Thursday, April 10, 2014

How About Lying: Are There Good Lies?

Again, Saint Dorotheos offers us great insight, this time on the topic of lying.  He tells us there are three kinds of lies: 1) Lying in thinking; 2) Lying verbally; 3) Lying through one's own way of life.

The one who lies in his thinking is one who is always suspicious of other's actions. He thinks others are always doing things against himself. He says, "they are always talking about me." When he is spoken to he thinks its an attempt to bother him or criticize him.  He is always suspicious of others. He thinks others said or did this or that because of him. The problem is, nothing he thinks is true, its all based on his suspicion.  Saint Dorotheos tells us that from this comes "curiosity, slander, eavesdropping, quarreling and condemnation." How often have you caught yourself eavesdropping seeking to hear what others are saying thinking they may be talking about yourself. How often do you take the gestures or facial expressions of others to have a negative meaning about you? This is an often forgotten form of lying. There is no way we can know what the other person is really thinking.  Their expression may be due to their own difficulties, not yours.  How about when you see someone on the street and notice the way they dress and then make a judgement about them. You label them as lazy, delinquent, or even a prostitute. This is again a form of lying as you know nothing about these people and make up your own lies about them.  

Saint Dorotheos says,
"It is impossible to learn the state of a person's soul from that (their appearance). Therefore never trust your suspicions for evan a straight rule can be made crooked by a crooked one. Suspicions are not true and harm us... Nothing is graver that suspicions. They are so harmful that if we keep them for a long time, they begin to convince us that we clearly see things that do not exist and never happened."
Lying by words occurs when we make up excuses for our failures. Let's say you are too lazy to go to Church or any other event. You meet a friend whom you normally meet at this event and he asks you where you were. You reply with something like, "I didn't feel well," or "I had a fever," or some other excuse that is untrue. Another example Saint Dorotheos gives is one who wants something from another person.  He does not ask for it outright, but begins to ask in a round about way. He may say something like, "I suffer this and I need this."  All these sins arise from a dsire for our own pleasure.  We want to hide our passions, our selfishness, our ambitions or our laziness. So we make up excuses or lie about our motivations.

Now there is the case for a good lie.  If a friend's life is in danger because of someone who wants to hurt them and they come to you asking for the whereabouts of your friend, it may be proper to not tell this person where your friend is or to deceive him in some way. But we are to do this only when necessary.  Saint Dorotheos says, 
"He must do this rarely and with the fear of God, showing to them his intention and need, and then God will protect him because even this harms the soul."
The final category is the one who lives a whole life in lies. Saint Dorotheos says, 
"the person that lies his whole life is one who, while in reality is dissolute, feigns temperance, and being greedy, he speaks about charity and praises sympathy.  His is proud and admires humility." 
What we need to develop is true humility so we are free to confess our own weaknesses, admit our sinfulness and not hide them. This is the condition of those who say when discussing the importance of confession say, "I have not sinned, I have not stolen anything, I have not killed anyone, why do I need to confess." They lead a life of lies, not being honest about their true condition.  

When we have humility the Saint tells us that we are able and willing to accuse ourselves. With this honesty also comes sympathy for our neighbors.  We no longer have to justify our superiority over others by pretending to possess virtues we do not have. We all find ourselves doing this. Do we really think we can hide our true nature from others?  How foolish this approach to life is. I have caught myself so many times in this sinful condition. For me, pride is a hard condition to overcome.  Each time I catch myself, it is such a relief to admit my true poor condition and ask for the Lord's help to overcome it. If we are not truthful we gain nothing but an oversized ego that is based on lies.

Saint Dorotheos says,
Let us avoid falsehood, brethren, so as to be delivered from the evil one and let us struggle to obtain the truth so that we may be united with Him who said, "I am the truth" (Jn 14:6). Let God make us worthy of His own truth.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp161-166 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dealing with Resentment

How often does it happen that after we have a disagreement with someone and we have apologized and repented, that we still have lingering within us a seed of resentment? What happens when this is the case? The next time we run into conflict with them the old case rises again to make the current disturbance even worse. Or, when we hear someone else complain about this person, we are glad to hear this. Or, when we see something good happen to this person, we become upset to see them honored in such a way. This is all a case of rendering evil for evil.

