Monday, May 31, 2010

Repentance as a Sacrament

In the Mystery of Repentance we, first, carefully prepare ourselves. We go to the priest to rid ourselves of the garbage we have accumulated to free our souls of the burden our sinfulness places on us. The priest is our witness as we make our confession to God. We do so with upmost sincerity and with contrition. Standing in the presence of another person is humbling. This act is essential to embrace the most accentuated feeling of humility.  In it we realize that our deliverance from sin also depends on the support and help we get from others.  We transcend our ego and individualistic nature in this act.  By admitting our weakness and failings before another person in the priest, we place ourselves in a humble position seeking help and instruction.  We make ourselves open to receive objective external guidance for our sinful nature.

This act is essential for our spiritual growth and was given to us by God in His Church for our benefit.

Saint Mark the Ascetic says,
Nobody is as gracious and merciful as the Lord is, but even He does not forgive the sins of the man who does not repent;... we are being condemned not because of the multitude of our evils, but because we do not want to repent.
Confession before a priest not only results an total absolution and a cleansing of your record in God's eyes, but it humbles us, cures our pride, and instills in us shame and fear, protecting us from future sins.  We also receive advice from an object view point.  We are given instruction to aid us in our spiritual growth.  We are taught how to struggle with our passions, how to fight them so others are no longer aware of them.  But, if you do not what to be healed by this Sacrament then you will both expose yourself to ongoing abuse in your daily life and be disgraced before the entire universe at the Final Judgment.

Abbas Isaiah advises us:
The tryly repentant man receives forgiveness of his sins, is conciled with God, the Church, and his own conscience, and thus regains the precious filial striving towards God as Father, and benefits for all the gifts of His fatherly love and kindness.
The sacrament is too often a forgotten sacrament, but one of the most powerful.  It brings joy, freedom of the soul, and a lifting of our burdens.

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, p 145 - 146.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Repentance - Way to Overcome Egoism

"Repentance is the fire which gradually burns up the egotism in us."

When we adopt a repentant attitude we accept that we are aways imperfect and in need of continual perfection.  It is this attitude that kills our ego based pride.  We recognize our limitations and our lack of perfection and have a feeling of compunction.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae points out that this egoism is our largest obstacle.
So the greatest and continuous obstacle in the way of our progress to love is egoism.  Until egoism completely dies, you can't have true love.... He who loves himself, who is full of self-admiration, who considers himself as the most important of all, can't love others.  To love others means to forget yourself, to always go beyond yourself, to consider yourself as nothing.  The love of others is consolidated in us by uninterrupted repentance and humility. ...
It is clear that no one can approach or enter this kingdom, this paradise, unless he leaves behind the ocean of numberless sirens of egotism...
The attitude of repentance carries with it an awareness of our ego-centeredness coupled with an understanding that this needs to be destroyed for us if we are to be united with God in love and to be able to truly love others.  Egoism is the clear enemy which our continual repentance attacks.  Repentance is what allows us to make gradual and continual progress against an enemy we all face.

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 141-144

Friday, May 28, 2010

Repentance - The Ship that brings us to the Divine Harbor

Saint Isaac the Syrian compares our life in this world to crossing the sea in a ship.
Just as it isn't possible for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can't reach love without fear.  We can cross the tempestuous sea placed between us and the spiritual paradise only with the ship of repentance, borne by the oarsmen of fear.  If these oarsmen of fear don't handle the ship of repentance well, by which we cross the sea of this world toward God, we will be drowned in it.  Repentance is the ship, fear is the rudder, love the divine harbor.  So fear puts us in the ship of repentance and we cross the tempestuous sea and it guides us to the divine harbor, which is love where all those who labor and have been enlightened by repentance arrive.  And when we have reached love, we have reached God.  And our journey has ended and we have reached the island which is beyond this world. 
Notice how he emphasizes that it is only with this "ship of repentance" that we can reach our goal.  Repentance is essential to arrive at the "divine harbor."  It is the fundamental way we move toward perfection and a virtuous life of love based on God's grace.  It is because of our desire for God's love, and to love others that we repent.

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, p 140

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Repentance - Main Means for Our Perfection

"The fear of God, sustained by the consciousness of a sinful life, leads both to repentance for past sins, and to the avoidance, by self-control of future ones."

What is repentance?  Here is how Fr. Dimitru Staniloae describes it:
It is the shovel brought out to clean man from the sins accumulated after Baptism, so that the new man can keep on fighting, by the power of Baptism, with the temptations which confront him.
Repentance is more than action. It is also thoughts.  Our thoughts lead us to action, so we must also rid ourselves from sinful thoughts.  It also is about having endurance of many troubles.

John Climacus says,
Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of the virtues in opposition to sins...  Repentance is the endurance of all troubles.
Saint Isaac the Syrian talks of three attributes of repentance.
1. Highest of virtues
2. It never ends as long as we live
3. Is the means for our continual perfection
We must accept that every virtuous act is done with some impure element.  No matter how good we feel we are, there is always room for improvement.  Repentance involves this element of continual disatisfaction  It is a critical act of conscience.  There is no virtue that stands above repentance.

