Dec 28, 2009

The Art of Fishing

There is an art to fishing, and Jesus demonstrated the nuances of that skill when He called Peter and Andrew to follow Him.  John Chrysostom (Matthew, homily 14) explains...

"And walking by the sea of Galilee, He saw two brethren, Simon that was surnamed Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers.  And He says unto them, 'Come ye after me, and I will make you fishers of men.'  And they left their nets, and followed Him."  (Matthew 4:18-19)

And yet John says that they were called in another manner.  Whence it is evident that this was a second call; and from many things one may perceive this.  For there it is said, that they came to Him when John was not yet cast into prison; but here, after he was in confinement. And there Andrew calls Peter, but here Jesus calls both.  And John says, Jesus seeing Simon coming, says, You are Simon, the Son of Jona, you shall be called Cephas, which is by interpretation, a stone. (John 1:42)

But Matthew says that he was already called by that name; for his words are, Seeing Simon that was called Peter. And from the place whence they were called, and from many other things, one may perceive this; and from their ready obedience, and abandonment of all. For now they were well instructed beforehand. Thus, in the other case, Andrew is seen coming into His house, and hearing many things; but here, having heard one bare word, they followed immediately. Since neither was it unnatural for them to follow Him at the beginning, and then leave Him again and return anew to their own craft, when they saw both John thrown into prison, and Himself departing. Accordingly you see that He finds them actually fishing. But He neither forbad them at the first when minded to withdraw, nor having withdrawn themselves, did He let them go altogether; but He gave way when they started aside from Him, and comes again to win them back; which kind of thing is the great point in fishing.

Dec 25, 2009

Back to Eden

On the present great day He is born of the Virgin, having overcome the natural order of things. He is higher than wedlock and free from defilement. It sufficed that He the preceptor of purity should shine forth gloriously, to emerge from a pure and undefiled womb. For He — is That Same, Who in the beginning did create Adam from the virgin soil, and from Adam without wedlock did bring forth for him his wife Eve. And as Adam was without wife before that he had a wife, and the first woman then was brought into the world, so likewise on the present day the Virgin without man giveth birth to That One, about Whom spake the prophet: “He — is Man, who is he that doth know Him?” The Man Christ, clearly seen by mankind, born of God, is such that womankind was needed to perfect that of mankind, so that perfectly would be born man for woman. And just as from Adam was taken woman, without impairment and without diminishing of his masculine nature, so also from woman without man was needed to bring forth a man, similar to the bringing forth of Eve, so that Adam be not extolled in that without his means woman should bring forth woman. Therefore the Virgin without cohabitation with man gave birth to God the Word, made Man, so that in equal measure it was by the same miracle to bestow equal honour to both the one and the other half — man and woman. And just as from Adam was taken woman without his diminishing, so likewise from the Virgin was taken the body (Born of Her), wherein also the Virgin did not undergo diminishing, and Her virginity did not suffer harm. Adam dwelt well and unharmed, when the rib was taken from him: and so without defilement dwelt the Virgin, when from Her was brought forth God the Word. For this sort of reason particularly the word assumed of the Virgin Her flesh and Her (corporeal) garb, so that He be not accounted innocent of the sin of Adam. Since man stung by sin had become a vessel and instrument of evil, Christ took upon Himself this receptacle of sin into His Own flesh so that, the Creator having been co-united with the body, it should thus be freed from the foulness of the enemy, and man thus be clothed in an eternal body, which be neither perished nor destroyed for all eternity. Moreover, He that is become the God-Man is born, not as ordinarily man is born — He is born as God made Man, manifest of this by His Own Divine power, since if He were born according to the general laws of nature, the Word would seem something imperfect. Therefore, He was born of the Virgin and shone forth; therefore, having been born, He preserved unharmed the virginal womb, so that the hitherto unheard of manner of the Nativity should be for us a sign of great mystery.

- Excerpt from Discourse On the Nativity of Christ, by Saint Gregory Thaumatourgos, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea

Dec 18, 2009

My Way or God's Way

With our continual "pursuit of happiness" in our American culture, we eventually begin to embrace the belief that our life should be free from pain, inconvenience or struggle.  Thus, we labor endlessly to remove anything that becomes a barrier to this realization.  But a sober look at the lives of the prophets, apostles, saints and the life of our Lord Himself will reveal a different reality.

John Chrysostom, in his homilies on Matthew, addresses this mix of hardships and joys as he considers Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt with the young Child:
...thenceforth the angel talks openly...take the young Child and His mother, and flee into Egypt; and he mentions the cause of the flight: For Herod, says he, will seek the young Child's life.

Joseph, when he had heard these things, was not offended, nether did he say, The thing is hard to understand: Did you not say just now, that He should save His people?' and now He saves not even Himself: but we must fly, and go far from home, and be a long time away: the facts are contrary to the promise. Nay, none of these things does he say (for the man was faithful): neither is he curious about the time of his return; and this though the angel had put it indefinitely thus: Be there until I tell you. But nevertheless, not even at this did he shudder, but submits and obeys, undergoing all the trials with joy.

And this because God, who is full of love to man, did with these hardships mingle things pleasant also; which indeed is His way with regard to all the saints, making neither their dangers nor their refreshment continual, but weaving the life of all righteous men, out of both the one and the other. This very thing He did here also: for consider, Joseph saw the Virgin with child; this cast him into agitation and the utmost trouble, for he was suspecting the damsel of adultery. But straightway the angel was at hand to do away his suspicion, and remove his fears; and seeing the young child born, he reaped the greatest joy. Again, this joy no trifling danger succeeds, the city being troubled, and the king in his madness seeking after Him that was born. But this trouble was again succeeded by another joy; the star, and the adoration of the wise men. Again, after this pleasure, fear and danger; For Herod, says he, is seeking the young Child's life, and He must needs fly and withdraw Himself as any mortal might: the working of miracles not being seasonable as yet. For if from His earliest infancy He had shown forth wonders, He would not have been accounted a Man.

Because of this, let me add, neither is a temple framed at once; but a regular conception takes place, and a time of nine months, and pangs, and a delivery, and giving suck, and silence for so long a space, and He awaits the age proper to manhood; that by all meansacceptance might be won for the mystery of His Economy.

- homily 8 on Matthew

Dec 15, 2009

A Cradle, Nails and a Spear

Something that increasingly bothered me during my many years in evangelical churches was the emphasis on only two spiritual events: Christmas and Easter.  Granted, there were attempts to try and connect the two theologically, but experientially Christmas evoked thoughts of joy and peace and Easter focused on sorrow, the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  One had to kind of gear up for the emotions of two very different celebrations.

One of the bloggers I read on a weekly basis (A Catechumen's Tale) helped me understand this rather fragmented view of Christ's life and the dangers therein.  His posting was the result of an observation that many times the second verse is omitted from the well loved Christmas carol, "What Child Is This?", because it contains reference to the Cross, nails and a spear.  Here is an excerpt:

This latter point - the removal of the second part - seems to be the most common change made to the carol. One can only wonder why this is...perhaps the most obvious is, at the risk of drawing a hasty conclusion, the inclusion of the description of the crucifixion. One rarely hears of nails and spears piercing someone through in a Christmas song. I was originally going to focus this post entirely on the carol and the second part, but my mind (as it often does) began to wander around the point, and I began to think harder on this issue. Namely, how we seem to focus solely on one aspect of our Blessed Lord's life.

Just as we must believe in the fullness of Christ, so must we believe in the fullness of our Lord's time on earth. We cannot divide it into isolated incidents, for in focusing on one we lose the affect of all the others. For example, if we focus on our Lord's Incarnation, we turn Him into a happy Christmas story. If we focus on our Lord's ministry, we turn Him into just another friendly man with helpful advice. If we focus on our Lord's passion, we devalue His pain and suffering to the point where even a monkey could die on the cross for our salvation. If we focus on our Lord's Resurrection, then Christ serves no greater purpose than Lazarus.

