Sunday before Nativity: A Sermon

Sunday Before Nativity: A Sermon


Beloved of God, this Sunday we commemorate the genealogy of our Lord according to the flesh, and all the righteous and prophets who announced the incarnation of our Lord.  We heard the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ from the gospel of St. Matthew.  Perhaps some of us at some time or another may have entertained the thought that it would be an honor to be of Jewish background; and so, a blood relative of our Lord according to the flesh.  Last week we commemorated the ancestors of our Lord and in the gospel reading we heard the parable of the great banquet.  In concluding the Lord said, “none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper.” (Luke 14:24)  Our Lord was foretelling the falling away of the Jews—His kin according to the flesh.

Yesterday, there was a gospel assigned for the Saturday before the Nativity in which our Lord said to the Jews, “There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.  And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:28-9) Again there is a foreshadowing of the fall of the Jews and the integration of the nations into the kingdom of God. So we can all become kin to God, this is what we want to talk about today, we can become kin to God through Christ Jesus.  For those who “have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him Who created him: there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:10-11)

Being in Christ supersedes all other bonds in this life including blood relations. By becoming a member of the Church, as the Apostle Paul says we have “come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.” (Heb. 12:22-4)  “Therefore we are now no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; which is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.  In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord: In whom we also are built together for a habitation of God through the Spirit.” (Eph. 3:19-22)

So then, we can all become kin to God or children of God, as St. John the Theologian tells us in his gospel: “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-3)  We have power to becomes sons or children of God. The term which St. John uses and is rendered either sons or children would be more accurately translated as young children.  This is a term of affection which implies a close relationship, and that is what we have with God.  This is why St. John exclaims elsewhere: Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the children of God: “Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.  And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.” (I John 3:1-3)

We must strive to be purified from sin, not only in deed, which is the first step but also in thought and then to be purified from the various passionate inclinations within us.  The latter is very rare, few saints completely attain to this, but we are called to move in that direction.  The apostle Paul tells us:  For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh:  (For 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. 10:3-5)  For our struggle is “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12)  And in continuing, the Apostle encourages us: “Therefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance.” (Eph.:12-18)

So let us take up this struggle according to our strength.  Let us seek to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rom. 12:2) and “to cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit.” (IICor. 7:1)  In proportion to the degree that we accomplish this, Christ will be born in our hearts, and become living and active.  Amen

The Appearance of Elder Ephraim and the anger of God (conclusion)

The Appearance of Elder Ephraim and the anger of God (conclusion)

Before continuing to write about “the anger of God” it must first be pointed out that this will be an inexact estimate.  This is because something is being written about God; and whenever we write about God, we immediately find ourselves greatly restricted.  Why? Because a creature is using human language to speak of the uncreated God Who is “without beginning, invisible, incomprehensible, indescribable, changeless”.(From the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great) So we will make an effort to be as accurate as we can.

I believe that as we begin consider our subject, it is best to start with the Gospel accounts of what is often referred to as “the cleansing of the Temple”.  I do this because I know of some who have used this event – which is recorded in all four Gospels – to justify their own anger.  St. John the Theologian records it near the outset of his Gospel; while the other three evangelists have it close to the end of Christ’s ministry on earth.  I will make some remarks based on commentaries of Sts. Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Theophylact and Augustine.

In considering the reactions of the Jewish leaders we could conclude that this was done twice.  In St. John’s Gospel, after our Lord’s cleansing of the Temple we read, “The Jews therefore answered and said unto Him,”What sign showest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these
things?” (John 2:18)  This appears to have taken place before our Lord’s many miracles and great renown, therefore they asked this question.  In the other evangelists’ account, the cleansing of the Temple occurs right after Palm Sunday which would have been preceded by the raising of Lazarus.  St. Mark tells us how the Jewish leaders reacted quite differently at that time: “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it, and sought how they might destroy Him: for they feared Him, for all the multitude was astonished at His teaching.” (Mark 11:18)  Note that none of the aforementioned commentators said Christ was angry. Instead, we see His divine authority, His harmony with God, and love for the Temple.  His action proved that He was not an adversary of God as He was accused of being. This can also be seen to foreshadow an end to the old worship and an indication of something new to come.

But how exactly should we understand this action of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Who is both God and man?  In becoming man our Lord Jesus Christ assumed not only our flesh but also a human soul.  This is mentioned a number of times in the Hymnology of the Church.  For instance, in the Vespers service this past Saturday evening (Tone 8) we sang: “We glorify Christ Who rose from the dead; for having assumed a soul and body, He cut the passions off from both.” (The Octoechos Volume IV, trans. Reader Isaac E. Lamberstein, p. 77)  In The Philokalia the three aspects or powers of the soul are defined as the intellectual, the appetitive or desiring, and the incensive aspects.  The incensive aspect “often manifests itself as wrath or anger, but [which] can more generally be defined as the force provoking vehement feelings”.  (The Philokalia Volume One, p.358)   However, if Christ God, Who cut off the passions of soul and body, uses this incensive force, does this mean that He was angry as we experience and understand it?  That the answer is no, should be obvious to us.  Among the evangelists it is only St. John who comments further on this event in which we see Christ using physical force.  St. John writes: “And his disciples remembered that it was written, ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up’[Ps. 68:9].” (John 2:17)

