Dec 28, 2011

Time to Merge

Up until now, I have tried to maintain two separate blogs - one focusing on my journey in the Orthodox Church and another dealing with everyday events in my life. The former was initiated several years ago and the latter only this year.

Initially, when I was considering and reading about the Orthodox faith, there were no grandchildren and my husband and I were being led away from our Evangelical roots. My searching and discovering took up much of my time, and I felt the need to put down some of my thoughts and experiences from the journey. The result was my establishing the Narrow Pathways blog.  

In the past year, my lifestyle has changed rather dramatically, and I found it necessary to work on living out my faith in my current, very busy and often unpredictable situation. Therefore, as in my personal life, I feel it is time to merge these two blogs into one, since there are so many things that seem to overlap. So I have moved to my other blog - Two Harvests - where I will be sharing life events as a mother and grand parent in addition to reflections on the Orthodox faith as I continue to learn and grow. I invite you to visit sometime!

Aug 17, 2011

The Life-Giving Spirit

"Observe the difference between the presence of the life-giving spirit and the presence of the spirit that deadens and destroys your soul. When there are good thoughts in your soul you feel happy and at ease; when peace and joy are in your heart, then the spirit of good, the Holy Ghost, is within you; whilst when evil thoughts or evil motions of the heart arise within you, you feel ill at ease and oppressed; when you are inwardly troubled, then the spirit of evil, the crafty spirit, is within you. When the spirit of evil is in us, then, together with oppression of heart and disturbance, we generally feel a difficulty in drawing near to God in our heart, because the evil spirit binds our soul, and will not let it raise itself to God. The evil spirit is a spirit of doubt, unbelief--of passions, oppression, grief and disturbance; whilst the spirit of good is one of undoubting faith, of virtue, of spiritual freedom and breadth--a spirit of peace and joy. 

"Know by these tokens when the Spirit of God is within you, and when the spirit of evil, and, as often as possible, raise your grateful heart to the most Holy Spirit that gives you life and light, and flee with all your power from doubt, unbelief, and the passions through which the evil serpent, the thief and destroyer of our souls, creeps in."

Aug 12, 2011

Charcoal Burner

I love reading accounts of the lives of the saints. In the Orthodox Church, a number of such saints are venerated (honored) each day of the year, and there are online resources that pull up the readings for every day. Today is the first time I have read the story behind Alexander, Bishop of Comana. What a sober reminder to not  judge others by how they appear on the outside.

Hieromartyr Alexander, Bishop of Comana (3rd c.)

"He lived in the town of Comana* near Neocaesarea as a simple charcoal-burner**. When the Bishop of Comana died, St. Gregory of Neocaesarea, the Wonderworker, was invited to preside over the Council to choose a new bishop. At the Council there were both clergy and laymen. They were unable to come to agreement on one person, estimating the candidates they selected according to their outward worth and behavior. St. Gregory told them that they must not give so much weight to the outward impression as to the soul and the spiritual aptitude. Then some wag called out mockingly: 'Then let's choose Alexander the charcoal-burner as bishop!', and there was general laughter. St. Gregory asked who this Alexander was.

St. Alexander of Comana
Thinking that his name would not have come up before the Council except by the providence of God, he commanded that he be brought. Being a charcoal-burner, he was black with soot and in rags, and his appearance provoked further mirth in the Council. Then Gregory took him aside and asked him to tell the truth about himself. Alexander told him that he had been a Greek philosopher, enjoying great honor and position, but that he had set it all aside, demeaned himself and made himself as a fool for Christ from the time that he had read and understood the Holy Scriptures.

Gregory commanded that he be bathed and clad in new clothes, then went into the Council with him and, before them all, began to examine him in the Scriptures. All were filled with amazement at the wisdom and grace of Alexander's words, and were quite unable to recognize the former charcoal-burner in this wise man. With one voice, they chose him as bishop, and he received the love of his flock for his holiness, his wisdom and his goodness. He died a martyr for Christ under Diocletian." (Prologue)

* Comana was located in the northern part of what is now known as Turkey.
** One whose job it was to make charcoal from wood

Aug 10, 2011

Gratitude not Compensation

During my many years in the evangelical realm, I was blessed by having many good resources to help me understand the scriptures - teachers, preachers and books. Still, there were many passages that remained troublesome to me, in spite of the evangelical explanations offered. The parable of the vineyard workers is one of them. It never seemed right that the workers who worked one hour got paid the same as those who had worked all day. With an explanation from the author of Dynamis and the Church Father, John Chrysostom, I finally understand that the focus is not on compensation.

