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Monday, December 19, 2016
When we are in pain we should not think of this as a punishment from God but as a gift. God allows sickness for our benefit. Remember, God is love and is always trying to lead us to become like him so we can enter into His kingdom. Accepting our pain and discomfort as a gift, we must think of it as an opportunity to share in a small way the Passion of Christ. It is His grace working in us. When we see this in this way we will experience joy that He is with us and allowing us to participate in His passion. It is His Passion that lead to His Resurrection. So we too are being led to our Resurrection by His grace when we experience as pain.
Nor should not fear pain as a sign of death, but think that, if it is our time to die, death is the only door to heaven and eternal life with Him.
Saint Porphyrios says that we should not pray to be relieved of our pain as this can be self-centered. We should instead pray to be forgiven for our sinfulness. Usually our sickness and pain makes us aware of our sinfulness and we feel a need to call on God for help. We should pray for God to help us become a good person capable of doing His will and follow His commandments.
Sickness humbles us. It makes us realize that we are not in control. It is like the hot fire that purifies gold. The fire heats up the gold metal and the impurities float to the top. Then they are skimmed off leaving pure gold. When we are sick and realize we cannot control the destiny of our life it is like the heat that purifies gold. Our sinfulness comes to the top and with our prayer of forgiveness God can skim off the impurities in our hearts. As we continually sincerely ask for his mercy we find that His grace is given to us in mysterious ways. This faith we have in God's goodness towards us and His saving grace must be pure and unconditional. We must without doubt believe that God is our creator and savior. Based on this faith we must have total love for Him, loving Him more than anyone we know. With this love we can say like saint Porphyrios says, "Even if you want to put mey in Hell, do so as long as I do not lose your love." For Him God's love had no boundaries.
In sickness Saint Porphyrios teaches us to accept our condition knowing God loves us and that He allows this illness so we can come closer to Him. Remember your sinfulness, continually pray for His mercy and forgiveness, and ask that he make you a good person in His eyes. Do not ask for self-centered things like to make you well but instead ask only that He make you a better person.
Have patience, endurance, and love God with your whole heart.
Reference: Wounded by Love, pp 224 -231
Monday, December 12, 2016
To those who see other good people of other faiths often question this. But the Incarnation of the Son of God is a reality that cannot be denied. God sent His son as the Way to His kingdom for our benefit. Fr Staniloae says, Jesus Christ He came for us as "a voice" of love, ringing out with all the affection of a human being, so familiar to us. But this means that man himself was made capable of becoming the medium by which the Son of God is communicated to us..."
When we ascend to God we are "with Him and in Him." Our ascent is not based on our individual efforts. It is only through Him that we are able to ascend. In the beginning our soul is "sensitized by the Holy Spirit." From this we are able to realize that there is a relationship with Jesus who is the one guiding and helping us along the Way. He is like a good friend, who is more advanced in wisdom and whom we trust, guiding us with love and understanding.
In the beginning Jesus is not visible to us but is hidden in His commandments. We see from the Gospel that He is a model of perfection. As Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, "To beginners he appears in the form of a servant."
As we advance along the Way our vision of Him changes. Initially His true glory is hidden but then it is revealed more and more like the disciples experienced at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. His glory is initially hidden in His commandments and as we strive to carry them out and begin to develop the virtues, the presence of Christ becomes clearer. By our cooperation with Him, our faith and commitment to carry out His commandments, we are given greater and greater power of the Spirit to carry them out. In the process the image of Jesus become clearer and clearer. As we make this ascent to higher levels of perfection we are aided by our ascetic efforts and we gain in our mystical contemplation of Christ.We find that Christ is a most intimate participant in every aspect of our life. He imprints "Himself spiritually in us."
He is there to help us in all our struggles of life in this world. He is there when we are tempted and when we sin. He is always at our side helping us along the Way leading us to our true nature. Because He became Man in His divinity we know that He knows our condition. And because of His love for us that He has shown in His Crucifixion and Resurrection we have great faith in His help.
