All Saints

All Saints
I am taking a detour for one post before getting back to the continuation of the article concerning the Orthodox and the Coptic Christians. What follows is a sermon for the Sunday of “All Saints”.

On this Sunday which follows the feast of Pentecost we celebrate and venerate all the saints. This is because sainthood is the result of the grace of the Holy Spirit given on that day and which continues to be given in the Sacraments of the Church. So today we venerate all those who have reached a state of holiness. Sometimes, however, we may run into Christians who misunderstand our veneration of the saints and say that according to the Apostle Paul we are all saints. We are indeed all given grace and we are all called to be saints. When the Apostle Paul in his letters addresses the Christians in the various cities to which he writes he either calls them saints, or sometimes he says they are called to be saints. So let us take a brief look at this.

When he addresses the Christians as those called to be saints he reminds them of the gift that has been deposited within them, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the responsibility to nurture it. When he calls all the faithful saints he makes a distinction between those who have accepted the Christian faith and have been baptized and those of this world who have not received this grace. In this way he shows reverence for this grace given in Holy Baptism. This grace puts one in another class of people who are no longer “of this world”. (John 8:23)
So today I will talk a little about this one aspect of sainthood and that is to be “not of this world”. I will primarily refer to St. Ignatius Brianchaninov who has a chapter (Chapter 41) in his book “The Arena” on the meaning of the term “the world”.
St. Ignatius begins:

The word world has two special meanings in Holy Scripture. (1) It signifies all mankind in the following and similar passages of Scripture: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-7) (“ The Arena” p. 166)

And concerning the second meaning he states:

(2) By the term world is meant those people who lead a sinful life opposed to the will of God, who live for time and not for eternity. Thus we must understand the word world in the following and similar passages: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” (John 15:18-9) (p. 166)

St. Ignatius goes on to quote St. Theophylact of Bulgaria who thus defines world:

It is usual for Scripture to call the world the life of sinful people of carnal outlook living in it. That is why Christ said to His disciples: “Ye are not of the world”. They formed a part of the people living in the world, but as they did not live in sin, they did not belong to the world. (pp. 166-7)

In moving on, this now leads us to St. John the Theologian, who introduces us to yet another facet of the meaning of the term world. He writes: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” (I John 2:15-7)

For a more detailed explanation let us turn to St. Isaac of Syria as he is quoted by St. Ignatius in the same chapter I have already mentioned:

The world is the general term for all the passions. If a man has not first learned what the world is, he cannot understand by how many members he is detached from it and by how many he is tied to it. There are many who think themselves free from the world in their life because in two or three respects they refrain from it and have renounced contact with it. This is because they have not understood or perceived with discernment that they are dead to the world only in one or two members, while the rest of their members are living within the carnal mind and belong to the world. Therefore they are not even aware of their passions; and since they are not aware of them, they are not anxious to be cured of them. According to the research in spiritual science, the term world is used as a common name that embraces separate passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world. But when we want to distinguish them by their separate names, we call them passions. Each passion is particular activity of the “elemental spirits of the world.” (Col. 2:8) Where the passions have ceased to act, there the elemental spirits of the world are inactive. The passions are the following: love of riches, desire for possessions, bodily pleasure from which comes sexual passion, love of honor which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments, the itch for human glory which is the source of rancor and resentment, and physical fear. Where these passions cease to be active, there the world is dead. In so far as some of these passions are forsaken, just so far does the ascetic live outside the world which to that extent is destroyed through being deprived of its parts. Someone has said of the saints that while alive they were dead; for though living in the flesh, they did not life for the flesh. See for which of these passions you are alive. Then you will know how far you are alive to the world, and how far you are dead to it. When you understand what the world is, then you will understand these distinctions, and how far you are tied to the world, and how far you are detached from it. In brief, the world is the carnal life and the carnal mind. (pp. 169-170)

The saints are those who have been victorious over the world as it has just been described. They overcame the world and shone with the grace of the Holy Spirit—this is our Orthodox understanding of who the saints are. So let me repeat that very first sentence with which I began: On this Sunday which follows the feast of Pentecost we celebrate and venerate all the saints. Through their prayers may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon us. Amen.


The Orthodox Church and Non-Chalcedonians, Part One Christology/Ecccsiology

The Orthodox Church and Non-Chalcedonians


It was in March of 2013 that I wrote something on this subject. I mentioned how a subdeacon in the parish I attended in the mid 1970’s commented: “Now they say we have believed the same thing all along and so we should work towards a reunion.” Back then I thought it was great. I had no theological education other than reading a simple catechism book, and accepted it point blank. But over the years something changed. I became a monastic, and something changed. I did not formerly study theology, I had only read another catechetical type of book in my early monastic life. However, through living in a monastery, participation in the services, and reading the ascetic fathers something changed within. This cannot be put into words, or explained, but it became impossible for me to simply accept, “We have believed the same thing all along and so we should work towards a reunion.”

So what is it that motivates me to write on this subject again? It was near the end of Great Lent that there was the bombing of a Coptic church by terrorists in which around forty or so Coptic Christians died. The Orthodox Church did show sympathy, and in some parishes prayers were offered. This is praiseworthy, but it is regrettable that some Orthodox clergy have led their people to conclude that we believe the same thing, and that the Coptic Christians are already Orthodox. Therefore I will write again, and in a more simple way, both reconsider some topics in the former article, and approach some issues formerly unaddressed. In my weakness, through the prayers of St. John of Damascus whose icon I am presently looking at, I hope to accomplish my aim.

