Counsels on Confession

The person who possesses knowledge and knows the truth confesses to God not by reminding himself of things he has done, but by patiently enduring what happens to him.  (St. Mark the MonkCounsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 2664-2666)

As we move into the Nativity Fast, it is a good time for us to examine our consciences to see what is in our hearts, and to know of what we need to repent in order to follow Christ.  For basically repentance is removing all those obstacles from our hearts and lives that prevent us from being faithful disciples of Christ.  Confession occurs not just when we go to the sacrament, but daily when we admit our faults and failures to our Lord.  As St Mark the Monk notes above confession occurs daily when we realize that much of what happens to us is the result of our own choices and because we live in a fallen world.  When we recognize the effects of the Fall on our daily lives, we are admitting that the power of sin in the world is noticeable – both in how we behave and how others behave toward us.  The fact that life is not fair, that sin abounds, tells us this is the world of the Fall.  There is a reality that the only person we can change in the world is our self.   [This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for justice.  It does mean that we must never cease struggling against the sin which is in our own hearts.]

St. Basil  the Great rejected any idea of predestination or pre-determination based on the inescapable power of original sin.  If everything is predetermined by original sin or by genetic makeup then indeed even efforts for justice, correction and reform are worthless since we would only be struggling against an all-powerful fate over which we can never win.  We are to wrestle with those parts of our self over which we actually have control – the only sins we commit occur in those things over which we have control.  Some in the Patristic age thought even doing something once did not constitute sin.  It is sin only if we repeat the action knowing it is wrong – doing it once is a mistake, repeating it is sin.   As St. Basil notes, it really doesn’t do any good for legislators to pass laws forbidding something over which a person has no control anyway.  St. Basil is speaking rhetorically, for he believes people do make choice, at least some.  Not everything we do is predetermined in us.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

For St Basil the failure of predestination thinking is that it tells us nothing matters.  Not only can we incapable of  resisting sin – we also are incapable of change so repentance is impossible. Predestination means even goodness and success will only happen by fate, so no use trying to do good either.  No use planting crops or working hard since fate determines everything including whether there is food to eat.  Might as well just sit back and wait and see what happens.  But at this point even many predestination believers can see that it does matter if you try – there is food to eat only because people work hard to make it so.  There are roads, bridges, stores, internet and electricity only because people make the effort to make it happen.  Everything is not just unfolding by fate, people are making decisions and acting on them.  What we do matters and changes the course of human history.  The same is true about our behavior good and bad.

It is because our behavior matters and does affect both others as well as our self, that the examination of conscience and the confession of sins is important.  We are by nature relational beings, we need to consider how our behavior, thoughts and even our attitude is a reflection of whether or not we are guided by the Gospel commandment to love one another as Christ loves us (John 13:34).  Admitting our sins, faults and foibles is not failure but rather how we show that we recognize Christ’s lordship over our daily lives.  Confession is acknowledgment of reality, of what is in our hearts, as shameful as it might be, as reluctant as we are to admit it.

Do not conceal your sin because of the idea that you must not scandalize your neighbor. Of course this injunction must not be adhered to blindly. It will depend on the nature of one’s sinfulness.”   ( St.  John Climacus, Thirty Steps to Heaven: The Ladder of Divine Ascent for All Walks of Life, Kindle Loc. 1624-25)

St John Climacus recognizes that admitting one’s sins is a good thing, and yet it has to be practiced with wisdom and discretion.  Just a fear of scandalizing others is not in itself justification for concealing one’s sin (note he said sin, he didn’t say every thought that comes into your head, just your sins.  The behavioral sin might be obvious to others, but we don’t need to discuss with everyone every errant idea that passes through our minds).  However, as he also notes, he is not putting down an unbreakable rule – one has to use wisdom in knowing when to openly admit to one’s sins.  There are some things we do which it is not wise to tell everyone.  We need to confess those to our father confessors, to those who are better prepared to deal with humans as fallen sinners.  If we are honest to our self about our sins, we recognize also how our sins impact our lives and the lives of those around us – especially the ones we love.  Instead of becoming bitter for sin or blaming others regarding sin, when we recognize its power in our life, we can make an effort to correct it and to find the better way to love others or at least to own it and repent of it.

 

Every Neighbor is Christ

The Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) deals with several questions which were asked or Jesus or implied in a conversation He had with a Jewish lawyer.  There are the stated questions of the lawyer:  Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  “And who is my neighbor?”  And there are the questions Jesus asked in return: “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  and  “ which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”  Implied is the question: who is the person to whom I can be a neighbor?

Through the centuries Christians have attempted to live the Gospel commandments and to establish rules and guidelines to help each other fulfill the teachings of Christ.  St. Benedict of Nursia was one monk who attempted to help his fellow Christians follow Christ.

For it was the central purpose of Benedict’s Rule to teach novice monks how to “renounce themselves in order to follow Christ,” how to “advance in the ways [of Christ] with the Gospel as our guide,” and, by persevering in the monastic life, how to “share by patience in the passion of Christ and hereafter deserve to be united with him in his kingdom” – in a single formula, “not to value anything more highly than the love of Christ.” The love of Christ, moreover, modified one of the basic impulses that had originally led to the rise of monasticism. “Deep in the monastic consciousness is solitude,” writes a historian of Western asceticism. But, he continues, “you discover to your vexation that deep in the Christian consciousness, ran the axiom that you must receive strangers as though they were Christ, and they really might be Christ.”