Saint Dorotheos gives us an analogy:
A person lighting a fire first has a small piece of tinder. This represents the word of the brother who has upset him. This little fire is very feeble. What significance has the word of your bother?  If you put up with it you blow out the small fire, but if you begin to think to yourself, "Why did he say that to me? I myself can answer him. If he did not want to hurt me, he wouldn't have said that and believe me, I can upset him too." In this case, you add small pieces of wood to the fire or some other fuel like the person that lights a fire and you produce smoke which is agitation.
This hanging on to issues with lingering resentment is probably the greatest problem in all relationships, especially in marriages. We are not good at cleansing ourselves from the remnant of resentment. Even if we do repent and make amends we let hurts linger, only to have them rise up again and lead us to sin and turmoil.

How do we get rid of these remnants of resentment? Here is what Saint Dorotheos says,
By praying for the person that upset him, with his while heart, saying, "God help my brother (spouse) and through his prayers, me." Thus, he prays fervently for his brother (spouse), which is evidence of sympathy and love, and, at the same time, he humbles himself by asking for help through his brother's (spouse's) prayers. Where there is sympathy, love and humility how can anger, resentment or any other passion prevail?
This is a common teaching of the Church Fathers. Evagrius writes, "The person that prays for his enemies has no resentment."

Try it. I think you will find that it makes a difference. In dealing with sin in our lives it is through the work of God's grace that we are healed. We only need to ask for it in our prayers.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp 153-158

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why We Should Blame Ourselves

Saint Dorotheos give us a most difficult teaching. He says, 
"The root cause of every disturbance, if we examine it carefully, is from not blaming ourselves.... Whatever happens to us, whether it be damage, or dishonor or any other affliction, we deem ourselves worthy of it and are never troubled."
We logically respond, "if someone upsets me and I have have not done anything to justify this, how and why should I think of myself being worthy of this?"  Saint Dorotheos answers this by saying that if we search ourselves more deeply with "fear of God" we will find that there was a word, a gesture, a facial expression or a deed that triggered the seemingly unjust action in the other person. Then, if we think further still not seeing any error, we can search into the past and think about how we might have offended this person at some earlier time causing their attitude that caused them to act in a way that upset us at this time. Even digging more deeply, maybe they suffer from some other sin or had a recent encounter that upset them and is being reflected in their current action against us. Therefore, our reaction was not called for we should have been more sympathetic to their distress. Saint Dorotheos says, "Therefore, as I said, if a person searches himself in the fear of God and diligently examines his own conscience, he will certainly find that he is guilty."

The very fact that another person upsets us indicates that we have hidden in our subconsciousness a passion that is triggered by another person's action. When someone does something that upsets us it gives us cause to dig deep into our inner being to discover why we react in this way.  We know all our brothers and sisters are sinners like ourselves. Why would their action be cause to turn us to anger or being upset? If we have love for our neighbor as we are called to by Scripture, we would have compassion for the plight of our brethren.  We would not act in a way that would cause them further difficulty, but instead, try to act in a way that would lead them to overcome their sinfulness. Our caring thoughts would then be directed towards them rather than ourselves.

I think this teaching gets at the core of the meaning of "love your enemy".  When our soul is strong and our heart pure, we can withstand any affront by another person without being upset. We become able to maintain our inner calm no matter how we are attacked. Besides, what good does it do to get upset?  What is achieved in worldly terms other than create distress and turmoil? We lose our inner peace and most likely separate ourselves from God, and are now unable to respond in a godly loving manner.

