Sunday, February 28, 2010

Truth of the Uncreated Light of God

On this second Sunday of Lent we celebrate Saint Gregory Palamas
who was a defender of a principle mystical teaching of Orthodoxy that we can experience God's Divine Energies even though we can never know His essence. He explained that when the Apostles witnessed the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ on Mount Tabor, that they were seeing the actual uncreated light of God. This was not some created experience. He also taught that it is possible for others to be blessed to see that same uncreated light of God by repentance, spiritual discipline and the practice of the Jesus Prayer. Saint Gregory cautions those of a rational mind to be open to the incredible mystery that is available to those who are pure of heart.

"There are people in our own times...who completely disobey spiritual men in matters of the Spirit, and choose to oppose them. When they hear that the light of the Lord's transfiguration on the mountain was seen by the eyes of the apostles, they immediately reduce it to visible, created light. They drag down that immaterial, never-setting, pre-eternal light, which surpasses not only our senses but also our minds, because they themselves are at a low level, and are incapable of conceiving of anything higher than earthly things. Nevertheless, He who shone with this light proved in advance that it was uncreated by referring to it as the kingdom of God. God's kingdom is not subservient or created, but uniquely unsubduable and invincible. It is beyond the bounds of both time and aeon, and cannot be said to have had a beginning or to have been overtaken by time or age. We believe this kingdom to be the inheritance of those who are being saved. 
Given that when He was transfigured the Lord shone and displayed glory, splendor and light, and will come again as He was seen by His disciples on the mountain, does this mean He somehow took this light to Himself, and will have for ever something He did not have before? Perish the blasphemous thought! ...He possessed the splendor of the divine nature hidden under His flesh. This light, then, is the light of the Godhead, and it is uncreated. According to the theologians, when Christ was transfigured He neither received anything different, nor was changed into anything different, but was revealed to His disciples as He was, opening their eyes and giving sight to the blind. Take note that eyes with natural vision are blind to that light. It is invisible, and those who behold it do so not simply with their bodily eyes, but with eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Homily 34)
This uncreated light seen by the Apostles is clearly not physical. Saint Gregory says it is available to all of us. But He cautions that we can never assume to know the essence of God. This is unknowable to us. We should pursue our own purification to experience the wonder of His uncreated light as this only comes to those who are pure of heart as were Peter John and James, the only ones He took with Him to Mount Tabor. This is why we are reminded of His teaching at this time in our fast. Our fast is to help us build the self-disciplne to enable to attack our sinfulness so we too can become pure in heart and be one with god and bask in His uncreated light.

Thus is this light measured out and distributed, while remaining entire, and is received more by some, less by others. It is known partly now, partly later, so Paul says, "We know in part, and we prophesy in part" (I Cor. 13:9). By contrast, God's essence is absolutely indivisible and incomprehensible, and no other being can receive it, either to a greater or lesser extent. Only the accursed Messalians think otherwise, supposing that God's essence can be seen by those among them who are worthy We, however, turn aside from heretics of earlier ages and our own and believe, as we were taught that the divine kingdom, glory, splendor, ineffable light, and divine grace can be seen and shared by the saints, but not God's essence. So let us make our way towards the radiance of the light of grace, that we may acknowledge and venerate the threefold Godhead, who shines with a single indescribable radiance from one nature in three persons. Let us lift up the eyes of our understanding to the Word who now sits, with His body, above the vaults of heaven. And He who sits in divine splendor on the right hand of majesty, utters these words to us as if from afar, "If anyone wants to stand in the presence of this glory, let him imitate Me as far as he can, and follow the way and the manner of life I taught on earth". 
Let us look with our inner eyes at this great spectacle, our nature, which dwells for all eternity with the immaterial fire of the divinity. And let us take off the coats of skins (cf Gen. 3:21), the earthy and carnal ways of thinking, in which we were clothed because of our transgression, and stand on holy ground (cf Exod. 3:5), each one of us hallowing our own ground by means of virtue and reaching up to God. In this way we shall have boldness when God comes in light, and as we run to Him we shall be enlightened, and, once illumined, shall live for ever to the glory of the one brightness in three Suns, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen. (Homily 35)
Keep up the fast, double your prayers, participate in the additional services, and help those in need during this Lenten period.

