The Mystery of Hesychia

The Mystery of Hesychia
After publishing something about the Elder Ephraim I am now returning to sharing more from the writings of Archimandrite Zacharias on topics which I have found quite edifying. In his book The Engraving of Christ in Man’s Heart he has a Chapter entitled: “The Mystery of Hesychia”. As a subtitle he quotes the Psalms (46:10), “Be ye still and know that I am God”. And so, he writes:

Sunday is the day of the Lord. It was prescribed in the Old Testament and confirmed in the New, that on one day we should rest from all other work, abiding in the presence of God in prayer and contemplation of His word. Through this we gather the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit necessary to perform our earthly activities during the rest of the week. The same occurs at every feast. The center of the feast is the saint whom we honour, before whom we stand in prayer, and from whom we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It is precisely for this reason that the Church has appointed Sundays and feasts. Of course, Sundays have more consequence than all other feasts, except those of the Lord Himself. However, Just as Sundays were established so that we might draw strength for the rest of the week and perform our work in a way that is pleasing to God, so the Church also instituted feasts throughout the year in order to intensify this phenomenon. Otherwise, submerged as we are in the turmoil of this world as in a sea of cares, we easily lose the strength and inspiration that we have received from God. We have feasts, therefore, so as to give ourselves over to the same endeavour which we undertake every Sunday, that is, to be still and keep this precious time of stillness, so as to receive God’s help and to be able to know Him more deeply. (pp. 264-5)

Making use of Father’s words as a foundation I would like to comment further about the need of stillness. Although it is Sundays and feasts that point the way for us, we all, of course, need some quiet time each day to take a rest from “the cares of life” (Luke 21:34). We need to empty ourselves of the things of this world so that we can become more open and receptive to God. It is interesting to take note of the Slavonic word for “be ye still”, it is one word oupraznityesya. It does literally mean to be empty or vacant, and the word Russians use for feast is a form of this word “praznik”. And when they greet each other on a feast it is again a form of this word: “spraznikom” which literally translated means, “with the feast”. Yet not only feast days but each day of our lives we should try to find time to “be still” or empty of the cares of this life so that we may become receptive to God.

We see the same thought in one of the desert fathers, Abba Cronius:

A brother said to Abba Cronius, ‘Speak a word to me.’ He said to him, ‘When Elisha came to the Sunamite, he did not find her busy with anyone else. So she conceived and bore a child through the coming of Elisha.’ (2Kings 4) The brother said to him, ‘What does this mean?’ The old man said, ‘If the soul is vigilant and withdraws from all distraction and abandons its own will, then the spirit of God invades it and it can conceive because it is free to do so.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward, Mowbrays London and Oxford 1975, p.98)

Let us keep this in mind—that to be still and receptive to God is our aim as we set aside some personal quiet time each day for prayer and the reading of books of the Church. Although for “the spirit of God to invade the soul” is rare, and happens to the advanced, yet we should hope to develop an awareness or remembrance of God. This should grow within us and become more and more an everyday part of our lives; we should carry away within us the remembrance of God when we depart from our quiet time. So let us end with a few more words of Fr. Zacharias to inspire us to run in this direction:

One monk used to say: ‘From the beginning of my monastic life, I never envied the Apostles, I never envied the holy Hierarchs of the Church, not even the Martyrs, although it is so great to give your whole life in one moment in exchange for the life of God. I have only envied those holy monks who lived all their life with their mind in their heart. They live a continuous miracle day and night, the miracle of the changes of the heart. This is true inspiration, plentitude and abundance of life. This, above all else, is befitting to God. All the saints are great in the sight of God, but I only envied those holy monks who were able to live their whole life in God’s presence with their mind united to their heart. May God grant us, even in part, such a state.’ (The Engraving of Christ in Man’s Heart p. 276)
Amen!

Elder Ephraim of Arizona

Elder Ephraim of Arizona

The whole Orthodox world is aware of the repose of the Elder Ephraim of St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona. Having been acquainted with the Geronda, I would like to offer a few words in remembrance of him.
In his youth the elder went to the Holy Mountain with the intention of putting himself in subjection to St. Joseph the Hesychast. St. Joseph was a great elder and a strict ascetic, and there were few who could endure his regime. He did, however, produce several Athonite abbots from his small community: Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery, Haralambos of Dionisiou and Ephraim of Philotheou. Several other Athointe monasteries were later renewed by groups of monks who had been under Elder Ephraim at Philotheou; and, eventually, the Great Elder, himself, came to America. St. Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona was the first men’s monastery he established; and it is the place where he lived and reposed. The monastery was founded in July of 1995 when one of the fathers from Philotheou and several laymen arrived on the grounds. Two months later, the present abbot, Geronda Paisius, arrived with another four monks from the Holy Mountain—three from Philotheou and one from Xeropotamou – another monastery which had been renewed by monks from Philotheou.
When I first met Geronda Ephraim in 1984, I was already acquainted with his work in America. We saw what his efforts had led to—the establishment of seventeen monasteries here. This was far from easy. There were numerous stumbling blocks along the way. There had been a lot of suffering. The Elder was first asked to visit North America by spiritual children who went to see him. He once read a letter to his monks at Philotheou from some lay people in America begging him to come here, and so he asked his monks to pray along with him about this. In 1978 while I was still a novice at St. Tikhon’s Monastery, I was informed by a clergyman who visited the Holy Mountain that Elder Ephraim of Philotheou would be visiting America in the fall. I believe this was his first visit to this county. This visit eventually led to the establishment of a number of monasteries here in North America and then his own move here. One of the fathers who came to America from Philotheou has said, “Geronda Ephraim prayed – not for days or months – but for years before deciding that he would himself move to America.” Geronda Ephraim commented that it would have been easier for him to stay at Philotheou, and so this was a great sacrifice on his part. Personally, I knew him as a loving, sacrificial father. I will give an example of this: In 1986 I spent eight days at Philotheou. One of the things that struck me then about Geronda Ephraim is that he was always at the services and always availed himself to others. In some of the other monasteries I visited, which also had renowned elders, this was not always the case —the elders were often in reclusion. While I was there at Philotheou, I had an extraordinary experience of his fatherly love. One morning during Matins I dozed off sitting in my stasidia (a particular wooden chair in churches with a seat that folds up for standing within it). Someone knocked me on the head waking me up. I sprang up, looked, and saw Geronda’s back as he passed by. What would a normal reaction be? Maybe fear – for the abbot had just wakened me. On the contrary however, a feeling of compassion flowed through my heart. This was not a rebuke, but the encouragement of a loving father.
I do not want to immortalize the Elder, no one is infallible and mistakes may have been made along the way but there is also much fruit. It is quite remarkable that although his monasteries only use Greek as a liturgical language they still attract many faithful on a regular basis who do not understand the language. Why is this? They answer, “We do not understand, but we are edified but the faith of the monks.” “There is much grace here,” they say. These are comments I, myself, have heard. And this is a fruit of holding on to the ascetic tradition of the Church. This is significant for us in America because Orthodoxy is something foreign to this land. Many of our converts have an intellectual acceptance of faith, yet they bring with them the baggage of a distorted or non-ascetic approach towards life in Christ. This is what Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries have to offer us: Faith and life in Christ which they were taught by their Geronda.
May his memory be eternal!