Where do I begin? At the place where this began. I will use as a foundation the few words I spoke to the small group at St. Arsenius Hermitage on St. Thomas Sunday and integrate it into an expanded article. Here is how I began that Sunday.

I feel a need to say something which is catechetical, since it is instructional. Recently there was a bombing in which Coptic Christians were killed in their church. Our Orthodox people have shown a lot of sympathy, and in some parishes, priests remembered these deceased during the services. All this is fine, but the problem that has occurred, is that the Coptic Christians were presented as though they are also Orthodox. We do have clergy in the Orthodox Church who believe this. And, I have been told, internet discussion concerning these killings, shows that a number of Orthodox are expressing this opinion. How can this be since the Coptic Christians have been separated from the Orthodox Church since the Fourth Ecumenical Council, in the fifth century?

Over the centuries they have been moving closer to us; in particular, with the dialogues between the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians, their Christology appears to be more refined. Indeed, an Orthodox priest who has had much communication with Coptic priests has recently shared with me the following concerning them:

The “One Nature” they confess is meant to emphasize the oneness of Christ’s person. It is St. Cyril’s “one Nature of the Logos Incarnate” which St.Cyril himself clarified, is actually speaking of two natures (“incarnate” implying an additional nature to the Divine). They now accept the Orthodoxy of the two natures ‘without division, without separation, without confusion, without commingling’ (indeed the Copts have inserted St. Leo’s formula into their liturgy in the confession of Christ before receiving communion—similar to ‘I believe, O Lord, and I confess…’). In one of our most recent dialogues, the Non-Chalcedonian bishops present upheld the Orthodoxy of Chalcedon and stated their understanding that it must be interpreted in the light of subsequent Ecumenical Councils which give it clarity.

Then he goes on to admit: “None of this is to say that this has always necessarily been the case. It is they who have moved theologically closer to us. We have not moved at all.”

It was, of course, at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which dealt with Christology, that they separated from us, as they held a monophysite opinion in relation to the two natures of our Lord Jesus Christ. They recognized He was “from” two natures but no longer considered Him to be “of” two natures. They specially claim to be followers of St. Cyril of Alexandria, and they ardently cling to a phrase he used, that is, “the one nature of the incarnate Word (or Logos)” This was thought of as an expression of St. Cyril, but history has proved otherwise. It is well known that it was an expression of Apollinarian heretics who, in order to give credence to their beliefs, circulated a document under the name of St. Athanasius the Great. St. Cyril took this phrase which he thought belonged to St. Athanasius and sought to explain it in an acceptable manner. After his death it was discovered that this document was a product of the Appolinarians. In Orthodoxy we accept St. Cyril and understand his use of the above mentioned term; but we do not claim to be his followers. We follow the consensus of the whole of our Holy Fathers. This is what is implied when, in the Creed, we call the Church “catholic”. “Catholic” is a compound word, in Greek it is: “kata” which means according to, and “holos” which means wholeness. The idea is to be in accordance with the whole.

There are, however, many of both Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians, who believe that all along through history, it was a language problem, a matter of semantics. However, St. John of Damascus knew their language, and he wrote against them. And if it was all along this language problem, then we would have to say that God made a mistake with the miracle He performed through the Great Martyr Euphemia at the Fourth Ecumenical council. In her coffin she held the Orthodox confession of faith in her hand. And the Non-Chalcedonian confession was at her feet.

Nevertheless, the Coptic Church has continued coming closer to us. Today they claim they are not monophysites and never were, but they are miaphysites. They do explain the two natures in Christ as the Orthodox do, but they say they are in a single united nature, thus they say they are miaphysites. But does two natures in a single united nature equal two natures in one Person? Of course not! Moreover a single united nature made up of two is a compound nature. St. John Damascus writes specifically against this (see the article of March) as did St. Agatho Pope of Rome in the document: “The Letter of Agatho and the Roman Synod of 125 Bishops” which is incorporated into the articles of the Sixth Ecumenical Council(1). Now I will pose a question before I move on to one more issue. If we were to accept them as an equally valid church and unite, do we repudiate the article of the Creed: “ONE holy, catholic and apostolic church”?

(1.) Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, we acknowledge to subsist of and in two substances unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, the difference of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the proprieties of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not scattered or divided into two Persons, nor confused into one composite nature.—emphasis mine (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, p. 340

Sermon at the Grave

Sermon at the Grave

Beloved of God, now that we stand before the grave of our Lord Jesus Christ it is as though we have before us the culmination of all His earthly sufferings: His submission to our human condition, the persecutions, the agony in Gethsemane, the mockery, scourging, crucifixion and now burial. What is the sum of all these? Divine love, they are all tokens of His love. In his Gospel the Apostle John the Theologians writes:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-7)

And in his first epistle he comments:

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (IJohn 4:9-10)

There is one word here that is of particular interest, that is, propitiation. The original Greek word is ilasmon. Although this term can be literally defined as propitiation, or an appeasing or—what is perhaps better—atonement; yet its etymology brings us to mercy. In using this word, St. John the Theologian, points us back to the mercy seat in the Old Testament tabernacle. This is because the word for mercy seat in the Greek is ilasterion. The mercy seat is the lid of the Ark of the Covenant whereupon the blood of the yearly atonement was sprinkled by the high priest.

