The Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos

We are in the middle of the new and old calendar feast day of the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple.  What follows is a sermon on this feast taken from the book “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee”.

The Entrance of the Most-Holy Theotokos into the Temple

Beloved of God, although this feast we celebrate today is an event in a single day in the life of the Most-Holy Mother of God, it should not only be reflected upon as an isolated happening, but as part of a stage in the life of the Theotokos. This event is the first day of her nine years living in the Temple, and of her preparation to receive God within her womb, and so become the Mother of God Incarnate, Jesus our Lord, God the Son. So today let us consider this event as the beginning of this stage in the life of the Theotokos, and let us see just what was the preparation for the woman who was to become the Mother of God. Simultaneously we should also ponder this: What kind of qualities of soul did she possess so that God chose her to be his bride?

As a beginning, we need to look at the history of this event which the Church has passed down to us. We know from the tradition of the Church that the parents of the Theotokos, the Righteous Joachim and Anna were, childless and that among the people of Israel this was considered a matter of reproach, like a divine curse. And it was in answer to their prayers of desperation, and their vow to dedicate their child to the Lord, that St. Anna conceived and gave birth to a baby girl, Mary, who would become the Most-Holy Theotokos. So even the childlessness of Saints Joachim and Anna was part of God’s providence for the Theotokos because it became the motivation of dedicating their child to God.

Fulfilling their vow, they brought their daughter, Mary, at the age of three, to the Temple to be reared together with the community of young virgins that were there praising God day and night. When Mary was placed before the doors of the Temple, she quickly ascended the fifteen steps of the Temple which led to the altar of burnt offering, and not looking back at all, seeking her parents as children would normally do. Then, when she reached the top of the steps, the priest Zacharias, husband of her older cousin Elizabeth, brought her into the Holy of Holies. (1) This is something that was completely unheard of and, as our services say, it caused even the angels to marvel. As a historical event, this was a proclamation of who she was, and a foreshadowing of who she would be – the woman whom the prophets foretold in many figures, she is the woman who would soon give birth to the awaited Messiah Whom we know to be God in the flesh.

And what was her life like in the temple? We have an idea from the account in the ancient apocryphal Gospel of Matthew:

This was the order that she had set for herself: From the morning to the third hour she remained in prayer; from the third to the ninth she was occupied with weaving; and from the ninth she again applied herself to prayer. She did not retire from praying until there appeared to her an angel of the Lord from whose hand she used to receive food; and thus she became more and more perfect in the work of God. Then, when the other virgins rested from the praises of God, she did not rest at all; so that in the praises and vigils of God none were found before her, no one more learned in the wisdom of the law of God, more lowly in humility, more elegant in singing, more perfect in all virtue. She was indeed steadfast, immovable, unchangeable, and daily advancing to perfection…She was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law. (2)

So in brief, this is the history we know of the preparation for the young girl, Mary, to become the Most-Holy Theotokos. Her whole life was completely dedicated to God. She lived away not only from the outright evils of this world, but also from the seemingly innocent distractions which take our attention away from God.

But what were her qualities of soul? In today’s Gospel, we heard Christ say of Mary of Bethany the following words, “Mary hath chosen the good part which shall not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). This is what Mary the Theotokos did when she was brought as a child to the Temple. She swiftly went up the stairs in the temple without looking back, and she did not seek her parents. This amazed both her parents, and the priests; even at such an early age she exercised her will, and made a resolute decision. She chose the good part – as Mary of Bethany did in the Gospel today. The young child Mary steadfastly chose to dedicate her whole life to God. And there is also a tradition that during her time in the Temple when she had come to understand the need of the Messiah for Israel, the Theotokos prayed to be worthy to be the handmaiden of the woman who would bear the Christ. So she abounded in humility. As even the Apocryphal Gospel of St. Matthew says: she was “more lowly in humility” than the other virgins. This is also testified to in the Gospel of St. Luke, where Mary declares in the Magnificant that God has “reguarded the humility of His handmaiden” (Luke 1:48).

Now let us turn to the Great Father of our Church, St. Gregory Palamas, who gives us some insight into the qualities of the Theotokos in his Homilies on this Feast. (3) In order to gain a proper understanding of his comments, we must consider who he was. St. Gregory was at first a simple monastic. Later he was called upon to defend Orthodoxy. And finally he was also consecrated a bishop. In his simple monastic life he lived in a similar way as the Theotokos did in the Temple. He especially applied himself to a life of solitude, silence, fasting, and unceasing prayer. He experienced the fruits of this asceticism, which were the vision of God, and an experience of God’s life. So when St. Gregory reflects upon the life of the Theotokos in the Temple and writes his homilies for this Feast, he speculates as to the surpassing state of purity she acquired and the abundance of grace she must have experienced. Because she began this life as a pure child at the age of three, whereas he, who experienced so much grace of the Holy Spirit, began this ascetic practice at the age of 19.

So St. Gregory tells us that during her time in the temple, and study of the Sacred Scriptures, the Theotokos came to understand the fall of man, and the need of the Savior to come into the world. She had pity on the whole race of Adam which was in need of redemption, and was resolved to pray for the coming of the Messiah. And in seeking to discover what was most beneficial for her as an intercessor, she came to understand that solitude, stillness of thoughts, and unceasing interior prayer were needed. St Gregory says that in this way she found a new way of ascent to God. And he comes to the conclusion that she saw the glory of God more clearly than Moses.

What does this tell us about her? It tells us two things. First, her purity of heart. St. Gregory testifies that such experiences are given to those who have already purified their hearts by sacred silence. And the Lord Himself says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mat. 5:8). Second, and even more important is her love for us. The Theotokos had pity on the whole race of Adam because of our fallen condition, and she dedicated herself to prayer for us. She resolutely set herself in the position of intercessor for the human race. This implies a great love. And here we should also note that she did not only enter the Holy of Holies once per year, but she was permitted to enter as often as she desired in order to pray. And there, in that earthly place of atonement, she sacrificed herself in prayer for us.

