Monday, March 31, 2014

How Do We Judge Others?

The problem of judging others, even in the slightest way, is that it leads us to to forget our own sinfulness and leads us into idle talk about others. This happens all the time in small social gatherings. It does not take long before someone begins to talk about someone who is not part of this social group. In this idle chit chat we forget about our own problems and project all our inner fears on others. We do this with people who we don't even know.  This may be a leader of our organization or country, or some public figure. How easy to condemn them rather than ourselves. Saint Dorotheos says, "Nothing makes man more naked or carries him so effectively to his ruin as slander, condemnation and disregard of his neighbor."

He tells us that to slander is to say something against another person like "that person lied," or "she became angry."  It is speaking with passion about another's sin. But we often go further than this and condemn the person saying, "that person is a liar," or "she is an angry person." Now we find we are judging the whole person, condemning them. Saint Dorotheos reminds us of the following: "The judgment of others is a much graver sin that any other as Christ Himself said, "Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, then you will  see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother's eye" (Luke 6:42)

The problem with such judging is that we do not know the whole story about how others are struggling. Only God knows. Saint Dorotheos says, "Only God, who knows the situation of each one of us, our strength, environment, our individual gifts, temperament and capacities, can justify or condemn. He can judge each of these things, as He only knows." Based on the situation of each person, the environment they live in, the difficulties they face, the responsibilities they hold, God's judgment will be different. No matter how badly you think another person acts you do not know how much they struggled before they acted. Only God can see another's labor and sorrow and can have mercy on them. God may be merciful to this person we choose to judge, yet we choose to become his judge and in the process lose our own soul. We only know about the sin but we do not know about the repentance.

Saint Dorotheos says,
Those who desire to be saved do not pay attention to the faults of their neighbor, but always to their own and thus progress. Such was the man who saw his brother sinning and groaned, saying "Alas, he sinned today for sure it will be me tomorrow."
We sin ourselves but do not repent and then find judgment in others. We are all hypocrites. How serious this must be for our soul!  It is important not to lose the focus on our own sinfulness and our own need for repentance and our need for the mercy of God.

Saint Dorotheos says,
If we have love, with sympathy and compassion, we shall not see our neighbor's faults, as it says, "Love will cover a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). Again it says that, "Love thinks no evil, bears all things", and so on (1 Cor. 13:5-7).
What do the saints do?  They seek to heal others. Saint Dorotheos writes:
They do not judge or dislike him but suffer with him, admonish him, offer him consolation and healing like a sick member. They do everything to save the sinner. Take the example of fishermen; when they put the fish on the hook into the sea and get a very large fish, if they feel the fish is struggling and fighting, they do not pull it straight away by force, since the line would break and the fish would be lost. Rather, they skillfully give it line and allow it to run freely until they know it is slackened and calm from its struggle. Then they gradually draw it in."
We  must learn to have love and to suffer with others so we can assist them in the right way and at the right time. If we condemn them then we will not make any effort to help them. We all need the help of others who are stronger than ourselves. "We are individually members one of another" (Rom 12:5). "If one member suffers all members suffer with it" (1 Cor 12:26).

Saint Dorotheos says,
Let each one serve the body according to his ability, and try to help one anther whether it is by preaching and putting the word of God into the heart of a brother, consoling him in time of trouble or by giving him a helping hand. The more we love and help each other the closer we are to God.
Saint Dorotheos gives us one of my favorite images of this reality:
Suppose there there is a circle on the earth, as if drawn by a compass. The center is exactly the middle of the circle. Take care to understand what I mean. Let us suppose that this circle is the world and God is the center. The straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of men. As far as the saints, desiring to approach God, move inward, they become near God and near to each other and as far as they approach God, they approach each other. As far as they approach each other, they approach God. You should understand separation in the same way. When they move away from God and follow external things, it is evident that as far as they move away and become distant themselves from each other, they distance themselves from God. This is the very nature of love. In as far as we are outside and do not love God, each one of us is also distanced from his neighbor, but if we love God, the more we approach Him through Love for Him, the more we are united to our neighbor through love, and as much as we are united to our neighbor, we are united to God.
As we see the difficulties in others behaviors we should be careful not to judge and condemn them. Instead we should examine our own behaviors and seek to make improvements there. If we can do this in ourselves then we will have the necessary love to look at others who are struggling and seek effective ways to help them as they struggle. In this way we can become united as one, one to another and one in God.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christain Life, pp 133-140

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Can We Trust Our Own Judgment?

