Posts Tagged ‘Prayer’

Redeeming the Time

March 3, 2010

In Ephesians 5, St. Paul speaks about “redeeming the time” warning those whom he writes that the “days are evil.” It is a phrase that has always reminded me of Christ’s admonition: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). Both statements are among the most “down to earth” statements in Scripture. They speak to me where I am on any given day.

Every day has its tasks to be accomplished. Every moment has a chore to be or something to which we must attend. In the midst of the very normalcy of our lives, we easily become overwhelmed with distraction and lose all thought of God. It is then that our days begin to unravel.

Christians of every sort have the easy habit of lapsing into a mindless secularism – simple forgetfulness. We do the things at hand as though such mundane activities have no need of God. We wait for the greater challenge of the overtly spiritual, only to discover that when such joyful or demanding moments come – there is “no oil in our lamps.” Whatever joy or longing we may have had for Christ and His kingdom has been swallowed up by distractions of the day.

It is little wonder that we find prayer difficult.

The “constant remembrance of the name of God” is a phrase that is often used for the practice of the Jesus Prayer. It can also refer to any form of remembrance practiced by a Christian in the midst of all things. The repetition of a Psalm verse or other such device has a tradition behind it at least as ancient as the constant invocation of the Name.

Learning to practice such remembrance throughout the course of the day is, without a doubt, the primary means of “redeeming the time” and avoiding “worry for tomorrow.” It is the means given us by God and kept in the Tradition by which we are slowly transformed. On the Holy Mountain and other such places, the lives of monks are generally not spent sitting in silent meditation or in services of super-human length. For the vast majority of the monks, days are spent in carrying out obediences: washing dishes, chopping wood, working in a library, laboring in a garden, taking care of correspondence. If such mundane tasks made prayer impossible, then it is likely no monk would be saved.

Learning to do the tasks of the day while redeeming the time is an essential piece of our warfare – particularly because “the days are evil.” We live in days in which we are told that mundane tasks have no connection to God. This, of course, is simply a lie. We are taught, in fact, “And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him” (Col. 3:17). And so we redeem the time.

Why Does God Sing?

February 8, 2010

A comment was posted this past weekend about prayer and singing (or “chanting”). This article represents some earlier thoughts I have written on the topic. Over the course of this next week I will be largely engaged in another writing task and will only be able to monitor the blog once or twice a day. I’ll also try to post some things of interest.

Why would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. This past autumn I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September [2008]. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else.

Private Prayer – Thoughts of Met. Anthony of Sourozh

February 3, 2010

The following is an excerpt from a posting on Orthodox World. It is from the late Met. Anthony Bloom (England). There are many articles of interest on this website.

There was a time when I read with great faithfulness all the prayers which the Church offers us in the morning, in the evening and on other occasions. But I could not always identify with them. They were prayers which were strange to me. I had not grown to that measure of faith or to that measure of love for my neighbour. There were passages in the prayers which I could say sincerely; but there were passages which I could not say; partly because they went against my experience, my feeling, partly because I had not grown to that measure of faith and spiritual experience.

My spiritual father gave me advice on that. He said to me: ‘For a year I forbid you to use any of the prayers of the books of prayer. Before you go to bed, make the sign of the Cross and then lie down and say, “Lord, at the prayers of those who love me, save me,” and begin to ask yourself who are those who love you — who love you so much, so deeply, so truly, that you don’t need even to pray, because their prayers are your shield and your way?’

I tried it. One name after the other came. And every time a name floated up, I stopped one moment and said, ‘How wonderful! He loves me, she loves me! Oh God, bless him, bless her, for the love she can give me as a present. Read more…

Remember God Always

December 28, 2009

Somebody asked Abba Antony (St. Antony the Great of Egypt), “What shall I do in order to please God?”

He replied, “Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, you will be saved.”

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This small story from the lives of the Desert Fathers has always reminded me of the quote that Fr. Thomas Hopko offers as having been given him by his mother when he left for seminary: “Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church.”

