Monday, December 21, 2020

The Jesus Prayer

Try to change the world by protesting or change ourselves by repentance/

 The Prophet Samuel was one of the holiest prophets of the Old Testament.  But what I find most interesting is that Samuel grew to be a holy prophet while living in the midst of a very corrupt religious and political context.  Samuel’s holy mother, Hannah, was barren.  But God heard her prayer after many years and much humiliation.  God gave her a son,  and at the age of three, Hannah gave her son to God.  She brought him to the priest of the Tabernacle in Shiloh.  This was before there was a Temple, and the Ark of God’s Presence was kept in a tent (Tabernacle) that moved from place to place depending on the tribal warfare of the day.  

However, the priest, Eli, and his sons were very corrupt.  And here I find several interesting things to ponder.  First, despite the corruption and poor parenting of the priest Eli, and the outrageously sinful and even predatory behaviour of his sons, God still spoke through Eli.  And Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, still prayed at the Tabernacle and offered their sacrificial gifts there, despite the obvious corruption of the priest and his family.

I must confess that this is a profound mystery to me: not only that God allows very sinful people to function in positions of hierarchy to which very holy people submit; but what is even more mysterious to me is that God’s Grace still functions through these very broken people in positions of spiritual authority, not, I think, because of their position, but because of the holiness and purity of heart of those who come to them.  While Hannah was praying at the Tabernacle for a child with anguish of soul, all that the priest Eli could think looking at her was that she was drunk.  When she protested that she was not drunk but was in anguish of soul and praying, Eli says dismissively, “may God grant your prayer.”  And God does!  God hears and answers righteous Hannah’s prayer through the sinful priest.

This is a deep mystery, but it is a mystery that gives me hope.  It gives me hope that even as I am a sinful and broken priest, God may still use me to help those who earnestly seek God.  It also gives me hope that even if my bishop or confessor were sinful or deficient in one way or another, God would still look at the anguish of my heart and hear my prayer.  But there is a mystery here that is even more profound than these, a mystery that may show us the way to grow in Christ in the “crooked and perverse generation” that we find ourselves living in today.  

With complete faith in God and a heart full of thanksgiving, Hannah gives her one child, the gift of God to her, back to God.  However, the only way for her to do this is to bring little Samuel to the corrupt priest Eli to be raised at the Tabernacle along with Eli’s corrupt and predatory sons.  Now if you ask anyone—If you ask me!—this is not good parenting.  And yet, doesn’t God do something very similar with most of His children, with you and me?

Look at the world we find ourselves in.  We are mentored by media that exploits and seduces us for its own profit, political leaders whom we know are lying, businesses that we know are cheating us and an educational system piloted by women, men and “others” who want to obliterate basic human nature.  It seems we find ourselves, like young prophet Samuel, being raised in a corrupt and predatory culture.  Yet nevertheless, like the prophet Samuel, we too can grow into very holy people, people who can learn to listen for God even as we are surrounded by innumerable sins and evil influences.  

How did Samuel do it?  Or rather, how did God save Samuel in such an evil and wicked context?  And how can we too be saved in such a broken world?  St. Paul gives some advice to the Philippians on this very thing.  He says, “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”

Keep in mind that the ancient pagan world of the Philippians was very corrupt, even by today’s corrupt standards.  Most of the people, the very people St. Paul is writing to, were slaves.  They couldn’t just change their world, they couldn’t just flee to the wilderness or find some less wicked place to live.  They were stuck where they were and had to become holy there, “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”

Actually, many of us today find ourselves in situations that are somewhat similar.  We have to work for a living and we have little choice about the policies that are imposed on us or who we work with or how the companies we work for may be exploiting us or destroying the world.  Sure, we could quit, but quit and do what?  If we could afford to buy a farm, we could run off to the country, but farming is very technical work and if you don’t know what you are doing you can fail miserably at it.  Also, and this is something that we have to think deeply about, no matter where we go, there we are.  My inner struggles, perhaps exacerbated in the city, are still with me in the country.  I still have to struggle.

The advice St. Paul gives the Philippians, however, is not to run away (in fact he actually tells slaves not to run away).  Rather, he advises them to do all things without complaining and disputing.  Now by “all things”, he does not mean that we are to knowingly or intentionally sin.  Rather, he is saying that when we do our jobs, when we do whatever it is we do, we are to do it without complaining and disputing.  And if we don’t complain and dispute, at work, at home, at church and on the internet, then, St. Paul tells us, we will become blameless and harmless.  Thus we will be children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  

We really have to let that sink in.  “In the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”  He does not say, “you will shine like lights standing outside of the crooked and perverse generation.”  Like the Prophet Samuel, it is in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation or culture or context or company or family or even a corrupt church that we “shine as lights in the world.”  