How do you know you are on the right path for you salvation?   How do you know what effort you need to make to grow in your relationship with God?  Can you judge this by yourself?

"Where there is no guidance, they fall like leaves; salvation exists in much counsel," it says in Proverbs 11:14.

One of the truths about our Orthodox way of life is that we will wither and fall like leaves if we do not seek counsel and instead believe we can guide ourselves. How often do we see the new convert who is enthusiastic about fasting, attends all the services, carries a prayer rope and repeats the Jesus prayer, and all the other things one is taught about the faith. But what frequently happens after a period of time? If they rely only on their own guidance they will have found that they took on more than they were capable of and cannot maintain such a way of life. They lose their zeal and without anyone to guide them other than their own direction they fade in their efforts. This often ends with disillusion and even a falling away from the faith.

Our own will becomes our enemy. It leads us where we are incapable of seeking help from those who have greater wisdom. Saint Dorotheos writes,
It is for this reason that Abba Poeman used to say, "the Will is like a brass wall between man and God". Do you see strength in that saying? In addition, he added, "It is like a stumbling stone by which we go against and oppose the Will of God".  If a person relinquishes his will he can truly say, "By my God, I leapt over a wall. As for my God, His way is perfect." (Ps 18:29-30). How wonderfully spoken! For when a person abandons his own will he sees that the way of God is without blemish but when he identifies himself with his own will then he cannot see that the way of God is blameless. If he happens to be cautioned by someone, he immediately blames him, treats him with contempt, dislikes him and opposes him. How can he tolerate anybody or receive any advice whatsoever when he keeps his own will?
Why is it we are so self-willed? Why do we find it hard to trust in the way of life taught by the Church?  Why do we not seek out help from the elders of the Church for our personal guidance? Why is "My way" so important to us?

Saint Dorotheos also  tells us our condition is even worsened when we couple our self-will with self-justification.  That is, when we take the additional step of justifying why our own will is superior to the teachings of the saints, the wise people of the Church. The saint says, "Who can persuade him to believe that another person knows what is good for him better than he does? He is left to himself, left to follow his own thoughts, and the devil can make a corpse of him."

The way we should behave is to freely seek counsel on everything. As Proverbs says, "Salvation exists in much counsel." Of course we must be careful in whom we choose to take council from. It must be somebody we have full confidence in and who is respected for their wisdom regarding things of the spirit.  Saint Dorotheos says, 
"When the soul is protected by telling everything and advised by somebody who is spiritually wise, saying, "Do that," "Do not do that," or "This is good," "This is not good," "This is self-justification," "This is self-will," "It is not the time to do this," or "This is the time to do this," then the devil does not find an excuse to harm the soul or to cast it down."
It is critical to have the desire to do God's will and not our own will. This is humility. Saint Dorotheos says, "There is no other route to salvation than this." To overcome the trap of seeking our own will requires guidance. Otherwise who is guiding? Our own will. Do you see the error?  Even if we read about the good path from a saint, how are we going to know if we are doing it the way it should be done?
"May God shelter us from the danger of guiding ourselves, and make us worthy to follow the way of our fathers."
Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp 123-129

Monday, March 24, 2014

Fear of God - What Does This Mean?

I have always wondered about the meaning of this common phrase, "Fear of God." I never saw God as one to be feared but as one who was loving. There always seemed to be a contradiction in my mind when I heard this phrase. So what does it mean?

In Scripture it says, "perfect love casts out fear" (1John 4:15). Then in Psalms the prophet says, "Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints" (Ps 34:9).  So even those who have perfect love, the saints, also fear Him. Saint Dorotheos clarified this for me.  He says there are two kinds of fear.  One is the fear of a beginner and the other is that of a saint. The first fears God because he is afraid of going to Hell.  The other seeks to please God because he loves Him. In this later case the fear is not one of being afraid of some punishment, but, because he has "tasted the sweetness of being with God," he does not want to lose it. He calls this perfect fear.

