St. Cosmos of Aetolia and Persecution

St. Cosmos of Aetolia and Persecution

The feast day of St. Cosmos is August 24th or September 6th on the Old Calendar. What follows is a sermon that was delivered on his commemoration earlier this month.

St. Cosmos whose memory we are celebrating was a monk of Philotheou Monastery on the Holy Mountain. He felt a calling to preach to his fellow Greeks who had been spiritually impoverished because of the suppression under the Turkish yoke. With this aim in mind he left his monastery and labored to revive and strengthen the faith of the Orthodox in regions of Greece, Albania and Turkey. For this he is called “Equal to the Aposltes” and the Gospel lesson appointed for his commemoration speaks of the apostles being sent out to preach. This is what St. Cosmas did. But he ended his life as a martyr being hanged on a tree by the Turkish authorities in the year 1779. So in our service books he is named “The holy New Hieromartyr Cosmos of Aetolia, Equal to the Apostles”.

This persecution of those who preach the word of God is nothing new. It has existed before the time of Christ, throughout the history of Israel, and is continually repeated. Our Lord spoke much about this in the Gospels. Let us take for instance the readings of the last two Sundays: the parables of the tenants of the vineyard, and those called to the wedding feast. In both of these our Lord was censuring the Jews of old who persecuted and killed the prophets. For in these parables, the servants of the Lord of the vineyard, and the king who made the wedding feast, were ill treated and some even killed. In the parable of the tenants of the vineyard our Lord went a step further. For He related in what a wicked way the tenants killed the son of the lord of the vineyard. Our Lord was calling to account the Jews of His day and confronted them with their sinfulness by foretelling how they would ill treat Him and put Him to death. And it was only four days after He spoke this parable that they did this.

A little later in the Gospel our Lord He continues to critique the Jewish leaders of His day and foretells the continued persecution which began with the Apostles:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets….Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” (Mat. 23:27-31, 34-5)

We have seen all this come to pass beginning with the Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen, and next the Apostle James the son of Zebedee. And the Apostle Matthias also ended his life as a martyr in Judea.

Our Lord continued to send His servants to the Rulers and citizens of the Roman Empire, calling them to repentance, and the same rejection prevailed, until the time of St. Constantine the Great. Our Lord speaks about this elsewhere when he says:

“But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; And ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you. And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” (Mat. 10:17-21)

And the witness of those persecuted for the truth has continued throughout the whole history of the Church. First the Arian heretics had control in certain areas and persecuted true followers of our Lord. This continues with Julian the Apostate, also during the Christological controversies, and under the Iconoclasts the same is repeated. More recently this occurred during the Turkish yoke as we see with St. Kosmos whom we commemorate today. And finally, it is appalling to think of what happened to our Orthodox brethren behind the iron curtain. The highest single cause of death in the 20th century was the martyrdom of the Orthodox Christians behind that iron curtain.

But what about us today, are we ready for persecution? Will we see this is our lifetime. If we just look at how we see the world changing we would have to say, “Yes”. In the context of being asked about the last days before His return our Lord again repeats such warnings:

“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” (Mat. 24:9-13)

But what can we do? How can we be prepared? We need to carry out the commandments of our Lord and the ascetic teachings of the Church with an aim in mind. And what should our goal be? Well, the Apostle Paul gives us a good answer: “to have Christ dwell in our hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:17). Faith must not be in our head but living within our hearts. We need faith that is not only the intellectual confession of beliefs, but as I said, a faith in the heart. There was a recent Elder Gabriel in Georgia who said that in the last days those who have their faith only in their head and not in their heart will follow the antichrist. In order to acquire and nourish this faith in the heart, we need to pray with our whole heart. In 2010 in an interview entitled: “ The truth about the times—Spirituality of the end of times”, the Romanian Archimandrite Justin Parvu says the following about prayer:

It is very important to know how to pray. Many times even we, the monks in the monasteries pray, but we only think we pray. It is not enough to attend the church services and just be there like that would be enough. We have to work the prayer from the inside out. No matter how many prayers we say with our mouth, it is nothing if the prayer is not coming from the heart and if we don’t apply the teachings of Orthodoxy in our everyday life. Now more than ever, lay people have to pray from the heart, because this will be our only salvation. In the heart is the root of all passions and that is where we need to direct our struggles. If in the later years Christianity became luke warm and superficial, we have to end all that now, this is not going to be enough anymore. If we will not pray from the heart, we will not be able to sustain the psychological attacks, because the evil one has hidden brainwashing methods that are unknown to us.

May our Lord strengthen us for the days ahead of us and keep us in the “faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Amen.