This is indeed a hard word for us to hear.  

I think 500 years of Protestant influence on western culture has made St. Paul’s advice and the example of Prophet Samuel very offensive to us.  We don’t really believe that God saves in the midst of the furnace, as He saved the three Holy Children in Babylon.  We think that it is our job, our calling from God, to put out the fire, to stamp out evil, to make the world a better place.  We don’t believe that it is God’s will for our righteous souls to be tormented day and night by seeing and hearing of the wicked deeds of those who live around us—even though this is exactly what St. Peter commends about Righteous Lot and gives as an example in his second epistle.  We don’t believe that “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment”  Rather, we think it’s our job to right wrong and to fix what is broken, or to escape from the sinful world.  

And so the counsel of the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers of the Church makes no sense to us.  It even offends us.  Consequently, we make no progress.  We fight and crusade against the evil around us, but we secretly indulge in our lusts and anger making no progress whatsoever in peace and stillness of soul.  We flee one sinful context and find that we bring our sinful passions to whatever new context we flee to.  We burn out (or become hypocrites) trying to heal others without healing ourselves.  It’s like we grind the gears of our soul trying to fight or escape the wickedness of others, but make no movement at all in acquiring peace in the transformation of our own souls.

We have to become like the child Samuel if we want to be saved.  The child Samuel saw the wickedness, but did not participate in it.  The child Samuel knew he could not change others, but he also knew the One for whom nothing is impossible.  The child Samuel prayed, obeyed, and waited.  And then one day, God spoke to him.  Then one day God changed his world: the wickedness of the wicked caught up with them and the fruit of their wicked lives came upon them.  Samuel remained pure.  Samuel remained quiet.  Samuel shone as a light in a corrupt and perverse generation.  

We too can shine as a light, St. Paul tells us, if we will do everything without complaining and disputing.  Or, we can do things the Protestant way: we can protest.  We can argue and fight and try to change others.  Instead of waiting for God to judge, we can demand what is right, now.  But then we will not be transformed by Grace, then we will not shine as lights.  I think the brightness of one little light will do more to bring salvation to the world than a thousand voices trying to fix it.

At least that’s what I think.



Thursday, December 17, 2020

 Every man of himself is so insignificant and helpless that he receives everything necessary to support his existence, not from himself, but from without; he himself is nothing. And as his body is supported by air, food, and drink, so his soul is supported by prayer, by reading God’s Word, and by the communion of the Holy Mysteries,.

Righteous John, Wonderworker of Kronstadt

My Life in Christ p.94

From Orthodox Quote of the Day

Ten points for an Orthodox Life

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

How we heal our brother

Βy quiet and gentle love we approach and heal the being of man. We never harp on to someone about his weaknesses and failings. We speak only well of others. While we see their faults, we keep silent and simply love. For when we behave towards a harsh and callous person as he “deserves,” we only make him worse. When, on the other hand, we treat him with consideration and love, we are able to make him better. A Christian does not detest anyone. What does he do? He only loves. He loves even his enemies. When St. Stephen the Protomartyr was being stoned, he gave no thought to the physical pain, but rather how to forgive his torturers. That is why he said: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” It is astounding to contemplate how far the love of a believer can go. This is a distinctive love, which brings you freedom and calmness. It enables the Light of the Resurrection to spring forth within you; it opens unto you spiritual horizons, causing you to participate in heavenly things while still on earth. 

Bishop Makarios of Christoupolis, “O Lord and Master of my life...”


Monday, December 14, 2020

How to live a genuine Christian life

 Saint Paul pleads with the Christians in Ephesus, “I, Paul, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”

Here are the ten points for living an Orthodox Christian life:

Free booklet available

1. Praying Daily 5 Have a regular prayer rule that includes morning and evening prayer.

2. Worshiping and Participating in the Sacraments 7 Attend and participate in the Divine Liturgy receiving Holy

Communion regularly as well as regular participation in Confession.

3. Honoring the Liturgical Cycle 9 Follow the seasons of the church and participate in the fasts and

feasts of the Church.

4. Using the Jesus Prayer 11 Repeat the Holy name whenever possible throughout the day or


5. Slowing Down and Ordering Your Life 13 Set priorities and reduce the stress and friction caused by a hurried


6. Being Watchful 15 Give full attention to what you are doing at the moment.

7. Taming the Passions 17 Overcome your habits, attachment to your likes and dislikes, and

learn to practice the virtues.

