Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Jesus Prayer - Five Stages

I have also learned much from
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpatkos, pictured here (on the right) many years ago with Elder Sophrony Sakharov.  Below are the stages of prayer he outlines. What I learned the hard way is that you MUST begin at the first stage and you CANNOT force your way to higher stages.  Trust me.  My pride convinced me that I was better than others and could immediately go to mental prayer. I spent years with a wandering mind and little time in actual prayer. The Holy Spirit will lead to you to higher levels as you progress in your ability to concentrate.  It is best not to force it.  Also, you will find that progress in prayer is not a linear progression as indicated by the neatly presented five steps.  You will move up and then return to the beginning from time to time.  

Five Stages In Contemplative Prayer
The Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Be Merciful"

We have mainly five stages. This is, roughly, the course of the development of the Jesus Prayer. Each stage has its own grace.

+ Firstly. The reciting of the Jesus Prayer VOCALLY. We repeat the Jesus Prayer with our lips while trying at the same time to focus our attention on the words of the prayer.

+ Secondly. Then the nous takes the Jesus Prayer and says it noetically [WITHIN, MENTALLY OR SPIRITUALLY]. Our whole attention is found again in the words but it is concentrated on the nous [the soul's attention, the Eye of the soul]. When the nous gets tired then we start again to vocalize the prayer with the lips. After the nous has been rested we start again to concentrate our attention there.
St. Neilos advises: Always remember God and your nous will become heaven.

+ Thirdly. The Jesus Prayer then comes down into THE HEART. Nous and heart are now united and combined with each other. Attention is centered in the heart and it is immersed again into the words of the Jesus Prayer which has an invisible depth.

+ Fourthly. The Prayer becomes now self-activating [PRAYER WITHOUT CEASING]. It is done while the ascetic is working or eating or discussing or while he is in church or even while he is sleeping. "I sleep but by heart waketh" is said in the Holy Scriptures (Song of Songs 5:2).

+ Fifthly. Then one feels a divine soft flame within his soul burning it and making it joyful [LOVE, DEVOTION, WARMTH AND VISIONS OF DIVINE LIGHT]. The grace of Christ lives in the heart. The Holy Trinity is established. "We become the habitation of God, when He lives within us, established in the memory. Thus we become the temple of God when Remembrance of His is not disturbed by earthly cares, and mind is not distracted by unexpected thoughts. Fleeing all that, the Friend of God withdraws into Him, chasing away the passions which invite intemperate thoughts, and occupying himself in a way which leads to virtue." (Saint Basil the Great) Thus he feels the Divine Presence within himself and this grace passes through the body which becomes dead to the world and is crucified [THE NOUS RISES ABOVE BODY-CONSCIOUSNESS DURING CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE]. And this is the extremist stage which is sometimes connected with the Vision of the Uncreated Light of the Holy Trinity.

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos
From "A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain"
Birth of Theotokos Monastery, Levadia, ISBN: 960-7070-04-6
Thanks to Fr. James Early who posted this on his facebook page.

Thanks to

Fr. James Early

More on Jesus Prayer

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Making the Prayer of the Heart Come Alive

Like Father Artemy Vladimirov, I find it very difficult to pry myself away from the newscast on TV.  It becomes addictive. I even find myself talking back to the television set, and often not in polite terms.  Why do I do this, I wonder.  Why do I spend so mch time listening and watching entertainers whose only purpose is to stir up my passions, make me angry, dislike others and so forth?  There is no practical action I take from this.  In fact the views of the commentators change from week to week, so what kind of truth do they profess?  There is no continuity of thought other than to arouse the watcher––me.  One thing for certain is that it does not calm my mind and bring me peace.  It is really nothing but a distraction from a prayerful way of life.  

Fr. Artemy says, "If you want to calm your mind and ease your heart, try calling instead on the most holy name of Jesus Christ, without haste and with only one intent: to attract His attention and repent of your sins."

