Archive for the ‘Saints’ Category

By Your Prayers

June 14, 2009

Picture 023It is a common phrase in Orthodoxy, “By your prayers.” it is a recognition that we cannot make this journey alone. I have days when I think I’m doing ok, and then there are much longer periods when I realize that only by the prayers of others and the mercies of God will I make this journey in any shape or form.

I am probably more fortunate than many. I have a saintly wife, godly children, and a parish that loves me despite my many weaknesses. Thus I find that I am surrounded by encouraging voices. The voices I hear on my blog or from my podcast are generally of the same kind of encouragement.

And yet, God so loves us, that regardless of what we find around us, we still have struggles. Were there no struggles there would be no victory over sin. My struggles are known to my confessor, but your prayers are known to God – and for them I am grateful. I assure you all of mine.

This Sunday is the Sunday of All Saints. It is a reminder that “no one is saved alone.” We have all entered the field rather late in the game. We have indeed a great cloud of witnesses. Before these witnesses I ask your prayers and offer you mine. By the prayers of our holy fathers we will find God’s mercies and the safe harbor of his love.

A Mystery Solved

May 30, 2009

IMG_0537If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for humility.

-St. Isaac of Syria


I cannot count the number of times that people have complained of their lack of “progress” in the spiritual life. In our cause and effect model of life, we are used to doing something and seeing some result from our action. Things are not like that in the spiritual life where Christ is the cause of all good things – and He does not behave as an impersonal cause.

Thus, in the words of St. Isaac, “recompense is given… for humility.” And it is well that it is so – for recompense “given for labor,” would establish only the strong and never the weak. We would see the same oppression in the Kingdom that we experience in our fallen world. Instead, God gives us what is “necessary for our salvation,” and it is humility that is required above all for “God resists the proud.” 

I recall Archimandrite Zacharias (of Essex) saying, “Never praise a monk – it’s bad for him.” He had just been introduced with a  typical American flourish. You could hear the pain in his voice when he asked not to be spoken of in such a way again. It was the sound of true humility – the sound of knowing how dangerous is the cult of personality.

How dangerous is the cult of all things proud.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. And not a single voice of “I told you so” will be whispered on that day.

Mother Alexandra and Her Guardian Angel

May 21, 2009

guardian_angelThe following is a short excerpt from Mother Alexandra’s  (former Princess Ileana of Romania) small book, The Holy Angels. It is by far the best treatment I have seen on the subject despite its short length. This short account tells of her encounter with her guardian angel at age seven. In the service of Orthodox Baptism, the priest specifically prays that an angel of light be assigned to the life of the child being Baptized.

It was early morning, when I was seven years old, that I saw the angels. I am as sure of it now as I was then. I was not dreaming, nor “seeing things” – I just know they were there, plainly, clearly, distinctly. I was neither astonished nor afraid. I was not even awed – I was only terribly pleased. I wanted to talk to them and touch them.

Our night nursery was lit by the dawn and I saw a group of angels standing, as if chatting, around my brother’s bed. I was aware of this, although I could not hear their voices. They wore long flowing gowns of various soft-shaded colors. Their hair came to their shoulders, and different in color from fair and reddish to dark brown. They had no wings. At the foot of my brother Mircea’s bed stood one heavenly being, a little aside from the others – taller he was, and extraordinarily beautiful, with great white wings. In his right hand he carried a lighted taper; he did not seem to belong to the group of angels gathered around the bed. He clearly stood apart and on watch. I knew him to be the guardian angel. I then became aware that at the foot of my own bed stood a similar celestial creature. He was tall, his robe was dark blue with wide, loose sleeves. His hair was auburn, his face oval, and his beauty such as I cannot describe because it was comparable to nothing human. His wings swept high and out behind him. One hand was lifted to his breast, while in the other he carried a lighted taper. His smile can only be described as angelic; love, kindness, understanding, and assurance flowed from him. Delighted, I crawled from under the bedcovers and, kneeling up against the end of the bed, I stretched out my hand with the ardent wish to touch my smiling guardian, but he took a step back, put out a warning hand, and gently shook his head. I was so close to him I could have reached him easily. “Oh, please don’t go,” I cried; at which words all the other angels looked toward me, and it seemed I heard a silvery laugh, but of this sound I am not so certain, though I know they laughed. Then they vanished.

I was but a child when I saw my guardian angel. As time passed I still sporadically remembered and acknowledged his presence, but mostly, I ignored him…

Christos Voskrese

April 18, 2009

This delightful youtube video was posted a year ago. One of our readers and occasional commenter,  Dejan, (without a doubt my favorite Serb) provided the English translation.  The words are from a poem by St. Nikolai Velimirovich who served for a time as the Rector of St. Tikhon’s Seminary – truly one of the great Serbian saints of the modern era. 


