at any time stop and say, "Lord have mercy", or to recite the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father..."

Fr Dimitru Staniloae tells us: "Guarding thought... consists of a continual reciting of the name of God in the mind... nothing but a concentrated uninterrupted prayer..."
This is the meaning of Saint Paul's teaching on unceasing prayer.
Pray without ceasing...test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1Thess 5:17, 21,22)  Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer... (Romans 12: 9,12)
I have found that the most powerful way to develop this discipline is by following the practices of the Orthodox Church, especially the practices of the Jesus Prayer and regular fasting.

Make a simple choice. Turn off all the political talk shows and news programs that stimulate your anger and stress about political affairs. Instead take this time to engage in prayer each and every day. Learn about the practice of the Jesus Prayer. Try it for three months, reciting "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," over and over for twenty minutes each day. Begin to follow the prescribed fasts of the Church, including the Wednesday and Friday fasts, and read the daily Scripture readings that you can have sent to you via email from the Archdiocese Department of Internet Services.

If you do, you will find you will be on a path to spiritual renewal and you will begin to seek for a spiritual father for further guidance.

We are all free to hold whatever political views we choose. That is not the issue being addressed. God loves Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Independents. We are also free to have whatever religious views we chose. If we claim to be Orthodox Christians, we must be careful not to let our political beliefs override our rational thought process and undermine our peace of mind and heart. We must remain free of anger and stress so we are able to hear God's will and act with His love and our love for our neighbors. Watchfulness, prayer and fasting can help us develop the ideal of continual prayer that Saint Paul asks of us and bring us peace and love.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Gaining Humility in a Busy and Competitive World?

Jesus told His disciples,  ‘Learn from my example, because I am meek and humble in heart and your souls will find rest’ (Matth. 11, 29)
As Christians we are called to become like Christ, meek and humble, learning from His example.  But what does our society teach us? Speaking personally, growing up I learned the opposite of humility. I was taught to be proud, to strive to be better than others in school, to win over others in individual sports, to rely on my own intelligence and will.  I entered the business world in a large corporation and quickly learned that you needed to look better than others to be promoted and to earn the better jobs. I succeeded, but there were times when the stress was so high that I had to take tranquilizers to calm my nerves.  My mind was always occupied with thoughts about how to survive in this competitive world. I was consumed by trying to be "successful." I aways feared that my livelihood and even my being might be threatened if I did not perform well.  I was seen as very successful and had to maintain it.

After I had achieved the senior management position at a young age as a vice president of a major Fourtune 500 US corporation, it dawned on me that there had to be more in this world than such worlly success. Once I had the title that represented success, that title no longer had any meaning. I didn't know what was missing, but I began seeking in different way. I was an Orthodox convert by marriage but the church at that time taught in Greek and the services were almost all Greek. I was uplifted when I attended services but did not learn how to deal with the inner conflict I was experiencing.

Elder Joseph tells us the following
Î’lessed and favored people who are humble are meek, calm, serene, attached to virtue, opposed to evil, untroubled by any circumstance or threat. They live in the bosom of the faith, like infants in the maternal embrace of grace. They never live for themselves, because they’ve forgotten what that is.  
This is what I was missing, humility.  I was proud of my pride.  I believed that what I accomplished was all do to my own will. If I failed it would also be by my own doing.  But I knew there were so many extraneous factors in business success that I had no control over and many people worked for me or  with me to accomplish what we did. I carried a large burden. My superiors put the success of my organization on me and I knew they would blame me for any failure. The reality was that I was not really in control of all the factors of the success they sought. Up to now I had been lucky by the circumstances of my success.

How could I become humble and still compete in the corporate world? I definitely desired calmness, wanted to be virtuous and untroubled by circumstances or threats. But I feared I might lose my success.

Elder Joseph says,
Humility penetrates and is penetrated, it doesn’t fear, doesn’t question, doesn’t seek and therefore doesn’t move.  
It wasn't until many years later after leaving the corporate world that I began to understand what humility was and how difficult it is to attain. I was fortunate to have left this environment.

Elder Joseph says,
According to the Fathers, humility is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not merely a human accomplishment. It’s given to those who desire it, seek it and work painstakingly on the things which contribute to the successful acquisition of this blessing. 
This is a key insight. Humility is a gift of God. It's not something we can gain on our own. We must desire it and nurture it, but it is only through God's grace that we gain this Christ like state. So how do we do this?

Elder Joseph tells us,
Those who desire to be worthy of the gift of humility should know that the greatest contributory factor in this is recognition of the passionate state into which all the passions have brought us after the Fall, as well as the noxious consequences of a sinful life. 
The answer is so simple: Repentance. This is the first thing Jesus taught when He entered into His public ministry. We must come to terms with our brokenness, the sickness of our soul, and embrace the true nature of our condition, surrendering ourselves to be held in His arms to help us and guide us. 