The Jesus Prayer is the most powerful spiritual practice I have found.  Father says,
To stand before the face of God, to cleanse your heart and sanctify the space of your life by invoking His name, this is your aim. We don’t know how God cleanses our heart by His name, but we believe that He does so in a supernatural way. In saying the Jesus Prayer, it is not so important whether you are “a monk or a drunk,” but you are to be very steadfast, attentive, humble, mild, and concentrated.
Have you ever tried to take a spiritual walk by walking and repeating the Jesus Prayer?  I quite often take a walk with my wife down in Falls Park in downtown Greenville, SC.  As I walk I recite the Jesus Prayer to myself.  This transforms the walk into a walk with God.  There are no bad thoughts to distract and each encounter with the natural environment and others you meet become an encounter with God. 

Father Artemy says,
You may even do this somewhat mechanically, knowing that this tradition has been sanctified by generations of saints, but as you walk and pray, try not to think of anything else. Just walk in the presence of God. will find that your fevered mind is soothed, that the noisy bazaar of your thoughts has become light, clear, and direct, and that your heart has begun to say other prayers in a manner that satisfies you. You pray, you breathe, you speak to God; you are not just repeating empty words. What does it mean to have your mind in your heart? It means that you are to control your feelings. You are not to admit invaders into your heart, but are to check your heart with your mind, to observe everything that takes place there. To have your mind in your heart is exactly what our Lord prescribes to us in His commandment: When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father who is in secret…”.

You can read Fr. Artemy's complete article "Notes on the Jesus Prayer" that was published in Road to Emmaus magazine here: (
Info on Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov

Monday, September 28, 2009

Why Become Orthodox?

Brought into the Orthodox Church by marriage, my conversion to Orthodoxy has been a rather gradual one.  At first, I did not have much interest in Church, period. It didn't matter if it was Methodist, Baptist or Orthodox.  I was a product of the age of relativism.  Religion just wasn't all that important when I was twenty-two.  My wife would tell me that she did not feel like she had been to church when we visited the Methodist Church of my parents and my childhood.  As I began to attend the Divine Liturgy, all in Greek without an english translation to follow, I slowly became attached to it (at first I was terribly bored sitting there for an hour and a half listening to Greek which I didn't understand).  Even though I could not understand the words, the chanting penetrated my soul, the incense brought me to attention, and the walls covered with holy icons caressed my wandering mind. I didn't really know why, but I always felt uplifted afterwards.  It was the same week after week and is still the same as it was 40+ years ago (and of course 1500 years ago as well).  Orthodoxy, I learned has a stability about it.  It's the same no matter where you go int he world.  It's the same year to year.  This stability in its teachings and ritual is most comforting in our fast paced world of change.

I recently read a story about a Roman Catholic nun who converted to Orthodoxy.  Here is how she described her experience.
The first Greek Orthodox liturgy I experienced was on Pascha at the Church of the Resurrection. This was the decisive experience. It is difficult for me to describe what I experienced there. I felt I was in heaven or that heaven had descended to earth. At that time I did not know what the Cherubic Hymn was, however, when I heard it for the first time, I felt such a deep self-concentration   and I thought that at that moment the angels were chanting with the people. (Later I learned that two emissaries of the Russian Tsar had felt the same when they experienced the liturgy in Constantinople for the first time). My deepest experience was the certainty of an inner knowledge; NOW I HAVE ARRIVED HOME!  This was as if an answer to my interior uneasiness. This was what I had lacked, as I said earlier, it was this interior experience. Then I did not know much of the history of the Church, about the Filioque, the schism etc. 
How liberating it is for someone to take part in an Orthodox liturgy and to know that she is unchanging and not like with the Catholic liturgy, to have to be afraid of what to expect next. A few times I have thought that even many Orthodox people do not know how much spiritual wealth and what treasure has been given to them, how grateful to God we should be for this  and how responsible we should be in guarding it!
You may want to read her full story, "My great adventure in search of the Truth"  From Sister Matthaia Oswald.  This story tells how a Roman Catholic nun discovered the fullness of the Truth in the Orthodox Church...

