Monday, December 19, 2016

How Should We Accept Sickness?

Saint Porphyrios gives us an important lesson about illness. His words may be difficult to understand but we must open our soul to receive them so we can follow what the great saint teaches.

When we are in pain we should not think of this as a punishment from God but as a gift. God allows sickness for our benefit. Remember, God is love and is always trying to lead us to become like him so we can enter into His kingdom. Accepting our pain and discomfort as a gift, we must think of it as an opportunity to share in a small way the Passion of Christ.  It is His grace working in us. When we see this in this way we will experience joy that He is with us and allowing us to participate in His passion. It is His Passion that lead to His Resurrection. So we too are being led to our Resurrection by His grace when we experience as pain.

Nor should not fear pain as a sign of death, but think that, if it is our time to die, death is the only door to heaven and eternal life with Him.

Saint Porphyrios says that we should not pray to be relieved of our pain as this can be self-centered. We should instead pray to be forgiven for our sinfulness. Usually our sickness and pain makes us aware of our sinfulness and we feel a need to call on God for help.  We should pray for God to help us become a good person capable of doing His will and follow His commandments.

Sickness humbles us. It makes us realize that we are not in control. It is like the hot fire that purifies gold. The fire heats up the gold metal and the impurities float to the top. Then they are skimmed off leaving pure gold. When we are sick and realize we cannot control the destiny of our life it is like the heat that purifies gold. Our sinfulness comes to the top and with our prayer of forgiveness God can skim off the impurities in our hearts. As we continually sincerely ask for his mercy we find that His grace is given to us in mysterious ways. This faith we have in God's goodness towards us and His saving grace must be pure and unconditional. We must without doubt believe that God is our creator and savior. Based on this faith we must have total love for Him, loving Him more than anyone we know.  With this love we can say like saint Porphyrios says, "Even if you want to put mey in Hell, do so as long as I do not lose your love." For Him God's love had no boundaries.

In sickness Saint Porphyrios teaches us to accept our condition knowing God loves us and that He allows this illness so we can come closer to Him. Remember your sinfulness, continually pray for His mercy and forgiveness, and ask that he make you a good person in His eyes. Do not ask for self-centered things like to make you well but instead ask only that He make you a better person.

Have patience, endurance, and love God with your whole heart.

Reference: Wounded by Love, pp 224 -231

Monday, December 12, 2016

Why do we say Christ is the only Way?

The unique aspect of Christianity is that it is Christ centered. Jesus Christ is the Way and the goal. Through the Church we become united with Christ retaining our individuality. Christianity teaches that any  other union with God is an illusion if it is not achieved through Christ. Christ was given to mankind as the ladder to heaven, to Him. It is through Him that we have access to the Father and Spirit. It is Christ who sends the Spirit. Jesus Christ is like a bridge between human nature and the divine. It is in Christ that both are united. There is no other Way.

To those who see other good people of other faiths often question this. But the Incarnation of the Son of God is a reality that cannot be denied. God sent His son as the Way to His kingdom for our benefit. Fr Staniloae says, Jesus Christ He came for us as "a voice" of love, ringing out with all the affection of a human being, so familiar to us. But this means that man himself was made capable of becoming the medium by which the Son of God is communicated to us..."

When we ascend to God we are "with Him and in Him." Our ascent is  not based on our individual efforts. It is only through Him that we are able to ascend. In the beginning our soul is "sensitized by the Holy Spirit." From this we are able to realize that there is a relationship with Jesus who is the one guiding and helping us along the Way. He is like a good friend, who is more advanced in wisdom and whom we trust, guiding us with love and understanding.

In the beginning Jesus is not visible to us but is hidden in His commandments. We see from the Gospel that He is a model of perfection. As Saint Maximus the Confessor writes, "To beginners he appears in the form of a servant."

As we advance along the Way our vision of Him changes. Initially His true glory is hidden but then it is revealed more and more like the disciples experienced at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor. His glory is initially hidden in His commandments and as we strive to carry them out and begin to develop the virtues, the presence of Christ becomes clearer. By our cooperation with Him, our faith and commitment to carry out His commandments, we are given greater and greater power of the Spirit to carry them out. In the process the image of Jesus become clearer and clearer. As we make this ascent to higher levels of perfection we are aided by our ascetic efforts and we gain in our mystical contemplation of Christ.We find that Christ is a most intimate participant in every aspect of our life. He imprints "Himself spiritually in us."

He is there to help us in all our struggles of life in this world. He is there when we are tempted and when we sin. He is always at our side helping us along the Way leading us to our true nature. Because He became Man in His divinity we know that He knows our condition.  And because of His love for us that He has shown in His Crucifixion  and Resurrection we have great faith in His help.

The Mysteries of the Church are essential in our ascent. They are how Christ penetrates our inner being. This includes the purification of Baptism, anointing of Holy Chrism, and our partaking of Him in Holy Communion. Nicholas Cabasilas tells us that it is by the medium of the holy mysteries that "Christ comes to us and dwells in us; He is united to us and grows into one with us. He stifles sin in us and infuses into us His own life and merit..."

Our ascent to virtue that comes from faith and results in love is based on our acceptance of a hierarchy in the Church. Those who became saints have been helped by the angels. The church from the lay person, to the priests, bishops and then angles form a ecclesiastical hierarchy whose purpose is to help us grow in virtue and our closeness to God. This hierarchy is realized in degrees as we progress. Fr Staniloae says, "The work of the hierarchy for the salvation of the faithful is essentially exercised through the holy mysteries, especially through Baptism, Chrismation and the Eucharist." Even those at the hight levels of holiness gain from the holy mysteries and will have a greater vision of their content and profit even more by them.

While we are here on earth the Church is essential for us to make progress. We must accept the hierarchical and sacramental structure of the Church. if we do we will progress toward the heavenly hierarchy of the angels and saint in heaven. The Church is the body of Christ and is the ladder by which we climb.  It is the only ladder God has provided for us.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Is the Church Behind the Times?

Recently, I ran across this post on Facebook: "If you say the Church is behind the times, the TIMES must change, not the Church!" While I understand the truth in this statement, as the TIMES do need to change and the Church does protect unchangeable truths, there is also a hidden untruth in this statement. The Church needs get ahead of the TIMES and become a more effective agent for change. The Orthodox Church is also bound by ancient traditions and practices that can make it appear to be out of step with the times and irrelevant. Some of these traditions have become no more than rituals and practices without the deeper meaning they once had. 

When you ask many why they baptize their child they have no answer other than its tradition, often putting more emphasis on the party that follows the sacrament itself. When you ask a couple about marriage they rarely will give you a spiritual answer, but yet insist that the wedding be held in the Church out of tradition, and focus most on planning a huge party, often with a professional planner. The celebrations that come with some of the major feast days are also bound by tradition. For example in Crete there is a huge celebration on the night before the celebration of the Dormition of the Theotokos. The life and meaning of her life is lost in the traditional music and abundance of food that is offered before the Church even celebrates the event with a Divine Liturgy the following morning. The party or meal becomes more significant than the event being celebrated. The platia around the Church is overflowing with people at such an event but on a Sunday there will be only a few inside to participate in the Sacrament. The True food of the Sacrament is secondary to the food and music of the celebration.

