Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thoughts for the New Year - A Time for Renewal

The first day of the New Year is a traditional time we evaluate our past and set new goals for the coming year. Often we couch these as “resolutions.” We commit to losing weight, exercising more, improving our business and so forth. We might even commit ourselves to reading the Scriptures every day or making a commitment to daily prayer or regularly attending church and participating the the fasts and sacraments regularly. These efforts to seek to better our life physically and spiritually are important. Yet there are only a few such resolutions that last more than a few weeks.

Why is this? Simply because we don't set out to make a habit out of what we commit to, making them part of our normal life routine. We are so influenced by our culture that we expect instant results. We are impatient, too used to comfort, and quickly tire of things that require discipline and hard work. But if we truly seek to be an Orthodox Christian we must do both of these. This is what the Orthodox way of life is all about. Our spiritual growth does not come without effort and discipline. This is how the apostle Peter puts it: Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love (2 Peter 1:5-7).

Being an Orthodox Christian is about a way of life. We must seek to live in a way that we become the “aroma of Christ” to our surroundings (2 Cor 2:15). This means that we must develop a presence that influences others by our way of living and acting.

This is a good time to review the following ten principles of an Orthodox Way of life and reflect on our own life style. asking what changes do I need to make to improve my “aroma.”
1. Praying Daily: Have a regular prayer rule that includes morning and evening prayer.
2. Worshiping and Participating in Sacraments: Attend and participate in the Divine Liturgy receiving Holy Communion regularly as well as regular participation in Confession.
3. Honoring the Liturgical Cycle of the Church: Follow the seasons of the church and participate in the fasts and feasts of the Church.
4. Using the Jesus Prayer: Repeat the Holy name whenever possible throughout the day or night.
5. Slowing Down and Ordering Your Life: Set priorities and reduce the stress and friction caused by a hurried life.
6. Being Watchful: Give full attention to what you are doing at the moment.
7. Taming the Passions: Overcome your habits, attachment to your likes and dislikes, and learn to practice the virtues.. Putting Others First: Free yourself from your selfishness and find joy in helping others.
9. Spiritual Fellowship: Spend time regularly with other Orthodox Christians for support and inspiration.:
10. Reading the Scriptures and Holy Fathers: Be inspired by the lessons of the Holy Scriptures, the wisdom of the Holy Fathers and the lives of the Saints of the Church.
The starting point is aways prayer coupled with regular participation in the Divine Liturgy and regular preparation and partaking of Holy Communion. Fasting and the practice of the Jesus prayer can help build the necessary discipline and a attitude of repentance where we are constantly asking for God’s mercy and help. We have prepared a 32 page booklet on the ten points listed above that is available free of charge in our bookstore. (Or by emailing Deacon Charles at with your name and address so he can mail you one free of charge.)

If you seek spiritual enrichment in the coming year, then don't let yourself fall into a dull slumber of inattention to what really matters. Engage yourself in your spiritual development and allow the Holy Spirit to transform you from the inside out. Don’t seek instant results from God like he was an ATM machine. Seek and thirst after him. Don’t fret about how distant He seems. Commit yourself to live the life He has provided for you through His Church. The Church is given to us for our benefit. It outlines for us how we can become self-disciplined and gain His help to transform our lives so that we truly live in Him and He in us as the Scripture says.

May God enlighten you and bring you many Blessings in the Coming New Year.

Deacon Haralambos (Charles) Joiner
Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral
Greenville, SC

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Power of the Name Jesus in Prayer

The most common prayer in the Orthodox Tradition is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."  Its power comes from the continual repetition of the Lord's name.  Why is this prayer so powerful and important?

In the Old Testament there is a close connection between someone's soul and his name. Knowing one's names indicates a certain control over Him. A change in name reflects a change in a person's life. Like Saul became Paul or a person who is ordained as a priest or monk receives a new name. In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another person, or to call upon his name are acts of potency.  It makes them effectively present.

In the New Testament devils  are cast out and people are healed in the Name of Jesus. When the disciples were sent out to heal and bring peace to the world they returned with joy saying,  "Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name." (Luke 10:17)  And in another time they said "...we say one casting out devils in thy name." (Luke 9:49)
God's name is linked with His Person and invoking His name has a sacramental character.  Repeating it serves as a sign of His presence and action.
John Climacus says,
Flog your enemies with the Name of Jesus, for there is no weapon more powerful in heaven or on earth.
The name must be spoken with sincerity.

In the last days of Jesus' life he said: "Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, and your joy may be full... Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you." (John16:24, 23)

Archimandrite Sophrony says,
"The Name Jesus as knowledge, as 'energy' of God in relation to the world and as His proper Name, is ontologically bound up with Him.  It is spiritual reality. Its sound can merge with its reality but not necessarily so.  As a name it was given to many mortal men but when we pray we utter it with another content, another "frame" of spirit.  For us it is the bridge between us and  Him.  It is the canal along which the streams of divine strength flow to us.  As Proceeding from the Holy God it is holy and it hallows us by its invocation.  With this Name and through it prayer acquires a certain tangibleness: it unites us with God.  In it , this Name, God is present like a scent-gflask full of fragrance.  through it, the Celestial One can be sensed imminently.  As divine energy it proceeds from the Substance of Divinity and is divine itself." (Archimandrite Sophrony, On Prayer, p. 133-134)

All our divine worship is based on invocation of the divine Names. They are said in true confession of faith and in a state of divine reverence and awe.

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov writes,
"By the power of the name of Jesus the mind is freed from doubt, indecision and hesitation, the will is strengthened and correctness is given to zeal and other properties of the soul.  Then only thoughts and feelings pleasing to God, thoughts and feelings belonging to depraved human nature, only such thoughts and feelings are allowed to remain in the soul  there is no place then for other thoughts and feelings, "for God will save Sion, and the cities of judea shall be builded; and they shall dwell therin and inherit it.  And the seed of Thy servants shall possess it, and they that love thy name shall dwell therein" (Ps 68:40-41) In the name of the Lord Jesus quickening is given to the soul deadened by sin.  the Lord Jesus Christ is life...." (On the Prayer of Jesus, p. 25-26)

John Chrysostom tells us,
Continue constantly in the name of the Lord Jesus, that the heart may swallow the Lord and th Lord the heart, and that these two may be one... (On the Prayer of Jesus, p. 30)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Getting Help in our Battle with Thoughts

As several of you have pointed out in earlier discussions, controlling our thoughts is not a easy task.  Assuredly, if we can do it, our mind becomes clearer, quieter and we are better able to discern.  As a  result we can become more holy.  True prayer demands a silent mind free of thoughts so we can listen to the wordless voice of God that comes from our heart.  It is in this way that we can do the will of God. But being able to control our thoughts is something that seems to elude us.  It is something that we cannot do by ourselves. We need help.