This story rings true with me. Why it is that so many cradle Orthodox do not appreciate the wealth of wisdom the Orthodox Church contains?  Why don't they appreciate this gift they have received just because of where or to whom they were born?  Why is it the converts are the ones who seem to be most intent on carrying forward the Holy Traditions without change?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pure Prayer - The Struggle and Learning from the Saints

I have learned with difficulty that we advance in our spiritual growth when we are able to learn from the Saints. It took me some time to accept this and to not view the saints as relics from the "dark ages."  Sometimes it is hard to accept what they have to teach us because they almost always  ask of us something we have not been willing to give up to this point.  It often easier to retreat to our comfort zone and hide in the norms of our modern society that favors self-satisfaction and personal comfort.

Among the treasures of the Orthodox Church are the numerous accounts that record a saint's path to union with God.  One of these is given to us by Archimandrite Sophrony on the Life of Saint Silouan the Athonite.  Saint Silouan began life as a Russian peasant.  After completing his military service he came to Mount Athos where he remained until his death in 1938.  He was not a learned man, but through tireless strivings he was able to find an authentic personal experience identical with the early Desert Fathers.  Archimandrite Sophrony was one of his disciples. 

He tells us that we all have the calling and capability to find what he terms pure prayer.  He writes,
Many people think silence in the desert to be the noblest form of life. Others would opt for reclusion. Some would say, being a fool for Christ's sake. Still others elect for pastoral service or scientific theological study. And so on. The Staretz did not consider that any of these types of asceticism manifested spiritual life at its noblest, but each of them could be so for someone if it conformed to God's will for that person. And God may have an especial purpose for each of us.
But whatever God's will for each individual, when it comes to choosing one or other form of ascetic life, or place, or manner of service, the quest for pure prayer remains imperative.

Note how he sees pure prayer as an imperative. Why? So we are abel to act in obedience to Divine will.  I find this extremely difficult because my mind distracts me because of my desires for things of this world.  Not that the things of this world are bad or evil, for everything God created was good, but because I inappropriately choose to satisfy these personal desires rather than do the will of God, which is also seen as a life of virtue, a life of love and compassion.  Obviously, from the above statement he saw pure prayer as an imperative to live this life obedient to God's will. This I know I must pay attention to.

When is prayer pure?  He writes,
The Staretz considered prayer to be pure when it was accompanied by a softening of the heart so that both heart and mind in harmony lived the words of the prayer, which in this state nothing can cut short - the attention cannot be distracted, no irrelevant thought can intrude. 
What does this softening of the heart mean?  I am still learning.  But I now know that I do not have one and my heart is hard.  I pray for it to be softened and I seek to further understand what this means.

He says on another place that pure prayer is,

"when with his mind stationed in his heart, a man prays from the very depths of his being, without images, with a pure mind standing before God.
He also says it is when "the mind is cojoined with the heart."
I am learning that pure prayer comes after much preparation, but it is a gift from God and not based on human effort.  It is something quite different that what is taught in non-Christain meditation techniques where it is our effort that is primary.

Such pure - pure in the primary sense - prayer is a rare gift of God. It depends in no way on human effort. 

And when it comes, one experiences the uncreated Light or Divine energies of God.
Divine power comes and with elusive care and ineffable tenderness transports man into the world of Divine light - or rather, Divine light appears and lovingly embraces the whole man, so that he can recall nothing, incapable of any thought.

He continues,
At this point where he engages in pure prayer he is given the capability to guard his heart and mind from thoughts that lead him to actions that are not in conformity with God's will.
Shutting the door of his heart, stationing his mind on guard like a sentinel, unfettered by imagination and cognition but armed with prayer and the Name of Jesus christ, the ascetic striver embarks on the struggle against all external influence, all thought from without.  This is the essence of mental vigilance.  Its purpose is to contend against the passions.  In a wider and all-comprehensive sense victory over the passions is achieved by keeping Christ's commandments...
Ahh... Attention is essential he tells us. Idle wandering of the mind is of no value.  I find this to be the most difficult and it does take my fullest of effort to keep my mind focused on my prayer.  

Finally he warns that this is very difficult.
Preserving the mind and the heart from all extraneous thoughts means prolonged struggle of an extraordinary difficult and subtle kind.
So, I continue my struggle but with hope.

From Chapter 6 in St. Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, pp 131-142

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Letting Go for True Prayer

For many years I have struggled to make sense of everything, especially matters of my religion.  I studied, adopted the parts that made sense and left out the rest. I engaged in a prayer life that was intense, but made according to my own understanding and influenced by forms of non-Christain meditation.  My prayer was dry and fruitless even though I spent an hour engaged in it each day. 

