Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What Do You Seek?

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear this question, "What do you seek?" Most of us probably have not even given it much thought. But it's an important question and one that we should all clarify for ourselves.

When John and Andrew first saw Jesus they cried out "Behold! The Lamb of God!" (John 1:36) When He began to leave they followed Him. Jesus seeing that He was being followed asked of them this question. He called to them, "What do you seek?"  How do you suppose they responded?  It was Him, the "Lamb of God" that they sought. They then said, "where are you staying," wanting to be with Him and learn from Him. They were seeking spiritual truths, not a way to enhance their fishing careers or a way to heal a broken relationship. They followed Him knowing He had what they were seeking.

Now let's imagine that Jesus asked the same question today to a Christian.  How would they respond? Would they say, "It is You we seek, our Lord?"  Or would they answer with something else? Would they even recognize Him as the "Lamb of God?" Or, would they see Him simply as another self-help guru or one promoting worldly success.

Bishop Augoustinos of Florina writes as follows:
If the Lord were to pose the same question to today's Christains, how would they reply? Would we answer, "Lord, it is You we seek?" Is the Lord our fervent desire? Is the salvation of our souls a great concern: Is his Kingdom the first thing we fervently seek?
Most likely we would answer from the perspective of the problems we face in this world. When I ask this question in our church classes, I usually get an answer like, "I want to provide a good life for my children," or "I want to be successful in my work," or "I seek to have peace of mind," and so forth. Few answer indicating any concern about their salvation.

Bishop Aufoustinos of Florina agrees,
If we frankly answered the Lord's question, our answers would express the abysmal desires of this world. We seek money fame and glory, sexual gratification. We seek joys and good times. We seek the demise of our enemies. The search for what is most precious, the pearl of great price, in today's materialistic, cold society is a rare thing indeed.
For most of us, our Lord and God is not foremost in our minds. We need to ask ourselves, How do we elevate the place of our Lord and Savior amidst our worldly priorities? How do we integrate the needs we face in this world and what we truly must seek, our loving relationship with our God, our salvation and eternal life in His kingdom?

My Dad is now 98 years old. For most of his life he has sought success through his profession in the legal world earning him the high ranking position of a Federal Judge. But now, none of that matters to him. He spends most of his time working crossword and Sudoko puzzles and watching old movies. He says to me, "I have nothing important to accomplish now. I am glad to arise each morning and have another day. So what has he gained in his fame and hard work? He now recognizes how his past efforts will not help him in the final days of his life. He says, that now he thinks more about God. But now it's hard for him to focus on developing that all important relationship with God.

Keep in mind the way the Apostles were called and how they gave up everything to follow Jesus. They must have been seeking answers to spiritual things before they met Jesus. Like them, if we expect to follow Him we too must give priority to seeking spiritual things in our way of life.

Attend the Church services, develop a daily prayer life, read the Scripture and works of our Fathers instead of spicy novels or watching mind numbing TV serials or cape news programs, develop questions about your faith and seek answers, follow the fasting guidelines, prepare and participate in the sacraments regularly,  and find a spiritual Father who can guide you. If you do these things you will find yourself seeking what is most important in your life. This will not take away from your life but enhance it giving everything greater meaning. To do this requires changes in your way of life. Do not be afraid to experiment with reallocating your time to give greater priority to matters of Spirit.

Reference: Follow Me, by Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, Bishop of florin, Greece, pp 25-26.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What Makes Things Beautiful?

When we think of beautiful places we tend to think of a seaside beach, a mountain peak, a high waterfall, a beautiful flower, a beautiful home, a beautiful city and so forth. But what is beauty?  Jesus lived in a beautiful place, the city of Capernaum on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, a large lake in Israel through which flows the Jordan River. Did Jesus choose this place to live because of this beauty? Probably not.  Jesus was not like those who admire natural beauty alone and who almost deify it. Jesus was attracted more to moral beauty than natural beauty. The natural beauty that we enjoy is not so significant when compared with the beauty of a person worthy of the name human. An ancient philosopher said "What a beautiful being a human is when he is human."

Bishop Augustinos of Florina in Greece writes,
There are very beautiful homes, mansions, and buildings. We see them and are awestruck; but what good are they if they are inhabited by families who, by the misdeeds of their members and by their quarreling and feuding, have turned them into pits of hell. Then again, there are huts, contrary to their humble external appearance, contain miniature paradises inside––poor but Christian families whose members have the love of Christ. There are beautiful cities, delights to the eyes, built according to all the laws of architectural design, but what good are they? In today's beautiful cities dwell human animals more vicious than the ones in the African jungle. St. Chrysostom observes that cities are made beautiful not by their buildings, but by the people living in them. Are the people superior in thought and sentiment? Do they love God and do good for their community? If so,then the city is a beautiful and good place in which to live. If, however the city's people are not as God wants them to be––if they live in violation of the commandments of moral law, both in private and in public, then the city, according to St. Chrysostom, cannot be called beautiful; rather it is a city that provokes God's abomination and the disgust of those who think and feel in a godly way.
Jesus was in Capernaum because it was a beautiful city in a moral sense. You would have thought He would have chosen Jerusalem, a place with beautiful buildings and the great Temple, a place where there were people with political power, men of wealth and great philosophers, as the place to launch His new kingdom. While Jerusalem was a beautiful city in a physical sense, in its great buildings lived people like Anna, Caiaphas, Herod and Pilate. In the great Temple were corrupt clergy who offered sacrifices turning the temple into a market place, a den of thieves. In Galilee on the shores of the lake were cities that were quite different. They contained poor, humble, hard working people who lived by the sweat on their brows. There were farmers, shepherds and fishermen. It was these humble and simple people who first heard the sermons of the Incarnate Logos.

