Archive for the ‘Conversion’ Category

Going Home – A Personal Journey

May 9, 2009

geo12p20I do not know enough languages to gauge how universal is the concept of “home.” It has very strong connotations in English – and is particularly strong in its usage within the Southern United States. I suspect much of this is rooted in family and place – and requires a fairly stable culture. The culture in which I grew up was reasonably stable – though I experienced major upheavals in my surrounding world around the age of 10. I was young enough to remember what had come before and old enough to nurture a hunger to return.

Some have spoken of this “homesickness” as a universal hunger – a memory reaching back to our loss of Paradise. I know that many speak of their coming to the Church as a “coming home.” It is certainly the case that Christ is our true home and that to return to Christ is the answer to the heart’s true hunger.

I have come “home” this weekend (and for the first part of the coming week). I am in Dallas, the city of my Bishop. It was here that I was ordained Deacon and here that I have always looked during my years as an Orthodox Christian. Though my time in Dallas has always meant time in a hotel and a rented car – and often time without my family – it is still home. The very sight of my Bishop (who is now retired) is a coming home for my heart – to be in the rest that I find in his welcome and the assurance within the proximity of his unshakable faith.

I arrived in Dallas a day or so early – in order to rest, to pray and to visit at leisure. Starting Monday, I am in meetings of various sorts with other priests and laity and with the Metropolitan of the OCA, the acting bishop for my diocese. On Wednesday, the Mid-Feast of Pentecost, I will concelebrate with a number of other priests and the entire Synod of Bishops of the OCA in a liturgy at the cathedral in which we will honor my retired bishop, Vladyka Dmitri.

Thus, what writing I do this week will be between meetings – though being here without my family means that when I am not in a meeting I will have much time on my hands – and a chance to write.

It is hard to explain to others, sometimes, that my experience of the Church and its hierarchy has not been the experience of an institution but of persons. Institutions are distortions are what should be personal and relational. There is nothing inherently institutional about belonging to something that involves millions of people. It’s just that our fallen experience of such things is usually only in a distorted form. When the Church ceases to be personal and becomes institutional, something has gone wrong.

I know of people who have an unspoken pleasure in institutional existence. What is unspoken is the freedom that institutional existence gives to some to indulge a critical spirit. Institutions are perceived as impersonal – which leaves others free to say and do what they will and consider their actions “impersonal.” If anyone has ever held a position of authority then you will likely know what it is to be seen only as your “role” and not as a person. I have endured things through the years associated with such positions that are among the most painful experiences I have ever known. As a sinner, I know that I have offered more than my share of such impersonal animosity as well. 

The answer to such problems is not the “reform” of institutions, but the redemption of relationships. It is necessary for power and authority to be redeemed and placed under the headship of Christ. Democracy is not a synonym for conciliarity – though some mistakenly think so. Conciliarity is, in its highest form, the embodiment of personhood in all of our relations.

It is this embodiment of personhood that is the true hunger of the human heart. Christ fulfills and raises us to the level of personhood in our redemption. Vladimir Lossky described the work of the Holy Spirit as primarily one of establishing us as persons in the true and proper sense of the word. To be a person is to know and to be known – and to know and be known in the Truth. It is to love and be loved and to know love in the Truth. 

My journey into the Orthodox Church included a relationship with Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas for four years prior to my actual conversion. We discussed that eventuality only in our first conversation. For the years following I simply found myself treated as a son who had already returned home. My conversion was only a fulfillment of something that had been taken as an accomplished reality by the man who would be my bishop. It is no wonder that I love him as I do. 

The retirement of Archbishop Dmitri is a vast change in the life of Orthodoxy in the South. For 30 years he has been a dominant force for Orthodoxy and its proclamation in this region and a figure who defined Orthodoxy as a profound practice of hospitality. Together with the Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, I will celebrate a ministry which has extended the “home” of Orthodoxy to thousands of people who once had no knowledge of the Orthodox faith. And he has done this by creating a home rather than destroying another. 

May God grant us all to find the heart’s true home.