In another place in the Gospels we read regarding an encounter with the Pharisees: “And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 3:5).  This took place when Christ was about to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.  St. Mark did not say Christ was angry, but rather that He was grieved and looked upon them with anger.  Our Lord was grieved and used a stern expression of anger to rebuke their hardheartedness.  To further illustrate my point I shall turn to an event in the life of St. Paisius Velichkovsky:

Once, one of the brethren said to the starets, “Father, my thoughts tell me that you bear hatred toward me since you often rebuke me angrily in the brethren’s presence.”  The starets answered, “My beloved brother, to become angry and irritated is alien to the life of the Gospel.  If the divine Gospel commands us both to love our enemies and do good to them, then how can I possibly be hate my spiritual children? [No, it is impossible!] (1) And if I rebuke you angrily, then let God give you such anger as well.  I force myself to appear angered, although through God’s grace I never have anger or hate.”  The brother fell to the starets’ feet with tears, asking for forgiveness.  The starets would often tell the brethren, “I do not wish for anyone of you to fear me as a stern ruler, but for all of you to love me as a father, just as I love you as my spiritual children.” (Starets Paisii Velichkovskii, Sergii Chetverikov, trans. Vasily Lickwar and Alexander J. Lisenko, Nordland Publishing Company 1980, pp.154-5)

If this was so with a saint, then how much more is it true for our Lord Jesus Christ?

“People need love today.”  These are the words of Eldress Makrina of the convent Panagia the Directress at Portaria, Greece.  She was under the direction of St. Joseph the Hesychast and later Elder Ephraim. She once came to America to see her spiritual daughter, Eldress Taxiarchia, of the convent of the Birth of the Theotokos at Saxonburg, Pennsylvania.  This happened in the early 1990’s.  During my conversation with her, I told her that when I had previously spoken with Elder Ephraim at the convent, the nun who translated for us was quite nervous about doing so.  However, the Elder – recognizing this – looked at her with an expression of extreme love.  I believe that both the translator and I experienced similar feelings from his glance: he was like an icon of the love of Christ.  Mother Makrina remarked, “This happened because people need love today.”  Later in this conversation she repeated again, “People need love today”.  Although we hear both in the Scriptures and in Holy Tradition of God’s anger, we should think of it as St. John Cassian tells us. (see the previous post)  Likewise, as St. Paisius the Athonite points out, we should be aware that these things were spoken to a barbaric people.

Sin has multiplied greatly in the world and the salvation of all is what we hope.  So repentance is needed.  Yet some people—perhaps most—do not repent unless there is a strong wake-up call; and, unfortunately there are some who will never repent.  St. Jospeh the Hesychast wrote in a letter: “Some souls are made soft through rebukes and others through compassion.”  His spiritual child, Joseph the Younger has said, “When men are repenting according to the will of God they are supported amidst difficulties.  If they go off a little He sends something to bring them back.  But if they totally go off or oppose God then hard things and broken-heartedness can come.”  A difficult time is sure to come, we have been hearing about this for decades.
Now it appears that it may be very close.  So we need to continue our own repentance and pray for the repentance of the world.  We need to mourn over the fall of man–a universal repentance.  And have hope, for, GOD IS LOVE.

(1) As this seemed ambiguous to a reader who emailed me I made the addition in brackets to remove misinterpretation

The Appearance of Elder Ephraim and the Anger of God

The appearance of Elder Ephraim and the Anger of God

Orthodox Ethos has recently posted an account of a woman in northern Greece who had a vision of Elder Ephraim.  This has drawn much attention.  He warns us of evils to come and the need of repentance.  At one point He says, “Christ is very angry”.  How do we understand this?

Among the writings of St. John Cassian his Book VIII within the Institutes of the Cenobia is called “Of the Spirit of Anger”.  The heading in the second chapter reads: “Of those who say that anger is not injurious, if we are angry with those who do wrong, since God Himself is said to be angry”.  So he explains:

We have heard some people trying to excuse this most pernicious disease of the soul, in such a way as to endeavour to extenuate it by a rather shocking way of interpreting Scripture: as they say that it is not injurious if we are angry with the brethren who do wrong, since, say they, God Himself is said to rage and to be angry with those who either will not know Him, or, knowing Him, spurn Him, as here “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against His people;”(Psa. 105:38) or where the prophet prays and says, “O Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy displeasure;”(Psa.6:1) not understanding that, while they want to open to men an excuse for a most pestilent sin, they are ascribing to the Divine Infinity and Fountain of all purity a taint of human passion….For if when these things are said of God they are to be understood literally in a material gross signification, then also He sleeps, as it is said, “Arise, wherefore sleepest thou, O Lord?” (Psa. 33.23) though it is elsewhere said of Him: “Behold he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (Psa. 120:4) And He stands and sits, since He says, “Heaven is my seat, and earth the footstool for my feet” (Isa. 66:1). (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Volumes 11, p.258)