Fr. Staniloae says,
Repentance is the road to love; it serves love.  It leads from an insufficient love to more love.
He warns that this cannot be confused with discouraging dissatisfaction.
"It must not be a doubt in our greater possibilities, but a recognition of the insufficiencies of our achievements up to now... repentance is borne by a faith in something better."
Christ gave us a vision of what is possible for us.  It, for sure, is a very high standard.  As we progress we will see this ideal as ever more perfect.  So, the gap, between how we see ourselves currently and this vision of what we are called to be, will ever increase.  Repentance is a self-judgment against a standard that seems to be always beyond our realization.

Repentance is the main means we have for our continual perfection.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp135 - 140

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fear of God is Next Step

"With progress, faith becomes the fear of God"  
Fr. Dimitru Staniloae

Ponder this point––It is important: Faith isn't born of fear of God. Fear of God develops from faith.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae says,
Faith which hasn't reached fear or isn't accompanied from the beginning by fear hasn't gained a high enough degree of efficiency to lead to action.
What is meant by fear of God?  After all, God is a loving God.  Earlier we talked about our fear of the things of this world and the anxiety we have as a result of these worldly fears.  Fr. Dimitru points out that this fear must be counteracted with a greater fear, the fear of God.  This is a fear, not of an immediate danger, but of a future one.

Fr. Dimitru says,
The fear of God is a fear of His judgement which will seal our fate forever; it is the fear of the last judgement and of the tortures of an eternal, non-authenic, unfulfilled existence.
Orthodox Christians are encouraged at the appropriate time of their spiritual growth to meditate unceasingly on the Last Judgment to increase the Fear of God to aid us in the avoidance of sin.  It is not death that we focus on, but the Judgment that follows death.

Fr. Dimitru says,
The thought of death and of the Judgment makes our thought of God, where the strengthening of faith began, more frequent, thus increasing inner meditation.  Or the fear and the thought of death are nothing but the thought of God, associated with the consciousness of personal sins and with the dread of judgment.
We need to come to God at first based on love and His forgiving compassion.  Then as our faith grows we will develop the proper fear of God and then we can emphasize it in our spiritual practice.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 130 - 134

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Faith: The Starting Point to Perfection

Is it enough to develop self-control?  Why do the Church fathers put such emphasis on Faith?  Why do Christians see limitations in the Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation and ascetic practices?  Why?  Because without faith we cannot act on divine grace. It is grace that saves, leads to a virtuous life and promises eternal life. We can have a still mind gained from some meditation practice, but be dead to Spirit.  The foundation of a Christian life is faith.

We begin our Orthodox Spiritual journey with a belief as taught in the Gospel.  This  is consummated though Baptism.  Then this belief begins to be transformed into faith.  So first is our choice to believe, then Baptism and then develops faith.

Fr Dimitru Staniloae says,
Before starting on the way to purification, it is necessary for man to strengthen his faith received at Baptism, by will.... It can't be strengthened except by beginning to think more often of Him... The thought of God is made real or maintained by a short and frequent remembrance of Him, made with piety, with the feeling that we depend on Him...
Callistus and Ignatius Xanthopoulos tell us in Directions to Hesychasts,
"The beginning of every action pleasing to God is a call with faith on the life-saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ, as He himself said: 'Without me you can do nothing' (John 15:5)... they should force themselves in every possible way to live, breathe, sleep, wake up, eat and drink with Him and in Him.
This is important based on the way passions are aroused.  Before the arousal of a passion gains power we must intervene.  This is where the remembrance of the Name of Jesus can help us avert the action of passion.  It is a way to strengthen our will.

Orthodox Christians have the doctrine of uncreated energies of God.  Faith is based on more than the will, but includes the uncreated energy of God that penetrates the mind as light.  There is a synergy that takes place between our reason and will and the energies of God or Grace.

Fr. Dimitru says,
On the one hand in faith there is an element of the strengthening of will and reason, of their stimulation, on the other hand, the will contributes to the emphasis on the evidence from faith produced by grace.  One grows on the other in a mutual way."
Faith develops and must be cultivated in the beginning.

Fr, Dimitru says,
In time faith grows to a very brilliant evidence.  But it grows in the measure in which we obey the commands and gain the virtues, because through them we show that we feel God and we also open ourselves more to Him.
To nurture faith, increase our remembrance of God though our consciously bringing Him to our consciousness through out our daily activities.  Repeat often, "Kirye Eleison" or "Lord have mercy," make your cross, say the Jesus prayer or recite to yourself the Lord's Prayer.  This is the first step.  Force yourself to remember God at all times. Have patience and faith will grow.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp124 - 129

Monday, May 24, 2010

Purification by the Virtues

"The purification of the passions can't be attained by realizing a neutral state of the soul, but by replacing the passions with opposing virtues." 
Fr. Dimitru Staniloae

These are the primary resources used by Fr. Dimitru Staniloae in his discussion on the Way of Perfection:

       The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus
       Seventh Century. Outlines thirty steps.

