Practice Hearing God

For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind…”  (Wisdom of Solomon 1:5)

There is a bit of wisdom that I’ve seen even on a bumper sticker which says: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think“.   One can find similar warnings in Orthodox spiritual literature where one’s constant buzz of thoughts are sometimes compared to a swarm of bees, or worse, a swarm of flies (and we know what attracts flies!).  Or this from Sirach  – “The heart of a fool is like a cart wheel, and his thoughts like a turning axle” (33:5).   Our minds are always busy – always turning, but the spiritual literature says we can learn to discern our own thoughts better by slowly, gently ignoring some of them until we are able to hear another voice – that of God.  Especially if we have allowed God’s Word to enter into our hearts and minds through attending liturgical services, reading scripture and through prayer.   Fr. Meletios Webber writes:

“For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts–not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness–a place of love, joy, peace, and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.” (“When Taking Cover Is Not Enough”, In Communion, p. 14).

Spiritual directors warn that if we only read those passages of Scripture which we like or agree with, then we aren’t listening to God but are only listening to ourselves.  If we read the Scriptures through our political bent, we shaped the Scriptures into a text that agrees with us.  It is much harder to allow the Scriptures to speak to us and far easier for us to read into them what we want them to say.  So the Lord Jesus teaches:

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

People who have memorized a text and repeat it often, sometimes don’t even notice when the written text has been changed, even when it is right in front of them.  They are not reading the text, but rather saying what their mind has already believed the text to say.   Sometimes they literally can’t even see the change in the text because their brain expects the text to say what it has memorized.   So the person has to slow down their mind, and actually pay attention to the text which is before them.  Sometimes they stumble over the words, sometimes the different words appear and they suddenly realize what they are saying is different than the text before their eyes and they feel the cognitive dissonance as they say one thing but read something different.  Sometimes they have to stop and actually read the printed words carefully and intentionally.  That is the experience that Fr Webber is describing: how it is necessary at times to slow our thinking down and filter some of the thoughts so that we can actually hear that voice from God who speaks to us but who we drown out with all the other things to which we want to pay attention.

We might consider the experience of the Holy Prophet Elijah who didn’t find God in the explosion winds, earthquake or fire, and all the thoughts that resulted from them.  Rather, only when all else had been cleared from his mind did Elijah hear the “still small voice” which was God speaking to him.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

The Origins of the Apostle’s Fast

Fr. Paul N. Harrilchak notes in his book, The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church (p 211), that the origins of the Apostle’s Fast are rooted in the ancient Christian practice that there was no fasting or penitential kneeling in the Church for the 50 days from Pascha to Pentecost, which for many centuries was treated as one continuous and great Feast in the Church which lasted 7 weeks plus one day.   In the 4th Century according to documents, following this totally fast-free fifty day festal period, plus an additional week of feasting after Pentecost, a one week fast was observed.  That one week fast which began 8 days after Pentecost morphed, under monastic influence in recent centuries, into the Apostle’s Fast which now stretches from the Monday after All Saints Day until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on June 29.  Because Pascha and Pentecost are movable feasts, the length of the Apostle’s fast changes each year.

After having celebrated Pentecost, keep a feast for one week, and after that keep a fast for one week [origin of the so-called Apostles’ Fast–Ed.]: for it is right to rejoice over the Gift of God [meaning the Descent of the Holy Spirit–Ed.], and then to keep a fast after the time of relaxation [of Wednesday/Friday fasting during the 50-day Paschal/Pentecost season]. (Apostolic Constitutions, Syria (ca. 380 A.D.).  

Purity of Heart: Not Just Skin Deep

“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres.  They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…

St. John the Forerunner

External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.”    (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)

Saints of North America

Expressing the Holy Trinity in Ourselves

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god.

The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves. This idea of a personal and organic union between God and humans — God dwelling in us, and we in Him — is a constant theme in the Epistles of St Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life ‘in Christ’. The same idea recurs in the famous text of 2 Peter: ‘Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature’ (i,4).

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 225)

The Promise Not Through the Law

In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 4:13-27, he writes:
 
5512468731_22bbe5a554_mFor the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.  For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression.  Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.  (Revised Standard Version)
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The Revised English Bible translates 4:13 as:
“It was not through the law that Abraham and his descendants were given the promise that the world should be their inheritance, but through righteousness that came with faith.”
St. Paul’s point is clear – his reading of the Torah is that God didn’t make His promise to the Jews through Moses, after giving Moses the Law.  It was not through the Law, or in relationship to it, that God would fulfill His promise or that the Jews would inherit the world.  The promise was given long before the commandments were given to Moses.  The promise was given to Abraham and required a response of faith/faithfulness.  As St. Paul reads the Torah, the promise of God to inherit the world ultimately is a promise about the Messiah and His eternal Kingdom.  The point is clear that the promise of God, namely the Messiah, does not come through faithful adherence to the Law.  The promise is given to those who respond in faith, for it is those who live by faith who are truly God’s people and the inheritors of God’s promise.
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Those who continue to try to conform to some law, whether Torah or Christian tradition, are still trying to live by adherence to the law rather than by faith – they are following Moses rather than Abraham, and for St. Paul Christ is faithful like Abraham, not a law giver like Moses.

