Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Prayer and Love of God

Saint Maximos the Confessor tells us, “He who genuinely loves God prays without distraction”. Therefore it should be very easy to love God in a genuine way. 

Elder Aimilianos says,
All we need to do is pay attention to where our mind goes. If it doesn’t go to God, we need to realize that our mind does not see clearly and has need of a physician...
What should be natural for us becomes difficult because our mind is unfocused and occupied with things other than God. Loving God should be easy and natural. God gave us a mind so we can be always connected with Him to do His will. Since we are created to Love Him, this should be a straightforward task.

What we need to realize is that the distractions we find during our prayer time is a sickness that needs to be cured. We must learn to make our prayer “stable and focused”, that is without any distractions. 

Elder Aimilianos says, 
When we see that our mind has wandered off to some habitual thought, memory, image, or experience, we should know that we are distancing ourselves from God.
All these distractions we experience should be seen as rival power for our affections, our love. The elder tells that it does not matter how good or grand any of these distractions may be. He says,
It would be better to be poor and wretched by not having such a thing, than by having it to wander away from God.
Having our mind focused on God should be natural for us. We know He loves us continually, without any condition. So, why do we allow our mind to be distracted when we are consciously trying to communicate with Him? Don’t we say we love God? Let’s listen to the teachings of our saints and elders like Saint Maximos and elder Aimilianos. They teach us the truth, showing us plainly what is necessary to draw close to God. They reveal to us the sickness of our mind that needs to be healed.

This purity of mind, an undistracted mind, one focused on God, is what we should desire. If we make this our primary desire we will begin to be healed with God’s help. God has not made this difficult. God’s desires our love and our union with Him.

Elder Aimilianos says 
If love is also undistracted prayer, then undistracted prayer is the easiest and most natural activity for the human mind; it is the natural human inclination, activity and movement of the mind to God....All the promises that God has made will become a reality for us. I know you are close to the love of God, and that you have this love when you pray correctly. I only ask that you fill my heart with joy and make my soul rejoice by being genuine children and genuine spouses of God.

Reference: Mystical Marriage by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 22-25.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Monday, April 22, 2019

Meaning of the Parable of the Fig Tree

On the first day of Holy Week we are confronted with the powerful parable of the fig tree. This is meant to challenge all of us about our weak faith and lax way of life. Are we not like the fig tree, is our parish not like the synagogue of Jesus’ time?

The parable:
Now in the morning, as He returned to the city, He was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.
And when the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away so soon?” Matt 21: 18-20
Elder Theophylact provides the interpretation of this parable passed on through the ages by our Church fathers.
The fig tree means the synagogue of the Jews, which has only leaves, that is, the visible letter of the law, but not the fruit of the spirit. But also every man who gives himself over to the sweetness of the present life is likened to a fig tree, who has no spiritual fruit to give to Jesus who is hungry for such fruit, but only leaves, that is, temporal appearances which fall and are gone. This man then hears himself cursed. For Christ says, Go, he accursed, into the fire. But he is also dried up; for as he roasts in the flame, his tongue is parched and withered like that of the rich man in the parable, who in his life had ignored Lazarus.
If we truly examine the way of life in a typical Orthodox parish here in America we should feel the heat. We have many leaves with our rituals and traditions but many lack the Spirit in their lives. Are we not caught up in the materialistic culture of our times and pay little attention to the way of life prescribed by the church to nurture our soul and its connection to the Holy Spirit? Are we satisfied to rely on our own will to do good while ignoring many of His teachings? Do we neglect the Orthodox way of life based on prayer and fasting, repentance, regular participation with humility in the Sacraments, studying the Holy Scriptures and writings of the Church fathers?

We need to ask ourselves, are we on the path to theosis or just self-satisfaction. Do we have only bold green leaves or do we bear fruit feeling the Holy Spirit working actively within us leading us to do His will. 

It is never too late to change our ways to avoid being “withered” and cast into the “flame.” Our God is merciful and always seeking our humility and repentance.

Our aim is to seek the Holy Spirit, so I@t rather than our “I”, or ego is motivating our way of life.

References: The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Matthew, by Blessed Theophylact, p 179

Friday, April 19, 2019

Praying Without Distraction

Saint Maximos says, “he who prays entirely without distraction loves God genuinely.”

Praying without distraction is a blessing given to those who have been genuinely united with Him. Notice how he places love and prayer together. He is saying that it is prayer that unites us with God. 

