Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Power of Sanctified Oil.



On Wednesday we have the service of Holy Unction because it emphasizes the expectation of Pascha: the resurrection, redemption and sanctification of all life. The purpose of Holy Unction is healing and forgiveness. It allows a person to share in the victory of Christ and raise him to the level of God's kingdom. It assures us of the spiritual power of the sacraments of the Church so that our trials of physical and spiritual sickness can be carried with courage and hope. It helps us to realize how fragile human life really is and how dependent we are on God. In this sacrament we are sanctified and united to the sufferings of Christ which we will witness in the coming days.

The biblical basis for the Sacrament is found in James:

"Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much." (James 5:13-17)
Its place in Holy Week is connected with the Gospel account read at the Presanctified Liturgy earlier in the day where the woman poured "very costly fragrant oil" on the head of Christ while He was at dinner on this very evening of Holy Wednesday with Simon the Leper, the father of Lazarus whom He had raised from the dead.
"And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table." (Matthew 26:6-7)
As Jesus had healed Simon of physical leprosy, the repentant harlot hoped to be healed of her spiritual "leprosy." The connection between this Gospel account and the anointing "for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the body is obvious.

Throughout Great Lent we have been preparing to celebrate the Passion of Christ and especially the great Feast of Pascha through our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Tonight we prepare to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in the morning honoring the establishment of the Mystical Supper. At the very least we should receive Holy Unction for the forgiveness of sins and the health of soul and body.



Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Virgins and the Oil Lamps

On Holy Tuesday the Church calls to remembrance the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-3); the other the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) pointing to the inevitability of the Parousia and the need for proper preparation and vigilance.

We learn at least two basic things. First, Judgment Day will be like the situation in which the bridesmaids (or virgins) of the parable found themselves: some had sufficient oil and were prepared which others did not have enough and their lamps went out before the bridegroom came.  The time one prepares for our union with God is now and not at some undefined point in the future. 


Those who did not properly prepare went back to get more oil but when they returned the door to the banquet was closed to them. The tragedy of the closed door is this situation is of our own making, not God's. Those who were prepared entered without any problem and joined in the feast.  The exclusion from the marriage feast, the kingdom, is of our own making. Second, we are reminded that watchfulness  signifies inner tranquility and joy coupled with attentiveness and vigilance. We must have the personal resolve to find and do the will of God, embrace all His commandments and guard the heart and mind from all evil thoughts and actions. 

What is the meaning of the Oil in this parable?  Some say it a symbol of good works but its more than this.  


Saint Seraphim of Sarov says,
These virgins did good, and out of their spiritual foolishness supposed that doing good was exactly the point of Christianity. They did good works and by this obeyed God, but they did not care in the least beforehand whether they had received or reached the grace of God's Spirit…
It is more than good works that is expected of us.  Its the grace of the Holy Spirit that is essential––this is the Oil. He continues,
This very gaining of the Holy Spirit is that oil which the foolish virgins lacked. They were called foolish because they forgot about the necessary fruit of virtue, the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which no one is saved and no one can be saved, for: ‘it is by the Holy Spirit that any soul is vitalized and exalted in chastity, and any soul is lit by the Trinitarian unity in holy mysteries’...
What is this market place where the foolish virgins went to get their oil?  What was the closed door?
 The foolish virgins, seeing that their lamps were going out, went to the marketplace to buy oil but would not come back in time, for the doors were already shut. The marketplace is our life; the door of the house of marriage (that was shut and did not lead to the Bridegroom) is our human death; wise and foolish virgins are Christian souls; the oil is not works but the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God which is received through these works, and which converts things perishable into things imperishable, transforms spiritual death into spiritual life, darkness into light, the manger of our being, with passions tied like cattle and beasts, into the Divine Temple, into the glorious palace of never-ending rejoicing in Christ Jesus."   Ref
Again, in a powerful way, through this service we are reminded of the task we have now, to unite with the Holy Spirit, to find Theosis, and maintain it in our life constantly.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Meaning of the "Bridegroom"


During the first three nights of Holy Week we are reminded of the Second Coming of Christ. These are called the Bridegroom services. Why the Bridegroom?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king, who gave a wedding feast for his son” (Matt. 22:2).
A wedding is traditionally celebrated with a grand feast and a most joyous time.  Christ is the Bridegroom and we are His bride.  He invites us all to a great feast in His kingdom of heaven.  When the Bride accept one in marriage the Bridegroom pledges His inheritance and glory.  It is a union where two become one.  As we join with Him as His bride we become one just like the bride and groom become one in the marriage ceremony.  But with this invitation  comes a warning. In the words of the King, “The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy” (Matt. 22:8).
It is us who are not worthy?  Will we be accep[ted in His Kingdom.  Will we become His bride?  On one of several occasions, the Lord was asked why His disciples did not observe the prescribed fasting periods of the Jewish faith, Christ responded, "Can you make wedding guests fast, when the bridegroom is with them (Luke 5:34)?" And He went on to say, "The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them... (Luke 5:35)."
In the Bridegroom services celebrated on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings we sing this hymn:
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant He shall find vigilant; but unworthy is he whom he shall find neglectful. Beware therefore, O my soul, lest you be weighed down by sleep, lest you be given over to death and be closed out from the kingdom; but rise up crying out: "Holy! Holy! Holy are You our God; through the intercessions of the Theotokos, have mercy on us." (Audio with Fr. Serpahim Dedes)
Its a warning. We are reminded that we must be ever ready as we do not know when the time will come when we will be called to join with Him in eternal life.  Will we be properly clothed for the wedding banquet?  Will we even be invited. 


