Thursday, June 30, 2011

" My Passions are Pretty Much Under Control" Beware!

For most of us who are serious about our spiritual life, we feel we have a good degree of self-control.  We are able to follow the regular fasts and other Traditions of the Church.  We don't seem to have any major sins. This is a good condition, but also one where we need to be  especially vigilant.  The passions that do remain can become seen as frivolous or insignificant.  But these are like the glowing embers of a fire that is about to go out.  At any time a wind can come along and restart an immense blase and even start a whole forest on fire.  Each glowing ember needs to be attended to to prevent the danger of a major forest fire.  Every passion, no matter how slight, needs to be attacked.

Saint Theophan advises us in this way,
No matter how small or weak a passion appears, it is necessary to regard it as if it were the largest and most powerful.
How do we respond then to the passions that we seem to regard lightly as we become more spiritually mature?  One thing we cannot do is ignore them and surely if we do they will eventually flame up and possibly destroy us.

Saint Theophan says that we have to get very angry at them and treat them with hostility.
Try to stir up anger within yourself against it as quickly as possible. This anger is a firm rejection of the passion.  The passionate cannot be sustained unless there is sympathy for it, but any sympathy is destroyed by anger, and the passionate will leave or fall away at the first manifestation of it. Here is the only case where anger is permissible and useful.
The Prophet David told us, "Be angry, and sin not (Psalm 4:5).
Saint Paul says, "Be angry and sin not" (Ephesians 4:26).

It s important to always be on the lookout for the work of our passions.  It is as if there are terrorists lurking about who want to destroy us.  They may be silent and not too visible but we must always be on the lookout and ready to act with quick and firm action against them.  Do not delay in action against them when you see even the slightest  action of a passion.  Your sympathy towards it will only lead to its growth and the potential of a raging fire that you cannot put out.

Saint Theophan says,
Self-indulgence still lives concealed within even long after we have obviously renounced and devoted ourselves to God... Thus, it is necessary to reject this sympathy and stir up anger... As son as you realize a passion's belligerence, get angry at it in a very obvious way.
Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 233-236 

Monday, June 27, 2011

It Is Not So Important Whether You Are a Monk or a Drunk

Fr. Artemy Vladimirov 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. 
The Jesus Prayer is one of the most important weapons we have in our spiritual struggle to join in union with God.  It is simple, clear and proven to be most powerful:  "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." The power is in the name of Jesus. With daily practice we can have His name in our mind and on the tip of our tongue at every moment during the day.  

Father Artemy says it is feeling that we develop in our heart.
If you make progress in this humble prayer, you will begin to understand that this commandment is very complete. Your heart will be filled with a spiritual warmth that embraces the center of your feelings. You will come to understand what attentive prayer is, and that your heart has been created for ceaseless prayer. Ceaseless prayer is not a perpetual repetition of this or that word or phrase. The Holy Fathers say that it is the feeling of your heart. Just as you view the objects of this world with open eyes, so your heart, warmed by prayer to God, will partake of the spiritual world. This will be due, not to your piety, but to God's grace. Unceasing prayer may have no words, but you will walk and sleep in the presence of God.
Here is a link to learn more about the practice of the Jesus Prayer 


Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Life of Spirit or Words?

Are we stuck with a faith that is external, following this rule or that tradition, or have we developed one that is internal, one rooted in the heart?  Saint Paul, as well as Jesus, saw this as problem of the Jews at the time of Jesus.  This is why they could not understand His message of the Kingdom.  He was not speaking of a new earthly Kingdom but calling all to participate in an eternal Kingdom with Him in Heaven, one that was based in the heart.

Today, with so many Christians stuck on the notion of "Sola Scriptura," we see an excessive emphasis placed on the "Word".  "If its not in the Bible its not true," many of them say.  But, this too is an external form of faith, taking the limited set of words and projecting mentally new ideas, basing faith on a few words, a narrow view limited to words, not unlike that of the Jews at the time of Christ.

Saint Paul says,
He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? (Romans 2:28-29)
His example is about circumcision, but it also applies to all the Mosaic laws practiced by the Jews at that time.  What was important based on the teaching of Jesus was the "law of Spirit" (Rom 8:2) or the "law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12).  The life of an Orthodox Christian is one that is lived based on Spirit which comes from faith in Christ and a surrender to the teachings and practices of His Church.  We are saved by the Spirit or God's grace that works through us.