Conversion to the True and Living God

May 3, 2009

nikolai_bruni-candle_bearer_in_a_convent_1891I grew up in a culture where religious conversion was frequent as well as often short-lived. Religiously, the only remedy to many of the ills of life was conversion. On the face of things I could hardly argue with that now. However, the deeper problem within that particular religious culture was a very truncated view of conversion. For many, conversion was accompanied by emotion (it should be truly “heart-felt”) as well as decision. But the only action that accompanied conversion was frequently a “rededication” of one’s life to Christ. The heart of Southern evangelicalism, at the time, was to “bring people to Christ,” though that phenomenon was defined in a very narrow manner. Thus I watched numerous individuals who needed much longer and deeper “conversions” fall short and frequently “fall away.”

Today’s religious culture is far more diverse though not necessarily for the better. The range of definition of “the spiritual life” can run anywhere from “successful living” to sainthood (and this is only a description within American Christianity). Conversion today can frequently mean a “change of membership” though conversion is not usually associated with changing churches within Protestant Christianity. Americans frequently “shop” for Church as much as they shop for everything else. Recent sociological studies have shown this to be an almost dominant component of our modern religious landscape. Market forces not only drive our economy but often our ecclesiology as well.

Thus the problem of true conversion becomes yet more complicated – even if only by the plurality of strange voices. I am an Orthodox Christian and I believe that the truth of the Christian faith has not altered since its inception. It has not and cannot alter because it is nothing other than the living communion of God and man in Christ. The difficulty of conversion is to find one’s way through the multitude of voices to hear the one true voice of God.

And this carries us to our own heart. I have had many conversations with those whom I would describe as “religious seekers.” Sometimes the largest question in their mind is one brought on by the many voices they hear. How to choose? How to decide? Having been formed and shaped as a consumer, only a consumer’s heart is left when it is God we seek to find – and God cannot be bought – He is not and never will be a commodity.

Thus, even conversion to the Orthodox faith is not an immediate answer to the question of true conversion – particularly if it is simply a choice among choices – a consumer’s decision based on comparision shopping. For true conversion is also a matter of our true heart and not the heart of a consumer – which is a creation of the delusions of this age.

In a strange, semi-prophetic passage in the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the author describes the dreams of Raskolnikov as he lay sick and in prison:

In his illness he dreamed that the whole word was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate….In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious…

It is a strange delirium, one we have seen fulfilled in various ways. “Everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why…” So here is the crux of the matter – reaching our own true heart. I believe this is a great gift of grace, particularly in a confused and confusing world. Apart from such grace knowledge of our heart would be likely impossible.

But, by God’s grace, having found that true heart, one must not take it lightly. Obedience to the heart in grace is important and a matter of daily struggle. We are commanded to take up the cross and follow Christ, and there may certainly be a moment at which we first obeyed that commandment – but that moment is only a beginning of conversion, the first step on a lifetime’s road of repentance. Golgotha ends in a tomb and then the resurrection. Taking up that Cross daily is also a matter of remaining faithful to one’s true heart, despite all the noise and confusion about us. It is steadfastness and courage as well as a simple tenacity. For the madness of the world is real though we are all called to be among the “few.” Being obedient to one’s true heart is a faithful obedience to Christ who is our own true heart.

I stated earlier that conversion to the Orthodox faith was not an immediate answer to question of true conversion. This is not the fault of the Orthodox faith but the fault of our heart as we approach this treasure God has preserved for us. Once having kissed the Gospel and the Cross, we then have to daily press forward, not trusting in the Church as though it were only another institution to which we have attached ourselves, but trusting in God who is our sure hope and the constant life of the Church in which we live.

The daily pressure of our world is to silence the truth of our heart and turn us again to our consumer mentality. Thus each day we say “no” that we may truly say “yes.”

Paradise in a Single Moment

April 17, 2009

img_0436The Exapostelarian for the Matins of Good Friday is the hymn, “The Wise Thief.” It draws our attention to the mercy of God – who promised paradise to the wise thief, “This day.” Thoughts on the nearness of paradise are also a theme in the writings of Dostoevsky. If paradise is so near – why do we settle for less?