The Apostle Paul writes of this in his letter to the Hebrews:

The first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly place of holiness. For a tent was prepared, the first section, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence. It is called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s staff that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. Above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. These preparations having thus been made, the priests go regularly into the first section, performing their ritual duties, but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people….But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. (9:1-7,11-12)

The old Testament sacrifices prefigured the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ for us. The Apostle Paul calls Christ our Passover. In writing to the Corinthians he says, “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us.” (ICor. 5:7) “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son” up to “our human condition, the persecutions, the agony in Gethsemane, the mockery, scourging, crucifixion and now burial.” His love for us is sacrificial, unconditional and infinite. How do we return this great love for us? Not by only venerated the grave with reverence but as our Lord said: “If ye love Me keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) To Him be glory, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Second Sunday of Lent: St. Gregory Palamas

St Gregory Palamas, whose memory we celebrate this day, is known as a great defender of Orthodoxy; and so he is commemorated in the Lenten cycle on the Sunday after the Sunday of Orthodoxy. He was born in 1296 and came from a very pious family of the ranks of nobility. He was well educated and excelled in his studies at the Imperial University. While in the world he had as spiritual father Theoleptus of Philadelphia who is among the authors found in the Philokalia. At the age of 20 St. Gregory left the world to become a monk on the Holy Mountain. Through his ascetic struggles he ascended to great spiritual heights and monastics especially revere him as a hesychast. We could say a hesychast is one who fulfills the words of the Psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 45:10). The Elder Ephraim of Arizona has referred to him as the king of the hesychasts.

His commemoration comes up, as I have mentioned, on this Sunday which follows the Sunday of Orthodoxy because he was involved in a battle for Orthodoxy. And it was only nine years after his death that a council was held in Constantinople which canonized him and proclaimed him as “the greatest among the fathers of the Church” ( The Holy Fire, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 292). In the liturgical service for him he is called a “divine instrument of wisdom” a “joyful trumpet of theology” and a “preacher of grace” (The Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, p.324). Where did he acquire this wisdom and theology so as to become a preacher of grace? Was it in is studies at the Imperial University? No, it was in the solitude and silence of his monastic cell, as the Psalmist says: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psa. 45:10).

But how is it that these words of the Psalmist can be fulfilled so that one becomes still and acquires knowledge of God? It is through ongoing repentance. Repentance in the Orthodox Church has various shades of meanings. The Greek word “metanoia” literally means a change of mind, implying what the holy Aposlte Paul wrote to the Romans: “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). The equivalent word in Slavonic is “pokayaniye “, it implies to be wretched to mourn and lament—to be filled with tears. So in conjunction with the disposition of one’s heart, and effort of free will, this “spirit of repentance” acts in varying degrees. In some people it acts temporarily according to the sins they have committed. There is confession, the resolve to change, remorse, and maybe some act of penance. However, in others this “spirit of repentance” acts systematically, remaining upon one, leading him from one degree of purification to another. Then, continuing on, this “spirit”—which is the action of the grace of God—leads a man from one degree of enlightenment to another.

Joseph the Hesychast in writing to a correspondent explains this process as follows:

The spiritual life is divided into three stages, and grace acts in a person accordingly. The first stage is called purification, during which the person is cleansed. What you now have is the grace of purification. This form of grace leads one to repentance. All the eagerness that you have for spiritual things is due to grace alone. Nothing is your own. It secretly acts upon everything. So when you exert yourself, this grace remains with you for a certain time. If a person progresses with noetic prayer, he receives another form of grace which is entirely different.

As we mentioned earlier this first form of grace is called, “perception of the action of grace,” and is the grace of purification. That is, one who prays feels the presence of divine energy within him.

The second form of grace is called the grace of illumination. During this stage, one receives the light of knowledge and is raised to the vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition. For this to occur, the person praying must have much stillness and an unerring guide.

The third stage—when grace overshadows—is the grace of perfection, truly a great gift. I shall not write about this now, since it is not necessary. (Monastic Wisdom, The letters of Joseph the Hesychast; St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, pp. 44-5)

In the silence and stillness of his monastic cell, St. Gregory attained to the grace of perfection. He was united to God in his heart, God was active and living within him, his mind received illumination through prayer of the heart, he was taught by God. He acquired the knowledge of truth which St. Gregory of Sinai defines as “direct apprehension of truth through grace” ((Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, Faber and Faber, p. 37). And so, when—during his lifetime—the Orthodox Faith was challenged he came to the forefront of the battle.

It happened that in the late 1330’s a monk named Barlaam, who was a great scholar, came from Italy to Constantinople. He was born in southern Italy of Greek parentage yet raised Catholic. Although he returned to the Faith of his ancestors it appears that he did not change much other than the error of the filioque. He attacked the hesychast tradition of the Church, he considered knowledge of God a matter of intellectual reason and held the Catholic position that since God is unknowable it follows that the grace in which we can participate is created. In responding to his misconceptions, St. Gregory defended the Hesychast tradition of the Church, and—more precisely than any of the Fathers before him—made a clear distinction between the essence and energy of God both of which are uncreated. God is unknowable in His essence but He is communicated to us through His energy which is uncreated. We can participate in the uncreated divine energy, “Speaking of the divinization of the saints, St. Gregory writes: ‘This is why the saints are instruments of the Holy Spirit, having received the same energy as Him’” (The Lives of the Pillars of Orthodoxy, Holy Apostles Convent, p.253). The late Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery on Athos expresses the experience of the saints as follows:

God is not contemplated at a distance, but dwells in the souls that have been purified, being apprehended through His uncreated Energies….

