Thursday, March 29, 2012

Power of a Prayer Habit

Much of what we do in life is done by habit. This is necessary because we otherwise would be flooded with decisions, overloading our neural circuits. As you examine your life you will find that are routines that you automatically go through during the day and in differing circumstances. Once established, habits are hard to break and it is difficult to introduce new habits.

Daily prayer is a habit that can help us in the darkest of times.  But, first, you must have a daily prayer habit. Morning prayer (evening too) needs to become as automatic as brushing your teeth. This means that when you awake in the morning you must develop a routine that includes prayer. For me, I get up, take a shower, get dressed and then go automatically to my set prayer place. I have a rule of prayer I always follow. I do this every morning. No matter what is happening in my life, my morning begins with prayer because I have established this habit. There is no choice to make. It is a habit.

What happens when I am faced with a stressful situation or a feeling of depression? I have my prayer habit that saves me. No matter how I am feeling, I always begin my day with prayer out of habit and in prayer I seek help from God. It is prayer that lifts us above all our earthly concerns, even the darkest depression. God is always available to anyone who knows the power of daily pray.

In addition there is another habit that can come from this daily prayer habit, this is the Jesus Prayer. Because part of my daily prayer routine is to say the Jesus prayer again and again, I have another habit which guides me no matter where I am or what time it is. The Jesus prayer is always at the front of my mind because I repeat it so many times each morning.   Then, when I am in need of help, it is there and I am able to pray using this short prayer at any moment. 

The point I want to make is that the right kind of habits are extremely helpful in our spiritual journey. The Church puts great emphasis on habit and routine. Our daily services are routine, and repetitive. We are asked to make a habit of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. We know every Sunday there is a Divine Liturgy at a certain time in a certain place. The Liturgy is basically the same each Sunday and within it there are numerous repetitive prayers. We eventually over time learn them and they become part of us and also available to us wherever we are.

You cannot wait until you are in great distress and then expect to be able to pray. But with good habits of prayer you are able to seek God's help when you need it most. 

Work with your Spiritual Father to guide you in creating a daily prayer habit.

All those who work on themselves must have as their aim to be attentive and vigilant and to walk in the presence of God.  If God grants it, a soreness will appear in your heart; then what you desire, or even something higher still, will come of itself. A certain rhythm will set itself in motion, in virtue of which everything will progress upright, coherently and in the proper way, without your thinking about it.  The you will carry a Teacher within you, wiser far than any earthly teacher. (Art of Prayer, p 170)
More on daily prayer and the Jesus Prayer

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Marriage - nagging and spiritual growth

Marriage in the Orthodox Faith is one of the major paths for our salvation. In marriage couples can aid each other in their journey towards salvation. The other major path is celibacy found in the monastic life. Both are recognized as valid paths for salvation.

Saint Paul reminds of the following,
I...beseech you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love, being eager to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.(Eph 4:1-3) 
Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:1-2)
The reality is that today a majority of marriages fail. The divorce rate now approaches 50%. One common issue that leads to separating is what is known as nagging. Elizabeth Bernstein recently wrote about this "killer of marriages" in the Wall Street Journal (1/25/12). She points out that nagging is a problem more common than adultery.

What is nagging? It is the interaction between couples where one person repeatedly makes a request that the other repeatedly ignores so that both become increasingly annoyed. As I write this I am currently being nagged by my wife to fix the fountain on the porch and I have ignored her for several days. Like Elizabeth points out, nagging makes me feel like a little boy being scolded by my mother for not doing a chore. Why does she have to keep reminding of this little task when I will eventually fit it into my schedule? I don't really need a mother at my age. So how do we keep this behavior from becoming something that leads us to anger and a desire to separate? It becomes serious when the issue shifts from the object of the nagging to the nagging itself. Dr. Howard Markman of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver points out that couples who can resolve this problem will substantially improve their chances of having a long lived marriage.

This kind of interpersonal issue is exactly what the spiritual path calls us to resolve. What we are learning in such situations is how to love one another. These irritants, such as nagging, can help us grow stronger in our faith. They can be like the grain of sand in an oyster that leads to a beautiful pearl. As we learn to love one another in our disputes we also learn to love God. These marital spats can separate us from God and lead us away from salvation or they can lift us to overcome our self- centeredness, teaching us how to love, leading us along the path to our eventual union with our loving God.