When the church still uses ancient Greek, requires its clergy to dress as in ancient times, allows clergy and hierarchs to stand above those they serve wearing crowns, sitting on thrones, holding staffs, acting like emperors of Byzantine times with their attendants, its services are seen no longer by many as a beacon of the Holy Spirit and no longer exuding the feeling of love. This is reinforced when continues with its rituals encouraging old traditions and practices no longer relevant, no longer communicating the message of Christ. Christ becomes lost in the secularized traditions and outdated practices. Instead of leading people to a deeper spirituality the Church can be perceived as preserving an ancient set of rituals and associated traditions that were maybe appropriate for the time and way of life in the Byzantine empire but out of touch today. The issue is that the central message of our Savior who came from heaven to transform and lead us to an eternal life in His kingdom becomes blocked, overtaken by outdated tradition. The Church is no longer seen by many as a spiritual hospital were we all can seek the healing of our souls that are troubled by the TIMES.

When you examine the current situation there is much in the modern Orthodox Church traditions and practices that have nothing to do with the Gospel teachings or with the sacramental duties of the church. I was in Crete for an extended stay and I saw this problem acutely. Talking with younger members there who have been brought up in the faith, seeing the many churches and villages built around the church building, where 90% or more profess to be Orthodox Christians, and serving as a clergyman in the services of a local church, I have became aware how distant the work of the church appears to many people, good people who have pure hearts and who should be the current workers in the church. Basically, it's mainly the old people (mostly women) who come to the churches there now. The younger generation tends to reject the Church as dead, lifeless. They seem to have little respect for the clergy who perpetuate the status quo. They see the Church as perpetuating cultural traditions and not a source for spiritual healing. 

One young lady in her twenties who lives in a small village and has a college degree, said to me, "why is the church so distant, separated from the people." At first I was surprised at her comment. It woke me up to think about this issue. I was encouraging her to talk with a priest about confession and spritual growth. She gently held her hand to her heart and humbly said this is what is important. God is here and not in the church. I try to live according to Christian principles but the Church does not seem to be an example for me. She said she had never been to confession and that the priests did not relate to the people. She did not feel they set an example that is any different than the TIMES. She saw them busily going from church to church in the villages doing services tied to local traditions, doing their job. She further said that when she goes into the church she does not have any feeling of the spirit, (again holding her hand to her heart), but she sees priests and chanters going through rituals, rambling in a language is not easily understood as it is an ancient form of Greek, and dressed in elaborate uniforms. She did not feel the services were helpful for her and that she attended only because of her family tradition. When I tried again to encourage her to talk with a priest, she said, "why don't they do something about changing the environment in the church and so it is a beacon of Spirit and try to better relate to the people so they will want to seek them out for guidance. They are too busy to talk with us." 

The Church does have and protects the Truth, but it is also is bound up in rituals and traditions, many of which may no longer communicate what Christ teaches. In fact, its clinging to the past may block many from learning the true Gospel message. Rather than being a source of Wisdom it can become a hinderance to learning the Wisdom She has.

Change is needed in my view. The clergy is trapped in tradition and they often argue about the details of the ritual or their dress, or politics of which church higher in rank. The emphasis of the church needs to be redirected toward spiritual healing and growth and not just on ritual and preservation of traditions that consist mainly of parties and no longer have spiritual value. There needs to be more emphasis on the Ten Points of an Orthodox Way of Life that have been presented many times in this blog. The Church needs to seek ways  to encouraged its members to participate in the sacraments as a way to help them in their spiritual struggle, not to fulfill ancient traditions or a family obligation. They need to hear the hymns in their native language and be allowed to express the church's beliefs inside the church in a modern language and not feel called to preserve a language only a few understand. They need to be encouraged to participate. They ought to be engaged to study the Scripture, to better understand the reality of the life of Christ and His teachings, to learn the wisdom of the Church fathers, and learn how to apply this wisdom to their current daily life. The church needs to reach out to those who suffer with anxiety and mild depression and help them see how this is related to a spiritual struggle we all face. As they discover the difficulty of their unchecked passions they should be encouraged to fast as a way to control them, not just to gain peace, but so they can have a personal relationship with God and grow in their ability to do His will instead of Christ's teachings being just another set of ancient obligations. The Church needs the capacity to instruct its members on the necessity to make time for personal prayers, how to pray and seek the joy of a peaceful inner life focused on the Holy Spirit and Christ who lives within each of them. It needs to provide a welcoming loving spiritual community so that when people come into the church service they see and relate to people who are seeking true communion with God. The clergy must be an shining example of persons who strive to live the Truths and who are always available to offer spiritual guidance as true spiritual fathers.

There are many Orthodox Churches who have changed from the traditional church found in the ancient Byzantine village, but there are still many where the spirit is not alive, where it is no longer a beacon of the Spirit, where tradition and ritual continue as part of our secular TIMES. Our younger generation senses this and is not encouraged to become active members.

The younger generations needs an Orthodox Church with its foundation of Wisdom and Truth, but with a way of communicating these truths that is relative to the TIMES. So yes, the Times need to change, but if we are going to change the TIMES, the Church also needs to change.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Why is the Holy Trinity Essential in Orthodox Spirituality?

This is a difficult but important question. The foundation of our spiritual life is based on the nature of God, One God in Three Persons, The Holy Trinity. So why is this truth about God so important in the Orthodox understanding of Theosis, our aim to seek union with God? How can our unity with God in eternity be guaranteed? Only if the divinity has also taken on flesh. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, His Son, shows the love God has for man. Why? Because for our union to be possible God cannot be some impersonal being. Because of the Triune nature of God, in our path to unity with God we will never lose our identity. It is because God has become man that we too will be assured of our identity in our eternal life. Like Christ related to the Father we too will have a personal relationship in heaven for eternity with Him nourished in His love. Since we know God to be trinitarian we know God can never be reduced to some infinite oneness but always exists as Three Persons. This is the true nature of God as found in Holy Scripture. The Orthodox Saints use the terms "life in Christ", Life in Spirit, and the "Spiritual life" to describe the nature of union with God.

The distinguishing feature of Christianity is this Triune nature of God. God became Man to transform us in Spirit. He communicates to us by the Spirit and His uncreated energies. God is never distant from us because His uncreated energies support our existence and nurture our spiritual growth.