Read both the Homilies by Saint Gregory: Homily 34 & Homily 35

Friday, February 26, 2010

Preparing for Confession

Lent is the time for repentance, for self-assessment followed by a cleansing and renewal committing our selves to make changes in our way of life. This self assessment is not an easy one to undertake.  Our sinful nature is often hidden deep within. 

Here is an outline of some of the advice from Saint Theophan the Recluse about how to undertake this inner assessment of our conscience.

How do we prepare to receive this Gift of Awakening Grace?
Think timidly and fearfully of our weak condition. 
Need to open up as we have become hardened and blinded. 
We need to recognize this hardness. Conversion often occurs simply as the thought comes to a person to change his life and improve himself.
Don’t Procrastinate This is a common ailment. Never say: “I will do it tomorrow or some other time.” Remember, habit and inclinations can imprison us in sin.
There are different levels to our condition The covering that is deepest most dangerous and closest to the heart is self-deception, insensitivity and carelessness. Absent mindedness and distraction of a busy life are closer to the surface. On outer surface is the passions of the flesh.
Resolve to abandon sin and dedicate one’s life to pleasing God (Theosis). Embrace the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Admit your sins.

How do we identify our sins? 
1. Makeup a sheet with the laws of God on one side and your life on the other. See how they compare.
A. Recall all your obligations in relation to God, your neighbor and to yourself. 
B. Go through the Ten Commandments. (pdf with questions)
C. Review the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). 
D. Read the Epistle of James and the Epistles of Paul especially 12:9-21 in the Epistle to the Romans. And chapter 4 in the Epistle to the Ephesians.
E. Read the first Epistle of Saint John
F. Look at the prayer before Communion.
You will uncover a multitude of deeds words, thoughts feelings and iniquitous desires that should not have been done. And things that should have been done that were not. There will be some that were good but the motivations behind them were not pure.
The most important thing is to realize that to know your sinfulness requires an exact determination of your deeds. Along with the circumstances of time, place, people and os forth.

2. Identify the underlying patterns which show you the characteristic of your heart.
The governing passions will become clear. There will be one passion which will condition all the actions. This is the root of your sinfulness.

3. Reflect on these sins until you see clearly that each one was committed according to your own desire. Don’t listen to the excuses. 
Work on this until you can honestly say, I am guilty of this and that. You will begin to feel burdened and wretched. Don’t feel bad that you are experiencing them but desire that they all come forward.
The right condition is a feeling of regret and repentance. This leads to a vow to change.

4. Seal this work with the sacrament of repentance.
Through this sacrament one clears the divine ledger.

More on confession...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Self-Control is Important in Fasting

The challenge of a spiritual life is to gain self-control.  This is one of the requirements of fasting, so by participating in the fast we learn this all important skill for an Orthodox Way of LIfe.