The Christian life, it would seem, is not so much complex as difficult and the things that are difficult are themselves quite simple. St. Antony’s admonition to “follow the example of Holy Scripture” might seem to some to be asking the impossible – but he means nothing more than keeping its commandments. And those commandments are simple as well: love God, love neighbor, forgive everyone for everything (that’s my summary), do not lie, do not steal, and such things.

The difficulties that we encounter are a “living diagnosis” that something is wrong. When I lie, it is clear that something is wrong. The inside of me and the outside of me do not match – I have no integrity. Our lies are a refusal to live in the truth.

The failure to love is equally a diagnosis and evidence of the disordered condition of our lives. Christ’s teaching in Luke chapter six makes the point that the love and forgiveness that are asked of us are commandments to be like God:

But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (32-36).

And though a commandment to be “like God” can sound like the request for the impossible – we are never commandment to be like any other. We are created in God’s image and conformity to that image is our proper, natural condition. To live in the image of God is properly what it means to be truly and fully human.

And so our difficulty with all of this is evidence that something is wrong – something is disordered.

Without great analysis of the disease itself, St. Antony (and Fr. Tom’s mother), offer a straightforward remedy: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church.

The first admonition, “to remember God,” is to learn to live as a creature – to live as a contingent being (to get philosophical). I did not create myself and were I to live as though I did, it would be a lie. Such a lie is a disordered way of being. Remembering God is not unrelated to the maxim of Socrates: “Know yourself.” The forgetting of God is one of the illnesses of the heart that dominates our secular world. For it is not so much that our world says that “there is no God,” as it says, “God is not here.”

The practice of saying the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is one of the most common ways that the “constant remembrance of the name of God” is manifest in the Orthodox spiritual life. But at the heart of that prayer is simply the remembrance of God. In the words of an old friend who was a recovering alcoholic: “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.” And we need to know that every minute of the day.

The last thoughts of St. Antony’s admonition and the last thought offered by Fr. Hopko’s mother are quite similar as well. To stay where you are and not move about in a hurry is the practice of the virtue of stability. The gather regular for prayer in Church with other believers is the foundation of spiritual stability in our daily lives. To gather regularly and faithfully requires that our life in Church be purged of many of our modern (and ancient) habits. We must learn not to judge (or before long attendance becomes either unbearable or practice for dwelling in hell). We must learn that we exist to give praise and thanks to God and not be entertained. Boredom is not the bane of our existence – it is our hatred of existence.

We have now passed the climax of a great feast. Life returns to normal. At least we should pray for life to return to normal, understanding that to remember God, to keep the commandments, and to be content with our lives as creations of the living God is the true meaning of normal.

The Good Confession

November 25, 2009

I often think that the confession of the goodness of God is the bold confession of a martyr. We can all understand the stories of great martyrs, who, in the face of terrible torments, refuse to renounce Christ and are faithful to Him. Of course, sometimes their sufferings are short while there are others who suffer for a lifetime. But I believe the confession that “God is good,” to be the essential confession of every martyr and the most essential confession of our struggle as Christians on any given day and throughout the course of life.

To say, “God is good,” is to confess an inherent part of the content of the statement, “Jesus is Lord.” For if Jesus is Lord, then God is good. And come what may – the natural disasters of the course of this life – the prosperity of the wicked – the torments of circumstance and our fallen bodies – the taunts of the wicked-one and those who ally themselves to his cause – come all this – the Christian response through the ages is, “Jesus is Lord!” “God is good.” It is to unite ourselves with the good confession of the three young men in the fiery furnace. And together with them our good confession will echo through eternity and we will not be ashamed.

Thanksgiving

November 24, 2009

This year I will make the annual pilgrimage back to South Carolina to be with family for the (American) Thanksgiving holiday. Fewer of my children will be there – a mark of the maturing of their own families and the difficulty of travel at this time of year. The year is different as well for it will be the first Thanksgiving holiday without my mother’s presence (may her memory be eternal). With years, the life of my family is changing.

