Thursday, June 27, 2013

Did you know your spiritual practice can change your Brain?

Recent scientific research shows:

• Prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress and anxiety. 
• Just twelve minutes of focused prayer per day may slow down the aging process.
• Contemplating a loving God as taught in the Orthodox Church rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety, depression, and stress and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
• Anger and prejudice generated by extreme beliefs can permanently damage your brain.
• Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain-altering your values and the way you perceive reality.
These are the findings of neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. His research team has concluded that active and positive spiritual belief changes the human brain for the better.
If you want to change your life you have to realize that part of your effort is changing your brain. This is work we do in cooperation with Grace, called Synergia. The Orthodox way of life as taught by our Church will lead you to a better life and a union with God. Our aim as Orthodox Christians is to acquire the Holy Spirit so that we are able to do His will and not just our own will. This requires we overcome our tendency to follow habits that we have programmed into our physical brains. Prayer, worship and ascetic practices coupled with the sacraments of the Church can change your life. They help you form new habits that lead you closer to God and a more fulfilling life.

Ten Points for Living an Orthodox Christian Life

Thursday, June 13, 2013


We believe life begins at the time of conception.  This is the moment body and soul are united and a unique being is created by God.  From this point on this new being is being nurtured for a spiritual life, to be united with God.  The life about to unfold is the time where we are developed and perfected in God's image. This being said, pregnancy is an important point in our lives, not just for the mother. 

Elder Paisios says,
The nurturing of a child begins with pregnancy. if a pregnant mother is agitated and worried, the embryo she's carrying in her womb is agitated.  If the mother prays and lives a spiritual life, the child in her womb is sanctified. This is the reason why a pregnant woman should say the Jesus Prayer, study the Gospel, chant hymns and not be anxious, while others should also be careful not to upset her. Then, the child that will be born will be blessed, and the parents will have no problems when the child is young, nor when the child is older.
He is pointing out how important this period of life is in our spiritual formation. it is a time to reinforce our spiritual life, to concentrate on our daily prayer rule, to participate in the Sacraments and read the Gospel. We can also renew our appreciation of the purity of the Mother of God. We should think about how she was prepared for the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. She was prepared by a life brought up in the Temple, being dedicated to the Temple at the age of three.  This was a quiet life where God was her only thoughts.  In this way she was sanctified and prepared to give birth to the uncontainable God.  The icon of her often shown in the apse of our churches is called the "Platytera ton Ouranon: which means "wider then the heavens." A mother's gift of new life is a spiritual task as much as it is a physical one.  Human life is both spiritual and physical. We are psychosomatic beings, not mere biological entities. 

Our care for a new human life obviously extends beyond the moment of birth.
The Elder says,
After the birth, a mother should breast-feed her child for as long as she can. A mother's milk provides a healthy base for children. Children who breast-feed aren't only receiving milk, they are receiving love, tenderness, consolation, security – all of which contributes to developing strong character...
Now days, many mothers can't be bothered to breast-feed their own children.... who will give them tenderness and love? A can of evaporated cow's milk? Their heart is chilled as they're fed from a "chilled" bottle.
In the Church we formally recognize this new life by the Churching of the new born 40 days after birth. A tradition that includes Christ Himself.

The self-sacrificial love we are all called to give to others begins at the very first moment of life. It's important to begin a new life in the way God provided for us.  Today we often see a soldier and say, Thank you for your service."  When we see a pregnant woman we should also say "Thank you for you love and tenderness in nurturing a new spiritual being."  The role a mother plays in the first days of life are very important.  Like God prepared the Theotokos, mothers are preparing their child for a life centered in God.  This does not begin at the age of reason, but begins with the tenderness given from the first moments of life.