During Holy Week, one of my favorite hymns in the Church is the Wise Thief (the Exapostelarion of Holy Friday). It recalls the thief, crucified on Christ’s right hand, who repents and finds paradise “in a single moment.” It demonstrates the fullness of God’s love who would take the repentance of a single moment and transform it into life eternal.

The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise,
in a single moment, O Lord.
By the wood of Thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.

I often think of this hymn because I also believe that we generally stand but a single moment from paradise, even when we find ourselves tempted and filled with every other sort of thought. We stand but a single moment from paradise, for the same crucified Lord stands beside us. Either we rail at him with the other thief (though the one whom I rail at may not look like Christ, but only one of the least of His brethren). And while I rail, paradise stands beside me, even urging me towards that heavenly goal with the words, “I thirst.” It is for our love and repentance that He thirsts – He who endured so much for the love of man.

Another moving example of such repentance is found in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I have printed this excerpt before, and doubtless will again. It is the story of the Elder Zossima’s brother, Markel, who found paradise in a very short moment as he approached his death.

I am reminded of the Scripture:

For he says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 5:2).

From the Brothers Karamazov:

…but the doctor arrived and quickly whispered to dear mother that it was galloping consumption and that he would not survive the spring. Mother began to weep, began to ask my brother with circumspection (mainly in order not to frighten him) to fast for a little and then attend communion with God’s holy mysteries, for he was at that time still up and about. Upon hearing this, he lost his temper and gave God’s temple a good rating, but then he grew meditative….. Some three days went by, and Holy Week began. And then, from the Tuesday evening, my brother went to fast and take communion. ‘I am doing this, properly speaking, for you, dear mother, in order to please you and to calm your fears,’ he told her. Mother wept from happiness, and also from grief; ‘It means his end must be near, if there is such a sudden change in him.’ But not for long did he go to church; he took to his bed, and so was given confession and communion at home. The days were starting to be bright, serene and fragrant – it was a late Pascha. All night he would cough, I recall; he slept badly, and in the mornings would always get dressed and try to sit in a soft armchair. That is how I shall remember him: sitting there quietly meekly, smiling, in reality ill, but with a countenance of cheerfulness and joy. He had undergone a complete spiritual alteration – such a wondrous change had suddenly begun within him! Our old nurse would enter his room: ‘Let me light the lamp before your icon, dearie,’ she would say. And previously he had not allowed it, would even blow it out. ‘Light it, dear nurse, light it, I was a cruel monster to forbid you earlier. As you light the lamp you say your prayers, and I, in rejoicing for your sake, say mine also. That means we pray to the same God.’ Strange did those words seem to us, and mother would go away to her room and weep and weep, though when she came in again to him she would wipe her eyes and assume an air of cheerfulness. ‘Dear mother, don’t cry, my darling,’ he used to say. ‘I have much time to live yet, I shall make merry with you both, and my life, my life will be joyful and merry!’ ‘Oh, dear boy, what kind of merriment can there be for you, when all night you burn in a fever and cough till your chest nearly bursts apart?’ ‘Mama,’ he replied to her, ‘do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we don’t want to realize it, and if we did care to realize it, paradise would be established in all the world tomorrow.’ And we all wondered at his words, so strangely and so resolutely did he say this; we felt tender emotion and we wept….’Dear mother, droplet of my blood,’ he said (at that time he had begun to use endearments of this kind, unexpected ones), ‘beloved droplet of my blood, joyful one, you must learn that of a truth each of us is guilty before all for everyone and everything. I do not know how to explain this to you, but I feel that it is so, to the point of torment. And how could we have lived all this time being angry with one another and knowing nothing of this?’ [He spoke even of being guilty before the birds and all creation] …’Yes, he said, ‘all around me there has been such divine glory: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone have lived in disgrace, I alone have dishonored it all, completely ignoring its beauty and glory.’ ‘You take too many sins upon yourself,’ dear mother would say, weeping. ‘But dear mother, joy of my life. I am crying from joy, and not from grief; why, I myself want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not know how to love them. Let me be culpable before all, and then all will forgive me, and that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?’