From Saint Basil we also find an explanation of the differing kinds of fear.  He says there are three states that we can please God.
   1.) By fearing Hell and following His commandments. In this case we are like a slave.
   2.) By doing His commandments to receive the reward of eternal life or peace. In this case we are like a laborer.
    3). By pleasing God out of love for Him. In this case we are a son of God.

We can love God and fear God at the same time. If we are doing good to avoid punishment in Hell, this is good because it will lead us to the next level where we will be seeking the glorious rewards of eternal life with God in heaven. Now, instead of punishment, we fear we will not gain the rewards.  Finally, we will develop such a love for God that all our actions will be done simply because we love Him and want to be united with Him. We now fear losing this intimate relationship.  We move from fear of punishment, to hope, and then to being united with Him in Love. At each level we are led by fear to avoid evil and to strive for what is good in the eyes of God.

Most of us probably find ourselves in the stage of a laborer. We have lifted ourselves above the struggles of fearing punishment in Hell. We now strive to do His will without concerns about being criticized or oppressed.  We labor hard in our efforts to be a good Christians, all the time with the hope of the life to come.

Why do the fathers say the we attain fear of God when we remember death and Hell? Saint Dorotheos answers this with the negative. He says that if we do not remember death and Hell we expel the fear of God from us. "That is, when we have neither remembrance of death or Hell; when we do not examine ourselves, we do not question ourselves as to how we spend our lives, but we live indifferently and keep company with those who are indifferent." Without this fear of God we become bold through the exercise of our self-will. We lose our respect for others and act in ways, physical or verbal, that others will describe as bold. We need to have the fear of God but with devotion. He says, "So that when you meet each other you bow your head to your brother, each humbling himself before his brother, and cutting off his own will."

We must first know the first level of fear and become a slave before we can become a laborer or a son. If not we face the possibility of being indifferent and becoming bold in our relations with others, acting without proper respect for them.

Saint Dorotheos relates the saying he heard over and over from His elder who would tell him as he departed,  "Let God preserve Love over anything else," followed by one of the following: "Guarding you neighbor's conscience gives birth to humility"; "Never put your will before that of your brother"; "Leave the things of the world"; "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."

He then explains how we can live this way. He says that in whatever task we are doing it should be done "without contention or commotion." You must remember that "whether it is great or small, it is one eighth of what is asked of us." The other seven-eights is doing our work without "contention or commotion." So even if we fail on the one-eighth we can keep something that is even higher, inner peace. Of course we must pursue our tasks carefully, trying to do them properly.  But even more important is to preserve our inner state of peace.  He tells his monks that if he sends one of them to do a task and they see that it will harm them or cause a disturbance, stop and put the work aside leaving it unfinished.

We must think about this in our daily lives.  How often we put the tasks we are assigned over our peaceful relationships with others, at work as well as in our family and with friends.  He is instructing us to give a greater priority to the harmonious relationship than to the achievement of a task.  He is not asking us to  become indifferent or careless in our actions, but to raise our efforts directed to carrying things out to a higher standard. He says,
Give your whole strength to fulfilling all your services with love and humility, submitting to each other, honoring and comforting each other. I dong this nothing is more powerful than humility. However, if one of you sees his neighbor or himself upset at some time, stop the work, withdraw and give way to each other, do not persist, so that harm does not follow. It is better, as I have said a thousand times, not to fulfill the duty as you want, but as needs be, and not obstinately or insisting on one's right. .... Hasten with love and fear of God, to seek the benefit of each other. Thus with the help of God you will be able to profit and make progress from anything that happens.
This is the way of life you are led to with the fear of God.

Do as the deacon commands when he calls the faithful to Communion in the Divine Liturgy saying,  "With the fear of God, faith and love draw near."

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp 109 - 120

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Do We Follow Our Conscience?"

During Lent we are asked to examine ourselves and to seek forgiveness and repent. One of the central aspects of the soul is conscience. We are naturally given by God the ability to distinguish between good and bad.  This is also called the "natural law." In ancient times men like Abraham followed this law and it was latter written down by Moses when it had been dimmed by sin. Finally, Christ came to renew man from our inherited tendency to sin showing us the way to be reunited with God.

We have this capability within our soul, but we cannot bury it like in ages gone past. Unfortunately, for most of us it has become weak due to the habits of our society and our own choices to ignore it.  Our conscience becomes dim and its voice unnoticeable.  

