Monday, August 29, 2011

Combating Feelings of Depression

Often when we feel depressed we try to overcome our state though some kind of amusement.  Such a course will never lead to any real contentment.  That is not to say that their is something wrong with engaging in amusements, it is just that they will not help you overcome any feelings of depression.

Saint Theophan says,
Amusements, especially pleasant ones, give rise to depression, because while they are not sinful, that are unable to content the heart.  Generally speaking, the inconstancy of the emotions is characteristic to us.  It is necessary to discard and overcome this, being concerned that one thing does not change; that is, that your most important decision, the goal of life you have chosen for yourself [to be united with God], always remains in force.
Much time in our lives today is taken up with amusements such as computer games, internet surfing, movies and television.  Regard these as mere pastimes and something that you need to control and not depend on for any personal well being.

True satisfaction only comes with a genuine relationship with God.

Saint Theophan says,
God is asking your heart once and for all, and the heart desires God.  For without God it is never satisfied, it is bored; examine yourself from this aspect.  Maybe you will find the door to the peace of God.
So how do we find this door in our heart?  For those who believe in Christ and His Resurrection, one of the proven ways is through prayer.  Each day. establish a prayer rule for both morning and evening.  Be sure to include as a major part of this rule the practice of the Jesus Prayer.  Daily prayer is essential for any  genuine relationship with God and will surely, with your good effort, bring you inner peace that will lift you above any feelings of depression.  Once we are in true contact with God we only experience joy that comes from His unconditional love.  When wee have opened that door in our heart, we receive His grace freely and are enabled to do the good works he teaches us to do. It is in this way we become like Christ.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 280-281

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Avoiding Deception

In our spiritual life we need to be careful about our own judgments, decisions and self-evaluations.  Since there are evil powers at work, even with strong faith we can be misled.  You should always be aware of this reality.

Saint Theophan writes,
Secretiveness in everyday life is not a bad thing; in spiritual life, however, it is most dangerous. It is indispensable to have someone with whom you may consult about everything that is going on outwardly, and more importantly, inwardly.  ...There is some sort of evil power around us and inside us, which through various  illusionary qualities leads us into deception and confuses our affairs, directing them to something vain or even bad... Your reasoning does not always work, because the enemy confuses it with his own advice (our elders have nicknamed this "add-vice"). 
We should keep a journal so that when we see our spiritual father we can relate our difficulties to him and in this way he can best help us.  When we are making a big decision, especially those that impact others, in addition to prayer, we should discuss our reasoning with him also.  He will not tell you what decision to make, but will help you see if you are being deceived in your analysis.  Decision are always up to our own will.  Never allow a spiritual father to make your decisions.  Any advisor who would do this is not a true spiritual guide. Look to him for advice and not a decision. 

For most people your local priest can serve as your guide.  But as you progress spiritually you may need to find a new guide.  These are often found at monasteries.  Visit them and talk with the elders there.  A guide always comes naturally when you ask and seek.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 277-280

Monday, August 22, 2011

Law of the Conscience - Saint Theophan

Saint Theophan gives us clear advice about how to make proper use of our conscience.
"Just keep this law: Never do anything, whether great or small, that goes against the conscience.  If you do violate this, compensate the conscience at once through your own inner repentance at home.  Confess it to the priest later.  The conscience is a great thing.  It is the voice of the Omnipresent God in the soul.  He who is in the world with the conscience is also in the world with God."
This seems so logical and seems like it should be easy.  But, first, we must become continually in tune with our conscience and be able to recognize when we are going against it. This requires some degree of spiritual maturity.  Most of us have lived lives where we have habitually ignored our conscience for one reason or another. We have become insensitive to its call and no longer hear it very clearly.  Even when we do, it has become an easy thing to ignore it.

Saint Paul tells us, those who are justified are those "who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them." (Rom 2:15)

As you adopt an Orthodox way of life, with daily prayer, fasting, regular participation in worship services and sacraments, reading Scripture and the lives of the saints daily, you will quite naturally find the voice of your conscience getting louder and louder.  Then, you can take the next step and make a commitment to follow it no matter what. When unsure of action talk with your spiritual father as we can be misled when our faith is immature.  

When you cannot muster the discipline to act on this inner voice, do as Saint Theophan says, "compensate the conscience at once through your own inner repentance at home.  Confess it to the priest later."  Shortly you will find your ability to abide by your conscience increases dramatically.

Saint Paul says,
"And in this do I always exercise myself, to have a conscience clear of offense towards God andtowards men."