In the Tomb of Lazarus

April 11, 2009

img_1088Largely ignored by much of Christendom, the Orthodox today celebrate “Lazarus Saturday” in something of a prequel to next weekend’s Pascha. It is, indeed a little Pascha just before the greater one. And this, of course, was arranged by Christ Himself, who raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as something of a last action before entering Jerusalem and beginning His slow ascent to Golgotha through the days of next week (Orthodox celebrate Pascha a week later than Western Christians this year).

One of the hymns of the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday says that Christ “stole him from among the dead.” I rather like the phrase. Next weekend there will be no stealing, but a blasting of the gates of hell itself. What he does for Lazarus he will do for all. 

Lazarus, of course, is different from those previously raised from the dead by Christ (such as the daughter of Jairus). Lazarus had been four days day and corruption of the body had already set in. “My Lord, he stinks!” one of his sisters explained when Christ requested to be shown to the tomb.

I sat in that tomb last September, as I mentioned in my last post. It is not particularly notable as a shrine. It is today, in the possession of a private, Muslim family. You pay to get in. Several of our pilgrims did not want to pay to go in. I could not stop myself.

Lazarus is an important character in 19th century Russian literature. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, finds the beginning of his repentance of the crime of murder, by listening to a reading of the story of Lazarus. It is, for many, and properly so, a reminder of the universal resurrection. What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.

For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment. That even before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts are often places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God. Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of God. We were not created for the tomb.

I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes. Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.

I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar. 

I have to go now. Someone is calling.

It Is But a Small Thing

April 9, 2009

 

childcandleI have noticed in my daily struggle that most of the things that are of importance turn on very “small things.” The decisions that set me on the course of prayer or kindness are made not with fanfare or even large efforts, but on a moment’s turn. By the same token, the decisions that set me on a course of sin are often so small that I can hardly notice that they were decisions at all.

History books are written about large things – making the in between times in our lives seem insignificant and not worth much trouble. Generally, large decisions are made because we have reached an unavoidable crossroad – but a crossroad that would not exist except for many, even hundreds, of small so-called insignificant decisions.

Dostoevsky is correct that God and the devil engage in warfare and the battleground is the human heart. However, the battle is often fought in very small skirmishes. Brief encounters with the good and brief encounters with evil.

It is not true that the little things do not matter. It may well be that the little things are all we will ever encounter. It is true in every great battle. The historians write about large movements of troops and the effect of terrain – but those who actually do the fighting are aware of each stroke of the sword, of the difficulty of fighting wounded, or without food or rest.

By the same token, those who take up their prayers and beg for the mercy of God, may appear to be engaged in a very small thing. Yet prayer is never small. If it has gained the ear of the God of the universe, how can it ever be small?

No act of kindness is ever too small. No generosity of spirit is ever insignificant. No harsh word not spoken is a minor act of restraint. No effort of forgiveness is without value.

This is the day of salvation. It may come in a thousand discreet moments, every one of which is alive with the fire of God. May He gives us grace to know that all that we are, have and do, is truly great and worthy of every prayer and effort of grace. We draw near to the end of Lent (for the Orthodox). The benefit we will have gained will rest on the grace we have received – mostly as we went faithfully about the small things. Even Pascha itself – for us – will largely consist in our efforts to be present. Christ is our Pascha. We do not have to make it happen. We need only come to the feast. Christ our Pascha is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast.

To Remember God

April 5, 2009

img_0442

Abba Macarius said, “If we remember the evil that others have done to us, we shut down our ability to remember God.”

There are many ways to misunderstand the Christian faith – certainly far more ways to get it wrong than to get it right. One of the deepest misunderstandings of our culture is the popular concept of Christian morality. The history of this is its own complex story – how Christians ceased to know the inner life and created an externalized form of Christianity. When I think on these things it seems to me that reality is often quite the opposite of what people imagine to be the case.

