Monday, May 26, 2014

For a Healthy Soul

Jesus Christ provides us all the medicine we need for a healthy soul.  He gives us the proper prescription for every passion.

Saint Dorotheos says:
For vanity He gives the commandment regarding humility; for love of pleasure, continence; for avarice, charity; In brief, each passion has a suitable commandment that is the right medicine for it.
We have a good doctor.  He is experienced and has proven remedies. If we follow the doctor's direction there is no reason for having an unhealthy soul.  Our only problem is our own. We must be obedient and follow the Doctor's orders.

Saint Dorotheos asks,
Why do we waste our lives? We hear so many things but we do not care and are disdainful.
The way to salvation is given to us.  But do we want to be saved?  Do we care about our spiritual health?  Or, do we let our passions run wild unchecked. It's best to start while we are young because then the roots of our passions are shallow, but as we grow older they become very deep, forming habits that are hard to root out.

Saint Dorotheos advises,
A person should examine himself every evening as to how he spent the day and again every morning as to how he spent the night. Of course, he must repent about those matters in which he has sinned... Each one of us should say to himself, "Can it be that I have spoken and wounded my brother? Have I seen him doing something and judged him, humiliated or condemned him? Have I asked the cellarer for something and when he didn't give it to me, grumbled about him? Have I abused the cook and hurt him when the food was not well prepared or have I just been disgusted in my heart, and grumbled? Even if one complains to himself it is a sin.
Remember that both virtue and evil can become a habit if practiced continually. Depending on how we live our lives our habits can either condemn or comfort us.

Saint Dorotheos says,
We must struggle and pray to God, night and day, that we might not fall into temptation.  Even if, as humans, we are defeated and we fall into sin, let us try to get up immediately. Let us repent and cry before God's goodness. Let us be attentive. Let us labor and God, seeing our will and our contrition, will give us a helping hand and grant us His mercy.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp 179 - 187

Monday, May 19, 2014

Passage Meditation Leads You to Prayer and a Better Life

There are some who scoff at the notion of slowing down.  But I can attest with my own life that this is possible and most beneficial.  While I presently have the flexibility of a life without worries of a paying job or raising a young family, for many years I had great responsibilities and jobs that many would say are quite stressful and a young family.  Early on in my career as a production control manager in an automobile assembly plant I had to resort to taking tranquilizers to avoid anxiety attacks. Later, I learned how to manage such stress with even greater responsibilities. There was not just the issue of job related stress but also the need for quality time at home with my wife and children.  Many have complain that they do not have enough time with their children or even worse feel like their children are bothering them. This, as well as stress, is the result of a life that is not under control and a mind running at too high a speed.

Initially, I did not have the benefit of good instruction about my Orthodox way of life and did not know about the practice of the Jesus Prayer early in my life. My faith at that time was about going to church most Sundays.  But I was led (I am now sure it was by my guardian angel) to learn about the practice of passage meditation. This allowed me to learn to slow my life down, to manage job related stress and to have quality time with my family without feeling that they were bothering me because of my overly busy schedule and relentless responsibilities of work.

At the urging of a friend who heard about the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, I went to a meditation retreat for a weekend.  As a result, I made a choice to spend a half-hour each morning saying over and over slowly in my mind the prayer of Saint Francis. I simply chose to get up a half-hour earlier each day to do this.  I committed to do this every day without fail.  I convinced myself that each day I missed would be like losing three days practice.  I did this even when I traveled, which I was frequently called to do because of my work as a general manager. Rather than giving me less time, by taking this half-hour in the morning I gained more quality time later.  I immediately saw how confused my mind was and began to observe my own thoughts.  This is a perspective gained that comes from a higher part of our soul. This is one of the first significant insights I gained from this meditation practice. Once you begin to observe your own thoughts you begin to see how you can control them by accepting or rejecting them.

In the practice of passage mediation, which is similar to he practice of the Jesus Prayer, you learn to deal with thoughts that enter your mind when you try and say a passage over and over slowly.  You focus on the words of the passage allowing small spaces of silence between them.  It is like a physical workout.  You exercise you brain "muscles" to slow down your thought process. It is by working at this over and over each day that your mind begins to slow down. Very quickly this begins to have a positive effect our your daily life. At work your mind does not get confused when a stressful situation arises but stays calm and clear so you can address the most difficult issues with your best thoughts and actions.  At home you are no longer driven by your worries or left over burdens from your work.  You can leave theses thoughts at the office and concentrate on quality time with your family and friends.  You are no longer bothered by their interruptions but enjoy this interaction.  It's all about control of the mind.

