Monday, January 25, 2016

10. Reading the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers

What you read has an impact on the way you think. So does what you watch on TV or at the movies. Think about what you want to let into your mind to influence your thinking. Your reading should be something that will be a positive impact on your spiritual growth, that will shape your mind and orient it towards God.

To maximize the positive conditioning of your mind, you should plan to make time to regularly read the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Holy Fathers and the lives of the Saints. You should organize your life so that you can spend at least a half hour a day for this task, maybe instead of one of the TV programs you watch regularly. A good time for this is in the evening just before bedtime, before or after your evening prayer. When you do this, you will then fall asleep with these sweet thoughts in your mind.
The spiritual life is challenging. It is like an ascent up a steep slope or mountain side. It is a long and slow pathway with joyful moments along the way. As you move along the path, you gain strength. You can begin to look back and reflect on how far you have come while still seeing that you have much further to travel. As you gain strength, you will be able to face an ever more difficult terrain as well as the uncertainty of storms that you cannot predict. It is often a lonely path, and at times it seems like you will never reach the summit.
As you face these difficulties the readings, especially the lives of the Saints, can inspire you with courage to continue along the path. You can see that others have traveled this path before you, and with persistence and faith, they have reached much higher heights than you can now see. As you turn to those who had an intimate relationship with God, they will give you hope and kindle a spark of warmth in your heart. They will help you keep your head high and your eyes fixed on the summit ahead. They will show you that your capacity to choose, to change, and to endure is a reality. They will show you the way to wisdom and love and the potential to be able to radiate spiritual glory as you discover the uncreated light of God and find yourself in glorious union with Him.
The Bible contains the most important books to read regularly. Here are some suggestions on how to read the Bible:
Read the Bible with obedience. Remember that it is inspired by God. It is Christ Himself speaking to you. This means you need to maintain a sense of wonder along with listening without judgment. Don’t take wonder for granted. Because of your familiarity or the commonness of the Bible, you can take what is written in the Bible just like any other written material and lose your sense of awe and wonder as you read it. Reading the Bible cannot be like reading a novel or the daily newspaper. Just like prayer, you need to prepare your mind to the nature of the text you are about to read. This is the Word of God. With wonder, you can open yourself to listen to what is being said. Look for the spiritual significance of what is written. Remember the Bible is not a textbook, but a spiritual document. As you listen to the words as you read them, you will realize the awesome task that God has for you and His unlimited love He has for all humankind. 
When you read the Bible, don’t try to make up your own interpretation. Scripture is to be interpreted through the Church. Remember the story of Philip coming in contact with the Ethiopian reading the Bible in his chariot? Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I unless someone guides me”. This is the same attitude you should have. Scripture is not always self-explanatory. When you are at different stages of your spiritual growth, passages will take on different significance. As you grow spiritually, the Bible has more and more to teach you. You should take advantage of Biblical commentaries of the Church Fathers to help you. This is one of the advantages of using the Orthodox Study Bible, as it contains comments to help you understand what is written as interpreted by the Church. When you read the Bible you make full advantage of your own understanding illuminated by the Holy Spirit and also make full understanding of the commentaries of the Church Fathers. In the end when you have questions or opinions, submit them to the Church for clarification.
Your reading of the Bible should always be Christ-centered. Your interpretation should be made in light of the harmony and completeness that Jesus brought to this world. You cannot take an analytical approach and break each book or chapter into its own part. The Bible must be understood as a whole, with Christ as the bond and union.
You should also read the Bible for a personal application. Saint Mark the monk (5th-6th century) says, “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads Holy scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.” Do not ask, “What does this mean?” But, instead ask “What does this mean for me?” When reading the Bible, first reflect that Scripture is a sacred history of the world from the time of Creation through the formation of the early Church. Then observe the particularity of this history where we find God intervening at specific times and places and entering into dialogue with specific individuals. After reliving this spiritual history, apply it to yourself. You need to bring these distant places and times into your own place and time and see that these stories include you.