The Worthy Heart III ~ Is Grateful
Saint Matthew 20:1-16, especially vs. 15
“Is it not lawful for Me to do what I wish with My Own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” 

In the parable of the vineyard workers, our Lord begins and ends with a declaration: the “...last will be first, and the first last” (vss. 19:30 and 20:16). This pair of verses acts like bookends to highlight the message of the parable and take us more deeply into what the Lord teaches.To best understand the message of the parable, review Christ’s challenge to a man who said he wished to follow Him (Mt. 19:16): “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor” (Mt. 19:21). Sadly, the man could not forego his possessions, and he went away (Mt. 19:22). The stringency of the requirement on the man perplexed the disciples: “Who then can be saved?” (Mt. 19:25). Peter quickly applied the message to them all and asked, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” (Mt. 19:27). Our Lord assured His disciples that they would have a place as rulers, “...judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” and that if anyone should give up the goods of this world to follow Him, he would be rewarded a hundred fold “...and inherit eternal life” (Mt. 19:28,29). After this, He makes the first statement: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mt. 19:30).

Plainly, the Lord Jesus sought to reassure His first disciples in their commitment to Him. And He still desires that all his ‘followers’ not be ‘reward-oriented,’ but rather be grateful for Him our Savior and greatest Good. Plainly, God rewards those who are committed to Him. However, He rejoices in those who gratefully embrace Him as did Abram (Gn. 15:1).

The parable that follows the first bookend emphasizes the truth that ‘all laborers receive equal pay.’ Ordinary human thinking expects compensation to differ in proportion to labor expended, but our Lord is explicit on this point: the kingdom of God operates by its own rules which shatter the tidy categories of measuring reward. Gradations such as ‘first’ and ‘last’ are rendered meaningless by the ‘avalanche’ of God’s unmerited grace toward all men. See how Saint John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily applies to this parable: 

"If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay; for the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first....Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and whether first or last receive your reward...."

Saint John Chrysostom understands that gratitude must brush compensation aside! In the mercy and saving love of our Lord, repentance and gratitude gain Life. “O give thanks unto the Lord and call upon His Name; declare among the nations His works” (Ps. 104:1).Commenting further on this parable, Saint John Chrysostom asks: 

“But the question is this, whether the first have gloriously approved themselves, and having pleased God, and having throughout the whole day shone by their labors, are possessed by the basest feeling of vice, jealousy, and envy.” 

May God’s grace elevate our gratitude and keep us from all envy and dissatisfaction - from questioning what God gives us in relation to what He bestows upon others.

O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; His mercy endureth for ever! (Ps. 105:1)

Aug 8, 2011

The Pure Heart

"The purer the heart is, the larger it is, and the more able it is to find room within it for a greater number of beloved ones; whilst the more sinful it is, the more contracted it becomes, and the less number of beloved can it find room for, because it is limited by self-love, and that love is a false one; we love ourselves in objects unworthy of the immortal soul—in silver and gold, in adultery, in drunkenness, and such like."

~ St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

Aug 6, 2011

Transistors and Resistors

It seems that every 3 years, churches known as Bible churches get swept up in a new "direction" or "emphasis" - Connectedness, Community, Fellowship, Relevancy, Transformation. In the Orthodox Church, the emphasis has always been the "transfiguration" of our lives into the life of Christ. Not upon entrance into heaven, but here and now, in God's Kingdom. But there are many things that we carry around in our lives that hinder this process. Fr. Joseph (monk at Mt. Tabor Monastery in California) used a great illustration in a recent post of his blog.

"Now, if you can remember back to the Dark Ages of humanity - before the invention of the microchip - they used to have, in electronic devices, circuit boards which were wired up with all these little components which would somehow either store or regulate the flow of electricity in the device, so that the thing wouldn’t burn out or blow up in your hand. Now, one of the things they had in there was called a “resistor”: it keeps the electricity from going too fast, or where it’s not supposed to go.
"Our souls, however, are not circuit boards, so we don’t need all those resistors. As a matter of fact, that’s what the problem is! The reason that our faces are not shining like the sun is because we have in our souls too many “resistors” to the grace of God: too many things that are impeding the flow of Divine Energy that God is trying to communicate to our hearts. We don’t need them - we won’t burn out with an unlimited flow of grace!

"We have to look and see what these “resistors” are. We have to do a serious examination of conscience - not just the daily examen where you look over the day and see how you screwed up today and then make your amends, but we have to look at our whole life and see what’s wrong with our life: what are the main areas where the habits are - the resistors to divine grace in our souls - whatever they might be? It could be pride, or sensuality, or selfishness, or some sort of addiction, or some idol that we create and cling to or put between us and God just for our own satisfaction or ego-building, or whatever it might be. Those are the things that we have to clip out of our life - a circuit board might need resistors, but our souls do not. We have to get rid of that stuff. And then, once we are cutting these away, one at a time, we will notice that the divine grace is able to flow more freely through us, and that is the transfiguration we’re looking for."

Aug 1, 2011

Meteora Monasteries: Rousannou Monastery

Founded in the 16th century, the easily-accessible Rousannou Monastery occupies a lower rock than the others of the Meteora.

