Sunday, December 8, 2019

Awakening Our Heart to a God (4) - Internal Perceptions


Most of us live a worldly life with a spirit that is locked up in our heart by all our desires, resentments and cares of daily life. In reality this spirit is free, but we have covered it up, bound it, with all our cares. All we need to do is remove the obstacles that block our awareness of its powers. It appears to be asleep, it is our worldly cares that make it appear this way. It is by God’s Grace that we are awakened revealing to us this condition. Saint Theophan points out that this can happen as the result of grace working either directly on it or indirectly. When divine grace through direct action reveals our true condition, it arouses dissatisfaction with one’s current way of life and leads to a desire to change.

Saint Theophan puts this aroused dissatisfaction this way:
The person is not satisfied by anything around him; not by his accomplishments or possessions, even if he has incalculable wealth; and he walks around as if heart broken. Because he finds no consolation in visible things, he turns to the invisible, and receives it with a readiness to acquire it for himself sincerely and to give himself over to it.
Psychologists have termed this condition as a mid-life crisis or it is also misdiagnosed as depression. Commonly, when we reach our forties, we develop a feeling that something is missing, all our successes have not led us to an inner happiness or satisfaction. If we respond by following this awakening spirit we will return to the Church, begin to seek a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the Orthodox way of life, discover a deeper meaning in life and a peace and joy we did not know existed. If we ignore it, we may begin a new path of worldly seeking and the spirit within remains asleep.

Saint Theophan outlines some of the indirect ways grace works on us. The first he describes is self-indulgence. By this he means that through our worldly way of life we have become dependent the physical and mental aspects of our way of life, all the attachments we have to what makes up our current life. Everything that we think nourishes us is embodied in this worldly life.  We are dead to the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. To think of changing our way of life becomes unthinkable. We can’t conceive of an alternative that would be better. We are stuck in our own self-made patterns. This self-indulgence is very strong and are the bonds constraining the spirit. 

What divine grace does, which may seem cruel, is to destroy one of these indulgences that supports our current way of living. This could be an illness, accident that limits us, loss of job, loss of family or friends, or financial loss. Saint a Theophan describes some of the ways this can happen depending on how we have created this false foundation of our life:
He who is enslaved by pleasing the flesh shall fall ill, and, by weakening the flesh, shall give the spirit freedom and power to come to its senses and become sober. He who is preoccupied with his own attractiveness and strength shall be deprived of this attractiveness and kept in a state of exhaustion. He who finds refuge in his own power and strength shall be subject to slavery and humiliation. He who relies greatly on wealth shall have it taken away from him. He who shows off great learnedness shall be put to shame. He who relies on personal connections shall have them cut off. He who counts on the permanence of the order established around him shall have it destroyed by the death of people he knows or the loss of essential material possessions.
When this happens there is the opportunity for a positive change in one’s life. When we feel weak, humbled, we are apt to turn towards God for help. When we are struck with something that takes something important to us give thanks to God and seek His help. Look for new opportunities to serve Him, new spiritual practices, renewed participation in the sacramental life. Open you heart when something unthinkable happens and allow grace to awaken our spirit.

There are other bonds that constrain our spirit. These are the structures of society such as its rules, laws, principles and ideas. We often feel helpless in going against the waves of our culture. We have been raised to fit in with the norms of society. We often forget we have free will and can choose even in a world with strong societal constraints. Saint Theophan  tells us that these forces are not physical but reside in our imagination. He says, 
“one has only to dispel this imaginative power of the world, and the opportunity for abstaining from its charms becomes more likely.”
This can be overcome by contemplating divine creation or the Church. Time in silence, surrounded by the beauty of a traditional Orthodox Church, we can be moved by grace, find peace of mind, and suddenly choosing to commit to service of God. Or, one may go into a natural area, a walk along a natural lake or creek, a desolate seashore, or a mature wooded area and be uplifted by the beauty of God’s creation untouched by human hands. This experience may cause an opening for divine grace to work on opening the heart and freeing the spirit within. Both of these I find personally very powerful. I am humbled every time I enter into a traditional Orthodox Church. I feel God’s presence and my hardened heart is opened. I regularly take a short walk along a creek lined with mature trees, all is untouched by human hands. God’s handiwork, it’s beauty, it’s complexity also opens my heart to a God who is in all places and all things.

