Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is Lack of Morality Due to Natural Causes? What are Orthodox Ethics?

Recently there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about lying that I found interesting. Dan Ariely and his colleagues have conducted research on lying. What they found is that everyone has the capacity to be dishonest and almost everyone cheats if only just by a little.  This is driven by two motivations.  We desire the benefits that can be gained by cheating such as rounding up our expenses on our expense report or our billable hours or exaggerating our insurance claims. Opposing this we want ourselves to be viewed as honest and honorable people.

In one of his experiments he took a group of 450 participants and gave him his standard task where they were paid based on the number of correct answers and asked to report their own results.  In this study half of them were asked to recall the Ten Commandments and the others were asked to recall ten books they had read.  In the group they asked to consider ten books the results were normal showing a tendency to cheat.  But, those who were reminded of the Ten Commandments, none cheated.

What this says is that our remembrance of God matters and we need to pay attention to the small and hidden forms of dishonesty if we are to follow the commands of our God.  It is not the flagrant misbehaviors that cause us trouble but the small ones the occur daily.

There are some who ascribe to naturalistic ways for us to act with goodness towards others. Paul Zak in Moral Molecule has found a correlation between trust of others and a chemical in the brain, oxytocin.  By simply giving participants in experiments inhalers with this chemical, a group's behavior can be changed.
So what is the significance of this for Orthodox Christians? We do accept that we are all sinners but do we think that our solution comes from a chemical in the brain? Is there a chemical than can control lying? What would be the benefit if there were?

For Orthodox our ethics are understood from the perspective that salvation is our ultimate goal. This is based on the Incarnation of Christ who showed us the image of God in which we are created.  Through His teaching and way of live we find the way to overcome our sinful tendencies.  Christ calls us to be perfect like Him as we are made in His image and likeness. We are to live according to His commandments.  He came to help us lead a virtuous life so we can be accepted into His kingdom of eternal life.  Not only did he appear in human flesh, but, after His Resurrection and Ascension, he sent to us the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  It is though the acquisition of the Holy Spirit that we have the power to overcome our moral weaknesses like lying. This is the "chemical" we need as Orthodox Christians.

For Orthodox Christians the whole purpose of moral law, like always being truthful, is to help us gain eternal life with Christ in heaven.  The ascetic efforts we put forth on our part is what allows the Holy Spirit, the grace of God, to work though us. It is called Synergia. In this way we can be like those who do not cheat when reminded of the Ten Commandments in Mr. Ariely's experiments. We do not seek for chemical additives for the effort but self-discipline aided by grace as this is the only way we will find unity with God.

We should not condemn ourselves or others for this selfish approach, because we know that we are all sinners as the experiments show.  What we are asked is to recognize our shortcomings and to seek God's forgiveness and to work with His grace to change our way of life.

One way we can keep His commandments ever in front of us is through unceasing prayer.  We have been taught by the Church Fathers that this can be obtained though the practice of the Jesus prayer"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."  If we learn to practice this through a daily prayer routine where we repeat it over and over again each and every day for at least 30 minutes, we will find that we can have this prayer present in us at all times.  It can be with us when we are making out insurance claims, filling out an employment form, filling out an expense report, or taking a test of any kind. The result will be like the experiment with the Ten Commandments. 

Orthodox life is not about following laws but seeking the Holy Spirit through prayer  and worship so it is active in us at all times.  When it is, we become perfect in the image of God. We become Christ like.

It is through a life of ongoing prayer and repentance we attain the virtues and perfect our union with God. Attaining the virtues, our communion with God is continually perfected. We know that we do not become fully human until we have achieved the state of Theosis, the mystery by which we “become by grace everything that God is Himself by nature.”

Fr. Harakas, modern Orthodox Theologian, points out that achieving a moral life requires will, self-determination, and commitment and that there are many means which work together towards the achievement of a moral life. They include at least the following: prayer, study, having a father confessor, knowledge of Scripture and Holy Tradition

More on the Jesus Prayer and Daily Prayer

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Path to Salvation - A Brother and the Old Man

I was recently moved by reading an article by Saint Maximus the Confessor. I was surprised at its clarity and simplicity, yet its completeness and elegance. I had always thought of Saint Maximus as one to avoid reading because he was so hard to grasp. What I found was the opposite. It will try and capture the essence of this article which is a dialogue between a brother and an old man.