It is imagined that a Church which engages in a great deal of ritual (such as the Orthodox) is concerned only with externals – when, in fact, it is precisely in such a Church that the inner life receives the most attention. Ritual is not an end – but a means.

On the other hand, it is imagined that Churches which disparage ritual are inherently more concerned with the inner life, when nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a psychology of moral thought – but no proper understanding of what actually constitutes the inner life. Christ did not die in order to introduce us to psychology.

Rightly understood – the moral life is an inner obedience to the commandments of Christ through union with Him. In the teachings of the fathers such an inner life is not a matter of following rules, but is a manner of seeking true existence. To live out of communion with God is to live a false existence – one that is verging on non-existence.

This raises the importance of the inner life and the state of the heart. To be angry is more than breaking a rule – it is a breaking of communion and a dalliance with death. To remember the evil that others have done, as St. Macarius has noted, is to hinder our remembrance of God. In the words of St. James, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

The same could be said about other sinful states of the heart – envy, lust, greed, etc. These are not actions or thoughts which violate rules – but states of the heart that violate our very existence. Between conformity to the image of God (by grace) and hell – there is no middle ground.

Those who have known this and understood it in their deep heart – have spared no effort to find salvation and healing in Christ, who alone can restore the heart to its proper state. The ritual of the Church is nothing more than learning how to rightly honor those things that should be held in honor. It is a gradual resetting of the heart.

No amount of analysis, study or meditation can substitute for the proper healing of our heart – nor can the intellectual acceptance of certain ideas. Such an “inner life” is still life on the surface.

St. Macarius offers this statement on the heart:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7)
To properly approach his teaching, it is necessary to understand that he is not speaking metaphorically. There is a depth that no human theory can reach for it is not theory – but the truth of what lies within. The time of Pascha draws near and the call of God to the deep heart of man can be heard. Run.

A Story of Repentance

March 27, 2009

One of my favorite books comes from the last years of the Soviet Union. It is the story of Tatiana Goricheva, a member of the “intelligentsia” and a Soviet-era dissident. Her book, Talking About God Is Dangerous, offers fascinating insights into both a period of time and the period of a human soul’s conversion by grace. The little volume is out of print but can be found on the internet for as little as a dollar. I share a sample as she tells of her first confession.

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We knew virtually nothing

goricheva…I had come to make my confession for the first time in my life. Shortly beforehand I had become a Christian by the grace of God. I had no deeper knowledge either of Christianity or of the church – who could have taught me? I and my newly-converted girl friend, both in the same position, learned what to do by imitating our old women, who zealously preserved the Orthodox faith and practices. We didn’t know anything. But we had something which in our day should perhaps be treasured more than knowledge: a boundless trust in the church, belief in all its words, in every movement and demand. Only yesterday we had rejected all authority and all norms. Today we understood the deliverance that we had experienced as a miracle. We regarded our church as the indubitable, absolute truth, in minor matters just as much as in its main concern. God has changed us and given us childhood: ‘Unless you become as children, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’

I only knew that it was necessary to go to confession and to communion. I knew that both confession and communion were high sacraments which reconcile us with God and even unite us with him, really unite us with him in all fullness, both physical and spiritual. I was formally baptized by my unbelieving parents as a child. Whether they did that out of tradition or whether someone had persuaded them to do it, I never discovered from their explanations. Now at the age of twenty-six I had decided to renew the grace of baptism.