Saint Theophan says,
Nature and Church completely wrench the human spirit from the bonds of the world. In this capacity they dispel, dissipate, and oust the charms of the world of vanity with its many illusions.
When We awaken to the constraints of society, grace will bring new strength to go against the current, to live a God-pleasing life without any concern what old friends may think of you. They are some of the bonds that need to be broken if you are to become a true child of God. one will find a path that is not based on norms of a modern society, one that will finally bring true joy.

In addition there are other ways such as an encounter with a spiritual person who is not bound by such societal forces. There are many ways we can encounter our loving God who is constantly seeking to awaken our spirit so we can be perfected. We are the prize of His creation made in His image and likeness. He wants us to see that our purpose in this worldly life is to be perfected and become united with His will. This is necessary if we are going to deserve eternal life in His Kingdom. This is why He sent His Son to show us the way through His suffering in Crucifixion but with His glorious Resurrection, Ascension into heaven and then sending the Holy Spirit to heal us all in His Church.

This is why catechistic teaching is so important and helps nurture all the approaches to an awakening of a sleepy soul. We all need to proclaim the universal Truth of the Gospel and it’s message of divine salvation. This needs to be done in a simple way without philosophizing.  Saint Theophan says, 
“depict the truth as it is, not cluttering it with intellectual concepts and especially speculation about probabilities... Just explain the truth in a simple way; say what it is, and the spirit will be overcome.”
References: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 111-118. 

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Christmas Is What We Make It - Understanding the icon of the Incarnation (Nativity)



Awake! God is becoming man. He wants to show us the path to paradise.

When I look around me the signs of this season to not point to such a great event. The images that I found with a google search are mainly about Santa Clause, reindeer, Elves, presents, decorated trees, office parties... Seems like the season is all about this world’s pleasures. Where is Christ? What kind of Christmas will WE make?

To tell the truth, it seems like most us us are asleep spiritually. We enjoy Christmas time with all its celebrations. But in the midst of these God is distant from us, we are unaware of our sinfulness, we rarely pray, only attend church periodically out of duty, and only periodically participate in the sacrament when we do come, and many have never been to confession. Maybe the secular Christmas celebration fits us. Are we are making Christmas fit what we believe?

We all need to be awakened to the Truth!

What is Christmas all about? Are we celebrating the birth of a baby boy? No! We are celebrating the beginning of the way to our salvation. God becomes man, a human being who is also God! Christmas is about the Incarnation of our Lord, Savior, our Creator. God becomes man to show us our true potential created in His image and likeness. After His birth He lives with humility, heals, teaches and then is unjustly and voluntarily killed by Crucifixion, suffers, is  beaten, humiliated, and hung naked nailed to the Cross. His life and death was to show us our path to paradise. After His death He is resurrected, defeating death with His death. He then Ascends into Heaven and is seated at right hand of God. After teaching His disciples the mysteries sends the Holy Spirit empowering them to establish ecclesias, gatherings of believers, communities where they can grow spiritually. This all begins with the event we call Christmas. We are celebrating our very entrance into the pathway of our salvation.

The festival approacheth, the most to be revered, the most awesome, and which we might justly term the centre of all festivals,—that of the birth and manifestation of Christ in the flesh.
Saint John Chrysostom 

Let’s not be lulled to sleep with all the secular attachments that merchants have created to stimulate our shopping habits and desires. Our secular values have stripped the true meaning from all aspects of the activirties of this season.

How was Christmas celebrated traditionally?
It began with a fast, an inner period of reflection, preparing ourselves to become more worthy to receive the King. It was only after the Christmas Day that we celebrated, exchanged gifts, visited friends and relatives. This is the 12 days of Christmas which are fast free and set aside for celebration of this great event. Before this awesome day we are preparing to receive God as man and then, after His birth, to glorify His coming for our salvation. The celebration ends with another important celebration, Epiphany, the baptism of Christ and the beginning of His ministry.