Rousannou (Ρουσανου) Monastery was founded around 1545 by Maximos and Ioasaph of Ioannina. The reason for the monastery's name is not known - it is actually dedicated to St. Barbara - but may reflect the name of a hermit who occupied the rock. It soon declined and became subject to Varlaam Monastery by 1614.

The monastery once again fell into disrepair for the two centuries prior to the 1940s, when it was damaged in World War II then plundered by the Germans. It was later repaired by the regional archaeological service and since 1988 it has been occupied by a small community of 13 nuns.


Rousannou Monastery stands on a low rock and is easily accessible by a bridge built of wood in 1868 and replaced by more solid material in 1930. Despite this, its situation is still quite dramatic, with the rock dropping off sharply on all sides.

The monastery covers the entire surface of the rock and consists of three levels: the church and cells occupy the ground floor, while the two upper floors house the guest quarters, reception halls, an exhibition room, and more cells.

The frescoes in Rousannou's Church of the Transfiguration of Christ, which is essentially a smaller version of Varlaam's church, date from 1560. The narthex is decorated primarily with gruesome scenes of martyrdom, as at other Meteora monasteries.

The resident nuns tend to be friendlier to visitors than their male counterparts in Meteora and often provide sweets to guests as they relax in the courtyard

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I am devoting a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.

Expansion and Contraction of the Soul

There are innumerable and various ways by means of which the Devil enters into our soul and removes it from God, pressing upon it with all his being - dark, hateful, and destroying. Whatever the motion of passion may be, he finds a way and does not neglect the least opportunity of entering the soul. 

Likewise, there are innumerable and various ways for the Holy Ghost to enter it: the way of sincere faith, of true humility, of love to God and to our neighbor, and so on. But, to our misfortune, the destroyer of men from time immemorial makes every effort to obstruct, by all possible means, all these ways for the Holy Ghost to enter the soul. The most usual way to God for us sinners, who have strayed from Him into a far-away land, is the way of painful suffering and bitter tears. Both the Holy Scriptures and actual experience testify that, in order to draw near to God, it is necessary for the sinner to suffer, weep, shed tears, and to amend his deceitful heart:

"Draw nigh to God .... be afflicted, and mourn, and weep." Tears have power to cleanse the wickedness of our heart, and sufferings and affliction are necessary, because through suffering, the sinful expansion of the heart is salutarily contracted, and when the heart is thus contracted, tears more easily flow.

Psalm 51

 1 Have mercy upon me, O God,
         According to Your lovingkindness; 
         According to the multitude of Your tender mercies, 
         Blot out my transgressions.
 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
         And cleanse me from my sin. 
 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions,
         And my sin is always before me.
 4 Against You, You only, have I sinned,
         And done this evil in Your sight— 
         That You may be found just when You speak,[a]
         And blameless when You judge. 
 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
         And in sin my mother conceived me.
 6 Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts,
         And in the hidden part You will make me to know wisdom. 
 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
         Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 8 Make me hear joy and gladness,
         That the bones You have broken may rejoice.
 9 Hide Your face from my sins,
         And blot out all my iniquities. 
 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
         And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
 11 Do not cast me away from Your presence,
         And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 
 12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation,
         And uphold me by Your generous Spirit.
 13 Then I will teach transgressors Your ways,
         And sinners shall be converted to You. 
 14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
         The God of my salvation, 
         And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness.
 15 O Lord, open my lips,
         And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
 16 For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
         You do not delight in burnt offering.
 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
         A broken and a contrite heart— 
         These, O God, You will not despise. 
 18 Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;
         Build the walls of Jerusalem.
 19 Then You shall be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness,
         With burnt offering and whole burnt offering; 
         Then they shall offer bulls on Your altar.

Jul 29, 2011


Our soul is, so to say, a reflection of God's countenance, and the brighter this reflection is, the clearer and calmer is the soul; and the less bright this reflection is, the darker, the more disturbed is the soul. And as our soul is our heart it is necessary that every truth of God should be reflected in it through feeling, through gratitude, and that there should be no reflection in it of any lie. Feel God's love in the most pure mysteries, feel the truth of all prayers. Our heart is a mirror; as the objects of the outer world are reflected in an ordinary mirror, so ought the truth to be reflected with all exactitude in our hearts.

It is good, very good indeed, to be virtuous; the virtuous man is at peace himself, is pleasing to God and agreeable to other people. The virtuous man involuntarily attracts everyone's attention. Why is it so? Because fragrance involuntarily attracts attention and makes everyone wish to breathe it. Look upon the very appearance of the virtuous man, upon his countenance. What sort of a countenance is it? It is the face of an angel. Meekness and humility overspread it, and involuntarily captivate everyone by their beauty. Pay attention to his speech; from it there comes still greater fragrance: here you are as if face to face with his soul, and are enraptured with his sweet converse.