Here is the key to solving this problem that I am now learning from the Church Fathers.  True prayer requires that we let go of our struggle to make "sense" about everything.  In prayer we are approaching God, the creator of all.  Our mind can never grasp this infinite source of life and all goodness.  As we struggle to make sense out of what is in the end not understandable, we block our experience of the Divine and reduce it to mere mental objects.

Consider the following by Archpriest Nicholas Deputatov:
Philosophizing is by far easier than praying. Satan is self-opinionated and encourages those who rely on their own wisdom. On self-willed theorizing and the grasping of “the great mysteries” he traps, confuses and destroys human souls. The greatest advantage of prayer is that it replaces all that we have. This is the most profound content that is hidden in prayer: faith, devotion, salvation. Whoever strives to pray with one’s whole heart is already saved. Prayer – is a half-way to God. Through prayer, a blessed power by way of a harmony of sacred words, pours into our hearts. Prayer brings divine joy.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Is Orthodoxy a Bit Weird?

What is the aim of life (death)?  For Orthodox Christians it is salvation and eternal life with God.  How are we saved?  Paul tells us we are justified in Christ through our faith (Gal 2:16).  But what is faith? Faith is our surrender to the truth of the Gospel and TheTradition of His Church.  Faith is not some general belief in God, but specifically total acceptance of the life, death and resurrection and teachings of Christ as recorded in the Scriptures.  Our Faith implies a way of life following the teachings of Christ. Faith means we accept the Gospel and Epistle writings and do it! It is not enough to be good citizens, we must also have faith - complete and total faith in the Word of God.  At the Final Judgment our lives will be examined and we will be saved through the grace of God. The Church provides us with the structure and guidelines to live our faith.

A holy person recently told me that there will be few in this society who will be saved.  That should be scary, it made me think. It challenged me to wake up. I found that it was important to recognize that our current day culture is based on as set of assumption or values that differ from our Orthodox Christian faith.  An Orthodox Christian stands as a stranger in today’s culture.  An Orthodox way of life has a worldview that is quite different from the dominate culture we live in and have been conformed to accept.

What is a world view?  To make sense out of all the sensual data we receive at any time, our mind relies on assumptions to simplify all the inputs we receive through our senses. This is how we can make sense of what we experience and act.  It is these often hidden assumptions that make up our world view.  One person may have the assumption, “If I  do good, I will be saved.”  Another may assume, “To be saved, I must first have faith and follow the teachings of the Bible as commandments from God and work to perfect myself though repentance and by partaking regularly in the sacraments of the Church to become a holy person and then by God’s grace I can be saved.”  This is the Orthodox view.  As another example, one may not firmly believe that God created the world and believe that  truth is only determined by scientific evidence.  Alternatively, the Orthodox assumes without question that God created all we know, provides all we have, He is "Our Father," and that Truth is revealed to us by Him and is made known to us through the Scriptures as interpreted by the Church which is the body of Christ on earth headed by Christ Himself.  With just a few differing assumptions we can interpret what is good and bad in quite different ways leading to different actions based on the same reality.  It goes without saying that people with differing world views have a difficult time communicating on issues that matter for salvation.  Even the idea of salvation may not be in their worldview.  How many actually put God at the center of everything they do?

In an Orthodox world view, we accept without question, based on faith, that God is our Creator and Lord.  Through the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles we have documented for us the example of God Himself in human flesh, His actions and teachings, showing us the path to salvation.

We must accept that our Orthodox worldview puts us at odds with our current society. As we act out of our Orthodox world view, others will not understand our actions and we will be seen as a bit weird, out of step, not with it, or old fashioned.  We can expect to be ridiculed and ignored.  And when we try and explain our actions, we should not expect to be understood,  because our reasons will not make sense in their worldview.  It is only by exposing their underlying assumptions that we can ever hope to explain.  We must remember these assumptions are generally hidden.  Salvation requires that we have a firm understanding of the basis our Orthodox way of life.

