Continuing St. John Chrysostom

Continuing St. John Chrysostom

Here the sermon of St John Chrysostom dealing with the subject of humility is continued from the last post:

Let us beware therefore of saying anything good about ourselves, for this renders us both odious with men and abominable to God. For this reason, the greater the good works we do, the less let us say of ourselves; this being the way to reap the greatest glory both with men and with God. Or rather, not only glory from God, but a reward, yes, a great recompense. Therefore, do not demand a reward that you may receive a reward. Confess yourself to be saved by grace, that He may profess Himself a debtor to you; and not for your good works only, but also for such rightness of mind. For when we do good works, we have Him debtor for our good works only; but when we do not so much as think we have done any good work, then also for this disposition itself. It is even more for this disposition, than for the other things, so that this is equivalent to our good works. For should the humble disposition be absent, then the works shall appear to be great. For in the same way, we too, if we have servants, most approve them when, after having performed all their service with good will, they do not think they have done anything great. Therefore, if you would make your good deeds great, do not think them to be great, and then they will be great.

It was in this way that the centurion also said, “I am not fit that thou shouldest enter under my roof;” (Matt. 8:8) because of this, he became worthy, and was “marveled at” above all Jews. In this manner also Paul said, “I am not meet to be called an apostle;” (ICor. 15:9) because of this he became even first of all. So likewise John: “I am not meet to loose the latchet of His shoe;” (Matt. 3:11) because of this he was the “friend of the Bridegroom,” (John 3:29) and the hand which he affirmed to be unworthy to touch His shoes, this did Christ draw unto His own head. So Peter too said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man;” (Luke 5:8) because of this he became a foundation of the Church.

For nothing is so acceptable to God as to number one’s self with the last. This is a first principle of all practical wisdom. For he that is humbled, and bruised in heart, will not be vainglorious, will not be wrathful, will not envy his neighbor, will not harbor any other passion. For neither shall we be able to lift a bruised hand high up, though we strive ten thousand times. If therefore we were thus to bruise our heart likewise, though it were stirred by ten thousand swelling passions, it could not be lifted up, no, not ever so little. For if a worldly man, by mourning over the loss things pertaining to this life, drives out all the diseases of his soul, much more will he, who mourns for sins, enjoy the blessing of self-restraint.

“But who,” one may say, “will be able thus to bruise his own heart?” Listen to David, who became illustrious primarily because of this, and behold the contrition of his soul. How after ten thousand good works, and when he was on the point of being deprived of country, and home, and life itself, at the very season of his calamity, seeing a vile and outcast common soldier trample on the turn of his fortunes and revile him; so far from reviling him again, he utterly forbid one of his captains, who was desirous to have slain him, saying, “Let him alone, for the Lord hath bidden him.” (IISam. 16:11) And again, when the priests desired to carry about the ark of God with him, he did not permit it; but what did he say? “Let me set it down in the temple, and if God deliver me from the dangers that are before me, I shall see the beauty thereof; but if He says to me, I have no delight in you, behold, here am I, let Him do to me as seems good to Him.” (IISam. 15:25-6) And that which was done with regard to Saul, again and again, what excellence of self-restraint does it not show? Yes, for he even surpassed the old law, and came near to the apostolic injunctions. For this cause he bore with contentedness all that came from the Lord’s hands; not contending against what befell him, but aiming at one object alone, namely, in everything to obey, and follow the laws set by Him. And when after so many noble deeds on his part, he saw the tyrant, the parricide, the murderer of his own brother, that injurious, that frenzied one, possessing in his stead his own kingdom, not even so was he offended. But “if this please God,” he said, “that I should be chased, and wander, and flee, and that he should be in honor, I acquiesce, and accept it, and do thank God for His many afflictions.” Not like many of the shameless and impudent ones, who when they have not done, no not the least part of his good works, yet if they see any in prosperity, and themselves enduring a little discouragement, ruin their own souls by ten thousand blasphemies. But David was not such an one; rather he showed forth all modesty. Therefore God also said, “I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart.” (IISam. 16:10)

Such a spirit as this let us also acquire, and whatever we may suffer we shall bear it easily, and before the Kingdom, we shall reap here the gain accruing from lowliness of mind. Thus the Lord said, “learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” (Matt.  11:29) Therefore in order that we may enjoy rest both here and hereafter, let us with great diligence implant in our souls the mother of all things that are good, I mean humility. For thus we shall be enabled both to pass over the sea of this life without waves, and to end our voyage in that calm harbor hereafter; by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might forever and ever. Amen.”

Chrysostom as an ascetic preacher

I would like to begin this new year with a series of excerpts from homilies of St. John Chrysostom. I do not want to look at his Scriptural interpretations but his ascetic preaching, his preaching of repentance. These excerpts will have some paraphrasing and editing from the original archaic translation. So we will begin with an excerpt from St. John’s third homily on the Gospel of St. Matthew. This is on the genealogy of our Lord and, if one observes the Old Calendar, it is the reading for the first Sunday of the secular New Year. In his homily Chrysostom points out some of the less illustrious ancestors of our Lord. For example, Tamar who in an unlawful union with her father-in-law Judah gave birth to Pharez. Also Ruth who was a Gentile slave whom Boaz took to wife and she was the grandmother of David the king.  Then Solomon who was born of David’s adultery with Bathsheba.  Chrysostom says that it was to shame the Jews that St. Matthew brought these forth, and to prevail on them not to be high-minded since they prided themselves on their ancestry.  And he insists that it cannot be that a man should be good or bad, obscure or glorious, either by the virtue or by the vice of his forefathers. So let us continue with St. John’s words:
 
Let no one therefore be high-minded on account of these matters, but let him consider the forefathers of the Lord, and put away all his haughtiness, and let good actions be his pride; or rather, not even these. For thus it was that the Pharisee came to be inferior to the Publican. So, if you would show the good work to be great, have no high thought, and you have proved it so much the greater. Consider yourself to have done nothing, and then you hast done all. For if, being sinners, when we account ourselves to be what we are, we become righteous, as indeed the Publican did; how much more, when being righteous we account ourselves to be sinners. Since if out of sinners men are made righteous by a lowly mind (although this is not to be lowly-minded but to be right-minded); if then to be right-minded avails so much in the case of sinners, consider what will lowliness of mind do with respect to righteous men. So then, do not mar your labors, nor cast away the fruits of your toils, neither run in vain, making void all your labor after the many courses you have run. No! For your Lord knows your good works better than you do. Though you give but a cup of cold water, not even this does He overlook; though you contribute but a penny, though you should only utter a sigh of compassion, He receives it all with great favor and is mindful thereof, and assigns for it great rewards.