It is titled "the Ascetic Life".

He begins with a question asked by one of his spiritual children who asks,

"What was the purpose of the Lord's becoming man?

Answer: Our salvation.

Question: How do you mean?

Answer: Man, made by God, disobeyed God in Paradise. He then was subject to death. From generation to generation he became more and more evil because of his dedication to his passions rather than to the commandments of God. God then sent His Son to take on flesh to show us the way to live according to His commandments. He promised man at this time that those who did follow Him would live in heaven forever. He also threatened man with eternal punishment if he did not obey. The Son suffered, was killed, but then resurrected showing that all those who struggle will find the path to eternal life in heaven.

Question: What are the commandments?

Answer: As the lord said, "Go, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt 28:19).

Question: But Father, who can do all the commandments, there are so many of them?

Answer: He who imitates the Lord and follows in His footsteps.

Question: Who can imitate the Lord? He was God and I am a man, a sinner, enslaved by many passions.

Answer: The Lord tells us, "Behold I have given you the power to tread serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. (Luke 10:19) Paul tells us, "They that are Christ's have crucified their flesh." (Gal 5:24) Christ says, "He that loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me" (Matt 10:37). "He that taketh not up his cross and followeth me, is not worthy of me" (Matt 10:38). And, "Every one that doth not renounce all that he possesseth cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33)

Question: But the Lord's commands are so many , who can keep them all in mind in order to strive for them?

Answer: They are all summed up in one word. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole strength and with thy whole mind, and thy neighbor as thyself" (Mark 12:30). We need to separate from worldly things and passions to genuinely love either God or neighbor.

Question: What things do you mean?

Answer: Food, money, possessions, acclaim, relatives and the rest.

Question: But, didn't God make these things and give them to us for our use?

Answer: Yes He did, and everything He made is good. Our error is that we prefer material and worldly things above the commandment of love. The Lord has said, "He that loves me will keep my commandments" (John 14:15)

Question: But, how can I love the person who hates me?

Answer: The Lord does not command the impossible when he says, "Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you" (Matt 5:44). It is because we are lovers of material things and pleasure, more than His commandments, that we are not able to love those who hate us.

Question: Look Father, I have given up everything, relatives, property, luxury, and acclaim but still I am not able to love one who hates me. What am I to do?

Answer: You cannot love your tormentor unless you know the purpose of the Lord.

Question: What is the Lord's purpose?

Answer: The Lord knew the whole law rested on love (Matt 22:37-40). He therefore set out a life to demonstrate a life of love and claim victory over the devil and all his temptations. He tried to teach the Jews this way of love. But this only stirred up their hatred of Him. But He did not hate them who opposed him or who tried to kill him. Instead of hate He set forth love. After complete victory over the devil, He crowned Himself with the Resurrection all for our sake. His purpose was as a man to obey the Father until death keeping the commandment of love. In addition to his life we can also learn from the lives of His disciples. Remember what he said on the Cross, "Father, forgive them, since they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).

Question: What you say is true, pray for me that I may have the strength to know perfectly the Lord's and His Apostles' purpose so I can be sober minded in time of temptations.

Answer: If you are always attentive to what I have told you you can have this awareness. You must remember that your brother is tempted in the same way you are.

Question: Tell me how to hold on to soberness.

Answer: Complete lack of concern for earthly things and continuous meditation on the divine Scriptures brings the soul to fear God. It is the fear of God that brings soberness.

Question: What should one do to devote one's self continuously to God?

Answer: Be merciful and do good to one's neighbor, be long suffering in this regard, endure all he inflicts. It is love that tames our anger.

Question: What is long suffering?

Answer: perseverance in adversity, endurance of evils, to abide to end of temptation, not to let anger out by chance, not to think anything that does not become a God fearing man. (Eccl 1:29) Many difficulties that we are given are part of our training. We should give thanks to God for everything He gives us like David, Job and his wife.