What does not change in this holiday is the centrality of giving thanks. These reflections make much mention of my late father-in-law, a man who was the embodiment of thanksgiving. He unceasingly gave thanks to God for all things at all times and lived as a faithful witness of the goodness of God. Glory to God for all things!

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Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

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I do not believe it is possible to exhaust this topic. I have set forth a few suggestions of how we might build and maintain a life of thanksgiving. Particular thought is given to those times when giving thanks is difficult.

1. We must believe that God is good.

I struggled with this for many years. I believed that God was sovereign; I believed that He was the Creator of heaven and earth; I believed that He sent His only Son to die for me. But despite a hosts of doctrines to which I gave some form of consent, not included (and this was a matter or my heart) was the simple, straight-forward consent that God is good. My father-in-law, a very simple Baptist deacon of great faith, believed this straight-forward truth with an absolute assurance that staggered my every argument. I knew him for over 30 years. When I was young (and much more foolish) I would argue with him – not to be out-maneuvered by his swift and crafty theological answers (it was me that was trying to maneuver and be swift and crafty) – but often times our arguments would end with his smile and simple confession, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that God is good.” Over the years I came to realize that until and unless I believed that God is good, I would never be able to truly give thanks. I could thank God when things went well, but not otherwise.

This simple point was hammered into me weekly and more after I became Orthodox. There is hardly a service of the Orthodox Church that does not end its blessing with: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” A corrollary of the goodness of God was coming to terms with the wrathful God of some Western theology (or the misunderstandings of the “wrathful God”). At the heart of things was a fear that behind everything I could say of God was a God whom I could not trust – who could be one way at one time and another way at another.

This is so utterly contrary to the writings of the Fathers and the teachings of the Orthodox faith. God is good and His mercy endures forever, as the Psalmist tells us. God is good and even those things that human beings describe as “wrath” are, at most, the loving chastisement of a God who is saving me from much worse things I would do to myself were He not to love me enough to draw me deeper into His love and away from my sin.

The verse in Romans 8 remains a cornerstone of our understanding of God’s goodness: “All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (8:28). There are daily mysteries involved in this assertion of faith – moments and events that I have no way to explain or to fit into some overall scheme of goodness. But this is precisely where my conversations with my father-in-law would go. I would be full of exceptions and “what ifs,” and he would reply, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

As the years have gone by, I have realized that being wise is not discovering some way to explain things but for my heart to settle into the truth that, “I don’t know about that. But I know that God is good.”

2. I must believe that His will for me is good.

This moves the question away from what could, for some, be a philosophical statement (“God is good”) to the much more specific, “His will for me is good.” Years ago, when my son was child, he encountered a difficulty in his life. As a parent I was frustrated (secretly mad at God) and my faith shaken. I had already decided what “good” was to look like in my son’s life and reality was undermining my fantasy. In a time of prayer (which was very one-sided) I found myself brought up suddenly and short with what I can only describe as a divine interruption. I will not describe my experience as an audible voice, but it could not have been clearer. The simple statement from God was: “This is for his salvation.”

My collapse could not have been more complete. How do reply to such a statement? How am I supposed to know what my child needs for His salvation (and this in the long-term sense as understood by the Orthodox?). I had prayed for nothing with as much fervor as the salvation of my children. Ultimately, regardless of how they get through life, that they get through in union with Christ is all I ask. Why should I doubt that God was doing what I had asked? In the years since then I have watched God’s word in that moment be fulfilled time and again as He continues to work wonderfully in the life of my son and I see a Christian man stand before me. God’s will for me is good. God is not trying to prevent us from doing good, or making it hard for us to be saved. Life is not a test. No doubt, life is filled with difficulty. We live in a fallen world. But He is at work here and now and everywhere for my good.

My father-in-law had a favorite Bible story (among several): the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the final disclosure in Egypt, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers – those who had sold him into slavery – Joseph says, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is an Old Testament confession of Romans 8:28. The world may give us many situations, and the situations on their surface may indeed be evil. But our God is a good God and He means all things for our good. I may confess His goodness at all times.

