Literature Outside the CHurch: A Discerning Factor

Literature outside the Church: A Discerning Factor

In the first epistle of St. John the Theologian writes: “You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all things. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.” (IJohn 2:20-21) He often says in his epistle “we know”. Those to whom he wrote had the grace of the Holy Spirit, and they had discernment, “they knew”. But what about us, how can we acquire some measure of discernment? How can we know what is acceptable and what is to be rejected? I will speak of something, a facet of Orthodox life that can be helpful. Let me begin by posing a question: What is the character of Orthodox spirituality? The staunch, reverent piety which can be seen among Orthodox, not the external expression but the inner essence which can be defined as a holy humble blessed fearless fear of God. To the degree one acquires this, one can sense what is acceptable and what is questionable and so also say, “we know”.

So it is a life of piety which I advocate as a discerning factor or perhaps we could make a superlative and better express it by saying reverent piety. In Russian the word used for this is blagochestiye—for the Russian, this is a word of Church vocabulary. It is a compound word of good and honor. It could be defined as saying to hold that which is God’s in honor. As mentioned above it is “a holy, humble, blessed fearless fear of God”, in which there is peace. The late Archbishop Andrew founder of the New-Diveyevo Convent in Spring Valley, New York speaks of this as follows:

“Orthodoxy is not merely a ritual, or belief, or pattern of behavior, or anything else that a man may possess, thinking that he is thereby a Christian, and still spiritually dead; it is rather an elemental reality or power which transforms a man and gives him the strength to live in the most difficult and tormenting conditions, and prepares him to depart with peace into eternal life….The essence of the true Orthodox life is godliness or piety, which is, in the definition of Elder Nectarius, based on the etymology of the word, ‘holding what is God’s in honor.’ This is deeper than mere right doctrine; it is the entrance of God into every aspect of life, life lived in trembling and fear of God.

“Such an attitude produces the Orthodox Way of Life which is not merely the outward customs or behavior that characterize Orthodox Christians, but the whole of the conscious struggle of the man for whom the Church and its law are the center of everything he does and thinks. The shared conscious experience of this way of life, centered on the daily Divine services, produces the genuine Orthodox community, with its feeling of lightness, joy, and inward quietness. …

“Without a constant and conscious spiritual struggle even the best Orthodox life or community can become a “hothouse,” an artificial Orthodox atmosphere in which the outward manifestations of Orthodox life are merely “enjoyed” or taken for granted, while the soul remains unchanged, being relaxed and comfortable instead of tense in the struggle for salvation.” (The Restoration of the Orthodox Way of Life, pp. 3-4)

So what must we do to acquire Orthodox life. As one Russian priest told me some years ago: “You either live with those who have it or read about those who have it.” So then, what can we read? In the early Church Fathers, the classical works of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” and “Abba Dorotheus”. More modern works of St. Innocent’s “Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of God”, St. John of Kronstadt’s “My Life in Christ”; lives of the Optina Elders and the series of lives of saints by Constantine Cavarnos.

Let us immerse ourselves in such and see what the result is. What will it do to our way of thought and how will it affect our manner of life? Amen.

Literature Outside the Church: Is it trustworthy foood for the soul?

Literature outside the Church: Is it trustworthy food for the soul?
(a continuation)

In this continuation on the subject of reading literature outside the Church I will offer an excerpt of a letter of St. Paisius Velichkovsky to a monk named Theophylact. A question was posed about reading questionable books that are printed and distributed by schismatics. He is approaching this issue from another aspect which supplements those discriminating words of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. So, in his reply, St. Paisius points out:

