Monday, December 31, 2012

Elder Sergei of Vanves on Prayer

The Elder Sergei taught that prayer is most important for an Orthodox Way of LIfe. Prayer is of two types. One is asking for God’s help. The other is giving thanks, always remembering that everything comes from God with His help. This attitude is essential to avoid pride. Prayer should focus on the spiritual and not the material. With spiritual help God will grant what is necessary in material things. In everything we must give thanks to God.

Prayer should not be based on our desires or our personal inspiration.  We pray because it is necessary. Lack of prayer or the feeling of not wanting to pray is a sin according to the Elder.
“It is absolutely scandalous to says “I don’t feel like praying.” Such a thing is an offense to God, a true blasphemy. That we pray must be absolute, unchanging rule inour lives. We must pray no matter what the cost because it really is a matter of life and death. We don’t decide to breath because of our good will, we don’t think about whether it’s  really necessary to breath, we never ask why. We know that is we stop breathing we will die. We must treat prayer with the same attitude, that it is absolutely essential to even staying alive and that there is no question that we need to do it at all times. We should say to ourselves “That’s how it is, period!” We must stick to a rule of prayer and keep it at all costs.”
Prayer is difficult. We must never assume that external circumstances are to blame for these difficulties. All difficulties are due to our own condition.  They can be overcome by: (1) repentance; (2) effort of the will; (3) patience; (4) rigorous discipline.

We should have a prayer rule which at a minimum involves setting aside at least two times every day for prayer, in the morning and the evening.  We should set aside specific times for this activity. Establishing a rule that we know we can perform day after day, allows us to develop habits which will lead us to continual prayer.

The idea of intense times of prayer in the morning and evening is to make it easier for us to pray the rest of the time. Our aim is to develop a life which is based on prayer. Prayer should become continual keeping God in our mind and hearts all the time in everything we do.
“The morning and evening prayers are not, on their own, sufficient. They are like stretches in gymnastics, warm-ups, which help to develop our capacity to breath more deeply and stretch our mussels, but they do not give u breath for the rest of the day.”
The Elder tells us that prayer allows us to become more present to God as well as others and ourselves. Through prayer we unite ourselves evermore closely with God. We gain greater insight about others and deepen our interpersonal relationships. With prayer we are better able to live each moment watchfully and live according ot God’s will. We become more present in the world and at the same time are more detached from it. The heavenly kingdom become our greatest reality. Through prayer we learn the language of the life to come.
“ One of the dangers in prayer is to make it totally drebreal activity. Our motivation must be love of God Himself, not love of knowledge of Him or love of understanding Him. Prayer must be a spiritual act, not a mental one. Concentration is not solely a mental act; all of our faculties must work together.”
Before beginning prayer we must ask God to forgive all our sins for the way we have been unfaithful to Him. We acknowledge our weaknesses and seek His help with humility. All our requests in prayer must be done with humility.
Our life should be lived in the spirit of prayer. The Elder says, “Prayer is our very breath.”
“Prayer should be like a vigil lamp in our hearts: permanent. We must always make sure that it has oil to continue burning. In the moments when we find it most difficult to pray, we should pray at least a little so that the light in our hearts won’t go out. We must be like the wise virgins, not like the foolish maidens, so that we will not be taken by surprise when death comes.”

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hymn II on the Nativity of Christ, by St. Ephraim the Syrian

