Monday, December 31, 2012

Elder Sergei of Vanves on Prayer

The Elder Sergei taught that prayer is most important for an Orthodox Way of LIfe. Prayer is of two types. One is asking for God’s help. The other is giving thanks, always remembering that everything comes from God with His help. This attitude is essential to avoid pride. Prayer should focus on the spiritual and not the material. With spiritual help God will grant what is necessary in material things. In everything we must give thanks to God.

Prayer should not be based on our desires or our personal inspiration.  We pray because it is necessary. Lack of prayer or the feeling of not wanting to pray is a sin according to the Elder.
“It is absolutely scandalous to says “I don’t feel like praying.” Such a thing is an offense to God, a true blasphemy. That we pray must be absolute, unchanging rule inour lives. We must pray no matter what the cost because it really is a matter of life and death. We don’t decide to breath because of our good will, we don’t think about whether it’s  really necessary to breath, we never ask why. We know that is we stop breathing we will die. We must treat prayer with the same attitude, that it is absolutely essential to even staying alive and that there is no question that we need to do it at all times. We should say to ourselves “That’s how it is, period!” We must stick to a rule of prayer and keep it at all costs.”
Prayer is difficult. We must never assume that external circumstances are to blame for these difficulties. All difficulties are due to our own condition.  They can be overcome by: (1) repentance; (2) effort of the will; (3) patience; (4) rigorous discipline.

We should have a prayer rule which at a minimum involves setting aside at least two times every day for prayer, in the morning and the evening.  We should set aside specific times for this activity. Establishing a rule that we know we can perform day after day, allows us to develop habits which will lead us to continual prayer.

The idea of intense times of prayer in the morning and evening is to make it easier for us to pray the rest of the time. Our aim is to develop a life which is based on prayer. Prayer should become continual keeping God in our mind and hearts all the time in everything we do.
“The morning and evening prayers are not, on their own, sufficient. They are like stretches in gymnastics, warm-ups, which help to develop our capacity to breath more deeply and stretch our mussels, but they do not give u breath for the rest of the day.”
The Elder tells us that prayer allows us to become more present to God as well as others and ourselves. Through prayer we unite ourselves evermore closely with God. We gain greater insight about others and deepen our interpersonal relationships. With prayer we are better able to live each moment watchfully and live according ot God’s will. We become more present in the world and at the same time are more detached from it. The heavenly kingdom become our greatest reality. Through prayer we learn the language of the life to come.
“ One of the dangers in prayer is to make it totally drebreal activity. Our motivation must be love of God Himself, not love of knowledge of Him or love of understanding Him. Prayer must be a spiritual act, not a mental one. Concentration is not solely a mental act; all of our faculties must work together.”
Before beginning prayer we must ask God to forgive all our sins for the way we have been unfaithful to Him. We acknowledge our weaknesses and seek His help with humility. All our requests in prayer must be done with humility.
Our life should be lived in the spirit of prayer. The Elder says, “Prayer is our very breath.”
“Prayer should be like a vigil lamp in our hearts: permanent. We must always make sure that it has oil to continue burning. In the moments when we find it most difficult to pray, we should pray at least a little so that the light in our hearts won’t go out. We must be like the wise virgins, not like the foolish maidens, so that we will not be taken by surprise when death comes.”

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hymn II on the Nativity of Christ, by St. Ephraim the Syrian