- St. John of KronstadtMy Life in Christ

Jul 27, 2011

Got You Pegged?

Pegging - A very effective way to increase flower production on Bonbon & Hybrid Perpetual roses that send up long shoots with oily flowers on the end. It is a time consuming method but well worth the display. This is generally done in the fall. Instead of pruning, spread the runners and fasten to the soil with wire loops. Basically you are training the plant horizontally.

There are certain kinds of trees which never bear any fruit as long as their branches stay up straight, but if stones are hung on the branches to bend them down they begin to bear fruit. So it is with the soul. When it is humbled it begins to bear fruit, and the more fruit it bears the lowlier it becomes. So also the saints; the nearer they get to God, the more they see themselves as sinners…. Abraham, when he saw God, called himself “dust and ashes.” And Isaiah said, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” Similarly Daniel was in the lion’s den and Habakkuk came to him with a meal and said to him, “Accept the food, which the Lord has sent you.” And Daniel replied, “For the Lord has remembered me!” He had great humility in his heart when he was in the lion’s den because they did not devour him once and for all, not even afterwards, and so with astonishment he cried, “the Lord has remembered me”.
Do you see the humility of the saints and how their hearts were set on it? Even when messengers straight from God were sent to them to help them they were not turned away from humility but fled from self-glorification. As men clad all clad in silk flee if a filthy rag is thrown at them, so that their noble robes will not be stained, so the saints, clad in virtue, take flight from human glory lest they be stained by it. Those who desire that sort of glory are like the naked man who always wishes to find a few rags, anything at all, to cover his shame. So too one who is naked of virtue desires to be praised by men. Therefore the holy men who are sent from God to help men, do not let go of humility. Hence on one occasion Moses said, “I beseech thee, Lord, send another more eloquent than me for I am hard-voiced and a stammerer.” Jeremiah said on another occasion, “I am a child!” So every single one of the saints, as I have said, acquired this humility from the fulfillment of the Commandments. No one can explain how this comes about, how humility is generated in the soul. Unless a man learns this by experience, he cannot learn it by verbal teaching.
… It is more than clear that the humble man, the god-fearing man, knows perfectly well that nothing good, nothing straight and sure, happens in the soul without the help and the supervision of God, and therefore he does not stop praying unceasingly that God may act mercifully towards him. A man standing in need of everything from God is ready to make progress; he knows how he will make progress, and cannot be puffed up. He does not rely on his own abilities but attributes to God everything he does right and always give thanks to Him….. the more humble he is, the more help he gets from God, and so he advances in the spiritual life through this virtue of humility.

Hat tip to Christ in Our Midst 

Jul 25, 2011

Guilty as Charged

Keep a strict watch against every appearance of pride: it appears imperceptibly, particularly in time of vexation and irritability against others for quite unimportant causes. 

- St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

Jul 18, 2011

Fisherman's Prayer

My husband ran across a small saying that, I believe, reflects a healthy perspective of God. After a little research, I discovered that it is called an Irish Fisherman's Prayer:

Lord, Your oceans are immense
and my boat is so small.
Please be good to me! 
Kyrie eleison.

How easily we believe that we are in control of our lives, our material possessions, and our relationships. We become proud and confident. But it is a false security. 

The Spirit is the one who gives us life and breath. We are totally dependent on Father, Son and Holy Spirit for our life every day. 

Our world is filled with uncertainties, dangers and spiritual opposition, and we are as fragile as a small boat on a vast ocean - churning, endless, and unpredictable. 

Lord, have mercy! Lord, save us!

Jul 7, 2011

Consolation and Life

You gaze upon the icon of the Saviour and see that He looks at you from it with brightest eyes; this look is the image of how He actually looks upon you with His eyes, that are brighter than the sun, and sees all your thoughts, hears all your heartfelt distress and sighs. The image is an image, and represents in lines and signs that which cannot be delineated, cannot be given in signs, and can be comprehended by faith alone. Believe, then, that the Saviour always protects you and sees each one of you--with all your thoughts, sorrows and sighing, in all your circumstances, as upon the palm of the hand. 

"Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of My hands; thy walls are continually before Me" (Isaiah 49:16). says the Lord God. How much consolation and life are contained in these gracious words of the Almighty and Provident God! Therefore pray before the icon of the Saviour as before Himself. The Lover of men is present in it by His grace, and with the eyes depicted in it really looks at you: "The eyes of the Lord are in every place" (Proverbs 15:3), while with His ears as represented on the icon, He hears you. But remember that His eyes are the eyes of God, and His ears are the ears of the omnipresent God. 

