Monday, April 25, 2016

What am I to do with my life?

We often hear people struggling trying to figure out how they can benefit mankind or society. Saint Theophan the Recluse reminds us that such questions are unnecessary questions. He says,
There is no reason to torture yourself with difficult problems. You need to put out of your mind any plans about “multi-beneficial, all-embracing, common-to-all mankind” activity...
Phrases such as “the good of mankind” and “the good of the people” are always on their tongues…they have in mind all mankind or at least all of its people lumped together. Probably you, after hearing so many profound ideas, were captivated by them, and when you turned your eyes to your real life, you saw with regret that you had vegetated in your family circle without benefit or purpose. Oh! Only now has someone opened your eyes! 
We must be careful about grand ideas or ideologies least we forget about our relationships with family and friends. What we are called to do as Christians is to first love God and second to love our neighbor with our whole heart. Our mission is to love, not save society or some general idea of mankind. We need to focus our attention on those who are right there in front of us. They are the ones we are to love, to help, to console, to understand. This is our purpose. So many are suffering in some way, let alone the many who lack even basic needs. If we live in an affluent neighborhood we are likely to ignore and forget about those who are in need just like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If fact, we often hear people disparaging those in real need as lazy or only looking for a hand out. When they do so they are speaking in generalities with a cold heart. When we face them and talk with them and listen to their story we find they are struggling with the basic elements of life.

What are we to do? We are to stop thinking of grand schemes and turn in love to those near us. Talk with them, listen to them, and show that you care about them. One by one we can help each other and in this way we can impact society or mankind. Don't wast time in general movements or causes. Open your eyes to what is directly in front of you.

Saint Theophan says,
Those who keep thoughts of the welfare of all mankind inattentively let slip by that which is in front of their eyes. Because they do not have the opportunity to perform a general work, and let slip by the opportunity to perform a particular work, they accomplish nothing towards the main purpose of life.
All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.
Reference: The Spiritual Life, Chapters 16 & 17 

See points 8. Putting Others First and 9. Spiritual Fellowship in the Ten Point Program for Orthodox Life.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Buddhism and Eastern Asceticism Compared to Orthodox Christian Asceticism

By Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex

It is unfortunate that there is widespread confusion, not to mention delusion, in the inexperienced, whereby the Jesus Prayer is thought to be equivalent to yoga in Buddhism, or 'transcendental meditation', and other such Eastern exotica. Any similarity, however, is mostly external, and any inner convergence does not rise beyond the natural 'anatomy' of the human soul. The fundamental difference between Christianity and other beliefs and practices lies in the fact that the Jesus Prayer is based on the revelation of the One true living and personal God as Holy Trinity No other path admits any possibility of a living relationship between God and the person who prays. 

Eastern asceticism aims at divesting the mind of all that is relative and transitory, so that man may identify with the impersonal Absolute. This Absolute is believed to be man's original 'nature', which suffered degradation and degeneration by entering a multiform and ever-changing earth-bound life. Ascetic practice like this is, above all, centered upon the self, and is totally dependent on man's will. Its intellectual character betrays the fullness of human nature, in that it takes no account of the heart. Man's main struggle is to return to the anonymous Supra-personal Absolute and to be dissolved in it. He must therefore aspire to efface the soul (Atman) in order to be one with this anonymous ocean of the Suprapersonal Absolute, and in this lies its basically negative purpose. 

In his struggle to divest himself of all suffering and instability connected with transient life, the eastern ascetic immerses himself in the abstract and intellectual sphere of so-called pure Existence, a negative and impersonal sphere in which no vision of God is possible, only man's vision of himself. There is no place for the heart in this practice. Progress in this form of asceticism depends only on one's individual will to succeed. The Upanishads do not say anywhere that pride is an obstacle to spiritual progress, or that humility is a virtue. The positive dimension of Christian asceticism, in which self-denial leads to one's clothing with the heavenly man, to the assumption of a supernatural form of life, the Source of which is the One True, Self-revealing God, is obviously and totally absent. Even in its more noble expressions, the self-denial in Buddhism is only the insignificant half of the picture. In the mind's desire to return to its merely 'natural' self, it beholds its own nakedness in a 'cloud of divestiture'. But at this point there is a grave risk of obsession with itself, of its marvelling at its own luminous but created beauty, and worshipping the creature more than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). The mind has by now begun to deify or idolize its self and then, according to the words of the Lord, 'the last state of that man is worse than the first' (Matt. 12:45). 