A Greatly Troubled Heart

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)

The Scriptures and Orthodox theology are clear that God is not just a super human being – God is not merely an omnipotent and omniscient human writ large.  God is totally other, and whatever words we might apply to us humans – being, nature, person, existing – cannot then rightfully be applied to God.  Or, conversely, if we use words like being, existence, nature for God, then we can’t also use them for humans or any part of creation.  God is clearly a transcendent being, not limited by space and time, but rather we all exist within God (Acts 17:28).

And yet . . . Scriptures also contain images of God which are quite anthropomorphic – in which God is quite humanized.  Or, at least our experience of God and our description of the encounter with God is put purely in human terms.  For the transcendent God is also immanent and in God’s closeness to us we experience God in ways we understand – as Father and mother, as love and lover.   We come to realize that when God says that we humans are made in God’s image and likeness, we are closer to God than we imagine, and God is much closer to us than dogmatic theology can ever reveal.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious . . .   He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.  (Psalm 147:1-4)

The same God who creates the heavens and the earth, the stars and the entire universe, is also near the brokenhearted.  And, there may be good reason for God’s being near the brokenhearted, as we see in the opening Scripture verse of this blog: for God experienced grief from, through and in the humans God had created.

Some probably are not much impressed with a God whose reaction to human sin and violence is inner grief and brokenheartedness.   “Why doesn’t God just fix what’s wrong with humans and creation!?!”

The God who not only loves creation but Who is love, suffers because of and with and in creation.  The transcendent God who lives in all eternity who is incomprehensible, ineffable and indescribable, still reveals Himself in terms that we can relate to and experience.   This is all part of the great mystery of God.  God doesn’t have blood vessels or a stomach or a throat or a blood-pumping heart, and yet God’s reaction to fallen creation is described in visceral terms.   God knows our pain and still loves us.  God is willing to suffer pain because of us and with us and for us.  Jesus, the incarnate God, experiences this pain and brokenheartedness.

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:32-38)

Jesus wished that the hour of His death might be avoided and was troubled to the heart of His being.  Yet in love, He knew He would endure such heartbreak to deliver humanity from slavery to sin and death.  He took upon Himself the sin of the world, and suffered.  Yet, He said to His disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  (John 14:27)

Even though Christ experienced pain in His own heart, brokenheartedness, grief and distress, He tells us not to let our hearts be troubled.   We are to trust in Him . . . which we find on a daily level to be very difficult to do because we do not see how that trust will alleviate the pain and suffering and problems we must endure.  Christ did not tell us that our lives would be trouble free.  Rather, He promised us tribulation – that tribulation which grieved God at the beginning of creation and which distressed Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

When we grieve and are brokenhearted because of the world, God is near to us.  And God’s promise is that the pain and sorrow of this world are not the last word, for God promises us Good News.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelations 21:3-4)

2017 Post-Paschal Sunday Themes (PDF)

35162626346_7af8369baf_mI have gathered all of the 2017 posts from my blog related to the Sundays after Pascha into one document which is now available for viewing.  You can find that document at 2017 Post-Paschal Sundays (PDF).

You can find PDF links for all of the blogs I posted for each of the past 10 years for Great Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, Post-Paschal Sundays and many other topics at  Fr. Ted’s PDFs.

Making Christ Your Greatest Love

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”   (Matthew 10:37-38)

St. Brigid of Ireland

“If you worship Christ in your heart, you can save your kinsfolk as well as yourself; if your heart worships father and mother, son and daughter, you will certainly lose both yourself and them. For whoever denies Christ before the world, him will Christ deny at the Last Judgement before His heavenly Father and all the hosts of angels and saints.

(Saint Isidore of Pelusium wrote to Philetus the Mayor, who was downcast at not having got into the eminent society that he craved:

‘Glory in this life is of less significance than a spider’s web, and more insubstantial than dreams; therefore lift up your mind to what is of first importance, and you will easily calm your saddened soul. He who seeks the one glory and the other cannot attain them both. It is possible to achieve both only when we seek, not both but one: heavenly , glory. Therefore, if you desire glory, seek divine, heavenly glory, and earthly glory will often follow on from it.’  (Letter 5, p. 152)

The Lord made it clear to the apostles that this moment of decision is difficult saying, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” – that is, his family, that will hold him back from following Christ more than anyone else in the world, and who will condemn him the most strongly if he does so. For indeed, it is not our enemies who bind us to this world, but our friends; not strangers but our kinsfolk.”   (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, pp. 4-5).