- John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

Jun 22, 2011


I love the practicality of Fr. John's observations of the spiritual life. Here is one of the more recent posts on his blog site (Ramblings of a Redneck Priest):

I’m sure you've had this experience. You’re just about to fall asleep when suddenly you hear the tiniest of sounds go by your ear. You know immediately that a mosquito has targeted you for lunch. So, you cut on the light, but no matter how much you look around, you just can’t see it. So you cut off the light, and in just a little while you hear the buzzing again. You cut the light on, but nothing. So you cut the light off and try to ignore it. You know that sometime during the night, you’ll be donating blood.

It’s the same in spiritual life. You’re trying your best to be positive, to have some sense of spiritual progress, and then the mosquitoes start buzzing in your brain. Sometimes it seems that they have sucked all of the blood from your spiritual life. These spiritual mosquitoes are called logismoi. Logismoi are random thoughts that just seem to pop into your head without invitation. You know these thoughts (here’s a short list) – gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vainglory and pride. Those are big mosquitoes and there are small ones too - the football game, the last TV show, unfinished work, deadlines, etc.

No matter how often we resolve to start again, or to pray with greater concentration, the logismoi are relentless. Each sting, no matter how small, begins to put in us the belief that we are faithless and without piety, lost and worthless, and our hope for holiness futile.

When the logismoi land, they seem to be true, but in fact they are only partially true. This gives them the hook that catches us. There is enough truth to make us believe them. A personal example: I break something and the logismoi bites, “You always screw up”. Now I’ve just screwed up, so there is some truth to the thought. Yet, if the thought comes often enough (I do mess up a lot), I believe them. A hole begins to develop in my soul. I conclude that I am in fact a screw-up and I can never do anything right. Therefore, I am worthless. From this conclusion, depression and dejection will follow. The logismoi are somewhat Orthodox because they constantly repeat their litany. PaciPaci - Again and again!

Jesus said, “Thy word is truth. Sanctify them with your truth.” The greatest shield against logismoi is God’s truth. No matter what our random thoughts try to say to us, only God tells us who we are and what we are, and his word is true. The devil does not define us, other people do not define us, family does not define us. Most of all, we cannot define ourselves. We are slaves to the Lord Jesus, bought by his Blood. Only He can tell us who we are. A slave cannot judge another slave, and a slave cannot judge himself. Only the Master judges him. The Master may convict us, but he will never condemn us. He will sanctify us because His word will help to purify our souls. His word is the mirror into which we should look to see ourselves. All other mirrors are distorted.

It is vital that we get this truth, otherwise we constantly fall before the logismoi. Now, understand, as the Fathers teach, that for 99.9 percent of us, the logismoi, random thoughts, will be with us until the day we die. God does not disdain us because of this. It is not sin that the logismoi buzz about our minds. Yet, is there anything else we can do?

A brother asked one of the elders, “What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it.” He said to him, “Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel. But it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts.” The brother answered the old man, “What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?” He said to him, “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.’”

There are some things we must learn from this story. First, we must become aware –“Watch your thoughts.” Be aware that thoughts by nature are random, and any thought can come, but they cannot compel us to do anything. Even more, we must not be shocked, since we are fallen people, at the nature of the thoughts. Some will be minor, some will be scandalous, and some even blasphemous.

Second, you are not condemned by the experience of random thoughts – suggestions and thoughts are not sins. The Lord of the mosquitoes would have us feel condemned just because the mosquitoes are flying around. Condemnation will only provide the breeding ground for more mosquitoes.

Finally, as the Fathers say, 99.99 percent of us will never be free of logismoi. It is a rare saint who attends hesychasm, or internal stillness. This may be due in part to the fact that most of us don’t take prayer and meditation very seriously or we allow the busyness of life to move prayer the the edges of our daily life.

Even if it is true that the logismoi will be with us always, we must fight, but we need to fight well. Here is the most remarkable recommendation about how to fight - we combat our obsessive thoughts by ignoring them. Ignoring them? At least this means that we draw no conclusions from what we think. This may seem a bit naïve since random thoughts are so relentless.

Ignoring them would not be enough if that is all that we did. Listen again: “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.’” Repentance? This is the way to fight the mosquitoes? Yes, it is because when we turn our backs to them we must turn to Jesus Christ to ask for his mercy. We must do both, or we will not fight well.

This is how St. Mary [of Egypt] did it fighting against “the beasts.” This is how anyone can use repentance and the Jesus Prayer to become as mentally and spiritually healthy as possible. Please, don’t misunderstand me. There is genuine mental illness, so sometimes medicine and therapy is necessary. Yet we have a powerful tool to add to our therapy, a weapons in this mental and spiritual war. Imagine if you went to therapy, and the Doctor said, I recommend repentance! It would be shocking no?

I can dream of a life free of the logismoi. Yet even as I wrote this, a bunch landed on my brain and wanted blood. I ignored them and ask for mercy. So, may the Lord help you to fight, and to fight well. The mosquitoes are buzzing. Ignore them for they speak no truth, and turn to the Lord for mercy.

