Sunday, October 2, 2016

Why Do Our Church Fathers See Death as a Gift from God?

Death is always something that brings sorrow to our hearts. So why should we look at it as a gift from God? The obvious answer is that death is the only pathway to the Kingdom of God. It is in death that we are reborn into His eternal kingdom. Of course it is not only by dying that we will enter, we must also have a soul that longs for God with love and a life where we have continually strove to do His will. This does not mean we will be perfect or sinless as only Christ is sinless, but that we must be striving for that perfection because we love God with our whole heart.

We can look at the way Christ faced death to understand the nature of this path. First, remember how Christ suffered on His way to the Cross? By this He wanted us to know that the path is not easy and is often filled with pain and great difficulty. Secondly, think about how we demonstrate our faithfulness through our endurance of pain and difficulty. Third, the best news of all, the basis of the Gospel, be assured that there is hope for us in our resurrection. Christ shows us that if we are faithful, death is only a transition from this worldly life to a life in His kingdom.

It’s important to remember that the aim of our life is not wealth, happiness, well being. Hopefully we will receive these gifts, but the aim is to become united with Him through our obedience and death. Our life is also a gift given to us so we can purify our soul and develop this true love of God while we experience the wonders and beauties of His creation.

The fathers also teach us that one way to assure we live a pure life is to remember every day the reality of our eventual death. Not in a morbid or negative way, but in a hopeful way, seeing the reality of our coming life in His kingdom reached through death.

With this view we will find that many of the desires that give us a stressful life are not really all that important in this bigger picture. Reflect on how you see the aim of your life.  How do you see the reality of your death. Can you see it as something positive?

When we lose a loved one as they move along the path to union with God, we find it difficult to accept and feel the great loss of their presence. This too is normal as even Christ wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. Sorrow is to be expected and we can remind ourselves that our loss is the gain of the one who has fallen asleep in the Lord. We say they have fallen asleep as death is not really death but a transformation of life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What is Orthodox Meaning of Theosis or Union with God

Saint Theophan the Recluse says, that the aim of an Orthodox Christian is "a living unity with God." This referred to as "theosis." What is this union or unity? This does not mean an identity with God where we lose our human identity and become one in essence with God. Many Protestants reject this Orthodox understanding because they fail to appreciate that one can have a union with God without becoming identified with God. Fr Staniloae tells us, "Christian teaching adopts a middle position between mysticism of identity and the irreducible separation between man and God." Both extremes are rejected by Orthodox Christians. To understand theosis we must have a clear view of the nature of God.

God is a reality of unlimited power that is not surpassed or limited by any creature or thing. All of creation, the whole of the world, is the result of God's creation, His free will. All was created from nothing. God is beyond all creation. The world is not made up of God particles. There is nothing of God's being in the constitution of the world.There is no possibility for identity with God of any of His creation. The reality of creation is that it cannot become uncreated by any form of progression. But there is more.

Fr. Staniloae says,

On the other hand, the Word God used to create the world, as a manifestation of His will was in some way an expression of power. God did not mix His power with the nature of the world. Nevertheless, without the descent of His power into the nothingness from which He took it, it couldn't have been produced; and without the presence of His power around it and even in the immediate intimacy of everything in it, the world would not be able to sustain itself and develop. Without the power of God in the final analysis, the world would be reduced to the nothingness which has no power to sustain it... Thus everything in the world has intimately within it, the immediate presence of a working power of God.
We can never become part of the essence of God but we only exist in His power. It is by His power working in us, His presence, that we find ourselves in union with God. It is only because of this union that we exist.

Saint Theophan says, "It may seem strange that communion with God must be attained when it is already present."  While we exist in communion with His power we are not aware of this reality. We see ourselves as independent beings like we are of our own making. We act as if we are the creator of our life.

The union with God that Orthodox understand as our aim is about an understanding that we live in Him. Fr Staniloae says, 

"Christian spirituality teaches that attainment of union is possible only by gradual growth and an understanding of it by the consciousness... It requires the cleansing of the soul and mind from worldly preoccupation." 
It is only with a clean consciousness that we can attain an understanding of this union which is neither an identity with God nor a absolute separation. Union is a matter attaining a consciousness of His presence and the reality that our existence depends on His power. It is an ongoing process until it become a living unity. Saint Theophan describes it as a "movement from mental communion with God to actual live, perceptible and manifest communion."