Saint Heychius tells us,
The spirit cannot conquer a demonic fantasy by its own unaided powers, and should never attempt to do so... The demons are a sly lot: they pretend to be overcome and thin trip us up by filling us up with self-esteem.  But when we call upon Jesus Christ, they do not dare to play their tricks with us even for a second." (Philokalia vol 1, p. 166)

Those of us who have tried to master our thoughts can affirm that, no matter how much we progress, we are either defeated by more thoughts that gain our attention, or we begin to think about how well we have mastered our control of thoughts.  As soon as we begin to think about how well we are doing we have lost the battle.

The key is what Saint Heychius tells us – we must call on Jesus Himself for help.

Saint Theophan the Recluse tells us,
Whenever we appeal directly to the Lord with fear, reverence, hope and faith in His complete activity without entering into a verbal battle with the passionate thought, the passionate thought then moves away from the mind's eye, which is fixed on the Lord.  When it is cut off from the mind through such attention, the passionate thought departs of its own accord...

The act of calling on the Lord for help plants a more powerful thought in our mind and forces the one we want to ignore into the background.  Without attention given to the thought and given instead to God asking for His help, it disappears.  The demon trying to plant the unwanted thought in us is defeated. This is one reason why the practice of the Jesus Prayer is so important.  God helps us counteract unwanted thoughts when we call on His Name.

Saint Theophan uses an example of a legend he knew of.
An elder lived in the desert of silence.  The demons visibly attacked him, and began dragging him our of his cell so as to completely drive him out of the desert.  The elder himself began fighting back at them, but they moved him and had already dragged him right up to the very door.  Just a bit more, and they would have turned him out.  Seeing his extreme danger, the elder called out, "Lord Jesus Christ! Why have you abandoned me?  Help me, Lord!"  As soon as he called out, the Lord appeared immediately and chased away the demons, and said to the elder, "I did not abandon you, but because you did not call on me and thought you could cope with the demons yourself, I did not come to your help.  Call on me, and you will always receive ready help."  After saying this, the Lord disappeared.  this incident is a lesson not just to the elder, but to all of us: Do not struggle with passionate thoughts through your own spiritual altercations with them, but turn immediately to the Lord with prayers against them. (The Spiritual Life, p. 246)

A final thought from Saint Theophan
Lasting purification of the thoughts is a gift from God, but this gift is not given without intensifying one's personal labors.  While you will not achieve anything just by your own labor, God will not give you anything if you do not labor with al your might.  This is the fundamental law. (The Spiritual Life, p. 210)

More in the next post on the Power of the Name.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Humility is a Prerequisite for True Prayer

"Our soul is made to live in the mountainous world of God."

Saint Theophan says that "Before we can make the soul appeal to God ..., it first must be made to turn everything to the glory of God; to attribute to Him our every activity, large and small. He advises us that whenever we begin something we should say, "O Lord bless us."  Then on completing any task we should say, "Glory to Thee O Lord."  We do this not just with our tongue but from our heart with real feeling. When we fall into any kind of sin we should say, "Lord have mercy on me a sinner."  He says, "do this as often as possible, always trying in every way to be sure that each appeal comes from the heart.... and this persistent repetition will end by forming in you the habit of conscious conversation with God."

This act of continually humbling ourselves by calling on our Creator places us in submission he[ing to repress our proud ego.

Elder Paisios expresses the kind of humility needs when he says that we can pray for others with contrition "only if one considers, from humble-mindedness, that one is the cause of everything that befalls one's neighbor."

We also need to pray for our enemies, for those who hate us. Jesus says, But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matt 5:44-45) Whenever we find our selves judging or condemning another person it is an act of pride.  We should immediately do as Jesus commands and pray for that person.

Saint Theophan says,
"Our soul is made to live in the mountainous world of God.  That is where it should always dwell, both in thought and in heart.  But the weight of worldly thoughts and passions attracts it and draws it downwards."

Prayer demands a pure heart - one that is free of hatred, feelings of guilt from sin, and all forms of pride.

Quotes from The Path of Prayer by Saint Theophan the Recluse  pp.13 - 19.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Going Beyond Words in Prayer

When you begin to establish a routine prayer life, the words are important.  To start we recite prayers from a prayer book and say them verbally. " But this is only the beginning of prayer," says St. Theophan.  He sues the analogy of learning a language where we first learn the words and forms of the language from books but we don't stop at this point.  We move on to converse freely in the language.  the same is true in prayer.

We become accustomed to reading our prayers from books - using the prayer passed down to us by Our Lord, and by the Holy Fathers who had achieved the art of prayer.  But we must not stop at this.  It is necessary to extend ourselves further.  Once we have become accustomed to turn our ears and hearts to God using this help given by others, we should then also attempt to bring something of our won to Him, so to speak; to pass on into our own prayerful conversation with God; to raise ourselves toward Him; to open ourselves to Him; to confess to Him the contents and needs of our souls. 

He says prayer "should be an unceasing offering of oneself to Him."

To achieve this, it is necessary to begin - as often as possible during the day - by calling out to God from the heart in short words, according to one's needs and in ways appropriate to the events around you.

More on Prayer from Saint Theophan

Above taken from The Path of Prayer: Four Sermons on Prayer by Saint Theophan the Recluse pp. 13-15.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Four Ways to Practice Watchfulness

Saint Hesychius wrote  "On Watchfulness and Holiness" which is included in the Piliokalia.

Watchfulness is a spiritual method which if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God's help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions.  It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and help us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries.  It  enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come...

Watchfulness is a continual fixing of thought at the entrance to the heart...

St. Hesychius identifies four different kinds of watchfulness.
One type of watchfulness consists in closely observing every mental image or provocation; for only by means of mental image can satan fabricate an evil thought and insinuate this into the spirit in order to lead it astray.
A Second type of watchfulness consists in freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still, and in praying.
A third type consists in continually and humbly calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help.
A fourth type is always to have the thought of death in one's mind.
These types of watchfulness, my child, act like doorkeepers and bar entry to evil thoughts...

Philokalia, vol 1, p. 162-165

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

"Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!
Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!
Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,
And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,
For He has been exalted!" 

"Glory in the Highest to God, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men" (Luke 2:14)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Perfect God and Perfect Man

A Nativity Epistle from Archimandrite Justin Popovich

God is born on earth, and moreover He is born as a man: perfect God and perfect man--the unique God-man. And He has forever remained as the God-man both on earth and in heaven. Indeed, the God-man is the first perfect man on earth. Perfect man? Yes, because only in the God-man is man without sin, without evil, without death, totally filled with God, and thereby with all divine perfections.