Question: Why do I lack compunction?

Answer: Because you have no fear of God and are complacent. Such people scorn the thought of the dreadful punishment of God that awaits us if we do not live with love. Maximus then give an extensive review of this punishment as recorded in Old Testament and New Testament. (Deut 32:22, 41; Isa 33:14, 50:11, 66:24; Jer 13:16, 5:21, 2:19-21, 15:17; Ezech 7:8; Dan 7:9, 7:13-15; Ps 61.12; Eccles 12:13; 2Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10; Jer 31:10; Matt 7:13, 25:41; Exod 20:13-15; Matt 5:20; Jer 9:1.) We must think about the defense we must have on that judgement day. Are not we all gluttonous? Are we all not lovers of pleasure? Are not we all desirous of material things? Are not we all nurturers of wrath? Are not we all revilers? Are we not fond of scoffing.... Are we not worse than the Jews who killed Christ? How can we be called sons of God? Do we show the fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, faith, meekness, contingency (Gal 5:22). How can we be called Christians, who have nothing at all of Christ in us?

Maybe someone will say, I have faith and faith in Him is enough for my salvation. But James tells us, "The devils also believe and tremble; Faith without works is dead in itself (James 2:17; 2:19; 2:26). So also is works without Faith.

Those who truly believed Christ and made Him dwell within themselves spoke like this: "And I live, now not I; but Christ lives in me. And that I live now in the flesh: I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself for me (Gal 2:20). Christ clearly said, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you. Bless them that curse you, and pray for them that treat you with despite (Luke 6:27).

Question: After hearing all this the brother is in tears saying, there is no hope of salvation for me.

Answer: the Lord said, "With men salvation is impossible; but with God all things are possible" (Matt 19:26) Isais said, "When you return and moan, then you will be saved" (Isa 30.15). The Lord says, "Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17). Let us purify our hearts, let us weep for our sins, let us quite our vices, let us hear His threats, let us love one another with our whole heart. Let us master our passions.

We must rid ourselves of every bit of sinfulness from our hearts. "Let us then love one another and be loved by God; let us be patient with one another and He will be patient with our sins. Let us not render evil for evil, and we shall not receive our due for our sins." (Maximus)

The Lord has told us as follows:

"Forgive, and you shall be forgiven" (Luke 6:37). If you will forgive men their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offenses"(Matt 6:14). Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Matt5:7). "With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matt 7:2).

Our salvation is in our will's grasp. Let us give ourselves totally to the Lord. Let us place all our hope in Him alone. Let us love every man sincerely, but put our hope in none. Let us truly do penance. Let us watch and be sober. Let's emulate the Holy apostles and the saints imitating their combats., eagerness, preserve fence, patience, endurance, in long suffering, compassion, meekness, zeal, unfeignedness in love, sublimity in low lioness, plainness in poverty, kindness, clemency.

I encourage you to seek and read the entire article by Maximus.

Reference: The Ascetic Life, Vol 21 Ancient Writers, pp 103-135

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Our Whole Life Becomes a Prayer

