Monday, July 25, 2016

What is Orthodox Spirituality?

The term spirituality is used very loosely in our culture. But Orthodox spirituality has a very specific meaning. It is most clearly stated by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae a renown Romanian Theologian (1903 - 1993). He describes it as a life long process. It is a road that leads one to "perfection in Christ." This road involves the "cleansing of passions and the winning of virtues." It is a process that that takes place in a certain order. It is a process that involves the cleaning of one passion and then another. At the same time one acquires different virtues. Once a certain level of perfection is reached it "culminates in love." Finally one has closed themselves of all passions and has attained all virtues. This is perfection. He says,
"As man climbs toward this peak, he simultaneously moves toward union with Christ and the knowledge of Him by experience, which is also called deification."
Orthodox Spiritually involves a step by step transformation. as one processes he is filled with more and more presence of God.

The aim is perfection in Christ, a full union with Him. Our will become one with His and we are able to do His will instead of your self-centered will as we pray for in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done." Since God's goodness is infinite there is no end to this process. We never reach the point of total perfection.
He says,
"Our perfection, our union with God, is therefore not only a goal, but also an unending progress.... The culminating state of the spiritual life isis when the believer is raised higher than the level of his own powers,not of his own accord, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.
He describes this as a mystical life. He says,
"It is only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can testate of perfection and mystical union with God be reached."
This is called Asceticism which we will discuss in the next posting.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Significance of Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Compared to most protestant churches the Orthodox Church relies on the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit that was sent to the empower the Apostles on this day. We receive the Holy Spirit in our Baptism and Chrismation. It is involved in all the sacramental activities of the Church like Holy Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Matrimony, Ordination and so forth. It is our aim as an Orthodox Christian to be united with the Holy Spirit, to become united with God, or Theosis. Because our Church is alive with the Holy Spirit ever since that day of Pentecost, we know that salvation involves more than just a mental affirmation of our faith. We understand that we must work in synergy with Spirit to perfect ourselves so the Spirit within us can carry out God’s will. The Church, as a good spiritual hospital, gives us exercises, practices, rituals, services, and sacraments for this purpose. It's important to be active in all of these to purify our hearts, cleansing it from all sinfulness, from the passions of the body, of all the temptations of the activities of this world, so with His mercy we will be accepted into His Kingdom with eternal life.

What are we expected to do? First we must regularly participate in the Divine Liturgies and be prepared to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. This is for our renewal each week and gives us strength to continue as a Christian. At the moment when we receive Communion we are in union with our God. With Christ alive in our heart and permeating our entire body we continue to nurture our inner Spirit with daily prayer, both morning and evening, in our homes where we have made a special place with our icons, a cross, an oil lamp, prayerbook and Bible. Because we are by nature animals, we have instincts that we have to tame with our Spirit. This is why the Church has prescribed for us regular times for fasting. This is an essential discipline to realize we have within us a power that is greater than our bodily desires. This strengthens our will aligned with Spirit. To help us remember all that Christ taught us about how to live in this world we must also read a little of the Scriptures each day, especially the Gospels. Of course, when we reflect on our activities of the day, we realize how hard it is to live up to the ideals He taught us, and we seek His forgiveness for our shortcomings. Periodically, or whenever our mind is clouded by our inability to follow in His steps, we go to the sacrament of Confession where we again call on the Holy Spirit to cleanse and renew us like in our Baptism. We also know we need a spiritual father to guide us and to give us practical advice so we can continue to improve our way of life. As we go about our daily life we learn to carry the Jesus prayer with us as we do all things. We know we must put the needs of other first, showing our love for our neighbors as much as we love ourselves and our God. All of this brings to life the Holy Spirit that was sent to empower the Apostles on this day of Pentecost. We too can be empowered like them but we must be co-active with the Spirit. Coming to the service, reciting the creed, and listening to the sermon is not sufficient according to our tradition. There is a way of life that we must also follow. When we do, we will be led by the Wisdom of the Church to grow in Spirit and become more and more able to do His will at all times.

Let’s celebrate this great event and receive the Holy Spirit into our lives each day and work tirelessly using the practices given to us by the Apostles as they set up the first Orthodox Churches. In this way the day of Pentecost become living event for us each day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orthodox Christianity is an Integral Religion for Today and the Future

Orthodox Christianity integrates all forms of knowing. It has no conflict with scientific knowledge, it honors our emotions, it encourages intellectual understanding, and recognizes spiritual experience. It is historical and not based on mythical stories. It has a "yoga" or "way of life" that guides a follower to grow in their ways of knowing, seeking to live in dynamic presence of God. It recognizes the interior as well as the exterior reality of all things. It has a Tradition that is over 2000 years old. Yet it embraces the nature of our current world and the freedoms it espouses. It teaches universal values and  does not reject persons with differing values. It provides a shelter for those who seek to find peace and harmony in divine love. It provides a hospital for wounded souls. It's aim is integration of body, mind, soul, and Spirit without degrading the reality or importance of any of these dimensions. This is called Theosis, a union with God that does not require the loss of our individuality or personality.

We live in a historical time of transition. In ancient times there was no differentiation of the individual, society or community, and Spirit. Man was not free but constrained by mythical and pagan beliefs enforced by society, often under severe threat of punishment or even death. But our minds were opened to power of science, our hearts were freed for self expression, and we learned the importance of developing our intellect. Unfortunately we lost the power of Spirit in this transition as the power of intellect and power of scientific discoveries began to overpower and limit our full reality. Only what was observable in physical terms our demos treatable by clear logic became acceptable truth. This has led to much dysfunction and a loss of many universal values of Goodness.