Our consciousness has inherent in it a deep seated knowledge of an infinite reality that supports our existence. It is this inherent knowledge that gives us the motivation to know and to seek this union with God. Our "mind is made to seek God." We have an intimate feeling of an infinite reality that we strive to know. This desire indicates the kind of direct relationship that is possible with God. There is inherent in this inner feeling a value of love and we sense a connection like a "delicate tread".  This power that sustains us nurtures our seeking and understanding that comes and goes from our consciousness, showing us ever more the reality of a direct relationship that we are destined to attain.

Often Protestants maintain an intellectual stance insisting on an absolute separation of man and God. They claim it is only in the Word as found in Scripture that we know God. The Word of Jesus is only understood intellectually. For in their view the Word is totally separate from us. They miss this mystical reality of His grace that sustains all creation.

Fr. Staniloae writes:

God extends Himself by His power, to the point where prophetic organs proclaim His revelational word. But for the listener to gain certainty of the divine character of this word, the divine power must take one more step, namely into his soul, as radiation from the word itself. "
More is possible than knowledge of God from a distance, such as by reading Scripture. There is a feeling that takes place within our soul which is more than a distant intellectual kind of knowledge.

Since we can never achieve an identity with God, our knowledge is fully developed based on a personal relationship that leads us to a face to face vision. It is like knowing your neighbor. You can't know all about Him based on your own effort. He must reveal himself to you based on his own initiative. This is also true for God. A "vision of God cannot be reached without a special grace from Him."

This vision of unity or union comes after much effort to purify our consciousness. We gain glimpses and then He seems to disappear. Saint Marcarius the Great writes. The spiritual influence of God's grace within the soul works with great patience, wisdom and mysterious management of the mind, while the man for long times and seasons contends in much endurance; and then the work of grace is proved to be perfect in him."

Saint Theophan writes,
Finally, when this period of hidden communion in the soul is over...God dwells in man in a special manner. He visibly fills him, unites Himself to him and communes with him. This is the goal man strives to achieve through all his ascetic struggles and labors...
Fr. Staniloae writes that the spiritual Christian says,
"I am man, but I live as God, by what God has given me; I am man, but I am on God's level by the grace with which He has been pleased to cloth me..." This reflects the expression of the Apostle Paul: "I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20). In other words, my personality hasn't ceased to exist because I am conscious of it at the same time as I affirm it; my personality now lives the life of Christ. I am still a man by nature, but I have become Christ by the powers by which I myself now live. This is the experience of the Christian on the highest peaks of spiritual life.
Saint Diadochos of Photiki says, 
"Grace illumines his whole being with a deeper awareness, warming him with great love of God."

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp30-39 by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae

Monday, August 8, 2016

What is Orthodox Asceticism?

Asceticism is a key part of Orthodox Spirituality. It is not a negative activity but a most positive one. It is the primary means by which we come closer to God. It involves the activities that help us perfect our way of life to be more like Christ.

Fr Staneloe says,
It is the part of spirituality that deals with the rules and efforts that bring man to the first step of the ascent to perfection, to contemplation and union with God.
While our salvation depends of the grace of God, asceticism is "the active part of the spiritual life." It is the effort that we must make in cooperation with God's grace. It is not an option but a central part of responding to His grace so we can be perfected by it. God always leads but we must also follow.

Saint Paul used the metaphor of an athletic competition to describe asceticism. He writes,
if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.  (Tim 2, 2:5)
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Ascetic efforts like prayer, fasting, and repentance are what liberates us from sin. They fortify our true nature. They are all part of a most positive effort.

We must accept that we are weak and acknowledge that our mind is easily swayed. We are attracted by pleasure and strive to avoid pain. We are tossed to and fro by these two forces. Christ, being fully human, was able  to conquer the love of passion and the fear of death. It is through asceticism that we overcome these forces and become attached to Christ and attain His human nature. "His force becomes our Force."
We must also remember that asceticism in not just about overcoming sinfulness. It is also about attaining the virtues.

Fr Staneloe points out the following:
Christianity considers that the direct vision of God cannot be reached without the grace given by Him and the reception of grace requires a mortal perfection of the the whole huan nature by ceaseless divine help.
To be united with God we have to make ourselves worthy by being sincere, clean and good because He is a force that is above an offensive that uses force or shyness. The path to union with God is a long road. It is "illumined by not only reason, but faith too, and by prayer and the help of God."

Engage in the race and seek the crown as Saint Paul tells us.  Just like exercise is positive when you are preparing for an athletic competition, asceticism is a positive action when you are seeking the ultimate crown, union with God.

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