The fullness of Christ is the fullness of His life. He was the Incarnate Word born into our sinful flesh, Who lived a pure and blessed life, Who suffered as the sacrificial lamb, and Who rose again to free us from the death that separated us from God. Due to our natural habit of thinking in limited terms, it's quite easy to fall into the trap of limiting our acknowledgment of Christ's life. Doing so, however, limits our understanding of Christ. If we forget the crucifixion at Easter, it's only easy enough for us to forget it at Christmas.

Dec 14, 2009

Finding the Hidden Beauty

Unless we look at a person and see the beauty there is in this person, we can contribute nothing to him. One does not help a person by discerning what is wrong, what is ugly, what is distorted. Christ looked at everyone he met, at the prostitute, at the thief, and saw the beauty hidden there. Perhaps it was distorted, perhaps damaged, but it was beauty none the less, and what he did was to call out this beauty. In France one speaks of 'la ville d'Ys', the city of Ys, which, because of the simpleness of the surrounding world, disappeared in the depth of a lake. Only people with a pure heart can see this city through the waters of the lake and hear the sound of its bells. This is what we must learn to do with regard to others. But to do so we must first have a purity of heart, a purity of intention, an openness which is not always there - certainly not in me - so that we can listen, can look, and can see the beauty which is hidden.

Every one of us is in the image of God, and every one of us is like a damaged icon. But if we were given an icon damaged by time, damaged by circumstances, or desecrated by human hatred, we would treat it with reverence, with tenderness, with broken-heartedness. We would not pay attention primarily to the fact that it is damaged, but to the tragedy of its being damaged. We would concentrate on what is left of its beauty, and not on what is lost of its beauty. And this is what we must learn to do with regard to each person as an individual, but also - and this is not always as easy - with regard to groups of people, whether it be a parish or a denomination, or a nation. We must learn to look, and look until we have seen the underlying beauty of this group of people. Only then can we even begin to do something to call out all the beauty that is there. Listen to other people, and whenever you discern something which sounds true, which is a revelation of harmony and beauty, emphasize it and help it to flower. Strengthen it and encourage it to live.

- Met. Anthony of Sourozh

Dec 13, 2009

Letting it Sink In

John Chrysostom speaking on the importance of setting Sunday apart from the other days of the week:
I hear many say, While we are here, and enjoying the privilege of hearing, we are awed, but when we are gone out, we become altered men again, and the flame of zeal is quenched. What then may be done, that this may not come to pass? Let us observe whence it arises. Whence then does so great a change in us arise? From the unbecoming employment of ourtime, and from the company of evil men. For we ought not as soon as we retire from the Communion, to plunge into business unsuited to the Communion, but as soon as ever we get home, to take our Bible into our hands, and call our wife and children to join us in putting together what we have heard, and then, not before, engage in the business of life.

For if after the bath you would not choose to hurry into the market place, lest by the business in the market you should destroy the refreshment thence derived; much more ought we toact on this principle after the Communion . But as it is, we do the contrary, and in this very way throw away all. For while the profitable effect of what has been said to us is not yet well fixed, the great force of the things that press upon us from without sweeps all entirely away.

That this then may not be the case, when you retire from the Communion, you must account nothing more necessary than that you should put together the things that have been said to you. Yes, for it were the utmost folly for us, while we give up five and even six days to the business of this life, not to bestow on things spiritual so much as one day, or rather not so much as a small part of one day. See ye not our own children, that whatever lessons are given them, those they study throughout the whole day? This then let us do likewise, since otherwise we shall derive no profit from coming here, drawing water daily into a vessel with holes, and not bestowing on the retaining of what we have heard even so much earnestness as we plainly show with respect to gold and silver. For any one who has received a few pence both puts them into a bag and sets aseal thereon; but we, having given us oracles more precious than either gold or costly stones, and receiving the treasures of the Spirit, do not put them away in the storehouses of our soul, but thoughtlessly and at random suffer them to escape from our minds. Who then will pity us after all this, plotting against our own interests, and casting ourselves into so deep poverty? Therefore, that this may not be so, let us write it down an unalterable law for ourselves, for our wives, and for our children, to give up this one day of the week entire to hearing, and to the recollection of the things we have heard. For thus with greater aptness for learning shall we approach what is next to be said; and to us the labor will be less, and to you the profit greater, when, bearing inmemory what has been lately spoken, you hearken accordingly to what comes afterwards. For no little does this also contribute towards the understanding of what is said, when you know accurately the connection of the thoughts, which we are busy in weaving together for you. For since it is not possible to set down all in one day, you must by continued remembrance make the things laid before you on many days into a kind of chain, and so wrap it about your soul: that the body of the Scriptures may appear entire.

- Homily 5 on Matthew

Nov 29, 2009

Before the Light Went Out

I have been revisiting one of my favorite choral pieces - Rachmaninoff's Vespers.  Several years ago, my son had this CD playing in his car for many months, and I remember riding with him on several occasions, during the month of December, and enjoying together the richness of this work.  Subsequently, I now associate Vespers with Christmastime even though it isn't directly related to the Nativity!

Rachmaninoff wrote the collection of 15 songs within a 2 week period (amazing!) in the year 1915 - a troublesome time between the Great War and the Russian Revolution in 1917.  I wonder if Rachmaninoff sensed the looming storm that would come and force the Russian Orthodox church underground along with a ban on performances of all religious music.  In hindsight, this composition appears to be a final blaze of glory before being snuffed out for decades.  It has been written that "no composition represents the end of an era so clearly as this liturgical work".*

Some of the words from the ninth piece - Blessed Art Thou, O Lord (Blagosloven Yesi, Gospodi):
By giving birth to the Giver of Life, O Virgin,

Thou hast delivered Adam from his sin,

Thou hast given Eve joy instead of sadness:

The God-man born of Thee has restored to life

Those who had fallen from it.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Glory to Thee, O Lord.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Glory to Thee, O Lord.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Glory to Thee, O Lord.

To hear some excerpts from the pieces, click here and scroll down to the "Listen to Samples".

*Francis Maes, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans, Erica Pomerans, A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar, University of California Press, 2002, p.206

Nov 28, 2009

Coming in the Likeness of Men

On the birth of Jesus Christ...

Wherefore the birth was twofold, both made like us, and also surpassing ours. For to be born of a woman indeed was our lot, but to be born not of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of man, but of the Holy Ghost, John 1:13 was to proclaim beforehand the birth surpassing us, the birth to come, which He was about freely to give us of the Spirit. And everything else too was like this. Thus His baptism also was of the same kind, for it partook of the old, and it partook also of the new. To be baptized by the prophet marked the old, but the coming down of the Spirit shadowed out the new. And like as though any one were to place himself in the space between any two persons that were standing apart, and stretching forth both his hands were to lay hold on either side, and tie them together; even so has He done, joining the old covenant with the new, God's nature with man's, the things that are His with ours.

Do you see the flashing brightness of the city, with how great a splendor it has dazzled you from the very beginning? How it has straightway shown the King in your own form; as though in a camp? For neither there does the king always appear bearing his proper dignity, but laying aside the purple and the diadem, he often disguises himself in the garb of a common soldier. But there it is, lest by being known he should draw the enemy upon himself; but here on the contrary, lest, if He were known, He should cause the enemy to fly from the conflict with Him, and lest He should confound all His own people: for His purpose was to save, not to dismay.

~ John Chrysostom, Homily on Matthew 1:1

Nov 12, 2009

But This Roof is not Mine...