And so as without horrible profanity these things cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy…. when we read of the anger or fury of the Lord, we should take it not anthropopathos; i.e., according to an unworthy meaning of human passion, but in a sense worthy of God, who is free from all passion; so that by this we should understand that He is the judge and avenger of all the unjust things which are done in this world; and by reason of these terms and their meaning we should dread Him as the terrible rewarder of our deeds, and fear to do anything against His will. (ibid. pp. 258-9)

In a concluding remark St. John affirms that such expressions should be seen as metaphors:

It would be tedious and outside the scope of the present work were we to explain all the things which are spoken metaphorically of God in the Holy Scripture, with human figures. (ibid. 259)…to be continued  

A Reflection on the Election

A Reflection on the Election

In the recent past there has been much concern about current events in the world.  Actually more than I can ever remember being in the past.  It is the presidential election that has drawn excessive interest and has disquieted many.   For me, this past presidential election is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s decision not long ago.  I am speaking of course, of the ruling to legalize gay marriage.  This along with other like things that have become acceptable and normal in our day were unthought-of while I was growing up as a youth.  Why has this change come about?  Is it progress for man or what is it?  I will go on to make a response to these questions.    

So, to continue, I will speak about psychology, however it is not modern psychology I will refer to, but the ancient psychology of the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church.  In their struggle to fight against sin, not only to cease sinning in act but to be purified from the effect of sin upon our common human nature, they came to certain conclusions.  These conclusion were not based on deductive reasoning, on the contrary, they were founded upon their observations of what they experienced within themselves.  They did not make a voluntary decision to make a study of the soul, but through their struggle for purification they not only became proper human beings in the image of God, but, in addition, they acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit and so ascended into the likeness of God.  They were able to look back and see clearly the process of regeneration they went through.   And they were moved to write out of the illumination they received from the grace of the Holy Spirit. 

Our Holy Fathers tell us that there are three powers or aspects of the soul.  They are, the intellectual, the desiring, and the incensive aspects of the soul.  The intellectual is meant to rule over the other two.  This is the natural order as we were created, however, with the Fall of Adam and Eve, this has been turned upside down.  This is the effect of their fall upon their human nature which we all inherit. They have personal responsibility for their sin but, I repeat, their sin had an effect on their human nature.  Their fall caused them to have an inclination to sin.  This means that the desiring and incensive powers of the soul now have the upper hand.  The intellectual power which was meant to rule over the other two now easily becomes enslaved to them.  This is what we have inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve.

Whereas, we are called to return to our natural, noble state where our intellect would rule over the lower aspects of the soul, we have fallen headlong into that inclination to sin.  In our day we see a dynamic increase in evil, which, on the basis of the psychology of the Fathers, we could say comes from our own choice proceeding from a distorted mind.  The powers of evil also have their part in this.  Their warfare against us is increasing for, as St. Joseph the Hesychast has written: “The devil knows his time is short therefore he is angry and fighting harder”.  And as the Romanian Hieromonk Raphael Noika has observed: “The sin of Adam is becoming full”.  This is where the race of man finds itself.  Sin is multiplied to great extents and it is indulgence in sensual pleasures that is perhaps the most flagrant.  Seeking pleasure through food, alcohol, drugs and lust—whether natural or unnatural—is promoted by our society and are the norm in the lives of many.  What is the result?  The reasoning of the mind is influenced; it is darkened and contrary to nature.   The intellectual aspect of the soul is enslaved to the desiring.  We are at the point of which the Scripture speaks, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (Isa. 5:20)   And as the Psalmist says: “And man, being in honor did not understand; he is compared to mindless cattle and is become like unto them” (Psa. 48.12). [Psalm quotations are from The Psalter According to the Seventy, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston Massachusetts]

With pain of heart for the world I can conclude with one final remark which I believe the readers will understand:

“It is time for the Lord to act; for they have dispersed Thy law” (Psa.118:126).

Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition

St. Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition

In endeavoring to write something on St. Joseph the Hesychast I think of how his disciple, Joseph the Younger, approached his work on the saint.  He asserts that he is “ignorant and inadequate to the task” and so he “casts his anxiety upon the Lord” (I Pet. 5:7) (Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Joseph, Holy and Great Monastery of Vatopaidi 1999, p. 159).  Although this is a micro-fraction of what he accomplished I set out by following his disposition.  Here I simply organize available historical information to fit under the heading of the selected title.  May God help me, through the prayers of St. Joseph the Hesychast.

If we look at the life of St. Joseph the Hesychast and in particular his struggles on the Holy Mountain, it should be clear that he was a chosen vessel of God.  But what did he do? The appellation by which he is named tells us: Hesychast.  With a limitless zeal and uncompromising determination he sought to make the hesychastic way of life his own.  But what is meant by hesychastic way of life?  We could perhaps say that this indicates to be withdrawn from the world and its distractions, to have much silence and solitary prayer, and to acquire mental prayer on the heart level as a state of being.  In his letters he speaks of a state of grace called, “illumination”1.  He says to attain this, “the person praying much have much stillness and an unerring guide” (Monastic Wisdom, The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery 1998, p. 45).   An “unerring guide”, in this lays the true and incalculable value of St. Joseph.  This is what he came to be.  St. Joseph is a link to the past, we could liken him to a link in an unbroken chain—a practitioner and perpetuator of the Hesychast Tradition of the Holy Mountain. 