Saint Dorotheos of Gaza writes:
It is up to us now either to bury our conscience under the ground, or to have it shine forth and illuminate us if we obey it. When our conscience says to us, "Do this" and we treat it in contempt, or it says it again and we refuse, then we are burying it underground. Thus, it can not speak to us clearly because of the weight upon it.  But like a lamp that only sheds a dim light, so the conscience gradually starts to show things more darkly and more obscurely."
Throughout our life when we have ignored our conscience we have progressively made it less of a factor in our decision making.  We unknowingly build into our normal way of living sinful habits and think nothing about them.  They become hidden from us. They lead us into to thinking when we are asked to confess our sins to think, "I am not a sinful person, I have not killed any one, I have not stolen from anyone," and so forth. Any effort we make to justify that we are not a sinner only indicates that our conscience is very clouded. 

To develop in our prayer and spiritual life, we need to awaken our conscience so it can become a more powerful guide for us.  It is always opposed to evil and will reprimand us for doing what we should not do and for not doing what we should. Saint Dorotheos says this is why its called "adversary." To reawaken our conscience we must pay attention to the little things. It is through our ignoring our small transgression that we are led to greater and greater ones.  Each small denial of conscience throws another shovel full of dirt on top of it and it does not take long before it is buried by our bad habits.

Saint Dorotheos writes,
When somebody begins to say, "What does it matter if I say that word? What does it matter if I eat that little thing? What does it matter if I pay attention to that?" From the "What does it matter?" of this and "What does it matter?" for that, one obtains the bad and malignant sore and starts to despise and trample upon one's own conscience in great and important matters. Thus, progressively one is in danger of falling into total insensibility.
Therefore we must be careful not to neglect the small things in our lives.  Each little transgression is important. If we do not pay attention to them, they become what Saint Dorotheos says "are cancer for the soul." He says, "Both the life of holiness and the sinful life start from little things and lead to greater ones, either good or bad."

Our conscience  is something we need to realize needs our protection.  We need to guard it from being trampled on. This is so in relations with others as well as material things. All God's commandments must be followed even when no one is watching us. Saint Dorotheos tells us that to guard our conscience with regard to one's neighbor "Is doing absolutely nothing  at all that will upset or wound him, either by deed, word, gesture or even with a glance." The same is true for our use of material things. Nothing should be misused or wasted.

We should never feel remorse over the direction of our conscience.  It is essential to be extra vigilant to make sure we follow its guidance no matter how weak it may be.  As we listen and follow its voice we will become stronger and the Holy Spirit will aid us in carrying out its direction.

When you cannot muster the discipline to act on this inner voice, do as Saint Theophan says,"compensate the conscience at once through your own inner repentance at home.  Confess it to the priest later." Shortly you will find your ability to abide by your conscience increases dramatically.

Saint Paul says,

"And in this do I always exercise myself, to have a conscience clear of offense towards God and towards men."

See other posts on Conscience

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teachings on the Christian Life, pp 101-105

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Healing Prayer by Elder Sophrony

Elder Sophrony writes, "If any of  my readers is suffering from some psychological wound occasioned by failure in life, he can attain to regal freedom of spirit and radically change his whole life if he turns to God every day with a personal prayer such as this, for example:"

