Friday, July 25, 2014

Practical Advice

Abba John said, ‘I think it best that a man should have a little bit of all the virtues. Therefore, get up early every day and acquire great patience, with fear and long-suffering, in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility, bear with interior distress; be vigilant and pray often with reverence an and groaning, with purity of speech and control of your eyes. When you are despised do not get angry; be at peace, and do not render evil for evil. Do not pay attention to the faults of other, and do not try to compare yourself with others, knowing you are less than every created thing. Renounce everything material and that which is of the flesh. Live by the cross, in warfare, in poverty of spirit, in voluntary spiritual asceticism, in fasting, penitence and tears, in discernment, in purity of soul, taking hold of that which is good. Do your work in peace. Preserve in keeping vigil, in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, and in sufferings. Shut yourself in a tomb as though you were already dead, so that at all times you will think death is near.’

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Simple Life?

A Simple Life?

Elder Paisios says,

"The more people distance themselves from natural, simple life and embrace luxury, the more they suffer from anxiety."

Sitting here on the patio of an historical home on the edge of the cauldera in Santorini Greece, I was reflecting on the many blessings I have received over the years including an abundance of luxury. I have never been forced to live in poverty and spent most of my life distanced from a simple life. But, in my mature years, I have continually desired a life lived more simply in harmony with nature. I can relate to what Elder Paisios is saying.

At one point I was part of a small group that decided to change our way of life, to live simply and purposefully in harmony with nature and spirit. The idea was to live off the land, self-sufficiently and sustainably. We created an organic garden, used solar panels for our power, used wood to heat our homes, and made minimal use of power equipment. We did not have a tractor and did all the gardening by hand. We built our homes using the lumber cut from the trees on the property. It was a simple life lived close to nature.

The Elder Paisios further says,

"People try to calm themselves with tranquilizers or with the theories of yoga, and they neglect altogether the true serenity that comes when the soul is humble and God fills it with divine consolation."

I have also experienced this path to escape the anxieties of a materialistic worldly life. I was a user of tranquilizers in my early career and a participant in a meditation program that promised peace and harmony.

Neither of the above approaches satisfies the soul. When living purposefully in harmony with nature and spirit there was some relief from the anxiety of a city life but there were new forms of anxiety that replaced the old ones. Our attempt to live the purposeful life lasted only five years before it was abandoned as idealistic and an impractical way to live in our modern culture. It too was a worldly approach to life.

Elder Paisios says,

"When we see a person who has everything be stressed, anxious and sad, we must know that God is missing from his life. In the end, even wealth will make people suffer, because the material goods cannot really satisfy them. Theirs is a double affliction."

The anxiety we seek to be relieved from is caused by a spiritual sickness. We are separated from our creator, God. Our soul mourns and seeks to become reunited with God. We seek meaning from material things and worldly activities but they cannot satisfy what is lacking.

Joy and peace come from a realized relationship with a God, a personal relationship, one based on mutual love. How do we realize this? This is what I have found to be the Orthodox Christian way of life as taught but our Church Fathers based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and His disciples.

This is the aim of the Church, Christ's Body here on earth in this moment. While living at the intentional community designed to live in harmony with nature and spirit, I was given the insight to give up my own solutions to the angst I felt, and instead, surrender to Christ and His Church. I then had to seek and learn what the Church taught. Saint Theophan the Recluse in his book, Path to Salvation, provided the needed direction. I also had the silent guidance of my guardian angel encouraging me not to rationalize or debate what the saints of the Church taught, but to strive to understand what I could not yet fully understand. This was a new way of life for me as I had always thought that I had to figure it out for myself. I found I was my own judge of truth. This idea of surrender was not natural for me. At times it felt as if I was going back to the Middle Ages. But, I always felt a sense of comfort knowing this path was an ancient Tradition founded on the life and teaching of the only son of God, who was both fully God and fully Man.

The foundation of my path was the practice of the Jesus Prayer. I had learned passage meditation much earlier, but I experienced the Jesus Prayer as much more beneficial because it was based on a personal relationship with God, in His name. It also led one to many of the benefits claimed by passage meditation. In an important way the Jesus Prayer was more.