Saint Simeon the New Theologian describes the union experienced by him as follows.
Even at night and in the midst of darkness I see, trembling, Christ opening the heaven for me and I behold how He himself beholds me from there and He sees me here and below together with the Father and the Spirit in the thrice holy light. Because this is one and the same nevertheless in three images, although it is only one. And it illuminates my soul brighter than the sun and floods my spirit covered with gloom.... And this miracle was even the more astonishing because it opened my eyes and helped me to see, and that which I saw is He himself. Because this light helped those who behold to know themselves in light of those who see in light see Him again. For they see the light of Spirit and in as much they see Him, they see the Son. Now he who has been made worthy to see the Son, sees also the Father.
Note how Saint Simeon sees God in distinct three persons. This is quite different from the way many western mystics like Eckhart see God. Eckhart only sees God as a unity of persons, one thing. While Simeon sees God in the differentiation of the three persons. Christians from the earliest times have seen Christ as the Son, something which is much greater than simply Christ the man. When we are blessed with divine insight in union with God we will find the living relationship between man and God like that which exists in the relationship among the Holy Trinity.

This relationship of the Three persons is also a demonstration of pure love of God. From this we know that God is truly love. Not only is He a God of love but our union with Him demands our love of Him.

Staniloae writes
Only a perfect community of supreme persons can nourish with its unending and perfect love, our thirst for love in relation to it and between ourselves. This relationship cannot be theory but must be lived too. This is so because love isn't satisfied with only being theory, but wants to give itself, to welcome and be welcomed...
The Trinity, radiated by this love which is proper to it, can't be lived and conceived without it uncreated energies in ever increasing levels. Love is characterized by this paradox. One the one hand it unites object who love each other, on the other hand, it doesn't confuse their identity...
God wants to gradually extend the gift of His infinite love to another order of conscious subjects and namely to created ones. He wants to extend this love in its paternal form as toward other sons united with His Son. 
So after the creation of man, He wanted His Son to become man so that His love for His Son, made man, would be a love which is directed toward any human face, like that of His Son. In the Son made flesh we are all adopted by the Father... God made man as an image of His Son so that His Son could become man too. The Father loves all of us in His Son, because the Son was made our brother....The Son's love for us isn't separated from the Father's love for us, but in His love as a brother He makes the Father's love and also His love for the Father, engulf us. In us the Father welcomes other loving and loved sons because His Son was made our beloved brother.
Also, with this love of the Father and our love for Him in Christ, love is poured on us in the form of the Holy Spirit, His uncreated energies.

If the Son had not become man we would not have received the love of the Father. It is in Christ as man that it reached us. It is by the incarnate Son that the Holy Spirit radiates within humanity and the world is the love of God for us of outs for God.
It is the Spirit that brings into creation Trinitarian love raising creation to the level of divine love and Theosis. This is why we invoke the Holy Spirit in all our sanctifying services. It is by the Holy Spirit that creation is raised up to the divine world and the divine realm penetrates us. With this we are changed. This is the nature of Orthodox spirituality. Our aim is to acquire his uncreated energy that comes though the love of God in the Holy Spirit. This much more than the understanding of God intellectual through the Scriptures. Man can be joined with God though His uncreated energies that we are blessed with by the Holy Spirit.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality by Fr, Dumitru Staniloae, pp 46-55.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Why Do Our Church Fathers See Death as a Gift from God?

Death is always something that brings sorrow to our hearts. So why should we look at it as a gift from God? The obvious answer is that death is the only pathway to the Kingdom of God. It is in death that we are reborn into His eternal kingdom. Of course it is not only by dying that we will enter, we must also have a soul that longs for God with love and a life where we have continually strove to do His will. This does not mean we will be perfect or sinless as only Christ is sinless, but that we must be striving for that perfection because we love God with our whole heart.

We can look at the way Christ faced death to understand the nature of this path. First, remember how Christ suffered on His way to the Cross? By this He wanted us to know that the path is not easy and is often filled with pain and great difficulty. Secondly, think about how we demonstrate our faithfulness through our endurance of pain and difficulty. Third, the best news of all, the basis of the Gospel, be assured that there is hope for us in our resurrection. Christ shows us that if we are faithful, death is only a transition from this worldly life to a life in His kingdom.

It’s important to remember that the aim of our life is not wealth, happiness, well being. Hopefully we will receive these gifts, but the aim is to become united with Him through our obedience and death. Our life is also a gift given to us so we can purify our soul and develop this true love of God while we experience the wonders and beauties of His creation.

The fathers also teach us that one way to assure we live a pure life is to remember every day the reality of our eventual death. Not in a morbid or negative way, but in a hopeful way, seeing the reality of our coming life in His kingdom reached through death.

With this view we will find that many of the desires that give us a stressful life are not really all that important in this bigger picture. Reflect on how you see the aim of your life.  How do you see the reality of your death. Can you see it as something positive?

When we lose a loved one as they move along the path to union with God, we find it difficult to accept and feel the great loss of their presence. This too is normal as even Christ wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. Sorrow is to be expected and we can remind ourselves that our loss is the gain of the one who has fallen asleep in the Lord. We say they have fallen asleep as death is not really death but a transformation of life.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

What is Orthodox Meaning of Theosis or Union with God

Saint Theophan the Recluse says, that the aim of an Orthodox Christian is "a living unity with God." This referred to as "theosis." What is this union or unity? This does not mean an identity with God where we lose our human identity and become one in essence with God. Many Protestants reject this Orthodox understanding because they fail to appreciate that one can have a union with God without becoming identified with God. Fr Staniloae tells us, "Christian teaching adopts a middle position between mysticism of identity and the irreducible separation between man and God." Both extremes are rejected by Orthodox Christians. To understand theosis we must have a clear view of the nature of God.

God is a reality of unlimited power that is not surpassed or limited by any creature or thing. All of creation, the whole of the world, is the result of God's creation, His free will. All was created from nothing. God is beyond all creation. The world is not made up of God particles. There is nothing of God's being in the constitution of the world.There is no possibility for identity with God of any of His creation. The reality of creation is that it cannot become uncreated by any form of progression. But there is more.

Fr. Staniloae says,

On the other hand, the Word God used to create the world, as a manifestation of His will was in some way an expression of power. God did not mix His power with the nature of the world. Nevertheless, without the descent of His power into the nothingness from which He took it, it couldn't have been produced; and without the presence of His power around it and even in the immediate intimacy of everything in it, the world would not be able to sustain itself and develop. Without the power of God in the final analysis, the world would be reduced to the nothingness which has no power to sustain it... Thus everything in the world has intimately within it, the immediate presence of a working power of God.
We can never become part of the essence of God but we only exist in His power. It is by His power working in us, His presence, that we find ourselves in union with God. It is only because of this union that we exist.

Saint Theophan says, "It may seem strange that communion with God must be attained when it is already present."  While we exist in communion with His power we are not aware of this reality. We see ourselves as independent beings like we are of our own making. We act as if we are the creator of our life.