Prayer at Daybreak
Eternal King without beginning, You who are before all worlds, my Maker, Who have summoned all things from non-being into this life: bless this day that You, in Your inscrutable goodness, give to me. By the power of Your blessing enable me at all times in this coming day to speak and act for You, to Your glory, in Your fear, according to Your will, with a pure spirit, with humility, patience, love, gentleness, peace, courage, wisdom and prayer, aware everywhere of Your presence.
Yes, Lord, in Your immense mercy, lead me by Your Holy Spirit into every good work and word, and grant me to walk all my life long in Your sight without stumbling, according to Your righteousness that You have revealed to us, that I may not add to my transgressions.
O Lord, great in mercy, spare me who am perishing in wickedness; do not hide Your face from me. And when my perverted will would lead me down other paths, do not forsake me, my Savior, but force me back to Your holy path.
O You Who are good, to Whom all hearts are open, You know my poverty and my foolishness, my blindness and my uselessness, but the sufferings of my soul are also before You. Wherefore I beseech You: hear me in my affliction and fill me with Your strength from above. Raise me up who am paralyzed with sin, and deliver me who am enslaved to the passions. Heal me from every hidden wound. Purify me from all taint of flesh and spirit. Preserve me from every inward and outward impulse that is unpleasing in Your sight and hurtful to my brother.
I beseech You: establish me in the path of Your commandments and to my last breath do not let me stray from the light of Your ordinances, so that Your commandments may become the sole law of my being in this life and in all eternity.
O God, my God, I plead with You for many and great things: do not disregard me. Do not cast me away from Your presence because of my presumption and boldness, but by the power of Your love lead me in the path of Your will. Grant me to love You as You have commanded, with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind, and with all my strength: with my whole being.
For You alone are the holy protection and all-powerful defender of my life, and to You I ascribe glory and offer my prayer.
Grant me to know Your truth before I depart this life. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer You true repentance. Do not take me away in the midst of my days, and when You are pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me of my death, so that I may prepare my soul to come before You.
Be with me then, O Lord, on my great and sacred day, and grant me the joy of Your salvation. Cleanse me from manifest and secret sins, from all iniquity hidden in me; and give me a right answer before Your dread judgment-seat.

Reference: His Life is Mine, pp 52-53

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Taking Lent Seriously - Repentance

Lent is not just about fasting, but more importantly it is a period for introspection and repentance. If we are taking Lent seriously we will have made time for quiet reflection and made plans for a full confession with a priest.  Repentance is not something we do only in Lent, but is part of an Orthodox way of life. After all Christ began His teaching saying, "Repent, for the kingdom is at hand."  But during Lent the Church gives it special emphasis.

Elder Sergei of Vanves tells us that there are two kinds of repentance:
    1. Repentance that involves the confession of a specific sin.
    2. Repentance that is based on a general sinful state.

The first typed is critical, because to not repent for a specific sin is to remain in sin and to be separated from God and His Church.  For a specific sin there are three stages of repentance.
    First, repenting as soon as the sin is committed.
    Second, recalling it at the end of the day and asking for God's forgiveness.
    Third, confessing it when one receives the sacrament of Confession.

At the third stage we receive a full pardon and are reunited with Christ through the Holy Spirit as the prayer of absolution is read by the priest. In the eyes of God the sin no longer exists.  Your heavenly record is cleared and our conscience is relieved of its burden.

At the first stage we can gain forgiveness from God from lesser sins like wicked thoughts.  Elder Sergei says, "If you have a wicked thought and repent by desiring to think and act otherwise, this sin is erased immediately."

The Elder emphasizes the need for the second stage. He advises that we should provide a specific concentrated time for repentance each day, even if it is only but a few seconds.  This involves searching our conscience and making a spiritual critique of all our activities of the day. We should identify all that was evil as well as the good we did not do and that which was done without the proper attitude or thought. After  our examination we can ask God for forgiveness. This must be done with sincerity and with a contrite heart, feeling remorse that we were not able to do everything according to His will.

Elder Sergei also tells us not to pay attention to our past sins.  We are to live each day as a new day. We must remember that sin is not part of our true nature.  If we are not careful we can be led to despair and this we must avoid as it is a greater sin.

The second type of repentance is a more general condition, one many of us may have neglected. This is our sinful state that we inherited from the sin of Adam which has separated us from God. It is also called ancestral sin which we have inherited at our birth. It is a general state of our being where we have the inborn tendency to sin. The recognition of this may be termed as contrition.  Because of this condition we must also repent for the sins we have committed unknowingly. But how can we ask for forgiveness for that which we do not know we have done? Are we not only responsible for those sins we have knowingly committed? The reality is that this may be our largest area of sinfulness. Out of our ignorance and our psychological needs, such sins are hidden in our mind but linger underneath our awareness. We frequently unknowingly do something that offends another person and do not realize, or acknowledge, the impact of our actions. Each time we cause another person to suffer, knowingly or unknowingly, we have sinned. We need to admit the limits of our conscience and our spiritual weakness that leaves us in a condition where we are unable to discern such sins. The Elder advises us to ask God: "Forgive me of my sins which I do not know, for all my unconscious sins."  In addition we should recognize all our failures and insufficiencies. This means acknowledging in front of God our sorrow for not loving Him or our neighbor sufficiently, not having enough compassion or not praying enough.