When we become aware that it is a loving God who makes all happen in the world and that we as individuals are powerless then our life becomes one of prayer.
Archimandrite Vasileios of the Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos says,
When he spiritually matures, when he recognizes his own powerlessness and the ineffable love of God, he becomes calm and everything proceeds on its own.  Everything becomes prayer. And so he is not praying only when he is in church, but his entire life becomes a prayer"
Our life as laymen or monks is the same.  It is one to realize that we are creatures of God and called to do his will.  Our challenge is to deal with the struggles of life in such a way as we gain humility and realize the love of God.  Once we see His love and power we will have a life filled with peace no matter what is happening around us.
Elder Vasileios says,
Because God is love, one realizes that the greatest blessings are the trials, not the easy things.... The way of Orthodoxy is filled with difficulties and crosses, but it yields you to the path wherein you glorify God for all things and are thankful for all things––the Resurrection.
When the soul is wedded to God the Word, then man understands the nature of things.  But before he weds God the Word, his soul is like a slave subjected to primitive devices.  When he sees that everything is united in Christ Jesus and the humble man is the great man––then he obtains another freedom.  He does not see things as separate and mechanical.  Everything proceeds without effort.
The Orthodox Way of Life is one of surrender.  A giving up of ones  ego-centeredness to the will of God with the guidance of the sacramental life of the Church. Without this surrender we will always feel inadequate in the face of the struggles of life in this world.
Elder Vasleios says,
If you feel weak... you must give everything and entrust everything to God.  If, therefore, I try to preserve my life in my own hands, by my own plans, I will in the end lose ti.  Whereas, if I say, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46), then I have already begun to live the eternal life, because I realize I have given myself to a power that exists before me and will exist after me.
We can find peace in this world through humility and love of God.
Elder Vasileios says,
Great is the one who is humble. Let us remember what the Lord said, "I thank Thee, O Father... that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes" (Luke 10:21)––to the humble, to the meek. Let us, therefore, love this humility and meekness, that we may receive the grace of God, that we may rejoice both in life and death without flaunting our joy, and that it may become a blessing for all of us.
Let our whole life become a prayer! 

Reference: The Orthodox Word, No 279, 2011, pp 158-170 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Prayer Brings Benefits Beyond Meditation

A New York Times article, "In Sitting Still, A Bench Press For the Brain," (May 10, 2012) in a special section dedicated to "Retirement," caught my attention. As I expected it was an article promoting non-Christian eastern meditation.  The article quotes a devotee of Sri Chinmoy, a mediation teacher in Queens , NY., who has practiced meditation for a number of years and who believes that this practice has "expanded the boundaries of her consciousness and also had beneficial effects on her brain."

The article quotes several studies done in university labs which support the idea that meditation has a physical effect on the brain. One study shows that long time meditators have "greater gyrification which is the folding of the cerebral cortex. Another study shows benefits for those with coronary heart disease, reducing the possibility of an heart attack. The conductor of this study says the reduction in stress produced by meditation can cause changes in the brain and cut stress hormones like cortisol and damp the inflammatory processes associated with atherosclerosis. The essence of these experiments is that meditation physically changes the brain in beneficial ways.

What is involved in the practice of meditation and how does is differ from what the Church Fathers teach us?  The article answers the question about what to meditators do in the following way: It [meditation] is hard work, because you have to make a constant mental effort. It challenges the brain by demanding greater attention which is especially helpful for maintaining cognitive health as one ages.  It is a discipline that improves your ability to focus and concentrate.  It's a way of exercising your cognitive muscles.  

There are many forms of meditation but they all are centered on an exercise which demands a focus of attention.  For some it on a mantra, for others a focus on the breath.  Others have you focus on a spiritual saying.  They ask you to engage in this meditation for 30minutes each day to gain the beneficial results.  They also ask you to have a special place, to sit in a special way, to use incense, light a candle and to use differing forms of visualization to gain  a relaxed orientation.  They often avoid the mention of God, but when they do they put it like Sri Chimmoy: "Self-realisation is God-realisation, for God is nothing other than the Divinity that is deep inside each one of us, waiting to be discovered and revealed. We may also refer to God as the Inner Pilot or the Supreme. But no matter which term we use, we mean the Highest within us, that which is the ultimate goal of our spiritual quest." 

This is quite a different view of God than we know as Christians where God is the Creator of All. A God who came down from heaven taking on human flesh, who taught, was crucified, and then arose from the dead only to send to us the Holy Spirit and establishing the sacramental life of the Church.  This Spirit we receive when we are baptized and it transforms us so we have within our heart the capacity to join in union with God, to continually receive His grace for living His teachings, the virtues, and eternal life in His kingdom.  As Christians we seek not "self-realization" or "God-realization" of a God buried within our on being, but we seek the Holy Spirit of a transcendent God who is through the Spirit active within us, enabling us to join with God's will and carry out His work.  We surrender our own will to join with His through ascetic practices and participation in the sacramental life of the Church.  This surrender is called humility which is essential for us to receive the grace of God which transforms and saves us.