The union with God that Orthodox understand as our aim is about an understanding that we live in Him. Fr Staniloae says, 

"Christian spirituality teaches that attainment of union is possible only by gradual growth and an understanding of it by the consciousness... It requires the cleansing of the soul and mind from worldly preoccupation." 
It is only with a clean consciousness that we can attain an understanding of this union which is neither an identity with God nor a absolute separation. Union is a matter attaining a consciousness of His presence and the reality that our existence depends on His power. It is an ongoing process until it become a living unity. Saint Theophan describes it as a "movement from mental communion with God to actual live, perceptible and manifest communion."

Our consciousness has inherent in it a deep seated knowledge of an infinite reality that supports our existence. It is this inherent knowledge that gives us the motivation to know and to seek this union with God. Our "mind is made to seek God." We have an intimate feeling of an infinite reality that we strive to know. This desire indicates the kind of direct relationship that is possible with God. There is inherent in this inner feeling a value of love and we sense a connection like a "delicate tread".  This power that sustains us nurtures our seeking and understanding that comes and goes from our consciousness, showing us ever more the reality of a direct relationship that we are destined to attain.

Often Protestants maintain an intellectual stance insisting on an absolute separation of man and God. They claim it is only in the Word as found in Scripture that we know God. The Word of Jesus is only understood intellectually. For in their view the Word is totally separate from us. They miss this mystical reality of His grace that sustains all creation.

Fr. Staniloae writes:

God extends Himself by His power, to the point where prophetic organs proclaim His revelational word. But for the listener to gain certainty of the divine character of this word, the divine power must take one more step, namely into his soul, as radiation from the word itself. "
More is possible than knowledge of God from a distance, such as by reading Scripture. There is a feeling that takes place within our soul which is more than a distant intellectual kind of knowledge.

Since we can never achieve an identity with God, our knowledge is fully developed based on a personal relationship that leads us to a face to face vision. It is like knowing your neighbor. You can't know all about Him based on your own effort. He must reveal himself to you based on his own initiative. This is also true for God. A "vision of God cannot be reached without a special grace from Him."

This vision of unity or union comes after much effort to purify our consciousness. We gain glimpses and then He seems to disappear. Saint Marcarius the Great writes. The spiritual influence of God's grace within the soul works with great patience, wisdom and mysterious management of the mind, while the man for long times and seasons contends in much endurance; and then the work of grace is proved to be perfect in him."

Saint Theophan writes,
Finally, when this period of hidden communion in the soul is over...God dwells in man in a special manner. He visibly fills him, unites Himself to him and communes with him. This is the goal man strives to achieve through all his ascetic struggles and labors...
Fr. Staniloae writes that the spiritual Christian says,
"I am man, but I live as God, by what God has given me; I am man, but I am on God's level by the grace with which He has been pleased to cloth me..." This reflects the expression of the Apostle Paul: "I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20). In other words, my personality hasn't ceased to exist because I am conscious of it at the same time as I affirm it; my personality now lives the life of Christ. I am still a man by nature, but I have become Christ by the powers by which I myself now live. This is the experience of the Christian on the highest peaks of spiritual life.
Saint Diadochos of Photiki says, 
"Grace illumines his whole being with a deeper awareness, warming him with great love of God."

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp30-39 by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae

Monday, August 8, 2016

What is Orthodox Asceticism?

Asceticism is a key part of Orthodox Spirituality. It is not a negative activity but a most positive one. It is the primary means by which we come closer to God. It involves the activities that help us perfect our way of life to be more like Christ.

Fr Staneloe says,
It is the part of spirituality that deals with the rules and efforts that bring man to the first step of the ascent to perfection, to contemplation and union with God.
While our salvation depends of the grace of God, asceticism is "the active part of the spiritual life." It is the effort that we must make in cooperation with God's grace. It is not an option but a central part of responding to His grace so we can be perfected by it. God always leads but we must also follow.

Saint Paul used the metaphor of an athletic competition to describe asceticism. He writes,
if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.  (Tim 2, 2:5)
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Ascetic efforts like prayer, fasting, and repentance are what liberates us from sin. They fortify our true nature. They are all part of a most positive effort.

We must accept that we are weak and acknowledge that our mind is easily swayed. We are attracted by pleasure and strive to avoid pain. We are tossed to and fro by these two forces. Christ, being fully human, was able  to conquer the love of passion and the fear of death. It is through asceticism that we overcome these forces and become attached to Christ and attain His human nature. "His force becomes our Force."
We must also remember that asceticism in not just about overcoming sinfulness. It is also about attaining the virtues.

Fr Staneloe points out the following:
Christianity considers that the direct vision of God cannot be reached without the grace given by Him and the reception of grace requires a mortal perfection of the the whole huan nature by ceaseless divine help.
To be united with God we have to make ourselves worthy by being sincere, clean and good because He is a force that is above an offensive that uses force or shyness. The path to union with God is a long road. It is "illumined by not only reason, but faith too, and by prayer and the help of God."

Engage in the race and seek the crown as Saint Paul tells us.  Just like exercise is positive when you are preparing for an athletic competition, asceticism is a positive action when you are seeking the ultimate crown, union with God.

Monday, July 25, 2016

What is Orthodox Spirituality?

The term spirituality is used very loosely in our culture. But Orthodox spirituality has a very specific meaning. It is most clearly stated by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae a renown Romanian Theologian (1903 - 1993). He describes it as a life long process. It is a road that leads one to "perfection in Christ." This road involves the "cleansing of passions and the winning of virtues." It is a process that that takes place in a certain order. It is a process that involves the cleaning of one passion and then another. At the same time one acquires different virtues. Once a certain level of perfection is reached it "culminates in love." Finally one has closed themselves of all passions and has attained all virtues. This is perfection. He says,
"As man climbs toward this peak, he simultaneously moves toward union with Christ and the knowledge of Him by experience, which is also called deification."
Orthodox Spiritually involves a step by step transformation. as one processes he is filled with more and more presence of God.

The aim is perfection in Christ, a full union with Him. Our will become one with His and we are able to do His will instead of your self-centered will as we pray for in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy will be done." Since God's goodness is infinite there is no end to this process. We never reach the point of total perfection.
He says,
"Our perfection, our union with God, is therefore not only a goal, but also an unending progress.... The culminating state of the spiritual life isis when the believer is raised higher than the level of his own powers,not of his own accord, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.
He describes this as a mystical life. He says,
"It is only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can testate of perfection and mystical union with God be reached."
This is called Asceticism which we will discuss in the next posting.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality by Fr. Dumitru Staniloae 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Significance of Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Compared to most protestant churches the Orthodox Church relies on the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit that was sent to the empower the Apostles on this day. We receive the Holy Spirit in our Baptism and Chrismation. It is involved in all the sacramental activities of the Church like Holy Confession, Holy Communion, Holy Matrimony, Ordination and so forth. It is our aim as an Orthodox Christian to be united with the Holy Spirit, to become united with God, or Theosis. Because our Church is alive with the Holy Spirit ever since that day of Pentecost, we know that salvation involves more than just a mental affirmation of our faith. We understand that we must work in synergy with Spirit to perfect ourselves so the Spirit within us can carry out God’s will. The Church, as a good spiritual hospital, gives us exercises, practices, rituals, services, and sacraments for this purpose. It's important to be active in all of these to purify our hearts, cleansing it from all sinfulness, from the passions of the body, of all the temptations of the activities of this world, so with His mercy we will be accepted into His Kingdom with eternal life.