So these are the things for which we should admire Mary, the Theotokos. Not because she was daily given bread by an angel, or because saw the glory of God better than Moses, or because of the other visitations of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which it is said she experienced while in the Temple. But because from an early age she chose the good part, and with a firm resolve wholly followed God. Because of her depth of humility that caused God to look upon her. Because of the surpassing state of purity she acquired through the struggle of stillness, and unceasing prayer. And because of her love for us which has made her a mediator for our race, and our Mother in Christ. If through remembering these things we can increase our love for her, she will surely fervently intercede for us. And through her prayers we shall be provided with an entrance into the kingdom of her Son, Who is our good God, together with His Father Who is without beginning, and His all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, throughout the endless ages, world without end. Amen

(1)The source for the information we have for the Life of the Virgin Mary is primarily the Liturgical Services of the Orthodox Church found mostly in the monthly Menaion. The Liturgical Services draw on early Christian traditions which have been preserved in the ancient Apocryphal Gospels that are referredj to by scholars as The Protevangelion of James, and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Translations of these Apocryphal Gospels by Alexander Walker are found in Volume 8 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956] pages 361-383.

(2) The Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, Chapter 6. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8 pg. 371.

(3) An English translation of these homilies is found in Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas, edited by Christopher Veniamin, South Canaan, PA, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2005. These Homilies are the prime source of information for the following paragraphs.

 

Archimandrite on Psychology: The Background

Archimandrite Sophrony on Psychology: The Background

After the last post I received some critique in the form of personal correspondence from a few friends. That is, what was published was perceived as harsh towards the field of psychology and there was a concern that it could deter people from receiving healing. This has motivated me to make some comments and give some background.

In the last article I put forward the words of Fr. Sophrony and made a point of trying to say nothing myself. I thought: “Who am I to critique a comment of Fr. Sophrony? I should only let him speak.” This was a mistake, because the quotations present a partial picture  which lacked a background. The quotes listed in the last post were originally published by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. It certainly appears that these were quotes from personal conversations with the Elder when he was a young hieromonk. When the Metropolitan published them in his book, they were already taken out of original context once, and then when I republished them again, they were removed another step from that original context. So now allow me to give some background, and expand on my brief comments in the first post on this subject.

It is sad to see the growing trust in Psychology in the Church. By virtue of my interactions within the Church it seems quite apparent that among a good number of our clergy, psychology is the prime source of pastoral counseling while the ascetic tradition of the Church is secondary, and by some it may even be overlooked. In our seminaries one of the subjects taught is pastoral theology. However, a desirable qualification to teach this subject is a degree in psychology; and it is not unknown to have a non-clergy psychologist teaching pastoral theology to our future priests.

The healing offered by psychology can help abnormal people function in this world. They achieve success in this, but our world is abnormal, it is fallen, we await redemption. However, in the Orthodox ascetic tradition, the healing of the soul is something much more, it is of much more grandeur. It is concerned with eternal life and is the process of deification—union with God.

Since Fr. Sophrony spoke of a differing anthropology in relation to these two disciplines, I would like to also comment on this. In his book, “Orthodox Spiritual Life, According to St. Silouan the Athonite” Harry Boosalis writes simply and clearly concerning Orthodox Anthropology. This will also further explain the Orthodox concept of deification and healing:

Orthodox anthropology teaches that man is created to participate in the life of God. This is the essential meaning of the Scriptural account of the creation of man, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness… So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him…” (Gen. 1:26-7) (p. 27)

For Orthodox anthropology, the term “image” has a different meaning from the term “likeness”. “Image may be seen as the potential inherent in man for sanctification, while “likeness” refers to its perfection. Or in other words, one could say “image” implies “potentiality”, whereas “likeness” implies “actuality”. (Here Harry adds a footnote: Elder Sophrony alludes to this distinction between image and likeness, “When it is God’s good pleasure to unite with the human being, man perceives within himself the action of a Divine force which transfigures him and makes him no longer just potentially godlike—in the image of God—but actually godlike in likeness of being.” Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 184) (p.29)

Man was not originally created in a state of completed perfection. He was, however, endowed with the unique freedom to choose either to live in pursuit of achieving his full potential, or else to digress toward the desecration and defacement of his true dignity as man. Only through the proper use of his God-given freedom can man cooperate with divine grace in restoring the image of God within him and attain to the likeness with God for which he was created…. (pp. 29-30)

According to Orthodox teaching, sanctification—which is also referred to as perfection, theosis or deification—is not to understood as a static state, where man maintains or preserves a particular high level of spiritual virtues. The human person is called to grow ceaselessly and progress continually into the likeness of God. Thus, perfection has no limits. It continuously advances, not only on earth, but also in the life to come. (p. 30)

Thus in Orthodoxy, anthropology, healing the soul, and deification are all inseparable. When, in the first post on this subject, I quoted Fr. Sophrony as saying, “The way for me is straight ahead” he speaks of the ascetic struggle which leads to what is said in the above quote from Harry’s footnote: “When it is God’s good pleasure to unite with the human being, man perceives within himself the action of a Divine force which transfigures him and makes him no longer just potentially godlike—in the image of God—but actually godlike in likeness of being.” If this is achieved, the soul is healed in a way that surpasses all the good that psychology has to offer.

I have attempted to give a little background to the last post. I hope this makes the comments of Fr. Sophrony more understandable and acceptable.

Archimandrite Sophrony on Psychology

Archimandrite Sophrony on Psychology

This is something of a follow up on the last post. Here I will be simply listing quotes of Archimandrite Sophrony taken from the book, “I Know a Man in Christ”, by Metrtopolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos, published by, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2015. Therefore at the end of each quote only a page number will be designated. In addition I will tack on an ending which I choose to refer to as “epilogue”.