8. Putting Others First 19 Free yourself from your selfishness and find joy in helping others.

9. Spiritual Fellowship 21

Spend time regularly with other Orthodox Christians for support and inspiration.

10. Reading Holy Scripture and writings of our Church Fathers

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

It's Time to Listen

It's time to listen.
It is close to impossible for us white privileged people to understand what black Americans feel and it is a reality that many Black Americans can feel justified in violent actions. I experienced a situation similar to what we are facing today many years ago in 1968 when I was living in Detroit, the scene of a massive uprising of Black Americans. I also participated in “synergy” groups as part of my PhD studies where a white group and a black tried to understand the perspective of the other. After questioning each other, each group tried to express the view of the other group. The black group had no difficulty expressing accurately the view of the white group but the white group could not express the view of the black group. This shows how difficult it is for a privilege group to grasp the view of the less privileged.
In today’s situation, we white privileged need to recognize how difficult it is for us to understand the actions of our black brothers sisters. We need to have compassion even for those who break the law, break windows and loot. We need to ask, what would motivate anyone to act in this way? How could they become so angry and disrespectful of law and order? If we can tap into the understanding what it is like to be continually harassed by the police and failing to see justice being carried out, then we might be able to begin to understand the anger that is being expressed. When our response is simply to call for law and order, to use military tactics, we need to recognize that many of these people never feel any reality of law and order. It seems biased toward those of privilege. Our justice is not their justice. So our actions often lead only to more anger and violence.
We need to try to listen. We need to engage in dialog. We need to open our hearts, filled the Christ’s love, if we are going to make any progress in our race relationships.
Our Lord Jesus Christ favors the poor snd oppressed. He has ultimate compassion. He recognizes every human being as being made in the image of God.
Please, try to listen to those who are demonstrating. Try your best, with an open heart of love, to understand their perspective. Only in this way will we find a productive way to create a more harmonious society where there is a shared idea of justice.
Please try to listen and not judge! Keep Christ in your heart.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

What Does It Mean When John Says, "Do Not Love the World?"

John the Theologian says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” What does he mean? Before answering this question let’s examine what it does not mean. It does not mean we should not love the people in the world; God clearly commands us to love everyone in the world, including our enemies (Mark 12:31; John 15:12; Matthew 5:44). Neither does it mean that we are not to enjoy or utilize the good gifts that God has given us in the world (James 1:17). God provides us with many good things to enjoy and we ought to receive them with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4)

Saint Symeon frames this issue by asking this question, “What is the world?" He answers giving us the meaning of John's instruction to not love the word. “It is sin and attachment to things and passions.”  

The referenced passage is in John’s 1st Epistle: 
Because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, And you have overcome the wicked one. Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:14-17).
We see that John clearly specifies what we at not to love; namely, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. All of these attitudes are sinful and rebellious against God and His will for us. 

The Orthodox Study Bible reminds us of the following: 
The world here is creation after the fall and under the dominion of Satan. It is creation no longer oriented toward God, but temporary and dominated by inordinate passions (see Mt 6:24; Lk 16:13; 1Co 7:29-31). The world distorts every realm of God's good creation. There are (1) sensual pleasures of the flesh (physical passions), (2) intellectual attainments and capacities of the eyes (the soul's passions), and (3) inordinate possessions, power, and honors of life (the pride of human spirit).
When John refers to “lust of the flesh” he is referring sins such as sexual immorality, gluttony, and other indulgences. When he says,   “lust of the eyes” is pointing to root of covetousness. This is the greedy desire for the material riches and possessions of this world. Finally, when he writes the “pride of life,” this is about the boasting of ambition and achievement, a thirst for the honor bestowed by and the applause received from the world.

Saint Symeon points out that this is not an impossible command. 
“I know well that many saints of old guarded themselves from this,  and those of the present still do. They spend their lives in the midst of the things of this life, it’s concerns and it’s care’s, and yet complete their lives in perfect holiness. Of them and their like Paul bears witness, when he says “The form of this world is passing away, so that those who have wives should be as if they had none, and those who buy as if they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as if they had no dealing with it (1Cor 7:29ff).
Symeon emphasize this is not a casual warning. If we are attached to the things of the world in this way then in reality we are an enemy of God. James says, “Whoever wishes to be a friend of The world makes himself an enemy of God (James 4:4).” And John also says, “if anyone loves the world, love for the father is not in him (1John 2:15).

We must remember that Jesus in the great commandment says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your mind and with all your strength and with all your soul (Mk 12:30).”