The God-man has demonstrated and proved this most convincingly: man is only a true man when he is completely united with God, and in everything and every way completely lives in God, thinks in God, feels in God, acts in God, is virtuous in God, is immortal in God, is eternal in God. Only and solely in God is man a man, a true man, a perfect man, a man in whom all the fullness of the Godhead lives.

We can analyze this fundamental, evangelic, Divine-human truth about man.

The soul of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Soul in the God-man does it become and forever remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect eternal.

The mind of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Mind in the God-man does it become and forever remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.

The heart of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Heart in the God-man does it become and remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.

The conscience of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Conscience in the God-man does it become and remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.

The will of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Will in the God-man does our will become and forever remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.

The body of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Body in the God-man does the body become and forever remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.

The life of man?--Only and solely as the Divine Life in the God-man does our life become and forever remain sinless, immortal, God-like, holy, perfect, eternal.
Everything that man is, and everything that is of man perfectly lives, works, thinks, feels, is human, immortal, divine, and eternal only and solely in the God-man and through the God-man. Only through the God-man Christ is man divine majesty and the highest value next to God in all worlds. For this reason God became man, and has remained the God-man for all eternity. With the God-man Christ, all that is God's has become man's, human, ours, so that each of us individually and all of us assembled together in the Divine-human body of Christ, the Church, might become god-men, having at tained "to the perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13).

Therefore Christmas, the day of the birth of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the greatest and most important day in the history of all the worlds in which man moves and lives. Truly this is "great joy"--truly the only true joy, the only eternal joy of a human being in all worlds.

The God-man?--This is the most important Event of all the worlds of man: the Ultimate Event.

The God-man?--This is the most important Justice of all the worlds of man: the Ultimate Justice.

The God-man?--This is the most important Love of all the worlds of man: the Ultimate Love.

The God-man?--This is the most important Good of all the worlds of man: the Ultimate Good.

The God-man?--This is the most important Man of all the worlds of man: the Ultimate Man.

The God-man?--This is the most important God of all the gods of man: the Ultimate God.

    On account of all this, the Nativity is our only eternal Joy:
the Ultimate Joy. The Joy of all joys, the Joy above all joys. Therefore, again and again: Christ is born! The God-man is born! Our deification is born! Our divine human transformation is born!

The Archimandrite Justin Popović (in Cyrillic Serbian, Јустин Поповић) (1894-1979) was a theologian, a champion, a writer, a critic of the pragmatic church life, a philosopher, and archimandrite of the Monastery Ćelije, near Valjevo.


Monday, December 21, 2009

The Mind's Advice to its Own Soul

Mark the Monk

Listen, rational soul, partner in all my deliberations, I wish to explain to you a certain mysterious and ordinary matter.  I have undertaken this without having been cleansed of passions, but I am, by the grace of Christ, nevertheless, devoting myself to it for a short while.  I am fully aware,  dear soul, that both you and I, naturally influenced by ignorance, are prone to error and on account of this blame others for our sins, saying that the evil lies outside us.  sometimes we lay the blame on Adam, while at other times Satan, and other times other people.  I doing so we imagine that we are waging war against others, while we are really waging war against ourselves. Thinking that we are protecting one another, you and I are in reality fighting against each other; believing that we are benefiting one another, we are really harming each other, like a madman with his self-inflicted wounds, rightly enduring useless afflictions and reproaches.  We appear to love the commandments, but because of error we hate what informs them.  because of this, I clearly see now that we are not drawn wrongfully into either evil of good by some sort of power; on the contrary, from the time we are baptized, when we undertake any kind of endeavor using our free will we serve either God or the Devil, and one or the other quite rightly compels us to take his side.

Counsels on the Spiritual Life by Mark the Monk (5th century), p.176

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Watchfulness and The Divine Light - Beware of Delusion

Watchfulness involves lifting our thoughts to the spirit through our ability to observe them without being moved to any action.  This spirit within us is seen as the true way of knowing and the only faculty to know God.
Jesus says, "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness." (Matt 6:22-23)

What is the meaning of the passage? He is saying that this spirit is also light.  When have clear sight we can see, and when we can see, our whole being is filled with light.

In His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony describes his experience with the light of spirit and gives us some cautions.  He writes, "The world of mental contemplation is essentially a radiant one.  Our mind is created in the image and after the Primal Mind––God.  Light is natural to it since it was made in the image of Him Who is Light unoriginate." (p 155)

Hieromonk Damascene points out that we need to be careful when we think of this light.  He sys, "This is where many who have practiced watchfulness have fallen into delusion over the centuries."  The key in his view is having purity of intention when we enter within.  If our intention is to be spiritual we are in great danger.  On the other hand if it is to deal with our shortcomings so we can perfect ourselves to follow more closely the commandments of God, then we are on safe ground.  If through our own effort we come onto the experience of this inner light of spirit we will continue to worship ourselves and worse, think we are in fact God.

Achimandrite Sophrony had this experience in his spiritual journey where he was involved with various forms of eastern meditation.  He writes,
"Attaining the bounds where day and night come to an end, man contemplates the beauty of his own spirit which many identify with Divine Being.  They do see a light but it is not the True Light in which there is no darkness at all.  It is the natural light peculiar to the mind of man created in God's image.
The mental light, which excels every other light of empirical knowledge, might still just as well be called darkness, since it is the darkness of divesture and God is not in it.  And perhaps in this instance more than any other we should listen to the Lord's warning, 'Take heed therefore that the light which is within you be not darkness.'"