The Church Fathers provide us with clear direction to live a life free from anxiety, taking each step in companionship with God. This does not promise a life free from struggle or difficulty, but one where all the trials and tribulations can be accompanied with the comfort of God at your side.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Anxiety and the Simple Life

Why is it that there is so much anxiety in daily lives? Usually anxiety arises when things are not going the way we think they should. To take a very simple example, we were troubled by a new refrigerator that made some loud and unusual noises. The old one worked fine but we wanted more space. We had spent a good sum of money for this new device and expected it to make our lives better, but instead, it became a very annoying device. We called the repair man and he came out and told us the noise was a normal one. Well, we knew it was not normal. So now, with a bit an anxiousness, we think about what to do. Did we make a big mistake in this purchase? What can we do to resolve this new irritant in our lives? We call the person who sold it to us to see what recourse we had to correct this problem. In the meantime this issue lingers in our mind about how we are going to resolve it. For us the noise was unacceptable, and we felt it was unfair to expect us to accept this kind of performance from a new refrigerator. But how were we going to get a company like GE to do something about it? To make a long story short, eventually we did resolve the problem but there was a lot of energy put into getting it resolved. Plus many idle conversations were had over this.

Our lives are filled with much more serious events than this one that cause anxiety, but they all add up and we feel like we are suffering from something we cannot quite describe. When we are anxious, our demeanor suffers and our relationships with others suffer which adds to our anxiety. Also, and most importantly, our spiritual life is degraded and we lose site our our true purpose. We find ourselves focused on ourselves and mundane issues of a material world trying to get everything around us to go the way we want it.

This is the basic problem with our materialistic way of life coupled with our self-centeredness. We want everything to obey our commands including mother nature.

Elder Paisios says the following:

People today have made their lives difficult, because they are not satisfied with a few things, but are constantly chasing after more and more material goods.

So how do we deal with this fact of modern life? We can't all go off to a monastery and escape. The key is to not set such high expectations out of this material world and set our hopes instead on the life to come. We can learn to strive less for material well being and begin to strive more for spiritual well being.

Elder Paisios says,

Those who would like to live a genuine spiritual life must first of all be satisfied with a few things. When their life is simplified without too many concerns and nuances, not only will they be liberated from the worldly spirit, they will also have plenty of time available for spiritual things. Otherwise they will tire themselves out by trying to follow the fashion of the times; they will lose their serenity and will gain only great anxiety.

All the fancy things we pile onto our life adds to its complexity. You can do something as simple as install a new carpet and then find you begin to worry about it getting soiled and start tormenting all who come through your house. Just because of a carpet!

We can learn to seek simple and practical material goods, things that make our life easier with less hassle. This is not a simple task but one worthwhile pursuing. Keep life simple and you will find you have more energy for the spiritual life which will bring you great rewards and joy instead of anxiety.

Identify things you do not really need. Seek a smaller house rather than a large one. Identify at least one activity that you can withdraw from to make more free time in your life. Identify one relationship you need to sever. Make time for and build a habit of daily prayer. Simplify your daily menu and follow the fasting guidelines. Repent continually and participate in the life giving sacrament of Holy Communion. With a little effort you can begin to change your way of life towards one that demands less rather then more. The monetary surplus that emerges you can use to help those who are disadvantaged and who cannot meet the minimal material needs of daily life. This is the right path. This is the Orthodox way of life.


Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, p 160

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

John of Kronstadt: Praying with the Heart

Some good advice on Prayer from Saint John of Kronstadt.


When praying, we must absolutely subject ourselves to our will, and turn it towards God. It must be neither cold, crafty, untruthful, nor double-minded, otherwise what will be the use of our prayers, of our preparation for the Sacrament?


It is good for us to hear God’s voice of anger: “This people draws nigh unto me with their mouth, and honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8).


So do not let us stand in church in a state of spiritual prostration, but let the spirit of each one of us on such occasions burn in its working towards God.


Even men do not much value the services which we render to them coldly, out of habit. And God requires our hearts: “My son, give Me your heart” (Proverbs 23:26).


Because the heart is the principal part of the man – his life. More than this, the heart is the man himself.


