Love and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

On the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate in the Church   St. John Climacus , 7th Century monk and spiritual writer.

“The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus (c. 579-649) colorfully and skillfully paints for us an icon of man’s progression to perfection – or completeness – in the spiritual life which, in its fullness, is nothing less than union with and participation in the divine nature of the one true God, the Holy Trinity. But St. John warns us that there is only one proper motive for setting out on this path and that is love for God. In the first step of his allegorical ladder, he says: ‘ The man who renounces the world from fear is like burning incense that begins with fragrance but ends in smoke. He who leaves the world through hope of reward is like a millstone that always moves in the same way. But he who withdraws from the world out of love for God has obtained fire at the very outset; and like fire set to fuel, it soon kindles a larger fire.’ Neither fear of God, nor hope of reward then, are wholly appropriate reasons for setting foot on the ladder. It is far better to do so out of love, and our God must be our First Love!” (Bishop Basil of Wichita in Remember Thy First Love by Archimandrite Zacharias, p 9)

Spiritual Warfare: The Struggle Within

“The greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.(…) In order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own will, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown – attainment of your desired aim – is given to no one except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers. But if this is the hardest of all wars – since, in fighting against ourselves, it is in ourselves that we meet opposition – victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God.(…)

Finally, after learning what constitutes Christian perfection and that to achieve it you must wage a constant cruel war with yourself, if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trust worthy and unconquerable of all, namely: a) never rely on yourself in anything; b) always bear in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; c) strive without ceasing; and d) remain constantly in prayer.” (St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in For the Peace from Above, edited by Fr. Hildo Bos, p 198)

In Memoriam: Fr. Tom Hopko

TomHopko (2)Yesterday,  Fr. Tom Hopko fell asleep in the Lord.  Many encomiums will be written rightfully extolling his service to the Church.  Deserving eulogies will be offered to appropriately honor him.  I can only say that he had a profound impact on my life as a child – he was my parish priest from when I was age 9 to about age 14 when he moved to New York.  He then initiated a correspondence when I was about 18 and had wandered away from the church.  It was that correspondence which led me back to the church and then into seminary.  My life as a priest thankfully resulted from his taking time to talk with me.  Through the years following seminary I can’t say I kept in close contact with Fr. Tom, but his words and wisdom were and are foundational to my life.  I am grateful to him and also to his family who had to share him with so many others.  May he now rest with the saints.

 And I heard a voice from heaven saying,

“Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.”

“Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” 

(Revelations 14:13)

A History of the Presanctified Gifts Liturgy

As we learn from church historians and liturgical theologians, the practices and rituals of the Orthodox Church have undergone significant changes through the centuries.   Liturgical changes can occur in the church for practical reasons, due to changing historical circumstances, because understandings of rites and rituals change, or to better serve and instruct the faithful.  The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is very identified with Great Lent and is served on certain weekdays throughout Lent.  Like all Orthodox services it has undergone numerous changes.  This is to be expected in a church which is a living body and responds to both the needs of its members as well as to the ever-changing world in which we witness to Christ.  Archimandrite Job Getcha writes about the Liturgy:

“We should be aware of the fact that, from the origin of the Presanctified Liturgy around the sixth century, and until the ninth century, not only was the consecrated bread preserved, but also a chalice containing the consecrated wine. They were kept on the prosthesis table, from which they were again placed on the altar table during the great entrance of the Presanctified Liturgy. As a result of the difficulty and the danger of keeping a chalice full of consecrated wine, the practice of intincting the consecrated bread with the consecrated wine appeared, probably in the ninth century, in southern Italy. Only in the fifteenth century was this practice adopted in Constantinople and in the Byzantine world.”

So the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts changed because of very practical concerns:  keeping a full chalice of the consecrated Blood of Christ was risky due to the threat of spilling the chalice.  So our current practice of intinction – keeping the consecrated Body  with small amounts of the Blood of Christ on it – was introduced to deal with a problem created by a liturgical practice.  The need for the liturgy with the Presanctified Gifts was itself the result of other liturgical piety that had changed and become regulated by canon law in 692AD.