John Chrysostom on covetousness, from his homily on the Gospel of John:
Is it a fine thing to build one's self splendid houses, to have many servants, to lie and gaze at a gilded roof? Why then, assuredly, it is superfluous and unprofitable. For other buildings there are, far brighter and more majestic than these; on such we must gladden our eyes, for there is none to hinder us. Will you see the fairest of roofs? At eventide look upon the starred heaven.  But, says some one, this roof is not mine. Yet in truth this is more yours than that other.  For you it was made, and is common to you and to your brethren; the other is not yours, but theirs who after your death inherit it.  The one may do you the greatest service, guiding you by its beauty to its Creator; the other the greatest harm, becoming your greatest accuser at the Day of Judgment, inasmuch as it is covered with gold, while Christ has not even needful raiment. milky_way_mosaic

Let us not, I entreat you, be subject to such folly, let us not pursue things which flee away, and flee those which endure; let us not betray our own salvation, but hold fast to our hope of what shall be hereafter; the aged, as certainly knowing that but a little space of life is left us; the young, as well persuaded that what is left is not much. For that day comes so as a thief in the night. Knowing this, let wives exhort their husbands, and husbands admonish their wives; let us teach youths and maidens, and all instruct one another, to care not for present things, but to desire those which are to come, that we may be able also to obtain them; through the grace and loving-kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom, to the Father and the Holy Ghost be glory, now and ever and world without end. Amen.

Nov 7, 2009

Walking on Water

In commenting on the miracle of Jesus walking upon the water, John Chrysostom makes reference to a verse in Job 9 - "[He]...treads on the waves of the sea."  I had never made the connection.
1 Then Job replied:

2 "Indeed, I know that this is true.
But how can a mortal be righteous before God?

3 Though one wished to dispute with him,
he could not answer him one time out of a thousand.

4 His wisdom is profound, his power is vast.
Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?

5 He moves mountains without their knowing it
and overturns them in his anger.

6 He shakes the earth from its place
and makes its pillars tremble.

7 He speaks to the sun and it does not shine;
he seals off the light of the stars.

8 He alone stretches out the heavens
and treads on the waves of the sea.

Oct 29, 2009

Head versus Heart

One should not read more than he can pray.

Such a simple sentence.  Such a difficult path.  I thoroughly enjoy reading books, articles, and opinions.  There is something energizing about considering new thoughts, new perspectives, or new explanations.  I feel like I’m growing as a person and increasing my mental capacities.  We can easily be deceived into thinking that reading scripture and tackling theological debates define spiritual growth and maturity.

But how much of a difference have these viewpoints, perspectives, opinions and explanations made in my inner life?  How many of them have made the journey from my head to my heart?  Have they changed how I relate to my husband, children, coworkers?  It’s so much easier to grab another book and learn something new or different.  But God is concerned with heart change – not head knowledge.  Heart change is usually painful, exhausting, and time consuming.  No wonder we recoil from the process.  There are no instant results.  The rewards are not evident.  Heart change makes us uncomfortable and requires humility.

This is where I am right now.  I have been a Christian 40 years.  I have accumulated a considerable amount of head knowledge.  God has now focused his floodlight on my heart, and I am painfully aware of how little my heart has been changed.
O Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day in peace. Help me to rely upon Your holy will in every moment. In every hour of every day, reveal Your will to me. Bless my association with those who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me with peace of soul and the firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all is sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Grant me to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will. Teach me to pray, and pray Yourself within me. Amen.

- St Philaret of Moscow


Oct 19, 2009

A weekend of firsts

KL got her first taste of 'adult' food this weekend. She had chicken tetrazzini, lasagna, potatoes, and ham loaf. Oh yeah, and homemade applesauce. Very good stuff! She was so excited to eat what Mommy was eating.

She bonded very quickly with all family members here, which was wonderful. She's been playful, talkative, and opinionated (no surprise). The nights have been tough though. She made it very clear that sleeping in the portable crib was not an option. Since this is such a new place, she gets upset if she can't see me. So, she's sleeping in the king sized bed. She is getting great sleep while I'm back to getting the amount of sleep I received in the first weeks after she was born. I'm SO tired. So far I've managed to trip over and smack into a wide variety of items. I'm sure I have bruises head to toe. Though my crowning moment of glory was when I leaned over to give something to KL and neglected to realize my knees don't bend that way. It was pretty pitiful to see me faceplant into the backseat of the car. Though my Mom found great humor in it.

Aside from bumps and bruises, this weekend has been full of firsts: adult food (as I've already mentioned), standing (with support) and taking steps all the way down the hall - complete with end-zone dance, and the concept of cl'apping. The 'first' I could have done without was - to put it nicely - doing her "business" in the bathtub. ewww. It would have been nice if she'd saved this for the house, where I have my disinfectant. But no. It had to be here. So, out came the hand sanitizing wipes. I guess it's a good thing I brought an entire box.

We head home tomorrow. Pray for good health, a sleeping baby, and a safe trip.

Sep 18, 2009

Snail Shells

Now the soul is in some way attached to the pleasant things of life through the senses of the body. Through the eyes it delights in material beauty, through the ears it inclines to melodious sounds, and so it is also affected by smell, taste, and touch, as nature has disposed to be proper to each. Hence, as it is attached to the pleasant Snailthings of life through the sensible faculty as if by a nail, it is hard to turn away from them. It has grown up together with these attachments much in the same way as the shellfish and snails are bound to their covering of clay; and so it is slow to make such movements, since it drags along the whole burden of a lifetime. As such is its condition, the soul is easily captured by its persecutors with the threat of confiscation of property or loss of sonic other things that are coveted in this life; and so it gives in easily, and yields to the power of its persecutor.

- Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes

To read more on this particular beatitude, visit Orthodox Way of Life

Sep 17, 2009

What is Peace?

Surely it is nothing else but a loving disposition towards one's neighbor. Now what is held to be the opposite of love? It is hate and wrath, anger and envy, harboring resentment as well as hypocrisy and the calamity of war. Do you see for how many different diseases this single word is an antidote? For peace is equally opposed to every one of the things mentioned, and wipes out these evils by its own presence. Just as illness vanishes when health supervenes, and as no darkness is left when light begins to shine, so also when peace appears, all the passions connected with its opposite are eliminated.

- Gregory of Nyssa, The Beatitudes

Sep 12, 2009

Creating Our Own Enemy

In order to be right about anything, the mind has the need to find someone or something that is wrong. In a sense, the mind is always looking for an enemy (the person who is “wrong”), since without an enemy, the mind is not quite sure of its own identity. When it has an enemy, it is able to be more confident about itself. Since the mind also continually seeks for certainty, which is a by-product of the desire to be right, the process of finding and defining enemies is an ongoing struggle for survival. Declaring enemies is, for the mind, not an unfortunate character flaw, but an essential and necessary task.

Unfortunately, being right is not what people really need, even though a great deal of their lives may be taken up in its pursuit. Defense of the ego is almost always a matter of trying to be right. Interestingly enough, Jesus never once suggeted to His disciples that they be right. What He did demand is that they be righteous. In listening to His words we find that we spend almost all our energy in the wrong direction, since we generally pursue being right with every ounce of our being, but leave being good to the weak and the naive.

- Archimandrite Meletios

For a more complete discussion of this topic, go to Father Stephen's site - Glory to God for All Things

Sep 11, 2009

For His Mercy Endures Forever!

Patrick Henry Reardon gives insight into the repeated phrase "For His mercy endures forever" in the Psalms...

Psalm 135 insists, literally in every verse, that the root of all of God's activity in this world, beginning even with the world's creation, is mercy - hesed.  This mercy is eternal - le'olam - "forever."

Mercy is the cause and reason of all that God does.  He does nothing, absolutely nothing, except as an expression of His mercy.  His mercy stretches out to both extremes of infinity.  "For His mercy endures forever" is the palimpsest that lies under each line of Holy Scripture.  Thus, too from beginning to end of any Orthodox service, the worCrocuses 2009d "mercy" appears more than any other word.  The encounter with God's mercy is the root of all Christian worship.  Everything else that can be said of God is but an aspect of His mercy.

Mercy is the defining explanation of everything that God has revealed of Himself.  Every Orthodox service of worship, from Nocturnes to Compline, is a polyeleion [or "manifold mercy"], a celebration of God's sustained and abundant mercy.  What we touch, or see, or hear, or taste - from the flames that flicker before the icons and the prayers our voices pour forth, to the billowing incense and the mystic contents of the Chalice - all is mercy.