There is something to be learned from the studies on meditators as meditation has some similarities to what the Church Fathers teach, but there is also something fundamentally different. In medittion there is no aim of salvation, eternal life with God, or union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It is in truth only a  practice that yields "self-realization" with the danger of self-induced visions that one thinks is God. Often it leads to an expanded ego state rather than a place of greater humility and love. 

Many of the teachings on prayer, the Jesus Prayer, include elements of meditation that will also give the same physical benefits described in the meditation studies. For prayer demands our attention and is hard work just like meditation. It also will change our brains. In prayer we must constantly battle the forces of errant thoughts that distract us from a focus on God.  To overcome these distractions requires a focus of our mind based on love.  Due to the love we have for God, we do not want to do anything that is not in agreement with His will.  We find as we try to focus our minds on God in prayer, that we have an active mind which is continually distracted by our brain and thoughts that come from our bodily passions and our interactions with things of the world. Without true love of the Trinitarian God, we fear death and act out of our own self interest, failing then to love others, but instead, loving ourselves more than others or God. This leads us to experience all the common stresses of daily life.

Here is how one Elder of the Church teaches us on the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The prayer is simple, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner."  One is instructed to repeat this over and over concentrating on the words.  This is different than a mantra as used in meditation, because one must believe in Jesus Christ and feel the pain of their sinfulness.  One must have a great desire to follow God's will, seeking with sincerity His mercy.  It is more than just concentrating on the words, although it also demands this.

Elder Nkiodim of Karoulia, a monk who lived on Mount Athos, gives us some simple instructions of which I will give only part.
One starts prayer by standing and then, after introductory prayers, you can sit.  
The prayer is said in your mind and you use a prayer rope to help in your concentration.  You move your fingers to the next knot on the prayer rope each time you complete the prayer.  
You hold your attention in your breast and not in your head or anywhere else.  He says, "If you pray in your head you will have a head full of thoughts.  You have to lower your attention."  Its best to pray with your head lowered onto your chest.
The key is to do what will help you maintain your concentration in prayer. He tells us that it is no longer prayer when you lose the sense that you are praying to God.  
The elder says, 
"If he doesn't have the awareness that he's addressing the Lord, then he's only praying with his head. He knows that there is a God, and remembers that he is addressing God, but is not aware of it.  But awareness leads a man to feeling.  And when feeling comes, then he begins to weep. True repentance is then revealed. He becomes aware of his sins and begins to repent sincerely.  He cries out to the Lord, "Forgive me, forgive me, have mercy on me!"  Everything concludes in the heart."  
We pray without invoking any images.   
The elder says, 
"Look upon the Lord and believe that the Lord is looking upon you.  In spirit–pray in spirit!...We will our spirit pray to God the Spirit.  Our spirit is united with God. When we turn with faith to God the Spirit, then the Lord will look upon us and the human spirit will be united with the Spirit of the Lord at the time of prayer."  
The main problem we face in prayer is attention.  
The elder says, 
"Strive to maintain your attention in the words of the prayer.  Then there is no place for thoughts to pop up, since attention is occupied with the words of the prayer.... When you pronounce the words be aware– as if you feel them."  
The elder elaborates on this in another dialogue. He gives advice on how to eliminate distractions and maintain attention during prayer, 
"You should not enclose your mind in all the words at once, but in each word separately.  You must do it like this: When you pronounce one word with your mind, you must at the same time listen with your mind to the word that is being uttered. Then, without a pause, immediately pronounce the next word the same way. Likewise with the third, fourth, and fifth words.  Finish one prayer and then immediately without a pause, another, then a third, and so on through the whole prayer rope.  Articulate with your mind the words of the first half of the prayer – "Lord Jesus Christ" – firmly and clearly. Pronounce the second half of the prayer – "have mercy on me" – close together, constraining your chest a little and restraining your breathing, but not too strongly, expressing in this way your contrition of heart and repentance. But this must be done calmly, so as not to irritate the nerves. At the same time you must constantly stand with your attention in your heart and look upon the invisible face of the Lord in His name.  Pronouncing the words of the prayer this way, word after word, without pauses or stops, you give no place for extraneous ideas and thoughts to intrude. Laboring in this way  with God's help you will see the fruit of your labor – the lessening of distraction."
We are advised to engage in this prayer for at least 30 minutes each day in a quiet place.  Most Orthodox Christians have a special place in their home for prayer where they have icons, a cross, incense burner, a candle and their prayer books.