Prayer for Pregnant mother and unborn child:
O Sovereign Lord Jesus Christ our God, the Source of life and immortality, I thank Thee, for in my marriage Thou has blest me to be a recipient of Thy blessing and gift; for Thou, O Master, didst say: Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.I thank Thee and pray: Bless this fruit of my body that was given to me by Thee; favor it and animate it by Thy Holy Spirit, and let it grow a healthy and pure body, with well-formed limbs.Sanctify its body, mind, heart, and vitals, and grant this infant that is to be born an intelligent soul; establish him in the fear of Thee.A faithful angel, a guardian of soul and body, do thou vouchsafe him. Protect, keep, strengthen, and shelter the child in my womb until the hour of his birth. But conceal him not in his mother's womb; Thou gavest him life and health.O Lord Jesus Christ, into Thine almighty and paternal hands do I entrust my child. Place him upon the right hand of Thy grace, and through Thy Holy Spirit sanctify him and renew him unto life everlasting, that he may be a comminucant of Thy Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pp 90-91

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Mother's Love

I found this conversation with Elder Paisios to express what I have observed in the role of mothers I know.

He says,
It isn't enough to merely love another, we must love the other more than ourselves. A mother loves her children more than she loves herself. She will stay hungry to feed her children, yet she feels greater pleasure than they do. The children are fed materially, but she is fed spiritually. They experience the taste of food, while she experiences spiritual rejoicing.
A young girl, before she marries, may sleep until ten in the morning and have her breakfast prepared by her mother. She may be too lazy to do even the slightest chores. She wants everything at her beck and call. She has expectations from her mother, expectations from her father, while she sits at her ease. And although she is capable of loving, this ability is not developed because she's completely receiving help and blessings from her mother, her father, her siblings. However, from the moment she becomes a mother, she resembles a little engine that the harder it works, the more it's recharged, because love works constantly. Before, she hated to touch anything unclean, and she used aromatic soaps to wash herself. But after she becomes a mother, when you see how she cleans her soiled child, oh, you would think she's touching marmalade; she's not repulsed by anything. Before, if she was woken up early, she yelled because she was annoyed. Once she becomes a mother, when her child cries, she stays up all night without complaint. She rejoices in taking care of her child. Why? For she is no longer a child. She becomes a mother; sacrifice and love have come into her life.
I always wondered why you always see more women in church than men.  This self-sacrifice a mother gives a child is the essence of spiritual love, the kind of love that Scripture speaks so loudly about and calls us all to practice.  Becoming a mother seems to be something that models the love we are expected to have for all human beings.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual counsels IV: Family Life: pp 84-85

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Sex in Married Life

It is natural for man and woman to be attracted to one another.  This is a God given passion and we know that it is good for "God saw everything that He had made and behold it was very good." (Gen 1:31) After the fall of Adam and Eve and the mortality of mankind, this attraction was essential to perpetuate the human species.  If there were no sexual attraction who would consider having children with all the difficulties associated with this?  

Elder Paisios points out that after Adam and Eve there might have been people with differing intensities sexual desire; some five percent, others thirty percent and others eighty percent.  But where would you find persons with only five percent of such drive today?  We live in a world where the pleasure of sex is glorified. The reality is that we also have been given by God the call and potential to attain what is called dispassion. This is a life based on control of our carnal passions such as sexual desire. To develop this desired state it is necessary to struggle to overcome what we can readily observe in animals who live with uncontrolled sexual desire.  Mankind is more than pure animal as he is also spirit and seeks to be reunited with God. This requires mastering our carnal passions - dispassion.

Some think that Marriage is the justification of uncontrolled sexual activity.  The Elder says not so. 
"The married are not justified, simply because they lead a married life, in forgetting that they are not only flesh, but also spirit, and should therefore, not let themselves be unbridled. The goal is for each couple to struggle with discernment and philotimo, according to their spiritual strength. In the beginning, naturally, the age of the couple will not help; but as the years pass and the flesh is weakened, the spirit can prevail more, allowing the married couples to begin experiencing divine delights. They can withdraw naturally from the carnal pleasures, which they now consider less important. This way the married are also purified and reach Paradise by way of the more comfortable path with its gradual turns.
This is not a matter than can be controlled by one alone, but requires a consensual agreement between man and wife. Its like a dance and a shared growth in spirit. Sexual intercourse is a pleasure give to us by God not only for procreation but also as an expression of our sacrificial love for one another.  It cannot be a desire to simply gain pleasure for oneself but to give pleasure to the other we love so dearly.  This natural passion needs to be used in its proper way and controlled.

