Monday, February 17, 2020

Are You a Good Person? Beware!


Thinking of oneself as a good person can lead to deception. If your idea of being good is about following the rules given to you through your church or society, even if you say you believe in Jesus Christ, you may be on the wrong path. How can this be? It depends on the source of you inner disposition. If you are adhering to an orderly life through your own efforts then you are most likely in deception. To live a Christian life cannot be based on your efforts alone. Your choices must be based on your relationship with God, on the zeal and divine grace you receive from Him. There must be the sense in every act that you are cooperating with His will. Salvation cannot be gained through your own efforts.

Saint Theophan says,
This good order in one's conduct more than anything else can lead one into deception. Its true significance depends upon one's inward disposition, where it is possible that there are significant deviations from real righteousness in one’s righteous deeds. Thus, while refraining outwardly from sinful deeds, one may have an attraction for them or a delight from them in one's heart; so also, doing righteous deeds ourwardly, one's heart may not be in them. Only true zeal both wishes to do good in all fulness and purity, and persecutes sin in its smallest forms. it seeks the good as its daily bread, and with sin it fights as with a mortal enemy.
Our self-centerness blocks us from God and we are blind to the grace that God gives us. While our efforts to do good help us survive in the physical world and give us the necessary discipline needed for a more spiritual life, they are not sufficient when done only out of our own will. They are also most likely tinged with an underling sinfulness that is hidden. We need to give priority to developing a deep faith that is based on a pure heart open to grace. Then we will be on the right path to doing His will in cooperation with our own efforts.

When we think we are good people we are suffering from pride and probably unaware of our sinfulness. Beware!

Reference: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, p 29

Monday, February 10, 2020

When Does Christian Life Begin?



A Christian life begins when we have overwhelming energy to fulfill a desire to be united with Jesus Christ.  This is called zeal.

Saint Theophan says,
Christian life is zeal and strength to remain in communion with God by means of an active fulfillment of His holy will, according to our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the help of the grace of God, to the glory of His most holy name.
This zeal is evident to others as well. Others can observe the peacefulness they exhibit, the steadfastness they exhibit, and the sacrifices they are willing to make to live in a Christian way.

Saint Theophan says,
The person in whom this ardor is constantly active is one who is living in a Christian way.
This is about more than just trying to live by the rules of the church and commandments given to us by Christ out of obligation or fear. It's more than just tying to be a "good" person. The true Christian life is based on zeal, an inward awareness of God, a sense of communion and love with Him. The Spirit must be alive within and burning like a fire.

Saint Theophan says,
All this is good, but as long as it does not bear in itself the spirit of life in Christ Jesus, it has no value at all before God. Such things would be like soulless statues.
The beginning of Christian life begins with the inner working of divine grace. The first step to receiving this grace is Holy Baptism.

Reference: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 27,29

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Why do we go to Divine Liturgy?


What are we looking for? A universal state of being within the Church; an inward state of being “conferred by Jesus,” experiences, feelings, longings, and visions.
Elder Aimilianos 

Elder Aimilianos points out that going to Divine Liturgy is a “movement from one place to another.” What are we to do when we leave the outside world and enter into the church?
To enter the church means to leave outside all those things that make up out life in the world...that which is ours and which belongs to us, our sin, our self will, and our desire... we leave behind not simply the things we see but even things we hope for.
He calls this a kind of “exile.” We enter into a clear free space that is like pure air. We should feel like we have entered into heaven, are standing there in its pure air. We have made a movement from one place to another. We are now in a place that contains no worldly pleasures. We feel we have been led to a foreign place where there is hope in a peace from all the cares and tribulations of an earthly life. We sense we have moved to a place that is closer to God.
When we enter into the open spaces of the church, we immediately experience a particular feeling, a feeling which confirms for us that here, in this place, our Helper is at hand. He is invisible, but you feel Him, as if He were rushing toward you, as if you could hear the sound of His breathing. He is your Helper, the One Who can deliver you, Who can redeem you, Who can satisfy your insatiable soul...
We come to Divine Liturgy to be close to God. Therefore we should go longing to see Him, to somehow feel His divine presence, to be united with the One we love above all else. When we do this our soul will be filled with a divine grief, recognizing what it lacks, yet desires. It will try to cry our seeking mercy, realizing that it cannot see God.

With this infilled longing we begin to pray. The Liturgy with all its hymns and prayers leads us in prayer. Our mind, being cleared of all our worldly cares begins to think about God. As the Liturgy progresses we begin to experience Him. We desire to taste Him, to receive His nourishment. Then in the Liturgy a divine table is set, beginning with the great entrance. With the whole choir of angels and the Saints joining in, the heavenly and earthly church becomes united. We call on the Holy Spirit and the gifts we brought as bread and wine become mystically transformed into Christ Himself.

We became aware of our separation from God before we entered the church and our sins that separate us from Him. We realize that the reason we came was to free ourselves from all the passions that cloud our heart. We see how difficult, if not impossible, it is to root these tendencies out. We acknowledge that it is only with God’s help that we can overcome our condition. We cry for forgiveness and repentance as we approach the Chalice to be joined with Him in Holy Communion. As we approach, we are in awe at the sweetness of God.