“In a book on the profession if the Orthodox faith, there is a question asking what is the fifth commandment of the Church. The answer is that those who are unlearned in the Holy Scriptures and other necessary fields should not read heretical books or listen to the harmful teachings of heretics, or even speak or have dealings with them, as the psalm-singer prophet says: ‘Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners’ (Ps. 1:1). Elsewhere the Holy Scripture says: ‘As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him’ (Titus 3:10). Watch carefully and note that the Divine Church does not command everyone not to hold discussions with heretics, but only those who are unlearned in the Holy Scriptures and the various fields of learning. It is very easy for the latter, as they read heretical books and get acquainted with their teachings, or carelessly enter into conversations with heretics, to succumb to their ungodly and perverse sophistry. In the eyes of ignorant people, heretical teaching often appears to be truthful, while actually being unquestionably false. Just as Satan, being darkness, becomes transformed into a radiant angel, so do heretical teachings, being darkness and totally alienated from the light of God’s Truth, often appear to people who are unlearned in the Holy Scriptures and various fields to be somewhat similar to the truth. This is why the Church forbids those who are unlearned in the Holy Scriptures and the other fields to read heretical books and to have discussions with heretics, so that they will not, do to their unsophistication, be harmed by their teachings. Those who have studied the Holy Scriptures and the other fields are exempt from this commandment. Such are the Holy Fathers, the pastors, and the teachers of the Church. Not only were they instructed to perfection in the Holy Scriptures by the grace of God, but they also mastered the other fields of knowledge, surpassing in worldly wisdom not only their instructors, but also all the ancient philosophers. These God-bearing Fathers of our’s saw how various heretics, proud of their worldly wisdom, would turn the Divine Scriptures into a weapon of their philosophy, interpreting them in an erroneous and perverted sense through philosophical proofs and bringing constant strife into the Church of Christ through their teachings. Thus the Fathers would read their false heretical teachings, and subordinating their philosophies to the Divine Scriptures in every respect, would perceive the heretic’s errors clearer than the sun, and through the invincible double weapon, i.e., theology and philosophical proof, would rend asunder all their heretical stratagems as a spider web and would defend God’s Church by the word of truth from all heretical attacks. For philosophy, too, if used correctly, as the Holy and Apostolic Church teaches us, corresponds to God’s truth to such an extent that it cannot be surpassed by any heretical verbal stratagems. If used contrary to the true sense of the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Church, as is done by the heretics, it becomes opposed to God’s truth, and since it upholds lies, it gets vanquished by truthful evidence. Thus, one who starts reading schismatic books must lack neither theological knowledge nor worldly learning. For one who does not have the appropriate knowledge, it is better to obey God and the Church commandment which says: ’Do not read heretical books and do not take part in discussions with heretics.’” (Starets Paisii Velichkovskii by Sergii Chetverikov, Norland Publishing Company, Belmont, Mass. 1980, pp. 253-5)

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, may our Lord Jesus Christ keep us on a level path, turning neither to the right, nor to the left. Amen!

Literature Outside the Church: Is it trustworthy food for the soul?

Literature outside the Church: Is it trustworthy food for the soul?

As I still have a little wait for the translation of the life of Heiromonk Ioan, the founder of Sarov Hermitage Monastery, I have decided to again take a tangent to the above mentioned subject regarding literature outside of the Orthodox Church. So then, what should we, as Orthodox Christians do about literature outside the Church? Is it advisable to read literature outside the Church? There is certainly much properly moral and ethical literature both by secular and religious writers outside the Church. In the Church we also find clergy, professors, and well educated laity who want to express themselves in writing. So who can we trust? Without making a direct answer myself, I will point my readers to some comments from St. Ignatius Brianchannov.

In mid-nineteenth century Russia, there were a number of pious Orthodox writers among the educated. One of them, Nikolai Gogol, wrote a book entitled, Selected Excerpts from Correspondence with Friends, which engendered heated debate. Here St. Ignatius Branchaninov1 offers a review of this book. This review was handwritten by the Elder, St. Macarius of Optina, and found in a copy of Gogol’s book in the Optina Monastery library. The Elder St. Joseph of Optina noted that St. Macarius shared St. Ignatius’ view. St. Ignatius writes:

“It is evident that this man has turned to God with a fervent heart. For religion, however. This is not enough. If it is to become a true light for the individual per se and if it is to issue genuine light from him to his neighbor, it requires definitiveness [or preciseness, or to be kept within certain boundaries]. This definitiveness consists in precise cognition of truth, in separation of it from all that is false, from all that only seems true. The Saviour Himself said this: ‘The truth shall set you free’ (Jn. 8: 32). Elsewhere in the Holy Scripture it is written: ‘Thy word is truth’ (Jn. 17: 17). For this reason anyone who wishes to acquire definitiveness studies the Gospel thoroughly and directs his thoughts and emotions in keeping with the Lord’s teaching. Then he can define in himself correct and beneficial thoughts and emotions. Then a person enters into purity, as the Lord after the Last Supper told His disciples, who had already become educated with the teaching of truth: ‘Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you’ (Jn. 15:3). However, purity alone is insufficient for a person: he needs revitalization, inspiration. Thus, for a lamp to give light it is not enough to wash the glass; the candle inside it has to be lit as well. The Lord did likewise with His disciples. Having cleansed them with truth, He brought them to life with His Spirit, and they became light for men. Before they received the Holy Spirit they were incapable of teaching humanity, even though they were pure. This course must be effected with the Christian in actuality, and not nominally: first enlightenment with truth, then enlightenment with the Spirit. Admittedly, a person has in-born inspiration which is more or less developed and proceeds from the actions of the emotions of the heart. Truth negates this inspiration as confused and destroys it so that when the Spirit comes He may resurrect it in a renewed state. If, however, he is guided by his inspiration before he is cleansed with the truth, he will radiate from himself to others a confused and deceptive light instead of a pure one because there lies in his heart not simple good but good mixed more or less with evil. Let everyone look at himself and check my words with the experience of his heart: they are very precise and just, based as they are on nature itself. If these principles are applied to Golgol’s book, it can be said that he irradiated from himself both light and darkness. His religious notions have not been defined; they move in the direction of the heartfelt, the unclear, the instinctive, the emotional, but not the spiritual. Since Golgol is a writer, and in a writer ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh’ (Mt. 12:34), or the composition is a definite confession of the composer, but one which is not understood by him and understood only by a Christian who has been elevated by the Gospel so that in an abstract land of thoughts and emotions he distinguishes between light and darkness in it, Golgol’s book cannot be accepted as pure words of truth either. There is a mixture here. It is preferable that this person in whom self-sacrifice is evident moor in the harbour of truth, where the beginning of all blessings is. For this reason I advise all my friends regarding religion to engage exclusively in reading the Holy Fathers, who acquired cleansing and enlightenment, as well as the apostles, and only then wrote their books from which shines pure truth and which convey to the reader the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Outside of this path, which initially is narrow and sorrowful for the heart and mind, there is everywhere darkness, there is everywhere rapids and abyss. Amen.”

1. St.Ignatius was from the nobility who became a monk, later abbot and then bishop. He was a prolific writer.
2. This excerpt and information in this article is taken from The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, Volume 6, 1988 with very minor editing.

Hieromonk Ioan of Sarov

Although, the pious hermit, Father Isaak, attempted to conceal himself in the desert, he was unable to conceal his virtues. He spent several years in deep solitude, leading a God-pleasing life; but –like a candle burning in a candleholder, or a city standing at the top of the mountain –his virtuous deeds could not be hidden. His fame started to spread everywhere and attract visitors, who wished to learn about the holy life from the hermit. Many, having met the ascetic, chose to remain in that desert; and so a kind of a monastery began to form in the Sarov desert. However the monastery lacked that which would truly unify them because the hermits did not have a holy temple. Clearly, those who came later felt this lack, and so their most ardent desire was to have a holy church in this place. Furthermore, there was a need to have one since it had been ordered by the government to recognize all those who lived in the forests where there were no churches, as schismatics and to turn them over to the court. However, there were many obstacles standing in the way of this noble wish of the humble hermits to have a church. They had neither the means to pay for the church construction, nor did they own a piece of land upon which to build it, and most importantly, they had no lawful right for the communal habitation in that place. The desert loving Father Isaak came to live in that desert like one of the poor in Christ, having no external means either for the construction of a church, or for the acquisition of the smallest lot of land for the monastery. However, he was convinced that his thought to erect a church in that desert place was truly pious and spiritual. He believed it would give a start to a monastery not only for himself, and his small spiritual troop, but also for the monks who would come after them. So with firm trust in the all-powerful God he decided to take upon himself the labor to overcome all these obstacles and to make their noble desire a reality. In this way, the words of the Great schema monk of the Kiev Caves1 regarding the firmness of the monasteries—that they are founded not with gold and silver, but with sweat and tears of the desert dwellers—came true for the founder of the Sarov cloister. Having learned that the land between the streams of Satis and Sarov (where the monastery is located now) belonged to Count Kugushev, who lived near the city of Kаdom2, Fr. Isaak came to him with a petition asking him to donate it for the future temple and a monastery. The count gave his consent for this purpose and also the deed for the land. This was presented to the locum tenens of the Patriarch, the Metropolitan of Ryazan and Murom, with a petition requesting that they be allowed to build a church in the Sarov desert (on the place of an old settlement); and the bishop consented to Fr. Isaak’s request.

