Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming Watchful

Do you experience distractions when you try to pray? Do you ever wonder what is the cause of those actions you take that you wish you had not taken? Whether we are in prayer or involved in our daily activities we are misled by thoughts. To counteract this we need to learn the practice of Watchfulness.

What is watchfulness in our Orthodox tradition? It involves a continual guarding or the heart, the center of our soul, from all thoughts that lead us away from God. These thoughts are called "logismoi" in Greek. These are thoughts that mislead us or distract us in prayer. They are not like we normally think of thoughts, but are those that seem to come from nowhere. They are temptations intended to lead us astray. They are not the result of our rational process but come from outside us sent by the devil to lead us away from God.  They are not "our" thoughts. They are directed at "our" weaknesses, our passions, which lead us to sinful activity, away from God. When we sit down for prayer we intend to focus our full attention on God. But against our intention we are bombarded by thoughts that take us away from our prayer and concentration on God. They are coming from without with the intention of disrupting our prayer to keep us separated from God.

The Church Fathers describe differing ways how these work but in general they describe them beginning with an assault, a sneak attack. It may be a thought to get up and do something during prayer. It may be a thought to lash out in anger or to condemn another person. It may be a thought of envy or a desire to possess something that is not ours or we cannot afford. It could be any  number of things depending our our weaknesses.

After this initial assault then if we are not watchful we enter into a dialogue with this thought. We begin to consider how to respond as a result of this thought. This then is followed by a consent, we own the thought as our own and become prepared to act on it. This is when the sin is committed and we become a captive of the thought. 

After we respond to the thought, the next time a similar thought is encountered we are more likely to accept it as our own and respond. The temptation becomes stronger. We become a captive of the logismoi leading us to a bad habit that we call a passion.

If we are watchful what are we to do with these thoughts? IGNORE them! The church fathers tell us to simply ignore them. They are like flies that fly around and bother us. We need to brush them away. Watch them come and go without disturbing the mind. They will quickly disappear. We need to think of them as an unwanted salesman who knocks at our door. We do not let him in and do not have a dialogue with him. The same with these thoughts. Do not let them enter into your heart.

Since God demands our whole heart, mind and soul we need to be ever watchful of these temptation that come in the form of thoughts. They are not ours but sent to us to lead us away from God. So just like we are not obligated to let any stranger into our house, similarly we do not have to accept theses thoughts and let them into our minds or enter our heart. To become watchful we must seek God's help to develop this attentiveness and resistance. This is why it is so important for us to stand before God every morning and focus our full being towards Him and engage our mind in prayer focused on God alone.

In prayer we need to practice rejecting all thoughts and develop this mental discipline. To pray we must not be distracted by any worldly thoughts otherwise it is not prayer. To dialogue with God requires our full attention to Him alone.  One of the most powerful prayers is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." This is a complete prayer. The first part is a confession of faith in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The second is a supplication acknowledging our fallen nature, our weakness, our sinfulness and our need to God's mercy.

By repeating this prayer over and over as part of our prayer rule, we learn to concentrate only on the words. In doing this, the prayer becomes a habit and will be with us at all times. It will be there when we receive the tempting thoughts and will help us immediately drive them away. This is a prayer that with practice will be with you the entire day, even while you are working. It will lead you to a life where you act as of God's children. It will enable you to become watchful.

Remember what our purpose is in this life. We are preparing for our Heavenly life to come. We should always be looking forward to the end of our earthly life and think of ourselves as training for this future, our life with God in Heaven. The Jesus prayer is not like yoga or Transcendental Meditation. It is based of the reality of a living relationship with God, the God who revealed Himself to us in His Incarnation, the God who humbled Himself to take on human flesh, to become fully man while yet remaining fully God. He Showed us the Way to become united with Him. He was Crucified, arose to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven and opened the gates of Paradise for those who choose to follow Him. This is quite different from Eastern ascetic practices that are centered on oneself and seek a stillness that is identified with an impersonal absolute. As Christians, God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. We strive to become like Him and out of our love for Him enter into a ongoing dialog with Him. This leads us to a mind that is ever focused not on stillness or emptiness, but on actions that carry out His will, actions that are without sin actions based on love. We are created in His likeness and image and out of his love for us and our love for Him we are destined to be united with Him in eternal life. Watchfulness is key to us realizing our potential. The Jesus Prayer coupled with a life of repentance and participation in the sacramental life of the Church helps us gain the grace of God that enables us to become like Him.

