Thursday, February 28, 2013

“Spiritual” Self-Opinion - A Confession

When caught in this snare, a person thinks and claims he is acting according to “spiritual principles,” but in actuality he is following his own will, satisfying and preserving his own ego, and remaining hardened in his own opinions. “A web of ideas is spun,” Fr. Seraphim explained, “which has no real contact with reality…. Usually the devil uses one little idea to ‘catch’ us, knowing that it will catch us in something we may be emotional about and that ‘catch’ is sufficient to get us weave the whole spiderweb which trips us up.”  
Hieromonk Damascene in Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works
For many years I was trapped with “spiritual” self-opinion.  Not satisfied with the teachings of the Church, I set out to develop my own view––my own religion in reality.  At this time, I was a top corporate executive in my early forties, on top of the world with prestige, power, a beautiful family, and a hugh ego.  I had the idea that I could develop the universal principles of all religions, use this as the basis for a values based leadership program and then establish an institute to train the future leaders of the world.  I would change the world nurturing spiritual growth in all(and become famous). I even had a self-induced vision of this on Mount Tabor on a quasi spiritual journey patterned after the “Hero's Journey” as conceived by Joseph Campbell in his first book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I worked on this for a number of years, studying the foundational texts of various religions.  I learned to meditate using a passage of my own choosing according to the principles of an eclectic Hindu tradition. This gave me a focused mind to concentrate on this Don Quixotic venture.  I thought I was doing God’s will.

I then set out to establish a spiritual based community, using my own savings to fund it. This would become the base for this leadership institute, I thought. I was committed to change the world based on my self-conceived web of ideas.  This lasted for another four years.  Finally, it became obvious that this was financial disaster and I was about to lose my life’s savings.  I felt like the world was closing in around me. I had never experienced failure before.

I was married to a Greek girl who was Orthodox and had joined the Church when we were married. I attended Church several times a year and with great apprehension and resistance participated in the customary acts of communion twice a year.  Then one day walking in the woods, it came to me how folly this was and how egotistical I was being. I saw how I was tangled up in my own thinking and there was no clear way out. I was caught in my own web. My intentions seemed good but there was no result for all these good intentions other than many troubles (among which my wife had threatened to leave me) and financial ruin. I had participated in the creation of a new “church” and my soul was dead.
“By yourself you will only spend your life trying to preserve your soul, under the pretext of your understanding of Church ‘principles’ and the like; and he who would preserve his soul will lose it.  Only if you try to lose your soul for Christ, by really committing yourself, will you finally gain it.” 
Fr. Seraphim Rose
Fortunately, I had recently begun to recite the Jesus Prayer, and study the book by Saint Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation.  He became my savior. I knew I could not longer avoid Christ and my Orthodox Tradition.  Out of desperation, I called a couple of monasteries for advice and began to see my local parish priest.   This was a big step and was difficult at first. Within six months, I made a commitment to the Church, a clear choice to follow christ and the tradition of His Church.  This led to actions to sell the property and disband the community.  Miraculously, the Bishop of our diocese was looking for a retreat center site. I was able to arrange for the sale to the Church and it became a retreat center and camp for the Diocese.  Five years later, I was ordained as a Deacon in the Orthodox Church. I have changed and my life has changed. I still struggle, but with God’s help it is a struggle filled with joy.

Bottom line:  “Only if you try to lose your soul for Christ by really committing yourself, will you finally gain it.”

Monday, February 25, 2013

On Getting Out of Ruts

Many of us get stuck in a rut in our spiritual lives. Usually this comes down to one thing: we have our central sins, our favorite passions, that we just do not want to give up. These passions have become so much a part of us that we think it is impossible to be rid of them. But it is not impossible. Christ said, Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). With His Grace-filled help, we can overcome the passions—which, as we have seen, comprise one of the meanings of the term “the world” in Holy Scripture.
The problem lies with us. The problem is that, deep down, we feel that we have a “right” to our favorite passions. “I have a right to be angry,” “I have a right to be resentful,” “I have a right to this sinful little pleasure,” or whatever it is. Deep down, we do not want to give up our passions.
So the question comes down to this: What do we really want? Do we want to stay in our ruts, so that we can freely indulge our pride, our self-love, our self-righteousness, our desire to be right, our anger and resentments, our sinful pleasures? Are they so important to us that for their sake we will abandon the possibility of an authentic life in Christ?
What do we want? Do we want to be fashioned after the passions of this world, which pass away, or do we want to have Christ dwelling within us, re-creating us into new beings who will dwell with Him and in Him forever?
To get out of our ruts and get back on the path of transformation and deification, we must cast off everything that separates us from God. Spiritual life is like traveling upstream in a rowboat. The world, the flesh and the devil push against us and against our progress. If our boat is burdened with the weight of our cherished sins and passions, we will not get anywhere. In fact, we will go backwards, and we might even sink. So, what we have to do is to jettison the cargo which we cherish so much but which is holding us back. Then we will be able go forward, toward that which we were created for: union with God.

From  The Way of Spiritual Transformation By Hieromonk Damascene

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Should I Force Myself in Prayer?

The key to controlling thoughts during prayer is to attack the wandering mind immediately. The moment you detect a stray thought, rise up, be strong and snuff it out. Be firm and aggressive. As we said before, it takes much effort.