“This Constantinopolitan practice was established by Canon 52 of the Council in Trullo, which states:

On the days of Great Lent, except on Saturdays, Sundays, and the holy day of Annunciation, no liturgy may be celebrated except that of the Presanctified Gifts.

As M. Arranz explains:

In the seventh century, the reception of communion must have been considered as breaking the fast; also, because the Eucharistic liturgy (apart from the great vigils of Christmas, Epiphany, and Easter, as well as the completely exceptional day of Holy Thursday) was celebrated only during the morning hours, Canon 52 of Trullo, while admitting the exception of Annunciation, fixes the time of communions from the Presanctified gifts at the end of the day, even after vespers, to ensure the seriousness of the fast during Great Lent. ”

(The Typikon Decoded, p 161 & 170)

Reclaiming St. Patrick for Christ

St. Patrick of Ireland (d. 461AD) has  the unfortunate fate of having his name and feast day (March 17) associated with drunkenness rather than with godliness.

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) mentions that such sad displays of converting saint’s feasts into the feasts of sinners was already common in his day among Orthodox people.

When on the feasts commemorating the saints we all take a holiday from our trades and businesses, we should occupy our minds with the question of how we can distance ourselves from the sins and defilements into which each of us has fallen, and become free of them. On the other hand, if we amuse ourselves to the detriment of our souls, pay no attention and get drunk, how can we claim to be celebrating the saints, since we have made the day impure? I beg you, brethren, let us not keep the feasts like that, but let us, like the saints, present our bodies and souls as a pleasing offering to God on these days of celebration, that by the prayers of the saints we may come to share in that endless festival and joy.    (On the Saints: Sermons, Kindle Location 1231-1235)

While we may not be able to change what the world has done to St. Patrick’s reputation, we can honor the blessed saint as St. Gregory Palamas suggests – in our hearts and homes, we can use the day to turn to God even while living in a world that attempts to turn us away from God.   This is a day for us to practice sobriety in all things.

The Spiritual Child Overcoming Sin

“A brother questioned Abba Poemen, saying, ‘I am losing my soul through living near my abba; should I go on living with him?’ The old man knew that he was finding this harmful and he was surprised that he even asked if he should stay there. So he said to him, ‘Stay if you want to.’

The brother left him and stayed on there. He came back again and said, ‘I am losing my soul.’ But the old man did not tell him to leave.

He came a third time and said, ‘I really cannot stay there any longer.’ Then Abba Poemen said, ‘Now you are saving yourself; go away and do not stay with him any longer,’ and he added, ‘When someone sees that he is in danger of losing his soul, he does not need to ask advice. It is right to ask about secret thoughts and then it is up to the old man to test them; but with visible faults, do not ask; cut them off at once.’ ”

(Poemen in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p 193)

The Mystical Sign of the Cross

“These are the mysteries which the holy form of the Cross bears; it is the cause of the miracles which the Creator performs through it in the entire world. Such is (the form of the Cross) which is joyfully revered and held in honor by us, while the reason for it was eternally marked out in the mind of the Creator, for His intention was to give to all, by means of this form, knowledge of his glory, and the liberation which He was going to take, through its means, for all humanity.

Blessed is God who uses corporeal objects continually to draw us close in a symbolic way to a knowledge of His invisible (nature), sowing and marking out in our minds the recollection of His care for us which has been in operation throughout all generations (thus) binding our minds with love for His hidden Being by means of shapes that are visible.”  (Isaac of Ninevah (Isaac the Syrian), The Second Part: Chap IV-XLI translated by Sebastian Brock, pp 61-62)

The Command to Take Up Your Cross

On the third Sunday of Great Lent we read the Gospel of Mark 8:34-9:1 as we commemorate the  precious life-giving Cross of our Lord:

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”

Fr. John Garvey (d. 2015) writes: 

“We believe that God has been revealed in Christ crucified, in the person who died a shameful death for us. The God we see in the incarnate Christ is the only God that exists. This is how we understand what it means to be God’s son, what kind of Father God is, who the Spirit is and why the Spirit was sent. This certainly upsets certain prevailing notions of power, and if this is the God who is also creator, sustainer of the universes, king of kings, lord of lords, if this is the revelation of the Father’s love, then things are not as we thought they were or would like them to be. All of us love the control given to us by the idea we have of God and our relationship to God; we love to think that our kinship is one where we retain some hold, where we manage the degree of our commitment. But our being is completely contingent on the love of God revealed in Christ crucified. We do not naturally participate in that life. It is offered to us as a gift by the One who wills us into being, moment by moment. The important thing for us is to understand that it is a gift, and the proper response to a gift is gratitude. Of course the Christ we see on the cross would not be good news if that were the end of it. But before moving too glibly to the resurrection, it is important to see that the cross really is the obvious and crushing truth of too many lives, and the truth finally of all lives.