For more on the Jesus prayer go to the website 

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacharias

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mystery of the Heart

When you read in Scripture, the Kingdom of God is within us (Lk 17:21), what does this mean to you? The Church Fathers refer to this place within also as the "Heart." It is in this place that God has fashioned that God abides so He can manifest Himself through each person. The role of the Church is to help us discover this deep place of the "Heart" that is also the center of our soul.

It is the place within where we wage a battle for our salvation. This is the target of all our ascetic efforts.  We want it to be made pure. Jesus has told us that the pure of Heart will see God. As we seek to become united with God, to overcome our sinfulness, we desire that our soul, its "Heart" be ignited by His grace.

Jesus told us, You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Matt 12:30) So, what does this mean? Saint Gregory Palamas says the heart is the body of our body, a place where our whole being becomes like a knot. When our mind and heart are united we have only one thought––the thought of God. All of our desire is focused on God. When we give our whole mind, our whole heart to God we are totally focused on Him. In this stance we receive His grace and are given the ability to do His will. In this way we attain what Apostle Paul meant when he said that Christ is formed in us (Gal 4:19).  We become whole and are perfected.

We can never wholly contain God in our heart as He is infinite, something greater than our heart. He makes it a dwelling place, a temple of His divinity reflecting His image in us. When our whole heart and mind are turned to God we become holy, enlightened, "the light of the world." It is in this way that God directs our life, fulfilling the purpose He has for us.

Reflect on the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told His disciple the following:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In this same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We want to purify our heart so that is shines, becomes a great light, enabling us to take action in the world in a way that glorifies God, that encourages others to purify their hearts and to seek God with their whole heart and mind and soul. In this way the whole world can become a great light.

What is it that keeps us from becoming this light that Jesus speaks about? Our reality is that we are not able to give our whole heart and mind to God but instead are distracted by our passions, our earthly desires. We are not living with a focus on the "Heart" but on the things of this created world siphoning our attention away from God. Because of our fallen nature we have within us also the tendency to sin. As Paul says, "all have sinned and  come short of the Glory of God." (Rom 3:23)

How are we to proceed? We must do as the prodigal son, recognize our condition and seek to return to our father's house which is within. We must uproot our sinful tendencies so that God's commandments will become alive in our heart instead of our passions and worldly desires.

This is a path of return that is difficult. There is only one way and that is to master our situation with God's help so we can follow the divine commandments. Archimandrite Zacharias writes, 
There is no greater misfortune than that of an insensible and verified heart that is unable to distinguish between the luminous Way of God's Providence and the gloomy confusion of the ways of the world."
Difficult, yes, but we know it is possible. We have an all powerful ally, God.  His aim is for our "Heart" to become His temple.  He says to us, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me? (Rev 3"20). When we knock and the  door is opened we discover the greatest of miracles. Our heart becomes united with the Holy Spirit. With an open "Heart" we can unify our mind with our heart and God will fill His Kingdom within us with His full goodness.

