Monday, December 28, 2015

6. Being Watchful

Watchfulness is the action to guard us from our automatic reactions to thoughts stimulated by our senses. It is being attentive to your inner self. The Greek word that is translated as watchfulness is “Nepsis”. It comes from “nepho,” which means to guard, inspect, examine, watch over and keep under surveillance. Watchfulness has been described by Elder Ephriam of Philotheou as “the axe which shatters the large trees, hitting their roots. When the root is struck, it doesn’t spring up again.”

Saint Hesychios sees watchfulness as follows:
Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart... If we are conscientious in this, we can gain much experience and knowledge of spiritual warfare. He shows us that this involves an effort to intercede on our thoughts, forcing them to be examined, to shine the commandments of our Lord on them. He emphasizes the importance of this by calling it warfare. We know in warfare we need to have effective weapons that are stronger than those of the enemy.

Another church saint from modern times, Paisios, tells us about some of the consequences of not being watchful.
“When our soul lives carelessly without watching over its thoughts, it will consequently fill up with dirty and sly thoughts.
As a result, people start developing psychological problems which gradually pile up.... Some people, while they are found in this situation and come face to face with the problem itself, they do not realize it, and thus are unable to humbly confess to their spiritual father their fall. Instead, they look for a “secular” solution and consult a psychiatrist, who will inevitably prescribe medication... The only solution is to become aware of the problem and confess it to a spiritual father and then humbly follow his advice.
In our days, people have lost control over their lives, and they do not know what they are doing. The reason being, that they do not wish to be guided; they want to live undisturbed, following their own free will, which will eventually bring their total destruction... when man uses his freedom and independence without taking into consideration his human weakness, he becomes deceived; he experiences and interprets everything by using his own logic. Instead of God’s grace, human logic rules his life, and his mind is in confusion. This is terrible.”
Saint Paisios

It is essential to develop self-control over the inner workings of our mind. Most importantly, you can learn to harness the actions of your mind which tends to run wild and unchecked. This unbridled condition leads you to rely on mental programming that needs to be changed if you are going to live the Orthodox life. 
Being watchful means you have the necessary self-discipline to guard your inner sanctuary from being invaded by thoughts stimulated by your senses that lead you to sinful actions such as anger. It is an ability to intervene in the process of choosing how to act based on any kind of stimulus that leads to a thought. It is a capacity to intervene in real time in your thought process.
How do you experience the distractions in your mind? Reflect on the times you notice that you were distracted in your daily activities. Was it due to an argument? Was it due to having too many commitments and you could not live up to all of them? Was it a recurring worry? Did it come from a feeling of guilt? Was it sadness that distracted you? Maybe you felt lonely and began to feel sorry for yourself. Was it a fear of something? Maybe you wanted something you don’t have? Each of us will have our own set of issues that are distracting us and keeping us separated from God.
A mind that is left to its own devices will remain untrained. An untrained mind is impossible to control. It will remain jumping from one thought to another just like a butterfly in a field of flowers. It will quickly jump from one flower to the another in what seems like a random pattern. To develop mindfulness or watchfulness requires ascetic disciplines, such as prayer and fasting, as well as help from the Holy Spirit.
Doing one thing at a time is a good way to become more watchful. Focus totally on each activity. Don’t let your mind wander. Make this a discipline until you feel you have this capacity of watchfulness. Of course the regular reciting of Jesus prayer will help develop this ability. Ordering your life will also help you create a less distracted life situation. Participating in worship and the liturgical cycle of the church will help to keep your mind focused on God. As long as you insist on living life as if you can do many things at the same time without any regard for God, you will remain scattered in your mind and you will not remember Him when you need God the most. Slow down, order your life, and focus on one thing at a time. Turn your whole life into a prayer.
With God’s help, in the context of the Church, you can train your mind to become focused and pointed so it acts more like the laser beam, with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, December 21, 2015

5. Slowing Down and Ordering Your Life

Modern life is a too-busy life. We are all driven to work faster and faster and more and more efficiently. Our kids are involved in multiple activities with demanding schedules. With all the demands of work and family, there is little time left for reflection and prayer. As a result we can become insensitive to the needs of others and feel the burden of stress. Such a fast-paced life makes us feel tense, inefficient, insecure and even superficial.

There are many ways you can slow down and simplify your life. To start the process, you can begin by getting up earlier. (which means you also need to go to bed earlier.) When you get up in the morning, your first activity should be prayer. At least thirty minutes is desirable (start with 15 minutes and work up to 30 minutes). This includes prayers of thanksgiving, repentance and intercession. You also should include the practice of the Jesus Prayer at this time. After you have prayed and you have taken care of all your personal hygiene needs, you should plan time for your other responsibilities such as getting the kids ready for school. You should allow time for a leisurely breakfast. Help others in your household get off to a peaceful start of the day. You do not want to start the day being pressured by time. Remember, harried people create harried people and calm people create calm people. If you don’t start the day with calmness there is not much chance that the rest of the day will be calm. 
The easiest way to find this time is to examine the way you spend time with the different forms of media such as television, the Internet or the cell phone. Most likely, television is the biggest culprit. Give up just one of your programs and you will automatically have an extra hour to start the day off on the right foot. Media usage places a huge burden on all our lives. A recent survey by Nielsen Media Research shows that the average person spends more time than ever in front of the TV, over 133 hours a month. In addition, we spend on average another 26 hours using the Internet. Both of these have shown significant increases over the prior year. Now the phone is connected to the Internet and we can even spend another 3 hours watching video and TV on the phone. The mobile phone is becoming a significant use of our time as well as being an instrument that diverts and scatters our attention. So, this is the prime area to look to reallocate your use of time so you can make time to be with family and friends, to help others in need, or to make time for your daily prayer, attend worship services and most importantly to get a calm start each day. If you watch TV or surf the Internet to get relief from the tensions of the day or because of boredom, prayer will bring you even greater benefits.
To change the pace of your life, eliminate some activities from your “To Do” list. Identify those things that do not promote your spiritual growth and conflict with the Orthodox way of life. At work you carefully set priorities and make sure you are doing those things that are the most important. Do the same for your personal life. At the end of the work day you need to separate yourself from the work activities. If you leave work at work, then you can better enjoy your friends and family when you are off work. You will be able to take time to listen to your children and your spouse. The end of the day should be one of slowing down until it is time for your regular period for prayer, to read some Scripture, or to read from the works of the Church Fathers. Have your conversation with God, and then go to bed focused on His love and great mercy. Organize your life so this period after work is a leisure time detached from all work activities.
Do not confuse slowing down with being lazy or slothful. These are quite different things. Laziness leads to procrastination and inefficiency. A lazy person will not make the effort to organize time for prayer. As you slow down you will find you pay more attention to the details. Concentrate on even the smallest things you are doing. The quality of your actions will improve in everything you do. 
Jesus constantly warns against having anxiety about material things, even food and clothing. God knows and provides everything you need, but most likely you have taken your needs and exaggerated them beyond what are your basic necessities. To follow Jesus, He asks you to abandon your attachment to possessions and the priority you are placing on things of this created world, and to take on a simpler lifestyle focused on God where you are not encumbered with excessive demands to accumulate material things for your happiness. The key is a balance. Plato and Aristotle taught mankind, hundreds of years before Christ, that the ideal is a golden mean, which implies a path through life that is neither burdened with excess nor with deprivation. By slowing down or simplifying our lives we are not talking about being less productive or rejecting the whole of this material world. We are simply being more effective, balanced, and doing what we do with much greater care, which includes the exercise of the moral imperatives that God has laid down for us.
There is no magic formula to slowing down and simplifying your life. The possibilities are endless. Start by clarifying your priority values. Then make a list of all your activities. Record them over a week’s time. Take time to reflect on what you have recorded and determine which ones fit with your priorities. Think about what you can eliminate to put a different priority in place in your life. Begin to consciously reengineer your pattern of life. Experiment with ways to slow down and simplify and you will find yourself coming closer to God in your daily activities. Through your prayers, seek God’s help in this task.