True believers ‘undergo’ this communion with God and experience the energies of divine influences organically, since in the whole of their being they bear—dwelling and abiding within them—the God in Whom they believe and Whom they worship. ‘For He says, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”’ (2Cor. 6:16) (Elder Joseph the Hesychast, The Great and Holy Monastery of Vatopedi, pp.203, 204)

I would like to conclude by quoting the ending of the letter of St. Gregory Palamas to the Nun Xenia:

Let us, then, in blessed poverty also fall down and weep before the Lord our God, so that we may wash away our former sins, make ourselves impervious to evil and, receiving the blessing of solace of the Comforter, may glorify Him and the unoriginate Father and the Only-begotten Son, now and always and throughout the ages. Amen. (Philokalia Volume 4, Faber and Faber, p. 322)

The Publican and the Pharisee: A Sermon

The Publican and the Pharisee

Beloved of God, today as we begin the Lenten Triodion, we read the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. And so the first theme the Triodion puts before us, prior to setting out upon the struggle of Great Lent is humility. Humility is the firm foundation upon which every virtue depends and without which every good thing we do is in danger of rotting. So today we will talk about humility and in doing this I would like to mention some examples of humility in the ascetics I have met.

First I will mention Mother Makrina. She was the abbess of the Monastery of the Theotokos Ogiditria or Theotokos “The Directress” in the village Portaria near the sea port of Volos in central Greece. She was well known as a gifted Eldress and “directress” to monastics, so much so that there were even some Athonite monks who visited her for their profit. I also went to see her for soul-profiting instruction. As we began to speak she learned that I was a priest, and she got down on her knees, and with tears in her eyes asked me to pray for her and bless her. It was amazing to see the humility she had acquired. I told the Elder Ephraim about this and asked him: “How did Mother Makrina acquire such humility?” He answered: “She was in obedience to my Elder and she considered herself to be the least of all the sisters.” This is something to marvel at: She surpassed all that were with her, in labors and the grace of God, yet she considered herself lower than all. How did she accomplish this? I will pass on some words of hers which can give us some idea. I asked, “How does a monk combat the thought that you are better than some of the other fathers who appear to be negligent?” She replied: “Say, ‘They are angels, I must strive very hard to keep up with them.’” This may be hard for the logical mind to accept but if we apply to this another precept of Mother Makrina it is quite possible, and that is, “Don’t think pray.”

Then there is the Elder Elias of Optina. His patron saint is not the great prophet but one of the Forty Martys of Sebaste. He was asked to come from the Holy Mountain to Optina. Once he visited America, and he came to St. Tikhon’s Monastery for a Saturday night vigil. I could describe him as simple and unpretentious. Somehow you could especially see this latter in him. I asked him: “How can a monk acquire humility?” He smiled and shook his head as if he were to say, “Do you really expect me to answer this?” Then he said, “Be well acquainted with your sins and your weaknesses.”

Several months later I visited a monastery in California. The whole brotherhood had gone to get the blessing of the Elder Elias when he stopped at the Cathedral in San Francisco dedicated to the icon of the Theotokos “Joy of All Who Sorrow”. A young novice there expressed to me his experience of meeting the Elder as follows: “When we were told that we were going to see an Elder from Russia I thought we would meet someone who was ready to blast off to the moon. But he was nothing! I couldn’t believe it, he was nothing!” Such was the effect of the Elder’s humility on the young novice.

Finally I will say something about St. Paisius the Athonite. When I visited Athos in 1986, while a novice at St. Tikhon’s, I went to him with the question: “Should I stay on the holy Mountain or return to my monastery in America?” I gave him a letter to read which a monk at Philotheou Monastery translated into Greek. We talked a bit with my broken Greek and the more trust I put in him the more humble he became. He asked what the Elder Ephraim of Philotheou said to me and I told him, “The longer you stay the better it will be.” I continued, “I said to Elder Ephraim that I want to go to Father Paisius and do whatever he says and he replied, ‘Yes may it be blessed’”. At this point Father Paisius, so-to-speak, exploded with humility. I was basically asking him to tell me God’s will and he considered this to be something beyond him so he sent me to another renowned Athonite Elder. He said, “Papa Ephraim of Katounakia is very spiritual, much more spiritual than I am. Go to Papa Ephraim of Katounakia.” His humility was such that I also was enveloped in it to some degree. This feeling of humility stayed with me so strongly that for a whole week a proud thought could not even come into my mind. In closing with Father Paisius what can I say? To come in contact with a man in whom virtue has become organic can be more profitable than many words of wisdom. In such a meeting you encounter a piece of the living God through the medium of a human being.

So let us struggle to acquire humility and in addition to what has already been said I would like to add one more comment of Elder Ephraim. When I asked him, “How can someone acquire grace and remain humble?” He answered, “Realize that without God you can do nothing. My Elder said that without God you cannot even move your foot.” So let us seek to lay humility as a foundation of our struggles. And to avoid pride let us ever keep in mind the words of St. John Chrysostom: “What shall we do to have acquired true humility? We shall in no way ever do it, but to whatever degree of humility we may have acquired, the greater part remains to be accomplished.”