People rejoice, nations hear:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Stars dance, mountains sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Forests murmur, winds hum:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Seas bow*, animals roar:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bees swarm, and the birds sing:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

Angels stand, triple the song:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Sky humble yourself, and elevate the earth:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Bells chime, and tell to all:
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!
Glory to You God, everything is possible to You,
Christ is risen, and brings the joy!

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’s Nothing Personal

March 19, 2009

patriarchpavelOne of the most frightening phrases in the English language is: “It’s nothing personal.” It almost always precedes something bad. For someone to tell me that what they are about to do is not personal is already a confession of sin. But why should the word personal carry such weight?

In the life of the Eastern Church few words could be more important. Oddly there is not a single definition for the term, only, as Met. Kallistos Ware notes, “a series of overlapping approaches.” And yet there is agreement as to its importance. The Elder Sophrony stressed what he called the “cardinal importance of the personal dimension in being.”

But what is it that is so important? Personhood, which is the Latin-derived English word for the more technical Greek “hypostasis,” refers not so much to what we are as to who we are. But it refers to a manner of existing as an individual that is not individualistic. To exist as person is to exist in a unique manner of communion. Person has the capacity for ultimate self-giving (emptying) and ultimate receiving (fulness). It has an individual aspect in that the person is unique and unrepeatable, but it is a unique and unrepeatable existence that always exists by communion (emptiness and fulness).

Speaking in such a way about personhood makes it somewhat clear that none of us yet exists in such a manner in any way that we could think of as complete. Personhood is indeed the glory that is being worked within us as we are changed into the image of Christ. The Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the Person Who is manifest to us in the incarnation. That Person Who from eternity is Divine by nature, “hypostasizes” – gives Personal existence to human nature in taking flesh of the Virgin and becoming man. Thus the image of personhood set before us as the Divine goal of our conformity is none other than the Person of Christ, human and Divine.

Personhood is the proper end of man – it is what we should have always become. Existing as less than fully personal beings – as mere individuals who do not share (emptying) nor receive (fulness) – this sinful mode of existence manifests itself in every form of selfishness and greed. Its ultimate expression is the sin of murder. The Biblical account does not wait to tell us of murder as a sin that took eons to develop, but rather in the second generation of humanity – between the brothers Cain and Abel – jealousy results in fratricide.

Murder is the utter antithesis of personhood. It does not give, nor is it interested in receiving that which may be legitimately received. It is interesting that Christ said that our enemy “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44).

A more subtle form of murder than Cain’s is the frequent diminishment of another human being to something less than person – or the self-murder we perform as we refuse to allow ourselves be raised up towards the level of personal existence. There are many ways in which this is done. Making of another human being nothing more than an object or granting nothing more than a collective existence are both denials of personhood. When a human being becomes for us a mere object, then we find it easy to do to them anything we might do to a stick of furniture or something else that we regularly treat as object. The collective existence is manifest when a person simply becomes an example of a larger group: worker, management, nationality, gender, etc.

“It’s nothing personal!” is the battle-cry of murderers through the ages. We hear elements of it in Cain’s defense of his murderous action: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His “brother” in this case is less than a personal category. He does not call him by his name.

Though none of us yet exist in the fulness of personhood, we are, nevertheless called to that mode of existence and our Christian life offers us disciplines and the grace for precisely this purpose. One of the Biblical images that frequently reveals this graceful manifestation is found in the stories of the  changing and acquiring of names. Thus the Patriarch Jacob, who begins his life conniving and tricking to get everything he wants and all he feels has been promised to him. His name, Jacob, means “one you tries to take someone else’s place.” Jacob endures muc, including wrestling with the Angel of the Lord. After that experience, Jacob is partially crippled. He has been marked by his struggle with God. The end of the matter is his name is changed. He has moved from someone who does not share and cannot receive legitimately, to one who is now, “The Prince of God,” Israel.

Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. The stories surrounding these changes are the stories of personhood coming forth. Christ frequently gives new names to His disciples. Peter, the Rock, who had to live nearly an entire lifetime to fulfill the name Christ had given him. Saul becomes Paul. Indeed in the Revelations of St. John, each of us will receive a new name. Personhood is our common destiny in Christ.

But we live in a world that does not know Christ and thus does not know of the human destiny of personhood. We speak about “personal” relationships with Christ, even though we ourselves have not yet reach personhood. Thus the phrase misstates the present case. “Personal relationship” is a weak term. Of course, it is not a Biblical nor a Patristic term – but something that has largely grown out of modern American evangelical jargon. There it exists with little or no theological underpinning, just a phrase to be used.

What we seek from Christ is Personal Communion. We want to participate in Him as He is Person. The transformation that flows from that communion or participation is the transformation of our individualistic existence with its greed and self-centeredness to a growing manifestation of personhood in which our heart contains more of the universe and our lives are marked by giving (emptiness) and receiving (fulness).

