Monday, July 29, 2019

Avoiding Vanity and Vainglory

Turn away mine eyes that I may not see vanity, quicken Thou me in Thy way.
Psalm 118:37

We have all suffered from vanity, vainglory or pride. Saint Theophan defines vanity as “everything that is contrived and done not out of necessity or for benefit, but for delight of one’s senses and desires.” Our world is filled with such temptations. We are bombarded with advertisements that play on our inclination toward vanity. In the Psalm verse Prophet David is saying that we must turn our eyes away. But unless we are in a desert this is impossible and still live in the world. Our challenge is a big one. We must develop a strong will to turn our attention away from these temptations. Not to let ourselves become attached to them by reminding ourselves that this desire for such worldly ways can lead to the death of our soul. That it is imperative to keep our eyes on the way of God’s commandments. This is where there we will find eternal life.

Apostle Paul writes,
Seek those things that are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God (Col 3:1-3)
We must pay attention to the purpose of everything we do. It not good enough to to think what is good, but also what is our purpose for what we intend. We should avoid all actions that can be considered vain. This means avoiding doing any thing that is for our self glory.

Saint Theophan singles out vainglory.
In this vanity, the first place is taken by human glory, for which many and great things have been done by men, called great in this world and much glorified by the public — people who have sought glory not from God, but from men; and, being vain, they received their vain reward.
Desiring to turn away the eyes of his disciples from vanity, the Lord urges them not to do any good in order to be seen by men, lest they have no reward from their heavenly Father. Later, when He began to give them commandments on good deeds in detail — about charity, prayer, fasting — He everywhere suggested that none of it be done for the praise of men, saying that those who act with such an aim have already received their reward (Matt 6:1-23) — not the eternal one, set aside by the heavenly Father for the saints, but the temporal one, which is sought by those who in their doings have on their mind the vain praise of men. And to do anything for this praise means to have ones eyes turned to vanity. Not human praise is to be blamed, for people cannot help but praise good deeds — but to be carried away by it and to do something for its sake is to be blamed.
Even when praise is bestowed upon a righteous person (without his seeking) by men, even then he should not dwell in it or delight in it, but ascribe it to God s glory, for which alone is everything good done by truly good people — for they are good through Him, and not on their own.

It may seem harsh, but to live a God pleasing life we need to challenge ourselves on all self centered activity. This is not an easy task as we tend to defend our ego strenuously. This is probably the main I’ll of our time. It began in earnest with the me generation. Now in everything we do we are tempted by business who seek to profit from our vanity.

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, p 103-105.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Development of a Moral Life is Progressive

The development of a moral life is progressive. It’s like our progression in life where we naturally progress from youth, to mature adult and then old age. The same is the development of our moral Christian life. First, in the youth of our spiritual life, one needs to come to know Jesus Christ and learn about living a life according to His teachings. Believing in the Gospel is a necessary first step. After being baptized, one begins to try to put all His commandments he has learned into practice and to continue learning in greater depth what Jesus has taught us. We do this with the hope in the promise that Jesus showed us, eternal life in His kingdom. 

To advance to a mature moral life, with the vision of Christ as the perfect human being, one strives to become like Him. One learns that Christ established the Church for our benefit. We learn the Orthodox way of life that includes fasting, daily prayer, repentance, regular participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and continuing study of Holy Scripture and the writings of the church fathers. 

To stay on this path requires the development of an unshakable faith in who He is and that His commandments will lead to what He has promised. Hope must be part of a mature Faith. As we progress and begin to live a moral life God sends His grace to help us. We cannot advance to old age in our spiritual life with only our own efforts. Most important is His Grace. This we must always seek.

Saint Theophan describes it like this:
The beginner tries to join the ranks of those who are making progress, those who are making progress in the ranks of the perfect. Here, the force that moves ahead is hope which, promising what is better, beckons further and further and calls for an all-out effort. Such an attainment is its own measure of recompense. One who enters the path of virtue at first does so from fear of God and a demand of the conscience. Although from the very beginning one expects from this a life of true well-being, this very expectation is held only through faith in God Who is true in His promises; from life itself he does not yet receive any corroboration. 'This corroboration becomes available when, after a few experiences of that sort in life, the soul begins to the fruits thereof. Feeling the fruits is the receiving of recompense; but this does not stop hope in the sense that if you have already received, why hope? For no matter how strong the feeling of well being from walking of the commandments, it will never enter to the extent of what is promised by hope, which as that feeling progresses elevates its own promises. That is the way in all degrees of spiritual perfection; and for one who has attained the very height of perfection, it opens the gates of eternity and inspires him with the expectation of the endless and indescribable good thing there. This is what a vivifier and comforter the Lord has given us in hope.