Nativity Icon
To better understand this most significant event in the history of mankind let’s examine the icon that tells the story of the Incarnation. Not just the birth of Jesus the man, but the Incarnation of God! Looking at the icon it appears as a scene beyond time. The immediate focus is Mary, calling us to better understand her role. The scene is totally different than that portrayed in most western nativity scenes. Let’s explore it. It tells the entire story in one image.

There are eight parts to this icon: the birth place, the star, the mother of God—the Theotokos, Christ, Joseph and the devil, the Angels, shepherds, wise men,  and the midwives.

Let’s look at each of these in detail.





Christ:  
He is wrapped is swaddling cloths which is how a person was normally wrapped after birth. The infant was wrapped in a cloth that was four to five inches wide and five to six yards long. He would be wrapped like this for seven days and then cleansed and rewrapped, a process that lasted fourth days. They believed at that time that this would help the soft bones of the child grow straight. It is also similar to how a person is wrapped for burial after death. This symbolizes the destiny He faces like all of us, so He can show us the way to life beyond death. In HIs Resurrection He will show us how we too can claim victory over death with faith and following Him.
St Ephram the Syrian writes: His swaddling clothes gave a robe of glory to human beings.
Notice how the manger is not a traditional food trough for animals but appears as a tomb. This is intended to remind us that Christ came into the world to die for us and then show us victory over death in the Resurrection. 
The animals are an Ox and a donkey. This comes from a prophesy in the Old Testament in book of Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his masters crib (Isaiah 1:3). They are show providing warmth to Jesus by their breath.

Birth place:  
The birth of God took place in dark cave shown in the center of the icon. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem to pay their taxes they found no room in traditional lodging places. By God’s providence they found shelter in cave. In the area of Bethlehem caves were often used as places to shelter the animals. The cave also is a symbol of the coming of God as a human being to bring light into the darkness of our souls, our ignorance of our sinful condition, and to give light to the way out of darkness to eternal paradise. The fact that it was also a stable, also has important symbolism. You can see the animals looking at the Christ child. Where animals were kept was a smelly place, not a desirable place to stay, let alone give birth to a child, but this place was not chosen by chance because it shows the humility of Christ. He could have chosen to be born in a palace, but He was coming to show us that the way to paradise is based on humility. He is showing us that this needs to be an important value in our lives, to not seek riches or honors, or to be seen as better than others. 
“The Good Shepherd, He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek that which had strayed...He humbles Himself, that He may raise up with Himself the soul that was tottering to a fall under a weight of sin....[for] my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.” Saint Gregory the Theologian, oration 38
The dark background in the cave can be explained by the birth of Christ being like the spiritual light that shines forth in the shadow of death that surrounds all mankind. The black mouth of the cave symbolizes the world filled with sin from the Fall of mankind, and with the the birth of the Savior, the “Son of righteousness,” it is now enlightened with a clear path to return to paradise.

Mary, The Theotokos:  
Notice how she is in the middle and focal point of the icon. Without her there would not be the Incarnation. All that follows would not have happened. She was especially prepared by God to be pure so she could give flesh to the Son of God. She is looking away to show her humility. This was a miraculous birth by a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit.
“When God became known to us in the flesh, He neither received the passions of human nature, nor did the Virgin Mary suffer pain, nor was the Holy Spirit diminished in any way, nor was the power of the Most High set aside in any manner, and all this was because all was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Thus the power of the Most High was not abased, and the child was born with no damage whatsoever to the mother’s virginity.” - St. Gregory of Nyssa

The Star:  
In the top center you can see a blue light which represents the star. This is the star that appeared in the East at the time of the Annunciation and led the wise men to Christ for about nine months. This was not a real star but the work of the Holy Spirit to show the way to Christ. It behaved differently than anything scientists have ever observed. It moved, it stopped, it ascended and descended, it changed direction. Some say it was Archangel Gabriel. Notice how it points directly to the Christ Child. Saint John Chrysostom says, “no natural star could have traversed such a course, nor could I have shone so brilliantly at midday; and, furthermore, it stood still over the Child.
In the icon it points directly to the cave. It is a long ray which connects part of a sphere that goes beyond the limits of the icon. This is a representation of the heavenly realm, signifying that the star and this ray are a messenger from the world on high.
 It brings our attention to Christ and indicates His divine nature.






