Friday, October 30, 2009

Soft Heart

We should not think we can be hard and cold and correct and still be Christians. Being correct is external side of Christianity. It's important but not of first importance. Of primary importance is the heart. The heart must be soft, the heart must be warm. If we do not have this warm heart, we have to ask God to give it, and we have to try ourselves to do those things by which we can acquire it.

One thing that can save us is simplicity.  It can be ours in our hearts if we pray to God to make us simple; if we just do not think of ourselves so wise...

As soon as you begin to hear or think to yourself critical statements [about people in the Church], you have to stop and warn yourself that, even it its true––because often those statements are true to some degree––this critical attitude is a very negative thing.  It will not get you anywhere.  ...remember not to judge, not to think you're so wise that you know better.  On the contrary, try to learn perhaps without words, from some of those people whom you might be critical of....
If we follow the simple path––distrusting our own wisdom, doing the best we can with our mind, yet realizing that our mind, without warmth of heart, is a very weak tool––then an Orthodox philosophy of life will begin to be formed in us.

Father Seraphim Rose

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Prayer - Teach Me Your Love

Your birds awaken me in the morning, and the murmur of the lake lulls me to sleep in the evening. But it is not the birds that awaken me, nor the lake that lulls me to sleep, but You, 0 Lord, Master of the voice.

You lend Your voice to the birds and the midnight murmur to the lake. You have lent a voice to every throat, and have put a story into every creature. I am surrounded by Your heralds, as a student by many teachers, and I listen to them tirelessly from day until dusk.

     O Lord, Master of the voice, speak more clearly through Your heralds!

The sun speaks to me about the radiance of Your countenance, and the stars about the harmony of Your being. The sun speaks in one language, and the stars speak in a different language, but all the languages flow out of the same vocal cords. The vocal cords belong to You, and You uttered the first sound that began to tremble in the deafness and formlessness of nothingness, and it broke into countless sounds and heralds, as a thundercloud breaks into rain drops.

     O Lord, Master of the voice, speak more clearly through Your heralds!

One exclamation escaped the breast of the Bride of God when She saw Your Son––a voice filled with a love that could not be contained in silence. And that exclamation echoed in the heart of Her Son, and this echo––this response to the love of His Mother––the Holy Spirit has spread with His powerful arms throughout the entire universe. Therefore, all the universe is filled with Your heralds, O my Song and my Love.

     O Lord, Master of the voice, speak more clearly through Your heralds!

For this reason You also spoke in parables, O Son of God, and You would explain things and events as stories about the Most High God. You cured the sick with words and raised the dead with words, for You recognized the mystery of love. And the mystery of love is a mystery of words. Through all creatures, as through piercing and blaring trumpets, words pour forth––and through words, the Love of Heaven.

     O Lord, Master of the voice, teach me Your Love through all Your heralds.

From Prayers by the Lake by Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich

Living Out of the Heart

Those who are  new to Orthodoxy often spend much time reading and studying the Fathers of the Church, its traditions and practices, reconciling doctrine to Scripture, all to help develop a new Orthodox worldview.  There is much to learn when we are making a change in our way of thinking about religion and salvation.  For some, this effort can be very intense and demanding. But, this effort is only the beginning. At some point it is necessary to make a transition––to shift one's effort towards more inner development.  Our love for Christ must move from the head to the heart.  This requires more than following the guidelines for daily prayer, following the fasting guidelines, and attending the services of the Church.  This too, can be done through mental effort, and often is in the beginning.  The move from the head to the heart requires a surrender to the Church, a giving up of filtering everything through the mind.  What we seek is the active work of the Holy Spirit that was planted in us at Baptism and sealed with our Chrismation.  The aim is a union with God, not fulfilling some external rules.

Saint Tikhon (of Zdonsk)  puts it this way
If someone should say that true faith is the correct holding and confession of correct dogmas, he would be telling the truth, for a believer absolutely needs the Orthodox holding and confession of dogmas.  But this knowledge and confession by itself does not make a man a faithful and true Christian. ... The knowledge of correct dogmas is in the mind, and it is often fruitless, arrogant, and proud....  The true faith in Christ is in the heart, and it is fruitful, humble, patient, loving, merciful, compassionate, hungering and thirsting for righteousness..
Fr Saraphim Rose says,
Do we perhaps boast that we keep fasts and the Church calendar, have good icons and congregational singing, give to the poor and maybe even tithe to the Church? Do we delight in exalted Patristic teachings and theological discussions without having in our hearts the duplicity of Christ and true compassion for the suffering?––then ours is a spirituality of comfort, and we will not have the spiritual fruits that will be exhibited by those without all these comforts who deeply suffer and struggle for Christ.
When we are able to make this transition from the head to the heart, we discover an intense heartfelt desire, a burning from within, for the love of God and to be united with Him.  We leave our earthly passions behind and have only one, to be in the loving embrace of God. We experience a sense of willingness to sacrifice all we have for Him.  When we speak we no longer search our memory for the proper thing to say based on what we have learned from out readings or studies. Instead the Holy Spirit moves us to say the proper words and do the proper deeds.  It comes naturally and in a loving way. We come alive with an inner fire of love.  We find an inner peace no matter what difficulties we face.

