Thursday, September 13, 2018

Politics and Spirituality: Feeling anxious or distracted by Political rhetoric?

In today’s heated political season it is important not to get distracted. Saint Paisios warns, 
"Now days, too much "world"-- an excess of secular spirit  -- has entered the world and will destroy us. People have taken this "world" into their hearts and have expelled Christ."
Take for example the current popular political slogan, "Make America Great Again." (I use this as an example at the risk of being accused of being political, but this is not my intent. Hear me out. Its not an issue of being Republican or Democrat on any other political persuasion.) Have you thought about what Great means in this context? If you ask around, you will find that there is no agreement what is meant by this. Each person has their own idea about what will make their country great.

We can think about “greatness” in two ways. One is secular or worldly and the other spiritual. Generally we think in secular terms, worldly or politically, seeking ways the government can better our lives. This is the realm of politics. In this realm we all have differing views. Some want new laws while others want old laws revoked. Some want a racial bias in our rulers and others more diversity. Some want an economy where there is some income distribution while others oppose any. Some are pro-life and others pro-choice and so on. The issues are all worldly. The list of differences is endless and sometimes they are very extreme. There is no basis for a common view. Everyone has their own option. There is no absolute truth, right or wrong. When we become aligned with a political part, we are no longer capable of having a rational dialogue with those of another party. Friends are lost as we find our selves angered by opposing views or personalities. It is like our minds are frozen. Each person thinks that if their idea is implemented by the government it will make society greater and any other view will bring disaster. The political slogans become divisive rather than unifying.

When we think of greatness in spiritual terms, the focus shifts from thinking of the government as our savior to  our relationship with God. As we examine the ideal life taught by Jesus, we discover the limitations we have in ourselves. Jesus came to teach that peace and joy only comes from within ourselves. It’s no longer about the external laws. The "kingdom of God is within," "Purify your heart and see God,"  He teaches.

Even Jesus struggled with communicating this message because the Jews were expecting a great political leader to make them great and free them from a oppressive Roman government. They could not grasp His spiritual message about the Kingdom of heaven. They were blinded and distracted by their political or worldly aims of control and power to enforce external laws.

When we view greatness spiritually, we see that for greatness it is necessary for each of us to correct the imperfections in ourselves, learn to control our own passions so that we can truly love God and love others as ourselves. We need to overcome our anger, our desires, our lust, and so forth. This is what is meant by, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In heaven there is no struggle. Greatness in this spiritual sense then becomes unifying. We find that all of us are struggling to become better persons, and with mutual love seeking forgiveness and forgiving others. With this view, a great society is one where everyone is seeking to improve themselves, learning how to love each other as themselves, and with faith calling on the Holy Spirit to help us all. 

I think this spiritual quest is the only way we will gain what we are seeking. While there may be some small incremental improvements that can be made in the secular arena, our aim must be a union with God and eternal life in His kingdom. This may not be possible in this earthly life, but we can have hope with faith, and give our best efforts to purify our hearts to be worthy of eternal life is His kingdom. 

We must heed the warning given us by Saint Paisios and not become distracted by the many worldly slogans that politicians bombard us with through highly polished advertisements. Don’t let this heated political season distract you from our goal to be united with Christ. Guard against anger. Don’t fall into hatred of anyone or any group of people. Have compassion for those who think differently from you. Try to understand their point of view. Remember we are all made in God’s image and all struggle with our passions. Don’t put time into watching cable news instead of your daily prayer time. Read Scripture and a book by one of our Church Fathers. Attend Liturgy, prepare and receive Holy Communion and pray for the well being of all humanity. Review the Ten Points for an Orthodox life and focus on becoming more like Christ in all your daily activities.

Don’t let the “world” overtake your heart and blot out Christ.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Prayer - 54 Points on Prayer from Saint Theophan

The following 54 points on prayer from Saint Theophan the Recluse are taken from the collection of writings on prayer found in the book The Art of Prayer.