Developing a Relationship with God

Developing a Relationship with God

In this post I will continue sharing some of the viewpoints of Fr. Zacharias
which I, myself, have found uplifting. So, let’s consider the following: developing a relationship with God. On this topic, Father Zacharias writes:

When we follow the Lord, we have only one care: to please Him and thank Him in all we do. But we must first establish a true relationship. We must cultivate the humility of the Publican and the determined repentance of the Prodigal Son. Each man’s relationship with God is unique. For God has created each in such a way that his particular relationship to his creator will fulfill and perfect him. He must therefore make it his only mission and purpose to build a strong relationship with Christ and to be in constant dialogue with Him. All our human relationships will derive strength from this relationship with God, and we will begin to see everything, every element of the created world in the light of this relationship. If we make it our concern to improve our relationship with Christ, deep repentance will spring forth within us. The more we grow in Christ, the more clearly we will know our poverty, and our inspiration will always be renewed. We will fear nothing because nothing will be able to separate us from His love.

In the world to come, we will continue this relationship with our Saviour which we have built up in this life. We will be judged according to our love, according to each word of Christ contained in the Gospel. Just as He asked Peter after His Resurrection, ‘Lovest thou me?’ so in the age to come He will ask each one of us the same question, and we too will reply, ‘Yea, Lord; Thou knowest that I love Thee.’ But the strength and boldness of our reply will depend entirely on the depth of our relationship with the Person of Christ. Whatever attitude we adopt in this life will continue with us beyond the grave. This is clear from the Gospel account of the judgment of the righteous, who utter the same humble thought which nourished their repentance: ‘Lord, when did we anything good upon earth? To Thee be glory, to us the shame.’ We must learn this humble attitude now, and then we will be able to live eternally with the Lord. Arrogance and self-justification have no place in Him, but they accompany us into eternity, and lead towards eternal separation from Him. (The Engraving of Christ in Man’s Heart, Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex 2017, pp.18-9)

So now the question for us to ponder is: how do we put this into action? How do we work to develop our relationship with God? I believe prayer of repentance is of prime importance in achieving this. Let me begin to explain by first offering a definition of prayer. One way we could define prayer is the expression of a relationship between two reason-endowed personal beings. By two reason-endowed personal beings, we mean God and man.

Prayer has a connection with theology because theology describes the relationship between God and man. Man was made “in the image and after the likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26); yet this was distorted by the sin of our first-parents, Adam and Eve. In listening to the serpent,
they were deceived and disobeyed the commandment of God. So they offended God and fell away from the life they knew in paradise. They distorted the original beauty of their resemblance to God and fragmented their relationship with Him. As time progressed and generations of men have come and gone, sin has multiplied, the distortion of our original beauty has been augmented, and the same is true for our relationship with God.

So, then, there are several questions that can be raised: How should this relationship between God and man be expressed? Who is God? And how do we approach Him? What is God’s attitude towards His fallen creature—man? And of what should man’s response consist? St. John the Theologian tells us who God is. He writes: “God is love” (I John 4:8). We know that with God there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). He has not changed His attitude towards us; but we have sinned and have disfigured both our being and our relationship
with God. God continues to be Who He is—Love. His attitude towards us can be briefly expressed in the following words of St. John the Theologian: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (IJohn 4:10).

So, now, how do we respond to this? How do we approach God? If it were another human being we had offended we would approach with shame, a humble attitude, a desire for reconciliation, and a readiness to make some recompense. And if someone we may have happened to offend would continue to love us and do good to us, we would feel all the more embarrassed and humbled. If we now apply this to our relationship with God – Who is not our equal, but infinitely transcends our being and has done so much good for us – what can we say? Is it possible to express in words what shame and humility, what longing for reconciliation and readiness to make recompense should we approach Him with? As Fr. Zacharias said, “We must cultivate the humility of the Publican and the determined repentance of the Prodigal Son.” Then, “deep repentance will spring forth within us.”

So we need to struggle for this and as an example for such all we need to do is turn to the prayers of the Church. What we hear in the services and what we see in our traditional Prayer Book is “the humility of the Publican and the determined repentance of the Prodigal Son” and “deep repentance”. It is in the prayers of our Church that we learn, so-to-speak, the language of prayer – the language with which we approach God, and develop a relationship with Him. In this manner we hope to acquire the attitude of the righteous, “who utter the humble thought which nourished their repentance: ‘Lord, when did we anything good upon earth? To Thee be glory, to us the shame.’ We must learn the humility of this attitude now, and then we will be able to live eternally with the Lord.” Amen.

