Thursday, June 27, 2019

Action that Leads to Salvation: Psalm 118

In verses 33-35 of Psalm 118 we find outlined the most important elements of a God-pleasing life.
Set before me for a law, O Lord, the way of Thy statutes, and I will seek after it continually. Give me understanding, and I will search out Thy law, and I will keep it with my whole heart.Guide me in the path of Thy commandments for I have desired it.
First there is the law, the commandments of God, that we must continually seek out. They outline the narrow path we are expected to follow.

Second is understanding, is to have out heart filled with the proper understanding of these laws so we know how to put them into our way of living. This understanding must be deep and etched in our heart, not simply an intellectual understanding.

Saint Augustine says 
When we gain this deeper spiritual understanding, one “finally attains to those heights of a holy and God-pleasing life at which he loves God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his thoughts, and his neighbors as himself, for on these two commandments the whole law and the prophets depend.
Our action, while Judged good by the best of societal norms are of little value when “prompted by the outward conscience” says Saint Theophan.  Regarding the rites of the Church he says, 
Everything should be performed with utmost reverence of the heart, but not towards external action, but towards God, to Whom we are turning through it.” 
Everything we do must not be legalistic but spiritual, coming from the spirit that fill our heart, otherwise we become shackled and act out of fear: don’t do this or that. This is not the way of the law taught by Christ. His way is a way of love, love of God. We act out of love when we follow Him.

Third, is desire. David asks God to guide him on His narrow path. Not out of any obligation or coercion, but because it is what his heart desires.
Saint Theophan says, 
Divine goodness is ready to reach out to us with all its gifts. If it does not flow upon all, then this is only because not all desire it, and not all are seeking these blessings. Desiring allows entry for them...
The life that brings about salvation has this form of action: “make it a law, make it part of my understanding, guide me.”

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 88-98

Monday, June 24, 2019

How to Read Scripture - Elder Aimilianos

When one undertakes to examine Scripture in an idle, intellectual way, he creates hatred and quarreling.
Elder Aimilianos says this because the intellectual study of Scripture does not help us to know our sins, but instead turns our intellectual faculties to focus on concepts and issues related to our study of Scripture. This intellectual  knowledge does not help us come closer to God. It does no more than emphasize our personal opinions and leads us to fell self-sufficient in our personal understanding. 

He says,
This kind of approach to Scripture immediately places you in conflict with others; it opposes your will and opinion to theirs, prompting you to disagree and argue with them...The correct way is to read Scripture with simplicity and to allow God to tell us what He wants to tell us.
When we develop our own opinions and become attached to them he says this blocks our ability to “receive anything from God.” We are mired in our own ego centered views wanting to prove that we know what is the correct interpretation from a logical and intellectual perspective. It only encourages us to enter into debate and arguments which can lead to making enemies.

He says,
It’s one thing to read Scripture because you want to collect information, and another thing to read because you want to acquire it’s true contents, that is, the Holy Spirit...The criterion for your study should be this: the way you read the Bible should bring peace to your heart, communion with God, love of neighbors, and the consciousness of your own sinfulness: the recognition of how unworthy and ill-prepared you are to stand before God.

Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Repentance Leads Us to a God-Pleasing Life: Psalm 118

Once we are awakened to our sinful way of life, we turn to repentance and begin a process towards a righteous God-pleasing life. This path is described by the prophet and king David in verses 25- 32 of Psalm 118: awakening, transition, and a God-pleasing life.

An awakening: 
The following three verses call us to become aware of our fallen nature and the realization that we need to change our way of life.
My soul hath cleaved unto the earth; quicken me according to Thy word.My ways have I declared, and Thou hast heard me; teach me Thy statutes.Make me to understand the way of Thy statutes, and I will ponder on the wonder of thy works. (Psalm 118 vs 25-27)
David is describing a person who has just become aware of their sinfulness and now desires to change, to repent. When he writes, “cleaved to the earth,“ he means that our soul has become enslaved by our body and all its passions. It is common for our soul to become like this because our body is made from earth and will return to it. An undisciplined soul will cleave to the body and become directed by the body’s demands instead of Spirit which is the natural stance for the soul.