To our Lord Jesus Christ Who said, “Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart” be glory together with the Father and the Holy Spirit now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

St. Seraphim of Sarov

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Since tonight with the Great Vespers service we begin the commemoration of St. Seraphim on the Old Calendar I am posting a few excerpts from the book “In the Footsteps of a Saint” (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2006). This is a translation of a short life and instructions of St. Seraphim from a book on elders of Sarov. The first excerpt is a description of the saints from this life; the second is from his instructions.

His memory was solid, his mind bright, and his gift of speaking abundant. His conversation was so effective and comforting that everyone hearing him found benefit for his soul. Some of those gathered acknowledged that the conversation warmed their hearts, as if a veil has been removed from their inner eye. If illumined their minds with the light of spiritual enlightenment. It aroused in the soul resolution to change and strength to improve for the better. All his words and reasonings he based on the Word of God and the tradition of the Fathers, and he confirmed most of it with excerpts from the New Testament.

Through the purity of his spirit he had the gift of discernment. He gave instruction to some before they explained their circumstances, touching directly upon the inner feelings and thoughts of their hearts.

The special qualities of his conversation and conduct were love and wisdom that proceeds from humility. Whosoever it might be that came to him—a poor man in rags, or a rich man in fine apparel, and regardless of the sins they were burdened with—he embraced all with love. He bowed to the ground before all, gave blessings, and kissed the hands of many who were not ordained. He never admonished anyone with severe reprimand of a harsh reproach, nor did he lay a heavy burden on anyone. He himself bore the Cross of Christ with all its afflictions.

In speaking he convicted some—but gently, softening his words with humility and love. He strove to awaken the conscience through his counsel, indicating the way of salvation in such a manner that the listener at first would not even understand that the matter concerned his own soul. Afterwards, the power of his words, full of grace, inevitably produced results. None departed from him without direction—neither the rich, not the poor, nor the simple, nor the learned, nor the dignified, nor the ordinary folk. There was enough living water for all, flowing from the mouth of the humble and poor Elder. All felt his affable love, and its power. Floods of tears broke forth that times even from those with hard and stony hearts. He went to great lengths to take care of those in whom he saw a disposition for good… He fortified them with counsels and instructions, indicating the way of salvation and rousing them to love through his own love. ( In the Footsteps of a Saint, pp. 19-20)

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” (Psa. 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 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 darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12)

The sign of a wise soul if 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 a most peaceful state. In a peaceful state, that is, with a good conscience. In a most peaceful state since the mind contemplates within itself the grace of the most Holy Spirit, in accordance with the word of God: His place is in peace” (Psa. 75:3). (ibid. pp. 26-7)

Through the prayers of our venerable Father Seraphim, may our Lord Jesus Christ grant us His peace and great mercy!

St. Amvrossy of Optina on the Nativity

On the Old Calendar the Nativity of our Lord according to the flesh was celebrated yesterday.  I apologize for being a day late as the following is a festal greeting of St. Amvrossy of Optina written to a monastic community under his direction. This is Letter 2 taken from the book: Collections of Letters to Monastics, by our Holy Father–Elder Amvrossy of the Optina Hermitage, Optina Hermitage 1995 (2nd edition).

To those who are wise in the Lord!

By the mercy and the long-suffering of God once again we have reached the time of the yearly feast of Christ’s Nativity. In place of the usual simple congratulations I want to say a few words about the great mystery of this holy feast. The holy Church in her hymns already calls the faithful to contemplate with uplifted minds the travels of the master, and with purified hearts to be mysteriously delighted with the immortal supper in the lowly cave. How has the Omnipresent One bowed the heavens and come down to earth without leaving the Father’s bosom! How the Invisible was seen! How the co-eternal Word and consubstantial Son of God became the Son of a Virgin! How He Who is pre-eternal and incomprehensible beyond everything is born from a virgin today as an infant! How He who is inaccessible to all, as an infant is today embraced by the motherly virginal arms! How the One Who covers the heavens with clouds, is today as an infant wrapped in swaddled bands! How the One who created everything in wisdom is today, as a swaddled infant, put into the manger so that He will free mankind from irrationality! How the One who feeds everything as an infant is nourished with a mother’s milk! O, the awesome mystery! O the incomprehensible thing! Now God indisputably became man so that He would make man into god, which was foretold by the prophet: “I said that ye are gods and all of you are sons of the most High”—but, what of our mortality —“and we, like men, shall die”! (Psa. 81:6) What vanity is ours, which causes us to neglect the divine adoption as sons! (cf. Rom. 8:15, 23; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5)

We have more love for the slavery of passions, and because of our evil will, we voluntarily and involuntarily bend our necks before the adversary! What blindness and distortion is ours! Blessed are the ears of those shepherds who heard the angels in the air sing “Glory to God in the highest”, and the announcement of “peace on earth and God’s good will among men”. (Luke 2:14) Blessed are their eyes which saw, like a blameless lamb, Him Who was pastured in Mary’s womb. Blessed are those who are deemed worthy of God’s good will and peace which surpasses all understanding. Blessed are the wise men who came from afar to worship the One Who was born from the Virgin, and who brought to Him worthy gifts: gold as to a King, incense as to God, and myrrh as to the Immortal dead man. Blessed are also all those who worship Him in the spirit and truth, bringing Him gifts, each according to his own
capacity: one the righteous coins of mercifulness—as though gold, another as though incense and the good-smelling censor—the glorification and the many prayers of repentance and of confession, another yet, like the fine perfumed myrrh—the grateful memory of sufferings and the reverend worship to the life-giving wounds of the one Who became incarnate and Who was crucified in the flesh for our