Angels:  
Above Christ we can see a multitude of angels gathered to glorify the Incarnation. They have come also to herald the Good News of the birth of our Savior. This points out how this event is not just the birth of a child, but the Incarnation of God Himself. God has become man. Rejoice!











Shepherds:  
Even the shepherds came to glorify God. They were the first sons of Israel to come to worship the Christ Child. The shepherds watched over flocks of lambs destined for sacrificial services in this area where the birth took place. They are being told of the Incarnation by an angel. They were told: “ Be not afraid; for I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths elating in a manger” (Lk 2:10-12).The shepherds heard the angels singing: “Glory to God n the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men.” (Lk 2:14)
Shepherds are simple people. Their presence indicates that God came for all people and not just those who are privileged. There is one shepherd playing a reed flute showing that music is appropriate for glorifying God.

Wise men or Magi:  
There are also three men on horses. One is a beardless youth, another middle aged and the third an old man They are referred to as Magi or wise men, member of a Persian class of  priestly scholars who were very powerful among the Persians. They were occupied with the study of medicine, philosophy, natural sciences and scientific study of the stars. They believed there was a mystical influence of the stars on earthly things so they were constantly studying the heavens for new signs. They were aware of the prophecies of Daniel, especially the one concerning the time of the coming of Christ. (Dan 9:25,26). They were also familiar with Barlaam’s prophecy about the star shining forth from Jacob (Num 24:17). When this unusual bright star appeared to them they knew it was a sign of a great event. Recognizing its significance they vowed to follow it to the scene of the Incarnation. They followed the star “till it came to rest over where the young Child was (Mat 2:11)” with His mother.  They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, as a way of giving thanks to God. In the hymn for the forefeast we find the following :”The kings, first fruits of the nations, bring three gifts,...by myrrh they point to Thy death, by gold to Thy royal power, by frankincense to the dignity of Thy divinity.” Gold is also know as a symbol of wisdom, frankincense as power of prayer as it is burnt before God and myrrh the mortification of the body.
These men came some time after the actual birth, about two years later. This is a characteristic of icons. They capture what is necessary to tell the whole story.
This scene also tells us by their example that all scientific study is meant to lead us toward the true God.

Midwives: 
In the lower left we can seen the midwives preparing the bath water to bathe the new born child. This was done out of tradition as there was no blood in the birth. The bathing does not signify that Christ was unclean and in need of purification. This was done to show His true humanity. The two women are know as Zelomi and Salome. Salome is related to Mary. She is Mary’s mother’s sisters daughter, a first cousin. The duties of a midwife were washing the new born, rubbing it with salt, water and oil, and then wrapping it in swaddling bands.
This scene shows the full humanity of the Incarnate Son of God. Jesus was fully human in all regards except He was without sin. It is also symbolic of baptism which all members of His Church go through for spiritual cleansing of sins and a transformation with the Holy Spirit planted in their heart with Chrismation.




Joseph and the devil: 
In the lower right we have another scene with Joseph, an old man and another with a cane. Joseph is shown with a halo. He was an old man because he was of age when he was appointed to be the protector of Mary so she could live life as a virgin. He was probably 70-80 years old at this time. He is pondering this whole situation because he was not the biological father of the child. He is being tempted by the old man with the cane who is trying to raise doubts in his mind: How is it possible for a virgin to bear a child? This man is Satan, who is saying, “this is against all natural laws you fool!s!” The difficulty Joseph faced is no different from ourselves who have difficulty grasping the reality of the virgin birth and God becoming man while still retaining His divinity. The Incarnation of God goes beyond reason.
The tree you see to the left of Joseph is a symbol of the tree of Jesse. This refers to Isaiah  11:1-2, “But a shoot shall spout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.” In the flesh, Jesus can trace his ancestry through His mother and adoptive father Joseph, all the way back to Jesse.

Adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth (Luke 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise.... With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers upon earth. - St Gregory the Theologian

“It is on this day that, throughout the entire inhabited world, the Holy Church brings to our remembrance and observes that most majestic and sublime of mysteries: the Incarnation of God the Word from a Most-pure virgin through an outpouring of, and an overshadowing by, God's Holy Spirit. Wondrous, inexpressible, and awesome is this mystery, both for the exalted and all-contemplating celestial minds of those who dwell in the heavens: the ranks of the angels, – and for the minds of men, enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Imagine: the unoriginate God from Whom everything received the commencement of its existence: the Angels, and the human race, and the entire world, both visible and invisible, – takes a beginning in His humanity. He Whom the heavens cannot contain – is contained in a virginal womb. God – becomes an infant, and is borne upon the arms of a Mother. He Who nourishes every breath – is nourished by paps.”
Saint John of Konstradt

Make this Christmas to be about the Incarnation of God Himself as Jesus Christ.



Apolytikion: (Fourth Tone)
Your birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who adored stars, were taught by a star, to worship You, the Sun of Justice and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You.

Kontakion: (Third Tone)
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.

Reference: The icon used can be obtained from the Orthodox Monastery Store, made by the nuns of the Paracletos Greek Orthodox Monastery in Abbeville, SC


Monday, November 25, 2019

Awakening Our Heart to God (3) - Through Visible Means and the Senses


Saint Theophan tells us that an awakening to God and developing the desire to live a God pleasing life requires the intervention of divine Grace. He says the awakening occurs in two ways: by visible means and our senses or an internal awareness of the Spirit. This article will focus on the first.

Let me begin by reviewing the vision that must develop in us. He describes it as follows:
God is one, worshipped in Trinity, the Creator and Upholder of all things, or as the Apostle says, the Head of all things (cf. Eph 1:10) in our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, active in the Holy Church, which , having perfected the faithful, transports them to another world. The world will continue until the fullness of time, or the end of time, when, at the resurrection and judgment all will receive according to their deeds—some will descend into hell, while others will dwell in paradise, and God will be all to all (cf. 1Cor 15:28).
 Considering how frequently God is revealed visibly. This can happen when He appears in a worldly form while the believer is either awake or asleep. I had two such experiences. One was more mystical where the heaven was revealed with nodes of shimmering lights, like galaxies but different. It’s was a sign of a greater world where things existed in love. This led to a recognition of an unsustainable lifestyle and a commitment to change. my wife and Along with a few others decided to seek our house and form a communal community seeking harmony in Nature and Spirit where we lived off the grid and growing much of our own food. The other event that resulted it another and more significant change was a revelation of Christ Himself in broad daylight while standing on the edge of a small lake while living in this community. Jesus turned to me and simply said, “Charlie, why are you denying me.” He then left. This truly awakened me and I immediately sought out a spiritual father and began a disciplined life as taught by the Orthodox Church.

Saint Theophan points out many examples of this kind of intervention by grace. He mentions Paul and how Jesus appeared to Him on the road to Damascus. He also mentioned Constantine the great where the “chi roh” sign (first two letter of Christ in Greek) appeared to him in a dream and he was told that if made this his sign on his troops banner they would be successful. They were and his reign led to the Christianation of the Roman Empire.

He appears in different ways also such as the numerous appearances of the Theotokos. Angels have also appeared many times. Or, it can happen by an appearance of any of the saints. These are not uncommon experiences.

Another way we experience this is by miracles caused by a mysterious force. This is why we see Jesus and his disciples performing miracles of healing, and raising people from the dead. These unexplainable events that can’t be explained rationally lead people to awaken to the Spirit and to seek unity with God.

Saint Theophan says the following:
“In all such manifestations, the mind, confused by various objects and seductions of the world and hopelessly caught in the visible, sensible, external order, is confronted with striking, unexpected and sudden appearance to it of higher beings and powers.from the invisible realm.”
In these visible or sensible experiences our distorted worldly view of realty is shaken and a larger view emerges which bursts open our heart to receive and recognize grace working in us. We suddenly realize how mistaken we have been about our way of life, what we value and seek. Instead, awakened by grace, we turn ourselves to God and now seek an intimate relationship with Him.