The Mysteries of the Church are essential in our ascent. They are how Christ penetrates our inner being. This includes the purification of Baptism, anointing of Holy Chrism, and our partaking of Him in Holy Communion. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us that it is by the medium of the holy mysteries that "Christ comes to us and dwells in us; He is united to us and grows into one with us. He stifles sin in us and infuses into us His own life and merit..."
Our ascent to virtue that comes from faith and results in love is based on our acceptance of a hierarchy in the Church. Those who became saints have been helped by the angels. The church from the lay person, to the priests, bishops and then angles form a ecclesiastical hierarchy whose purpose is to help us grow in virtue and our closeness to God. This hierarchy is realized in degrees as we progress. Fr Staniloae says, "The work of the hierarchy for the salvation of the faithful is essentially exercised through the holy mysteries, especially through Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist." Even those at the hight levels of holiness gain from the holy mysteries and will have a greater vision of their content and profit even more by them.
While we are here on earth the Church is essential for us to make progress. We must accept the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church. if we do we will progress toward the heavenly hierarchy of the angels and saint in heaven. The Church is the body of Christ and is the ladder by which we climb. It is the only ladder God has provided for us.
Monday, December 5, 2016
Recently, I ran across this post on Facebook: "If you say the Church is behind the times, the TIMES must change, not the Church!" While I understand the truth in this statement, as the TIMES do need to change and the Church does protect unchangeable truths, there is also a hidden untruth in this statement. The Church needs get ahead of the TIMES and become a more effective agent for change. The Orthodox Church is also bound by ancient traditions and practices that can make it appear to be out of step with the times and irrelevant. Some of these traditions have become no more than rituals and practices without the deeper meaning they once had.
When you ask many why they baptize their child they have no answer other than its tradition, often putting more emphasis on the party that follows the sacrament itself. When you ask a couple about marriage they rarely will give you a spiritual answer, but yet insist that the wedding be held in the Church out of tradition, and focus most on planning a huge party, often with a professional planner. The celebrations that come with some of the major feast days are also bound by tradition. For example in Crete there is a huge celebration on the night before the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. The life and meaning of her life is lost in the traditional music and abundance of food that is offered before the Church even celebrates the event with a Divine Liturgy the following morning. The party or meal becomes more significant than the event being celebrated. The platia around the Church is overflowing with people at such an event but on a Sunday there will be only a few inside to participate in the Sacrament. The True food of the Sacrament is secondary to the food and music of the celebration.
When the church still uses ancient Greek, requires its clergy to dress as in ancient times, allows clergy and hierarchs to stand above those they serve wearing crowns, sitting on thrones, holding staffs, acting like emperors of Byzantine times with their attendants, its services are seen no longer by many as a beacon of the Holy Spirit and no longer exuding the feeling of love. This is reinforced when continues with its rituals encouraging old traditions and practices no longer relevant, no longer communicating the message of Christ. Christ becomes lost in the secularized traditions and outdated practices. Instead of leading people to a deeper spirituality the Church can be perceived as preserving an ancient set of rituals and associated traditions that were maybe appropriate for the time and way of life in the Byzantine empire but out of touch today. The issue is that the central message of our Savior who came from heaven to transform and lead us to an eternal life in His kingdom becomes blocked, overtaken by outdated tradition. The Church is no longer seen by many as a spiritual hospital were we all can seek the healing of our souls that are troubled by the TIMES.
When you examine the current situation there is much in the modern Orthodox Church traditions and practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel teachings or with the sacramental duties of the church. I was in Crete for an extended stay and I saw this problem acutely. Talking with younger members there who have been brought up in the faith, seeing the many churches and villages built around the church building, where 90% or more profess to be Orthodox Christians, and serving as a clergyman in the services of a local church, I have became aware how distant the work of the church appears to many people, good people who have pure hearts and who should be the current workers in the church. Basically, it's mainly the old people (mostly women) who come to the churches there now. The younger generation tends to reject the Church as dead, lifeless. They seem to have little respect for the clergy who perpetuate the status quo. They see the Church as perpetuating cultural traditions and not a source for spiritual healing.