Elder Sergei says that repentance is necessary for everyone because we are all sinners.  We all live in sin from birth, a state where we have a tendency to sin. Fortunately, our merciful God knows our condition and expects us to continually repent. God does not look favorably on anyone who does not think they are a sinner and does not see the need for repentance. Even if we do not feel we have sinned we must still have the feeling that we are sinners and with humility be repentive for our weakness and general condition, ever seeking to improve ourselves in the eyes of God.

According to Elder Sergei, repentance is "the key to spiritual life." It is the way we gain forgiveness from God. It allows us to become purified so we can be united with God. It allows us to have effective prayers and a true relationship with God. Thorough the humility that comes with a life of repentance we gain the support of the Holy Spirit which helps us in all kinds of difficult situations we face as the result of life in this world. He says that repentance is a normal state for all Christians.  This is the characteristic of the lives of the saints. It is the surest path for spiritual progress.

So if we are to take Lent seriously we must repent each day and seek a deeper understanding of our sinful nature, knowing that God will help us if we do repent. It is a good time for those who have not regularly participated in the sacrament of Confession to arrange for this sacrament.

Reference: Elder Sergi of Vanves: His Life and Teachings by Jean-Claude Larchet, pp 29-34

Monday, March 10, 2014

Regaining Peace When Emotional

At sometime during our emotionally and time filled day we will most likely experience a moment when we simply lose it.  Out of frustration we may yell out. Out of anger we may say something we wish we had not said. The key to maintaining peace is to recognize when our emotions have taken over the normal functioning of our mind and body.

Emotions work very quickly in our body. It's part of a system of self-defense that God has given us, but it needs to be controlled and reserved for those times when we really are in danger.  Dr Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens) studied how emotions work in the the body. He found that first there is some input from our senses that serves as a trigger. This may be verbal attack on our self-esteem, a put down. It may be a challenge to our given authority, or a desire that is suddenly blocked. It may be a reprimand by a coworker or authority figure. When this event occurs we can easily loose it. In less than a second the brain sends commands to the other regions of the brain and almost everywhere in the body proper.  In the bloodstream commands are sent in the form of chemical molecules that act on receptors in the cell of body tissues. In the neuron pathways commands take the form of electrochemical signals which act on other neurons or muscular fibers or organs which in turn can release chemicals of their own into the bloodstream.  The result is a instantaneous change in the whole state of our biological system. Our heart rate will increase and other physical changes will take place.  It is only after all this takes place that we become aware of a feeling. The implication of this is that when we do experience extreme feelings we need to be aware that our body has been changed and is prepared for a fight. To act with a mind of peace, we need to intervene quickly in a way that will bring our system back to normal.

Here is the best way to do this. As soon as you recognize this change in state, stop what you are doing. Immediately begin saying the Jesus prayer. Excuse yourself from any further interaction before you act in a way that may get you into trouble. Now is the time to take a prayer walk. A prayer walk is when you walk and say the Jesus Prayer. With each step say one word of the prayer. Your whole body becomes the prayer. If you can, leave the building for a few minutes, all the time saying the prayer. When outside walk in cadence with the words of the prayer. In minutes you will be brought back to a peaceful state and you will be able think rationally again. Now you can choose how to enter the situation you were in when this was triggered. You may choose to not reenter. But now you are no longer a physical state prepared for a fight. You can again act with a peaceful mind.

This prayer walk is a most powerful tool. But to use it you must first establish a peaceful mind based on the daily practice of the Jesus Prayer.  With this practice you will also become watchful of all negative thoughts entering into your heart. You will be more aware of your mental state. But there will still be times when the body's defense system takes over where you need to make an intervention to maintain your peacefulness and Christian attitude. With this ability to be watchful will come the ability to know when to intercede and take a prayer walk. 

Whatever your state of spiritual development you will find the Jesus Prayer walk a useful way to bring you back in touch with God when you have separated from him based on emotions. Try it. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gaining Inner Peace

Many of us experience life filled with turmoil. Our inner thoughts rage from one issue to another. It may seem like there is never time to stop and reflect. Peace is something desired but rarely experienced. But peace is the message of Christ. Jesus said to his disciples before His crucifixion, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you" (John 14:7).  The Apostle Paul preached, "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ" (Phil 4:7). Our Christian faith is supposed to bring us peace, but yet even though we believe in Christ many seldom experience this peace. What is lacking?