Such are the limits of Eastern styles of contemplation, which do not claim to be the contemplation of God, and are in fact man's contemplation of himself. This does not go beyond the boundaries of created being, nor does it draw anywhere near to the Truth of primordial Being, to the uncreated living God Who has revealed Himself to man. This kind of practice may well afford some relaxation or sharpen man's psychological and intellectual functions, yet 'that which is born of the flesh is flesh' (John 3:6) and 'they that are in the flesh cannot please God' (Rom. 8:8). 

In order to be authentic, any divestiture of the mind from its passionate attachments to the visible and transitory elements of this life must be linked to the truth about man. When man sees himself as he is in the sight of God, his only response is one of repentance. Such repentance is itself a gift of God, and it generates a certain pain of the heart which not only detaches the mind from corruptible things, but also unites it to the unseen and eternal things of God. In other words, divestiture as an end in itself is only half the matter, and it consists of human effort operating on the level of Created being. Christianity on the other hand, enjoins the ascetic to strive in the hope and expectation that his soul will be clothed, invested, with the grace of God, which leads him into the fullness of the immortal life for which he knows he has been created. 

Many admire Buddha and compare him to Christ. Buddha is particularly attractive because of his compassionate understanding of man's condition and his eloquent teaching on freedom from suffering. But the Christian knows that Christ, the Only begotten Son of God, by His Passion, Cross, Death and Resurrection, willingly and sinlessly entered into the totality of human pain, transforming it into an expression of His perfect love. He thereby healed His creature from the mortal wound inflicted by the ancestral sin, and made it 'a new creation' unto eternal life. Pain of heart is therefore of great value in the practice of prayer, for its presence is a sign that the ascetic is not far from the true and holy path of love for God. If God, through suffering, showed His perfect love for us, similarly, man has the possibility, through suffering, to return his love to God. 

Consequently, prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer, and if we pray, it is an indication that we love God. If we do not pray, this indicates that we do not love God, for the measure of our prayer is the measure of our love for God. St. Silouan identifies love for God with prayer, and the Holy Fathers say that forgetfulness of God is the greatest of all passions, for it is the only passion that will not be fought by prayer through the Name of God. If we humble ourselves and invoke God's help, trusting in His love, we are given the strength to conquer any passion; but when we are unmindful of God, the enemy is free to slay us. 

The title was added for publication on this site. The untitled excerpt is from Chapter 5, "The Building Up of the Heart by Vigilance and Prayer". 

From The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology, by Archimandrite Zacharias (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2008), pp. 66-68. Copyright 2008, The Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, UK. Posted on 8/9/2008 with the permission of the publisher. 

Archimandrite Zacharias 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Necessity of Forgiveness

What happened in the parable Jesus taught about the king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants? This story is found in Matthew 18:21-35. It is a powerful story about the necessity of forgiveness. It clearly tells us that forgiveness is not an option if we want to be included in His kingdom.

The story is about a king (Jesus) who wants to settle up with his servants (us). One of his servants owed him a large amount (sinful living). Remember what the king told him because he was not able to repay his debt? Matthew writes, "his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had and that payment be made." Doesn't this seem a bit harsh? Why would Jesus say something like this? Isn't He saying that if we cannot pay for our sinfulness then, beware, we will face the worst penalty? This response from the king elicits fear in the servant seeing how powerful the king is and realizing the horrible consequences. He throws himself down on his face in front of the king and begs forgiveness saying he will do his best in the future to pay it all. And the king (Jesus) forgives him. This is what we are doing in Holy Confession. We know our God is most merciful if we do with humility seek forgiveness. And if we realize how severe the consequences are failing to do so, we will with haste seek it.

The story continues. 
This servant who received forgiveness goes about his business and one of his servants approaches him with a much smaller debt. The master threatens him with violence and the man falls on his face and asks for forgiveness. But unlike the action of the king, he denies any forgiveness and throws the debtor into prison. Here we have as a parallel, someone who has gone to Confession and sought forgiveness from God and received it, but when he goes about his life afterwards, he fails to offer the same forgiveness to others. What is the consequence of this?

The rest of the story. 
When the king heard about his unwillingness to forgive, he says, "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?." His master was angry and then delivered him to the torturers. Jesus then says in conclusion, "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart does not forgive his brother." So our failure to act like Him will result in torture! That torture in Orthodox understanding would be eternal separation from God and His grace.