Fr. Sophrony describes this transformation:

…[It is] in the utmost intensity of prayer that our nature is capable of, when God Himself prays in us, [that] man receives a vision of God that is beyond any image whatsoever. Then it is that that man qua persona really prays ‘face to Face’ with the Eternal God. In  this encounter with the Hypostatic [personal] God, the hypostasis [person] that at first was only potential, is actualized in us.

The Elder Sophrony’s Grand-nephew, Fr. Nicholai, offers this observation:

When man’s self remains his ultimate existential concern, he is existentially directed toward himself and so his potential for embracing the infinite, God, and thus himself becoming infinite, is not realized. And vice versa: when his existential concern is reoriented toward the infinite, his own infinite potential opens up and comes to its realization:

Quoting his uncle:

I is a magnificient word. It signifies persona. Its principal ingredient is love, which opens out, first and foremost, to God. This I does not live in a convulsion of egoistic concentration on the self. If wrapped up in self it will continue in its nothingness. The love towards God commanded of us by Christ, which entails hating oneself and renouncing all emotional and fleshly ties, draws the spirit of man into the expanses of Divine eternity. This kind of love is an attribute of Divinity.


“It’s nothing personal” is a statement that is almost correct. More precise would be: You are not personal. You are nothing. Beware of such men and don’t be numbered among them.

Quotes from Nicholas V. Sakharov are from his work: I Love Therefore I Am: the theological legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony.

St. Silouan on the Love of God

February 17, 2009

silouanI cannot remain silent concerning the people, whom I love so greatly that I must weep for them. I cannot remain silent because my soul ever grieves for the people of God, and I pray for them with tears. I cannot refrain from making known to you, brethren, the mercy of God and the wiles of the enemy.

Forty years have gone by since the grace of the Holy Spirit taught me to love mankind and every created thing, and revealed unto me the wiles of the enemy, who works his evil in the world by means of deceit.

Love does not depend on time, and the power of love continues always. There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls it seems to them that it is an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit she feels without a shadow of doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest, the best and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our minds, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourself. And when this love is in the soul, everything rejoices her; but when it is lost sight of man cannot find peace, and is troubled, and blames others as if they had done him an injury, and does not realise that he himself is at fault – he has lost his love for God and has accused or conceived a hatred for his brother.

Grace proceeds from brotherly love, and by brotherly love grace is preserved; but if we do not love our brother the grace of God will not come into our souls.

The Desert and the Struggle in a Flat Land

February 3, 2009


Originally posted in August of 2007 as part of the One-Storey Universe Series

One of the best-known sayings to have come from the Desert Fathers is: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” To a large degree the saying extols the virtue of stability. Moving from place to place never removes the problem – it only postpones the inevitable. Somewhere, sometime we have to face the heart of our struggle and by the grace of God overcome. Of course, not everyone is entirely successful in such struggles in the course of this life. How our healing is completed beyond this life is left to the mystery of grace.

There is nothing secular about the desert, the arena of our spiritual struggle. The early monastics who fled to the desert for prayer did not think that they were avoiding problems by seeking out such solitude. St. Athanasius, in the 4th century, had written the Life of St. Antony, one of the first and greatest of all hermits. That book, in a time before printing presses and book agents, still became a “best-seller.” It was read by many and propelled literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women into the monastic life. Modern Christians are overwhelmed when they hear the estimates of the number of monastics by the 5th century. It is hard to believe that the desert could sustain so many.

But that book on the life of St. Antony, held no romanticism for the desert life. Antony’s life of prayer is also a life of struggle against demons. They literally toss him about and beat him up. If anything, such a novel should have made generations afraid to go near the desert.

In the 6th chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul had written:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (11-12).

St. Paul’s observation that the struggle was against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (literally the “heavenlies”) clearly did not dissuade the hordes of hermits from invading the deserts of Africa and the Mideast or the islands and caves of Gaul and the British Isles. One simple reason was that the “heavenlies” was not a description of a two-storey (or more) universe, but simply a description of the nature of the struggle. Those “heavenly places” were as much the territory of the human heart as anything. St. Macarius, a desert dweller, would write:

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)

 The heavenly cities are not to be found in contemplating some second storey of the universe, but are to be found within the terrible (in the classic sense of the word) confines of the human heart. This was the great promise of the desert: that in solitude and quiet, through prayer and fasting, a man could enter the depths of his heart and there do the warfare that had been given to us to do. Some few became great saints. Others found only madness. Orthodox Christianity received something of a handbook on warfare in that land of the heart in such writings as the Lives of the Fathers, the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and other similar works. They have remained staples of the spiritual life ever since.