Saint Theophan says,
The mystery of our life is concealed in the union of soul and body, and our soul unwittingly clings to earth and the earthly, partly because it is our temporary abode, partly because our body is of the earth.
When one awakens to this state and becomes aware that he is living by the inclinations of the body instead of God, he senses a loss of meaning. He realizes that what is of this earth is temporary and feels humiliation of the soul. God becomes real and he starts to pray that God will help him reverse this condition.  He then rereads Scripture, ponders it’s meaning in a personal way, and realize that he must turn to Christ’s way as found in His word. This is a natural two step process. First, a sudden realization that we have placed our faith in earthly things when we know that they are all temporary. Second, a force is aroused in us to seek help to change and seek what is heavenly, eternal.

Saint Theophan says,
For that reason, he prays to God for life-giving strength. This is the second step towards the door of repentance, which is opening. Grace comes and rouses; the one awakened realizes the meagerness of his condition.
A Transition: 
The next two verses are about a transition where we seek strength and mercy that can lead to a God-pleasing life.
My Soul hath slumbered from despondency, strengthen me with thy words.Remove me from the way of unrighteousness, and with Thy law have mercy on me. (Verses 28-29)
Once we set out on the path to overcome our “earth cleaving” way of life for a God-pleasing one, we find we face many struggles. We seek the word of God to chase away despondency. We call out to the Lord to remove us from our prior way of life. We strive to distance ourselves from or prior selves, but find we are still filled with sinful tendencies. We seek His mercy.

Saint Theophan says we call out to God in this way:
Show mercy on me by the granting of Thy law, pull out of my heart unrighteous impulses, and in their place write, inscribe, instill Thy law, that it may penetrate my whole being, be in control of the activities of all my powers, take possession of all the outcomes of my life and my actions...
A God-pleasing life: 
The next three verses are about when we arrive at a God-pleasing life.
I have chosen the way of truth, and Thy judgments have I not forgotten.I have cleaved to Thy testimonies, O Lord; put me not to shame.The way of Thy commandments have I run, when Thou didst enlarge my heart. (Verses 30-32)
Persevering in our struggles we find that we can live the way of truth. The Lord filled us with His grace and enlarges our heart so it is filled with His love and testimonies. We find that the obstacles to living a God-pleasing life have been removed. 

Saint Theophan writes:
What, then, is the way of truth for us? Life conforming to the Gospel in the spirit of the Christian Faith. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth and the way. Follow the footsteps of the Lord Christ, and you will be walking in the way of truth.
We don’t want to lose what we have gained so we call out for Him not to put us to shame when the day of judgment comes. In this state we are aware of the purity of those we will find in heaven and hope we are also pure so we will not be ashamed at what they find in us. We have certain hope that our path to our salvation will be successful,

Saint Theophan says,
The hope that He Who began in us the work of our salvation will bring it to an end and lead us successfully through all the unsteadiness of life to the gates of death and through them to unashamed settlement among those glorified is conceived at the very beginning of one’s turning to God. Together with the labors of coming closer to God, it grows and relies mainly on the recognition that on our part everything which is in our power has been put to work.
Our heart is enlarged by His grace. It becomes pure, filled with grace and delights in righteousness.

Saint Theophan again,
The grace of the Spirit fills a pure heart; with it, love flows into the heart, as witnessed by a complete, willing, joyful, and lively fulfillment of all the commandments. On Him who has reached this state, the comforting promise is fulfilled: “We will come unto him, and make Our abode with Him (Jan 14:23).”
He says that this arrival to living a God-pleasing life is only the beginning of the real race. We must now live without deviating from how God directs us according to divine Providence.