Elder Porphyrios says,
When you find Christ [in the heart], you are satisfied, you desire nothing else, you find peace.  You become a different person.  You live everywhere, wherever Christ is.  You live in the stars, in infinity, in heaven with the angels, with the saints, on earth with people, with plants, with animals, with everyone and everything.  When there is love for Christ, loneliness disappears.  You are peaceable, joyous, full. Neither melancholy, not illness, nor pressure, nor anxiety, nor depression nor hell.
When Christ enters your heart, your life changes.  Christ is everything.  Whoever experiences Christ within himself, experiences ineffable things––holy and sacred things.  He lives in exultation...
Fr Seraphim writes,
"When those who are rich in the Holy Spirit, really having the heavenly wealth and the fellowship of the Spirit in themselves, speak to any the word of is out of their own wealth and out of their own treasure, which they possess within themselves when they speak, and out of this that they gladden the souls of the hearers of the spiritual discourse...."
But one who is poor, and does not possess the wealth of Christ in his soul ... even if he wishes to speak a word of truth and to gladden others ... but after he has gone through it, each word goes back to the source from which is was taken, and he himself remains once more naked and poor.... 
For this reason we should seek first from God with pain of heart and in faith, that He would grant us to find this wealth, the true treasure of Christ in our hearts, in the power and effectual working of the spirit.  In this way, first finding in ourselves the Lord to be our profit and salvation and eternal life, we may then profit others also, according to our strength and opportunity, drawing upon Christ, the measure within."
It is helpful to seek out a spiritual father who can guide you.  He will be able to help you to make this transition.  He can help you avoid becoming too intense in your effort to learn doctrine and practice guidelines for this and that.  It is God's love we seek and this only comes from the heart.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Word on Anger - Fr. George Calciu

Man today lives under such overwhelming pressure that his nerves are strained to the limit, and even the slightest provocation arouses in him the sin of anger.  Causes for anger could be the child who does not listen to us, or the husband or wife who contradicts us, or the driver who cuts us off with his car, or only seems to us to cut us off, giving a motive for us to be roused to anger.  Even if, through self-restraint, our anger is not outwardly expressed or is not heard by the one who provoked it, it is still a sin, because it harms our soul and our heart  It is an action against one’s own self, under the temptation of the devil to be angry.

The savior warns us in severe terms concerning anger that gives birth to verbal conflicts and the use of abusive words.
I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire (Matt 5:22).

...No one thinks evil without corrupting the heart in which God should dwell…
I counsel my penitents that before they express their anger, be it in speech or gestures, be it only mentally, to utter three or five times, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  And if they say the prayer quickly and inattentively under the oppression of anger, then they should concentrate with humility upon the word “sinner,” and their anger will abate.  Many of them have succeeded inn making their life, their family relationships, their relations with other people, and even their interior life change for the better.

All the conflicts in the world have their origin in unabated anger.  One is angry and wounds the other, who then responds with greater violence and strength. Once this chain is begun, it cannot be stopped except through the appeal of prayer––genuine prayer.
The Name of Jesus is sweet to utter.  It casts our the demons and brings the angels back into the heart, into the mind, and you will bear yourself in meekness before others.

Fr. George Calciu (1925-2006) a great Romanian Orthodox confessor and spiritual father.

Excerpts from article “A Word on Anger” in The Orthodox Word No.261

Monday, October 26, 2009

Prayer is the Test of Everything....

"Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong." — St. Theophan the Recluse

Perhaps the most popular and basic definition of prayer is that it is a conversation with God. While this is essentially true, Orthodox Christianity looks upon prayer as something deeper than "conversation".

Prayer is understood as an intimate encounter with God. When we pray, we meet with God in our hearts, in the sanctuary of all our thoughts, motivations, dreams, emotions and concerns. This is a place where we can share our inner selves with no other human person as completely as we can share ourselves with the Lord.

To enter into this very personal and intimate place with God, full of faith and love, is to feel His presence in our lives in the most profound and life-giving of ways. In this place in our hearts, we no longer perceive God as being "out there", looking down on us. Rather, we sense His presence inside us, stirring our hearts, guiding our actions, enlightening our minds.

Our Orthodox Christian Faith teaches us that prayer is the most natural thing a person can do, it is what we are created for. In Paradise Adam and God converse frequently. It is only after the Fall that we hide from God and choose not to speak openly with Him.

Human beings were made for prayer, not because God needs us to pray to Him, but because we need to connect with Him who made us, saved us from sin and death, and showers His sanctifying grace upon us. Without prayer there is no life, not in its fullest sense. As human persons we are created for prayer just as we are created to breath or to think. Prayer is part of our unique nature; of all God's creatures, only human beings are able to perceive and interact with both the visible (physical) and invisible (spiritual) realities.

Prayer is so important in our lives that St. Gregory of Nazianzus instructs us to, "remember God more often that you breath". At first, this task might seem daunting, perhaps impossible. In truth, we find that often the greatest obstacle to our developing prayer life is our own lack of trust in ourselves, and in what God can do for and with us.

Often we "psych" ourselves out when it comes to prayer. We think that it is only for the spiritual "specialists" to engage in prayer -- clergy, monks, nuns. We feel that if we need to struggle with our prayer life we must not be "doing it right". In truth, it is only when we struggle with prayer that we are approaching it in a healthy way.

But even though prayer is -- or at least should be -- a natural part in our human make-up, prayer is a discipline, it is a spiritual exercise. An analogy commonly used by the Saints is that prayer is like a fire. Initially, it starts out only as a small spark in our soul; eventually though, if we fan the flames with a constant effort to pray, this spark grows into a spiritual flames — these flames are the burning bush in our souls, where we, like Moses, speak with God.

To feed the fire of prayer in our soul, we must work ourselves into a regular pattern — or "rule" — of prayer. Like a fire, if our prayer life is left untended, it will die away and turn cold. The more we pray, the more meaningful and nourishing our prayer life becomes, and the more of a desire we have to enter into prayer.