Saint Gregory Palamas reminds this that this issue goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. 
Lack of self-control is actually an evil both ancient and modern, though it did not precede its antidote, fasting. By means of our forefathers' self-indulgence in paradise and their contempt for the fast already in existence there, death entered the world. Sin reigned and brought in the condemnation of our nature from Adam until Christ. 
 A lack of self-control led to the Great Flood, the destruction of Sodom, Esau's plight, and the death of Eli's sons.  Saint Gregory says,
The flood covered the whole earth because of the self-indulgence of Adam’s descendants in this world of ours and their disdain for the chastity which came before. In those days God said to Noah, "My Spirit shall not abide in these men, for they are flesh" (cf. Gen. 6:3 LXX). The deeds of those who are flesh are none other than unlimited eating, drunkenness, sensual pleasure and the evils that spring from them. Because of the abominable depravity and self-indulgence among the men of Sodom, fire fell on them from heaven (Gen. 19:24). "Behold", says the prophet Ezekiel, "this was the iniquity of the men of Sodom, in fulness of bread they committed abomination" (cf. Ezek. 16:49-50). By means of this abomination, ignoring human nature they fell into unnatural unions. What deprived Esau, Isaac's firstborn, of his birthright and his father's blessing? Of course it was lasciviousness and an unreasonable demand for food (Gen. 25:25-34; 26:34-35, Heb. 12:16). Why were Eli's sons condemned to death, and why did he meet a violent death at the news of the death of his children, whom he had not disciplined with proper care? Surely it was because they took the meat from the cauldrons before the time and used it (1 Sam. 2:12-17; 4:11, 17-18). Also, the whole Hebrew nation, while Moses was fasting on the mountain for their sake, were indulging themselves to their own detriment. They ate and drank and rose up to play, as the Scripture says (Exod. 32:6), and their sport was worshipping an idol, for it was then that the incidents surrounding the fashioning of the calf took place among them. 
The benefit of fasting is greater self0control which leads us to greater virtue.
Sensual pleasure causes ungodliness as well as sin, but fasting and self-control result in the fear of God as well as virtue. Fasting must be accompanied by self-control. Why? Because eating our fill, even of humble foods, is a hindrance to the purifying mourning, godly sorrow and contrition in our souls, which bring about unswerving repentance leading to salvation. For without a contrite heart we cannot really lay hold of repentance. It is the restriction of self-indulgence, sleep and the senses according to God's will that crushes our hearts and makes us mourn for our sins. 
When that rich man in the Gospel said to himself, "Eat, drink and be merry" (Luke 12:19), the wretch made himself fit for the eternal flames and unfit for this present life.
Saint Gregory gives us this final encouragement:
Let us, on the contrary, brethren, tell ourselves to be temperate, to fast, to keep watch, to be restrained, to be humble and to suffer hardship for our salvation. Then we shall finish this present life in a good way pleasing to God and inherit the blessed life without end. 
May we all attain to this by the grace and love towards mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong glory, might, honor and worship, together with I lis Father without beginning and the life-giving Spirit, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
From Homily Six - To Encourage Fasting  - Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, trans. Christopher Veniamin, Mount Thabor Publishing, Waymart PA, 2009 

More on fasting and the complete homily

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moses & Elijah as Examples on Fasting

Saint Gregory Palamas gives us the examples of Moses and Elijah as examples to motivate us in our fasting.  

Moses fasted for many days. Awaken your minds, I entreat You, and lift them up at this opportune time, in company with Moses when he went up the mountain towards God. In this way may you start off afresh on your ascent, and be lifted up together with Christ, who did not merely go up a mountain but up to heaven, taking us with Him. Moses fasted for forty days on the mountain and according to the Scriptures he saw God, not darkly but face to face (Exod. 24:18). He talked to Him as someone would speak to his friend (Exod. 33:11, Deut. 34:10). He learnt from God and taught everyone about Him: that He is He Who eternally Is (Exod. 3:14) and will never cease to be, that He summoned what did not exist into existence, brought all things out of non-being and will not let them fall back into non-existence. In the beginning He brought the whole visible creation out of nothing all at once, just by a nod and His will. "In the beginning", it says, "God created the heaven and the earth" (Gen. 1:1), not empty of course, nor without all that lies between them. The earth was interspersed with water, and both were full of air, animals and plants of various kinds, whereas the heavens were full of the various lights and fires, from which the universe is formed. 

Elijah, when he too had fasted forty days (I Kgs. 19:8), saw the Lord on the mountain, not in fire, as the elders of Israel had earlier (Exod. 24:9-10, Deut. 5:23), but passing beyond the fiery vision by his God-pleasing fast, he saw the Lord in the sound of a light passing breeze (I Kgs. 19:12 LXX). He had approached more closely to our Lord's words, "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). For the sound prefigured the Truth and the preaching of Him who is Truth Itself, which rang out round all the ends of the earth, and the passing breeze prefigured the Spirit and grace. 
From this vision while fasting Elijah also received power to anoint a prophet in his stead and bestow upon him a double portion of the grace he possessed, and to mount up above the earth in mid-air (2 Kgs. 2:9-11). This pointed clearly towards Christ's ascension from earth to heaven which was to happen later (Acts 1:9-11). While Christ Himself was fasting in the wilderness, He defeated our tempter by force and took away his power against mankind (Matt. 4:1-11, Mark 1:13, cf. Luke 4:1-13). Having at last put down his tyranny, he set our nature free and handed him over for sport to all those willing to live according to His Gospel. In this way He fulfilled the words of the prophets and by His works inscribed grace and truth upon the symbolic events which took place in ancient times.