1. Enter into the spirit of the prayers which you hear and read, reproducing them in your heart; and in this way offer them up from your heart to God, as if they had been born in your own heart under the action of the grace of God.
2. Prayer is the primary work of the moral and religious life. p62
3. The atmosphere of the soul is not purified until a small spiritual flame is kindled in the soul. This flame is the work of the grace of God....This flame appears when a man has attained a certain measure of purity in the general moral order of life. p 65
4. The principal thing in prayer is a feeling heart. p 67
5. You must not let your thoughts to wander at random, but as soon as they run away, you must immediately bring them back, reproaching yourself, regretting and deploring this straying of the must make great effort. p 67
6. The virtuous and humble monk hides his virtues as a rich man hides his treasures, and does not follow his own wishes. p 75
7. Do not allow your mind to be idle, but let it meditate and pray in secret...sometimes meditating on a verse from the Psalms, and sometimes praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” p 77
8. Meditate on the thought of God, On the remembrance of death, and recollect your sins with self reproach. Be conscious of these things and speak about them often with yourself m where am I going? Or: I am a worm and not man. p 79
9. Prayer must not be simply an occupation for a certain time ,but a permanent state of spirit. p 80
10. He who prays without ceasing dwells constantly in the Lord, knows the Lord as God, acquires fear of Him, by fear enters into purity, and by purity into divine love. p 84
11. God is everywhere: see that your thoughts too are always with God. p86
12. The principle thing is to walk before God, or under God’s eye, aware that God is looking at you, searching your soul and heart, seeing all that is there. p 90
13. There is just one method which is obligatory for all: to stand with the attention in the heart. p98
The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as He is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that He sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. p100
14. Awaken in your soul the thirst for salvation...And then cry out to Him...It is not words that matter but your feeling nags towards the Lord. p 108
15. Let the Jesus Prayer be on your tongue; let God’s presence be before your mind; and in your heart let there be the thirst for God, for communion with the Lord. When all this becomes permanent, then the Lord, seeing how you exert yourself, will give you what you ask. p108
16. To achieve spontaneous prayer, we must force ourselves to pray in a particular way — with the Jesus Prayer. p113
17. Before or after your rule of prayer, night and morning or during the day, consecrate a fixed period of time for the performance of this one prayer. p 113
18. The more the Jesus Prayer penetrates into the heart, the warmer the heart becomes, and the more self propelled becomes the prayer, so that the fire of spiritual life is kindled in the heart. p 114
19. When you pray, do not end your prayer without having aroused in your heart some feeling towards God, whether it be reverence, or devotion, or thanksgiving, or glorification, or humility and contrition, or hope and trust. Also when after prayer you begin to read, do not finish reading without having felt in your heart the truth of what you read. p 120
20. Our whole object is to acquire the habit of keeping our attention always on the Lord... p122
21. Any rule of prayer that is properly followed will produce as its first fruits attention and a warm tenderness of heart. p 124
22. It is necessary in the first place to be cleansed of passions. p 126
23. Try to acquire a kind of soreness in your heart. p 127
24. Consider everyone to be better than yourself. p 129
25. Establish in the heart a quiet but warm and constant feeling towards God, not expecting ecstasy or any extraordinary state. p131
26. But as soon as man expects to achieve something in virtue of his own power and self-mastery, then immediately true spiritual life, full of grace, is extinguished. p 134
27. Also must he force himself to self-belittlement, regarding himself as poor and the lowest of all men; he must refrain from idle talk, always studying the words of the lord and keeping them on his lips and in his heart. He should also force himself to avoid irritation and angry speech... p135
28. It is best never to think of yourself as having attained anything, but always to see yourself as poor, naked, blind, and worthless. p 136
29. He who in total humility puts himself in the hand of a merciful God, attracts the Lord to himself. p 136
