Monday, December 19, 2016

How Should We Accept Sickness?

Saint Porphyrios gives us an important lesson about illness. His words may be difficult to understand but we must open our soul to receive them so we can follow what the great saint teaches.

When we are in pain we should not think of this as a punishment from God but as a gift. God allows sickness for our benefit. Remember, God is love and is always trying to lead us to become like him so we can enter into His kingdom. Accepting our pain and discomfort as a gift, we must think of it as an opportunity to share in a small way the Passion of Christ.  It is His grace working in us. When we see this in this way we will experience joy that He is with us and allowing us to participate in His passion. It is His Passion that lead to His Resurrection. So we too are being led to our Resurrection by His grace when we experience as pain.

Nor should not fear pain as a sign of death, but think that, if it is our time to die, death is the only door to heaven and eternal life with Him.

Saint Porphyrios says that we should not pray to be relieved of our pain as this can be self-centered. We should instead pray to be forgiven for our sinfulness. Usually our sickness and pain makes us aware of our sinfulness and we feel a need to call on God for help.  We should pray for God to help us become a good person capable of doing His will and follow His commandments.

Sickness humbles us. It makes us realize that we are not in control. It is like the hot fire that purifies gold. The fire heats up the gold metal and the impurities float to the top. Then they are skimmed off leaving pure gold. When we are sick and realize we cannot control the destiny of our life it is like the heat that purifies gold. Our sinfulness comes to the top and with our prayer of forgiveness God can skim off the impurities in our hearts. As we continually sincerely ask for his mercy we find that His grace is given to us in mysterious ways. This faith we have in God's goodness towards us and His saving grace must be pure and unconditional. We must without doubt believe that God is our creator and savior. Based on this faith we must have total love for Him, loving Him more than anyone we know.  With this love we can say like saint Porphyrios says, "Even if you want to put mey in Hell, do so as long as I do not lose your love." For Him God's love had no boundaries.

In sickness Saint Porphyrios teaches us to accept our condition knowing God loves us and that He allows this illness so we can come closer to Him. Remember your sinfulness, continually pray for His mercy and forgiveness, and ask that he make you a good person in His eyes. Do not ask for self-centered things like to make you well but instead ask only that He make you a better person.

Have patience, endurance, and love God with your whole heart.

Reference: Wounded by Love, pp 224 -231

Monday, December 12, 2016

Why do we say Christ is the only Way?

The unique aspect of Christianity is that it is Christ centered. Jesus Christ is the Way and the goal. Through the Church we become united with Christ retaining our individuality. Christianity teaches that any  other union with God is an illusion if it is not achieved through Christ. Christ was given to mankind as the ladder to heaven, to Him. It is through Him that we have access to the Father and Spirit. It is Christ who sends the Spirit. Jesus Christ is like a bridge between human nature and the divine. It is in Christ that both are united. There is no other Way.

To those who see other good people of other faiths often question this. But the Incarnation of the Son of God is a reality that cannot be denied. God sent His son as the Way to His kingdom for our benefit. Fr Staniloae says, Jesus Christ He came for us as "a voice" of love, ringing out with all the affection of a human being, so familiar to us. But this means that man himself was made capable of becoming the medium by which the Son of God is communicated to us..."

When we ascend to God we are "with Him and in Him." Our ascent is  not based on our individual efforts. It is only through Him that we are able to ascend. In the beginning our soul is "sensitized by the Holy Spirit." From this we are able to realize that there is a relationship with Jesus who is the one guiding and helping us along the Way. He is like a good friend, who is more advanced in wisdom and whom we trust, guiding us with love and understanding.

In the beginning Jesus is not visible to us but is hidden in His commandments. We see from the Gospel that He is a model of perfection. As Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, "To beginners he appears in the form of a servant."

As we advance along the Way our vision of Him changes. Initially His true glory is hidden but then it is revealed more and more like the disciples experienced at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. His glory is initially hidden in His commandments and as we strive to carry them out and begin to develop the virtues, the presence of Christ becomes clearer. By our cooperation with Him, our faith and commitment to carry out His commandments, we are given greater and greater power of the Spirit to carry them out. In the process the image of Jesus become clearer and clearer. As we make this ascent to higher levels of perfection we are aided by our ascetic efforts and we gain in our mystical contemplation of Christ.We find that Christ is a most intimate participant in every aspect of our life. He imprints "Himself spiritually in us."