On Sunday night the icon is brought onto the Solea in a procession and after the Gospel is read, we sing:
I see Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O Saviour, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein;  (Audio with fr. Seraphim Dedes)
What is this wedding garment? It is our purity of heart demonstrated by the fruit we bear.  


One of the Gospels lessons (Matthew 21:18-20of these services is the lesson is about the barren fig tree, which Christ cursed and withered because it bore no fruit.  The fig tree is a parable of those who have heard God's word, but who fail to bear the fruit of obedience.  Originally the withering of the fig tree was a testimony against those Jews who rejected God's word and His Messiah.  However, it is also a warning to all people, in all times, of the importance of not only hearing the God's word, but putting it into action. Those who belong to Christ ought to live and walk in the Spirit; and the Spirit will bear fruit in them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-25).


These services set the important tone of repentance which we all need to be accepted in His kingdom.  Its a sobering message in preparation for the Passion of Christ where the services dramatically lead us though the incredible suffering He went through for us.  It demonstrates His extreme humility which he expects us to also have as our wedding garment.
This icon is the focus of the service.

The icon depicts Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, bearing the marks of his suffering, yet preparing the way for a marriage feast in his Kingdom. It portrays Christ during His Passion, particularly during the period when our Lord was mocked and tortured by the soldiers who crowned Him with thorns, dressed Him in purple and placed a reed in His Hands, jeering Him as the "King of the Jews." . The crown of thorns is a symbol of his marriage to the Church and His suffering. The rope around His hands is a symbol of bondage to sin, death and corruption which was loosed with Christ's death on the Cross. And the reed is a symbol of his humility; God rules his kingdom with humility. The imagery connotes the final union of the Lover and the beloved. The title Bridegroom also suggest the Parousia.

He invites us to become His Bride and to be properly prepared.
Here is a final thought by Elder Ephraim:
In this life that we live, man labors to become rich, to become educated, to have an easy life, to become great; but unfortunately, death comes and foils everything. Then what he labored for all his life is taken by others, while he leaves life with a guilty conscience and a soiled soul. Who is wise and will understand these things and will renounce them and follow Christ the Bridegroom, so that all the works he will do will be recompensed infinitely in His kingdom?
Always, my daughter, remember death and the judgment of God which we will unavoidably undergo. Bear them in mind to have more fear of God, and weep for your sins, because tears console the soul of him who weeps.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Who are We and What is Our Position - Palm Sunday


"The beginning of Christ's Passion is today's triumphal procession. The people expected a king, a leader - and they found the Saviour of their souls. Nothing embitters a person so much as a lost, a disappointed hope; and that explains why people who could receive Him like that, who witnessed the raising of Lazarus, who saw Christ's miracles and heard His teaching, admired every word, who were ready to become His disciples as long as He brought victory, broke away from Him, turned their backs on Him and a few days later shouted, "Crucify Him, crucify Him." And Christ spent all those days in loneliness, knowing what was in store for Him, abandoned by every one except the Mother of God, who stood silently by, as She had done throughout her life, participating in His tragic ascent to the Cross; She who had accepted the Annunciation, the Good Tidings, but who also accepted in silence Simeon's prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart.
....
Once more let us ask ourselves who we are and where we stand, what our position in this crowd is. Do we stand with hope, or despair, or what? And if we stand with indifference, we too are part of that terrifying crowd that surrounded Christ, shuffling, listening, and then going away; as we shall go away from church. The Crucifix will be standing here on Thursday and we shall be reading the Gospel about the Cross, the Crucifixion and death - and then what will happen? The Cross will remain standing, but we shall go away for a rest, go home to have supper, to sleep, to prepare for the fatigues of the next day. And during this time Christ is on the Cross, Christ is in the tomb. How awful it is that, like the disciples in their day, we are not able to spend one night, one hour with Him. Let us think about this, and if we are incapable of doing anything, let us at least realise who we are and where we stand, and at the final hour turn to Christ with the cry, the appeal of the thief, Remember me, Lord, in Thy Kingdom! Amen."


Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Lazarus' Resurrection - Why?

In the rasiing of Lazarus from the dead (after four days in the tomb) Jesus was making an important statement in anticipation of His own death on the Cross.  Notice how Jesus caused Lazarus' resurrection. He said, “And when He had thus spoken, He cried with a loud voice. Lazarus, come forth.”

