Friday, March 29, 2013

Intentional and Unintentional Sins

Does it make a difference if we sin unintentionally or intentionally? The Elder Paisios says that the "errors we fall into through carelessness are of a less serious nature."  He adds that sins are sins, but there can be extenuating circumstances. When we fall into sin unintentionally God in His mercy will help us so that this fault can be used of some good purpose.
He explains,
This means that since we erred unintentionally, God simply utilizes our fault for some good. But when we plan ahead and err knowingly and then repent, we should also pray that no other harm occur from the consequences of our fault.
Some of us may face more temptations than others.  God will have mercy in such cases.
The Elder says,
Someone, for example will set off for somewhere without having any intention of committing a sin, but on his way he is tempted and falls into some sin.  He repents, struggles to avoid sin, but is tempted again. Such a person has extenuating circumstances, because he does not want to commit a sin, but succumbs to temptation and then repents. But who ever says, "If I am to achieve that goal, I must do wrong," and so forth, that person is sinning on purpose and intentionally. In other words he plans and lays out his scheme to sin in cahoots with the devil. This is especially evil because its premeditated... Such a person should never expect to be helped, because he does not deserve divine help, he will in all likelihood die unrepentant.
Some people say they can wait until they are on their sick bed to confess their sinfulness. Those with intentional sins are not likely to carry out this plan. The elder tells a story about a contractor who had such an idea.
The contractor said,"When I grow old, I'll go to the Holy Land and be baptized in the river Jordan to have all my sins washed away," and he continued to live a sinful life. Finally when he had no more energy and could barely walk, he said to his trusted worker, "I've decided to go to the Holy Land and be baptized in the River Jordan as a pilgrim." And the worker gave him a bold response, "Boss, if you're clean of heart you will go, but if you are not, you will die on the way!" It was like a prophesy! As soon as he arrived in Athens to prepare his papers, he died! Others took all of his money and made arrangements with a funeral home to have him sent back to his hometown in a coffin.
A life of repentance generally implies that we are trying not to sin and avoid intentionally sins.  We go to confession regularly to confess our sins that were due to the many temptations we faced.  We can be assured that God will be merciful if our intentions are pure. But those who intentionally sin thinking they can repent later may not find the same help from God. Just the thought of putting off Confession or participation in Holy Communion might imply that we are comfortable with out sins, our way of life, and do not need God's help.  This implies that we are willingly sinning.  To live a life of repentance called for by Christ demands a constant attention to all our sins. If we are and participate in the Sacraments regularly we will find God's love and mercy. He will then become our helper to guide us to salvation.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels III: Spiritual Struggles, p 132

Monday, March 18, 2013

Are We Aware of Our Sinfulness?

Is everyone aware of their sinfulness?  Elder Paisios says, "we all have awareness, but we just don't care." For one to come to the light of Christ, one must want to come out of the darkness of sin.  This is our common condition. We all struggle with this. We know deep down that we are sinful but we resist participation the the Sacrament of Confession. Why do we resist? Pride? Perhaps. But as the Elder says, "we just don't care." We need to find a glimmer of "light" and then we will seek out reconciliation with God.  But first we must care about our condition in relationship to what Christ has taught us.

Elder Paisios uses the analogy of being shut in a dark cellar to describe the condition of one who has a heavy conscience due to sinful activities. He says that the moment one who is locked in a dark place, like a dark cellar, they feel trapped When they see a single ray of light, they will immediately try to follow it to find a way out.  That single light beam will give them hope and they will struggle to find its source to escape from the darkness.

Elder says,
It is the same with the [sinful] person; from the moment he sees the good as a necessity and feels "good restlessness" about achieving it, makes every effort to come out of the darkness of sin. If he says, "what am I doing wrong, I am not on the right path", then he humbles himself, God's grace comes upon him  and then he moves onto the right path.
But he adds that this is very difficult.  We must first have this feeling of "good restlessness". We must care about our spiritual condition and desire to improve it.  The Elder relates this to one shut in a closet.
Someone, for example, is in a tiny closet and feels as if he is suffocating. You tell him, "Get up, oen the door and go out and get some fresh air to revive yourself." But he begins to say, "I can't go out. But why am I closed up in here unable to breath? And why shouldn't I have fresh air: And why does God keep my in here while others are out in the fresh air? Well tell me can such a person be helped?
Is this not the condition of many of us.  We are shut up in this tiny closet of our own mind, locked in by our own pride.  Even when we are given the offer to come to receive the light, to come and seek forgiveness in Confession, we say, "Why do I need to talk to the priest? Why can't I do this all by myself? Am I not a good person?" Can such a person be helped by the Church?  No, he or she remains locked in their own little world, suffocating due to their own pride.