In today’s culture it is generally accepted that truth is relative.  Many believe that what is the truth for one person may be different than that of another, and it is accepted that both are equally valid.  One thing that is not tolerated in this view is someone who thinks they have the absolute Truth.  But, we Orthodox know through faith that there is but one Truth.  Therefore we can expect that our worldview will not be welcomed in general, and that others will work to undermine it.  We can expect to shunned and persecuted,  just as the early Christians were persecuted in the Roman pagan times.  Even though we act out of love to our neighbors as we are commanded, we will still be rejected and ridiculed for our practices.  Because of this it is important to be careful about who we choose to spend our time with.  It is important to follow the practices of our faith, which are there to support us on a path to salvation.  We must regularly read Scripture, attend worship services, pray daily and throughout the day, participate regularly in the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion and follow the fasting guidelines.  These activities are all intended to help us. They are not the end we seek but the means to prepare ourselves to enter the Kingdom of God. It is important for us to constantly work to purify our hearts and to cultivate our inner strength so we can carry out the Boss’s commandment to love others.  Christ is there always to help us along the path of salvation, and He has infinite compassion for all of mankind.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Abyss Beyond Reason

The challenge we face for our spiritual growth is to get to the point where we have absolute trust in God and His Church.  In other words, Faith. In my personal experience, I struggled for many years until one day I made a choice––a leap of faith.  I chose to accept the Tradition of the Church and to commit myself to learning how to live it.  This did not stop my inquiry, it merely shifted it.  My inquiry became more intense, but now about learning how to live a life dedicated to Christ, instead of how to make sense out of it in philosophical or intellectual terms.  The result was dramatic.  My faith grew, I grew closer to God, and my life changed.  

Gregory of Nyssa describes the nature of the leap of faith that is involved.

The Good that we have learned to seek and to cherish is beyond all creation, and hence beyond all comprehension. Thus how can our mind, which always operates on a dimensional image, comprehend a nature that has no dimension, especially as our minds are constantly penetrating, by analysis, into things which are more and more profound...

Imagine a shear, steep crag, of reddish appearance below, extending into eternity; on top there is this ridge which looks down over a projecting rim into a bottomless chasm. Now imagine what a person would probably experience if he put his foot on the edge of this ridge which overlooks the chasm and found no solid footing nor anything to hold on to. This is what I think the soul experiences when it goes beyond tis footing in the material things, in its quest for that which has no dimension and which exists from all eternity.

Thus it is, the, that when reason touches on those things which are beyond it, that is the "time to keep silence" (Eccles. 3:7).

Gregory of Nyssa
From Commentary on Ecclesiastes, sermon 7

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

True Knowledge of God - Elder Sophrony

From Father Stephen's blog: Glory to God for all Things

The Elder Sophrony made a strong distinction between the knowledge we gain by rational speculation and the knowledge of God that comes as a gift of grace. He used the term “dogmatic consciousness” to express the knowledge of God as found in the lives of the saints and great ascetics. His teachings on the “dogmatic consciousness” are not a denial of the role played by the classical dogmatic teachings of the Church, but a recognition of the utter necessity of our existential encounter with God that ineffably confirm the teaching of the Church. As a side note, it is interesting that Elder Sophrony thought that the time between the knowledge gained in such an encounter and its verbal expression generally extended for more than fifteen years . It takes time to properly assimilate such knowledge and yet more time to find words.

The dogmatic consciousness I have here in mind is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity. The writings in which the Saints reported their experience were not cast in the form of scholastic dissertations. They were revelations of the soul. Discourse on God and on life in God comes about simply, without cogitation, born spontaneously in the soul.

Dogmatic consciousness where asceticism is concerned is not a rational analysis of an inward experience – it is not ‘psychoanalysis’. Ascetics avoid this rational speculation because it only weakens the intensity of their contemplation of the Light but, indeed, interrupts it, with the result that the soul sinks into darkness, left as she is with a merely abstract rational knowledge devoid of all vitality.

What is the use of reasoning about the nature of grace if one does not experience its action in oneself? What is the use of declaiming about the light of Tabor if one does not dwell in it existentially? Is there any sense in splitting theological hairs over the nature of the Trinity if a man has not within himself the holy strength of the Father, the gentle love of the Son, the uncreated light of the Holy Ghost?