To avoid this danger, absolute humility is necessary.  Fr.Sophrony writes,
"Since those who enter for the first time into the sphere of the silence of the mind experience a certain mystic awe, they mistake their contemplation for mystical communion with the Divine, whereas, in reality, they are still within the confines of created human nature.  The mind, it is true, here passes beyond the frontiers of time and space, and it is this that gives it a sense of grasping eternal wisdom.  This is a far as human intelligence can go along the path of natural development and self-contemplation...
"Dwelling in the darkness of divestiture, the mind knows a peculiar delight and sense of peace... Clearing the frontiers of time, such contemplation approaches the mind to knowledge of the in-transitory, thereby possessing man of new but abstract cognition.  Woe to him who mistakes this wisdom for the knowledge of the true God, and this contemplation for a communion in Divine Being.  Woe to him because the darkness of divestiture on the borders of true vision becomes an impenetrable pass and a stronger barrier between himself and God than the darkness due to the uprising of gross passion, or the darkness of obviously demonic instigations, or the darkness which results from loss of grace and abandonment by God.  Woe to him, for he will have gone astray and fallen into delusion." (pp 155-56) 

He tells us that the experience the Uncreated Light of the Divinity is given to us only by special action of God.  To go beyond the limits of mind and receive this gift, demands humility.  We must not seek a spiritual light, silence or peace when we practice watchfulness.  We seek silence in our mind so we can hear the direction that God is giving to us. Gods voice is still and small. (1Kings 19:12)  We can only hear and discern what he is telling us by lifting ourselves above the distraction of random thoughts that are continually invading our mind.  Jesus says, "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." (John 18:37)

We must remember His important words, "Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father Who is in heaven.  Many will say to me in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonderful works in Your name?" And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you: depart from me, you who work iniquity." (Matt 7:21-23)  What he is really saying here is that YOU did know Him when He says "I never knew you." Hieromonk Damascene says, "In effect he is saying, "You andI never developed a relationship because you were always listening to your thoughts, emotions and desires rather than to me.  You did not learn to distinguish my wordless voice from all the other voices in your head."

This is the aim of watchfulness and silence of the mind.  We seek God's voice directing us.  We develop the virtue of discernment.  We find ourselves in relationship with HIm, and unite our will to His.  Yes, we may experience the light of the mind and if it be God's will we may also experience His Uncreated Light.  We need to be careful not make the aim this light as we will be deluded and risk making ourselves God.

Message: Keep your intentions pure!

See The Tao of Christ pages 326-331

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Non-Action is Essential for Spiritual Growth

Non-Action is a state of selflessness and self-abandonment.  It is when we give up our total dependence on our own thinking and analysis for our actions and instead rely on direction from God. Hieromonk Damascene says, "When we catch ourselves trying to solve our personal problems with our minds, we realize the futility of this enterprise and give up the Problems to the Personal Absolute.  We cease trying to be our own savior, and we commend ourselves to the mercies of our true Savior."

This notion of non-action is one of the primary reasons people fail in their spiritual life.  It is because they are trusting and relying on themselves.  Abba Dorotheos says, "I know of no fall that does not come from trusting one's own judgment" (Discourses and Sayings p. 126)  Hieromonk Damascene points out, "Even if a self-opinionated person calls upon Christ to save him, he is still seeking salvation on his own terms and in his own time (which usually means immediately).  He makes his petitions or demands in order to feel better and make his path easier, rather than to know objective truth and be united with his Creator, which is the very purpose of his existence."

How do we practice Non-Action?
Hieromonk damascene advises,
"We must come before our Creator and Savior without an preconceived opinions.  We must seek salvation on His terms and in His time, even if it requires that we endure worse suffering that we knew before!"  
We cannot expect Him to relieve us of all our burdens now and once-for-all.  We must trust that He will continually save us, perfect us through His grace step by step, as long as we submit ourselves to His will.

Hieromonk Damascene says,
"In letting go of our will to prevail through ambitious striving, we find that the will of our Creator is accomplished naturally and spontaneously through us.... When we do His will instead of our own, good appears of its own accord, flowing effortlessly into our life.  There is no frustration, no dissatisfaction.
On practicing non-action, we do not try to heal ourselves; rather we allow ourselves to be healed...  We find that our problems find their own solution, spontaneously"

This idea of Non-Action does not mean we do not have any thoughts.  Any attempt attempt to stop our thinking is but another prideful effort.  What is needed is to develop the ability to observe our thoughts, seeing how they often represent our selfish needs and desires.  In observing them, we become watchful and they then end without impacting our action.

This way of Non-Action is the natural way to spiritual healing.

Adapted from Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene, pp 322-324

Friday, December 18, 2009

Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down

Why is it we spend so much time thinking about what has already happened or about what may possibly happen sometime in the future? Are these thoughts nothing but our own created world? Don't they frequently lead us to worries and anxiety? When we are absorbed in these thoughts where is God?

Especially in this difficult economic climate we find ourselves worrying about many things. As one of many possible recent examples, I have had several people approach me seeking advice about how to deal with the possibility of foreclosure on their house. They were extremely frightened. One was frightened about his inability to support his family and possibly losing his marriage. Another was a builder fretting about losing his equity and his reputation necessary for access to loans in the future to continue his business. Both built dreadful scenarios in their heads about possible consequences that might befall them in the future.  Their anxiety was so great that they could not think clearly about what they needed to do today: i.e. talk to bank about alternatives, talk to parents about assistance, and for the builder, become creative in dealmaking. They were so stressed that even feared sharing their problem with their spouses. As recorded in Proverbs
 (12:25) “Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down …” Where was God?

How did Jesus instruct us?  He says,
“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?"(Lk 12:22-25)
Here He is pointing out that our worries add next to nothing to our life, only "one cubit," the smallest of measure. He also points out that even the ravens or crows, considered to be unclean birds in his time and not fit for eating, are provided for by God. So why should we worry about our life?

He continues,
"Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?" (Lk 12:27-28)
Here He equates our worries to not having sufficient faith. But the reality is, just as He provides for the lillies and the ravens, He surely will provide for us. But what are we to do when we are in difficulty and can't make our house payments or provide decent food for our family?

Jesus says,

"For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you" (Lk 12:30-31).
Jesus tells us not to rely on our thoughts but instead to concentrate on Him and His kingdom, "to seek the kingdom of God." It is in this way that we will be informed about how to care for ourselves without anxiety or fear. There is no need for worry when we have faith and God to guide us. As we lift our thoughts to Him, they are clarified, our needs minimized, and we area able to face the worst of situations without fear.

All our thoughts do for us,when they lead us to worry, is to separate us from God. They make us self-centered and reinforce the belief that we are self-reliant beings. Our reasoning become clouded making it more difficult to know what our needs really are and how to provide for them. We exclude God's help.

Our thoughts are dangerous. They can create a false world in our mind. We need to develop the capacity to lift ourselves into the spirit that resides within us, focusing on God, setting our thoughts aside so we can open our hearts to God. He will show us the way, not for aggrandizement in this world, but how to live a way that gains us eternal life in His kingdom. Like the birds and the flowers, He provides for His creation and He will provide for us. But we must overcome the entangling web of our own thoughts, the fantasy world we create in our own minds, if we are gong to hear what he intends for us.

In Matthew's version Jesus says,
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble" 
(Matt 6:31-34).