Monday, December 14, 2015

4. Using the Jesus Prayer

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”

This prayer has the potential to transform your consciousness and bring you closer to God. It is a prayer rooted deeply in the tradition of the Church. It is a prayer to be repeated over and over, many times. You can begin to develop the use of this prayer by incorporating a number of repetitions in your daily prayer rule. It is a simple prayer and you can learn to say it everywhere and at any time. In fact, your aim should be to make it an unending prayer. In this way your whole life becomes a life of prayer.
Recognize, however, that this prayer is incredibly difficult to practice even though it seems to be very simple. In its practice, you continually recite it so that it permeates your heart and focuses your mind, predisposing you to follow God’s will instead of your own ego-directed will. 
Start by repeating it for ten minutes in the morning or evening. Begin by saying it out loud or at least by moving your lips. Eventually you will repeat it mentally, but start with a verbal prayer. Add more repetitions, slowly building up the time you are able to concentrate on the prayer. When your mind wanders, bring it back to the prayer. Concentrate, but do not be harsh on yourself. This is not something you will master with your self-will. Ask God to help you conquer the restlessness of your mind. With persistence, humility and patience, the practice of this prayer will prepare you for God’s grace to work actively within you.
Along with saying this prayer as part of your prayer rule, try to say it whenever you can. You can do this while walking, while waiting in the doctor’s office, in line at the post office, or while waiting to board a plane. You can say it when doing dishes or yard work. You can say it when you are stressed, afraid, or nervous. When you become angry, repeat this prayer over and over until your anger subsides. Do this whenever your mind is agitated, and you will find that it will calm your mind. When you do say it, be sure to think of God and His endless love and seek His mercy.
The practice of the Jesus Prayer is different than Far-Eastern Buddhist, Hindu or Sufi practice. In Buddhism, a common practice is to constantly repeat a mantra such as “Om mani padme hum.” The aim of Buddhism is to free oneself from all suffering and attain what the Buddha called “Nirvana” or the perfect peace of mind. This peace of mind is achieved through various meditation techniques. The Buddha never taught about any form of God. Many practice this form of meditation to gain calmness in their lives. Sufism is a branch of Islam that also employs forms of meditation. Sufi scholars define Sufism as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.” In meditation they aim to reach an awareness of their oneness with the universe, believing that in doing so they can attain fundamental truths that are within us, but often remain hidden. They do not believe that Jesus is God, but view Him as only a prophet. In Hinduism the chief aim is to gain release from the cycle of reincarnation caused by karma – the consequences of past actions, in this or in previous lives! This is achieved though meditation techniques. This release leads to some kind of absolute Truth. Many of these approaches have been adapted by our modern culture to serve as means of relaxation or ways to lessen the stress of our over-active lives. They form the basis of the “New Age” spiritual movement. They are taught without any specific aim of repentance, nor the purpose of doing the will of God, nor of seeking union with Christ. 
The use of the Jesus Prayer is done with an attitude of repentance and humility seeking an encounter with the living Christian God, Jesus Christ. We may gain benefits of relaxation or reduced stress, but this is not the aim of our effort. Union with God is. It is NOT a mantra to simply quiet the mind. You will also gain this benefit if you learn to repeat it hundreds of times, but it is important that you truly feel contrition for your sinfulness and seek God’s mercy as you repeat it. All prayer is about a personal relationship with God.
Many Orthodox Christians use a prayer rope to aid them in concentration as they repeat the Jesus Prayer. Prayer Ropes come in a great variety of forms and sizes. Most prayer ropes have a cross woven into them or attached to mark the “end,” and also have some kind of marker after each 10, 25, or 50 knots or beads. There are many forms of prayer ropes, some knotted of wool or silk, or other more elegant or simpler materials. At the time of our regular prayer, when you pray following your rule of prayer, hold the prayer rope with your hand between the thumb and the index finger and move from knot to knot each time you say the prayer. Do this until the number of repetitions in your rule have been completed.
“Just as it is impossible to fight battles without weapons, or to swim a great sea with clothes on, or to live without breathing, so without humility and the constant prayer to Christ it is impossible to master the art of inward spiritual warfare or to set about it and pursue it skillfully.” Saint Hesychios
Articles and Books on the Jesus Prayer

Monday, December 7, 2015

3. Honoring the Liturgical Cycle

The Church in Her Holy wisdom offers us a cycle of fasting and feasting. This cycle is based on the life of Christ. The key is to learn to follow it, to participate in it, and not to allow other activities in life to be viewed as more important. Follow the prescribed fast times. Participate in the major feast days of the Church. Plan your schedule to make this a reality.

The Church year begins in September. This initiates a period of preparation for the celebration of the Nativity and Baptism of Christ. As we approach Christmas there is a 40-day Nativity Fast. Participate in it and consciously prepare for this important spiritual event. This will counteract the commercial madness we normally experience at this time of year. Following the Nativity, there is a feasting period (the twelve days of Christmas) capped by the celebration of Theophany or the Baptism of Jesus on January 6th. Celebrate with others during this period. Make an effort to turn your life into this cycle of fasting and feasting. 
Shortly after the Theophany, there begins the period to prepare us for the most important event, Pascha or Easter. It begins with a preparatory three week period prior to the Great Fast of Pascha, called the Triodion. Use this period and the teachings designated for the four Sundays during this period to help you get into the right attitude for the Great Fast of Lent. When Lent begins, fast to the best of your ability, keeping in mind the fasting guidelines of the Church for this period. The fast leads up to Holy Week, which is the most intense period in the Church Liturgical cycle. Holy Week takes us through the Passion of Christ and His Crucifixion and leads us to His glorious Resurrection and victory over death. Take time off from normal activities this week to participate in these beautiful services. You will find new meaning in the Resurrection as you break the fast with the joyous announcement of the Resurrection at midnight on the first dawning of the feast day of Pascha. Following Pascha, plan for another period of feasting and celebration with family and friends. Next we await the Ascension of Jesus, which comes 40 days after Pascha. Ten days later, this is followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, celebrating the time when the apostles were empowered to carry forward the teachings of Jesus to all parts of the world. We can think of this as the birth of the Church here on earth. 
In addition to these large cycles, there is a weekly cycle and even a daily cycle. During the week we should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. Make a commitment to remember to control your eating habits by restraining them on these two days in remembrance of our God.
In addition to the normal morning and the evening daily prayers, the Church prays additionally on what are called the Hours: midmorning, noon, mid-afternoon, and at the setting of the sun. As you mature in your prayer life you can make time for such prayers throughout the day.
The liturgical cycle provides for periods where you can more intensely focus on your spiritual needs. The time of Great Lent is most important for this. It provides a time to withdraw from your busy life, to limit your normal activities, to increase your time in prayer and reading of Scriptures, and to concentrate on your inner self, seeking what is most important for your soul to become united with God. 
Here are the 12 major Feasts of the Church:
September 8 Nativity of the Theotokos
September 14 Elevation of the Holy Cross
November 21 Presentation of the Theotokos
December 25 Nativity of Jesus
January 6 Epiphany (The Baptism of Christ)
February 2 Presentation of the Lord
March 25 Annunciation
Sunday before Easter Palm Sunday
Easter - Pascha
Forty Days after Easter Ascension of the Lord
Fifty Days after Easter Pentecost
August 6 Transfiguration of our Lord
August 15 Dormition of the Theotokos
Arrange your schedule so you can participate in the Divine Liturgies held on these days. Of course, don’t forget to make each and every Sunday a time for participating in the Liturgy as well.
It will provide a challenge for you to give priority to the schedule of the Church and not to allow it to become secondary to all other activities. Always keep in mind that union with God is your aim in life and that through your full participation in the Liturgical cycle of the Church you will be helped to continually grow closer to Him. This commitment is difficult in a society which does not pay any attention to the liturgical cycle of the Church. But if you plan ahead, even if you have a very busy schedule, just like you can fit in your physical fitness activities, time with your children and other non-work related activities, you can find ways to build your schedule around the key events in the Church’s liturgical cycle. Think about how you plan to fit other activities into your schedule, like a vacation, school, or sports, and make the same effort for these spiritual events.