What are we expected to do? First we must regularly participate in the Divine Liturgies and be prepared to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. This is for our renewal each week and gives us strength to continue as a Christian. At the moment when we receive Communion we are in union with our God. With Christ alive in our heart and permeating our entire body we continue to nurture our inner Spirit with daily prayer, both morning and evening, in our homes where we have made a special place with our icons, a cross, an oil lamp, prayerbook and Bible. Because we are by nature animals, we have instincts that we have to tame with our Spirit. This is why the Church has prescribed for us regular times for fasting. This is an essential discipline to realize we have within us a power that is greater than our bodily desires. This strengthens our will aligned with Spirit. To help us remember all that Christ taught us about how to live in this world we must also read a little of the Scriptures each day, especially the Gospels. Of course, when we reflect on our activities of the day, we realize how hard it is to live up to the ideals He taught us, and we seek His forgiveness for our shortcomings. Periodically, or whenever our mind is clouded by our inability to follow in His steps, we go to the sacrament of Confession where we again call on the Holy Spirit to cleanse and renew us like in our Baptism. We also know we need a spiritual father to guide us and to give us practical advice so we can continue to improve our way of life. As we go about our daily life we learn to carry the Jesus prayer with us as we do all things. We know we must put the needs of other first, showing our love for our neighbors as much as we love ourselves and our God. All of this brings to life the Holy Spirit that was sent to empower the Apostles on this day of Pentecost. We too can be empowered like them but we must be co-active with the Spirit. Coming to the service, reciting the creed, and listening to the sermon is not sufficient according to our tradition. There is a way of life that we must also follow. When we do, we will be led by the Wisdom of the Church to grow in Spirit and become more and more able to do His will at all times.

Let’s celebrate this great event and receive the Holy Spirit into our lives each day and work tirelessly using the practices given to us by the Apostles as they set up the first Orthodox Churches. In this way the day of Pentecost become living event for us each day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orthodox Christianity is an Integral Religion for Today and the Future

Orthodox Christianity integrates all forms of knowing. It has no conflict with scientific knowledge, it honors our emotions, it encourages intellectual understanding, and recognizes spiritual experience. It is historical and not based on mythical stories. It has a "yoga" or "way of life" that guides a follower to grow in their ways of knowing, seeking to live in dynamic presence of God. It recognizes the interior as well as the exterior reality of all things. It has a Tradition that is over 2000 years old. Yet it embraces the nature of our current world and the freedoms it espouses. It teaches universal values and  does not reject persons with differing values. It provides a shelter for those who seek to find peace and harmony in divine love. It provides a hospital for wounded souls. It's aim is integration of body, mind, soul, and Spirit without degrading the reality or importance of any of these dimensions. This is called Theosis, a union with God that does not require the loss of our individuality or personality.

We live in a historical time of transition. In ancient times there was no differentiation of the individual, society or community, and Spirit. Man was not free but constrained by mythical and pagan beliefs enforced by society, often under severe threat of punishment or even death. But our minds were opened to power of science, our hearts were freed for self expression, and we learned the importance of developing our intellect. Unfortunately we lost the power of Spirit in this transition as the power of intellect and power of scientific discoveries began to overpower and limit our full reality. Only what was observable in physical terms our demos treatable by clear logic became acceptable truth. This has led to much dysfunction and a loss of many universal values of Goodness.

Throughout this long historical period Orthodox Church survived with its holistic and integral world view. It is now is a position to lead mankind to a greater level of development where we retain our individuality, our freedom, but find peace and harmony though a realization of Spirit.

The Orthodox Church teaches that our world is the Creation of God and maintained by Spirit. When the time was right He sent His Son, Jesus, to show us this integral way of life. Jesus is not a mythical figure but his life has been recorded by four different witnesses to His life and time. His life is also validated by both Roman and Jewish historians, as well as recent archeological findings. Unfortunately many of the lessons He taught us have been misinterpreted by many who accept His realty leaving some with a flattened view of His lessons. The Orthodox Church never lost the integral nature of His life. It was defended by Seven Ecumenical Councils with the last one being held 1200 years ago. While for about 1000 years there was only one Church, today you can find more than a thousand versions. But the Orthodox Churh has stayed true to the origin teachings about the nature of Chrust and what He had to teach.

Jesus was both fully man and fully God and he taught us how to become like Himself. He struggled to convince people of His time that there is a greater realm than the physical. They wanted a powerful king but He was king of a greater realm. It was through His cruel and painful unjust death, followed by His resurrection witnessed by many, His teaching of disciples that followed and His empowerment of them by the Spirit that He still lives among us in the Orthodox Church.

He established a sacramental Church filled with the work of the Holy Spirit where peoples of all nations could be healed, nurtured by the Spirit, and lifted in their ways of knowing to experience the dynamic presence of God in their lives. He did not give them a book but a "way of life", a set of practices and disciplines along with sacraments where the Holy Spirit is fully engaged in a way that we are renewed.

To learn more about this integral way of life Jesus gave to us you will find Ten Points that will serve as a beginning guide to this way of life. The way begins with a belief, an acceptance of the realty of Jesus as a historical person as presented in the four Gospels and his dual nature as both God and man as defended by the Ecumenical Councils. With this belief the Ten Points will guide you along an ever growing path. The Spirit is enlivened in you, and you can develop a life grounded in an experienced knowledge of the mystical energies of God.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Is the Orthodox Church Biblical or Something More?

Orthodox Christianity is without a doubt more than Biblical. It is a living embodiment of Christ Himself.  It leads us to become joined in Union with God.  The Bible was given to us by the Church to make sure we clearly understand the nature of God as shown to us by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. But our religion is not just about understanding a book. Of course we must understand the realty recorded by the eyewitness of the time of Jesus and recorded int the New Testament Gospels, but we need much more to be united with Him and to become capable of doing His will.

The Church was founded by the disciples of Jesus after He had first taught them about the sacramental nature of the Church. This He did after His resurrection and then left this world and directed them to wait in prayer and fasting for the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost He empowered them with the Holy Spirit to carry the Good News about His life, death, resurrection, and the way to become renewed, to people throughout the world. 