Therefore, quoting the Gospel (Matt. 25:35), Benedict specified in his Rule: “All guests coming to the monastery shall be received as Christ.”

(Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, Mary Through the Centuries, pp. 143-144)

Treat the person you meet, neighbor or stranger, as you would treat Christ.

St. Paul Living On Earth as In Heaven

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

St. John Chrysostom writes about the Apostle:

“For this Paul, who stripped down to his flesh, renouncing his body, and almost naked, encircled the whole world with his soul, having exiled from his mind every passion. And imitating the apathea of the bodiless powers, and living on earth as if in heaven, and standing with the cherubim above, and taking part in their mystical song, he easily bore everything – enduring, as if he were in another’s body, imprisonment, chains, arrests, scourgings, threats of death, stonings, dunkings, and every other kind of punishment.”

(Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 78)

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

Theosis: Being a God to the Unfortunate

Many Orthodox note that the goal of the Christian life is theosis or deification – the goal is not to get to some distant”heaven”.  Rather the goal is to transform and transfigure our own life and our own being, now on earth.   As in heaven, so on earth is what we pray in the Lord’s prayer.  The goal of the Christian life is not merely to get to some eschatological and transcendent location, but to become and be the temple of God – the very place where God dwells on earth!  And attaining theosis in this life means to be like God – to be a God to the unfortunate, offering love and mercy to those in need.  Fr. John D. Jones  writes:

As Orthodox Christians, we recognize the ultimate goal of the Christian life is theosis or divinization—becoming like God as much as is possible for human beings. Yet this process of theosis is not a matter of a discarnate spirituality that retreats from human need and suffering. The journey towards theosis is rather expressed through concrete acts of love and mercy in imitation of God, who is love. As St. Gregory the Theologian writes, ‘Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.’…[doing so] constitutes a sacred obligation for us to minister in Christ’s name to our neighbor; that is, to every person in need whom we encounter (cf. Luke 10:25–37).  —Metropolitan Anthony (Gergiannakis)

Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God. There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” So wrote St. Greogry the Theologian near the end of his Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor. This theme is basic to the oration from the start:

Beautiful is contemplation (theoria=the knowledge and vision) of God, as likewise beautiful is action (praxis). The one is beautiful because it conducts our mind upward to what is akin to it. The other is beautiful because it welcomes Christ, serves him, and confirms the power of love through good works (sec. 4)…. Of all things, nothing so serves God as mercy because nothing else is more proper to God (sec. 5)…. We must, then, open our hearts to all the poor [and] those in distress from whatever cause (sec. 6).

“Opening the Doors of Compassion: Cultivating a Merciful Heart”, In Communion, Spring 2012, p. 4)

 

Poor Lazarus and the Rich Man

The Lord Jesus told this parable“There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.'”  (Luke 16:19-31)

St. Gregory Palamas comments:

The rich man,” it says, “also died, and was buried” (Luke 16:22). Perhaps when Lazarus died he did not even have a grave, as there was no one to bury him. No mention at all is made of a grave in his case but the account then goes on to say that the rich man “was buried.”…There was a time when the rich man had seen Lazarus cast down in front of the gate, a victim of hunger, writhing on the ground in the dust unable even to move, and he turned a blind eye.

Now that he is lying in the depths being tortured and cannot escape his torments, he looks up and sees Lazarus comfortably settled high above, passing his time in profound ease and dwelling in Abraham’s bosom, and instead of resolving to ignore him, he thinks he has a right not to be overlooked by the man he formerly disregarded. In the place where mercy belonged, he had neither looked for it nor practiced it, but there where justice is merciless, he seeks mercy to no avail.

…That rich man, brethren, who had Moses and the prophets, none of whom had risen from the dead, seems to have had some sort of excuse. We, by contrast, hear, along with them, Him who rose from the dead for our sake, saying, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:19, 20), “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matt. 5:42), and “Give alms of such things as ye have; and behold, all things are clean unto you” (Luke 11:41). If someone eats and drinks with drunkards but is hard hearted to the poor and gives them nothing, “The Lord”, says the Scripture, “will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers” (Luke 12:46).     (The Homilies, p. 378, 381)

For an interesting and  different translation and interpretation of this parable see:  The Vale of Abraham.

Naked I Came Into the World

When the same Abba Macarius was in Egypt he found somebody who had a beast of burden carrying off his things. Standing beside the robber as though he were a stranger, he helped him load up the beast then sent him on his way in great hesychia, saying: “‘We brought nothing into this world and it is clear that neither can we carry anything out’ [1 Tim 6.7].

The Lord has given and it has transpired as he willed it to; blessed be the Lord in all things [see Job 1.21].”

(Give me a Word, p. 184-185)

Where There is No Struggle, There is No Virtue

Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really and faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.      (John of Kronstadt, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 391)

Christian: Obey Christ

Among Christians no one is unaware that he is under obligation to undertake the whole task. All alike, when they joined Him [Christ] in the beginning, vowed to follow Him through all things, and it was after they had thus bound themselves by those covenant that they underwent the sacred rites [of Baptism].

Since the Saviour’s commands are thus binding on all the faithful and are capable of fulfilment by those who are willing, they are most necessary. Apart from them it is impossible to be united with Christ, otherwise we should be at variance with Him in that which is greatest and noblest, will and purpose. If we share in His blood we must share in His will. We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.

(St Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 160-161)