Here is some secular advice about how to overcome nagging from the Bernstein article.
Calm down and recognize the pattern you are in and begin to talk about it as a problem that will have an impact not only on your marriage but on your spiritual life as well.
Recognize that both will need to make some changes in behavior.
Look at it from the other person's perspective. Use the tried and true "I messages." "Honey,when you ignore me I feel you do not love me."
Recognize that you are asking for something if you are the nagger . 
Change to using an "I message" instead of a "you message". Not "I want you to fix the fountain. You never do what I want." but "I would really like it if You could fix the fountain today. I know you are busy but this is something that means a lot to me."
Manage expectations. Make sure what you are asking for is realistic.
Set a time frame by asking your spouse when they could do the task.
Give a clear response to your partner if you are the naggee. Tell her if you can't do it right now and let her know when you can do it. If you cannot do what is being asked, give the reasons and discuss alternatives.

Resolving conflicts than result from nagging is important for marital health. Remember that love of neighbor (and who is a closer neighbor than your spouse) is the first work we must strive for to become a true disciple of Christ. In a marriage we must all bear each others burdens and when we condemn the other person we are only condemning ourselves.
"Unless you promptly strive for and achieve a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to bring tidiness and fairness to your dealings with one another. Humble yourself, not her. Love her, not yourself." (Russian Letters of Direction, Monk Makariń≠ )
Regular time for daily prayer together is very important in developing a strong Christian marriage.
Saint Gregory Palamas writes,
Let no one think, my brother-Christians, that it is the duty of only priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no! It is the duty of all us Christians to remain in prayer always.
Saint Nicholas of Zhicha writes,
Marriage is a great and wonderful mystery, one of the greatest mysteries of God's dispensation. A pure and honorable marriage, in the fear of God, is indeed a vessel of the Holy Spirit.
I am now off to fix the fountain.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is Baptism Sufficient? A teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas

Observe All Things
Christ died and was resurrected showing that death is no longer the end. He told His disciples that he would come again to judge the whole world. He said he would take up to heaven and bestow the kingdom of heaven on those who are justified. Christ then instructed His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and go and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28:19, 20). There was more than Baptism. Jesus expected those who were baptized to teach others and also to do what He commanded, "Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). Apostle James tells us, "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offended in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). So we are not at liberty to choose what is virtue. We are to do everything He commanded. A little bit, or even most of what He asks us to do is not enough. We must "do everything He commanded."

Always Strive to Keep Our Freedom
St. Gregory Palamas tells us "if we do not strive through blameless deeds and words to guard our freedom to the end, or when it slips away, to summon it back through repentance, we shall be condemned by that liberating law itself for failing to keep the freedom given to us." The freedom we must guard is that which we gain through Baptism, where we are freed of the law of sin and death. With this freedom we now live in hope of eternal life in God's kingdom. But, we have much work to do.

When we do fall short of the mark (sin), and we undoubtably will, then we must immediately repent. This is obtained through the power of the Sacraments of His Church. While it is only God who saves us, this also requires our effort. When we are striving for our salvation continually with continual repentance, we find we have a merciful God who gives us His grace abundantly to aid us in our struggle.

Even Paul Struggled
Emphasizing that Baptism is not enough but our works are necessary, Saint Gregory points out that Apostle Paul is well aware that to "strive through blameless deeds" is a great undertaking and hard work. He communicates this to us by sharing how Paul, although an Apostle, always struggled. He basis this on what Saint Paul says about Himself: "Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainly. Thus I fight I, not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." (1Cor 9:26-27). Paul fights and struggles to gain the "imperishable crown" of salvation. He suffers sickness, imprisonment, persecution, and temptations of the flesh.

Demands Our Full Effort
Paul encourages his followers to maintain their zeal for Christ and to give their full effort to do as He Himself does and to follow Christ's example. He says, "Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize?" (1Cor 9:24) He does not mean that only one person will win the race and achieve salvation, but to be like those who make an all out effort like a runner who tries to win a race. The winners are those who win the prize of salvation. We must strive to be perfect as Christ with the intention that we will give our full effort to perfect ourselves. Saint Gregory points out that Paul also tells us the "prize of the high calling" is inexhaustible and sufficient to be shared with everyone without diminishing. There is not a single winner, but we can all win this race.

Paul shows us how to run this race. he says, Everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. (1Cor 9:25).