But what can we do, we who are depressed and insensitive – among whom I am first – who cannot take delighted in that immortal supper in the lowly cave, not having a mind elevated from earth, nor a cleansed heart? Humbling and reproaching ourselves, let us pay attention with reverence to the reading and singing in the Church. And let us receive from them, as from a source of life and of immortality, the comfort and instruction and salvation by the mercifulness and unutterable love for men of the One who was incarnate for us—the Son of God. To Whom is due all glory and power, honor and worship together with His eternal Father and the most-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever
and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Synaxis of the Theotokos

Synaxis of the Theotokos

Among the services of our Church there is a Small Vespers assigned for the Sunday cycle. This would be served on Saturday evening, before the Great Vespers, and in monasteries the evening meal would take place between these two. Today it is rare for this to be practiced. Some of the most beautiful hymns for the Incarnation of our Lord and for the Theotokos are found at the “Lord I call” Dogmatic (otherwise known as Theotokion) of Small Vespers. As today is the Synaxis of the Theotokos for her glorification, an English translation of these hymns are being offered here.

Tone 1

Today, O Brethren, is the vigil of the Virgin, let creation leap for joy, let the nature of man exult in song; for the holy Theotokos, the undefiled treasury of virginity hath called us together. She is the reason-endowed paradise of the second Adam, the workshop of the union of the two natures, the festival of the saving reconciliation. She is the chamber in which the Word truly espoused flesh, the light cloud who bore within her body Him Who is over the Cherubim. O Christ God through her prayers do Thou save our souls.

Tone 2

O most great mystery! I behold wonders! I proclaim that which is divine: Emmanuel hath opened the gates of nature as man, and as God He hath not broken the keys of virginity. But as He entered by hearing, so He came forth from the womb in like manner. As was His Incarnation, so was His conception. He entered dispassionately and issued forth ineffably, according to the prophet who said: This gate shall remain shut, no man shall enter through it, save only the Lord God of Israel, Who hath great mercy.

Tone 3

O marvel, most great! A Virgin gives birth and the Offspring is God before the ages; the birth which was foreshadowed and accomplished beyond nature. O awesome mystery! Being contemplated, it remaineth ineffable, and being perceived it is incomprehensible. Blessed art thou, O most pure Maiden, daughter of the earthly Adam, and revealed as the Mother of God the Most High. Do thou entreat Him that our souls be saved.

Tone 4

Thou hast conceived without seed, and given birth inexpressibly, to Him Who putteth down the mighty from their thrones and exalteth the humble. Christ hath raised up the horn of His faithful, who glorify His Cross and burial, and His glorious resurrection. Therefore with never-silent songs we bless thee, O Theotokos the Mediatress of so many good things, as she who doth ever pray that our souls be saved.

Tone 5

Let us honor the precious Maiden who is worthy of God, and exceedingly more honorable than the Cherubim. For the Creator of all, desiring to become man, inexpressibly dwelt within her. O astonishing occurrences, and most glorious mysteries! Who would not marvel at hearing such; that God became man and there was no alteration in Him. He passed through the gate of virginity and no lessening was left therein, as the prophet said: No man shall ever pass through her, save only the God of Israel Who hath great mercy.

Tone 6

It is truly meet to bless thee O Theotokos, for The Creator of all entered thy most pure womb and became flesh, and neither was there a change in nature, nor was the dispensation illusory. But He received flesh from thee, with a reason-endowed soul in a union according to The Person, therefore we piously make a distinction in the two manifest natures. Him do thou pray, O pure and most holy one, to send down upon us peace and great mercy.

Tone 7

Truly awesome and ineffable is the mystery which hath come to pass in thee, O undefiled One. For the Word Who is the cause of all, beyond cause and recounting, wast incarnate by the Holy Spirit receiving flesh from thee, and His nature underwent no change. For in coming together both natures were self-existing, while single according to Person, He proceeded forth twofold in nature. Fully God and fully man, perfect in both, and each expressing their characteristic energies. For while suffering on the Cross in the flesh, He remained beyond suffering in Divinity. As man He died, again as God He hath shown Himself to be alive on the third day, laying low the might of death and delivering mankind from corruption. As the Deliverer and Saviour of our race, do thou pray Him, O Mother of God, to send down His pity upon us and great mercy.

Tone 8

How can we not call thee blessed, O Theotokos? How can we exalt in song the inaccessible mystery of thy childbearing, O most-blessed One? For the Creator of the ages and Fashioner of our nature, in pitying His own image lowered Himself through an incomprehensible self-emptying. While being incorporeally in the bosom of the Father, He dwelt within thy womb O pure One. Without change He became flesh from thee, O unwedded One, remaining God Whom He was by nature. Therefore we worship Him as perfect God and perfect man, One in twofold form, for nature was truly dual in Him. Let us all proclaim twofold natures with their own characteristics, and according to both substances we honor two energies and wills. For being of one essence with God the Father, He acts and wills of His own authority as God, and being one essence with us, He acts and wills of His own authority as man. Him do thou pray, O all-blessed One, to save our souls.

Through the prayers of His all-pure Mother may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us!

Preparation for the Nativity: Enter within

Preparation for the Nativity: Enter within

What follows is a sermon given during the Nativity Fast.