How do we nurture this Spirit we gain at our Baptism?  By first, of course, with faith. Based on faith, then through prayer, worship and ascetic disciplines.  We pray daily, morning and night, we learn to say the Jesus prayer continually throughout the day, we attend worship services and participate in the Mysteries of the Church, especially Holy Communion and Holy Confession.  These all bring us into union with God. We exercise our faith to purify our heart and receive the Holy Spirit.

Jesus says, 
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Matt 5:8)
The "Word" provides a solid foundation and contains the truth as revealed to us by God, but being a Christian is much more than knowing the Word.  The Word keeps us from straying from true belief, but we must learn to go beyond the word to an inner relationship with God, one that is personal and intimate.

Saint Peter says,
Do not let your adornment be merely outward.... rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God." (1Peter 3:15)
Jesus says,
He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water." (John 7:38)
This is the basis of the Orthodox Way of life. It is an inner way of life that is expressed outward.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are We Capable of Guarding the Heart Against Passions?

It is one thing to read the teachings of the Church Fathers about how to control our passions and quite another thing to actually do it.  When we experience anger we know that our passions are active and not under control.  This is also true with all kinds of lusts we experience, whether they be of a sexual nature or for material things.  So is it realistic for us to believe we can actually gain control over these passions?

Saint Theophan the Recluse tells us, YES.
Here is how he puts it:
So long as the soul does not turn to God, it is dark inside; it lives to lease itself.  When it turns to God, then light enters into it, and thought about God, like a little sun, lights up everything inside.
So,how do we turn our souls toward God?  The culprit is our self-centeredness, our ego sense that we are the center of all that matters.  We believe are in control and do not see the need for any help in exercising the free will God has gifted us with.  We are our own masters.  This is our basic problem that we must overcome.  We must learn to deny ourselves.

Saint Theophan continues,
A person who has turned to God, who denies himself and who has set out to please God, can see for himself what is displeasing to God and immediately observes something that does.
Once we learn to deny this ego-centerdness that abides in us, then we will gain insight, light, and grace from God to help us see what lurks in the darkness of our soul ready to attack. 

Saint Theophan says, 
Set out to please God without self-pity, and by this you drive out the soul's darkness and receive illumination in your spirit.
One indication of our readiness to turn our soul towards God is the kind of life we lead.  Have we submitted ourselves to the teachings of the Church?  Do we know the Scriptures and read them regularly?  Do we attend the Divine Liturgy regularly and prepare for participation in Holy Communion?  Have we been to Confession recently?  Do we follow the fasting guidelines of the Church? Do we show concern for those who are disadvantaged in some way? Do we have a spiritual father who we seek spiritual guidance from and follow? And finally, do we have a daily prayer life out side of Church services?  All these are essential elements of an Orthodox Way of life.  Our ability to follow the teachings of the Church, even in an outward way, is an indication of our degree of self-pride and self-centeredness.  We will remain in darkness forever if we continue to make up our own approach to our worship of God.  But once we are able surrender to His Church and do so, then we will begin to gain inner light that enables us to guard our heart against the passions.

See the "Ten Point Program For Orthodox Life" and order the free 32 page booklet.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 230

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Overcoming Passions

Overcoming our passions is one of our biggest challenges along our path to theosis.  Saint Theophan the Recluse assures us that they do not have autonomy.  This means we do have control over them if we choose.

We do not have to give up our humanity or our personality. 
Saint Theophan says,
They have entered into our nature and can be driven out without making a person something other than a human being.  On the contrary, once they have been driven out, they leave a person a real human being, whereas their presence ruins a person, making him into something that is in many respects worse than an animal.
So what is the source of these things we call passions?

Saint Theophan says,
All of these (the passions) come from the desire to please one's self, selfishness and pride; and they are sustained by these.
Our challenge is to do as Christ says, deny ourselves, that is, put our faith in God as the real doer and do not focus on our own ego as the center of the world.  Once we are able to do this all the passions will lose their power over us.  They become tendencies we can objectively observe come and go. We can smile at them and willfully ignore their call for action.  This is often called detachment or a state of dispassion.