30. If you have filled your mind with earthly things, if you have given yourself up to the cares of daily business, you have already quenched the Spirit. p150
31. Set your affection on things above, not on things of the earth. p151
32. Do not measure yourself. If you think you can decide any question about your progress, it means that you are beginning to measure yourself to see how much you have grown. Please avoid this as you would avoid fire. p 159
33. Remembrance of God is never idle but invariably leads us to meditate on the perfection of God and on His goodness, truth, creation, Providence, redemption, judgement, and reward. p 163
34. It is wrong to become attached to too much reading. It leads to no good and builds a wall between heart and God. It leads to the development of a harmful curiosity and sophistry. p168
35. Instead of concentration upon external behavior, all those who work on themselves must have as their aim to be attentive and vigilant, and to walk in the presence of God. p 170
36. When we have no communion with God, and do not feel Him within us, we must recognize that we have turned away from our aim and from the way chosen for us. p 172
37. You must believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is within us—by the power of baptism and holy communion, according to His own promise; for He is united with us through these Sacraments. p 173
38. The kingdom of God is within us when God reigns in us... This reign begins as soon as we resolve to serve God in our Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Then the Christian hands over to God his consciousness and freedom...and God accepts the sacrifice. p 180
39. What have you to feel above all else? Self-satisfaction, self-appreciation, self-conceit, and all other things beginning with self. p 187
40. Giving yourself in prayerful surrender to God and His grace, call out each of the things that incite you to sin and try to turn your heart away from them, directing it towards their opposite... It is necessary to go on working on ourselves in this way until, instead of self-pity, there is born in us mercifulness and ruthlessness towards ourselves, a desire to suffer, to torture ourselves, to tire out our soul and body.... It is ne essay to go on working until our appetite exclusively for things material, sensory, and visible disappears completely, and is replaced by a feeling of disgust for such things; and instead we begin to thirst and to search only for what is spiritual, pure, and divine. ...the heart comes to be filled with a sense of being but a pilgrim on earth, whose whole longing is for his heavenly home. p 203
41. Do not theologize. P 208
42. High opinion of ourselves gives rise to two things: blowing our own trumpet and censuring others. p 209
43. Refrain from any kind of judging. We should do better to direct our censure and criticism against ourselves. p 210
44. Self-gratification is the cause of all evils. p 214
45. When you talk to someone, above all refrain from upsetting him by aggressiveness, or by expressing an opinion directly opposed to his, from an obvious desire to have your own way. P 217
46. Progress in the spiritual life is shown by an ever-increasing realization of our own worthlessness, in the full and literal sense of this word. p222
47. Tears are the measure of progress, an unceasing tears are a sign of coming perfection. p226
48. The more man contemplates his sin and the more he laments over himself, the more pleasing and accessible he is to the Holy Spirit, who like a physician approaches only those who recognize themselves as being ill... Look upon your sin, and search it out... Deny yourself...and weep over it. p 227
49. Activities are not the main thing in life. The most important is to have the heart directed and attuned to God. p 235
50. Act and speak always with the awareness that the Lord is near and direct everything according to His pleasure. p 239
51. A custom yourself to be with the Lord unceasingly, whatever you may be doing, and do everything for Him, striving to bring it to harmony with His commandments. Then you will never feel sad, for you will know that you are always doing His work. p 239
52. To do everything in the Name of the Lord means to turn all to His glory, to try to perform everything in such a way as to please Him, conscious that it is His will. It means also to surround every deed by prayer to Him; to begin it with prayer and to end it with prayer; as we begin, to ask His blessing; as we proceed, to beg His help; and as we finish, to give Him thanks for accomplishing His work in us and through us. p 249
53. Wish that the spirit of deep humility should always reign in you. This brings tears and contrition, and it also prevents us from being puffed up with pride at having them. p 274. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