For this to happen God must first be able to converse with us. We must be capable of hearing Him and willing to surrender our will to His direction.  In this way God can become the sole focus of our life. We must learn to develop an intimate relationship with Him so we can have an ongoing dialogue with Him

What gets in the way? It's our pride, our self-centeredness. We fail to see the larger picture and see our death as the end of everything that gives us pleasure. We become fearful and sinful seeking to satisfy our own needs. We are stuck until we can come to terms with the reality of our situation, just like the prodigal son before he was able to return to his father. We must say what the he said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and am no more worthy to be called your son. (Luke 15:19-19) In this way we are humbled. We discover how poorly we live by His commandments, how distant we are from Him. We see clearly our self-centeredness, our selfishness and pride. We become sorry for our condition and seek His help to return. From this realization we are motivated to make changes in our attitude and orientation toward life and God. We begin a long journey of purification where we liberate our "Heart" from all the bodily passions. In cooperation with Grace we will finally be able to surrender our whole being to Him, to commit our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole soul to Him. We will discover the "Kingdom within."

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tests of Faith

Faith according to Scripture is something that is beyond belief. It involves a complete trust in the promises of Jesus Christ that are recorded in the Gospels. Such faith cannot be measured, but Pope Shenouda III has given us a list of ways we can test our faith.
1. Faith Expresses itself through love.
2. Faith is Demonstrated Through Deeds.
3. Examination of Faith Through the Purity of Heart.
4. Faith Is Tested Through The Power It Grants That All Things Are Possible.
5. Test Of Faith During Distresses.
6. Test Your Faith According To Some Commandments.
7. Test Your Faith In The Extent Of Caring About Your Eternity.
8. Test Your Faith In The Correctness Of Belief.
9. Test Your Faith With The Sound Qualities It Has.
1. Faith Expresses itself through Love
Saint Paul identifies the qualities of a sound faith based on love.  He writes:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
Use this list of attributes to evaluate your faith. In addition he adds:
And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1Cor 13:2)
Our capacity for love is one of the most basic tests of faith.

2. Faith is Demonstrated through Deeds
Our faith must show through our actions by doing the work of God.  Saint James says: I will show you my faith by my works (James 2:18). He also says that a dead faith cannot save anyone (James 2:14). Saint Paul echoes this when he writes, They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him (Titus 1:16). Saint John tells us that one who knows Him and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1John 2:4).

3. Examination of Faith Through Purity of Heart
If we love God based on our faith we will not sin for fear or erring in front of Him. With faith we will know that God sees, hears and records everything. As Saint John says, Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor knows Him. (1John 3:6)

4. Faith is Tested Through the Power It Grants that All Things are Possible

We must be able to say what Saint Paul has said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)  Jesus tells us, All things are possible to him who believes. (Mark 9:23) Despair is an indication of loss of faith. If we are continually influenced by external pressures of the current situation to commit sin we do not have faith.

5. Test of Faith during Distresses
If you have faith you will not be disturbed by all the trials and tribulations of this life. You will believe they are for the good, even though you may not understand why they occur. Saint James says, Count it a joy when you fall into various trials (James 2:1). Paul tells us, All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom 8:28). And Jesus says, All things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9:23).
With faith we place God between us and the trial. We call to remembrance the trials of all the saints and remember what happened to Moses, Joseph, David and Job with faith. We accept the trials thrown at us and are happy the Lord gave us these trials. The Apostles give us an excellent example when after being whipped it is recorded, So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts 5:41). 

6. Test the Faith According to Some Commandments
Our commitment to tithe is another indicator. If we are not doing so we may be attached to our material possessions, placing our faith in them instead of God. Our regular attendance at Sunday worship services is another test. With faith we look forward to our worship services and the opportunity to participate in the Sacraments. The nature of our daily prayer life is another way to evaluate our faith. With faith we pray daily guided by a prayer rule.  When praying with faith we are able to keep our mind from  wandering. Continual prayer throughout the day is a sign of a sound faith.

7. Test Your Faith in the Extent of Caring About Your Eternity
Jesus tells us,
Let your wast be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. (Lk 12:35-37)
Our primary orientation must be on preparing ourselves for eternity and our destiny in the world to come. If we find our primary orientation is on this world and being successful, then we will know that our faith is weak. If we are continually thinking about our every action as preparing for the life to come then we know our faith is growing.