Blessed be that Child, Who gladdened Bethlehem to-day! Blessed be the Babe Who made manhood young again to-day! Blessed be the Fruit, Who lowered Himself to our famished state! Blessed be the Good One, Who suddenly enriched our necessitousness and supplied our needs! Blessed He Whose tender mercies made Him condescend to visit our infirmities!
Praise to the Fountain that was sent for our propitiation. Praise be to Him Who made void the Sabbath by fulfilling it! Praise too to Him Who rebuked the leprosy and it remained not, Whom the fever saw and fled! Praise to the Merciful, Who bore our toil! Glory to Thy coming, which quickened the sons of men!
Glory to Him, Who came to us by His first-born! Glory to the Silence, that spake by His Voice. Glory to the One on high, Who was seen by His Day-spring! Glory to the Spiritual, Who was pleased to have a Body, that in it His virtue might be felt, and He might by that Body show mercy on His household's bodies!
Glory to that Hidden One, Whose Son was made manifest! Glory to that Living One, Whose Son was made to die! Glory to that Great One, Whose Son descended and was small! Glory to the Power Who did straiten His greatness by a form, His unseen nature by a shape! With eye and mind we have beheld Him, yea with both of them.
Glory to that Hidden One, Who even with the mind cannot be felt at all by them that pry into Him; but by His graciousness was felt by the hand of man! The Nature that could not be touched, by His hands was bound and tied, by His feet was pierced and lifted up. Himself of His own will He embodied for them that took Him.
Blessed be He Whom free will crucified, because He let it: blessed be He Whom the wood also did bear, because He allowed it. Blessed be He Whom the grave bound, that had [thereby] a limit set it. Blessed be He Whose own will brought Him to the Womb and Birth, to arms and to increase [in stature]. Blessed He whose changes purchased life for human nature.
Blessed He Who sealed our soul, and adorned it and espoused it to Himself. Blessed He Who made our Body a tabernacle for His unseen Nature. Blessed He Who by our tongue interpreted His secret things. Let us praise that Voice whose glory is hymned with our lute, and His virtue with our harp. The Gentiles have assembled and have come to hear His strains.
Glory to the Son of the Good One, Whom the sons of the evil one rejected! Glory to the Son of the Just One, Whom the sons of wickedness crucified! Glory to Him Who loosed us, and was bound for us all! Glory to Him Who gave the pledge, and redeemed it too! Glory to the Beautiful, Who conformed us to His image! Glory to that Fair One, Who looked not to our foulnesses!
Glory to Him Who sowed His Light in the darkness, and was reproached in His hidden state, and covered His secret things. He also stripped and took off from us the clothing of our filthiness. Glory be to Him on high, Who mixed His salt6 in our minds, His leaven in our souls. His Body became Bread, to quicken our deadness.
Praise to the Rich, Who paid for us all, that which He borrowed not; and wrote [His bill], and also became our debtor! By His yoke He brake from us the chains of him that led us captive. Glory to the Judge Who was judged, and made His Twelve to sit in judgment on the tribes, and by ignorant men condemned the scribes of that nation!
Glory to Him Who could never be measured by us! Our heart is too small for Him, yea our mind is too feeble. He makes foolish our littleness by the riches of His Wisdom. Glory to Him, Who lowered Himself, and asked; that He might hear and learn that which He knew; that He might by His questions reveal the treasure of His helpful graces!
Let us adore Him Who enlightened with His doctrine our mind, and in our hearing sought a pathway for His words. Praise we Him Who grafted into our tree His fruit. Thanks to Him Who sent His Heir, that by Him He might draw us to Himself, yea make us heirs with Him! Thanks to that Good One, the cause of all goods!
Blessed He Who did not chide, because that He was good! Blessed He Who did not spurn, because that He was just also! Blessed He Who was silent, and rebuked; that He might quicken us with both! Severe His silence and reproachful. Mild His severity even When He was accusing; for He rebuked the traitor, and kissed the thief.
Glory to the hidden Husbandman of our intellects! His seed fell on to our ground, and made our mind rich. His increase came an hundredfold into the treasury of our souls! Let us adore Him Who sat down and took rest; and walked in the way, so that the Way was in the way, and the Door also for them that go in, by which they go in to the kingdom.
Blessed the Shepherd Who became a Lamb for our reconcilement! Blessed the Branch Who became the Cup of our Redemption! Blessed also be the Cluster, Fount of medicine of life! Blessed also be the Tiller, Who became Wheat, that He might be sown; and a Sheaf, that He might be cut![Blessed be] the Architect Who became a Tower for our place of safety! Blessed He Who so tempered the feelings of our mind, that we with our harp should sing that which the winged creatures' mouth knows not with its strains to sing! Glory to Him, Who beheld how we had pleased to be like to brutes in our rage and our greediness; and came down and was one of us, that we might become heavenly!
Glory be to Him, Who never felt the need of our praising Him; yet felt the need as being kind to us, and thirsted as loving us, and asks us to give to Him, and longs to give to us. His fruit was mingled with us men, that in Him we might come nigh to Him, Who condescended to us. By the Fruit of His stem He grafted us into His Tree.
Let us praise Him, Who prevailed and quickened us by His stripes! Praise we Him, Who took away the curse by His thorns! Praise we Him Who put death to death by His dying! Praise we Him, Who held His peace and justified us! Praise we Him, Who rebuked death that had overcome us! Blessed He, Whose helpful graces cleansed out the left side!
Praise we Him Who watched and put to sleep him that led us captive. Praise we Him Who went to sleep, and chased our deep sleep away. Glory be to God Who cured weak manhood! Glory be to Him Who was baptized, and drowned our iniquity in the deep, and choked him that choked us! Let us glorify with all our mouths the Lord of all creatures!
Blessed be the Physician Who came down and amputated without pain, and healed wounds with a medicine that was not harsh. His Son became a Medicine, that showed sinners mercy. Blessed be He Who dwelt in the womb, and wrought therein a perfect Temple, that He might dwell in it, a Throne that He might be in it, a Garment that He might be arrayed in it, and a Weapon that He might conquer in it.
Blessed be He Whom our mouth cannot adequately praise, because His Gift is too great for skill of orators [to tell]; neither can the faculties adequately praise His goodness. For praise Him as we may, it is too little.
And since it is useless to be silent and to constrain ourselves, may our feebleness excuse such praise as we can sing.
How gracious He, Who demands not more than our strength can give! How would Thy servant be condemned in capital and interest, did he not give such as he could, and did he refuse that which He owed! Ocean of glory Who needest not to have Thy glory sung, take in Thy goodness this drop of praise; since by Thy Gift Thou hast supplied my tongue a sense for glorifying Thee.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Bearing the Cross - What Does This Mean?