Therefore if we are craving things of this world we are not following God’ commandment. This how Saint Symeon puts it: “Therefore he who craves or has an attachment to anything else’s transgresses this commandment.” He continues saying, “Let us hate everything, great and small, that endangers our souls.”  Christians are commanded to imitate Christ and live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives (Titus 2:11–14)

Saint Symeon warns us that we must pay attention to the smallest of transgressions.
He who willingly fails at small things, even though it keeps himself from greater offenses, will be more severely condemned because, while he kept the greater matters under control, he was overcome by the lesser. Even one single passion will be enough to destroy us...”
Our aim as a Christian is to become united with Christ, what we call theosis. To be united we must continually work with the help of God’s Grace to act wit a pure heart out of love for Hod as well as others this means Weill be following the ancient guidelines that involve ascetic practices which include prayer and fasting
And live a life of continual repentance.

Saint Symeon suggests that it is helpful to keep in mind the Judgment we will eventually face . He says, 
He who always keeps his own mind and constantly looks forward to the coming Judgment, and fervently repents and weeps, will overcome them all at the same time. As he is lifted up by repentance he “is more than a conqueror” (Rom 8:37).
Even though we ought to love the people in the world and enjoy the good gifts God bestows on us, we must always be careful not to elevate any of them to first place in our hearts and lives.

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourages, pp 109-111.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Symeon the New Theologian on Repentance

Why is repentance so central to a Christian way of life? It is because the aim of Christian life is to be perfected in virtue through God’s grace so we can return to Paradise with eternal life in His kingdom. Repentance is the path to perfection. We need to remember that there will a Judgment that must be faced. Saint Symeon points out what Paul writes, “We must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2Cor 5:10).”

Saint Symeon says, 
Let us repent with all our heart and castaway not only our evil deeds, but also the wicked and unclean thoughts of our hearts and obliterate them in accordance with that which is written: ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments (Joel 2:13).’ Tell me: what use is it if we distribute all our goods to the poor, but fail to make a break with evil and to hate sin? What [use is it] if, while we do not actively commit bodily sin, we mentally engage in shameful and unclean thoughts and invisibly commit sin and are governed controlled by restrained passions of the soul?
Saint Symeon knows there are many who ignore the teachings of Jesus. There are those who do not want to be bothered by clergy or anyone who reminds them what a Christian way of life requires. Some will even say, “I did not want the kingdom of heaven.” Clearly we have to have a desire to be united with God, to do as God commands, and to prepare now for the Judgment and life in Paradise. But the reality is that there are many who reject the teaching of the Incarnate and Triune God. They see no need for repentance or any ascetic practices.

There are others who try discredit the teachings of Christ and see the ways taught by the Church as foolish. Saint Symeon says, 
How will they defend themselves? Will they say, we have not heard? Or nobody warned us?  Or we did not know the name, O Master, nor Thy might, Thy strength, Thy power? He might then justly say to us, “How often have I told you beforehand and exhorted you, O miserable ones, through prophets, through apostles, through all my servants, even through Myself.
Saint Symeon then gives a list of teachings we have received from the Lord. It makes a good list for our own review:
Have you not heard Me say, “blessed are those who weep now, for they shall laugh (Lk 6:21).  Have you not heard Me cry aloud, "blessed are those who mourn (Mt 5:4)?” But you have laughed unrestrainedly as you discussed among yourselves and prolonged your idle conversations, inviting each other to dinner and ministering to your stomachs. 
As Jesus says, “I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment (Mt 12:36).”
Have you not heard Me say, “How narrow the gate and how hard is the way that leads to life” (Mt 7:14) and “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and men of violence take it by force (Mt 11:12).” Yet you lie on soft beds and seek comfort by any means.
While Jesus says, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all (Mk 9:35),” you have chosen “the best seats and the places of honor (Mk 13:39).” Have you not chosen positions of power and leadership and offices and high honors, and been unwilling to be subordinate and to serve in humility of spirit...
While Jesus said, “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Mt 7:12)” have you not been concerned solely with your own comfort and lusts?
Have you not been covetous, rapacious, and unjust  and served no one but your selves? Think about what Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9)?” 
When I told you Jesus said, “whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also (Mt 5:39)”, have not some of you laughed and others even refused to listen to this? Did you not say that I commanded you something bad and unjust?
When Jesus told you, “whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two (Mt 5:41),” not only have you not done so but most of you have not even instructed others.
When I told you, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake (Mt 5:11f),” did you not welcome praises and honor and glory to the extent the other would make you weary of life itself.
When I mentioned, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3),” did you ever heartily wish to be poor.
When I said, “Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth (Mt 5:5),” did you not act angrily towards those who did not do at once what you wanted?
When I said to you pray for those who ill treat you, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you (Mt 5:44),” have you not said, ‘This is fine for the apostles?”
There are many more. We need to study Scripture and examine our lives always seeking ways to improve our way of life. When we realize how difficult this is we will find humility and then seek His grace, the Holy Spirit, to help us. 