Jun 21, 2011

Going to the Ends of the Earth

Austere setting. Beautiful church. Specially called priests.

Jun 16, 2011

There's Only One Channel

In the hour of prayer, when our mind wanders to thoughts of bad things, or if these thoughts come without our wanting them, we shouldn’t wage an offensive war against the enemy, because, even if all the lawyers in the world joined together, they wouldn’t make any headway with a little demon. Only through ignoring them can one chase these thoughts away. The same is true for blasphemous thoughts.

If you want to grab God’s attention so He’ll hear you during prayer, turn the dial to humility, for God always works in this frequency; then humbly ask for His mercy.

Let us not expect the spiritual spring if we don’t first pass through the spiritual winter during which the spiritual vermin die. We mustn’t expect the divine to blossom within us if the human hasn’t first died.
The soft life makes people useless. Without toil and struggle sanctification doesn’t come.

When one realizes one’s sinfulness and the great mercy of God, the heart cracks, as hard as it may be, and real tears fall of themselves and then man prays and weeps without effort. This is because humility works continuously together with love and drills on the heart so that the springs increase, and the hand of God continually strokes the hard-working and loving child.

Let us struggle with all our powers to gain Paradise. The gate is very narrow, and don’t listen to those who say that everyone will be saved. This is a trap of satan so that we won’t struggle.

Live in constant glorification of and thanksgiving towards God, for the greatest sin is ingratitude and the worst sinner is the ungrateful person.

We mustn’t despair when we struggle and continuously see nothing but the slightest progress. We all do nearly nothing, some a little more, some a little less. When Christ sees our little effort He gives us an analogous token and so our nearly nothing becomes valuable and we can see a little progress. For this reason we mustn’t despair, but hope in God.

From the Sunday bulletin of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church

Jun 3, 2011

Snake Hunters

I know that cats are often kept on farms in order to manage the rodent population. What I didn't know was that our feline companions have also earned a reputation for keeping snakes in check. Here is an interesting account posted on the Mystagogy website:

“It is wonderful to see them, for nearly all are maimed by the snakes: one has lost a nose, another an ear; the skin of one is torn, another is lame: one is blind of one eye, another of both. And it is a strange thing that at the hour for their food, at the sound of a bell, they collect at the monastery and when they have eaten enough, at the sound of that same bell, they all depart together to go fight the snakes.” - The Venetian Francesco Suriano (1484)

The Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats is regarded as a sacred cat haven in Cyprus, as it’s name has been linked to felines for almost 2,000 years.

The original monastery was built in 327 AD, by Kalokeros, the governor of Cyprus appointed by Constantine the Great, and patronised by Saint Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great. At that time, a terrible drought affected the whole of Cypus, and the entire island was overrun with poisonous snakes which made building the monastery a dangerous affair. Many of the inhabitants left their homes and moved off the island, for fear of the snakes, but Saint Helen came up with a solution to the plague – she ordered 1,000 cats to be shipped in from Egypt and Palestine to fight the reptiles.

In the following years, the cats did their duty, hunting and killing most of the snakes in the Akrotiri Peninsula, which soon came to be known as the “Cat Peninsula”. The monks would use a bell to call the cats to the monastery at meal time, and then the felines were dispatched to their snake-hunting duties. Pilgrims from all around Europe traveled to the Holy Monastery of Saint Nicholas to see its feline guardians, and the discovered documents of a Venetian monk describe them as scarred, missing various body parts, some completely blind as a result of their relentless battle against the snakes.

According to the writings of Father Stephen de Lusignan, in 1580, the Byzantine monks at the Monastery of Saint Nicholas were awarded the surrounding lands, on one condition – they had to take care of at least 100 cats and feed them at least twice a day. Legend has it, the cats were so well trained they knew that when the bell rang once they had to go hunting for snakes, and when it rang a second time, it was meal time at the monastery.

During the Turkish invasion, the Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats was completely destroyed and its residing monks slaughtered or taken into captivity. Left without food and shelter, the cats left and wandered around the island, which explains the large number of cats currently living in Cyprus. Even now, locals appreciate their help in getting rid of the snakes centuries ago, and take good care of them, even if they’re strays.

After being rebuilt and abandoned several times, the modern history of the Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats began in 1983, when it was assigned to a group of nuns. When they arrived there wasn’t a cat in sight, but the number of snakes was once again overwhelming, so they did exactly what Saint Helen did over 1,500 years ago – they brought in a couple of cats. Their numbers grew, over the years, and there are now six nuns at the monastery and over 70 felines. Many people bring abandoned cats to this place, and the nuns take them in.

The Monastery of Saint Nicholas of the Cats receives a small subsidy from the government, but that isn’t enough to take care of the entire feline population, so the nuns rely on donations made by locals or cat-loving tourists.