Jesus told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) What does it mean to take up our cross daily? This is a question that St. Theophan the Recluse addressed in a series of homilies in 1885.

First, let's examine what is meant by the Cross. St. Theophan says the following:
The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross; on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He brought upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings.”
But there is more, as the above is Christ’s Cross, and we must take up our personal cross. St. Theophan says:
When the personal cross of each of us is united with Christ’s Cross, the power and effect of the latter is transferred to us and becomes, as it were, a conduit through which “every good gift and every perfect gift” (James 1:17)  is poured forth upon us from the Cross of Christ.
The message is clear that there is more to our salvation than just believing in Christ, His Incarnation, His Crucifixion and Resurrection. In addition to His Cross, our personal cross is equally essential for our salvation.  

But, what is our personal cross? Saint Theophan outlines three kinds.  One is outward, another is inward and a third is spiritual.

1. The outward cross involves the trials and tribulations of our life. St. Theophan describes them as follows:
These are sorrows, misfortunes, the loss of loved ones, failures at work, every sort of deprivation and loss, family troubles, adversities related to outward circumstances, insults, offenses, wrongful accusations, and, in general, our earthly lot… Neither eminence, nor riches, nor glory, not any kind of earthly greatness will deliver one from them.
He makes the important point that we must make use of these difficulties in life in accordance with God’s intention for our salvation. So, why does God allow us these difficulties in life? Saint Theophan says he gave them to us “so that we would live on earth, not as someone in his own land, but as a stranger and a foreigner in a foreign land.” As foreigners, we are to seek our return to His kingdom. To understand this we must refresh our understanding of the story of Adam and Eve told in Genesis, and how they were originally living in Paradise in union with God. But they disobeyed Him and suffered the consequences of death and sorrow and sickness, and were ousted and banned from Paradise. This is our outward cross to bear, the difficulties of a mortal life outside of Paradise. And how are we to bear them?  St. Theophan tells us to “endure them and don’t be annoyed...bear your lot with equanimity.”

Remember, these difficulties encountered in life are similar for all of us. We are all subject to misfortune and sorrow. God allows them for our benefit.  St. Theophan tells us,
The Lord wants to wash away some sin, or to lead us away from a sinful deed, or to cover up a greater sorrow with a smaller one, or to give us an occasion for patience and for demonstrating faithfulness to the Lord, so as to show forth the glory of His mercy on us later… If you don’t clearly see precisely what God wanted to give you through sorrow that has overwhelmed you, raise up in your heart  the general, non-speculative belief that everything that comes from the Lord is for our good, and give a shove to your disturbed soul: this is what is pleasing to God. Endure! He whom punishes is like a son to Him!
Enduring your sorrows with faith are what it means to bear your personal cross. Enduring with the love of God, giving thanks for all He gives us, you are bearing your cross in a way that will bring salvation.  Saint Theophan says,
"Arouse gratitude within yourself, humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, repent, and correct your life." 