The lesson is, if we love God and want to be united with Him, we need to listen carefully to what He has taught us. We need to be aware of the Judgment that will come. Knowing what is necessary through His teachings, and accepting that the gate is narrow to Paradise, we will seek repentance always. As Jesus taught as He began His public ministry, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt 4:17).”

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, pp 103-104.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Discernment of Thoughts - Saint Symeon the New Theologian

Saint Symeon gives advice on how to properly discern which thoughts are good for us to act on and which ones will lead us away from God. For him it is very clear: Check to see if your thoughts are in agreement with Holy Scripture, the teachers of the Church fathers, and other holy persons. Those that are in agreement go ahead and act on them. Those that are not, aggressively discard them. Here is how he says it.
“We must carefully discern the thoughts that come on us and set against them the testimonies from the divinely inspired Scriptures and from the teaching of the spiritual teachers, the holy father‘s, so that if we find them to agree with these witnesses and correspond to them we may all with all our might hold fast these thoughts and boldly act on them. But if they are not in harmony with the “word of truth” we must expel them from us with much anger, as it is written, “Be angry and not sin.” 
Holy Scripture tells us where we can find truth we can rely on. Saint Paul says,
“In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Eph 1:13-14)
Saint Paul further emphasizes how important this is. He says because of our hope of eternal life we need to carefully discern the thoughts we should pay attention to. The words that we need to pay attention to are found in the Gospel which is Truth. He writes,
“Because of the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, of which you heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, which has come to you, as it has also in all the world, and is bringing forth fruit, as it is also among you since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth” (Col 1:5-6)
Then in Psalms we see that we must have anger and remorse in what we make up in our hearts, that which is not I accordance with Scripture.
“Be angry, and do not sin; Have remorse upon your beds For what you say in your hearts.” (Ps  4:5)
Saint Symeon points out that it is Jesus who has told us to place our Trust in the Scriptures. We read in John’s Gospel,
Accordingly we need great soberness, great zeal, much searching of the divine Scriptures. The Saviour has shown us their usefulness by saying, “search the Scriptures.“ (John 3:38-39) 
We find recorded in John where Jesus is rebuking those who do not believe in Him. Those who do not heed or properly read the Scriptures, will not find the eternal life He promises. He says,
“But you do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 3:38-39)
Saint Symeon encourages us study the Scriptures and pay attention to what they say about what we are to believe and what we are to do. It is only in this way that we will understand God’s will and know the difference between good and evil. This is the way we can recognize the thoughts we are to honor and those we must reject. He says,
“Search them and hold fast to what they say with great exactitude and faith, in order that you may know God’s will clearly from the divine Scriptures and be able infallibly to distinguish good from evil and not obey every spirit nor be carried away with harmful thoughts.”
Saint John warns us about the many voices who proclaim falshoods, who misinterpret Scripture or have no belief in Jesus Christ as our savior. He writes,
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”  (1 John 4:1-3)
Paul, too, reminds us to learn from those who have faith in Jesus and have been called to teach us.  If we are not careful we can be manipulated like children and lead down a path that takes us away from God. He says,
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,† for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” (Eph 4:11-14)
Saint Symeon looks at the word of God as a two edged sword. It helps us to recognize and cut off our bodily desires that can dominate our thoughts and lead us astray, and it can also give us the needed zeal that motivates us to make changes in our lives by only giving credence to the thoughts that lead is closer to Him. He says,
“For the word of God is “like a two edged sword“, which cuts off and separates the soul from every bodily lust and feeling. Even more, it becomes like a burning fire in that it kindles the zeal of the soul. 
We find this teaching also in the writing of Paul.
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb 4:12)
How well we are able to control our thoughts, only allowing those that are good for our relationship with God to influence our actions, determines not only our salvation but also the quality of our life. Saint Symeon says,
“It causes us to despair all life’s painful experiences and to count as joy every trial that assails, and to desire and embrace death, which is so frightening to other men as life and the cause of life.”
This discernment of thoughts is the front line in spiritual warfare. It is our thoughts that always come before our actions. If we can win the battle in the mind we can take actions that are pleasing to God, that lead us toward a union with Him. They way to do it is to compare them with Scripture and the teaching of our Church fathers. We must remember that our aim is to realize our hope of eternal life with Him. Saint Symeon reminds us that this is a never ending battle. We must be ever vigilant of our thoughts, ever discerning between those that are good and those that are evil.
“Warfare goes on constantly, and the soldiers of Christ must at all times be armed with their weapons.”