May 15, 2011

Falling and Getting Back Up

Living in a culture of high-speed Internet, microwaves, smart phones, and pills for almost everything, I find myself expecting similar immediate results in my Christian walk. Indeed, the Christian book market is filled with formulas for saving your marriage, conquering depression, losing weight, and living the single life. But if you begin to read about the lives of the saints - individuals who went through great trials and testings - you observe a quite different picture. They battled sins and temptations their entire lives. In our American culture, this appears to be an individual failure - one should identify the problem, devise a solution, and eradicate it once and for all! But in the Kingdom of God, it is in the very struggle with sin that we can grow and make progress. Here is where we are weak. Such struggling requires continual communication with God and an appeal to his mercies, for he wants to help us and purify us.

It is helpful to be aware of where and how we fail in this process:
When we still fail, it is probably for one of three reasons.
First, we do not hate sin sufficiently as to be willing to “fight to the death” to avoid or overcome it. Our concupiscence hobbles us and keeps open the back door to our hearts, allowing access to the temptations we’re supposed to be valiantly fighting.
Second, we do not trust sufficiently in the power of God’s grace to heal or strengthen or protect us, but like St Peter, walking on the water and overestimating the supposedly superior forces of wind and water and gravity, we sink, even though the Lord already has given us to power to overcome.
And third, we hinder our progress by making excuses for ourselves, and so we never really break out of habitual failures, for we sabotage our own victory by telling ourselves, in effect, that such victory is unattainable, for this reason and that. But the Lord is still trying to whisper in our ear: “My grace is sufficient; come on, get up, you can do it; take My hand and you’ll see what I can do for you.” - Father Joseph

And there are these good words also:
The evil one cannot comprehend the joy we receive from the spiritual life; for this reason he is jealous of us, he envies us and sets traps for us, and we become grieved and fall. We must struggle, because without struggles we do not obtain virtues. - Elder Ieronymos of Aegina

Apr 23, 2011

Christ's Descent into Hell

By St. Epiphanios of Salamis (4th century)

Anastasis *
Something strange is happening - there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.

The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep.

The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and He has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.

God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep.

Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, He has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, He who is both God and the son of Eve.

The Lord approached them bearing the Cross, the weapon that had won Him the victory.

At the sight of Him Adam, the first man He had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: "My Lord be with you all." Christ answered him: "And with your spirit."

He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: "'Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.'

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by My own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake.

I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of My hands, you who were created in My image.

Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in Me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on My face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you.

See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in My image.

On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back.

See My hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

The Christ - Viktor Vasnetsov
I slept on the Cross and a sword pierced My side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced Me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise.

I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven.

I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them venerate you as a god.

The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager.

The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open.

The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity."

The Greek word ανάστασις (anástasis) means "resurrection"

Apr 21, 2011

The Parable of the Seeds of God

A woman once had a dream in which she went into a shop and saw the Lord God standing behind the counter.

“Lord, it’s you!” she exclaimed with joy
“Yes, it’s Me”, answered God.
“But what can I buy from you?” asked the woman.
“You can buy everything from me”, came the answer.
“Then please give me health, happiness, love, success, and lots of money”.
God smiled kindly and went into the back room for the goods she had ordered. After a while He returned with a small paper box.
“Is that it?” exclaimed the disappointed woman in amazement.
“Yes, that’s it”, answered God, adding: “Surely you knew that I only sell seeds in my shop?”

From the Pravmir website, translated from Russian.

Apr 16, 2011

This is the One

Good Shepherd Icon

I have been reading a wonderful homily on the Passover by Melitos of Sardis of the 2nd century. Here is an excerpt: 

When this one came from heaven to earth for the sake of the one who suffers, and had clothed himself with that very one through the womb of a virgin, and having come forth as man, he accepted the sufferings of the sufferer through his body which was capable of suffering. And he destroyed those human sufferings by his spirit which was incapable of dying. He killed death which had put man to death.

For this one, who was led away as a lamb, and who was sacrificed as a sheep, by himself delivered us from servitude to the world as from the land of Egypt, and released us from bondage to the devil as from the hand of Pharaoh, and sealed our souls by his own spirit and the members of our bodies by his own blood.

This is the one who covered death with shame and who plunged the devil into mourning as Moses did Pharaoh.
This is the one who smote lawlessness and deprived injustice of its offspring, as Moses deprived Egypt.
This is the one who delivered us from slavery into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life, from tyranny into an eternal kingdom, and who made us a new priesthood, and a special people forever.
This one is the passover of our salvation.
This is the one who patiently endured many things in many people: This is the one who was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets.
This is the one who became human in a virgin,
who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven.
This is the lamb that was slain. 
This is the lamb that was silent. 
This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. 
This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, and who raised up mankind from the grave below.

For the complete homily, click here.