God is no longer the great absent one, but is greatly present and we begin to see His sweetness.

We also experience the pleasure of our soul as it becomes a participant in this union. When we participate in Communion our soul is nourished and we are given strength to help us overcome our worldly passions when we return to our earthly daily life.

But what is the reality for many Orthodox Christians? The elder tells us,
Most people go to church, present themselves to Christ, and leave without ever drawing out any of His strength, without experiencing His power, the way the woman with the flow of blood did (cf. Mt 9:20). And then say: “So what did I get from Christ? I came back from church the same person I was when I went.”
If we come to the church longing to see God, to experience Him, to receive strength from Him, we will leave a different person in some small way. Each time we are healed of our sinfulness bit by bit. 

The elder says, 
“This is why God has established this liturgical assembly. This is why He arranges for angels, archangels, and saints to be present here with sinners, so that each can give something to the other. The saints are here so that they can give their saintliness to the sinners. And sinners are here to convey to the saints their desire for their holiness, so they too, may be found in their company. We find all of this within the church, provided that all is still and silent within us, and that our gaze remains fixed solely on the drama unfolding before us.
When we come to church we are seeking an experience with God. Setting aside our worldly care and opening our heart to Him we will experience a renewed state of being conferred by Jesus. Everything comes from Him. Without our willing surrender, our recognition of our sinful state, we will gain nothing and return just as we were. All this has been established by Jesus for our healing, our perfection, the satisfaction of our spiritual seeking.



Reference: The Way of the Spirit, “On the State that Jesus Confers”, by Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 55-69


Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Faith: What Kind of Faith Is Necessary?



Discusses the deeper faith that results in knowing God by grace, leaving us with the zeal to perfect ourselves and becoming through the cooperation of our will with grace to live according to the commandments of God. This is a faith that is more than an understanding or a declaration of, “I believe”. It’s a deep faith based on an experience of God that comes from the uncreated energies of God, His grace, the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Path to Perfection - Saint John Cassian


Jesus came to save us. From what? Eternal damnation, separation from God, showing us the path to victory over death, eternal life in Paradise. The ultimate aim is to love God, finding unity in His embrace.

These two element of salvation point to the starting point for our spiritual journey to theosis. Saint John Cassian points out the following:
There are three things that restrain people from vice—namely, the fear of Gehenna or of present laws; or hope and desire for the kingdom of heaven; or a disposition for the good itself and a love of virtue. (411)
Vice, or sin, not living up to the ideal way of life that Christ showed us is eventually tamed with God's help. To take heed of His advice we begin our walk with Christ having a fear of the possibility of having our life end in death, nothing beyond, or even worse in eternal punishment as is described in Scripture.

Saint John points out that there is this three step process. He says further,
For the first two belong properly to those who are tending toward perfection and have not yet acquired a love of virtue, but the third particularity belongs to God and to those who have received in themselves the image and likeness of God. (412)
The beginning, he points out, is fear. We tend to promote the idea of love, but for those who have not embraced the seriousness of the meaning of life, love of God does not have a deep meaning as this can only come from an intimate relationship. Emphasizing the fear of God is most useful for those who may have been baptized as children, who have been brought up in the church, but have a shallow faith based more on family or cultural traditions, and who participate more out of obedience. Reminding them about the reality of death and the judgement that takes place may help them awaken to the seriousness about the way they live their life and the true reason fo Jesus coming for our salvation.

Fear is only the beginning and this will not be sufficient for continued growth or for those already awake in faith. In this fist phase we are like servants following the direction of our master. The next phase is to be freed as slave and become a hired hand. At this next stage is the emphasis on the reward, our the payment we receive, a place in Heaven, eternal life with bliss. 
Here is how Saint Cassian describes it.
If a person is tending to perfection, then, he will mount from that first degree of fear—which we have properly designated as servile and about which it is said: “When you have done everything say: We are useless slaves.” —to the higher level of hope, progressing by degree. Here the comparison is not with a slave but with a hireling, because now the person looks forward to the payment of a wage and as it were untroubled by the absolution of his sins and fear of punishment and is conscious of his own good works. (412)
The next level is when we reach toward perfection, the love of virtue and a disposition toward the good. This requires the grace of God. With His grace and our ascesis we can rid ourselves, motivated by the first to levels of understanding, of all evil or sinful tendencies, our passions.
We shall, then, be unable to mount to that pure perfection unless, just as he first loved us for no other reason than our salvation, we also love him for no other reason than sheer love of him. Hence we must strive to mount, in perfect ardor of mind, from this fear to hope and from hope to the love of God and the love of virtue itself, so we may attain to a disposition for the good itself and, to the extent possible to human nature, hold firmly to what is good. (413)
We are challenged by the Lord to go from the heights to still higher places in such a way that the one who is blessed and perfect in the fear of God and who proceeds, as it is written, “from strength to strength,“ (Ps 84:7) and from one perfection to another—that is, who mounts with eager mind from fear to hope—is invited again to a more blessed state, which is love, and the one who was a “faithful and prudent servant” (Mt 45:25) passes over to the intimacy of friendship and to adopted sonship. (418-419)
Eventually we come to the realization that love in the final aim. Motivated by the fear of the judgement and the promised reward in heave, we begin to experience Gods grace in a real way. We come to know his love. Not the the intellectual understanding that God sent His only Son to us out of love but an experience of this unbounded love that comes from his grace penetrating our soul. This love grows so strong that there is nothing we would not change in our way of life to become united with our lover forever.