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What can we learn from Archimandrite Sophrony?

What can we learn from Archimandrite Sophrony?

In my last post I wrote of personal reminisces of Fr. Sophrony, so it seems natural to say something about what I have learned from him and his spiritual children. I will primarily refer to writings of Fr. Sophrony and his spiritual son Fr. Zachariah. I want to make it clear that I am only expressing one facet of the legacy he has passed on. Now I will repeat the title: What can we learn from Archimandrite Sophrony? I believe the answer can be expressed with a brief question which may appear very simple, yet is quite intricate and delicate: Who is Christ? Since most of what follows will be quotes from the above mentioned fathers, I will be bold and say that I believe my answer will be in unity with their thought.

Let us start with another related question: “What does Christ come to be for an Orthodox ascetic?” When the Orthodox ascetic speaks about who Christ is, He is not expressing an individual opinion, but something that is in harmony with the mind of the Church. This is because he is expressing Tradition. For an ascetic, Tradition is not merely concepts that are handed down. Tradition is also lived. So then, what is expressed is something that is not merely studied intellectually, but is also put into practice by one who struggles to live the Orthodox ascetic life.

St. John the Theologian answers our aforementioned question with these few words: Christ “is the propitiation for our sins”. (cf. I John 2:2). This is experienced in the life of one who repents in an Orthodox manner. And since it is the monastic life that is totally devoted to repentance, I will begin to explain this by referring to the monastic order.

“The aim of a monastic is to become like Christ, so that he may become an intercessor for the world.” These words of instruction were related to me by a monk at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, when I first entered upon the monastic life. But the monastic life is traditionally spoken of as a life of repentance, and a monk often speaks of his monastery as the “monastery of his repentance”. Why then did this father say the above? “To become like Christ” is personal repentance, while to “become an intercessor for the world” is universal repentance.

“Personal repentance” and “universal repentance” are terms I borrowed from Fr. Sophrony. For a brief explanation of these two forms of repentance, I will move on to the writings of Fr. Sophrony:

When an ascetic withdraws from the world, to start with, his attention is concentrated on the first commandment, and on his own personal repentance, thus giving an impression of egoism. Later, when repentance attains a certain degree of fullness, and grace touches his soul, he begins to feel Christ-like love in his soul spilling out on all humanity. Then, though living in the desert, and not seeing the world with his bodily eyes, he sees it in spirit, and then lives in depth the world’s sufferings, for he lives them with a Christian consciousness of the unique character and great eternal worth of every human being. Wherever man may betake himself, whatever desert he may retire to, if he treads the path of real life in God, he will live the tragedy of the world. (Saint Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony, p.227)

Fr. Zachariah, a spiritual son of Fr. Sophrony, writes that,

No one is from the beginning a temple of God and whole, ‘for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). It is impossible for man to be connected with God the Saviour unless he approaches Him as one ‘having need of a physician’ (cf. Luke 5:31)… Jesus Christ is the only true and righteous Advocate Whom ‘we have with the Father’ (IJohn 2:1), Who alone is able to heal and liberate us from every sin and unrighteousness. (Man the Target of God, Archimandrite Zachariah, p.216)

It is not only forgiveness of acts of sins that we stand in need of, but also ongoing repentance and purification from the effects of sin upon our human nature. In Orthodoxy we see sin not merely as specific acts, but also a disease of the soul. So we are in need of healing and regeneration which takes place through personal repentance. Fr. Zachariah goes on to speak of the healing of the soul and consequent growth in Christ which generates universal repentance, as follows:

The traces of the presence of Christ are impressed on the heart, until they reach a certain fulness, in which the likeness of the Heavenly Man, the New Adam is formed. Thus the image of man, which has been in the mind of God from before the foundation of the world (cf. Eph. 1:4), ‘the express image’ (Heb. 1:3) of our Lord Jesus Christ, is manifested in the heart. The illumination of grace is now at work to enlarge the heart of man to embrace heaven and earth, and as another Adam, to present before God every creature in his prayer of intercession. (ibid. p. 222)

And a few days before his death, Fr. Sophrony, expressed four points in the presence of two of his monks; two are listed here, both of which show another facet of all this, and amplifies it:

The content of the person of Christ is His self-emptying love unto the end, by which He accomplished the salvation of the world.