The ways that we pray 
In Orthodox spirituality, we recognize two basic types of prayer: liturgical (that is, worship); and personal prayer. In our Church both of these types of prayer are understood as corporate acts -- they are carried out by believers as a single body, the body of Christ.

Liturgical prayer is obviously corporate. A group of brothers and sisters in the faith gather together in one place to offer hymns and prayers to God. However, even when we pray in private, we do not pray alone. Rather, we join our voices to the countless other Orthodox Christians throughout the world who are also lifting their hearts to God in prayer at that time. Christianity is always lived out as a group, never as an isolated individual.

Liturgy and private prayer are interdependent. It is not enough for us only to pray by ourselves, because every human being has an innate need for community, a need to belong. Our liturgical worship also gives us the order and structure that we need to have stability in our spiritual lives.

At the same time, our liturgical prayer is truly vibrant and life-giving only when those present are "people of prayer" outside the services as well. Our faith is not "Sunday-only" and our prayer life shouldn't be Sunday-only either. Each type of prayer, liturgical and personal, compliments and supplements the other.

In both worship and personal prayer, structure is important. Worship services have a set structure of fixed and variable parts. Although our private prayer can be much more simple and "customized" than worship services, we still structure it as part of our daily lives. In our personal prayer life, we need to develop a habit of praying regularly at certain times during the day. This habit of regular prayer is called a "rule of prayer."

Ancient Christian sources instruct Christians to pray three times a day: in the morning, at mid-day and in the evening. In this way we keep God on our minds and hearts throughout the day -- upon waking up, in the midst of our daily tasks and upon retiring for the night. This regularity is very important because, at its core, a life or prayer is a life lived in the constant remembrance of God.

The Saints teach us that our prayers should include the following four elements, in this order:
1 & 2) glorification and thanksgiving: the primary work of prayer is to glorify God and thank Him for His great blessings, both know and unknown;
3) confession of sins: we ask God for His forgiveness for when we fall short of the life that He calls us to;
4) supplication: we ask God to be merciful and grant our petitions for others and for ourselves
This structure helps us remember that God’s blessing are giving to us not because owe have earned them, but in spite of our imperfections and faults. It also helps us avoid looking upon God as a spiritual "bell boy" who is there merely to answer our requests -- the last thing we do is ask for things, not the first.

Prayers do not have to be long or complicated to be effective. Some of the most powerful prayers in history have been sentences of only a few words. The Thief on the Cross merely had to say, "Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom", to hear Jesus' promise, "today you shall be with me in Paradise."

When trying to develop a habit of daily prayer in your life remember this: it is far better to spend five minutes each day in private devotions, than to "bank" the time and take in 35 minutes of personal prayer once per week.

Should we pray from books, or use our own words? 
Many believers have developed a great love for the prayers found in our prayer books. In our prayer books we find collections of prayers, written at different times in history for different situations, times of day and needs.

In the Orthodox Church, one of the most beloved prayer books is the Old testament Book of Psalms. The Psalms offer us a way of framing life's varying experiences -- good and bad -- in prayer using very poetic and profound language. So important is the Book of Psalms that you will find the Psalms used in every worship service and rule of prayer.

Written prayers can be a font of wisdom and comfort. There are those, however, that do not feel that written prayers completely fit their personal "voice". For these people, spontaneous prayer is an important part of their personal devotions. There is nothing wrong with spontaneous prayer. The only caution with spontaneous prayer is that the content of such prayers must not contradict the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Faith. For example, we would not pray that, after we die, God would reincarnate us as a better person, since we do not believe in reincarnation.

The Orthodox Christian approach to written and spontaneous prayers is one of balance. Our written prayers are truly a treasury of Christian spiritual insight, nurture and guidance. But at the same time even our prayer books instruct us to "take time to pray to God in your own words..." There is a place for both types of prayer, written and spontaneous, and each complements the other.

In the Gospels, Jesus gives the following warning about prayer: "when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matthew 6:7)" Based on this verse, some Christian groups teach that God is not pleased by written prayers; instead, they say, all prayer should be spontaneous. This teaching, however, does not make sense when we see that two verses later, Jesus gives His disciples a specific prayer to use: "In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father Who art in heaven... (Matthew 6:9-113)."

The issue that Jesus addresses is not written prayer versus spontaneous prayer, but rather the how we approach prayer. In Matthew 6, Jesus also teaches us, "when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you open." The Saints teach us that there is a double meaning to the words, "go into your room."

First, "go into your room" means keep a low profile when you pray. Do not use prayer to show off to others: "Look at me, everyone! I'm praying! I am *SO* holy!"

Second, "go into your room" means shut out distractions when you pray. We have to pay attention when we pray. We cannot simply rattle off the words of our prayers with our minds wandering to other things -- our schedules, a song on the radio, a conversation happening beside us, the big play of last night's game. We must focus on what we are saying.

Whether we are praying using words from a prayer book or in our own words, the key is that we put in the effort to do it right. No one likes the feeling of being in a conversation, knowing that the other person is not paying attention. If we would try not to act like this with another human being, then we should also put the effort in with God. Quite simply, He deserves nothing less.

The Jesus Prayer
One of the most important prayers in the Orthodox Tradition is the "Jesus Prayer." It is not long or complicated, simply, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Some make it even shorter: "Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy one me."

