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.