Lesson: We must live in the present with our attention directed towards God, lifting our thoughts to a higher source.  This is what the Orthodox Way of Life helps us do. Pray, worship and participate in the sacraments, and be watchful.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Flies and Bees - Advice from Elder Paisios

Father Paisios provides us with wise advice about negative thinking using an example of flies and bees.  As usual he is most insightful.

"I know from experience that in this life people are divided in two categories.  A third category does not exist; people either belong to one of the other.  The first one resembles the fly.  The main characteristic of the fly is that it is attracted by dirt.  For example, when a fly is found in a garden full of flowers with beautiful fragrances, it will ignore them and will go sit on top of some dirt found on the ground.  It will start messing around with it and feel comfortable with the bad smell.  If the fly could talk, and you asked it it show you a rose in the garden, it would answer: "I don't even know what a rose looks like.  I only know where to find garbage, toilets, and dirt."  there are some people who resemble the fly.  People belonging to this category have learned to think negatively, and always look for the bad things in life, ignoring and refusing the presence of good.

The other category is like the bee whose main characteristic is to always look for something sweet and nice to sit on.  When a bee is found in a room full of dirt and there is a small piece of sweet in a corner, it will ignore the dirt and will go to sit on top of the sweet.  Now, if we ask the bee to show us where the garbage is, it will answer: "I don't know.  I can only tell you where to find flowers, sweets, honey and sugar; it only knows the good things in life and is ignorant of all evil."  This is the second category of people who have a positive way of thinking, and see only the good side of things.  They always try to cover up the evil in order to protect their fellow men; on the contrary, people in the first category try to expose the evil and bring it to the surface.

When someone comes to me and starts accusing other people, and puts me in a difficult situation, I tell him the above example.  Then, I ask him to decide to which category he wishes to belong, so he may find people of the same kind to socialize with."

From Elder Paisios on the Holy Mountain by PriestMonk Christodoulos, p.43-44

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Negative Thoughts Separate us from God

This I find to be my weakest point where the devil is constantly attacking me. Whenever I catch myself having negative thoughts about another person, I discover that all I am doing is trying to show myself how much more perfect I am than the other person. It is only my self-importance that is being satisfied by my negative views of others. More often than not, it is a thought about something I well know and dislike in myself but deny. But most importantly, this way of thinking is a sure block from God. My attention is not filled with love but instead on myself. As it says in the Book of Wisdom (1:3)  "For perverse thoughts separate men from God."

Saint Ambrose of Optina writes,
"Look at everything simply. Living simply means not judging. Do not judge anyone. For example, here comes Elikonida. She passed by, and that is all. This is what thinking simply means. Otherwise, as seeing Elikonida passing by, you could think about her bad side: she is such and such, her character is thus and so. That is not so simple." (Fr. Sergius Cherverikov, Elder Ambrose of Optina, p. 235)

Elder Paisios writes
 "If one lives in the world of his pride, that is the world of his own thoughts, he is filled with illusions and he is in danger.... As long as he humbly thinks of himself, God's grace remains within him and protects him.  When he moves away from his humble thoughts and start being preoccupied with what the patriarch or the bishop or abbot or monks do or say, then God's grace starts retreating.  Therefore the most important thing for us to look after is to preserve the sense of humbleness in our lives, and thus allow for divine grace to permanently remain within us." (Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain by Priestmonk Christodoulos, p. 40)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Live Simply Without Thinking Too Much

On of my greatest struggles is to learn how to live simply without thinking too much. If I am not careful, I find myself thinking about future events and developing anxiety and worry over something that most likely will never happen. It is an act of placing my trust in my own thinking rather than in God.

Jusus told His disciples the following when they asked Him, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
"I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

What is the characteristic of little children. They are present in the moment. They do not put everything to a logical thought process. They are attentive and present. This is the kind of simplicity we are all called to maintain.

This involves learning not to put our faith in our thoughts. This is most difficult as we have gained skills to survive in the world, professions and so forth, based on knowledge gained through education and by using our logical minds. We have learned how to manipulate things to our own benefit. This is all well and good, but we must come to see this as a very low form of knowledge. It is knowledge that is based in our brain and attached only to earthly things. It is capable of only solving small problems and even then only temporarily.

Elder Paisios says,
"The devil does not hunt after those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. therefore we should not trust our logical minds. Never believe your thoughts.
Live simply and without thinking too much, like a child with his father. Faith without too much thinking works wonders. the logical mind hinders the Grace of God and miracles. Practice patience without judging with the logical mind."

Our challenge is to refer our problems to our higher mind. The results of logical thought is the product of our ego and our efforts made with an illusion of self-sufficiency. Ask yourself, "How often do I refer my problems to God? When I do, am I capable of listening?" This will help focus our spiritual development. For whatever comes from our logical mind is not likely to be coming from God.

As proof of this look at the political debate we see taking place today on almost any issue. Before anyone has a chance to fully explain their view, they are interrupted with an opposing answer. These divergent views cannot becoming from God. We are not seeking enlightenment nor even applying our reason to issues. We are stuck on our ego based prejudices and opinions, our own generated thoughts. We never enter into a true dialogue seeking God's truth on the matter.

Elder Paisios observes,
"Almost all of us view thoughts as being something simple and natural, and that is why we naively trust them. However, we should neither trust them nor accept them.
Thoughts are like airplanes flying in the air. If you ignore them, there is no problem. If you pay attention to them, you create an airport inside your head and permit them to land.!" (Christ the Eternal tao, Hieromonk Damascene, p.318)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dealing Softly with Our Thoughts

Our actions begin with a thought. Thoughts come into our mind all the time, so we must constantly be watchful. This is not just about wandering thoughts we experience in prayer. It's about a continual struggle.

Through the practice of the Jesus Prayer, we are given the gift of controlling our thoughts. With this gift, we are able to lift ourselves above the level of mind dominated by common thoughts where we can observe our thoughts without any action. Once this ability is given to us by God's grace, we can observe them all the time without taking actions on them. This is often called a state of "detachment."

Once we have this ability, how do we properly observe our thoughts? Abba Barnabas says, "If a thought comes, do not be alarmed.... the bad thing is not that a thief enters the house, but that he takes what he finds." We cannot stop the occurrence of thoughts. But we can stop them from stealing our virtue from us.

As we observe thoughts, we don't concentrate our attention on them, but, instead, observe them softly, seeing them as foreign intruders, something that is coming from outside us. In this way we keep our attention based in our higher mind, our mind attached to Spirit. This keeps us in the attitude of love. When we are able to maintain this perspective, we are able to discern those thoughts that are of help to others from those that condemn them, those which are of selfish interests from those which are of benefit to others. This is a level of discernment essential for a virtuous life.