The Jesus Prayer became famous in monasteries through the movement known as "hesychasm", or the way of "stillness." The idea of hesychasm is that it is only when we have stilled our hearts and bodies that we can be fully open to the life-giving presence of God. The body must be stilled from its obsessions, compulsions and addictions and the heart must be stilled of it's wandering here and there looking for something to keep it occupied, entertained and satisfied.

The Jesus Prayer is used as the refrain of a prayerful meditation. Through continued use, practitioners find themselves saying it automatically, much in the same way that we sometimes find a tune running through our minds without our conscious effort. At its highest level, practice of the Jesus Prayer leads to an intimate encounter with God through a vision of what is know as the "Uncreated Light."

The Gospels tell us that, shortly before His Crucifixion, Jesus took the apostles Peter, James and John to the top of Mount Tabor. There, they saw Jesus garments go pure white, and He began to shine with a resplendent light that was almost too much for the to bear. (See Mttw. 17:1-9; Mk.9:2-13; Lk. 9:28-36) This light was a manifestation of Jesus' Divinity. This is the light that vary advanced practitioners of the Jesus Prayer will encounter when saying the prayer.

This sounds very impressive and perhaps even desirable. However, it is not what we experience -- or what we do not experience -- that matters when say the Jesus Prayer or any other prayer. What really matters is that we pray with an awareness of what our words really mean, and that we try to stay as attentive as possible to the words we are saying while we pray.

The most important part in the Jesus Prayer is the name of our Savior. The Saints teach that the very mention of name of Jesus sends the demons running. Jesus Christ is God speaking for Himself. God is not far off and remote from us. God loves us so much that He came to be one of us, through His only-begotten Son, and He allows us to relate to His Son on a first-name basis, calling Him "Jesus".

Repetition of the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is a very powerful tool in our spiritual life. It allows us to approach God in a very direct manner. We do not simply say, "Somebody, who ever is out there, hear my prayer." We specifically say, "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God", hear my prayer. By the way, the name "Jesus" means, "the Lord is salvation."

As we call on the name of Jesus, we call upon Him as "Lord" -- "Lord, Jesus Christ..." "Lord" is a title of honor. In times past, someone who was a lord had authority over people under him. To call Jesus our Lord is to put ourselves under His authority. Jesus is the Lord of our lives... we will follow His teachings, do what He wants us to do, base our lives on the way of living that He has showed us. In short, if Jesus is the Lord, Jesus is in charge.

Also important in the Jesus Prayer is the call for God's mercy. Admitting that we are broken, sinful, we pray words found so often in the Gospels, "have mercy on me". No one is "worthy" of God's grace; there are no "necessary requirements" that makes us "entitled" to God's blessings. The blessings we receive from God are solely based on His great and abundant mercy. Divine mercy is the starting point our whole life. If God were not merciful, we wouldn't even exist.

The Jesus Prayer became so important, so loved, that it eventually made it's way into every worship service in a couple of different forms. The best know of these forms is the response, "Lord, have mercy" in our litanies. "Lord, have mercy," is a compact form of the Jesus Prayer.

Whether we are singing it in worship or saying it quietly in personal prayer, the Jesus Prayer is a jewel of our spiritual tradition. I said in an earlier posting that prayers don't necessarily have to be long to be effective. Say the words of the Jesus Prayer, with awareness, attention and a sincere heart -- say them often -- and we will find God acting in our lives like we never have before.

Prayer as Silence
God is always trying to get our attention. He wants us to turn to Him, to listen to Him, to open ourselves to a relationship with Him. God does not force Himself on us, but He is always making ovations towards us, waiting for us to respond with loving attentiveness towards Him. If we pay attention, if we listen, we will hear God speaking to us in our lives. Prayer is as much about listening to God as it is speaking to Him. In fact, the listening is even more important than the talking.

One way that we listen to God in our prayers is through the reading of the Holy Scriptures and other of our Church's spiritual writings. In our private devotions, we can select a passage, read it, and then take some time to think about what we have read. As we think about the passage, we try to be aware of specific sentences, phrases or words that grab our attention. Some people will write down their observations in a journal for future discussion with their spiritual father.

The second means of listening to God in prayer is through silence. Silence is something that many of us are not comfortable with. We fill our days with the noise of iPods, TV, radios. For some people, the time that they dread most are the moments at night before they go to sleep, when all they are left with is silence and their thoughts. And yet, God often talks to us, not in thunder claps and lightening flashes, but in the still small voice whispering in our heart. (for more on this, see 1 Kings 19:11-13)

The Saints instruct us that as we say our prayers, we should take time to stop and sit quietly, just being present with God. The monastic fathers and mothers of our Church say that prayer is like a flying bird. When a bird is in the air, it beats its wings until it has reached a certain height; at that point, it stops beating its wings and glides along. The words of our prayers are our spiritual wings. There will come a point while praying where words are no longer necessary, we can stop talking and glide in silence, allowing God's presence keep us aloft.

Prayer is a conversation. It is a two-way dynamic. As we all know, its hard to say we have had a "conversation" with someone, if one party has monopolized the time, without giving the other party the chance to offer any input. In order for prayer to be truly beneficial to us, in addition to talking to God we also need to listen to what He has to say to us.

A Call to Prayer
Sometimes we think that if our spiritual life isn't "feeling right," that our prayers are some way not working. Regardless of how we feel, any time is an appropriate time for us to pray. We start from where we are, emotionally and spiritually. We approach God as we are, trusting that He is ready, willing and able to overlook our faults, doubts and wounds and to lift us above them.