8. Test Your Faith in the Correctness of Belief
We must make sure our beliefs are free of our own opinions.  It's essential to make sure we rely on the Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers so we know the correct beliefs. Otherwise, we may be believing in ourselves as God.

9. Test Your faith with the Sound Qualities it Has
Our faith must be consistent and practical. Our soul must always be filled with peace and without fear. Our faith must be a living faith and not intellectual or a periodic one. It must be continually nurtured and always growing.

Reference: Life in Fatih by Pope Shenouda III

Monday, November 24, 2014

What Weakens Faith?

Here are ten things that can weaken your faith from Life in Faith by Pope Shenouda:
  1. The Self
  2. Domination of the Senses
  3.Submitting Faith to the mind
  4. Associating with Doubting people
  5. Yielding and having a weak personality
  6. Fear
  7. Lust
  8. External circumstances
  9. The Devil's deceptions
10. Doubt
The Self: 
When I think of the self it seems natural to think about my own ability to assert my will for this or that. I sense that it is very strong and does not want to give up this ability easily.  It definitely protects itself and its freedom. Pope Shenouda says this part of us is the greatest hindrance to faith. Jesus affirms this when he told to his disciples, If anyone desire to come after Me, let him deny himself (Matt 16:24). He also says, He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it (Matt 10:39). Faith is based on a trust in God instead of our self. So each time I rely on my own reasoning without seeking help from God, I am denying my faith in Him, and saying that my intellect and my will are better than God's. I can see why my faith is weak as I reflect on this. My own will is very strong and not willing to give up much control. I can see how critical it is to deny oneself but it's not at all clear how I am to do this and place total reliance on God. Based on my experience it seems to b a gradual process.

Domination of the Senses:
Our senses are the main way we know the reality of this world. Our eyes are sensitive to a small band of wavelengths that our brain translates into images allowing us to make a vivid moving picture of worldly reality. We add to this our ears which are sensitive to another narrow band of wave movements in the air.  From this we discern different tones and can hear sounds when the air is disturbed. Our nose also picks up an narrow range of smells, or a sensation of different chemical particles that are in the air. And with our ability to touch and taste we pick up a few more clues about reality. How our brain takes all this input and creates something that we see as a complete picture and totally real is mystery even to scientists.  But we know there is much more to the reality of this world that we cannot pick up with our senses. We have developed instruments to aide us in learning that there are other wavelengths of radiation that we cannot see. With a certain kind of goggles or computers that translate these invisible wavelengths into visible ones, we can see what is not visible. Our senses are definitely limited and tend to make up the totality of what we believe to be real.
How does our reliance on our senses weaken our faith?  It constrains our knowledge of God's Creation to what we can pick up from our senses. Using these we are also blind to the entire spiritual realm. The Apostles had the advantage of being with God in flesh. Even so Saint Thomas could not believe in the Resurrection unless he used his senses to touch and see. But now we must believe without seeing, without using our senses. This demands faith in a reality that is beyond the ability of the senses to capture. If we rely only on our senses we will not know God in a way that affirms His presence and builds within us the faith we need to place our total trust in Him, to give up our self.

Submitting Faith to the Mind: 
Our minds are also very limited as are the efforts of science to understand things that are not available to our senses. If we limit ourselves to our senses only, or to our man made logic from our intellect, we will deny miracles as told in the Bible. We will deny the work of the Holy Spirit and God's grace. We will be limited to only what we can determine from our senses and our own rationale. We will be blind to the whole spiritual realm, limiting ourselves to what will fit a human logical system. With Faith coupled with a surrender of self we are able to open up a greater sense in our soul, to become exposed to a divine logic, to receive divine grace, where we can have in intimate relationship with God. In our Heart where He resides we can call on His grace, the Holy Spirit, that is not physical or measurable to work though us enabling us to become like Christ and do His will. The Church Fathers affirm that with faith and humility we can experience His energies which are very real, but are beyond the understanding of our mind. So to submit faith to our mind reduces it to a faith that is human centered and primarily based on physical attributes of reality. It becomes a self-centered faith.