Elder Aimilianos in his commentary on Saint Maximos’ “Second Century, Chapters on Love II.1” says,
Prayer is the transcendence of time and thus an entry into timelessness, eternity, perfection, and splendor of God. Prayer is our inclusion in the life of God...”
Think about the implications of your mind being focused on something other than God when you are trying to pray. It means that you are attached to something of this world and not the kingdom of God. It means there is a power in your mind pulling you away from God. There is something that is more important to you than communing with Him. Saint Maximos equates this with not loving God.

Elder Aimilianos says,
When your mind—during prayer—is not wholly fixed on God, but has become attached or diverted to something earthly, or has turned toward something else, then you are not praying without distraction, and you do not have love. When the mind is attached to something else, something other than God, then it is not possible to pray without distraction.”
Think about love in human terms. When you are passionately in love where is your mind? It is focused intently on the other person. When your mind is occupied with other issues you distant yourself from the other person. It is the same with God. To be united with him in prayer requires our full attention. When there are other things on our mind when we pray, it is not possible to pray without distraction.

What distracts us? Elder Aimilianos says,
The mind inclines to things that conform to its way of thinking, to its wishes, and to its desires.”
It is our self-importance that limits our ability to concentrate on other. Our mind is filled with things that we deem more important than the One we are paying to, the One we say we love. These distractions turn us away from God.

Elder Aimilianos tells us,
The mind must be completely empty. All things must be removed from it; everything must be submerged in the abyss of ignorance and oblivion, so that the mind can reach upwards and be seized by God”

Reference: Mystical Marriage, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 6-8

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Overcoming Passions and Distractions in Prayer

Knowing God depends on a pure heart. But, we find ourself filled with negative worldly thoughts that cloud our heart and make it impossible for us to experience Him in our prayers. At the root of our problem are passions.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra gives us an incite about how we overcome this problem we all struggle with. It is recorded in a new book, The Mystical Marriage.

To begin with, he wakes us up by telling us that if we are distracted when praying we don’t love God. He says,
When someone says, “l am distracted by thoughts during prayer”... you can be sure that such a person does not love God genuinely and has never loved Him.

Our distraction means that giving our attention to a worldly thought is more important than God. When we find our mind distracted we must search to root out the cause which is a passion. This cause becomes our idol.

The elder says,
When a particular desire continually arises within us, by which I mean a particular chain of reasoning or line of thinking; when the same things continue to stir us up, or when we run into the same problem with people, or when something takes place that we do not like or approve of, what happens? We return, yet again, to the same thing that we have already discussed fifteen or twenty times, or more like fifteen or twenty years, this means we are in the grip of some kind of passion.

Our passions come from our desires. This could be an opinion about our work place, bosses or co-workers, our government, or the Church and it’s clergy, or friends or relatives. If we realize that this object of our thought has a power over us by commanding our attention in prayer like a superior god, we can then begin to seek out to identify and destroy the passion that has this power over us.

Every desire is a passion. Desiring involves turning our Spirit, our feelings, towards something that is controlling our thoughts. In desiring we are binding ourselves to something good or evil. But when this desire is not fulfilled we experience sorrow. Why? Because our ego has been constrained. Our desire is based on “I want.” When blocked, our will is not being satisfied. With the resulting frustration or sorrow we become self-focused, constantly coming back to what is being denied. We are then separated from God. Our spirit is stuck and focused on something constraining our self-will, what “I” feel, believe or want.

This condition can turn into anger. Whatever is denying the satisfaction of our desire becomes an enemy and we become hostile toward it. It can be the inability to get some tangible thing, to be respected, to have our view accepted, or something else caused by another person or institution. The passion or desire becomes stronger in a negative way. We want to do whatever we can to destroy what limits our original desire.

After this can come resentment. When this develops we have permanently established in our mind opposition against someone else. When we see them, think of them, or sit in prayer we have feelings of hostility towards them. These negative thoughts keep reoccurring. As a result we are no longer able to experience love or happiness and unable to show compassion. This also blocks our ability to love God. This why Christ tells us we must love our enemy, otherwise we find ourselves separated from Him.

How do recover from this condition now that even the cells in our brain have been connected is a way that makes this condition seem permanent leading to repetitive negative thoughts? The elder tells us that the way out is to despise what it is we desire, what it is we cannot have or do. He says,
If a person does not despise the thing toward which he is inclined, which he desires, he will remain the eternal slave of his passion, bound by a thousand chains.