Monday, January 18, 2016

9. Spiritual Fellowship

Those you spend your time with influence your thinking and behavior. If you associate with those who share your values, then they will be reinforced. You want to develop a circle of friends that lifts you up to higher ideals and to avoid those who negatively influence you. You need to look for the goodness in others when choosing your friends and consciously choose who you spend your time with on a regular basis. When you find others who share your spiritual values then you should find ways to spend more time with them. 

When you are engaged in making changes in your way of life, you need the support of friends with whom you interact regularly. Seek out those who are also trying to live an Orthodox way of life, meet with them, read the same books and discuss them. Share with them in your times of entertainment as well.
A good way to develop a strong relationship with such people of like mind and values is to work together for a selfless goal. This may be a project such as reducing hunger, or working on a Church function. When you work with others on a project that does not involve any expectations of reward or recognition you will find that your energies are multiplied and the synergy of different people is maximized.
This is the value of the Church community. It is a place where we all share the same ideals. We come together at least once a week for common worship. We can participate in Bible study and Sunday school where we can continue to learn together. We can interact in social activities as well.
In your spiritual growth you are like a tree seedling. At first a new seedling needs to be protected in a safe environment and even fenced off to protect it from the grazing animals. When it matures, however, it can survive on its own. In the beginning you too need a safe environment; your emerging Orthodox way of life needs protection. As you mature spiritually you can then enter into any company and not fear being uprooted. As your relationship with God grows, you will have less need for this protection, as you will have the Holy Spirit supporting you. You then can become a source of protection for a new emerging seedling.
The Apostle Paul sees our spiritual path as one that involves struggle and requires endurance. He says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” He explains that we are involved in a struggle with our desires and the Spirit, “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” He then shows us that we need to be involved supporting each other in this struggle. “Therefore, brethren…, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us… Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Our spiritual companionship should be of such a nature that we can strongly encourage each other.
Who you spend your time with makes a difference. If you choose wisely, you will get the encouragement you need. If you do not, you will find you are encouraged to give up the struggle and instead seek a life of pleasure and self-satisfaction. It is a common saying that you are known by the company you keep. If you associate with those who share your values, then those values will be reinforced. When you associate with those who are also involved in this struggle, their experiences will give you knowledge and strength. They will help you expand your vision and you will profit from their experience. Since they are also spiritual aspirants like you, they will inspire you, strengthen your resolve, elevate your aim, and enable you to progress more surely on this difficult path.
In addition to spiritual companionship, the Orthodox tradition suggests that Christians should have a spiritual father to guide them on their spiritual journey. This goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Saint Paul points to the relationship between a spiritual guide and his spiritual children. “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” He points out that this relationship involves the imitation of life and character of the spiritual father. Later in the 4th century St. Basil the Great encourages each person to find a spiritual father “who may serve you as a sure guide in the work of leading a holy life” and warns that “to say that one does not need counsel is great pride.” To risk directing your own way is risking that you will fall prey to the most powerful of all sins: pride. We can all easily be misled by our own direction and be tempted to think that we are making great progress, when we are only building up our own ego and our pride. 
Each person needs a spiritual father if he or she is are sincere in their seeking to do God’s will and growing in faith. The role of the Orthodox spiritual father is leading seekers along the spiritual path, helping them conquer their passions, guiding them in ways of prayer, ascetic disciplines, and participation in the sacraments and leading them to ultimate union with God.

Monday, January 11, 2016

8. Putting Others First

As you begin to slow down your life, reorder your priorities, become more watchful, and gain freedom from the chains of your likes and dislikes, you will also begin to see changes taking place in your relationships.