Associating with Doubtful People: 
If we have a weak faith and we continue to associate with others who have doubts or even do not believe in a God, we will be influenced by them. Saint John tells us, If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (2John 1:10)  It makes sense to develop a circle of friends who have a strong faith and are striving to develop their faith like yourself.  This is the nature of the Church, the Ecclesia, the faithing community.

Yielding or Having a Weak Personality: 
I find there are many times when I have sat back and said nothing because I knew it might bring ridicule among those I was with. I was week and succumbed to man-pleasing behavior instead of one that was God-pleasing. I often find myself not able to stand strong like Paul and the other Apostles who were not afraid even to lose their life to speak their faith and I find myself sometimes worried about possible ridicule or rejection. We see in Scripture that even Mary Magdalene had a weak personality. She had been with Jesus and heard his teachings. But when she went to the tomb and saw it was empty she said, They have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2, 3, 13, 15). After being with Christ and being prepared by Him for this eventuality, she did not have faith in His Resurrection. She could only think that someone had taken His body and put it somewhere else. So we can see that this weakness is not uncommon and can be overcome as she later became a strong voice for the spread of Faith in Christ.

This is similar to the above item. We see that the Apostles before they received the Holy Spirit after Christ's Ascension on Pentecost, were very weak. They ran and hid at the time of the Crucifixion because they feared that they too might be subject to such cruel punishment. But later when they had developed a stronger faith, they had no fear of death, trusting totally in Christ. All except John faced a martyr's death standing firm in their faith. One who has a strong faith does not have such fear and his faith is strong enough that He relies on the promise of the life to come in Paradise.

Our earthly desires keep us attached to what is of this world. With them we do not want to give up our earthly pleasures to follow all His commandments.  James tells us, Whosoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God (James 4:4). And Jesus tells us, No one can serve two masters (Matt 6:24). I do not think this means we cannot enjoy the pleasures that God had provided for us in this world, but we cannot become attached to them. When we face death we will feel like they are being taken away from us and we will be more focused on trying to retain them rather than being born into a new world where we will find true joy in union with Him.

External Circumstances:
We can easily be overtaken by circumstances that are beyond our control. It cases such as a natural disaster we often forget to call on God for comfort and help, knowing that He is good and wants us to rejoined with Him. When the situation of our circumstance overwhelms us we can lose our focus on God and our faith.

Devil's Deceptions:
Especially in our dreams we can easily be deceived by the Devil. We are told in Scripture to be wary of dreams and false prophets. Jesus says, false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders (Matt 24:24). Jesus prepared His disciples for these deceptions He knew they would encounter. So too we must be attentive, watchful, for any thought that is leading us to a temptation to abandon God's teaching.

This is the method used by the devil. When he deceived our first parents in the Garden of Eden he planted doubt when he told Eve that God did not really tell them they would die. When we encounter doubts, which we surely will, we must remember that these come from the devil. We have to have a strong faith so we will not let them linger and lead us away from God.

Developing faith takes our concentrated effort. If we are aware of the above points we can avoid what will weaken our faith and work against our efforts to develop a deeper faith.

Next: Tests of Faith

Reference: Life in Fatih by Pope Shenouda III

Monday, November 17, 2014

How to Strengthen Faith

Most of us struggle with the question of faith. We often realize how weak our faith is when we are challenged with a death, serious illness or other difficulty. We know that faith is essential for us to enjoy the promise of a Christian faith in the Gospel, but how can we strengthen our faith? Pope Shenouda III in his book, Life of Faith, gives us some suggestions.