Blessed be that Child, Who gladdened Bethlehem to-day! Blessed be the Babe Who made manhood young again to-day! Blessed be the Fruit, Who lowered Himself to our famished state! Blessed be the Good One, Who suddenly enriched our necessitousness and supplied our needs! Blessed He Whose tender mercies made Him condescend to visit our infirmities!
Praise to the Fountain that was sent for our propitiation. Praise be to Him Who made void the Sabbath by fulfilling it! Praise too to Him Who rebuked the leprosy and it remained not, Whom the fever saw and fled! Praise to the Merciful, Who bore our toil! Glory to Thy coming, which quickened the sons of men!
Glory to Him, Who came to us by His first-born! Glory to the Silence, that spake by His Voice. Glory to the One on high, Who was seen by His Day-spring! Glory to the Spiritual, Who was pleased to have a Body, that in it His virtue might be felt, and He might by that Body show mercy on His household's bodies!
Glory to that Hidden One, Whose Son was made manifest! Glory to that Living One, Whose Son was made to die! Glory to that Great One, Whose Son descended and was small! Glory to the Power Who did straiten His greatness by a form, His unseen nature by a shape! With eye and mind we have beheld Him, yea with both of them.
Glory to that Hidden One, Who even with the mind cannot be felt at all by them that pry into Him; but by His graciousness was felt by the hand of man! The Nature that could not be touched, by His hands was bound and tied, by His feet was pierced and lifted up. Himself of His own will He embodied for them that took Him.
Blessed be He Whom free will crucified, because He let it: blessed be He Whom the wood also did bear, because He allowed it. Blessed be He Whom the grave bound, that had [thereby] a limit set it. Blessed be He Whose own will brought Him to the Womb and Birth, to arms and to increase [in stature]. Blessed He whose changes purchased life for human nature.
Blessed He Who sealed our soul, and adorned it and espoused it to Himself. Blessed He Who made our Body a tabernacle for His unseen Nature. Blessed He Who by our tongue interpreted His secret things. Let us praise that Voice whose glory is hymned with our lute, and His virtue with our harp. The Gentiles have assembled and have come to hear His strains.
Glory to the Son of the Good One, Whom the sons of the evil one rejected! Glory to the Son of the Just One, Whom the sons of wickedness crucified! Glory to Him Who loosed us, and was bound for us all! Glory to Him Who gave the pledge, and redeemed it too! Glory to the Beautiful, Who conformed us to His image! Glory to that Fair One, Who looked not to our foulnesses!
Glory to Him Who sowed His Light in the darkness, and was reproached in His hidden state, and covered His secret things. He also stripped and took off from us the clothing of our filthiness. Glory be to Him on high, Who mixed His salt6 in our minds, His leaven in our souls. His Body became Bread, to quicken our deadness.
Praise to the Rich, Who paid for us all, that which He borrowed not; and wrote [His bill], and also became our debtor! By His yoke He brake from us the chains of him that led us captive. Glory to the Judge Who was judged, and made His Twelve to sit in judgment on the tribes, and by ignorant men condemned the scribes of that nation!
Glory to Him Who could never be measured by us! Our heart is too small for Him, yea our mind is too feeble. He makes foolish our littleness by the riches of His Wisdom. Glory to Him, Who lowered Himself, and asked; that He might hear and learn that which He knew; that He might by His questions reveal the treasure of His helpful graces!
Let us adore Him Who enlightened with His doctrine our mind, and in our hearing sought a pathway for His words. Praise we Him Who grafted into our tree His fruit. Thanks to Him Who sent His Heir, that by Him He might draw us to Himself, yea make us heirs with Him! Thanks to that Good One, the cause of all goods!
Blessed He Who did not chide, because that He was good! Blessed He Who did not spurn, because that He was just also! Blessed He Who was silent, and rebuked; that He might quicken us with both! Severe His silence and reproachful. Mild His severity even When He was accusing; for He rebuked the traitor, and kissed the thief.
Glory to the hidden Husbandman of our intellects! His seed fell on to our ground, and made our mind rich. His increase came an hundredfold into the treasury of our souls! Let us adore Him Who sat down and took rest; and walked in the way, so that the Way was in the way, and the Door also for them that go in, by which they go in to the kingdom.
Blessed the Shepherd Who became a Lamb for our reconcilement! Blessed the Branch Who became the Cup of our Redemption! Blessed also be the Cluster, Fount of medicine of life! Blessed also be the Tiller, Who became Wheat, that He might be sown; and a Sheaf, that He might be cut![Blessed be] the Architect Who became a Tower for our place of safety! Blessed He Who so tempered the feelings of our mind, that we with our harp should sing that which the winged creatures' mouth knows not with its strains to sing! Glory to Him, Who beheld how we had pleased to be like to brutes in our rage and our greediness; and came down and was one of us, that we might become heavenly!
Glory be to Him, Who never felt the need of our praising Him; yet felt the need as being kind to us, and thirsted as loving us, and asks us to give to Him, and longs to give to us. His fruit was mingled with us men, that in Him we might come nigh to Him, Who condescended to us. By the Fruit of His stem He grafted us into His Tree.
Let us praise Him, Who prevailed and quickened us by His stripes! Praise we Him, Who took away the curse by His thorns! Praise we Him Who put death to death by His dying! Praise we Him, Who held His peace and justified us! Praise we Him, Who rebuked death that had overcome us! Blessed He, Whose helpful graces cleansed out the left side!
Praise we Him Who watched and put to sleep him that led us captive. Praise we Him Who went to sleep, and chased our deep sleep away. Glory be to God Who cured weak manhood! Glory be to Him Who was baptized, and drowned our iniquity in the deep, and choked him that choked us! Let us glorify with all our mouths the Lord of all creatures!
Blessed be the Physician Who came down and amputated without pain, and healed wounds with a medicine that was not harsh. His Son became a Medicine, that showed sinners mercy. Blessed be He Who dwelt in the womb, and wrought therein a perfect Temple, that He might dwell in it, a Throne that He might be in it, a Garment that He might be arrayed in it, and a Weapon that He might conquer in it.
Blessed be He Whom our mouth cannot adequately praise, because His Gift is too great for skill of orators [to tell]; neither can the faculties adequately praise His goodness. For praise Him as we may, it is too little.
And since it is useless to be silent and to constrain ourselves, may our feebleness excuse such praise as we can sing.
How gracious He, Who demands not more than our strength can give! How would Thy servant be condemned in capital and interest, did he not give such as he could, and did he refuse that which He owed! Ocean of glory Who needest not to have Thy glory sung, take in Thy goodness this drop of praise; since by Thy Gift Thou hast supplied my tongue a sense for glorifying Thee.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bearing the Cross - What Does This Mean?

Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) What does it mean to take up our cross daily? This is a question that St. Theophan the Recluse addressed in a series of homilies in 1885.

First, let's examine what is meant by the Cross. St. Theophan says the following:
The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross; on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He brought upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings.”
But there is more, as the above is Christ’s Cross, and we must take up our personal cross. St. Theophan says:
When the personal cross of each of us is united with Christ’s Cross, the power and effect of the latter is transferred to us and becomes, as it were, a conduit through which “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17)  is poured forth upon us from the Cross of Christ.
The message is clear that there is more to our salvation than just believing in Christ, His Incarnation, His Crucifixion and Resurrection. In addition to His Cross, our personal cross is equally essential for our salvation.  

But, what is our personal cross? Saint Theophan outlines three kinds.  One is outward, another is inward and a third is spiritual.

1. The outward cross involves the trials and tribulations of our life. St. Theophan describes them as follows:
These are sorrows, misfortunes, the loss of loved ones, failures at work, every sort of deprivation and loss, family troubles, adversities related to outward circumstances, insults, offenses, wrongful accusations, and, in general, our earthly lot… Neither eminence, nor riches, nor glory, not any kind of earthly greatness will deliver one from them.
He makes the important point that we must make use of these difficulties in life in accordance with God’s intention for our salvation. So, why does God allow us these difficulties in life? Saint Theophan says he gave them to us “so that we would live on earth, not as someone in his own land, but as a stranger and a foreigner in a foreign land.” As foreigners, we are to seek our return to His kingdom. To understand this we must refresh our understanding of the story of Adam and Eve told in Genesis, and how they were originally living in Paradise in union with God. But they disobeyed Him and suffered the consequences of death and sorrow and sickness, and were ousted and banned from Paradise. This is our outward cross to bear, the difficulties of a mortal life outside of Paradise. And how are we to bear them?  St. Theophan tells us to “endure them and don’t be annoyed...bear your lot with equanimity.”

