Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thinking of Marriage?

Making the decision to get married is one of the most important decisions we make in life.  It is one that requires a sound spiritual life. One approaching this decision should consult with their elders first, especially their parents. Not just for approval, but with questions about what is essential for a successful marriage and what is necessary to create a good family. God gave us the means for physical attraction and all the pleasures of physical sexual relationships.  These can be overpowering and lead one to making poor choices if one is not careful and prudent.  Often one is attracted sexually prematurely and these passions can be overpowering.  There may be studies that need to be completed.  Or one may not yet be mature enough to create a new family.  Most parents know these things.

Advice form Elder Paisios:
I always emphasize that young people should try to live as spiritually as they can before marriage, since preserving chastity secures their physical and spiritual health. The spiritual life is a basic perquisite to whatever life one chooses.  The world has become like a wheat field that is ready for harvest, but swine enter and trample it. So now everything is in disarray – weeds, mud, wheat stalks, but here and there on some edge, there is an occasional wheat stalk standing on upright... The more  spiritual work one does during his youth the easier it will be for him in all things later in life... The better equipped and prepared one is before the battle, the better off they will be when bullets are flying and bombs are falling.
When thinking of marriage think of the spiritual qualities of that person you are choosing to become a life-long partner. Be careful to determine if this is possibly a person who has gone spiritually astray.  If one has a mature spiritual foundation have joy, but if they have gone astray and abandoned their spiritual roots, view them as a sister or brother feeling sorry for them and praying that they will find their way back to a sound spiritual life. Be careful.

Elder Paisios advises:
A young person ought to keep company with other spiritually mature young people in order to be helped and move within a spiritual atmosphere.
If you find that person you know who is the one for you, test this with a pure and chaste life and you will with the help of God be blessed with a good life.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pp 33-35

Monday, May 27, 2013

Importance of Studies

Now is the time of graduation and new choices.  Elder Paisios would commonly give advice encouraging students to continue their studies.  He noted how so many young people come to him and complain about the pressure their parents put on them to study and to go onto college.  One of the stories he gave to those making such complaints is recorded below.
There were two boys going to the same school and living in the same neighborhood. The first was very smart. With very little effort, he got excellent grades, straight A's throughout elementary and middle school. The second was not as bright, but he was able to keep up with the first one by being very diligent in his studies. When the first boy finished the first grade of high school, he got involved with bad company, dropped out of school and in the end had to go to work in a company as a janitor. He got married, had two children, and it became very difficult for him to make ends meet. The other boy continued his studies, went to law school, went to Europe for graduate studies and earned a degree in business management. One day at the company where the first fellow was working, they were waiting for a new boss to arrive. Everyone was saying how educated he was. And in the end, the new boss ended up being his former classmate! He recognized him the moment he saw him. The janitor became so depressed he even tried to kill himself a couple of times. Someone told him to come and find me on Mount Athos. After talking to me about his life, he exclaimed over the final surprise, "Can you imagine – that I have him as my boss!" I then gave him a thorough scolding and told him, "You could have been more successful than your friend. You and your children would have been much better off that you are now, and you would have been in a position to help others! As if it wasn't enough that you make your family suffer, you now want to kill yourself, leave your children orphans and destroy your family? I don't feel sorry for you; you brought this on yourself. But I do feel sorry for your poor children. Do you understand? So try to be patient, and I believe with God's help, even the new boss will be kind to you; he may even give you a better job. And if you are not at peace there, go ad find another job elsewhere. Don't leave your children in the streets." That shook him up and he pulled himself together.
As parents, it is very important that we encourage our children to study hard,  to watch the friends they choose and not let them deviate from their studies because of poorly chosen friendships or any other reason.  If they graduate in good standing and are encouraged to go on to further studies they will have a much greater chance of having a happy life in the future.  If a student develops the habit of procrastinating in their studies they will most likely also procrastinate when they enter the work world.

There is no surer path for a good life than to keep focused on one's studies and to complete them before taking on the burdens of family life.  Of course this also includes as a foundation based on care of physical as well as spiritual aspects as well.  As we face the difficulties of studies and the competitive challenges they may bring, our faith along with the encouragement of loving parents can help one endure and be successful.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual counsels IV: Family Life, p 31-32

Friday, May 24, 2013

Love Between Spouses

What is it that makes a marriage endure? It's not that both are the same character.  For we compliment each other through our differences as we face the tasks of life. 

Elder Paisios uses the following common sense example, "A car needs the gas pedal to move but it also needs the brakes to stop." It is through our differences that we find harmony. Elder Paisios said think what would happen if you were both the same character. "For example, if both of you had a short fuse you would tear the house down."  Our compatibility in difference is the harmony of God.

What is essential for a good marriage is respect for each other's uniqueness. Respect is what leads to pure love.