Directions to Hesychasts by Callistus and Ignatius Xanthopoulos
       14th Century. Made up of 100 Chapters

The Ascetic Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian
       Chapters on Love by Saint Maximus the Confessor

Here are the steps of Perfection we will be discussing:
       Fear of God
       Guarding of the mind
       Gifts of Holy Spirit
       Spiritual Understanding of Scripture
       Apophatic Knowledge of God
       Pure prayer
       Mental Rest

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Free From Fear and Anxiety - Care

The reality is that we exist in a passionate state. Let's face it, our focus is on external things. We are attached to the things of the world. We crave them. We cuddle them. We horde them. We fear losing them. What we need to learn is how to free ourselves from this enslavement while we live in the world. This is our challenge––to learn how to live in the world as free beings, free from domination by passions.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae says,
The challenge is how can we live in this world as free beings, admiring it and understanding it as a transparent creation of God, without this admiration enslaving us to its purely perceptible and opaque surface, and thus hinder our development as beings oriented toward the infinite spiritual order. How can we use the world, the road toward our goal, without falling and succumbing to it?
He says that it is anxiety and worry, or care, that ties us to things of this world.
He says,
Man spends most of his life waiting for and seeking pleasure and in the fear of present and future pain. This is the fruit of the passions and unceasing manifestation of the passions in us. These periods of waiting and of fear produce care in us. But even in the moments when we do no longer have the actual consciousness that we are waiting for pleasure or expecting pain, we work for the certainty of pleasure and for the avoidance of some unspecified future pain.
It seems that we are motivated by fear. Living a life in the world involves anxiety. We do not want to lose pleasure, we want to gain more of it and we strive to avoid any pain. We have fear of lacking pleasure and having pain. This is the cause of anxiety.

There is another kind of care we must have. This is the care for our salvation, for our union with God in eternity. This care needs to be stronger than what we have just discussed.

Fr. Dimitru says,
This care is opposed to the other...It arise when we "lay aside all earthly care," because it means the care to lease God, not to please the world and to take part in its pleasures and to be exempt from its pain. This care grows from the responsibility which man has for his true self, satisfying this command of responsibility, it is at the same time a continual launching out of man beyond himself, toward the source of eternal life...  It too includes a fear, but it is man's fear that death ends all, and that this fear alone will succeed in delivering him from what he fears.
Man must escape from the first care in order to become available to God.  Then he is free from the passionate state; he has gained dispassion... Purification aims at the liberation from this care... By fulfilling the will of God, our authentic nature is realized.
This care comes when we "lay aside all earthly care." Our first steps in Orthodox Spirituality then involve practices that help us do this.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality pp 115 - 118.

Friday, May 21, 2010

How the Passions are Aroused

If we understand how the passions are aroused then we can find ways to keep them under control.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae writes,
In all Orthodox spiritual writings we find the the following sequence as the way in which the passions are aroused in every circumstance:
Satan puts a sinful thought into our mind, the so-called attack... It is the first appearance of the simple thought that we can commit this or that sinful deed.  It appears in the mind as a simple possibility. It isn't yet a sin, because we haven't yet taken a position in regard to it.  It seems to be outside of us; we didn't create it, and it still has only a theoretical character, a not very serious possibility, which doesn't seem to concern us much. We are preoccupied with our whole being with something else. We don't know where it came from; it seems as though someone were playing and threw it on the side of the road.  But we continue to think about it. So it has all the characteristics of a thought discarded by someone else and therefore the holy Fathers attribute it to Satan...
Have you ever wondered where some of the thoughts you have come from?  
From this attack until the sinful deed we find numerous steps.... The decisive moment is when our thought takes a position.  If we have rejected the thought at the first moment, we have escaped. If, however, we start to think about it, to relish the sin in our mind the "coupling" or the mingling of our thoughts with those of wicked demons has already happened.  Now we have joined ourselves with the evil thought; it has become part of us.... by it we have entered the area of sin and we can hardly stop the full development of this process once it is set in motion.  The assent to the fact follows next, or the plan composed by our thoughts and the thoughts of Satan from the realization of the fact.  Only now does the simple thought materialize in images.
Have you wondered why to consider some of the thoughts you do consider?  One of my favorite passages is one by Saint Paul where he describes his frustration with this issue.

Apostle Paul says,

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! 
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Romans 7:15-25)

The implications of this process are clear. If one wants to progress in the spiritual life we must first have faith and firm reason why these thoughts should be rejected. Rejecting requires a firm stance, a disciplined mind, and the help of God.

Fr Dimitru says,
Therefore the duty imposed on the one who wants to go ahead in his life towards perfection is to watch continually the thoughts which appear in the field of conscience. He must eliminate the thought of any passion at its first appearance. The guarding of the mind, attention, and steadfast, alert resistance to thoughts are continuous recommendations of the spiritual masters for those who doesn't want to fall victim to the passions....It means keep the mind submerged, full of love, in the divine infinite, which enriches it with ever new and pure meanings.
This is the first task of Orthodox Spirituality.

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 109 - 114. 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Why Do We Speak of Liberating the Soul?

The soul as described by the early Church Fathers has three parts: the mind (nous) with the power of acts of knowledge; desire (epithymia) a power of all desires and appetites and thought; and the impulse for acts of courage, mindfulness or for good or evil anger, the incensive power (thymos). It is the nous that is destined to eternal life.

The mind and soul are the same. For understanding of spiritual things, we have to distinguish between the mind and the brain. The brain is physical and the mind is spiritual. We often use these terms interchangeably. The spiritual issue is that the brain in its work dealing with the senses takes over the mind and dominates it. The soul then loses its power and the result is a separation from God and the resulting passions that lead to sin.

