Friday, March 13, 2015

Finding Paradise

Within each of our human hearts is the deep, deep desire to find in our life the most basic place of lasting security, genuine warmth, safe harbor, and unconditioned love. This desire is at the very foundation of all of our human experience in whatever cultural circumstance or time we live. We often look for the fulfillment of this desire in various ways throughout our life. It is most often expressed in our reaching out to others in our personal relationships--with our parents, or dear friends, or tender spouses, or the mentors to whom we look up with respect and admiration for guidance and help. As great as these opportunities are to find our true home and the place inside us that gives us real faith, hope, and love, and as wonderful as those relationships can be, even then we cannot not find a complete and lasting peace until we find that peace that “passeth all understanding.” The door to that deepest and permanent peace, paradoxically, is only found in the terrible yet lovely Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Since the time of Adam until Christ had come to His full age and to His man-saving Crucifixion, all those who sought Paradise were looking in the wrong place. They could not imagine that this place of the greatest joy conceivable had to be reached only by their own conscious, willing, grateful, and heartfelt suffering united with Christ who gives this such a profound meaning. It is only found by uniting our own limited will and understanding with the one Person Who can transform our broken human condition of sins and imperfections into complete blessedness, wholeness, and fulfillment. This place, planted in our hearts from the first moment of our being and which remains there all of our lives, can be touched and reached only at the fulcrum of all time: the Cross, the Death, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and its all-embracing effect on all of Creation.

Let us join all those who have found their true place, their true home, and their true Paradise, “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 is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb, 12:2)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Thou You have led us to these holy days"

We hear this prayer for the first time this year at the Presanctified Liturgy:

Prayer before the Ambo

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Bishop on an ambo - Elevation of the Precious Cross (Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000 A.D.)

O Almighty Master, who in wisdom hast fashioned all creation; who, through thine ineffable providence and great goodness, hast led us to these all-revered days for purification of souls and bodies, for restraint of passions, and for hope of the Resurrection; who, during the forty days, didst put into the hands of thy servitor Moses the tables in letters divinely inscribed: grant unto us also, O Good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the Fast, to preserve the Faith undivided, to crush the heads of invisible serpents, to be shown to be conquerors of sins and, without condemnation, also to attain to and to worship the holy Resurrection. For blessed and glorified is thine all-honorable and majestic name; of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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Moses receiving and giving the Law (Illuminated Psalter, Vatopedi MS 761, 1087-88 A.D.)

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Adam's Lament

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Creation of Adam (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

Adam, father of all mankind, in paradise knew the sweetness of the love of God; and so when for his sin he was driven forth from the garden of Eden, and was widowed of the love of God, he suffered grievously and lamented with a mighty moan. And the whole desert rang with his lamentations. His soul was racked as he thought: "I have grieved my beloved Lord." He sorrowed less after paradise and the beauty thereof – he sorrowed that he was bereft of the love of God, which insatiably, at every instant, draws the soul to Him.

In the same way the soul which has known God through the Holy Spirit but has afterwards lost grace experiences the torment that Adam suffered. There is an aching and a deep regret in the soul that has grieved the beloved Lord.

Adam pined on earth, and wept bitterly, and the earth was not pleasing to him. He was heartsick for God, and this was his cry:

"My soul wearies for the Lord,

and I seek Him in tears.

How should I not seek Him?

When I was with him my soul was glad and at rest,

and the enemy could not come nigh me.

But now the spirit of evil has gained power over me,

harassing and oppressing my soul,

so that I weary for the Lord even unto death,

and my spirit strains to God,

and there is nought on earth can make me glad.

Nor can my soul take comfort in any thing,

but longs once more to see the Lord,

that her hunger may be appeased.

I cannot forget Him for a single moment,

and my soul languishes after Him,

and from the multitude of my afflictions I lift up my voice and cry:

'Have mercy upon me, O God. Have mercy on Thy fallen creature.'"

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Expulsion from Paradise (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

Thus did Adam lament, and tears streamed down his face on to his beard, on to the ground beneath his feet, and the whole desert heard the sound of his moaning. The beasts and the birds were hushed in grief; while Adam wept because peace and love were lost to all men on account of his sin.

Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise, but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother, Adam’s grief was even heavier. His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:

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Cain and Abel (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

“Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply, and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity and seek to slay one another.”

And his sorrow stretched wide as the sea, and only the soul that has come to know the Lord and the magnitude of His love for us can understand.

I, too, have lost grace and call with Adam: “Be merciful unto me, O Lord! Bestow on me the spirit of humility and love.

This text is based on the texts by St. Silouan the Athonite

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When You Fast: A Reflection Before Great Lent by SVOTSsynaxis

What appears to happen in the Passion of Christ and what actually happens are not at all the same. What appears to happen is not that extraordinary. The Romans crucified a Jewish man in order to keep public order. During their long rule over Judea, the Romans had killed many Jews, making the death of Jesus one among these many. But, only in appearance. The reality was very different. The Paschal homily attributed to St. John Chrysostom emphasizes this difference between appearance and reality. Chrysostom describes Christ's encounter with Hades as follows:

Hades…was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions… It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. Fooled by what appeared to be just another corpse, Hades was overthrown by an encounter with the Almighty God, as the Passion and Resurrection of Christ shook the foundations of the universe in the final acts of a cosmic drama. As we enter the Lenten season, we are reminded that we have a role in this universal, cosmic drama. Let’s reflect on the proper nature of our role by using the language of appearance and reality. For, it is easy to confuse our role, or to play the wrong role by focusing on our appearance rather than our reality. When Jesus chastises his opponents, he often calls them hypocrites for practicing their piety in public, and for drawing attention to themselves as they pray.

The word hypocrite, of course, is the Greek word for "actor." They are trying to "act" pious and "act" charitable. Their focus is on their appearance in public. Jesus urges them instead "to go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:6). Now, these things are not included in the Gospels so that we can ridicule the Pharisees whom Jesus criticizes. Indeed, they are written, not because we are unlike the Pharisees, but because we have the unfortunate potential to be just like them. The very things that are designed to make us more humble, the very acts of repentance and self-denial that are supposed to make us more open to God and more loving to one another can be used to make us more self-satisfied and more self-centered. But this is to focus on the appearance of holiness, and not its reality.

A wonderful little book called the Way of the Ascetics provides an important image for reflecting on real holiness. For, we may be inclined to think that, if we want to be humble, we must try to appear humble. We might, for instance, wear especially humble clothes or constantly adopt humble postures. But, this, too, can be a way of drawing attention to ourselves. The Way of the Ascetics has a lovely passage about real humility, however, emphasizing that the truly humble person doesn't stand out as being more humble than others, and, indeed, doesn't stand out at all. You may not even notice him because the goal of humility is precisely not to stand out. Real holiness has a way of making a person appear relatively normal, just like everyone else. As with the Passion of Christ, of course, this appearance of being usual and everyday is only on the surface.

A very helpful step in focusing on the inner drama of holiness is to avoid comparing ourselves with others, and the Church reminds us of this fact in various ways. On the 5th Sunday of Lent, for instance, we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt. She lived alone in the desert until she met St. Zosimas, who tells her story.

We wouldn't know anything about St. Mary, however, if St. Zosimas had not encountered her in the desert. And St. Zosimas would not have been in the desert if his monastery had not observed the Lenten fast in a particular way. To keep the monks of his monastery from competing with one another, the monks retreated individually into the desert, in order to observe the fast separately. Their drama was internal and their only audience was God. This is a helpful model to imitate. A certain silence should accompany our fasting. While it will be helpful to encourage one another and support one another over the next forty days, it is also easy for this need for support to become something else. It's easy to find ways to drop hints of our fasting regimen into casual conversations. We might even rationalize a good reason for doing so. But this is to risk making the fast into one more opportunity to put ourselves in the limelight and at center stage, and to undermine the real work of fasting, prayer and repentance that lie within the inner heart of Lent.

St Anthony the Great (St Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos) His scroll reads: "I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on... [earth and I said with a sigh: 'Who can pass these by?' and I heard a voice saying to me: 'Humble-mindedness.'"] Alphabetical Sayings, Saying 7

St. Anthony the Great

(St. Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos)

His scroll reads: "I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on... [earth and I said with a sigh: 'Who can pass these by?' and I heard a voice saying to me: 'Humble-mindedness.'"]