Elder Paisios puts it this way:
Couples should have a purified love for one another... To live harmoniously couples need from the very start to set their love as the foundation of their life, a true genuine love, one that is found in spiritual nobility, in sacrifice, not in fake, worldly and carnal love.  If there is love there is sacrifice, one will always arrive at the standpoint of the other, understand the other, have compassion for the other. And when we take our neighbor into our suffering heart, then we take Christ Himself into our heart, and He fills us with His ineffable exultation.
Too often we think of love in terms of carnal or sexual encounters.  Such physical love is not evil in a marriage relationship but such love only unites people externally. When the worldly attributes of such encounters are gone such love separates them and there is the feeling of loss. But the Elder says, "When there is spiritual true love between a couple, and if one spouse losses his or her worldly attributes, not only will this not separate them, but it will unite them all the more."

The Elder shares a story of a Greek-American doctor who told him about what was clearly an encounter with the uncreated light of God. Elder Paisios then seeks to find out the condition for this encounter. The story follows:
I marveled realizing that this man had been made worthy to see the Uncreated Light, and I asked him to tell what had preceded this. "Father", he went on, "I'm married and have three children. We had a good family in the beginning. But later on my wife didn't want to stay home with the children; she wanted us to go out with friends. I went along with her wishes. After some time she said that she wanted to go out with her friends alone, without me. I accepted this too, and stayed home with the children. Later, she didn't want us to go on vacation to gather and asked for money to go by herself. Finally, she asked for a separate apartment to live alone. This, too, I did for her; but she had her friends over all the time. During this entire time, I tried to help her through various means, by caring for her, loving her and giving her advice; I tried to make her think of the children who missed her, but she remained unmoved. In the end she took a great deal of money from me and disappeared. I searched and asked for her everywhere, but it was in vain.  I had completely lost track of her. One day, I learned that she had come to Greece and was living in a house of ill repute. I just can't describe how upset I was by her sorry state. In my utter grief, I knelt down to pray. 'My Lord,' I said, 'please help me find her and do whatever I can to help her not lose her soul. I can no longer bear to think of her utterly fallen state of being.' It was then that the light flooded my room and my heart was filled with peace." "My brother," I told him, "God took notice of your patience, your forgiving spirit and your love, and brought you consolation in this manner."
The central idea behind lasting love is respect and sacrifice.  This is how God loves us.  He shows us how we are to love each other.  Harmony in marriage only comes from this pure love that is beyond all physical aspects of a sexual relationship. With pure love we will see God. Marriage can be a powerful path to union with God.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos: Spiritual counsels IV: Family Life, pp 41-48

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What is the Right Path?

Many ask, "How do I find the right path for me?" This is especially true for young adults who are wondering how to spend their lives while following Christ.  What is the right job, should I get married, or even should I go to a monastery.

Elder Paisios has much to say on this subject.  His first advice to those who are young is to finish their studies. He says, "First they have to concentrate on their degree; then on getting a job." He adds that if one's direction in life is not yet clear then they should continue with their studies and "Later on, pursue what has matured within them and brings them peace."

God has given mankind a free will.  He will never take this away from us. He allows each of us to follow a path that is unique and that will bring each one peace.  God will not force us.  So how do we help those seeking advice about what to do with their lives?  Elder paisios says,
"The parents, the Spiritual Fathers and teachers ought to help the young to select a vocation in line with their capabilities and to follow their natural inclination, without influencing them or strangling that inclination."
The path must be one that each person chooses for himself.  We can observe the unique gifts God has given a person and encourage them to use these gifts. But we can only express our opinions and then help them achieve what they have chosen themselves. Elder Paisios clearly advises, "The decision about which life they will follow has to be their own."

What we can do in assisting them is to remove from their path what is harmful and what may destroy their inner peace encouraging living always in harmony with God, with the joy of being close to Him.  Our main concern should be about their salvation and not their career.

If you trust in Christ and follow His commandments you have nothing to fear. Life is never a straight path but one that we are continually seeking clues for the next steps.

Remember always what Elder Paisios says, "Consider what puts you more at peace and choose that."

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Councils IV: Family Life, pp 22-28

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Words, Words, Words...

Too often we place our hopes in words and human thinking.  But, can human thought or words ever gain for us what we seek?

St Gregory Palamas says,
If someone attempts to touch the stars with his hand, even though he is tall and stretched his arm further than the rest, he is almost as far away from those ethereal heights as men of much shorter stature, the difference not being worth mentioning. In the same way, on subjects transcending words, eminent speakers are not significantly better at saying something than anyone else. Who can attempt to treat of matters which utterly defy all words without being seen to give  away beneath the weight of these topics, like those reputed to have boasted they could counterbalance the weight of the universe, or those in the myth who attempted to make their way up to heaven? Men who make such an attempt are as far from the truth as their aims are beyond the grasp of human minds and speech, being outside the spree of this world, based far above the earth and its surroundings, and reckoned among things holy and divine.
Saint Gregory goes on to offers as an example the Mother of God. What were her words? How was she prepared for the incredible task God gave to her?