Monday, November 30, 2015

2. Worshiping and Participating in the Sacraments

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.

Jesus Christ (Matt 9:12-13)

Along with our personal prayer we need to participate in corporate prayer, or prayer that is offered during a worship service. Worship in the Church is an essential part of a life in Christ. The Church is the body of Christ on earth. When we all gather together for worship, we are united with the angels and saints in our prayer to worship and glorify God. 
We enter the place of worship humbly, knowing that we are not worthy to be in union with God, but, we enter with a strong yearning, with zeal, to come closer to Him. We enter with the understanding that through the sacraments, teachings, and practices of the Church we will grow spiritually. While we may find social benefits of joining the Church, this social activity is not the purpose of the Church. It is better described as a spiritual hospital where we come as individuals in need of spiritual healing. By joining the assembly of believers in Jesus Christ, we find this healing and are shown a step by step process whereby we can receive God’s helps to come closer in union with Him.
The Holy Spirit works in the Church and provides spiritual nourishment through the sacraments of the Church. It is important to participate in them because they have been given to us by Jesus Christ Himself for our spiritual health.
Major Sacraments of the Church
Holy Communion
The Divine Liturgy is the most important service and it provides us with a kind of spiritual medicine: Holy Communion. This is why you should come to church each Sunday to be renewed and strengthened through participation in Holy Communion. Here the Body and Blood of Christ are offered to the members for the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life. You need to regularly partake of this gift that God offers to us all for our spiritual benefit. This is why one of God’s commandments is to participate in worship each Sunday. As you develop your personal prayer life you will no longer see this as an obligation, but as something you want and need to do for your spiritual benefit. Make regular attendance at the Divine Liturgy a part of your prayer rule and learn how to properly prepare and participate regularly in the sacrament of Holy Communion. 
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. Jesus Christ (John 6:53-56)
Holy Confession
Confession is also an important sacrament for your spiritual growth. By your participation in this sacrament you renew your Baptism and are freed from all your sinfulness in the eyes of God. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you do not sin. None of us lives without sinning. This sacrament involves standing before the icon of Christ with a contrite heart, asking God for forgiveness for all the times you have not lived up to what He has made you capable, with the priest by your side as your witness. You should do this at least two times a year.
Holy Unction
In this sacrament, you are anointed with oil that has been blessed to give you strength in healing physical and spiritual sickness. It is offered to all during Holy Week and on request at other times.
In the sacrament of marriage, a couple stands in front of God, commits themselves to a union and are united as one in the eyes of God. This is path set forth for the benefit of their spiritual growth and union with God.
In this sacrament, the priesthood is given to an individual, and he is endowed with with the spiritual powers to carry out his work.
Baptism and Chrismation
He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16).
Baptism is the beginning of the Orthodox Christian life, where one is cleansed from all past sins and sealed with the Holy Spirit. It is how one joins the Church and becomes part of the body of Christ and becomes able to participate in all the Sacraments for spiritual benefit. Chrismation is the anointing of the Holy Chrism, which is the seal of the Holy Spirit. It is a sacrament normally done right after Baptism.
Note: Holy Communion, Confession and Holy Unction are interrelated because they serve for the healing of the body and soul. Make participation in worship and the sacraments of the Church a regular and integral part of your life.

Monday, November 23, 2015

1. Praying Daily

Prayer is the foundation of the Orthodox way of life. What is Prayer? It is a dialogue between you and God. It unites your soul with God. It is through prayer that you unite with God and receive the gift of His grace to aid you in overcoming your passions and living life based on love. Through prayer you also learn to control the distractions of your mind, allowing you to become more watchful and focused in your daily activities. Prayer is the key to entering a life based on the virtues.

How do you pray? First, establish a regular time and a private place. You should have a specific rule for both morning and evening. Don’t try to “wing it.” This is not a relaxation exercise, but a path of communion with your God. You will benefit from having a specific set of guidelines that you follow each time with no excuses for shortcutting them. In your rule, incorporate standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the cross, reading, and at times singing. Use prayer books and written prayers. The Orthodox prayer books are filled with prayers that have been well-tested and used for hundreds of years. Prayer does not need to be a creative activity. Above all, you need to be sincere. Keep your awareness in your heart and concentrate on the words of the prayer. Once you establish a rule, always keep it. Work with your spiritual Father on this.
You begin praying by focusing your consciousness in your heart and forcibly gathering there all the powers of your soul and body. Before you start your prayers, take time to quiet yourself and to concentrate your energies in your heart. Christ says, “Enter into thy closet and ... shut thy door” (Mt 6:6). Remove all activities that could disrupt your inner descent. Set aside, to the best of your ability, all of your problems of the day and your worries for tomorrow. This is not a time for thinking or worrying. When you are preparing to pray, stand, sit or walk a few minutes and steady your mind to concentrate on God. Reflect on who it is that you will be addressing. Remember, it is God Himself, the Creator of All, with whom you are about to talk. Try to hold in your heart a feeling of humility and reverent awe. If you are able, make some prostrations before you begin.
As you begin to pray, enter into every word of the prayer. Bring the meaning of the words down into your heart. Do not rush through the prayers like you are in a hurry to finish them. Let the words of the prayer slowly drop into the depths of your heart with humility and awe of God. You need to slow your mind down so you can concentrate solely on your prayer. It’s somewhat like driving a car. When you are going 90 miles per hour down the highway, you may feel exhilarated, powerful and in control. But, at high speeds things can go wrong quickly. But, when you slow down and drive at a speed of twenty-five miles per hour, the car handles easily and if someone makes a dangerous maneuver you can easily avoid it. The mind works the same way. You want to train it to slow down so it will not cause you an unneeded accident and you can open your heart to God’s presence. So, in prayer say the words slowly so you can gain the full meaning of them and allow them to penetrate your consciousness and to bring to your heart feelings of love and reverence for God. Beware of the tendency to rush to complete them hurriedly. When this happens you have turned your prayer into an obligation, another task to complete, and it is no longer true prayer. Don’t worry if you catch yourself doing this. It is normal at first. Just stop, slow down, and then continue after asking God’s forgiveness and help. You will eventually find the right pace for yourself. Also, study the prayers before you use them so you know the meaning of each word. Eventually you will want to memorize them.
After you begin to recite your prayers, you will find that your mind will want to wander. This means you are still driving at a high speed. Don’t be concerned about this; it is natural due to our overactive minds. Work constantly to improve your ability to concentrate your attention on God and your prayer. When your mind does wander, be gentle with yourself. Think of God and how He loves you and go back to recite again what you said while your mind was elsewhere. Bring yourself back to concentrate on God and the words of the prayer. Sometimes it helps to say your prayers out loud for a while to help you concentrate. The mind is quite skilled at trying to do more than one thing at a time. But in reality, you only concentrate on one thing at a time. You can easily be deceived by the mind as it leaves prayer to focus on other matters. These wanderings of the mind show you the dimensions of your busy life and where you need to find ways to make it quieter so you can be always mindful of God. Prayer is NOT the time to focus on these worldly activities, because this will only further distract you from prayer. Work to concentrate your attention more and more each time you pray. Each day you will gain in your attentiveness during prayer.
When you finish your prayers, stand for a few moments. Consider to what your prayer life commits you. Try to hold in your heart what has been given to you. Treasure it for a few moments.
It is important to make your prayer life one that is a firm rule, a desired habit, and not something that is done occasionally, sporadically or casually. Pray each and every morning and evening for fifteen minutes at a minimum. Your prayer rule should include specific prayers (See the back of this booklet for an example of a beginning prayer rule). Commit to doing your rule each and every day, just like you are committed to daily personal hygiene tasks such as brushing your teeth. You don’t forget to do them each day. You need to make prayer a similar habit, one that you never forget. Just like brushing our teeth is essential for the health of our gums and teeth, prayer is essential for the health of our soul. Persistence and patience in prayer will prepare you for God’s grace to work within you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Orthodox Way of Life - An Introduction