Mercy is the explanation of every single thought that God has with respect to us.  When we deal with God, everything is mercy; all we will ever discover of God will be the deepening levels of His great, abundant, overflowing, rich and endless mercy.  "For His mercy endures forever" is the eternal song of the saints.

- from Christ in the Psalms

Psalm 135

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good!
For His mercy
endures forever.
Oh, give thanks to the God of gods!
For His mercy
endures forever.
Oh, give thanks to the Lord of lords!
For His mercy
endures forever:

To Him who alone does great wonders,
For His mercy
endures forever;
To Him who by wisdom made the heavens,
For His mercy
endures forever;
To Him who laid out the earth above the waters,
For His mercy
endures forever;
To Him who made great lights,
For His mercy
endures forever—
The sun to rule by day,
For His mercy
endures forever;
The moon and stars to rule by night,
For His mercy
endures forever.

To Him who struck Egypt in their firstborn,
For His mercy
endures forever;
And brought out Israel from among them,
For His mercy
endures forever;
With a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm,
For His mercy
endures forever;
To Him who divided the Red Sea in two,
For His mercy
endures forever;
And made Israel pass through the midst of it,
For His mercy
endures forever;
But overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,
For His mercy
endures forever;
To Him who led His people through the wilderness,
For His mercy
endures forever;
To Him who struck down great kings,
For His mercy
endures forever;
And slew famous kings,
For His mercy
endures forever—
Sihon king of the Amorites,
For His mercy
endures forever;
And Og king of Bashan,
For His mercy
endures forever—
And gave their land as a heritage,
For His mercy
endures forever;
A heritage to Israel His servant,
For His mercy
endures forever.

Who remembered us in our lowly state,
For His mercy
endures forever;
And rescued us from our enemies,
For His mercy
endures forever;
Who gives food to all flesh,
For His mercy
endures forever.

Oh, give thanks to the God of heaven!
For His mercy
endures forever.

Aug 25, 2009

Dust Particles

An excerpt from Archpriest Victor Potapov.

A Christian is called to leave everything and follow Christ in poverty of spirit, becoming free of the sinful desires of this world. According to the world of the Apostle John the Theologian:
If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doth the will of God abideth for ever (I John 2:15-17).

The holy Fathers of the Church wrote very much about humility, considering that a correct spiritual life needs this virtue more than all else. Saint Isaac the Syrian, for example, writes:
The truly righteous always think within themselves that they are unworthy of God; it is known that they are truly righteous by the fact that they consider themselves wretched and unworthy of God's care, and they confess this secretly and openly and they grow wiser by this through the Holy Spirit - in order to remain in labor and straitness while they are still found in this life. (Christian Life According to the Philocalia)

Who can understand this? How can a man standing close to God consider himself to be sinful, unworthy of God's care, the least of men? The answer we find in the life of the holy Abba Dorotheus:
I remember once we had a conversation about humility, and one of the notable citizens of the city was amazed on hearing our words that the nearer one draws to God, the more he sees himself to be a sinner, and he said: How can this be? And not understanding, he wished to find out what these words mean?

I said to him: O notable Citizen, tell me, how dost thou regard thyself in thine own city?

He answered: I regard myself as great and as first in the city.

I say to him: If thou shouldst go to Caesarea, how wouldst thou regard thyself there?

He answered: As the least of the grandees there.

And if, I say to him again: thou shouldst travel to Antioch, how wouldst thou regard thyself there?

There, he answered: I would consider myself as one of the common people.

And if, I say: thou shouldst go to Constantinople and approach the Emperor, how wouldst thou begin to regard thyself there?

And he answered: Almost as nothing.

Then I answered him: So it is also with the saints: the nearer they draw to God, the more they see themselves to be sinners.

An ancient patericon (a collection of short stories about strugglers for piety) says:sunlight
The clearer the water, the more noticeable are the smallest specks in it. When a ray of the sunlight falls on a room, it enables the eye to see myriad dust particles borne in the air, which, until the penetration of the ray, were not noticeable. So also with the human soul: The more purity in her, the more heavenly, divine light falls on her, and the more does the soul notice imperfections and sinful habits in herself.

The higher a man is morally, the more humble he is, and the more clear and constant is his consciousness of his sin.

Aug 16, 2009

Dressing for Battle

More from the homilies of John Chrysostom (347-407)
the words of the Scriptures are our spiritual weapons; but if we know not how to fit those weapons and to arm our scholars rightly, they keep indeed their proper power, but cannot help those who receive them. For let us suppose there to be a strong corselet [a piece of armor to cover the trunk], and helm [helmet], and shield, and spear; and let one take this armor and put the corselet upon his feet, the helmet over his eyes instead of on his head, let him not put the shield before his breast, but perversely tie it to his legs: will he be able to gain any advantage from the armor? will he not rather be harmed? It is pknights armourlain to any one that he will. Yet not on account of the weakness of the weapons, but on account of the unskillfulness of the man who knows not how to use them well.

So with the Scriptures, if we confound their order; they will even so retain their proper force, yet will do us no good. Although I am always telling you this both in private and in public, I effect nothing, but see you all your time nailed to the things of this life, and not so much as dreaming of spiritual matters. Therefore our lives are careless, and we who strive for truth have but little power, and have become a laughing stock to Greeks and Jews and Heretics. Had you been careless in other matters, and exhibited in this place the same indifference as elsewhere, not even so could your doings have been defended; but now in matters of this life, every one of you, artisan and politician alike, is keener than a sword, while in necessary and spiritual things we are duller than any; making by-work business, and not deeming that which we ought to have esteemed more pressing than any business, to be by-work even.

Do you not know that the Scriptures were written not for the first of mankind alone, but for our sakes also? Do you not hear Paul say, that they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world have come; that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope? (1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4)

- Gospel of John, homily 30

1 Corinthians 10:11

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.

Romans 15:4

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Aug 5, 2009

"Have Mercy"

There is much wrapped up in the words "have mercy" which isn't immediately understood in the English.  Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) sheds some light on this response so frequently used in the Orthodox faith (italics are mine).
These words 'have mercy' are used in all the Christian Churches and, in Orthodoxy, they are the response of the people to all the petitions suggested by the priest. Our modern translation 'have mercy' is a limited and insufficient one. The Greek word which we find in the gospel and in the early liturgies is eleison. Eleison is of the same root as elaion, which means olive tree and the oil from it. If we look up the Old and New Testament in search of the passages connected with this basic idea, we will find it described in a variety of parables and events which allow us to form a complete idea of the meaning of the word. We find the image of the olive tree in Genesis.

After the flood Noah sends birds, one after the other, to find out whether there is any dry land or not, and one of them, a dove - and it is significant that it is a dove - brings back a small twig of olive. This twig conveys to Noah and to all with him in the ark the news that the wrath of God has ceased, that God is now offering man a fresh opportunity. All those who are in the ark will be able to settle again on firm ground and make an attempt to live, and never more perhaps, if they can help it, undergo the wrath of God.

In the New Testament, in the parable of the good Samaritan, olive oil is poured to soothe and to heal. In the anointing of kings and priests in the Old Testament, it is again oil that is poured on the head as an image of the grace of God that comes down and flows on them (Ps I33:2) giving them new power to fulfil what is beyond human capabilities. The king is to stand on the threshold, between the will of men and the will of God, and he is called to lead his people to the fulfilment of God's will; the priest also stands on that threshold, to proclaim the will of God and to do even more: to act for God, to pronounce God's decrees and to apply God's decision.

The oil speaks first of all of the end of the wrath of God, of the peace which God offers to the people who have offended against him; further it speaks of God healing us in order that we should be able to live and become what we are called to be; and as he knows that we are not capable with our own strength of fulfilling either his will or the laws of our own created nature, he pours his grace abundantly on us (Rom 5:20). He gives us power to do what we could not otherwise do.