People’s growing love of psychology is a terrible thing. Psychology helps those in the West, but it is a dreadful when the Orthodox learn psychology and substitute it for the neptic tradition of the Church. We must undermine Orthodox Christians’ love of psychology, because psychological methodology is outside the Orthodox tradition and, at the same time, it is characterized by the Western mentality. (p.269)

The whole of the West was influenced by St. Augustine. Augustinian theory is rather psychological; it deals with God psychologically. In Greece today there is a noticeable trend towards psychology, which is why St. Augustine is studied so much. St. Augustine may be a saint, but his work is subject to much exploitation. (p.345)

There is a great difference between the Orthodox and Western traditions. Psychology is adjusted to the Western tradition, so it differs enormously from the Orthodox tradition. (p. 358)

I am sorry about those spiritual fathers who assert that the spiritual life is not enough and psychology is also necessary. (p.368)

Human psychology uses different anthropology. It is more or less heretical. It is dangerous. It is bad that it is used by spiritual fathers. To a certain extent it helps those who have no experience to understand other people, but it does harm. Spiritual things also have psychological repercussions, as can be seen when one looks at the Orthodox and the Latins. But psychological things are not spiritual as well. (p.364)

Psychology and the spiritual life have different starting points; their anthropology is different. However, we cannot overlook psychology, which mainly helps people who are atheists and do not want to use the hesychastic tradition of the Church. It is a remedy for people who are far from the living God and are in terrible torment. It should be used discreetly and wisely. Medication may help the body that has suffered serious harm from various problems, but the cure will come through man’s regeneration by the grace of God. The soul’s wounds are cured by means of prayer. (p. 227)

The view that everything Psychological is also spiritual, and everything spiritual is also psychological is a deadly danger. It is very dangerous for us to regard people’s psychological problems as spiritual states. Such a view is a blasphemy against God. The exact opposite ought to happen, that is to say, we ought to make a distinction between spiritual life and psychological life. (p. 358)

In all our years in the Monastery here is England, I have never met anyone who was cured through psychoanalysis, although it is highly developed in Western societies, However, to be fair, neurologist and doctors who give drugs to patients are more humble than psychoanalysts, and they help people to become socially balanced. They also help those within the Church, when they have problems of a neurological nature for various reasons. (p. 358)

The observations of psychology with regard to human beings are significant, because they explain that beyond the rational faculty there is something more profound. Psychological analysis, however, are infantile compared with the teaching of the Fathers of the Church. Although the observations of psychology are significant, the therapeudic method that it offers is awful. Psychoanalysis does not cure man; rather it confuses him even more. (p. 358)

One ought not to ‘spy’ on oneself, but to have profound repentance. (p. 286)

There is a difference between psychology and life in Christ. Psychology attempts to deliver man from guilt complexes, whereas in life in Christ we experience grief, pain, on account of being far from God, and we do not stop repenting until this grief is transformed. (pp. 343-4)

Epilogue:
A priest who studied psychology in the 1980’s both read the former post and worked together with me on this in that he found the quotes listed above. As we discussed the subject at hand he made some interesting observations: “Psychology today, no longer has a guiding star; it has nothing outside itself to look to as a model. It is self-absorbed. Whatever pleases a person, he can do. It has acquired the ethic of the culture it exists in.”

Spiritual Fatherhood and Modern Psychology: Thought for Consideration

Spiritual Fatherhood and Modern Psychology: Thoughts for Consideration

In writing about this subject I have both fear and compassion: fear because of my lack of qualification to make a sophisticated analysis. Yet being aware of growing trust in the field within the Church, I am stirred with compassion in concern for the Orthodox faithful. So this is not a sophisticated analysis, but I will share some thoughts for consideration on this subject, most of which are quotations from others. It must be noted, however, that the final conclusion is meant to be a general statement and is not meant to be an absolute for each person.

Archimandrite Sophrony teaches that just as in the Liturgy during the Cherubimic Hymn the priest prays, “No one is worthy” [that is, to perform the Divine Liturgy], so also no one is capable of being a spiritual father. He further explains that this is so because a spiritual father is a co-worker with God in the creation of immortal gods. Here, of course, his is implying our call to deification. He, and others that I have conversed with on this subject, have stressed the fact that a spiritual father must be a man of prayer. Although it is necessary to be familiar with the ascetic tradition of the Church, and things that one has read may come to mind, above all a spiritual father must be seeking God’s help through prayer. So now, let me go on to share a few thoughts for consideration:

I posed the following question to a father from Athos who wished to remain unidentified (He was a doctor before becoming a monastic): I have run across priests in the Church who rely much on modern psychology in their counseling. Is it possible for us to turn to psychology? He answered:

We trace the teachings of our holy fathers back to the fourth century but psychology has its roots only back to the 16th or 17th century in the non-Orthodox West. In psychology they do discover some things that are useful but our fathers already knew these things for over a millennium. In the West there is a problem: it is believed that the thoughts and mind are one. However, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church the mind and thoughts are not one, but two; and the mind must be cleansed of wrong thoughts that pass through it.

The development of psychology can be traced to problems in Western Christianity in reference to salvation. In Catholicism salvation is a black and white systematic observance of rules and the performance of good works. This is said to give each person their own merit towards the salvation of one’s soul. In Protestantism salvation is thought to be only a matter of a confession of faith. And it is believed therefore that your name is written in the Book of Life. But in Orthodoxy salvation is a process of working to cleanse the inner man. In this process there are three stages of grace, the first is that of cleansing, the second enlightenment, and the third perfection which is rare. We must repent and become cleansed of our wrong thoughts and sins, and then the mind can become enlightened by receiving thoughts of God.

Psychology evolved in the West because Christians in the West do not understand the need of cleansing the thoughts. The thoughts that go through one’s mind can drive one to a state of mental illness, and so psychology tries to keep the mind occupied with other things in order to avoid this. Psychologists can therefore sometimes be helpful in keeping someone from going further into mental illness, but psychology cannot actually heal the soul.

In reference to this something was said by a novice at my former monastery. He quoted a relative of his who works as a psychologist and has written books in this field. His relative commented: “We psychologists are like a sponge. We soak up people’s problems but we cannot heal them.”

When I was a deacon, a young man who visited our monastery had just received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I asked him: “Is it a good idea for me as a spiritual father to study some psychology for this ministry?” He answered: “No, you will learn nothing new for your spiritual ministry, but it will help you to be able to correct their errors.”

One priest told me of a friend of his who suggested he read a book on psychology. This man told him that although everything in the book was not proper teaching, there were some good points. This priest said this man was indeed very perceptive in what he saw. However he noticed a change in this man’s way of thinking from having read the book. He became very skeptical, and through deductive reasoning, sought proofs and systematic explanations for matters of faith. He sought to analyze and give rational explanations for mysteries of faith which cannot be subject to this. As a result of this, his simple faith was harmed.