Man likewise proves himself a person when he acquires love for God to the point of self-hatred, pure prayer which accompanies this, and prayer for the world similar to Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane. (ibid. p. 147)

“Christ’s prayer at Gethsemane”, let me say something about this in the words of Fr. Sophrony:

When, as I have said, a shadow of a likeness to the Gethsemane prayer is granted him, man then transcends the boundaries of his individuality and enters into a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ. By participating in the sufferings of His Divine love, we too, in spirit, can experience a little of His death and of the power of His resurrection. “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death” (in deep prayer for the world and consuming desire for the salvation of all) “we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom.6:5). When it is given to us from on High to enter this new sphere of Being, we arrive at “the ends of the world” (I Cor. 10:11) and pass into the light of Divine Eternity. (His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 95)

So then, he who truly repents in an Orthodox sense, will experience this in himself in some degree. For him Christ “is the propitiation for our sins”, He is the One Who through “self-emptying love unto the end, accomplished the salvation of the world”. For him Christ is the One Who, not only through the physical pain in His human nature on the Cross, but also by His prayer of “His Divine love” in Gethsemane, suffered for all mankind. This is Who he sees Christ as, because it is what he sees coming to life in his own heart.

Let’s end with that which Fr. Sophrony continued to say immediately after the above:

And every man on whom God has bestowed the rare and dread privilege of knowing to a minute degree the agony of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane will stumble on, slowly and painfully, to a cogent awareness of the resurrection of his own soul and a perception of Christ’s undeniable, ineluctable victory. He will know “that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). And his spirit within him will whisper: My Lord and my God…Now, O Christ, by the gift of Thy love which passeth all understanding I, too, have crossed from death into life…

Now–I am.

 

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

Archimandrite Sophrony

In this post have decided to make a diversion from the letters of St. Amvrossy of Optina. Today is the 25th anniversary of the repose of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) the founder of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. He is well known as the author of the life of his elder, St. Silouan the Athonite. There are half a dozen or so other books of his that have been translated into English. I’ve had the blessing of staying 18 days at his monastery in 1983 and I believe he was similar in character to St. Amvrossy whose letters I am now interrupting. St. Amvrossy had a lively character and was a big talker as he himself stated. In his biography by John Dunlop he is spoken of as having a gift of love. In my small experience of Fr. Sophrony I must say that I believe this description could fit him. If this is inaccurate and offends either Fr. Sophrony or his community I beg forgiveness. Now I will go on to reminisce .

It was at the evening meal on my first day at the monastery that I first set eyes upon Fr. Sophrony. At that time there was a hieromonk visiting from Greece, Fr. Paul, who was a disciple of Fr. Sophrony during the period he lived as a hermit on the Holy Mountain. At the conclusion of the meal Fr. Paul was telling stories of those days, there was a good deal of joking and all were laughing. There was one thing unique and exceptional about Fr. Sophrony. You could visibly see with your eyes that he remained in a state of peace even while he laughed.

During the meals there was reading as is normal in monasteries and occasionally Fr. Sophrony would interrupt the reading and make comments. A book was being read which commented on “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. In a quote it spoke of a monk who “shone in obedience”. When Fr. Sophrony heard these words he stopped the reading and took it to mean that the obedient man would shine with the uncreated Light. The reader told him that in English this could mean “excel” and not literally “to shine”. He had one of the monks look up the passage in Greek and it was “excel”. Nevertheless, Fr. Sophrony went on to extol the virtue of obedience and he insisted that the obedient man will shine with the uncreated Light.

At another time he commented on psychology. I do not remember details but he spoke of Freud having some misconceptions. He went on to state: “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.”

I did have the opportunity to speak with him and beforehand the abbot, Fr. Kyril, read to him a letter I had written. Fr. Sophrony began by asking, “Where did you study psychology?” I said I had one semester in college. I had a number of questions along the lines of the ways in which the demonic powers tempt us. I had quotes from some fathers who appeared to contradict each other. He commented saying that various fathers write out of their own experience which although similar are not exactly the same. He pointed out: “You are too concerned with analyzing and although some fathers have done this and even become saints it was not the way for St. Silouan and not the way for us. The way for me is straight ahead.” I will illustrate this in other words of my own. If we make a habit of analyzing every temptation that comes our way. Where did it come from and why? How do I combat this one in particular? etc… I can wind up mentally exhausting and dispersing my mind. However, if I forget it, look straight ahead towards Christ and pray, especially the Jesus Prayer, I escape the temptation and move closer towards a state of remembrance of God.

A few more fragments of what I remember, he said: “Strive for tears for when there are tears the mind and the heart are united. I am a person, you are a person, he is a person (he was speaking of the abbot who was also present), the way for no two people is exactly the same. Strive to find the way for you.”

I questioning what he meant by “living the liturgy” which he mentions in his writings I said, “Do you mean sacrifice.” He replied, “The Orthodox Liturgy is much more grandeur than sacrifice.” As he put his right hand on his forehead and then stretched it our full length he continued, “Think of the prophets…”. I do not recall a word for word quote but what he said reminded me of the Anaphora in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. It was a short history of salvation which is the deification of man and our lives should be lived as a consequence of this. He seemed to be enraptured at the thought of what God has done for us.