Later, this practice led me to the discovery of the Jesus Prayer which is even more powerful than passage meditation. By repeating, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," you are humbling yourself in front of God and seeking His mercy and grace.  This God freely gives when we are humble and seek His help. So now in addition to the control of the mind you also receive the help of God through His grace to focus your life on His purpose for you. The Jesus Prayer begins to bring us closer to God while at the same time slowing down our life.  The passage meditation is more about reducing stress and developing a discipled mind, while the Jesus Prayer will in addition bring you closer to God. Orthodox Christians are most blessed to have this teaching as a part of their faith.

This half-hour in the morning eventually became an additional half-hour in the evening.  Then later, I supplemented my Jesus prayer  with the reader services of the Church for Matins and Compline plus the reading of psalms.  It was a progression.

From my experience, starting with simple passage meditation using the Jesus Prayer, even if it seems mechanical, builds a foundation for true prayer and the possibility of controlling the passions that distract us from God and lead us to a stressful and busy life.

You can find more information about the Jesus Prayer on our Orthodox Prayer website or in other postings in this blog.  On the Orthodox Prayer website you will find articles by many Church Fathers as well as other references for your study.  But, as my initial meditation teacher used to say, "Just start it and do it every day for a half-hour."  It's that simple.  Start and struggle with the thoughts that will try and distract you.  It's not as easy as you might think. As you struggle you will naturally gain a welcome control of your mind. This is only gained by doing it and not reading about it.  So do it!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Key to Spiritual Life: Purpose and Vigilance

Having spent many years wandering aimlessly in my spiritual life, I now know that what is key is to have a clear purpose and to become very vigilant.  Developing a relationship with God cannot be a casual task.  Yes, God is everywhere and available to everyone anytime, but it is our lack of mental discipline that limits us.  Our minds are very active with the things of this world.  It continually works to satisfy our physical needs and emotional passions. Without a clear focus on why we are here on earth, this all makes sense, but we will find that we lack a meaningful relationship with God. Our own needs, our ego centered focus takes control and blocks out the grace that is ours for the asking.

Saint Dorotheos tells us: 
If someone wants to obtain virtue he must be neither indifferent nor lofty, since, as someone who wants to learn to be a carpenter pays attention to no other art. It is the same for those who want to acquire some spiritual work.
Like a trade or any other skill we must practice self-discipline and work earnestly on our relationship with God. To develop a spiritual life we must work at it daily. This is not a sometimes Sunday activity.  It must be a focus of our life, one that motivates us to work at it daily.

Many of us avoid the whole idea of sin.  We believe we are good people. We say, "I have not killed or stolen from anyone."  We think we are virtuous when our own statement identifies us as self-centered and arrogant spiritually. First, we have to wake up to the reality that we are all sinful and to deny this is the poorest spiritual condition. To develop the virtues and live according to the full meaning of the commandments we must realize that we have some serious work to do.

When we are not working earnestly on living the virtues with the help of God's grace, our soul becomes distracted and controlled by our passions.  This is the way evil works. It relies on our negligence and inattention to God and our own behaviors.

Saint Basil the Great says:
The person who does not allow his thought to incline towards excess or deprivation but directs it to the midpoint, that of virtue, is upright in heart.
The virtues are a middle way and difficult to master without our full attention. Saint Dorotheos expains it this way,
For example: courage is between humility and boldness, humility is between pride and obsequiousness. Likewise, reverence is a mean between shame and impudence, and so on with the other virtues. If there is a person who became worthy of these virtues, he is honest before God and in spite of the fact that he appears to eating, drinking and sleeping like all the others, he is honest through the virtues he has obtained. However, if someone is not vigilant and does not take care of himself, he will easily digress from this path either to the right or to the left, that is to say, towards excess or laxness and thus he gives birth to the sickness of evil.
Our task is to get serious, admit we are not perfect, embrace the love of God who will help us, and examine the true nature of our lives. The imperfections we see in others we have in ourselves. How serious are we about our spiritual life?  How central is God in our daily lives.  Is our relationship with Him our top priority? Do we assume that we are virtuous in our activities?  Have we failed to examine the full nature of our way of living? How attentive are we to how God asks us to live?