Remember, these difficulties encountered in life are similar for all of us. We are all subject to misfortune and sorrow. God allows them for our benefit.  St. Theophan tells us,
The Lord wants to wash away some sin, or to lead us away from a sinful deed, or to cover up a greater sorrow with a smaller one, or to give us an occasion for patience and for demonstrating faithfulness to the Lord, so as to show forth the glory of His mercy on us later… If you don’t clearly see precisely what God wanted to give you through sorrow that has overwhelmed you, raise up in your heart  the general, non-speculative belief that everything that comes from the Lord is for our good, and give a shove to your disturbed soul: this is what is pleasing to God. Endure! He whom punishes is like a son to Him!
Enduring your sorrows with faith are what it means to bear your personal cross. Enduring with the love of God, giving thanks for all He gives us, you are bearing your cross in a way that will bring salvation.  Saint Theophan says,
"Arouse gratitude within yourself, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, repent, and correct your life." 

2. The second kind of cross is inward. This is the struggle against the passions. Saint Paul says, “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal 5:14). Saint Theophan says,
There is a cross upon which these passions and lusts are crucified. To crucify the passions means to weaken them, suppress them, and uproot them… When someone is fighting against the passions, sometimes it seems as if his hands were nailed, as if he is wearing a crown of thorns on his head, as if his living heart is pierced.
The culprit is self love, advises Saint Theophan. He writes,
Anger burns, envy dries one up, lust enfeebles one, miserliness does not let one eat or sleep, and offended pride murderously eats away at one’s heart… Everyone has them. As soon as there is self love, there are all the passions, for this is the mother of the passions…
So what is one to do?  Saint Theophan says,
One has only to turn the knife around and, instead of satisfying the passions, to strike oneself with it, to strike the passions with it, beginning the fight against them and contradicting them in everything… One must say to every passionate person: “You're perishing on the cross of passions. Destroy that cross and set up another: the cross of the fight against it. And you’ll be crucified on it unto salvation!”…. go courageously to the cross of self-crucifixion, through the crucifixion and uprooting of the passions and lusts. Let us turn away from self-pity and become inflamed with zeal for self-accusation… the Cross is the tree of life.
3. The third cross is the devotion to the will of God. It is not enough to crucify the passions. This is only preparatory for this step which involves our obedience to God’s will. We are now ready to offer ourselves up as a sacrifice to God. We follow Christ’s example in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Crucifixion. Christ prayed that He be spared, but was resolute in saying, “Nonetheless not as I will, but as Thou will” (Mark 26:39). CHrist as fully man bound his will with that of God. It is as Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lies in me” (Gal 2:20). Saint Theophan says this is the “height of Christian perfection… It is the beginning of he future state after the resurrection, when God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Those who are perfect live and act through God alone."

Saint Theophan further says,
Many have the idea that Christianity is the same as other kinds of life, but this is not so. It begins with repentance, ripens through the fight against passions, and is perfected when  the pure, inner man, immersed in God, is crucified with Christ… If Christians do have pleasures they are purely incidental. The most distinguishing characteristics of their existence are sufferings and sickness––inward and outward, voluntary and involuntary. We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom, and into that which is within it.….If you want good for yourself, get rid of pleasures and enter on the path of the cross of repentance, burn up in the fire of self-crucifixion, be tempered in tears of heartfelt contrition––and you’ll become gold, or sliver, or a precious stone, and in due time you’ll be taken by the Heavenly Householder as an adornment for His most bright and most peaceful mansions.

Reference: Three Homilies of the Bearing of the Cross by Saint Theophan the Recluse in The Orthodox Word, No. 285, 2012, pp 187-202.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Women of Faith - The Philoptochos Society

Eighty-one years ago in 1931, the Philoptochos was founded in the Greek Orthodox Church as a philanthropic organization to benefit the poor and disadvantaged. and is now comprised of 27,500 members in 485 Chapters nationwide. Through this massive effort the women in our parishes are in part fulfilling our purpose as a Orthodox Christian. 

What is our purpose as a Christian? Why do we do all that we do?
As an Orthodox Christian we do it to become united with Christ out of our love for God. We do it to become one with Him, to unite our will with His, so we can do His will to live like Christ. This we call Theosis. 
As it says in the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven... Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven". 

If we are able to do this, what do we have? 
   The promise of eternal life in His kingdom. 
But wait, salvation is not something we earn through our own efforts. 
It only comes by the grace of God. Isn't it necessary to do more than just good works? After all, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, one of the richest men on this earth, gives lots of money to do good and he is an atheist, he does not believe there is a God. 

The Philoptochos mission says in addition to serving the poor and disadvantaged: "Perpetuate Orthodox Christian concepts & promote the Orthodox Faith." 
Why is this included in the mission? Why is in not enough to do good things, to help the poor? 
 Because, even a non believer like Bill Gates can do good things. Good works is not sufficient,
As a Christian, our motivation behind our work is important. Everything we do must be done because we love God and desire to glorify Him through out work. It must be done out of our faith in Jesus Christ. Our love for Him. 

We must not confuse our good works with our personal wants and desires. We don't want to do it only to be accepted in the group, to fulfill an obligation to all the other ladies. We don't want to do it for any kind of recognition. Those who are proud of their work carry the same sin as Adam and Eve. 

So why does the Philoptochos mission include the promotion of faith? 
What is true faith? 
Based on faith we were Baptized and Chrismated in the Orthodox Church, what did this bring? 
We were given the Holy Spirit. Why? To receive God's grace and dedicate your life to do His will. 

Guess what, this Spirit we received must be continually nurtured, allowing it to grow in our heart. As it grows we gain in our faith. As we gain in faith God's presence becomes stronger. As it becomes stronger our actions become less self centered. Our actions become aligned with God's.

Think about the faith of St Barbara the patron Saint of the Saint George parish's society chapter. She had a faith that had no fear of death.  She knew her father persecuted Christians. Yet, what did she do? She had no fear in changing the widows on his bath house under construction to make a public statement of her faith, knowing she would be punished by him because of this.  She proclaimed her faith without any fear of death or punishment that she knew was sure to come. Work in Philoptochos should nurture this kind of faith in each of us. 