The main issue is that our minds are too busy and we lack the ability to control our thoughts. This is a discipline we can learn through a combination of our own effort and God's grace. First, we should pray for inner peace. Second, we should examine our daily prayer rule and modify it.  Prayer combined with repentance can bring peace and help us develop the discipline to control our minds. With a mind under control we make better decisions that lead us to a more peaceful life.

From my own experience, the practice of the Jesus Prayer is the most important practice for those seeking inner peace. For this to be effective a considerable amount of time needs to be committed to its practice. It requires at least one-half hour each day in the beginning and more later.

The most difficult part of this practice is committing the time to do it each and every day, without exception. It must become a habit just like brushing your teeth. Each day you miss you will fall back at least three days. It is easiest to make this time available in the morning by deciding to get up one-half hour earlier. It is also the quietest time for your body as well as your surroundings. This of course means you will have to go to bed one-half hour earlier as well.  That is the hard part. Most likely you have a habit in the evening of relaxing, escaping the issues of the day, by watching a television program. This you will have to give up to make time for prayer.

Once you have made these decisions the rest is easy, as long as you have the inner desire for peace that comes from your faith in Christ. This is a practice of love of God.  It is motivated not just for relief from anxiety, but for a desire to walk your life in union with Christ and to experience the peace He had in all kinds of situations.

The prayer is simple, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." You simply repeat it over and over. You begin your prayer time in a special quiet place where you have your icons and a candle which you can light before you begin. Take a few moment to quite your body and repeat the Trisagion prayer, then begin the repletion of the Jesus Prayer. Focus on the words. Say it aloud in the beginning. Don't try and rush. You have committed the time (You can set a timer so you know when the time is up) so there is no time pressure. Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica tells us, "We should say the words of the prayer knowing that the Lord sees us and He is listening to us."

Once you begin this discipline you will find that your mind is distracted by many thoughts. You will notice that you can observe yourself thinking. This is called the place of the silent witness, treasure it. When you encounter thoughts, you want to immediately and gently reject them and focus on the words of the Prayer. This is normal. You may discover some repeating thoughts related to an issue that requires forgiveness and repentance. If so, note it and seek forgiveness and arrange for the sacrament of Confession and determine actions to change this aspect of your behavior.  But, while in your prayer time, do not focus on any issues. This is not a time for problem solving. Try and focus only on the prayer with sincerity, love for God, and a contrite heart seeking His mercy. 

You will find this is difficult. Do not be discouraged as it is through difficulty that we progress and learn to control this wild activity of our mind. As they say, "No pain, no gain." You need to have persistence, endurance and faith that the Lord will help you. Remind yourself why you are engaging in this prayer life, you are seeking inner peace that comes from God for a life that is no longer filled with anxiety and turmoil but is lived with peace.

You also want to keep your focus on your heart and not on your head or brain. It is in the heart, the center of our soul, where Christ resides within us.  Elder Sophrony tells us, "Keep your mind firmly focused on God, and the moment will come when the immortal Spirit touches the heart." We are not to seek any experience in this effort other than silence and peace. We should also not try to create any images in our mind and should reject those that do come. Over time, you will begin to find silence in the space between the words as the mind becomes more controlled.

Also this prayer will become part of you and during the day you can seek out ways to repeat it often. Use it when you are feeling stressed, when you are bored or feel impatient. Fill you mind with God whenever you have a chance. Eventually this prayer will be with you throughout your day and will bring comfort and a recentering of your life on Christ. This will bring peace.

There are many articles on how to pray, but the most difficult aspect is to just do it.  Make the time! Make the commitment! Be consistent! After you begin and have made some effort for several months you will notice a change in your life. Thank God for this blessing.  At this time you may want to seek out some articles to give you encouragement.  These articles and more on the Jesus prayer can be found at

Everyone can benefit from this practice. Its a part of our Orthodox Tradition. All it takes is your commitment to make time for it.

Let's all pray that the Lord will bring us all a quiet mind filled with peace. When this happens we will have peace in the world. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Taking Lent Seriously

Instead of making decisions to change our normal activities during Lent, many seem satisfied to continue life as in any other period. They go to church on Sunday, they don't participate in the additional Lenten services, their social life proceeds as normal, and they even ignore the fast. 