With faith come hope. This develops to a level of certainty as we begin to experience His grace. With this or love of God intensifies were we have fear that we could lose His love. This Hope, fear and love motivate us to continue toward a perfect moral life.

Saint Theophan,
Faith, encouraged by hope, teaches to walk faithfully in God’s commandments and justifications. This labor of walking is their immediate task; but from it finally emerges love — whole, pure, all-engulfing. Being a fire itself, it turns faith and hope into fire; then all of man’s spirit becomes fire. This serves as testimony that he has become pure; and God, worshipped in the Trinity, has begun to dwell in him, through the benevolence of the Father, holiness of the Spirit and the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.

I have inclined my heart to perform Thy statutes for ever for a recompense. (Psalm 118:112)

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, p 251.

Monday, July 22, 2019

“The One Thing Needful” - Meditate on Our Lord’s Teaching.

In the Gospel story of Mary and Martha, Mary gave her priority of listening to the divine words of Jesus sitting at His feet while Martha was too busy with other things,
Jesus said to Martha,
Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled by many things: but one thing is needful; and Mary hath chose that good part, which shall not be taken away from her (Lk 10:41)
Jesus also says,
Seek He first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt 6:33).
To meditate on God’s commandments means taking time to study them, to fully understand them and know how to fulfill them. We must do this because we love God and love His commandments.  He has taught us that a God-pleasing life gives us the certain hope of our salvation and eternal life.

Taking the time to meditate on God’s commandments includes in addition to the study of Scripture, time for personal prayer, attending worship services. To follow the example of Mary does not mean we ignore the necessities of daily life of this world. We all need time for our work, to prepare meals and care for our household. But, It is important to give the right priority to the use of our time and to give top priority to meditate on His commandments so we are able to live them in our daily life.

Saint Theophan puts it this way:
When it is said that we must choose “the one thing needful,” It is not suggested that we drop everything—but only to keep our efforts in line with the merits of the undertaking: to dedicate the primary effort for what is most important, and only a secondary or even tenth-degree attention and effort upon things of secondary or subordinate importance. Put into first place pleasing God and salvation through fulfillment of the commandments, and in second, third and fourth place all other things related to sustaining life. Adhere to the first with all your heart, and to the latter casually, touching them as it were with the tips of your fingers, and you will be a true performer of what the Lord has said about “the one thing needful” and about the choosing the good part.
The grand mistake of our times is that everyone one is busied with many things so that no time is left for meditation on His commandments learning how to incorporate into our lives all the elements of an Orthodox way of life. When we’re so busy with all the cares of the temporal world, when it comes time for prayer, meditation or reading the Scriptures or even attending worship services, what do we do? We act just like Martha. We only make time for these higher activities as much time as all the other things leave for us. Our priority is misplaced because we choose to give those things which lead us to unity with God a lower priority, and only give our effort that is left over from everything else. As Jesus tells Martha, “thou art busy and troubled by many things.

Saint Theophan puts it this way:
Applying this saying and generalizing it, we get the following: When all cares in a person are about temporal needs only, and the matter of salvation and pleasing God is always pushed towards the rear on account of them, and what is related to it is fulfilled only inasmuch as those cares allow, and at that carelessly, hastily, by halves, then with him the principal concern is not where it should be, and subordinate things are not in their proper place.
This is why our society is in such turmoil. This is why we have difficulties in our closest relationships and in our family. Taking time for meditation, prayer and worship is not wasting our time. It is what we must learn to give the highest priority. Our choices need to change. We need to have concern for our salvation and put our emphasis on doing what is essential to be able to live a God pleasing life. Only in this way will we find peace, harmony and true joy.

Prophet David records the following in Psalm 118.

I meditated on Thy commandments which I have greatly loved. (Psalm 118:47)

Reference: Psalm 118: A commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp132-134.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

What is Fear of God?

Saint Theophan says,
In moral and religious life, the fear of God moves and urges one to carry out the will of God...
Saint Athanassios says,
Make me firm in Thy words, unfailingly protecting me by Thy fear; let Thy fear be upon me, keeping me in fear and letting me not go astray from Thy words.
But I thought God was about love. If He loves me and I love Him what is there to fear? I have always had an aversion to the call the deacon makes at the time of offering Holy Communion to the faithful: “With the fear of God, faith and love draw near.”  Initially I wanted to substitute the word awe for the word fear. What I have since learned is that there is more than one way to think of fear.