On arriving at the Holy Mountain he sought out a hesychast who could guide him, however he soon discovered that such Elders were becoming scarce.  Elder Joseph the Younger writes: “From the beginning of his venture, the elder longed to find a spiritual father: a spiritual man, in the full sense of the word, with appropriate experience, who could teach him and guide him in this subtle and mysterious life.  And despite all his disappointments, as he told us, he never ceased to search and hope.” (Elder Joseph the Hesychast, p. 70)  However, as he was advised by an Abbess before coming to Athos, he did put himself in subjection to the Elder, St. Daniel of Katounakia.  So he became St. Joseph’s first elder to whom he practiced obedience.

The Elder, St. Daniel of Katounakia, was well known on the Holy Mountain and beyond.  Not only was he a wise tempered ascetic but he also had a theological education and was a deep thinker.  He was a graduate of the renowned Theological School of Smyrna.  As was mentioned, St. Joseph specifically went to this Elder, and on reaching Katounakia, he decided to remain with his community.  However, it was not long after when the Elder advised him to struggle in a stricter ascetic life with a like minded brother.  He moved to a nearby cave where he was first alone, and then joined by Father Arsenius who became his life-long co-struggler.   

After St. Joseph and Father Arsenius lived together for about a year St. Daniel thus instructed them: “You aren’t accomplishing anything like this.  Now you will listen to me.  Here on the Holy Mountain there is a tradition: in order to become an elder you need to bury an elder.  In other words, you need to have an elder and be obedient to him until his death in order to become an elder….Without the blessing of an elder, nothing succeeds in monasticism.  Without the seal of a spiritual father, no spiritual work bears fruit.  If you want to have the grace of God all your life, you must first pass under obedience.” (My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Ephraim, St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery 2013, p. 91)

The Elder advised them to submit themselves to two old monks, who were brothers: Ephraim and Joseph.  So they did go to these fathers and were received with abundant joy.  “Elder Ephraim didn’t know how to express his joy for the obedience and assistance of his two new disciples.  He was frequently moved to tears seeing their eagerness and their perfect obedience.” (ibid., p.93)  Joseph, however, did not live much longer while Ephraim remained as their elder for a total of seven years.  They first lived at Katounakia and later, in 1928, they moved higher up the mountain to the Skete of St. Basil.  This move came about in their desire for move solitude and to have their hesychastic way of life continue without disturbance.  Elder Ephraim did not live long after this move, he foresaw his repose and he had a saintly death.  And so, “When Elder Joseph and Elder Ephraim reposed, their two disciples inherited their blessing as a protection and purveyance.” (ibid., p.124)  It was very significant for St. Joseph and Father Arsenius that they had elders who understood and protected their desire for the quiet life of prayer.  First Daniel of Katounakia and then Ephraim the Barrel maker—as he is called—understood, encouraged and shielded their hesychastic life.  

Allow me to continue by quoting once again the aforementioned words of St. Joseph, “The person praying much have much stillness and an unerring guide” (Monastic Wisdom, p. 45).  Now, with these words, a question arises: Who was it, that guided St. Joseph in the hesychastic life?  Who was his unerring guide in this “art of arts and science of sciences”?2  Well, he did find a number of fathers from whom he gathered “pearls of great price” (Mat. 13:46).  In his book, My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Elder Ephraim tells us about them.  First there was Elder Kallinikos the Hesychast.  When St. Joseph moved from the brotherhood under St. Daniel of Katounakia he was near to Elder Kallinikos.  Concerning him, St. Joseph later wrote: “He was a first-rate ascetic, a recluse for forty years.  He practiced the noetic work and thrived on the sweetness of divine love and became beneficial to others as well. He experienced ecstasy of the nous.3” (ibid., p. 86)  It is believed, that in order to preserve his state of hesychia, he did not teach others noetic prayer since this could lead to a multitude of disciples which could be distracting to his state.  Nevertheless, he did agree to give some advice to St. Joseph.  He did find other elders immersed in the Hesychast tradition.  There was also Gerasimos of Chios: “He practiced noetic prayer4….He had continuous tears.  He led his carefree life sweetened by the contemplation of Jesus.” (ibid., p. 86)  The elderly and blind Ignatius was another mentor.  “His counsels were precious.  The amazing thing is that when he spoke, an indescribable fragrance came out of his mouth due to the prayer that he said noetically without ceasing.” (My Elder, p.51)  Again there was another blind elder at Katounakia who continually said the Jesus Prayer either orally or noetically.  When St. Joseph went to him to reveal his thoughts the elder’s only reply was: “My child, my child, the prayer!  Say the prayer, my child!  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.  Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” (ibid., p. 51)

Finally we come to the most significant of all, Daniel the Hesychast.  Elder Ephraim states that St. Joseph received his hesychastic program from him.  In his biography of St. Joseph, Elder Joseph the Younger has a chapter heading: “The discovery of the Hesychast Elder Daniel as Spiritual Father.  He lived near the Great Lavra.  From sunset until midnight he kept vigil with the prayer rope and then served Liturgy which would last three and a half to four hours because, being moved to compunction, he couldn’t verbalize his petitions.  Although he only allowed his disciple at Liturgy he agreed to permit St. Joseph to come and confess to him.  Confession would be either before or after Liturgy.  “To save time he would read his thoughts and respond with a few words full of grace.” (ibid., p.56)  As to how long he was under the direction of Elder Daniel was not clearly stated.  However, Elder Ephraim mentions him finding Daniel the Hesychast before Fr. Arsenius joined him as a co-struggler.  Elder Joseph the Younger speaks about them going together to see him while living at St. Basil’s Skete.