Our faith often begins with an acceptance of the Biblical story told about Jesus by the writers of the Gospels written while there were still many eyewitnesses to the miraculous events that took place. But this mental effort only opens the door to a deeper spiritual life that goes beyond our intellectual understanding of these writings. 

In the Church we have more than the Sacred writings. We are given a way to live, a yoga, a set of practices that lead us to a personal experience of the energies of God. We are led to participate in His presence. Baptized with the water infused with the Holy Spirit, and receiving the seal of the Holy Spirit in our Chrismation with Holy Oil, we join other faithful Christians to participate regularly in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments that are offered regularly. After Baptism we are then able to partake in the actual spiritualized Body and Blood of Christ and in Holy Confession that continually cleanses our inner being renewing our Baptism. We are taught to develop a daily prayer life and to practice fasting to help us tame the physical and psychological passions we are tempted with. As we develop our love for God we strive to follow His directions. We find that this involves a struggle to overcome the many temptations presented to us though our physical nature and the ways of the world. This is why we have the Church. The Church provides us with a way to overcome our deficiencies and a way to nurture our souls. This way of life, striving always to live by God's commandments, is aided by these practices and guided by a spiritual father. This is the nature of the Church established by the Apostles.

Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlahos writes about how we differ from Protestants.
Protestants do not have a "therapeutic treatment" tradition. They suppose that believing in God, intellectually, constitutes salvation. Yet salvation is not a matter of intellectual acceptance of truth; rather it is a person's transformation and divinisation by grace. This transformation is effected by the analogous "treatment" of one's personality... In the Holy Scripture it appears that faith comes by hearing the Word and by experiencing "theoria" (the vision of God). We accept faith at first by hearing in order to be healed, and then we attain to faith by theoria, which saves man. Protestants, because they believe that the acceptance of the truths of faith, the theoretical acceptance of God's Revelation, i.e. faith by hearing saves man, do not have a "therapeutic tradition." It could be said that such a conception of salvation is very naive.
The Church was established by Christ as a hospital for our souls. It provides the means for healing the angst of our soul's silent yearning for unity with God, continually renewing the power of Spirit within each of us. Because of this the Orthodox Church is much more than a Book, more than Biblical. Christ did not come to give us a Book. In fact He did not write anything. What He gave to us was a way to participate in His presence, to become united with Him and to attain eternal life with Him.

See Ten Points For Living an Orthodox Way of Life 

Monday, April 25, 2016

What am I to do with my life?

We often hear people struggling trying to figure out how they can benefit mankind or society. Saint Theophan the Recluse reminds us that such questions are unnecessary questions. He says,
There is no reason to torture yourself with difficult problems. You need to put out of your mind any plans about “multi-beneficial, all-embracing, common-to-all mankind” activity...
Phrases such as “the good of mankind” and “the good of the people” are always on their tongues…they have in mind all mankind or at least all of its people lumped together. Probably you, after hearing so many profound ideas, were captivated by them, and when you turned your eyes to your real life, you saw with regret that you had vegetated in your family circle without benefit or purpose. Oh! Only now has someone opened your eyes! 
We must be careful about grand ideas or ideologies least we forget about our relationships with family and friends. What we are called to do as Christians is to first love God and second to love our neighbor with our whole heart. Our mission is to love, not save society or some general idea of mankind. We need to focus our attention on those who are right there in front of us. They are the ones we are to love, to help, to console, to understand. This is our purpose. So many are suffering in some way, let alone the many who lack even basic needs. If we live in an affluent neighborhood we are likely to ignore and forget about those who are in need just like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If fact, we often hear people disparaging those in real need as lazy or only looking for a hand out. When they do so they are speaking in generalities with a cold heart. When we face them and talk with them and listen to their story we find they are struggling with the basic elements of life.

What are we to do? We are to stop thinking of grand schemes and turn in love to those near us. Talk with them, listen to them, and show that you care about them. One by one we can help each other and in this way we can impact society or mankind. Don't wast time in general movements or causes. Open your eyes to what is directly in front of you.

Saint Theophan says,
Those who keep thoughts of the welfare of all mankind inattentively let slip by that which is in front of their eyes. Because they do not have the opportunity to perform a general work, and let slip by the opportunity to perform a particular work, they accomplish nothing towards the main purpose of life.
All troubles come from a mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.
Reference: The Spiritual Life, Chapters 16 & 17 

See points 8. Putting Others First and 9. Spiritual Fellowship in the Ten Point Program for Orthodox Life.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Buddhism and Eastern Asceticism Compared to Orthodox Christian Asceticism

By Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex

It is unfortunate that there is widespread confusion, not to mention delusion, in the inexperienced, whereby the Jesus Prayer is thought to be equivalent to yoga in Buddhism, or 'transcendental meditation', and other such Eastern exotica. Any similarity, however, is mostly external, and any inner convergence does not rise beyond the natural 'anatomy' of the human soul. The fundamental difference between Christianity and other beliefs and practices lies in the fact that the Jesus Prayer is based on the revelation of the One true living and personal God as Holy Trinity No other path admits any possibility of a living relationship between God and the person who prays. 

Eastern asceticism aims at divesting the mind of all that is relative and transitory, so that man may identify with the impersonal Absolute. This Absolute is believed to be man's original 'nature', which suffered degradation and degeneration by entering a multiform and ever-changing earth-bound life. Ascetic practice like this is, above all, centered upon the self, and is totally dependent on man's will. Its intellectual character betrays the fullness of human nature, in that it takes no account of the heart. Man's main struggle is to return to the anonymous Supra-personal Absolute and to be dissolved in it. He must therefore aspire to efface the soul (Atman) in order to be one with this anonymous ocean of the Suprapersonal Absolute, and in this lies its basically negative purpose. 

In his struggle to divest himself of all suffering and instability connected with transient life, the eastern ascetic immerses himself in the abstract and intellectual sphere of so-called pure Existence, a negative and impersonal sphere in which no vision of God is possible, only man's vision of himself. There is no place for the heart in this practice. Progress in this form of asceticism depends only on one's individual will to succeed. The Upanishads do not say anywhere that pride is an obstacle to spiritual progress, or that humility is a virtue. The positive dimension of Christian asceticism, in which self-denial leads to one's clothing with the heavenly man, to the assumption of a supernatural form of life, the Source of which is the One True, Self-revealing God, is obviously and totally absent. Even in its more noble expressions, the self-denial in Buddhism is only the insignificant half of the picture. In the mind's desire to return to its merely 'natural' self, it beholds its own nakedness in a 'cloud of divestiture'. But at this point there is a grave risk of obsession with itself, of its marvelling at its own luminous but created beauty, and worshipping the creature more than the Creator (Rom. 1:25). The mind has by now begun to deify or idolize its self and then, according to the words of the Lord, 'the last state of that man is worse than the first' (Matt. 12:45). 