Like a hardened crust

I knew that the priest himself – the well-known confessor Father Hermogen – would ask me questions and guide my confession. Then the day before I read a little booklet in order to prepare myself for confession, I discovered that I had transgressed all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. But quite independently of that it was clear to me that the while of my life was full of sins of the most varied kind, of transgressions and unnatural forms of behavior. They now pursued me and tormented me after my conversion, and lay like a heavy burden on my soul. How could I have not seen earlier how abhorrent and stupid, how boring and sterile sin is? From my childhood my eyes had been blindfolded in some way. I longed to make my confession because I already felt with my innermost being that I would receive liberation, that the new person which I had recently discovered within myself would be completely victorious and drive out the old person. For every moment after my conversion I felt inwardly healed and renewed, but at the same time it was as though I was somehow covered with a crust of sin which had grown around me and had become hard. So I to longed for penance, as if for a wash. And I recalled the marvellous words of the Psalm which I had recently learned by heart: ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’

The experience of a miracle

And so my turn came. I went up, and kissed the gospel and the cross. Of course because I felt dismay and apprehension, I was afraid to say that I was confessing for the first time. Father Hermogen began by asking,

‘When did you last fail to go to church? What festivals have you deliberately neglected?’

‘All of them,’ I replied.

Then Father Hermogen knew that he was dealing with a new convert. In recent times new converts have come into the Russian church in large numbers, and they have to be treated in a different way.

He began by asking about the most terrible, the ‘greatest’ sins in my life, and I had to tell him my whole biography: a life based on pride and a quest for praise, on arrogant contempt for other people. I told him about my drunkenness and my sexual excesses, my unhappy marriages, the abortions and my inability to love anyone. I also told him about the next period of my life, my preoccupation with yoga and my desire for ‘self-fulfillment’, for becoming God, without love and without penitence. I spoke for a long time, though I also found it difficult. My shame got in the way and tears took away my breath. At the end I said almost automatically: ‘I want to suffer for all my sins, and be purged at least a little from them. Please give me absolution.’

Father Hermogen listened to me attentively, and hardly interrupted. Then he sighed deeply and said, ‘Yes, they are grave sins.’

I was given absolution by the grace of God: very easily, it seemed to me: for the space of several years I was to say five times a day the prayer ‘Virgin and Mother of God, rejoice’, each time with a deep prostration to the ground.

This absolution was a great support to me through all the following years. Our sins (the life of my newly-converted friend was hardly different from my own) somehow seemed to us to be so enormous that we found it hard to believe that they could disappear so simply, with the wave of a priest’s hand. But we had already had a miraculous experience: from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father’s house, into the church, which for us was paradise. We knew that with God anything is possible. That helped us to believe that confession did away with sin. And the starets also said, ‘Don’t think about it again. You have confessed and that is enough. If you keep thinking about it you are only sinning all over again.’

Fasting – Prayers by the Lake – XLI

February 26, 2009

imagesBy St. Nikolai Velimirovich

XLI

With fasting I gladden my hope in You, my Lord, Who are to come again.

Fasting hastens my preparation for Your coming, the sole expectation of my days and nights.

Fasting makes my body thinner, so that what remains can more easily shine with the spirit.

While waiting for You, I wish neither to nourish myself with blood nor to take life–so that the animals may sense the joy of my expectation.

But truly, abstaining from food will not save me. Even if I were to eat only the sand from the lake, You would not come to me, unless the fasting penetrated deeper into my soul.

I have come to know through my prayer, that bodily fasting is more a symbol of true fasting, very beneficial for someone who has only just begun to hope in You, and nevertheless very difficult for someone who merely practices it.

Therefore I have brought fasting into my soul to purge her of many impudent fiancé’s and to prepare her for You like a virgin.

And I have brought fasting into my mind, to expel from it all daydreams about worldly matters and to demolish all the air castles, fabricated from those daydreams. 

I have brought fasting into my mind, so that it might jettison the world and prepare to receive Your Wisdom.

And I have brought fasting into my heart, so that by means of it my heart might quell all passions and worldly selfishness.

I have brought fasting into my heart, so that heavenly peace might ineffably reign over my heart, when Your stormy Spirit encounters it.

I prescribe fasting for my tongue, to break itself of the habit of idle chatter and to speak reservedly only those words that clear the way for You to come.

And I have imposed fasting on my worries so that it may blow them all away before itself like the wind that blows away the mist, lest they stand like dense fog between me and You, and lest they turn my gaze back to the world.

And fasting has brought into my soul tranquility in the face of uncreated and created realms, and humility towards men and creatures. And it has instilled in me courage, the likes of which I never knew when I was armed with every sort of worldly weapon. 

