Saturday, April 24, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 10: Learning to Follow Fasting Guidelines

I hope you are benefiting from these letters. There is another practice that you should begin if you become serious in developing an Orthodox mind in order to come closer to a union with God. This is fasting. I can imagine that you are thinking, “Oh no! Not fasting! Nobody does this anymore.” The reason you and many others resist this practice is precisely why it is so important. Remember, this is not something new, but a tradition that precedes the time of Christ. This is a practice aimed at controlling your self-will. When you understand the nature of your salvation and what is required, you realize that it is essential to become obedient to God’s. Therefore it is essential, mandatory, to learn to control the passions that seem to drive your current life style. This requires a disciplined will. The passion of hunger is one of the most basic passions you have. Being able to deny your desire to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, helps you learn to exert your will in a way that leads to developing the ability to control all your passions. Eventually you must learn to merge your will with God’s will. Isn’t it true that  we we live mostly only according to our own will? Discover this and you will find a path to life in Christ.

I know when you were growing up as children, I am ashamed to say, that we did not fast as a family. For me this was a practice I only accepted after I chose to focus on becoming united with Christ. When I began a regular practice of fasting, I struggled. I wanted to make up my own rules and allow many exceptions. But very quickly I realized that for the path I had chosen I needed to commit to the way taught by the ancient church. I then sought out the official guidelines on fasting. (They are called guidelines because a rule orientation is not part of the Orthodox way. I chose to stop making up my own plan and make the Church guidelines my rule. I have pretty much followed this since then. It’s really not difficult. In the beginning you will discover that you may have some pretty intense desires attached to food. You may have some preconceived ideas about what is necessary for your body. 

As Mom and I began this regular practice, all of our church-related activities became more regular. Because we were required to struggle with our desire for certain kinds of food during a fast, our inability to live up to the commandments also became clearer. It was an important step in our spiritual growth.

Fasting is a discipline to help you master all of the passions, not eliminate them, but bring them under control. This involves more than controlling excessive eating. It aims at helping control things like lust, anger, selfishness, and many others. One of our most basic desires is the desire to eat. This is both good and bad. We need to eat to nourish the body, but overeating, or eating the wrong things, destroys the body. Often our desire is for what we like. We may even spend excessive amounts to get the food we like. Or, we may make a fuss when the food is not what we want, causing stress and extra work for those who are preparing it for us. So it’s not just about choosing what is nutritious. As we limit our choice in foods during the fast, it is also like making a sacrifice. We become more conscious of the blessing of good food and life given us by God.

To become like Christ it is essential that we learn to use our will to control our passions. When they take over, we are totally self-centered and unable to think of God or the needs of others. It’s all about ME. So fasting is considered essential if we are going to be able to live a Christ-centered life. When we give effort to this, Christ will help us through His grace. 

Fasting is not intended to harm your body. This discipline will actually lead you to a healthier diet. It’s not proper to do it for this reason, but many will resist because they fear it will harm their health. There is flexibility for adjustments to the guidelines if you have an underlying condition like diabetes or are on some kind of medicine that requires you to eat something special. To make these deviations we should not make these choices on our own, but should discuss them with our spiritual father first, and then chose to deviate.

Here are the fundamental guidelines. We fast every Wednesday and Friday, and also during specific periods in the liturgical calendar, like Great Lent when we focus on repentance and our preparation to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior.

When Wednesday or Friday comes along how are we to fast? The guidelines say we do not eat any meat or dairy products and avoid the use of olive oil and any alcoholic drink. There is an exception for boneless bottom-feeding sea creatures like shrimp. The church calendar has on it the specific guidelines for each day. Also the daily email I suggested earlier that you can receive from the Archdiocese will tell you the guideline for that day. I found that once I chose to follow these guidelines, I was drawn closer to following a life in Christ. My desire and ability to control other passions increased. It’s not really a burden, but it can be difficult in this age where we are so used to demanding “my will be done now.” As you discover this conflict you will begin to discover one of the greatest things that separates us from God, our self-will.

Some spiritual fathers will suggest you start slowly, like only avoid meat in the beginning. I am not sure about this approach. The discipline necessary to control a passion is only learned when you choose to be obedient to the guideline and struggle with your food desires. You may not be totally successful in the beginning, but this struggle has much benefit. 

Remember Christ’s burden is light. He is loving and merciful. If you try but make mistakes, he will understand. He will appreciate what you are trying to master.