But how often are we to forgive someone who continually offends us? When Peter asked the question of Jesus, "How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" Jesus answered him, "I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." In other words an infinite number of times. Just like there is no limit to how many time Jesus will forgive us we too have no limits in forgiving others. Forgiveness is not an option if we want to be united with Christ in His kingdom. No matter how often we are trespassed we are expected forgive just As He will forgive us in His unlimited mercy when we sincerely seek forgiveness and His help to change our ways.

We routinely recite in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Remember this story that Jesus told each time you recite this prayer.

This is not an easy commandment. We all have buried in our subconsciousness feelings of remorse, of having been wronged, or resentment about certain actions of others even though the other person sought our forgiveness. Too often we have buried these incidents deep in our minds. To be united with God all these must be cleansed from our consciousness through a deep confession and true forgiveness. No matter how terrible is the offense we must be able to see the goodness in the other person as we are all made in God's image. We need to realize that we all suffer from temptations to do harm to others, that there is an evil force, demons, the devil, who cause us to do that which we do not really want to do. We condemn the evil and not the person.

Forgiveness is a requirement to be accepted into heaven. We must strive to become like Him in all ways. This is not an easy task and one we can only do with His grace. This is why it is so important to regularly participate in the sacraments of the Church, especially Holy Communion. Only in this way can we gain the strength of His grace.

Other posts on forgiveness

Ten Points of an Orthodox Way of Life.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Reduce stress: Live the Liturgical Cycles

Modern life is full of stress and busyness. We have many worries and find it difficult to cope with all that comes our way. This is the modern normal. How can you break this stressful situation? The Church has a great secrete for this. It's not really a secrete but is not widely known or followed.

What I am going to tell you is something I have experienced for myself. I am well aware of the stresses of today's life having lived a life buried in the corporate world. But I chose many years ago to change my life and follow the way of Life taught by the Orthodox Church.

Aside from a solid faith in teachings of Jesus Christ and the reality of His Incarnation, worldly life as Man and God, Crucifixion and Resurrection, His Church from the early days has prescribed a way of life that provides cycles that can help us gain greater harmony. These cycles are prescribed in the Liturgical calendar of the Church. There you will find periods set aside for inner reflection and purification. There are also periods for great celebration. These all coincide with the celebration of His life.

One such cycle is the one we are currently in, Great Lent. When this period begins were are taught from Scripture about humility, mercy of God, and power of forgiveness, repentance and renewal. These lessons lead us to a rather long period of fasting. As we prepare to fast we begin with an awareness of our shortcomings in relation to the teachings of our God and develop feelings of remorse out of our love for Him that we cannot live up to the ideals He teaches us. 

In preparing for the fast the first thing we do is examine our calendar and make sure we remove all that is not necessary and eliminate any optional social activity so we can make time for being quiet, reflecting, praying and worshiping. We commit ourselves to self-sacrifice in the food we eat, restricting our diet to the most basic of foods. This is a discipline to help us gain control over our physical and psychological desires that can so easy enslave us in bad habits. This simple change in diet also helps us to think about all the virtues that require a bit of self-sacrifice. It's not easy to do this but engaging in this cycle brings us great rewards. After this five week period we are prepared for the most moving week reliving of the Passion of Christ, Holy Week.

The cycle deepens and we are prepared. This is definitely a period where we must make plans to attend ALL the services of this week. At the end is the glorious celebration of His Resurrection and the proclamation of His victory over death and our hope of eternal life, Pascha. Here the quiet period ends, even the colors in the church change to bright white and we enter into a week long period of celebration. The cycle shifts to an enjoyment of all the pleasures of food and drink and social activity with family and friends and all the goodness of this world that God has created for us to enjoy.

Such a cycle as prescribed by the church causes us to break with our normal routines and to examine the modern normal way of life that leads us to so much stress. If we engage in this cycle, we are likely to choose to make some changes for the rest of the year. Then, each year as we repeat this cycle, more improvements are made and step by step we are transformed into a new way of life that enables us to face all the realities of modern life with less stress and with Christ continually at our side. Think about how the Church in her great wisdom has given us the guidelines for including such a cycle in our life. Think about what a gift this is! It is important to examine it, and most importantly to choose to follow the guidelines. It creates a renewing experience that is for the health of our soul.

