Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

Christmas Homily of St. Isaac the Syrian

This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world; 
So let no one threaten;
This is the night of the Most Gentle One - Let no one be cruel;
This is the night of the Humble One - Let no one be proud.
Now is the day of joy - Let us not revenge;
Now is the day of Good Will -Let us not be mean.
In this Day of Peace -Let us not be conquered by anger.
Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake; 
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask; 
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers; 
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Reflection

St. Ephrem the Syrian writes, “The Lord of David and Son of David hid His glory in swaddling clothes. His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.” This week we celebrate this most incredible event where God becomes man and yet is still God. He came in a most humble way delivered in a stable and wrapped in simple clothing. Yet as Saint Ephrem says, this simple beginning gave to all mankind robe of glory. What is this robe of glory?

In today's world it is hard to focus on the true meaning of this mystical event with all the parties and the mad gift giving, the coming of Santa Clause and the unending football games on TV. We are distracted even more now by our cell phones, iPads and instant movies. We no longer complain about not having a television but not having one that is big enough. How do we make this event relevant this week?

When we think of this robe of glory that He gave us we must first think back to His nature and the way He was brought into the world. He came in humility and left this world in humility. His robe was not made of golden threads. His birth and subsequent life had noting to do with material well being. He lived with a pure heart, one that glorified God, one that shone for all to see.

We must begin our reflection on this day with total humility. We must admit our weaknesses, our ways that deviate from what He taught and demonstrated to us. We must acknowledge our pride and our desire to hide our dirty inner clothing with fancy outer clothing. We must admit that we do not have this robe of glory that He brought for all humankind. We must make ourselves feel His humility.

With this reflection we must also remember the unending and limitless love He has for all His children. Acknowledging His love for us we can be joyful that we are held in His loving and merciful arms. We can be joyful that we are so important to God and in our knowledge that He will do anything to guide us towards His perfection.  He holds for us a robe of glory.

Let us rejoice in this glory that awaits us. Let us recognize Jesus for Who He really is, God Incarnate. Let's lay aside all our doubts about God and His Church. Let us for a short moment try on that robe of glory. Let us experience His peace and love of all humankind.

Joy to the world, the Lord has come!  Glorify Him. Follow Him.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming Watchful

Do you experience distractions when you try to pray? Do you ever wonder what is the cause of those actions you take that you wish you had not taken? Whether we are in prayer or involved in our daily activities we are misled by thoughts. To counteract this we need to learn the practice of Watchfulness.

What is watchfulness in our Orthodox tradition? It involves a continual guarding or the heart, the center of our soul, from all thoughts that lead us away from God. These thoughts are called "logismoi" in Greek. These are thoughts that mislead us or distract us in prayer. They are not like we normally think of thoughts, but are those that seem to come from nowhere. They are temptations intended to lead us astray. They are not the result of our rational process but come from outside us sent by the devil to lead us away from God.  They are not "our" thoughts. They are directed at "our" weaknesses, our passions, which lead us to sinful activity, away from God. When we sit down for prayer we intend to focus our full attention on God. But against our intention we are bombarded by thoughts that take us away from our prayer and concentration on God. They are coming from without with the intention of disrupting our prayer to keep us separated from God.

The Church Fathers describe differing ways how these work but in general they describe them beginning with an assault, a sneak attack. It may be a thought to get up and do something during prayer. It may be a thought to lash out in anger or to condemn another person. It may be a thought of envy or a desire to possess something that is not ours or we cannot afford. It could be any  number of things depending our our weaknesses.

After this initial assault then if we are not watchful we enter into a dialogue with this thought. We begin to consider how to respond as a result of this thought. This then is followed by a consent, we own the thought as our own and become prepared to act on it. This is when the sin is committed and we become a captive of the thought. 

After we respond to the thought, the next time a similar thought is encountered we are more likely to accept it as our own and respond. The temptation becomes stronger. We become a captive of the logismoi leading us to a bad habit that we call a passion.

If we are watchful what are we to do with these thoughts? IGNORE them! The church fathers tell us to simply ignore them. They are like flies that fly around and bother us. We need to brush them away. Watch them come and go without disturbing the mind. They will quickly disappear. We need to think of them as an unwanted salesman who knocks at our door. We do not let him in and do not have a dialogue with him. The same with these thoughts. Do not let them enter into your heart.

Since God demands our whole heart, mind and soul we need to be ever watchful of these temptation that come in the form of thoughts. They are not ours but sent to us to lead us away from God. So just like we are not obligated to let any stranger into our house, similarly we do not have to accept theses thoughts and let them into our minds or enter our heart. To become watchful we must seek God's help to develop this attentiveness and resistance. This is why it is so important for us to stand before God every morning and focus our full being towards Him and engage our mind in prayer focused on God alone.