What was my hope before I began to fast except merely another story told by others, which passed from mouth to mouth?

The story told by others about salvation through prayer and fasting became my own.

False fasting accompanies false hope, just as no fasting accompanies hopelessness.

But just as a wheel follows behind a wheel, so true fasting follows true hope.

Help me to fast joyfully and to hope joyously, for You, my Most Joyful Feast, are drawing near to me with Your radiant smile.

 

The Difficulty of Lent

February 25, 2009

southwest-trip-317Many of our readers come from communities who use the Western calendar, on which today is the first day of Great Lent, Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Lent begins on at sundown this Sunday. This short reflection may be of help for us all.

Great Lent is one of the most important spiritual undertakings in the course of the Orthodox Church year. There is nothing unusual asked of us, nothing that we do not do the rest of the year. We fast; we pray; we give alms; we attend services, etc. But we do all of them with greater intensity and frequency and the Church’s contextualization of the season drives its points further and deeper.

Of course, repentance is at its heart. Here I think mostly of St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:1-3:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.

No other single passage, it seems to me, manages to gather as many aspects of the Lenten life (and thus daily life at all times). Our bodies become “a living sacrifice.” I can only wonder which sacrifice St. Paul had in mind (there were many different ones in the Old Testament). Or it may be that the sacrifice of Christ is now the dominant image for him. But our bodies, now “crucified” with Christ are offered up and described as “spiritual worship” logike latrein.

 To offer our bodies as a sacrifice, through fasting and prayer, is itself lifted up to the level of worship, and interestingly our “logike” worship (“spiritual” really is more accurate than “reasonable” as some render it). It is a struggle to fast, to present a “living” sacrifice. This is so much more than a “one time” offering – but stretches through the days and nights of this great season.

St. Paul then admonishes us not to be conformed to the world but to be transformed by the renewal of our mind (nous) which could easily be rendered “heart.” Fr. John Behr describes the passions, in his The Mystery of Christ, as “false perceptions,” our own misunderstanding of the body and its natural desires. Thus renewing our minds is an inner change in our perception of our self and our desires, or in the words of St. Irenaeus (quoted frequently by Behr) “the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of human beings.”

And I find it finally of most importance, that St. Paul concludes this small admonition by pointing us towards humility (as he will the Philippians in that epistle 2:5-11). It is in embracing the cross of Christ, in emptying ourselves towards God and towards others that our true self is to be found. We cannot look within ourselves to find our true selves. “For he who seeks to save his life will lose it.” Rather it is found when we turn to the other and pour ourselves out towards them. I find myself by losing myself in the beloved. This is the love that makes all things possible for us.

But, of course, all that having been said, Lent is difficult. It is difficult because it is the straight and narrow way of the gospel – nothing more. Thus we can only say again and again, “Lord, have mercy!”

The Peace of God – St. Silouan

February 16, 2009

nikolai_bruni-candle_bearer_in_a_convent_1891The following small quotation is from the book Wisdom from Mount Athos: the Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938

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We must always pray the Lord for peace of soul that we may the more easily fulfil the Lord’s commandments; for the Lord loves those who strive to do His will, and thus they attain profound peace in God.

He who does the Lord’s will is content with all things, though he be poor or sick and suffering, because the grace of God gladdens his heart. But the man who is discontented with his lot and murmurs against his fate, or against those who cause him offense, should realize that his spirit is in a state of pride, which has taken from him his sense of gratitude towards God.

But if it be so with you, do not lose heart but try to trust firmly in the Lord and ask Him for a humble spirit; and when the lowly spirit of God comes to you you will then love Him and be at rest in spite of all tribulations.

The soul that has acquired humility is always mindful of God, and thinks to herself: ‘God has created me. He suffered for me. He forgives me my sins and comforts me. He feeds me and cares for me. Why, then should I take thought for myself, and that is there to fear, even if death threaten me?

I will add the observation that it is within ourselves that we should look to find the peace of God – never outward circumstances.