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, Chapter 3, pp 67-68.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Living in the Light of Christ: Lessons from Saint Simeon the New Theologian from his discourse on the Beatitudes

Saint Symeon the New Theologian offers us important lessons about how one can be united with Christ and have a life lived in His light. In my Lenten meditation on His Discourses, especially the one on the Beatitudes, there were three elements that moved my heart. They are: 1. Seek Christ unceasingly; 2. Develop poverty of Spirit; 3. Separate from attachment to things of this world. 

1.Seek Christ unceasingly
All spiritual life begins with faith and continually seeks to be united with Christ.  Instead of having our attention directed to earthly things and matters, “have one’s mind wholly set on Christ,” says Saint Symeon. 
“Think of the unutterably glory of the Godhead, which is beyond thought thought and understanding. Think of God’s unutterable power, His immeasurable mercy, His inconceivable riches, which He generously and bountifully gives to men. “
To seek union with God we must be able to change our life so it can become totally Christ centered. He says, 
“Flee from the deceit of life and it’s supposed happiness and run to Christ alone, who is the Savior of souls. ...who is everywhere present...let us hold Him fast and fall at His feet.” 
Just like the women who went to the tomb and fount it empty and then encountered the Risen Christ and “held Him by the feet and worshiped Him” (Mt 28:9).

To have this zeal that is essential to make changes in our life so we are able to continually seek God, we must be able to separate from attachment to all things of this world that are not essential for our living. This requires that we gain poverty of spirit. Let’s now examine this idea of spiritual poverty.

2. Develop poverty of Spirit
Spiritual poverty is the true meaning of humility. When we have tried to follow all of God’s commandments, we find that we cannot do this by our own will alone. We realize our efforts are insufficient and that we lack what is needed to become like Christ. When we realize that it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we will be able to carry out His commandments fully, and that we are not able to accomplish what we desire, to become one with Christ, we realize our poverty of Spirit. The lack we feel is what is meant by poverty of spirit. It is true humility where we realize our need of God’s help, our dependence on Him, and we become willing to give up our own idea of self-sufficiency.  

Saint Symeon says, 
“When the faithful man, who always pays strict attention to the commandment of God, performs all that the divine commandments enjoin...He will find he is weak and lacks power to attain to the height of the commandments, indeed that he is very poor, unworthy to receive God and give Him thanks an glory, since he has yet failed to attain any good on his own...he will mourn with that sorrow which is truly most blessed which  will receive comfort and make the soul meek.”
Note how poverty of spirit is a precondition for mourning, another Beattitude. When we find we are lacking what is needed for us to follow all His commandments we find ourselves mourning over our poor condition. We mourn as we begin to beg God to open our hearts to receive the Holy Spirit.

In the Psalm or repentance, one we read in most of our services, tells us that what is needed is, “a humble and contrite heart.” It reads: “A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, A broken and humbled heart God will not despise.” (Ps 50:19 (51:19)) The greatest and most important sacrifice we can offer God is a contrite heart. In other words, to have the feeling of spiritual poverty.

Saint Symeon says, spiritual poverty “is the means of obtaining the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus puts it this way: 
“Do not worry about your life... But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. (Mt 6:25ff) 
“The poor in spirit are those who know their need of God.” (Mt 5:3)
John in his epistle affirms the necessity to have the Spirit in us if we are to keep His commandments. He says, 
“Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.”  (1 John 3:24, 2:27)
Poverty of spirit is what is meant by humility. “With unfeigned humiliation there is depth of humility.” Saint Symeon says, 
“With humility there is enlightenment of the Spirit. With enlightenment of the Spirit there is the outpouring of the light of God. With the outpouring of the light of God there is the wisdom and knowledge of His mysteries. Where these mysteries are found there is the kingdom of heaven and experience of the kingdom and the hidden treasures of the knowledge of God  which is manifestation of the poverty of spirit.”
Poverty of spirit is like a necessary steppingstone that enables us to come closer to God and know His mysteries. Paul says, 
This is needed so “that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3)
Saint Symeon says,
“Let us long with all our soul for the things God commands us to embrace: spiritual poverty, which the world calls humiliation; constant mourning by night and by day, from which there wells forth the joy of the soul and the hourly consolation for those who love God."