The Church also has other similar cycles during the year that also provide a break in our routine and renewal. There is the fast in preparation for the falling asleep of the Mother of God. It is shorter being only two weeks and comes at the peak of summer in August. Another which is not as strict is the preparation for the birth of Christ. The Church calls us to restrain our activities in the weeks leading up to Christmas and then to celebrate for 12 full days following. Today this cycle is missing from our lives and most of us find ourselves stressed by this over commercialized holiday period.

There are more, but what is important to think about is the wisdom the Church provides for our well being, for the health of our soul, for a life based on love and peace, for our preparation for eternal life with Christ in His kingdom.

You don't need self-help books, no TV guru to guide you, nor a yoga class to relieve stress. Simply follow what is hidden in the wisdom of the the Orthodox Church and follow it. It is that simple. It will bring you grace and you will gain strength you did not know you had access too. You will experience His presence and your life will become one that is closer to what He teaches.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Monday, March 28, 2016

Are You Attending Church Just in Case God is Real?

I saw this headline the other day and thought how common this view is today. The story was about the many people who find themselves in Church on Easter and Christmas and other times who are not real belivers. They say they go, "Just in case God is Real." It seems there are so many Orthodox Christians who appear to share this way of thinking. They come to church on Sunday,"Just in Case!" They don't follow the practices taught by the Church. They don't participate regularly in the Sacraments. They don't have a true faith. They only come to Church periodically "just in case!"

Why have so many lost sight of the reality of our existence? Why have they lost sight of the wisdom of the ages? Why do they ignore the wisdom of our elders? Why is there so much hatred around us? Why are we so angry in our political arena? Why do we expose our hatreds on social media? Has religion become something we now do "just in case"?

The current period in the Orthodox Church is a sober fasting period, Great Lent. It is a period set aside by the Church for spiritual renewal, repentance and introspection. Yet when I look on social media I see so many engaging in great feasts, seeking pleasure where there is is but temporary relief from the realities of our worldly life, totally ignoring the traditional practices taught by the Church for our betterment during this special period. It seems there is too much ignorance of the teachings of the Church and its proven path. Only a few attend the special services we have during this period. Most do not even fast in any way. I want to scream, Wake Up! 

I must admit that there were times in my life that I did not have a clue what life was about. I too was a continual pleasure seeker. I was not aware of the benefits of the fasting periods like Great Lent. Church was just another obligation. I know well the pitfalls of this way of life. I traveled the world seeking pleasures in fancy resorts. I've been to Bora Bora, to Hawaii, to remote African beaches, to Mediterranean spas, Greek islands, to the resorts along our ocean coasts, and on and on. What for? Seeking relief from a frantic way of life that seemed to have no other purpose but self-gratification. 

Then, while I was working on a PhD, the reality of life suddenly became clear to me. I realized that there is hope of an eternal life. I realized that Jesus Christ cannot be denied. Fortunately, I had married into a Greek family who was tied to the Orthodox Christian faith. This became a center, a rock, a foundation that is unshakable. It is a form of the Christian faith that has not changed over time. When I surrendered to its teachings and practices my life began to change. My purpose was redirected to one of seeking a unity with God, to become united with Him. My heart had hardened and needed to be renewed with love. I gave up such esoteric practices like Eastern meditation and instead sought the Triune God that is within each of us. Yes, I am still a sinner, but I am now working on the well being of my soul.

The Church is filled with storehouses of wisdom. Please, pay attention! Not only is there the documentation of the Incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, His life, His suffering, Crucifixion, Resurrection and then the establishment of His Church through the miraculous work of His disciples who were empowered by the Holy Spirit, but there is much more. There is an simpler and easier way of life that Jesus taught us. The Orthodox Church emphasizes this and shows us how to gain true joy step by step. Not the temporary joy we get from our pleasure excursions to a local bar or restaurant or seaside villa, but the joy that comes from an inner peace where one is in communion with a most merciful and loving God. It is the joy of a unity with the source of our life and the understanding of the eternal nature of our life. It comes with he realization that our earthly life is a time to prepare for what is to come. This wisdom is a gift from an ever merciful God who loves us and forgives.

I cry out, Wake up! Seek out the teachings of the Scriptures and the way of life taught by the Church! Learn how to pray in ernest daily, morning and night. Follow the fasting guidelines to develop an inner discipline. Attend the worship services out of a love and a desire to be united with Him in Holy Communion, not just to listen to the beautiful hymns or hear a good sermon. Read a little Scripture each day seeking to know Him and his teaching. Read some of the commentaries of the Church Fathers. Fill your home and work area with icons that help you remember all that He teaches. Form social groups of those who are true believers, not just social cliques or ties to ethnic traditions or old school buddies. Seek out a spiritual father who can guide you in a deep spiritual nature, someone who you will trust to guide you in the way of life that leads to true joy.