So now I repeat my title: St. Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition.  He went to the Holy Mountain early in 1921.  Sparing no effort, he diligently sought out “an unerring guide” from whom he could learn the “art of arts and science of sciences”.  Perhaps without realizing it at the time, he found what he sought.  He made contact with some of the great hesychasts of the early twentieth century on the Holy Mountain.  “Benefitting from Everyone” (ibid., p.51), he absorbed their teaching and became the embodiment of the hesychast tradition of the Holy Mountain.  He was a chosen vessel of God to perpetuate this, for if it wasn’t for him what would have happened to the teaching of those elders?  Would it have disappeared?  Elder Ephraim, in referring to the hesychasts his elder met, writes of them, “Even though these men, who had lived in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, were of great spiritual stature, they left no heirs to their noetic prayer.” (ibid., p.44)  They had no disciple living with them as their elder who buried them and became an heir to their noetic prayer.  But what about St. Joseph the Hesychast?  As a bee gathers honey from a variety of flowers so he gathered whatever teaching he could from each of them and became an heir to their noetic prayer.  In passing on what he acquired, several of his spiritual children became Athonite abbots.  And so, the three monasteries where they became abbots and several other Athonite monasteries have become revived through them.  And now, here in North America, the hesychast tradition has been planted by Elder Ephraim, that tradition which he inherited from his elder, St. Joseph the Hesychast: Perpetuator of the Athonite Hesychast Tradition.         

Through their prayers and all the saintly hesychasts may our Lord Jesus Christ help us to make a few baby steps upon the path which they trod so magnificently.  Amen!  

  1. Concerning ‘illumination” St. Joseph writes: “One receives the light of knowledge and is raised to vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, depth of cognition.” (Monastic Wisdom, p.45)
  2. Nicephorous the Solitary, in his text, “A most Profitable Discourse on Sobriety and the Guarding of the Heart”, in the Philokalia, referrs to the monastic life in this way. (Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Faber and Faber, 1975, p.23)
  3. Nous is sometimes translated mind or intellect.  In this quotation the translator left this term as a transliteration of the Greek. In the volumes of the Philokalia it is translated as intellect and defined as, “the highest faculty in man, through which—provided it is purified—he knows God or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception….The intellect [nous] is the organ of contemplation, the eye of the heart.  (Volume One, p. 362)
  4. “Noetic prayer is prayer done with the nous without distraction within the heart.  Another name for it is ‘prayer of the heart.’  It is contrasted with prayer of the intellect which is done within the reason.” (My Elder, p. 690)                     

The Non-Chalcedonians: A few more bits and pieces

The Non- Chalcedonians: A few more bits and pieces

Last Sunday, on the Old Calendar, we commemorated the Holy Fathers of Fourth Ecumenical Council. What is especially remembered on that feast day is the miracle of St. Euphemia. I believe we are all aware that when scrolls of the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians were placed in her coffin she was found holding the scroll with the Orthodox confession near her heart. Conversely, that of the Non-Chalcedonians was found at her feet. At this time I would like to add “a few more bits and pieces” to my former articles concerning this issue. This time I will make reference to the Sinai Geronticon and two of our recent saints: Paisius of Athos and Sophrony of Essex.

I will begin first by relating an event from the life of St. Paisius. Once, two atheists who were studying in Thessalonica went to visit the saint. They had heard about him, and considering him to be a fraud, they decided that they would pay him a visit and show him up. So they went through the process of making the trip. First there is an early morning bus from the city to the sea port of Ouranopoli. From there the boat took them to the sea port of Daphne on the Holy Mountain. Next, they took the bus to the center of Athos and from there the made a short walk to the monastery closest to where St. Paisius lived and where they were able to spend the night. Finally they made the twenty minute walk to his house where he lived as a hermit. When they reached his house it was twilight and they saw that there was a light on in one window and so they rejoiced at finding him there. They went up to the window and looked inside; and what do you think they saw? There was no lamp lit in the room, the light was coming from St. Paisius himself! They were converted on the spot. St. Paisius was shining with the Uncreated Light.

I will add to this a word from St. Sophrony. I once asked a close spiritual child of his if Father ever said anything about the Non-Chalcedonians? In answer he commented, “Father Sophrony used to say, ‘Unless you believe that Christ is fully God and fully man in the Orthodox sense you cannot experience the Uncreated Light and they [the Non-Chalcedonians] do not have this in their tradition.’”