As we develop this ability to observe our thoughts softly, we come to know with certainty that our thoughts are not who we are, but come from outside. It's our God given responsibility that comes with our free will to observe them without immediate action.

Saint Theophan writes,
"Having noticed the enemy approach––the beginning of a stimulus, thought, passion, or tendency––first of all hasten to realize that it is the enemy. It is a great mistake, and a common one, to honor everything that come up in us as the property of our own blood, for which we take a stand as for our own selves."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Metanoia built on Foundation of Watchfulness is the Way to Theosis

It often seems to me that there is no end to my spiritual struggle. The more I delve into the Orthodox way of life the more it seems I am called to do. This seems to be the very nature of the spiritual path. The more we examine our lives, the more clearly we can see into the depth of our soul and the more we uncover. As we uncover the hidden "gems" buried in on innermost being, the closer we come to God.

A lesson well taught by our spiritual fathers is that the key to spiritual growth is a constant yearning to be more like Christ. To do this we must continually seek a cleansing in spirit and forgiveness for our current ways. This is called metanoia: changing our life to be like His, calling on God to be cleansed and to be forgiven and then to forgive others.

Hieromonk Damascene says,
"As long as we remain in the condition of metanoia, ever deeper levels of our corruption will be revealed to us, and we will be continually purified and re-created by the wordless Word in our hearts."

Archimandrie Sophrony writes,
"Whoever tries to follow Christ 'wherever He goes' (Rev 14:4) will be inevitably rent again and again––at every rise from a lesser to a wider cognition, from a small measure of love to a greater."

The problem of today's culture is that we seek instant gratification. This is what we want from our spiritual life as well. We say a prayer and expect an immediate answer. We correct a bad habit only to find a new one postponing the reward we thought would be ours. Many of today's approaches to spirituality only increase our numbness about our deplorable condition. Pseudo happiness is sought and false joy covers up the real condition of our life that we need to face for out spiritual growth. Continuous metanoia is a lifelong process says Hieromonk Damascene.

"We must understand that , contrary to what our conditioning leads us to expect, inward purification is a lifelong process. Continuous metanioa is the only way:" A miracle––says Fr. Sophrony; "the more is 'see' God, the more ardent does my repentance become, since I the more clearly recognize my unworthiness in His sight."

To practice continual metanoia, we need to embrace watchfulness as the foundation. St. Hesychius writes, "We will travel the road of metanoia correctly if, as we begin to give attention to the spirit, we combine humility with watchfulness and prayer with the power to rebut evil thoughts." Watchfulness (nipsis in Greek) is the state of inner vigilance, attention and sobriety.

St. Nicephorus tells us,
"Watchfulness is the sign of true repentance (metanoia).... It is the unreserved assurance that our sins are forgiven. It is the beginning of contemplation or, rather, its presupposition, for through it God, descrying its presence in us, reveals Himself to the Spirit. ti is a serenity of the spirit or, rather, the repose bestowed on the soul through God's mercy. It is the subjection of our thoughts, the palace of the mindfulness of God, the stronghold that enables us patiently to accept all that befalls."

To help build the necessary foundation, I plan to explore further this idea of watchfulness.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Truth comes from knowing the truth about ourselves

Each time I prepare for confession I am always amazed at how little I know about myself.  Each time there is some new discovery.  It is this continual self-discovery that seems to be important for our spiritual growth.  Usually, the truth we discover is something we don't particularly like about ourselves.  Sometimes, it is a recognition of a particular gift or talent we have to share, but are not appropriately using it. Whichever it may be, a new discovery leads us to new ways of living in ways that God's will can be done.

Living an Orthodox Way of Life, we are continually examining ourselves.  We are taught to do it in a way that leads us to new ways of living, and not just for some intellectual curiosity or to seek restitution in some legalistic way.  We truly want to live according to God's will!  As we do this inner seeking, we uncover assumptions and thought patterns that tie us to predictable ways of thinking and behaving.  It is like being engaged in some kind of archeological dig where we keep uncovering new mystical mind layers-–each new layer exposes a new artifact.  When we find it shining in the mystical cloud like layer of the mind, we then examine it to see what kind of artifact it is. This examination is made by a mind that at times does not even seem like its our own.  It is one were we observe ourselves from some higher place.  This is the higher mind of our soul at work. As our brain becomes quieter though our practice of spiritual disciplines and the work of the Holy Spirit in us, we become aware of new ways in which we are corrupted.  This may bring tears or some other emotional response, but in the end it is a joyful discovery. For this is the aim of our spiritual struggle, to know ourselves and to be better able to see our sinfulness, so we can make changes in how we life in union with God's will..

Saint Nicetas Stitatos writes,
"To know yourself means that you must guard yourself diligently from everything external to you; it means respite from worldly concerns and cross-examination of the conscience  This is true humility that teaches us to be inwardly humble and makes our heart contrite.  If you do not know yourself you cannot know what humility is.  To know oneself is the goal of the practice of virtue." (Philokalia, vol 4, pp 116-117)

The key is to have a sincere desire to change and to become more like God Himself.  First, we have to accept that we have the potential to live a more virtuous life than we are presently living.  Next, we must be willing to carefully and objectively observe the deplorable state that we are actually in. Seeing it, we must then have a strong desire to change.  This is the meaning of repentance (metanoia), a willingness to change our mind so we can become more like God.

As we practice the Jesus Prayer and other spiritual disciplines we will find the Holy Spirit helps us and that our mind can become much quieter.  In this quietness we gain the capability to observe our most inner being. Knowing the love of God, we let go of our fears about what we may find and scourge up the worst we can find, asking God's help to change.  This is the central theme of an Orthodox Way of Life.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Distracting Thoughts

One of my biggest struggles is to stop the thoughts that are the source of my sinfulness. I find myself constantly judging base on thoughts about the motivations of others, as well as avoiding situations because of anxiety that comes from thoughts of self-doubt. I asked, “How do I get rid of these bad thoughts that endlessly enter into my mind?”

While at the Paracletos Monastery, which is nearby, the Abbess there gave me a small book titled, Thoughts and How to Confront Them, by Hieromonk Benedict of the Holy Mount Athos

Here are some excepts from this sweet and short book.

First Hieromonk Benedict says, “Thoughts and reasonings are the greatest barrier man faces to achieve spiritual education and perfection.” Well, this raises my attention. He continues saying, “This perfection can by no other mens be achieved than by the continuous invocation of the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” I like his directness here. He says, “No other means.” This focuses the approach for me.

He describes that what we are dealing with is not with external events but is a “inner war.” The soul is harmed not by external threats but by “diseases which grow inside us.”