At the start of the construction of a church, Father Isaak met with strong resistance from the inhabitants of the nearby villages. This arose from envy since these locals previously had unrestricted access to the woods and fields for hunting and beekeeping. Once again, the wise, humble and spiritual admonition of the elder quieted the unruly and instead of obstructing the work, they started to help with the construction. Thus, through many the labors and care of the valiant elder the first wooden church, dedicated to the Life Giving Spring of the Mother of God, was erected in the midst of a thick forest and consecrated in on June 16th, 1706. This may be considered as an act of the special foreknowledge of God and the intercession of the Heavenly Queen for this holy habitation; especially since it seemed quite difficult to start it in such a deserted place, distant from the dwellings of man, desolate, covered with thick forest, and not having any funds for the construction. Yet, with the help of God this first church—through the personal labors of the founder and all of the brothers—was prepared for consecration in fifty days. The news of this event had barley spread, when thousands of God-loving people began to arrive from everywhere, bringing with them all that was needed. They brought things not only for the church, but even the bells and food that was needed for the populous gathering, since the dwellers of the desert had neither liturgical items for the church, nor food for the visitors. Thus, with the help of good-natured people the church was decorated splendidly and the cloister of the monks was founded near it. “And the monastics gathered there”, says the Founder in the Chronicles of the Sarov Desert, “for the benefit of their souls, the life of asceticism, and glorifying the name of God with the established hymns of the Church of the Lord.” The virtuous founder and builder, Father Isaak, while edifying and strengthening the souls encouraged the brethren to lead their life according to the instructions of the holy fathers and for the sake of the love of God. “All you, who want to be here and lead a virtuous monastic life, do please God in all kinds of ways, reside in the purity of soul and body, having chosen a chaste life, become enflamed with the spirit of God, to Whom direct unceasing prayer. Fast sincerely, retain kindheartedness in poverty, abstain in everything with discretion, contemplate the Queen of virtue, be obedient to the commandments of God, the true teachings of the Church and the Church herself without your own reasoning; and send thanksgiving to the Lord day and night. Reject those, who separate themselves from the Church, her true Orthodoxy, and her true teaching and the established canonical celebration of mysteries. Establish your life in this manner and include it in the charter to sing hymns unceasingly in the day and night time on the first week of the Holy great fast according to the rite of the wakeful, as is written in the lives of St. Theodore the Studite3 and Markellus from the cloister of the wakeful”. This is observed unfailingly in Sarov to this day; and, thus during the first week of Great Lent women are not allowed until Saturday. This communal charter composed in accordance with the Holy Scripture, the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers was submitted to his Eminence Stephen, Metropolitan of Ryazan and Murom for approval; and he, after reviewing it, issued the following decree: “May they work for the Lord God ardently and rejoice with trembling, always working on their salvation as the Psalmist David sings and the Holy Apostle Paul teaches and others. May they follow in everything, whatever the Holy Apostles and the Holy Fathers set and gave to the Church, for which may they be granted eternal life from Christ God.” A special address was attached to the decree in a poetic form, which, as an abbreviated list of monastic communal life rules, deserves a special attention, and therefore is attached for the pious readers of this book.