You see the benefits of fasting, and how it has made us worthy of so many great gifts? 
From Homily Six - To Encourage Fasting  - Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, trans. Christopher Veniamin, Mount Thabor Publishing, Waymart PA, 2009

More on fasting and the complete homily

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

St. Gregory Palamas on fasting

Saint Gregory Palamas offers us insights about  fasting. The following are excerpts from Homily Six "To encourage Fasting."
THE INVISIBLE SERPENT, the originator of evil, is inventive, versatile and extremely skillful in contriving wickedness. He has means to hinder our good purposes and actions as soon as they begin... 
But we, brethren, should rise above this trap by our soul's courage, eagerness and faith. We should bear in mind the fact that just as the earth cannot yield worthwhile fruit without labor, so the soul cannot acquire anything which pleases God or leads to salvation without spiritual struggles. But while it is possible to find earth which is unsuitable for cultivation, every human soul is naturally suited to virtue. As we are all unavoidably condemned, however, by the judgment given against our forefather, to live by labor and toil, let us turn necessity into an honor and willingly offer to God what is ours not by our own will. Let us give up transitory things in exchange for things that endure, and receive what is beneficial in exchange for what is harmful, transforming short-lived toil into a means to gain eternal ease. If we labor here for the sake of virtue we shall certainly attain to the rest promised in the age to come… 
When we remember this and eagerly apply ourselves to virtuous actions, the evil one, knowing that nothing can be good unless it is done in a good way, strives to persuade us not to accomplish any good work with the object of pleasing God or of winning His approval, but to look for other people's approval… 
Even after suffering this defeat, the originator of evil undermined us with pride, the last and worst abyss... 
...Fasting was of no benefit to that Pharisee in the Gospel, even though he always fasted two days a Week, because he had adulterated it with pride and condemnation of his neighbor (Luke 18:11-12). Not that this means fasting is unprofitable. Moses, Elijah and the Lord Himself showed how beneficial it is for those who fast properly in a way pleasing to God.
Fasting is a way to develop our soul but must be done with the "right" spirit.  We must be aware that pride is something than can make all our good intentioned efforts useless. Beware of all the temptations to give up the fast or to show off our exemplary behavior.

More on fasting including the complete homily

Monday, February 22, 2010

Steadfast Spiritual Growth

"The faster you acquire a virtue, the easier it is lost. The more slowly and laboriously you acquire it, the more steadfastly it remains; just like that squash plant that grew tall and said to the cypress tree, "See how much I've grown in just a few days! You've been here for so many years and haven't grown much at all!" "Yes," said the cypress tree, "but you still haven't seen storms, heat waves, and cold spells!" And after a little while, the squash plant dried up, while the cypress tree remained where it was.

"This is also how a spiritual man is. Both during a storm and during times of peace he remains the same. Why? Because the long period of time has created stability. When he first renounced the world, his spiritual condition was unstable, but with time, the grace of God gradually worked out his salvation and freedom from the passions. Thus, a person needs to force himself today, and the grace of God will start acting by itself tomorrow. Then you will not need to force yourselves to have good thoughts; the grace that remains within you is what brings them to your mind without your effort. Then you will see great mysteries! You will have a feeling, so to speak, of the remembrance of death, or of another beneficial recollection. When you wake up and are still opening your eyes, instead of feeling sleepy, you will have progressed; you will have already passed through the entire mystery of theoria and will say, "But how does this thing happen, since I am still getting up? How does this thing happen?" All the same, the grace of God acts by itself---it is the result of a long-standing habit.

"The same thing happens with sin: whether awake or sleeping, a sinful man constantly thinks about evil. When sin is helped by a bad habit and by the devil, it becomes a constant evil. Likewise with good; a good habit assisted by the grace of God becomes second nature to him." 

Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain (Athos)

From email letter by Pres. Candace Schefe

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Living the "Triumph of Orthodoxy"

"Today we must thank God with all our hearts that He has revealed Himself to us, that He has dispelled darkness in the minds and hearts of thousands and thousands of people, that He who is the Truth has shared the knowledge of the perfect Truth Divine with us.