Saint John Chrysostom comments on this, 
Why did he not say, “In the name of My Father come forth”? Or, “Father, raise him up”? Why did he omit all these expressions, and after assuming the attitude of one praying, show by His actions His independent authority? Because this also was a part of His wisdom, to show not only by words by words, but by His deeds, power. For since they had nothing else to charge Him with except that He was not of God… This is that of which He spoke, “The hour is coming, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.” John 5:28 For, that you might not think that He received the power of working from another, He taught you this before, and gave proof by deeds, and said not, Arise, but, “Come forth,” conversing with the dead man as though living. What can be equal to this authority?
Jesus had no illusions that this miracle would convince everyone. It only hastened his Death and resurrection. 
After Lazarus came walking out of the tomb in the full glare of a noonday sun, one would have thought that everyone would have believed. But miracles are no cure for unbelief. Some will not believe even though one were to rise from the dead. It was the resurrection of Lazarus that brought out the crowds on Palm Sunday, but it was also Lazarus’ resurrection that built the cross; for as the Apostle John writes, "From that day on they plotted his death." Fr. Anthony Coniaris 

This shows how precious our faith in Him is.
Saint John Chryssostom says. 
A great blessing then is faith when it arises from glowing feelings, great love, and a fervent soul; it makes us truly wise, it hides our human meanness, and leaving reasonings beneath, it philosophizes about things in heaven; or rather what the wisdom of men cannot discover, it abundantly comprehends and succeeds in. Let us then cling to this, and not commit to reasonings what concerns ourselves. 
Shudder at the threat, dread the vengeance. The pleasure here is not so great as the punishment there, but may it not came to pass that any one (here) become liable to that punishment, but that exercising holiness they may see Christ, and obtain the promised good things, which may we all enjoy, through the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Ghost be glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
We can also look act this symbolically as does Fr. Stephen Freeman. 
“For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment. That even before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts are often places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God. Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of God. We were not created for the tomb. 
I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes. Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.   Fr Stephen Freeman 
Fr. Alexander Schmemann gives us aditional insigth in this most signficant event. 
“It stinketh.” say the Jews trying to prevent Jesus from approaching the corpse, and this awful warning applies to the whole world, to all life. God is Life and the Giver of Life. He called man into the Divine reality of Life and behold “it stinketh”…The world was created to reflect and proclaim the glory of God and “it stinketh.” At the grave of Lazarus God encounters Death, the reality of anti-life, of destruction and despair. He meets His Enemy, who has taken away from Him His World and become its prince. And we who follow Jesus as He approaches the grave, enter with Him into that hour of His, which He announced so often as the climax and the fulfillment of his whole work. The Cross, its necessity and universal meaning are announced in the shortest verse of the Gospel: “and Jesus wept”… We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus, that Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The power of Resurrection is not a divine “power in itself,” but power of love, or rather love as power. God is Love and Love is life, Love creates Life…It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life. This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus. In them love is at work again – recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!...” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the beginning of both: the Cross, as the Supreme sacrifice of love, the Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann 

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Annunciation of the Theotokos

A spiritual message from Metropolitan Alexios:

“Today is the beginning of our salvation,
And the revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin
As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos:
"Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!"
Troparion of the Annunciation

I greet you with joy and love in the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the glorious Feast Day of the Annunciation of the Theotokos, one of the greatest and most ancient Feast Days of our Church, dedicated to the Mother of God, our most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. This wonderful Feast Day was already being celebrated in the fourth century, and there is a painting of the Annunciation in the catacombs dating from the second century. This is one of the twelve great Feast Days because on this day both heaven and earth were changed, when the Virgin Mary said yes to God's astonishing revelation that God the Son should be born as a man into this world. It is inconceivable that a Being who is the Creator of everything should have the desire to become human. Yet this is just what God did, by the assistance of a young girl. Thus there are actually two parts to the Annunciation: God’s message of salvation and love and the response of the Virgin. This is the miracle of salvation that we celebrate on March 25.
For the Virgin Mary's response to the angel's message was straightforward: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” She didn’t ask for more time to consider, or to consult her parents or her betrothed. Quite simply and knowing all the circumstances, she said ‘yes' to God and accepted all the consequences. Thus we see the Virgin Mary as an example of obedience for us - the first Christian disciple. For obedience is more than just doing what we are told, it is the recognition that we are not totally autonomous and separate individuals and that ultimately we belong to God and each other. As servants of the Lord, our obedience consists not only being aware of but more importantly responding to God's call to a renewed commitment to a more Christ-centered life.
Perhaps the critical question is how we respond when God does call us. Sometimes He calls us in ways that turn our whole lives upside down and inside out – sometimes He calls us through our familiar everyday routine, our families and our obligations, seeing there opportunities to grow in faith, humility and love toward one another.
As we lift up our hearts together in prayer to the Mother of God, may we follow her blessed example and respond with simplicity, honesty and love to our God when He calls us: “Here am I. the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” 
I remain
Prayerfully yours with paternal love in Christ, 
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+ALEXIOS 
Metropolitan of Atlanta 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

State of Hesychia

When we discuss Orthodox prayer we are often led to a discussion of  hesychia.  This is a very advanced form of Orthodox spirituality.  It makes up one of the last chapters in Saint Theophan's book, Path to Salvation.  What is it?