In prayer we need to practice rejecting all thoughts and develop this mental discipline. To pray we must not be distracted by any worldly thoughts otherwise it is not prayer. To dialogue with God requires our full attention to Him alone.  One of the most powerful prayers is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." This is a complete prayer. The first part is a confession of faith in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The second is a supplication acknowledging our fallen nature, our weakness, our sinfulness and our need to God's mercy.

By repeating this prayer over and over as part of our prayer rule, we learn to concentrate only on the words. In doing this, the prayer becomes a habit and will be with us at all times. It will be there when we receive the tempting thoughts and will help us immediately drive them away. This is a prayer that with practice will be with you the entire day, even while you are working. It will lead you to a life where you act as of God's children. It will enable you to become watchful.

Remember what our purpose is in this life. We are preparing for our Heavenly life to come. We should always be looking forward to the end of our earthly life and think of ourselves as training for this future, our life with God in Heaven. The Jesus prayer is not like yoga or Transcendental Meditation. It is based of the reality of a living relationship with God, the God who revealed Himself to us in His Incarnation, the God who humbled Himself to take on human flesh, to become fully man while yet remaining fully God. He Showed us the Way to become united with Him. He was Crucified, arose to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven and opened the gates of Paradise for those who choose to follow Him. This is quite different from Eastern ascetic practices that are centered on oneself and seek a stillness that is identified with an impersonal absolute. As Christians, God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. We strive to become like Him and out of our love for Him enter into a ongoing dialog with Him. This leads us to a mind that is ever focused not on stillness or emptiness, but on actions that carry out His will, actions that are without sin actions based on love. We are created in His likeness and image and out of his love for us and our love for Him we are destined to be united with Him in eternal life. Watchfulness is key to us realizing our potential. The Jesus Prayer coupled with a life of repentance and participation in the sacramental life of the Church helps us gain the grace of God that enables us to become like Him.

For more on the Jesus prayer go to the website 

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacharias

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mystery of the Heart

When you read in Scripture, the Kingdom of God is within us (Lk 17:21), what does this mean to you? The Church Fathers refer to this place within also as the "Heart." It is in this place that God has fashioned that God abides so He can manifest Himself through each person. The role of the Church is to help us discover this deep place of the "Heart" that is also the center of our soul.

It is the place within where we wage a battle for our salvation. This is the target of all our ascetic efforts.  We want it to be made pure. Jesus has told us that the pure of Heart will see God. As we seek to become united with God, to overcome our sinfulness, we desire that our soul, its "Heart" be ignited by His grace.

Jesus told us, You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Matt 12:30) So, what does this mean? Saint Gregory Palamas says the heart is the body of our body, a place where our whole being becomes like a knot. When our mind and heart are united we have only one thought––the thought of God. All of our desire is focused on God. When we give our whole mind, our whole heart to God we are totally focused on Him. In this stance we receive His grace and are given the ability to do His will. In this way we attain what Apostle Paul meant when he said that Christ is formed in us (Gal 4:19).  We become whole and are perfected.

We can never wholly contain God in our heart as He is infinite, something greater than our heart. He makes it a dwelling place, a temple of His divinity reflecting His image in us. When our whole heart and mind are turned to God we become holy, enlightened, "the light of the world." It is in this way that God directs our life, fulfilling the purpose He has for us.

Reflect on the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus told His disciple the following:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In this same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
We want to purify our heart so that is shines, becomes a great light, enabling us to take action in the world in a way that glorifies God, that encourages others to purify their hearts and to seek God with their whole heart and mind and soul. In this way the whole world can become a great light.

What is it that keeps us from becoming this light that Jesus speaks about? Our reality is that we are not able to give our whole heart and mind to God but instead are distracted by our passions, our earthly desires. We are not living with a focus on the "Heart" but on the things of this created world siphoning our attention away from God. Because of our fallen nature we have within us also the tendency to sin. As Paul says, "all have sinned and  come short of the Glory of God." (Rom 3:23)

How are we to proceed? We must do as the prodigal son, recognize our condition and seek to return to our father's house which is within. We must uproot our sinful tendencies so that God's commandments will become alive in our heart instead of our passions and worldly desires.

This is a path of return that is difficult. There is only one way and that is to master our situation with God's help so we can follow the divine commandments. Archimandrite Zacharias writes, 
There is no greater misfortune than that of an insensible and verified heart that is unable to distinguish between the luminous Way of God's Providence and the gloomy confusion of the ways of the world."
Difficult, yes, but we know it is possible. We have an all powerful ally, God.  His aim is for our "Heart" to become His temple.  He says to us, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me? (Rev 3"20). When we knock and the  door is opened we discover the greatest of miracles. Our heart becomes united with the Holy Spirit. With an open "Heart" we can unify our mind with our heart and God will fill His Kingdom within us with His full goodness.