Begin now. You will be amazed at what you will learn and how you will benefit. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 9 - The Divine Liturgy

Hopefully, you have seen your priest by this time, have found a way to begin a disciplined activity of daily prayer, and are reading a little Scripture each day. These are not difficult things and don’t take a lot of time, but they can have a significant impact on your daily life. All that is necessary is a desire to be united with Christ. As I mentioned earlier, the awareness of these simple steps I am sharing with you did not come to me until I was almost fifty. It’s never too late to begin this search for the true God which you all have within you since your baptism. 

The next basic activity I want to share is not difficult either, but is also essential. This is making a commitment to attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday. This is one of the Ten Commandments, but it’s best to do this out of your love for Christ and your desire to commune with Him. Being able to participate in the Divine Liturgy is a real blessing.

An Orthodox mind understands that the Church is the body of Christ on earth.

It is much more than a building. It’s a sacred space. When we all gather together for worship, we are uniting with the angels and saints in our prayers to worship and glorify God. It is a union of heaven and earth. When I enter the church and look up at the dome and see the face of Christ, and then I see all the images on the iconostasis and smell the lingering scent of incense, I know that I have entered a divine space; it feels like this is heaven. The physical church is meant to lift our heart and soul to heaven. It’s a space quite different from any other I experience during the week.

When I enter the church I feel humbled, being so insignificant and yet seeking to be with Christ. I do so knowing that I am not worthy of this, but I enter with a strong yearning, with zeal, to receive Him. I enter with the knowledge that through the sacraments, His teachings, and the practices of the Church, I will grow spiritually. I enter with my mind and heart wide open to the mysteries of the spiritual realm. I am in awe of this space and filled with joyful anticipation of what is about to take place.

When I enter, I have to stop and pause in the narthex to remind myself that this is God’s house I am entering. Realizing that this is a sacred space where we commune with Him, I along with most Orthodox Christians feel it’s important to light a candle before entering the nave and offer a little prayer as I do so. This helps me make the transition from a busy and hectic secular world to a peaceful and sacred one, one where the Holy Spirit dwells with strength. It’s where the sacraments take place to nurture and heal my soul. I enter  even in my unworthiness knowing that soon I will participate in a mystical union with Christ when I receive the Body and Blood of Christ into my own body. Afterward I feel renewed, cleansed, energized, and stronger to take on the trials and tribulations of the coming week’s activities.

The Orthodox church is a space totally different from the Methodist church I experienced in my youth. After embracing an Orthodox mind it is difficult for me to go back to the church of my youth. There it feels more like a lecture or concert hall. In the Orthodox Church, when the service begins, I feel its mystical nature while at the Methodist church I feel like the mystical nature has been stripped away.

I encourage you to come every Sunday to enter this sacred space and participate in the Mystical Supper. When you do come to the church, make sure you enter before the service starts. You don’t want to feel rushed in entering. Make this time on Sunday, from your awakening to your arrival at the church, a more peaceful time than you experience on a work or school day. Make it a special time dedicated to glorifying God. I have noticed that many parishioners have a habit of coming late. Don’t be like them. Show your commitment and love for God, and your desire to commune with Him, by coming at the beginning or earlier when there is a service called Orthros or Matins taking place. Show God your respect, honor, love, and desire to be close to Him. You would not think of coming to work or school late. Honor God with your discipline, your love to be there with Him. Come seeking to bring peace to your soul. Once there, set aside all your worries. Listen to the beautiful hymns. Keep an open mind to be instructed by the Scripture. Follow the prayers in the pew book provided, or one of your own brought with you, trying to understand their meaning. It’s a commitment of less than two hours, no more than a full-length movie. Come to hear the first words of the priest who exclaims, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Participate by singing the responses and the hymns you know along with the chanters or choir.

While we may find social benefits in joining a church, this social activity is not the purpose of the Orthodox Church. It is better described as a “spiritual hospital” where we come as individual members of a special community of believers in Jesus Christ, who are all in need of spiritual healing. For a long time I was not able to see that I am a sinner nor recognize my need for help or to be healed to become more capable of living with love by the example of Christ. By joining the assembly of Orthodox believers in Jesus Christ, I discovered this healing and was shown a step-by-step process whereby I could receive God’s help and come closer in union with Him. I found regular attendance inspired and offered spiritual nourishment to my soul, much more than anything I experienced in my years of meditation.

The Holy Spirit is alive and active in the Church and provides spiritual nourishment through its sacraments. I discovered how important it is to come prepared to participate each Sunday in Holy Communion. Previously, I would only take communion several times a year and did not feel a commitment to be there every Sunday. (This is a misguided habit that too many follow due the past times in Greece where regular worship was difficult because of the occupation by the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years.) I realized I was lost and turned away from the church, failing to seek help from my local priest. I sought other ways to nourish my inner craving for the divine. This led to a regular practice of meditation. I eventually learned that these so called “new age” approaches only reinforced my ego centeredness. I feel I wasted many years. I don’t want you to do the same. The gift to do differently is in your hands. I am showing you the simple but true path to inner peace.