Where do these thoughts come from that block our spiritual growth? First, he points to the Fall and the Ancestral Sin of Adam and Eve. Second, he highlights the senses which continually generate thoughts, based on inputs we receive from our environment, that need to be “properly governed by their ruling mind.” Third, there are the passions. And fourth, the primary problem, is the demons. He quotes Saint Gregory of Sinai who says, “Thoughts are the words of the demons and forerunners of passions.”

Next he shows how a simple single thought can lead one to sin. He says,
“We are not held liable for a simple thought or image which passes through our mind, nor is it difficult for us to confront it. However, from the moment that we open the door to welcome in this thought and commence to ponder it, it is then that the thought takes its position within us and become a prevailing thought.”

Sin begins with a single thought, is his point. He next outlines three stage in the path towards sin:
a. The assault - the arrival of the thought which is normal.
b. The consent or approval - this is where the sin begins.
c. The captivity or imprisonment - here is where accept the thought and its attendant actions.
He says,
“Thus the thought, which began with a simple knocking of the door (the assault), caused the opening of that door (the consent). In Conclusion, the person was unable to control and dismiss the thought, and he eventually committed the act of sin. This is the path towards sin, which begins with one single thought.”

It is impossible for us not to have thoughts which lead us to sin. He writes, “Up to the point of a man’s death and as long as his soul remains in his body, it is impossible for him not to have evil thoughts.”

Now these cunning thoughts which lead to sin, separate us from God and lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, fear and many bodily illnesses.

The challenge is to learn how to confront these thoughts liberate our soul from their captivity.

Saint john Chrysostom tells us not to declare or express them, but to choke them with silence.

Saint Maximos the Confessor tells us to “rid yourself rom the passions and you will immediately expel these thoughts from your mind.” For example, to rid oneself from thoughts of revenge, pray for the person who causes you harm.

Saint Basil advises, “we should confront these attacks with intensive care and attentiveness… And even if the tricky enemy, during the hour of prayer, subjects us to cunning fantasies, the soul should not interrupt its prayer.. He should think of the fact that these thoughts are due to the impertinence of the inventor of evil. That person should then intensify his kneeling to the Lord an should plead to God to dissolve the cunning partition caused by irrational and absurd thoughts, so that, unhindered, he can approach God…. If however the harmful attack of the thoughts becomes more intense...we should endure up to the point when God will notice our perseverance. He will then enlighten us with the Grace of the Holy Spirit….”

The Holy Fathers of the Church teach the following methods for confronting corrupt thoughts:

a. Prayer: “It is not possible for the beginner to rid himself of these thoughts on his own. It is only those perfected in prayer who know how to do this. The prayer of the mind, the monologistic prayer of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me , the sinner.”, is the strongest weapon….”

b. Objection: “For those who are able to combat should use objection, which usually muzzles the demons to silence. Our Lord used this method in order to win the three great wars which were begun in the desert mountain by the devil…
There are instances when one musters up all yet is still unable to dispel on evil thought…
For this reason it is best for one to resort to the power of prayer and tears…"

c. Contempt: “If we occupy ourselves wit the thoughts that are imposed on us by the devil, we will never be able to do any good.
To dislike, to disregard and not to be occupied with thoughts imposed by the enemy are the greatest weapon….
There exists no greater victory and humiliation for the demon than this contempt and scorn…”

In addition to these three methods there is also the approach of the “memory of death.” This is a very powerful method for the contempt of these thoughts. This approach creates a “heartfelt pain for our sins and prevents our mind from accepting such thoughts…

Saint John of Kolovos says,
“I resemble a person who sits under a great tree and who suddenly sees a great herd of beasts and reptiles coming to attack him. then, since he cannot easily withstand, runs up the tree and saves himself. This is exactly what I do. I sit in my cell and watch the cunning thoughts climbing to confront me. That is when I climb. ‘The Tree of Life’, to my God with prayer and in by this way I am saved from the enemy.” 

So what am I going to do? I am going to focus on my practice of the Jesus Prayer. Hiermonk Benedict said this was the strongest weapon and best for the beginner. But I know I have to work at it and not let my mind be entertained with thoughts as I sit in prayer.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

When to Pray

“It is good to pray always and not to lose heart, as the Lord says, and again the Apostle says, ‘Pray without ceasing’ - ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’-that is by night and by day and at every hour, and not only when coming into the church, and not bothering at other times. But whether you are working, lying down to sleep, traveling, eating, drinking, sitting at table, do not interrupt your prayer, for you do not know when He who demands your soul is coming (death approaching...). Don’t wait for Sunday or a feast day, or a different place, but, as the Prophet David says, ‘in every place of his dominion’.

"Forget, for at least this space of time, the bustle and concerns of everyday life. Be like an angel, filled only with thoughts of God and of serving Him. After all, He is present now, and is blessing you. »

Hieromartyr Seraphim of Dmitrov - regarding the Divine Liturgy.

"Whether you are in church, or in your house, or in the country; whether you are guarding sheep, or constructing buildings, or present at drinking parties, do not stop praying. When you are able, bend your knees, when you cannot, make intercession in your mind, ‘at evening and at morning and at midday’. If prayer precedes your work and if, when you rise from your bed, your first movements are accompanied by prayer, sin can find no entrance to attack your soul.”

- St. Ephrem the Syrian

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pay attention to our thoughts and seek to quiet them....

The Church Fathers all seem to direct us to pay attention to our thoughts and seek to quiet them for prayer.

Saint Theophan says our inward attention should be directed at thoughts, for "the passions and desires rarely attack by themselves––they are most often born of thoughts.  from this we can make a rule: cut off thoughts and you will cut off everything."

Elder Silouan affirms: " The experience of the Holy Fathers shows various ways of combating intrusive thoughts but it is best of all not to argue with them.  the spirit that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after––having diverted the spirit from God, they confuse it, and it will not emerge clean."

Saint John Climacus teaches, It is enough to simply observe the thoughts as they arise

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos says, "When someone is in the beginning of his spiritual life, he should not study a lot, but instead watch himself and observe his thoughts."

Abba Pimen teaches: "If we do not do anything about thoughts, in time they are spoiled, that is to say they disintegrate.

Saint Macarius says, Never allow your mind to be dragged down, but always raise it on high, and God will hep you.

Our task is to learn how to simply watch our thoughts is if we were an objective and disinterested spectator––watching them pass by one by one.  We cannot  force our mind to empty of its thoughts.  Sooner or later after a period of observation we will see that thoughts are not who we are and not even our own but are some kind of foreign element. As we separate from our thoughts we will find that God comes closer to us.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Without attention there is no prayer.