The Monastery of St. John the Baptist and Community Life

The Monastery of St. John the Baptist and Community Life

I have recently made a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in England for the feast of St. Silouan the Athonite. So now, I believe it is good to place on my blog something of my experience which is embodied in the writings of a spiritual father at the monastery, Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou).

There are eleven monks and twenty eight nuns in the community and one aspect of their life which stood out for me is their struggle to keep a spirit of love and harmony alive among them. In passing on some precepts of the monastery’s founder, Archimandrite Sophrony*, Fr. Zacharias gives us the key to acquiring this in our immediate community, whether in a family or a monastery. Although he speaks of the principles of his Elder being applicable to married couples, this presupposes that both are struggling to live a life in Christ with the help of a spiritual father. Now to Fr. Zacharias:

In both marriage and monasticism we apply the same Christian principles. For example, Elder Sophrony said that even one evil thought against our brother ‘causes a crack in our spiritual stronghold’. Furthermore, he emphasized that each of us when we stand before God, should carry in our hearts all of our brethren. In this way, the unity of the brethren is achieved in the heart of each one of us, not simply in the heart of the Abbot.

Why is it that, as Elder Sophrony drew to our attention, one evil thought causes a crack in the wall of our spiritual fortification? It is because when we stir up negative thoughts about our brother and we remove him from our heart, then we mutilate our being. Our unity is contained in this understanding: to hold all in our heart and to avoid even the least negative thought for our fellows.

The same occurs in marriage; each spouse must learn not to accept a negative thought for each other, but to compete as we do in the monastery in the mystery of obedience, considering the other always more important. So whatever the Abbot says, we answer, ‘Yes your blessing!’I accept the will of the other, because the other is more important than myself. Therefore, finally I learn to accept the will of the ultimate Other, the will of the Saviour Christ.

If a couple competes as we do in a monastery, each striving to do the will of the other more perfectly, then their life will be enriched and established in the antechamber of paradise. As a spiritual fruit they will enjoy unity of heart and spirit, and not just psychological unity. In the monastery, everyone who has learned this competition, to humble oneself more before the other, is spiritually reborn. The same occurs also in a family. We don’t accept an evil thought for another member, but compete to do the will of the others and to humble ourselves more before them. As St. Silouan teaches, pride drives away love. The proud man is full of himself and does not make space in his heart for anything or anyone. If we carry, however, all our brethren or all our family in our heart before God and bring them before God in our everyday prayer, then surely there will be unity and love amongst us. All things can find room in our heart. (The Engraving of Christ in Man’s Heart, Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, pp. 20-21)

 

If we acquire such a love and unity in our immediate community of family or monastery this would overflow to others. Thus we could be witnesses to our Christian faith and our Lord Jesus Christ, Who prayed for His disciples: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me” (John 17:21). Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may we attain to this, and so, lead each other and those near us unto salvation. Amen

*This past week the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced the Canonization of Archimandrie Sophrony who is now officially numbered among the saints–A  CORRECTION: A Greek news site had misinformation which others republished. It appears that at one point while on the Holy Mountain Patriarch Bartholomew commented that his canonization is in consideration.  This was misinterpreted.

The Teaching of Elder Aimilinos on the Monastic life: Conclusion

The roles of the Geronta (Elder) and Gerontissa (Eldress) in a women’s monastery

One Sister related, “Geronta says as man is the head of woman, so too, the Geronta is the head of the Gerontissa; and behind every women’s monastery there should be a men’s monastery. Gerontissa says this even more and that they need a manly backup just as a woman needs a man. However Geronta stresses that we need to confess fully to Gerontissa and then go to him afterwards because women tend to turn to men and open more fully to them. It is harder for a woman to be under another woman , but he says that in a woman’s monastery all should be done under that authority of a woman. Of course the spiritual father is necessary; only he can absolve sins. Both are necessary but the nuns have to learn to be under the authority of a woman because they are in a woman’s monastery.” The Sister concluded, “We go to Gerontissa and she helps us. We confess everything to her and she will say, ‘You really should tell Geronta.’”

The same topic came up in the conversation of an American nun with the abbess, Gerontissa Nikodimi, and she expressed the following: “Has it ever happened that a woman’s monastery is goverened by an abbott? No, a women’s monastery has an abbess, a Gerontissa. The spiritual father
is necessary, but he should have nothing to do with the administration of the monastery. His role is only to give spiritual guidance. The Geronta gives a word to the Gerontissa and she puts it into action in the community as she sees fit. St. Pachomius had a woman’s monastery across the river from the men, and the women were completely independent. He only sent a monk across (an experienced spiritual father), to give spiritual guidance, to serve Liturgy and to help the sisters with heavy work they could not do alone. The Gerontissa has to be free to raise her children as she sees best, but in order to guide and confess the sisters she must herself confess thoroughly to the Geronta.”

The Sister then gave her own reflections on the relation of a Geronta and Gerontissa, according to what she has seen in her spiritual father and mother: “Usually it begins with the Gerontissa completely subjected to the Geronta, but because of that obedience, and because she is in a position of authority, God grants her grace herself. She will herself be filled with the spirit and can speak. Geronta says, “A father is a father and a mother is a mother”—he is really strong on the position of a mother. Gerontissa Nikodimi would say that she has nothing of her own, she is only a tool in the hands of the Geronta. However he would not say that of her, he recognizes her as a spiritual person in her own right. It is edifying to see how they both humble themselves before each other.”

The Sister ended by saying, “A good spiritual mother is the reflection of a good spiritual father. She will become a holy person herself but it is because of him; just the same as if any of us becomes holy, it will be because of both our spiritual father and our spiritual mother, because we submit to both.”