3.Separate from attachment to things of this world
The second attribute we need is possibly the most difficult for us who live a life immersed in the modern consumer driven way of life.  What is called for is detachment, to not be enslaved by our desires for the things of this world. Our sight must always be focused on His eternal kingdom. Our focus on our worldly desires detracts our attention away from God. Our attachment to worldly things separates us from God.

How do we know that we have gained this spiritual poverty and are in mourning over what we do not yet spiritually have? What actions demonstrate this?
Saint Symeon says, 
“They consist in not desiring anything that is visible and subject to corruption, by which I mean the affairs and pleasures of the world, wealth, fame, pleasure, or any other worldly or bodily enjoyment.”
Why is this so critical in our spiritual journey? He says that,
when we “have the world alive in us just as we are living in it," and have “our minds set on earthly things” we “no longer posses Christ in ourselves."
Paul also says something similar:
"For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.” (Phil 4:18-19)
“Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col 3:2)
Our enslavement to all the things of the world and our neglect of a desire for heavenly things, is to be hostile, to be an enemy of God. Symeon says,
 “Attachment to the world is “enmity toward God.” Do not love the world or the things in the world” Flee from the world and “the things that are in the world “
We find this instruction also in the epistle of James. He says,
“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jas 4:4)
John also gives us the same direction. He says, 
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)
Saint Symeon says
“There is nothing better in the world than to have nothing that belongs to the world and to desire nothing beyond the bare needs of the body.”
As Paul says, 
“If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1 Tim 6:8) ...since He gives things yet greater and “fills every living thing with plenteousness.” (Ps 145:16) 
Saint Symeon instructs,
"Let us forsake all the other things that belong to this transitory life, such as vain glory, envy, mutual strife, deceit, complaining, intrigue, all things that turn us away from God and imperil the soul.Flee from the deceit of life and it’s supposed happiness and run to Christ alone, who is the Savior of souls. ...who is everywhere present...let us hold Him fast and fall at His feet.”
We must develop a way of life where our focus is always on Christ and seeking heavenly rewards. Paul says,
"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col 3:1-2)
Jesus told us that you can’t love the world and God at the same time. Love for the world pushes out love for God, and love for God pushes out love for the world. He put it this way,
“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Mt 6:24)

4. We will be united with His light
Saint Symeon writes,
“He however, who is united to God by faith and recognizes Him by action is indeed enabled to see him by contemplation. He sees things of which I am not able to write. His mind sees strange visions and is holy illuminated and becomes like light, yet he is unable to conceive of them or describe them. His mind is itself light and sees all things as light, and the light has life and imparts light to him who sees it. He sees himself all united to the light, and as he sees he concentrates on the vision and is as he was. He perceives the light in his soul and is in ecstasy. In his ecstasy he sees it from a far, but as he returns to himself he finds himself again in the midst of the light. He is thus altogether at a loss for words and concepts to describe what he has perceived in his vision.”
As Jesus says, 
“I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Or as we sing in our Paschal service, 
“Come, receive the light from the Unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, who has risen from the dead.”
Seeking Christ with our whole heart and mind, having true humility as shown by our feeling of spiritual poverty, mourning over our condition, and having overcome our passions, our attachments to the things of this world, we are able to gain true knowledge of God through our experience of His light. This is what we aim for, theosis. Knowing God in this way we can have confidence in the hope of the eternal life He promises.  

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses; Chapter 2: To Christ Through the Beatitudes, pp 47-59; Paulist Press, NY 1980

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

To Find God

Saint Symeon the New Theologian tells us that to find God we must not allow ourselves to be influenced by those promoting the pleasures of this world, to discipline ourselves, and become totally focused only on Christ.

Who ever desires to find God let him ‘deny himself,’” says Saint Symeon. This is what Jesus told His disciples if the wanted to follow Him (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34). This involves a practice of self-sacrifice to overcome our self-centered orientation. We impose self-discipline, denying our personal desires out of our love for God and our desire to do His will. Paul affirms this, “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal 5:24).”

“‘Set enmity’ between himself and all who walk according to the flesh.” Here he references the curse God gave to the snake who deceived Eve. “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed.(Gen 3:15). Paul tells us, “He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3-4).” We must creat a separation between us and those who are driven by worldly desires so we will not be misled.

Let him not turn back, misled by any of their so called comforting words, nor let him ‘sit in their seat.’” In Psalms we find,  “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the troublesome (Ps 1:1).” Jesus says, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God (Lk 9:62).” Once we have committed ourself to God and dedicated our life to Him we cannot turn back under the influence of those who only see the pleasures of the worldly life.