Through the Mercy of God
Humble Stephen
Metropolitan of Ryazan and Murom
To igumen of the Sarov Hermitage and his brothers in Christ

Brethren, be watchful wearing black riasa, be humble, lowering your eyes. Run quickly away from pride and evil vanity, they will destroy heavenly delight in anyone. Put aside the envy, wrath, vainglory; chase them away with prayer and strict fast. Struggle to rid yourselves of laziness and hypocrisy, in fasting be humble, and in prayer labor hard. May this be common rule for all, waiver not, for God will not forget you. The brother who is superior, must not look down on the brother who is inferior, but think of him as equal to yourself. For Christ Himself has shown us example He said, “He who is first, let him be the last”; thus grace and peace shall abide in you, may meekness and temperance enter and dwell within you. Always have love amidst yourselves, sincere love, devoid of flattery with a good conscience; this will present you to heaven’s throne, and you will receive the crown of everlasting joy. At the end of my bequeathal I leave you peace and my blessing.” (to be continued)

1 No reference is given but it probably St. Anthony the Founder of the Kiev Caves Monastery.
2 A city in the Ryazan region, located 245 kilometers from the Ryazan city.
3 St. Theodore the Studite, 759 AD – 826 AD, was a Byzantine Greek monk, Abbot of the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinopole.

Myrrh-bearers Sunday

Myrrh-bearers Sunday

Before continuing with the life Hieromonk Ioann, founder of the Sarov Hermitage, I am inserting a sermon in harmony with our present liturgical cycle. The life of Hieromonk Ioann will be in four or five parts the second part is in English and needs to be edited while the remainder in still being translated. Now to the sermon:

Beloved of God, last week rather than speaking about St. Thomas Sunday the Paschal message of Patriarch Kyril was read. So then, today I will join together one aspect of the doubt of the Apostle Thomas with this Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing women. Today the Church honors our women, the love, zeal and courage of the Myrrh-bearers is clearly seen in their fidelity to our Lord Jesus Christ. Out of their love and zeal which gave them courage, they braved danger and went to anoint the buried body of our Lord. The Apostles were scattered in fear and then grouped together in hiding; while the Myrrh-bearers went to the tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ. And our Lord chose the Myrrh-bearing women to be the first witnesses of His resurrection. This should bring us to the realization, that now with the grace which is given to us through the sacramental life of the Church, the distinctions we have in this life are superseded by being in Christ.

Therefore, I would now like to introduce a question that may have arisen at some time or another for many of us. Does male and female continue in the world to come? The marriage relationship of this life ceases as our Lord said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (Mat. 22:30) But does male and female continue? A nun once asked me about an introduction to a book she read which expressed the opinion that there is neither male nor female in the future life. She said, “If I were not a woman, I feel that I would no longer be the person that I am.” This is very significant: “I would no longer be the person that I am.” This does not change we each are a particular person whom no one else is. We have a particular personal entity, which is who I am. This does not cease to be.

So now, to continue with the question at hand, the opinion that there is neither male nor female in the afterlife was based on the Apostle Paul’s words: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) So I wrote the individual who authored the aforementioned introduction. I questioned the opinion which was stated. In response the opinion of male and female ceasing to exist in the world to come was reaffirmed. In defense of this, a particular vision of St. Vincent of Lerins was referenced in which he saw the heavenly kingdom and he could not distinguish if there was male or female. I shared the response with a seminary professor and he immediately replied: “Theology is being based on vision and when you do that you run into problems.”

He went on to comment: “The Scripture is being taken out of context. The subject in consideration by the Apostle Paul was circumcision. This reply contradicts the iconographic tradition of the Church. There have been unisex representations in art which was rejected by the Church. Furthermore there are canons of the Ecumenical Councils which state that Christ rose with the body He assumed and we follow His pattern.”

This brings us to St. Thomas Sunday: “The other disciples told him [Thomas], “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) What is it that he did not believe? He knew they saw something, he probably thought they saw a spirit. This is something that they all thought on first seeing the risen Lord. He doubted the bodily resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. In another place in the Gospels our risen Lord asks for something to eat, and this was to confirm the resurrection of the body He assumed. Christ arose with the body He assumed and we follow His pattern.