At the same time, we must take care never to assume that we are doing "good enough" in our lives, and that we may excuse ourselves from prayer. Christ did not call us to being "good enough"; He called us to be perfect. The struggle for that perfection is a life-long endeavor. Furthermore, it is an endeavor that we cannot achieve ourselves, it can be accomplished only with, and through God — the God that we encounter intimately through prayer.

In the Divine Liturgy, we hear the invitations "Let us lift up our hearts", and "Let us give thanks to the Lord". These two calls sum up the center of human existence. When we lift up our hearts to God, glorifying Hi for all that He does for us -- both known and unknown. And in doing so, the image of God -- who is the maker, savior and sanctifier of our lives -- shines within us, and through us into the world.

"Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong." — St. Theophan the Recluse

By Fr. Andrew Jarmus
Source: Saint Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tightrope Walker - Model for Watchfulness and Faith

We know in the Christian life, the path we follow is a narrow one, and the temptations to pull us away from it are many. We accept that our struggle is a continuous one. We strain to keep our focus on on Him, to seek to align our own will with His––“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Too often we become complacent, feel satisfied with our comfortable life style, and stop the struggle.  This is when we are in the most danger. We must always be watchful, the Scripture and the Church Fathers tell us.

The image of a tightrope walker for is a powerful one for me. Maybe its because of my fear of heights. But think for a moment of a tightrope stretched between two skyscrapers about one-hundred floors or more above street level. Imagine yourself on that rope, halfway between the two buildings.  There is no escape. To fall would mean certain death.  Each step has to be taken very carefully.  You have to totally attentive to every movement.  One slip and you die.  Think of the level of intensity of concentration that is required.  This is the kind of attention that is required of us in our daily walk as a Christian. 

There is a story about one the famous tightrope walkers Charles Blondin.
Charles Blondin the tightrope walker announced one day that he wanted to perform a special feat. He wanted to pull a steel cable across the Niagara Falls and walk across the falls from the Canadian side to the American side while pushing a wheel barrow full of rocks (late 1800’s). 
No one believed he could do such a feat especially a reporter who wrote in the newspaper saying that the tightrope walker was crazy. 
So one day he had a steel cable pulled across the Falls and announced he was going to perform this feat on Sunday. 
Many people came (to see him fail - and die). 
When the time came, he took a wheel barrow full of rocks, got on the steel cable and began his difficult journey. 
It was very windy in Niagara and the rushing waters from the falls are very disturbing and frightening. A steel cable that stretched for over a kilometer is very unstable and sways under his feet. One step at a time, he walked that steel cable. Many times he stopped to catch his breath. 
About six feet from the end – he pushed the wheel barrow on to the other side – did a cartwheel along the rope and made it to the other side! 
When he was getting congratulated, he saw the reporter, the one who wrote in the paper saying that he was crazy. He immediately asked the reporter if he still believed he was crazy. The reporter replied he now believed he wasn’t crazy as he saw the feat being done. 
Blondin then asked “Do you think I could do it again?” and the reporter said, “Yes.” 
Blondin then emptied the wheel barrow full of rocks and said to him, “If you really believe, get in...”

It is one thing to mentally believe and quite another to have faith. Faith is more than a decision. It is a way of life. It requires the attentiveness of a tightrope walker.

John Chrysostom used this same image to instruct us. 
And, as for men who walk upon a tightrope cannot be off their guard ever so little, for that little causes great mischief; for the man losing his balance is at once precipitated down and perishes; so neither is it possible for us to be off our guard  We walk down a narrow road intercepted by precipices on either side, not admitting of two fee at the same time.  Do you not see how much carefulness is needed?

Let us take heed to the narrow way, let us walk with fear and trembling...  No one traveling such a road caries with him any excess; for he would be contented even lightly equipped to be abel to escape. No one entangles his own feet, but leaves then disengaged, and free to move. But we, chaining ourselves down with numberless cares, and carrying with us the numberless burdens of this life, staring about, and loosely rambling, how do we expect to travel in that narrow road?

John Chrysostom reminds us that the path to Heaven is not an easy one,
Let not anyone therefore expect that he shall see heaven with ease.  For it cannot be. Let no one hope to travel the narrow road with luxury, for it is impossible… For once let us be sober, let us open our eyes, let us watch, let us lay hold on eternal life, let us shake off this long sleep.  There is a Judgment, there is a Punishment, there is a Resurrection, there is an Inquisition into what we have done!…  

Quotes of St. John Chrysostom are from his Homily 9 on 1Thessalonians 5: 1-11.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Prayer Is An Endless Creation - Archimandrite Zacharias

Humbleness is essential for prayer - Archimandrite Zacharias:

No matter how daunting and difficult the struggle of purifying the heart may be, nothing should deter us from this undertaking. We have on our side the ineffable goodness of a God Who has made man’s heart His personal concern and goal. In the book of Job, we read the following astonishing words:
“What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him? And that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him? And that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment…” (Job 7:17-19).
We sense God, Who is incomprehensible, pursuing man’s heart:
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me(Rev. 3:20).
He knocks at the door of our heart, but He also encourages us to knock at the door of His mercy:
“Knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Lk. 11:9-10).
When the two doors that are God’s goodness and man’s heart open, then the greatest miracle of our existence occurs: man’s heart is united with the Spirit of the Lord, God feasting with the sons of men.

Let us not fail to humble our spirit. If we acquire this blessed habit, many of our faults will be corrected. For example, the thought may come to mind that we have grieved our brother, and we know that in order to be pleasing to God and to remain in His presence we must be reconciled to the person we have grieved. In order to enter Paradise, one must have a heart as wide as the heavens, a heart that embraces all men. If a heart excludes even just one person, it will not be accepted by the Lord because He will not be able to dwell in it.