Next we will discuss internal perceptions that also lead to an awakening.

Reference: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 107-109, p227

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Awakening our Heart to God (2)



To be awakened spiritually and to have the desire to pursue a God-pleasing life requires two things. First, there must develop the awareness that a significant change in way of life is needed. This happens when there is an awareness of the state one is in is one, where they are separated from a God and are at the mercy of wave after wave of worldly cares. Second, develops the awareness of what a spiritual life involves. This process requires the work of divine grace. It is not simply an awareness that comes by a mechanical process based on rational analysis. It is necessary to be touched by God in a mystical manner,

Divine intervention is necessary because one’s current life style is very powerful and is supported by numerous relationships and strong attachments. As Saint Theophan put it, the way we live involves,
 “a realm where there are principles, ideas, opinions, rules, customs, pleasures and ways that are completely incompatible with the true spiritual life for which man is intended.” 
The current life is one that is totally immersed in a way of life incompatible with spiritual growth. This means that it’s hard to imagine a better way of living and most likely a spiritual life seems impossible. Because of this, the awakening, the nudging of grace, may not be accepted at first. To be awakened this grace must accepted in the heart, feeling the love of God calling to come closer to Him. 
Saint Theophan says,
The door to conversion may be opened only under the condition that the spiritual way of life be revealed to the sinner’s consciousness in its full light, and not merely revealed, but that it touch the heart...
The spiritual life may be pre-conditioned by reading the Scripture, the lives of the saints or the influence of a pious parishioner or spiritual father. With regular church attendance the soul is nurtured in a way where a hard heart begins to yawn, to open its eyes, and bring to light new possibilities. As it begins to open, grace will increase bringing a new force to bear for an awakening and decision to change.

Saint a Theophan says,
The true Christian life is one of grace. The self-made life, no matter how beautiful it is in appearance or how close it is to the form of Christian life, will never be Christian. The origin of the Christian life is in arousal by grace.
When this process begins it can cause a major upheaval in one’s thinking, causing a totally different life style to emerge. For one who has been asleep, living without the awareness of sin,  their entire will be discarded and replaced with a new life that is truly a God-pleasing one. 

Saint Theophan describes this spiritual vision that cause such major change as follows:
“God, in the Holy Trinity that is worshiped, Who has created the world that is worshiped, Who has created the world and takes trouble over it, saves us, the fallen, in the Lord Jesus Christ, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, under the direction and guidance of the Holy Church, and through one’s life here of trials and bearing the cross, which leads to eternal, unending bliss in the future life.”
This new way of thinking, a new world view, develops in us via divine grace. The contrast it brings with the previous way of seeing things will be sharp, and the sinfulness of the past will be revealed. This provides further motivation for one to change their way of life, to repent, and results in an intense desire to seek God for mercy. 

Saint Theophan says,
“Under such action the heart is loosed from its former bonds and becomes free, and that is why it freely selects the new way of life. This is how arousal by grace operates. It destroys everything thin the consciousness and emotion that is old and bad, and vividly presents only the new and good. It leaves the person in this situation overwhelmed, fee to choose the new life or to turn back to the previous one.”
This new way of life can generate fear as it is such a drastic turn towards God. Saint Theophan tells us this consciousness of this new way of life comes about in two ways:
“1. Sometimes it is introduced visibly and through the senses. 2. Sometime the spirit of the  person is led into it and perceives it internally.”

In the next post we will explore both of these ways.

Reference: The Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp102-107.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Awakening Our Heart to God (1)



In my last post I discussed the issue where many find themselves unaware of God’s presence and are overwhelmed by all the cares of daily life. These are good people, who have good jobs and care for their family, but God is not their main priority. They may go to Church most Sundays, but only come after the Gospel is read and look forward to coffee hour after hearing the sermon. They don’t participate in the main purpose of the liturgy, Holy Communion, but only a few times a year. They most likely have never been to Confession because they don’t see themselves as sinful. These people are in spiritual terms, asleep. Their life is not about perfecting themselves to live in communion with God. They have no thought about their future life in His Kingdom. They do not appreciate life of repentance or the idea of purification taught by the Church. Spiritual disciplines like fasting and daily prayer have no power for them, even though they may fast occasionally in a lite way and pray occasionally. They are doing everything out of a sense of duty or obligation to their family, ethnic tradition or norms of society. Their Creator who has made them in His image and likeness is far away in a distant land.