So what is beauty? What do you think is beautiful?  If you only think of physical things or places you need to think deeper. To you what is ugly may in realty be the greatest beauty. What kind of parish do you participate in? Do people like it because of the beautiful building, the glorious paintings inside, the melodious voice of the Choir or the the priest. A beautiful parish is one where there is harmony among the members, where they struggle together in love and respect for each other, helping each other when needed. It is a community where God is supreme in their thoughts.  When the parish council meets they first discuss the moral nature of their community and how to help it grow to live more congruently with the teaching of Christ.

How about your own family. Are you known for the beauty of your house and its possessions, or for the way each member behaves in relation to others?  Do they radiate the teachings of Christ in their actions? When the family gathers for meals is there a common prayer? In the evening is there a collective prayer giving thanks to God and seeking forgiveness for the mistakes of that day?

To understand beauty think about these things. Think of beauty in a moral and spiritual sense instead of a physical sense. We can of course appreciate the wonder and beauty of God's creation, but this is only of benefit if it leads to our love of Him and our desire to carry out His commandments.  In this way we become beautiful people.

Remember always we have been created in the image of God. We have the perfect beauty within each of us. Our life is about bringing this potential within each us to shine through all our actions. We live a full life of repentance for we know how imperfect we are, yet know the mercy of our loving God. We strive always to better our actions by seeking His help. We do this through our prayer, our watchfulness, and our participation in the sacramental life of the Church. In this way we find the greatest beauty of all, being perfected in the image of Christ.

Reference: Follow Me by Bishop Augoustinos of Florina, pp 3-9

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Can Your Political Views Undermine your Spiritual Growth?

Do you find yourself arguing with the television set, being angered by Facebook political postings, or stupid comments from your friends?  Well consider the following two findings from social research.
1. "Americans cited "hearing about what the government or politicians are doing" as the most frequent daily stressor on their lives, and at a substantially higher rate than the usual annoyances like commuting, chores and general schedule-juggling." (survey conducted by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership with the Harvard School of Public Health and National Public Radio.)
2. "Partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”" (from Yale law school professor Dan Kahan’s research  paper is called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.”)
Apparently when we harbor fixed political beliefs we do not act rationally when we hear talk from others that goes against what we believe.  We will deny facts that are against our beliefs. The bottom line is that we are easily subject to unnecessary stress if we let ourselves engage in such political drama.

The answer is simple, avoid all forms of such dialogue and you will find you will have a more peaceful and loving life.  You will not be so angry, negative, or offensive to others. For most of us one simple action we can take is to not watch cable news.  These channels play to our fears and stroke our latent political beliefs. They pick stories that will arouse our worst instincts and therefore draw your loyal viewship so they can attract advertisers to sell you products and make more profits. They understand how our minds really work (or don't work) and use this knowledge to make greater profits.

What is the spiritual angle here? Spiritually, when we are aroused by anger and feel stress we are separated from God. The solution our Church Fathers tell us is to become watchful about what we let enter into our heart. Our sinful tendencies come from the thoughts that enter our minds and we choose to engage with them. Once we engage these thoughts we are led to some kind of action. The source of sin is thoughts.

The skill to stop such a chain of events is called watchfulness. This requires a well disciplined mind and God's grace which comes from regular prayer. Whenever we sincerely call on the name of Jesus we have the power to ignore thoughts and instead direct our attention to God and what He wills for us.

The challenge for a life lived according to God's will is developing a life of continual prayer so we will always have God on our mind. We need to be able to at any time stop and say, "Lord have mercy", or to recite the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father..."

Fr Dimitru Staniloae tells us: "Guarding thought... consists of a continual reciting of the name of God in the mind... nothing but a concentrated uninterrupted prayer..."
This is the meaning of Saint Paul's teaching on unceasing prayer.
Pray without ceasing...test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. (1Thess 5:17, 21,22)  Rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer... (Romans 12: 9,12)
I have found that the most powerful way to develop this discipline is by following the practices of the Orthodox Church, especially the practices of the Jesus Prayer and regular fasting.

Make a simple choice. Turn off all the political talk shows and news programs that stimulate your anger and stress about political affairs. Instead take this time to engage in prayer each and every day. Learn about the practice of the Jesus Prayer. Try it for three months, reciting "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," over and over for twenty minutes each day. Begin to follow the prescribed fasts of the Church, including the Wednesday and Friday fasts, and read the daily Scripture readings that you can have sent to you via email from the Archdiocese Department of Internet Services.