After 70 years of life, this is still a challenge. My growth in this direction has taken many small steps and I realize that I am a long way from this ideal.  Lately, I have found great benefit from a wise and holy spiritual father who has planted thoughts that lead me and observations that I must deal with. But I now listen to every word he utters and do not question it like I used to do. Uncovering our sinfulness requires that we believe that we are broken and are therefore desire to receive thoughts and suggestions that will help us deal with our fallen condition. We become joyful when we gain new insights about our condition. We are thankful for any help we receive. We cannot see this as weakness but a necessity for our well being, a true gift of God. 

In addition to having a spiritual father whom your trust, I have found great value in the practice of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." This prayer instantly reminds you of your need for God's mercy and your sinfulness. It also penetrates your mind in a way that brings calmness in any situation when you are able to call on this simple but powerful prayer.

I would like to hear from you about how you have dealt with this issue in our competitive society. 

Reference: Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi-On Humility and the Humble Outlook

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Impossible Dream?

I am not one who pays much attention to dreams, but the other day my wife related to me a dream she had. It is not normal that she would even share one of her dreams with me. I found it to be most profound. Here is the dream in a nutshell. She is engaged in a game that involves a series of obstacles that are impossible to overcome. No one can win the game. Those involved are continually being killed off. 

What can this mean?

For me, I immediately saw this dream as an analogy for earthly life. We are born into a world where we are faced with unending obstacles. We overcome one obstacle only to be faced by another. There is no way of winning. At the end we all die. A sobering thought.

I asked her what she did in this dream and she said, "I woke up." Isn't it also true that we say we "wake up" when we realize the true nature of our life on earth? When we realize that in the end we cannot win and we will die? When we seek for something more than the pleasures of this world and begin to seek a relationship with God?

I then asked her what she did after she woke up and she said, "I immediately began saying the Jesus prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.' This comforted me and I went back to sleep." This too is an important lesson. She called on God for mercy and was comforted. 

This is what we must all learn to do. It is only in the Kingdom to come, God's Kingdom, that we can have hope for eternal life. All the obstacles of this worldly life are only trials to prepare us for this eternal future lived in harmony with God. When we are able to call on Him as we are engaged in our worldly life's struggles we will retain hope, be comforted and led to a greater realm. But first we must realize the impossible hope of "winning" through worldly pursuits. We can only "win" by keeping focused on God no matter what obstacle we are presented with.

Where is the pleasure in life which is unmixed with sorrow? Where the glory which on earth has stood firm and unchanged? All things are weaker than shadow, all more illusive than dreams; comes one fell stroke, and Death in turn, prevails over all these vanities. Wherefore in the Light, O Christ, of Your countenance, the sweetness of Your beauty, to him (her) whom You have chosen grant repose, for You are the Friend of Mankind. (from funeral service)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Elder Sergei of Vanves on Prayer

Prayer should not depend upon our mood or good will. If we are in a bad state, it's because we are filled with sin. Thus we need to repent. Every day, examine your conscience and repent. Force yourself to pray regularly every day. If you don't want to do that, then you need to repent of that. You must understand how necessary this is. Know that the devil lurks and waits to destroy your soul, and that you are always in danger. Prayer alone will give your soul the strength to resist. In order to acquire spiritual muscles, you have to go to the spiritual gym.

Prayer must not become a "ritual" in the bad sense of the term. If it has become this for us, we must repent.

Prayer must be absolutely regular. Just as water falls on a rock and bit by bit cuts into the rock, prayer will penetrate into your soul.

Through the Jesus Prayer, your mind should enter into your heat. Prayer allows us to understand the things in our heart.

The Jesus Prayer without humility is a disaster 

For more on Orthodox Prayer

Reference: Elder Sergei of Vanves: Life and Teachings,  pp 149 - 150

Monday, June 9, 2014

Flying High - Love

When you ascend high into the heavens in a physical way on an airplane and gaze out of the window from 40,000 feet above the surface of the earth, you cannot help but be drawn to the awesome nature of God. Having gone through the normal hassle of boarding a crowded flight in a small island airport in Greece, I sat by the window of the plane and watched the normal sights disappear. As we took off piercing the clouds, a new dimension emerged. I could no longer see the steep inclines that moments earlier had strained my legs as I walked the narrow streets of Pyrgos, Santorini. Soon, the vast expanse of the Adriatic Sea was all I could see. Then, as we encountered an area with a vast layer of clouds, there was nothing but the endless varied formation of clouds covering the earth below. Staring out the window I could only think of God. I picked up a book I had brought and here is what I read:
While still a child I would pray for those who gave me offense. I used to pray, "O Lord, lay not sins on them because of me." But though I loved praying, I did not escape sin. Still, The Lord remembered not my sins, and gave me to love people, and my soul longs for the whole world to be saved and dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, and see the glory of The Lord, and delight in the love of God.  
I judge by my own case: if The Lord so loved me, it must mean that He loves all sinners in the same measure as He loves me. 
O love of God, no power can describe it, for it is immeasurably great and wonderful.
These are the profound words of St Silouan the Athonite. His words of love filled my heart and made me reflect on the simple truth he expresses in these few sentences. How can we have hate for our brothers and sisters of this world when we know how God loves us? Truly, God loves all His creation, each and every person, just as He loves us. 