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 63-87.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Habit of the Jesus Prayer - Saint Theophan

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.
Saint Theophan the Recluse

It has but few words, yet they embrace everything. From days of old, it has been known that the habit of this prayer can supplant all other prayers. And is there anyone zealous of salvation who is not familiar with this prayer? Great is the power of this prayer, according to the holy fathers. Yet, in fact, we see that not all who practice this prayer partake of its power; not all get to taste its fruits. Why is this? Because they want to appropriate what belongs to Gods gift and is the work of the grace of God. To begin to repeat this prayer in the morning, in the evening, while walking or lying down, at work or at leisure, is our doing: no special help from God is needed. Working at that, one can reach the point at which the tongue will repeat the prayer even without our being aware of it. A certain calming of thoughts may follow, as may a certain warming of the heart; but all this will be, as the monk Nikephoros remarks in the Philokalia, the doing and the fruit of our own efforts. To stop at this point would be the same as being satisfied with the ability of a parrot to pronounce certain words, even ones such as “Lord, have mercy.” The benefit of this will be that you will assume that you have something, while you have absolutely nothing. This happens to those who, while acquiring the habit of this prayer insofar as it is up to us, are not granted the awareness of its essence.
Not realizing that, they remain satisfied with the above-mentioned initial natural signs of its action, and stop seeking. But in one in whom this awareness awakens, the seeking does not stop. Rather, seeing that no matter how much he intensifies his following the advice of the elders, the fruits he expects do not appear, he discontinues any expectation of fruit from his own efforts, and puts all his hope in God. When this occurs, then grace is given the opportunity to act. Grace comes at its own moment and grafts the prayer to the heart. Then, as the elders say, everything will he the same on the outside, but not the same in Inner power.
What has been said about this prayer is applicable to any manifestation of spiritual life. Take an angry person, and suppose he is seized by a strong desire to eliminate his anger and acquire meekness. In books about asceticism there are directions on how to behave to achieve this. He learns all of it and begins to follow the instructions. How far can he get with his own efforts? No further than to silence his mouth when angry, with some taming of the anger itself, but to eliminate anger completely and install meekness in his heart — that far he will never get by himself. This happens only when grace appears and grafts meekness to the heart.

And thus it is with respect to everything. Whatever fruit of the spiritual life you seek, seek it with all your strength, but do not expect anything from your search and exertion. Pour out before God your affliction, without ascribing anything to yourself, and He shall bring it to pass (Ps 36:5). Pray: I desire, I am seeking, but quicken Thou me through Thy righteousness. The Lord has ordained that without Me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). And in spiritual life, this law is carried out precisely, without the slightest deviation from that which has been ordained.

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 114-115

Thursday, June 13, 2019

How to Love God with Our Whole Heart

When Jesus tells us to love God with our whole heart, what does He mean? 

Theodore the Ascetic answers in this way:
Whatever a man loves, he desires at all costs to be near continuously and uninterruptedly, and he turns himself away from everything that hinders him from being in contact and dwelling with the object of his love. It is clear therefore that he who loves God also desires always to be with Him and to converse with Him. This comes to pass in us through pure prayer. Accordingly, let us apply ourselves to prayer with all our power; for it enables us to become akin to God. Such a man was he who said: O God, my God, to You I rise early at dawn; my soul has thirsted for You (Ps 63:1). For the man who cries to God at dawn has withdrawn his intellect from every vice and clearly is wounded by divine love. (From Theodore the Ascetic, Spiritual Chapters 94, Philokalia 2:35.) 
Truly loving God is all consuming. There is nothing more important. When we love God with our whole hear we long for the time of prayer. We never miss the opportunity to attend the Divine Liturgy to be in communion with Him to partake of Holy Communion. Prayer and Liturgy are the foundation of living an Orthodox way of life. Our love of God constantly draws us to seek to be close to Him. We will without hesitation make a sound prayer rule that we eagerly fulfill each day even if we are busy our tired. We arrange our work schedule so we can participate in the Divine Liturgies being offered in our community.