But why do you search out your own doings, and bring them out before others? Do you not know, that if you praise yourself, God will cease to praise you? Likewise if you belittle yourself, He will not cease proclaiming you before all. For it is not at all His will that your labors should be disparaged. Why do I say, disparaged? No! He is doing and contriving all things, so that even for little things He may crown you; and He goes about seeking excuses, whereby you may be delivered from hell. He quickly catches hold of any little thing as an occasion for saving you. Let us not therefore lift up ourselves, but let us declare ourselves unprofitable, that we may become profitable. For if you call yourself approved, you have become unprofitable, although you may have been approved; but if you consider yourself useless, you have become profitable, even though you were reprobate.

Therefore it is necessary to forget our good actions. “Yet how is it possible,” one may say, “not to know these things with which we are well acquainted?” How can you say this? Offending your Lord perpetually, you live delicately and carelessly and laugh, and you do not so much as believe that you have sinned, but you consigned all to oblivion. But you cannot put your good actions away from your memory? How ironical, on the one hand, while each day we are offending, we do not so much as put it before our mind; on the other, if we give a little money to a poor person, this we are ever revolving in our minds. This kind of conduct comes of utter madness, and it is a very great loss to him who thus reasons. For the secure storehouse of good works is to forget our good works. And as with regard to gold and valuables: when we expose them in a market-place, we attract many ill-meaning persons; but if we leave them at home and hide them, we shall deposit them all in security. Even so is it with respect to our good deeds; if we are continually keeping them in memory, we provoke the Lord, we arm the enemy, and we invite him to steal them away. But if no one knows of them, besides Him who alone ought to know, they will lie in safety.

Be not therefore forever parading them, lest someone should take them away. As was the case with the Pharisee, for bearing them about upon his lips, became the cause of the devil catching them away. And yet it was with thanksgiving he made mention of them, and referred the whole to God. But not even this was sufficient for him. For it is not thanksgiving to revile others, to be vainglorious before others, to exalt one’s self against them that have offended. Rather, if you are giving thanks to God, be content with Him only, and do not publish it to men, neither condemn your neighbor; for this is not thanksgiving. Would you learn what are words of thanksgiving? Hearken unto the Three Children in the furnace, saying, “We have sinned, we have transgressed. Thou art righteous, O Lord, in all that thou hast done unto us, because thou hast brought all things upon us by a true judgment.” (Prayer of the Three Holy Youths—Dan. 3:29, Sept.) For to confess one’s sins and glorify God for whatever He sends; this is to give thanks to God: a kind of thing which implies one to be guilty of numberless offenses, yet not to have the due penalty exacted. This man most of all is the giver of thanks….to be continued…

Sermon on the Nativity

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom!  For by it, those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee the Orient from on high. O Lord, glory to Thee!–Tropar of the Nativity, trans. from Liturgy Volume I, St. TIkhon’s Seminary Press

Sermon on the Nativity

Soon we shall be celebrating the feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh. What follows here in this post is an excerpt (with slight paraphrasing) of a sermon of St. Gregory the Theologian on the Nativity.

This feast is the coming of God to Man, so that we might go forth to God; or rather – to express ourselves more properly– that we might go back to God; that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that we who died in Adam might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and, as with the painful fall there was the expulsion from paradise and loss of bliss that came afterwards, so now the more blissful has come out of the painful—the saving dispensation of the Word. For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him -Christ God – Who is ours, or rather as being our Master’s; not as of slaves in infirmity, but as of healing; not as of this creation, but of the new, re-creation.

And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch–those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin. Let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness; nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold or the tricks of color, belying the beauty of nature, such are invented in opposition to the image of God; not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil – or rather, from worthless seeds come worthless harvests. Let us not set up tabernacles for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not appraise the bouquet of wines, the superb and uncommon dishes of cooks, the great expense of ointments. Let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance, as is all which is beyond absolute need); and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner as all of us.

Let us leave all these to the heathen and to the heathen pomps and festivals. But we, the Object of whose adoration is God the Word, if we must in some way have luxury let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories – especially such as are the origin of this Feast – that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Whom hath called us together. Let us begin from this very moment and let us delight in such matters that would cleanse our minds and our ears and our thoughts, since our thoughts and conversation should be of God and things Divine; and so, when we depart from this holy Liturgy, may we have and ever cling to the enjoyment of delights that have true reality and fade not away.

If we thus honor and look to God then we, in turn, shall be looked at by our great God, Who in Trinity is worshipped and glorified, and Whom we declare to be now set forth as clearly before us as the bonds of our fleshly human nature allow, in Jesus Christ our Lord, to Who be glory forever and ever. Amen.