2. The second kind of cross is inward. This is the struggle against the passions. Saint Paul says, “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal 5:14). Saint Theophan says,
There is a cross upon which these passions and lusts are crucified. To crucify the passions means to weaken them, suppress them, and uproot them… When someone is fighting against the passions, sometimes it seems as if his hands were nailed, as if he is wearing a crown of thorns on his head, as if his living heart is pierced.
The culprit is self love, advises Saint Theophan. He writes,
Anger burns, envy dries one up, lust enfeebles one, miserliness does not let one eat or sleep, and offended pride murderously eats away at one’s heart… Everyone has them. As soon as there is self love, there are all the passions, for this is the mother of the passions…
So what is one to do?  Saint Theophan says,
One has only to turn the knife around and, instead of satisfying the passions, to strike oneself with it, to strike the passions with it, beginning the fight against them and contradicting them in everything… One must say to every passionate person: “You're perishing on the cross of passions. Destroy that cross and set up another: the cross of the fight against it. And you’ll be crucified on it unto salvation!”…. go courageously to the cross of self-crucifixion, through the crucifixion and uprooting of the passions and lusts. Let us turn away from self-pity and become inflamed with zeal for self-accusation… the Cross is the tree of life.
3. The third cross is the devotion to the will of God. It is not enough to crucify the passions. This is only preparatory for this step which involves our obedience to God’s will. We are now ready to offer ourselves up as a sacrifice to God. We follow Christ’s example in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Crucifixion. Christ prayed that He be spared, but was resolute in saying, “Nonetheless not as I will, but as Thou will” (Mark 26:39). CHrist as fully man bound his will with that of God. It is as Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lies in me” (Gal 2:20). Saint Theophan says this is the “height of Christian perfection… It is the beginning of he future state after the resurrection, when God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Those who are perfect live and act through God alone."

Saint Theophan further says,
Many have the idea that Christianity is the same as other kinds of life, but this is not so. It begins with repentance, ripens through the fight against passions, and is perfected when  the pure, inner man, immersed in God, is crucified with Christ… If Christians do have pleasures they are purely incidental. The most distinguishing characteristics of their existence are sufferings and sickness––inward and outward, voluntary and involuntary. We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom, and into that which is within it.….If you want good for yourself, get rid of pleasures and enter on the path of the cross of repentance, burn up in the fire of self-crucifixion, be tempered in tears of heartfelt contrition––and you’ll become gold, or sliver, or a precious stone, and in due time you’ll be taken by the Heavenly Householder as an adornment for His most bright and most peaceful mansions.

Reference: Three Homilies of the Bearing of the Cross by Saint Theophan the Recluse in The Orthodox Word, No. 285, 2012, pp 187-202.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Women of Faith - The Philoptochos Society

Eighty-one years ago in 1931, the Philoptochos was founded in the Greek Orthodox Church as a philanthropic organization to benefit the poor and disadvantaged. and is now comprised of 27,500 members in 485 Chapters nationwide. Through this massive effort the women in our parishes are in part fulfilling our purpose as a Orthodox Christian. 

What is our purpose as a Christian? Why do we do all that we do?
As an Orthodox Christian we do it to become united with Christ out of our love for God. We do it to become one with Him, to unite our will with His, so we can do His will to live like Christ. This we call Theosis. 
As it says in the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven... Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven". 

If we are able to do this, what do we have? 
   The promise of eternal life in His kingdom. 
But wait, salvation is not something we earn through our own efforts. 
It only comes by the grace of God. Isn't it necessary to do more than just good works? After all, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, one of the richest men on this earth, gives lots of money to do good and he is an atheist, he does not believe there is a God. 

The Philoptochos mission says in addition to serving the poor and disadvantaged: "Perpetuate Orthodox Christian concepts & promote the Orthodox Faith." 
Why is this included in the mission? Why is in not enough to do good things, to help the poor? 
 Because, even a non believer like Bill Gates can do good things. Good works is not sufficient,
As a Christian, our motivation behind our work is important. Everything we do must be done because we love God and desire to glorify Him through out work. It must be done out of our faith in Jesus Christ. Our love for Him. 

We must not confuse our good works with our personal wants and desires. We don't want to do it only to be accepted in the group, to fulfill an obligation to all the other ladies. We don't want to do it for any kind of recognition. Those who are proud of their work carry the same sin as Adam and Eve. 

So why does the Philoptochos mission include the promotion of faith? 
What is true faith? 
Based on faith we were Baptized and Chrismated in the Orthodox Church, what did this bring? 
We were given the Holy Spirit. Why? To receive God's grace and dedicate your life to do His will. 

Guess what, this Spirit we received must be continually nurtured, allowing it to grow in our heart. As it grows we gain in our faith. As we gain in faith God's presence becomes stronger. As it becomes stronger our actions become less self centered. Our actions become aligned with God's.

Think about the faith of St Barbara the patron Saint of the Saint George parish's society chapter. She had a faith that had no fear of death.  She knew her father persecuted Christians. Yet, what did she do? She had no fear in changing the widows on his bath house under construction to make a public statement of her faith, knowing she would be punished by him because of this.  She proclaimed her faith without any fear of death or punishment that she knew was sure to come. Work in Philoptochos should nurture this kind of faith in each of us. 