3. I must believe that the goodness of God is without limit.

I did not know this for many years and only came upon it as I spent a period of month studying the meaning of “envy.” In much of our world (and definitely in the non Judaeo-Christian world of antiquity) people believe that good is limited. If you are enjoying good, then it is possibly at my expense. Such thought is the breeding ground of envy. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed this to so much be true that they feared excellence lest they provoke the jealousy of the Gods. We do not think in the same metaphysical terms, but frequently on some deep level, we believe that someone else’s good will somehow lessen our own. Within this eats the worm of jealousy and anger.

To bless God for His goodness we also need to bless God for His goodness towards everyone and to know that He is the giver of every good and perfect gift – and that His goodness is without limit.

4. I must believe that God is good and know this on the deepest personal level.

God has manifested His goodness to us in the revelation of His Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see the fullness of the goodness of God. The goodness of God goes to the Cross for us. The goodness of God searches for us in hell and brings us forth victorious. The goodness of God will not cease in His efforts to reconcile us to the Father.

My father-in-law had another favorite Bible story (I said he had several): the story of the three young men in the fiery furnace. This story is, incidentally, a favorite of Orthodox liturgical worship as well. It stands as a Biblical image of our rescue from Hades. In the midst of the fiery furnace, together with the three young men, is the image of a fourth. Christ is with them, and in the hymnography of the Church, “the fire became as the morning dew.” For my father-in-law it was the confession of the three young men before the evil threats of the wicked King Nebuchanezer. To his threats of death in a terrible holocaust they said, “Our God is able to deliver us, O King. But even if He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.” It was their defiant “nevertheless,” that would bring tears to my father-in-law’s eyes. For much of our experience here includes furnaces into which we are thrust despite our faith in Christ. It is there that the faith in the goodness of God says, “Nevertheless.” It is confidence in the goodness of God above all things.

I saw my father-in-law survive a terrible automobile accident, and the whole family watched his slow and losing battle with lymphoma in his last three years. But none of us ever saw him do otherwise than give thanks to God and to delight in extolling the Lord’s goodness.

Many years before I had foolishly become heated with him in one of our “theological discussions.” I was pushing for all I was worth against his unshakeable assurance in God’s goodness. I recall how he ended the argument: “Mark the manner of my death.” It was his last word in the matter. There was nothing to be said against such a statement. And he made that statement non-verbally with the last years of his life. I did mark the manner of his death and could only confess: “God is good! His mercy endures forever!” For no matter the difficulties this dear Christian man faced, nevertheless, no moment was anything less than an occasion for thanksgiving.

I have seen the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Words from an Elder – And a Thought about Trees

October 31, 2009

IMG_2914I am sharing here a few sayings from the Elder Amphilochios of Patmos, someone whose life and teachings I have heard spoken of before by Metropolitian Kallistos of Diocleia (Kallistos Ware). They are worth savoring. The quotes come from the volume Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit. I am especially fond of his attitude to trees. The leaves have almost reached their autumn peak here in East Tennessee and it would take a very hard heart not to be stuck by their beauty. According to Met. Kallistos, the Elder frequently assigned the penance of planting a tree on the island (Patmos) for those who came to him for confession. His ministry raised up a forest as well as demolished the sins of many.

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My children, I don’t want Paradise without you.

Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love and has the blessings of God.

Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don’t act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.

I am like the old tree in whose shade the meek sheep of Christ gather during the hot days of summer, and in whose branches the small birds gather. All ask that the old pine tree might live so that they have their joy. However, slowly, slowly its roots rot and the heavy winter will come, when a strong wind will knock him down and he will become wood for the fire. Now, however, the pine tree makes glad the sheep and birds that gather in the desert.

When man partakes of Holy Communion he receives power and is enlightened, his horizons widen, and he feels joy. Each person experiences something different, analogous to his disposition and the flame of his soul. One person feels joy and rest, another peace, another a spirit of devotion and another an inexpressible sympathy towards all things. Personally I have often felt tired, but after Holy Communion I felt myself completely renewed.