Lessons From the Ancients
Paul then draws on the experience of the ancients, those who followed Moses. Gregory Palamas uses this to show that it is not by faith alone that we are saved but by our works. Paul was making the same point with the Corinthians who had been baptized and regularly partook of the Divine Gifts of the Blood and Body of Christ.
Paul writes:
"Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness." (1Cor 10:1-5)

Moses was under the cloud of the Holy Spirit. His followers were baptized in their crossing of the Red Sea. Like the Corinthians they ate of Spiritual manna given by God. They also had spiritual water that came from the Rock like the Corinthians drank from the Cup. The rock is like Christ who endlessly provides us with spiritual food. Like the Corinthians the followers of Moses were disobedient and "were scattered in the wilderness."
Saint Gregory Palamas explains it this way:
"What he [Paul] is saying is that once they had gone astray after evil Desiree's, the symbols of the mysteries which had been granted to them we're of no benefit to them, and did not exempt them from being abandoned by God... If we choose to live sinfully, holy baptism and the divine sacraments that follow it will not save us from eternal condemnation, but we will lose the heavenly inheritance just as they [Moses's followers] lost the promised land, with our impertinent behavior and disobedience to God's commandments. That is why Paul goes on to say to us, " Let us not be disobedient, brethren, nor let us harden our heart, as they did in the day of temptation in the wilderness (Heb 3:8).
We Cannot be Complacent
Do we not see the same issue today? Those who have been Baptized and participate in the Holy Sacraments are frequent sinners and think they are saved. We live in a world filled with greed and self gratification and we tend to fit in with the predominant culture unawares of our true unbelief in the teachings of Christ and our disobedience in following what He has commanded us to do.

Saint Gregory concludes,
"Let us not do evil, that evil may not befall us, but let us learn to do good. And let us throw off our vices through confession and appropriate repentance. If we are unable to to take full possession of the virtues, then, by being humble towards God, sharing what we have plenty of with the poor, and having a forbearing attitude towards those who fall, let us win forgiveness from on high, and fill up what is lacking in our good works with God's love for mankind, that the Lord may be constantly with us, according to His promise (Matt 28:20)."

Reference: Saint Gregory Palamas The Homilies edited and trans. By Christopher Veniamin, Homily 38, pp 301 - 304

Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't Go To Bed Angry

One thing my wife has taught me is the necessity to always settle an argument before you go to bed at night. When we live closely with another person and share everything we have as one, there will undoubtably come up arguments in which one person becomes incensed and angry. We found that if we committed ourselves to resolving this difference before we go to bed at night, even if it means staying up latter than normal, our next day begins in harmony and our differences do not accumulate.

Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W. published an article on this in Psychology Today. He wrote:
The problem is our brains. When we get angry the reasonable parts of our brains—the prefrontal lobes in the front—shut down and the all the action moves the back where our reptilian brain takes over. We get the fight or flight response, we get tunnel vision. We want to make our point and get the other guy, damn it, to understand what we're saying.
And this can take a while depending on how worked up everyone gets. For men it's even harder—it can take them physiologically three times longer to cool than women....Calm yourself down, by taking a walk or by sitting in the bathroom and doing some deep breathing for awhile. When you're back into your prefrontal lobes, your blood pressure is down, and the tunnel vision has expanded, then sincerely try and solve the problem. The means listening and talking it through, not the quick I'm sorry, pseudo-hug in the kitchen, and sweeping it all under the rug.
For Orthodox Christians we can call on Jesus to help us in this situation. This is where the Jesus Prayer helps us in a very practical way. If we have practiced it regularly during our daily prayers, it will become a prayer that is always with us and one we will immediately grab whenever we face difficulty. It can become like an automatic response in times of stress. When we dare able to pray in the midst of a disagreement, our minds are brought into contact with God and we are quieted. If we become very angry we can take a time out and take a short walk saying, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner in cadence with our steps, a prayer walk. Once our mind has settled, then we can go back to resolve the issue at hand.

It is best if we can arrange for our daily prayers to be said together. In this way we will always work to reconcile ourselves before we enter into our shared daily prayer times.

Jesus tells us the following:

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matthew 5:22-24 )
St. Paul advises: "Do not let the sun set on your anger, lest the devil gain a foot hold."(Eph 4:27)
More on Orthodox Prayer


Friday, March 16, 2012

A lament for sin by St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great left us with a lament for sin in which he recognizes many sins and identifies with them as the writer.  He has given us a useful guide for introspection to aid in preparation for Holy Confession. It is also a light for those who wonder what they might bring to confession or if they actually have any sins necessary to confess.  