More wisdom on Reading

When reading the holy fathers, we find a place that responds to us: say, a word about a virtue that we do not have, but would like to acquire, or about any shortcoming that we have and from which we wish to get rid of, - let us stop and reflect on this. For example, I found some teaching on the passion of anger. I close the book, I sit, I think and I pray, how can I stop being angry, and imprint it in my mind. And when we read an infinite number of pages in a row, and we like everything, and the content is full of meaning, then we forget a lot. If I read, read, read, and eventually close the book and leave - then I do not remember anything and do not return my mind to the read. The goal is not to read as many pages as possible, but to make us benefit from what we read.
Abbess Theosemni of Chrysiopigi Monastery Chania, Crete

Monday, July 9, 2018

Beware of Too Much Reading

When we begin our search for a God it is natural for us to seek out knowledge from books, especially those written by our Church Fathers, the saints and elders of the Church. But there is a danger in this that we must be aware of.

Saint Theophan the Recluse says,
Turning his mind towards God with all his might, his one desire would be to read only of Him, to speak only of Him. But these occupations alone will not lead to what is sought, unless accompanied by other, more practical activities.
We also need to learn how to live the Orthodox life. This involves prayer, both collective prayer we experience in our worship services and our private prayer that is a daily activity. We must participate in the Sacraments especially Holy Communion and Confession. The other ascetic practices such of fasting are also important. We must gain self knowledge so we can make changes in our way of life. There are passions or habits we have that must be controlled. (See booklet Ten Points For an Orthodox Way of Life). So what is the danger in reading?

Saint Theophan writes,
The practice of reading and speaking of God will, used on his own, create a facile habit for such things: It is easier to philosophize than to pray or pay attention to oneself. But since it is a work of the mind, which falls so easy into pride, he predisposes a man to self-esteem. It may altogether cool the desire for practical effort, and consequently hinder sound progress by a flattering successfulness in this mental activity. For this reason sound-minded teachers warn their pupils of the danger and advise them not to concern themselves too much with such reading and talk to the detriment of other things.
Reading and dialog can become a substitute for what is really necessary to acquire the Holy Spirit so one can live in a way that is Christ like to live in union with Him.

Saint Theophan again,
It is wrong to become too much attached to reading it leads to no good and builds a wall between the heart and God would lead to the development of harmful.
When you read, read with the intention of learning how to change yourself. Then make a sincere effort to actually change how you live. Without changes little is gained.

Reference: Saint Theophan, The Art of Prayer, p 168

Monday, July 2, 2018

How to Seek Inner Peace

In the beginning of our spiritual journey we realize that we lack an inner peace, and realize that the way we are seeking to find it only seems to bring more turmoil. We have a feeling that God is distant from us and that our inner being is seeking a peace it cannot find. This motivates us to renew, or even begin for the first time, our search for God, and a deep inner spiritual peace only He can bring. This effort is brought about by our conscience and engages our will to take actions that will help us change our way life.

We seek spiritual books to read, we seek out a spiritual father to teach us the way, and we begin to attend worship services more regularly. With our sincerity in this effort, we are properly guided and  encouraged to also actively participate in the sacramental life of the Church, primarily Confession and Holy Communion. We learn about, and begin, the ascetic disciplines of fasting and daily prayer, and learn how to properly prepare to receive Holy Communion regularly.

Through our participation in the Sacraments, our self-knowledge increases, and we become aware of how often we miss the mark in fulfilling God’s commandments. With this increased knowledge we receive the gift of God’s grace, the Holy Spirit, which begins to work from within us.

Saint Theophan the Recluse put it this way:
If all goes well, a man who seeks after God will, upon reflection, decide to give up distractions and a life lived in self-denial, inspired by fear of God and by his conscience. In answer to this decision the grace of God which until now has acted from without, enters within through the sacraments; the spirit of man, previously important, now becomes full strength.
We begin our Christian journey with the insight that we are separated from God and an awareness that our soul seeks an inner peace that only comes from the Holy Spirit working from within our being. We read and get advice from a spiritual doctor, most commonly our parish priest, and begin to nurture our soul through the sacramental life in the Church. We experience this sacramental way of life as the spiritual medicine that brings God’s Grace, Christ Himself, and the Holy Spirit, to grow within us. It is this spiritual force that warms our heart, purifies it, brings us into a closer relationship with God, and  develops an unshakable inner peace. We discover that this is a peace that is not disturbed by the trials and tribulations of our earthly life.

