Thursday, July 18, 2019

What is Fear of God?

Saint Theophan says,
In moral and religious life, the fear of God moves and urges one to carry out the will of God...
Saint Athanassios says,
Make me firm in Thy words, unfailingly protecting me by Thy fear; let Thy fear be upon me, keeping me in fear and letting me not go astray from Thy words.
But I thought God was about love. If He loves me and I love Him what is there to fear? I have always had an aversion to the call the deacon makes at the time of offering Holy Communion to the faithful: “With the fear of God, faith and love draw near.”  Initially I wanted to substitute the word awe for the word fear. What I have since learned is that there is more than one way to think of fear.

Saint Theophan says,
Fear of God is a distinctive feature and a true sign of whether one stands on the true path. If you have it you are in good condition; if not, in bad condition, even if in your behavior no bad deeds are apparent.
Hmm, what is the meaning of fear as it is being used by our saints, elders and in our liturgies? Blessed Anthimos gives us an explanation. He says there are two types of fear. For the first he uses the example of a slave who does not love his master, or even care about his aim, but yet out of fear of being punished he does not violate what he wills for him to do to carry out his aim. This is action done out of fear of punishment if the action is not done. In spiritual life this may be where a beginner is, one who has not perfected his love of God and fears that if he does not follow his commandments he may be punished with difficulties in this life as well as the one to come. He sees God as a heartless task master.

To describe the second kind of fear he uses the example of a friend.  When you have a close friend you love dearly and feel reciprocal love, there is a fear that you might lose this loving relationship, that you will lose their love. This is a perfect kind of fear that can be found in our spiritual life. Those who fear God in this way see God as a loving friend, one you love deeply and you know that He loves you even more. Your fear is that you will lose His love. So you try very hard to do what He expects from you. 

Saint Augustine says, 
God establishes His word in those to whom He gives the spirit of His fear—not the spirit of bondage again to fear (Rom 8:15), which is driven away by perfect love, but the spirit of that fear of which one fears to offend the loved one.
To often we are guided by the fear of the slave, not having yet the perfected love of God. There is a progression, Saint Theophan points out. Our fear in relation to God is “at first that of a slave, then that of a hireling, and then that of a son.” The fear of the slave is OK in the beginning, but we do not want to stay in this view. We should strive to move to a higher level until we reach the feelings of a loving son of his father. 

When we listen to sermons from mainly Protestant denominations we frequently hear a message geared to the slave. We are portrayed as slaves of God and must act against our will to do His will to avoid God's fierce punishment. We must have compassion on these people and pray that they will eventually move to a higher level where a more loving relationship is fully developed with God. This progression is important because when we have the motivation to do His will out of love, the second kind of fear will give us greater zeal for God. Motivation that comes out of love is always stronger that the motivation to avoid punishment.

Saint Theophan says,
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom... As true wisdom begins with fear of God, and there is no spiritual wisdom without such fear, so should fear not be without wisdom. Holy fear is like a base for the word (wisdom).
Prophet David writes: 
Establish for Thy servant Thine oracle unto fear of Thee. (Psalm 118:38)
Saint Theophan comments on this,
The Prophet is asking God to teach him to incline his heart to do everything to please Him alone, to do good not just out of a sense of duty, not just because of the demand of moral dignity of a rational being, but especially because that is what the will of God, Holy and pleasing, requires, because God wants it this way.
When you hear the deacon’s call to approach the chalice with fear, remember the second kind of fear. You are more than a slave in God’s eyes. He is calling you with love and faith as well, a love you never want to lose, a faith that is unshakable. You love Him so much you want to be with Him always and never lose the feeling of His love.

Saint Porphyrios says,
Christ is everything. He is our love. He is the object of our desire. The passionate longing for Christ is a love that cannot be taken away. 
The concept of fear (1st type) is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners... the beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined , is held back from evil by fear... But if we examine the matter more closely we see that it is governed by self-interest.... As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is Paradise. Saint John the evangelist says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fear (like the slave) is not perfected in love. (Wounded by Love, pp  96, 105)

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 107-109.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Saint John Cassian on Controlling Thoughts

Troubled by negative thoughts? Saint John has a solution. Follow the Orthodox way of life and you will fill your mind with godly thoughts.