Saint Dorotheso writes,
In truth, whatever we may suffer, we suffer it because of our sins. If the saints suffered, they suffered for God's name or to demonstrate their virtue for the benefit of many or to gain greater reward from God. As for us wretches, how can we say this? We sin like this daily and in seeking to satisfy our passion, we abandoned the right path, which the Fathers spoke about, that of self-accusation. Each one of us follows the wrong path, tries on every occasion to put the case against his brother and throw the burden of responsibility upon him. Each one of us is negligent and keeps nothing, but demands that our neighbor keeps the commandments.
Let's challenge ourselves to reflect on this teaching. Think about your inner peace and how important it is to retain it and how easy it is to lose it. How often we fail to think in loving terms about the condition of our neighbor. We know we are better servants of our Lord when we maintain this inner peace. Try using those instances where we are upset by others to learn something about our own sinfulness and how we can improve ourselves. This is all part of the way of repentance that brings us closer to God.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical teaching on the Christain Life, pp 143-150

Monday, March 31, 2014

How Do We Judge Others?

The problem of judging others, even in the slightest way, is that it leads us to to forget our own sinfulness and leads us into idle talk about others. This happens all the time in small social gatherings. It does not take long before someone begins to talk about someone who is not part of this social group. In this idle chit chat we forget about our own problems and project all our inner fears on others. We do this with people who we don't even know.  This may be a leader of our organization or country, or some public figure. How easy to condemn them rather than ourselves. Saint Dorotheos says, "Nothing makes man more naked or carries him so effectively to his ruin as slander, condemnation and disregard of his neighbor."

He tells us that to slander is to say something against another person like "that person lied," or "she became angry."  It is speaking with passion about another's sin. But we often go further than this and condemn the person saying, "that person is a liar," or "she is an angry person." Now we find we are judging the whole person, condemning them. Saint Dorotheos reminds us of the following: "The judgment of others is a much graver sin that any other as Christ Himself said, "Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, then you will  see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother's eye" (Luke 6:42)

The problem with such judging is that we do not know the whole story about how others are struggling. Only God knows. Saint Dorotheos says, "Only God, who knows the situation of each one of us, our strength, environment, our individual gifts, temperament and capacities, can justify or condemn. He can judge each of these things, as He only knows." Based on the situation of each person, the environment they live in, the difficulties they face, the responsibilities they hold, God's judgment will be different. No matter how badly you think another person acts you do not know how much they struggled before they acted. Only God can see another's labor and sorrow and can have mercy on them. God may be merciful to this person we choose to judge, yet we choose to become his judge and in the process lose our own soul. We only know about the sin but we do not know about the repentance.

Saint Dorotheos says,
Those who desire to be saved do not pay attention to the faults of their neighbor, but always to their own and thus progress. Such was the man who saw his brother sinning and groaned, saying "Alas, he sinned today for sure it will be me tomorrow."
We sin ourselves but do not repent and then find judgment in others. We are all hypocrites. How serious this must be for our soul!  It is important not to lose the focus on our own sinfulness and our own need for repentance and our need for the mercy of God.

Saint Dorotheos says,
If we have love, with sympathy and compassion, we shall not see our neighbor's faults, as it says, "Love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). Again it says that, "Love thinks no evil, bears all things", and so on (1 Cor. 13:5-7).
What do the saints do?  They seek to heal others. Saint Dorotheos writes:
They do not judge or dislike him but suffer with him, admonish him, offer him consolation and healing like a sick member. They do everything to save the sinner. Take the example of fishermen; when they put the fish on the hook into the sea and get a very large fish, if they feel the fish is struggling and fighting, they do not pull it straight away by force, since the line would break and the fish would be lost. Rather, they skillfully give it line and allow it to run freely until they know it is slackened and calm from its struggle. Then they gradually draw it in."
We  must learn to have love and to suffer with others so we can assist them in the right way and at the right time. If we condemn them then we will not make any effort to help them. We all need the help of others who are stronger than ourselves. "We are individually members one of another" (Rom 12:5). "If one member suffers all members suffer with it" (1 Cor 12:26).