For this to happen God must first be able to converse with us. We must be capable of hearing Him and willing to surrender our will to His direction.  In this way God can become the sole focus of our life. We must learn to develop an intimate relationship with Him so we can have an ongoing dialogue with Him

What gets in the way? It's our pride, our self-centeredness. We fail to see the larger picture and see our death as the end of everything that gives us pleasure. We become fearful and sinful seeking to satisfy our own needs. We are stuck until we can come to terms with the reality of our situation, just like the prodigal son before he was able to return to his father. We must say what the he said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you and am no more worthy to be called your son. (Luke 15:19-19) In this way we are humbled. We discover how poorly we live by His commandments, how distant we are from Him. We see clearly our self-centeredness, our selfishness and pride. We become sorry for our condition and seek His help to return. From this realization we are motivated to make changes in our attitude and orientation toward life and God. We begin a long journey of purification where we liberate our "Heart" from all the bodily passions. In cooperation with Grace we will finally be able to surrender our whole being to Him, to commit our whole heart, our whole mind, and our whole soul to Him. We will discover the "Kingdom within."

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart by Archimandrite Zacharias

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tests of Faith

Faith according to Scripture is something that is beyond belief. It involves a complete trust in the promises of Jesus Christ that are recorded in the Gospels. Such faith cannot be measured, but Pope Shenouda III has given us a list of ways we can test our faith.
1. Faith Expresses itself through love.
2. Faith is Demonstrated Through Deeds.
3. Examination of Faith Through the Purity of Heart.
4. Faith Is Tested Through The Power It Grants That All Things Are Possible.
5. Test Of Faith During Distresses.
6. Test Your Faith According To Some Commandments.
7. Test Your Faith In The Extent Of Caring About Your Eternity.
8. Test Your Faith In The Correctness Of Belief.
9. Test Your Faith With The Sound Qualities It Has.
1. Faith Expresses itself through Love
Saint Paul identifies the qualities of a sound faith based on love.  He writes:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)
Use this list of attributes to evaluate your faith. In addition he adds:
And though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1Cor 13:2)
Our capacity for love is one of the most basic tests of faith.

2. Faith is Demonstrated through Deeds
Our faith must show through our actions by doing the work of God.  Saint James says: I will show you my faith by my works (James 2:18). He also says that a dead faith cannot save anyone (James 2:14). Saint Paul echoes this when he writes, They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him (Titus 1:16). Saint John tells us that one who knows Him and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1John 2:4).

3. Examination of Faith Through Purity of Heart
If we love God based on our faith we will not sin for fear or erring in front of Him. With faith we will know that God sees, hears and records everything. As Saint John says, Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor knows Him. (1John 3:6)

4. Faith is Tested Through the Power It Grants that All Things are Possible

We must be able to say what Saint Paul has said, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)  Jesus tells us, All things are possible to him who believes. (Mark 9:23) Despair is an indication of loss of faith. If we are continually influenced by external pressures of the current situation to commit sin we do not have faith.

5. Test of Faith during Distresses
If you have faith you will not be disturbed by all the trials and tribulations of this life. You will believe they are for the good, even though you may not understand why they occur. Saint James says, Count it a joy when you fall into various trials (James 2:1). Paul tells us, All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom 8:28). And Jesus says, All things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9:23).
With faith we place God between us and the trial. We call to remembrance the trials of all the saints and remember what happened to Moses, Joseph, David and Job with faith. We accept the trials thrown at us and are happy the Lord gave us these trials. The Apostles give us an excellent example when after being whipped it is recorded, So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name (Acts 5:41). 

6. Test the Faith According to Some Commandments
Our commitment to tithe is another indicator. If we are not doing so we may be attached to our material possessions, placing our faith in them instead of God. Our regular attendance at Sunday worship services is another test. With faith we look forward to our worship services and the opportunity to participate in the Sacraments. The nature of our daily prayer life is another way to evaluate our faith. With faith we pray daily guided by a prayer rule.  When praying with faith we are able to keep our mind from  wandering. Continual prayer throughout the day is a sign of a sound faith.

7. Test Your Faith in the Extent of Caring About Your Eternity
Jesus tells us,
Let your wast be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding, that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. (Lk 12:35-37)
Our primary orientation must be on preparing ourselves for eternity and our destiny in the world to come. If we find our primary orientation is on this world and being successful, then we will know that our faith is weak. If we are continually thinking about our every action as preparing for the life to come then we know our faith is growing.

8. Test Your Faith in the Correctness of Belief
We must make sure our beliefs are free of our own opinions.  It's essential to make sure we rely on the Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers so we know the correct beliefs. Otherwise, we may be believing in ourselves as God.

9. Test Your faith with the Sound Qualities it Has
Our faith must be consistent and practical. Our soul must always be filled with peace and without fear. Our faith must be a living faith and not intellectual or a periodic one. It must be continually nurtured and always growing.

Reference: Life in Fatih by Pope Shenouda III