It is as Peter tells us, "Be sober, be vigilant" (1 Peter 5:8), or as is reported in Mark "Take head, watch and pray" (Mark 13:33).

Saint Theophan says,
To watch and be vigilant means not to sleep, not to give yourself over to negligence, but instead to keep the soul and body in a state of alertness.  To be sober means not to put your heart in anything but God.... To take heed means to watch carefully, so that nothing bad appears in the heart.
Mastering our passions is an never ending struggle for a Christian.  As we become watchful and our faith in God becomes stronger,  we will receive strength from the Holy Spirit to not respond to the desires that continually tempt us in our daily lives.  We will lose our attachments to things and thoughts and learn to practice love as Christ has commanded us to do to be worthy to be with Him in His kingdom. We will lose our self centeredness and always think of the struggles and needs of others more able to show compassion even for our enemies. The is how we become God centered and more like Christ.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 227 - 230

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Can Prayer Help relieve Headaches.

While there is no research on the use of the Jesus Prayer and relief from headaches there is some research from those who meditate.
Meditation has been shown to help offset the symptoms of chronic pain, including headaches. One study showed that 72 percent of patients with chronic pain who underwent meditation training, reported significant reductions in their level of pain. In another study, patients who practiced meditation experienced fewer migraine headaches, enhanced their pain tolerance, and reported a greater sense of well-being.
The Jesus Prayer is quite different than meditation as it is an prayer in communication with God.  But there are many similarities to the regular practice of this prayer that are similar to meditation.  The Jesus prayer should be much more effective than meditation as it does call on God for His mercy.

The regular practice of the Jesus prayer requires at least 15 minutes per day where you can set aside all daily cares and quietly in your mind repeat the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me." One will find that this is not an easy task as our minds are very active and we will observe many distracting thoughts while we try to pray in this way.  Gradually as we keep up a daily practice we will gain in our ability to concentrate on the words of the prayer. As we gain in this way, our mind becomes quiet, our body relaxes, and our heart opens to God.  This opening then allow His grace to flow through us bringing any healing power as God wills for us.

With the practice, when we feel a headache coming on, we can stop for a few minutes and repeat this prayer until the pain subsides.  We don't have to wait for the actual headache to intervene with a prayer.  Here are some symptoms that are known to be precursors to and headache: Fatigue, mood changes, food cravings, loss of appetite, yawning, increased urination, and muscle stiffness. We can observe our own situation and learn to recognize these warning signs.  There are also some common triggers that can be avoided.  They are: Caffeine, chocolate, aged cheese, red wine, hormonal changes, stress, and too much or to little sleep.

To learn more about the practice of the Jesus Prayer in your daily life, you can go the the website and enter the section labeled Jesus Prayer.

The power in this prayer comes from the name, "Jesus".  Its practice requires humility realizing that we cannot control everything in this world, including our aches and pains.  Its practice is both a worship of God and a discipline with similarities to many meditation techniques.  It is not an easy practice and takes patience and endurance.  Research has shown that it actually causes a change in neurological networks of our brain.  One must first have faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Is Continual Prayer Possible for Everyone?

Saint Gregory Palamas says,

Let no one think, my brother Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer.
How is it that we can remain always at prayer if we do not live a monastic life?  Saint Gregory answers this in this way, 
"How it is possible to pray without ceasing, namely by praying in the mind. And this we can always do if we so wish."  
This is so true.  No matter what we are doing physically we can pray in our mind.  Of course there are certain activities like driving when we want to have our full attention on the task.  But we can learn to have a prayer going on in our mind even when we are driving of course this is not for those beginning in prayer).  After all, many have no problem talking on a cell phone or talking with another person while driving.  Even when we are talking with another person we can still be praying in the mind.  We have the capacity to hear more than one conversation at a time.  So we surely can have a prayer in our mind and hear others speaking.  All of us have the potential to pray continually and this does not require us to stop all our activities to do so.

Saint Gregory says,
Let us work with the body and pray with the soul. Let our outer man perform his bodily tasks, and let the inner man be entirely dedicated to the service of God, never abandoning this spiritual practice of mental prayer, as Jesus, God and Man, commanded us...
Now getting to this stage where we can pray continually in our mind is not easy and takes a lot of work. 