The occasion of this feast was the recognition of the legitimacy of venerating icons. By doing this we proclaim that God – invisible, ineffable, the God whom we cannot comprehend, has truly become man, that God has taken flesh, that He has lived in our midst full of humility, of simplicity, but of glory also.

And proclaiming this we venerate the icons not as idols, but as a declaration of the Truth of the Incarnation.

By doing this we must not forget that it is not the icons of wood and of paint, but God who reveals Himself in the world. Each of us, all men, were created in the image of God. We are all living icons, and this lays upon us a great responsibility because an icon may be defaced, an icon may be turned into a caricature and into a blasphemy. And we must think of ourselves and ask ourselves: are we worthy, are we capable of being called “icons”, images of God?

A western writer has said that meeting a Christian, those who surround him should see him as a vision, a revelation of something they have never perceived before, that the difference between a non-Christian and a Christian is as great, as radical, as striking, as the difference there is between a statue and a living person.

A statue may be beautiful, but it is made of stone or of wood, and it is dead.

A human being may not at first appear as possessed of such a beauty, but those who meet him should be able, as those who venerate an icon – blessed, consecrated by the Church – should see in him the shining of the presence of the Holy Spirit, see God revealing Himself in the humble form of a human being.

As long as we are not capable of being such a vision to those who surround us, we fail in our duty, we do not proclaim the Triumph of Orthodoxy through our life, we give a lie to what we proclaim. And therefore each of us, and all of us collectively, bear every responsibility for the fact that the world meeting Christians by the million is not converted by the vision of God’s presence in their midst, carried indeed in earthen vessels, but glorious, saintly, transfiguring the world."

Excerpt from Homily on Orthodox Sunday by Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Guidance on Rule of Prayer

What follows is the rule of prayer as recommended by Saint Theophan the Recluse.

1. Choose a rule of prayer––evening, morning and daily prayers.
2. Start with a short rule at first, so that your accustomed spirit will not form an aversion to this labor.
3. Pray always with fear, diligence and all attention.
4. This requires: standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the Cross, reading, and at times singing.
5. The more often you do such prayer the better. Some people pray a little every hour.
6. The prayers you should read are written in the prayer book.  But it is good to get used to one or another, so that the spirit would ignite each time you begin it.
7. The rule of prayer is simple: standing at prayer, with fear and trembling say it as if you were speaking into God's ear, accompanying it with the sign of the Cross, prostrations and falling down, corresponding to the movement of the spirit.
8. Once you have chosen a rule you should always fulfill it, but this does not prevent you from adding something according to the heart's desire.
9. Reading and singing aloud, in a whisper, or silently is all the same, for the Lord is near.  But sometimes it is better to pray one way, other times another.
10. You should firmly keep in mind the limits of your prayers.  It is a good prayer that ends with your falling down before God with the feeling that  Thou Who knowest the hearts, save me.
11.There are stages of prayer.  The first is bodily prayer, with reading, standing and prostrations.  If the attention wanders, the heart does not feel, and there is no eagerness; this means there is no patience, toil or sweat.  Regardless of this, set your limits and pray.  This is active prayer.  The second stage is attentive prayer: the mind gets used to collecting itself at the hour of prayer, and says all with awareness, without being stolen away.  The attention blends with the written words and repeats them as its own.  The third stage is prayer of the feelings––the attention warms the heart, and what was thought with attention becomes feeling in the heart.  In the mind was a compunctionate word, in the heart it is compunction; in the mind––forgiveness, in the heart––a feeling of its necessity and importance.  Whoever has passed on to feeling prays without words, for God is a God of the heart.  This, therefore is the summit of prayer's development....
12. However no matter how perfect one has become in prayer, the prayer rule should never be abandoned, but should always be read as prescribed and always begun with active prayer.  Mental prayer should come with it, and then prayer of the heart.  Without a rule, prayer of the heart is lost, and the person will think that he is praying, but in fact he is not.
13. When the prayerful feeling ascends to ceaselessness, then spiritual prayer begins––a gift of the Spirit of God which prays for us.  This is the last stage of attainable prayer.  But it is said that this is also prayer that is incomprehensible to the mind, to surpass the limits of awareness (As described by St. Isaac the Syrian).
14. The easiest means for ascending to ceaseless prayer is the habit of doing the Jesus Prayer and rooting it in yourself.  The most experienced men of spiritual life who were enlightened by God found this to be the one simple and all effective means for confirming the spirit in all spiritual activities, as well as all spiritual ascetical life; and the left detailed guidelines for it in their instructions.