What is faith? Lets explore this a bit.
Our Church Fathers emphasize that it is not simply a belief, but a way of life.
Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits....every good tree bears fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. therefore by your fruits you will know them.” (Matt 7:16-20)

Faith is beyond the level  of our senses. It does not contradict our senses but is beyond them. It involves a higher power. Our senses are limited to physical things. As Paul put it, Faith is not what is seen by the human eye (2 Cor 5:7).

Faith is also beyond the level of the intellect, our mind. It does not contradict the intellect but leads us to a higher level of understanding that mind cannot reach.

Don't we often we feel what the mind cannot understand is unattainable. I know this is true for me.  The reality is, our mind is limited and can only understand in limited ways. Our mind must accept some things it cannot understand. Like the virgin birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God which we are about to celebrate, the foundation of our faith, God became man so we could be renewed and become reunited with Him. 
There are also  things in the physical world where experts know things we cannot understand. One that always baffles my mind is TV. How can picture appear from so far away. Its physical and there are people who understand it but its something I will probably never really understand.

Our Mind accepts death but cannot understand it. It does not understand miracles. We must respect the mind but also appreciate its limits. What we need for faith is a humble mind. We cannot allow our mind to limit our faith in God.

Even though we cannot see God, With faith we have confidence that He is always before us and we can act knowing He will see and hear us.
With faith, we know that He is with us in the midst of our work,  just as He promised when He said, “I am in the midst of them" (Matt 18:20).  We do not see him physically but we believe in Him without seeing.

With faith we live in confidence that He is indeed in front of us always.  This is what differentiates a believer and a non-believer. This is what we have that a person like Bill Gates lacks. This is the attitude we must have as an Orthodox Christian in all our work. This involves much more than the memorization of a creed.

Life in faith is a life in fellowship with the Holy Spirit.
His Spirit is working in the Church which is the body of Christ on earth. We don’t see it but believe it.

There is more. Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?” (1Cor 6:19)
When one dies we say that His Spirit has left his body.
Faith concerns the destiny of our Spirit, does it go to heaven or hell. faith concerns our return to the spiritual body in the resurrection and our destiny after resurrection for eternal life after the last judgment. To speak of eternal life demands faith.

Faith is that you seek God in all matters. Jesus said, “For without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) St. Paul says, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Our work is to participate with God in His work for us. This is our participation with the Godly nature, with the Holy Spirit participating with God at work. St Paul says, “For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor 3:9) Any work in which God does not participate is not a holy or blessed work. We are tools in His hands doing His will.

A believer is one who depends on God and yields everything to Him. 
He says, “My life is the work of your hands and it is now between Your hands, do with it what You want.” I will go wherever you want. You are the doer of benevolence. As Paul says, You are the wisdom (1  Cor 1:24) You are “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3)

How do we test our faith? we can it by the extent we care about our life in eternity:
Is this your primary orientation or is it one that focuses on this world and how successful you are, how you are seen by others,  and how you enjoy its pleasures? Or, can you say, I am most interested in preparing myself for eternity and destiny in the other world?

But what must we do to nurture this? This is the greatest gift we have received from Christ. He showed us the way and established His Church so we could nurture our faith.
We must participate regularly in the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion and Confession. We must pray daily in morning and evening and strive to, pray all day long. We must fast. The weekly fast as well as the period fasting periods given to by the Wisdom of the Church. These are the gifts Christ gave to us out of His love. He showed us how to become like Himself, how to be united with Him in eternity. This is why He established the Church with all its liturgies and its practices, so we could nurture our faith, to deepen it day by day, to allow the Holy Spirit given to us in Baptism to work through us.  We are His instruments in this world. Though us His grace works on things of this world.

Philanthropy is a tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church that dates back to the Byzantine Empire. It is identified with love and active feelings of benevolence toward any person, independent of the person’s identity. This caring and love comes with faith. 

The Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, has held fast to this tradition of philanthropy, and has fervently strengthened the sense of love and compassion for all individuals that are in need. Thus, being participant of  Philoptochos really means actively living and practicing our Orthodox faith.  There can be no better response to the question of why participate in  Philoptochos than to say membership is the manifestation and witness of faith as an Orthodox Christian. As our Society evolves, our members experience the satisfaction of participating, giving and sharing in our most worthy philanthropic endeavors, as friendships are made and a connectedness between individuals is nurtured.

Let's not be satisfied with our current efforts. Let us encourage all of our friends, especially the younger members of our parish, to become a part of this enriching and fulfilling experience. This will fulfill the full mission of Philoptochos to "Perpetuate Orthodox Christian concepts & promote the Orthodox Faith."

Friday, November 30, 2012

Elder Sergei of Vanves on Repentance

Elder Sergei was born in the Netherlands in 1903. Most of his life was spent in France. His is a spiritual Child of Igumen Chariton the last abbot of Valaam before it was closed by the Communists. He spent his life in a country where there were few Orthodox Christians. His views are most helpful as he spent most of his life counseling spiritual children who lived in our secular Western society.

He taught that repentance was the “beginning, middle, and end of spiritual life.” He distinguished between two kinds of repentance: a) for a specific sin, b) for a general sinful state.

The first kind is most vital. he writes:
“There are three stage towards repentance for specific sins.    1) Repenting of the sin in your mind as soon as it is committed.   2) At the end of the day, when you are doing your examination of conscience, recall the sin and ask God for forgiveness again.   3) Confess the sin and repenting of it when you receive the sacrament of Confession.”
The first stage allows us to obtain forgiveness from God when dealing with our lesser sins and impure thoughts. He says,
 “If you have wicked thought and repent it by desiring to think and act otherwise, this sin is erased immediately.”
Elder Sergei put great emphasis on the second stage. We need to make sure to set aside the time to concentrate on repentance at the end of each day. At this time we should undertake a spiritual critique of all that we did during the day reviewing both the evil as well as the good we have not done. After this examination of our conscience we then seek forgiveness from God with sincerity and contrition for all the ways we have been unfaithful to Him. He says,
“We must have a sharp conscience, so that every night we can examine ourselves and what we did during the course of the day and see what we did wrong, what good we failed to do, and what we did poorly. then, we should ask God’s forgiveness for all these things.”“Always keep repenting, not because you have necessarily done something, but because our nature is weak. We must repent for what we are. When we repent, we must consider not just what we have cone wrong, but all the good we have failed to do.”
The third stage, confession before God in the front of a priest, is imperative  as it “allows us to avoid remaining psychologically and spiritually burdened by the sins we have committed in the past.”