Dogmatic knowledge, understood as spiritual knowledge, is a gift of God, like all forms of real life in God, granted by God, and only possible through His coming. This knowledge has by no means always been expressed in speech or in writing. The soul does not aspire to expound her experience in rational concepts when God’s grace descends on her. She needs no logical interpretations then, because she knows with a knowledge that cannot be demonstrated but which equally requires no proof that she lives through the true God….

…God is made known by faith and living communion, whereas human speech with all its relativity and fluidity opens the way to endless misunderstandings and objections. (From St. Silouan the Athonite).

To read Fr.Stephen's full essay, use this link  Glory to God for All Things.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

What to ask for in Prayer

Jesus reportedly said, “Seek great things and the little things will be added for you; seek the heavenly things and the earthly things will be added for you.” 
(an extraconnical saying of Christ. See Jn 3:12, Mt 6:33, Lk 12:31)

What the saying means is  “you who wish to be spiritual, seek through your prayers heavenly and great things, so that in getting them as heavenly you may inherit the kingdom of heaven and in getting them as great you may enjoy great good things.  And as for the earthly and little things you need for your bodily necessities, the Father will supply you with them in proportion as you need them.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

Why Do we Seek Virtues?

The seeking of virtue is much more than being obedient to God's will.  Listen to what Evagrius Ponticus (345- 399 A.D.) has to say (read this carefully):

We seek after virtues for the sake of attaining to the inner meaning of created things.  We pursue these latter, that is to say the inner meanings of what is created, for the sake of attaining to the Lord who has created them.  It is in this state of prayer that he is accustomed to manifest himself.  Chapters on Prayer # 51.

As we become more virtuous we become quieter and more open to things that are spiritual.  This inner peace allows us to be more attentive and to "see" more.  Not just in a physical sense but a spiritual sense. The more we can observe of the inner meanings of things the more we come to know God who created them all.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Beatitudes: Jesus’ Power Point Presentation

1. Blessed, are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
We must overcome our pride and become humble. Learn to not to put our priority in the pleasure we derive from the material things of this world but aim for a life of virtue. Gregory of Nyssa says the one who is poor of spirit is He who is given the riches of the soul in exchange for material wealth, who is poor for the sake of the spirit. He has shaken off earthly riches like a burden so that he may be lightly lifted into the air and be borne upwards…

2. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.
To become meek we need to develop self-discipline so we can control our passions and remain calm even in the face of wrath. This requires the humility gained from the first Beatitude.

3. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
We are to mourn after the Goodness we do not yet know, the joy of eternal life with God. This gives us the desire to seek to perfect ourselves. As we mourn for what we do not yet have, God will comfort us and help us to become worthy.

4. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.
The justice we must hunger for is our salvation, which is available equally to all. This requires a keen discernment of God’s will coupled with the discipline to act on it instead of our earthly passions. We hunger for all the virtues.

5. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
To become merciful we need to have a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of others. Our own mercy may come at the time of our Final Judgment.

6. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.
When we purify our heart from all evil thoughts, we find the inner light of God within. Gregory says, you wash off by a good life the filth that has been stuck on your heart like plaster, the Divine Beauty will again shine forth in you. With a pure heart we are able to choose what is virtuous and the light which is within will shine brightly becoming a beacon of goodness for others.

7. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Peace is essential for a good life. A peacemaker is one who gives peace to others. This involves having a loving disposition to others. To become a peacemaker, we must first have peace within ourselves and a clean heart. Saint Gregory says, I think that man is called a peacemaker par excellence who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind, but is subjected to the higher rule and becomes a servant of the Divine ordinance.

8. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Once mastering the above, we will be able to endure pain and suffering from those who persecute us for upholding God’s goodness. This leads us to a greater Goodness. God’s grace will transform us and give us strength in such situations helping us see the wisdom in what is not visible. The martyrs of the Church give us vivid examples of this.

Friday, September 18, 2009

8th Beatitude: Blessed Are They That Suffer Persecution For Justice' Sake

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

In this Beatitude we have reached the peak of our quest. Our reward of our efforts is to become worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Gregory says,

No longer do we go astray, pinning our hope on what is unstable and subject to change. For earth is the place of variation and flux; but in the things that appear moving in heaven we observe nothing like that, because they do not behave in such a way; but all heavenly things move in their own courses in series of orderly sequence.