Saint Dorotheos says:
There are three situations of man.  There is the person that allows the passions to operate and the person who does not allow them to act manifestly and the person who roots out the passions. The first is the person that adjusts his life according to the passions, the person that fully satisfies them. The person that does not live the passions manifestly is one who does not leave them free to act but neither does he cut them out but he disputes with them and lives with the passions inside him. The person that roots out the passions is one that struggles against them and always acts opposed to them.
So which kind of person are you? Are you one who loves the passions or allows your habits to control your actions? Maybe we do have some regrets about our actions but rationalize that we are no worse than others around us, in fact maybe a little better. Or are we one who fights our passions, attempting to find this balance, to focus on our relationship with God and avoidance of non-virtuours actions. Do we take it to the stage of struggling to uproot our temptations so they never control our behaviors?

To be in relationship with God, and to do His will, to live according to the virtues requires daily discipline. We have to examine ourselves each day and determine if we have made a little bit of progress. Even of we do not uproot our passions we can act to restrain them. We must must make sure we feel this tension and are struggling with the passions that are active in our being. This is the nature of a spiritual life and a life that is lived in union with God.

The nature of our spiritual life is all about how much we desire to be united with God and to become a true disciple.  It requires purpose and vigilance.

Reference: Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teaching on the Christian Life, pp169 - 176

Thursday, May 8, 2014

How to Console Those Who Suffer a Life Threatening Disease?

One of the most difficult things I face is trying to console someone who is suffering from a serious life threatening disease. Often they are scared and wanting to hide from their difficulty. Often, even their family members are afraid. When this happens they seem to be blocked from God and are unable to receive His help and consoling love. In such cases I have found there is little I can to do to help someone who is in this state.  About all I can do is let them know I care about them, listen and patiently wait. I would like to offer them some consoling words from Scripture, help them pray, or offer a healing Sacrament, but often they are not able to receive. I listen and pray for them. 

I don't have any direct personal experience with such suffering, having never faced a life threatening disease or accident.  I have experienced this with those who are close to me. I have lost my mother and both of my wife's parents as well as close friends and relatives.  My wife recently went though a battle with breast cancer.  When we heard the news it was a shock. She did not panic but did not want anyone to know about her condition. I don't think either of us were cast into a state of fright. But, it is hard to understand her need to not let anyone know about her plight. We followed the doctor's advice and prayed for the Lord's help. I can't say either of us were ever afraid. Deep down we knew that our Loving God would be with us no matter the outcome.  

A reader of this blog sent me a sermon given by Saint Nicholas Velimirovic on suffering that I wanted to share.

Homily by St.Nicholas Velimirovic

"Do not be afraid of anything that you are going to suffer. Remain faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life" (Revelation 2:10). 
By His suffering our Lord eased our suffering. He endured the greatest of pain and emerged as the Victor. That is why He can encourage us in our lesser sufferings. He suffered and endured in righteousness while we suffer and endure in expiating our own sins. This is why He can doubly remind us to endure to the end as He, the Sinless One, endured. Not one of us has helped nor alleviated His pains and endurance, yet He stands along side each one of us when we suffer and alleviates our pains and misfortunes. That is why He has the right to tell each one who suffers for His Name's sake: "Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid of anything that you are going to suffer," says Christ, for I alone have endured all suffering and am familiar with them. I was not frightened at not a single suffering. I received them upon Myself and, in the end, overcame them all. I did not overcome them by dismissing them or fleeing from them but receiving them all upon Myself voluntarily and enduring them all to the end. And so you also should accept voluntary suffering, for I see and know how much and for how long you can endure. 
If your suffering should continue to death itself and if it is the cause of your death, nevertheless, do not be afraid; "I will give you the crown of life." I will crown you with immortal life in which I reign eternally with the Father and the Life-Giving Spirit. God did not send you to earth to live comfortably, rather to prepare for eternal life. It would be a great tragedy if your Creator were unable to give you a better, longer, and brighter life than that which is on earth which reeks of decay and death and is shorter than the life of a raven. 
O my brethren, let us listen to the words of the Lord and all of our sufferings will be alleviated. If the blows of the world seem as hard as stones, they will become as the foam of the sea when we obey the Lord. 
O Victorious Lord, teach us more about Your long-suffering; and when we become exhausted, extend Your hand and sustain us.

We all do or will suffer in some way. Maybe you have some advice to share with us. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

What's the Point of Slowing Down?

As I return from a delightful visit with my son and his family in Connecticut, I found in my mail a booklet from a group of spiritual people I knew at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. It was lessons from their founder, Eknath Easwaran, that I was led to the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The theme in this issue was "slowing down". They began with the question, "What's the point of slowing down?  