The second kind of repentance involves our ongoing character. There are many sins were are unaware of. They have become part of our nature. In Confession we must ask God: “Forgive me my sins which I do not know, for all my unconscious sins.” He writes:
” We must also repent of all our failures and insufficiencies. We should not allow ourselves any excuses as there are no external circumstances that can justify our weaknesses.” 
Repentance is necessary fro everyone as there is no one without sin. Whoever does not think they are sinful is living in delusion. Repentance is an “inner stance” of the fear of God, remembrance of death, and above all, humility. It is “the key to the spiritual life.” He advises:
“God prefers someone who sins and repents for it to someone who think that he never sins and never repents.”
For those who have not repented in a long time they must ask God for forgiveness for their lack of repentance. God knows our sinful struggle, our condition of mortality, and is forgiving with infinite mercy for those who continually repent. Elder Sergei writes:
“Our attitude towards the Kingdom of Heaven should be like that of a traveler who must not become panicked about all the things he has to do once he arrives at his destination, but must continue on, planning for his current journey. We must realize that we do not know when the train will come that will take us to the Kingdom. to be ready when it comes, we should be like the wise virgins and always have oil in our lamps.”“We must never believe that our sinful state is beyond repair. We must be confident that there is always forgiveness for us. All we need to do to be forgiven is to ask.”
According to Elder Sergei, “repentance as a permanent state is the normal state of the Christian, and is the state of all the saints. We must then strive toward this goal with all our might and all our prayer. It will then reveal itself to us as a might force of spiritual progress. He says,
“Repentance is the key to spiritual life. It allows us to have the wedding garment without which we are cast out of he wedding feast.”

Reference: Elder Sergei of Vanves: Life and Teachings, pp 29-34

Thursday, November 22, 2012

How Should We Spend Sundays?

Sunday is the day set aside to honor God and should be spent differently from all other days. It is a day we raise our minds and hearts to God with deep reverence towards Him and with profound gratitude and prayer. In the Old Testament it was the Sabbath that was such a day but in the New Testament it is Sunday, the Lord's Day.

Moses was told, "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath fo the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work" (Exodus 20:8-10).  In the Old Testament the penalty for not keeping it holy was the death of the soul.

What were the reasons for this commandment from God?
a. It was hallowed by God in memory of the creation of the world. In Genesis ti says, "On the sixth day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because in it hHe had rested from all His work which God created and made" (Gen 2:2-3).

b. The other reason is the remembrance of the liberation of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage as we are instructed in Deut 5:12-15. Similarly the people of the New Testament were delivered from the bondage of sin by the death of Jesus Christ and it is prescribed also for us to consecrate the day of the Old Testament Sabbath on the day of the Resurrection, Sunday. 
Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg puts it this way: "The Lord has granted us six days of every week to carry out our business necessary for our earthly life, but the seventh day–only ne day–He appointed for rest under pain of eternal death for violating it..."

Saint John Chrysostom says: "It was the Lord's good will to prescribe that we dedicate one day in the weekly cycle to spiritual matters."

In the book of Acts we see that original Christians gathered on Sunday for the breaking of bread and listened to His teachings (Acts 20:7).

There are several obligation that Sunday imposes on us.
1. We should set aside all the business we need to engage in during the six days of the week to supporrt ourselves.

2. We should turn away from all impious acts that distract our souls from the remembrance of the Lord God, reverence towards Him, gratitude and a prayerful disposition of soul towards Him.  This includes all unedifying reading, conversations and games where our soul might lose remembrance of God and potentially be carried away by delights and sin.

3. We are to attend the Divine Liturgy. This service is the ultimate remembrance of God's various blessings. In our attendance we reverence God, give Him thanks, and seek through our prayers that His blessings will continue to be given to us. We join in communion with Him as we partake of His body and Blood.

4. We should reflect on all of God's creation and His All-Powerful nature, His Wisdom, Goodness and unconditional Love for us. We should experience the wonder and awe of His creation in the natural environment. We should reflect on His life and the path He laid out for us through His death and Resurrection.
Metropolitan Gregory says. "You who love God: follow the path unto which the Lord has directed you and fear nothing...only try to please the Lord God, and then, remembering the words of the Holy Apostle, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Rom 8:31)... Do not be afraid, just try and avoid all occasions of sin through which our enemy always more easily lures us into his nets and ruins us."

You should contemplate His passion and death, how he suffered for us and think of what is written in the Gospel of John, "Behold how God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16).

5. We should read the Scripture on this day just like the first members of His Church (Acts 20:7). We are all called to live a holy life in His image. "God has chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him." (Eph 1:4)

6. Metropolitan Gregory reminds us: "We must examine ourselves every day in relation to our salvation, so much more should it be our obligation on Sundays... Sunday before all other days should be a day on which we make the most attentive and detailed examination of our spiritual state in relation to salvation, and make a new, firm intention to root out from ourselves everything "opposed to God and our salvation."

Reference: How to Live a Spiritual Life, pp 112-137

Friday, November 16, 2012

How Are We to Conduct Ourselves in Our Daily Work?

Our work is different for each of us, but we must all seek to do it as God's work.  No matter what is the nature of our work, we should view our daily tasks as work that is entrusted to us by God Himself.  Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg outlines the following points of advice.

