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.