What does it mean to take Lent seriously? It means we engage in it whole heartedly as a spiritual challenge and opportunity. This means we make special plans to make an extra effort during this period. We can think of this period as a gift of God encouraging us to seek ways to perfect ourselves, to make changes in our way of life, to be renewed and deepen our spirituality. It is a period intended for Repentance and change.

We are prepared by the themes of the Sundays precede Lent: the desire of Zacchaes to repent, the humility of the Publican, the welcomed return of the Prodigal Son , of the Final Judgment we will all face, and the need and power of forgiveness. Meditate on these Gospel lessons (Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14); Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32); Judgment (Meat-fare) Sunday (Matt 25:31-46); Forgiveness (Cheese-Fare) Sunday (Matt 6:14-21). Combined, they provide the foundation for the right motivation during Lent.

Next, we find on the church calendar many additional services. If we are serious about Lent we will make plans to participate in them, increasing our time devoted to prayer. This requires a decision and extra effort. The main services are the Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays and the Salutations on Friday evenings.

Of course there is also fasting to go along with our additional time in prayer. Without fasting you cannot say there is Lent. To understand its importance review the story of Adam and Eve. Their transgression involved eating against God’s will. Also the first act of Christ when he began His public ministry was a 40 day fast. Food is central to life. Without it there is biological death. We tend to think of the essentials of life only in terms of nourishment, but we must lift our thoughts to consider a higher life which depends on God instead of food. In fasting we are reminding ourselves of the great truth, life is not dependent on bread alone but on God. The problem for Adam was that he ate for his own sake, to be independent of God, thinking the fruit of the tree would make him like God. Adam in disobeying Gods command to not eat of this fruit lost eternal life. Christ came to restore what had been lost. He began with a fast. It says in Scripture, "When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry" (Matt 4:2). Hunger makes us realize that we are dependent on something more than what we have in ourselves. It raises the important question, What does my life depend on? With fasting we face the temptation Christ faced during His fast. When he rejected it He said, “It is written (Deuteronomy 8:3), ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matt 4:4). He restored the relationship between food, life and God. By fasting we enter into that experience Christ had and with the understanding that life is dependent on more than food. The life we seek is eternal and depends on God. When fasting we can experience food as a gift from God and realize how our life in this world and the next world are dependent on Him. It is through fasting that we can recover the realization of our spiritual nature. We denounce the temptations that come when we are hungry or not able to satisfy a desire for a certain kind of food. We develop inner strength against temptations. When combined with prayer we experience the victory of Christ over evil. We learn that our greater hunger is a hunger for God. This is why our fast in Lent is also coupled with additional prayer services. To be serious about Lent is to be serious about our salvation and our desire to be united with God. In preparing for our fast we must think about more that the "rules" of fasting. It is not enough to simply follow the "rules." The fast must be God centered. It must be viewed as something to help us discover our body as the Temple of His presence.  True fasting will lead us to temptation, discomfort, showing us our weakness and raising doubts. Lent is long enough to test our resolve, our endurance and perseverance which are all necessary to follow the path to union with Christ.

If we are serious about Lent, we also make modifications in our way of life during Lent. We brace ourselves to go against the grain of our modern materialistic and self-centered culture that ignores most religious traditions and efforts. If we are serious about Lent we will choose not to follow the norm. We will instead reduce our level of activity to make room for silence and inner reflection. We should reduce the use of TV, internet surfing, video watching and games, as well as other forms of entertainment and pastimes. This does not have to be a complete absence but a reduced one. We can watch the news and carefully select other programming that is beneficial for our soul. We want to make more time for spiritual reading, listening to spiritual talks, and prayer. We should try to create an atmosphere in our homes that encourages spiritual enrichment during this period. We want gain the experience of what is important for the true life that comes from faith and a life lived by this faith.

Let's become serious about Lent, let's attend the extra services, let's fast, let's reduce our social activities, let’s limit our time spent on Internet surfing, videos and games. Instead, lets make time for inner introspection that leads us to repentance, nurturing our soul, and deepening or relationship with God.

Thank God for this special time and do take Lent seriously.

Have a good and spiritual Lent.

Reference: Great Lent, Alexander Schmemann.