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 277

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Abba Poeman on the Spiritual Path

Abba Poemen shares a parable brought by a layman on the Spiritual Way
A man said to his friend, " I want to go see the king. Come with me."  hTe friend answered him. "I will go with you half way."  He said to another friend, "Take me to the king."  He said, "I will take you as far as the king's palace."  The man said to the third person, "Come with me to the king."  "Lets go," replied the third friend, "I will go with you to the king's palace, bring you inside, announce your arrival and present you to him."  
 Abba Poeman asked the layman, "What does this parable mean?"
He replied, "the first friend is asceticism, which leads you to the true path; the second is purity, which takes you to Heaven; the third friend is almsgiving, which will fearlessly bring you to the King Himself, God"
Abba is pointing out that our first step in attaining our union with God is asceticism.  Through prayer, fasting and worship we orient ourselves on the true path.  We learn to tame our passions and focus on God instead of our own self-initated needs and desires.  It is like we are now able to lift our eyes off the ground and to look ahead and see where the pathway leads us.  Without this first step we have our heads focused only on our own footsteps. This is why the church puts such a heavy emphasis on disciplines such as fasting and daily prayer.  It is why the practice of the Jesus Prayer is so important for our spiritual growth.

Once we have purified ourselves of our passions and the numerous desires that tempt us to pursue only our own pleasure, we find we are at the gates of heaven.  Our soul is energized and grace comes to us freely.  This enables us to take the final step which is our union with God.  This is the step of love of our neighbor.  It is where we are continually seeking ways to help those who are around us, including our enemies.  We freely give help where it is needed.  In this we find ourselves in harmony with the God Himself.  We are now able to do His will, on earth as it is in heaven.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 271

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Growing Our Faith

The spiritual life is one that is ongoing.  It is not the result of a one time event like a simple declaration of faith as practiced in so many Protestant Churches.  It is a commitment to a growing faith that we are continually working on to deepen our relationship with God. It is an effort involving faith plus our own efforts. It is like any relationship we have.  To have a close friend we have put our own effort into the development of the relationship. The same is true with our relationship with God.

The Spiritual life involves an effort on our part to discipline our bodies and control our passions.  This we do with the help of God's grace, but we must act to cooperate.  Our thoughts must be controlled because we are bombarded with temptations continually.  These can come from nowhere.  Our minds are very active.  Left uncontrolled they become like a wild horse which is impossible to ride.  Such a horse must be trained to ride. The same is true with our mind. As we train our mind, we become more watchful, the wildness is tamed and we can, with careful thought, learn to make choices which are congruent with the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

In our efforts we must not expect some grand transformation where everything changes and we become virtuous in all our actions.  It is a step by step process that also involves God's grace.  It is with a close relationship with God that we work toward our salvation which is our union with God forever.

Abba John the Dwarf says,
"I desire to possess every virtue, if only to a small degree."
 He is advising us to give thanks to the Lord for each little step we take.  This is the Way.

He says,
"When a man decides to build a house, he gathers many different materials for construction.  So too must we acquire all virtues, if only to a small degree."
We will not obtain all the virtues at once.  But as we are able to control our passions we will find that we will become more loving as we conquer each one.  We may find we become more patient and with patience we no longer respond with anger.  As we control our anger we find our relationships become more loving.  Then we are able to help others.  It is a ongoing process that never ends.  One virtue leads us to another. Our aim is to become perfect as our Lord directs us.

This path demands more than our self-effort.  Through prayer, repentance, participation in the sacraments, and practicing the virtues we grow. We must seek God's grace to lead us along this path. With a mind under control, we can then follow His lead. It is a way of life lived in the context of the Orthodox Church that leads us to an intimate relationship with God as we become His true servant.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 270

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Saint Poemen On The Beginning of the Spiritual Path

Repentance and grieving over one's sins is the beginning of the Divine path is the teaching of St. Poemen. Why is this so?  When we repent and stand against evil we will do good and begin to do the will of God.  If we do not repent then we will not recognize our evil actions and continue to go against the will of God.  The is why we so often find ourselves separated from God.  This effort  is mostly a struggle with our thoughts.  We must be ever watchful and ever ready to attack thoughts which are temptations to go against the will of God.

Saint Poemen was approached by one of his spiritual children with the following concern:
"Father! I have many thoughts, and I am in danger because of them."  The old man took him outside and said, "Expand your chest and do not inhale!"  "I cannot do that." answered the brother.  "If you cannot do that then neither can you stem the flow of the thoughts," said the old man. "But your job is to resist them."
It is not the elimination of thoughts that we seek as this is impossible but the ability to minimize and resist them. How do we do this? In general, Saint Poeman would say, "the thing you need most is a sober mind."
First of all, be attentive to yourself and be sober. A brother said that when he was with others, he would amuse himself and return to his cell not the same as when he left it.  He asked how he should act. The elder told him, "When you return to your cell, do you want to find yourself the same as when you left?  Maintain vigilance over yourself both at home and outside the home." 
This is one of our major challenges.  Saint Theophan has also advised us that one way to do this is to  avoid those situations, places and people who led to conditions that arouse thoughts that tempt us.  This is also what Saint Poemen teaches. We must remove ourselves for everything passionate.

Saint Paul also instructs us,

Keep away from any of the brothers who refuses to work or to live according to the tradition. (2 Thessalonians 3:6)

What does this mean practically:  Why go to a bar on Friday evening after work when we might be tempted to drink to much and then our resistance is almost zero?  Why maintain a friendship with a person who continually is asking to do things which you know are not proper?  Why engage in discussions that you know will lead to heated arguments where you end up saying things you wish you had never said?  Why watch movies or TV shows that stimulate unwanted desires? You can surely think of more which apply to your own personal life.  Act on eliminating these temptations from you life.  This combined with a life of prayer, repentance and regular participation in the sacraments will bring you closer to God.