He is there to help us in all our struggles of life in this world. He is there when we are tempted and when we sin. He is always at our side helping us along the Way leading us to our true nature. Because He became Man in His divinity we know that He knows our condition.  And because of His love for us that He has shown in His Crucifixion  and Resurrection we have great faith in His help.

The Mysteries of the Church are essential in our ascent. They are how Christ penetrates our inner being. This includes the purification of Baptism, anointing of Holy Chrism, and our partaking of Him in Holy Communion. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us that it is by the medium of the holy mysteries that "Christ comes to us and dwells in us; He is united to us and grows into one with us. He stifles sin in us and infuses into us His own life and merit..."

Our ascent to virtue that comes from faith and results in love is based on our acceptance of a hierarchy in the Church. Those who became saints have been helped by the angels. The church from the lay person, to the priests, bishops and then angles form a ecclesiastical hierarchy whose purpose is to help us grow in virtue and our closeness to God. This hierarchy is realized in degrees as we progress. Fr Staniloae says, "The work of the hierarchy for the salvation of the faithful is essentially exercised through the holy mysteries, especially through Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist." Even those at the hight levels of holiness gain from the holy mysteries and will have a greater vision of their content and profit even more by them.

While we are here on earth the Church is essential for us to make progress. We must accept the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church. if we do we will progress toward the heavenly hierarchy of the angels and saint in heaven. The Church is the body of Christ and is the ladder by which we climb.  It is the only ladder God has provided for us.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Is the Church Behind the Times?

Recently, I ran across this post on Facebook: "If you say the Church is behind the times, the TIMES must change, not the Church!" While I understand the truth in this statement, as the TIMES do need to change and the Church does protect unchangeable truths, there is also a hidden untruth in this statement. The Church needs get ahead of the TIMES and become a more effective agent for change. The Orthodox Church is also bound by ancient traditions and practices that can make it appear to be out of step with the times and irrelevant. Some of these traditions have become no more than rituals and practices without the deeper meaning they once had. 

When you ask many why they baptize their child they have no answer other than its tradition, often putting more emphasis on the party that follows the sacrament itself. When you ask a couple about marriage they rarely will give you a spiritual answer, but yet insist that the wedding be held in the Church out of tradition, and focus most on planning a huge party, often with a professional planner. The celebrations that come with some of the major feast days are also bound by tradition. For example in Crete there is a huge celebration on the night before the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. The life and meaning of her life is lost in the traditional music and abundance of food that is offered before the Church even celebrates the event with a Divine Liturgy the following morning. The party or meal becomes more significant than the event being celebrated. The platia around the Church is overflowing with people at such an event but on a Sunday there will be only a few inside to participate in the Sacrament. The True food of the Sacrament is secondary to the food and music of the celebration.

When the church still uses ancient Greek, requires its clergy to dress as in ancient times, allows clergy and hierarchs to stand above those they serve wearing crowns, sitting on thrones, holding staffs, acting like emperors of Byzantine times with their attendants, its services are seen no longer by many as a beacon of the Holy Spirit and no longer exuding the feeling of love. This is reinforced when continues with its rituals encouraging old traditions and practices no longer relevant, no longer communicating the message of Christ. Christ becomes lost in the secularized traditions and outdated practices. Instead of leading people to a deeper spirituality the Church can be perceived as preserving an ancient set of rituals and associated traditions that were maybe appropriate for the time and way of life in the Byzantine empire but out of touch today. The issue is that the central message of our Savior who came from heaven to transform and lead us to an eternal life in His kingdom becomes blocked, overtaken by outdated tradition. The Church is no longer seen by many as a spiritual hospital were we all can seek the healing of our souls that are troubled by the TIMES.