Prayer is an endless creation; it is a school that teaches us to remain in the presence of the Lord. This effort to remain with the Lord is an exercise that finally overcomes death, which is why our prayer must be neither superficial nor mechanical. We must unite mind and heart in order to learn true mental prayer, in other words, we must pray with our whole inner being, with all our mind and heart.

Prayer is a school, and humility is the key to success in this discipline. Let us be humble. Let us have the certainty of our own nothingness before God, knowing that the only thing that makes us truly human is the breath that our God and Creator has breathed into us. In every other respect we are earth, and earth is trodden underfoot. What makes us truly precious is the breath of God, received by us at the time of our creation and at our re-creation in holy baptism. This breath is what makes us the image and likeness of God.

by Archimandrite Zacharias: The Hidden Man of the Heart

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Death - views from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

metropolitan anthony of sourozh
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
Death is the touchstone of our attitude to life. People who are afraid of death are afraid of life. It is impossible not to be afraid of life with all its complexity and dangers if one is afraid of death. This means that to solve the problem of death is not a luxury. If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful and timid manner. It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fulness of our ability. Too often we wait until the end of our life to face death, whereas we would have lived quite differently if only we had faced death at the outset.

According to St. John Climacus, one of the essential steps in the transformation of our fallen nature and the acquisition of the virtues is "meleti thanatou", or the remembrance of death. In fact, Step 6 of his Ladder of Divine Ascent is dedicated to this very practice. On October 3rd the Church guides us to read this specific chapter from beginning to end, because at the end is the tale of the Blessed Hesychius the Horebite whom we celebrate today. St. John thought his tale to be the perfect seal on this beneficial chapter dedicated to the remembrance of death, and below I offer the ending portion of this chapter to see why:

Some inquire and wonder: “Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” – not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance. From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.

And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite. He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul. Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired. And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately. And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water. And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears. But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone was all we heard from him: “Forgive me! No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin.” We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation. We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics, but did not find them. So by Hesychius’s true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence.

[From St. John Climacus, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), p. 70.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Orthodox Family…

Orthodox Family…
by Rev. Fr. Alexy (Hieromonk Ambrose) Young

Our lack of wholeness also affects our concept of the family. In our culture each member of the family is primarily concerned with his own private interests. Parents nurture a spirit of individualism which, in our day, has spawned such ideas as "Women's Liberation" (a term which Kireyevsky knew and analyzed) and "Gay Liberation". This lack of cohesiveness in the family has produced the most lifeless and sterile of environments for our children to grow up in: most homes are dominated by a television, which is often used to baby-sit children even when parents are at home. At the time of writing, 40% of American mothers work full or part-time outside of the home. As a result, children are encouraged to develop more and more outside interests which take them away from the home and the rest of the family as they "do their own thing." In the 20th century, the home has really become only a "house"-a place in which people take their meals and sleep.

Kireyevsky contrasted this with the Orthodox home in which parents are actively involved with the rest of the family and where children are taught to live and work for the good of the whole family; where parents put selfish or private interests after the goal of creating a warm, living environment in which children actually learn more from the parents than from school or their peers.

In a western family, the members rise in the morning and quickly scatter to their separate pursuits, returning home at different times in order to eat a quick dinner before again leaving to spend the evening elsewhere, in worldly pursuits. In the Orthodox family, the members awaken and gather before the household ikons while the father reads all or some of the Morning Prayers. Meals are taken together, with the parents presiding over and directing conversation. If there is a television at all, it is used with the greatest caution and parental control. Most evenings are spent quietly, either preparing for a feast or a fast, or in some other productive and family oriented activity. Parents read aloud the lives of the saints to their children.

Some have the pious custom of encouraging a child to read a saint's life aloud at a meal (often at Sunday dinner).

As Saint John Chrysostom writes:
"For just as with a general when his soldiery also is well organized the enemy has no quarter to attack; so, I say, is it also here: when husband and wife and children and servants are all interested in the same things, great is the harmony of the house. Since where this is not the case, the whole is oftentimes overthrown and broken up by one ... and that single one will often mar and utterly destroy the whole."

Above all, the Orthodox home "is the abode where the members of the family will spend the majority of their lives. It is here, not in society, nor at the market place, where individuals will learn of the important things of the Christian life. It is in the Christian home that individuals will be able to work out their eternal salvation. It is in the Christian home that children will be raised and taught by word and action what it means to be a Christian. It is in the Christian home that all of the teachings of Christ and of the Church can be practiced."

A Man Is His Faith, p 40
by Rev. Fr. Alexy (Hieromonk Ambrose) Young
About the writings of Ivan Kireyevsky 1806-1856