      1. Have confidence in God's qualities
      2. Have confidence in sincerity of God's promises
      3. Look to God and not your surrounding circumstances
      4. Read the stories of Faith
      5. Have humility of heart and mind
      6. Cultivate an experience with God
      7. See God in every matter
      8. Build a relationship with God
      9. Pray for a stronger faith.

Have confidence in God's qualities:
We must always remember that God is Love and a doer of Good. Tell yourself as Saint Paul says, All things work together for good to those who love God. (Rom 8:26) We must also remember that God is a good father who treats His children with tenderness and gives us all we need without asking. Also, we must remember always that God is all powerful and can do anything. Think about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the wonders He did for them. Finally we must believe that God's judgment is good and whatever he wills for us is for our benefit even if we can't understand it.

Have confidence in the Sincerity of God's promise
Think about the promises that God makes in Scripture. He promised Abraham he would have many descendants when he and his wife were childless in old age. He promised the Israelites their freedom from bondage in Egypt. He promised Elijah help in time of famine. And He promised He would send His Spirit to all the people.  All the things He promised He did. So have confidence in the hope of eternal life He has promised us. He told us, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matt 28:20)

Look to God and not to the surrounding circumstances
Think about the Israelites before they were to cross the Red Sea and how difficult was their circumstance. They were pursued by the Pharaoh's army and the sea blocked their escape. Moses said to them, Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which He will accomplish for you... the Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace. (Ex 14:13-14) God then parts the waters for them to escape and then allows the waters to submerge the pursuing army. Think about David as he faced Goliath. He trusted that the Lord would empower him to defeat Goliath. Like Moses, the Israelites fleeing from Egypt and David as he faced a unbeatable enemy, look to God when you face what seems like an insurmountable difficulty. Look above so that faith will enter into your heart in such times.

Consider the Stories in the Bible
Remember when Jesus told His followers in His Sermon on the Mount: Consider the lilies of the field... even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If He clothed the grass of the field like that, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matt 6:28-29) Have confidence that He will provide what you need with your cooperation with His grace.

Develop Humility of heart and mind

If you have humility you will not be stuck with a proud mind that thinks it knows everything and dosen't need God. One who has humility accepts all that comes from God with satisfaction. But one with a proud mind discusses, argues and discounts what does not please his own mind. We must accept that our mind is limited and that we cannot fully understand God an all His ways. He says, Give me O Lord the faith of children and not that of philosophers. (Lk 10:21)

Experience God

Do not stay trapped in the limits of your own mind. Try to live and rely on God, seeking Him regularly instead of relying solely on you own mind's view. Experience His love and power.

See God is all matters
Do not try and find a reason for everything without mentioning God. We now have great power derived from scientific exploration that it seems like we can know everything and do anything based on our own will. Do not be deluded by this scientific view. When a person is ill and is cured do not credit only the drug or doctor, but instead thank God that He healed the sick and used the hands of the doctor and the know how of the druggist. Relate every power, every miracle to God. Take time to also admire His work in nature. Look at the flower in your garden and do not analyze it, but reflect on the wonder of its Creator who gave such beauty to us for our enjoyment.

Build a relationship with God
When you have a daily dialogue with God through prayer you will find you can talk with Him without fear. When you accept His friendship and love you enter into a deeper faith. You will share all your secrets with Him and ask for His help often. With this loving relationship you will also want to make sure you do not disappoint Him and will be motivated out of your love for Him to follow His direction and all His teachings.

Pray that your faith will increase
Pope Shenouda III gives us this prayer:
Give me O Lord, that I believe in You with full faith. Give me that I love and have confidence in You in everything, and to believe that You do me benevolence even if the world is dark in front of me. Let me feel that my mind is much smaller than what is required to understand your wisdom and judgment. I know that You are a doer of benevolences, that You are living, that You see everything and that You are capable of doing everything, and in spite of that my faith often weakens, so help my weak faith.
For me who prays every day that the lord will strengthen my weak faith, the most important thing is to remember God in everything you do. Mastery of the Jesus prayer is most helpful in this regard. And always remember to thank God for each blessing you receive throughout the day. Do not wait until the end of the day, but make you daily life an ongoing dialogue with Him. Your life can become an ongoing prayer. See his power in all things. Seek His help and give Him thanks.