When you examine the current situation there is much in the modern Orthodox Church traditions and practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel teachings or with the sacramental duties of the church. I was in Crete for an extended stay and I saw this problem acutely. Talking with younger members there who have been brought up in the faith, seeing the many churches and villages built around the church building, where 90% or more profess to be Orthodox Christians, and serving as a clergyman in the services of a local church, I have became aware how distant the work of the church appears to many people, good people who have pure hearts and who should be the current workers in the church. Basically, it's mainly the old people (mostly women) who come to the churches there now. The younger generation tends to reject the Church as dead, lifeless. They seem to have little respect for the clergy who perpetuate the status quo. They see the Church as perpetuating cultural traditions and not a source for spiritual healing. 

One young lady in her twenties who lives in a small village and has a college degree, said to me, "why is the church so distant, separated from the people." At first I was surprised at her comment. It woke me up to think about this issue. I was encouraging her to talk with a priest about confession and spritual growth. She gently held her hand to her heart and humbly said this is what is important. God is here and not in the church. I try to live according to Christian principles but the Church does not seem to be an example for me. She said she had never been to confession and that the priests did not relate to the people. She did not feel they set an example that is any different than the TIMES. She saw them busily going from church to church in the villages doing services tied to local traditions, doing their job. She further said that when she goes into the church she does not have any feeling of the spirit, (again holding her hand to her heart), but she sees priests and chanters going through rituals, rambling in a language is not easily understood as it is an ancient form of Greek, and dressed in elaborate uniforms. She did not feel the services were helpful for her and that she attended only because of her family tradition. When I tried again to encourage her to talk with a priest, she said, "why don't they do something about changing the environment in the church and so it is a beacon of Spirit and try to better relate to the people so they will want to seek them out for guidance. They are too busy to talk with us." 

The Church does have and protects the Truth, but it is also is bound up in rituals and traditions, many of which may no longer communicate what Christ teaches. In fact, its clinging to the past may block many from learning the true Gospel message. Rather than being a source of Wisdom it can become a hinderance to learning the Wisdom She has.

Change is needed in my view. The clergy is trapped in tradition and they often argue about the details of the ritual or their dress, or politics of which church higher in rank. The emphasis of the church needs to be redirected toward spiritual healing and growth and not just on ritual and preservation of traditions that consist mainly of parties and no longer have spiritual value. There needs to be more emphasis on the Ten Points of an Orthodox Way of Life that have been presented many times in this blog. The Church needs to seek ways  to encouraged its members to participate in the sacraments as a way to help them in their spiritual struggle, not to fulfill ancient traditions or a family obligation. They need to hear the hymns in their native language and be allowed to express the church's beliefs inside the church in a modern language and not feel called to preserve a language only a few understand. They need to be encouraged to participate. They ought to be engaged to study the Scripture, to better understand the reality of the life of Christ and His teachings, to learn the wisdom of the Church fathers, and learn how to apply this wisdom to their current daily life. The church needs to reach out to those who suffer with anxiety and mild depression and help them see how this is related to a spiritual struggle we all face. As they discover the difficulty of their unchecked passions they should be encouraged to fast as a way to control them, not just to gain peace, but so they can have a personal relationship with God and grow in their ability to do His will instead of Christ's teachings being just another set of ancient obligations. The Church needs the capacity to instruct its members on the necessity to make time for personal prayers, how to pray and seek the joy of a peaceful inner life focused on the Holy Spirit and Christ who lives within each of them. It needs to provide a welcoming loving spiritual community so that when people come into the church service they see and relate to people who are seeking true communion with God. The clergy must be an shining example of persons who strive to live the Truths and who are always available to offer spiritual guidance as true spiritual fathers.

There are many Orthodox Churches who have changed from the traditional church found in the ancient Byzantine village, but there are still many where the spirit is not alive, where it is no longer a beacon of the Spirit, where tradition and ritual continue as part of our secular TIMES. Our younger generation senses this and is not encouraged to become active members.

The younger generations needs an Orthodox Church with its foundation of Wisdom and Truth, but with a way of communicating these truths that is relative to the TIMES. So yes, the Times need to change, but if we are going to change the TIMES, the Church also needs to change.