Saint Theophan says,
Fear of God is a distinctive feature and a true sign of whether one stands on the true path. If you have it you are in good condition; if not, in bad condition, even if in your behavior no bad deeds are apparent.
Hmm, what is the meaning of fear as it is being used by our saints, elders and in our liturgies? Blessed Anthimos gives us an explanation. He says there are two types of fear. For the first he uses the example of a slave who does not love his master, or even care about his aim, but yet out of fear of being punished he does not violate what he wills for him to do to carry out his aim. This is action done out of fear of punishment if the action is not done. In spiritual life this may be where a beginner is, one who has not perfected his love of God and fears that if he does not follow his commandments he may be punished with difficulties in this life as well as the one to come. He sees God as a heartless task master.

To describe the second kind of fear he uses the example of a friend.  When you have a close friend you love dearly and feel reciprocal love, there is a fear that you might lose this loving relationship, that you will lose their love. This is a perfect kind of fear that can be found in our spiritual life. Those who fear God in this way see God as a loving friend, one you love deeply and you know that He loves you even more. Your fear is that you will lose His love. So you try very hard to do what He expects from you. 

Saint Augustine says, 
God establishes His word in those to whom He gives the spirit of His fear—not the spirit of bondage again to fear (Rom 8:15), which is driven away by perfect love, but the spirit of that fear of which one fears to offend the loved one.
To often we are guided by the fear of the slave, not having yet the perfected love of God. There is a progression, Saint Theophan points out. Our fear in relation to God is “at first that of a slave, then that of a hireling, and then that of a son.” The fear of the slave is OK in the beginning, but we do not want to stay in this view. We should strive to move to a higher level until we reach the feelings of a loving son of his father. 

When we listen to sermons from mainly Protestant denominations we frequently hear a message geared to the slave. We are portrayed as slaves of God and must act against our will to do His will to avoid God's fierce punishment. We must have compassion on these people and pray that they will eventually move to a higher level where a more loving relationship is fully developed with God. This progression is important because when we have the motivation to do His will out of love, the second kind of fear will give us greater zeal for God. Motivation that comes out of love is always stronger that the motivation to avoid punishment.

Saint Theophan says,
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom... As true wisdom begins with fear of God, and there is no spiritual wisdom without such fear, so should fear not be without wisdom. Holy fear is like a base for the word (wisdom).
Prophet David writes: 
Establish for Thy servant Thine oracle unto fear of Thee. (Psalm 118:38)
Saint Theophan comments on this,
The Prophet is asking God to teach him to incline his heart to do everything to please Him alone, to do good not just out of a sense of duty, not just because of the demand of moral dignity of a rational being, but especially because that is what the will of God, Holy and pleasing, requires, because God wants it this way.
When you hear the deacon’s call to approach the chalice with fear, remember the second kind of fear. You are more than a slave in God’s eyes. He is calling you with love and faith as well, a love you never want to lose, a faith that is unshakable. You love Him so much you want to be with Him always and never lose the feeling of His love.

Saint Porphyrios says,
Christ is everything. He is our love. He is the object of our desire. The passionate longing for Christ is a love that cannot be taken away. 
The concept of fear (1st type) is good in the initial stages. It is for beginners... the beginner, whose sensibility has not yet been refined , is held back from evil by fear... But if we examine the matter more closely we see that it is governed by self-interest.... As we progress, the Gospel leads us to understand that Christ is joy and truth, that Christ is Paradise. Saint John the evangelist says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. The person who fear (like the slave) is not perfected in love. (Wounded by Love, pp  96, 105)

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 107-109.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Saint John Cassian on Controlling Thoughts

Troubled by negative thoughts? Saint John has a solution. Follow the Orthodox way of life and you will fill your mind with godly thoughts.

Our mind is constantly being filled with thoughts. This we cannot avoid. Often in prayer, when we want to concentrate on God, we become distracted by these thoughts. This is also an issue in our daily life. Our thoughts can keep us from following His commandments. We err because we are tempted by some these thoughts. Therefore, to be able to live a virtuous life in unity with the will of a God requires that we are vigilant and careful about which thoughts we choose to act on.