In Psalm 63 (LX 62) David expresses his love by saying, My soul has thirsted for You; how often my flesh has longed for you, in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.

We can only imagine the level of thirst one must experience when in the middle of a desert where water is rare and often quite distant. This intense thirst one would experience there is just like the intensity of our desire to be in communication and in Communion with Him when we love Him with our whole heart. Our intense love is the same as the thirst one would have in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.

Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith by Aimilianos of Simonopetra, p4

Monday, June 10, 2019

Our Mortality and the Cherry blossom

When I read the morning Psalms and get to the following verse from Psalm 103, my attention intensifies.
As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower of the field; For the wind passes over it, it is gone, and will no longer know it’s place.
I am attentive because it brings me face to face with my mortality. It reminds me of the numerous times I was blessed to visit Japan during their cherry blossom festival. The cherry flower is very beautiful and it lasts for only a short time. When in bloom the people there take time off from their busy lives to gatherer under the numerous cherry trees and celebrate life. It is understood that the cherry blossom is a symbol of our life. It is beautiful, delicate and lasts for a very short time, only to be blown away in the breeze to never be known again. It reminds me that we Christians do not just celebrate life thinking it’s ends with our physical death, but we have joy knowing that, unlike the cherry blossom, there is a life beyond this life. Our life does not end.

The next verse of the Psalm reads,
But the mercy of the Lord is from age to age unto them that fear Him, and His righteousness is upon the sons of sons.
David is writing this Psalm to lift us up to the reality of our eternal life. He transforms the previous verse into one of joy and hope.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra writes on these verses,
Though his life on earth is tragic, man will live. God’s hands shall lovingly take up the dust of earth, and the fleeting and the finite will be wedded to the eternal and the infinite. The life that ends in death will be given new life, and that which appeared to vanish forever shall reappear in eternity...And because God will never cease to exist, the human person will also exist ‘from age to age’, so closely bound together are divinity and humanity.
This daily reminder of the cherry blossom, it’s beautiful but brief life, always awakens my soul and is immediately nurtured with the reminder of the life to come as the Psalm is read. This life to come, I am sure, will be a glorious life even more beautiful than the cherry blossoms, united with the glory of God, Christ Himself, in His Eternal Kingdom.

Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 287-289.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Thursday, June 6, 2019

How Are We Judged?

He knows what we are made of. He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103.14)

Everything God has created comes from the elements we find in the physical world. They are cosmic, the result of star dust. Out of nothing, God has created everything. Humans were formed from the earth or dust. What is significant here is that God knows we are but dust. Because we are the pride of His creation, but yet only dust, He is most merciful. So how will He judge us?

Elder Aimilianos in his commentary says,
Will He judge me according to the mud and clay from which I have been formed? No. He will judge me according to His love, He will look upon us in the light of what we are made. He knows that, being vessels of clay, we are fragile, like the pitcher that breaks at the fountain and quickly returns to dust (cf. Ecc 12:1).
We must not forget the foundation of our mortal life, a form and life given to us by God. He is continually shaping us to become more perfect, like Christ. He will forget how He formed us for the purpose of perfecting us. Everything He does for us, every struggle we face, are done our of His love and hope of our perfection. Knowing where we have come from He is sympathetic and compassionate towards us.

Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 285-286.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Monday, June 3, 2019

Path to a God Pleasing Life - Psalm 118

Path to a God pleasing life - Psalm 118

The path for a God pleasing life can be found in the first eight verses of Psalm 118.