Brother, forget your sins: our Christ has blotted them out from the Book of Life.

In the hour in which we are tempted we must be patient and pray. Temptation is a clever craftsman. He is able to make small things loom large. Temptation disquiets, saddens, and creates external battles. He knows many arts. He brings man to doubt. For this reason we have many shipwrecks. When we are beset by temptations, that’s when the grace of God comes. When one undergoes temptation, he recognizes his weakness, is humbled and attracts the grace of God. Don’t let the winds of temptation affect you. They can’t do you any harm.

When someone opens your heart, I’d like him to find nothing there but Christ.

I ask you to put this order into practice: as much as you can, try to cultivate your love toward Christ’s own person. You must reach the point that whenever you mention His name, tears run from your eyes. Your hearts must be truly ablaze. Then He will be your Teacher, your Guide, your Brother, your Father, your Elder….

Pay no attention to things earthly and passing. Be concerned about the union of your soul with God.

Not to Judge

October 29, 2009

IMG_0529In a monastery there were two remarkable brothers who soon merited to see the grace of God descend upon each other. Now one day it happened that one of them went out of the monastery on a Friday and saw someone who was eating in the morning, and he said to him, ‘Why are you eating at this hour on a Friday?’ Later there was the synaxis [assembly] as usual. Now his brother saw that grace had withdrawn from him, and he was grieved. When they had returned to the cell he said to him, ‘My brother, what have you done? Indeed, I do not see the grace of God upon you as it used to be.’ The other answered him, ‘I am not aware of having done anything wrong, either in act or in thought.’ His brother said to him, ‘Have you spoken any words?’ Then he remembered and said, ‘Yesterday I saw someone who was eating outside the monastery early in the day, and I said to him, ‘Why are you eating at this hour on a Friday?’ This is my sin. But labor with me for two weeks, praying God to forgive me.’ They did this, and at the end of two weeks one brother saw the grace of God come upon the other and they were comforted and gave thanks to God.

From the Wisdom of the Desert Fathers

There are a number of marvelous aspects of this small story. One is the all-too-common occasion of judging another. It is a revelation that even such holy men as those who are laboring unceasingly in prayer can have the simple temptation to fix someone else’s practice of the fast. This is not the story of an over-zealous recent convert, but a father of the desert. Among believers, temptation and sin know no strangers.

Another marvel is that these good fathers “see the grace of God.” We are not told how they see the grace, or even fully what it means “to see the grace of God upon them.” It is interesting to me that the story says that they merited to “see the grace of God descend upon each other,” which is a world away from “seeing the grace of God descend upon themselves.” I suspect that the former is a blessing, whereas the latter would be a dangerous if not disastrous temptation.

Another marvel is the humility with which the offending brother accepts the word that grace is not upon him “as it used to be.” Which leads to the final marvel – the simple statement that they prayed together for two weeks for his forgiveness. Our religious world is often infected with legal imagery of sin and forgiveness – imagery which makes us instantly guilty and instantly forgiven. Such imagery does not allow us to contemplate the true effect of sin in our lives, nor does it allow us to understand the true scope of forgiveness and healing.

But these blessed fathers of the desert understood much. They do not doubt God’s love or mercy but they do not labor for forgiveness as a mere legality. Forgiveness also represents the healing of our soul and the restoration of our life with God. Perhaps I should add one last marvel to my list: God hears their prayer and His grace descends upon him.

May God hear our prayer and may His grace descend upon us!

The Argument

October 28, 2009

800px-2_priests_checking_merchandiseBlessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.

For many years, two hermits lived together without any conflict or disagreement. One suggested they have a quarrel to see how others live. The other answered, “I don’t know how to start a quarrel.”

The first said, “Look, I’ll put this brick on the ground between us and claim it is mine. Then you insist it belongs to you. That’s how quarrels begin.”

They put the brick between them. One said, “That’s mine.” The other said, “No, that’s mine.” The first answered, “Yes, it belongs to you. Take it.” They were not able to argue with each other.