When Jesus says that we must take up out cross and follow Him, He does not suggest that we will not be crucified if we choose not to be. We will be crucified in any event. How will we respond to it? How will we see, straight on, the fact that all of us will suffer and die, or (if we avoid this by being hit by a fast-moving bus) we will see the suffering and death of people we love? He speaks of ‘taking up your cross’ as if the assumption is that the cross will be there, whether we feel like taking it up or not. And not taking it up – given its inevitability – reminds me of a terrifying line from Tolstoy: After a stupid life there shall come a stupid death. The cross is there. Most interesting philosophical thought has been a result of looking dimly, obliquely, at what the cross presents us with explicitly. The good suffer, as do the evil, as do we all. And still we say that God is good, the world is good, life is good. In speaking about the resurrection, Christians say that the power of death has been overcome. The Orthodox liturgy sings at Easter, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.’ We say this, knowing that we still live in a world where death seems to reign, a world in which suffering continues. But we insist that the reasons for hope lie not only in the future, but are present with us now. We eat and drink now the bread and wine of the kingdom to come – even as we wait for its coming.” (Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox, pp 79-82)

Confession as Love and Communion

“Our culture encourages us from an early age to be strong and assertive, to handle matters alone. Yet, for the spiritual wisdom of the early desert, such a way is false; it is, in fact, the way of the Devil. For ‘we are members one of another’ (Rom. 12:5), not islands unto ourselves. And the Orthodox spiritual way proposes a variety of contexts within which we may begin to open our hearts and affirm the communion that exists among us: these include the sacramental way of confessing to a parish priest and the spiritual way of sharing with an experienced elder, whether male or female. People need others because often the wounds that they feel are too deep to admit to themselves; sometimes, the evil is too painful to confront alone. The sign, then, according to the Orthodox spiritual way, that one is on the right track is the ability to share with someone else. This is, of course, precisely the essence of the sacrament of confession or reconciliation. Yet repentance (or metanoia) should not be seen in terms of remorse, but rather in terms of reconciliation, restoration, and reintegration. Confession is not some kind of transaction or deal; it defies mechanical definition and can never be reduced in a juridical manner merely to the – albeit significant – act of absolution.

Confession is not some narcissistic self-reflection. Sin is always understood in Orthodox spirituality as a rupture in the ‘I-Thou’ relationship of the world; otherwise metanoia could easily lead to paranoia. Instead, genuine confession always issues in communion; it is ultimately the ability to utter, together with at least one person, ‘Our Father’. It is the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mystery of communion, lived out day by day.” (John Chryssavgis in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p 160)

Pray for the Salvation of All

St. Cyprian of Carthage who was martyred in 258AD writes:

“It may also be understood, dearest brothers, that just as the Lord commands and counsels us to love even our enemies and also to pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5.44), so we pray also for those who are still earth, and have not yet embarked upon being heavenly, and pray that the will of God be done among them, as did Christ in his salvation and restoration of humanity. For since the disciples are no longer called “earth” by him but “salt of the earth” (Mt 5.13), and the apostle states that the first man is from the dust of the earth, but that the second is from the heaven (1 Cor 15.47), it is fitting that we should be like God the Father, who causes the sun to rise on the good and the wicked, and rains on the just and the unjust (Mt 5.45); and so we should pray and intercede as Christ counsels us, and make intercession for the salvation of all, so that just as the will of God is done in heaven, that is in us, through our faith, with the result that we are in heaven, so also the will of God should be done on earth, that is among those who do not believe, so that those who are earthly from their original birth should begin to be heavenly, being born of water and the Spirit (Jn 3.5).”   (On The Lord’s Prayer, Kindle Loc. 1542-55)