Next: What weakens faith

Reference: Life of Faith, Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church

Friday, November 7, 2014

What is Faith?

It is essential for a Christian to understand the true nature of faith as it is through faith that we are united with God. But what does faith mean?  Does it mean we that read the Creed and willfully accept what it says?  Or is it about something more than this?

Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church wrote a beautiful book titled Life of Faith. Reading this book a few years back I was moved to think about faith in a much deeper way.  I want to share with you some of his teaching and my learnings from them.

I used to say, "I have faith, I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God." But then I would have trouble with many passages in the Bible, miracles and the numerous stories of those of faith we also find there. Jesus says, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain "Move from here to there, and it will move." (Matt 17:20) As I understand it, faith of a mustard seed means that even the smallest amount of true faith can "move mountains."  I knew I did not have this kind of faith. I interpret the phrase to "move mountains" means that there is no limit to the powers that God can work through a person if one has faith. So faith must be something greater than believing, something much more than mentally affirming a belief in the Creed.

Jesus tells us that faith involves more than just having reverence for Him. He says, Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt7:21)  He also says faith means more than calling on His name. He says, Many will say to me that in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!" (Matt 7:22-23) From this we can say that the faith required is about knowing Him and trusting in Him to following His teaching.

Faith is beyond belief. It must be about a life based on a living relationship with God, one where you trust in Him totally, and do what He instructs you to do. Scripture gives us the example of Abraham who was tested by God asking him to take his son to be sacrificed. Abraham trusted totally in God, knowing that in such a sacrifice only good would come from it for him and his son. He was obedient based on a full faith. He had total trust in God.

Faith can be examined based on what we do, how well we follow what He has taught.  Evangelist John records, He who  says, "Know Him," and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. (1John 2:3-4). But we know that this means more than following a set of rules like the Ten Commandments.

How about the Apostles? How did they demonstrate their faith in God? When Jesus called James and John, sons of Zebedee they immediately left their boat and their father and followed Him. (Matt 4:22) They believed and had trust in Him so they harbored no fear of leaving their livelihood and even their father to follow Him. We also have the unending examples of the martyrs of the Church who willingly gave their lives without fear knowing they would be cared for by Jesus in the heavenly realm. 

For me these were sobering thoughts as I pondered this little book. My faith was not on par with these stories and teachings. It was a faith more based on the tradition of my family and a mental belief, a simple affirmation. But did I trust my whole body, heart and soul to Christ? No, I had too much pride in my own self will. I still trusted mainly on my own intellect and will. I found I was still too much like Adam.

If we have faith, we cannot fear death, because this means we do not trust in what is to come beyond death. Apostle Paul says about faith, Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)  So what are these things hoped for? This is a life after death where we have hope in a life with the angels and the saints and to see the Lord in Paradise. We have hope in being resurrected and taking on a new spiritual body free of suffering and decay. We must have a faith that gives us total confidence in these realities even though we have not seen or experienced them.

I realized that faith is something that involves a trust in realities beyond any understanding of things of this world. It requires a trust in what is beyond our sensual knowledge and beyond any mental concept we can imagine. It involves a surrender to Spirit, to the Triune God. It is more than methodically being a good person who identifies a set of rules from Scripture and tries to do them. Of course, if we do have the kind of faith that Scripture talks about, we will live the virtues with the help of God's grace without much effort. We will be united with Him and out of the love of this intimate relationship we will do what he directs us, knowing that if we follow Him we will find rewards in the life to come. This is what I found faith to mean. A total trust in and a surrender to His will.

