Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 7: Daily Prayer

Once you contact a spiritual father he will guide you. There are some simple basics that I will continue to give you based on my experience that can help you along the path toward an Orthodox mind and coming closer to God.

The first priority should be to set aside some time for prayer and spiritual reading. I have tried to do this every day. 

You can start with only a short period. Make it one that you know you can keep every day. I found this is easiest to do in the morning. Just arrange to get up a few minutes earlier, of course this means you need to go to bed a few minutes earlier too.

First, establish a regular time and a private place. You should have a specific rule for both morning and evening. Don’t try to “wing it.” This is not a relaxation exercise, but a path of communion with your God. You will benefit from having a specific set of guidelines that you follow each time with no excuses for shortcutting them. Use prayer books and written prayers, the ones included as s sample prayer rule in the booklet, Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life. The Orthodox prayer books are filled with prayers that have been well-tested and used for hundreds of years. Prayer does not need to be a creative activity. Above all, you need to be sincere.

I learned the proper way to pray from Saint Theophan the Recluse (see link below). He tells us that before you start your prayers, take time to quiet yourself and to concentrate your energies in your heart. Christ says, “Enter into thy closet and ... shut thy door” (Mt 6:6). Remove all activities that could disrupt your inner descent. Set aside, to the best of your ability, all of your problems of the day and your worries for tomorrow. This is not a time for thinking or worrying. When you are preparing to pray, stand, sit or walk a few minutes and steady your mind to concentrate on God. Reflect on who it is that you will be addressing. Remember, it is God Himself, the Creator of All, with whom you are about to talk. Try to hold in your heart a feeling of humility and reverent awe. If you are able, make some prostrations before you begin. As you can see, all these things are easier to do after you first get up in the morning.

As you begin to pray, read the prayers and enter into every word of the prayer. Bring the meaning of the words down into your heart. Do not rush through the prayers like you are in a hurry to finish them. Let the words of the prayer slowly drop into the depths of your heart with humility and awe of God. You need to slow your mind down so you can concentrate solely on your prayer. It’s somewhat like driving a car. When you are going 90 miles per hour down the highway, you may feel exhilarated, powerful and in control. But, at high speeds things can go wrong quickly. But, when you slow down and drive at a speed of twenty-five miles per hour, the car handles easily and if someone makes a dangerous maneuver you can easily avoid it. The mind works the same way. You want to train it to slow down so it will not cause you an unneeded accident and you can open your heart to God’s presence. So, in prayer say the words slowly so you can gain the full meaning of them and allow them to penetrate your consciousness and to bring to your heart feelings of love and reverence for God. 

Beware of the tendency to rush to complete them hurriedly. When this happens you have turned your prayer into an obligation, another task to complete, and it is no longer true prayer. Don’t worry if you catch yourself doing this. It is normal at first. Just stop, slow down, and then continue after asking God’s forgiveness and help. You will eventually find the right pace for yourself. 

Also, study the prayers before you use them so you know the meaning of each word. Eventually you will want to memorize them.

After you begin to recite your prayers, you will find that your mind will want to wander. I still struggle with this tendency. Work constantly to improve your ability to concentrate your attention on God and your prayer. God will allways be distant until you can learn to focus your concentration in prayer. When your mind does wander, be gentle with yourself. Think of God and how He loves you and go back to recite again what you said while your mind was elsewhere. Bring yourself back to concentrate on God and the words of the prayer. Sometimes it helps to say your prayers out loud for a while to help you concentrate. The mind is quite skilled at trying to do more than one thing at a time. But in reality, you only concentrate on one thing at a time. You can easily be deceived by the mind as it leaves prayer to focus on other matters. These wanderings of the mind show you the dimensions of your busy life and where you need to find ways to make it quieter so you can be always mindful of God. Prayer is NOT the time to focus on these worldly activities, because this will only further distract you from prayer. Work to concentrate your attention more and more each time you pray. Each day you will gain in your attentiveness during prayer.

When you finish your prayers, stand for a few moments. Consider to what your prayer life commits you. Try to hold in your heart what has been given to you. Treasure it for a few moments.