The words milost and pomiluy in Slavonic have the same root as those which express tenderness, endearing, and when we use the words eleison, 'have mercy on us', pomiluy, we are not just asking God to save us from His wrath - we are asking for love.
- from Living Prayer, Anthony Bloom, 1966

Aug 3, 2009

But That Doesn't Make Sense...

More from the homilies of John Chrysostom (347-407)
"Can a man," he says, enter into his mother's womb, and be born?

Do you see how when one commits spiritual things to his own reasonings, he speaks ridiculously, seems to be trifling, or to be drunken, when he pries into what has been said beyond what seems good to God, and admits not the submnicodemusission of faith? Nicodemus heard of the spiritual Birth, yet perceived it not as spiritual, but dragged down the words to the lowness of the flesh, and made a doctrine so great and high depend upon physical consequence. And so he invents frivolities, and ridiculous difficulties.

Let us then, knowing this, not inquire into things relating to God by reasoning, nor bring heavenly matters under the rule of earthly consequences, nor subject them to the necessity of nature; but let us think of all reverently, believing as the Scriptures have said…

...For nothing causes such dizziness as human reasoning, all whose words are of earth, and which cannot endure to be enlightened from above. Earthly reasonings are full of mud, and therefore need we streams from heaven, that when the mud has settled, the clearer portion may rise and mingle with the heavenly lessons; and this comes to pass, when we present an honest soul and an upright life.

- Gospel of John, Homily 24.3

Aug 2, 2009

Caring for Our Souls

Thoughts from Ambrose of Optina (1812-1891) - starets and hieroschemamonk in the Optina Monastery in western Russia.

On How Much We Care About Our Bodies and How Much We Care About Our Souls

The Bible tells us: "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" (Mark 8:36) That is how precious the human soul is. It is more precious than the whole earth with all its treasures and blessings. However, it’s frightening to think how little we understand our soul’s worth. From morning to night, we direct all our thoughts to the body, the housing for worms, this fallen coffin, and on God’s most precious and beloved creation, on His image of glory and majesty, we hardly spare one thought in a week. We spend the most flourishing years of our life in serving our body, and only the last minutes of our decrepit old age, toward eternal salvation. Daily, the body indulges itself with full cups and sumptuous dishes, as though at a rich man’s feast, while the soul barely gathers crumbs of God’s words on His doorstep. The insignificant body is washed, dressed, cleaned, adorned with all types of treasures from nature and the sciences, while the priceless soul, the bride of Jesus Christ, inheritor of Heaven, wanders with exhausted steps, donned in clothing of a poor wanderer that is without charity.

The body doesn’t tolerate one blemish on its face, any dirt on its hands, not one patch on its clothing, while the soul, from head to toe, covered with filth, that goes from one sinful quagmire to anoambrose of optinather, and its yearly confessional which is often hypocritical, only increases its patches rather than rejuvenating it. The body demands various forms of diversions and gratifications; it frequently ravages whole families, for its sake people sometimes are willing to exert all types of efforts while the soul - has barely one hour on Sundays to partake in the Divine Liturgy, scarcely minutes for morning and evening prayers, reluctantly collects a handful of copper coins for charity and when thinking about death, expresses its satisfaction with a cold sigh. For the sake of health and welfare of the body, the atmosphere and habitat is substituted, foremost and distant physicians are summoned, there is abstinence from food and drink, the most bitter medicines are consumed, the body is allowed to be burned and dissected, yet for the health of the soul, for the avoidance of temptations, for distancing away from sinful infection, they take not one step but remain in the same atmosphere, in the same iniquitous society, in the same corrupt house, not seeking any spiritual physician, or else selecting one that is unfamiliar and inexperienced, hiding from him that which is already known to Heaven and hell, and about which they themselves boast among their circles. When the body is dying, you hear lamentations and despair, but often no thought is given when the soul is dying from mortal sin.

Like Adam and Eve, we don’t know the value of our soul and give it away for a seemingly rich yield.

At least why don’t we cry like Adam and Eve? Unfortunately, in the main, our concerns are for acquiring earthly benefits and not Heavenly ones. We forget that earthly gains soon pass and cannot be retained, while Heavenly gains are eternal, endless and cannot be taken away. Most gracious Lord! Help us to despise everything transient and concern ourselves only with the needs to save our souls.

Jul 31, 2009

Intense Prayer

I am rereading Gifts of the Desert, by Kyriacos C. Markides.  Markides is in conversation with Fr. Maximos (bishop of Cyprus) concerning crying out to God for help.

"When a person is crushed by sorrow then his prayer may become more intense," Father Maximos continued.  "Saint Silouan, the twentieth-century Russian elder from Mount Athos, knew a layman, a worker who prayed with great intensity.  'Where did you learn to pray like that?' he asked him.  The laborer replied that he did so during the war when it was a tossup whether he was going to live or die."

To further illustrate the point, Father Maximos related the extraordinary experience of an Athonite elder he knew personally: "One day after vespers were over the elder went to his cell to continue praying on his own.  While doing that, he marveled at the thought that everybody - all two thousand or so monks on the entire Athonite peninsula - was pramt. athosying during that very moment.  Then, he wondered what the Holy Mountain looked like under such intensive prayer.

"At that very moment he experienced himself being catapulted by the Holy Spirit high up in the air.  It was as if he were looking down from an airplane.  From that high point, he saw the Athonite peninsula spurting out flames like an active volcano, as if the entire mountain was on fire.  Some of the flames went straight up to heaven.  Others seemed weak, like the flame of a small candle, while yet others were flickering and barely visible.  Yet, there was one, this elder claimed, that was like a fiery river that went straight up.  He then overhead a voice coming from heaven saying 'What you have witnessed is the Holy Mountain and these are the prayers of the monks that go up to God.'  Then the elder asked, 'And whose prayer is this great river of fire?'  God replied that it was the prayer of a certain abbot at a certain monastery, whose name cannot be revealed since this abbot is still alive.

"You see," Father Maximos went on and rested back on his armchair, "God is not some kind of impersonal intelligence.  God is personal and communicates with us, speaks to us, and can catapult us to other parts of his kingdom as in the case of that abbot."

Jul 30, 2009

This Was from Me

Translated from the original Russian by Hierodeacon Samuel, Monastery of St Job of Pochaev, Munich, Germany, for the Orthodox Christian Information Center. Posted on 3/6/2008.

Translator's note: Inasmuch as the text below was distributed from hand-to-hand in samizdat form for several decades, printed versions include competing explanations of its authorship and origin. The most common attribution is to St Seraphim of Viritsa, who was said to have written it in 1937 to a certain bishop, his spiritual son, who was at the time in prison. It is almost entirely certain, however, that the author is in fact Metropolitan Manuel (Lemeshevsky) of Kuibyshev and Syzran (1884-1968). It is known that St Seraphim of Viritsa and Metropolitan Manuel were acquainted, and therefore it could be speculated that this meditation represents the latter's record of the saint's spiritual teaching.
Saint Seraphim of Viritsa's Spiritual Testament

Have you ever thought that everything that touches you touches Me as well? For that which touches you, touches the apple of My eye.  You are dear in my eyes, precious, and I have loved you; therefore it is a particular pleasure for Me to educate you.

When temptations arise against you, and the enemy comes like a river, I want you to know - This was from Me.  Your weakness needs My strength, and your safety comes from giving Me the opportunity to fight for you. If you find yourself in difficult circumstances, among people who do not understand you, who do not take what you like into consideration, who alienate you - This was from Me.

I am God, Who arranges circumstances. It was no accident that you find yourself in the place where you are; this is the place I have appointed for you. Did you not ask that I teach you humility? Well, then, look: I have placed you in precisely that place, in that school, where this lesson is learned. Your surroundings and those who live with you are only fulfilling My will.

If you find yourself in financial difficulty, if you find it hard to make ends meet - This wast__seraphim_of_viritsas from Me.  For I have your material means at my disposal. I want you to call unto me, for you to be dependent upon Me. My reserves are inexhaustible. I want you to be confirmed in fidelity to Me and to My promises. May it not be said to you in your need: You did not believe in the Lord your God.