Apr 15, 2011

The Silence of Death

If anyone grasped the darkness
he was pulled away by death.
And one of the first born,
grasping the material darkness in his hand,
as his life was stripped away,
cried out in distress and terror:
“Whom does my hand hold?
Whom does my soul dread?
Who is the dark one enfolding my whole body?
If it is a father, help me.
If it is a mother, comfort me.
If it is a brother, speak to me.
If it is a friend, support me.
If it is an enemy, depart from me, 
for I am a first-born.”

Before the first-born fell silent, the long silence held
him and spoke to him:
“You are my first-born, 
I am your destiny, the silence of death.”

St. Melito obviously offers an alternative view of the world. The Christ who “trampled down death by death,” the Lord of Pascha, is foreshadowed in the world (particularly the account of the Old Testament). The Christ proclaimed by St. Melito is the Christ who confronts death itself, including the meaninglessness that we know too well in our modern world. This Christ is God in the Flesh, who has condescended into the existence of man and grappled with the “destiny of the silence of death.” In the face of the death of His friend, Lazarus, Christ cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!” With that cry the Church’s observance of Holy Week begins.

For the complete post by Fr. Stephen Freeman click here.

Mar 17, 2011

The Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian

Alexander Schmemann gives an excellent explanation of this Lenten prayer.

Of all Lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the Lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life – St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.  But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen

This prayer is read twice at the end of each Lenten service Monday through Friday (not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days do not follow the Lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.

Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire Lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the “negative” and “positive” elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a “check list” for our individual Lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.

The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down” rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.

The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.

Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in, a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and self-centered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments. The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.

Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.

These four are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the Lenten prayer; this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.

Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.

The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.

Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue. God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.

Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love - that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone - the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.
All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the Lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy – pride - will be destroyed in us.

After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire Lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all. In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious; the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.” Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man – soul and body – repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the Lenten rite par excellence.

A thank you to Bishop Mark for bringing it to the attention of the members of St. Seraphim in Dallas.

Mar 7, 2011

Meteora Monasteries: Varlaam Monastery

Varlaam Monastery (or Barlaam Monastery) in the Meteora is named for the monk who first built a tiny chapel on this rocky promontory in the 14th century. It has an elegant church with 16th-century frescoes by a well-known iconographer and other notable buildings.

In 1350, an ascetic monk named Varlaam climbed this great rock and settled at the top. He built three churches, a cell for himself and a water tank. No one chose to follow his lead, so after his death the site was abandoned.

The buildings fell into ruin for almost 200 years until 1517, when two rich priest-monks, Theophanes and Nektarios Apsarades from Ioanina, ascended the rock and founded a monastery. According to legend, they had to drive away the monster who lived in a cave on the summit before they could move in.

The brothers renovated Varlaam's church of the Three Hierarchs, erected the tower, and built a katholikon (1541-42) dedicated to All Saints. Using ropes, pulleys and baskets, it took 22 years to hoist all the building materials to the top of the rock. Once everything was at the top, the construction work took only 20 days.

Varlaam Monastery was continuously occupied by monks (about 35 at a time) throughout the 16th century and into the early 17th century, after which it began to decline. Steps were first carved into the rock in the early 19th century and have been altered several times since.

windlass and rope in tower
Today, Varlaam Monastery is occupied by seven monks and can be accessed by a narrow bridge that runs from the main road. There is a pleasant garden in the compound, where a monk sometimes sits and chats with visitors.

The Late Byzantine katholikon of Varlaam has a cross-in-square plan with a west narthex, with a dome in each section. The frescoes in the main church were painted by the celebrated iconographer Frangos Katelanos of Thebes in1548 (the date is inscribed on the south wall). The narthex was frescoed in 1566 by the brothers George and Frangos Kondares of Thebes.

view from the top

North of the katholikon is the small "Parekklesion of the Three," an aisleless chapel dedicated to the three great bishops St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom. Originally built by Varlaam in c.1350, it was repaired by the founders in c.1520, renovated in 1627 and decorated with frescoes in 1637.

The tower contains the old windlass and rope basket (1536), which used to transport monks and supplies to the monastery. When asked how often the rope was replaced, a 19th-century abbot famously replied, "Only when it breaks." It was used as recently as 1961-63, when the refectory was renovated into a museum of religious artifacts.

The monastery's museum displays a fine collection of relics, carved wooden crosses, icons, embroidered epitaphoi and many other eccelesiastical treasures. Varlaam also possesses over 300 religious manuscripts copied by monks, some of which are displayed in the sacristy.

The monastic kitchen is an elegant vaulted structure with an octagonal dome leading to a chimney. The original water barrel, which can hold 12 tons of rainwater, is on display in a storeroom.

In a previous post, I mentioned the Meteora Monasteries. I am devoting a post to each of the six monasteries that are a part of this group in Greece.

If you want a satellite view of the area, click here.