Yes, there are similarities in the practice of meditation and prayer, but there is much more to prayer. For a Christian, in the practice of the Jesus prayer, one will also gain benefits from the physical changes described in the meditation studies, but will gain benefits far beyond these physical ones.  We must remember, our aim is not just longevity, happiness, or peace of mind, but eternal life with God in His kingdom.  This is the aim of the Jesus prayer.  Along with it also comes all the physical benefits ascribed to meditation.

References: The Orthodox Word, No 278, 2011; No 279, 2011

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Do We Place Such a High Place for the Veneration of Mary?

Mary has the title of Birth-giver of God or Theotokos.  She is honored more than any of the other saints, even higher than the angels. In Scripture we see the angel Gabriel venerate her and also the Mother of Saint John the Baptist, Elizabeth. (Lk 1:28-29; 40-43) Luke records, "for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. for He that is mighty hath done to me great things..." (Lk 1:48-49). In our services we cry out boldly, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us!"

Elder Cleopa says this about the high place we give to Mary who we say is most holy.
The veneration that we render unto her is called honorific and reverential, as she is the Mother of the Lord, having not only a spiritual relationship with Him, as happens with other saints, but also a physical union with Him. For this reason we chant in the Church's hymn to her: "It is truly meet to call thee blest, the Theotokos, the ever-blessed and all-immaaculate, and Mother of our God.  More honorable than the cherubim, and beyond compare than the Seraphim, thee who without corruption gave birth to the God the Word, the very Theotokos we magnify thee." She is higher than the saints and the angels, and therefore from angels and saints she receives veneration.  Thus it was that the Archangel Gabriel venerated her in the Annunciation. And in the same manner did Elizabeth, the Mother of Saint John the Baptist, also venerate her. The holy Virgin herself prophesied in the Holy Spirit that all generations would honor her: "for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed, For He that is might has done to me greg things..." (Lk 1:48-49) Hence, the honor rendered to her is according to the will of God.
 How is we can say in our prayers, "Most Holy Theotokos save us", or, "We have no other hope beside thee"?

Regarding the prayer, "We have no other hope besides thee", Elder Cleopa tells us the meaning is as follows:
With this we do not deny the uniqueness of Christ as mediator of our  salvation, yet neither are we indifferent to the rendering of any sort of help related to our personal salvation.  The meaning of this expression is as follows: "You can give us the most help for our personal salvation" or "another superior helper we cannot find, nor in one of the saints." Or, "We have none other who is able to help us as much as you, O Mother of the Savior."
Regarding the exclamation, "Most Holy Theotokos save us" the Elder gives the following interpretation:
This expression means: "Entreat your Son to save us," or "Redeem us."  In the Greek language... the word save means to redeem from evil, temptations, distress and necessity. Consequently, it means: "Help us by your prayer to be redeemed from evil, from the works of the devil, from our passions."  Therefore, by "save us" we don't mean "forgive us of our sins," but "entreat your Son for our salvation." ... All veneration shown to the Mother of God is a constituent part of the veneration shown her Son, Who chose her and blessed her to be His Mother.  
In Scripture we are told the following:
God foretold us that after the fall of Adam and Eve the Mother of the Lord would be a woman-virgin who with her Son would slay the head of the dragon. (Gen 3:15)
Isaiah prophesied that this virgin would give birth to Emmanuel-God. (Is 7:13)
Archangel Gabriel showed her veneration she calling her "full of grace" and "blessed art thou among women." (Lk 1:28)
Elizabeth, the mother of Saint John the Baptist, venerated her calling out, "blessed art thou among women" and Mother of my Lord." (Lk 1:40-43)
Jesus was obedient to his mother (Lk 2:51)
Jesus' first miracle happened in Cana of Galilee at her request. (Jn 2:3-10)
Christ cared for her when he was Suffering on the Cross when he entrusted her care to the most beloved of his disciples John. (Jn 19:26-27)
She prophesied in the Holy Spirit that all generations would call her blessed and venerate her on account of of the glory God granted her on the account of her humility.
We also know that she will be standing at the right hand of the throne of Her Son at the Last Judgment.
Elder Cleopa further says,
How can we not honor the Mother of God when Scripture itself shows us that even the archangel Gabriel esteemed her worthy of honorable veneration? How can we not venerate the Theotokos who is the Church of the King of glory and is glorified above the heavens, since she bore in her womb God, whose glory can be contained neither in heaven or in earth?  For this reason we venerate the Mother of God who, according to the testimonies of Scripture and of the Evangelist, is "full of grace." Likewise, for this reason the Theotokos is considered a woman of great virtue, for she had grace from God and was blessed among women.
Reference: The Truth of Our Faith, 80-92.