Flying high above the earth the differences that we so great when on the ground disappear. Even the mountains are barely distinguishable. When I think of God and my own sinfulness I see that from His perspective even my own defects disappear and are forgiven out of His Love. 

This view from 40,000 feet in the air is the way we need to view our brethren. We err when we focus on their failings and are not able to see the image of God in each of us.

Let us remember always how deficient we are and how much God loves us. Like Him we need to love in the same way. This is the way to peace in the world, to peace in our city or parish, and harmony in our family.

We are about to descend into the busy airport in London. I will soon see if can hold on to this view of Love.

Reference: St Silouan the Athonite, by Archimandrite Sophrony,  pp 270-271

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Simple Life?

Elder Paisios says,
"The more people distance themselves from natural, simple life and embrace luxury, the more they suffer from anxiety."
Sitting here on the patio of an historical home on the edge of the cauldera in Santorini Greece, I was reflecting on the many blessings I have received over the years including an abundance of luxury. I have never been forced to live in poverty and spent most of my life distanced from a simple life.  But, in my mature years, I have continually desired a life lived more simply in harmony with nature. I can relate to what Elder Paisios is saying.

At one point I was part of a small group that decided to change our way of life, to live simply and purposefully in harmony with nature and spirit. The idea was to live off the land, self-sufficiently and sustainably. We created an organic garden, used solar panels for our power, used wood to heat our homes, and made minimal use of power equipment. We did not have a tractor and did all the gardening by hand. We built our homes using the lumber cut from the trees on the property. It was a simple life lived close to nature.

The Elder Paisios further says,
"People try to calm themselves with tranquilizers or with the theories of yoga, and they neglect altogether the true serenity that comes when the soul is humble and God fills it with divine consolation."
I have also experienced this path to escape the anxieties of a materialistic worldly life. I was a user of tranquilizers in my early career and a participant in a meditation program that promised peace and harmony.

Neither of the above approaches satisfies the soul. When living purposefully in harmony with nature and spirit there was some relief from the anxiety of a city life but there were new forms of anxiety that replaced the old ones. Our attempt to live the purposeful life lasted only five years before it was abandoned as idealistic and an impractical way to live in our modern culture. It too was a worldly approach to life.

Elder Paisios says,
"When we see a person who has everything be stressed, anxious and sad, we must know that God is missing from his life. In the end, even wealth will make people suffer, because the material goods cannot really satisfy them. Theirs is a double affliction."
The anxiety we seek to be relieved from is caused by a spiritual sickness. We are separated from our creator, God. Our soul mourns and seeks to become reunited with God. We seek meaning from material things and worldly activities but they cannot satisfy what is lacking.

Joy and peace come from a realized relationship with a God, a personal relationship, one based on mutual love. How do we realize this? This is what I have found to be the Orthodox Christian way of life as taught but our Church Fathers based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and His disciples.

This is the aim of the Church, Christ's Body here on earth in this moment. While living at the intentional community designed to live in harmony with nature and spirit, I was given the insight to give up my own solutions to the angst I felt, and instead, surrender to Christ and His Church. I then had to seek and learn what the Church taught. Saint Theophan the Recluse in his book, Path to Salvation, provided the needed direction. I also had the silent guidance of my guardian angel encouraging me not to rationalize or debate what the saints of the Church taught, but to strive to understand what I could not yet fully understand. This was a new way of life for me as I had always thought that I had to figure it out for myself. I found I was my own judge of truth. This idea of surrender was not natural for me. At times it felt as if I was going back to the Middle Ages. But, I always felt a sense of comfort knowing this path was an ancient Tradition founded on the life and teaching of the only son of God, who was both fully God and fully Man.

The foundation of my path was the practice of the Jesus Prayer. I had learned passage meditation  much earlier, but I experienced the Jesus Prayer as much more beneficial because it was based on a personal relationship with God, in His name. It also led one to many of the benefits claimed by passage meditation. In an important way the Jesus Prayer was more.

The Church Fathers provide us with clear direction to live a life free from anxiety, taking each step in companionship with God. This does not promise a life free from struggle or difficulty, but one where all the trials and tribulations can be accompanied with the comfort of God at your side.

The ten principles of the Orthodox way of life provide all the fundamentals you need. This path begins with faith, a belief in the truth of the Gospel teachings, and Baptism and Chrismation. Follow this link  to explore these ten principles.