The final goal of man is communion with God. The path to this communion has been precisely defined: faith, and walking in the Commandments with the help of God’s grace.
Saint Theophan the Recluse
While it is true that the Orthodox way of life is not the normal way of life for most people in our society, it is a most practical life for married people with families faced with the challenges of careers. In fact, it is the way of living that will make your life less stressful and more meaningful.
The Orthodox Way of Life is NOT a monastic way of life. Even though monasticism was part of the early church, we are not required to live this most honored lifestyle. Only a few are called to this style of life. We do, however, have the same goals. Like the monks we seek holiness and union with God, but we are called to live in the world with our families. The principles of our spiritual growth are the same no matter which path we chose.
Most of us never take the time to reflect on the purpose of our lives. Often we don’t do this until someone we love departs from this life unexpectedly. During this moment of grief, our soul has our attention and we begin to think about what life is all about. In one way, life is about death. We all know this is where we are headed, but we too often refuse to think about this seriously because of the unknown and the fear it presents.
The purpose of life taught by the Apostles and the Church Fathers is one of finding union with God. Jesus came to save us and to open the gates of heaven for us. He showed us how to live through His teaching and example. He showed us that we have nothing to fear in death. 
To begin, you must have faith in God and accept His love for you. With a little faith, you can begin to live the Orthodox way of life outlined in this booklet. This way of life is given to us by Christ Himself through His Church. It is a proven way of life that WILL bring you closer to God. As you come closer to God, you increase your capability to deal with any difficulty you may face. You increase your ability to live according to the virtues.
These ten points presented here are only an outline on how to find union with God. However, if you follow them you will be led to everything you need to know.
Study each one of them and examine your current life. Then seek ways to make the necessary changes in your life to incorporate them. Always pray for God’s help in this.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Who Are the Peacemakers?

Today we struggle with the need for peace in the Middle East. The most recent effort has been the agreement to constrain Iran on the development of a nuclear weapon. This seems to have become controversial in the political sphere. Some wanting to hold out for everything even if it means more war. Others are satisfied with a path that constrains their ability to develop such a weapon. But what I wish to address is the idea of a peacemaker as taught by Jesus.  Who are the true peacemakers? What did Christ mean when He said, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall become sons of God"?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa gives us some insight in one of his sermons on the Beatitudes. In commenting on being a peacemaker he begins by reminding us how different we are from God. He is all powerful and we are just made from dust. Yet, God tells us, if we can become a peacemaker we will become His son. This can only mean that we become like Him.

What is a peacemaker? Saint Gregory puts it this way:
Now a peacemaker is a person who gives peace to another; but one cannot give to another what one does not possess oneself. Hence the Lord wants you first to be yourself filled with the blessing of peace, and then to communicate it to those who have need of it.
So being a peacemaker has to do with our own condition. Are we peaceful, do we have an inner peace to share? We can only give what we have to give.

Next he asks, What is peace? He writes:
Surely peace is nothing but a loving disposition towards one's neighbor. Now what is held to be the opposite of love? It is hate and wrath, anger and envy, harboring resentment as well as hypocrisy and the clarity of war.
It is easy to see that wrath is against goodness. No one who experiences the wrath of another person or another country sees this as good. If we can free ourselves from our own anger that leads to wrath we will move towards becoming a peacemaker. The passions that boil within ourselves are what need to be aimed first if we are to become like God.

In addition to wrath which we see externally, there is an inner disposition that may even be worse because it is hidden. That is envy and hypocrisy. Saint Gregory speaks of it this way:
Such is the disease of envy and hypocrisy; it is cherished secretly in the depth of the heart, like a hidden fire, while externally everything is made to look deceptively like  friendship. It is like a fire that is hidden under chaff. For a time is smolders inside and burns only what lies near; the flame does not flare up visibly, only biting smoke penetrates, because it is so vigorously compressed from within. But if it meets with some gust of wind, it is rekindled into a bright open flame.
We see this in the Biblical story of Cain and Able. Cain raved when Able was praised, but his envy lead him to killing Able. To become a peacemaker we must also rid ourselves of this hidden disease of envy. We cannot live with hypocrisy in ourselves and lead others to peace. We have a war going on within ourselves that can flare any time to warlike action. By becoming open and congruent with our feelings and actions we will receive God's grace to act with Divine power. Only then can we act with love and lead others towards peace. With any kind of malice hidden in our heart we will find ourselves separated from God and His love. We may even be contributing to the wrath we so much despise.

Not only are we asked to regard the needs of others by seeing their goodness, we need to address the war that Saint Gregory says is inherent in ourselves. He says:
I think that man is called a peacemaker par excellence who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind, but is subjected to the higher rule and becomes a servant of the Divine ordinance.
This is our true challenge. The passions of our body too often dictate our actions. The mind may say one thing but the bodily passions take us in another direction. This is the aim of the Orthodox way of life, to lift our way of being so our higher nature is in control. Not only are we reconciled with God in repentance, prayer and the sacraments, but we discipline ourselves in these actions as well as fasting. It is the Orthodox way of life that will lead you to become a peacemaker and a son of God. This is the only way there will ever be peace in the world.

Ten Points on the Orthodox Way of life

Reference: Saint Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord's Prayer, The Beatitudes, Vol 18 Ancient Christian Writers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Flag and Christ's Teaching About Love

The recent discussion about the proper use of the Confederate flag raised for me important Christian issues. I start with the observation that many seem totally blind to the meaning this flag has to millions of Americans, especially Black Americans. I wondered why it is that so many, especially here in South Carolina, are so tied to the display of this flag on our Capital grounds where it offends so many.

I purposely entered into some of these discussion on Facebook to see what lay behind these objections to removing the flag from such a public space. I kept getting the same answer, "It's our pride in out Southern heritage and a way to honor those who died in the Confederate army during the Civil war." It was quickly clear that there was no way to engage in a true discussion with an alternative view as their view was so strong. This bothered me because for me the flag was a sign of hatred, especially now that it was linked with such a horrible crime as occurred in the massacre in Charleston where the Civil war began.