She Who is Quick to Hear

She Who is Quick to Hear

We have recently commemorated the Icon of our Lady Theotokos called “Quick to hear”; its feast is November 9th        or 22nd  depending which calendar one follows.  It is this icon to which this blog site is dedicated.  This icon is at Dochiariou Monastery on the Holy Mountain.  The icon received this name  the 16th century.  At that time the steward of the monastery, Nilus, in his daily work would pass by the icon while carrying a torch.  The icon was outside the dining hall. The smoke from the torch was dirtying the icon and so one evening the Theotokos said to him as he passed the icon: “Stop dirtying my icon”.  He thought this was some of the other monks playing a joke so he continued to do this.  He was then struck blind by the Theotokos.  He repented before the icon, and was healed by her.  She again spoke and called herself “Quick to hear”.  Thus the icon received its name.

The refrain in the akathist hymn for this icon reads: “Rejoice thou who art quick to hear, fulfilling our petitions for our good”. But let us consider: What is it we should be asking for? Well, above all we should be asking for salvation, we should be hoping for life in Christ in this world which will continue in the life to come. So let us talk about one aspect of getting our souls in proper order and acceptable to God.

The Holy Fathers of our Church say that there are three powers of the soul. They are the desiring power, the incensive power or that of anger, and the intellectual power. The desiring power should be turned towards God, in love for Him. The incensive power should function as zeal for God and be turned against our invisible enemies in anger. The intellectual power should rule over the other two and be set on God, as the holy Apostle Paul teaches: “Set your minds on the things that are above” (Col. 3:2), and “be renewed in the spirit of your mind”. (Eph. 4:23)

But since the fall of our first parents these powers of the soul are distorted and turned upside down so-to-speak. The desiring power can be effected with love for money, possessions or physical pleasures. The incensive power can be turned towards things or our fellow men or even God and there can be a passion of anger or hatred. Our ability to reason becomes affected by all this.

And even if these two powers of the soul were directed properly, if we were to feed our intellect with the things of this world rather than the things of God we would be false to the dignity of being created in God’s image and the salvation He has wrought for us. As St. John the Theologian testifies: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever”.(1John2:15-17) And the Holy Apostle Paul instructs us: “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” (Rom. 12:2) He also, as St. John, strictly warns us of the opposite: “walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart”. (Eph. 4:17-18)

So let us conclude by praying to the Theotokos; and to do this let us make use of the hymnology of the feast of the Icon, “She Who is Quick to Hear”. The following are the verses of Ode 7 of the second Canon for this feast:

O Lady, thou guide of thy servants to salvation, set aright the three parts of our soul, that, deemed worthy of the grace of dispassion, we may chant:  O most-hymned Lord and God of our fathers, blessed art Thou!

Direct the desiring power of our soul to divine zeal, that it may thereby love God wholly and ever strive towards Him as the all-blessed End of desire.

O Virgin, help us to turn the incensive power of our soul against the invisible enemies of our salvation, and fill our hearts with saving love towards our neighbors and God.

To our souls reasoning give wings towards God-pleasing reflection, delivering us from thoughts contrary to God, O Mistress, and strengthen us all to think, speak and do that which is good.

Through the prayers of Thy most pure Mother, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us!

The Profit of Pain and Suffering

The Profit of Pain and Suffering

A hymn to the Theotokos

Standing by the Cross, O Jesus, she who gave birth to Thee, wept lamenting and cried out: “I cannot bear this, to see Thee nailed on the wood to Whom I gave birth and escaped pain for it was without a man. How I am now gripped with pain, and wounded in heart; now is fulfilled the saying which Symeon uttered, ‘A sword shall pierce thy heart O undefiled One.’”

Having recently heard much of pain and suffering from others I thought that it should be the topic of this post. I will join together two quotes. One quote will be from the book, Russian Letters of Direction , Macarius, Starets of Optino; and the other from Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Struggles-Experiences-Teachings. I hope these quotes could be made applicable to the various pains and sorrows we meet in life, and will help to inspire hope and patience in the hearts of the readers.

In section under the heading of sorrow the Elder Macarius writes:

I thank you for having unveiled to me the sadness of your grief-stricken heart; a great radiance comes over me when I share with others their sorrow. Complete, perfect, detailed compassion if the only answer I can give to your tender love of me that has led you, at such a time, to seek me out in my distant, silent humble, hermitage…

Christ says as it were: I accepted the Cross for the salvation of mankind; and whomsoever I specially long to draw unto myself, on him do I first shower sorrows; his heart do I first piece with arrows dipped in the wormwood of grief. This I do so that he may die to the extreme fascination, to the sweetness, of transitory joys and powers. The scourge of sorrows is the banner of my love. Thus did I wound the heart of my servant David; but when the stream of tribulations had separated him from the world, then did a dread meditation, an unwonted, blessed trend of thought well up in his mind and take full possession of his being…

In the ground of the Christian’s heart, sorrow for the dead soon melts, illumined by the light of true wisdom. Then, in place of the vanished grief, there shoots up a new knowledge made up of hope and faith. This knowledge does not only wash the soul of all sadness; it makes it glad. (p. 41)

The Elder, Joseph the Younger, in expounding the teachings of his Elder, Joseph the Hesychast on “The Nature and Forms of Trials” writes the following:

Trials or temptatioins (peirasmoi) have been so named because they produce experience (peira) in those who are tried. As to their nature, they comprise all the distressing events in life, from the smallest pain to the greatest of all, which is death. In a word, we may call them a cross, because just as a cross tortures a man and puts him to death, so distressing things in general lay him low and destroy him. Tribulations do not have their origin in the creation that was from the beginning, but are parasitic, consequences accompanying our fallen state.

They are born of transgression and sin, and this is hwy they are disgusting and repellent to life and nature. They cause and embody corruption and death, and so they always provoke aversion and repugnance. Thus in a certain was our life has been changed into boundless bitterness and tribulation, into endless pain and labour, unending agony and unhappiness, with lamentation as its inseparable companion!