Thus he who does not pray or does not serve God with his heart, does not pray at all, because in that case his body only prays, and the body without the mind is nothing more than earth.


Remember, that when standing in prayer, you stand before God Himself, who has the wisdom of all. Therefore, your prayer ought to be, so to say, all spirit, all understanding.

John of Kronstadt (1829-1908; Russian Orthodox): My Life in Christ


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Faith Alone is Insufficient for Salvation

Many people who call themselves Christians say that it is through faith alone that you will be saved. This is a dangerous error. Salvation requires that we receive the Holy Spirit.


Saint Theophan comments,

"Believe, believe, and the Holy Spirit will come." This is the biggest lie. Faith is indeed an indispensable condition for receiving the Holy Spirit, but the very receiving of the gift comes about not from faith alone, but from faith through the Divinely-established Mysteries. This is how it was even in Apostolic times.

Our current culture is misled by our dependence on rational thought which leads us to accept the idea that we only need to believe and we can be saved. This is an intellectual deception. We cannot intellectually think of God and then expect to receive the Holy Spirit which is His saving grace. This Spirt only comes with the Sacraments of His Church.


Saint Theophan makes this point through the story of Paul in Ephesus. When he came to Ephesus Paul encountered several believers and asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit. They answered that they had not even heard of the Holy Spirit. They had been baptized with the baptism of John the Forerunner. Saint Paul then baptized them with the baptism of Christ and after that he laid his hands on them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. The baptism they had received earlier was only a renewal and a preparation for receiving the saving Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came through the laying on of Hands. Later the Apostles introduced Holy Chrism (a holy oil) to be used instead of the laying on of hands. Today in the Orthodox Church one is received into the Body of Christ though baptism and the sacrament of Chrismation where one receives the Holy Spirit. This sacramental act is essential.


Many Christian churches in this country do not have this sacrament. They preach the idea of faith alone. They require a confession of faith and then baptize in water, an act which is often seen as merely symbolic of their commitment to Christ. Those who follow this direction are grossly misled and never receive the Holy Spirit which they must have for union with God.


Now once you have this gift that comes through the sacrament of Chrismation, you need to nurture it so its presence and action will grow within you. If you fail to do so it will remain latent or hidden. If ignored, eventually it will become inactive. Then it is difficult to resurrect it. This is why we have the other sacraments of Holy Confession and Holy Communion to help us maintain the active work of the Holy Spirit which comes to us through these sacraments. Of course we have faith, but we also receive the Holy Spirit through Chrismation and continually renew its presence through the other sacraments. It also why we are continually engaging in ascetic efforts to purify our heart so that the "fire" of the Holy Spirit will be fanned and be allowed to act through all our bodily actions. In this way we can become virtuous and follow the Commandments of God. This is the Way to union with God and salvation.


Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 282

Monday, July 14, 2014

Baptism is not Symbolic

Holy Baptism and Chrismation are sacraments that we too often take in a routine manner. But, they are of the greatest significance for all Christians. This is the first step towards our salvation. In Baptism we are renewed and united with Christ. We become God’s “adopted son”, a child of the light, a child of the Kingdom. We become His disciple. We become a member of the body of Christ. This is no mere symbolism.

From the moment one emerges from the water in the baptismal font a new life begins. We are reborn, united in Christ. We are enlightened.

Baptism in the Orthodox Church is much more than a cleansing of our sins. It is the beginning of a new life in Christ. We become a part of His Church though the grace of God.

The font is likened to the grave of Christ. When we are immersed in the water we die of an old self and become renewed. This new life is one where we can now look forward to our resurrection and eternal life in God’s Kingdom as we follow Christ.

Forgiveness of sins is one of the results of baptism but we must remember that we do not have the idea of original sin as has been introduced in the Western Churches. For Orthodox Christians we receive from Adam and Ever the consequences of their sin, which is death, our mortality. We do not inherit any guilt. Because we have a free will we are only responsible for our own sins. So Baptism is not about overcoming original sins but is a renewal that assures us eternal life.