In his letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” The distinctions did not cease to exist but they are superseded by being “all one in Christ.” It is interesting to note that in the verse immediately before this we see the well-known expression: “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” In Another place the Apostle expressed something very similar to the former, “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:11) “Christ is all and in all”, all distinctions are superseded by being in Christ.

Let us all rejoice in who we are, for we are each a particular person created by God; and God does not make mistakes. He made us good and gave us talents. But we are fallen, we are distorted our capacities are crippled. Let us, then, perfect who we are by struggling for purification from passions, and cease not to do good to one another especially to those of the household of faith. Thus we shall live in Christ here and “more perfectly partake of Him in the never ending day of His kingdom”.1 Amen.

1. Paschal canon, a tropar of the 9th Ode

Hieromonk Ioann of Sarov

Hieromonk Ioann of Sarov

I apologize to my readers for such a long lapse since I have published a post.  Sometimes responsibilities and priorities and such that anything which is not of necessity cannot be accomplished.  Not long ago I published a life and instructions of St. Seraphim of Sarov.  The source was the book (in Russian): The Sarov Hermitage and the Ever-memorable Ascetics that Struggled Therein (published 1884).  Beginning with the founder of the monastery, Hieromonk Ioann (Theodorov)we will begin serializing a number of the monastics of that same monastery as our greatly beloved St. Seraphim.  By the mercy of God we hope also to do Fathers Pachomius and Isaiah.  The first was the abbot who received St. Seraphim into the monastery and the latter was his sponser in the tonsure.      

The Account of the Founding of the Sarov Hermitage

And the Life of the First Superior thereof Hieromonk Ioann

Not many words are needed where deeds clearly bear witness. This may be said about the ever-memorable ascetic Hieromonk Ioann.  One may procure exalted and edifying knowledge, if one only remembers that he founded the finely structured Sarov desert monastic cloister which blossoms with splendor.

The Sarov hermitage was established in 1705, as the founder, Hieromonk Ioann, himself wrote in his chronicle. Yet, a long time prior to its founding there were miraculous events, which foretold the glorification of the Name of God to happen in that place. Thus, at times a bright light would descend from the sky to the place where the cathedral temple stands today.  Bell ringing was also heard, although, at that time there were no human dwellings in that place and all of the surroundings were covered by a thick, impassable forest.  These things took place prior to the arrival of the first desert dweller monk Theodosius there along with the monk Gerasim who lived next to each other.  The founder and the first superior of the Savor hermitage, Isaak (in the world Ioann Theodorov), who took the name of Ioann when receiving a schema, came to this Gerasim, who lived in that impassable thicket.  He was a priest by his background; he was born in the village of Krasnoe of the Arzamas1 region.

Having an inclination for the monastic life from the early age, Ioann Theodorov left his parental home when he was 19 years of age and joined the brothers of the Arzamas Monastery of the Entry of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple.   He was tonsured there as a monk in 1689 with the name of Isaak. The virtuous and humble life of Father Isaak soon drew the attention of his superiors. Three years after his tonsure he was appointed to serve as a priest to the Temnikov2 monastery (The Monastery of the Nativity of the Holy Theotokos). The life at that monastery did not satisfy the high aspirations of Father Isaak – his soul thirsted for  the highest feats, the feats of the anchoritic life.  He spent most of his time in the Sarov desert, the beloved place of his, where he later founded the famous Savor Hermitage. He visited the Temnikov monastery rarely, perhaps on the days of his service duty3; he visited the place of his tonsure as well – the Monastery of The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple.  At that time, the brethren and the benefactors of the Monastery of The Entrance, remembering the former exemplary life of Father Isaak, turned to him with a request to become the Abbot of the monastery.  First, they sent a letter to him, when they did not receive an answer they went to him at his hermitage.  Father Isaak dealt with a strong spiritual struggle after receiving this invitation. Two feelings fought in him – the feeling of love towards the place of his solitude and the feeling of love towards the place of his tonsure.  At last, the latter, supported by the tearful petitions of the brethren, prevailed over the former and he left his beloved desert place.  Yet, the foreknowledge of God guided this elder towards other saving feats whose soul longed for the desert solitude. So, while being the Igumen of the Monastery of The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple, Father Isaak did not interrupt his communication with the Sarov desert, where in his absence he had disciples residing.  Having fulfilled the duty for which he was called from the desert, he chose his disciple Hieromonk Athenogenes of the Monastery of The Entrance of the Holy Theotokos into the Temple to replace him as the Abbot.  Then he departed again to his beloved impassable thickets of the Sarov Hermitage.