But blessed be our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who transformed this terrible threat and conspiracy against our nature. And not only that, He turned it to our profit and benefit as well. When death was abolished and its place taken by life…the comprehensive cross, the whole profusion of sadness and the totality of trials—all these were transformed from then on into means and methods of salvation for us. Since then and in perpetuity, all the throngs of the righteous, all the clouds of the martyrs, all the choirs of the saved and all those who will press on towards life until the end of the ages will look upon their trials with gratitude as the most practical method of attaining Life. (pp.66-7)

Through the prayers of these venerable Elders may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us.

“What Seek Ye?” (John 3:18)

From the Magnificat of the Theotokos

“For He hath looked upon the lowliness of His handmaiden”

“What seek ye?” (John 1:38)

There is much talk today about deification as the aim and end of our journey. But I would say that it is best not to have our heart set on this idea. Of course it is true that deification is the result of the salvation Christ has wrought for us, it also is a motivation for us to love God; and certainly many scholars and even monastics have written about this. Those monastics who speak of this, however, are usually speaking of the Holy Fathers who came before them and they never dared to think that they themselves were at that state, or that they would even reach it. On the contrary, they had a great admiration for their predecessors, but were humbled exceedingly as they contemplated how far they were from the accomplishments of their spiritual forefathers. Those who may have attained this state of deification would say, just as did the Apostle Paul, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). They felt that what they had, in its entirety, was a gift of God and not of their own doing: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (IlCor, 4.7). In order to keep them humble, God often gave them their own “thorn in the flesh” (IlCor.12.7). And despite what they had attained, they still considered themselves weak and sinful. Illustrating this point, St. Isaac the Syrian writes:

Therefore the Lord looses upon the saints the causes of humility, of a contrite heart, and of ardent [undistracted] prayer, so that those who love Him might draw nigh unto Him through humility. Often He jolts them with the passions of their nature, and the intrusions of shameful and polluted thoughts; and often too by rebukes, insults, and the buffetings of men; but sometimes with diseases and bodily ailments; and at other times with poverty, and the utter lack of necessities. And sometimes with the torment of excessive fear which He permits to fall upon them in the open warfare of the demons so as to trouble them strongly; but at times with dire variations, one more oppressive, grievous and difficult than the next….All these things occur so that they may have causes to be humbled, and that they do not become immersed in the sleep of negligence. (The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Boston, Mass. 1984 pp. 69-70)

If we were to look at the early desert fathers rather than the idea of deification, we wou1d see something quite different. The Prologue to a history of early Egyptian monasticism written in the late fourth or early fifth century, speaks at length about these monks being “true servants of God…while dwelling on earth…they live as true citizens of heaven, [for] there is no town or village in Egypt and the Thebaid which is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls. And the people depend on the prayers of these monks as if on God Himself…it is clear to all who dwell here that through them the world is kept in being, and that through them human life is preserved and honored by God…” (The Lives of the Desert Fathers, translated by Norman Russell introduction by Benedicta Ward, Mowbray pp. 12-13)

Note, however, that this was the opinion of outsiders about monks; and most certainly this was not the opinion monks had of themselves. These holy men usually defined themselves as sinners–weak men, and not strong. They would have shrunk back from thought that through them, “the world was kept in being” (ibid.)

An example of their disposition can be seen in the life of Abba Pimen. Once, a monk, who lived near Abba Pimen, visited a foreign land where he met a famous hermit and told him about the elder. In time, this hermit returned the visit, coming to see the monk in his own land. Having arrived, he asked to see Abba Pimen, and the elder received him with joy. As the hermit began to speak of spiritual and heavenly things, however, the great Abba remained silent, and thus the hermit departed deeply grieved. The monk who had presented the visitor to the elder came to him later, protesting his actions. Abba Pimen replied: “He is great and speaks of heavenly things, and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul, I should have replied; but he speaks to me of spiritual things and I know nothing about that.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward Mowbray p. 140) The monk then told the visiting hermit of Abba Pimen’s way of thought. Filled with compunction, the hermit returned to Abba Pimen, and they discoursed concerning the struggle against the passions. Being greatly edified, the visiting hermit said, “Truly, this is right way!” and he returned to his home grateful to God. (ibid.)

In an attempt to keep a spiritual child humble and to show this attitude of the desert fathers, the Elder John of Valaamo once wrote:

Your state is a blessed one if you feel small and like a child among spiritually mature people. Do not envy such people and do not strive for spiritual raptures. Mystics strive for such feelings of grace, and instead of reaching true contemplation they fall into diabolical self-deception. The Lord grants to a man a sense of grace if his heart is purified of passions. The Holy Fathers were in such a state, but we sinners ought to pray with penitence and ask for God’s help in our struggle with the passions. The Paterikon tells how a disciple said to a staretz that such—and-such a man ‘sees angels.’ The staretz answered; ‘This is not surprising, that he sees angels, but I would marvel at a person who saw his own sins’. Brief as this saying of the staretz is, its spiritual meaning is very deep, because nothing is so difficult as to know oneself. (Christ Is in Our Midst, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, pp. 4-5)

In speaking of the proper frame of mind of a humble soul, St. Silouan the Athonite tells us that though:

The Lord take her to heaven each day and show her all the heavenly glory in which He dwells, and the love of the Seraphim and Cherubim and all the Saints-—even then with the knowledge of experience the humble soul will say: ‘Thou, O Lord, showest me Thy glory because Thou lovest Thy creature; but do Thou give me tears and the power to thank Thee. To Thee belongeth glory in heaven and on earth, but as for me–I must weep for my sins. (St. Silouan the Athonite, The Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex England, p. 299)

I would like to conclude by relating a few brief accounts concerning Archimandrite Sophrony, the disciple and biographer of St. Silouan. Once, after a midday meal, he commented to his monastics: “I know some very simple monks who are living according to the commandments of the Gospel. If you were to speak to them about deification they would look this way and that with an expression of bewilderment on their faces.”