Saint Poemen says,
If a trunk full of clothing is not looked after, then in time the clothing will disintegrate.  So too will the thoughts, if we do not in fact carry them out, vanish in time, as if they disintegrated.
The cure is obvious but not easy to do as we must exercise our will to order our lives is a way that avoids undue temptations. 

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 267-269

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bored or Lonely?

Boredom can easily lead to loneliness and loneliness to depression.  Saint Theophan gives us some good advice how to avoid boredom. He says that each time you feel yourself alone, think of God and your guardian angel who is with you at all times. Take advantage of all such opportunities for a moment of solitude with God and have a conversation with Him. Then learn to fill your day with meaningful activities.

He shares advice a father gave to his daughter.
Everyone has a number of daily chores, which they work off like some sort of quitrent.  There are many people, however, for whom these quitrent chores are simple and do not take much time.  there is a lot of time left over whereby, if it is not filled with anything, there is no way to avoid boredom.  Here is the most reliable way for you to avoid it: Arrange things so you do not have a single moment and al your time is filled with suitable occupations so that , upon completion of one activity, you have another one ready to begin.
What kind of activities should these be? 1) Aesthetic occupations: music, singing, painting. 2) Some sort of handicraft: knitting, needlework and the like. 3) The best remedy for boredom, however, is to acquire a taste for serious reading and the study of subjects that you are unfamiliar with.  It is not so much the reading that drives away boredom as the study.
If you follow this smile advice you will find shortly you will not a enough time to do everything you want to do.  You will lose that feeling of loneliness and avoid the terrible problem of depression.  Even one who lives alone and rarely has guests will have a life filled with activity, one without boredom or loneliness.

Take up the reading of spiritual books and avoid frivolous novels and such.  Dig into something that will engage your mind fully.  Avoid the trap of TV which can dumb the mind.  If you do go to the TV when bored then seek out something that will give you new insight about our world and that will engage your mind in an active way.

You can also seek out regular activities such as volunteering at Church or with another agency in town. But it's  not necessary to become over active in social activities as these for many create to many tensions and often includes engaging with people who distract you spiritually.  Each person has a different makeup so you need to seek activities that fit your personality, especially those that keep you learning. To be alone does not mean to be lonely. In reality we are never alone. God is always with us along with our guardian angel.

The more you study spiritual matters, including the Church history, teachings of the Fathers, as well as Holy Scripture, you will discover forever new topics which you are not aware of.  Each one will broaden your world view and open you to greater and greater spiritual awareness at the same time.  Your desire to learn will never be satisfied.  Read and keep busy and you will become wise, devoid of loneliness.  You will become more aware of God's ever presence.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 265-266

Monday, August 1, 2011

Counterattack - Opposing Passions

We are constantly called to be watchful because our passions are ever active, lurking to arise when we least expect.  This war we are engaged in is a spiritual war.  The challenge is to not let our passions have any air or food.  If we were not successful in our watchfulness, we can starve them with external actions. This is always a challenge, but the approach is one of using our will to deny the passion what it desires.  When we deny them, we starve them of food and air and they die.  We should learn to combine our inner efforts with external efforts.

Saint Theophan tells us that one kind of active warfare against our passions is to carry out actions that are directly opposed to  them.

He writes,
For example, to suppress stinginess, it is necessary to become generous; to combat pride, it is necessary to choose humbling occupations; to combat carousing, one must stay at home; and the like.  It is true that one such mode of action does not lead directly to the goal, because the passion, enduring external constraint, may erupt inwardly--either the same passion, or some other in its place. When inner and spiritual warfare are united with this active combat, however, they soon defeat any passion against which they are directed together.
This means we must learn to be watchful of our inner thoughts as well as take direct wilful action to counter the rise of a passion.  Both are useful in our spiritual effort to control our passions.

Ordering our life is one important aspect of the Orthodox way of life. We need to choose our friends,  our work, our activities, and so forth so that we do not allow ourselves to be tempted in ways we cannot control. We need to make changes in how we live to increase activities that are the opposite of the passions we encounter repeatedly. With a balanced life, when we do experience a passion coming forth, we can have the poser of our will to aggressively oppose it with opposite action.  Do this and you will find you  will make progress in overcoming the passion that haunts you.

Remember, passions are what lead us into sin and separation from God.  As we learn to conquer them we develop a more virtuous life  and our prayer life becomes more effective.  God will send more grace that will aid us in this battle.  Slow down and order your life so that you can overcome all your passions and come closer to God at all times.

"Since this habit has acquired power over your heart through frequent repetition of certain actions, which satisfy the passion dwelling in the heart, opposing it in the heart is not enough to weaken and destroy this power; you must use actions which are contrary to the former ones, actions opposed to the passion, smashing and destroying it. -  Unseen Warfare

More on Orthodox Way of Life

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 260-261