To despise what we desire means we need a change in what has become our normal way of thinking. This is the idea of repentance, metanoia. We need to reprogram our brain, change our pattern of thought.

The elder says,
Whatever it is that you think or believe, whatever it is you think you love, of that your mind has become attached to, you must strike it with a divine passion, with hate, and then your passion will be set aside by divine power, by divine grace, and you will lay the foundation that will enable you eventually to love God.”

He gives us an example. Suppose someone says something to you that causes you to think they are egotistical, a hypocrite, or someone who has bad thoughts. What does this imply? It simply means that you disagree with him or what he does. It’s the “I” at work. It’s your ego based view opposed to his. This is rooted in a passion and you must be able to totally despise this way of thinking. 

When these negative thoughts develop about another person it will do little good to talk with him about it. It won’t even help to seeing his view as right. This will solve nothing as the negative attitude will only appear again later. Elder Aimilianos says,
A thousand excuses and explanations; a thousand confessions to the person in question, or to my spiritual father, or to the icon of Christ; a thousand tears; an endless number of prostrations, will accomplish nothing. If, that is, I don’t change the way I think about others and learn to live with them.

So what are we to do?
We need to learn how to feel and think as they do, he tells us. We must be able to identify our own thoughts with those of the other. This means we must “enter into a fullness of relation with others. My disposition toward them must be one of love.” Remember how Christ said to love your enemies?  Unless you do this you will remain imprisoned by your passion, your own self-centered way of thinking.

He then raises the obvious question, “what if the other does not think correctly?” Never mind, he says, as long as a sin is not involved. When you are with him conduct yourself in a manner that is consistent with how he thinks even if it causes tension in you. When you are by yourself then do what you think is right.

One example I found in myself is about following the proper rubrics or typicon for our services. I serve with many different priests. Each priest has a slightly different interpretation of what is right that differs from my understanding. It is easy to judge them with negative feelings. Maybe they are poorly trained, self-centered, or don’t respect the role of a deacon. I had to learn not to make such judgements but simply follow the way they think is right when serving with a particular priest, rather than hold any ill feeling about why they don’t do it “my” way. Anther common situation involves visiting a non Orthodox who knows nothing about fasting and prepares a special meal on a fasting day. Instead of judging or feeling more spiritual, you must find a way to appreciate the offering they have prepared for rather than giving them a lesson on fasting and imposing your discipline on them. There are so many common examples where we hold some expectation about another person’s behavior and make negative interpretations about their motivations. When these feelings become permanent we are enslaved by our own desires or passions.

We must remember that there is no middle ground between what I want and what the other wants. There is no ground for compromise no matter how you may attempt to do so. Both views are rooted in the ego. The real issue is the realty of your separation from the other and God if you harbor any form of resentment. He advises,

 “the way I order and regulate my personal, inner journey is one thing, and the way I order my relationship with my fellow human beings is another.”  

We must learn to make these distinctions with love and respect for the other as the image of God.  He says that we must be able to venerate the other as a saint and ourselves as the sinner.

The process is one of denying ourselves. When we do so we are acting like God. Just imagine all the different conditions God must see in His children without withdrawing His love. To be able to do this we must continually work to uncover our passions which are hidden from us. This means we must look deeply into ourselves, to become aware of what our mind keeps returning to and then recognize that this is not truth.

The lesson here is that once you understand there is a cause for your recurring thoughts, you distractions in prayer, you can be assured that this cause is a passion. Once you know this cause you know in very practical terms the passion.

It is not difficult to find passions. What is difficult it to want to do something about it. This is because, he says, 
we have become dependent on a false image of our self that we have, and we hold on to it tightly in order not to lose it.” 
Seeking God, knowing our thoughts separate us from Him, we must true repent and arouse our inner motivation to hate, despise the passion. This involves the difficult task of changing our mind. When we do we will feel freed, born again. God will give us the grace to free us from this passion.

“If we want to, we can correct ourselves, we can change our minds. If on the other hand, we don’t want to do this, if we don’t want to disdain and despise the things that keep us down and hold us back, we will remain in the grip of the passions for all eternity… We will be separated eternally from God, having embraced and idol in the place of the Lord.”

Reference: The Mystical Marriage: Spiritual life according to St Maximos the Confessor, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Newrome Press, 2018, 

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life