And now, to give an answer to our original question, “What do ye seek?” I will again turn to Archimandrite Sophrony. In a conversation that I was blessed to have with him, he once said, “Seek humility, the Holy Spirit loves the humble soul.” Although I had previously been told many times to seek humility, this admonition never had such an effect as his words did then. That is because he obviously knew from experience what he was talking about. In the course of our conversation, he was relaxed as he sat back behind a desk. But when he came to these words, he sat up, stretched out his hands on the desk, fixed his gaze slightly above me and his eyes were barely opened. He appeared to be momentarily lost in contemplation and his words made a deep impression on my soul.

Exultation of the Cross–A Sermon

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection we glorify! (A hymn sung in place of “Holy God” in the Orthodox Liturgy on the feast of the Exultation of the Cross)

Exaltation of the Cross—A sermon

Beloved of God, as we celebrate this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross; let us consider what the Cross means for us. Today in the Gospel we read of the event of our Lord’s crucifixion. But what does this mean for us. Well, one thing that should be evident is that the Cross is a manifestation of the love of God for man. Our Lord Jesus Christ voluntarily gave Himself up to death, to a painful and shameful death of being nailed naked to the Cross. He is God, He could have avoided this, but this was God’s plan for our salvation.

When anyone does us a favor, or some good thing for us, or gives us a gift, don’t we feel indebted to that person? Don’t we feel love for that person in return for the favor done to us? Then how much more should it be so with God. When one of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, willingly suffers for us to the point of death, the death of the Cross, how can we do otherwise than return love, for love?

The Holy Apostle John the Theologian writes of this: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). “Hereby we have known love: because He laid down His life for us” (I John 3:16). “In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9-10).

So the Cross is a motivation for us to love God, and indeed we cannot help but do so. This, then, is one spiritual exercise for us: to ponder the sufferings of our Lord on the Cross. This can be done by reading the Gospel narrations on this, or the services of the Church on the Cross, like Holy Friday, the Sunday of the Cross during Great Lent and today’s feast. But there is something more to the Cross; to love God for the saving work of the Cross is one thing, but to be on a cross is something more. This is when our faith is tested. Will we endure in the time of temptation? The Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery on the Holy Mountain writes very nicely about bearing a Cross in his teaching on trials. So he says:

Trials or temptations (peirasmoi) have been so named because they produce experience (peira) in those who are tried. As to their nature, they comprise all the distressing events in life, from the smallest pain to the greatest of all which is death. In a word, we call them a cross, because just as a cross tortures a man and puts him to death, so distressing things in general lay him low and destroy him. Tribulations do not have their origin in the creation that was from the beginning, but are parasitic, consequences accompanying our fallen state.…

But blessed be our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who transformed the terrible threat and conspiracy against our nature….[Through] the martyrdom of His Cross, the comprehensive cross, the whole profusion of sadness and the totality of trials—all these were transformed from then on into means and methods of salvation for us. Since then and in perpetuity, all the throngs of the righteous, all the clouds of martyrs, all the choirs of the saved and all those who will press on towards life until the end of the age will look upon their trials with gratitude as the most practical method of attaining Life. (Elder Joseph the Hesychast by Elder Joseph, pp. 66-7)

So bearing the crosses that come upon us greatly help in the process of salvation. But crosses are not only exterior, there are also interior crosses which are perhaps even more profitable for salvation. St. Innocent of Alaska writes of this:

Whoever wants to be a true disciple and follower of Jesus Christ must, without fail, bear internal crosses as well.

Internal crosses can be found at all times, and more easily than external ones. You have only to direct your attention to yourself and to examine your soul with a sense of penitence, and a thousand internal crosses will at once present themselves. For instance, consider: How did you come to be in this world? Why are you in this world at all? Do you live as you ought to live? And so on. Pay due attention to this, and you will see at first glance that, being the creation and work of the hands of the Almighty God, you exist in this world solely, with all your actions, with all your life and with your whole being, to glorify His holy and great Name. But you not only fail to glorify Him, but on the contrary you offend and dishonor Him by your sinful life. Then recollect and consider: What awaits you on the other side of the grave? On which side will you be at the time of Christ’s dread judgment, on the left or the right? (Indication to the Way of the Kingdom of Heaven, St. Innocent of Alaska, pp. 28-9)

In such a manner does St. Innocent continue to speak of internal crosses. Such reflections help in a process of purification and lulling of the passions, it is a personal repentance. But where does all this lead us? Our response of loving Christ because of His sacrifice for us on the Cross is one good thing. Then bearing the crosses that come our way is something more. Then the voluntary taking up of an interior cross of penitential prayer is again something more. But where does this lead us. Does this yet lead us to something more?

It should, it should lead us to a universal repentance, since by the acute perception of our own fallen state we also have a perception of the fallen state of mankind. So the natural response would be to pray for the salvation of others. And so if we really develop this perception and this prayer for our fellow men, then the content of our heart would be the desire for the salvation of all. Thus we would mount a cross together with Christ, we would be in Christ, and co-crucified with Christ, for the world. A spiritual child of Archimandrite Sophrony—Fr. Zachariah—expressed the opinion that the content of the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ when He was in Gethsemane was the salvation of all. And when He was crucified the content of His heart was the salvation of all. When He was buried and when He rose, the content of His heart was the salvation of all. Finally, when He ascended and sat at the right hand of the Father, the content of His heart was the salvation of all. If we also have this same content of heart, then we would be in Christ, we would be co-crucified with Him through painful prayer for the salvation of the world. Then the words of the Apostle John the Theologian would apply to us: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (IJohn 3:14).

“Call No Man you Father”

What follows in this post is a sermon which focuses on the epistle reading of our Church for this past Sunday.     