1.Whatever your work is, do it in accordance with your position and profession.  Do it as if it is for Christ Himself. You should do it with the attitude that it is what God demands of you. In reality you are working for God.  Paul says when speaking to servants, "Whatsoever you do for your masters in flesh, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men, knowing that of the Lord you shall receive the reward of inheritance: for you serve the Lord Christ." (Col 3:23)

2. Do all your work from your soul, gladly and with great pleasure without grumbling. Remember, you are doing all your work for God Himself.

3. Do all that is required of your profession or position diligently and correctly. Do not permit any unnecessary slowness or carelessness.

4. If your work goes well and you are successful, do not ascribe this to your own powers, but give thanks to the Lord.  He said to His disciple John, without Me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

5. If the work you must do is difficult, unpleasant and demeaning, hindered by ill-intentioned people or unfortunate circumstances, and this leads you to feel despondent or disrespected, do not be weak and give in to negative thoughts. Do not allow yourself to succumb to anger, impatience, or grumbling.

6.To help keep your soul in a holy disposition during difficult or unpleasant work straighten yourself with the following thoughts:
   a) Think of this work as given to you by God for your salvation.  This is always God's aim.
   b) Think that his work may be your last of your life and God will when its finished be demanding an account from you as His judgment in eternity.
   c) Remember that these labors which you endure will not last forever. The will cease with the end of earthly life.  What we must prepare for is a life of eternity. The Lord "will render to every man according to his deeds. (Rom 2:6)

7. During unpleasant work you can support yourself with edifying singing while you work.  This cheers and calms the soul.

8. If you are engaged in physical labor that is mechanical in nature, you can reflect on the truths you have learned earlier though a sermon or from what you have read in an edifying book.

9. Think about the purpose of your work as God's work no matter what is demanded by yor position or duty. Think about how it relates to passages in Scripture and the temporary nature of all things of this world.

10. To keep your soul in a holy disposition during your work, frequently raise your heart to God with short prayerful petitions the are appropriate to the disposition of your heart.  If you practice the use of the Jesus prayer, this prayer will be always near to your lips.

11. Metropolitan Gregory says, "Whoever does his daily work in this way is, while toiling to maintain his physical life, working at the same time just as much or even more for the salvation of his soul. He works as he sought to work, for the glory of God. And the holy apostle commands us to do all to the glory of God (1Cor 10:31).

As a footnote he adds, "We should never do work that is incompatible with the law of God."

Reference: How to LIve a Holy LIfe, pp 68-85

Monday, November 5, 2012

How to Conduct Ourselves in Illness

We can expect illness and troubles as we live in a fallen world. But, what are we to do when we become ill? Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg gives us some excellent advice from his classic book, How to Live a Holy Life.

1. His first point is that when we become ill we should thank God, knowing that illness is intended for our salvation. It humbles us, makes us aware of our immorality and the limits of our own powers. This is the time when most of us seek help from God. Illness is a great motivator to seek God and to contemplate the eternal life we truly seek. In illness we are forced to leave the sinful life we have been leading. We are separated from our neighbors so we are harmless to them and now able to spend time in quiet solitude with God. Metropolitan Gregory says, "So, thank God that He is not depriving you of His grace and is using one of His most powerful tools in that cause of your salvation."

2. Secondly, this is a time to reflect on how you have sinned in your life and how you have been unrepentant, how you may have avoided confession, failed to participate regularly in the Sacraments, or avoided daily prayer and the fasting guidelines of the Church. Remember that none of us are without sin. As Saint John says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1John 1:8).

3. Think that this illness may be your last. Make yourself aware of the reality of death. We do not know when death will come upon us.  Frequently it comes with illness unexpectedly. Make a confession and ask to receive Holy Communion. Be prepared for the next life, especially during time of illness.

4. When you examine your conscience and you find you are in debt to any one in any way, give instructions to repay and to make things right.

5. Make sure your legal provisions for you property are all in good order.  You want to free your soul in case you will be called to spend the last minutes of your life. You do not want to spend them on worldly cares, but for the eternal life of your soul.

6. Make sure you have called upon a physician and are taking all the medicines for your healing. God has provided all these things for our benefit. Remember, though, that it is God who heals.

7. Try to use this time for the benefit of your soul.  Use the time for prayer, reading spiritual books, or seek conversations with pious individuals.  Avoid TV or idle conversation. Ask for Icons in your room and make the sign of the Cross on yourself regularly. Use this quiet time you have for your spiritual growth.

8. Surrender yourself to God's will. Do not pray importunately for recovery. God knows what is best for your salvation. Remember illness is a tool for our salvation. Thank God for everything.

9. Do not become impatient if your illness becomes prolonged. Impatience, grumbling, or bad temper will not help your recovery.  Metropolitan Gregory says, "Be as patient as possible and pray thus: O Lord, I have sinned much and am worthy of eternal torment, but in Your boundless love, You do not  want me to suffer eternally but have subjected me to a temporal punishment, so that I may come to myself, repent, and reform. How great is thy mercy. Multiply my patience; grant me such grace that I may endure my illness in good spirits and with love for Thee...."

10. When you are feeling that you are regaining your health, Metropolitan Gregory says, "pray to the Lord God that , after the return of your health, He will be pleased to keep you from every sin and will give you a firm memory of those sensations and thoughts that you had during your illness, for very many sick people after the return of their health forget the sensations that they had during their illness."

11. If you feel that your health is worsening, ask for the Mystery of Holy Unction.  If the Lord does not will to heal you body, He will certainly heal your soul.

12. Finally, he writes, "entrust yourself completely to the will of God and do not wish for anything other than that the Lord God do with you whatever is pleasing to Him. This is the best attitude for every person, whatever his condition. Because whoever entrusts himself to the Lord God is God's, and such a one can never perish."

Reference: How to Live a Holy Life, pp 58-64.

Monday, October 29, 2012

How to respond when someone speaks badly of us?

My father used to always tell me, "Remember you are part of a family and what you do reflects on the reputation of our family." My dad was not a model Christian, but was always an exemplary citizen and lived by Christian principles. I respected him and always remember this simple  direction he gave me. My actions had an impact on the reputation of others I loved.