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Power of Repentance

Personal Transfiguration

by Jason Zahariades
TransfigurationI had a wonderful meeting with Fr Patrick yesterday afternoon. I cannot adequately express my joy at having a spiritual father whom I consider both wise and safe. In addition, I never feel I’m receiving spiritual advice that has not first been hammered out in his own life. Fr Patrick is a trustworthy fellow sojourner on the path to salvation and life in Christ.
Yesterday, he reminded me of a very simple truth that has been resonating in my mind all night and morning. He said that the place of personal transfiguration is where God’s divine energies and our personal repentance meet. This “equation” for spiritual formation is neither a magical formula nor an instantaneous event. It requires both the discipline of an ascetic life and an abundance of time as we cooperate with God’s grace. But this simple equation basically summarizes the life of the Orthodox Church. The life of the Church through its Scriptures, services, sacraments and stories of the saints, is aimed at helping us by both developing personal repentance and exposing us to God’s divine energies.
I’m particularly captivated with Orthodoxy’s focus on repentance. Frankly, constantly hearing about repentance when we first began attending the Orthodox Church rubbed me the wrong way. Repentance is not a popular concept in American Christianity. It’s often associated with the “Woe-is-me-Beat-myself-up” mentality of abusive and destructive religion. It took some time for me to purge that image out of my head.
But that’s not repentance at all. Repentance literally means “to change one’s mind.” It’s used during the New Testament time in a similar way as our modern phrase, “Think about it.” To repent is to hear an alternative to one’s agenda or course of action, to carefully weigh the consequences of both, and ultimately to recognize the wisdom of the alternative and lay down your inferior agenda. Repentance isn’t just changing one’s mental perspective but it’s the actual transformation of one’s mind and subsequently, one’s life. When you embrace the superior alternative, it begins to transform your values, perspective and behavior. It’s a complete shift of worldview.
St. Isaac the Syrian correctly defines repentance as “to be transformed in the renewal of the mind.” While it can include remorse or confessing to breaking a law, repentance is ultimately the process of becoming one in heart and mind with Christ. Therefore, it is something we do through the rest of our lives.
So spiritual formation in the Orthodox Church is to be constantly confronted with the superior way, truth and life that is Christ himself, to be encouraged and urged to weigh the consequences of my self-destructive patterns of thinking, behaving and relating in light of the better way of Christ, and to lay down my way and to take up my cross and follow Christ. And this entire process is soaked in God’s divine energies.
“But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:16-18
It is this way that the Church is therapeutic, healing and repairing us of our brokenness and distortion. It is this way that the Church is like a gym, training and honing us into holiness.

Monday, October 19, 2009

His Divine Presence - More Thoughts from His LIfe is Mine

In prayer, especially, we are aware of the divine Presence of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  There is nothing greater than to have this personal relationship with our Creator.  Savor these thoughts given to us by Archimandrite Sophrony:
In Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit God gave us the full and final revelation of Himself.  His Being now for us is the First Reality, incomparably more evident than all the transient phenomena of this world.  We sense His divine presence both within us and without: in the supreme majesty of the universe, in the human face, in the lightning flash of thought.  He opens our eyes that we may behold and delight in the beauty of His creation.  He fill our souls with love towards all mankind.  He indescribably gentle touch pierces our heart.  And in the hours when His imperishable Light illumines our heart we know that we shall not die.  We know this with a knowledge to prove in the ordinary way, but which for us requires no proof, since the Spirit Himself bears witness within us.
Archimandrite Sophrony in His LIfe is Mine, p22-23
To develop this relationship with God takes time and effort.  In Scripture we can observe how slowly He revealed His full nature to His disciples.  At the very end of His time on earth He told them, "The Holy spirit...shall teach you all things to your remembrance, whosoever I have said unto you." (John 14:36)  "When the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13)  They prepared themselves for this with several years of His teaching and many days of prayer and fasting. It is in a life of prayer that we receive inspiration from Him, sending down on us His unlimited love.  The relationship we can develop with Him is one that cannot be put into words.
For us, Christians, Jesus Christ is the measure of all things, divine and human.  "In Him dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead" (Col 2:9) and of mankind.  He is our most perfect ideal.  In Him we find the answer to al our problems, which without Him would be insoluble.  He is n truth the mystical axis of the universe.  If Christ were not hte Son of God, then Salvation through the adoption of man by God the Father would be totally incomprehesible.  With Christ man steps forward into divine eternity.
Archimandrite Sophrony in His LIfe is Mine, p 31

More on prayer of the heart...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Returning to God - Thoughts from His LIfe is Mine

One of the things I had to come to terms with in my spiritual journey was to understand why there was so much suffering in life.  Why did God make it so difficult.  In the beginning I was willing to put this burden on God.  Eventually I came to see it differently.  Here is how it now makes sense to me.

In the beginning we were created in the image of God and endowed with a free will.  This gave us the capability to love God as He loves us.  It also eliminated the possibility of predestination as we can use this free will with full liberty.  We can choose to go against what God asks of us like Adam and Eve.  But there is a catch.  With this freedom we have there are consequences of our actions.  We all are made to seek perfection by striving to become like the image of God we have been created with.  In our efforts to grow in this way, we collectively make imperfect choices and experience suffering and pain.  In this is a creative turmoil. But this is precisely what leads to our further growth.  In our suffering we come to know our limitations, imperfections and need for renewal and transformation.  Often, out of fear,  we seek to avoid all pain and the reality of death. This serves to draw us into contemplation about the meaning of life and the purpose of our struggle.  It is in this struggle that we grow.  As we grow we learn to accept the difficulties that come our way as further opportunities for our growth.  We become thankful and each new encounter leads us closer to God.

Archimandrite Sophrony puts it this way,
We Christians accept the wondrous gift of life with thanksgiving.  Called by Christ, we strive for the fullest possible knowledge of the Primary source of all that exists.  From our birth onwards we gradually grow and enter into possession of being.  Christ is for us "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).  With Him our path lies through a great and intricate spiritual culture: we traverse cosmic chasms, more often with much suffering but not seldom win rapture as understanding increases.  For a while the growing process is bound up with our physical body; but the time soon comes when, liberated from terrestrial chains, mind and spirit can continue their progress towards the Heavenly Father.  We know  that He loves us and because of this love reveals Himself to us without limit.  It may still be only partly, but we know that in Him is our immortality; in Him we shall arrive at everlasting Truth.  He will grant us with indescribably joy of sharing in the very Act of the Divine creation of the world.  We hunger for complete unity in Him.  He is Light, Beauty, Wisdom, Love.  He gives the noblest meaning to our life and the bliss of boundless gnosis.
Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life is Mine, p 35 
Yes, we need to learn to be thankful for whatever difficulty we are called to face, as it will lead us to an inward peace and union with Christ our God. The reward is as Archimandrite says, "He reals Himself to us without limit." and "He will grant us with indescribably joy of sharing in the very Act of the divine creation." This then gives us the meaning we seek out of life.