I know a former priest who at one time was very enthusiastic about a parishioner who was a psychologist and whose forte was group therapy. He introduced this practice at his parish and began reading books on psychology. He had personal struggles in his marriage and as a result of his reading in psychology, he concluded that what he needed was a real relationship with a “good” woman. He wound up leaving the priesthood and his wife, and remarried.

In a conversation with Bishop Basil Rodzianko (a large section in the popular book Everyday Saints is dedicated to him) he commented: “Both the Church and psychology agree that guilt will drive a man crazy. In the Church we deal with this through repentance but in psychology they try to use other methods”

Someone I am acquainted with and who spent some time at Holy Transfiguration Monastery at Elwood City, Pennsylvania, told me the following: I was having some difficulty with anger, and our chaplain, Fr. Roman, was away. I told a visiting priest of my struggle. He said I needed to go through the past and heal the inner child. This priest thought therapy would be helpful. When Fr. Roman returned I asked him if I should do this and he replied, “No, you will only give tools to the demons.”

I believe Fr. Roman was concerned about reintroducing old temptations and breaking open old wounds. I learned from a psychologist that their aim in this is to remove stumbling blocks from the past which can cause abnormal behavior. This brings up a question: Which approach is the best? I will offer some reflections and let the readers decide for themselves.

Speaking of recalling the past brings to mind a letter of the 20th century elder, Fr. John of Valaamo. Concerning memory he writes:

Imagination and memory are one inner sense. Sometimes the memory of former events hits us on the head like a hammer. At such time concentrated prayer is needed, and patience too. Our memory must be filled by reading the Holy Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; in other words, the mind should not be idle. Former events must be replaced by other thoughts, and gradually the former recollections will be crowded out and the melancholy will pass. In one heart two masters cannot live together. (Christ is in our Midst, Letters from a Russian Monk, p. 30)

Something else says with some relation to this:

When I visited St. John the Baptist Monastery in England I had the blessing of speaking with Fr. Sophrony. I had questions written down which the Abbot, Fr. Kyril, read to him ahead of time. When we sat down to talk Fr. Sophrony first asked me: “Where did you study psychology?” I was amazed to hear him say that, and it is true that I did have one semester of psychology in college, for which I had an avid interest. He felt I was over-examining and over-analyzing myself. He stated: There are some who have done this and have become saints (I think he had St. John Climacus in mind who in his Ladder of Divine Ascent examined the passions and spoke of the action of virtue in detail) and Father continued: “This was not the way for St. Silouan and this is not the way for us. The way for me is straight ahead.”

Let me comment on the words: “The way for me is straight ahead.” St. Seraphim has said that the aim of Christian life is to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. We do need to be aware of our faults and confess them. But rather than trying to examine and fix everything that appears to be wrong with us, we should go straight ahead and seek to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit. As we grows in the grace of God the hold that the passions have on us will lessen. All our weaknesses and sicknesses of soul will also become easier to bear. The above mentioned words of the Elder John of Valaamo are quite applicable if we replace the word “memory” with “soul” and “melancholy” with “passions, etc.”:

Our memory [or soul] must be filled by reading the Holy Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; in other words, the mind should not be idle. Former events must be replaced by other thoughts, and gradually the former recollections will be crowded out and the melancholy [or passions etc.] will pass. In one heart two masters cannot live together.

Psychology has a different approach. One hieromonk who studied at St. Tikhon’s commented: “Psychology is a secular form of Eastern religion. Psychologists try to put all the parts in the right place.” They can even appear to perfect that which according to the image of God is in one’s self. But, Fr. Sophrony comments, concerning those who experience some state of perfection in Eastern religion: “The God of all is not in this.”

In conclusion I leave you with a comment by Archimandrite Sophrony: “Psychology is not profitable for those in the Church. A spiritual father helps those who come to him because he has gone through similar struggles and has learned from what he has suffered.”

The Protection of the Most-Holy Theotokos

Yesterday was the Protection of the Most-Holy Theotokos on the new calendar, and so, what follows is a ser5mon on this feast taken from the book: “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee.

The Protection of the Most-Holy Theotokos

“Today the Virgin standeth forth in the church, and with the choirs of the saints she invisibly prayeth to God for us”. (1)  Beloved of God, these few words from the hymnography of today’s feast declares to us the point that the Church wants to impress upon us in its institution of this commemoration. Today we are remembering, and celebrating, a particular historical event.  We are commemorating one of a number of revelations of the intercession and protection of the Mother of God for us.

On this day, in the year 911, St. Andrew the fool for Christ, and his disciple St. Epiphanius, saw the Mother of God standing in the Blachernae Church of Constantinople.  She was suspended in the air, praying for the protection of the imperial city which was on the verge of being attacked.

That which they saw, as was said, was a revelation.  It was not a vision of something abstract and in need of interpretation, but it was something quite palpable, something actual, a fact, and so a revelation of something real.  It was the manifestation of a particular truth, that is, the intercession and protection of the Mother of God.  The people of Constantinople had gathered in the Blachernae Church beseeching help for their city which was about to be besieged.  They were in jeopardy, and the Mother of God was praying for the people.  As we know, the city of Constantinople was protected and saved from destruction through her prayers.  Therefore, this feast is called the Protection of the Theotokos.  Yet this intercession and protection of the Mother of God is not something abstract, nor is it something of the past, lost in history, and no longer active.  On the contrary it is something real and active, and not only in one great church, or in churches at large, or in some particular holy places, nor is it limited to some number of elect holy people.  But the intercession and protection of the Mother of God is something real and active everywhere and for everyone.  And although she may help us in physical danger as in the historical background of today’s feast, or assist in material needs, her help is foremost and primarily in connection with those things that lead to salvation.