Are you in a night of suffering? Are you separated from your loved ones and those close to your heart? - This was from Me.  I am the Man of suffering, Who has tasted affliction. I have allowed this so that you would turn to Me, so that in Me you would find eternal comfort.

If you have been let down by your friend, by someone to whom you opened your heart - This was from Me. I allowed this disappointment to touch you so that you would know that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and to speak to Me.  Has someone slandered you? Give this to me, and bring your soul closer to Me, your Refuge, to hide from the contradiction of the nations. I shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your judgment as the noonday.

If your plans have been destroyed, if you are downtrodden in soul and tired - This was from Me.  You made plans, and brought them to Me, so that I would bless them. But I want you to leave Me in charge of the circumstances of your life, and then responsibility for everything will be Mine, for this is too difficult for you; by yourself you cannot manage them, for you are only an instrument, and not the actor.

If unanticipated problems of life have visited you, and if despondency has seized your heart, then know - This was from Me.  For I want your heart and your soul to be always aflame before My eyes; to conquer faint-heartedness of the soul in My name.

If you do not hear from your dear ones and friends for a long time, and in your faint-heartedness fall into despondency and grumbling, know - This was from Me.  By this anguish in your spirit, I test the strength of your faith in the surety of My promise and the strength of your boldness in prayer for these dear ones of yours. Was it not you who entrusted them to the Protection of My All-Pure Mother? Was it not you who once entrusted their care to My providential love?

If serious illness, either temporary or incurable, has visited you, and has confined you to your bed, then know - This was from Me.  For I want you to know Me even more deeply in your bodily infirmities, so that you would not grumble over this trial sent to you, that you would not try to penetrate My plans through different means for the salvation of people’s souls, but that you would uncomplainingly and submissively bow your neck under My goodness towards you.

If you have dreamed of performing some special deed for Me, and instead have fallen onto a bed of sickness and weakness - This was from Me.  Then you would have been immersed in your activities, and I would not have been able to attract your thoughts to Me, for I want to teach you My deepest thoughts and lessons, so that you would be in My service. I want to teach you to recognize that you are nothing. Some of My best co-workers are those who have been cut off from vital activity so that they would learn to wield the weapon of unceasing prayer.

Have you unexpectedly been called to occupy a difficult and responsible position? Go - place it on Me. I entrust these difficulties to you so that the Lord God would bless you for this in all your deeds, on all your paths, in everything that will done by your hands. On this day I put into your hands a vessel of holy oil. Use it generously, My children! Every difficulty that arises, every word that insults you, every obstacle to your work that could elicit in you a feeling of annoyance, every revelation of your weakness and inability, shall be anointed with this oil.

Remember that every obstacle is a Divine instruction. Every sting will be dulled when you learn to see Me in everything that touches you. Therefore place the word I have declared to you today in your heart: This was from Me. For this is not an empty matter for you - this is your life.

Jul 26, 2009

Handing Over the Bride

More from the homilies of John Chrysostom (347-407)

Evangelical churches do not impart the same significance to John the Baptist (Forerunner) as does the Orthodox faith.  So, I was always puzzled by this seemingly radical statement by Jesus concerdeisis of pantocrator theotokos forerunnerning John:

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.  - Luke 7:28

Obviously I was missing something pretty grand in the whole scheme of things for Christ to make such a claim about John.  Indeed, in the Orthodox church, where there is an icon of Christ, one often finds an icon of his mother, Mary (Theotokos) on His left and an icon of John the Baptist on His right. Through my reading of the early Church Fathers, I am learning more about the significance of John's role in ushering in the salvation of the human race.  John Chrysostom offers a wonderful allegory to help explain one aspect of John's incredible ministry.
...says the Evangelist [the Apostle John], "John stood, and says, Behold, the Lamb of God." Christ utters no word, His messenger says all. So it is with a bridegroom. He says not for a while anything to the bride, but is there in silence, while some show him to the bride, and others give her into his hands; she merely appears, and he departs not having taken her himself, but when he has received her from another who gives her to him. And when he has received her thus given, he so disposes her, that she no more remembers those who betrothed her. So it was with Christ. He came to join to Himself the Church; He said nothing, but merely came. It was His friend, John, who put into His the bride's right hand, when by his discourses he gave into His hand the souls of men. He having received them, afterwards so disposed them, that they departed no more to John who had committed them to Him.

And here we may remark, not this only, but something besides. As at a marriage the maiden goes not to the bridegroom, but he hastens to her, though he be a king's son, and though he be about to espouse some poor and abject person, or even a servant, so it was here. Man's nature did not go up, but contemptible and poor as it was, He came to it, and when the marriage had taken place, He suffered it no longer to tarry here, but having taken it to Himself, transported it to the house of His Father.

- Gospel of John, homily 18

Jul 23, 2009

Is Life Fair?

It is difficult at times to live in this world without making comparisons between our situation, oscalesur resources, our abilities, our accomplishments and those of other people.  We desperately want things to be "fair" - of course,  as we define fairness.  We cannot imagine that there could be any good, any advantage, any ultimate purpose achieved by inequality.  But life is different lived in the Kingdom of God.

When Abba Antony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, 'Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?' He heard a voice answering him, 'Antony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.'

- Saying of St. Antony the Great

John 21:20-23

Then Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also had leaned on His breast at the supper, and said, “Lord, who is the one who betrays You?”

Peter, seeing him, said to Jesus, “But Lord, what about this man?”

Jesus said to him, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.”

Then this saying went out among the brethren that this disciple would not die.

Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?”

Jul 22, 2009

Sons of God

More from the homilies of John Chrysostom (347-407)

As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become sons of God. (John 1:12)

Whether bond or free, whether Greeks or barbarians or Scythians, unlearned or learned, female or male, children or old men, in honor or dishonor, rich or poor, rulers or private persons, all, He says, are deemed worthy the same privilege; for faith and the grace of the Spirit, removing the inequality caused by worldly things, has moulded all to one fashion, and stamped them with one impress, the King's. What can equal this lovingkindness?

A king, who is framed of the same clay with us, does not deign to enroll among the royal host his fellow-servants, who share the same nature with himself, and in character often are better than he, if they chance to be slaves; but the Only-Begotten Son of God did not disdain to reckon among the company of His children both publicans, sorcerers, and slaves, nay, men of less repute and greater poverty thagold nuggetn these, maimed in body, and suffering from ten thousand ills.

Such is the power of faith in Him, such the excess of His grace. And as the element of fire, when it meets with ore from the mine, straightway of earth makes it gold, even so and much more Baptism makes those who are washed to be of gold instead of clay; the Spirit at that time falling like fire into our souls, burning up the image of the earthy (Corinthians 15:49), and producing the image of the heavenly, fresh coined, bright and glittering, as from the furnace-mould.

- Gospel of John, Homily 10.2

Jul 21, 2009


More from the homilies of John Chrysostom (347-407)

Vainglory - I have known this word all my life but never understood it in the terms that John Chrysostom explains.
For when men alter a right faith for reputation's sake, and dishonor God that they may be in high repute themselves, tell me, what excess of stupidity and madness must there not be in what they do? Other passions, even if they are very hurtful, at least bring some pleasure with them, though it be but for a time and fleeting; those who love money, or wine, or women, have, with their hurt, a pleasure, though a brief one. But those who are taken captives by this passion, live a life continually embittered and stripped of enjoyment, for they do not obtain what they earnestly desire, glory, I mean, from the many. They think they enjoy it, but do not really, because the thing they aim at is not glory at all. And therefore their state of mind is not called glory, but a something void of glory, vaingloriousness, so have all the ancients named it, and with good reason; inasmuch as it is quite empty, and contains nothing bright or glorious within it, but as players' masks seem to be bright and lovely, but are hollow within, (for which cause, though they be more beautiful than natural faces, yet they never draw any to love them,) even so, or rather yet more wretchedly, has the applause of the multitude tricked out for us this passion, dangerous as an antagonist, and cruel as a master. Its countenance alone is bright, but within it is no more like the mask's mere emptiness, but crammed with dishonor, and full of savage tyranny.