Saint Cassian says,
It is in this sense, then, that our words should be understood—not that we declare that an awareness of everlasting punishment or of the blessed reward which is promised to the holy ones is of no importance. These things are helpful and introduce those who reflect on them to the beginning of blessedness. But, love, in which there is a fuller confidence and already enduring joy, takes them from a servile fear and hireling’s hope, brings them to the love of God and to adopted sonship, and, from being perfect, makes then somehow more perfect. (419)

Apostle Paul call this love the best of gifts
But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift ofprophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1Cor 12:31-13:3)

Reference: The Conferences of John Cassian, trans, Boniface Ramsey, OP, Paulist Press.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Purpose of a Christian Life


A video on the purpose of a Christian life. The first session in our series on the Path to Salvation.


Sunday, January 19, 2020

Do we know our sinfulness?


King David committed horrible sins, adultery and murder (2Sam 11:2-27), but was not aware of how sinful he was until the profit Nathan came to him and told him a story that paralleled David’s life.  When Nathan told David a story of a supposed subject in his kingdom, that was actually a disguised story of David’s life, David severely condemned this person seeking to punish him. He asked Nathan for his name. Then when Nathan told him that he, David, was this person, he was awakened, he then condemned himself and sought God to help him repent (2Sam 15). This why the theme of many of his psalms are about repentance.

Are we like David, blind to our sinfulness? Who’s is your Nathan? How well do you know your sinfulness? Are you denying that you too are a sinner? 

Knowing our sinfulness is knowing ourselves. Not knowing our sinfulness is a common spiritual ailment. I have experienced this many times. Before I was a practicing Orthodox I was into various contemplative practices  I was also busy with my career and family, thinking every success was the result of my own efforts. There was no room for God. My contemplative efforts were simply to relieve stress.  At some point I discovered the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” It fit the passage meditation practice I had learned from an Indian teacher. But I made one change, I dropped the phrase, “I am a sinner.” Why? Because I did not know myself. I was like David, asleep, unaware about the nature of my separation from God even though I would attend Church regularly. I saw myself as a good person.

It took a number of years to break this shield and to see the depth of my sinful nature. It was after I began to learn about the Orthodox way of life. At first Confession was like going to the judge and pleading to have my case dismissed. But eventually, after experiencing the receptiveness of my confessions, I began to see the patterns controlling my inner being. To break this control I first had to learn more about the nature of God. I had to learn that God was love and he was merciful to those who recognized the nature of their condition and desired to change basic patterns of behavior in their life. I needed to learn that He was not a God seeking to punish me, but a God who had open arms to embrace me and to help me become more like Him. That He was all powerful and someone who could help me, like a loving father with his child.

At first I dealt with specific issues like judging others and anger. There would be cycles in this uncovering of sin. Recognition of one sin and it’s recurring pattern would lead to efforts to make changes in my life. Then there would follow periods where I was again blind to my sinfulness. Then I would beg God to help me see myself again as a sinner and eventually a new pattern would emerge. As this continued I came closer and closer to my basic issue, self-centeredness, my pride. When this became clear I was devastated because I was able to see the way I had lived my whole life in sin. Confession became more and more powerful.  The more I understood myself, the more God helped me.

We know that Christ came to save not the righteous but sinners (1Tim 1:15). He shows us that when we repent, sinners, publicans, and harlots easily enter into paradise (Mt 21:31), like David the adulterer and murderer. The main issue we face is pride. It underlies all sin. It, along with superficial piety, blocks us from seeing our sinfulness.

Seeing our sinfulness is more than acknowledging a particular sin, but is seeing that every aspect of our life is entangled with sin.
Archimandrite Aimilianos says: What does it mean to be a sinner? It doesn’t mean simply that I’ve committed a particular sin, but that my entire being, every aspect of my self, is entangled in sin, for in sins did my mother conceive me (Ps 51:7). From the very moment of my conception, long before I was born, before I ever had an opportunity to commit any kind of particular sin, I existed in a mode of fallen nature, in the fallen Adam, and as such I opened my eyes on a world adrift in evil and wickedness (1 Jn 5:19).
To become united with God, to become a true son of His, we need to know ourselves and know the loving nature of God. Then we will want to run to Confession, to follow the ascetic disciplines of the church, daily prayer and fasting, and go to Liturgy early to hear the prayers at Orthros and to receive Him in Communion by partaking His Body and Blood offered in the Divine Liturgy. 

When awake to our sinful nature we will no longer go to confession for relief, but to be rescued from this sinful condition, to be liberated, so God can lead us to paradise.


References: Psalm 37 (38), Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Archimandrite Aimilianos, p 191-260