The first three verses call us to blessedness. It involves a path, a way, that is according to God’s law.
Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.Blessed are they that search out His testimonies; with their whole heart shall they seek after Him.For they that work iniquity have not walked in His way.
Saint Ambrose says,
He who walks blamelessly in the law of the Lord never stops walking on this path. To avoid losing blamelessness, he does not deviate either to the right or the left; he does not look around, he does not stand still, as if waiting for something, but moves ahead, ‘forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before..., directing his way towards a known destination, ‘for the prize of high calling' (Phil 3:13,14).
We must seek and search out God’s testimonies, His law. We can begin intellectually and then follow by deed. However, we cannot remain satisfied with our own intellectual theories about God’s law and be satisfied with only our understandings. Experimentation like in science is necessary, advises Saint Theophan. 
He says, 
Those who are satisfied with only this type (intellectual) of knowledge cannot be called blessed.
But there will come a time during intellectual studies that grace will raise a desire to put them into action. 
He says, 
All the previously accumulated knowledge from God’s word will serve as ready material for the formation of the inner man... 
Once we begin to experiment we must never waver making His word our law. He says those on the path to blessedness study God's law, 
“feed themselves on it, and make it a law for themselves to do or to undertake only what has its testimony in the word of God.
Those who seek will become blessed.
He further says,
The unswerving fulfillment of the commandments leads to purification of the heart. A pure heart opens to a mind a window into the spiritual life, and it observes there objects, just like the eye looks at things externally visible... 
Begin by reading God’s word with the intent of following it.


These next two verses of the Psalm show the forces of zeal and grace will be aroused:
Thou hast enjoined Thy commandments, that we should keep them most diligently.
Souls that my ways were directed to keep Thy statues.
Patriarch Anthimos says,
Such diligent observance, [as outlined in the previous verse], requires us to keep the commandments with all our effort and constant zeal, without grumbling or distraction. In this zeal we need to be careful that both our heart and mind are congruent with our actions. Our works must be genuine and not forced. 
Saint Theophan says,
”Continuous, ardent zeal for the keeping of God’s commandments, beyond any doubt, is the work of God’s Grace.” 
This grace will not help if we dot respond with our own efforts. 
Saint Theophan says, 
“It is the union of freedom and grace that accomplish the task. We cannot rely only on our own will but be watchful for the help of God’s grace,"

The next three verses guide us in what is necessary for progress in the God pleasing life. The key elements are attention, diligence, and courage.
The Psalm:
Then shall I not be ashamed, when I look on all thy commandments.I will confess Thee with uprightness of heart, when I have learned the judgments of Thy righteousness.I will keep Thy statues; do not utterly forsake me.
The Psalmist highlights that when we deviate from the path we have chosen, we have regret and shame that we have allowed ourselves to be misled. This points us to the critical need for attentiveness. 
Saint Theophan says, 
One must watch what occurs inside, what has occurred, and what is expected. 
Only with attention can mistakes be avoided. To live by the commandments as required by a God pleasing life, we need to be attentive to all the teachings and how we put them into action.

Saint Augustine says, 
Whether you read, or bring God’s commandments to mind, you should, according to apostle James, look as into a mirror, to be not hearers only, but doers (Jas 1:22-23).
In addition to attention we need to acquire dilegence, the habit “of recognizing the judgements of God’s righteousness.” These are “God’s decisions and determination as to what ought to be done...” This habit is acquired gradually.

 Saint Theophan says,
Being thus under the scrutiny of God’s eyes, we cannot act haphazardly, but should consider what in fact God does want from us, in this or that situation, and act accordingly. Strict attention to the circumstances of our own life, and reacting to them in a spirit of selfless devotion to God's will, at last gives us the habit of determining correctly God’s intentions for us.
We also need courage to be successful. 
Saint Theophan says, 
“Without courage, one cannot begin such a life, as it is full of difficulties and surrounded by enemies of salvation.” 
This courage comes from our hope in the Lord knowing that He will protect those who choose to walk this path. 
The Saint writes,
The enthusiastic courage of the beginner on the path of pleasing God can have no other meaning. He is not inspired by his own presumption, but by a strong trust in God and the conviction that he is already walking or will be walking in the right way, knowing these are God's ordinances which are right; that is the Lord's law, which is blameless; that this is the Lord’s testimony which is true (Psalm 18:8-9).
In simple form, the beginning of Psalm 118 shows us the general path for a God pleasing life and our salvation.

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 9-30.

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