Hesychia is a state when there is a an inner stillness and one abides alone in spirit with God.
Saint John Climacus says,
"A hesychast is one who strives to confine his incorporeal being within his bodily house."
Saint Theophan says the hesychast is one who is,
entirely occupied with being with the one Lord, with Whom he converses face to face, like as a favorite emperor speaks into his ear.  This activity of the heart is surrounded and guarded by preserving stillness of thought.
This level of spiritual effort is very advanced and cannot be attained without first conquering our passions  This is an absolute prerequisite.  Hesychia only develops in those who have tasted the "sweetness of God," says Saint Theophan.  He warns us,
"neither earnest prayer nor inviolable activity of the heart can ever be achieved if the heart is not first completely disengaged from affairs."
Note that he says, "completely disengaged." Its perfection usually requires a period of isolation from worldly affairs in a monastic cell where we can be "completely disengaged." He continues highlighting the path and our need to remember that on the path the first steps must be directed to the taming of our passions.,
The path to this requires purifying from the passions by means of all the ascetic labors that strengthen goodness and exhaust evil in us.... Its essence is a completely undisturbed prayerful standing before God in the mind and the heart, by which fire is added to fire.
Saint John Climacus clearly warns us of taking any shortcuts. He says,
"He who is sick in soul from some passion and attempts stillness is like a man who has jumped from a ship into the sea and thinks that he will reach the shore safely on a lank."
Many of us pick up the Philokalia, which contains primarily advice to monks who are in a very advanced place along the spiritual path, and seek advice from these writers before we have mastered our passions.  In other words we attempt to take a shortcut along this path. Saint Theophan is trying to warn us against this temptation.  This is why a good spiritual guide is so important before entering into the practices of the hesychasts.  They will only be beneficial to us if we are properly prepared.

When we do develop the capability of Hesychia we become what is termed dispassionate.  Nothing will arouse our passions.  It is only one who is dispassionate can say, not I , but Christ lives in me (Gal 2:20), I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the [Orthodox] faith. (2 Tim 4:7)

Those who are able to perfect themselves like the hesychasts are those who are worthy of sincere communion with God.  These are  the people who we call saints.  Once achieving this state, they do not normally remain in an isolated state, but are sent by God to serve others who are seeking salvation.  They become guides and work miracles.

The last sentence in the last chapter on the ascent in the Path to Salvation reads as follows:
We know nothing higher or earth than this Apostolic state.  Here we conclude our overview of the order of a God-pleasing life. The next level of text of instruction would be the Philokalia and the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

May you all become a saint!

Now back to the work most of us need to do, so we can advance to this advanced state.  It is a narrow path demanding heroic struggles. May God support you in your journey.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Attaining Our Nothingness

Union with God is not possible without feeling like we are nothing.  But what is this feeling? I can't describe it myself. I imagine it's like knowing that whatever actions we take we can see that all actions are do to the work of God.  We  become capable to see this this reality in everything.  God's "invisible hand" that is at work in all things suddenly becomes visible to us. 


Saint Theophan gives us advice on this condition:
The person can on his part apply the following: observing how different affairs and incidents come about in order to see the power of God in the; delving with strong faith into the conditions of justification to the point of crying out: "Thou Who knowest all things, save me;" seeing the countless myriads of enemies, hidden paths, darkness before his face, perplexing crossroads, and God's hidden intentions."
The point we need to reach is where we know there is nowhere to turn but to God.  Once this becomes a reality for us then we surrender to Him and His Church. Then we see his mighty hands at work in all things.


Saint Theophan says that the ancient Church Fathers tell us,
"The feeling of one's nothingness and dedication to God unfolds best under constant sorrows and especially through extreme, providential crosses..."
With a good guide, and upon our full surrender to God's will, we begin to become a doer of His works instead of our own.


Satin Theophan says,
"He who commits himself into God's hands receives something from God and acts according to what he receives.  This is a living union, life in God, confirmation in Him of one's entire existence: the mind, heart and will."
It is at this stage he says we begin to develop mental prayer.  Notice how far along the path He begins to talk about mental prayer.  Often we read excerpts from the Philokalia, or some other holy person who speaks of the mystical heights of Christian spirituality, and think we can apply these to our own life.  Beware! As we have show in this series on the Path to Salvation, there is a long road to the state where this advice has any meaning for our own spiritual development.  We don't enter the Olympics of spiritual endeavors without first undergoing extensive training and preparation guided by a qualified coach.


I am gong to reflect more on this path Saint Theophan has so clearly outlined for us that has been described in these recent posts.  But first we will take one step higher and then come back for this reflection.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The goal is "Nothing"?

So, what is this inner ascent we are called to undertake?  It at times seems like such an uncertain and difficult path towards an unreachable goal.  Most of us cannot even imagine what it must be like to see and feel the presence of God working within us though all the members of our body.  When we start on the Orthodox path by subscribing to the Orthodox Way of Life, we are motivated with a strong desire, great zeal, to overcome our blindness and to become in full union with God, to share in His glorious light.  In the beginning had only a glimpse of this more perfect union with God. But this ws enough to set our soul on fire motivating us to change our way of being thorough God's help in the Church. We became aware that we needed to take action on our own way of life to get rid of the sinfulness of which we became acutely aware. We struggled and struggled. We found that this is the nature of the path.


Saint Theophan tels us that this inner ascent leads us to the "revelation and appearance to our consciousness of God's work in us."  It is no more than our work of salvation and purification, he tells us.
"The zealot becomes enlightened about this reality through frequent failures met in spite of all his efforts, and unexpected and great successes met without particularly trying.  Mistakes and falls are especially enlightening as they bereave us of grace.  All of these bring a man to the thought and belief that he is nothing, while God and his almighty grace are everything."
This is the final destination, the realization that we are "nothing." 