Alphabetical Sayings (PPS trans.), Saying 7

The great ascetics of the early Church always navigated between the appearance and the reality of holiness. We are regularly told in the stories of the Desert Fathers that the monks of the Egyptian desert would hide their ascetical practices from visitors. They don't make their guests fast with them, but prefer to show hospitality to whomever comes to see them. They feed them well and make them comfortable. The visitors, of course, are always surprised and suppose that these renowned monks are not really all that strenuous in their spiritual exercises. We are always told in the stories, however, what really happens, and how the ascetic only allows himself to appear unimpressive, because his greater concern is the care and comfort of his guests. Here we see the opposite of the hypocrites whom Christ admonishes. The appearance is allowed to be unspectacular, while the reality of generosity and holiness is profound. Let us, then, observe the fast in reality and not only in appearance, following these models of piety and especially the model of our Lord, whose strength was shown in weakness and whose apparent defeat in death led in reality to the victory of the Resurrection. "For, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:5).

George Parsenios, M.A. Duke University, M.Div. Holy Cross School of Theology, M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. Yale University, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor of New Testament at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

“The Beginning of the Way of Life” — Read Scripture and Be Patient

As we prepare to enter Great Lent, Synaxis will post a series of passages from the writings of the Church fathers. We begin with St Isaac of Syria.

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St Isaac the Syrian

(by Photios Kontoglou)

The beginning of the way of life (Ps 16:11) consists in applying the mind to the words of God and in exercising patience. For the draught which comes from the words of God helps toward the perfection which is in the latter. Likewise, indeed, the increase of growth in the fulfillment of patience gives place to a greater need for the words of God. And the help which is from both of them quickly brings about the elevation of the whole edifice.

…When the impulses of the soul plunge into the pleasure which comes from the wisdom stored in the words of Scripture, vigorously drawing understanding from it, a person will leave his body behind. Such a one will forget the world and all that is in it and will cancel from the soul all the memories which stir up images of the material world. Often the soul in wonder desists in its reflection from the use of habitual thoughts which come naturally to it, in the presence of the novelties which come to it from the sea of the Scriptures’ mysteries.

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"Don’t simply dive into the scriptures. Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind." - St John Chrysostom

Even if the mind is floating in its upper waters, not being able to make its impulses probe the whole depth of the sea to discern all the treasures which are in its depths, still meditation is able with its desire to bind firmly the thoughts of the mind with thoughts of wonder, hindering them from thinking and running after the natural body, as a man clothed in God has said (cf. Gal 3:27).

—St Isaac of Syria, First Discourse (§ 3, 17-18)

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An introduction to St Isaac's writings

You can read more of St Isaac's teachings in On Ascetical Life, available in SVS Press's Popular Patristics Series.

The Popular Patristics series is comprised of more than 40 volumes. The series aims to provide readable and accurate translations of a broad range of early Christian literature to a wide audience--from students of Christian history and theology to lay Christians reading for spiritual benefit. Recognized Patristic scholars provide short but comprehensive and clear introductory essays according to their specializations for each volume. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us

There are many philosophies and religions in the world, each trying to explain the meaning of life and how we can relate to both this world and then the mysteries beyond. Yet only in Christianity expressed in an orthodox manner do we see God—the Infinite and Absolute—as a Person Who comes to live with us in sympathy and love, having shared with us fully our human nature. He is not far, He is close. He is not looking down, He is right here turning our hearts upward. He is the Lord of Life, yet a little Child—Someone near and dear, and so most approachable. God is with us: Emmanuel. We are not just His children, but His brothers and sisters too as we all share in the seed of Adam. He is in the cave of our hearts, and we are made in His Image. Let us come inside now in love toward this most sacred cave in Bethlehem, as He is ever born anew, to worship Him and take up His life in us. May we humbly then, as the beloved Evangelist John says, behold “…His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thank You O Lord

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.

Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, temptations and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the “one thing needed;” Your eternal Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to Worship You.

Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.

Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.

Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.

Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.

Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.