What is faith? Lets explore this a bit.
Our Church Fathers emphasize that it is not simply a belief, but a way of life.
Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits....every good tree bears fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. therefore by your fruits you will know them.” (Matt 7:16-20)

Faith is beyond the level  of our senses. It does not contradict our senses but is beyond them. It involves a higher power. Our senses are limited to physical things. As Paul put it, Faith is not what is seen by the human eye (2 Cor 5:7).

Faith is also beyond the level of the intellect, our mind. It does not contradict the intellect but leads us to a higher level of understanding that mind cannot reach.

Don't we often we feel what the mind cannot understand is unattainable. I know this is true for me.  The reality is, our mind is limited and can only understand in limited ways. Our mind must accept some things it cannot understand. Like the virgin birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God which we are about to celebrate, the foundation of our faith, God became man so we could be renewed and become reunited with Him. 
There are also  things in the physical world where experts know things we cannot understand. One that always baffles my mind is TV. How can picture appear from so far away. Its physical and there are people who understand it but its something I will probably never really understand.

Our Mind accepts death but cannot understand it. It does not understand miracles. We must respect the mind but also appreciate its limits. What we need for faith is a humble mind. We cannot allow our mind to limit our faith in God.

Even though we cannot see God, With faith we have confidence that He is always before us and we can act knowing He will see and hear us.
With faith, we know that He is with us in the midst of our work,  just as He promised when He said, “I am in the midst of them" (Matt 18:20).  We do not see him physically but we believe in Him without seeing.

With faith we live in confidence that He is indeed in front of us always.  This is what differentiates a believer and a non-believer. This is what we have that a person like Bill Gates lacks. This is the attitude we must have as an Orthodox Christian in all our work. This involves much more than the memorization of a creed.

Life in faith is a life in fellowship with the Holy Spirit.
His Spirit is working in the Church which is the body of Christ on earth. We don’t see it but believe it.

There is more. Paul says, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?” (1Cor 6:19)
When one dies we say that His Spirit has left his body.
Faith concerns the destiny of our Spirit, does it go to heaven or hell. faith concerns our return to the spiritual body in the resurrection and our destiny after resurrection for eternal life after the last judgment. To speak of eternal life demands faith.

Faith is that you seek God in all matters. Jesus said, “For without Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) St. Paul says, “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. Our work is to participate with God in His work for us. This is our participation with the Godly nature, with the Holy Spirit participating with God at work. St Paul says, “For we are God’s fellow workers” (1 Cor 3:9) Any work in which God does not participate is not a holy or blessed work. We are tools in His hands doing His will.

A believer is one who depends on God and yields everything to Him. 
He says, “My life is the work of your hands and it is now between Your hands, do with it what You want.” I will go wherever you want. You are the doer of benevolence. As Paul says, You are the wisdom (1  Cor 1:24) You are “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col 2:3)

How do we test our faith? we can it by the extent we care about our life in eternity:
Is this your primary orientation or is it one that focuses on this world and how successful you are, how you are seen by others,  and how you enjoy its pleasures? Or, can you say, I am most interested in preparing myself for eternity and destiny in the other world?

But what must we do to nurture this? This is the greatest gift we have received from Christ. He showed us the way and established His Church so we could nurture our faith.
We must participate regularly in the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion and Confession. We must pray daily in morning and evening and strive to, pray all day long. We must fast. The weekly fast as well as the period fasting periods given to by the Wisdom of the Church. These are the gifts Christ gave to us out of His love. He showed us how to become like Himself, how to be united with Him in eternity. This is why He established the Church with all its liturgies and its practices, so we could nurture our faith, to deepen it day by day, to allow the Holy Spirit given to us in Baptism to work through us.  We are His instruments in this world. Though us His grace works on things of this world.

Philanthropy is a tradition of the Greek Orthodox Church that dates back to the Byzantine Empire. It is identified with love and active feelings of benevolence toward any person, independent of the person’s identity. This caring and love comes with faith. 

The Greek Orthodox Ladies Philoptochos Society, has held fast to this tradition of philanthropy, and has fervently strengthened the sense of love and compassion for all individuals that are in need. Thus, being participant of  Philoptochos really means actively living and practicing our Orthodox faith.  There can be no better response to the question of why participate in  Philoptochos than to say membership is the manifestation and witness of faith as an Orthodox Christian. As our Society evolves, our members experience the satisfaction of participating, giving and sharing in our most worthy philanthropic endeavors, as friendships are made and a connectedness between individuals is nurtured.

Let's not be satisfied with our current efforts. Let us encourage all of our friends, especially the younger members of our parish, to become a part of this enriching and fulfilling experience. This will fulfill the full mission of Philoptochos to "Perpetuate Orthodox Christian concepts & promote the Orthodox Faith."