For just as Our Lord, according to the Apostle Paul, “desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (ITim. 2:4), so does our Most Pure Lady desire the same.  And what is the source of this desire of hers?  Her love for the people, her love for the people of God.  In her love she surpasses all, not only all of mankind but even all the ranks of the angelic hosts.  For she is the highest of all creation, having contained within herself one of the Holy Trinity, God the Word, to Whom she gave birth.  Therefore she also possesses greater grace of the Holy Spirit than all.  So her natural human goodness, which she nurtured and developed as far as one could, empowered by this grace, makes her love for God and the people greater than all.  Perhaps this is why in the Post- Communion Prayers we call her the “tenderhearted, loving Mother of the merciful God”. (2)

Let us take a few minutes to reflect upon this: Mary, one of our own race, and the Mother of God, loves us.  She loves us greatly.  She desires our salvation.  She painfully longs for our salvation.  She intercedes for us, and as with heartfelt sighs she pleads for our salvation.  This is something we should never forget.  It is something we should ever be aware of.  So let us now consider: How should we react to this great love of the Mother of God for us?  It is certainly impossible for us not to love her in return.  And how can we express this, our love, for the Mother of God?  By working, by struggling for that which she desires more than anything else.  And what is it that she desires more than anything else?  Our salvation, just as God does, so does she desire that “all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”.

So we must struggle to work out our salvation.  How?  We know the difference between good and evil.  We must reject all evil and fulfill all the good we know, then, the good that we do not know will be revealed to us.  And so we shall have an ascent in the understanding and fulfillment of the precepts of the gospel which are words of eternal life.  Let us strive for our salvation and not disappoint the Mother of God who loves us so much.  Let us avoid all sin.  For through sin we disappoint the Mother of God, and we must admit that we thus hurt her.  Would any of us here want to hurt the Mother of God who loves us so much?  Of course not!  So let us make her glad.  Let us make our way of life a cause of joy to the Mother of God.  Let us be aggressive in that which is good.  Let us not be self-satisfied or stagnant in whatever state we are in, for salvation is an unending process of growth in the likeness of God.  So let us struggle to ever increase in all good, in purity, in humility, in love — things in which the Mother of God abounded.  Thus we shall be a cause of joy to the Mother of God and through her intercessions we shall be given the grace of the Holy Spirit.  And if we preserve and grow in this grace we ourselves can become as a God-bearer.  Not that we give birth like a parent but that we give birth to God in our very being, that is, that we carry or contain God within ourselves.  If God thus lives within us when we pass from this life, this state of grace shall make for us an entrance into of the kingdom of heaven, because when we appear before God He will recognize us as one of His own.

Let us, therefore, strive for this grace which is available to us.  For what in this world can be compared to this grace in value?  Is there anything so precious, so valuable, as having God perceptibly live within us?  Why should any of us immerse ourselves in the life of this world with its pleasures, its comforts, its entertainments, when God is ready to give us a participation in His life?  What is so demeaning as to immerse ourselves in the things of this world when we can participate in the uncreated divine energy of God, which is His life?  We shall be judged, so let us do what is right.  Let us remember how the Mother of God is always praying for us, and so in our actions let us ever do good deeds, and in our minds let us be ever immersed in the things of God.  If we do this, God will not forsake us, and when we depart from this life He shall receive us into His heavenly kingdom.  There, together with the Mother of God and all the saints, we shall glorify Him throughout the endless ages, world without end.  Amen.

(1) The Menaion of the Orthodox Church, trans. Reader Isaac E. Lambertsen, Vol. II October, Liberty, Tennessee, The St. John of Krondstadt Press, 1999, p. 11

(2) The fifth Prayer of Thanksgiving after Holy Communion, to the Most Holy Theotokos.  Translation is from the Slavonic.

 

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Today is the fast of the Nativity of the Theotokos on the Old Calendar.  Therefore I am posting a sermon on today’s feat from the book,”O Full of Grace Glory to Thee”.

The Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos

Today is a day of great rejoicing for the Righteous Joachim and Anna, also for the whole Church, and, as the troparion of the feast says, “for all the inhabited earth” (1).  Saints Joachim and Anna, rejoice because Anna who was formerly barren, now gives birth to a child, a daughter, Mary.  The Church and all the earth rejoices, for this child that is born is she who is to become the Mother of our God.  She shall give birth to a Son, Who is God, God Who becomes man.  He Who was the pre-eternal God has prepared for Himself a mother, a mother who will give birth to Him according to the flesh.

So today is a day for us to rejoice in the birth of her who is a bridge between heaven and earth.  Because it was through her that God descended from His heavenly throne, and appeared on earth as a man.  Today is a day for us to rejoice, for she is born who is to become our offering to God, through whom He will put into motion His plan for the propitiation of the sins of the whole inhabited earth.  She is born who is the one human being, the one person in the history of the human race, upon whom God the all-sufficient, depended upon in order to effect our salvation.  Therefore the whole inhabited earth rejoices today.

And today we also learn from the Righteous Joachim and Anna a very good lesson about our life in Christ.  We can take them as a model of the Christian struggle, and as an example of hope, and perseverance in trials.  Saints Joachim and Anna were distinguished for their pious and righteous manner of life.  Just as with the parents of John the Baptist, Saints Zacharias and Elisabeth, we could also say, “they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.  But they had no child” (Luke 1.6-7) (2).  For the Jews, childlessness was a matter of reproach, it was thought that such a couple were for some reason rejected by God.  So their barrenness was a very painful trial for them.  Although they lived in a righteous manner, yet God had withheld children from them.  They must have thought: Why is this so?  Why are we being cursed by God?

And this trial or Cross of theirs reached its peak when Saint Joachim, on bringing an offering to God in the temple, was rebuked by one of his fellow Israelites for his childlessness.  Yet at this affront, the Righteous couple did not rebel against God, nor did they become bitter and complain as many people do in the midst of trials.  But they humbly accepted everything that had come upon them, and they did not lose hope.  They turned to God in fervent prayer.  The Righteous Joachim went off into the hill country, and with prayer and fasting besought God to take away their reproach, while Saint Anna lamented at home in her garden.  And an angel of God appeared to each informing them that they would bear a child.  To Joachim the angel said, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer.  Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive” (3). And to Anna the angel said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shalt bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world” (4).