Since we are less than a month away from the feast of the Nativity, let us ponder the question of how we might acquire a deeper, more heartfelt understanding and perception of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh? On my first visit to the Holy Mountain I was there for the feast of the Nativity. I asked one father what one might read in order to prepare for this feast. He replied,”Rather than reading something that you think will prepare you for the feast it is more beneficial to go deeper into prayer during the fast. In this way your heart will be more receptive to the meaning of the hymnology of the feast.” This is a natural consequence because the meaning of the feast is a spiritual knowledge and spiritual knowledge is something that we experience in prayer. So let us speak a bit about developing a deeper prayer life which will help to prepare us to more fully comprehend the meaning of the Incarnation—God becoming man. Specifically let us concentrate on this particular question: How do we enter within?

As a starting point we can begin by looking at something St. Theophan the Recluse wrote concerning degrees of prayer:

There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing, and in making prostrations. In all these there must be patience, labor, and sweat; for the attention runs away, the heart feels nothing and has no desire to pray….

The second degree is prayer of attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer, and prays consciously throughout. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own….

The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what hitherto has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition
itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity.

This quote of St. Theophan is from the book, “The Art of Prayer”. In the introduction to this book Bishop Kallistos writes thus about degrees of prayer thus:

1 Oral or bodily prayer 2 Prayer of the mind 3 Prayer of the heart (or ‘of the mind in the heart’): spiritual prayer.

Summarizing this threefold distinction, St. Theophan observes: “You must pray not only with words but with the mind, and not only with the mind but with the heart, so that the mind understands and sees clearly what is said in the words, and the heart feels what the mind is thinking. All these combined together constitute real prayer, and if any of them are absent your prayer is either not perfect, or it is not prayer at all.”

The first kind of prayer—oral or bodily—is prayer of the lips and the tongue, prayer that consists in reading of reciting certain words, in kneeling, standing, or making prostrations. Clearly such prayer, if it is merely oral and bodily, is not real prayer at all: besides reciting sentences it is also essential for us to concentrate inwardly on the meaning of what we say, to ‘confine our mind within the words of prayer.’ Thus the first degree of prayer develops naturally into the second: all oral prayer, if it is to be worthy of the name ‘prayer’, must be in some measure inward prayer or prayer of the mind.

As prayer grows more interior, the outward oral recitation becomes less important. It is enough for the mind to pray the words inwardly without any movement of the lips; sometimes, indeed, the mind prays without forming any words at all. Yet even those who are advanced in the way of prayer will still pray orally, but their oral prayer is at the same time an inner prayer of the mind.

It is not sufficient, however, merely to reach the second degree of prayer. So long as prayer remains in the head, in the intellect or the brain, it is incomplete or imperfect. It is necessary to descend from the head to the heart. (pp. 21-2)

So this is what it means to “enter within”, and it is this that we should hope for. In other words, we should aspire to develop interior prayer. Since such prayer empties the heart of the things of this world and it makes us receptive to God by making a place for God in our hearts. Then we can acquire a spiritual knowledge of the feast by pondering the hymns of the Church for the Nativity. May these hymns touch our hearts this year in a deeper way than ever before, and if this takes place then each of us in our own little measure can perceive—as the prophet Isaiah says—that we “are taught by the Lord” (Isa. 54:13).

May God grant us to grow in the knowledge of Him and in our Wcomprehension of the great mystery of His dispensation for the salvation of mankind which was wrought through the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to Him be glory, together with His Father Who is from everlasting and His all-good and life-giving Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos

We are in the middle of the new and old calendar feast day of the Entrance of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple.  What follows is a sermon on this feast taken from the book “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee”.

The Entrance of the Most-Holy Theotokos into the Temple

Beloved of God, although this feast we celebrate today is an event in a single day in the life of the Most-Holy Mother of God, it should not only be reflected upon as an isolated happening, but as part of a stage in the life of the Theotokos. This event is the first day of her nine years living in the Temple, and of her preparation to receive God within her womb, and so become the Mother of God Incarnate, Jesus our Lord, God the Son. So today let us consider this event as the beginning of this stage in the life of the Theotokos, and let us see just what was the preparation for the woman who was to become the Mother of God. Simultaneously we should also ponder this: What kind of qualities of soul did she possess so that God chose her to be his bride?

As a beginning, we need to look at the history of this event which the Church has passed down to us. We know from the tradition of the Church that the parents of the Theotokos, the Righteous Joachim and Anna were, childless and that among the people of Israel this was considered a matter of reproach, like a divine curse. And it was in answer to their prayers of desperation, and their vow to dedicate their child to the Lord, that St. Anna conceived and gave birth to a baby girl, Mary, who would become the Most-Holy Theotokos. So even the childlessness of Saints Joachim and Anna was part of God’s providence for the Theotokos because it became the motivation of dedicating their child to God.

Fulfilling their vow, they brought their daughter, Mary, at the age of three, to the Temple to be reared together with the community of young virgins that were there praising God day and night. When Mary was placed before the doors of the Temple, she quickly ascended the fifteen steps of the Temple which led to the altar of burnt offering, and not looking back at all, seeking her parents as children would normally do. Then, when she reached the top of the steps, the priest Zacharias, husband of her older cousin Elizabeth, brought her into the Holy of Holies. (1) This is something that was completely unheard of and, as our services say, it caused even the angels to marvel. As a historical event, this was a proclamation of who she was, and a foreshadowing of who she would be – the woman whom the prophets foretold in many figures, she is the woman who would soon give birth to the awaited Messiah Whom we know to be God in the flesh.