I had mentioned the incident above in a sermon, and someone who heard sent me the following from the Sinai Gerontiicon:

This is the witness of the god-fearing Abba Zosimus and the vision that accompanied it. Abba Zosimus was a wandering foreigner with a pure soul and upright character. He was even deemed worthy of sojourning with the venerable Peter and holding fast to the untainted faith. Zosimus told me that after living at Raitho and Mount Sinai with the Orthodox fathers, he left and journeyed to Jerusalem. He had grown to love life in the Holy Land and was constantly coming and going, seeking a place to settle. He came at last to Bethel, where Jacob the Patriarch had seen the vision of the ladder, and there he found favor with the caretaker of the place. The monk begged Zosimus incessantly to stay with him and promised that he could guarantee him a place of peace unlike any other. Abba Zosimus told him truthfully that he could not stay, for he had no communion with the dissenters of Chalcedon. But the monk insisted and promised that in that isolated place no one would give him trouble on that account. He said, “Stay here. You will sing the psalter with me and care for this place.”

Zosimus had almost been won over by these allurements when one night he had a dream: He saw Jacob the Patriarch, dressed in white, solemn and brooding, walking about the place. He was dressed in a cloak with a rod in his hand. He drew near and said, “How can you, one who has communion with the Orthodox, consider dwelling here? Do not forsake your faith for me, but flee these renegades as quickly as you can, and [128] you will lack neither peace nor anything else you require.” So Zosimus left and remained steadfast in good works and the Orthodox faith till the end of his days.*

Now to conclude I can only add the little prayer we see at the end of our Vespers and Matins services: Establish, O God, the holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Christians unto the ages of ages. Amen!

*No reference to the quote is being given as the text is in the process of being translated and hopefully will be ready by Pentecost 2021 (for info see: studionministries.org)

The Piety of the Last of the Romanov’s

The Piety of the last of the Romanov’s

This past Friday (July 4th/17th) the Royal Passion-bearers, Tsar Nicholas and family were commemorated. For a sermon I made use of a few excerpts from “The Life of the Royal Passion-bearers of Russia” compiled by the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.* This contains a final instruction or “testament” of Tsar Alexander Alexandrovich which he gave to his son and heir, Nicholas, shortly before his repose. The prayer which Tsar Nicholas offered to God as he was crowned is also found in the aforementioned publication. It is these that I now wish to share with my readers.

So before the Lord took him, Tsar Alexander Alexandrovich bequeathed his son with the following instructions:

You shall have to take from my shoulders the heavy burden of national authority and bear it to the grave, as I and our ancestors have done. I give you the kingdom entrusted to me by God. I received it thirteen years ago from my bleeding father…. From the height of the throne of your grandfather carried out many important reforms, directed to the good of the Russian people. As a reward for this, he received a bomb and death from Russian revolutionaries…. On the tragic day the question stood before me: which path was I to follow? Was it the one toward which I was being urged by so-called progressive society, infected with the liberal ideas of the West, or was it the one recommended by my own convictions, by my highest, sacred duty as sovereign, by my own conscious? I chose my path. The liberals called it reactionary. I was interested only in the good of my people, and the greatness of Russia. I strove to give it internal and external peace, that the state might freely and calmly develop, becoming strong, rich and prosperous in an orderly way. Autocracy has created Russia’s historical individuality. If autocracy falls, God forbid, Russia will collapse with it. The fall of the time-honored Russian government will inaugurate as era of civil strife and bloody internecine wars. I adjure you to love everything that serves the good, the honor, and the dignity of Russia. Guard autocracy, remembering at the same time that you bear the responsibility for the fate of your subjects before the throne of the Most High. May faith in God and in the sanctity of your royal duty be the foundation of your life. Be firm and courageous, and never show any weakness. Listen to everyone—there is nothing shameful in that—but hearken only to yourself and to your own conscience. In foreign policy, preserve an independent position. Remember—Russia has no friends. They fear our vastness. Avoid war. In domestic policy, first and foremost protect the Church. She has often saved Russian in times of misfortune. Strengthen the family, for it is the foundation of any state. (The royal Passion-bearers, p.7)

And now the prayer of Tsar Nicholas at his crowning. Kneeling he prayed aloud:

Lord God of our fathers, and King of Kings, Who created all things by Thy word, and by Thy wisdom has made man, that he should walk uprightly and rule righteously over Thy world; Thou hast chosen me as Tsar and judge over Thy people. I acknowledge Thine unsearchable purpose towards me, and bow in thankfulness before Thy Majesty. Do Thou, my Lord and Governor, make me fit for the work to which Thou hast sent me; teach me and guide me in this great service. May there be with me wisdom that belongs to Thy throne; send it from Thy holy Heaven, that I may know what is well-pleasing in Thy sight, and what is right according to Thy commandments. May my heart be in Thy hand, to accomplish all that is to the profit of the people committed to my charge, and to Thy glory, so that in the day of Thy Judgment I may give Thee account of my stewardship without blame; through the grace and mercy of Thy Son, Who was once crucified for us, to Whom be all honor and glory with Thee and the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, forever and ever. Amen. (ibid. p.9)

May God grant to us such Orthodox and God-fearing rulers through the prayers of our Lady Theotokos, the Royal Passion-bearers of Russia, and all His saints. Amen.