This is a pattern of what often happens in our lives: we seem to be crushed in one way or another, we seem to be deprived of God’s grace, and we feel are unable to endure any more.  Yet this is often a prelude to something good that God wants to give us, but He is first putting us through a test.  He proves us to see if we are prepared to receive what He has in store for us.  So then, when we face various sorrows, sufferings and pains, whether of body or soul, we must be patient and not lose hope.  Rather we should turn to God, and sit as His feet, as Mary of Bethany did in today’s Gospel lesson, entreating Him with fervent prayer.  For fruit will come.  And all the more if we are able add fasting to our waiting on the Lord with prayer.  But we do not look for fruit as something external, something material, but we must look for fruit within ourselves, fruit in our souls, in our hearts.  What we really should desire, as a fruit of our trials in this life, is to give birth to the grace of God in our hearts.  And this grace will, so-to-speak, bring forth children, that is, the fruits of the Spirit of which the Holy Apostle Paul writes: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22-23).  And it may be that God will not take away our trials, but rather it may happen that in the midst of our tribulations we experience the fruits of the Spirit within ourselves.  Then the trials we experience will be as nothing.  And even both of these must be considered gifts from God, that is, both the experience of suffering in trials, and the experience of interior consolation in the midst of these trials.

So let us take the example of the hope and perseverance of the Righteous Joachim and Anna as a model for us, and as we rejoice today in this Feast, let us also be ready for whatever trials may come upon us to seal our faith in God.  As we rejoice today, let us turn to the Mother of God on this day of her birth, and ask her for a gift.  And what gift should we be looking for?  Perseverance, hope, and patience in the trials that come upon us, and then we shall also bring forth the other fruits of the Spirit spoken of by the Apostle.  Through the prayers of His most pure Mother may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us, and adorn us with the fruits of His Holy Spirit.  And if we are thus adorned we shall have an entrance into His heavenly kingdom, to ever rejoice in the vision of the Holy Trinity, together with the Most-Holy Theotokos, and all the saints throughout the endless ages, world without end.  Amen.

 

(1) The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969, p.107.

(2) King James Version.  All Scripture passages are quoted from this version except for the Psalms, which are taken from The Psalter, According to the Seventy.  Holy Transfiguration Monastery, translators.  (Brookline, Massachusetts: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1974.)

(3) The Protevangelium of James, Chapter 4, in the translation of Alexander Walker, as found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8 (Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), page. 362.

(4) Ibid.

 

The Theotokos and St. Dionysius the Aeropagite

As today is the Leaving-taking of the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on the Old Calendar I would like to present here the account of St. Dionysius the Aeropagite’s encounter with her. This is in a letter of his preserved in the Great Collection of the Lives of Saints of the Orthodox Church on the feast of the Dormition. So then, after meeting with her, thus did St. Dionysius write to his “great leader”, the holy Apostle Paul:

I tell you as if I were standing in front of God, for me, our great leader, it was beyond any doubt, that aside from the Most High God, there could be nothing, which is so filled with heavenly power and marvelous grace [as Mary], and still it is impossible for a human mind to perceive what I saw with my own eyes. It was not with the eyes of my soul only but with my bodily eyes – I, with my own eyes, saw the most beautiful, the most holy Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ who exceeds all the heavenly hosts in her holiness. This gift was granted to me by the grace of God, as an honor by the company of the apostles, and also as an unspeakable kindness and compassion of the merciful Virgin herself. And again I testify in front of the omnipotence of God, in front of the grace of the Savior, and in front of the great glory of the Virgin, His Mother. When I, with John—the first among the evangelists and the prophets, who, while living in the flesh, shines like the sun in the sky—was led inside to the beautiful and the most pure Virgin, then a great heavenly radiance that enlightened my soul, poured over me, at the same time I sensed such wonderful fragrance that my spirit and body were hardly able to bear this manifestation of glory and foretaste of eternal bliss. My heart and my spirit were enervated from Her heavenly grace. Let God, who abode in the most pure womb, be my witness, that I would have recognized her for the true God and venerated Her with worship appropriate only to God if the newly illumined soul of mine would not have preserved inside you heavenly instructions and laws. No honor and glory of men who were glorified by God can be compared with the bliss that I, the unworthy one experienced and was honored with at the time. This time was a time of the greatest bliss for me. I thank my most high and most blessed God, the heavenly Virgin, John, who is great among the Apostles, and you as well who is the adornment of the church and the invincible leader, who all so mercifully showed me such a great favor.

Through the prayers of His most pure Mother, St. Dionysius the Aeropagite, and all the saints, may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us. Amen! ( O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee pp. 84, 86)

The Apostle Paul and Knowledge of God

The Apostle Paul and knowledge of God

I am writing this as something of a supplement to my last post: “Do you know the Lord”.  I want to continue to say something about the erroneous notions of spiritual life among those who come into the Church from Protestant, Charismatic or Pentecostal backgrounds.  It is the holy Apostle Paul whom I would like to take as an example since it is he that many of the above mentioned claim to be following.  St. Paul is honored by the Church as one of the greatest of the Apostles.  He is commemorated together with the Apostle Peter while the remainder of the apostles are remembered the next day.  Despite his prominence, he was still mortal, he was still a man, and actually a great sinner.  He was a persecutor of the Church and participated in the murder of St. Stephen.  However, he writes to Timothy:  “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (ITim. 1:16)  So let us now look to him as a pattern of repentance, and the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit together with knowledge of God.  In doing this I will both look at the Scriptural information we have on the Apostle Paul and make reference to the book “St. Silouan the Athonite” by Archmandrite Sophrony

While journeying to Damascus with the intent of persecuting the Christians there, Paul (then Saul) was called by our Lord Jesus Christ.  We read in the Acts:

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:  And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?  And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.  And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.  And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. (9:3-7)

We read that the other travelers heard a voice by saw “no man”.  It was the Apostle Paul only who saw the Light and spoke directly with the Lord.  This was surely an experience of the self-same Light that shone on Mount Tabor—the Uncreated Light; the experience of which has continued until this day among chosen ascetics of the Orthodox Church.  But what did the Apostle Paul experience within?  We can make a comparison with the experience of St. Silouan the Athonite.