Next: The instructions for the Jesus Prayer.

More on Saint Theophan on Prayer
More on a prayer rule (including a beginning prayer rule)
More on the Jesus Prayer

Reference: Path to Salvation,  pp256-258

Friday, February 19, 2010

Spiritual Exercises for the Will

Developing the will involves training it to be oriented to the virtues––humility, meekness, patience, continence, submissiveness, helpfulness and others.  This activity is primarily directed against self-will.

Saint Theophan says,
"This infirmity is healed by submission to the will of God, with denial of your own and of any other."

This includes the following:
   1. Obedience to God's commandments according to each person's duty or calling.
   2. Submission to the whole church rubrics or rule
   3. Submission to civil order, or to family duty, for they are conduits of God's will.
   4. Obeying to God's will as manifested in your fate.
   5. Subjecting yourself to the spirit that is zealous to fulfill its vows.

The challenge is to determine what is possible for you to do. It is important to do everything with discernment.  Each day go over all  the possible opportunities and the deeds done.

Saint Theophan says,
"Those who are used to doing righteous deeds never pre-determine what they are going to do, but do always what God sends them, for everything comes from God.  He reveals His own determinations to us through different occurrences... Do everything with humility and fear of God according to God's will and to His glory." 

His next point is an important one.  The spirit with which we do good deeds is most important.
"He who does something out of self-reliance, with boldness and audacity, out of self-gratification or man-pleasing, no matter how righteous the works may be, only fosters within himself an evil spirit of self-righteiousness, arrogance and pharisaism."

To often we find ourselves caught up in our self-directed works. We may attend a charity ball, tournament, or dinner, or serve at a soup kitchen thinking we are dong good, when in fact we are acquiescing to social norms or pressures, acting out of a human-pleasing duty, seeking recognition or simply engaging in personal pleasure. 

Begin with the small acts and to ascend to what is higher, he says.  "It is good to choose one outstanding virtuous work according to your character and station, and stick with it unswervingly... Everything should be done in moderation... The most reliable of all is almsgiving..."

Ref: Path to Salvation, p 250-255

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Spiritual Exercises For the Heart

The challenge for developing the heart is to gain an orientation towards holy, divine and spiritual things.  This is important because the heart is the center of our spiritual activities.
Saint Theophan says,
"All of man's spiritual activity centers in the heart.  The truths are impressed in it, and good dispositions are rooted into it.  But its main work is developing a taste for the spiritual..."

Here are the main exercises for the heart:
   1. Attending holy Church services
   2. Prayer, as specified by the Church; home prayer rule
   3. Using holy crosses, icons and other sacred substances and objects
   4. Observing holy customs established by the Church.

One of the major exercises is attending church services.
Saint Theophan says,
"Church services, that is, all the daily services, together with the entire arrangement of the church's icons, candles, censing, singing, chanting, movements of the clergy, as well as the service for various needs; then services in the home, also using ecclesiastical objects such as sanctified icons, holy oil, candles, holy water, the Cross, and incense––all of these holy things together acting upon all the senses––sight, smell, touch, and taste––are the clots that wipe clean the sense of a deadened soul."

But prayer is at the heart of our effort, he tells us.  Prayer is the "Yearning of the mind and heart towards God."

Saint Theophan says,
"Prayer is an all-encompassiong obligation, as well as an all-effective means.  through it the truths of the faith are impressed in the mind and good morals into the will.  But most of all it enlivens the heart in its feelings....Therefore prayer should begin to be developed before anything else, and continued steadily and tirelessly until the Lord grants prayer to the on who prays."