Saint John Cassian writes,
It is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, but it is in the power of every earnest man either to admit them or to reject them. As then their rising up does not entirely depend on ourselves, so the rejection or admission of them lies in our own power. But because we said that it is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, you must not lay everything to the charge of the assault, or to those spirits who strive to instill them into us, else there would not remain any free will in man, nor would efforts for our improvement be in our power: but it is, I say, to a great extent in our power to improve the character of our thoughts and to let either holy and spiritual thoughts or earthly ones grow up in our hearts. 
In the beginning chapter of his Conference he tells us that the first step is to have clearly in mind our goal. Just as in our education, our work or business a goal is essential to keeps us focused so we can excel. This is also true in the Orthodox way of life. So, what is our true Goal? As the Apostles tell us and Jesus showed us, it is the kingdom of heaven. But what is our immediate aim? Saint John says it’s “purity of heart.” Jesus told us in His sermon on the mount that with a pure heart we can see God,
He’s writes,
The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end: fixing our gaze then steadily on this goal as if on a definite mark.
With this as our aim we must organize our life to eliminate anything that restrains us from this and amplify those things that move us closer to it. Thoughts temp us, cloud our heart, distract us and hold us back. Therefore to attain a pure heart we must find ways to properly deal with our thoughts. Knowing that our aim is to have a pure heart so we will enter the kingdom of heaven, and having the zeal to attain this goal, we will be able to direct our energies towards this end.
Saint John writes,
And so when this object is set before us, we shall always direct our actions and thoughts straight towards the attainment of it; for if it be not constantly fixed before our eyes, it will not only make all our toils vain and useless, and force them to be endured to no purpose and without any reward, but it will also excite all kinds of thoughts opposed to one another. For the mind, which has no fixed point to which it may return, and on which it may chiefly fasten, is sure to rove about from hour to hour and minute to minute in all sorts of wandering thoughts, and from those things which come to it from outside, to be constantly changed into that state which first offers itself to it.

Saint John gives us a key insight about how to deal with the distractions we experience because of these many thoughts entering our mind. In effect he says the best way is to continually fill our mind with godly thoughts.
He writes,
For for this purpose frequent reading and continual meditation on the Scriptures is employed that from thence an opportunity for spiritual recollection may be given to us, therefore the frequent singing of Psalms is used, that thence constant feelings of compunction may be provided, and earnest vigils and fasts and prayers, that the mind may be brought low and not mind earthly things, but contemplate things celestial, for if these things are dropped and carelessness creeps on us, the mind being hardened with the foulness of sin is sure to incline in a carnal direction and fall away.
This is why the Church fathers are constantly reminding us about the importance of all the elements of the Orthodox way of Life. We need to live in a way that our our mind is constantly filled with godly thoughts. The more we fill our mind with godly thoughts the less chance there is that we will be led astray with other thoughts. We must learn to make time to read the Scripture daily, to read the psalms every day, to participate in all  the services that are available to us, to spend more time in our daily prayers, to follow the fasting recommendations of the church so we can strengthen our ability to follow the will of the soul, to only spend time in dialogue with fellow spiritual orthodox seekers so we won’t be misled by erroneous teachings. In this way our thoughts will be more inclined to be filled with good thoughts and the evil ones will be fewer and easier to discern.

Reference: The Conferences of John Cassian, Conference 1 with elder Moses

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Avoid Covetousness in Our Spiritual Life.

To become united with a God demands our total focus on pleasing Him by living by His teaching. This means we love for God above all else. Any covetousness we may have must be rejected. We cannot be concerned about worldly possessions. This does not mean that we cannot own anything, but that we cannot have a thirst for more and more, or live in fear we might lose what we already have.

Th prophet David has a prayer for us.
Incline my heart into Thy testimonies and not unto covetousness. (Psalm 118:36)

When we look around we can see that the principal efforts for most people concern possessions. The more they have the more they seem to want. This misplaced desire consumes the powers of the soul making it difficult to give our full attention to doing His will according to His law. Our lives become busy with tasks so that there is no time left for God.

Our task is to rid ourselves of this condition so that we will not be seeking to be in good standing with God and all His teachings so we can receive some gain from worldly business. Our material success is not related to our standing with God. God may have gifted us with worldly well being and we should give thanks to Him when this is the case. But we cannot err by think that our well being is the result of our effort to do God’s will.