This is the challenge and opportunity offered to us by the Church in the Lenten season.  If we follow the fast, increase our daily prayers, and open our hearts to our sinfulness, we can ask for forgiveness and find relief when we may not know this is possible.  We can become more capable to seek spiritual nurturing through the Sacraments and prayers of the Church.  But, first, we must care.  We must care about our spiritual condition. We must want to see "the good as a necessity," and want to seek what the elder calls, "good restlessness."

Let's not deceive ourselves by thinking we don't need this extra effort, that we don't need to go to Confession, that we don't need to take time each morning and evening for prayers. Let's surrender to the Wisdom of the Church and follow its teachings and partake of all the tools it offers to us for our spiritual well being.

Reference:Elder of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels III: Spiritual Struggle, pp130

Monday, March 11, 2013

What Separates Us From God?

The story of Adam and Eve is one of the foundations of Christian life. In this story we seen how we are separated from God.  This separation does not come from any action on God's part, but is a result of our own disobedience. Adam and Eve fell because they began to rely on their own will and ignored God's will. This is what it means to be separated from God.  Because they put their own desires ahead of God's plan for them, they separated themselves from God and became subject to suffering, toil and death. Because of these consequences we have the tendency to act for our own self benefit leading us to a tendency for sin. 

Sin is not about breaking a specific law but is about not having a loving relationship with God. When you love God, you seek to do His will.  When you love yourself more than Him because of all your self doubts and fears, you only carry out your own will to maximize your own satisfaction. The question we need to ask ourselves is, "How can we regain our status before the Fall of Adam and Eve where we live a pure life in union with God always seeking to do His will?"

Elder Paisios gives an answer to this question:"The heart must be purified."   This is the same view that Christ gave us in His Sermon on the Mount where He said, "Those with a pure heart will see God."

What does this mean? Elder Paisios goes on to say,
Man must acquire spiritual chastity; that is sincerity, honesty, selflessness, humility, goodness, forbearance, sacrifice. This is how man becomes akin to God and how divine Grace comes to dwell in him. When someone has physical chastity but lacks spiritual chastity, God cannot dwell in him because he harbors cunning, pride, evil, and so forth. Then this person's life is a sham; this is where you must begin your struggle: acquiring spiritual chastity, spiritual purity.
To do this requires true repentance, a change of mind coupled with personal discipline so that your life actually changes.  We are creatures of habit and our struggle is one of overcoming bad habits.

Elder Paisios says,
One must have a lot of willpower in order to break a bad habit all at once. Just as the rope rubs against the edge of the well and over the years forms a small grove that holds the rope in place, every habit forms a grove in the heart, making it them difficult to get rid takes lots of humility and great will power to overcome them.
The period of Lent is a special time in the Church for self examination and repentance.  It is the time, when coupled with fasting and prayer, we can identify our bad habits that keep us separated from God. Once we have identified them, we can seek guidance and courage to overcome them with the help of divine grace. As we repent we gain grace providing God's help in overcoming our habits.  Fasting brings humility as well as self discipline.  The extra services in the Church during this period, coupled with our own increased time in prayer and study of spiritual matters, nurture us in our efforts to come closer to God.

Make plans for the fast, allow time for the extra services, and more time for prayer. Put these activiies into your personal calendar. Schedule a time with your spiritual father for Confession.

Have a Great Lent.

Resource: Elder Paisios of Mont Athos Spiritual Counsels III, p 128

Monday, March 4, 2013

Do You Seek Self-Satisfaction or Union With God?

Do you seek self-satisfaction or union with God?

Do you seek out self-help programs for your self-satisfaction? I did. I have had experience with many of the self-help programs that continue to be offered.  Meditation centers, for example, call people to”inner peace” and prove their power with studies that show they reduce stress.  For a long time I thought this was what it meant to become spiritual.  To get in touch with your “inner-self,” to find “peace” within,to become what you were meant to be. The problem is that these goals are al self defined.  Fr. Deacon Matthew Steenberg sums it up well in his recent article in The Orthodox Word.  He writes,

...the mantra of society is largely one of self-satisfaction.  It is true that by this world we are called at times to examine ourselves; but we are charged to do so to discover how to be happy an content with ourselves, either as we are or with the “true self”… Humanity is at its best when it comes to be content with itself as it is, deep within.  We are to look inwards, to discover and define the “self” with whom we must learn to be comfortable and content.