Saint Theophan says, 
"It is not possible unless the person comes to feel that he is nothing."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

It's Never too Late


The life of St Mary of Egypt teaches us that we should never judge who will be saved. Her life demonstrates that it is never too late to repent. Knowing the sinfulness of her life, who would have thought that she would become a Saint that is celebrated on one of the Sunday in Lent.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom sees her as an image of what each of our lives could become. He writes,
" Each of us is called to commune with God in such a way, that God and each of us should become one, that each of us should become partaker of the Divine nature, a living member, a brother, a sister, a limb of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a son and a daughter of the Living God! This is our vocation; but can that be achieved by our own strength? No, it cannot! But it can be achieved by God in us if we only turn to Him with all our mind, all our heart, all our longing, determinably, yes: it is determination, and it is longing, a passionate, desperate longing... And then - and then all things become possible."   
When Saint Paul asked God for strength to fulfil his mission, the Lord said to him, My grace suffitheth unto thee, My power deploys itself in weakness... And at the end of his life, having fulfilled his vocation, Paul, who knew what he was saying, said, all things are possible unto me in the power of Christ Who sustains me... All things are possible, because God does not call us to more than can be achieved by Him with us and in us.


Link to the complete story of the Life of Mary of Egypt as told to us by Saint Sophronius.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Spiritual Warfare VI - The Ascent

This last stage of spiritual warfare involves our ascent, a new state of inner being where the union with God becomes meaningful. This final ascent, according to Saint Theophan, involves preserving this new new state where we sense the sweetness of God's inner presence.  He advises the following:
1. Force oneself to ceaselessly behold God and lift oneself to the feeling that one is being seen by God.
2. Do everything for the glory of God.  Seek nothing in all action other than this.
3. Do everything with an awareness that it is being done by God's will.  Embrace all that comes your way as part of His will.––joy and sorrow.
Eventually he says,
"You will become accustomed to mentally standing in the vision of God with His infinite perfections."  
This sweet feeling of God's presence will become a norm during your times of prayer.  Your yearning for God is no longer something you seek, but rather it is now something quite natural, something you want to preserve.  


Saint Theophan says, 
"It should be made real, alive, like a natural pull that is sweet, earnest, and uncontrollable... This is the sign of this birth: earnest, quiet, and unforced inner concentration, before God accompanied by a feeling of reverence, fear, joy and the like."
You are now happy to be alone with God and begin to experience what the hesychasts describe as inner silence.


He says,
"Like a ray of sunlight carries away a drop of dew, so does the Lord enrapture the spirit that comes into contact with Him."
At this stage our heart has been purified.  You are now able to totally dedicate yourself to God.  God now begins to guide your intellect, will and feelings and permeate all of your actions.  He becomes  the doer of everything.  You are now an instrument of His love.  


This final movement is what the Lord was telling Peter when he said,
Most assuredly, I say to you, when you were younger, you girded yourself and walked where you wished; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish.” (Jn 21:18).
Reference: Path to Salvation pp 312-317

Friday, March 19, 2010

Spiritual Warfare V - The Final Act

Having conquered the passions and tamed our thoughts, becoming effective spiritual warriors, we are ready for the final movement –– surrender and ascent towards a living communion with God. Please recognize that much work is necessary to prepare for this final act.  Having developed a keen ability for inner concentration, one will find that their inner being begins to reorganize.

Saint Theophan says,
Little by little is revealed to him the main goal that he should be seeking and which had previously ben hidden behind a multitude of activities.... This goal and striving is :longing for God as the highest good. 
We we began our efforts we acted mainly out of fear for our salvation.  We sensed an important duty and obligation to do the will of God as described to us in the Scriptures. Divine grace awakened us to these duties.  But there is another step where all changes.

Saint Theophan says,
"Then the fear subsides and, without disappearing, gives way to the sweetness of labor for the Lord and a pleasant feeling connected with it.  This is the beginning of the soul's coming alive to God, the ripening of its bright goal."
Now our spiritual work changes and we must focus on preserving this new condition of our inner being. All our previous ascetic efforts have cultivated a strong yearning for union with God.  Now they need to be redirected to protect this new inner sense of God's inner presence.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Spiritual Warfare IV - Conquering Thoughts

We know that sin begins with a thought.  We have a thought and then we become attracted to it.  Next, we act on it.  To overcome sinfulness, in addition to arraigning our life to avid temptations, we must be ever wary of our thoughts.  The key for doing this is to become a student of your thoughts.
Saint Theophan says,
"Attentively follow the course of affairs and watch what thoughts accompany them and conclude them, in order later to judge by this what initially lay within."
Think of being in a boxing match.  In the boxing ring you have to defend yourself from the punches of your opponent. You receive many little jabs that have no direct impact.  But these small punches only set you up for that big punch which can knock you out.
Saint Theophan says,
"The enemy has a law––not to begin suddenly with a passion but with a thought, and to repeat the thought often." 
These repeated thoughts may not always be bad thoughts.  The bad ones are easy to reject, but others require keen discernment.  When new thoughts come about be wary.  Don't immediately incline to accept them.  Be patient.  Watch and objectively reflect.  Don't trust in your own reasoning but share new thoughts with a trusted friend or  your spiritual father.