A good name is important. It says in Scripture, "a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches." (Prov 22:1) With a good name we we gain the trust of others. When we are attacked by others unfairly in a way that may discredit our name, we need to have concern.  What is it we should do as Orthodox Christians when we receive such an attack?

This is a question that Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg addressed in his book, How to Live a Holy Life. He gives us four points to consider.
1. First of all, no matter how bad and how injurious the evil talk spread about us may be, we must guard ourselves from anger, verbal abuse, and revenge, but remain as placid as possible in spirit, because we must be of one spirit with Christ, and Christ, in face of all the accusations from the Jews, remained in a placid, not in the least bit vengeful, spirit. Christ, "when He was reviled, reviled not again...but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously, the holy Apostle Peter says (1 Peter 2:33).
The first thing is to remember the example of Christ and remain calm and objective so we can deal righteously with the accuser. This requires a command of our passions so we do not become angry and respond inappropriately. This is where we can draw on prayer and especially the Jesus prayer, because with daily practice it is with us always to keep us away from passion, allowing us to guard our anger when unfairly charged.
2. When you hear that others are speaking badly of you and ascribing to you vices of various sorts, bad intentions and so forth, then immediately subject yourself to the strictest examination to see whether the vices they ascribe to you are really there... Examine yourself very closely: don't those vices actually lurk within you, if only to a small degree?
When you find only a shred of truth in the accusations then immediately repent and offer fervent prayers asking to be relived of this vice and work with zeal to make corrections in your own ways.  Use every such circumstance to first examine your own way of acting. In this way any accusation can become a blessing helping you to become a better Christian in Christ's image.
3. If after the most attentive, impartial examination of yourself, you find that the vices ascribed to you do not exist, you may legitimately defend yourself and refute the slander leveled at you, but only when finding this necessary not because of your self-love or pride but because of your position in society. But defend yourself calmly without anger or indignation.  
This is not an easy step to take as we are so often hurt because of pride or some undeserved overstated image our ourselves and our false image of our importance. We must be sure we pick our battles carefully and most objectively without emotion coming from an ego-centric pride.
4. If you see defending yourself will not do you any good, then:
    a) Try to hear the slider leveled at you, now matter how serious, with patience, and console yourself with the thoughts, "God sees my innocence, so what should I grieve about: He Himself care for me, and, if my vindication will be beneficial for me, then He Himself will vindicate me.  He will declare my innocence at the Dread Judgment at least, and all the people and all the Angels of God will vindicate me with Him."
    b) Console yourself even more with this thought: "They let forth a great stream of abuse on our Savior when He lived on earth, but He never justified Himself in any court. Some of the abuse was very serious, but He endured everything with equanimity. That is how I should act. "The Disciple is not above his master and it is enough for the disciple that he be as his master" (Matt 10:24-25).
    c) Double your efforts to conduct yourself as irreproachably as possible in all circumstances of your life. Endeavor not only to avoid giving others occasion for spiteful talk by any of your words or deeds, but also, endeavor to avert an occasion to be even suspected of any vices, and therefore avoid even permissible behavior if it somehow can give cause for slander...
     d) If the evil talk spread about you does not cease, or even multiplies, then resort to nothing but fervent prayer that the Lord God may have the kindness to enlighten and correct your slanders Act this way because Jesus Christ Himself acted this way even with his executioners (Luke 23:34).
Always remember always, Christ is our example.  In addition to prayer, read the Scriptures and seek the examples of everyday life He shows us.  It is clearly one based on humility and dispassion. He prayed and fasted to condition His human flesh to be obedient to His divinity.  This is our challenge as well and why all the elements of the Orthodox way of life are so important.

Reference: How to Live a Holy Life, pp 55-58

Monday, October 22, 2012

What's Required to Acquire the Holy Spirit?

Saint Seraphim of Sarov says "the true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit." He says, 
"What God requires is a true faith in Himself and His Only begotten Son. In return He generously bestows the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Lord seeks hearts filled with love for God and for one's neighbor." 
Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that this is not a task just for monks, but is one for all Christians.
"Those who live in the world, even though married, should resemble the monks in everything else. You are wholly mistaken if you think that there are some things that are required of seculars, and others for monastics... They will have to render the same account... When Christ orders us to follow the narrow path, he is speaking to all men."
The level of perfection that we are all called to, does not come without our effort.  This effort involves what is commonly termed ascetic practices which include a daily rule for prayer and fasting as well as the study of Holy Scripture and other spiritual writings.

When St. Seraphim says, "to acquire" the Holy Spirit, he uses this idea of acquiring in a similar way to saying we acquire material benefits. Saint Seraphim says,
Surely you understand what it means to acquire money? The acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God is exactly the same. You understand I am sure, O lover of God, the meaning of acquiring in a worldly sense. The primary aim of ordinary people in a worldly sense is to acquire, or to make, money... the acquisition of the Spirit of God is the same as the acquisition of capital with the difference that it is eternal and dispenses grace. Since it is so similar to everyday ordinary money, it is acquired in much the same way. 
How do we acquire material wealth?  We must train ourselves, develop valued skills, and apply them through hard work. For spiritual benefits we also must work and prepare to receive the heavenly benefits.
Saint Seraphim continues,
Our Lord Jesus Christ himself compares our life in this world with a marketplace. He likens our everyday activities to trading, telling, telling us to 'trade till I come, redeeming the time, because the days are evil' (cf. Lk 19:13; Eph 5:16).  In other words make the most of your time by obtaining heavenly blessings in exchange for you earthly good. The goods you should be trading in are those very same good works done for Christ's sake that confer upon us all the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It is these good works which include not only charitable acts but also our ascetic efforts that are essential to purify our mind and heart from the bodily passions that too frequently take precedence over the desire of the soul.

Ascetic efforts cannot be considered as merits to earn God's grace, but only as means to an end, They prepare us for the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and union with God. With the Holy Spirit moving though us we must align our free will with God's and live the virtues. This is only possible though the work of the Holy Spirit. But, we must always remember that God will not judge us based on our ascetic efforts, but will judge us based on our humility as expressed in our love for others and love for God.  