What is most significant is that there is a center of the soul that is often called the heart. This is also often referred to as spirit, or the inner temple.  This inner sanctum of our soul is at first covered or hidden (1 Cor 2:11) from our consciousness. At Baptism, Christ or the Holy Spirit dwells there as a potentiality for us. As our heart is opened and the Holy Spirit is allowed to work through our members, we gain the power of love for God and our neighbors, which allows us to obtain the virtues. When it opens the soul realizes its ties to the divine infinite and the possibility of communicating with this infinite. This opening or softening of the heart is a liberation for the soul. It regains the position of authority over the brain and all the demands of the body and resulting passions. This union of soul and spirit and the softening of the heart is the essence of the spiritual life.

Fr. Dimitru says,
The Holy sprit descends to us and cooperates in the winning of virtues, as an opening to God and our neighbors. Our spirit catches fire in us.  It wakes us up. Our heart is softened. The walls of our soul become transparent. God's love wakes up our love. God's penetration within us makes us open to God.
Most of the time our brain is working on dealing with all the inputs from our senses. This is an essential part of the life of the body. But it is this activity that leads us to difficulty when the senses become a source for pleasure. The desire dominates, the brain dominates the mind, and the soul loses dominion. We fall into a pattern of pleasure and pain seeking a way out through pleasure that is insatiable.

Fr Dimitru gives us an example:
Sense perception understood as pure perception of the senses is in itself innocent, and can be used for the service of the mind. Only when the desire for pleasure works through it does it become feeling in the sinful sense. A minimum of pleasure can stay in it, as a natural passion. But this natural passion must be overwhelmed with the spiritual pleasure of a knowing mind. For example, when we eat, if we concentrate completely on the taste and the pleasure which food gives us, this feeling is sinful, because desire is working through it. The mind only has the subordinate role of discovering all the possibilities of pleasure of the food. But if when we eat we bridle the feeling of pleasure, by different reflections on the purpose of food––the blessing which God has given us through it, the duty which we also have of being merciful to others with the things necessary for sustenance––we have conquered the passion of bringing feeling into the spiritual subordination of the mind.
Orthodox Spirituality is about the freeing of the soul from its domination by the body and the actions of the brain that transforms natural passions into desires for pleasure through things of this material world. This involves uncovering, or opening, the inner place, the heart, where spirit resides, the place where Christ lives within us. As we learn to do this, the Spirit flows through us helping us over come these tendencies, enabling us to live the virtues. Once we can do this, then with God's grace we will find a life in union with Him.

Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain described this as two wills that work in us.
Know that in this unseen warfare, two wills existing in us fight against one another. One belongs to the intelligent part of our soul; the other belongs to the sensory part and is therefore called the sensory will, which is the lower. The latter is more frequently called the dumb, carnal passionate will. The higher is always desiring nothing but good, the lower––nothing by evil. (Unseen Warfare, pp 100)
This sensory will must become totally subordinated to the higher will. In this way the soul is liberated from its enslavement by the passions.

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 96 -108.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Causes of Passions

The problem with passions began with our expulsion from Paradise. When Adam and Eve chose to follow their own will instead of God's, it was their senses that overtook them, their desire for pleasure, the fruit of the forbidden tree. They disobeyed God's direction and partook of this forbidden fruit. They were banished from Paradise and required to lead an earthly life. In this worldly life the senses became intensified and the mind was put in the service of the senses. The mind forgot its original purpose, which was for the contemplation of God. In the earthly life it became focused on worldly things and sought the infinite in them instead of God. Fr. Staniloae says, "It entered a service foreign and inferior to is which couldn't satisfy its thirst for the infinite."

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae identifies three causes of the unnatural passions in man.
1. The mind is weakened in its autonomous and proper work.
2. The work of sense perception, has become predominant and no longer in subordination to the mind.
3. An exclusive and irrational running after pleasure, even obtained by the praises of his neighbors, and at the same time, a frightened flight from pain.  
Our condition is one where our body and its demands have taken control over the mind. The soul has been subordinated to the body. As soon as we let the mind's attention focus exclusively on our body's needs we find we are separated from God.  We act in ways counter to His desire for us.  When we shift the focus towards God, we regain our connection to Him.  It is this fallen condition of the mind that asceticism attacks and works to correct.

In my own case, one of my weaknesses is a fear of being ridiculed or judged by others. When this fear arises, I am no longer able to think about the needs of others and my attention shifts to an exclusive focus on my own needs.  If I am able to attack this fear by remembering God, it immediately disappears and I am then able to focus on the needs of others and potentially help them. Otherwise, I remain self-centered, unable to be of much help, isolated in my own stuff.

Fr. Dimitru writes,
But this exclusive and passionate focus at a given moment on an isolated aspect of the world, makes the whole of man's nature concentrate on it in the greed to taste it; then too man's whole nature goes from moment to moment through alternative passions: from anger to dejection; from disgust of people to an avid seeking of their company, unable to keep its various impulses in equilibrium and moderation. But this tears his nature to pieces; because instead of being kept continually in the equilibrium of its functions, it is abandoned successively, a prey to the extremes which are self-contradictory by their exaggerated exclusivity. Man is no longer a unitary being, the same at every moment of his life. The forgetting of God also has s a result the forgetting of self, as a permanent unity  of his own person. But this breakdown also extends to the level of inter-human relations. We want pleasure and we want innumerable objects which are going to get it for us, or we want to raise our ego to the highest level, by the passion of pride; so we get into trouble with those around us, or we awaken their envy.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 90 - 95 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Are Passions Natural?