- Gospel of John, Homily 3.5

Jul 19, 2009

The Raging Seas

ChrysostomI am currently reading some of the homilies of John Chrysostom (347-407) and will be posting selections from his insights into scripture.  For those unfamiliar with this particular saint, a brief description may prove helpful.

As Archbishop of Constantinople, he was a well known bishop and preacher from the fourth and fifth centuries in Syria and Constantinople.  He was famous for his eloquence in public speaking and his denunciation of abuse of authority in the Church and the Roman Empire of the time.  After his death, he was named Chrysostom, which comes from the Greek word Χρυσόστομος – “golden-mouthed.”

For confusion arises within us, not from the nature of circumstances, but from the infirmity of our minds; for if we were thus affected by reason of what befalls us, then, (as we all sail the same sea, and it is impossible to escape waves and spray,) all men must needs be troubled; but if there are some who stand beyond the influence of the storm and the raging sea, then it is clear that it is not circumstances which make the storm, but the condition of our own mind. If therefore we so order the mind that it may bear all things contentedly, we shall have no storm nor even a ripple, but always a clear calm.

- Gospel of John, Homily 3.2

Jun 7, 2009

Pentecost and Trees

Fr. Stephen Freeman (priest at St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN) explains the Russian Orthodox tradition of bringing trees into the church on Pentecost Sunday: Babylon and the Trees of Pentecost.


Jun 1, 2009

The Love of the Father

My husband and I were at St. Seraphim’s this morning and witnessed a very touching scene.

As an Orthodox Christian, one of the first things you do when you enter the church is venerate various icons of the saints which are situated around the sanctuary. Venerating an icon does not mean that we worship the piece of wood or the person it portrays. It is merely showing love, reverence, respect and honor to that person and the life represented. Icons can vary in size and how they are displayed. One may be in an alcove specifically constructed for that particular icon. Another may be hung on a wall. Some may be carefully placed on a pedestal. Venerating a saint or an icon involves standing before it, crossing yourself and bowing twice, approaching the icon itself and gently kissing it or kissing your fingers and then touching the icon with those fingers. Finally, you step back a little and cross yourself and bow one more time (three times being symbolic of the Trinity).

This tradition was very strange to me, coming from a purely Protestant background. However, I have learned that my uneasiness was basically a result of not understanding the meaning behind the tradition. As I have come to know and appreciate the lives of these incredible saints and martyorthodox candlesrs of the Church, they have become more and more dear and personal to me. On Sunday morning, we join with all the saints – past and present – in worshiping the Holy Trinity.

Back to this morning! We were standing (in the Orthodox Church you stand for the entire service – there are no pews) listening to one of the deacons chant the reading for the Third Hour. A father and his little daughter came into the sanctuary. The father was taking the lead in venerating one icon after another, and his little girl was following his example. I watched her as she approached a very large icon of Christ displayed quite high and out of her reach. She crossed herself, bowed, kissed her fingers and then stretched as much as she could to reach the image of Christ. Her fingers just couldn’t touch it. After a few more tries, she looked around for her father who turned and realized her dilemma. He quietly walked over as she was straining to touch the icon, placed his fingers on hers, slid them off and touched the icon for her. The connection was made.

There are many times that I feel like that little girl – wanting to be so close to God, wanting to touch Him and let him know how grateful I am for his love for me. God hears our longings. In his love and compassion and by the Holy Spirit, he extends his hand toward us and for us.
Even if we speak with a low voice, even if we whisper without opening the lips, even if we call to Him only from the depths of our heart, our unspoken word always reaches God and God always hears.  - St Clement of Alexandria

May 23, 2009

What Does Christianity Look Like?

I am in the middle of reading From the Holy Mountain, by Scottish born author William Dalrymple.  At the end of the 20th century, Dalrymple (in much the same fashion as Bruce Feiler did in his book, Walking the Bible) revisits the now-faint trail which was taken by the sixth-century monk John Moschos, who wandered the world of Eastern Byzantium, visiting the scattered Christian monasteries and hermitages and recording the rituals he saw and the preaching he heard in a book called The Spiritual Meadow.  Dalrymple's observations on Islam and Christianity have challenged my thinking.

Today the West often views Islam as a civilisation very different from and indeed innately hostile to Christianity.  Only when you travel in Christianity's Eastern homelands do you realise how closely the two religions are really linked.  For the former grew directly out of the latter and still, to this day, embodies many aspects and practices of the early Christian world now lost in Christianity's modern Western incarnation.  When the early Byzantines were first confronted by the Prophet's armies, they assumed that Islam was merely a heretical form of Christianity, and inAleppo_Syria many ways they were not so far wrong:  Islam accepts much of the Old and the New Testaments, and venerates both Jesus and the ancient Jewish prophets.

Certainly if John Moschos were to come back today it is likely that he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of a modern Muslim Sufi than he would with those of, say, a contemporary American Evangelical.  Yet this simple truth has been lost by our tendency to think of Christianity as a Western religion rather than the Oriental faith it actually is.  Moreover the modern demonization of Islam in the West, and the recent growth of Muslim fundamentalism (itself in many ways a reaction to the West's repeated humiliation of the Muslim world), have led to an atmosphere where few are aware of, or indeed wish to be aware of, the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam.

It is this as much as anything else that has made the delicate position of the contemporary Eastern Christians - awkwardly caught between their co-religionists in the West and their strong cultural links with their Muslim compatriots - increasingly untenable in recent years.  Hence the vital importance of the syncretism which still exists at shrines like that of Nebi Uri [Northwest Syria].  Such popular syncretism - Christians worshipping at Muslim shrines and vice versa - was once much more general across the Middle East, but now survives only in a few oases of relative religious tolerance.  The practice emphasizes an important truth about the close affinity of the two great religions easily forgotten as the Eastern Christians - the last surviving bridge between Islam and Western Christianity - emigrate in reaction to the increasing hostility of the Islamic establishment.

In an interview with Radio National (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's national radio network) in April of 1999, Dalrymple summarizes much of the book and has some sobering predictions of how the Middle East would change in 10-50 years.  Keep in mind that this interview was before 9/11.

May 22, 2009

Holy Things

  • A crayon drawing from 1st grade.  Your favorite teacher thought it was the best one in the class.  You still hang on to it.  It's just a piece of paper.

  • A photograph of your children when they were preschoolers.  It captures their innocence and joy even though the subjects aren't "framed" correctly and there is even a bit of blurring.  It's your favorite photo, and you smile each time you pass by it.

  • A dresser scarf that was hand embroidered by your mother years ago.  No one uses dresser scarves anymore, but it doesn't matter.  It gracefully adorns your table and gives you great comfort.

  • Boy scout badges earned on campouts when you were growing up.  They are only little fabric circles with crude symbols embroidered on them.  One glance, however, and you are right back in that camp, learning how to build a fire and seeing the pride on the face of your instructor as you completed the task.  You can still smell the campfire and hear the pine trees around you.

Growing up in Bible churches for much of my life, there didn't seem to be much of a sense of the holiness of objects in our church services.  Everything - from the pews (if there were any), the hymnals, the table for communion, the podium, the cross in the sanctuary - were all viewed as material objects and nothing else.  They could be used for a variety of purposes and services.  There was a big emphasis on practicality and utility.  Indeed, communion was viewed merely as a "memorial" to Christ's death on the cross.  There was nothing special about the bread or the wine/grape juice.  Indeed, some even reported seeing children in the kitchen after the service eating the extra communion bread as if it was an added snack for the Sunday School kids.  What does this communicate to the children?

Why such an aversion to imparting value and sacredness to an object?  We do it all the time in the rest of our lives.  But when it comes to faith and worship, many Evangelicals have a knee-jerk reaction to "setting apart" things in the church for one and only one purpose. The Old Testament is full of places, events, and objects that were set apart for specific purposes and to help the people in their worship and reverence of God.  Why did we think that all that changed when Christ came?