Saint Dorotheos says,
Let each one serve the body according to his ability, and try to help one anther whether it is by preaching and putting the word of God into the heart of a brother, consoling him in time of trouble or by giving him a helping hand. The more we love and help each other the closer we are to God.
Saint Dorotheos gives us one of my favorite images of this reality:
Suppose there there is a circle on the earth, as if drawn by a compass. The center is exactly the middle of the circle. Take care to understand what I mean. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and God is the center. The straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of men. As far as the saints, desiring to approach God, move inward, they become near God and near to each other and as far as they approach God, they approach each other. As far as they approach each other, they approach God. You should understand separation in the same way. When they move away from God and follow external things, it is evident that as far as they move away and become distant themselves from each other, they distance themselves from God. This is the very nature of love. In as far as we are outside and do not love God, each one of us is also distanced from his neighbor, but if we love God, the more we approach Him through Love for Him, the more we are united to our neighbor through love, and as much as we are united to our neighbor, we are united to God.
As we see the difficulties in others behaviors we should be careful not to judge and condemn them. Instead we should examine our own behaviors and seek to make improvements there. If we can do this in ourselves then we will have the necessary love to look at others who are struggling and seek effective ways to help them as they struggle. In this way we can become united as one, one to another and one in God.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christain Life, pp 133-140

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Can We Trust Our Own Judgment?

How do you know you are on the right path for you salvation?   How do you know what effort you need to make to grow in your relationship with God?  Can you judge this by yourself?

"Where there is no guidance, they fall like leaves; salvation exists in much counsel," it says in Proverbs 11:14.

One of the truths about our Orthodox way of life is that we will wither and fall like leaves if we do not seek counsel and instead believe we can guide ourselves. How often do we see the new convert who is enthusiastic about fasting, attends all the services, carries a prayer rope and repeats the Jesus prayer, and all the other things one is taught about the faith. But what frequently happens after a period of time? If they rely only on their own guidance they will have found that they took on more than they were capable of and cannot maintain such a way of life. They lose their zeal and without anyone to guide them other than their own direction they fade in their efforts. This often ends with disillusion and even a falling away from the faith.

Our own will becomes our enemy. It leads us where we are incapable of seeking help from those who have greater wisdom. Saint Dorotheos writes,
It is for this reason that Abba Poeman used to say, "the Will is like a brass wall between man and God". Do you see strength in that saying? In addition, he added, "It is like a stumbling stone by which we go against and oppose the Will of God".  If a person relinquishes his will he can truly say, "By my God, I leapt over a wall. As for my God, His way is perfect." (Ps 18:29-30). How wonderfully spoken! For when a person abandons his own will he sees that the way of God is without blemish but when he identifies himself with his own will then he cannot see that the way of God is blameless. If he happens to be cautioned by someone, he immediately blames him, treats him with contempt, dislikes him and opposes him. How can he tolerate anybody or receive any advice whatsoever when he keeps his own will?
Why is it we are so self-willed? Why do we find it hard to trust in the way of life taught by the Church?  Why do we not seek out help from the elders of the Church for our personal guidance? Why is "My way" so important to us?

Saint Dorotheos also  tells us our condition is even worsened when we couple our self-will with self-justification.  That is, when we take the additional step of justifying why our own will is superior to the teachings of the saints, the wise people of the Church. The saint says, "Who can persuade him to believe that another person knows what is good for him better than he does? He is left to himself, left to follow his own thoughts, and the devil can make a corpse of him."

The way we should behave is to freely seek counsel on everything. As Proverbs says, "Salvation exists in much counsel." Of course we must be careful in whom we choose to take council from. It must be somebody we have full confidence in and who is respected for their wisdom regarding things of the spirit.  Saint Dorotheos says, 
"When the soul is protected by telling everything and advised by somebody who is spiritually wise, saying, "Do that," "Do not do that," or "This is good," "This is not good," "This is self-justification," "This is self-will," "It is not the time to do this," or "This is the time to do this," then the devil does not find an excuse to harm the soul or to cast it down."
It is critical to have the desire to do God's will and not our own will. This is humility. Saint Dorotheos says, "There is no other route to salvation than this." To overcome the trap of seeking our own will requires guidance. Otherwise who is guiding? Our own will. Do you see the error?  Even if we read about the good path from a saint, how are we going to know if we are doing it the way it should be done?
"May God shelter us from the danger of guiding ourselves, and make us worthy to follow the way of our fathers."
Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp 123-129

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fear of God - What Does This Men?