It is important to make your prayer life one that is a firm rule, a desired habit, and not something that is done occasionally, sporadically or casually. Pray each and every morning and evening for fifteen minutes at a minimum. Your prayer rule should include specific prayers. Commit to doing your rule each and every day, just like you are committed to daily personal hygiene tasks such as brushing your teeth. You don’t forget to do them each day. You need to make prayer a similar habit, one that you never forget. Just like brushing our teeth is essential for the health of our gums and teeth, prayer is essential for the health of our soul. Persistence and patience in prayer will prepare you for God’s grace to work within you.

This is a very simple thing you can do. All that is needed is your desire to become closer to God and choosing to alter your daily routine by a few minutes.

Saint Theophan’s guidance on prayer.  https://orthodoxprayer.org/Theophan-Homily1.html

A sample beginning prayer rule. https://orthodoxprayer.org/Prayer%20Rule.html

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life https://stgeorgegreenville.org/our-faith/tenpointprogram/ To request free booklet email c joiner @ mac . com

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 6: Seek a Spiritual Father

I will now focus more on how you can develop an Orthodox phronema or mind. To begin, just think of it as acquiring the mind of Christ. If you are like me most likely you currently have a secular way of thinking. Everything is in reference to the life on earth. Heaven is distant and rarely influences your thoughts.

Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans tells us we need to learn to walk by the Spirit instead of the flesh. He says, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on things of the Spirit.” (Rom 8:5). To have the mind of Christ is to live by the Spirit. To keep your mind focused on the Spirit. If this seems impossible, don’t worry, this all takes time once you surrender to the way of the Church and you allow grace to heal your soul.

What do I do, I hope you ask. I can tell you what I did. Although I was chrismated as Orthodox when we were married, it wasn’t until many years latter that I chose to surrender to the way of the Church.

On of the first things I can remember was reading a book by Saint Theophan the Recluse titled, The Path to Salvation. So your journey may or may not begin like mine by the reading of a book written by a Saint of Church Father. I had earlier developed a passage meditation practice where I would meditate for 30 minutes every morning. I don’t recommend this as it’s hard to overcome some of the pitfalls os this approach. But is gave me a way to discipline my mind as well as establishing a time each day for spiritual nourishment. But on reading Saint Theophan’s, book I learned about daily prayer using the Jesus Prayer. It seemed similar to passage meditation but soon I was to learn it was quite different. As a result I began to pray everyday for the first time in my life. This began to open my heart to something greater. I had been a big time doubter. I refused to accept the miracles performed by Christ. I saw Him as a “good” person and not as a God and man. One day I had a vision after praying where Christ came to me and said, “Charlie, why do you doubt me?” This was a wake up. This is often called an awakening.

I knew I had to do something to bring me closer to God. I began to search for  someone to help me. We were living at Natures Spirit at the time and attended Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral In Greenville periodically. After contacting several monasteries for help, I concluded that I needed to go and talk with  at Saint George, my local parish. I was anxious about arranging to have this discussion with him. When I first met with him he new how difficult this was for me. He then arranged to meet with me regularly to teach me about the Orthodox way.

I think I will end this here and suggest that, when you feel the desire to get closer to God, you humble yourself and make an appointment to see an Orthodox priest. I would choose one who is mature. Most likely he will embrace you like the father embraced the Prodigal son on his return (Luke: 11–32). Just tell him you want to come closer to God and to commit to the way of the church, but that you need instruction and help.



Ask yourself if you are ready to seek help? If not what are the questions that you need to have answered?

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 5: Importance of Holy Tradition and The Nature of Sin

Let’s continue with the topic of Orthodox phronema. As I began to onvercome my attitude of “I am supposed to,” regarding the practices of the Church, I began to understand the idea and importance of Tradtion and appreciate how the Orthox Church has struggled to protect Tradtion. In the Orthodox Church all theological discussions reach back to ancient sources for guidance. It’s rare to find an innovation that comes out of a philosophical approach. We have modern commentators to help us relate Tradition to our times, but they all draw on ancient sources. 