Our mind is constantly being filled with thoughts. This we cannot avoid. Often in prayer, when we want to concentrate on God, we become distracted by these thoughts. This is also an issue in our daily life. Our thoughts can keep us from following His commandments. We err because we are tempted by some these thoughts. Therefore, to be able to live a virtuous life in unity with the will of a God requires that we are vigilant and careful about which thoughts we choose to act on.

Saint John Cassian writes,
It is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, but it is in the power of every earnest man either to admit them or to reject them. As then their rising up does not entirely depend on ourselves, so the rejection or admission of them lies in our own power. But because we said that it is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, you must not lay everything to the charge of the assault, or to those spirits who strive to instill them into us, else there would not remain any free will in man, nor would efforts for our improvement be in our power: but it is, I say, to a great extent in our power to improve the character of our thoughts and to let either holy and spiritual thoughts or earthly ones grow up in our hearts. 
In the beginning chapter of his Conference he tells us that the first step is to have clearly in mind our goal. Just as in our education, our work or business a goal is essential to keeps us focused so we can excel. This is also true in the Orthodox way of life. So, what is our true Goal? As the Apostles tell us and Jesus showed us, it is the kingdom of heaven. But what is our immediate aim? Saint John says it’s “purity of heart.” Jesus told us in His sermon on the mount that with a pure heart we can see God,
He’s writes,
The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end: fixing our gaze then steadily on this goal as if on a definite mark.
With this as our aim we must organize our life to eliminate anything that restrains us from this and amplify those things that move us closer to it. Thoughts temp us, cloud our heart, distract us and hold us back. Therefore to attain a pure heart we must find ways to properly deal with our thoughts. Knowing that our aim is to have a pure heart so we will enter the kingdom of heaven, and having the zeal to attain this goal, we will be able to direct our energies towards this end.
Saint John writes,
And so when this object is set before us, we shall always direct our actions and thoughts straight towards the attainment of it; for if it be not constantly fixed before our eyes, it will not only make all our toils vain and useless, and force them to be endured to no purpose and without any reward, but it will also excite all kinds of thoughts opposed to one another. For the mind, which has no fixed point to which it may return, and on which it may chiefly fasten, is sure to rove about from hour to hour and minute to minute in all sorts of wandering thoughts, and from those things which come to it from outside, to be constantly changed into that state which first offers itself to it.

Saint John gives us a key insight about how to deal with the distractions we experience because of these many thoughts entering our mind. In effect he says the best way is to continually fill our mind with godly thoughts.
He writes,
For for this purpose frequent reading and continual meditation on the Scriptures is employed that from thence an opportunity for spiritual recollection may be given to us, therefore the frequent singing of Psalms is used, that thence constant feelings of compunction may be provided, and earnest vigils and fasts and prayers, that the mind may be brought low and not mind earthly things, but contemplate things celestial, for if these things are dropped and carelessness creeps on us, the mind being hardened with the foulness of sin is sure to incline in a carnal direction and fall away.
This is why the Church fathers are constantly reminding us about the importance of all the elements of the Orthodox way of Life. We need to live in a way that our our mind is constantly filled with godly thoughts. The more we fill our mind with godly thoughts the less chance there is that we will be led astray with other thoughts. We must learn to make time to read the Scripture daily, to read the psalms every day, to participate in all  the services that are available to us, to spend more time in our daily prayers, to follow the fasting recommendations of the church so we can strengthen our ability to follow the will of the soul, to only spend time in dialogue with fellow spiritual orthodox seekers so we won’t be misled by erroneous teachings. In this way our thoughts will be more inclined to be filled with good thoughts and the evil ones will be fewer and easier to discern.

Reference: The Conferences of John Cassian, Conference 1 with elder Moses

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Avoid Covetousness in Our Spiritual Life.

To become united with a God demands our total focus on pleasing Him by living by His teaching. This means we love for God above all else. Any covetousness we may have must be rejected. We cannot be concerned about worldly possessions. This does not mean that we cannot own anything, but that we cannot have a thirst for more and more, or live in fear we might lose what we already have.

Th prophet David has a prayer for us.
Incline my heart into Thy testimonies and not unto covetousness. (Psalm 118:36)

When we look around we can see that the principal efforts for most people concern possessions. The more they have the more they seem to want. This misplaced desire consumes the powers of the soul making it difficult to give our full attention to doing His will according to His law. Our lives become busy with tasks so that there is no time left for God.