The struggle in the desert does not ignore relationships with other human beings. But it recognizes that the trouble in those relationships does not lie in other human beings, but within my own heart. Christ did not suffer from trouble in His relationships with humanity. He was at peace with all. We cannot do more than be like Christ, who Himself began His ministry in the desert, defeating the enemy.

Later Orthodox reflection has widened the desert and recognized that it includes all territory. There is no place we go where the struggle can be differently defined. In the city, in a factory, an office or in school, the battlefield of our spiritual life remains within our own heart. Solitude is only a tool in learning to recognize that fact and to focus our attention on where our attention needs to be.

Obviously, most of us do not leave the company of other human beings in our journey to salvation. But we should draw proper conclusions from the men and women who first entered the deserts and left us the records of their struggles. We do not labor in a secular land beneath the watchful eye of second-storey perfection. We labor in the land where heavenly wickedness does its battle: the human heart. And if our hearts are where the arena is to be found, then we should recognize as well that it is in that very arena that the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is to be found as well. The vast array of saints described by St. Paul in his Letter to the Hebrews who, having completed the course of their warfare, now surround us as spectators in the arena of our warfare, should themselves not be relegated to some distant second-storey where they watch us from afar. Thus it is not a strange thing that those who do spiritual warfare best also have many friends among the saints, and learn to call on them for aid. For though it may seem like “my” struggle, it is the struggle of all who name Christ as Lord. The saints do not surround us like a great cloud of witnesses in idle curiosity. They surround us to strengthen and aid us, to encourage us, and even, if need be, to fight along side us. Such is our heavenly warfare of the heart.

To spend time with someone who has learned well the battle of the heart is to sit at the gate of paradise. On some few occasions I have had opportunity to meet such warriors. The peace that is theirs, the complete lack of self-consciousness are signals that you have come to a new country. Such living witnesses are the loudest proclamation of the gospel known on earth. For in their heart, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. These are the dwelling places of the New Jerusalem and the living promises of God. Their hearts point us to the place where we should be engaging the struggle and remind us that with God all things are possible.

Living Saints in Romania

January 3, 2009


The video has English subtitles and is worth the patience to watch – particularly the interview at the end. Living saints are rare and a great blessing. It is one of the treasures of this ancient, Orthodox land.

Prayers By the Lake XCV – Children and Saints

September 1, 2008




Children and saints cling to You, O Lord, the rest rebel against You.

Children and saints are the boundary between the Kingdom of existence and the shadow of nonexistence.1


Guardians call themselves parents and cast Your children off crags into chasms.


Guardians presume that they are parents, and so they direct Your children as though they were their own property. Truly, they are directing nothing but aberrations and disruptions.


The children, whom you guardians have abducted, belong to another, and you will answer for theft and banditry.


You own neither the life that is in you, nor the life for which you served as a channel.  Everything belongs to another, except for the wickedness within you, and you will answer for theft and banditry.


You will answer for theft, because you have been calling those who belong to another, your own; and you will answer for banditry, because you have mutilated and butchered those who belong to another.


On earth there are only guardians; and this is a very great honor.

You have been entrusted with the guardianship of the most precious treasure that God has. And this is a very great honor.


One, who was never even born and was never entrusted with the guardianship of anything, will be more blessed than you, if your guardianship is an abomination and a mortification of souls.2


Why do you rejoice in children, unless you intend to keep watch over them as though they were angels from heaven? Why do you grieve for them, when they leave you early and flee to the angels in heaven? You were rejoicing in what belongs to another, and you are grieving for what belongs to another.


Do not care only about keeping the bodies of your children safe, for even foxes do the same for their foxlings. Hut care about God in your children. Once God is cared for He will take care of all the rest. And what you have been ac­cumulating for your children so strenuously, He will effortlessly gather for them quickly and easily.3


Do not drive God out of your children, for you will deprive them of their peace, their happiness, their health, and their prosperity.


Even if you leave the entire world to those whom God has left, you will have left it to starving people, who will devour it all and still die of hunger.


Do not ensure a piece of bread for your children, but a piece of the soul and the conscience. Your children will be ensured and you will be blessed in two worlds.


Care for this property of another better than your own, and your reward will be immense.


Royal children have been entrusted to your guardianship. Truly, the King will give no small reward to those who guard His princely progeny, and have not erased the Father’s name from those children’s memory.


Through children the King is looking at you with amazement, and is awaiting your responses. If your responses are deathful, you will be taking care of corpses.


Children and saints cling to You, my Lord, the rest rebel against You. Children and saints are Your way of testing the world.


Be careful, my soul, be careful and make no mistake.



1.         Cf. Matt. 18:2-5.

2.                                                                           Cf. Matt. 18:6.

3.                                                                           Cf. Matt. 6:33.


Prayers by the Lake were written by St. Nikolai Velimirovich.