One of the last things he said was, “Seek humility the Holy Spirit loves the humble soul.” As he said this he stretched out both arms straight ahead across the desk where he sat, pointed his gaze a little above me and gently shut his eyes. He obviously knew what he was speaking of from experience and he words, of course, made a deep impression on me.

Now a few things which occurred while I was there:

A few days after my arrival I was helping with some work walking around the church with a wheel barrel. Fr. Sophrony was walking towards me accompanied by one of the sisters. Suddenly he stopped stared at me, put his right hand over his heart, smile and slightly bowed his head. There was such love in his expression as I had never before seen coupled with joy. I felt like I saw a living icon of the father who runs out to see the lost son as we read of in the Gospel. Simultaneously a peace flowed from him that entered into the depths of my heart.

In coming to the meals Fr. Sophrony was accompanied by one young novice. He would enter the dining hall and walk around the tables set up in the shape of a horseshoe. There were several occasions while doing this he put his right hand over his heart and smiled. Everyone was in a state of awe, the whole room was filled with absolute silence and stillness, he had an expression of love which was even greater than what was mentioned above. He seemed to be sick with love. The atmosphere around him changed, he appeared to be enveloped in some force, some power.

May God grant rest to the soul of his ever-memorable servant Archimandrite Sophrony.

St. Amvrossy Letters 54 & 60

St. AMvrossy Letters 54 & 60

I apologize to my readers for taking such a long time to continue the letters of St. Amvrossy, but being pulled by various responsibilities the blog has needed to wait. At this point in the collection of letters by St. Amvrossy, there is a change from festal greetings to an exhortation in personal letters. Some are very short, and in a single post there may be more than one letter as it is in this one. Now, let us turn to the letters:

Letter 54

The last time when I congratulated you on your birthday, as I recall, I wished for you spiritual rebirth. And now,congratulating you with this*, I sincerely wish for you the spiritual ascent with proper and lawful steps, of which the first and foremost is the acknowledgement of our profound spiritual and bodily weaknesses. The second lawful step is self-reproach; that is, in every unpleasant and grievous situation to blame one’s self and not others. The third step is patience with thankfulness when we meet up with any of the grievous temptations that overtake us. From these three steps a fourth is brought forth–the beginning of humility. However this happens only if the first three were sown by faith and a turning to the Lord in prayer, as prescribed by the regulations of the Holy Orthodox Church and the instructions of the holy fathers who pointed out the way of salvation. However, I will express myself more simply: when we ascend over the steps–whether on a smooth or rough surface–we simply must strive to do so in humility, in accordance with the commandments of the Lord. Lord help us! Lord strengthen our
weakness and turn away our eyes from vanity and all that is unprofitable

Letter 60

Concerning the meaning of the words “child” and “little child”–you wish to know
the difference of the meaning of the words “child” and “little child”. The apostle calls “little children” those in whom Christ is not yet formed, He Who endured spitting and beating on the face and all sorts of disparagement. One who wants to be called a “child” of Christ, must patiently and without murmuring endure everything that Christ endured. He must also pray sincerely for those who offend him, just as He prayed for those who crucified Him. Peace be to you!

St. Amvrossy Letter 41

St. Amvrossy Letter 41: The meaning of the words of the Holy Prophet David:”Goodness and discipline and knowledge teach Thou me”.

Introductory note: As today was the last Sunday during the Paschal cycle I am now posting, in full, a Paschal greeting of St. Amvrossy. This letter was dated April,1891, therefore it was the last of such greeting in his life.

Brethren in the Lord and Mothers and Sisters!

I congratulate you with the radiant feast of the Resurrection of Christ and I greet you all with the joyous Christian greeting: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen!

By reason of its great significance, the radiant feast of the Resurrection is called the feast of feasts and the holy day of Christian holy days. It is also called the Pascha of Christ, which means the passage from death to life and from earth to heaven. On this feast, the joyful Christians greet each other as brethren, forgiving all that hate them by the Resurrection.

As is my custom, for the benefit of your souls, I set forth for your consideration the words of the Psalm with which the Prophet David prays to God: “Goodness and discipline and knowledge teach Thou me” (Psa. 118:66). Being a prophet, David had the need to pray to be given the above traits; even more then does it befit every common Christian to take care to acquire these traits and to pray to God for help from on high.