Monday, May 7, 2012

How Can Saints Help Us?

There is no question that only Christ is able to save us from sin. So, how can saints aid us? When we honor saints and ask them to pray for us we are not putting them in the place of Christ. They are close to God, so when they pray for us they seek our salvation from Christ.

Elder Cleopa puts it this way,
When the saints pray for us, it is precisely our salvation that they seek from Christ. They interceded with Him for our salvation. From Christ they entreat our salvation. This is what we mean when we say they intercede for us. By their prayers the saints petition for our salvation -- not, however, as if they themselves have the power to save, for the only one who saves is Christ. Thus we do not venerate saints and angels as we do God. (That which we render the saints and angels is solely a veneration of honor and reverence, while God we adore and worship with perfect adoration which is thus properly called worship)
The apostle Paul reminds us that the saints are our fellow citizens who can help us. "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Eph 2:19).

How is we know that the saints have the ability to pray to God on our behalf? We know this from Scripture. "And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and the four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having everyone of them harps, and golden vials full of orders, which are the prayers of the saints" (Rev 5:8)

Some are concerned that the veneration of saints eclipse the glory and honor that belongs to God alone. But God himself glorified His saints. "And the glory which thou gravest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one" (Jn 17:22).

Elder Cleopa says,
No eclipse or depreciation of the glory of God results from the reverence and veneration of His angels. This is so, first of all, because the veneration that we offer God is one thing and the veneration we render to the angels and saints is another. The same Holy Spirit exhorts us to glorify God with His saints saying, "Praise ye God in His saints." Thus we glorify God likewise when we seek in prayer the help and mediation of the angels and saints, since the saints in their succession convey our supplications and requests together with their own prayers to God.
The saints are given special powers by God to work miracles. It says in Scripture, "In the saints that are in His earth hath the Lord been wondrous; He hath wrought all His desires in them" (Ps 15:3). Elder Cleopa lists many examples from the Old Testament of people who were given such powers and then points out the powers of the Holy Apostles, including the seventy, who are able to render all sorts of things.

He writes,
God himself glorified His saints and robed them with His glory: "And the glory which thou gravest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one" (Jn 17:22). Elsewhere He says, "He that receiveth you receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him who sent me. He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophets reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in th ename of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward" (Mat 11:40-41). These statements prove sufficiently enough the delusion of those who repudiate the honor shown toward the saints and angels, -- those beloved servants of God -- not realizing that in practice they turn their back on God himself, the Creator and Fashioner of saints.

Reference: The Truth of Our Faith, 67-77

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Why Baptise Infants?

There are some who say Baptism should only be given to adults because we must first have repentance and faith. Earlier I was asked to comment on this subject and recently found the teaching of Elder Cleopa on this topic.