In the service the water is made holy with the Holy Spirit. As we are immersed we are cleansed of any personal sinfulness by this holy water and renewed. Following this we receive the Holy Chrism. This is a special Holy Oil which is called the “Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The water of baptism will dry up but the action of the Holy Spirit seals the action for all time.

When the sacramental rite is completed there is a sedate but joyful dance around the font followed by the reading of Scripture where we hear the words of Jesus Himself.

Crowning this event is the reception of Holy Communion. The new person, with their new Christian Name, is now able to participate in all the sacraments of the Church as one of God’s adopted sons.

From this moment on we must struggle to maintain our relationship with God striving to act like Him. This involves a life of continual repentance seeking God’s unlimited mercy for our weaknesses to maintain this union. Through the sacrament of Confession and Holy Communion we keep our Baptism renewed and gain His grace to aid us in our efforts to cooperate with Him, to live the life He showed and taught us as is recorded in the Scriptures.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On Compunction and Tears

If a grace-filled state does not come to us and we are not overcome by compunction, we should not worry. This means that our soul is not ripe for compunction. But minutes of such enlightenment are a sign that our prayer is not barren. They testify to the fact that God responds to our prayers and that the grace of God touches our hearts.

I would like to say a few words about the spiritual and emotional condition that people experience in prayer. Let us recall the well-known verses of Lermontov:


In a trying minute of life

If sadness o’erfills the heart,

One miraculous invocation

By rote, without cease I recite.

There is a beneficent will

In the music of living words,

And there breathes in them

An unknown, sacred delight.

And the soul will release its burden,

Doubt is far away

And it’s easy to trust, and to cry,

And I feel so light, so light…

In these beautiful, simple words of the great poet is described what happens to many people during prayer. One recites the words of prayer, perhaps familiar to one from childhood, and suddenly one feels a kind of enlightenment, lightening, and tears. In church language this condition is called compunction. It is a condition that is sometimes given one during prayer, when one feels the presence of God more than usual. It is a spiritual state, when the grace of God touches the heart directly.

Recall the passage from Ivan Bunin’s autobiographical book, The Life of Arsenyev, in which Bunin describes his teenage years and how, while still a schoolboy, he attended divine services in the parish church of the Lord’s Elevation. He describes the beginning of the All-Night Vigil, in the shadows of the church, where there are very few people:

“How it all moves me! I am still a boy, an adolescent, but then, I was born endowed with the sense of all this, and during the past years I have so many times passed through that expectation, that tense silence preceding the service, so many times heard those exclamations and the ‘amen’ that unfailingly follows them and drowns them out, divining beforehand every word of the service, now gives a double response to everything, intensified by its expectation. ‘Glory to the Holy and Consubstantial…’ I hear the pleasant familiar voice coming faintly from the altar, and for the rest of the service I stand as if bewitched. ‘O come, let us worship God our King! O Come let us worship…’ ‘Bless the Lord, o my soul,’ I hear, while the priest, preceded by the deacon with a taper, quietly walks about the church, silently filling it with whiffs of the fragrance of incense, and bowing to the icons; and tears dim my eyes, for already I know with certainty that there is, and can be, nothing more beautiful or loftier on earth than all this. And on and on flows the holy mystery. The Tsar’s Gate is closed and opened alternately, symbolizing now our ejection from the paradise lost by us, now the new contemplation thereof; wonderful light-prayers are recited, giving vent to our sorrowful awareness of our earthly weakness, our helplessness, and our eagerness to be led along the path of God.” And Bunin writes that he was able to visit many Western churches where there were organs, that he went into Gothic cathedrals, but he “never wept in those cathedrals as I did in the tiny church of the Elevation of the Cross on those dark lonely evenings.”

It’s not just great poets and writers that can describe the grace-filled effects that visiting a church is necessarily bound up with. Everyone can experience it. It is very important that our soul be open to such feelings, so that, coming into church, we be ready to receive the grace of God to the extent to which it is given to us. If a grace-filled state does not come to us and we are not overcome by compunction, we should not worry. This means that our soul is not ripe for compunction. But minutes of such enlightenment are a sign that our prayer is not barren. They testify to the fact that God responds to our prayers and that the grace of God touches our hearts.