“Teach me goodness.” Goodness and kindheartedness are the main elements of love; while love is the major virtue and commandment. As is said in the Gospel: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mat. 22.37-40). Love is born from faith and the fear of God. It grows and becomes stronger than hope, becoming perfect through goodness and kindheartedness, which express the imitation of God—as it is said in the Gospel, “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Again it is said in the Holy Gospels: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mat. 9:13). Mercy and condescension towards one’s neighbor, and forgiving his shortcomings, are above any sacrifice which is not acquired without peace with one’s neighbor according to the word of the Gospel: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Mat. 5:23-4).

Love towards God is shown by love and kindheartedness towards one’s neighbor. Kindheartedness, mercy and condescension towards one’s neighbor and forgiveness of his shortcomings are obtained through humility and self-reproach. Therefore in all afflictions and unpleasant happenings we should put the blame on ourselves and not others—thinking that we did not act as we should have, and therefore this unpleasantness and grief occurred. If we will reason thus, then we will have much less of a tendency to become embittered and angry which “does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). Frightening are the words of the Apostle John: “One who does not love his brother” (that is, any neighbor) “abides in death” (I John 3:14), “and walks in darkness and does not know whence he goeth” (I John 2:11). “And he who hates his brother is a murderer” (I John 3:15).

“Teach me discipline.” In Slavonic the word “discipline” signifies soul-profiting instruction so that we could follow the way of virtue in the fear of God in unity with God’s commandments and the regulations of the Church. Even in the Old Testament it is said “An uninstructed son is a grief for the father and sadness to the mother” (Prov. 10:1); that is, a son who was not taught the fear and the law of God. At present, many parents teach much to their children—and often what is not needed or harmful; but they neglect to teach the children the fear of God, the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and the keeping of the regulations of the only universal and Apostolic Church. For this reason, children are—for the most part—disobedient and disrespectful towards their parents, no good for themselves or their fatherland, and in addition are often even harmful.

“Teach me knowledge”–that is, true and correct reasoning! The Holy Scriptures say: “Seek understanding that you may live and be directed in sound knowledge” (Prov. 9:6), that is, strive to understand the Holy Scripture not any old way or however one may want, but correctly and truly, as it must be understood. The proof of this is that all peoples read the same Gospels but understand it differently. The Orthodox and Catholics do not understand it in the same way. The Armenians, Coptics, and Arians understand it differently, as do the Reformationists and Lutherans and their like. Such differences come from the fact that not all pay due attention to the words of the Lord: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mat. 28:19-20). Only the Orthodox Church accepts the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments completely; the remainder accept only what they want, and that which justifies their ideas. Thereby they are numbered among the heretics, because the word “heretic” comes from the Greek word aireo -“I choose”. About such, the Apostle Paul writes: “A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself” (Titus 3:10).

So, like the Prophet David, let us pray that the Lord, in ways He knows best, will teach us goodness and mercifulness, what is beneficial for the soul, and true understanding–without which our eternal salvation is in doubt and unsure if we do not come running in repentance with humility to the one Who suffered for us and who died on the Cross for us and Who resurrected on the third day, our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor and worship together with His Father Who is without beginning and His most-holy, good and life-giving Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.

St. Amvrossy Letter 37

Letter 37 The meaning of the words: : “Our God is in heaven and on earth; all things soever He hath willed, He hath done” (Psa. 113:11).

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen!

Brethren in the Lord and Mothers and Sisters!
Through the mercy and long-suffering of God we again are vouchsafed to meet the all-radiant feast of the Resurrection of Christ. I congratulate all of you with this great and notable Christian celebration of celebrations. My soul’s desire is that it will enlighten you with peace and spiritual comfort. As is my custom, for the benefit of your souls, I set forth for your consideration the words of the Psalmist: “Our God is in heaven and on earth; all things soever He hath willed, He hath done” (Psa. 113:11).

God has done more on earth than in heaven. In heaven God created the angels, bodiless spirits. Intellectually perfect but not yet totally established in good and they were left to have their willingness tested which is shown by their submission or rejection in relation to God. One third of the angels fell away from God, being enticed by the foremost of the angels who became proud and wanted to become equal to God, thinking to himself: “I will establish my throne above the heavenly stars and will be like the most high” (Isaiah 14:13-14). For this pride and audacity, this light bearing angel became transformed into a serpent–dragon, about which it is said in the Revelation of John the Theologian that “with his tail he tore away one third of the heavenly stars”(Rev. 12:4)–that is angels. The fallen angels along with their evil leader were thrown down from heaven and left with their evil will until the terrible judgment for their due recompense.