*This is contained in the booklet, “The Royal Passion-bearers of Russia, Their Life and Service”, published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. I high recommend this for anyone who has a veneration for the Royal Passion-bearers.

A Sermon for the Season

A Sermon for the Season

It has been approximately two months since we have been able to come together in the church for a Divine Liturgy. In preparing to preach this day I could not do otherwise than consider: What subject do I preach on? Do I refer to the Gospel lesson of the day or should my subject be centered on the pandemic which has struck and affected the whole world. I believe this latter is in the forefront of everyone’s mind and it would be best to address it in some way. For the Church has been likewise hit with this catastrophe in a way that was unimaginable. The Church at large, throughout the whole world, was basically shut down for two months and is now only gradually reopening.

How do we look at this? How should we perceive this happening? From what angle or aspect do we view this? First we must realize that God is in control, and in our existence in this world we are called to work out our salvation. God is in control and man His beloved creature has fallen from the high dignity which He bestowed upon him. We have been created in the image of God. What could be more awesome and wonderful than this? But we have fallen from this high dignity. In his Liturgy, St Basil the Great, speaks of this. In his Eucharistic prayer we read:

When Thou didst create man by taking dust from the earth, and didst honor him with Thine own image, O God, Thou didst set him in a paradise of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Thy commandments. But when man disobeyed Thee, the true God Who had created him, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death by his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself.

In continuing his prayer St. Basil expounds this, and we could say that he is summarizing for us a history of the salvation of man. And this is continuing, and shall continue until the second coming of Christ our Lord Jesus Christ. So God is in control, the mystery of salvation is at work, but how do our current events fit into it? Well, besides the “mystery of salvation” there is also something else: The Apostle Paul writes, “the mystery of iniquity is at work” (IIThess. 2:7). It seems to me, that we now, see these two things occurring at the same time. Sin is abounding to unimaginable measures, therefore, in the history of salvation which God has foreordained before the foundation of the world, is it possible that mankind now has a wakeup call? I believe so, God is as work, God Who desires that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth is at work. Is this one facet or phase of the mystery of salvation? Perhaps?

Yet we also see something very fearful that has occurred. We see how easy it is for the authorities of this world to set boundaries on the Church. Our churches have been basically shut down. Is this “the mystery of iniquity at work”? Is this a foretaste of what the antichrist can accomplish when he appears?

Maybe, then again, we don’t really know. But in the midst of this present trial and various temptations that we may meet, what do we need to remain on the path salvation? Faith is of prime importance. Christ said, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8)

So now, I would like to refer to something which Archimandrite Zachariah of Essex, England, had written on faith in our particular time. I have referred to this some time ago, but in another context, and repetition of something so edifying is good:

“Our faith is not simply an inner matter; it always reflects the times we live in as Christians. The Fathers of the fourth century—a time of great flowering for the Church—repeatedly said that the Christians of the last times would neither have the strength to endure ascetic hardship nor be able to perform the godly works of the Fathers of old. But they added that those who would succeed in simply keeping the faith would be more greatly glorified in heaven than those Fathers who had worked miracles and even raised the dead to life. In other words, it is the privilege of our time to preserve the fullness of our faith, and this requires a greater measure of grace than that by which our Fathers raised the dead. The Lord Himself asked, ‘When the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?’ His words reflect the same thing: if faith be found among men at His Second Coming, this will be something very great indeed. We see that God judges us with respect to the generation in which we live. Father Sophrony would say we are all leaves on the same tree of humanity and nothing can separate us from the life of this tree. So if our time is characterized by a general falling away from the faith of our fathers, our success in preserving it will be the more sublime because of the apostasy surrounding us.

“But we must be resolute: either we live according to our faith or we do not. The Book of Revelation says we must not allow ourselves to loiter, to become lukewarm in the false security of a kind of middle ground. In our day, we are witnessing a dynamic increase of evil, and we find ourselves caught in a surge of iniquity even as it gathers force. As Christians we must place ourselves in a different, indeed contrary, dynamic increase which grows not away from but towards God, so that evil itself will spur us on to do good. Father Sophrony had the gift of discerning God’s purposes when people asked him how to cope with distressing situations: he knew that even the most tragic circumstances can have great spiritual benefits hidden within them. But we are wholly responsible for the direction we choose to follow, we can either remain inert and lifeless, or we can engage with the dynamic increase of life in God.” (Remember Thy First Love, pp. 17-9)

May God strengthen and have mercy on us. Amen.

A Sermon for Bright Week

A sermon for Bright Week

The coronavirus and its consequences are very much on the minds of all of us today. Let those of us in Orthodox Church let us consider the question: Does the Coronavirus Restrictions deprive us of grace?