The risk is disillusion. Saint Theophan describes it this way.
"Their foremost characteristic is that a person assuredly considers himself to be something he is not––for example, call to teach others, capable of an extraordinary life, ad so on  Our pride is always lurking in the back ground waiting to be satisfied."
Our challenge is to free our mind of unnecessary thoughts.  Saint Theophan states,
"The result of warfare can be a mind free of thoughts, a heart free of passions, and a will free of tendencies.  When this develops, the person has achieved passionlessness.  His inner being becomes a clear  mirror that reflects spiritual things."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Spiritual Warfare III – Afterwards

Once you have encountered a spiritual battle and you were successful in averting any sinful act, give thanks to the Lord.  But, do not be over joyful as this can lead to you to complacency and even lead you to a greater sin of vainglory. Assume that there may be an ambush laying around the next corner.  Do not share this victory with anyone.  Remain humble and ready for another battle.

If you were not successful and succumbed to the temptations presented, humble yourself.  Fall into repentance immediately.  Accept that God knows that you will not aways be successful and is always merciful if you remain humble and repentant.
Saint Theophan says,
"Our Lord is like a mother who leads her child by the hand and does not abandon him..."
Repeated failures should spurn you to engage in greater ascetic labors.  Look for new strategies, new ways to avoid such situations.  The worst thing is to become stopped by any form of depression over your failure.

Remember everyone has a different task––will face different spiritual battles of differing degrees.  We all have a central tendency for sin but it is different for each of us.  Saint Theophan assures us,
"One only needs to have the zealous desire to conquer himself."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Spiritual Warfare II - Preparation

Once we are well aware of our sinfulness (the sign of a mature seeker of God) we can then seek to anticipate the battles we will encounter during the coming day.  Our sinfulness is often triggered by our interactions encountered in the activites of our daily life.  When we know we will be facing situations where we often find ourselves falling into a sinful activity we need to protect ourselves and prepare for these battles.


Saint Theophan recommends,
"At the beginning of each day, sit and go over all possible meetings and occurrences and all the possible feelings and movements that they could cause."  
This can be a routine activity at the end of your morning prayers.  Mentally go through the day and the situations you are likely to encounter.  Think about how you can deal with those situations where you know it will be difficult for you––especially situations where you may be tempted with lust or anger.


Predetermine the best approach if temptations do arise.  Think about how you will fight it off, or will it be better for you to avoid the encounter.  When we have a weakness it is often best to predetermine a way to walk away physically from the situation. 


As you enter into the trials of the day, remember you have some important weapons.  Both of these give me great aid. One is the Jesus Prayer which you can say at any time (if you make it part of your regular prayer rule), and even more powerful is the sign of the Cross.  As you enter into a situation where you know you are facing temptation, make the sign of the Cross and say quietly to yourself, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."


By being vigilant, and aware of the potential battles you will face, you can begin to change the way you live your life transforming it into an Orthodox Way of LIfe.  


Become a proactive spiritual warrior.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Vision of Life to Come


Having a vision of the life to come is not truly possible but believing it is something wonderful is important.  Here is a view expressed by Greatmartyr  Saint Euphemia ( 3rd century AD) to elder Paisios of Mount Athos, († 1994) when she mystically appeared to him in his cell to answer his prayers.
There was a third knock and the Elder felt someone coming inside his cell and walking through the corridor. He went to the door and there he saw St. Euphemia, who had miraculously entered his cell through the locked door and was venerating the icon of the Holy Trinity, which the Elder had placed on the wall of his corridor, on the right hand side of the church’s door.
Then the Elder told the saint: "Say: Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit."
St. Euphemia clearly repeated those words and immediately Father Paisios knelt and venerated the saint.
Afterwards, they sat and talked for quite a while; he could not specify for how long, as he had lost all sense of time while being with St. Ephemia. She gave the solution for all three matters he had been praying for and in the end he said to her:  "I would like you to tell me how you endured your martyrdom."
The saint replied: "Father, if I knew back then how eternal life would be and the heavenly beauty the souls enjoy by being next to God, I honestly would have asked for my martyrdom to last for ever, as it was absolutely nothing compared to the gifts of grace of God!"   (taken from: http://www.pigizois.net/agglika/paisios/11.htm
So often we only think of the wonders of this world.  But what greater wonder do we have in store for us when we enter the next world, where we are close to God for eternity. This is our aim to perfect ourselves so we too can be blessed with God's grace to be with God in heaven.  Thank you Saint Euphemia for this reminder.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

On The Sunday of Saint John of the Ladder


Today we commemorate Saint John of the Ladder who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. He was a monk for 64 years at the monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. He is most known for his book called the "Ladder" where he describes step-by-step, how we can lift ourselves up to union with God.

In this book one he describes our life in a Christian spiritual community analogous to a bunch of rough stones out into a jar. When stones are first put into the jar they have many sharp edges, but when they are shaken together over time the stones interact with each other, rubbing and bumping, knocking off the sharp edges so they become smoother and smoother. Eventually they are highly polished like stones on the seashore.