Saint Gregory advises.
At first it may appear very difficult to you, but be assured, as it were from Almighty God, that this very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly invoked by you, will help you to overcome all difficulties, and in the course of time you will become used to this practice and will taste how sweet is the name of the Lord. Then you will learn by experience that this practice is not impossible and not difficult, but both possible and easy. This is why St. Paul, who knew better than we the great good which such prayer would bring, commanded us to pray without ceasing. He would not have imposed this obligation upon us if it were extremely difficult and impossible, for he knew beforehand that in such case, having no possibility of fulfilling it, we would inevitably prove to be disobedient and would transgress his commandment, thus incurring blame and condemnation. The Apostle could have had no such intention.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Disabilities of attendees at 1st Ecumenical Council

A brief account of the 1st Ecumenical Council, as given by Marutha of Meparkat .

...The General Council having thus received authority from the king, the fathers directed that there should be gradations in the assembly and that each Bishop should sit in his place according to his rank. Chairs were there made for all and the king entered and sat with them. He kissed the spots which were the marks of Christ in their bodies. Of the 318 fathers, only 11 were free from such marks, whose name were Absalom, Bishop of Edessa, and son of Mar Ephrem's sister, Jonah of Raikson, Mara of Dora, George of Shegar, Jacob of Nisibis, Marouta of Mepairkat, John of Goostia, Shimon of Diarbekir, Adai of Agal, Eusebius of Caesarea and Joseph of Nicomedia. But all the others were more or less maimed in their persecutions from heretics. Some had their eyes taken out; some had their ears cut off. Some had their teeth dug out by the roots. Some had the nails of their fingers and toes torn out; some were otherwise mutilated; in a word there was no one without marks of violence; save the above-named persons. But Thomas, Bishop of Marash was an object almost frightful to look upon; he had been mutilated by the removal of his eyes, nose and lips; his teeth had been dug out and both his legs and arms had been cut off. He had been kept in prison 22 years by the Armanites [Armenians] who used to cut off a member of his body or mutilate him in some way every year, to induce him to consent to their blasphemy, but he conquered in this fearful contest to the glory of believers and to the manifestation of the unmercifulness of the heretics. The fathers took him with them to the Council and when the king saw him, he fell down upon the ground and worshipped + him saying, "I worship thee, O thou martyr of Christ, who art adorned with many crowns."

To describe the doings of the Council from the beginning to the end is a great task, for the fathers were in sessions three years engaged in discussions about every kind of heresy. Protracted controversies took place between the fathers and the heretics, one party giving their views in writing and the other answering them in the same manner.

The following Confession of Faith was agreed upon by the 318 holy fathers, who assembled in Nice a city of Bithynia in the time of the Emperor Constantine, on account of the blasphemous doctrines of the accursed Arius. We believe [13] in one God, Father Almighty, maker of things visible and invisible; and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, only Begotten and first born of all creatures; who was born of the Father before all worlds and was not created; true God, of the true God, of the nature of the Father, and by whom the worlds were made and all things created, and who for our sakes and for our salvation descended from Heaven, took a bodily form by the power of the Holy Ghost, and became man; was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and was crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate, was buried and rose again the third day as it is written, ascended to Heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the dead and the living; and in the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of truth that proceedeth from the Father, a life giving [12] Spirit and in one holy Apostolic Catholic church; and in one Baptism for the remission of sins; and in the resurrection of the body, and in life everlasting.


Friday, June 3, 2011

John of Kronstadt: Praying with the Heart

Some good advice on Prayer from Saint John of Kronstadt.

When praying, we must absolutely subject ourselves to our will, and turn it towards God. It must be neither cold, crafty, untruthful, nor double-minded, otherwise what will be the use of our prayers, of our preparation for the Sacrament?

It is good for us to hear God’s voice of anger: “This people draws nigh unto me with their mouth, and honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).

So do not let us stand in church in a state of spiritual prostration, but let the spirit of each one of us on such occasions burn in its working towards God.

Even men do not much value the services which we render to them coldly, out of habit. And God requires our hearts: “My son, give Me your heart” (Proverbs 23:26).