Such are the limits of Eastern styles of contemplation, which do not claim to be the contemplation of God, and are in fact man's contemplation of himself. This does not go beyond the boundaries of created being, nor does it draw anywhere near to the Truth of primordial Being, to the uncreated living God Who has revealed Himself to man. This kind of practice may well afford some relaxation or sharpen man's psychological and intellectual functions, yet 'that which is born of the flesh is flesh' (John 3:6) and 'they that are in the flesh cannot please God' (Rom. 8:8). 

In order to be authentic, any divestiture of the mind from its passionate attachments to the visible and transitory elements of this life must be linked to the truth about man. When man sees himself as he is in the sight of God, his only response is one of repentance. Such repentance is itself a gift of God, and it generates a certain pain of the heart which not only detaches the mind from corruptible things, but also unites it to the unseen and eternal things of God. In other words, divestiture as an end in itself is only half the matter, and it consists of human effort operating on the level of Created being. Christianity on the other hand, enjoins the ascetic to strive in the hope and expectation that his soul will be clothed, invested, with the grace of God, which leads him into the fullness of the immortal life for which he knows he has been created. 

Many admire Buddha and compare him to Christ. Buddha is particularly attractive because of his compassionate understanding of man's condition and his eloquent teaching on freedom from suffering. But the Christian knows that Christ, the Only begotten Son of God, by His Passion, Cross, Death and Resurrection, willingly and sinlessly entered into the totality of human pain, transforming it into an expression of His perfect love. He thereby healed His creature from the mortal wound inflicted by the ancestral sin, and made it 'a new creation' unto eternal life. Pain of heart is therefore of great value in the practice of prayer, for its presence is a sign that the ascetic is not far from the true and holy path of love for God. If God, through suffering, showed His perfect love for us, similarly, man has the possibility, through suffering, to return his love to God. 

Consequently, prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer, and if we pray, it is an indication that we love God. If we do not pray, this indicates that we do not love God, for the measure of our prayer is the measure of our love for God. St. Silouan identifies love for God with prayer, and the Holy Fathers say that forgetfulness of God is the greatest of all passions, for it is the only passion that will not be fought by prayer through the Name of God. If we humble ourselves and invoke God's help, trusting in His love, we are given the strength to conquer any passion; but when we are unmindful of God, the enemy is free to slay us. 

The title was added for publication on this site. The untitled excerpt is from Chapter 5, "The Building Up of the Heart by Vigilance and Prayer". 

From The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology, by Archimandrite Zacharias (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2008), pp. 66-68. Copyright 2008, The Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, UK. Posted on 8/9/2008 with the permission of the publisher. 

Archimandrite Zacharias 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Necessity of Forgiveness

What happened in the parable Jesus taught about the king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants? This story is found in Matthew 18:21-35. It is a powerful story about the necessity of forgiveness. It clearly tells us that forgiveness is not an option if we want to be included in His kingdom.

The story is about a king (Jesus) who wants to settle up with his servants (us). One of his servants owed him a large amount (sinful living). Remember what the king told him because he was not able to repay his debt? Matthew writes, "his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had and that payment be made." Doesn't this seem a bit harsh? Why would Jesus say something like this? Isn't He saying that if we cannot pay for our sinfulness then, beware, we will face the worst penalty? This response from the king elicits fear in the servant seeing how powerful the king is and realizing the horrible consequences. He throws himself down on his face in front of the king and begs forgiveness saying he will do his best in the future to pay it all. And the king (Jesus) forgives him. This is what we are doing in Holy Confession. We know our God is most merciful if we do with humility seek forgiveness. And if we realize how severe the consequences are failing to do so, we will with haste seek it.

The story continues. 
This servant who received forgiveness goes about his business and one of his servants approaches him with a much smaller debt. The master threatens him with violence and the man falls on his face and asks for forgiveness. But unlike the action of the king, he denies any forgiveness and throws the debtor into prison. Here we have as a parallel, someone who has gone to Confession and sought forgiveness from God and received it, but when he goes about his life afterwards, he fails to offer the same forgiveness to others. What is the consequence of this?

The rest of the story. 
When the king heard about his unwillingness to forgive, he says, "You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?." His master was angry and then delivered him to the torturers. Jesus then says in conclusion, "So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart does not forgive his brother." So our failure to act like Him will result in torture! That torture in Orthodox understanding would be eternal separation from God and His grace.

But how often are we to forgive someone who continually offends us? When Peter asked the question of Jesus, "How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" Jesus answered him, "I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." In other words an infinite number of times. Just like there is no limit to how many time Jesus will forgive us we too have no limits in forgiving others. Forgiveness is not an option if we want to be united with Christ in His kingdom. No matter how often we are trespassed we are expected forgive just As He will forgive us in His unlimited mercy when we sincerely seek forgiveness and His help to change our ways.

We routinely recite in the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Remember this story that Jesus told each time you recite this prayer.

This is not an easy commandment. We all have buried in our subconsciousness feelings of remorse, of having been wronged, or resentment about certain actions of others even though the other person sought our forgiveness. Too often we have buried these incidents deep in our minds. To be united with God all these must be cleansed from our consciousness through a deep confession and true forgiveness. No matter how terrible is the offense we must be able to see the goodness in the other person as we are all made in God's image. We need to realize that we all suffer from temptations to do harm to others, that there is an evil force, demons, the devil, who cause us to do that which we do not really want to do. We condemn the evil and not the person.

Forgiveness is a requirement to be accepted into heaven. We must strive to become like Him in all ways. This is not an easy task and one we can only do with His grace. This is why it is so important to regularly participate in the sacraments of the Church, especially Holy Communion. Only in this way can we gain the strength of His grace.

Other posts on forgiveness

Ten Points of an Orthodox Way of Life.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Reduce stress: Live the Liturgical Cycles

Modern life is full of stress and busyness. We have many worries and find it difficult to cope with all that comes our way. This is the modern normal. How can you break this stressful situation? The Church has a great secrete for this. It's not really a secrete but is not widely known or followed.

What I am going to tell you is something I have experienced for myself. I am well aware of the stresses of today's life having lived a life buried in the corporate world. But I chose many years ago to change my life and follow the way of Life taught by the Orthodox Church.

Aside from a solid faith in teachings of Jesus Christ and the reality of His Incarnation, worldly life as Man and God, Crucifixion and Resurrection, His Church from the early days has prescribed a way of life that provides cycles that can help us gain greater harmony. These cycles are prescribed in the Liturgical calendar of the Church. There you will find periods set aside for inner reflection and purification. There are also periods for great celebration. These all coincide with the celebration of His life.

One such cycle is the one we are currently in, Great Lent. When this period begins were are taught from Scripture about humility, mercy of God, and power of forgiveness, repentance and renewal. These lessons lead us to a rather long period of fasting. As we prepare to fast we begin with an awareness of our shortcomings in relation to the teachings of our God and develop feelings of remorse out of our love for Him that we cannot live up to the ideals He teaches us. 