There is the powerful story of David from the Old Testament who found himself asleep in this same sense. His situation was extreme because he had committed several very serious sins but was oblivious to the error of his ways. He was attracted to a beautiful married woman who he caught bathing on the roof top, had sex with her, and she became pregnant. Being king, he arranged for her husband to be sent into a battle in a way where he would surly be killed and he was. He then married her. All this did not bother David until, one day, the profit Nathaniel came to him and presented a case for him to judge. The case he presented involved two men. One was very wealthy who had a large flock of sheep and cattle. The other was very poor who had only one sheep whom he raised like a daughter, even held it in his arms and fed it his food. It was very dear to him. One day a traveler came to visit the rich man. Instead of taking a sheep from his own flock he took the one from the poor man and had it slaughtered for his meal with the traveler. When David heard this case he was very angry and said the poor man should be given a flock of sheep and the rich man should die. He asked Nathan to tell him the name of this wretched man. Nathan stared into David’s eyes and said firmly, “This man is you! You have everything and what you don't have you can easily get. But you took Bathsheba for yourself and had Uriah her husband whom she loved very much killed. You like the rich man took from her who had little the one she loved for your own pleasure.” David was suddenly awakened and said, “I have sinned against the Lord!” Awakened, he was transformed and began to live a new life in repentance. We can see how he became close to God through the many Psalms of repentance he wrote.

Those whom I described above are like David, unaware of their sinful nature, and distant from God. I myself was also like this for many years. For our salvation it is important to know how we are awakened from this slumber and able to turn our hearts to God in repentance and receive His grace. Saint Theophan describes this process as being similar to one who is sleeping, who wakes up in the morning, gets up, and gets ready to go to work. 

Saint a Theophan says,
A sinner who turns to God and repents is roused from the lullaby of sinfulness, reaches a decision to change (he gets up), and, at last, puts on strength for his new life in the Mysteries of Repentance and Holy Communion (preparation for work). 
We also see this process of awakening clearly in the story of the Prodigal Son. He left his father, went far away and  lived a loose life until he lost all and was suffering. He came to himself (awoke) and made a decision to arise (get up) and go to his father. He left his former life and confessed to his father, I have sinned. The father receives with open arms, joyful at his return, and clothes in fine clothes (absolution in Confession)  and prepares a grand meal for him (Holy Communion).

Saint Theophan identifies three stages in the conversion of a sinner (one who is asleep and not aware of his sinful nature like David and the Prodigal Son) to a God pleasing life:
  1. Arousal from the slumber of sin.
  2. Reaching a decision to give up sin and devote oneself to pleasing God
  3. Vestment of power from on high for doing this in the Mysteries of Repentance and Communion.

Next, I will cover Saint Theophan’s view of how this awakening takes place.

Reference: The Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, p 101; 2 Samuel 11 & 12; Lk 15:11-32

Friday, November 15, 2019

If Life is Good - Why Repent?


The reality is that most people are indifferent about their salvation. They are satisfied with life and see their situation as good even though they may face some difficulties. Those they attribute to lack of their own efforts or blame someone else. Their focus is on external things: their occupation, their pleasures, good sex, good food, luxuries of home goods, a bigger home, a fancy car and so forth. All these they feel they are able to get through their own efforts. In their view, what is the need for God? The challenges of this life consume their energy and attention. There is no time or reason to worry about salvation. Some dutifully profess they believe in God, attend Church occasionally, but they do not pray, fast or read scripture daily. They enjoy novels instead or the latest TV series that are streamed by various internet services. They are satisfied surfing social media and getting and giving likes on Facebook or Instagram. Since these are easy to get and give, why bother to develop deep friendships that take up their time? Their life is characterized by Martha whom the Lord told, “you are worried and troubled about many things” (Lk 10:41).