What is a passion? They are impulses that move us to action by overcoming our will.  Because of this we say they enslave us. They are powerful because they are also desires which cannot be satisfied. They act as a force that goes against what we know to be the proper action and lead us to actions which are counter to the commandments of Christ. There is no single list of these passions, but the following is a common list used in early Christian literature: gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem and pride. 

Their ultimate cause is the forgetting of God. Healing begins with faith.

Not all passions are bad. There are both natural and unnatural passions. Our natural passions are our appetite for food, enjoyment of food, fear and sadness. These are necessary for our the preservation of our nature. They are important animal aspect of our being given to by God.  But we are more than animals as we are spiritual. Because of this we have an aspiration for the infinite. Often these natural passions which are intended for earthly preservation are transformed into unnatural passions. They are frequently transformed into a mistaken quest for the infinite in things of this material world. The soul loses control and the passions take over. Out task is to control them so they can be limited to their proper purpose. Then  they can channeled to seek divine things.

Saint Maximus says,
The natural passions become good in those who struggle when, wisely unfastening them from the things of the flesh, use them to gain heavenly things. For example they can change appetite into the movement of a spiritual longing for divine things; pleasure into pure joy for the cooperation of the mind with divine gifts; fear into care to evade future misfortune due to sin and sadness into corrective repentance for present evil.
So the natural passions are not necessarily bad. When we are thinking of God they are kept to their necessary biological functions. Our task is not to eradicate them but to control them, keeping them within the limits necessary for the preservation of the body. They must continually be watched and controlled. This is the basis of asceticism.

Thoughts from Fr. Dimitru Staniloae:
Asceticism means, in the spirit of Eastern thought, the restraint and discipline of the biological, not a battle for its extermination. On the contrary, asceticism means the sublimation of this element of bodily affectivity, not its abolition.... Natural passions can assume a spiritual character and give an increased accent to our love for God....
Now here is the most important point. By controlling them we increase our spiritual blessings.
Fr. Dimitru says,
By putting a bridle and a limit on the pleasure of material things, a transfer of this energy of our nature takes place, in favor of the spirit; pleasure in spiritual blessings grows. ...
 The challenge we face is not easy. Is difficulty is increased by our tendency to react in the wrong way. Once a pleasure leaves us we feel a loss. This can be painful. Pain or dissatisfaction always follows pleasure. This pain that follows does not lead us to take action to temper the pleasure, but does the opposite. We seek even more pleasure.  The cycle continues without satisfaction.

Fr. Dimitru says,
The pain which follows pleasure, instead of making him avoid pleasure, as its source,...pushes him anew into pleasure as if to get rid of it, tangling him even more in this vicious chain.
Asceticism is aimed at breaking this dysfunctional cycle of pleasure and pain, liberating us from the unnatural extension of passions that have a proper role in our bodily preservation. This bodily domination through uncontrolled passions is our main block to union with God.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp77 - 89

More on Passions

Monday, May 17, 2010

Major Steps of the Spiritual LIfe

There are two basic phases in our path of spiritual growth described by Dimitru Staniloae.

The first is the practical phase of doing things.
The practicle phase, that of doing things, is intended to raise the beiever's nature from the state subject to the passions and to elevate it to and by, the steps of virtues, until it reaches love.... The purpose of this phase is the liberation of man from the passions.
The scond is the contemplative phase.
The contemplative pahase represents it reintegration, unity and simplicity, and its exclusive focus on God, the One and Infinite.  ...
Only he who has cleansed the mind through dispassion can go on to knowledge or contemplation.... Only a clean soul is a shinny mirror, unspotted by passionate attachment to the things of the world, capable of receiving divine knowledge. 
We can identify a third phase of mystical knowledge.
The holy Fathers strictly distinguish this gnosis or contemplation, from the spiritual knowledge of the world aided by divine grace, which itself is distinguished from profane knowledge.
Saint Maximus the Confessor described these phases in this way:
Of the three steps, the first is that of beginners, who must strive to become proficient in the virtues.  The virtues are seven in number*.  At the beginning stands faith; at the end love, immediately preceded by dispassion.  Love concentrates all the virtues in it and carries man to the knowledge or contemplation. The final step is mystical knowledge, no longer concerned with the reasons of things but with God Himself... this knowledge of God is an ecstasy of love, which persists unmoved in a concentration on God.  It is reached in the state of the deification of man, or of his union with God.

Dionysius the Areopagite described the phases as Purification, Illumination and Perfection.  For most of us we are most concerned about the first stage of purification.  It's important to  recognize our level in our spiritual development.  Many writings are aimed at aspirants at the highest levels of spirtual development. Following advice intended for one at a higher level can be detrimental to your progress.  It is essential to have a spiritual Father to guide you.

* Faith, fear of God, self-restraint, patience, hope, dispassion, and love.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality pp 69 - 73.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ascent is Based on Love and is Within the Church

Orthodox teachings is based on the experience of God.  A God who communicates to us through His love, in Spirit and by His uncreated energies.  God is neither distant nor a God who brings us into fusion with Him where our personality is lost.