“Call No Man your Father”

     Beloved of God, rather than speaking about the Sunday Gospel of today I would like to concentrate on something else; that is, I would like to focus on our epistle reading.  In particular, I would like to consider one particular verse, that is, the following words of the holy Apostle Paul:  “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”

     It is important for us to point out this verse and consider the message it conveys because the traditions of our holy Orthodox faith are sometimes challenged by those outside the Church.  These particular words of the Apostle Paul bring a response from those who would critique us for calling our priests father – a critique they base on the words of St. Matthew in his Gospel where he says, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” On the surface, these two passages seem to conflict with one another; but these excerpts, as with the whole of the Scripture—especially the New Testament—must be seen and interpreted within the life and tradition of the Church.  This is so, first of all, because the Christian faith and the Christian Church existed before the New Testament.  And it is the Church, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, which “produced” the New Testament; it was not the New Testament that produced the Church.   As is known, the New Testament is comprised of 27 books. These books were selected by the Church from a multitude of other early Christian writings which were circulated under the name of Apostles.  

     From Church History we discover that the need for defining a specific Canon for the New Testament arose around the end of the 2nd century when certain heretics tried to define their own Canon.  For this reason, various Fathers of the Church began referring to specific books which they considered divinely inspired.  It was not until the latter half of the 4th century that this problem of the Canon of the New Testament was solved.  In 367, Athanasius the Great presented a complete list of the books which he believed should be considered divinely inspired, and this was accepted by the Church in the East. A little later on, in 397 the same books were made official in the West with the Synod of Carthage. 

      So, what we must first realize is that the tradition of calling a priest a father is actually older than the official collection [or Canon] of the books we call the New Testament.  And those holy men of the Church who confirmed for us the books of the New Testament obviously had no problem with these words of St. Matthew and St. Paul even though on the surface they may appear contradictory.  So let us take a detailed look into this subject and consider both why we call a priest a father, and exactly what is meant by our Lord’s words as recorded by St. Matthew.

     The words we find in this particular passage of St. Matthew’s Gospel must not be taken literally on the surface because if we were really to take them literally to an extreme we would need to find a new name for our parents. We would be prohibited from calling our male parent “father”; and this, of course, would be ridiculous.

    But let us listen again to the words of the Apostle Paul: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” Saint Paul calls himself a father to the Corinthians.  This is how he describes the relationship he has with the Corinthians – that of a priest to the laity of the Church.  This is also a living relationship which is expressed by the word father.  As a father begets a child, cares for the child and supplies its needs while growing up in this world, so too, does the priest do for his spiritual children.

     We see this expressed in other places in the Scriptures, as well; so let us take a look at some examples. In the book of Judges (17:10), a man named Micah from the mountains of Ephraim is mentioned.  We see that he invites a Levite traveler to live with him, and he says to the Levite, “Dwell with me and be a father and priest to me.” In another place, we see Elisha saying to the prophet Elijah: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.” (IIKings 2:12) This took place shortly before they parted and Elijah was taken up into heaven. Later we see that Elisha, who then became the foremost prophet in Israel, was referred to as father by the kings of Israel. King Joash used these same words for the Prophet Elisha, when he went to see him while he was on his deathbed. There the king said to him, “O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.”(IIKings 13:14)

     Therefore we should not doubt this tradition of our Church, that is, the tradition of calling a priest father.  But as for the words found in St. Matthew, we must consider the context in which our Lord was speaking.  When He said these words our Lord was critiquing the Scribes and Pharisees for their pride and vain glory and He was warning His disciples not to fall into the same thing.  Many of the religious leaders in the time of our Lord prided themselves on their position and they were vainglorious, that is they loved the attention and praise of the people.  Our Lord, when He told the disciples “Call no man your father,” was critiquing this pride and vain glory. So then, when we Orthodox call a priest “father” we are not breaking this injunction of our Lord. Even so, let us look into ways in which this is sometimes broken so we can more fully understand what our Lord is telling us.

     First, there is sometimes a tendency for a sectarian spirit to arise in the Church, and this is something we must avoid.  We see that this is what was happening in Corinth, and this is what the Apostle Paul was speaking against when he wrote: Some of you are saying I am of Apollos or I am of Cephas or I am of Paul.  Some of the Church community at Corinth were naming themselves by a man on earth; they were putting up one of the apostles as their living head here on earth, and this was causing division in the Church. They were measuring themselves by one of the apostles, and in their pride each was saying the one whom they followed was the best and this was making a schism in the body of Christ.  They were calling a man on earth their father. This also, is basically the same thing that has occurred with Roman Catholicism and the Papacy, they set up one single man as an absolute head over all of the Church—something that has never been acceptable to Orthodoxy.  Perhaps what is even worse is that we see some of the protestant confessions repeating the same thing – naming themselves by a man, for instance Calvanists or Lutherans.  It is such actions as these that our Lord was speaking against when He said call no man your father upon earth.   

     There is one more point that we must take into consideration which applies not only to this text but the whole of the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It is traditionally believed that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic and that it was later translated into Greek by the Apostle James the Brother of the Lord. It is unfortunate that the Aramaic text is not extant. However, any Greek scholar, upon reading the Gospel of St. Matthew, would easily recognize that Greek was not the writer’s (or translator’s) first language.  This is especially true with some of the finer points of grammar which might naturally allow for the possibility of an obscurity and thus the possibility of having variant meanings of certain texts.  Therefore, as Orthodox faithful today we must remain within the tradition of the Church and accept how our Church interprets the Scriptures.  In light of this, here is a question for us to ponder: Is St. Matthew actually warning us not to call ourselves by the name of any man on earth as being “our father”?  We can call many priests “father”, but for the whole Church to call any man “our father” is something quite different and unacceptable. So then, to call our priests  father—a spiritual father—is acceptable to God; and we see this from the words of the Holy Apostle Paul we heard in today’s epistle and which I will repeat again: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”

     Let us keep our faith and hold fast to the traditions that we have received from our Church because our Church is the holy and apostolic Church.  By apostolic we mean we can trace the consecration of our bishops in a direct line back to the apostles of Christ.  Therefore we can say that Christ is the father and founder of our Church – not some man who picked up the Bible and interpreted it according to his own mind, for this is another error we see among many protestants.  Some of them call themselves “Bible churches”, but their faith is built upon the teachings of this man or that man who at some time or another interpreted the Bible according to his own mind.  Therefore, a man is the founding father of their faith, and not our Lord Jesus Christ.  In the final analysis, they must admit that a man is their father and not God.  But for us, by the apostolic succession of our bishops, we are able to confidently proclaim that our Lord Jesus Christ is the founder and father and head of our Church.  To Him be glory together with His Father Who is without beginning and his all-holy good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.    