On earth God created man, Adam in the flesh, by taking dust from the earth and breathed into his face the breath of life, that is, the reasoning and immortal soul. God created man in the flesh firstly, so that he will humble himself, remembering that his body is made of the earth and must return to dust again. Secondly, that a man in the flesh could receive mercy as one being weak. God also created a helper for Adam from his rib, and settled those first created in the paradise of sweetness and into blessed living commanding them not to eat from one tree. But the same serpent, who was formerly the prime angel, because of jealousy, seduced our forefathers. He convinced them that once they would eat of the fruit of the tree they will become like gods who know “good and evil” (Gen. 3:5) Deceived, our forbearers, even though they were exiled for disobedience and transgression from paradise, they were not totally abandoned by God as were the fallen angels. The all-good and merciful Lord promised to send to them a Deliverer, saying, that “the seed of woman will crush the head of the serpent” (Gen. 3:15). But since the promised Deliverer did not immediately come on earth, Adam and Eve and their progeny were compelled to live only with faith in the coming Deliverer or Messiah. Therefore, they had to languish, first in the life of various labors, sorrows, and sicknesses and after death, in the prisons of hell during some 5,500 years and more.

Finally, God fulfilled His promise and sent the Deliverer in the person of His only-begotten Son, Who, as an infant, was born from the most holy Virgin by the action of the Holy Spirit. He lived with man, increased in stature, and preached the word of God. Then He suffered and died on the Cross and resurrected in three days in order to deliver man from the forcible dominion and tyranny of the devil, the seven-headed serpent and Satan. As it is said by the Evangelist Saint John: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

God did more on earth than in heaven, especially in reference to the incarnation of His only-begotten Son, Who united Himself with human nature and became God-man. And after sufferings and death on the Cross, He took human nature up to heaven and sat down on the throne of His kingdom, of which the angelic nature was not deemed worthy. The greatly merciful Lord was well pleased to deify all mankind; but this is hindered by disbelief, or heresies, or impious living, or generally, neglect and earthly cares. For this, the Lord reproaches us through the Prophet David, “I said: Ye are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High. But like men ye die, and like one of the rulers do ye fall” (Psa. 816-7).
Being made worthy of such great mercy from God, we must by all means begin to take heed to ourselves. And if we cannot live as it is demanded by the Word of God, at least let us have sincere and humble repentance for our faults and sins and try to correct ourselves as best we can, otherwise, at the terrible judgment we might find ourselves among unrepentant sinners, of whom the Holy Gospel says: “and these shall go into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mat. 25:41). These words of the Gospel show that men willfully, in their folly and lack of repentance go to torments, which are prepared not for them, but for the fallen angels.

May He Who became incarnate for us, and Who voluntarily suffered upon the Cross, and Who resurrected on the third day, Christ-Jesus our Lord have mercy on all of us and all who seek salvation! Amen, amen, amen!

St. Amvrossy Letter 34

Letter 34 The meaning of the words of the Psalm “Good and upright is
the Lord” Concerning repentance.

“Good and upright (that is, righteous and just) is the Lord, therefore
will He set a law for them that sin in the way” (Psa. 24:8).

What law did the Lord lay down for sinners? He set down a law of
repentance, as He says in the Holy Gospel: “Repent” and, “Except ye
repent ye shall all perish” (Luke 13:5).

Some Christians do not repent at all because of disbelief, and others,
although they repent according to the custom and habit, afterwards
they again sin terribly without fear, senselessly hoping that the Lord
is good. Others see the Lord only as just and do not stop sinning
because of despair, having no hope to receive forgiveness. In
correcting both, the Word of God announces to all that the Lord is
good towards all who repent sincerely and with a firm decision not to
return to their former sins. “There is no sin which vanquishes God’s
love for mankind.” On the other hand, the Lord is just to those who – in
their disbelief or neglect – do not have the desire to repent. He is
also just towards those who occasionally repent, as is the custom; and
then again without fear, they sin grievously, senselessly relying upon
the Lord’s goodness. There are also those who repent but do not say
everything in confession, hiding some sins because of shame. Such,
says the Apostle, partake of the Holy Mysteries unworthily, and
because of unworthy Communion they become exposed to various ills and
sicknesses and some die. It is said by the Apostle: “He that eateth
and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not
discerning the Lord’s Body” (ICor. 11:29).

Some may say, “So what are we to do when we often sin involuntarily
because of weakness?” It is one thing to sin because of weakness –
such a sin is easily forgiven – and it is another thing to sin because
of neglect and fearlessness with a grievous sin. Everyone knows that
there are sins unto death and sins which are easily forgiven such as
those in word or thought. Yet in every case there is need for sincere
repentance and voluntary humbling of one’s self, according to the word
of the Gospel, with a firm intention not to return to previous sins.
It is said in the Paterikon: “If you have fallen, rise up! If you fall
again, again rise up!” It is no wonder to fall, but it is shameful and
grievous to remain in sin.