The Christian God is Trinitarian, consisting of three person, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  All one in essence. This is a tri-personal divine community. One in which each person is unconfused in the divinity but bound together by love.  The love exhibited by the oneness of the three persons affirms that God is a God of love. The Trinitarian nature of the God shows us the nature of the earthly community we are to be part of and the nature of our union with Him. This Love is one where persons are united by love for each other yet they each retain their identity and free will. We are to seek unity without being blended together.

God wants to extend His infinite love to us. We are created in the likeness of the Son. Through His Incarnation, Life and teachings, Crucifixion, and Resurrection He showed us the way. It is by the Holy Spirit that we are raised to the divine world.  It is what changes us, like It changes the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ in the Eucharist. 

Fr. Dimitru says,
By the Holy Spirit we are raised up to the divine world, or the divine world penetrates us.  This changes us, with this our deification starts.  This is what Orthodox Spirituaity, or our spiritual life consists of.
The spiritual ascent toward union with God must be in the Church.

Fr. Dimitru says,
As Christians starting on the lowest step of our spiritual state, we have our consciousness sensitized by the Holy Spirit.  We know that in this weary and prolonged undertaking we have a continuous relationship with Jesus Christ, Who is standing beside us, sustaining our steps; but we also know that He is ahead of us, as an example, calling us to Him, to a fuller communion with Him.  He is like a good friend, better than you are in every way, who is also beside you as you journey toward moral perfection, a friend who is also ahead of you, always prompting you t go on.
Jesus gave us the commandments that speak to our conscience. He is hidden within us from the time of our Baptism. As we purify ourselves His presence becomes ever more clear to us.

Fr. Dimitru says,
We make the ascent by ascetical efforts to the mystical contemplation of Christ , through Christ, toward Christ....
Nicholas Cabasilas says
Christ penetrates us by the holy mysteries, by the washing of Baptism, by the anointing with holy Chrism, and by the partaking of Him from the Holy Table.  By the medium of these holy mysteries, "Christ comes to us and dwells in us; His is united to us and grows into one with us.  He stifles sin in us and infuses into us His own life and merit... (The Life in Christ 1.11 p 60)
Fr Dimitru
The spiritual ascent, even if it carries someone close to God in Heaven, is an ascent within the Church, on the spiritual steps of the Church on earth, and on those of the Church in Heaven.  There is no other ladder to God, except the one in the Church.... at the top of this ladder ad only there, as the peak of the entire hierarchy, Christ is found.
Next: What are the Major Steps of the Spiritual Life?

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality pp 46 - 68

Friday, May 14, 2010

Working in Community Develops our Soul

In our quest for union with God we cannot limit ourselves to the development of all the possibilities inherent in the physical world. We must also reach out and develop that which is spiritual in each of us. It is through our cooperation with others in community activities that we learn how to help others as well as ourselves develop our spiritual potential. As we work on our own ability, through discipline of our actions and by increasing attention to we give to all activity, we  become more capable of doing good to others. We learn to be good neighbors. We learn to love and be loved. We find the way to live the life prescribed and lived by Christ Himself. We come closer to God in the process.

We are currently getting ready for our annual Greek festival. This is a very large event. There are some who say this activity is all about making money for the parish. But there are others who say it's about developing our souls. As we work together with a common purpose we learn to set aside our differences, we take actions to help each other, we put into practice to the best of our ability the virtues we have gained. As we fail and fall into conflict during this activity we can see immediately our weaknesses and where we need to grow. When we hold a spiritual aim for this kind of activity it becomes a process of spiritual growth for all of us. Our difficulties become opportunities for the expression of love and spiritual growth.

Fr. Dimitru comments,
The road to Christian perfection doesn't exclude work, but it does require that it contribute to the winning of the virtues.  No one should imagine that the work he does is an end in itself; it has the role of beautifying his nature, with the virtues of patience, self-control, of love for his neighbor, of faith in God, and in turn of opening his eyes to the wise principles placed by God in all things.... 
The ultimate purpose of work and the taking part in life of this world isn't so much the development of nature as it is the normal development of the dormant possibilities in man and in his neighbors.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality pp 40 - 45. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What significance does the event of the Ascension of Jesus Christ have for the Christian

Christ ascended to Heaven as man and as God. Once he became a man, being at the same time, as always, perfect God, he never put off His manhood, but deified it, and made it and us capable of apprehending heavenly things.

The Ascension is a prophecy of things to come for those who love God and believe in Him in an Orthodox manner. Those who believe and live according to this belief will be in the heavens, in the flesh, with Him, just as He now abides in the Heavens in the flesh. Our flesh and souls will be saved, because Christ made human flesh capable of deification.

We also call to mind the promise of the Holy Spirit, since Christ mentions this promise He had made before to them, and its advent is tied to His ascension thusly:

"Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.  And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:  Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more;  Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged." (John 16:7-11)
What Christ has done for human flesh and our souls is impossible to understand, but the church, with sweet melody, meditates with fervor and thanksgiving and precise theology in her services.