 

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox Concept and Its Apllication in America (continuation)

All that has been said in part one on this topic is a general sketch of the concept of obedience as seen in our ascetic, or more precisely monastic tradition. Without question it is to the lives and writings of the monastic fathers of the Church where we must turn in order to gain understanding of the concept of obedience. Therefore a question may arise: How does this apply to the laity? Is the same obedience expected of a layman as the monastic? In answer to this we should first take a look at the sacraments which make one a member of the Church and a member of the monastic ranks. In the monastic tonsure which brings one fully into the monastic order there are vows of poverty, virginity and obedience. In Baptism which is the entrance of any given person into the Church there are vows to renounce Satan and unite oneself to Christ. In Baptism there is no vow of obedience. In the monastic ranks one seeks to go a step above and beyond the spiritual life that is attainable in the world, and all the circumstances of life in a monastery are geared for this. This is true for obedience, the monastic is expected to go a step above and beyond the layman, and his living conditions are set up for this. So then, what can we say about obedience for a layman and especially for us in America?

Perhaps it would be prudent to consider the people with whom we are dealing; especially since in this country the Church is challenged to function in a living situation it has never experienced before. America has never been nor is an Orthodox monarchy which is the environment that Orthodoxy has existed in since the time of St. Constantine until recent times. Nor is this a country that is primarily Orthodox and has been permeated with Orthodox life for centuries. It is a country that does not have the experience of widespread types of slavery or slavish submission to despotic ruling powers. Nor are we simple, we are complex, intelligent and free thinkers. And especially in our age of technology when there is a danger of the destruction of personhood under the threat of being categorized as a number and filed away in a computer obedience can be repulsive. So now we raise the question: How do we institute obedience in the life of the Church in America?

Possibly a very wise method of employing obedience in our country and our times can be found in the manner in which one of the Athonite elders carries out the role of spiritual fatherhood. It is the Elder Vasileos of the monastery of Iveron (4) that reference is being made to. Father Vasileos has an acute sensitivity to the needs of every particular person that comes before him. He does not set one strict program in his monastery that everyone is obliged to follow exactly, nor does he assign a rule for anyone without considering the particular person that is before him and his needs. For example, in the case of a rule of prayer he does not expect someone who comes to him to completely change what they had previously done and accept a standard form from him; rather he builds on what a person is already doing. He does not demand blind obedience but he is very flexible, approachable, and open – again I emphasize open to the particular person before him: He does not categorize the person according to the human nature that he shares with every other man but he is sympathetic to the personal essence of the one before him. He will make a suggestion and point someone in a particular direction but he prefers each to exercise their free will in a task or spiritual endeavor that needs to be done. This way is a very practical method of dispensing the Orthodox practice of obedience for us today in America. In order to practice obedience most people today in this country need to know why they are doing something. For – as was pointed out above – we are complex, intelligent and free thinkers. We want to understand the meaning and significance of what we do, this is instilled in us by our environment, from the time we begin to reason, as this gives us needed motivation. Perhaps what is most important is we need to know that the particular personal entity that is unique to each of us is being considered and respected.

In putting all this together we can surmise that obedience should not be something abstract, an impersonal, lifeless work; rather it is an exercise that depends upon and issues forth from a relationship between two people, a relationship of love. A mutual exchange of love is the essence of the relationship between a spiritual father and child. As a result of this relationship the spiritual father takes upon himself the direction, all the burdens and ultimate salvation of the one who submits to him. Likewise upon the foundation of knowing he has found a father of experience to whose way of thought he is attracted and who loves him and respects his personhood the spiritual child in returns loves and has faith which results in his doing obedience. So this is its aspect in the interrelations between two particular persons, while in its personal aspect it is the humble acknowledgment of the inability to guide one’s self.

For the layman, obedience should not be an escape from the responsibilities laid upon someone by society and family, for the purpose of obedience is to know and do God’s will and not to “pass the buck” to someone else. Nor should obedience debilitate one’s ability to function; on the contrary it should help to make one mature. The interchange with a spiritual father and any resulting obedience should be focused on the struggle against our sinful habits and the acquisition of virtues. The spiritual father’s role is like that of St. John the Baptist; that is, to point one to Christ and to bring one to maturity in Christ. As one grows in their relationship with Christ, His most pure Mother and the saints, and is formed by the life of the Church one’s understanding is developed. Thus the scope and extent of the need of direction and obedience is diminished. So in conclusion, we could say, “Obedie nce is a spiritual state, it is a state of harmony with the Holy Spirit and the Church.” (5)

  

(4) The Monastery of Iveron is one of the twenty monasteries on the HolyMountain in Greece.

(5) A comment of one of the Fathers of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Essex, England.

 

 

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox concept and its application in America

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)

Since the subject of this post is obedience I decided to begin with this quote, rather than a hymn, because it shows us the obedience of the Theotokos.   

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox Concept and Its Application in America

Obedience is something that is an integral component of man’s nature, because man is a creature. And any created being lacks self-sufficiency and is in need of outside help. It is to God, the Creator, that every rational creature must turn to for help and consequently it is to God that obedience is due. When God created Adam and placed him in paradise he had a free relationship with God and a pure, undistorted communion with Him. He was the first created and so his obedience was directly to God without an intermediary.