Reference: Saint Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer, p 167

Ten Points for Living the Orthodox Way of Life 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Do you Feel Something is Lacking in Your Christian Life?

If you feel something is lacking in your Christian faith, this is when your Christian life can begin in earnest. In an earlier post Elder Archimandrite Aimilianos told us it begins when we have the feeling of being separated from God, a feeling that something is lacking in the practice of our faith. He also said this feeling is necessary if we are to begin  to walk the path to salvation as promised.

Saint Theophan the Recluse says,
We become aware of this incompleteness, and see the incorrectness of our way of life and the instability of our efforts. And so we turn from outward to inward piety. We are led into this either by reading books about spiritual life, or by talking with those who know what the essence of Christian life is, or by dissatisfaction with our own efforts, by a certain intuition that something is lacking, and that all is not going as it should.
He tells us that this awareness of something lacking comes when we have lived what is normally seen as a good life, but we do not have inner peace and do not have what Saint Paul says is promised, “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17). He says,
Once this troubling thought is born in us, then by talking with people who have knowledge he will come to realize what the matter is, or we may read about it in a book. Either of these things will enable us to see the essential defect in the order of our life, namely our lack of attention to the movements within ourselves, and our lack of self-mastery.
It is when we realize that something is lacking in the practice of our faith that we become motivated to seek what kind of changes are necessary for us to become united with him so we are able to endure whatever life brings, doing His will, and living with inner peace.

Saint Theophan tells us that this is when we begin to understand that the solution lies in the condition of our inner being.  He says,
We understand then, that the essence of the Christian life consists in establishing ourselves with our mind in the heart before God, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is in this way we are enabled to control all inward movements and all outward actions, so as to transform everything in our self, whether great or small, into the service of God, the Trinity, consciously and freely offering ourselves wholly to God.
This is when we can benefit from studying the Ten Point Program For Living an Orthodox Life booklet to learn how to live the Orthodox way of Life. This gives us the path to what our soul is seeking, union with God.

Finally Saint Theophan writes,
Once one has become conscious of what the essence of Christian life is, and has found that it is something that he does not yet possess, he sets to work with his mind in order to achieve it. He reads, thinks, and talks. And so he comes to realize that the Christian life depends on union with the Lord.

Reference: The Art of Prayer compiled byIgumen Chariton of Valamo, p 165

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Why must we cry out to God in prayer.

To develop a personal relationship with God and know Him through His energies we need to pray from the depths of our being. This is more than  mental effort.  It demands our use of our deeper noetic faculty. This is said by our Church Fathers to be in the “heart” where the “spirit in the heart” speaks.

Archimandrite Aimilianos says that in prayer,
What matters is that a cry should come forth from the depths which, like a loud roar, like an earthquake, will shake the heavens a finally force God to answer, and to say to us [like He said to Moses] “Why do you cry to me?” (Ex 14.15).
Why do we have to cry? Elder Aimilianos says it is to wake God up, just like the Apostles had to do when they were caught in a storm while on a boat with Jesus. Feeling in danger they cried out to Him, woke Him up and He calmed the storm.(Mt 8).

But surely God knows what we need. So what do we cry out?

Elder Aimilianos says
God does this, first so we will express our longing for Him, and for that longing to be uniquely ours. Second, so that we can become of our need and nakedness [sinfulness], and third so we can learn to seek Him.
If God were simply to surrender to us without our effort we would also easily discard Him. He wants us to seek and experience Him. In this way our prayer will become meaningful and lead us in the way of His commandments.

This is still only the beginning in our journey of prayer.

Reference: Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Church at Prayer, p 18