Words can be helpful in our early stages of our spiritual development to point us in the right direction, but then comes the need to go beyond all words to know Truth.  We need a healing of our soul so we can be in continual communion with God and do His will. Then all of life, no matter how difficult the situation, becomes bearable.  To gain this communion with God we cannot simply read and read, expound and expound with words.  We need to take action to purify our passions from dominating our soul and then learn to follow what it commands of us. This is a state of love which comes not from words but from our heart.  

The path of the Orthodox Life is one that is focused not on words or doctrines, surly it is grounded by sound doctrine, but is focused on a life of repentance. Beginning with faith in the Good News of the Gospel, coupled with a recognition of our sinful state, our condition that is less than what God has intended for us, we must focus on our perfection with the help of God's saving grace.

How?  Do we need to have exalted words?  No. We need to be joined with Christ in His Church, to give our best effort to follow His commandments, and to participate in His sacraments for our healing.  We need to pray daily, participate in the prescribed fasts, and follow the guidance of a spiritual father who knows the path to unity with God.

Let's not get too engaged in the meaning of words, or even in the analysis of Scripture.  With faith, let's seek to heal our souls through the healing sacraments, prayer and fasting. Our souls are crying for healing and liberation from our passions and our dedication to the things of this world. Let's allow ourselves to be lifted above all words and receive what cannot be put into words. This is the path to unity with God and our salvation.

Truly Christ is Risen!

Reference: Mary the Mother of God: Sermons by Gregory Palamas, p16

Friday, May 10, 2013

More On Prayer

Anonymous 6th century

...when you stand in prayer sign yourself with the cross, collect your thoughts to gather and prepare yourself properly; concentrate on him to whom you are praying, and take care that your thought does not depart from him until your prayer has reached its conclusion. At the very beginning of your prayer, compel yourself so that your tears flow and your mind is filled with suffering: in this way your whole prayer will gain advantage. For any prayer in which reflection on God and mental contemplation is not mingled is a mere weariness of the flesh. Take care that your mind does not wander off during the time of prayer as it thinks about empty matters: in that car, instead of arousing the Judge to reconciliation, you will stir him to anger, having been insulted by you. You are full of fear before the world's judges, but in God's presence you show contempt: if someone is not aware of where he is standing and what he is saying, how can he suppose that he is offering up prayer? No, arouse yourself and concentrate your mind at the times when you stand in prayer; your Lord is speaking with you, so do not wander off; his chosen angels surround you, so do not be perturbed; ranks of demons are standing in front of you, so do not slacken. Rather take refuge in trust in your Lord and start off on the road of prayer confidently, turning aside neither to the right nor to the left; then all of a sudden you will arrive at the pace of tranquillity which is exempt from any element of fear, and the offering of your prayer will be accepted, as was Abel's (Gen 4:4), your mind being attentive and aware: whereas the Adversary who opposes you is put to shame, for he becomes fearful of you during your tie of prayer, seeing that the words of your mouth correspond to the will of God.

Resource: The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, pp 174-175

Thursday, May 9, 2013

On Prayer

By Saint Jacob of Serugh

Prayer reveals the profundities of the Divine,
by it one enters to behold the mystery of hidden things.
It is the key able to open all doors.
From it one can clearly espy what is hidden,
by it the soul can approach to speak with God,
it raises up the mind so that it reaches the Majesty.
It is easy for prayer to learn the mysteries of the Divinity,
for it can go in and out unhindered by angelic powers:
no angel is as swift-winged as prayer,
nor do the seraphim fly up with it as it ascends;
it wishers its words in the ears of the Lord, without any intermediary,
it murmurs in the heart, and God hears it in his exalted place.
Where it ascends not even the Watchers have ever reached,
for it is capable of approaching the very Divinity.
The seraph hides its face from the divine Being with its wings,
but prayer stands there unveiled before the Majesty:
nothing at all stands in the way between it and the Lord,
for it converses with him and he hears it gladly.
The Watchers tremble and the heavenly hosts in their modesty are held back,
whereas prayer goes in and relates its affairs before God.
The cherubim are harnessed and cannot see him whom they bear,
but prayer goes up and speaks with him lovingly.
In its love prayer advances to be raised up above the heavenly orders.
The cherub is afraid to raise its eyes to the Majesty,
being harnessed in its modesty with the pure yoke of flame;
the ranks of fire to not approach the Hidden One,
whereas prayer has authority to speak with him.
Prayer enters closer in than they and speaks unashamed;
above the myriads of heavenly hosts does it pass in flight, unhindered by their ranks.
As though to a close relation prayer reveals its secret to the Lord of the Watchers,
asking of him what is appropriate in all sorts of activities.
Prayer does not bend down to the angels to speak with them,
for it asks God himself, and he bids the angels attend to its affairs.

Resource: The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, pp 171-173