Throughout this long historical period Orthodox Church survived with its holistic and integral world view. It is now is a position to lead mankind to a greater level of development where we retain our individuality, our freedom, but find peace and harmony though a realization of Spirit.

The Orthodox Church teaches that our world is the Creation of God and maintained by Spirit. When the time was right He sent His Son, Jesus, to show us this integral way of life. Jesus is not a mythical figure but his life has been recorded by four different witnesses to His life and time. His life is also validated by both Roman and Jewish historians, as well as recent archeological findings. Unfortunately many of the lessons He taught us have been misinterpreted by many who accept His realty leaving some with a flattened view of His lessons. The Orthodox Church never lost the integral nature of His life. It was defended by Seven Ecumenical Councils with the last one being held 1200 years ago. While for about 1000 years there was only one Church, today you can find more than a thousand versions. But the Orthodox Churh has stayed true to the origin teachings about the nature of Chrust and what He had to teach.

Jesus was both fully man and fully God and he taught us how to become like Himself. He struggled to convince people of His time that there is a greater realm than the physical. They wanted a powerful king but He was king of a greater realm. It was through His cruel and painful unjust death, followed by His resurrection witnessed by many, His teaching of disciples that followed and His empowerment of them by the Spirit that He still lives among us in the Orthodox Church.

He established a sacramental Church filled with the work of the Holy Spirit where peoples of all nations could be healed, nurtured by the Spirit, and lifted in their ways of knowing to experience the dynamic presence of God in their lives. He did not give them a book but a "way of life", a set of practices and disciplines along with sacraments where the Holy Spirit is fully engaged in a way that we are renewed.

To learn more about this integral way of life Jesus gave to us you will find Ten Points that will serve as a beginning guide to this way of life. The way begins with a belief, an acceptance of the realty of Jesus as a historical person as presented in the four Gospels and his dual nature as both God and man as defended by the Ecumenical Councils. With this belief the Ten Points will guide you along an ever growing path. The Spirit is enlivened in you, and you can develop a life grounded in an experienced knowledge of the mystical energies of God.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Is the Orthodox Church Biblical or Something More?

Orthodox Christianity is without a doubt more than Biblical. It is a living embodiment of Christ Himself.  It leads us to become joined in Union with God.  The Bible was given to us by the Church to make sure we clearly understand the nature of God as shown to us by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. But our religion is not just about understanding a book. Of course we must understand the realty recorded by the eyewitness of the time of Jesus and recorded int the New Testament Gospels, but we need much more to be united with Him and to become capable of doing His will.

The Church was founded by the disciples of Jesus after He had first taught them about the sacramental nature of the Church. This He did after His resurrection and then left this world and directed them to wait in prayer and fasting for the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost He empowered them with the Holy Spirit to carry the Good News about His life, death, resurrection, and the way to become renewed, to people throughout the world. 

Our faith often begins with an acceptance of the Biblical story told about Jesus by the writers of the Gospels written while there were still many eyewitnesses to the miraculous events that took place. But this mental effort only opens the door to a deeper spiritual life that goes beyond our intellectual understanding of these writings. 

In the Church we have more than the Sacred writings. We are given a way to live, a yoga, a set of practices that lead us to a personal experience of the energies of God. We are led to participate in His presence. Baptized with the water infused with the Holy Spirit, and receiving the seal of the Holy Spirit in our Chrismation with Holy Oil, we join other faithful Christians to participate regularly in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments that are offered regularly. After Baptism we are then able to partake in the actual spiritualized Body and Blood of Christ and in Holy Confession that continually cleanses our inner being renewing our Baptism. We are taught to develop a daily prayer life and to practice fasting to help us tame the physical and psychological passions we are tempted with. As we develop our love for God we strive to follow His directions. We find that this involves a struggle to overcome the many temptations presented to us though our physical nature and the ways of the world. This is why we have the Church. The Church provides us with a way to overcome our deficiencies and a way to nurture our souls. This way of life, striving always to live by God's commandments, is aided by these practices and guided by a spiritual father. This is the nature of the Church established by the Apostles.

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlahos writes about how we differ from Protestants.
Protestants do not have a "therapeutic treatment" tradition. They suppose that believing in God, intellectually, constitutes salvation. Yet salvation is not a matter of intellectual acceptance of truth; rather it is a person's transformation and divinisation by grace. This transformation is effected by the analogous "treatment" of one's personality... In the Holy Scripture it appears that faith comes by hearing the Word and by experiencing "theoria" (the vision of God). We accept faith at first by hearing in order to be healed, and then we attain to faith by theoria, which saves man. Protestants, because they believe that the acceptance of the truths of faith, the theoretical acceptance of God's Revelation, i.e. faith by hearing saves man, do not have a "therapeutic tradition." It could be said that such a conception of salvation is very naive.
The Church was established by Christ as a hospital for our souls. It provides the means for healing the angst of our soul's silent yearning for unity with God, continually renewing the power of Spirit within each of us. Because of this the Orthodox Church is much more than a Book, more than Biblical. Christ did not come to give us a Book. In fact He did not write anything. What He gave to us was a way to participate in His presence, to become united with Him and to attain eternal life with Him.

See Ten Points For Living an Orthodox Way of Life 

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.