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.”