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)

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.”