Previously, as has been noted above, hermits Theodosius and Gerasim had lived in that place. They did not live together, but each one of them separately kept his prayerful solitude, and their lives, as the word of the Apostle says, were “hidden in Christ with God” (Col. 3: 3). Although, the hermits did not remain in the dwellings chosen by them until the end of their days, but departed to another place around 1689, yet, they each foretold the future glory of that place. And, as was revealed, a man foreordained by God came for that purpose, a man who did not fear the terrors of night and the insidiousness of human malice. It was not easy, however, to take this endeavor upon himself, which many lovers of solitude could not bear, since the enemy temptations are especially terrifying in solitude, in the hermit life, where  “sharp are the arrows of the mighty” (Psa 119:4). Yet, the cheerful and tireless warrior of Christ Isaak, having faith that the time had come for that place to be glorified—since he himself received revelations from heaven—he, having placed a firm hope in God and being constantly engaged in the struggle of prayer, decided in his heart to either attain victory over the enemy temptations or die in the place of his ascetic endeavor. What did he not suffer in the struggle with the celestial spirits of evil!  He knew that his wrestle, according to the word of the Apostle, was not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Ephes. 7:2)4. What kind of terrible terrors, what kind of spiritual sufferings did he not go through! The enemy of man attacked him in various ways, he incessantly tried to scare him in the night and bring spiritual suffering, which the hermit was subjected to in his difficult struggle.  At times an entire legion of demons, the spirits of evil appeared before him, who wanted to drive him from the desert, which supposedly belonged to them, with screaming.  They tried to get him to withdraw from the struggle of prayer in all kinds of manners.  At times they afflicted him with different tempting suggestions of extreme shame, to treacherously incline him to abandon the desert.  He was made to imagine, for example, that his mother and close relatives approached him with tears, begging him to leave the arduous ascetic desire and return to live in the cloister, where they could enjoy a conversation with him.  When the enemy of the human kind did not succeed to confuse and shatter the hermit, whom the world did not see, but whom God knew, he attempted to scare him with other strong means by arousing the inner storm in his heart. The eager sufferer felt a dark anguish and deadly despondency, which afflicted the heart and the body with some kind of deathly numbness in such a way, that even the prayer itself could not disperse this yearning quickly. There were moments when the ascetic cell seemed to become a smelling dungeon and even perceptible smell would fill it suddenly in such a way that the hermit had to exit it to get fresh air.  When he returned, any kind of manual work and reading became completely impossible due to great despondency.  Once, due to the action of the spirit of the tempter the young hermit’s spirit unrest was so strong, that it seemed that his entire hermit cell as if was swaying around him, and he himself was as if surrounded by fire and he felt as though he was bitterly ill.  Isaak used reliable means against the illusions in his solitude – a strict fast and a fervent prayer to the Setter of the struggles5; and he defeated all kinds of temptations entirely with these spiritual weapons; so that in his life the Evangelic word came forth – this kind can only come out by nothing but prayer and fasting [Mark 9:29].  The unclean spirit, with all of his tricks, ran away far from Isaak, who was constantly armed with prayer and fasting.  (to be continued…)

1. A city 410 kilometers east of Moscow.

2. A town in the Republic of Mordovia, Russia, about 540 kilometers east of Moscow

3. He was probably one of several priests or more who would serve in rotation for a whole week and them be free until their turn came up again.

4. The struggle with various temptations is described in detail by Father Isaak himself in his chronicles, where he represents himself under the name of monk Hilarion.

5. This refers to our Lord Jesus Christ

Sunday before Nativity: A Sermon

Sunday Before Nativity: A Sermon


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Appearance of Elder Ephraim and the Anger of God

The appearance of Elder Ephraim and the Anger of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reflection on the Election

A Reflection on the Election

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

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

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

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

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

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