May the all-good Lord give us His all-powerful help in order to hold
on to sincere and true repentance and to fulfill the Gospel words:
“The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by
force” (Mat. 11:12) May we all receive this by the unutterable mercy
of the incarnate Son of God, Who was born from the most holy Virgin.
Amen.

St. Amvrossy of Optina, Letter 32 “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Rom. 10:10)

“For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” In order for the simple to be put on the right track and understand clearly some explanation is needed.

“With the heart man believeth unto righteousness.” To believe unto righteousness means, first of all, to believe in the Son of God our Lord Jesus Christ Who was born in the flesh from the Most Holy Virgin Mary, and Whom–according to the word of the Apostle–is our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (ICor. 1:30); next to believe in His Divine teaching and Divine commandments. “Blessed”, it is said, “are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mat. 5:6), that is, those who with zeal earnestly fulfill the Divine commandments.

“And with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”. In ancient times, when heathens forcefully persecuted Christians, these words had another meaning, namely: The heathens searched everywhere for believers in Christ and compelled them to renounce Christ and those who did not renounce, but firmly confessed their faith in Christ received not only the salvation which is prepared but also crowns of martyrdom and the Holy Church glorifies them even until the present. And now, when the times of martyrdom have long passed, the Apostolic words, “And with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”, have a variant meaning. He who by word and by deed preaches truth, love and mercy, and benevolence towards one’s neighbor, and the like, such a one openly confesses before all his salvation. On the contrary he from whose lips come envy or hatred, anger and remembrance of wrongs, lying or calumny, judging or disparagement of one’s neighbors, such a one clearly confesses before all his perdition. In one of his sermons, St. John Chrysostom reflects upon the unfortunate fate of Shimei who censured David because of envy (IISam. 16:7) and he says that there are more that are lost from “evil words than from evil deeds”, because they do not consider it necessary to repent for words uttered. We are exposed to this calamity because of our lack of love and benevolence towards our neighbors and, first of all, because of lack of humility upon which love is built. The holy Apostle Paul writes: “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” (ICor. 31:2-3).

So what can those do who sin by malevolence, envy, judging, or disdain towards their neighbors? Such must strive to correct their own character! And this correction necessitates, first of all, a humble and sincere acknowledgement of such and repentance before God and one’s spiritual father. Secondly, with force, as the Gospel teaches, one needs to restrain his tongue and thought from censuring others. It is not in vain that the Gospel says: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence” (Mat. 11:12). Next, correction demands fervent and humble prayer with the words of the Akathist: “O Lord Who didst cure the greedy soul of Zacchaeus the Publican, heal also my wretched soul from
malevolence, envy, condemnation and remembering wrongs.” It was not without force and humble prayer that the Publican and other sinners, of all kinds, received salvation. The Lord is more pleased by one sinner who repents, who humbles himself, than a righteous man who puffs himself up and disparages others, which is clearly demonstrated by the Gospel’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. Repentance
and humility are always needed more than all other virtues and they are higher than them. Founding himself upon the words of the Prophet David, St. John Climacus writes: “I have not fasted, I have not kept vigils, nor lay upon the earth, but I have humbled myself and the Lord saved me”.

May we all receive this by the unutterable love for man and mercy of the Son of God, Who was born in the flesh in the humble cave and was laid in a manger so that He may deliver us from an irrational temperament and way of life. Amen.

St. Amvrossy of Optina Letter 31

Letter 31 An explanation of the Irmos of the Canon of the Meeting: “Thy virtue hath covered the heavens, O Christ”.

As is my custom, for the benefit of your souls, I set forth for your consideration the Irmos from the Meeting of the Lord:

Thy virtue hath covered the heavens, O Christ, for coming forth from the Ark of Thy holiness, Thine undefiled Mother, Thou hast appeared in the Temple of Thy glory as an infant borne in arms, and all things have been filled with Thy praise.

What virtue is that which covered the heavens? The unlimited love of the Son of God towards the fallen human race; because of which, being God, He was well-pleased to become man and to be born from the Virgin in the poor cave. On the fortieth day He was brought to the Temple. He fled from the inhuman Herod with His Mother and Joseph to Egypt. He was raised in the home of a simple carpenter. Then, for their salvation and to deliver His people from the power of the devil, He endured spitting and buffeting upon the face, and all sorts of disparagement, and the most shameful death upon the Cross. After the three day burial, He resurrected from the dead by the power of His Divinity and the glory of the Father; and trampling on all the forces of the enemy and demolishing the gates and prisons of hell, He brought out into freedom the souls which were held captive there who believe and have faith in His second coming.