He is highlights for us the importance of our work together in our Christian family following the direction lad down for us n the Church. Much of our development comes through our dealing with all the difficulties we face as we interact with others. This coupled with our own self-development, God helps us grow closer to him.

We can also gain insight from Saint John's image of a ladder that we must climb to become one with God. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow compares our spiritual climb to throwing a stone in the air. With the force of our throw the stone continues upward until the force of gravity becomes stronger. The stone then begins to fall back to earth. This is similar to our spiritual ascent. When we engage in our ascetical works we are applying a force that brings us closer to God. Jesus told us the path is not an easy one and that we must "strive". He said, "Strive to enter through the narrow gate." He is reminding us that we need to work on ourselves to enter His kingdom. We must make an effort. This effort makes up the rungs of the Ladder Saint John describes for us in his book. Like the stone thrown in the air, we can climb this ladder a ways, but, if we fail to continue to make effort to improve ourselves, we too will fall back like the stone. The final steps on the ladder are also the most difficult. Often we forget that ascetic labor is necessary. Ascetic efforts are not intended just for monastics, they are necessary for all of us.

In the Gospel lesson for last Sunday we heard Jesus telling us: "He that would come after Me, let him take up the cross, deny himself, and follow Me." Christ suffered through His crucifixion, but the reward was His victory over death in His Resurrection. We too must be crucified for our own resurrection and salvation. Jesus Christ opened the door for us and showed us the way. We must follow. Our ascetic efforts are part of our bearing that cross. We need to continually force ourselves to move up this Ladder or else we will pulled back by opposing forces and be consumed by earthly desires.

We are nearing the end of the Great Fast. Keep the fast. As we approach the Passion of Christ we experience during Holy Week, as we feel our own crucifixion along with Christ's on Holy Thursday evening, we will then feel the Resurrection on that glorious day of Pascha.

Saint John describes for us the nature of our spiritual ascent. This is an ascent that all Christians must make.

Reference 

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spiritual Warfare I

Our spiritual life is one where we continually struggle against our "self-opinon and proud mindedness." It is a struggle aimed at breaking our will so we can dedicate ourselves to God and live in a manner where we only do His will.  We have to shift from a worldly orientation to one that is oriented towards God's kingdom.  It is a shift from a world filled with temptation and evil to one that is oriented only to doing good.  The task is to tame the intellect and free it so it can be directed by divine grace.  It is an inner struggle involving our outer actions.  It's a battle of grand proportions called spiritual warfare.


Saint Theophan tells us that the attacks we must deal with are soul-related and bodily powers.
1. In the body: the source of passions is pleasing the flesh...There is sexual lust, gluttony, love of pleasure, sloth, comfort, adulterous feelings, loquacity, absent -mindedness, restlessness, will fulness in everything, unseemly laughter, idle talk, sleepiness, daydreaming, craving the pleasant and all manner of pleasing the flesh in lust.
2. In soul: a) In the mental part––opinion, exclusive belief in one's own intellect, criticism, attacking the mind of God, doubts, puffing up and arrogance, curiosity, mental plundering, straying thoughts. 
b) In the sensual part––passions that shatter peace and tranquility of heart, or various kinds of pleasantness and unpleasantness: wrath, envy, hatred, anger revenge, judgment, contempt, vain glory, ambition, pride, boredom, sadness, sorrow, depression, joy, cheerfulness, fears, hopes, expectation.


How do we get at the root of these?  This is our challenge.  Saint Theophan says that the source of all these passions is self love. At their root, he says, are pleasure, covetousness and pride.  The way to conquer them is to "cut off pleasure by self-directed wrath, covetousness with unacquisitiveness, and pride with humility."


The main challenge is to maintain an awareness of the attacks so we can counteract them. The main enemy is our thoughts. Our actions are always preceded by a thought.  This is the battle ground.  The pattern of our actions is "the onrush of thoughts, contemplation, delight in it, desire, passion, attraction, resolve, and then the deed."  Therefore Saint Theophan says, "all the ascetic's attention should be directed inside himself––at thoughts, desires, passions and attractions.  It should be most of all, incidentally, be directed at thoughts, for the heart and the will are not so mercurial as thoughts; and passions and desires rarely attack themselves––they are most often born of thoughts.  From this we can make a rule: cut off thoughts and you will cut off everything."


The battle ground has been identified and next we will deal with Saint Theophan's rules for this spiritual warfare.


ref: Path To Salvation, pp 280 - 289

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Omnipotent Prayer


The Jesus prayer is one of the most important ascetic practices of the Orthodox world. For a believer who is desirous of coming closer to God, adopting this practice can be most beneficial. It helps develop concentration, heightens repentance, provides aid in times of stress or anger, and keeps you in touch with God at all times. It is simple and powerful. Here is a short article by Elder Joseph.


THE OMNIPOTENT PRAYER:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me ...
By Elder Joseph, the quieter and Spilaiotou (1897-1959)

Always try to make sure that the prayer of Jesus Christ is included in your daily cycle, your work, your every breath and your every sense. Oh, then how will your heart rejoice! How delighted you will be because your mind will rise towards the heavens. Wherefore do not forget to always say: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

When you chant you will understand the chants; you will have the desire and you will likely have the voice and humility to give back, accordingly, the words of God. Therefore do not do injustice to your soul anymore, but say inwardly the prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me...