Weep over your sin: it is a spiritual ailment; it is death to your immortal soul; it deserves ceaseless, unending weeping and crying; let all tears flow for it, and sighing come forth without ceasing from the depths of your heart.
In profound humility I weep for all my sins, voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious, covert and overt, great and little, committed by word and deed, in thought and intention, day and night, at every hour and minute of my life.
I weep over my pride and my ambition, my self-love and my boastfulness; I weep over my fits of anger, irritation, excessive shouting, swearing, quarreling and cursing;
I weep for having criticized, censured, gossiped, slandered, and defamed, for my wrath, enmity, hatred, envy, jealousy, vengeance and rancor;
I weep over my indulgences in lust, impure thoughts and evil inclinations; covetousness, gluttony, drunkenness, and sloth;
I weep for having talked idly, used foul language, blasphemed, derided, joked, ridiculed, mocked, enjoyed empty gaiety, singing, dancing and every pleasure to excess;
I weep over my self-indulgence, cupidity, love of money and miserliness, unmercifulness and cruelty;
I weep over my laziness, indolence, negligence, love of comfort, weakness, idleness, absent-mindedness, irresponsibility, inattention, love of sleep, for hours spent in idle pursuits, and for my lack of concentration in prayer and in Church, for not observing fasts and not doing charitable works.
I weep over my lack of faith, my doubting, my perplexity, my coldness, my indifference, my weakness and unfeelingness in what concerns the Holy Orthodox Faith, and over all my foul, cunning and reviling thoughts;
I weep over my exaggerated sorrow and grief, depression and despair, and over sins committed willingly.
I weep, but what tears can I find for a worthy and fitting way to weep for all the actions of my ill-fated life; for my immeasurable and profound worthlessness? How can I reveal and expose in all its nakedness each one of my sins, great and small, voluntary and involuntary, conscious and unconscious, overt and covert, every hour and minute of sin? When and where shall I begin my penitential lament that will bear fitting fruit? Perhaps soon I may have to face the last hour of my life; my soul will be painfully sundered from my sinful and vile body; I shall have to stand before terrible demons and radiant angels, who will reveal and torment me with my sins; and I, in fear and trembling, will be unprepared and unable to give them an answer; the sight and sound of wailing demons, their violent and bold desire to drag me into the bottomless pit of Hell will fill my soul with confusion and terror. And then the angels of God will lead my poor soul to stand before God's fearful seat of judgment. How will I answer the Immortal King, or how will I dare, sinner that I am, to look upon My Judge? Woe is me! I have no good answer to make, for I have spent all my life in indolence and sin, all my hours and minutes in vain thoughts, desires and yearnings!
And how many times have I taken the Name of God in vain!
How often, lightly and freely, at times even boldly, insolently and shamelessly have I slandered others in anger; offended, irritated, mocked them!
How often have I been proud and vainglorious and boasted of good qualities that I do not possess and of deeds that I have not done!
How many times have I lied, deceived, been cunning or flattered, or been insincere and deceptive; how often have I been angry, intolerant and mean!
How many times have I ridiculed the sins of my brother, caused him grief overtly and covertly, mocked or gloated over his misdeeds, his faults or his misfortunes; how many times have I been hostile to him, in anger, hatred or envy!
How often have I laughed stupidly, mocked and derided, spoke without weighing my words, ignorantly and senselessly, and uttered a numberless quantity of cutting, poisonous, insolent, frivolous, vulgar, coarse, brazen words!
How often, affected by beauty, have I fed my mind, my imagination and my heart with voluptuous sensations, and unnaturally satisfied the lusts of the flesh in fantasy! How often has my tongue uttered shameful, vulgar and blasphemous things about the desires of the flesh!
How often have I yearned for power and been gluttonous, satiating myself on delicacies, on tasty, varied and diverse foods and wines; because of intemperance and lack of self-control how often have I been filled past the point of satiety, lacked sobriety and been drunken, intemperate in food and drink, and broken the Holy Fasts!
How often, through selfishness, pride or false modesty, have I refused help and attention to those in need, been uncharitable, miserly, unsympathetic, mercenary and grasped at attention!
How often have I entered the House of God without fear and trembling, stood there in prayer, frivolous and absent-minded, and left it in the same spirit and disposition! And in prayer at home I have been just as cold and indifferent, praying little, lazily, and indolently, inattentively and impiously, and even completely omitting the appointed prayers!
And in general, how slothful I have been, weakened by indolence and inaction; how many hours of each day have I spent in sleep, how often have I enjoyed voluptuous thoughts in bed and defiled my flesh! How many hours have I spent in empty and futile pastimes and pleasures, in frivolous talk and speech, jokes and laughter, games and fun, and how much time have I wasted conclusively in chatter, and gossip, in criticizing others and reproaching them; how many hours have I spent in time-wasting and emptiness! What shall I answer to the Lord God for every hour and every minute of lost time? In truth, I have wasted my entire life in laziness.
How many
O how terrible the punishment that I have drawn upon myself!
How is it that my eyes are not streaming with constant tears? If only my tears flowed from the cradle to the grave, at every hour and every minute of my tortured life! Who will now cool my head with water and fill the well of my tears and help me weep over my soul that I have cast into perdition?
My God, my God! Why hast Thou forsaken me? Be it unto me according to Thy will, O Lord! If Thou wouldst grant me light, be Thou blessed; if Thou wouldst grant me darkness, be Thou equally blessed. If Thou wouldst destroy me together with my lawlessness, glory to Thy righteous judgment; and if Thou wouldst not destroy me together with my lawlessness, glory to Thy boundless mercy!