Let him not cultivate bad associations.”  Paul instructs us, “Do not be deceived: Evil company corrupts good habits (1 Cor 15:33).” Again Saint Symeon emphasizes this idea of being careful in the kind of relationships we develop and nurture.

Decide in your own mind, and permit it not to err by listening to vain things.”

Do not delay or be weighed down by sloth! Give not sleep to your eyes. in The Psalms it reads, “I shall not recline on my bed, I shall not close my eyes in sleepNor my eyelids for dozing, Nor give any rest to my temples,Until I find a place for the Lord,:A tabernacle for the God of Jacob (Ps 132:3-5).” We can’t be lazy in our efforts to find God.

Reference: Saint Symeon the New Theologian: The Discourses, p 47

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Church in the Public and Political Sphere

The Church has recently completed and published a very important document: FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. In a series of posts I will provide the highlights of this very important document and encourage you to study the full document. I have tried not to editorialize but only to emphasize some of the main points in each section. We begin with, “The Church in the Public Sphere.”

The foundation of the Church’s position on its role in the public sphere is Love.  This is the first and great commandment of the Law, to love God with one’s whole heart and one’s neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:37–39). We are created to serve God and are made in His image. This means we are “called into loving communion with our neighbors and the cosmos.” ”It is only through our participation in the community of Christ’s body that any of us, as a unique object of divine love, can enter into full union with God. Our spiritual lives, therefore, cannot fail also to be social lives.” 

We live in a fallen world that is “broken and darkened, enslaved to death and sin, tormented by violence and injustice.” Because we are servants of God we must “strive against evil, however invincible it may at times appear, and to work for the love and justice.” In this obligation it may require “self-sacrifice.” Jesus Christ is our model, how he gave His life for us. We must follow Hm. To be a good servant we must rid ourselves of the “obstinate selfishness of our own sinful inclinations, and to undertake a constant effort to cultivate in ourselves the eye of charity.” We must see the face of Christ in others.

We need to have an attitude of compassion when it comes to dealing with those who are “the poor and disenfranchised, the abused and neglected, the imprisoned, the hungry, the weary and heavy-laden, the despairing.” We always need to remember how Christ condemned the wealthy and a luxurious way of life at the expense of caring for those in need. We must have concern about “indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute.”

Concerning our political sphere we must always remain Christ centered. For a Christian our “hope lies in the Kingdom of God and not in the kingdoms of this world.” We are not to put our trust “in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalm 146[145]:3). There is no form of government that is perfect. “The Orthodox Church cannot judge all forms of human government as equivalent with one another, even though all fall far short of the Kingdom.” The Church “condemns every kind of institutional corruption and totalitarianism.” We are to obey authorities because this is needed for social order, but “When the commands of even a legally established political authority contradict our responsibilities as Christians, ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29).” We should not “seek to advance the Christian faith through the use of political power or legal coercion.” Neither should we “surrender to a debilitating and in many respects fantastical nostalgia for some long-vanished golden era, and to imagine that it constituted something like the sole ideal Orthodox polity.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Fear of Coronavirus

Do you know what is scary to most of us over 70? That there are silent carriers of the virus and that the health care system will soon be overwhelmed. When you get sick, even if you are a pretty healthy 70+ person, that you will be sent to a hospital with inadequate facilities, being unable to breath. Not one of your loved ones will be able to visit you, no one to hold your hand, to give you a caring smile, not even a priest. Then if you die after suffocating, lying on a mattress in the hallway, there will be no church funeral and possibly sent to a mass grave.  No normal grieving by loving family and friends.

This image is terrifying to many. But there are a few who have a very strong faith, who are not presently attached to activities of this world, who have a personal experience with God, who know first hand His love, who will welcome the call to death as the opportunity to enter into His Kingdom as promised in Scripture. They will not have fear.

If you are one who is fearful, then now is the time to intensify you search for union with Christ, to seek the Holy Spirit, to have a complete confession, even if it has to be done over the phone with a priest. You may not have the opportunity for Holy Communion, but Confession with a priest will suffice.
Read Scripture, not spicy novels, watch videos by spiritual people on YouTube, say the Jesus prayer throughout the day. Never forget that God is a loving God and Christ is ever present. He is within each of us who have been Baptized and Chrismated. He will not leave us. Call on Him like David in the Psalms. Let Him embrace you like Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. Remember His suffering on the Cross to defeat death and show the way through resurrection. He is eternal, He is Love. He wants you in His Kingdom forever. Trust in Him. Be humble and surrender to Him. Seek forgiveness for all the ways you have not lived up to His teachings. Seek His mercy. He is all merciful. Reach out for Him with your whole heart. He will bring you comfort and joy.