The Elder begins his explanation by pointing out the precursors to Baptism found in the Old Testament. He writes,
There in [the Old Testament] we read how God appeared to Abraham when he was ninety-nine years of age and, among things, told him to circumcise all the men and to circumcise all the male children who would be born from that time on on the eighth day after their birth. As for him who would not be circumcised , he would perish (Gen 17: 10-14). We see, then, that God did not say to Abraham that children and youth should be circumscribed when they became adults... Some say the Baptism of babies is meaningless since they don't understand anything when they are Baptized. But what did Issac, Abraham's child, understand on the eighth day? Undoubtedly he understood nothing. His parents, however, understood. This is how it is with Baptism as well, as it is practiced in the Orthodox Church, since it is well-known that circumcision symbolizes Baptism in the Old Testament.

He gives another example of the Exodus from Egypt and the passage through the Red Sea which is also seen by Church Fathers as prefiguring Baptism. This is affirmed by Paul who says, "Moreover brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea" (1 Cor 10:1-2). Moses had told the pharaoh , "We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters, with our flocks and with our herds we will go." (Ex 10:9).
He then points out that on the day of Pentecost the Apostles received the Holy Spirit and preached to the people what the Spirit had tight them, telling them to repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for "the promise is unto you, and to your children" (Acts 2:39)
Elder Cleopa says, 
"For what promise? The promise of Baptism. Thus, the promise was for the children as well. When it is said that they were baptized, it does not say three thousand men and women were Baptized, but three sous and fouls, which means that among those baptized were children."
He next presents examples of families who were baptized as recorded in the New Testament. Lydia with her whole family (Acts 16:14). The prisons guard who took Paul and Silias to his house who was Baptised with his whole family ( Acts 16:33). Then there was Crispus and his family (Acts 18:8), and Stephanos and his household (1 Cor 1:16).

He writes, 
Jesus Christ likewise, made it clear that little children ought to be Baptized, for when they brought Him some children to be blessed by Him, and His disciples obstructed them, the Lord scolded them, saying: "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven; And He laid His hands on them, and departed hence" (Matt 19: 13-15). Hence , if the Lord calls children unto salvation from a young age, why would we obstruct them from receiving Holy Baptism?
But how about the question of faith. Is it possible for children to be saved without faith?
The Elder responds,
"It is true that children are not capable of believing at the young age of their Baptism, but neither are they able to doubt or deny Christ. He is not saved who only believes, but he who first of all is baptized... While children do not have faith, they have godparents. These sponsors are adults who accompany the infants to Baptism and make the required confession of faith in their stead. Godparents are the spiritual parents of the children whom they baptize and undertake to guide them into a new life in the Holy Spirit... The priest conducts the Baptism based on the faith of the parents, the sponsors, and the other witnesses present.
It is written in Scripture that the faith of a few can save others. 
Here are examples given by Elder Cleopa,
"By faith the Roman centurion healed his servant (Matt 8:13). The servant did not believe, but on account of the faith of his master, Christ returned him to full health. Four people brought a paralytic tot he Savior: When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the also, Son, thy sons be forgiven thee (Mark 2:3-5)... On the basis of the faith of Jarius the Lord raised his twelve-year-old daughter (Matt 9:18). On account of faith of others, the Lord healed a dumb, demon-possessed man (Matt 9:32). On account of the faith of the woman of Canaan, the Savior healed her daughter, casting out the demon that possessed her (Matt 15:21). Likewise on the account of faith of a father, the Lord healed his epileptic son (Matt 17:14). These and many other testimonies from Holy Scripture make clear to us that on account of the faith of parents, and others who stand as witnesses at Holy Baptism, the Lord grants sanctification and salvation to the baptized children."
We also see this practice from the early days of the Church, The earliest explicit reference to child or infant baptism is in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, about 215 A.D.: "Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them." (Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 21:15, c. 215 A.D.)

We must also keep in mind that baptism marks the beginning of our Christian life, each of us who are baptized must continue daily to persevere in our faith until the end of our earthly life. As St. Paul says: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect... I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do... I press on toward the goal to win the prize..." (Philippians 3:12-14)

Reference: The Truth of our Faith, Vol. II, 17-34