While still a novice and in a struggle with depression during a Vespers service he beheld the living Christ at His icon on the iconostasis.  Archimandrite Sophrony relates that a great light shone around St. Silouan, and in spirit he was transported to heaven and received a new birth from on high.  Archimandrite Sophrony further points out concerning Silouan that: “Again and again in his writings he repeats that he knew the Lord by the Holy Spirit, that he saw God in the Holy Spirit.  He also used to declare that when the Lord appears to the soul, the soul cannot help recognizing in Him her Creator and God.”  We also know from this saint’s writings that he was taught the love of God directly by the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul likewise recognized the Lord, for he said, “Who art Thou Lord?”  But what happened within him? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8)  Could we rightly conclude that it was an experience very similar to that of St. Silouan?  I believe so, especially when we consider how the Apostle Paul affirms that the Gospel he preached came: “by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:12)  He further relates that God was pleased to reveal His Son in him. (cf. Gal. 1:15-6)  Now I pose a question for us to ponder: Did he immediately assimilate this experience of grace and so at once exist in a spiritually mature state?

I would like to begin to answer the question turning to Archimandrite Sophrony and the Chapter “Grace and Consequent Dogmatic Consciousness” from his book: St. Silouan the Athonite.  He writes:

The history of the Church together with personal contact with many ascetics has led me to the conclusion that the experience of grace in those who have been granted visitations and visions is only assimilated deeply after years of ascetic endeavour; grace then taking the form of spiritual knowledge that I should prefer to define as ‘dogmatic consciousness’ (but not in the academic sense of the term).1 (p. 185)

The historical experience of the Church, in which I include the Apostles and the Holy Fathers both ancient and modern, makes it possible to calculate this period of assimilation as lasting at least fifteen years.  Thus St. Paul’s first Epistle (to the Thessalonians) was written some fifteen years after the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus….Most of the Holy Fathers acquainted the world with their visions and experiences only when their ascetic course was nearing its close.  More than thirty years elapsed before the Staretz set down in writing, with final and mature dogmatic consciousness, his own experience.  The assimilation of grace is a lengthy process…. (pp. 185-6)

In general, the process is as follows: the initial experience of Divine visitation strikes a man to the core and draws his whole being into the inner life of prayer and struggle against the passion. (p. 188)

This is ongoing repentance which is characteristic to Orthodox life.  In our Holy Fathers the spirit of repentance worked systematically and was ongoing.  It led them first from one degree of purification to another and continuing it led them from one degree of enlightenment to another.  And thus, they assimilated grace as “dogmatic consciousness”.  So we, if we accept the aforementioned teaching of Archimandrite Sophrony, we could rightly conclude that the Apostle Paul experienced this process of assimilation of grace which is a process of repentance.  This would have had its beginning during his time in Arabia of which he mentioned only briefly and about which he kept quiet. (cf. Gal. 1:17)  How did he spend his time there?  The Apostle Paul was a new convert.  He had recently persecuted the Church, blasphemed our Lord Jesus Christ and participated in the murder of St. Stephen.  Was he perhaps going through a period of deep repentance for his sins?  It is certainly logical for us to arrive at this conclusion.

It was many years later that the Apostle Paul began to write his epistles.  The estimation by scholars is that his first epistle was to the Thessalonians about the year 50AD.  He did write about practical matters that concerned the Church, but where do we find the fruit of his “dogmatic consciousness”?  It is in the prayers he offers for the early Christians.  Again I will make a comparison to St. Silouan.  The outcome of his vision of Christ was knowledge of the love of God for man.  St. Silouan had an experience of the love of God for man.  This engendered in him a desire for the salvation of all and he prayed fervently for all to be enlightened.  Let us take some examples of his prayers for his fellow men:

O merciful Lord, bestow Thy grace on all the peoples of the earth, that they man know Thee; for without Thy Holy Spirit man cannot know Thee and conceive of Thy love.  (p. 273)

O Lord, send Thy mercy on the children of the earth, whom Thou dost love, and give them to know Thee by the Holy Spirit.  With tears I implore Thee, hear my prayer for Thy children, and grant that all may know Thy glory through the Holy Spirit.  (p. 364)

Finally, I will quote those words which appear on icons of the saint:

I pray Thee, O merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit. (p. 274)

With his visitation from God, St. Silouan, found “a treasure hidden in a field” (Mat 13:34), and he longed to share it with “all the peoples of the earth.”

Let us go back to the Apostle Paul, we can similarly say of him that the outcome of his vision of Christ was knowledge of the love of God for man.  He had an experience of the love of God for man.  This engendered in him a desire for the salvation of all.  In his epistle to the Romans he writes: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”  (Rom. 9:3)   He also prayed fervently for all to be enlightened.  Let us take examples of his prayers for the early Christians:

I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from Whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which surpasseth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-9)

Since the day we heard it [that is, their faith in Christ], we do not cease to pray for you, and imploring that ye might be filled with the full knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual insight; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord in all things pleasing to Him, being fruitful in every good work, and growing into the full knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, Who hath enabled us to have a portion of the inheritance of the saints in light. (Col. 1:9-12)

And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in full knowledge and all perception so that distinguishing things that differ ye may approve what is excellent; that ye may be sincere and blameless in the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. (Php. 1:9-11)

The Apostle Paul also found “a treasure hidden in a field” (Mat. 13:34), and longed to share it with the Christians of the early Church.  So this is what we must consider: He was writing to the early Christians and was praying for them to have a further enlightenment.  Although they had accepted Christ they needed a further enlightenment, knowledge of God and experience of the love of God.  And if they were to have a deeper experience of such, it would still take years of struggling to assimilate this through repenting in an Orthodox manner.  So let us all sincerely and truthfully ask ourselves the question: “Do you know the Lord?”

1 In another place he says it “is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity”. (p.186)

 

 

 

 

Do you know the Lord?

Do you know the Lord?