I can't help but think that such lack of respect for those things which should hold great meaning in our spiritual lives will ultimately do damage to the soul in the long run.

May 21, 2009

Call Upon the Saints

We are not alone in our journey through this life on earth.  Thousands upon thousands have gone before us, tried and tested and proven faithful.  Let us learn from their lives and ask for their prayers in our struggles during this time.
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.  Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

From the words of St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1908):

At the end of your morning and evening prayers in your home, call upon the saints: patriarchs, prophets, apostles, hierarchs, martyrs, confessors, Holy Fathers, the ascetics, the unmercenary, so that seeing in them the realization of every virtue, you may yourself become the imitator of every virtue. Learn from the patriarchs childlike faith and obedIoann_of_Kronstadtience to the Lord; from the prophets and apostles, the zeal for God' s glory and for the salvation of the souls of men; from the hierarchs, zeal to preach God's word, and in general to assist through the Scriptures, to the possible glorification of God's name, to the strengthening 'of faith, hope, and love amongst Christians; from the martyrs and confessors, firmness for the faith and piety before unbelieving and godless people; from the ascetics, to crucify your own flesh, with its passions and desires, to pray and think piously; and from the unmercenary, not to love gain, and to give gratuitous help to the needy. - My Life in Christ

Apr 23, 2009

The Best Training Ground

The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 1
Second, there are the anchorites or hermits, who have come through the test of living in a monastery for a long time, and have passed beyond the first fervor of monastic life. Thanks to the help and guidance of many, they are now trained to fight against evil. They have built up their strength and go from the battle line in the ranks of their members to the single combat of the desert. Self-reliant now, without the support of another, they are ready with God's help to grapple single-handed with the vices of body and mind.

[Comment by Joan Chittister, OSB, The Rule of Benedict]

If any paragraph in the rule dispels the popular notion of spirituality, surely this is it. Modern society has the idea that if you want to live a truly spiritual life, you have to leave life as we know it and go away by yourself and "contemplate," and that if you do, you will get holy. It is a fascinating although misleading thought. The Rule of Benedict says that if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love. Then, if you want to go away from it all, then and only then will you be ready to do it alone.

There is, of course, an anchorite lurking in each of us who wants to get away from it all, who finds the tasks of dailiness devastating, who looks for God in clouds and candlelight. Perhaps the most powerful point of this paragraph is that it was written by someone who had himself set out to live the spiritual life as a hermit and then discovered, apparently, that living life alone is nowhere near as searing of our souls as living it with others. It is one thing to plan my own day well with all its balance and its quiet and its contemplative exercises. It is entirely another rank of holiness to let my children and my superiors and my elderly parents and the needs of the poor do it for me.

Apr 18, 2009

Dulling of the Senses

God assures us in love: "I do not wish the death of sinners, but that they turn back to me and live" (Ezekiel 33:11).

"Life is only lent to us," a Jewish proverby instructs...Long life, in other words, is given for the gift of insight:  to give us time to undertand life and to profit from its lessons and to learn from its failures and to use its moments well and make sense out of its chaos. That, perhaps, is why we expect the elderly to be wise. That, perhaps, is why we look back over the years of our own lives and wonder what happened to the person we were before we began to see more than ourselves.

The problem is that there is a lot of life that dulls the senses. Too much money can make us poor. Too much food can make us slow. Too much partying can make us dull. Only the spiritual life enervates the senses completely. All life takes on a new dimension once we begin to see it as spiritual people. The bad does not destroy uorthodoxcandless and the good gives us new breath because we are always aware that everything is more than it is. The family is not just a routine relationship; it is our sanctification. Work is not just a job; it is our exercise in miracle making. Prayer is not just quiet time; it is an invitation to grow. We begin to find God where we could not see God before, not as a panacea or an anesthetic, not as a cheap release from the problems of life, but as another measure of life's meaning for us.

Clearly, living life well is the nature of repentance. To begin to see life as life should be and to live it that way ourselves is to enable creation to go on creating in us.

- Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages

Apr 10, 2009

The Incurable Sore of the Soul

My appreciation to The Handmaid for posting this excerpt from St. Macarius on her website, Christ is in Our Midst!

For those of us who are of the Orthodox faith, this Saturday is Lazarus Saturday.
For Lazarus also, whom the Lord raised up exuded so fetid an odor that no one could approach his tomb, as a symbol of Adam whose soul exuded such a great stench and was full of blackness and darkness. But you, when you hear about Adam and the wounded traveler and Lazarus, do not let your mind wander as it were into the mountains, but remain inside within your soul, because you also carry the same wounds, the same smell, the same darkness.

We are all his sons and we all inherit the same stench.

Therefore, the passions that he suffered, all of us, who are of Adam’s seed, suffer also. For such a suffering has hit us, as Isaiah says: “It is not a wound, nor a bruise, nor an inflamed sore. It is impossible to apply a soothing salve or oil or to make bandages” (Is 1:6). Thus we were wounded with an incurable wound. Only the Lord could heal it. For this he came in his own person because no one of the ancients nor the Law itself nor the prophets were able to heal it. He alone, when he came, healed that sore, the incurable sore of the soul.

Let us, therefore, receive God the Lord, the true healer, who alone can come to heal our souls, after he has borne so much on our behalf. For he is always knocking at the doors of our hearts in order that we may open up to him and that he may enter in and take his rest in our souls, and that we may wash his feet and he may take up his abode with us. For this purpose he endured many sufferings, giving his body over to death and buying our ransom from slavery so that he, coming to our soul, might make his abode there.

~St. Macarius, Spiritual Homilies, 30

Apr 3, 2009


More from The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos C. Markides

(Fr. Maximos): I remember in high school reading an argument in a religious textbook that stated that logic leads us to the conclusion that there must be a God so that justice may be dispensed.  It saw God as some kind of supreme justice.  Given that there are so many injustices in the world, sooner or later they must be dealt with by God, who will punish those who commit injustices.

This just goes to show...the kind of ethos that is being cultivated and how far removed it is from the spirit of God. Do you know what an old saint once said?  "Never call God just because God is not just," according to human measures of justice, that is.  The saint reasoned: "How could God be just when He requests of us that when someone comes to grab our possessions, we do nothing but let him take them? And if he asks of us to go one mile with him, we go two? And if he gives us a slap on one cheek we turn the other also? Is this justice?" He died for the sake of those who hated Him, who spat and kicked Him, for the sake of the entire World. When Christ was in human form and was about to die, he did not pray for his apostles but for those who were crucifying Him. He did not tell the disciples, "Just you wait and you shall see what I'll do to them once I get resurrected!"  We have so many examples of martyrs and saints who demonstrated this form of Christian love. When the young martyr Stephanos was being stoned to death, he prayed for his assailants.  He knelt down while his last words were, "Please, Lord, do not hold this sin upon them"' ...the justice of God is not the justice that we entertain in our minds.  It is important for people to realize this so that they may not lose faith and become cynical when they are confronted with difficulties.

(Markides): There is so much injustice around much disease, so much death and destruction, so many tragedies of all sorts.  Good people suffer, even saintly people, and then the question naturally comes to mind, "Where is God?  Where is His justice?"

(Fr. Maximos): God's in mysterious ways, beyond the reach of our intellects. Real for God to help us through His Grace to rectify that which truly wronged us.  And what is that?  Our estrangement from our Divine nature.  Real justice means the attainment of Theosis, the reunification with God who created us in His own image.  We are endowed with the potential of becoming gods through Grace.  Our ultimate goal is reunion with our Maker, our real homeland and final destination.  It is exactly at the core of our being, ontologically speaking, that we have been wronged through the Fall.

(Markides): If I understand you well...that means justice ultimately implies our reentrance into Paradise, the return of the Prodigal Son to the palace.

(Fr. Maximos): Precisely.