If you do, you will find you will be on a path to spiritual renewal and you will begin to seek for a spiritual father for further guidance.

We are all free to hold whatever political views we choose. That is not the issue being addressed. God loves Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians and Independents. We are also free to have whatever religious views we chose. If we claim to be Orthodox Christians, we must be careful not to let our political beliefs override our rational thought process and undermine our peace of mind and heart. We must remain free of anger and stress so we are able to hear God's will and act with His love and our love for our neighbors. Watchfulness, prayer and fasting can help us develop the ideal of continual prayer that Saint Paul asks of us and bring us peace and love.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Gaining Humility in a Busy and Competitive World?

Jesus told His disciples,  ‘Learn from my example, because I am meek and humble in heart and your souls will find rest’ (Matth. 11, 29)
As Christians we are called to become like Christ, meek and humble, learning from His example.  But what does our society teach us? Speaking personally, growing up I learned the opposite of humility. I was taught to be proud, to strive to be better than others in school, to win over others in individual sports, to rely on my own intelligence and will.  I entered the business world in a large corporation and quickly learned that you needed to look better than others to be promoted and to earn the better jobs. I succeeded, but there were times when the stress was so high that I had to take tranquilizers to calm my nerves.  My mind was always occupied with thoughts about how to survive in this competitive world. I was consumed by trying to be "successful." I aways feared that my livelihood and even my being might be threatened if I did not perform well.  I was seen as very successful and had to maintain it.

After I had achieved the senior management position at a young age as a vice president of a major Fourtune 500 US corporation, it dawned on me that there had to be more in this world than such worlly success. Once I had the title that represented success, that title no longer had any meaning. I didn't know what was missing, but I began seeking in different way. I was an Orthodox convert by marriage but the church at that time taught in Greek and the services were almost all Greek. I was uplifted when I attended services but did not learn how to deal with the inner conflict I was experiencing.

Elder Joseph tells us the following
Î’lessed and favored people who are humble are meek, calm, serene, attached to virtue, opposed to evil, untroubled by any circumstance or threat. They live in the bosom of the faith, like infants in the maternal embrace of grace. They never live for themselves, because they’ve forgotten what that is.  
This is what I was missing, humility.  I was proud of my pride.  I believed that what I accomplished was all do to my own will. If I failed it would also be by my own doing.  But I knew there were so many extraneous factors in business success that I had no control over and many people worked for me or  with me to accomplish what we did. I carried a large burden. My superiors put the success of my organization on me and I knew they would blame me for any failure. The reality was that I was not really in control of all the factors of the success they sought. Up to now I had been lucky by the circumstances of my success.

How could I become humble and still compete in the corporate world? I definitely desired calmness, wanted to be virtuous and untroubled by circumstances or threats. But I feared I might lose my success.

Elder Joseph says,
Humility penetrates and is penetrated, it doesn’t fear, doesn’t question, doesn’t seek and therefore doesn’t move.  
It wasn't until many years later after leaving the corporate world that I began to understand what humility was and how difficult it is to attain. I was fortunate to have left this environment.

Elder Joseph says,
According to the Fathers, humility is a gift of the Holy Spirit, not merely a human accomplishment. It’s given to those who desire it, seek it and work painstakingly on the things which contribute to the successful acquisition of this blessing. 
This is a key insight. Humility is a gift of God. It's not something we can gain on our own. We must desire it and nurture it, but it is only through God's grace that we gain this Christ like state. So how do we do this?

Elder Joseph tells us,
Those who desire to be worthy of the gift of humility should know that the greatest contributory factor in this is recognition of the passionate state into which all the passions have brought us after the Fall, as well as the noxious consequences of a sinful life. 
The answer is so simple: Repentance. This is the first thing Jesus taught when He entered into His public ministry. We must come to terms with our brokenness, the sickness of our soul, and embrace the true nature of our condition, surrendering ourselves to be held in His arms to help us and guide us. 

After 70 years of life, this is still a challenge. My growth in this direction has taken many small steps and I realize that I am a long way from this ideal.  Lately, I have found great benefit from a wise and holy spiritual father who has planted thoughts that lead me and observations that I must deal with. But I now listen to every word he utters and do not question it like I used to do. Uncovering our sinfulness requires that we believe that we are broken and are therefore desire to receive thoughts and suggestions that will help us deal with our fallen condition. We become joyful when we gain new insights about our condition. We are thankful for any help we receive. We cannot see this as weakness but a necessity for our well being, a true gift of God. 

In addition to having a spiritual father whom your trust, I have found great value in the practice of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." This prayer instantly reminds you of your need for God's mercy and your sinfulness. It also penetrates your mind in a way that brings calmness in any situation when you are able to call on this simple but powerful prayer.

I would like to hear from you about how you have dealt with this issue in our competitive society. 

Reference: Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi-On Humility and the Humble Outlook