Here is more advice from Saint Theophan:
Kindly read the 19th discourse, concerning a Christian’s duty to force himself to do good. There it is written, “One must force oneself to pray, even if one has no spiritual prayer.” And, “In such a case, God, seeing that a man earnestly is striving, pushing himself against the will of his heart (that is, his thoughts), He grants him true prayer.” By true prayer, St. Macarius means the undistracted, collected, deep prayer that occurs when the mind stands unswervingly before God. As the mind begins to stand firmly before God, it discovers such sweetness, that it wishes to remain in true prayer forever, desiring nothing more
I have stated more than once exactly what efforts must be made: Do not allow your thoughts to wander at will. When they do involuntarily escape, immediately turn them back, rebuking yourself, lamenting and grieving over this disorder. As St. John of the Ladder says, "We must lock our mind into the words of prayer by force."
When you have learned the prayers by heart, as I suggested in my earlier letter, perhaps then you will progress more smoothly.
The most helpful idea is to attend church frequently. There, prayers come more readily because all is directed to that end, but this is not very practicable for you. So, labor at home to accustom yourself to pray attentively and try to remain in God’s presence the rest of the time, as much as possible.
When memorizing the prayers, do not forget to dig into the meaning and to experience the feeling in each word. Then when you say the prayer, the words themselves will hold your attention and warm you into a prayerful attitude.
from Letter 48

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Does One Work to Live or Live to Work?

 Max Weber wrote in his well-known study on Capitalism and Protestant ethics, "one does not work to live; one lives to work." So, what is it we live for? Based on our busy lives it could be either of these. There are some like Aristotle who would say we work so we can enjoy leisure. His idea of leisure was contemplation, not a trip to the lake or any such activity. But does this fit the reality of our lives?
As an Orthodox Christian we say we live to be united with God, to be joined with Him in eternal life. Our aim is to transcend this life, to conquer death, to live in faith, following the path of Jesus Christ.
So, what is our "work"? Is it not to acquire a deep faith so that we live without fear of death or sickness? Is it not to gain knowledge of the mystical truths about our existence? Our work, no matter what our occupation is to learn from the events of our daily life the Truth about our Creator and His expectations for us. This knowledge eventually transcends intellectual knowledge to an experiential knowledge based on a personal relationship with God.
Does this come easily without effort? Of course not. Knowing God is hard work. What is the nature of this work? What did Jesus tell us? He said there are only two laws: love God with our whole heart and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. The second flows from the first and the first is reinforced by the second. So our work then must be to love. But what does this mean?
It has nothing to do with earning a living. This is a common struggle all humans face. It's simply the nature of life, to work to live. The error we can make is to think we live to work, to earn money for our livelihood and leisure.
The true work of a Christian is something more than what we do to survive or gain leisure. It is a spiritual calling to learn to rely on God in all we do, to become aware of His presence at all time and in all things. Our true leisure come when in quietness we can contemplate God. This does not come from our efforts to do our jobs well. It is not dependent on how many hours we work. It is not a function of our financial success. It is not even the result of simply being good parents our outstanding citizens.
God was made incarnate to show us the nature of the work we are called to do. His coming and taking of flesh of a virgin showed us the image we were created with, flesh united with the divine. He taught and then through His voluntary death on the Cross showed us that there is life beyond this utilitarian life on earth. All we have to do is to believe in Him and follow his example. His coming was the peak of God's creation, the perfection of mankind.
After His death and Resurrection he ascended into heaven and then sent the Holy Spirit empowering His followers to establish the Church. The Church is where we now all can go to become like Him, uniting our flesh with the divine. Through the Church we have the Sacraments, we have the Scripture, we have the necessary ascetic practices such as prayer and fasting, we have the hymns and iconography and the writings of the holy people of the Church to guide us.
All this leads to what we call the Orthodox way of Life. here are the ten elements of such a life that is applicable to all Christians no matter what their occupation may be.
1. Have a regular prayer rule that includes morning and evening prayer.
2. Worshiping and Participating in Sacraments. Attend and participate in the Divine Liturgy receiving Holy Communion regularly as well as regular participation in Confession.
3. Honoring the Liturgical Cycle of the Church. Follow the seasons of the church and participate in the fasts and feasts of the Church.
4. Using the Jesus Prayer. Repeat the Holy name whenever possible throughout the day or night.
5. Slowing Down and Ordering Your Life. Set priorities and reduce the stress and friction caused by a hurried life.
6. Being Watchful. Give full attention to what you are doing at the moment.
7. Taming the Passions. Overcome your habits, attachment to your likes and dislikes, and learn to practice the virtues.
8. Putting Others First. Free yourself from your selfishness and find joy in helping others.
9. Spiritual Fellowship. Spend time regularly with other Orthodox Christians for support and inspiration.
10. Reading the Scriptures and Holy Fathers. Be inspired by the lessons of the Holy Scriptures, the wisdom of the Holy Fathers and the lives of the Saints of the Church
For more on this spiritual effort we are led to participate in read more about each of these then points in the booklet, Ten Point Program For Orthodox Life. You can download it free or ask for a free copy.