I have always wondered about the meaning of this common phrase, "Fear of God." I never saw God as one to be feared but as one who was loving. There always seemed to be a contradiction in my mind when I heard this phrase. So what does it mean?

In Scripture it says, "perfect love casts out fear" (1John 4:15). Then in Psalms the prophet says, "Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints" (Ps 34:9).  So even those who have perfect love, the saints, also fear Him. Saint Dorotheos clarified this for me.  He says there are two kinds of fear.  One is the fear of a beginner and the other is that of a saint. The first fears God because he is afraid of going to Hell.  The other seeks to please God because he loves Him. In this later case the fear is not one of being afraid of some punishment, but, because he has "tasted the sweetness of being with God," he does not want to lose it. He calls this perfect fear.

From Saint Basil we also find an explanation of the differing kinds of fear.  He says there are three states that we can please God.
   1.) By fearing Hell and following His commandments. In this case we are like a slave.
   2.) By doing His commandments to receive the reward of eternal life or peace. In this case we are like a laborer.
    3). By pleasing God out of love for Him. In this case we are a son of God.

We can love God and fear God at the same time. If we are doing good to avoid punishment in Hell, this is good because it will lead us to the next level where we will be seeking the glorious rewards of eternal life with God in heaven. Now, instead of punishment, we fear we will not gain the rewards.  Finally, we will develop such a love for God that all our actions will be done simply because we love Him and want to be united with Him. We now fear losing this intimate relationship.  We move from fear of punishment, to hope, and then to being united with Him in Love. At each level we are led by fear to avoid evil and to strive for what is good in the eyes of God.

Most of us probably find ourselves in the stage of a laborer. We have lifted ourselves above the struggles of fearing punishment in Hell. We now strive to do His will without concerns about being criticized or oppressed.  We labor hard in our efforts to be a good Christians, all the time with the hope of the life to come.

Why do the fathers say the we attain fear of God when we remember death and Hell? Saint Dorotheos answers this with the negative. He says that if we do not remember death and Hell we expel the fear of God from us. "That is, when we have neither remembrance of death or Hell; when we do not examine ourselves, we do not question ourselves as to how we spend our lives, but we live indifferently and keep company with those who are indifferent." Without this fear of God we become bold through the exercise of our self-will. We lose our respect for others and act in ways, physical or verbal, that others will describe as bold. We need to have the fear of God but with devotion. He says, "So that when you meet each other you bow your head to your brother, each humbling himself before his brother, and cutting off his own will."

We must first know the first level of fear and become a slave before we can become a laborer or a son. If not we face the possibility of being indifferent and becoming bold in our relations with others, acting without proper respect for them.

Saint Dorotheos relates the saying he heard over and over from His elder who would tell him as he departed,  "Let God preserve Love over anything else," followed by one of the following: "Guarding you neighbor's conscience gives birth to humility"; "Never put your will before that of your brother"; "Leave the things of the world"; "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."

He then explains how we can live this way. He says that in whatever task we are doing it should be done "without contention or commotion." You must remember that "whether it is great or small, it is one eighth of what is asked of us." The other seven-eights is doing our work without "contention or commotion." So even if we fail on the one-eighth we can keep something that is even higher, inner peace. Of course we must pursue our tasks carefully, trying to do them properly.  But even more important is to preserve our inner state of peace.  He tells his monks that if he sends one of them to do a task and they see that it will harm them or cause a disturbance, stop and put the work aside leaving it unfinished.

We must think about this in our daily lives.  How often we put the tasks we are assigned over our peaceful relationships with others, at work as well as in our family and with friends.  He is instructing us to give a greater priority to the harmonious relationship than to the achievement of a task.  He is not asking us to  become indifferent or careless in our actions, but to raise our efforts directed to carrying things out to a higher standard. He says,
Give your whole strength to fulfilling all your services with love and humility, submitting to each other, honoring and comforting each other. I dong this nothing is more powerful than humility. However, if one of you sees his neighbor or himself upset at some time, stop the work, withdraw and give way to each other, do not persist, so that harm does not follow. It is better, as I have said a thousand times, not to fulfill the duty as you want, but as needs be, and not obstinately or insisting on one's right. .... Hasten with love and fear of God, to seek the benefit of each other. Thus with the help of God you will be able to profit and make progress from anything that happens.
This is the way of life you are led to with the fear of God.