Knowing the benefits of regular attendance and participation in the sacrament of Holy Communion from experience, I encourage you to make a special effort to set aside Sunday as a day to commune with God by participating with other Orthodox Christians in this most beautiful, heavenly, and mystical, Divine Liturgy.

Here is an excerpt from a sermon by one of my favorite elders, Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simeopetra:

Each time we come, let it be in order to take hold of Christ, and pull Him mystically and invisibly within ourselves. And when we leave, let it be with souls rejoicing, and let us “entrust our souls, and deliver our life to Him.” Let us entrust our souls to Christ, whom we have seen, and let us dedicate our life to Him, and “let us set our hearts ablaze with the fire of His love.” Let us set our hearts on fire with the flame of His love, with a fire which burns up within us everything that is rotten, and which will cleanse us in preparation for eternal life. 

From The Church at Prayer.

I would feel I have accomplished my mission in writing these letters if you do no more than have a talk with your priest, ask for his help, say a short prayer each day, and attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday. I know from experience that your soul will be nurtured in this way and your love of Jesus Christ will grow. However, there are still two more topics I want to cover before I end these letters: confession and fasting.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 8: Reading Scripture Everyday

I am continuing with the discussion about how to develop an Orthodox mind where we pursue a union with God with the desire to become worthy to enter His kingdom with eternal life. There are a few things that can easily be integrated into your daily life that will be of great help based my lived experience, and the teaching fo the Church.

In addition to a short prayer every day, reading a little bit of Scripture each day will also help you develop your spiritual life. Don't think of this as a time-consuming lengthy task. There is a very useful tool that I have shared with you before that makes this task easy. Each day you can have sent to your email address the Scripture lesson that is being read in Church services on this day.  All you need to do is to go to You will find a place to sign up for this daily email in the lower right corner of this web page. You don’t need to have a specific time to read this email. You can fit it in when you have the tendency to go to Facebook or Instagram, or surf the internet, or when you are catching up on your emails. Just remember to read it every day. The lessons read in the Church all contain a complete message. In addition to an Epistle and Gospel lesson you will find a short write-up on the saints being celebrated on this day.

It is important read Scripture prayerfully. Don’t try to be analytical or make up your own interpretation. Scripture is to be absorbed in the heart and only interpreted through the Church. Remember the story of Philip coming in contact with the Ethiopian reading the Bible in his chariot? Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replied, “How can I unless someone guides me”. This is the same attitude you should have. Scripture is not always self-explanatory. When you are at different stages of your spiritual growth, passages will take on different significance and often have a deeper meaning. 

When I started to read Scripture each day, I made two mistakes. I would read it like I was reading a novel, trying to read an entire chapter or more, often skimming as you do when reading novels. The second is, I would try to pick out what seemed true to me and discount the rest. This is an understandable mistake, because there is so much in Scripture that is hard to understand with our normal rational mind. At times, I would try to analyze bits and pieces by seeking online commentaries. Just keep in mind that Scripture is the word of God and it is meant to speak to your heart. As you grow spiritually, the Bible has more and more to teach you. It is best to not try to judge it or analyze it. When you read the Bible let your understanding be illuminated by the Holy Spirit. That is why we are advised read prayerfully. If you don’t understand what you have read, assume that you are not yet ready for this passage. It is still speaking to your heart and in time the meaning will become clear.

If you have questions or opinions, submit them to your spiritual father for clarification. I recommend using the Orthodox Study Bible because it contains commentary from the Church Fathers that can at times be helpful. Using this source you can have the confidence that the comments provided are consistent with Holy Tradition of the Church. Just be careful about being overly analytical. Read prayerfully.

You should also read the Bible for a personal application. Saint Mark the monk (5th-6th century) says, “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor.” Do not ask, “What does this mean?” But, instead ask “What does this mean for me?” When reading the Bible, first bring to mind that Scripture is a sacred history of the world from the time of Creation through the formation of the early Church. Then observe the particularity of this history where we find God intervening at specific times and places and entering into dialogue with specific individuals. After reliving this spiritual history, apply it to yourself. You need to bring these distant places and times into your own place and time and see that these stories include you. The Orthodox mind is integral and encompasses all time, heaven and earth, and what is visible and invisible.

Just read a little every day. It will teach you.

Orthodox Study Bible: 

Hard cover or Kindle 

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