May God give rest to the newly departed Elder Aimilianos!

The Teaching of Elder Aimilianos on Monastic Life: Part II

Holy Communion

At Ormilia, Divine Liturgy is served daily and many nuns are blessed to receive every day, others several times a week, a few times, or once a week. I asked: “What criteria Geronta Aimilianos (Geronta is Greek for Elder) uses to decide who can receive frequently or daily?” Sister answered: “In general, if you are careful about your speech, if you keep your personal cell rule, you can receive frequently. But if you are careless in speech–gossiping or being over curious, for instance, about what others are doing; Geronta prevents you from receiving.”

The personal cell rule

The Sisters are free from after Compline until Matins the next morning (in Winter from about 4:30 PM until 3 AM, in summer it is shorter). Many go to bed immediately and get up in the night for their personal rule: prostrations, the Jesus prayer, and reading the Old Testament, the Psalter, the New Testament, an ascetic book, and a patristic book. These are all “musts”; all these are done by all the sisters in their rule, but the exact amount of each is determined by Geronta, they can also read other things: the Paraklisis, the life of the saint of the day and so forth. This is their personal rule. Reading is to work up to prayer but we also read because it is important to know.

The personal cell rule can be from up to one hour long to all night long–it depends on the stamina of the sister and her spiritual hunger. Each has a different rule, depending on what she wants to do and can do. She might have a lot of spiritual hunger but not the stamina for a long rule. Geronda says you must do something even if it is only five minutes.

The ideal which Geronda and the Fathers prefer is to get up at, or a little before, midnight to read and pray during the midnight and early morning hours because that is when the devil is most active in the world. Sin usually happens mostly around midnight, so that’s when monastics have to fight. Geronda says that it is a worldly habit to read and do the rule of prayer before going to sleep. However, if they cannot get up he allows them to do their rule before sleeping, and then to get up only an hour before Matins, or 45 minutes before, or at the very least half an hour, when the first bell for the service sounds. But he says you should be awake before the bell goes, so as to be awake when the service starts. If you get up just before the service, you are still asleep when it begins, and by the time you wake up it is over.

Praying throughout the day

Geronda says, “Don’t pray during the day in such a way that it interferes with your work.” Sister demonstrated someone saying the prayer very slowly and languidly and sewing in slow motion. Geronda hates that. Prayer should be quick; he stresses not to go slowly at prayer. All his teaching is dynamic, in singing, in prayer, and in the reading in church, which is done fast on purpose–quick reading, singing and prayer keeps you awake.

About Women

I said that in America there is a lot of pressure on women to be like men, to lose the feminine character that God has given them. I asked what Geronta says about women’s monasticism and the different characters os women and men.

Sister answered: “Geronta actually wants women in a certain sense to be manly. Women should be strong like men, and get away from feminine sensitivities—as women are more likely to be sensitive they can be sentimental and weak. Geronta says, ‘Be sensitive to someone else and not to yourself. Be tender for someone else but for yourself you need to be really strong, like a man.’ This is why the singing is strong here; he likes us to be strong, to show power, to be able to fight. To be frail, sensitive, or emotional is very bad especially for nuns. ‘How can one be the bride of Christ and be frail?’–Geronta asks us.”

He wants them to stand on their own feet (that is, not to cling to others in an unhealthy way, trying to rely on others to do for them what they should be doing) and to be bold, but at the same time to be obedient, and submissive to those over them. It takes strength to be humble: a man can stand up to accusations thrown at him but a woman is likely to start crying and feeling sorry for herself etc….to be continued

The First Ecumenical Council and Who can interpret Scripture

The First Ecumenical Council and who can interpret Scripture

This past Sunday we commemorated the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, and so, I will be publishing now a sermon for that day.  The teachings of Elder AImilianos will continue in the next post.

Beloved of God, today, as we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, let us consider Scripture interpretation, and specifically ponder the question: Who is trustworthy to interpret the Holy Scriptures?  I pose this question because Arius, whom our Holy Fathers withstood, based his heretical teaching upon his personal interpretation of the Scriptures.  So let me ask again: Who is trustworthy to interpret the Holy Scriptures?

I would like to begin answering by bringing forward a comment of the contemporary monk Theocletos of Dionisiou Monastery on the Holy Mountain.  Father Theocletos is mentioned in the book “Anchored in God” as a noteworthy monk of the Holy Mountain.  This book is authored by Constantine Cavarnos who visited Athos in the 1950’s and wrote of his experiences there.  When I visited the Holy Mountain in 1986 I heard about Father Theocletos as a monk who is both spiritual and scholarly.  At that time he was living a semi-reclused life, residing in a house just outside the monastery.  I visited him and asked a number of questions.  One, which I had often been asked by Protestants, was, “Why is it that we Orthodox have so little of the New Testament in our services?”    So Father answered: “It is Protestantism to read the Scriptures and interpret them.  In the Orthodox Church we go by the writings of the Holy Fathers.  The Holy Fathers lived the Gospel commandments, they were purified, they were illumined by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and their writings proceeded from the illumination they received.”  He then encouraged me to read the Holy Fathers.

In addition to this we could also make reference to St. John Cassian.  Somewhere in his writings he poses the question, “Why is it that we find variant opinion among commentators of the Holy Scriptures?”  And he answers, “Because before being purified from the passions they rush into the work of interpreting the Scriptures.”

So, for us, our Holy Fathers, such as those we commemorate today, are the interpreters of the Holy Scriptures and they are our theologians; they set down doctrine for us.  Let us also consider what theology is, since this also speaks of the state of grace acquired by the Saints which enabled them to interpret the Scriptures.  Archimandrite Zachariah explains this well in relating how his spiritual father, Elder Sophrony defines theology.  He writes:

For Elder Sophrony, theology is above all an abiding in God.  It is accompanied by the saving and regenerating power of the Spirit, Whose nature although it cannot be declared, nevertheless conveys an illuminating revelation.  The man who bears this state bears ‘the word of life’ (Phil. 2:16)….