And what was her life like in the temple? We have an idea from the account in the ancient apocryphal Gospel of Matthew:

This was the order that she had set for herself: From the morning to the third hour she remained in prayer; from the third to the ninth she was occupied with weaving; and from the ninth she again applied herself to prayer. She did not retire from praying until there appeared to her an angel of the Lord from whose hand she used to receive food; and thus she became more and more perfect in the work of God. Then, when the other virgins rested from the praises of God, she did not rest at all; so that in the praises and vigils of God none were found before her, no one more learned in the wisdom of the law of God, more lowly in humility, more elegant in singing, more perfect in all virtue. She was indeed steadfast, immovable, unchangeable, and daily advancing to perfection…She was always engaged in prayer and in searching the law. (2)

So in brief, this is the history we know of the preparation for the young girl, Mary, to become the Most-Holy Theotokos. Her whole life was completely dedicated to God. She lived away not only from the outright evils of this world, but also from the seemingly innocent distractions which take our attention away from God.

But what were her qualities of soul? In today’s Gospel, we heard Christ say of Mary of Bethany the following words, “Mary hath chosen the good part which shall not be taken from her” (Luke 10:42). This is what Mary the Theotokos did when she was brought as a child to the Temple. She swiftly went up the stairs in the temple without looking back, and she did not seek her parents. This amazed both her parents, and the priests; even at such an early age she exercised her will, and made a resolute decision. She chose the good part – as Mary of Bethany did in the Gospel today. The young child Mary steadfastly chose to dedicate her whole life to God. And there is also a tradition that during her time in the Temple when she had come to understand the need of the Messiah for Israel, the Theotokos prayed to be worthy to be the handmaiden of the woman who would bear the Christ. So she abounded in humility. As even the Apocryphal Gospel of St. Matthew says: she was “more lowly in humility” than the other virgins. This is also testified to in the Gospel of St. Luke, where Mary declares in the Magnificant that God has “reguarded the humility of His handmaiden” (Luke 1:48).

Now let us turn to the Great Father of our Church, St. Gregory Palamas, who gives us some insight into the qualities of the Theotokos in his Homilies on this Feast. (3) In order to gain a proper understanding of his comments, we must consider who he was. St. Gregory was at first a simple monastic. Later he was called upon to defend Orthodoxy. And finally he was also consecrated a bishop. In his simple monastic life he lived in a similar way as the Theotokos did in the Temple. He especially applied himself to a life of solitude, silence, fasting, and unceasing prayer. He experienced the fruits of this asceticism, which were the vision of God, and an experience of God’s life. So when St. Gregory reflects upon the life of the Theotokos in the Temple and writes his homilies for this Feast, he speculates as to the surpassing state of purity she acquired and the abundance of grace she must have experienced. Because she began this life as a pure child at the age of three, whereas he, who experienced so much grace of the Holy Spirit, began this ascetic practice at the age of 19.

So St. Gregory tells us that during her time in the temple, and study of the Sacred Scriptures, the Theotokos came to understand the fall of man, and the need of the Savior to come into the world. She had pity on the whole race of Adam which was in need of redemption, and was resolved to pray for the coming of the Messiah. And in seeking to discover what was most beneficial for her as an intercessor, she came to understand that solitude, stillness of thoughts, and unceasing interior prayer were needed. St Gregory says that in this way she found a new way of ascent to God. And he comes to the conclusion that she saw the glory of God more clearly than Moses.

What does this tell us about her? It tells us two things. First, her purity of heart. St. Gregory testifies that such experiences are given to those who have already purified their hearts by sacred silence. And the Lord Himself says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Mat. 5:8). Second, and even more important is her love for us. The Theotokos had pity on the whole race of Adam because of our fallen condition, and she dedicated herself to prayer for us. She resolutely set herself in the position of intercessor for the human race. This implies a great love. And here we should also note that she did not only enter the Holy of Holies once per year, but she was permitted to enter as often as she desired in order to pray. And there, in that earthly place of atonement, she sacrificed herself in prayer for us.

So these are the things for which we should admire Mary, the Theotokos. Not because she was daily given bread by an angel, or because saw the glory of God better than Moses, or because of the other visitations of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which it is said she experienced while in the Temple. But because from an early age she chose the good part, and with a firm resolve wholly followed God. Because of her depth of humility that caused God to look upon her. Because of the surpassing state of purity she acquired through the struggle of stillness, and unceasing prayer. And because of her love for us which has made her a mediator for our race, and our Mother in Christ. If through remembering these things we can increase our love for her, she will surely fervently intercede for us. And through her prayers we shall be provided with an entrance into the kingdom of her Son, Who is our good God, together with His Father Who is without beginning, and His all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, throughout the endless ages, world without end. Amen

(1)The source for the information we have for the Life of the Virgin Mary is primarily the Liturgical Services of the Orthodox Church found mostly in the monthly Menaion. The Liturgical Services draw on early Christian traditions which have been preserved in the ancient Apocryphal Gospels that are referredj to by scholars as The Protevangelion of James, and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Translations of these Apocryphal Gospels by Alexander Walker are found in Volume 8 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956] pages 361-383.

(2) The Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, Chapter 6. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 8 pg. 371.

(3) An English translation of these homilies is found in Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by St. Gregory Palamas, edited by Christopher Veniamin, South Canaan, PA, Mount Thabor Publishing, 2005. These Homilies are the prime source of information for the following paragraphs.