One young lady in her twenties who lives in a small village and has a college degree, said to me, "why is the church so distant, separated from the people." At first I was surprised at her comment. It woke me up to think about this issue. I was encouraging her to talk with a priest about confession and spritual growth. She gently held her hand to her heart and humbly said this is what is important. God is here and not in the church. I try to live according to Christian principles but the Church does not seem to be an example for me. She said she had never been to confession and that the priests did not relate to the people. She did not feel they set an example that is any different than the TIMES. She saw them busily going from church to church in the villages doing services tied to local traditions, doing their job. She further said that when she goes into the church she does not have any feeling of the spirit, (again holding her hand to her heart), but she sees priests and chanters going through rituals, rambling in a language is not easily understood as it is an ancient form of Greek, and dressed in elaborate uniforms. She did not feel the services were helpful for her and that she attended only because of her family tradition. When I tried again to encourage her to talk with a priest, she said, "why don't they do something about changing the environment in the church and so it is a beacon of Spirit and try to better relate to the people so they will want to seek them out for guidance. They are too busy to talk with us."
The Church does have and protects the Truth, but it is also is bound up in rituals and traditions, many of which may no longer communicate what Christ teaches. In fact, its clinging to the past may block many from learning the true Gospel message. Rather than being a source of Wisdom it can become a hinderance to learning the Wisdom She has.
Change is needed in my view. The clergy is trapped in tradition and they often argue about the details of the ritual or their dress, or politics of which church higher in rank. The emphasis of the church needs to be redirected toward spiritual healing and growth and not just on ritual and preservation of traditions that consist mainly of parties and no longer have spiritual value. There needs to be more emphasis on the Ten Points of an Orthodox Way of Life that have been presented many times in this blog. The Church needs to seek ways to encouraged its members to participate in the sacraments as a way to help them in their spiritual struggle, not to fulfill ancient traditions or a family obligation. They need to hear the hymns in their native language and be allowed to express the church's beliefs inside the church in a modern language and not feel called to preserve a language only a few understand. They need to be encouraged to participate. They ought to be engaged to study the Scripture, to better understand the reality of the life of Christ and His teachings, to learn the wisdom of the Church fathers, and learn how to apply this wisdom to their current daily life. The church needs to reach out to those who suffer with anxiety and mild depression and help them see how this is related to a spiritual struggle we all face. As they discover the difficulty of their unchecked passions they should be encouraged to fast as a way to control them, not just to gain peace, but so they can have a personal relationship with God and grow in their ability to do His will instead of Christ's teachings being just another set of ancient obligations. The Church needs the capacity to instruct its members on the necessity to make time for personal prayers, how to pray and seek the joy of a peaceful inner life focused on the Holy Spirit and Christ who lives within each of them. It needs to provide a welcoming loving spiritual community so that when people come into the church service they see and relate to people who are seeking true communion with God. The clergy must be an shining example of persons who strive to live the Truths and who are always available to offer spiritual guidance as true spiritual fathers.
There are many Orthodox Churches who have changed from the traditional church found in the ancient Byzantine village, but there are still many where the spirit is not alive, where it is no longer a beacon of the Spirit, where tradition and ritual continue as part of our secular TIMES. Our younger generation senses this and is not encouraged to become active members.
The younger generations needs an Orthodox Church with its foundation of Wisdom and Truth, but with a way of communicating these truths that is relative to the TIMES. So yes, the Times need to change, but if we are going to change the TIMES, the Church also needs to change.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
This is a difficult but important question. The foundation of our spiritual life is based on the nature of God, One God in Three Persons, The Holy Trinity. So why is this truth about God so important in the Orthodox understanding of Theosis, our aim to seek union with God? How can our unity with God in eternity be guaranteed? Only if the divinity has also taken on flesh. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, His Son, shows the love God has for man. Why? Because for our union to be possible God cannot be some impersonal being. Because of the Triune nature of God, in our path to unity with God we will never lose our identity. It is because God has become man that we too will be assured of our identity in our eternal life. Like Christ related to the Father we too will have a personal relationship in heaven for eternity with Him nourished in His love. Since we know God to be trinitarian we know God can never be reduced to some infinite oneness but always exists as Three Persons. This is the true nature of God as found in Holy Scripture. The Orthodox Saints use the terms "life in Christ", Life in Spirit, and the "Spiritual life" to describe the nature of union with God.