Adam was given one commandment from God: “Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). Adam ate of the fruit and in his sin of disobedience his relationship and communion with God were distorted along with his very being, which is in the image of God. So with the passage of time and the multiplication of mankind upon the earth this distortion of man’s being and his relationship with God has become augmented. Our being, our human nature, must become whole once again and we must re-establish a relationship with God and communion with Him. We need to be shown the way, we need someone to guide us, and therefore we need to practice obedience. As we do not have that free relationship with God and the pure, undistorted communion that Adam had our obedience will not be directly to God. Instead we practice obedience to a spiritual father who is traveling upon this path of renewal of being and reconciliation with God.

In order for this obedience to bring forth the desired fruits it must be done in the context of our Orthodox Church, since everything that has been mentioned above can be employed not only by Christians outside the Church but even by those who have no faith in Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Indeed there are other ascetical traditions outside of Christianity that have many similarities to ours, but in the final analysis they are humanistic; they do not bear the grace of the Holy Spirit. Just as our venerable Father Seraphim of Sarov says in his conversation with Nicholas Motivilov: “Only those good deeds done for the sake of Christ can bring us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Everything else, though it be good, but not done for the sake of Christ, will not bring us a reward in the life to come. Neither will it bring us the grace of God here in the present.”(1) This holds true for obedience, it must be done for the sake of Christ, that is, our focus must be on Christ, we practice obedience because Christ wants this of us and He commands it. The Lord Himself enjoined the execution of obedience when He said to His apostles: “If ye love Me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Apostles were the first to practice obedience and they did this to our Lord Jesus Christ during his life in the flesh upon the earth. We also observe this divinely instituted endeavor of obedience. And in so doing we follow the example first set for us by Christ; He said in the Gospel, “I have come not to do mine own will, but the will of the Father which hast sent me” (John 6:48). And the Holy Apostle Paul points out that Christ “became obedient unto death, even death upon the cross” (Phil. 2:8). So in doing obedience we imitate the Lord Himself and we execute the commandment of the Lord to the Apostles, we seek to do the will of God and not our own; thus we please Christ and have the hope of receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit.

It is precisely because of this hope of discovering the will of God and receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit that obedience is seen as a sacrament in our Orthodox ascetic tradition. Therefore, “the relationship between a spiritual father and child is considered a holy and mystical relationship and many fathers have termed it a ‘Holy adoption’. It is commonly said that in doing obedience to a spiritual father, one does – as it were – obedience to Christ Himself. The spiritual father is he to whom one goes and discloses all the inner thoughts and actions of the soul and who then takes on the responsibility for that person’s spiritual direction and ultimate salvation. The spiritual father must recognize and know everything that involves that child, just as the child must trust completely and do obedience to the father, because it is the spiritual father who will advise and help direct that person for the better and if need be give a penance to that child so as to benefit spiritually. Just as when we go to a physician we must disclose and confide in him all our symptoms, aches and pains so that he can make a proper diagnosis; so too with the spiritual father, who is the physician of our souls. We must confide in him and disclose all our inner symptoms, aches and pains so that he may effectively give us the right medicine for our passions and sins and he must watch and chart our progress to see if we take the medicine correctly he gives us for the health of our souls.” So then, through the practice of obedience one mortifies their will and understanding – in the warfare on the path of repentance – before their spiritual father who has much more experience.

But how does obedience and such a relationship come to be? Is it a mechanical arbitrary action that takes place between any individual seeking guidance and priest whether in the monastery or the world? Again according to the ascetic tradition of our Church obedience is a voluntary act and so, too, is choice of a spiritual father. According to several Athonite fathers, “One who desires monasticism must seek for a spiritual father who suits his character, who he is attracted to, with whom he shares a like-mindedness and can heal his soul. When he finds such a one and enters a monastery then he practices absolute obedience. Those in the world must act in a like manner and seek a spiritual father just as he who desires monasticism does and then practice absolute obedience but not before that time. Perhaps they will not find such a person but in the end it is Christ Who will save and not the spiritual father.” St. Symeon the New Theologian admonishes one to pray to God to point out a spiritual father and then one must follow him wherever he leads one. Yet he adds that if the Spirit points out another, then the person must leave the first and go to the other.

In practice what we can say about obedience? One contemporary elder, when asked about obedience simply answered: “When your spiritual father asks you to do something, do it.” Again, one eldress (3) once when giving a talk to her sisters said, “Through the prayers of the Elder we are going to speak about spiritual obedience.” The eldress when on to speak about the need of absolute, blind obedience, without questioning or thinking. She went on to recall a story of an event when their elder was once visiting the convent. One evening when it was already dark he told one of the sisters to go to their cemetery. This was dangerous as animals could be roaming about yet the sister obeyed without questioning. When the sister had gone some distance the elder called her and told her to come back and she immediately did so. She said he had done this to test her faith, and she praised the obedience of this sister. She also quoted the elder who had said, “When a man has spiritual obedience he also has spiritual states.” Thus she explained spiritual obedience. There are indeed many cases in the lives and sayings of monastics both ancient and contemporary that laud blind obedience. In like manner there are many cases when an obedient spiritual child is rewarded and saved from one danger or another by calling on God’s help through the prayers of their spiritual father. This is because obedience is a sacrament through which God works.  to be continued…

 

1) The Joy of the Holy, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, Harry Boosalis, pg. 94

(2) Excerpts from an unpublished letter of the late Eldress Taxiarchia of the Convent of the Nativity of the Theotokos at Saxonburg, Pennsylvania.

(3) This eldress is the late Mother Makrina (+1995) of the Convent of the Panagia “the Directress” at Portaria in Greece.