It is selfless relationships that lead us to happiness and a life close to God. This is what Christ meant when He asked us to love our neighbor as ourselves. You cannot act as an isolated being and be close to God. When you dwell on yourself you only build a wall between yourself, others and God. Those who insist on thinking about their own needs, their wants, plans and ideas only become lonely and feel insecure. They separate themselves from God.
A powerful approach to learning to love is to practice putting others first. You can begin with your own family and close friends and coworkers. As you try to understand the needs of your spouse or best friend, and to begin to consider their needs before you insist on your own, you will find that you move closer together. This kind of action weakens the negative aspect of your ego-centeredness and opens deeper relationships with others. 
There is a ripple effect that begins with your closest relationships. As your closest relationships grow, you will find that those further removed will also grow closer. Your love ripples outward. At the same time you will find yourself growing closer to God. So, begin this practice with those who are closest to you.
Most of us find that we are all puffed up by our ego. We see the world based on what we like and dislike. We think everyone has the same hopes and fears, likes and dislikes that we do. Too often we expect others to behave just like ourselves. But, when they don’t and they expect us to act the way they do, we run into conflicts. This is the reality of the world. Try to allow yourself to think in the way others think, to appreciate their likes and dislikes, to look at things from their perspective. Then you will find that your relationships blossom.
The block to knowing God is the same as the one that blocks us from loving others. It is our self-will. We grow spiritually when we learn how to eliminate our self-will. This is the aim of putting others first. This is the example that Christ has set out before us. This is the accomplishment of the Saints of the Church. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “If you want to find your life, you have to lose it.” One of the two great commandments He gave us is to love our neighbor as yourself. Why? Because he wants us to be able to love Him. God is present in all of us and when we love each other we are loving God. It is through our love of others that we can come to know the love of God.
The ability to put others first demands patience–a calm and controlled mind. This virtue only comes with a disciplined life based on a foundation of daily prayer where you gain strength to control your passions and get beyond your own likes and dislikes. Continually ask for God’s mercy and His help to overcome your self-willed nature. When you are patient and able to think of the needs of others, an unkind word will not agitate you and trigger anger. As you become more watchful and your life more ordered, then you can support others even when they are angry with you.
You can practice putting others first even at work. Learn to accept that others may have good ideas even if they are different from your own. When you no longer expect everyone to be and think like yourself, and when you recognize their likes and dislikes without judgment, you will begin to build loving relationships at work. In fact, work is a great place to get rid of the sharp edges of your personality. As you learn to love in the work environment, your example will be seen by others for the benefit of all.
Some will say that putting others first will only make you like a door mat and subject you to abuse. This is not what putting others first is about. You do not automatically say yes to everything others want. What we are saying is to put the other person’s welfare before your own desires, not necessarily all their wants. There are times when it is in the best interests of the other person to say no. And there are other times when we say yes even when it goes against one of our own desires, because we know it is what is best for them. This is the essence of godly love. You are putting others first when the other person’s welfare means more than your own desires. It is like the love a mother naturally has for her infant child. This is the sacrifice that Christ made on the Cross. He willingly gave His own life for our salvation. Often in a relationship it is necessary to say “no” when we know it is not in the best interests of the other person and “yes” when it does not meet our own desires.
You can also mend broken relationships with love. It is the act of forgiveness that is the most powerful healing power. Forgiveness makes both parties whole. When you forgive those who have done wrong to you, you also forgive yourself for your wrongs of the past. This brings up another benefit we have in the Church, the sacrament of Confession. In this sacrament you can ask God to cleanse you of all your past transgressions, all the cases where you were not able to control you passions and master your self-centeredness. In this sacrament not only are you cleansed by the Holy Spirit but you also gain spiritual advice, a penance, to help you overcome the passion that you find most difficult to control. When you “clear the deck,” when you humble yourself before God and admit your weaknesses, you open yourself to become more understanding of the struggles of others and become more willing to forgive them. As you forgive others you are more able to forgive yourself. As you do this you will find you are more able to put others first. The result is that we all come closer to God.