You can have confidence in this unchanging nature of the Church grounded on unchanging Tradition. There is no deeper truth to be discovered than what has already been revealed. The fullness of our faith was revealed at the time of Pentecost where the Apostles were empowered by the Holy Spirit. They had the full knowledge. They experienced the resurrected Christ, were taught by Him, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit. Based on this they established the Church on earth. This is why the Tradition they established is so important. You can have confidence when you surrender to the way of the Church that it is unchanging and consistent with what the Apostles taught.

An example is found in a central theme of the Orthodox way of life, repentance. Repentance is about seeking God’s forgiveness and His help for you to change you mind, or inner orientation that makes it difficult for you to live up to the ideal of His love. It is important to understand the nature of sin and the need for repentance in the Orthodox view. I initially had a wrong idea about sin, being influenced by the common teaching in Western churches. I had thought sin was about violating a rule for which you would be punished by God if anyone found out. Like being caught in a crime. Consequently, I was resistant to admit any sinfulness. Sin was a bad word. I felt I was a “good” person. But, eventually I learned that my way of thinking was wrong and not consistent with Holy Tradition.

In the Orthodox Church sin is like missing the mark, not living up to what we are capable of. This is the root meaning of the Greek word “μαρτία “, translated as sin. We are called to live a life like Christ, but Christ being fully human, in His Church He knows this is difficult to do. Our nature is filled with passions that affect our soul. We all miss the mark from the ideal of our creation.  We are therefore all sinners. We inherit this condition from Adam and Eve who ignored God’s direction and were cast out of Paradise to struggle with a mortal life. We are not responsible for their sin but we inherit the human passions that lead us to sinful actions. The Church is a place we go for the nurturing and healing of our soul. It is like a spiritual hospital. The Church is filled with God’s love. He only wants us to grow spiritually, to become closer to Him, to become evermore like Him, so we can become worthy to be united with Him eternally. God does not want to punish us for our errors, for all the ways we miss the mark, but wants to help us improve, to develop a healthy soul capable living His love. Sin is not a bad word but a beautiful one. As we discover the nature of our sinfulness we grow spiritually and find we become closer to God.

I learned quickly that you grow spiritually when you confess and seek help in the Church. Initially this takes courage and an understanding that our God is a loving God who knows our weaknesses and wants to help us, not punish us. We learn that He made us all in His image so we all have the potential to become like Him. He desires that we return in love to be one with Him.

The primary way we do this is called repentance, a change of mind. This is where we uncover our weakness in the eyes of God and out of our love for Him and our desire to overcome them. There are many ways the Church can help us in this never ending process. There is the sacrament of confession that is very powerful. This is where we confess our shortcoming in the church, facing the icon of Christ, and ask for forgiveness and healing. The priest stands at our side as our witness, and, if moved by the Holy Spirit and by the powers given him in his ordination, he transmits God’s acceptance of our confession and as he recites the parader and makes the sigh of the cross over our head as we knell, lifting all burdens of sorrow or any guilt you may feel. Through this sacrament in God’s loving eyes you are unconditionally forgiven. The priest may offer suggestions to help you. These suggestions are called penances. They are not a form of punishment, but aids to help you overcome whatever you confessed. The priest acts like a medical doctor giving you what will be helpful for your healing. Remember always that God is love and that you are created in His image.

This is all a part of Holy Tradition and an example of how Christ in His Church helps you once you surrender to her way. All the sacraments and how they are performed come under the category of Holy Tradition as are all the ascetic practices that help,us grow spiritually. There is nothing that is in violation of Holy Scripture. Holy Tradition helps actualize what Christ teaches in Holy Scripture.

Accepting Holy Tradition with out question or hesitation is part of the Orthodox mind or phronema.

Ask yourself if you think holy Tradition is important? Have thought properly about the idea of being sinful or do you have misconceptions like I did? Have you ever been to confession? Why is it so difficult? Can you see how we can have a mistaken view of sin?  Why is it throughout our services we are constantly say, “Lord have Mercy”?