The truth is that with faith in the power of God, we are confident that He will be with us forever. With faith we become willing servants of His will. With faith, even if we stumble or fall, we know He will be with us to help us recover. With faith His unlimited power is there for us whenever we need it. Saint Paul says, To this end I also labor, striving according to His working in me mightily (Col !:29) and also, To Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. (Eph 3:20) He further says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)

It by this full faith, faith beyond belief, that we are able to go beyond the level our senses and intellect and trust in Jesus Christ as True God of True God, Begotten not created, of one essence of the Father, through Whom all things are made. Our destiny is to be united with Him in heaven with eternal life, but only if we have the kind of faith described in the Scriptures. We must go beyond mere belief.

The important question is how to gain this kind of faith.  Later.

Reference: Life of Faith by Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dialogue With Elder Paisios as He Faces Death

After spending time with my Father who at 98 is coming to terms with his mortality, I began to wonder how some of our Church Fathers would provide counsel in such situations.  I found this account of Elder Paisios as He faced terminal cancer.

–– Geronda, the final diagnosis has been made. Your tumor is cancerous and it's aggressive. 
–– Bring me a handkerchief so that I may dance to the song: "I bid farewell to you, O poor world!" I have never danced in my life, but now I will dance for joy as my death approaches. 
–– Geronda, the doctor said that first he wants to use radiation to shrink the tumor and then do surgery. 
–– I understand! First the air force will bombard the enemy, and then the attack will begin! I'll go up then and bring you news! Some people, even the elderly, when told by the doctor, "You will die," or "You have a fifty percent chance of surviving" get very distressed. They want to live. And then what? I wonder! Now, if someone is young, well , this is justifiable, but if someone is old and is still desperately trying to hang on, well, this I just don't understand. Of course, it's quite different if someone  wants to undergo therapy in order to manage pain. He's not interested in extending life; he only wants to make the pain somewhat more bearable so that he can take care of himself until he dies –– this does make sense.  
–– Geronda, we are praying that God may give you an extension on your life. 
–– Why? Doesn't the Psalmist say, "The days of our years are threescore years and ten?" 
–– But the Psalmist  adds the following, "And if by reason of strength they be foreshore years..." 
–– Yes, but he adds the following, "Yet is their strength labor and sorrow," in which case it is better to have the peace of the other life. 
–– Geronda, can someone, out of humility, feel spiritually unprepared for the other life and wish to live longer in order to get prepared? 
–– This is a good thing, but how can he know that, even if he does live longer, he won't become spiritually worse? 
–– Geronda, when can we say that a person is reconciled with death? 
–– When Christ lives inside him, then death is a joy. But one must not rejoice in dying just because he has become tired of this life. When you rejoice in death, in the proper sense, death goes away to find someone who's scared! When you want to die, you don't. Whoever lives the easy life is afraid of death because he is pleased with worldly life and doesn't want to die. If people talk to him about death, he reacts with denial: "Get away from here!" However, whoever is suffering, whoever is in pain, sees death as a release and says, "What a pity, Charon has not yet come to take me... He must have been held up!" 
Few are the people who welcome death. Most people have unfinished business and don't want to die. But the Good God provides for each person to die when he is fully matured. In any case, a spiritual person, whether young or old, should be happy to live and be happy to die, but should never pursue death, for this is suicide. 
For a person who is dead to worldly matters and has been spiritually resurrected, there is never any agony, fear or anxiety, for he awaits death with joy because he will be with Christ and delight in His presence. But he also rejoices in being alive, again because he is united with Christ even now and experiences a portion of the joy of Paradise here on earth and wonders whether there is a higher joy in Paradise than the one he feels on earth. Such people struggle with philotimo* and self-denial; and because they place death before themselves and remember it every single day, they prepare more spiritually, struggling daringly, and defeating vanity.

* A way of life expressed through acts of generosity and sacrifice without expecting anything in return.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Councils IV: Family Life, pp 274-276.