"O Christ, having taken upon thy shoulders our nature, which had gone astray, thou didst ascend and bring it unto God the Father" (Matins canon for the Ascension, Ode 7)
"Having raised our nature, which was deadened by sin, Thou didst bring it unto Thine own Father, O Savior" (ibid.)
"Unto Him Who by His descent destroyed the adversary, and Who by His ascent raised up man, give praise O ye priests, and supremely exalt Him, O ye people, unto all the ages." (Matins canon for the Ascension, Ode 8)
Since the disciples were "filled with great joy", we who are Orthodox in belief and way of life should naturally be this way also, and should hasten to the temple. There we can meditate upon the magnificent truths and promises in the ascension by listening carefully to the divinely inspired theology, sung in sweet melody. If we pray with care, and expectation, having valued divine worship above our worldly cares, surely God will enlighten us and noetically teach us the true meaning of Christ's Ascension.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Basis for Union with God: Love not Intellect

Some Protestant theologians see the Word as the only means of divine revelation. They say it was intended for our intellect. But this is a sign of a person distinct from us rather than one in union with us.  This view explains their emphasis on Bible study and their denigration of the sacraments and all that is considered mystical. It is a denial of Orthodox spirituality. This view implies the Word does not have a spiritual task. But we all sense there is more than an intellectual understanding of God. We sense that there is something beyond an intellectual understanding. We seek and yet cannot completely know. The reality is that the Word of God impacts us in a dynamic way. It was intended for the soul and not just the intellect. The Word awakens faith in us. This demonstrates that there is a direct relationship involved between us and the Word. Our Church Fathers do not limit us to only an intellectual dimension of the mind but speak of the "feeling of the mind and our relationship with God."

Fr. Dimitru tells us,
"The Fathers of the Church when they speak of the "feeling of the mind," assert a direct contact of the mind with the spiritual reality of God, not a simple knowledge of Him from a distance. Its something like the "understanding" of a person with whom you are in contact.
In seeking this spiritual union we do not imply that we will ever assume the divine substance of God. We are His creation, creatures.

Fr. Dimitru also says,
On the other hand, our creatureliness implies the sovereignty of God.  It makes our transformation into a divine substance impossible, no matter how close we get to Him.  Our approach to God, our uplifting to an understanding of Him, can only be realized if God Himself clothes us with the things proper to Him; but even if we are penetrated by His power, we can't shed our created nature.  Our nature can't become uncreated: We become gods by grace, not by nature.
We can conclude from this that our link to Him must be established on the basis of a personal relationship. This begins with a spiritual encounter with Him. He must reveal His nature to us.

We can use the analogy of knowing our neighbor.  We cannot know the inner nature our neighbor by our own initiative.  For us to truly know them, they must reveal themselves to us on their own initiative.  Normally this is revealed in inverse proportion to the aggressive acts we take to know them. The more we demand they tell us, the less likely they will reveal their inner personhood to us.  We must first show our own vulnerability and humility for a relationship to develop. This is how it is with God. We can't know Him unless He reveals himself to us. We should not have any fears about losing our identity in this process. Just like in our developing a relationship with our neighbor as we develop a relation sip with God and find union with Him, we do not lose our own identity. It is with humility and love that we allow Him to reveal Himself to us.

Fr. Dimitru says,
The spiritual Christian adopts this affirmation of supreme humility, but likewise of supreme daring:"I am man, but I live as God, by what God has givine me; I am man, but I an on God's level by the grace with which He has been pleased to cloth me..." This reflects the expression of Apostle Paul: "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20).
As in a relationship between two people, it is love that is central to our union with God. We must not make the mistake of only trying to know God intellectually.  We must cultivate a loving relationship.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 30 - 39.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Essential Nature of Asceticism

"Only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can the state of perfection and mystical union with God be reached."  - Dimitru Staniloae
Saint Paul gives us a clear picture of what is required.  He compares it to the training of athletes who are conditioning themselves to win an important competition. He says, 
"Run is such a way that you may obtain it [the prize]....I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Cor 24-27)"  If anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.... Be diligent to present yourself approved to God.... (2 Tim 2:5, 2:15)
This spiritual work and training is called asceticism. There should not be any negative connotation given to this terms. It has only a positive purpose.  

Fr. Staniloae says,
The ultimate goal of asceticism is to free our nature not only from the movements of sinful appetites, but also from the ideas that appear in the mind after the cleansing from passions.  This is only to gain its independence from created things, which have enslaved our nature by the passions, and make it long more for God.
Our ascetic efforts can also be seen as a gradual death with Christ.  We can't be resurrected with Him if we don't first die with Him.

The ascetic activities follow a clear path involving a series of steps.

Fr. Staniloae says,
It is a precise discipline which takes into consideration the laws of the normal development of the spiritual life, as well as the principles of faith. Such a battle according to the law means that its road is established according to a well grounded logic...
We must seek out the nature of these spiritual laws and the steps necessary to develop our spiritual life.

Asceticism, while essential to our spiritual growth, is not a technique which of itself can produce the sought mystical union with God.  It is more akin to athletic training which prepares us to receive Uncreated Light of God.  Ascetic practices  develop us spiritually so we can be given god like powers such as was exhibited by the Apostles. This comes only from the Grace of God once we have properly prepared.

Fr. Staniloae says,
For this self-revelation of God in a mystical union we have to make ourselves worthy by being sincere, clean, and good...
We begin with faith, but then we must  work to purify our nature to become worthy to receive God's transforming Grace. This work is called asceticism. We were blessed with free will and it needs to be trained to control the natural passions of the body, and unite itself voluntarily with the will of God. We are engaged in the supreme contest that Paul called "spiritual warfare." Our aim is life in Christ, union with Him, to become in His likeness, so, as it is stated in the Lord's prayer, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

What are these clear steps that make up the asceticism of Orthodox Spirituality?