From: Orthodox Thought for the Day by Pres. Candace

Thursday, March 15, 2012

On Reading Scripture

“When one undertakes to examine Scripture in an idle, intellectual way, he creates hatred and quarreling. Why? Because the intellect approach to Scripture does not help us to turn and reflect on our sins, but instead makes us focus on problems and concepts related to the study of  Scripture, with the result that our logical and intellectual faculties are aroused to no real purpose. “Knowledge” by itself does not add anything. On the contrary, it encourages the cultivation of the individual and his private sense of things; it fosters the self-sufficiency of his personal opinions, which he then seeks to justify and impose on others. This kind of approach to Scripture immediately places you in conflict with others; it opposes your will and opinion to theirs, prompting you to disagree and argue with them, and to make enemies of your brothers. Filled as I am with my own opinions about things, I am not able to receive anything from God.
The correct way is to read Scripture with simplicity and to allow God to tell us what he wants to tell us. It’s one thing to read Scripture because you want to collect information, and another thing to read it because you want to acquire its true content, that is, the Holy Spirit. This kind of knowledge is the life of God (cf. Jn. 17:3), the entry and extension of God into our life; it is God’s descent and dwelling among us. We can judge whether or not our study of Scripture is authentic based on the number of tears we shed when we study. To be sure, I can also read Scripture without shedding tears, and without a strong sense of my sins, but with the hope that God’s grace, through the reading of Scripture, will break open my hardened heart. Read Scripture, then, but don’t forget about your sins and reduce Scripture to an object of intellectual inquiry, for at that point it ceases being the word of God and you start seeing it as something human. The criterion for your study should be this: the way you read the Bible should bring peace to your heart, communion with God, love of neighbors, and the consciousness of your own sinfulness: the recognition of how unworthy and ill-prepared you are to stand before God.”
Elder Aimilianos, On Abba Isaiah

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dealing with Repetitive Sins

A central element of the Orthodox way of life is repentance. We are continually recognizing our shortcomings in our life as lived when compared to the life God calls us to live.  As Orthodox Christians we grow by continually seeking forgiveness and committing ourselves to change in our behavior.  We fast, pray and participate in the Sacraments of the Church to help us in this life long effort.  We know that we cannot do this by our now efforts alone but we need the grace of God to become like Christ.

How often do we face this issue of going back to confession with the same issue time after time? What makes this process so difficult is that we are mostly focused on our body and our brain has taken control from the soul.  In our brain there are trillions of neural connections that program us to act in habitual ways.  The task is to be able to overcome these preprogramed habits and to recreate new habits that are congruent with the teachings of Christ.