Our task is to rid ourselves of this condition so that we will not be seeking to be in good standing with God and all His teachings so we can receive some gain from worldly business. Our material success is not related to our standing with God. God may have gifted us with worldly well being and we should give thanks to Him when this is the case. But we cannot err by think that our well being is the result of our effort to do God’s will.

Saint Theophan points out the difficulty the rich face.
It is difficult for the rich to discern why they are devout, whether for God and His law, or for their own prosperity. In times of prosperity, they themselves cannot discern this with certainty, due to the cunning of the heart which, while trying to do everything for God’s sake, can harbor a reliance on prosperity. Only privations reveal this; and the more extensive they are, the more definitive the proof; for if then the love of God does not cease, then this means that previously it had not been for the sake of what had been possessed, but now is lost. Under normal circumstances, in order to avoid the love of possessions, those who possess much ought to warm up in their hearts such a disposition, mentally placing themselves in various situations of deprivation, and in so doing restoring in their hearts a peaceful mood. By this, they can imprint in their souls such, resolution that even if everything were to be taken and they should have to be without anything, they would be ready for it at once. Thus disposed they, even though possessing, will be like those who have nothing which, according to the Apostle, is the last degree of perfection in this regard for those living in this world and unable not to possess.
Live as if you were to lose everything you know you could still live a god-pleasing life with a peaceful mood

There is also a spiritual love of gain, in which one works to carry out the commandments in the hope of obtaining spiritual rewards here or in the life to come. This love of gain is subtle, not easy to define or to discern. In general, one must say that as soon as anything but God and the pleasing of and obedience to His will intrudes into the endeavors of a good and devout life, then already there is self-interest. 
This last type of covetousness is the most difficult to discern and correct. We desire to be with God in hope of eternal life, but this desire has to be based on our love of Him and not just on the benefit we hope for. There are steps involved in our spiritual life and we need to seek Gods help in walking this narrow path. To help us we also need a spiritual father to guide us in proper discernment of our condition. The ego is very strong and is good at misleading us.

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 98-102

Monday, July 8, 2019

How Does One Come Closer to God?

Psalm 63 shows us a path to communion with God according to the commentary of Elder Aimilianos. He identifies six stages found in this Psalm.
  1. Pray at night and ardently search for God.O my God, to You I rise early at dawn. My soul has thirsted for you; how often my flesh has longed for You, in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.
  2. Separate the heart and mind from all that is within and around you. Thus I have appeared before you in Your sanctuary, that I might see Your power and Your glory.” “In order for my heart to be pure , it must be completely liberated from all earthly attachments, and then I shall know what Christ means when He says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mat 5:8).’ “
  3. Place all our energies in His service.Thus I will bless you throughout my life, and in Your name I will lift up my hands.
  4. Recall God and all His benefits ceaselessly.I remembered you on my bed”. Elder Aimilianos says, It is essential to remember God, to hold God within memory, for memory fuels desire, and it is by means of desire that God becomes our possession.
  5. Experience God’s Grace.For you have become my helper, and in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
  6. Be conscious that you are nothing, can do nothing, and are completely incapable and unworthy.My soul clings closely behind You, Your right hand upholds me.”
The Elder says,
My desire is for Christ; my longing is for Christ. It is for Him that my life is being transformed... my path is one constantly seeking after the Lord.

Reference: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 19-24

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Glykophilousa Icon and Aim of Our Life, Theosis.

My soul clings closely behind You, Your right hand upheld me. (Psalm 63:8)
This phrase shows that there are two things necessary if we are to find union with God, says Elder Aimilianos. “The exercise of our free will, which is expressed in the first part of this verse, and divine grace, which is expressed in the second.

The image of this union we seek as Orthodox Christians is most vividly seen in the icon know as the Glykophilousa. 

This icon like the “Portaitissa” is one of the icons saved from the Iconoclastic Controversy and brought miraculously to Athos. It was the property of Victoria, the devout wife of the eikonomachos senator Symeon, who, to avoid having to hand it over, threw it into the sea. The icon, floating upright on the waves, reached the dock of the Monastery of Philotheou, where it was received with great honor and rejoicing by the Abbot and fathers of the Monastery, who had been warned of its advent by a revelation of the Theotokos.