The examples we have for this final step are the martyrs of the Church.

Gregory says

It seems that in the last words He holds out to them the highest Beatitude like a crown. For it is truly blessed to suffer persecution for the sake of the Lord. And why? Because being chased by evil becomes the cause of attaining to the good, since separation from the wicked one is made the occasion for drawing near to the Good, that Good that is above every good, the Lord Himself, to whom runs the man who is persecuted. Therefore he is truly blessed, because he uses the enemy to help him attain the Good…

Hence the immediate aspect of the persecution which tyrants unleash against the martyrs is indeed painful to the senses; but the outcome of it exceeds all beatitude.

We all know how difficult it is to deal with those who scheme against us and who do not show their love for us. Gregory uses the story of Joseph as an example. His brothers plotted against him, sold him, yet by this action he became a king over those who had plotted against him. But the persecution in the days of the early Church (which still continues to this days in parts of the world) horrible and was something known by all. Many of Saint Gregory's peers had horrific scars to show this (This is the reason the veiled headgear that monks wear to this day was initiated.). To become blessed because someone has plotted against you, or worse physically harmed you, is not a logical thought. We do not normally see the outcome of inflicted pain as something that is good.

Gregory says,

The fact that the persecution the tyrants inflict on the faithful brings much sensible pain, makes it difficult for the more carnally minded to accept the hope of the Kingdom that is to be realized through these pains. But the Lord, who looks down upon the infirmity of our nature, tells the weak beforehand what is to be the goal of the struggle, so that they may more easily overcome the transitory feelings of pain.

The first martyr Stephen who willingly received the stones that killed him is another example he uses. As Stephen confessed his faith he saw the glory of the Lord shine down on him from heaven. Who else could be more blessed?

Now it is really difficult to prefer what is invisible versus the good things of this world, like the martyrs were able to do.

Gregory says,

Now the soul is in some way attached to the pleasant things of life through the senses of the body. Through the eyes it delights in material beauty, through the ears it inclines to melodious sounds, and so it is also affected by smell, taste, and touch, as nature has disposed to be proper to each. Hence, as it is attached to the pleasant things of life through the sensible faculty as if by a nail, it is hard to turn away from them. It has grown up together with these attachments much in the same way as the shellfish and snails are bound to their covering of clay; and so it is slow to make such movements, since it drags along the whole burden of a lifetime. As such is its condition, the soul is easily captured by its persecutors with the threat of confiscation of property or loss of sonic other things that are coveted in this life; and so it gives in easily, and yields to the power of its persecutor.

But when we God’s grace penetrates our being it is transformed. As Paul says, For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Heb 4:12)

Gregory says,

It cuts through the things that have badly grown together, and disrupts the fetters of habit… He is not pained by the loss of earthly things, but gladdened by the gain of heavenly ones. Therefore he will readily accept every form of torture as a means that will help him to attain to the joy before him: the fire, as a purification from matter; the sword, as disrupting the union of the mind with what is material and carnal. Every device for inflicting pain he will receive eagerly as an antidote against the dangerous poison of pleasure.

Gregory conclude with this:

Therefore affliction is the flower that will yield the hoped-for fruits. Hence let us pick the flower for the sake of the fruit. Let us be persecuted so that we may run, but if we run, let us not run in vain. Let us race towards the prize of our supernal vocation; so let us run that we may obtain. What is it that we shall obtain? What is the prize, what the crown? It seems to me that what we hope is nothing else but the Lord Himself. For He Himself is the Judge of those who fight, and the crown of those who win. He it is who distributes the inheritance, He Himself is the goodly inheritance. He is the portion and the giver of the portion, He makes rich and is Himself the riches. He shows you the treasure and is Himself your treasure. He draws you to desire the beautiful pearl; He offers it to you as it were for sale, if you will trade fairly. In order to gain it, therefore, as if in the market, let us compare the things we have not with those we have. Let us not be sorrowful, then, if we are persecuted, but rather let us rejoice, because by being chased away from earthly honors, we are driven towards the heavenly Good. For this He has promised, that those who have been persecuted for His sake shall be blessed, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven, by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

7th Beatitude: Blessed are the Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Continuing our commentary on the Beatitudes by Saint Gregory of Nyssa:

In this Beatitude we continue our climb toward perfection.