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Peacemaking is difficult. Peacemaking within the light of Truth is particularly difficult for it requires the healing of souls. Peace is not the absence of conflict – the gifts of God are never measured by “absence.” It is evil that is measured by absence (“the absence of good”). Rather, peace is substantive – a true gift of the Spirit. Thus St. Seraphim of Sarov can say, “Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you shall be saved.”

To make peace it is necessary to be at peace – and this again requires the healing of our soul. The acquisition of the Spirit of peace is the fruit of repentance and humility.

I have a strong memory from my teenage years. We had a guest speaker in one of my classes – someone who was well-known for his opposition to the war in Vietnam (which was at its height at the time). We were discussing the various issues surrounding that national debate when the discussion rose to the level of argument and beyond. I was an advocate of peace in those years (I was 17 at the time) but also quick to leap to an argument. Mine was probably the loudest voice in the room, my points as sharp and well-aimed as any.

After the class (if it can be called that after the near brawl), the guest speaker took me aside: “Stephen, there is more than one way to do violence to a man.” It would be another five years before I would read the words of St. Seraphim about acquiring the Spirit of peace. Another 33 years have passed and I am waiting to acquire that same Spirit.

Blessed, indeed, are the peacemakers.

To Live Without Distraction

October 27, 2009

MonkPrayerAbba Arsenius avoided discussion of the Scripture, even though he was an excellent expositor. He was also reluctant to write letters to anyone. When he attended public worship, he sat behind a pillar to prevent himself or others from being distracted.

Writing as I do is a great distraction (sometimes for me, sometimes for others). To speak is also to offer a target (for criticism, for disagreement or worse). For a variety of reasons, I have more distraction than usual of late. Most of that distraction has come from within myself and very little from without. There are seasons in life. I daily give thanks for what has been given me, both expected and unexpected, including those things that are associated with writing. I have noted in a recent article that one should “not read more in a day than one prays.” That standard also applies to writing. Write less, pray more.

From one of my earliest articles I offer the following. I wrote it as I began the work of this blog, lest at any time I forget what I am about. As I read it, nothing has changed. For those who pray, remember me. For those who do not pray, I will remember you. May God remember us all.

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What matters:

God matters and what matters to God matters. I know that sounds very redundant, but I’m not sure how else I want to say it. There are many things that do not matter – because they do not matter to God. Knowing the difference between the two – what matters to God and what does not requires that we know God.

And this is theology – to know God. If I have a commitment in theology, it is to insist that we never forget that it is to know God. Many of the arguments (unending) and debates (interminable) are not about what we know, but about what we think.

Thinking is not bad, nor is it wrong, but thinking is not the same thing as theology. It is, of course, possible to think about theology, but this is not to be confused with theology itself.

Knowing God is not in itself an intellectual activity for God is not an idea, nor a thought. God may be known because He isperson. Indeed, He is only made known to us as person (we do not know His essence). We cannot know God objectively – that is He is not the object of our knowledge. He is known as we know a person. This is always a free gift, given to us in love. Thus knowledge of God is always a revelation, always a matter of grace, never a matter of achievement or attainment.

It matters that we know God because knowledge of God is life itself. “This is eternal life,” Jesus said, “to know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”

The Orthodox way of life is only about knowing God. Everything we do, whether it is prayer, communion, confession, forgiveness, fasting – all of it is about knowing God. If it is about something else, then it is delusion and a distraction from our life’s only purpose.

Knowing God is not a distraction from knowing other persons, nor is knowing other persons a distraction from knowing God. But, like God, knowing other persons is not the same thing as thinking about them, much less is it objectifying them.

Knowing others is so far from being a distraction from knowing God, that it is actually essential to knowing God. We cannot say we love God, whom we have not seen, and hate our brother whom we do see, St. John tells us. We only know God to the extent that we love our enemies (1 John 4:7-8).

And this matters.

This blog does not matter – except that I may share something that makes it possible for someone to know God or someone may share something that allows themselves to be known. This matters.