Next : A prayer rule
More on Orthodox Prayer

Reference: Path to Salvation, pp 253-255

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Action Asked in Lent

From Fr. Stephen

"The disciplines traditionally practiced during the season of Great Lent, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, are given to us not in order to generate a season of introspection. They are given to us as a call to a season of action. Prayer is something we do. It is a struggle, but it is an action (Orthodox prayer is particularly marked by action – even physical action). Fasting is an action as well. In our psychologized culture, it is hard for many to understand fasting as having anything to do with repentance. But it is the experience of Scripture and generations of the Church, that the discipline of fasting (abstaining from certain foods and eating less) has a clear effect on the heart – our inner disposition – particularly when that fasting is coupled with prayer and almsgiving. Almsgiving is an action that is all too often ignored in our thoughts about repentance. Charitable giving (in our culture) is even perversely thought by some to be a way of getting more money, such that “give and it will be given unto you” is seen as a success formula. We are indeed a brood of vipers."
Giving is an action. Give money away. Give sacrificially of your time. Give mercy and kindness to others. Forgive the sins of others as if your own forgiveness depended on it (it does). If we would see our hearts change in the direction of the image of Christ – the “roadmap” is not hidden. Pray, fast, be merciful and give."
Source for complete article on "The Instinct of Repentance"

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

St. Theophan the Recluse on Fasting

St. Theophan the Recluse on Fasting

Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”(Маt. 15:11)
The Lord did not say this because he did not approve of fasting or because he considered fasting unnecessary – indeed, He Himself fasted, and taught His disciples to do so, and established fasts in His Holy Church. He said this, then, not to discourage fasting. Rather, he says it to teach us that when we fast we should not limit ourselves merely to eating little and avoiding cooked foods, but should also refrain from indulging the appetites and passionate inclinations of the soul. This is, of course the most important thing. Fasting, in its turn, serves a powerful means of accomplishing this.
The passions are rooted in the flesh. When the flesh is weakened through fasting, then it is as if the fortress of the passions has been undermined, and its strength crumbles. On the other hand, to overcome the passions without fasting would be as remarkable as standing in a fire without being burnt. How is it possible for one who continually indulges his flesh with food, sleep and rest to maintain any sort of attention and purpose in spiritual matters? For such a one to turn from the earth, directing his attention to invisible things and striving them, is just as difficult as it is for an enfeebled bird to rise up from the earth.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Why Don’t You Fast?