Monday, January 4, 2016

7. Taming the Passions

Passions are initiated by our senses. If you are to become truly free and learn to live by God’s will, you need to learn to control the passions that result from the way you react to your senses. For example, you may crave certain foods. When you are deprived of them you become disturbed and possibly even angry. Gaining freedom from these likes and dislikes is what we mean by taming the passions. When you are able to do this, you gain the freedom to do God’s will and to love others by being less focused on your own desires. This does not mean you need to deprive yourself of good food or entertainment. Everything God created is good. It means you should enjoy what is necessary for your welfare but also forego all the indulgences based on your desires for sensual pleasure. You cannot simply ignore the passions. You need to recognize them and then train them to come under the control of your soul and mind. This is how you can live in ways that do not undermine your health, security, or freedom from sinful tendencies such as anger. With untrained passions it is like having a team of wild horses pulling your wagon. You think you are the driver, but the horses decide to go where they want. These wild horses are the untamed passions. The challenge is to harness and train your passions so they will follow your commands, just like a trained team of horses is obedient to the commands of the driver.

This task begins with acknowledging that you ARE often controlled by your likes and dislikes. Begin by learning to say no when you are being led to indulge in something you know is not good for you. Gaining discipline in what you eat is a first place to start. This is one of the benefits of the fasting we are advised to do. By choosing not to eat certain foods, you are, in effect, training your mind to be more obedient. When it becomes obedient, then it will be more capable of doing God’s will. You will gain greater freedom. In the tradition of the Church, fasting was always one of the first disciplines taught after prayer. This was taught to us by Christ Himself. The first thing He did after His Baptism was to go into the desert to fast and pray for forty days. Since He was both fully human and fully divine, He had to tame His human passions.
As was discussed earlier, the Orthodox way of life involves many fasting periods and days. There is the Great Fast before Pascha; we are to fast each Wednesday and Friday; and we fast before receiving Holy Communion. You can follow the church calendar for fasting guidelines that have been established by the Church to help you in your efforts to tame your passions. Always seek the advice of your spiritual father on what is appropriate for your personal situation.
Often you find that you are stuck in a rut and so conditioned to a particular like or dislike that you cannot bear even the thought of tearing yourself free from it. It is like there is a deep groove engraved in your mind, like a rut, that you cannot get out of. You do the same thing over and over without even thinking. These ruts need to be identified and eliminated so you are free to choose. When you are stuck with following your own desires that are automatically stimulated by your senses, and your ear takes in something another person says that triggers anger in you, you are headed for conflict. At the moment when you react with anger, you are unable to love as God commands. In fact you are immediately separated from God. 
Try to become observant of all your likes and dislikes and recognize the passions they trigger. This means being able to appropriately say yes and to say no as a rational choice, not based on an automatic response. The answer is not necessarily abstinence. We want to go beyond relying on abstinence, but abstinence may be necessary as a start to break a pattern that controls us. Avoidance of situations that trigger your passions is one approach, but as you develop some of the other points presented here you will be able to intervene in the moment they are aroused and choose more appropriate courses of action. You want to be able to intervene in your thought process when desires arise. This is where watchfulness and the practice of the Jesus prayer are most important. Instead of reacting like a robot, you can condition your mind to call upon the prayer to interrupt and lift you out of the rut. As you identify your main ruts, you can pray for God’s help. If you maintain a regular prayer life, participate regularly in worship services and the sacraments, God will help you.
Our passions are like a pet. If you have ever had a puppy you will remember how they take a shoe or other item and chew on it and tear it apart. They growl when you try to take it from them. This is normal behavior for a young pup, but not one we want to have continue. If we do not train the puppy in the beginning, it will stay wild and even turn against us later on. Our passions are like puppies. Unfortunately many of us have grown up without properly training our passions. When we try to confront them they are not eager to cooperate. They rebel like angry pups. Controlling them becomes a difficult task but one that is essential to a virtuous life. 
When you first begin to tame your passions, you may experience inner irritation. As you wrestle with them, you will find that the block is in the mind. Also, as you mature in your prayer life, you will find that you have increasing means to overcome the ruts conditioned into your mind. As you seek God’s help, you will be aided in this struggle. Through regular prayer, especially repetition of the Jesus Prayer, you will even be able to create new ruts that are beneficial to the health of your soul, new patterns that are stronger than the old ones. Eventually the soul will regain its normal position of being in control. The mind then becomes a powerful and useful tool under the enlightened direction of the soul for living the life that God desires for us.