In preparing for the fast the first thing we do is examine our calendar and make sure we remove all that is not necessary and eliminate any optional social activity so we can make time for being quiet, reflecting, praying and worshiping. We commit ourselves to self-sacrifice in the food we eat, restricting our diet to the most basic of foods. This is a discipline to help us gain control over our physical and psychological desires that can so easy enslave us in bad habits. This simple change in diet also helps us to think about all the virtues that require a bit of self-sacrifice. It's not easy to do this but engaging in this cycle brings us great rewards. After this five week period we are prepared for the most moving week reliving of the Passion of Christ, Holy Week.

The cycle deepens and we are prepared. This is definitely a period where we must make plans to attend ALL the services of this week. At the end is the glorious celebration of His Resurrection and the proclamation of His victory over death and our hope of eternal life, Pascha. Here the quiet period ends, even the colors in the church change to bright white and we enter into a week long period of celebration. The cycle shifts to an enjoyment of all the pleasures of food and drink and social activity with family and friends and all the goodness of this world that God has created for us to enjoy.

Such a cycle as prescribed by the church causes us to break with our normal routines and to examine the modern normal way of life that leads us to so much stress. If we engage in this cycle, we are likely to choose to make some changes for the rest of the year. Then, each year as we repeat this cycle, more improvements are made and step by step we are transformed into a new way of life that enables us to face all the realities of modern life with less stress and with Christ continually at our side. Think about how the Church in her great wisdom has given us the guidelines for including such a cycle in our life. Think about what a gift this is! It is important to examine it, and most importantly to choose to follow the guidelines. It creates a renewing experience that is for the health of our soul.

The Church also has other similar cycles during the year that also provide a break in our routine and renewal. There is the fast in preparation for the falling asleep of the Mother of God. It is shorter being only two weeks and comes at the peak of summer in August. Another which is not as strict is the preparation for the birth of Christ. The Church calls us to restrain our activities in the weeks leading up to Christmas and then to celebrate for 12 full days following. Today this cycle is missing from our lives and most of us find ourselves stressed by this over commercialized holiday period.

There are more, but what is important to think about is the wisdom the Church provides for our well being, for the health of our soul, for a life based on love and peace, for our preparation for eternal life with Christ in His kingdom.

You don't need self-help books, no TV guru to guide you, nor a yoga class to relieve stress. Simply follow what is hidden in the wisdom of the the Orthodox Church and follow it. It is that simple. It will bring you grace and you will gain strength you did not know you had access too. You will experience His presence and your life will become one that is closer to what He teaches.

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Monday, March 28, 2016

Are You Attending Church Just in Case God is Real?

I saw this headline the other day and thought how common this view is today. The story was about the many people who find themselves in Church on Easter and Christmas and other times who are not real belivers. They say they go, "Just in case God is Real." It seems there are so many Orthodox Christians who appear to share this way of thinking. They come to church on Sunday,"Just in Case!" They don't follow the practices taught by the Church. They don't participate regularly in the Sacraments. They don't have a true faith. They only come to Church periodically "just in case!"

Why have so many lost sight of the reality of our existence? Why have they lost sight of the wisdom of the ages? Why do they ignore the wisdom of our elders? Why is there so much hatred around us? Why are we so angry in our political arena? Why do we expose our hatreds on social media? Has religion become something we now do "just in case"?

The current period in the Orthodox Church is a sober fasting period, Great Lent. It is a period set aside by the Church for spiritual renewal, repentance and introspection. Yet when I look on social media I see so many engaging in great feasts, seeking pleasure where there is is but temporary relief from the realities of our worldly life, totally ignoring the traditional practices taught by the Church for our betterment during this special period. It seems there is too much ignorance of the teachings of the Church and its proven path. Only a few attend the special services we have during this period. Most do not even fast in any way. I want to scream, Wake Up! 

I must admit that there were times in my life that I did not have a clue what life was about. I too was a continual pleasure seeker. I was not aware of the benefits of the fasting periods like Great Lent. Church was just another obligation. I know well the pitfalls of this way of life. I traveled the world seeking pleasures in fancy resorts. I've been to Bora Bora, to Hawaii, to remote African beaches, to Mediterranean spas, Greek islands, to the resorts along our ocean coasts, and on and on. What for? Seeking relief from a frantic way of life that seemed to have no other purpose but self-gratification. 

Then, while I was working on a PhD, the reality of life suddenly became clear to me. I realized that there is hope of an eternal life. I realized that Jesus Christ cannot be denied. Fortunately, I had married into a Greek family who was tied to the Orthodox Christian faith. This became a center, a rock, a foundation that is unshakable. It is a form of the Christian faith that has not changed over time. When I surrendered to its teachings and practices my life began to change. My purpose was redirected to one of seeking a unity with God, to become united with Him. My heart had hardened and needed to be renewed with love. I gave up such esoteric practices like Eastern meditation and instead sought the Triune God that is within each of us. Yes, I am still a sinner, but I am now working on the well being of my soul.

The Church is filled with storehouses of wisdom. Please, pay attention! Not only is there the documentation of the Incarnation of the Son of God for our salvation, His life, His suffering, Crucifixion, Resurrection and then the establishment of His Church through the miraculous work of His disciples who were empowered by the Holy Spirit, but there is much more. There is an simpler and easier way of life that Jesus taught us. The Orthodox Church emphasizes this and shows us how to gain true joy step by step. Not the temporary joy we get from our pleasure excursions to a local bar or restaurant or seaside villa, but the joy that comes from an inner peace where one is in communion with a most merciful and loving God. It is the joy of a unity with the source of our life and the understanding of the eternal nature of our life. It comes with he realization that our earthly life is a time to prepare for what is to come. This wisdom is a gift from an ever merciful God who loves us and forgives.

I cry out, Wake up! Seek out the teachings of the Scriptures and the way of life taught by the Church! Learn how to pray in ernest daily, morning and night. Follow the fasting guidelines to develop an inner discipline. Attend the worship services out of a love and a desire to be united with Him in Holy Communion, not just to listen to the beautiful hymns or hear a good sermon. Read a little Scripture each day seeking to know Him and his teaching. Read some of the commentaries of the Church Fathers. Fill your home and work area with icons that help you remember all that He teaches. Form social groups of those who are true believers, not just social cliques or ties to ethnic traditions or old school buddies. Seek out a spiritual father who can guide you in a deep spiritual nature, someone who you will trust to guide you in the way of life that leads to true joy.

The path is simple. It's outlined in the ten principles of the Orthodox Way of life.  If you want your life renewed and fulfilled just follow it. You will not feel like you have given up anything and instead will feel like you have gained everything.  Try It!

Attend Church because you know God is real! Develop your love for Him! Work on it. Don't participate "Just in Case."

Ten Point Program for an Orthodox Way of Life.