How does this all relate to the teachings of Christ? Christ tight us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies. To me the inability and unwillingness of those who defend the flying of the flag on the Capital grounds to see the perspective of Black Americans and many others was a sign of disrespect, a disregard for the hurt this symbol causes for so many others. The issue is about human dignity, about love of others who are different from us. Love demands an understanding of the perspective of those who have a different view from us.

We are all often blinded by our own perspective and the underlying assumptions that lie hidden behind it. Because of these hidden assumptions we find it difficult and fearful to understand what others perceive and uncover our hidden assumptions.

I was once involved in a PhD program made up of cohorts of mixed back and white students. We were engaged in a task of Synergy. The task was to take an issue and first clarify our own perspective and the assumptions that were behind it. Next was to investigate the perspective of others and its assumptions. Once the other perspective was gathered it had to presented to the other group to test it. Both sides did this. In our case we were divided into two groups, one all white and the other all black. The Black group had no difficulty in understanding the White groups perspective. But our White group had difficulty in expressing the Black view. When we tried to represent the Black group's perspective we failed to accurately represent it.  We had difficulty doing so after many interactions. The Black group was amazed at the difficulty we had. What this taught us is that when we are an advantaged group, it is very difficult to understand the view of a group that has historically been disadvantaged.

What does this mean about love as Christ taught? To love our neighbor as ourselves we must be able to first understand the view of our neighbor as clearly as we understand our own perceptive if we are to love them. Without this deeper understanding of each other we cannot understand their actions or their needs. Our love is only superficial. It is nearly impossible to take actions of mutual love.

To address an issue such as the one that has risen over the Confederate flag, we can only deal with it if we are willing to sincerely explore the view of the others. Knowing this is difficult we need to actively seek out the other's view while we hold true to our own view.  Once we feel we have understood their view then we can hold both views together in our heart, in our love, and see what will emerge, how the Holy Spirit will guide as we hold these two truths together. Out of the love of Christ will emerge a third view, one that is bigger than either of the two, synergy, that will lead us to a creative resolution of the issue based on mutual love and respect.

I write this to encourage all of us as we deal with the explosive issue of racial discrimination, the aftermath of the history of brutal slavery, the years of discrimination and segregation that followed, and the modern cries of white supremacy, to take the time to first examine your own perspective and uncover some of its underlying assumptions. Then seek out to understand the others perspective and the assumptions underlying it. Finally, prayerfully hold both views and see what insights emerge that allow you to speak with love towards all our brothers and sisters in Christ. Only then will your actions be able to communicate the love of Christ.

Monday, June 15, 2015

What is the "Fire" that Torments?

How can a loving God be so cruel to allow any of his creatures to burn eternally? In Scripture we find numerous references to the fire of hell which we will endure if we are not united with God's love (see passages below).  What is really meant by this reference to fire?  Is it like a physical fire or is it something else?

Saint John of Damascus gives us some insight into these passages that are often used to instill fear rather than love of God. He explains this fire as a condition where we will not be able to satisfy the desires we carry with us into death, those desires that we have put above our desire to be united with  God out of love and to do His will. This absence of any satisfaction for these misguided desires leads us to the kind of suffering which is like being burned by fire. Isn't it the nature of suffering our inability to satisfy our desires?

He writes:
We say that the torment is nothing other than the fire of unsatisfied passion. For those who obtained changelessness in passion do not desire God but sin. But there in that place the commission of evil has no place. For we neither eat nor drink, nor get dressed, nor marry, nor gather wealth, nor does envy or another evil satisfy us. Therefore, by desiring and not partaking of the things desired, they are burned by passions as if by fire. But those who desire the good––namely God alone, Who is and exists eternally––and who partakes of Him rejoice according to the intensity of their desire according to which they also partake of the Desired One.
When we pass from this life to a heavenly life there will not be the means to satisfy those desires that we place such high priority on in our earthly life. We will not be able to find satisfaction in food, in fancy parties where we dress to look our best, in all the pleasures we can buy with money, in the superior status or power we have gained. Heaven strips us of what was pleasurable in our earthly life. There is only one desire that can be satisfied in this new life. That is our desire to be united with God in love. Without this as our overriding desire we will not find pleasure in heaven. There will  be no way to satisfy any other desire.

According to Orthodox teaching the fire that torments is not a physical fire, but is a torment that comes from the inability our soul to direct its desire towards communion with God. One who cannot do this is imprisoned by his own action and his passions strike him like poisonous serpents. He will be surrounded by those he hates and separated from those he loves and who love him. He will always be seeking what can never be satisfied. Dumitru Staniloae says, "He falls into a sort of dreamlike existence in which everything becomes chaotic in a senseless absurdity, without any consistency, without any search for an exit out of it, without any hope for an exit."

Why does God leave a person in such a condition?  Why doesn't he show himself with His divine light so one can see and depart from such darkness? The answer is that God is not an external reality that imposes itself but is offered to us out of love. This cannot be perceived except through an openness to love that is humble and full of desire for Him. It is based on a relationship. He who is bound up in lesser desires will not admit that such love is possible when he cannot offer such love in return. God therefore cannot make Himself evident as a loving Person in this case. Saint Isaac the Syrian says that hell is a punishment of love.

Satin John of Damascus writes:
He who desires receives. He who is good receives good things ... The righteous, by desiring and having God, rejoice forever; but the sinners, by desiring sin and not possessing objects of sin, are tormented as if eaten by the worm and consumed by fire, with no consolation; for what is suffering if not the absence of that which is desired? According to the intensity of desire, those who desire God rejoice, and those who desire sin are tormented.
Here on earth when we incline our desire toward other things and obtain them even partially, we find pleasure in them. Over there, however, when "God will be all in all" (1Cor 15:28) and there will be neither food, nor drink, nor any bodily pleasure nor any injustice, those who possess neither common pleasures nor anything from God will suffer great pain that is not produced by God, but that we prepare for ourselves.
We cannot say that God punishes us with fire, but that it is our own misdirected desires that lead us to suffering that is like being burt by fire. To avoid the fire our primary desire has to be directed toward our love of God.

We must remember that Jesus, God incarnate, came for our benefit. He came out of God's love for all mankind to save us from the fallen condition we are in. He did not come to punish us. He came to transform us and to teach us that our earthly desires are misguided when substituted for our love of God our Creator. He loves us so much that He sacrificed His own life on the Cross to free us from our sinfulness, showing us the way through His Resurrection to be joined with Him in His kingdom with eternal life, and then sends the Holy Spirit to establish His Church on earth for our perfection in love. He is a God of love and only calls us to return that love. We can enjoy the pleasures of this world, all He created is Good, but only if we always give priority to our desire for His love and give thanks to Him for what we enjoy. If we replace this supreme desire with earthy desires, these will not be fulfilled when we enter into the heavenly realm. Lacking a desire for union with God, we will find ourselves separated eternally from His love, the only desire that can be satisfied after our bodily death.

Remember that Christ is within each of us. He resides in our heart. Make His love your desire.

New Testament references to the fire of damnation:
"every tree that does not bear good fruit is thrown into the fire" (Matt 3:10, Lk 3:9)
"His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threading floor, and gather His seat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matt 3:12, Lk 3:17)
"Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in their, so it will be at the end of the age.... Will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be ailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matt 13:40, 42, 50)
"It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, than to be cast into hell fire." (Matt 18:9, Mark 9:47)
"If Your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched." (Mark 9:45)
"If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, they are burned." (John 15:6)
"The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." (Rev 20:10)
"Anyone not found in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire." (Rev 20:15)
"The cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murders, sexually immoral,sorcerers, idolaters and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone..." (Rev 21:8)

Reference: The Experience of God, vol 6, by Dumitru Staniloae, pp 43-47

Saturday, May 30, 2015

True Nature of the Church and the Holy Spirit

The true nature of the Church is revealed at Pentecost. The Church is totally Christ centered and it is through our relationship with Christ that we are united with Him forever. How is it then that the decent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost reveals the true nature of the Church?