Saint Seraphim says,
Prayer, fasting, vigils and all other Christian practices, however good they may be in and of themselves, do not constitute the true goal of our Christian way of ice. They only serve as the indispensable means of attaining it. The true goal of our Christain life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. Fasting, keeping vigil, prayers, and charity, as well as every other good deed done for the sake of Christ, are but the means through which we may acquire the Holy Spirit of God.
The love of God must be the motivation of all our actions.  As we learn to love others we will increase our love of God.  As our love of God is increased so will our love for others.  The ascetic practices cannot interfere with our love for others.  If we must take care of the needs of a child or a parent or any other person, we cannot use our ascetic practices to excuse ourselves from our loving care of others.  But we also must recognize that this ability to love is increased as we purify our heart and mind and this comes about as a result our ascetic efforts so we can acquire the Holy Spirit.  

Reference: The Joy of the Holy by Harry M. Boosalis, pp 35 - 43. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dealing with Job Stress

A major issue highlighted in a recent WSJ article is job stress.  They say that job pressures are the No. 2 cause of stress after financial worries. Many companies are taking action to address this issue using what are termed "Mindfulness-based tress reduction" programs like those developed at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.

The essence of these programs is training in the use of mindfulness meditation.  This is an approach of training the mind to become aware of the present moment without trying to judge or strive.  There is what they call formal and informal practice.  The formal is private time sitting in meditation and the informal is carrying this practice into our daily life.  The research shows that these programs can effectively deal with many psychological symptoms such as chronic pain, depression, anxiety and other medical issues. They show that it increases one's ability to relax, increases energy and enthusiasm for life, enhances self-esteem and an increases ability to cope with both short and long-term stressful situations.

Does this mindfulness process sound familiar?
Orthodox Christians have known of such an approach for thousands of years, but it is one which has even more power because it is based on faith in Jesus Christ.  This is the Jesus prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me."  This ancient prayer also involves formal and informal practice. The formal leads to the informal.

This not just a prayer for stress reduction or self-improvement, but is much more. The Church Fathers tell us that it is essential for our spiritual growth and that such a prayer practice helps us learn how to cooperate with God for our salvation. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom says the "more than any other" prayer, it helps us to cultivate the ability to "stand in God's presence." With humility this prayer has power because we are calling on Jesus Christ for mercy.

When one makes a practice of praying this prayer over and over each day, praying for one half an hour daily, the prayer eventually becomes part of our being and then is always in our heart and mind. When we have cultivated this prayer over a period of time, then, when we find ourselves in a stressful situation, the prayer is immediately on our lips bringing God's grace to calm us. It also helps us follow Christ's will in this situation. Instead of simply dealing with stress, we advance our faith in God as we deal with the many stressful situations in our lives.  In this way it is much more powerful than any stress reduction technique.

To learn more about the use of the Jesus prayer as part of our daily prayer rule go to our website on Orthodox prayer at You will find there links to numerous books and articles and videos from our Church Fathers as well as a brief brochure you can download.

Orthodox Christians have a wealth of inner practices that guide us towards a union with God.  It is this union we long for. It is our separation from God that is the underlying cause fo all our anxiety and stress. This is all part and parcel of the Orthodox Way of LIfe

Monday, October 8, 2012

How to Deal with Wealth

When can we say we are rich? Most of us in the United States are rich compared to peoples in most of the world. The basic way to think of being rich is having more resources that you need to support the basic needs of life. A third world development agency that I am familiar with, Sarvodaya in Sri Lanka, identified the following ten basic human needs for all individuals in a just society.
1. Clean environment
2. Adequate supply of water
3. Clothing
4. Nutritious food
5. Shelter
6. Health care
7. Communication
8. Fuel and lighting (Energy)
9. Access to education
10. Cultural and spiritual engagement
Many of us have these needs met and have much more. We are the rich. If we find ourselves wealthy in this way how are we to act?

Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg gives us some direction.  He writes:
Never think as many foolish people among the rich do, that you owe your wealth to your intelligence, cleverness or your energy. Although you, perhaps are really intelligent, clever, and energetic, never attribute the acquisition of your wealth only to these attributes; for consider: who gave you your intelligence? Who gave you health and strength, so you can work? Who blesses your labors with the successes you desire, while many others no less intelligent and hardworking than you are hardly able to get their daily bread?...Remember the word of the Spirit of God, "The Lord...maketh rich." (1 Kings 2:7).
We must be ever thankful for what we have that allows us to engage in luxuries most cannot enjoy.  We need to always be humble about our fortunate situation and not forget that all is a gift from God. We need to offer our thanks to Him for our good fortune. Probably the biggest issue is to not let our wealth became an obsession so that we become a slave to maintaining it or increasing it.  If we do, our heart becomes corrupted.  We will live in fear that God will take this away from us so we become psychologically and physically burdened by our attachment to wealth.

Metropolitan Gregory says,
Jesus Christ says that wealth can be very perilous for the soul: "A rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heave (Matt 19:23), and "they that will be rich fall into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition, and the holy Apostle says (1 Tim 6:9)
Metropolitan Gregory also give those who are rich advice about prayer.
When you pray, never in your prayer ask the Lord God for permanent continuation of your earthly plenty, and expecially do not ask for increase of wealth.
If we who are wealthy always remember that our situation is a blessing that comes from God, then we can retain humility and recognize the proper ways to use this abundance for the work of God. We need to search our heart for why He has blessed us with great wealth and care for it as a steward of God's kingdom. We should pray to be guided in the proper use of our wealth according to His will. God expects those blessed with wealth to help others to attain these ten basic human needs that we take for granted.

If you consider yourself to be blessed with the above basic human needs, read the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-26) and reflect on your responsibilities based on the blessings you have been given.

I must admit, this has been a continual struggle for me throughout my own life.

Reference: How to Live a Holy Life, pp 46-47