In his book on Saint Silouan, Elder Sophrony confirms that true theology is neither the fruit of intellectual erudition, nor the conjecturing of man’s reason, but rather the narration of an important occurrence which is the encounter between the spirit of man and the Living God. (Man the Target of God, pp. 101-2)

And Father Sophrony compares the rational approach of man to theology with that which is the fruit of man’s experience of grace as follows:

With iron drills men drill the earth’s crust for oil, and are successful.  With their intellectual powers they drill heaven for the fire of Divinity but are rejected of God because of their pride.

Divine contemplation is accorded to man, not in those precise moments when he seeks it, and it alone, but when his soul descends into the hell of repentance and does really feel that she is the meanest of creatures.  Contemplation forcibly attained, as it were, through the reason is not true but only seemingly contemplation.  To accept such contemplation as truth creates conditions in the soul which may prevent the action of grace and make genuine contemplation impossible.

Knowledge revealed in the contemplation which proceeds from grace surpasses even the most sublime creations of the imagination, as St. Paul affirmed when he said, ‘Eye hat not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.’ (ICor. 2:9)  When man, as happened with the Apostles, has been caught up by grace in to a vision of Divine Light, he afterwards translates into theology the things he has seen and known.  Authentic theology consists, not in the conjecture of man’s reason or the results of critical research but in a statement of the life into which man has been introduced by the action of the Holy Spirit. (Saint Silouan the Athonite, pp. 169-170)

Let us, therefore, put our trust in our Holy Fathers who experienced this state and thank God for the great inheritance of their writings—their expositions of true theology—which He has bequeathed us.  We should not expect to acquire the state of grace nor illumination they experienced.  However we should be grateful to God for their teachings.  This is also a reason to grow in our love for our Lord, since He has not left us orphaned but has raised up the Holy Fathers to preserve the Faith for us.  Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers may our Lord Jesus Christ hold us fast in the true faith and save us.  Amen.

Teaching of Elder Aimilianos on the monastic life

Teaching of Elder Aimilianos on the Monastic Life

The contemporary respected Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra Monastery on the Holy Mountain reposed last month.* He was the founder and spiritual father of the Convent of the Annunciation near Ormylia, Halkidiki in Greece. What follows here are notes of conversations of an American nun with a sister of the above mentioned convent.

I asked sister what Elder Aimilianos emphasizes most in his teaching on monastic life. She immediately said, “Joy. For Geronta (Geronta is Greek for Elder) this is the most vital thing. Whenever he gives a talk, whether in Thessalonika or just for the nuns, no matter what the subject, he always brings this in. If one is joyful, then no matter what happens, he will not fall. If we are joyful we have an open heart, and God can enter. If we are unhappy, our heart is locked and He can’t enter. If we are free, joyful and accept everything, then God continuously blesses. Geronta says, ‘Even if you sin, stay happy and repent but don’t despair.’”

I asked, “How to acquire joy?”

Sister answered, “Don’t think about yourself. The more we are wrapped in ourselves and our troubles, the more we lose joy. If we don’t think about God or the other sisters it follows that joy will depart from us for we are wrapped up in ourselves. Geronda gives examples—if an earthquake happens, or the Turks or Communists invade, so what remain joyful! When we were putting up new buildings Geronta told us, ‘Suppose we finish the building and then an earthquake occurs and knocks it all down—so what! We start over again. Suppose a persecution comes—isn’t God above everything? Doesn’t God know what is happening? He could have stopped it, but He didn’t. Suppose all the sisters are called together for something and only you area forgotten, no one calls you. So what! God could have caused one sister to remember you and call you but He didn’t. So you went to your cell, said your prayers and you were with God.’”
On illnesses

“If we get a serious illness, we should be grateful that God gave the illness to us rather than someone outside the monastery who has a family—a cross would be greater for that one. Illness is a great blessing, but we do not ask for it because we don’t know if we could bear it. Illness brings you closer to God because you are humbled and think more of God. Geronta Aimilianos has always been sick, ever since childhood, but he never said, ‘Why God?’ Spiritual people never ask that their illness leave them but they thank God for it. God gives us only what we can bear; God wouldn’t have given it if we couldn’t bear it, so why be upset? This is another reason for joy.”
Standing in church

Geronta tells them always to stand in church and only sit if they really have a health problem. He tells them to be like burning lamps in church. So most of the sisters stand—it’s a spiritual fight in church. He tells them if you train yourself to stand all the time, and to be still—not to go in and out—you will be able to; it’s a matter of training.

In vigils (vigils are between 5 and 6 hours) Geronta has set a rule of two times that they can leave if they need to go to the restroom, but he doesn’t like it. He says, “Make a decision that you don’t need to go.” He stresses making decisions decisively. If they leave church, they tell Gerontissa (Greek for Eldress), or the second in charge, or the sister in charge of seating, why they are leaving, and they don’t leave without a blessing. At first they had only a small chapel—most of them stood in the corridor—and there was a lot of movement in and out, so after a while he laid down the law. Sister said, “He educates us gradually. But even when he makes a law there is flexibility to it—he states things in an absolute way, to impress upon them the importance of his point, but in actuality he is flexible.”…to be continued

*Brief biographical information can be found on http://www.orthochristian.com

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Instructions Conclusion

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Instructions Conclusion

 Concerning prayer

Those who are truly resolved to serve the Lord God must exercise themselves in the remembrance of God and unceasing prayer to Jesus Christ, saying in their minds: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” By guarding oneself from dispersion through such an exercise and by preserving peace of conscience, it is possible to draw near to God and to unite oneself with Him. For according to the word of St. Isaac of Syria we are not able to draw near to God except by unceasing prayer (Homily 69).
Therefore it is necessary to always strive not to give oneself to a dispersed mind. For through a dispersed mind the soul strays from the remembrance of God and from love of Him, according to the working of the devil. As St. Macarius says, the whole concern of our adversary is to turn our mind from the remembrance of God, and from fear and love (Homily 2).
When the mind and the heart are united in prayer and the thoughts of the soul are not dispersed, then the heart is kindled with a spiritual warmth in which the light of Christ shines, filling the whole inner man with peace and joy. We should give thanks to God for everything and be delivered up to His will. Likewise we should lay before Him all our thoughts, words, and deeds, and we ourselves should strive so that all things will be pleasing to God.