Fr. Staniloae writes,
Our salvation is achieved only through Christ, who comes to dwell within us with the body He bore––a body that has risen, ascended, and been made fully spiritual, that is, has been filled with the Holy Spirit and thus has become totally transparent.
Christ had been made fully spiritual, which means He is filled with the Holy Spirit. His body is no longer physical, but spiritual and transparent. He now works through us by the Holy Spirit. He dwells within us mystically.

His indwelling in each of us is what produces the Church. The Greek word is "ekklecia," or gathering.  The Church is the gathering of those who have within them Christ Himself. It is through the Church that we received this indwelling at our Baptism. The Church is where the Holy Spirit works for our salvation given to us through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. We can think of this as a process initiated by God involving the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and then the formation of the Church. His Body and the seed of our resurrection is planted in believers during our baptism and we are then are nurtured spiritually by our ongoing cooperation with Christ in His Holy Church.

This is quite a different view than found in most Protestant churches. There the emphasis is on the Word of God and not on the indwelling of Christ. The role of the Holy Spirit is minimized and the church is simply an assembly hall where prayers are given and people hear a lecture on the Holy Scripture. For Orthodox Christians the physical place where the faithful gather is seen as a holy place, a place where the Holy Spirit is very much present and where it actively works through the sacraments offered to the faithful during each service.

The descent of the Holy Spirit gives the Church it’s purpose and existence and initiates the indwelling of the resurrected Body of Christ in us. Through the Holy Spirit we attain this indwelling and therefore the Church. It is through the descent of the Holy Spirit that came at Pentecost that Christ is able to work through us, that we are able to be in an intimate relationship with Him, enabling us to do His will and to act with love towards others.

It was at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit first shone forth from human beings. On this day Christ sent the Holy Spirit as he promised the Apostles. It descended on them, filling them with Christ’s glory, making them the first members of the Church. After the descent they were filled with Christ and His powers were extended to them. They were able to now go to all nations without fear and spread the Good News, baptizing thousands and growing the Church. 

The Holy Spirit is one with the Father and the Son. It must always be considered as the Spirit of Christ. It is not something that should ever be thought of as separate from Christ. God is three persons in One. Where one is you will find the others. Being different persons they act with perfect knowledge of each other and exist in perfect love.

Fr. Staniloae says,
The image of Christ in heaven and of the Holly Spirit in the Church is false, because such a vision does not take the Trinitarian Persons’ unity seriously. This in turn leads to either rationalism or to sentimentalism, or even to both.
It is through the Holy Spirit that Christ penetrates our hearts. The Holy Spirit works to form us progressively into the image of the Son. As we acquire the Holy Spirit in our sacramental life in the Church, Christ imprints Himself more clearly in us, nurtures our love for Him, leading us to follow His will. It is by the Spirit that Christ becomes more evident to us and we receive more and more of His powers. With Him present with us the Holy Spirit penetrates us with His full presence.

It is the miracle of Pentecost that Christ descends for the first time into human hearts. The Church is created and is now maintained by Christ through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is continually available for our benefit in the Church. Through Spirit we are united with Him. The Church is therefore necessary for our salvation.

Fr. Staniloae writes,
The work of salvation, whose foundation was laid in Christ’s human nature, is being fulfilled in the form of the Church, which is our union with God and among ourselves. Only within the harmony between human beings in God is it shown that they have abandoned egoism as a general image of sin, or of their confinement in themselves as narrow monads. That is why the state of salvation is equivalent to belonging to the Church, or to the gathering of those who are saved into the Church with their common participation in the Body that Christ raised up––beyond any self-preoccupation––to the sacrificial state that was made permanent in Him.
On this day of Pentecost we can renew our spiritual understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit. Let us remember to seek Christ within us, not just as a figure described in the Scripture. We need to purify our hearts so that the Holy Spirit and God’s grace can work through us and we can become more and more like Christ. We need to remember the importance of the sacraments of the Church, especially Holy Communion where through the Holy Spirit we are able partake of the Body and Blood of Christ regularly to give us renewed spiritual strength so we can live as He taught us. Let's remember to give thanks for all Christ does for us through the Holy Spirit. Pray for the Holy Spirit to act within you.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov writes,

Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ's sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.

Reference:The Experience of God by Dimitru Staniloae. Vol 4, pp 1--11 

Monday, May 25, 2015

What is True Love?

In today's active worldly life we tend to experience a life filled with anxiety and concern. We all want to be loved but deep down we feel something is lacking. Subconsciously we are tormented and seek through external actions to eliminate this source of anxiety. Not experiencing true love based on the Gospel, we seek substitutes in self-help programs, yoga, eastern meditation, various philosophical, political or economic teachings, place our faith and hope in a particular leader or in an ideal like democracy. We may seek friendship by aligning ourselves with a particular political party that proclaims our current political views. We seek to be accepted, filling an inner void. But none of our external actions will give us what we seek.

What we truly seek is spiritual, it is the Gospel love. The whole essence of the Gospel is a teaching about love that was brought to us through the Incarnation Son of God. It is about God's love for us, our need to return this love to Him and to love our fellow man. When we accept His love and then act like Him, we find that no matter what is happening externally we find peace in a heart filled with love.  Unfortunately, today we see too many whose heart is filled with what appears to be hatred. We only have to look as far as the current political dialogue that is amplified by TV commentators and other media.

How do we acquire this true Gospel love? Archbishop Averky writes,
In order to acquire the Gospel love in one's heart, it is necessary to ardently and wholeheartedly come to believe in God as our Creator and Benefactor, to contemplate God's magnificent works, to envision and be profoundly amazed by God's majesty and wisdom as reflected in His creation, and by His inexpressible love towards His creation. If we become aware of how God cares for us like an all-loving Father, and even more gently, like an adoring mother, then our hearts will be filled to overflowing with ardent and reverent love for Him.
Further if we reflect that God is not only our Creator and Benefactor, but also our Savior; that He did not reject fallen Man who in return for all of God's beneficence, repaid Him with base ingratitude, but for our sake did not spare His Only-Begotten Son, delivering Him to shameful sufferings and painful death, so that He can reunite us to Himself, we would have to be as insensitive as stones if we did not answer God's love with love.
But it seems all to prevalent that many people only love their own desires. It appears that they love themselves more than anything. This includes people who even say they love God.

Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov says, "Love God as He commanded you to love Him, and not as the self-deluded daydreamers think they love Him."

Self-love will not lead us to the peace that comes with accepting and returning God's love. It will not fill this deep inner void we subconsciously seek to fill. This true love must be spiritual. It must be free from our self-centered wants and desires. To love God we must be humble. We cannot express our love when we act like we are god, the center of everything.

The criterion for authentic and spiritual love is given in a few passages of Scripture. Jesus says, If you love Me, keep my commandments (John 14:15). He who does not love Me does not keep My words (John 14:24)To love God therefore means we must struggle with our whole being to live what He has taught and shown us.

What does this imply? That we must study the Gospel. Studying with an open heart, taking His words as our most important teacher, we can learn how to love God. As we begin to put what He has taught into practice, we will begin to overcome our self-centeredness. He leads us to a state of Love. Not just love of God, but of love of others, including our perceived enemies. We will all become beacons of His light and preachers of the Gospel.