All this activity of life is driven by an unknown but constant unquenchable thirst. The desire to achieve, to be liked, to posses more material things, etc.  Because of this underlying force one can spend their entire life “in sweat, toil and great labors: busing themselves with various occupations in which they hope to find a way to quench this unquenchable thirst” (St Theophan the Recluse p 95-6). Such a person lacks God’s grace and is not really connected with God. Instead they only “dwell on themselves, and make self the main goal of their life and activity” (St Theophan the Recluse p 95).

Saint Theophan puts it this way:
The emptiness that has formed inside them because of their falling away from God causes and unquenchable thirst inside them that is vague but constant. The person has become a bottomless abyss. They make every effort to fill this abyss, but cannot see or feel it getting full. Thus, they spend their entire life in sweat, toil and great labor; they busy themselves with various occupations in which they hope to find a way to quench their unquenchable thirst. These occupations take up all their attention, all their time and all their activity. They are the highest good, in which they live with their whole heart. Thus, it is clear why a person who makes self their exclusive goal is never themselves; instead, everything is outside them, in things wether created or acquired by vanity. They have fallen away from God, who is the fullness of everything. (St. Theophan the Recluse p 95-6)
Saint Theophan give us three “fiends of many cares”:
  1. Emptiness of the mind: This is a mind that has forgotten God who is everything. It “gives rise to care and trouble about learnedness, inquisitiveness, questioning and curiosity.”
  2. Emptiness of the will: One deprived of possession by God who is everything. “This creates desire for many things, the longing to possess many things, so that everything is in our control…Self interest.”
  3. Emptiness of the heart: One deprived of the enjoyments of God. This “forms a thirst…, a search for an infinite number of objects in which we hope to find pleasure for our senses, both internal and external.”
There is a large number of good people who are captured in this way. They tend to see life as good as long as they are able to continue to gain more and more external things. When their desires cannot be met, they often fall into depression, anger, envy, and resentment. “This is the world of vanity, in which occupations, ways, rule, connections, language, diversions, amusements, concepts…are permeated by the spirit of these three fiends of many cares and trouble…” (St Theophan the Recluse p 97) Unfortunately, these people are blind to their condition. They are captured by this self striving, immersed in worldly things and the means to satisfy an unknown inner yearning. They are consumed with all their cares that their condition is invisible to them. They do not realize they are separated from God. They become satisfied with a declaration that they believe in God. They know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, but they do not see their sinfulness or realize how serious is this separation from God. They do not think about salvation or even their own mortality. The know the story of Jesus, His death and Resurrection, but it has little meaning in their daily lives.

The result is a blindness to human reality. Such a person is unaware of their sinfulness and what is needed for their salvation. They are not interested in discussions or activities that are spiritual in nature. Saint Theophan puts it this way:
“There is a blindness and insensitivity in the sinner. They do not see their own condition, and therefore do not sense the danger and therefore do not take the trouble to care to be delivered from it. The necessity to change and be saved does not even enter their mind. They have complete, unshakable confidence that they are at their proper station in life, want for nothing and must therefore leave everything the way it is. Therefore they consider any reminder about another kind of life to be superfluous for themselves; they do not listen, and cannot even understand what it is for. They avoid and shun it.” (Saint Theophan the Recluse, p 100)
In the next posting I will share how one can be awakened from this dangerous stupor.

Ref: The Path to Salvation, by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 95-101

A Personal Note: I lived in this stupor until I was over 40 years old. I had no awareness of the deep nature of my sinfulness and how far I was separated from God. For me I was successful in my career, I had a good marriage and two beautiful children. My parents were healthy and my grandparents still living. All was good, very good. I assumed it was my good work that made this possible. I would go to Church periodically, but it was out of a sense of obligation to my in-laws and wife. There was not a spiritual connection in this. It was just something you did. There was never a feeling so committing a sin. Like I hear many parishioners say, “I have not killed any one. I have not stolen any thing, I have not committed adultery.” I was so self centered, to go in front of an authority person like a priest to confess would not have been possible. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Orthodox Worship

A review of worship in the Orthodox church including the Divine Liturgy