Saint Theophan points out the difficulty the rich face.
It is difficult for the rich to discern why they are devout, whether for God and His law, or for their own prosperity. In times of prosperity, they themselves cannot discern this with certainty, due to the cunning of the heart which, while trying to do everything for God’s sake, can harbor a reliance on prosperity. Only privations reveal this; and the more extensive they are, the more definitive the proof; for if then the love of God does not cease, then this means that previously it had not been for the sake of what had been possessed, but now is lost. Under normal circumstances, in order to avoid the love of possessions, those who possess much ought to warm up in their hearts such a disposition, mentally placing themselves in various situations of deprivation, and in so doing restoring in their hearts a peaceful mood. By this, they can imprint in their souls such, resolution that even if everything were to be taken and they should have to be without anything, they would be ready for it at once. Thus disposed they, even though possessing, will be like those who have nothing which, according to the Apostle, is the last degree of perfection in this regard for those living in this world and unable not to possess.
Live as if you were to lose everything you know you could still live a god-pleasing life with a peaceful mood

There is also a spiritual love of gain, in which one works to carry out the commandments in the hope of obtaining spiritual rewards here or in the life to come. This love of gain is subtle, not easy to define or to discern. In general, one must say that as soon as anything but God and the pleasing of and obedience to His will intrudes into the endeavors of a good and devout life, then already there is self-interest. 
This last type of covetousness is the most difficult to discern and correct. We desire to be with God in hope of eternal life, but this desire has to be based on our love of Him and not just on the benefit we hope for. There are steps involved in our spiritual life and we need to seek Gods help in walking this narrow path. To help us we also need a spiritual father to guide us in proper discernment of our condition. The ego is very strong and is good at misleading us.

Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 98-102

Monday, July 8, 2019

How Does One Come Closer to God?

Psalm 63 shows us a path to communion with God according to the commentary of Elder Aimilianos. He identifies six stages found in this Psalm.
  1. Pray at night and ardently search for God.O my God, to You I rise early at dawn. My soul has thirsted for you; how often my flesh has longed for You, in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.
  2. Separate the heart and mind from all that is within and around you. Thus I have appeared before you in Your sanctuary, that I might see Your power and Your glory.” “In order for my heart to be pure , it must be completely liberated from all earthly attachments, and then I shall know what Christ means when He says, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mat 5:8).’ “
  3. Place all our energies in His service.Thus I will bless you throughout my life, and in Your name I will lift up my hands.
  4. Recall God and all His benefits ceaselessly.I remembered you on my bed”. Elder Aimilianos says, It is essential to remember God, to hold God within memory, for memory fuels desire, and it is by means of desire that God becomes our possession.
  5. Experience God’s Grace.For you have become my helper, and in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice.
  6. Be conscious that you are nothing, can do nothing, and are completely incapable and unworthy.My soul clings closely behind You, Your right hand upholds me.”
The Elder says,
My desire is for Christ; my longing is for Christ. It is for Him that my life is being transformed... my path is one constantly seeking after the Lord.

Reference: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 19-24

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Glykophilousa Icon and Aim of Our Life, Theosis.

My soul clings closely behind You, Your right hand upheld me. (Psalm 63:8)
This phrase shows that there are two things necessary if we are to find union with God, says Elder Aimilianos. “The exercise of our free will, which is expressed in the first part of this verse, and divine grace, which is expressed in the second.

The image of this union we seek as Orthodox Christians is most vividly seen in the icon know as the Glykophilousa. 

This icon like the “Portaitissa” is one of the icons saved from the Iconoclastic Controversy and brought miraculously to Athos. It was the property of Victoria, the devout wife of the eikonomachos senator Symeon, who, to avoid having to hand it over, threw it into the sea. The icon, floating upright on the waves, reached the dock of the Monastery of Philotheou, where it was received with great honor and rejoicing by the Abbot and fathers of the Monastery, who had been warned of its advent by a revelation of the Theotokos.

In this image we see the Theotokos holding the Christ child so tenderly and yet so firmly in and embrace. Their mutual love is obvious. It appears as if their bodies merge and form a union of one body. With their cheeks pressed together they have like one face and project a single person. This, says Elder Aimilianos, “is the exercise of free will.” When we are free of passion and join our will with His, we become free and joined as one with Him. We embrace Him with the same tenderness and firmness shown in this icon out of our boundless love for Him. He then merges with us and we become like one person.

The Psalm is showing us that David’s “inner disposition is simple, namely, not to be separated from God.” To Hold God in a loving embrace as seen in this icon. The last part of the verse shows that our ability to have this union comes from God. It is by our free will working in synergy with His and His Grace, brings the desired joy found in union with Him.

We can use this image to remind us of the aim of our life, to be united with Christ in love. 

Saint Athanasios of Alexander says commenting on this verse,
Not even for a moment, my God, can my spirit be separated from You, for I am afire with ardent love, and as if my mind were a mass of glue, I adhere to You in desire.”

Reference: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp15-16.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life