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 4: Your Relationship With God

Continuing our discussion of the Orthodox mind, or phronema, we accept that this is a very difficult subject to grasp, but a very important one. I have learned that it is an essential one if you want to have a loving relationship with God. As I gradually understood it, I found that I began to know myself more deeply. As I increasingly grasped the nature of a loving relationship with God, I could see more clearly my limitations as one of His creatures. I began to understand that I am created and cannot ever fully understand the nature of this awesome Creator. I accepted that I am  like the pot that can never know fully the potter who formed it. As I explored sincerely my faith with this developing Orthodox mind, I  began to open myself to my limited nature and accept the unlimited nature of God our creator. I now understand this to be the true meaning of humility. As you make this exploration and open yourself to this limitless mystery, you too will begin to know yourselves in a new way.

A key concept in our faith is Theosis, or our union with God. As an Orthodox Christian you learn how it is possible to be united with God and to become always aware of His presence, His loving nature and unlimited power. As this way of thinking began to develop in me, I found I was no longer stressed by feeling that  I had to figure out everything intellectually. I found comfort in the awareness that my intellect is limited and is incapable of clarifying what is impossible to resolve with logic. As I realized this,  I was led to a greater understanding, became aware of my soul, and was opened to new experiences.  Trying to understand mysteries like the Holy Trinity, a virgin birth, Christ as both god and man or the resurrection, did not distract me, because I realized that I can’t fully grasp these mysteries through my rational mind. As this new mind developed in me, I began to evolve a personal relationship with Christ, experiencing His love, a new kind of freedom, and an inner peace in all situations. This is a never ending process. Christ continues to  lead me to discover more deeply my weaknesses and errant thinking. 

What is Orthodox mind, this “phronema “? This is a word that is found in the Bible and used in differing ways. It is often translated as “understanding.” For example in Proverbs it reads, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by phronema (understanding) he established the heavens (Proverbs 3:18 LXX). in Isaiah 40:28 we read that “His understanding is unsearchable.” Saint Paul often asks Christians to acquire correct phronema. He says it is associated with the idea of “mind of Christ” (1Cor 2:16). The early Christians were exhorted  develop a way of thinking tied to their way of living. They were instructed in the need for correct phronema. We can see this also in the writing of the Church Fathers in later centuries. This was my challenge and I hope I can help you see that this is the important challenge for you too, so you can experience a close relationship with God.

I can assure you this is not primarily a intellectual task. We may be helped along by reading of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, but not through an analytical or critical way of study. You must read with a natural, humble mind, accepting what does not make sense as something you are not yet ready to understand. The same with the Sacraments. You will also begin to see the icons not as simple pictures, but as windows to heaven. 

I began developing this new mind through the total immersion, a surrender, to the way of life taught by the Orthodox Church. I was willing to place my trust in the Church and to avoid the temptation to substitute its teachings and practices with my own ideas or opinions. 

This Orthodox mind does not accept legalistic thinking. It does not rely on rules or penalties for breaking them. You cannot use the ideas of our legal system to develop a loving relationship with God. Get rid of the idea of sin as breaking a law for which you will be punished. This mind is based on love. The way of the Church is love. It wants only to help you you to grow closer to Him. This relationship with God is similar to our relationship with our best friends and spouses. 

Free up a rigid mind with limiting assumptions. Orthodoxy an ideology. It does not require definitions or rules, even though at the beginning they may be useful guides as a starting point. Acquiring this right thinking takes time and a commitment based on your belief in the Trinitarian God and your unconditional love for Him. As you participate regularly with attention and an open mind in the divine services and sacraments, as you read Scripture and the Church Fathers, you will begin to develop an organic inner devotion that overcomes the notion of “I am supposed to,” as you engage in the practices of the Orthodox way of life. You will have ever growing experiences that will lift you beyond the limits of your rational mind, bringing you inner peace, and into a personal relationship with God. I have found that it is through the spiritual practices taught by the Church that this new mind develops, that the greater truth becomes visible and real and you begin to experience God. A love grows, not just for the Church but for God himself. This love then permeates your whole way of life. You find peace in all things. You will discover how essential Tradition preserved by the Church is in this process. Just accept that it is the Church that has preserved the fullness of Tradition that has been passed on through the Apostles as they were taught by Christ Himself. Surrender to it and become nurtured by His love.

Some questions to consider:

How close do you feel to God? How do you personally experience Him? Think about the issues that come to you in thinking about surrendering to the practices of the Church? Will they conflict with your current life? Are there some practices that you do not think you can accept?