Make Holiness Perfect (2 Cor 7:1)

For I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.  (Leviticus 11:44)

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In any English translation of the New Testament, a host of English words are necessary to capture the full range of basically one Greek word – agios.    We need all of these English words to encompass the various uses of agios in Greek:  holy, holiness, saint, sanctify and sanctification.   In the New Testament, the basic Greek word for holy is used about 260 times.  About 90 times it is used in conjunction with God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit.  It is used about 120 times to refer in one way or another to humans, God’s people, individuals, prophets, believers.  It is also used in reference to Jesus, God, the temple, a place/city, angels, a kiss, the Law, Scripture and the covenant.   If we take away all of the references to the Holy Spirit, we see that holiness in the New Testament is most often used about people, the believers, the Church members.   Almost never in the New Testament is it used about things – Holy Water, Holy Icon, Holy Chalice, Holy Vestments, etc.   We have the Sunday of All Saints, which is all the people who are holy.  This Sunday follows Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit.   Holiness is about us and our way of life more than about miracles and magic taking hold of things and making them holy.

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Holiness in the New Testament is far more a state of being for humans and also the way we live.  The New Testament does not focus on holy things and doesn’t tell believers to do so either.  Holiness is more dynamic and puts us in relationship with God.  Holiness courses through our lives and is expanding the Church in baptism, the Eucharist, our growing in faith and love.   Theosis is our participation in God’s holiness.

Holiness does not get concentrated in things which we stand around to reverence or feel some closeness to God.  In the New Testament we don’t look to things to experience holiness, for holiness is to be present in our daily lives.

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We can look at a few passages from the New Testament and we get this sense that holiness is much more about us and what we are and what we are to do.  In each passage below the holiness word is emphasized.

Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth.  (john 17:7)

But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:11)

May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:23)

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  (Heb 12:14)

and make holiness perfect in the fear of God. (2 Cor 7:1)

While God sanctifies us (makes us holy), obviously holiness is also something we can strive and something we can make perfect.  Holiness is not merely something God bestows on us, it is also something we can shape and develop in our own lives.  Holiness is thus a force in our lives, which is both given to us by God and shaped by our own lives and how we follow Christ.  God commands us to be holy!  It is something within our power to do.

Holiness as such is not some magic which makes “things” holy, but rather the very force in our lives which unites us to God.  Holiness is active in our hearts and minds – in our spirit, soul and body.  Holiness is not just for the soul, but it is for our entire being as humans and is to be present in every aspect of our humanity.  We show holiness in our lives not only in worship or in participating in the sacraments but also in stewardship, tithing, generosity, loving, forgiving, asking forgiveness, obeying Christ, being charitable, merciful, peacemakers and in all the ways we practice our discipleship.

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Orthodox often flock to where they believe holiness is – in an icon, in a monastery, in a church, in the Holy Fire.  The New Testament on the other hand points out that holiness is not so much to be sought out in things, but is to be lived in our hearts, souls, minds and bodies.  We can’t make holiness perfect in things – Holy Icons or Holy Fire – we can only perfect it in ourselves.

Renouncing Satan – Embracing Christ

Kenyan Catechumens renounce Satan.

The following exhortation is found in some Orthodox books preparing catechumens for reception into the Church on Holy Saturday.   These words are said to the catechumens on the evening before their baptisms/chrismations.  They are final instructions to remind the catechumen what they have agreed to live and do as a result of their choosing to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate All Saints Day in the Orthodox Church, we are reminded that all of us are called and baptized to be saints, God’s holy people.  This requires much from us. 

“This marks the conclusion of your catechesis. The time of your redemption has come. Today, you are about to sign a contract with your faith in Christ. The paper, the ink, and the pen are your conscience, your tongue, and your new habit of life. Therefore, take heed as to how you inscribe your confession. Do not go astray from it, lest you be deceived. They that are about to die put their affairs in order and they designate heirs to their possessions, this one this, and that one that. Well, tomorrow night you are to die to sin. So now put your affairs in order and perform your renunciation as a testament. Assign the devil as heir to sin. Leave to him your sins as his ancestral inheritance. If any of you possesses anything of the devil in his soul, let him cast it at him.

He who dies no longer has authority over his possessions, so let not anyone of you have anything of the devil in his soul. And in so doing, stand and hold out your hands as though being examined by angels.

Let nothing of the devil’s affairs be hidden by you.

Let no one hold on to enmity;

let no one harbor anger;

let no one stand with dissimulation;

let no one listen with hypocrisy.

Cast at the devil all filth and superfluity of evil. You stand here as captives, for such as you does Christ buy back. As each of you sees and hates the devil, so shall each of you blow on him. Enter within your conscience; examine your heart; take heed to what each one has done. If there is anything contrary in you, spit it out with that act of blowing on the devil. Let there not be here any Judas of hypocrisy! Let no one have any doubts about the Mystery. The Word of God examines our hearts, as it is sharper than any two-edged sword. Now the devil has taken his stand in the west, as he grinds his teeth, pulls his hair, wrings his hands, and bites his lips in rage; he laments his loss and loses his faith over your freedom. Now Christ stands before you, over opposite the devil, so that as you renounce him and blow on him, you may take up war against him.

In the west the devil has taken his stand, where is the beginning of darkness. Begin to renounce him and blow on him! Then turn about to the east and align yourselves with Christ. Let no one despise him; stand ye with fear! The present matters are all fearful and awesome. All the powers of heaven stand present here. All the angels and archangels are invisibly writing down your utterances.” (Services of Initiation into the Holy Orthodox-Catholic and Apostolic Church, pp. 150-151)