In his renowned conversation with Nicholas Motivilov, St Seraphim of Sarov has taught us that the aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit. He tells us that practicing virtues and ascetic endeavors bring us this grace and he instructs each of us to practice the virtues which bring us the most grace. Sometimes we see that God, in His providential care for us, causes our life to proceed in such a way that we may find ourselves involuntarily obliged to practice various virtues or ascetic endeavors at various periods of our life. Although the coronavirus restrictions distress and even scandalize many people, we might also be able to view this as an opportunity. This time can become for each of us an opportunity to practice patience and faith, and, in this way, to acquire grace.

So let’s begin with faith. St. Paul instructs us, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31) And again, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35-9)
If we have faith then we can exercise patience. The Lord said, “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19). So now is the Lord asking us to be patient? The Apostle Paul says, “We glory in tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, character; and character, hope” (Rom. 5:3-4). It is exactly when we are in such a state that we are prepared to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. So then, let us “be patient in tribulation” (Rom. 12:12), knowing that “that through many tribulations must enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). In all the lives and ascetic writings of the Holy Fathers we see that “the kingdom of God” is not only hereafter but accessible here and now, and is synonymous for the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is risen and Eternal Life has shown forth from the tomb. Nothing can separate us from the Eternal Life God gives us. In the gospel reading for Pascha we hear: “In him was life; and the life was the light of men. That was the true Light, which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:4, 9-13)

In contemplating this gift St. John the Theologians writes in his first epistle: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (IJohn 3:1). No one can this from us, therefore, let us rejoice in the good that God has given us.
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
And unto us He has given Eternal Life,
let us worship His resurrection on the third day.

 

The Corona Virus: Why?

The Coronavirus: Why?

What is the Orthodox response to such distressing events?

We have sinned and we have transgressed, and therefore Thy righteous anger has visited us, O Lord, our God, and the darkness of death has encompassed us and we have drawn nigh unto the gates of Hades. But, with compunction, we cry out unto Thee, our God, in our infirmities. Spare, O spare Thy people, and destroy us not utterly, humbly we pray Thee, hearken and have mercy.

This is a petition from the Orthodox service used in time of devastating epidemic. This is the same service that contains the Canon which I published in my last post. The above petition should remind us of the three Hebrew youths in Babylon who were thrown into the fiery furnace. The sacred city of Jerusalem had been overrun and many Jews were taken into captivity. The three youths were among those captured, and because of their refusal to worship an idol in Babylon they were thrown into the fiery furnace. How did they react to all this? They prayed as follows:

Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the God of our Fathers, and praised and glorified is Thy Name unto the ages. For righteous art Thou in all which Thou hast done for us; and all Thy works are true, and upright are Thy ways, and all Thy judgments are true. And judgments of truth hast Thou performed in all things which Thou hast brought upon us, and upon the holy city of our fathers, Jerusalem; for in truth and judgment hast Thou brought all these things upon us for our sins. For we have sinned and have transgressed in departing from Thee, and all things wherein we have greatly sinned; and Thy commandments we have not heard, nor have we given heed, nor done as Thou hast enjoined us, that it might go well with us. And all that Thou hast done to us, and all that Thou hast brought upon us, in judgment that is true hast Thou done them.

So, after a foreign invasion, the destruction of their holy city and Temple, their captivity and having been thrown into the fiery furnace because of their fidelity to the God of their fathers, they responded as we have just seen. Let us proceed by examining how they continued in prayer:

“In a contrite soul and spirit of humility may we be accepted…Yea, now we follow Thee with our whole heart and we fear Thee, and we seek Thy face; O put us not to shame.”

What took place with this response of theirs? An Angel of the Lord descended into the fiery furnace with them and made it like a whistling wind that bore dew. With thanksgiving in the midst of tribulation, a humble confession of sin, and resolve to change a great miracle took place. How might this relate to our present dilemma? Why has this happened and what should we be doing?

“The sin of Adam is becoming full”—These words were spoken to me almost 20 years ago in a conversation with the Romanian Hieromonk Raphael who was then a monastic of the monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex. In the Prophet Isaiah it is written: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” (5:20) We have certainly reached a state of sin where it seems as though sin itself is thought to be virtue and virtue sin. But what is the recompense for this? The Apostle Paul writes to the Romans: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” (Rom. 1:18) We must fear this and the curse written in the Pentateuch. We find a number of sins are listed there, some of which are commonplace and acceptable today. It is written: “The land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants.” (Lev. 18:25) Is this what we are experiencing? Will the pandemic be more severe in places where sin abounds?

What, then, is needed? Very simple, repentance is needed. We Orthodox need both a personal and universal repentance. Although we sin we should be continually struggling against sin. We should not only live a life of repentance for ourselves but we would do well to also pray for those who are darkened in their understanding and live in sin. I will end by offering an example of the latter for consideration:

O Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Who in the beginning in the Old Covenant didst reveal our divine nobility when Thou hast said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. O Almighty Lord, we have distorted this image to the uttermost and have not gone after Thy likeness, but rather we follow the inclinations of our human nature in its fallen state. We multiply sin and wickedness in every generation and Thine impending wrath lieth upon us. Yet do Thou the same Lord Who hast fashioned us, turn our hearts unto Thee, restore us to our former state, inspire us to run after Thy likeness to the uttermost bounds of our mortal strength. We pray Thee hearken and have mercy.

Amen!