Concerning Talkativeness

By itself too much talking with those whose habits of life are contrary to ours is sufficient to unsettle the inward state of a heedful man. But most lamentable of all is the fact that it can quench the fire which our Lord Jesus Christ came to implant on the earth in the heart of man. For nothing so cools the fire of the Holy Spirit which He breathes into the heart of a monk for the sanctification of the soul as communication, talkativeness, and conversations (Isaac the Syrian, Homily 8).
It is especially needful to keep oneself from dealings with the female sex. For as an unlit wax candle melts if it is placed in the midst of burning candles, so also the heart of a monk, from conversations with the female sex, imperceptibly grows weak. Concerning this, St. Isidor of Pelusium (Lives of Saints February 4th) states in letters: “If there are any conversations which corrupt good habits, conversations with women, even though they be good, still have the power to secretly corrupt the interior man with defiling thoughts, and though the body remains pure the soul becomes defiled. For what is more firm than stone and what is softer than water? – yet through continual application nature prevails.” Therefore, for the preservation of the inner man, it befits one to strive to restrain the tongue from talkativeness: “For the wise man enters stillness” (Proverbs 11:12). (1)

Concerning thoughts and desires of the flesh

We should always be pure from unclean thoughts, especially when we offer prayer, for there is no harmony between foul odor and fragrance. When thoughts occur, there is also coupling with them, so we must repulse the first onslaught of sinful thoughts and disperse them from the land of our heart. While the children of Babylon – that is, evil thoughts – are yet infants, we must break them to pieces and crush them on the rock that is Christ (Ps. 137:8-9) – especially the three foremost of them – gluttony, covetousness and vainglory – through which the devil strove to tempt even our Lord Himself at the end of His struggles (Mat 4:1-11). The devil as a lion hides in his den (Is. 9:30), secretly setting for us snares of impure and impious thoughts. And so immediately, as soon as we see them, we should break them off by means of godly reflection and prayer.

Concerning the duties of subordinates in relation to Superiors

Acquire humility, obedience, and submissiveness, and you shall save yourself, says the Venerable Barsanuphius. And by no means talk back saying: “What is this?” and “To what purpose is this?” But be fully submissive, above all to your Abba, who for the sake of God takes care of you and to whom you have entrusted your soul (Questions and answers of Barsanuphius and John, answer 242).
Whosoever desires to be a true disciple of Christ should not have authority over himself in anything, so that he does nothing by himself but only that which his teacher says. For whatever he does according to his own mind is not pleasing to God, although to himself it seems to be good. If anyone thinks he knows better than his Abba what is good for himself, why then does he call himself his disciple?
Cast your will behind yourself and preserve humility in all your life and then you will save yourself. Humility and obedience can effect the uprooting of every passion and the planting of all virtues (Bars., answers 309, 359, 351, 618, 68, 226).
The subordinate must be dead to himself during this life in order to possess eternal life. He must be like a cloth in a textile mill, according to the word of Venerable Antiochus. For as cloth, through being bleached, beaten, ground, washed, and rinsed, is made white like snow, likewise the novice bears degradation, offense, and reproach, which cleanse him and make him as purified as glistening silver refined by fire (Ant., Word 113).
One must not meddle in the affairs of one’s superiors and judge them, for by this one offends the greatness of God from Whom every authority is appointed: “For there is no power but of God and the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1).
As is good, one should not oppose authorities in order not to sin before God and be subjected to His righteous chastisement. “He who resists the authorities resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist shall have sin imputed to themselves” (Rom. 13:2). (2)
He who is obedient prospers considerably in the formation of his soul, and in addition he obtains through this an understanding of things and comes to tender feeling.

Concerning not judging one’s neighbor and forgiving offences

One must not judge anyone, although with one’s own eyes one may see someone sin or wallow in transgression of the commandments of God; according to the word of God: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Mat. 7:1). One must not nourish in the heart evil or hatred towards one’s neighbor who is hostile. Rather, one must love him, and as much as one is able, do him good, following the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ: “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you” (Mat. 5:44).
And so, if we would strive as much as we are able to fulfill all this, then we can have the hope that in our hearts shall shine the Divine light, revealing to us the way to the Jerusalem above.
Why do we judge our brethren? Because we do not strive to know ourselves. Whoever occupies himself with self-knowledge never notices others; judge yourself, and you will stop judging others. And so, beloved, let us not observe the sins of others and judge them, so as not to hear: “The sons of men, their teeth are weapons and arrows, and their tongue is a sharp sword” (Ps. 56:5). For when the Lord leaves a man to himself, then the devil gets ready to crush him, as a millstone does a grain of wheat.