The reality of life is that as we humble ourselves, accept our weakness, and recognize our self-centeredness, the Holy Spirit makes its home in us and we come to know Christ with certainty and have no lingering doubts about our eternal life with Him. The Gospel is transformed from a book into a clear description of the true love of God for us.  As we walk this path, we learn that we must deal with our sinfulness.

In my case this took many years.  I led a life for over forty years without having any realization that I was living in sin.  I was successful in my career, had a loving wife and healthy kids.  I was in control and everything was going my way.  Eventually, the reality of death and a persistent conscience began to have an impact.  I began to feel the pressure on my job and wondering about the purpose of this hectic way of life.  I began to search for the truth.  This eventually led to a thirst to be become part of God's Kingdom, but the path was one with many detours.  It wasn't until I learned how to pray that I began to make any progress in this search for true peace.  The truth I found was that it is only through an inner process of searching, involving contemplation, prayer, fasting and regular participation in the sacraments of the Church, that the Holy Spirit becomes active within and makes its home within us.

Archimandrite Sophrony says,
...true contemplation begins the moment we become aware of sin in us... To apprehend sin in oneself is a spiritual act, impossible without grace, without the drawing near to us of Divine Light.The intial effect of the approach of this mysterious Light is that we see where we stand "spiritually" at the particular moment.  The first manisfestations of the Uncreated Light do not allow us to experinece it as light.  It shines in a secret way,  illuminating the black darkness of our inner world to disclose a specticle that is far from joyous for us in our notmal state of fallen being... We become acutely conscious of sin as a sundering from the ontological source of our being.  Our s;pirit is eternal but now we see ourselves as  prisoners of death.  With death waiting at the end, another thousand years of life would seem but a deceptive flash.  
Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life is Mine, p 41
We learn that it is our sinfulness that separates us from God.  This is what sin is in reality.  It is not about violating a code of ethics. It's about having a personal relationship with God.  We discover that until we form this relationship we are living in sin.  Once we realize this state, then the desire grows with to come closer to God.  We become zealots.  We embrace repentance, feeling sorry for our separation from God, seeing to change our way of being,  and asking God for forgiveness and help.

Archimandrate Sophrony says there is no room for justification of our sinfulness.
 When we seek to justify sinful action we ipso facto sever our alliance with God.  God does not constrain us but neither can He be coerced.  He retires leaving us berift of His lumeous  presence.  Of course, man cannot altogether avoid sinning; but he can avoid the cnsquences of sin––separation from God––through repentance.  With repentance and the consequent increae of grace within us, the reality of the Divine World preponderates over the visible cosmos.  We contemplate the FIRST REALITY.  
 Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life is Mine, pp 45-50 
When we are properly prepared and ready, only then does the Holy Spirit come.  Preparation is necessary because we must first be receptive.  God does not force himself on us.  We must seek Him.  We receive the Holy Spirit when we are able to surrender our self-control and open our hearts to him, trusting in Him totally, and able to call Him "Our Father, Who art in Heaven," with heartfelt sincerity.  With this comes an intense yearning for His love.

Archimandrite Sopharony says,
 Live-giving faith consists in unquestionaling belief in Christ as God.   Only when Christ is accepted as perfect God and perfect Man does the plentitude of spiritual experience described by the apostles and fathers become possible.  
Archimandrite Sophrony, His Life is Mine, p 50 
In my case, it was prayer combined with full participation in the Sacraments of the Church that cleared the way and opened this path to union with God. My return started with the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

Archimandrate Sophrony says, "Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis the only means."

Quotes from His Life is Mine by Archimandtie Sophrony

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thoughts of the Heart

 "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." (Genesis 6:5-6)

These two verses, describing the incurable wickedness of the antediluvian world which finally brought on the global Flood, contain the first two of over a thousand occurrences of the word "heart" in the Bible. Note the contrast: man's heart was evil; God's heart was grieved.

Both the Hebrew and Greek languages treated the heart as the center of a person's being, the seat of all feelings and thoughts, and we do the same in English. The writers knew that the heart was a physical organ, with its function of circulating the blood as basic to physical life. Leviticus 17:11, among other Scriptures, notes that "the life of the flesh is in the blood," but only rarely was the word used thus in Scripture. Nearly always the word is used symbolically in reference to the deep essence of a person's being. It is also used occasionally to refer to the innermost part of physical objects (e.g., "the heart of the earth," as in Matthew 12:40).

In this first occurrence it refers to the "thoughts" of the heart. Somehow, before one thinks with his mind, he thinks with his heart, and these deep, unspoken thoughts will determine the way he reasons with his brain. Jesus confirmed this in Mark 7:21: "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts."

How important it is, then, to maintain a heart that is pure. In fact, in sharp contrast to the first occurrence of "heart" in the Old Testament referring to man's evil thoughts, the first occurrence in the New Testament is in the gracious promise of Christ: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). HMM

From  Days of Praise