Ref: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 23 - 29.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Deification - The Uncreated Light

Deification is an enhypostatic* and direct illumination which has no beginning but appears in those worthy as something exceeding their comprehension.  It is indeed a mystical union with God, beyond mind and reason in the age when creatures will no longer know corruption. - Saint Maximus the Confessor
Deification is most often expressed as involving the "Uncreated Light."

Fr. Sophrony says,
This Light penetrates us with the power of God, we we become 'without beginning'––not through our origin but by the gift of Grace: life without beginning is communicated to us.  And there is no limit to the outpouring of the Father's love: man becomes identical with God––the same by content, no by primordial Self-Being.  God will eternally be GOD for the reasonable being."  (We Shall See Him as He Is, p172.)
It is though our participation in this uncreated light that we become deified, become like Christ.  We do not become a god in essence but by Grace and adoption.  We are  taught that we can never behold, or know the Divine Essence, but when we are filled with this Divine Light we experience His Uncreated Energies. This is a personal communion with God, face to face. Our identity is not assumed into the Divine Essence. And, it is much more than an experience of Light.

Here is how Saint Symeon the New Theologian expresses it in one of his hymns,
He Himself is discovered within me, resplendent inside my wretched heart, enlightening me from all sides with His immortal splendor, shining on all of my members with His rays.  Entirely intertwined with me, He embraces me entirely.  He gives Himself totally to me, the unworthy one, and I am filled with His love and beauty.  I am sated with pleasure and Divine tenderness.  I share in the Light.  I participate also in the glory. My face shines like that of my beloved and all my members become bearers of Light.

* Fr. John Meyendorff explains the meaning of enhypostatic:
"This divine light cannot be contemplated as a hypostasis, that is, as an independent reality, since strictly speaking it has no essence. It can be contemplated only in a hypostasis, i'e', in a personal locus. Here Palamas has in mind the deified saints who by grace show forth in their whole persons the light that transforms them. But the energies are also "enhypostatic" in respect of the Person (hypostasis) of Christ. The light of tabor does not reveal the divine essence, but the second person of the Trinity.

As well as meaning "what exists in another hypostasis", enhypostatic can also mean "what really exists"' that which is genuine or authentic, e.g. of our real adoption as sons by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The first sense of the word goes back to the christology of Leontius of Byzantium, the second to Mark the Monk.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday of the Blind Man

Metropolitan  Anthony  of  Sourozh

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
At the end of today's reading, words stand that we pass by very often. The blind man says to Christ, "And who is the Son of God?" and Christ answers, "You have seen Him and He is speaking to you".
For us, the first words are so natural; the first event of our life, the first event of a meeting is that we see a person, but what was this wonder of this man who had never seen anything in the world and who, touched by the life-giving hand of Christ, of a sudden saw! And the first person he saw was his Lord and his God, Christ, the Son of Man.
I remember a Romanian writer telling us in his biography what definitive, what profound impression the face of the first man he remembers made. He remembers himself as a child, and over him - the inexpressibly beautiful face of his father who was a priest, looking at him, with all human love, with all the tenderness, and all the depth of a human gaze. And he says that this was a first vision for him in the icon which a human face can be when it is lit from inside by love and by understanding, by depth and by eternity, a vision of God. Here this man saw God in the features of Him who was God and who had become the Son of Man.
I would like to attract your attention also to something different. On another occasion we read the story of a paralytic healed by Christ; and the Church, singing the praises of God on that occasion says, "As this man found no one to show mercy on him, the Son of Mary, God Himself, stooped down and met his need". Because this man had not found another man to show mercy, to show compassion, to show concern, God has come down to him. Now we live in another time, we live in the time with God truly having become man in our midst, and more than this: He has made us to be living members of His body, an incarnate, concrete presence of His Incarnation, the temples of the Spirit, the place of the Presence. Now any man who is in need should at the same time find in each of us a man stirred to compassion, taught mercy and understanding by God become Man, and at the same time, simultaneously, meeting with us, he should be able to see the love of God in our eyes and to perceive the active, imaginative, creative action of divine charity in our words and in our deeds.
Since Christ has come into the world, the time of man has come; but not of man as severed from God, separated from Him, alien to Him, but a wonderful time when in man, in those who have discovered Christ, who have believed in Him, who have become one with Him - those men to whom God has entrusted the care of His world - people can both receive divine and human mercy and see human compassion, human love, human joy.
Is not this a great call, is not that something which should make us capable of great things? The time of God and the time of man is one, not only in the incarnate Son of God, but in this mysterious incarnate presence which each of us represents, the presence of God in the flesh, in human compassion, in human love, and this is an earnest claim and a challenge which the Gospel presents us with. Are we to one another and to those further afield that kind of humanity? New humanity, new creatures, new men with the newness of a renewed life, the life of God. This is what we are called to be.
Let us then reflect on it, make a decision, make a move and become an icon, a vision of God, not only in the shining of love in our eyes, not only in the words we speak, but also in every action and deed, so that the time of man should have become the day of the Son of Man, the day of the Lord. Amen.