Because the heart is the principal part of the man – his life. More than this, the heart is the man himself.

Thus he who does not pray or does not serve God with his heart, does not pray at all, because in that case his body only prays, and the body without the mind is nothing more than earth.

Remember, that when standing in prayer, you stand before God Himself, who has the wisdom of all. Therefore, your prayer ought to be, so to say, all spirit, all understanding.

John of Kronstadt (1829-1908; Russian Orthodox): My Life in Christ

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Trouble Sleeping?

Two articles in todays papers caught my attention.  One in the WSJ was titled, "Feeling Groggy? Your Brain May be Half Asleep."  The other in the NYT was titled, "A Good Night's Sleep Isn't a Luxury; It's a Necessity." Sleep is a critical issue for us to live a full life, one that is watchful, following the commands of Jesus.  A lack of sleep does lead to a groggy mind, a poor disposition where one is easily open to attacks from the devil.  With a lack of sleep one becomes angry much quicker, lags in moral thinking and is subject to higher risks of many diseases.  The need for sleep is a given for lay people (Some monks who are highly spiritual can go with very little sleep), yet in both of these articles there is no mention of prayer.  They give some good advice but lack the most powerful aid for a good night's sleep.

Here are the points they suggest: 
   1. Establish a regular sleep schedule; 
   2. Limit any naps to 20 minutes; 
   3. Avoid alcohol in evening; 
   4. Don't eat a big meal before bedtime; 
   5. If you use medicines that are stimulants take them in the morning; 
   6. Get regular exercises during the day; 
   7. If pressing thoughts interfere with falling asleep, write them down; 
   8. If you are frequently awakened by need to use the bathroom, 
      cut down on how much you drink near the end  of the day; 
   9. If you smoke, quit; 
   10. Avoid beverages and foods containing caffeine after 3pm.  

But most importantly, establish a regular prayer routine. A half hour of prayer before going to bed will quiet your mind and connect you with God.  The Jesus prayer is especially helpful as it will become an aid even on those sleepless nights.

Below I am reposting a blog entry from Jan, 2009.

Jesus Prayer: Key to a Restful Sleep?

The best way to prepare for a restful sleep is to start a practice of nightly prayer where you repeat one hundred times or more the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Many of us struggle to get a sound night’s sleep. The drug stores make hugh profits on sleep remedies and there are now even specialized sleep clinics. Most of us are unaware about how our dreams and negative forces impact us during our sleep. We tend to discount this aspect of our life because this all happens deep in our subconsciousness. Our minds are filled with unprocessed stimuli from our busy life during the day that carry over into our night time sleep. What we need is a way to slow down our mind, to calm it, to bring our focus on God before we go to bed so he can bless us with a restful sleep.

The best way to prepare for a restful sleep is to start a practice of nightly prayer where you repeat one hundred times or more the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer, in the tradition of the Church, is one of the most powerful prayers. As you repeat it slowly in your mind, concentrating on the words, you mind shifts its attention away from your problems of the day. You begin to focus on God and seek His help and forgiveness. After you pray in this way, read a passage from the Bible or from the writings of one of the Church Fathers. You are now filling your mind with spiritual thoughts that will replace those you have collected from a hectic day. Then, as you get into bed, begin again to say the Jesus Prayer. Let it put you to sleep.

This is not as easy as it sounds. You will have to work at it for a while. As you practice it you will find that your mind changes and your sleep deepens and becomes more restful.

This period between being awake and going to sleep is a critical transition period. We shift from control of our conscious mind to our subconscious mind deep within. It is a time when demonic powers can interfere. This is where the prayer helps to open your heart to God in forgiveness, seeking his mercy to grant you a peaceful sleep free from troubling dreams and needless worries. As you enter into this subconsciousness, the prayer will enter deep within and help to open the door of your heart letting the Holy Spirit bring you calm and peace.

If you do experience a bad dream that awakens you, immediately begin to say the Jesus Prayer to bring your mind back to a calm state. Then keep repeating it until you again fall into sleep. After awhile the prayer will automatically begin in your subconscious mind to stop troubling dreams even before you awake.

More on Jesus Prayer
Daily Prayer Basics