When you work, do not let all your thoughts and strength be absorbed in your work, but say the prayer in a whisper. Then your works will be correct, error-free, your thoughts will be clean, and your work performance will be greater. Go ahead, then, say the prayer of Jesus Christ, so your works will be blessed, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.

The Holy Spirit protects the soul that prays. It enters the depths of the soul, has control over the inner world of the soul and it directs it towards God's Holy Will. Only then the soul has the power to say, along with the Prophet: Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name! (Ps. 103, 1). Go ahead and pray: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, so you will have the protection of the Holy Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit protects your soul, you feel fulfilled and humble. You are not affected by injustice, irony or praise. You live in a spiritual atmosphere, which the virus of sin cannot penetrate. Only the Holy Spirit can judge our souls, no else has that right. The Holy Spirit gives us new eyes and new reasoning. Say the prayer frequently so you can live comfortably in any environment; Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.


More on Jesus Prayer

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Grumbling

Have you noticed how often we find ourselves grumbling about this or that?  It seems that it is our nature to complain about something.


Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev writes,
Grumbling is like the autumn hoarfrost which, when it falls, destroys all the labors of the gardener.  Few people realize how bad grumbling is for the soul.  Almost everyone considers it to a small sin, but even though it seems so, it has very grievous consequences.  In the autumn before the hoarfrost falls, the experienced gardeners notice the signs of the coming cold weather and urge their young helpers to gather the peppers and the tomatoes.  the young ones laugh: "Why should we gather them? the weather is still so nice!"  Then the next morning they see th first frost has come over the gardens.  they pick up a pepper and take a bite to taste it, but it is as bitter as poison and cannot be eaten.  Thus their small carelessness has destroyed all their labors.  In the same way grumbling withers all the virtues of the soul and makes bitter and useless the fruits of suffering.
Why is this so dangerous?  God gives us difficulties and problems to help us come closer to Him.  This is His only aim.  He wants us to be united with Him. But when something is not just how we like it, we grumble instead of giving thanks to God.  You see, we turn away from Him rather than towards Him to seek strength and direction.  This is the danger of all our grumbles. When we grumble we have separated ourselves from God.  When we grumble we are not pleasant to others.  As Alekiev says, "grumbling withers all the virtues of the soul."
Not grumbling, but patience in suffering––this is what God wants from us.  "In your patience possess ye your souls" (Luke 21:19), the Savior has instructed us, because "we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22).  Into this Kingdom of God one cannot enter with pride which teaches us to grumble, but with humility which makes us patient.  There are no greater teachers of patience that sorrows.  This is precisely why God sends us suffering: so that we will humble ourselves before Him.  No one has been saved by pride, because "God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5). The doors of the  Kingdom of Heaven are too low and narrow for the proud to enter through them; only those humbled by the sufferings of life can go through them freely.


I cant tell you how often my wife and I will find ourselves in the car on the way to church grumbling about so many little things.  When we are lucky, one of us catches our plight and says, "Let's thank God."  This always awakens us to our sorrowful state.


A good exercise is to examine your grumbles––just for one day.  Look at what it is you grumble about and reflect on why God set this discomfort in front of you.  See if you can find a way to give thanks to God for all He sends you. How can you draw strength from your relationship with Him. I think you will find this to be  a rewarding exercise.


Remember, God did not promises us that we would not have difficulties.  But He did promise that He would give us help and comfort.





“In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)



Ref: The Meaning of Suffering and Strife & Reconciliation, p 35, 39


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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Examining Our Use of Free Will

God's greatest gift was free will.  Because of this we can offer love to God and our neighbors.  But this is not how we always use it.  I find myself like Paul, wanting to use it with love only to find myself doing something else.  Like him, I feel at times like I am at war with myself.  It's like I am under the control of some other influence and not able to freely choose that which I desire.


Archimandrite Seraphim Alexsiev wrote the following in his book The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation:
Today we, like Adam, constantly misuse our free will ... This is where all our troubles come from, as well as our inability to be consoled in them.
...God has given us health so that we can serve Him and our neighbors with it, but we abuse this precious gift ... God has given us riches so that we will be useful to the least of His brothers, but we misuse our riches as well.  God has given us abilities in order to praise Him, yet we often bring dishonor to God's holy Name with our abilities; it is sufficient to think of those writers who use their gift to slander God and the saints.  Do not the astounding contemporary achievements of technology represent the same kind of abuse of God's gifts by using them to destroy from the air entire cities and to kill peaceful citizens by the hundreds and thousands, instead of implying these achievements for increasing the well-being of mankind?  We often put in service to satan all the blessings and abilities which we have received from God.  Through them we seek glory and pleasures for ourselves, become proud, and harm our neighbors.
What he says rings true for me.
One of the purposes of Lent is to help us reflect on our own struggle.  Through fasting we can see our difficulty with self-discipline.  Through our participation in more prayer and worship services we test our dedication to God.  Thorough our reading of the gospel and the Holy Fathers we examine and enhance our understanding of His commandments.


Reflect on our collective condition.  Examine your own conscience.  Map out a plan to commit to change.


Pray, Fast, Worship, Read, Simplify, Watch, Put Others First.


Ref; The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation, pgs 31-32


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