In this post I want to say something about bringing the so-called, “saved Christians” into the Church. A problem often seen with any type of convert who comes into the Church is that they bring old baggage in with them. With the “saved Christians” one dangerous thing is their former concept of spiritual life. They accept Christ as their personal Savior, therefore they say know the Lord and are saved. They have an emotional enthusiasm and describe the atmosphere they find themselves in as spiritual. However what they experienced is an initial call to repentance; and what Orthodoxy says is the beginning, they imagine to be the end. And so, they have this idea that they know the Lord and are spiritual. Some of them, in coming into the Church limit themselves to changing a few doctrines only and bring such an idea of spiritual life along with them.

Those of us who would make a reply to such persons need to have a good foundation in the ascetic teaching of the Holy Fathers of our Church. We need to respond to these “saved” Protestants, also to the Pentecostals and Charismatics who sadly get carried away in their false conception of spiritual life. Therefore I would like very briefly, in a nutshell, to say something about the ascetic tradition of our Church.

I will try to do this as simply as possible with the hope of not becoming too technical for my readers. Our Holy Fathers teach that man is disparate which means two-part: body and soul. There are three aspects or powers of the soul, they are the intellectual, desiring and incensive aspects. This last is sometimes called the power of anger, “it can more generally be defined as the force provoking vehement feelings” (Philokalia Volume 1, p. 358). The intellectual is meant to rule over the other two and to be fed by and formed with the things of God. The power of desire should be turned away from worldly pleasure and turned to God, while the incensive should be used to fight sin and as zeal for God.

The mind is the inner power of the intellectual aspect of the soul; it functions in two ways. One way is rational, used for the things needed to be accomplished in this world, and the other way is contemplative. In the contemplative way the mind can come to be united with the heart, which is its true place before the fall. This is what the fathers term the spirit of man, that is, the intellectual aspect of the soul working in its highest capacity. This is the contemplative way just described. It is to worship God in spirit, but it is still human effort, the human spirit reaching out towards God and not a direct action of God within. Speaking of this, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakarov) teaches that when the old man has been crucified to a sufficient degree, a divine transformation takes place. This is a long process of purification through ascetic effort. It is then that the action of Another involuntarily wells up within, it is not my action but the action of The Other within me. It is the action (or energy) of God in which one can participate. It is then, that perhaps, one can humbly say he knows the Lord in some small degree.

The Commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council

A Sermon on the Sunday of the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Beloved of God, today we commemorate the holy fathers of the first ecumenical council. These holy fathers were defenders of the faith, they fought against heresy. They guarded the Church from the Arian heresy. So let us talk about this today. This false teaching arose in the early fourth century and it is called after its originator a man named Arius. Arius was from Lybia in Northern Africa. He was a priest and in charge of one of the principle churches in the city of Alexandria. Here he attained success as a preacher and was known for his asceticism. But he fell away from the truth he denied that our Lord Jesus Christ was true God—as the Creed says He is true God of true God. Rather he maintained that our Lord Jesus the Son of God was not eternal but created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world and therefore Arius taught that the Son was not God by nature, but a changeable creature.

It was because of these lies Arius was excommunicated by the Bishop of Alexandria, and then the holy fathers we commemorate this Sunday met in Nicaea in the year 325 and condemned Arius and his teaching. So this Arius who was a priest and a respected preacher and ascetic became a heretic and one of the greatest enemies of the truth in the history of the Church. He was one of those whom the apostle Paul spoke of in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard today. He said, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” (Act 20:29-31)

This is something that should cause us to fear for he spoke of those who would speak perverse things and draw away disciples after them. He spoke of both false teachers whom he called wolves coming from without, and even teachers from within like Arius who will draw the faithful away from the truth. We must fear and be watchful as the apostle said, we must be watchful and hold fast to the truth that the Church has preserved for us. For false teachers still appear today. In keeping watch over ourselves it is not only sin in the form of the transgression of the commandments that we need to fight against, but we must also reject everything which is foreign to the teaching of the Church in doctrine. So both our life and thought must be in harmony with that which we see in the tradition of the Church.

Let us again consider Arius, he was a member of the Church who was obviously in good standing and well thought of. For he was ordained a deacon by one of our saints, Peter of Alexandria, and then priest by St. Peter’s successor, and he was respected in this office but then he fell into heresy and is renown as an enemy of the Church and God. He was condemned by the council of the holy fathers we commemorate today and he remained in his error, he refused to repent and accept the truth. Why did he act thus? In his pride he listened to himself, he trusted himself; he did not humbly submit his ideas to the Church and listen to the Church.

This crucial for us today since in today’s world we Orthodox are a minority and we are bombarded with concepts contrary to our faith. Both in the world at large and in religious organizations there is pressure to keep up with the times, to be ever changing. For one to be innovative and invent something new is considered cute and admirable. To be speculative and opinionated, to express and cling to personal opinion is all seen as something praiseworthy. And this pattern or mode of thought creeps into the Church. It was in such a spirit and way of thought that Arius became a heretic and enemy of the Church.

So with today’s commemoration of the Holy fathers of the First Ecumenical Council we learn a lesson. We must be in humble submission to the teachings of the Church. Our opinions and concepts we may form must be checked by the Church. The Apostle Paul says something about this, he writes to the Corinthians: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”. (IICor. 10:4-5) Therefore we should confess that our opinions and concepts must be formed by the mind of the Church. We must cast down imaginations—that is, speculations and opinions and innovations—and make them captive and obedient to Christ.

This is what we must do if we want to fulfill the prayer that Christ offered to God the Father in today’s gospel. Christ said, “all Thine are Mine and Mine are Thine, sanctify them by Thy truth, Thy word is truth.” (John 17:10, 17) If we want to belong to God, if we do not want to be cast away like Arius, we must be in humble obedience to the doctrine taught by our Church which the Lord established. For as the apostle Paul writes to Timothy, the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth”. (I Tim. 3:15)

We should be aware of one more erroneous conception in our day which is based on another quote from today’s Gospel. Our Lord also prayed: “That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.” (John 17:21) There are many today who, on the pretext of brotherly love and a desire for the unification of separated Christians will make concessions to the truth. They believe it is a fulfillment of our Lord’s prayer, but in reality it is a defilement of the truth—the Orthodox Faith.

So Let us end with that little prayer we offer near the conclusion of our Vespers and Matins services: “Preserve, O God, the holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Christians unto the ages of ages”.