Do as the deacon commands when he calls the faithful to Communion in the Divine Liturgy saying,  "With the fear of God, faith and love draw near."

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp 109 - 120

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do We Follow Our Conscience?"

During Lent we are asked to examine ourselves and to seek forgiveness and repent. One of the central aspects of the soul is conscience. We are naturally given by God the ability to distinguish between good and bad.  This is also called the "natural law." In ancient times men like Abraham followed this law and it was latter written down by Moses when it had been dimmed by sin. Finally, Christ came to renew man from our inherited tendency to sin showing us the way to be reunited with God.

We have this capability within our soul, but we cannot bury it like in ages gone past. Unfortunately, for most of us it has become weak due to the habits of our society and our own choices to ignore it.  Our conscience becomes dim and its voice unnoticeable.  

Saint Dorotheos of Gaza writes:
It is up to us now either to bury our conscience under the ground, or to have it shine forth and illuminate us if we obey it. When our conscience says to us, "Do this" and we treat it in contempt, or it says it again and we refuse, then we are burying it underground. Thus, it can not speak to us clearly because of the weight upon it.  But like a lamp that only sheds a dim light, so the conscience gradually starts to show things more darkly and more obscurely."
Throughout our life when we have ignored our conscience we have progressively made it less of a factor in our decision making.  We unknowingly build into our normal way of living sinful habits and think nothing about them.  They become hidden from us. They lead us into to thinking when we are asked to confess our sins to think, "I am not a sinful person, I have not killed any one, I have not stolen from anyone," and so forth. Any effort we make to justify that we are not a sinner only indicates that our conscience is very clouded. 

To develop in our prayer and spiritual life, we need to awaken our conscience so it can become a more powerful guide for us.  It is always opposed to evil and will reprimand us for doing what we should not do and for not doing what we should. Saint Dorotheos says this is why its called "adversary." To reawaken our conscience we must pay attention to the little things. It is through our ignoring our small transgression that we are led to greater and greater ones.  Each small denial of conscience throws another shovel full of dirt on top of it and it does not take long before it is buried by our bad habits.

Saint Dorotheos writes,
When somebody begins to say, "What does it matter if I say that word? What does it matter if I eat that little thing? What does it matter if I pay attention to that?" From the "What does it matter?" of this and "What does it matter?" for that, one obtains the bad and malignant sore and starts to despise and trample upon one's own conscience in great and important matters. Thus, progressively one is in danger of falling into total insensibility.
Therefore we must be careful not to neglect the small things in our lives.  Each little transgression is important. If we do not pay attention to them, they become what Saint Dorotheos says "are cancer for the soul." He says, "Both the life of holiness and the sinful life start from little things and lead to greater ones, either good or bad."

Our conscience  is something we need to realize needs our protection.  We need to guard it from being trampled on. This is so in relations with others as well as material things. All God's commandments must be followed even when no one is watching us. Saint Dorotheos tells us that to guard our conscience with regard to one's neighbor "Is doing absolutely nothing  at all that will upset or wound him, either by deed, word, gesture or even with a glance." The same is true for our use of material things. Nothing should be misused or wasted.

We should never feel remorse over the direction of our conscience.  It is essential to be extra vigilant to make sure we follow its guidance no matter how weak it may be.  As we listen and follow its voice we will become stronger and the Holy Spirit will aid us in carrying out its direction.

When you cannot muster the discipline to act on this inner voice, do as Saint Theophan says,"compensate the conscience at once through your own inner repentance at home.  Confess it to the priest later." Shortly you will find your ability to abide by your conscience increases dramatically.

Saint Paul says,

"And in this do I always exercise myself, to have a conscience clear of offense towards God and towards men."

See other posts on Conscience

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teachings on the Christian Life, pp 101-105