Each time my wife and I visit our children we always comment about how hectic their life seems. My grandkids have no free time. They are off to dance lessons, cheerleading, soccer and other activities leaving barely enough time for home work. Their parents are busy with their own jobs, activities and getting their children from one place to another. They have little time left. It seems it's a very busy world these days. There is no time for prayer, meditation or reflection on why we are doing what we are doing. We act like prisoners of time, acting like slave robots. Have we lost our freedom to make choices? Are we living in automatic control governed by our compulsions? When do we take time to ponder on the deeper questions of life and to examine how we are spending our lives? Do we really enjoy this sped up life?

When our spiritual fathers ask us to slow down, they are not asking us to give up achieving important things. They are asking us to focus on what is really important and to approach them with a positive, focused and reflective attitude with God's will I'm mind. It is only in this way that we are able to do His will. When our lives are in the fast lane our minds are there also. We find our thoughts racing through our minds so fast that we can't even complete them. We are not able to discern which have quality and must do really well.

When we slow our lives down we will slow our minds as well. We will be able to focus on our tasks with quality and discern how to live according the the Gospel virtues. As we slow down we will become more capable of discerning what is important and able to reflect on the best way to do these tasks. We can then choose to do what is important in a moderate pace, one that is not harried or stressful. 

Think about the craziness of our times, we have attained a material well being that is far superior to that of any civilization. Yet, we seem to have less time for what really matters. Our skills are diluted, our efforts are not aimed to create loving relationships, to have strong families, solid relationships at work, or to help our neighbors or community. We are living on the surface unable to dig deep into what truly matters for our salvation.

The key to a better life, to one that is lived in relationship with God, is living in a way that we can slow our mind down so we can become watchful of all our thoughts, providing discernment before we act. Fundamental to this is a sound prayer life. This takes time. To make the time we must do less of something else. As we take time for prayer, our thinking process will slow down and we will gain control over the busyness of our lives. Ask yourself, when was it you had the time to sit quietly and reflect?

What are we to do? To begin with you can make a simple list of all the things you do. Then, go over this list and cross out everything that is not necessary or beneficial. Be willing to accept that you cannot do everything. We all have unique skills and are called to contribute in different ways. We cannot allow ourselves to be trapped by thinking that we will only be valued if we try to do it all. This behavior of trying to do it all will only cause conflict with others and add more stress to life. No one gains by our busyness. It's only a false sense of our ego, our need to make ourselves feel important. But, in truth, the true sense of being valued only comes from our relationship with God. All our activities will not assure us a loving relationship with our Creator and Savior.

As you review this list you can seek input from you spiritual father or trusted friends and begin to create a purposeful list. Make sure your relationship with God is at the top of this new list. This implies that you will make time to be in communication with Him, to have time daily for prayer. I don't mean a quick minute or two, but a half hour or more in the morning and evening.

A life in the slow lane begins early in the morning. You get up early when it's still quiet, you pray. You make time for a leisurely breakfast with family or friends and enjoy the rising sun and the break of the new day. Don't eat standing up, but sit and make it a pleasurable time.

When you are ready to set out for work or errands, make time for a mental check to make sure you have everything you need. Leave early enough so you will get to work or your appointment a little early. This will give you time to speak with others and to get yourself organized for the days activities.

During the day don't forget to continually discern what is important. When it gets going too fast stop, say the Jesus Prayer to yourself, or take a short prayer walk until you have quieted your mind. When stressed, stop and pray! 

When you return home in the evening again allow time to relax, to make a quality dinner and to share with your family your activities of the day and to listen to their needs and experiences. When you are in a hurry you will tend to speak out angrily instead of lovingly when you are interrupted or distracted. It is not possible to love with a mind that is racing at high speed. Check yourself when you are rushing though activities like making a meal and examine your state of mind. I guarantee, you will not like what you find,

In the evening make time for spiritual reading, reading the Gospel, the Psalms and other spiritual works. Then, at the time you have designated for prayer, go to your special place and carry out your prayer rule. Briefly review the activities of the day. Give thanks for what went well. Ask forgiveness for what did not go as you desired. Remember, God is a loving God and will comfort you. He will give you strength for what is to come tomorrow, no matter how difficult it may seem.

A moderate paced life is a spiritual life. It is one that is possible for everyone. It is one when lived will not lead to laziness but to achievement of what is most important. Remember it is a process that involves all the ten points of an Orthodox way of life.