The distinguishing feature of Christianity is this Triune nature of God. God became Man to transform us in Spirit. He communicates to us by the Spirit and His uncreated energies. God is never distant from us because His uncreated energies support our existence and nurture our spiritual growth.
Saint Simeon the New Theologian describes the union experienced by him as follows.
Even at night and in the midst of darkness I see, trembling, Christ opening the heaven for me and I behold how He himself beholds me from there and He sees me here and below together with the Father and the Spirit in the thrice holy light. Because this is one and the same nevertheless in three images, although it is only one. And it illuminates my soul brighter than the sun and floods my spirit covered with gloom.... And this miracle was even the more astonishing because it opened my eyes and helped me to see, and that which I saw is He himself. Because this light helped those who behold to know themselves in light of those who see in light see Him again. For they see the light of Spirit and in as much they see Him, they see the Son. Now he who has been made worthy to see the Son, sees also the Father.Note how Saint Simeon sees God in distinct three persons. This is quite different from the way many western mystics like Eckhart see God. Eckhart only sees God as a unity of persons, one thing. While Simeon sees God in the differentiation of the three persons. Christians from the earliest times have seen Christ as the Son, something which is much greater than simply Christ the man. When we are blessed with divine insight in union with God we will find the living relationship between man and God like that which exists in the relationship among the Holy Trinity.
This relationship of the Three persons is also a demonstration of pure love of God. From this we know that God is truly love. Not only is He a God of love but our union with Him demands our love of Him.
Only a perfect community of supreme persons can nourish with its unending and perfect love, our thirst for love in relation to it and between ourselves. This relationship cannot be theory but must be lived too. This is so because love isn't satisfied with only being theory, but wants to give itself, to welcome and be welcomed...
The Trinity, radiated by this love which is proper to it, can't be lived and conceived without it uncreated energies in ever increasing levels. Love is characterized by this paradox. One the one hand it unites object who love each other, on the other hand, it doesn't confuse their identity...
God wants to gradually extend the gift of His infinite love to another order of conscious subjects and namely to created ones. He wants to extend this love in its paternal form as toward other sons united with His Son.
So after the creation of man, He wanted His Son to become man so that His love for His Son, made man, would be a love which is directed toward any human face, like that of His Son. In the Son made flesh we are all adopted by the Father... God made man as an image of His Son so that His Son could become man too. The Father loves all of us in His Son, because the Son was made our brother....The Son's love for us isn't separated from the Father's love for us, but in His love as a brother He makes the Father's love and also His love for the Father, engulf us. In us the Father welcomes other loving and loved sons because His Son was made our beloved brother.Also, with this love of the Father and our love for Him in Christ, love is poured on us in the form of the Holy Spirit, His uncreated energies.
If the Son had not become man we would not have received the love of the Father. It is in Christ as man that it reached us. It is by the incarnate Son that the Holy Spirit radiates within humanity and the world is the love of God for us of outs for God.It is the Spirit that brings into creation Trinitarian love raising creation to the level of divine love and Theosis. This is why we invoke the Holy Spirit in all our sanctifying services. It is by the Holy Spirit that creation is raised up to the divine world and the divine realm penetrates us. With this we are changed. This is the nature of Orthodox spirituality. Our aim is to acquire his uncreated energy that comes though the love of God in the Holy Spirit. This much more than the understanding of God intellectual through the Scriptures. Man can be joined with God though His uncreated energies that we are blessed with by the Holy Spirit.
Reference: Orthodox Spirituality by Fr, Dumitru Staniloae, pp 46-55.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
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
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
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.