The path is simple. It's outlined in the ten principles of the Orthodox Way of life.  If you want your life renewed and fulfilled just follow it. You will not feel like you have given up anything and instead will feel like you have gained everything.  Try It!

Attend Church because you know God is real! Develop your love for Him! Work on it. Don't participate "Just in Case."

Ten Point Program for an Orthodox Way of Life.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Don't Cause Offense Over What Does not Harm You

This message is particularly important in this political season where tempers fly even over political rhetoric.

Saint Theophylact writes,
We should not take offense to anyone over things that do not harm us.
He wrote this commenting on a lesson Jesus taught His disciples when someone came to Peter and craftily asked if Jesus had paid the temple tax. (Matthew 17:24-27)
Jesus answered Peter, Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? Of their own sons, or of strangers? Peter answers, Of strangers. Jesus continues, Then indeed sons are free.
What He was saying was that as the son of God, the King, He should not have to pay the temple tax. 

But he continued saying that even though He shouldn't have to pay this tax, least He should offend them, He performs a miracle where the fish have coins in their mouth, and He tells Peter to use them and pay the tax. 

Even though He did not owe the tax He thought it more important to make allowance for their misunderstanding and to not cause any offense.

Our lesson from this event, according to Blessed Theophylact, is that we must not cause unnecessary offense when others ask us to do something that will not cause us harm, even though we may not agree with or like it. They may not even be asking us to do something but merely offering their idea or assessment of a situation. We don't have to answer in a way that will only raise tempers.

Think about all the times you have gotten angry, upsetting yourself, causing stress in yourself because of actions or words of others. How did that feel? Then think of the times when you responded and caused the same reaction in the body of someone else. How did that make them feel? Always keep in mind the well being of others. Don't be always insistent on your view or your way of doing things. Don't get upset when others do things differently than how you would do them. If you follow this advice, you will find a growing peace within and then you will find you are more able to interact in helpful ways where all grow in Christ.

We make ours and others lives stressful and difficult by insisting that everyone behave according to our expectations, our rules and resist going along with others when there is no harm to us.

Learning to love one another requires that we learn to be very careful about what we object to in what others ask of or say to us. If we are careful we can make this world one that is more peaceful with less stress. Remember how Jesus did not insist on His right not to be taxed, but chose instead to pay the tax so He would not create an issue.

Respond always with kindness and love with Christ ever in your mind.

Monday, March 14, 2016

One Necessity - Humility

Jesus tells us,
“Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3-4)
As we enter the Lenten Fast that is a gift of the Church to help us grow spiritually, it's good to reflect on this simple passage that Jesus spoke to His disciple when asked who is the greatest. But what does it mean to be humble and how does one humble oneself?

The Orthodox Study Bible defines humility as follows:
Humility, without which there is no virtue at all, is the acknowledgement of divine grace, and the constant denial of man's achievement.
This reminds us that whenever we are feeling like we have made an achievement by our own effort we have lost humility. We must acknowledge that divine grace is operating in all our actions. This means we must learn to live in constant prayer.

Worldly events move very quickly and we act instinctively most of the time. When things go the way we intended them, and we have the feeling of pride, we need to acknowledge the source of our achievement, His grace. Our pride should be in our willingness to follow God's grace in all our actions.

Of course this demands faith, a deep belief in God and that all that is good and beneficial only comes from Him, His grace working through us. Faith is always the foundation for a spiritual life. When it is weak we will easily succumb to ego-centered pride and will not have true humility.

This does not mean we do not work to develop our skills or to encourage our children to develop their talents. We just always remember that God gave us these talents and we are expected to develop them so we can do His will as we carry on with our daily life.

Let's examine ourselves during this Lenten period and observe how well we acknowledge the work of divine grace in our lives. Let's ask, how close to we come to living a life with continual prayer were God is in our mind at all times? How often do we acknowledge God's grace in our actions? What is our level of humility? What can we do to become more humble yet not neglect any of our duties nor fully use our talents?

One discipline to help us in this is the Jesus Prayer. It is a prayer of humility and one that when practiced like the Fathers instruct us will lead us to a mind where this prayer going continually no matter what we are doing.

For more on the Jesus Prayer