For many years, I thought that looking inward was seeking the inner soul.  But, I now know that this “inner being” i sought was of my own creation.  I was really  pursing my own vision, my self-actualization, my contentment with who I am as I defined it.  This is a delusion. Fr. Deacon Matthew goes on to describe two forms of this delusion.

Firstly, there is the simplistic belief that one can and should be whatever one wishes to be, however one wishes to be it, so long as one does not harm others…. the goal of an self-examination is the discovery of the “me” with whom to be happy and satisfied…. the very core so such a mindset is that any attempt to particularize belief and action imposes upon the freedom of the will in a negative way.
A more nuanced, refined form exists, in the various contours of the “new age” and”self-help” movements… which still orbit around the central point of self-satisfaction and contentment with the true self…. they oftentimes do involve calls to change and transformation… there remains however a solid foundation in self-definition.  the “true-self” one aims to discover and love through shedding of such false selves, is still a self defined by one’s will and desires… they root of both is the same: satisfaction gained through contentment in the self, as defined by the self.

This view generally rejects all forms of formal religion and you here the claim, I am spiritual but not religious.  Things like sin are rejected as being outdated or old fashioned and even superstitious.  There is a reliance on the psychological interpretation of reality instead. and don’t even think of mentioning demons or the devil or heaven and hell.  these are no more than “outmoded myths aimed at enforcing moral codes’.  there is no acknowledgment that everything of this world is the result of a Creator.  We tend to believe n theories like the Big Bang theory and a random process of evolution as truth.  As a result the call to change to become in the likeness of Christ is lost.  Instead, we can only cope by accepting things as they are and find contentment with the present state.

Fr. Deacon Matthew says that this is a deception and a trap to the Christian.
The human person is to instigate whatever helps, whatever modification to his life and lifestyle may bring about a deeper satisfaction with whom and what he is,   He is charged not to become something else…, but to become happy with the self that lies hidden.

So what is that we are called to as Christians if this is not the case. from my own experience this is difficult to discern as we re easily deceived by our current societal norms.

Fr. Deacon Matthew says the following,
Christianity is a life rooted in Christ’s own.  Its charge is not to live for self but to live for Christ; and its goal is not satisfaction but transformation.  the Christian is called to become, to enter into a newness of life that is another’s––that is Christ’s.  He is to discover the “self” of his current existence, precisely so that he can work to change it into a life not defined by his on will, but defined and made real by another––by God Himself.  the life in Christ is a life of transformation into a New Man.  It is a life that works toward resurrection, when the body of this death shall pass away and the glorified man will know the Lord of Golory.

What I discovered after many false paths, is that this involves a surrender.  A giving up of our own definition of our “self.”  We have to find a religious tradition that we can trust and make a choice to follow its guidelines so we can be transformed into the image of Christ.  This does not promise happiness or contentment with the nature of this way of life we may now enjoy.  But a refocusing of our entire attention on the Kingdom of God.

Again Fr. DeaconMatthew,
If we struggle authentically toward our sanctification and redemption, this orientation towards and into the Kingdom must become paramount in us.  Every act must be considered from the perspective of that future life and its attainment.  When we do not act in such a way, we reduce our choices and our behaviors to the limited perspective of the brief sojourn.  Rather than see the context of our behaviors , actions, and decisions as the eternal life of God’s abiding Kingdom, we see it as the short span of this life, and adjust our whole vision and world view accordingly.
Orthodox Christians to day must reclaim this focus.  It stands at the heart and center of the whole life in Christ.

This authentic kind of Christian life involves a constant struggle with our desires and passions.  We need to learn humility and self-discipline.  It is a daily task, a battle that needs to taken on each and every day.

Saint Basil the Great writes
Examine what sort of being you are.  Know your own nature, that your body is mortal but your soul is immortal, and that our life is twofold in kind.  One kind is proper to the flesh, quickly passing by, while the other is akin to the soul, not admitting of circumscription.  therefore  be attentive to yourself (Deut 15:9), neither remaining in mortal things as if there were eternal, nor despising eternal things as if they were passing…. Understand yourself with all exactness, that you may know what gift to apportion to each––for the flesh nourishment and coverings, and for the soul doctrines of piety, education in courtesy, training in virtue, correction of the passions. (St. Basil, Homily on the words “Be attentive to yourself.”)

This is what the Orthodox way of life is al about.

Fr. Deacon Matthew's complete article “Taking Stock of Our Struggle” in available in  The Orthodox Word, No 263, 2008.
He serves in the Parish of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Oxford, England.  He received his doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford and is currently Professor of Theology and Head o htTheology & religious Studies at Leeds trinity and All Saints College, England. He has authored many books and is the creator of, a valuable resource of Orthodox patristic theology.