This is an issue that will also affect a couple's children if not controlled.  The Elder says,
They have an obligation to struggle to practice temperance, so as not to impart this carnal passions to their children. You see, young children whose parents have a heightened carnal frame of mind, ail, from a younger age, also have these inclinations, because they get their carnal mindset from their parents. At first these passions are very slight, as are all hereditary passions – much like the stinging nettle, very soft at first and easy to touch, but extremely itchy when full grown – and they can be cured by a good Spiritual Father who has discernment. If however they are not treated at a young age, the children will need to struggle mightily when they are older in order to rid themselves of these passions.
When we cannot keep our sexual desires in check it affects our relationship. To seek such pleasure for oneself is selfishness. One becomes a slave to physical desires and love is reduced to sexual pleasure. Love become getting something rather than giving. In this loss of true love, our relationship with God is also lost.  

Physical attraction is a God given passion but it is meant to be controlled. With dispassion that can be developed from childhood, a relationship that ends with a healthy controlled sexual life between a man and a woman is possible. This allows for the full development of our spiritual nature and a growing relationship with God leading to our eventual union with Him in eternal life.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pp 66-68

Monday, June 3, 2013

Patience: Key to Harmony in Family Life

What are we to do when faced by an angry family member?  Elder Paisios advises us to keep quiet and say the Jesus prayer.

He says,
Look, when someone is steaming with anger, no matter what you say, it will come to nothing.  It is better to keep quiet and say the Jesus prayer. With prayer, he'll calm down, and you can then communicate with him. You see, even fishermen don't go fishing unless the sea is calm; they wait patiently for the storm to pass.
So, why are we so impatient with others? Where does patience come from?  The Elder tells it it come from love.

He says,
Patience stems from love. In order to endure the other person, you must feel deep compassion and pain for him... I have seen beasts turn into lambs. With trust in God, everything evolves normally and spiritually.
Most of the difficulties we face in family life stem from insignificant things.  When we look back on them, even those that lead to a divorce, we often see the causes are do to little things. What is required of us to not let these little things overwhelm us. 

The Elder says,
The greatest scandals, not only in families but also in the state authority, stem from the most insignificant things. In the family one person must be humble before the other; one must imitate the other's virtues and also be patient and endure the other's peculiar idiosyncrasies.
How can this be possible?  He continues:
To make this possible, it helps to think of how Christ  sacrificed Himself for our sins and that he bears with us all – billions of people – even though He is without sin. However, when we suffer from the idiosyncrasies of the others, we are paying off the debt of our own sins. God in His goodness has arranged things perfectly, so that with our gifts, we can help each other, and with our faults, we can be humbled by each other. For every person has some gifts; but everyone also has some faults which one must struggle to over come.
For harmony in a family or in a community, we need to constantly be aware that we are all sinners including ourselves. We have to develop patience and not let the failings of others overcome us. We must remember the sacrifice that Christ made for us and how he endured immense pain for our salvation.  This is our path as well. Through our patience that comes our of true love, others will also feel this love and become encourage to also learn to love.  We need to help each other overcome our limitations.  When we are aroused to anger by someone's behavior we are only adding to the difficulty. When we are humble and recognize our own errors and develop patience we will find a way to endure and overcome all obstacles to harmony in life. In the end for those with patience, this harmony is found in heaven with Christ. Follow His example and we will always be right.

Keep these words of Elder Paisios in mind:
A spiritual person must face all things with divine justice by looking to see what will benefit the other person. For when one is weak and makes a mistake, then he is somewhat entitled to a little leniency, because there are extenuating circumstances. But when one who is in a better spiritual condition doesn't display any understanding, then he will be at greater fault.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pp 51-54; 61-62