In this image we see the Theotokos holding the Christ child so tenderly and yet so firmly in and embrace. Their mutual love is obvious. It appears as if their bodies merge and form a union of one body. With their cheeks pressed together they have like one face and project a single person. This, says Elder Aimilianos, “is the exercise of free will.” When we are free of passion and join our will with His, we become free and joined as one with Him. We embrace Him with the same tenderness and firmness shown in this icon out of our boundless love for Him. He then merges with us and we become like one person.

The Psalm is showing us that David’s “inner disposition is simple, namely, not to be separated from God.” To Hold God in a loving embrace as seen in this icon. The last part of the verse shows that our ability to have this union comes from God. It is by our free will working in synergy with His and His Grace, brings the desired joy found in union with Him.

We can use this image to remind us of the aim of our life, to be united with Christ in love. 

Saint Athanasios of Alexander says commenting on this verse,
Not even for a moment, my God, can my spirit be separated from You, for I am afire with ardent love, and as if my mind were a mass of glue, I adhere to You in desire.”

Reference: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp15-16.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Action that Leads to Salvation: Psalm 118

In verses 33-35 of Psalm 118 we find outlined the most important elements of a God-pleasing life.
Set before me for a law, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, and I will seek after it continually. Give me understanding, and I will search out Thy law, and I will keep it with my whole heart.Guide me in the path of Thy commandments for I have desired it.
First there is the law, the commandments of God, that we must continually seek out. They outline the narrow path we are expected to follow.

Second is understanding, is to have out heart filled with the proper understanding of these laws so we know how to put them into our way of living. This understanding must be deep and etched in our heart, not simply an intellectual understanding.

Saint Augustine says 
When we gain this deeper spiritual understanding, one “finally attains to those heights of a holy and God-pleasing life at which he loves God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his thoughts, and his neighbors as himself, for on these two commandments the whole law and the prophets depend.
Our action, while Judged good by the best of societal norms are of little value when “prompted by the outward conscience” says Saint Theophan.  Regarding the rites of the Church he says, 
Everything should be performed with utmost reverence of the heart, but not towards external action, but towards God, to Whom we are turning through it.” 
Everything we do must not be legalistic but spiritual, coming from the spirit that fill our heart, otherwise we become shackled and act out of fear: don’t do this or that. This is not the way of the law taught by Christ. His way is a way of love, love of God. We act out of love when we follow Him.

Third, is desire. David asks God to guide him on His narrow path. Not out of any obligation or coercion, but because it is what his heart desires.
Saint Theophan says, 
Divine goodness is ready to reach out to us with all its gifts. If it does not flow upon all, then this is only because not all desire it, and not all are seeking these blessings. Desiring allows entry for them...
The life that brings about salvation has this form of action: “make it a law, make it part of my understanding, guide me.”

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 88-98

Monday, June 24, 2019

How to Read Scripture - Elder Aimilianos

When one undertakes to examine Scripture in an idle, intellectual way, he creates hatred and quarreling.
Elder Aimilianos says this because the intellectual study of Scripture does not help us to know our sins, but instead turns our intellectual faculties to focus on concepts and issues related to our study of Scripture. This intellectual  knowledge does not help us come closer to God. It does no more than emphasize our personal opinions and leads us to fell self-sufficient in our personal understanding. 

He says,
This kind of approach to Scripture immediately places you in conflict with others; it opposes your will and opinion to theirs, prompting you to disagree and argue with them...The correct way is to read Scripture with simplicity and to allow God to tell us what He wants to tell us.
When we develop our own opinions and become attached to them he says this blocks our ability to “receive anything from God.” We are mired in our own ego centered views wanting to prove that we know what is the correct interpretation from a logical and intellectual perspective. It only encourages us to enter into debate and arguments which can lead to making enemies.

He says,
It’s one thing to read Scripture because you want to collect information, and another thing to read because you want to acquire it’s true contents, that is, the Holy Spirit...The criterion for your study should be this: the way you read the Bible should bring peace to your heart, communion with God, love of neighbors, and the consciousness of your own sinfulness: the recognition of how unworthy and ill-prepared you are to stand before God.

Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life