Remember how Paul described this problem? Even Paul struggled to do what he willed to do.  Here is how he put it:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. (Romans 7:14-15))
Why did even Paul struggle? After all he was an Apostle, specially chosen by God, whose letters we read in our services with authority of Scripture. Modern day researchers have done considerable research on this problem we face. We can can draw from this research to help us change our behavior.  Charles Duhigg summarizes this work in his book the Power of Habit.  He says,
This process (habitual behavior) within our brains is a three-step loop.  First there is a cue, a trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.  Then there is a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.  Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if their particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks.  So unless you deliberately fight a habit--unless you find new routines--the pattern will unfold automatically.
He tells us that our habits are powerful but delicate and often operate outside our consciousness.  But most importantly they can be changed. To change, we must understand that each habit has a craving or desire that lies behind it. For example if we want to create a habit of morning prayer, we need to have a cue when we get up in the morning that reminds us of our love of God and our desire to be united with Him and the peace this brings to us. So when we awake we can say the Jesus prayer as soon as we awake which is a cue to seek in prayer the peace we find in connecting with God. We will then awake with an anticipation of our morning prayer session.  We might further this desire when we walk to our prayer place light a candle, burn some incense or make a few prostrations. These or other actions then begin to form a new routine which get programmed in our brain so that eventually we automatically raise and go to our prayer station for our morning prayers.  

We need to recognize that this new routine will replace an old routine.  We may have cues for this routine that we can choose to aid us.  Maybe we always start our day with a cup of coffee.  If we can connect this cue with the time for prayer we may be aided by an old cue to create a new routine.

He points out the AA works because the program forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then helps them find new behaviors, new routines. This is why we stress in our preparation for Confession a detailed recollection of the act of our sinfulness so we too can identify the cues that trigger what is most likely a bad habit that is programed in our brain.  Once we see the cause of our old behavior then we have to identify an, new course of action, a new routine.  Something creates a desire or craving in nature that needs to be fulfilled in a new way.  If an  encounter with a person or an action triggers anger, then we have to recognize this cue or trigger and learn a routine that is different than anger to substitute for the way we respond in anger.  In AA they also seek guidance and help from God.  Once our cue for sinful activity is known then we can ask God to guide us to find new routines.  We can seek His help to put this new routine into action.  AA does one other thing in that it provides a supportive community to help sustain the new behavior.  This is what a spiritual community is for as well.  It should give us support in our learning new routines.

There is now a body of knowledge called habit reversal therapy which is used to treat depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive-compulsive disorders and other behavioral problems.  Once key element of such therapies is the we must believe that change is possible.  Our faith should give us this confidence.  Once we admit a problem and share it with God, we know that He will help us find a way to change.  We know that All things are possible in God (Matt 19:26). But change begins by first having a clear and detailed understanding of the habit we want to change.

Reference: Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Is Scripture Sufficient to Guide Us to Salvation?

When this question was posed to Elder Cleopa of Romania he said the following:
No, it is not sufficient to guide man to salvation, inasmuch as , firstly, it wasn't given to man from the beginning and , secondly, when it was given it wasn't the only authentic text, with regard to salvation of human souls, because before there was Holy Tradition.  Many years before Moses began writing the first books of the Old Testament, there was a sacred piety in the community of people of Israel.  Similarly, the books of the New Testament began to be written ten years after the formal foundation of he Church which took place on the day of Pentecost. The Church chose and sealed as inspired by God the books of the two Testaments over one hundred years later.
It wasn't until the fifth century that we had the book called the New Testament as we now know it. In 419 AD there was a council of 217 Bishops who gathered in Carthage and who established a canon which determined the books to be included.  The Book of Revelation remained in dispute for many years later and thus was not included in the lectionary of the eastern Church for reading in Church services.
Holy scripture is still the most important document in the Church.  What we call Holy Tradition shows us how to interpret what it says.  No one individual has the right or ability to interpret Scripture.  This is reserved for the Church collectively.  Think about how Christ gave out the information that is included in the Scripture.  He gave it to His disciples, not to he masses, for them to teach.  And so it is still to this day.  Those who have been properly trained and received the gift of ordination have the ability to proclaim the teachings with the proper interpretations.