Concerning solitude and silence

Ambrose of Milan says, “Through silence I have seen many saved, but through talkativeness not one.” And again one of the Fathers has said that silence is the mystery of the age to come, while words are the implement of this present world (Philokalia, Callistus and Ignatius, section 16.11).
Simply sit in your cell in heedfulness and silence, and by every means strive to bring yourself near to the Lord; and the Lord will make ready to transform such a man into an angel: “For upon whom,” He says, “shall I look but upon him that is meek and silent and trembles at My word?” (Is. 66:2). When we abide in silence, then our enemy, the devil, is unable to gain any advantage with respect to the hidden man of the heart. By this one must understand silence of mind.
If you are not able always to abide in solitude and silence, live in the monastery and occupy yourself with the obediences that are laid upon you by the Superior. Then whatever time remaining from your obediences should be devoted to solitude and silence. For this little bit, the Lord God will not refrain from sending His rich mercy upon you.
From solitude and silence, tender feeling and meekness are born. The
action of the latter in the heart of man can be likened to the calm water of Siloam that runs without noise or sound. As the prophet Isaiah speaks of it, “the waters of Shiloah that go softly” (Is. 8:6).
Abiding in the cell in silence, the practice of prayer and the study day and night of the law of God make a man pious. For according to the words of the Holy Fathers, the cell of a monk is the Babylonian furnace, in which the three youths found the Son of God (Philokalia, St. Peter of Damascus, Book 1, section 114). “A monk,” according to the words of Ephraim the Syrian, “cannot stay long in one place if he does not beforehand love silence and temperance. For silence teaches stillness and continual prayer, while temperance renders the thought undistracted. So at last one may find this desired peaceful state” (Book 2, section 59).

Concerning Sorrow

When the evil spirit of sorrow seizes the soul, then it fills her with bitterness and unpleasantness. It does not allow her to complete prayer with the necessary earnestness, and it hinders the reading of Scriptures with the attention that is proper. It makes the soul devoid of meekness and a good-natured manner in relations with the brethren, and it gives birth to aversion for every conversation. For the soul, when filled with sorrow, acts as one who is senseless and delirious; she is not able to calmly receive good counsel or to meekly answer questions laid before her. She flees people as though they were the cause of her disturbance, and does not understand that the reason for her illness lies within. Sorrow is the worm of the heart that gnaws at the mother who gave her birth.
The sorrowful monk is not able to move his mind towards contemplation and he is never able to complete his prayer purely.
He who has been victorious over the passions has been victorious over sorrow. But he who is a victim of the passions cannot avoid the chains of sorrow. As the sick man is known by the color of his face, so he who is ruled by the passions is detected by his sorrow. It is impossible for one who loves the world not to be sorrowful, but he who has contempt for the world is always joyful.
As fire purifies gold, so sorrowful longing for God cleanses the heart of sin (Ant., Word 25).

Instruction to a beginning monk

As you live in the cloister observe the following: as you stand in the Church, attend to everything without overlooking anything. If you happen to be in your cell and do not have handiwork, show all diligence to reading, and above all read the Psalter. Make an effort to read through each stasis many times in order that you may contain everything in your mind. If you have handiwork, apply yourself to it; if you are called to an obedience, go to it. During handiwork, or wherever you may be at an obedience, unceasingly say the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In prayer take heed to yourself – that is, gather your mind and unite it with the subject of the prayer, and do not turn to any other thing. When the Lord kindles your heart by the warmth of His grace, then the prayer shall flow in it unceasingly and always be with you, delighting and nourishing you.
When you shall hold within yourself this food of the soul – that is, conversation with our Lord Himself – why should you go to the cells of the brethren even though someone should call upon you? Truly I tell you that this is idle talk and love of idleness. If you do not understand yourself, how then are you able to discern that which concerns others and teach them? Be silent; remember always the presence of God and His name. Enter into discussions with no one, but by every means guard yourself against judging those who converse much, or who laugh. Be in this case deaf and dumb, so that whatever they say about you, you will let it all pass by your ears.
As an example for yourself, you can take Stephen the New (Lives of Saints, Nov. 28th), who was unceasing in prayer, meek in character, silent, humble in heart, compunctionate in spirit, pure in body and soul, irreproachable in virginity, in poverty true, in non-acquisitiveness like a desert dweller. He was unmurmuring in obedience, thorough in his duties, patient and earnest in his labors.
Sitting at table, do not look or judge how much anyone eats, but attend to yourself and nourish your soul with prayer. For dinner eat what is sufficient, and at supper restrain yourself. On Wednesday and Friday, if possible eat only once. Every day without fail, in the evening sleep four hours: the 10th, 11th, 12th, and the hour past midnight; if you become weak, you can sleep in the afternoon. Hold to this constantly until the end of your life, for it is necessary to calm your head. I, from my early years, have kept such a way. And we always beg the Lord God to give us rest at nighttime. (3) If you shall thus keep yourself, then you will not be despondent, but healthy and joyful.

(1)Here the Septuagint translation, as in other quotes in this article, is rendered and may differ from other texts familiar to the reader.
(2)Here we have translated directly from the Slavonic text.
(3)This is a reference to the Compline service of the Orthodox Church.

St. Seraphim and the Sea of Life: Instructions Part I

SPIRITUAL INSTRUCTIONS OF FR. SERAPHIM

Concerning Renunciation of the World

The fear of God is obtained at the time when a man, having renounced the world and all that is in the world, focuses all his thoughts and feelings on the one notion of the law of God, wholly immersing himself in contemplation of God and in perceptions of the blessedness promised by the Saints.

It is impossible to renounce the world and come to a state of spiritual contemplation while remaining in the world.  For as long as the passions are not calmed it is impossible to acquire peace of soul; and the passions are not quieted as long as we are surrounded with things that arouse the passions.  In order to come to perfect passionlessness and attain perfect stillness of soul, it is necessary to struggle much in spiritual reflection and prayer.  But how is it possible to wholly and serenely immerse oneself in the contemplation of God and instruction in His law, and to lift one’s whole soul to Him in ardent prayer, while remaining amidst the incessant noise of the passions warring in the world?  The world lies in evil.  The soul cannot love God sincerely without having freed itself from the world.