Prayer cannot be genuine if it is only on the level of active consciousness of the soul: that is, if one is merely thinking thoughts and saying words.  For prayer to be true, it has to reach the level of the spirit; and one cannot reach that level until one first stands watch and thus rises above thoughts and images.  That is why Christ said, "Watch and pray": prayer and watchfulness are inseparably bound.  As St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, a nineteenth century Russian ascetic in the Philokalic tradition writes: "The essential, indispensable property of prayer is attention.  Without attention there is no prayer." (The Arena, p. 85)

From Christ the Eternal tao by Hieromonk Damascene, p. 302-303

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Still Troubled by Thoughts?

Hard Work is Essential

I find that controlling my thoughts to be one of the most difficult aspects of prayer.  No sooner do I begin to pray, a thought pops into my mind.  If I don't respond immediately, then I will find I entertain this thought for quite some time.  It is like watching TV.  Its easier to follow the thought than it is to concentrate on God with thanksgiving and repentance.  Following my thoughts is the lazy way out.

Saint Theophan the Recluse writes the following advice in a letter.
You write that you are having trouble controlling your thoughts; they scatter easily, and praying does not proceed as you wish; and that, in the midst of the day, in the midst of toil and association with others, there is little remembrance of God. 
Instantaneous prayer life is impossible. You must make a strong effort to control your thoughts, at least to some degree. Prayer does not come about as you expect—by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.
Saint Theophan the Recluse  (from Letter 48)

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker

St. Nicholas of Myra was born in about 280 AD in the town of Patara within the Province of Lycia, Asia Minor. While little that is strictly historical has survived, his life has been embroidered with many legends which in various ways reveal him as an ideal and fearless pastor.
According to tradition, his parents, finding themselves unable to conceive, begged God for a child. Nicholas — the word means conqueror — was the answer to their prayers.
His generosity to the poor is a major thread in stories concerning his life. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and ransoming prisoners, Nicholas was both a spiritual and material benefactor for many people, young and old.

One account of Nicholas’ life relates that, when he was still a young man, a prominent merchant of Patara, the father of three daughters, fell into extreme poverty. With no money for a dowry, his daughters could not find husbands and might have become slaves or prostitutes. On three different occasions, Nicholas threw a small bag of gold coins in an open window of the merchant’s home, thus sparing him the humiliation of accepting charity and assuring that his daughters would have the dowries they needed. (The bags of gold are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes in hopes of a gift from Nicholas.)

One story tells of Nicholas rescuing a boy who had been kidnapped by pirates, another of rescuing children from a murderous innkeeper. Such accounts explain why St. Nicholas has long been regarded as a protector of children.

On his parents’ deaths, Nicholas distributed his inheritance to the poor. “His hand was outstretched to the needy,” an ancient biography records, “on whom it poured alms richly, as a water-filled river abounds in streams.”

Traveling to Palestine to venerate the holy places, Nicholas lived for a time in a cave west of Bethlehem where the Church of St. Nicholas stands today — in the town Beit Jala, as it is now called. He left the Holy Land after learning in a dream that God wanted him to return to Lycia. On his arrival, Nicholas went to a local monastery where he hoped to lead a quiet monastic life. However, a heavenly voice told him, “Nicholas, if you desire a crown from Me, go and struggle for the good of the world. Turn back to the world and let My name be glorified in you.” He settled in Myra, a port city that was the capital of Lycia, where he lived as a homeless pauper, waiting upon the will of God. Following the death of the local archbishop, the senior clergy were inspired to ask Nicholas to accept the responsibility of becoming the new bishop of Myra.
During his years of service as archbishop, the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian raised a fierce persecution against Christians. Among those imprisoned was Myra’s archbishop.

Nicholas is said to have taken part in the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 325 AD where he stood among the opponents of the Arian heresy. In the midst of heated debate with Arius, Nicholas is said to have slapped Arius across the face. As punishment for his act of violence, the bishops of the Council voted to deprive Nicholas of his rank. That night, however, several of the Council members had a dream of Nicholas flanked by Christ and Mary; the Theotokos was holding an omophorion, emblem of the episcopal rank. Understanding this as a sign that Nicholas’ boldness was pleasing to God, Nicholas was reinstated as archbishop.
Another story relates how, while Nicholas was visiting a remote part of his diocese, several citizens from Myra arrived with the news that the ruler of the city, Eustathius, had condemned three innocent men to death. Nicholas set out immediately for home. Reaching the outskirts of the city, he asked those he met on the road if they knew what had happened to the prisoners. Informed that their execution was to be carried out that morning, he hurried to the executioner’s field, where he found a large crowd of people and the three men kneeling with their arms bound behind them, awaiting the blow of the sword. Nicholas passed through the crowd, took the sword from the executioner’s hands and threw it to the ground, then ordered that the condemned men be freed from their bonds. Later the ruler sought the saint’s forgiveness. Nicholas absolved him, but only after the ruler had undergone a period of repentance.

Nicholas worked many other great deeds and miracles in his own lifetime. Since his repose in Myra in 341 AD, the instances of his intercession are countless. He is the patron saint of travelers, sailors, fishermen, the young, the orphaned, unwed girls, exiles and prisoners.
No other saint has been so often represented in icons except the Theotokos. Thousands of churches bear his name.

“Having fulfilled the Gospel of Christ, you have appeared in truth as a most holy shepherd to the world,” the Church sings on his feast day, December 6.

The feast and commemoration of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom which is conducted on the morning of the feast and preceded by a Matins (Orthros) service. A Great Vespers is conducted on the evening before the day of the Feast.
Scripture readings for the feast are the following: At Vespers: The first reading is a compilation of passages from Proverbs 10:7, 3:13-15, and 8:4-17; Proverbs 10:31-11:12; Wisdom of Solomon 4:7-15. At the Matins: John 10:1-9. At the Divine Liturgy: Hebrews 13:17-21 ; Luke 6:17-23 . (If the feast falls on a Sunday the Gospel readings may vary.)

Troparion (Tone 4)
In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,
an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;
your humility exalted you;
your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Nicholas,
entreat Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.

Kontakion (Tone 3)
You revealed yourself, O saint, in Myra as a priest,
For you fulfilled the Gospel of Christ
By giving up your soul for your people,
And saving the innocent from death.
Therefore you are blessed as one become wise in the grace of God.

Saint Nicholas' relics are in Bari, Italy.
There is a web site devoted to St. Nicholas and the many traditions associated with him:

From the Fall 2003 issue of In Communion, quarterly journal of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.