Elder Cleopa expresses it this way:
Our Apostle Paul says: " How shall they preach, except they be sent?" Accordingly, the bishops are the lawful successors to the Apostles and those went for the preaching to the people.  Paul entrusts the heavy burden of the instruction of the people to Timothy and not to the faithful.  He speaks of this elsewhere: "Are all Apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?" Again he says to Timothy that the clergy must be "apt to teach" others. He does not, however, say the same thing for the faithful.  He makes a distinction between shepherd and sheep, between teacher and those taught.  Still, the teachers cannot each whatever they would like, but that which the Church teaches universally.  They teach in the name of the church and of Christ. Not everyone has the intellectual ability and the requisite divine grace necessary to expound Holy Scripture correctly.  The Apostle Peter also says this in his second epistle... "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own distraction, as they do the other scriptures."
We are bombarded in these times with many who call themselves Christians who believe that anyone can interpret scripture and who blatantly ignore the interpretations handed down by the Church and abhor the term Holy Tradition. They have made such distortions to the point of even rejecting the Sacraments, especially the sacrament of Holy Communion.  The Holy Tradition of the Church is vast and rich allowing us to know the meaning of Scripture as it was intended by the Apostles.  It includes much more than the Books of the Testaments.  It also includes they teachings that have been incorporated in visual form in our icons and in hymnology as well as the writings of the Church Fathers. We must be cautious of Bible study programs that take place outside of the Church. Many introduce distorted teachings that not only negate the sacramental life of the Church, but also the ascetic practices such as fasting. The water down the Orthodox way of life as taught by the Apostles necessary for our spiritual growth in Christ.

Elder Cleopa warns:
Holy Scripture is like a very deep well wherein is comprised the infinite wisdom of God.  If someone thirsty dives into this well to drink all of its water, he will be drowned within.  If, however, he will fetch the water with a bucket and from there will drink from a cup, then there is not fear of being engulfed.
He then reminds us of the Scripture passage about the eunuch of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was reading the prophet Isaiah when the Apostle Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading.  And he replied,"How can I, except some man should guide me?"

God revealed His word not to just anyone.  Elder Cleopa explains:
He revealed His wisdom to those who , with respect to good works, were perfect and had innocence of infants.  That's why Paul counsels the Corinthians as follows: "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be ye men." 
 Reference: The Truth of our Faith, pp 45 - 51 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Avoiding Nervous Breakdowns

According to a 2000 report published in American Psychologist, 26% of Americans felt "an impending nervous breakdown." Many say this is a feeling most people nowadays experience periodically. This seems frequently to be triggered by a divorce, a death, or financial and job stress. In addition to the feeling of going crazy, some of the symptoms include heart palpitations, chest pains, shortness of breath, uncontrollable crying, dizziness, disorientation, exhaustion. Unfortunately this condition is becoming more normal. We live in times when personal crisis are quite common. Such anxiety is a result of our separation from God. To cope with today's tumultuous world we must grow spiritually.

With a strong Orthodox faith we can better deal with this over stressed condition. This requires a faith that is more than the notion of "Faith Alone" preached in many Protestant churches. It is a faith that is linked with works, with our personal effort, working in cooperation with God's grace. It is a faith where we desire and have great zeal to be with God. It is faith of unbounded love of God.

The Orthodox way of life provides a time proven structure for developing such faith. With the ongoing practice of repentance and forgiveness it demands, one does not keep as much "stuff" bottled up inside. One who lives a true Orthodox way of life when faced with stressful uncertainties learns to call on God for help when faced with uncertainties. One who lives a life of repentance learns humility and is ever aware of their fallen and sinful condition, knowing they cannot cope with life's trials and tribulations alone. They know death is at the end of this earthly life, but beyond is what they hope for, eternal life in Paradise. They learn to seek forgiveness, to admit their weaknesses and know that God will help them. They participate in Confession and regularly partake of Communion, the true Blood and Body of Christ, by properly preparing themselves. They develop self-disciple through fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as the special fasting periods like Great Lent. They have a daily prayer life and are able to communicate with God for help in times of need. They have a Spiritual Father for guidance and a spiritual family of believers whose love they can count on. They have developed a spiritual relationship with several saints, who now reside in heaven near the throne of God, who they also call on for help, especially Mary, the Mother of God. They are never alone.

Stress comes when we lose hope in a situation, become fearful, and do not have faith that we will be able to work through the difficulty we face. We only see our limitations and believe that all things are dependent on our own efforts which seem inadequate. We feel alone. We lose our vision of the spiritual aim of life. We no longer see the struggles of life as part of the ongoing development of our faith in God. We forget that God loves us no matter what and supports us by His promise of eternal life with Him if we only continue to act out of love for Him as well as others.

The Orthodox way of life is like an insurance policy against stress where we feel like we cannot cope. Like an insurance policy we have to remember to pay the premiums. In the Orthodox way of life, this involves prayer, fasting, worship and participation in the Sacraments. It is a life of repentance lived with a zeal, a desire, an intense love of God.

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