Archbishop Averky writes,
The basis of everything is pure and genuine love for God, which is proved by sincere desire and earnest effort to fulfill the commandments of the Lord. This love for God naturally generates in us feelings of love towards our neighbor. Love for others is so closely connected with love for God that Scripture considers it as a measure of our love for God. "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar" (1John 4:20), claims the Apostle.
This is the purpose of an Orthodox Christian way of life. Following the Gospel and nurtured in the Church, we seek to get rid of all our egoism and fill our hearts with love of God and others. All self-love, our selfish desires and wants, our external efforts to find acceptance by others, all such ways that most commonly dominate our heart must be purged. When our hearts are filled with true love, our world changes. We will then find the peace that we in error seek through external actions.

Archbiship Averky says,
Without Christ, peace is inconceivable, for only Christ's Gospel love can give reliable and enduring peace. "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you: not as the world gives do I give to you," said Christ Himself to His disciples during the Mystical Supper (John 14:27). Whoever wants to achieve true peace on earth must approach it not through world peace conferences, where everything is based on lies and dishonesty, but through the peace of Christ, through implanting Christ's Gospel love in human hearts.
Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Reference: The Struggle for Virtue by Archbishop Averky (Taushev), pp 48 - 60.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Role of Reason and Logic in Our Spiritual life

I was trained as an engineer so I have an orientation to viewing things from a logical and scientific perspective. But this view often causes anxiety and gives me difficulty in my spiritual life. When I try to apply logic and science to an event we might call a miracle, I am easily confused. The spiritual reality of the event is lost. My mind tries to take an miraculous event like Lazarus' return to life and seek to develop rational scenarios in which he might not have been dead, but only subdued with some drug or herb, or something else that would give a rational explanation about how Jesus could raise Him from the dead.

I have found that when I am able to let go of this rational approach, a whole new world opens up. Scripture takes on a whole new meaning. Spirit is revealed. The saints and angels come and interact with us, miracles become realities. All becomes different.
Elder Paisios says,
The mysteries of God will be impossible to know and will appear strange and contrary to nature as long as we don't overturn our secular mindset and see everything with spiritual eyes. Those who believe that they can come to know God's mysteries through mere scientific theory, without spiritual life, resemble a fool who thinks he can look through a telescope and see Paradise.
Too often I am this fool. For many, overcoming our addiction to rationalism or scientism presents a great challenge. The secular world view in these times is based on rationalism and scientism. How do we overcome this tendency to allow our rational mind to dominate and blot out everything spiritual?

While I have not completely overcome this disability, here are some of the approaches that have helped me.

Bible Study: When reading Holy Scripture do not try and analyze it. Let the words enter your heart instead of your mind. Read it prayerfully and reflectively with the assumption that its words contain knowledge that will lift you beyond what your rational mind can ever figure out. See Scripture as your Divine teacher. As soon as you begin to analyze, looking up the Greek words, seeking archaeological evidence, checking parallels with history, searching for academic Biblical scholars'  explanations, you will never allow Scripture to teach you. You will aways be trying to figure it out with your rational mind. When you assume that you cannot understand it fully with your rational mind, then you will become a learner of spiritual truths. Then you will allow your heart to be opened and your soul to be nurtured. When you come to a passage you can't understand, do not discount it or judge it, but only say to yourself, "I am not yet ready to understand this." Pray that God may reveal this to you at some time in the future and continue reading thinking that the Scripture is my teacher, not my mind. You will find that Scripture begins to talk with you in a new way. You are giving it the authority it deserves, as the Word of God, to become a powerful teacher about Spirit.

Prayer: This is a  big one. For a long time I thought of prayer as a discipline, a way to gain control over my mind and its ability to rapidly generate thoughts, or as an obligation. I tried hard. I would increase my time in prayer with great effort. It was again my rational mind acting to stay in control, a form of pride. Then I began to realize that this was not leading me to a relationship with God that I desired. God did not seem to be listening to my prayers. I would struggle to find time to pray. Then one day my spiritual father said to me after I explained to him my difficulty in prayer, "Why are you so self-centered." That's all he said. I immediately thought, "Who me, self-centered?" I began to think about what He meant. Then I remembered he also said that Christ needs to be at the center of everything. "What did this mean," I pondered. In the Jesus prayer it is supposed to be a prayer of the heart and using my rational mind I would force my mind with great effort to focus itself on the heart. I was expecting some bright light to descend from above. Suddenly it dawned on me that Christ, the Light of Light, was already within me. He dwells in my heart. I receive Him into my being every time I participate in Holy Communion. Realizing this inner presence, My mind suddenly let go. My prayer was now in the heart where Christ abides. My mind was at peace. There was a sense of real communion with God. There were no flashing lights, only peace. He is now with me all the time whenever I stop and let go of my rational mind. It's not that I lose control, but I gain a different kind of control, one that is based on surrender to Spirit.
Saint Paisios says,
"When the mind enters the heart and the two work together, our work is not anymore the work of logic and reason. Sound reasoning is a gift. But this gift must be restored and sanctified."
Divine Liturgy: This is another place where I found you can experience a great change when you let go of your rational mind's control. When we enter with the Gospel book there is a prayer read that calls for the heavenly realm to join us. It reads: "O Master, Lord our God, Who has appointed in Heaven legions and Hosts of Angels and Archangels for the service of Thy Glory, grant that with our entrance there may be an entrance of Holy Angels serving with us and glorifying Thy goodness..." Here in the procession we are joined with all the angels and begin to prepare for the ultimate gift, Christ Himself, His Body and Blood, which will shortly be offered to us. To fully participate in the Divine Liturgy you have to accept the idea that invisible beings are real and then Spirit will make them appear as a reality to you. They are part of God's created reality and are especially present with us during the Divine Liturgy. Allow them to enter your presence as you worship and they will nurture your spirit and your soul will be filled with delight.

Daily Life: Learn that you do not have to feel you have to plan everything or explain everything.  With the right attitude you will find there are miracles happening all the time. Don't let your mind fool you, telling you this is not true.

Saint Paisios tells us,
If we try and solve problems using nothing else but our logic, we will end up quite confused. In each and every one of our actions, God must take the lead. Everything we do we must do trusting God, for otherwise we will be full of anxiety, our mind will get overwhelmed and our soul will be miserable.
This is a lesson that has taken me many years to learn and I still struggle to let go and not try to find a rational or scientific explanation for everything.  But knowing the right way to balance rational thought with Spirit I can catch myself and seek His help, putting my full trust in Him instead of my own intellect. This is when Christ becomes the center of my life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Mid-Pentecost - What is the Significance of this Important Feast Day?

We are at the mid-point between Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ and His victory over death, and Pentecost where He sends down the Holy Spirit, the “living water,” so we too can follow Him. In this feast we continue the celebration of the Resurrection that emphasizes the Divine nature of Christ. Simultaneously, we are reminded that  the descent of the Holy Spirit is coming soon. We should become aware of the joy our soul seeks to receive His Grace through the Spirit. It is His grace that enables us to follow His teachings, to make our lives Christ centered, to live united with Him in hope of our Resurrection. We are encouraged to think of the joy in receiving the Holy Sprit so that we too can share with others the love God gives us. We can become His light that shines through us like “rivers of flowing waters” (John 7:38).