It was for love of man and his salvation that He suffered, being the only-begotten Son of God, Who resurrected in three days. He founded His law upon two commandments–love for God and neighbors and neither can be fulfilled without the other. The holy Apostle John the Theologian says: “If anyone says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar” (IJohn 4:20). Also love for neighbor, if it is not for God’s sake, but for some human cause not only produces no profit, but often it harms the soul. And the signs of true Christian love the Apostle Paul sets forth as follows: “Love is longsuffering, and is kind; love envieth not; love exalteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil [and it does not remember evil]; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; It covers all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth” (ICor. 13:4-8). Without such love no prophecy, or faith which moves mountains, nor even martyrdom itself, brings any benefit at all. “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing” (ICor. 13:3).

But one must know that if every virtue cannot be acquired on a moment’s notice, but gradually with work and forcing one’s self, then how much more love, as the beginning and end of all the virtues? It demands time to acquire it and great force, inner struggle, prayer, and above all else it requires a depth of humility before God and man. Humility and sincere acknowledgement of our unworthiness is a sure safeguard of all the virtues, likewise it is so with the acquisition of love. And so, let us each begin with the degree of love one has and God will help us. One who is burdened with sins, let him think that “love covers a multitude of sins.” He whose conscience is muddled up by many acts of lawlessness, let him think that love is the fulfillment of the law. “For love of neighbor”, says the Apostle, “is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8). Even if we do not attain to the aforesaid perfect love, at least let us not have envy and hatred or remembrance of wrongs. “For the path of he who remembers evils is in death” (Proverbs 12:28 [Septuagint]), and “jealousy will take hold of an uninstructed people” (Isa. 26: 11 [Sept.), that is, people who are not instructed and do not understand Christian life as they should. And, ” he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth” (IJohn 2:11).

Let us pray to the One Who suffered and resurrected on the third day with the prayer of St. Ephraim: “O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking give me not. But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not to condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages”. Amen!!!

St. Amvrossy of Optina: The Meaning of Sorrows (Letter 30)

St. Amvrossy of Optina: The Meaning of Sorrows (Letter 30)

People have always complained about various sorrows, troubles and sicknesses and at present, besides other causes of grief, nearly everyone complains about difficult times. And this is nothing to marvel at! Present life is nothing more than preparation for the future one. However one may spend the present life in accordance with it, he will receive the same portion in the coming life: either a blessed or an evil one! All Christians, especially Orthodox, want to inherit the blessed portion in the future life. In order to receive it, we must bear, and not shun, the various sorrows and sicknesses that accompany this life; as it is said in the word of God: “It is with many sorrows that we must enter the kingdom of heaven” (Acts 14:22). People are divided into the righteous and sinners, but neither are free of various sorrows or sicknesses as it is said in the Psalms, “Many are the tribulations of the righteous” (Psa. 33:20), and “many are the scourges of the sinner” (Psa. 31:10). The Holy Spirit exhorts the first not to be fainthearted by assuring them that the Lord will deliver them from all sorrows; and the others, the sinners, He exhorts not to become despondent by saying that even though “many are the scourges of the sinner, [but] mercy shall encircle him that hopeth in the Lord” (Psa. 31:10). That is, the sinner who comes running to the Lord with faith, hope and repentance, will receive mercy and remission of sins.

The all-good Lord sends various sorrows to the righteous so that they do not become weak in ascetic acts of piety, becoming lazy and deviating in the opposite direction, thus becoming lost as forewarned by the Prophet Ezekiel: “When I shall say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousness shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it” (Eze. 33:13) The Lord also sends various sorrows to the righteous in order to completely cleanse them of all sins and passions, so that they will receive great reward in the future ages, as it is said: ” Like gold in the fire He tried them and like a whole burnt offering he has received them” (Wis. 3:6)

Upon sinners the Lord brings on various troubles and illnesses in order to attract them to repentance, as He says in the Gospel: “I am come not to call the righteous but sinners” (Matt. 9:13) and again, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). And through the Prophet Isaiah He says: “Put away the evil of your doings… Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like
crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa. 1:16,18)

To both sinners and the righteous, the Lord says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” And again, “In your patience possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:19); “he that endureth to the end shall be saved (Matt. 10:22).

O Thou Who wast born of the Virgin and came to save sinners, have mercy upon Thy creation; and give us patience, humility and true repentance so that we will not be deprived of a portion with those on Thy right hand upon whom Thou hast shown mercy. Amen.