The Prophets Fasted
Moses: When I went up into the mountain to receive the tablets of stone...I was in the mountain forty days and forty nights, I ate no bread and drank no water. Deuteronomy 9:9 (LXX)
Prophet Jonah:  It was by fasting among other things that the people of Nineveh were saved from his prediction of peril.  Jonah 3:7  (LXX)
Prophet Joel:  “Now, says the Lord your God, turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting and with wailing, and with mourning. Joel 2:12 (LXX)
Prophet Daniel: And I set my face toward the Lord God, to seek him diligently by prayer and supplication, with fastings and sackcloth.  And I Prayed to the Lord my God, and confessed...  Daniel 9:3-4 (LXX)
Jesus Fasted:
Immediately after His Baptism, what did He do?
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward hungry. 
What was His instruction for Apostles in the case of the epileptic boy whose demon the Apostles could not cast out?
This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.
When challenged by Pharisees about His disciples what did He say? 
Can the children of the bride chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast. 
The Lord Himself gave instructions for fasting:
But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; That you appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret. Matthew. 6:17-18
Why did he say this?
Apostles fasted:
In the Acts of the Apostles we read: As they ministered (liturgical rite) to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work where unto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.
They coupled fasting with liturgical acts:
Paul: Apostle Paul describes his own spiritual life as one of sacrifice, vigils, thirst, and fasting lived “in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.”
He also refers to fasting in the context of marriage saying that by mutual consent husband and wife abstain from marital relations periodically while fasting and prayer.
The first century - Didache:
“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” 
Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Mondays and Thursdays; but you should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. 
The fasting referred to here was a complete abstention from both food and drink until sundown. 
Church Fathers fasted:
Ecclesiastical writer Tertullian (220) notes that spiritual growth requires confession and prayer fed by “fasting, ...not for the stomach’s sake, ...but for the soul’s.
St. Gregory (391) - practice of receiving the Eucharist after fasting.
Saint Basil (379) wrote much on fasting.
St. John Cassian (435): Therefore, fastings, vigils, meditation on the Scriptures, self-denial, and the abnegation of all possessions are not perfection, but aids to perfection: because the end of that science does not lie in these, but by means of these we arrive at the end. 
St. Athanasius (373) - Fasting is more than just food. ...let us vie with each other in observing the purity of the fast by watchfulness in prayers, by study of the Scriptures, by distributing to the poor, and let us be at peace with our enemies. Let us bind up those who are scattered abroad, banish pride, and return to lowliness of mind, being at peace with all men, and urging the brethren unto love. Letter XIV.
St. Athanasius describes the benefits of fasting:
“...cures ills and dries up bodily humors, casts out demons and turns away evil thoughts; it makes the mind brighter, the heart clean, and the body holy; and it presents man before the Throne of God.”
Modern Saints Fasted:
St. Nectarios of Aegina (1920) Fasting is an ordinance of the church, obliging the Christian to observe it on specific days.  ...He who fasts for the uplifting of his mind and heart towards God shall be rewarded by God, Who is a most liberal bestower of divine gifts, for his devotion.  
...unless one lifts his mind and heart towards God through Christian--not Pharisaic--fasting and through prayer, he cannot attain a consciousness of his sinful state and earnestly seek the forgiveness of sins.. Prayer and fasting--Christian fasting-- serve as means of self-study, of discernment of our true moral state, of an accurate estimation of our sins and of a knowledge of their true character.
(Vol 7 of Modern Orthodox Saints, 2nd ed., p 178)
The purpose of fasting is chiefly spiritual: to provide an opportunity and preparation for spiritual works of prayer and meditation on the Divine through the complete abstinence from food, or the eating of uncooked food or frugal fare.  
However, fasting is no less valuable for physical health, since self-control and simplicity of life are necessary conditions of health and longevity, as dietetics tells us.
Canons of Church require fasting:
If you do not honor the Wednesday and Friday fast you are to be excommunicated.
Must fast prior to taking Communion.
Strict fast during entire Lenten period.
Do not fast on Sunday and Saturday.
If ill or weak relaxation of guidelines appropriate.
Always been essential part of Orthodox Christian Life. 
Necessary discipline to combat the passions and open the door to the renewal of the Holy Spirit. 
Why don’t you fast?
Fasting foods should be simple and plain and not extravagant. 
The more effort that goes into their creativity and preparation, the more its value is reduced. 
They should not be prepared to satisfy our craving for certain tastes.       
• Break from our automatic response to food,
• Give thanks to our Lord,
•  Increase our self-control.

Significance of Great Lent

Great Lent before Easter is when the Christian participates fully in preparing himself to praise and glorify his God as Lord and Savior. Great Lent is like a "workshop" where the character of the faithful is spiritually uplifted and strengthened; where his life is rededicated to the principles and ideals of the Gospel; where the faith culminates in deep conviction of life; where apathy and disinterest turn into vigorous activities of faith and good works. Lent is not for the sake of Lent itself, as fasting is not for the sake of fasting. But they are means by which and for which the individual believer prepares himself to reach for, accept and attain the calling of his Savior. Therefore, the significance of Great Lent is highly appraised, not only by the monks who gradually increased the length of time of the Lent, but also by the lay people themselves, although they do not observe the full length of time. The deep intent of the believer during the Great Lent is "forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus", Philippians 3:13-14
by Rev. George Mastrantonis 

An Anthem for Great Lent and all of Life.
Wash yourselves, and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 17. learn to do well; diligently seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. 18. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: and though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they red like crimson, I will make them white as wool. 19. If then ye be willing, and obedient unto Me, ye shall eat the good of the land; 20. but if ye desire not, nor will obey me, the sword shall devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it. (Is 1:1-20, First Monday of Great Lent, the Sixth Hour)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Forgiveness Sunday

In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated – is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:

"If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses..." (Mark 6:14-15)
Then after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: "Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!", after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a "good deed" required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. 

As a Lenten hymn says:
   In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!
   For you abstain from food,
   But from passions you are not purified.
   If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no "enemies"? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them -- in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being "polite" and "friendly" we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual "recognition" which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.

On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me – we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.

And because we make this discovery – and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists – we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, "opens to us the doors of Paradise." We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting – true fasting; our effort – true effort; our reconciliation with God – true reconciliation.

Father Alexander Schmemann