Gregory says:

All that the Divine Word has so far laid down is indeed perfectly holy. But what we are now' invited to contemplate is truly αδυτον, and the Holy of Holies. For if the blessedness of seeing God cannot be surpassed, to become the son of God transcends bliss altogether… If you call that which the Beatitude promises good, or glorious, or sublime, yet what is made known is something more than these words mean: it is fulfillment that outstrips prayer, gift surpassing hope, grace transcending nature...

How can one give thanks worthily for such a gift? With what words, what thoughts that move our mind can we praise this abundance of grace? Man transcends his own nature, he who was subject to corruption in his mortality, becomes immune from it in his immortality, eternal from being fixed in time–in a word, a god from a man. For if he is made worthy of becoming a son of God, he will possess in himself the dignity of the Father and be made heir of all the Father's goods. How munificent is this rich Lord! How generously He opens His Hands wide to give us His ineffable treasures! Through His love of man He brings our nature, dishonored by sin, to an honor that almost equals His own.

If we were to obtain all the benefits available to us in this world; riches, good health, friends, all kinds of pleasures, etc.; what would it mean if peace were missing.

Gregory says,

Therefore peace itself is sweet to enjoy, and sweetens all that is held dear in life. And even if we suffer any human misfortune, as long as there is peace the evil is borne more easily, because it is mixed with some good; but if life is haunted by war, we become in a way insensible even to our own occasions of grief. For the common calamity is greater than the individual causes of pain…

By this, therefore, one can see how greatly He loves man, that He bestows the precious reward not on pains and sweat, but, so to speak, on the enjoyment of happiness. Peace is indeed the greatest of the joy-giving things; and this He wishes each of us to have in such measure as to keep it not only for himself, but to be able to dispense from the overflow of his abundance also to others.

Now who is a peacemaker? This is a person who “gives peace to another.” To be able to give peace to another you must first have peace in yourself. Therefore God wants us to be filled with the blessings of peace so we can then pass it on to others.

What is peace?

Gregory says,

Surely it is nothing else but a loving disposition towards one's neighbor. Now what is held to be the opposite of love? It is hate and wrath, anger and envy, harboring resentment as well as hypocrisy and the calamity of war. Do you see for how many different diseases this single word is an antidote? For peace is equally opposed to every one of the things mentioned, and wipes out these evils by its own presence. Just as illness vanishes when health supervenes, and as no darkness is left when light begins to shine, so also when peace appears, all the passions connected with its opposite are eliminated.

Gregory asks us to focus on all the passions associated with hate. He say the the passions of the devil appear in those dominated by wrath.

He says

For when the passion lays hold of a man and the heart-blood bolls over, when wrath, as they say, makes the black gall diffuse itself throughout the body, then all the senses that are placed in the head are affected with cramp by the compression of the internal vapors. The eyes protrude from under their confining lids, staring bloodshot like dragons at the offending object; the inside is compressed, panting for breath, the veins III the throat swell and the tongue thickens...

The evils of wrath are obvious and one who prevent such actions are truly blessed. But still worse, he says, is envy and hypocrisy because they are hidden deep in a man’s heart.

Gregory says,

It is cherished secretly in the depth of the heart, like a hidden fire, while externally everything is made to look deceptively like friendship. It is like a fire that is hidden under chaff. For a time it smolders inside and burns only what lies near; the flame does not flare up visibly, only a biting smoke penetrates, because it is so vigorously compressed from within.

We never know when this will bust out causing great harm. This is the story of an envious Cain who murdered Able who received praise. The envy within commanded the murder, but hypocrisy became its executioner, says, Gregory.

Those who have obtained a pure heart, who are able to imitate the Divine love of others and who exemplify the Divine energies of God are truly blessed.

Gregory concludes,

I think that man is called a peacemaker par excellence who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind, but is subjected to the higher rule and becomes a servant of the Divine ordinance.