Concerning Stillness

The venerable Barsanuphius teaches: As long as a ship is at sea it endures perils and the onslaught of winds, but once it reaches a tranquil and peaceful harbor it remains calm and no longer fears perils and afflictions and the onslaughts of winds.  And so you, monk, as long as you remain among people, expect afflictions and perils and the onslaughts of mental storms, but when you enter into stillness you will have nothing to fear (Bars., Answer 8,9).  Perfect stillness is a cross upon which a man must crucify himself with all his passions and lusts.  Just think how much abuse and how many insults our Master Christ endured at first before He ascended upon the cross.  It is the same with us; we are not able to come to perfect stillness and hope for holy perfection if we do not suffer with Christ.  For the Apostle says, “If we suffer with Him we shall also be glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17).  There is no other way (Bars., Answer 346).

He who has come to stillness must unceasingly remember why he has come, so that his heart does not turn to anything else whatsoever.

Concerning heedfulness of oneself

He who walks upon this path must not pay attention to extraneous rumors through which the head can be filled with idle and vain thoughts and recollections, but he must attend to himself.

It is especially necessary for one on this path to be watchful so as not to let himself turn to the affairs of others, neither to think nor speak of them – as the Psalmist says: “that my mouth might not speak of the works of men” (16:4) (27) – but rather he should pray to the Lord: “From my secret sins do Thou cleanse me, and from those of strangers spare Thy servant” (Ps. 18:13,14).

A man must direct attention to the beginning and end of his life.  In the middle, where fortunate or unfortunate happenings occur, one should be indifferent.

In order to preserve heedfulness, one needs to be withdrawn within oneself, according to the saying of the Lord: “Salute no man by the way” (Luke 10:4) – that is, do not speak unnecessarily.

On meeting the elders or brethren, one ought to honor them with a bow, having one’s eyes always closed.

Concerning care for the soul

Man, in reference to the body, is like a candle that is lit; it must burn down and the body must die.  But the soul is immortal; therefore our care for the soul must be greater than that for the body: “For what will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul, or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mat. 16:26).

Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrose of Milan and others were virgins from their youth until the end of their lives.  They directed their entire lives to caring for the soul and not for the body.  And so it is necessary for us to focus entirely on the soul. The body should be strengthened only for this: that it may aid in the strengthening of the spirit.

If we willfully exhaust our body to the point that the soul also is exhausted, then such an oppression would be indiscreet even though it may be done to gain virtue.

Should it be pleasing to the Lord to lay sickness on a man in order to test him, then He will grant him the power to endure.

With what one should nourish the soul

It befits one to nourish the soul with the word of God; for the word of God, as Gregory the Theologian says, is angelic bread, through which souls that hunger for God are fed.  Above all, one needs to exercise oneself in the reading of the New Testament and the Psalter, and this should be done standing. Through this the mind is enlightened and is in turn changed with a divine change.

A man should accustom himself to having his mind as if swimming in the law of God, which should be a guide in the ordering of his life.

Once a man has nourished his soul with the word of God, then he is filled with the understanding of what is good and what is evil.

The reading of the word of God should be conducted in solitude so that the mind of the reader may be totally immersed in the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and receive from God a warmth in himself which in solitude produces tears, which cause the whole man to be kindled and filled with spiritual gifts that delight the mind and heart more than any word.

Concerning peace of soul

If a man does not abandon worldly concerns he cannot have peace of soul.  Peace of soul is obtained through afflictions.  The Scriptures say, “We have gone through fire and water and Thou hast led us to rest” (Ps. 65:12).  He who desires to be pleasing to God must pass through many afflictions.  How can we extol the holy martyrs for the suffering that they endured for the sake of God if we are not able to endure a little fever?

Nothing is so helpful in the acquisition of interior peace as silence, and to keep conversations with others as short as possible; but one should converse with oneself unceasingly.

Nothing is better than peace in Christ, for in it every warfare of the spirits of the air and earth is destroyed.  “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12).

The sign of a wise soul is when a man has his mind descend within himself and has activity in his heart.  Then the grace of God envelops him and he abides in a peaceful state and through it in the most peaceful state.  In peaceful state, that is, with a good conscience.  In the most peaceful state since the mind contemplates within itself the grace of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the word of God: “His place is in peace” (Ps. 75:3).

On preserving peace of soul

One should try by every means to preserve peace of soul and not to be disturbed by insults from others.  Therefore it is necessary to strive to contain anger in every way, and through heedfulness of the mind and heart to restrain from unbecoming impulses.

So then, we must bear insults from others with indifference, and accustom ourselves to having such a disposition of spirit as to feel that their insult did not have to do with us but with others.  Such an exercise can bring quietness to our heart and make it a dwelling place of God Himself.

We see an example of such freedom from anger in Gregory the Wonderworker, from whom a prostitute in a certain public place demanded a reward as though he had committed a sin with her.  But he, being not the least bit angry with her, meekly told a certain friend of his, “Quickly give her the price, as much as she demands.”  As soon as the woman received that unrighteous reward she was subjected to an assault by a demon.  The saint drove the demon away from her by prayer (Lives of Saints, Nov. 17).

If it is not possible to be undisturbed then one should at least try to restrain the tongue, in accord with the words of the Psalmist: “I was troubled and spake not” (Ps. 76:5).  For preserving peace of soul one must also flee from every judgment of others.  Silence and lack of judgment preserve peace of soul.  When a man is in such an orderly state, he receives divine revelations.

In order to be delivered from judging, one must take heed to oneself, not accepting extraneous thoughts from anyone, and be dead to everything.  For the preservation of peace of soul, it befits one to enter into oneself more frequently and ask: “Where am I?”

At the same time, one must watch in order that the bodily senses, especially sight, serve the inner man, and that they do not distract the soul through sensual objects; for gifts of grace are received only by those who have interior activity, and are vigilant over their souls.