During the feast we can reflect on the nature of our faith and how weak it is in these times, how few follow His teachings. We too often say that it is more important for us to follow our inner feelings and not to be constrained by His teachings. We think this is freedom. But let’s realize when we say this we are admitting we are a slave to the norms of our current secular culture instead of God’s hopes for us.  The way of our times is not true freedom. It will not lead us to eternal life in His kingdom. In this feast we are reminded to thirst for what is beyond earth, beyond our feelings, beyond our self-centered wants and desires, to thirst for the Holy Spirit that is to be sent to us by Christ Himself on Pentecost. This will bring us true joy, true freedom, and the strength to follow Christ.

For the next week we sing along with the Resurrection hymn the following:
Having come to the middle of the fest, 
refresh my thirsty soul with the streams of piety;for thou, O Savior, didst say to all:Let him who thirsts come to Me and drink.O Christ our God,Source of Life, glory to Thee.

Monday, May 4, 2015

17 Points to Create True Happiness With Your Work and Life.

Happiness is often elusive, especially in our daily work. Life involves many temptations and unexpected troubles. With a solid faith and proper way of life it is possible to find joy in everything you do or are faced with. The following seventeen points will bring God into your life each hour of your day allowing you will become more effective and true to your deepest values.   Implement them and you will find they also will lead to a life based on joy.

1. Remember your power to choose.
You make the choices in your life. You can choose  to act with God or to ignore His grace. You were created in God's image and have free will.  If you feel unhappy remember that you are making this choice and that you can be making a different choice which will bring divine joy. Do not blame anyone but yourself for your dissatisfaction with your life. Instead examine the choices you have made and commit to making new ones.

2. Do not worry about what you cannot control.
Worry will not accomplish anything but anxiety. It can even cause lack of sleep and health problems. Christ tells us to have faith and not to worry. (Matt 6:25) He tells us to remember the birds and how God cares for their needs. He further says, "Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?" (Matt 6:28). Remember that God knows what you need and you can trust in Him to provide what is necessary. Focus on living each moment with Him as your guide.

3. Don't compare yourself to others.
When you compare yourself to others you ignore the reality that God gave each of us unique gifts. We are all different. Paul says, "There are diversity of gifts but one Spirit." (1Cor 12:4) He tells us there are diversities of ministers and activities that each of us is given through the Spirit. (1Cor 12:8) You must find a way to use your unique God given gifts in all aspects of your life, and not assume that you can or should do everything others can do. Be thankful for the gifts you have, understand them, and use them fully. Praise and give thanks for the gifts you see in others. Do not try to be like someone else but develop your unique capabilities and let God's gift of beauty be fulfilled in you.

4. Give thanks to God for everything.
Paul says, "rejoice everything give thanks for it is the will of God in Jesus Christ...Hold fast to what is good." (1 Th 5:16-18) He tells us to make our life a continual prayer. When you are in constant contact with God you will be guided to do His will in all things. Remember all things are sent by Him. You may not understand why he allows some of the difficulties that we face, but you will be rewarded if you always give thanks for all He allows to happen to you, both what you see as good and bad. With patience and endurance, out of our difficulties will come something good. Remember the story of the Paralytic who waited for thirty-eight years to be healed by Christ (John 5:1-15). Paul reminds us to give thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Eph 5:20)

5. Don't judge others
Remember this: as you judge others so will you be judged (Matt 7:1). When you judge others you are only putting added pressure on yourself. You must develop humility and remember what you do not like in others is what you have in yourself. You are called to love your fellow workers and neighbors, and if he or she is doing something you do not think is right you must discern with compassion how to correct the undesirable behavior, not by judging the person, but by seeking ways to help them out of your love. Judging separates us from others, destroys love, and leads to unhappiness.

6. Forgive others and don't carry resentment
In the Lord's Prayer we ask God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matt 6:12). God will forgive you only if you are able to forgive others. When you carry resentment in your heart for past misdeeds you will find yourself angry, anxious and separated from God. You will continue to carry negative thoughts and never be able to be happy. When you forgive you are relieved of a great burden and God will give you grace to help you erase any resentment you may have. Remember that one of the basic commandments is to love others as we love ourselves and as God loves you. Try to see that we all are imperfect and struggling with the challenges of life and we need the help of others.

7. Plan for the  difficulties you may face during the day
Each morning in your daily morning prayer, take a few minutes to think about what potential issues you might face, those situations where it may be difficult to live your values as taught by Jesus Christ. Doing this in a prayerful way will guide and prepare you to deal with them.  Prepare yourself each day for the struggles of the day. More on daily prayer life.

8. Remember the Jesus Prayer
If you remember God throughout the day it will help you in all things.  One of the greatest gifts you have is prayer. The Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner," is one that can be etched into your brain with constant repetition so that it will be on the tip of your tongue always, no matter what you are doing. Learn this practice and your life will be transformed. More on Jesus Prayer

9. Help others
You can always find ways to help others. Try to find ways to help those who seem to give you the most difficulty during the day. Kindness only leads to more kindness. When you make an effort to help someone it softens your heart and brings more grace on you.

10. Simplify
Often we try to do too much and our life becomes unbalanced. We find we do not have the proper time for family or our Church family. We become consumed by our work and other duties, and become lax in our spiritual life. Then stress accumulates.  At times you need to look at what is really important for you to be able to follow Christ. Then use your free will to make new choices and implement changes in your life, seeking a way of life that allows us to keep Christ in the center of all you do. Get rid of those things that are not important. Use your free will to implement changes. Following God's will involves your cooperation through your choices.

11. Use your talents wisely
Since we all have differing gifts that have been given to us by God you need to make sure you are using those given to you to the fullest.  Examine your gifts and then look at your work-day tasks.  How can you better use what you are naturally good at. You may at times have to look for a different job if you are so constrained by your current situation that you cannot use your natural gifts.  But in  almost every situation there is room for you to exercise to the fullest what God has given you. Transform the way you do your work.

13. Let His grace shine through you - be a light
Remember that Christ is always with you.  As you generate thoughts of loving kindness the goodness of Christ will flow from you and you will become a positive force for the benefit of others. You need to let His light shine through your actions and your attitude. Become a beacon of goodness and love.

14. Choose you friends carefully
Often we make the mistake by not being careful who we choose to be our friends and who we spend our time with.  If anyone is having a negative impact on you, stop and evaluate this relationship. Negative people or people with different values can easily lead you astray.  Be prepared to change who you spend your time with.

15. Eliminate negative thinking 
Negative thinking only leads to bitterness, sadness, and even wicked thoughts. You need to learn to recognize all such thoughts and totally reject them. Seek to find the sources of negative thinking that are influencing you.  It may be commentators on TV, what you read, Facebook friends, or your personal friends. Find all sources and eliminate them from you life. Your creative mind will be opened by positive thought and you will be able to better apply your gifts to your work. Your positive thoughts will help others become more positive. Negative thoughts will always lead you away from happiness.

16. Review your life's actions each evening.
Each evening, during your evening prayers, take a moment to review how well you did during the day with the difficult situations you faced.  Did it go as planned or do you need to make corrections. If you were led to sinfulness then immediately ask God for forgiveness and determine how you can do things differently next time. Remember God always understands the difficulty you face and is always forgiving when you seek His forgiveness with sincerity.

17. Remember your mortality and the eternal life to come.
Hope is important as you face all the trials and tribulations that you will face in your lifetime. If you always think about the certainty of your own mortality, not in a morbid way, but in one based on the hope you have of eternal life given to all through Christ's victory over death in His Crucifixion and Resurrection, you will always have hope. Remember our aim is to become united with God in eternal life in His kingdom. All your difficulties are but the path of preparation for the life to come.

For more on an Christian way of life see the Ten Point Program for an Orthodox Life.