St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

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Struggling With Sexual Passion

St. John Chrysostom  (4th Century) is one of the great Patristic commentators on scripture.  He is a pastor and moralist in his outlook.  While today many embracing scientific materialism want it to be true that humans are simply another animal on the planet, governed completely by the same laws of genetics and biology as any other animal, Chrysostom like all those Patristic writers of the Christian tradition believed the very thing that made humans unique is the ability to arise above purely animal drives and to choose behaviors of a higher moral character rather than have one’s life determined by biological drives.  With the recent proclamation of the Anthropocene by current scientists, we start to see a scientific recognition that humans are an animal capable of rising above genetic determinism to the point that humans now are shaping not only human evolution by their choices but also the evolution of most species on the planet.   Chrysostom knew nothing of modern scientific theories on evolution and genetics, but he did think humans have a spiritual dimension given by God which humans needed to exercise in order to attain full human potential.

“For there are many who have stripped for the contest against the tyranny of nature, who with purity are pursuing the path of virginity, who in this mortal body are showing forth the precepts of the resurrection: ‘for in the resurrection,’ he says, ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage [Matthew 22:30].’And having engaged the battle against the spiritual powers, they contend eagerly for incorruption in bodies that are corruptible, and – what is unbearable for many to hear – they actually reach perfection through their works. For they drive off their passion, which is like a ceaselessly leaping, frenzied dog; and they take command over the raging ocean, sailing calmly amidst the fierce waves, making a successful voyage across the greatly troubled sea; and they stand firm in the furnace of physical desire without being signed, trampling on the hot coals as if they were clay. Yet, it can happen that such ones, capable of such great things, can be viciously attacked, shamelessly and pitiably, by this passion, and they can be conquered by it.”

Chrysostom’s imagery about how strong sexual desire can be, leaves little doubt that he understood sexual drive and temptation.  He does make it clear that some are able to overcome their sexual drive and actually control it.  He says this is unbearable for some to hear – including those who can’t control themselves, those who don’t want to have to control themselves and those who think humans are merely animals and shouldn’t bother to control their powerful, natural drives.  Many don’t want to hear about people who learn to control their animal instincts.   For Chrysostom, the person who can control their sexual desires, especially those who remain virgins, are the height of human perfection.  Today we have people who spend a great deal of time and energy to become perfect physical specimens of humanity – through exercise, dieting and other means.  We rave about the physically beautiful (athletes and the sexually attractive).  Chrysostom sees human perfection not in physical body sculpting but in learning to control one’s animal desires.  He elevates those spiritual athletes to be the highest degree of humanity and the most desired of human beings.   Humans are capable of making themselves physically beautiful and desirable, but Chrysostom following the Christian tradition thinks spiritual beauty is far more important to our desire to be fully human.

Virginity is something so great, and demands so much effort, that Christ came down from heaven in order to make men like angels and to implant the angelic way of life here below – not, however, daring to make this way of life mandatory, or to raise it to the level of a law, but instead, instituting the law of self-mortification. Is there anything that exists more burdensome than this? He has made it a commandment to bear one’s cross continually, and to do good to one’s enemies; but he has not made it a law to remain a virgin. He has left this to the choice of those hearing Jesus’ words: ‘The one who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’ For great is the weightiness of this matter, and the difficulty of these struggles, and the sweat of the battles; and in pursuing this virtue the terrain is precipitous.” (Letters to St. Olympia, pp. 68-67)

What makes the willingness to control sexual impulse and virginity so special to Chrysostom is that it is completely voluntary.  One chooses this way as a way of sacrifice and self-denial.  For Christ does not command us to live as celibates and virgins.  It is a way of life that one can choose  in order to fulfill Christ’s words to deny the self  and take up the cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24).  We don’t become fully human by engaging in all our animal instincts and desires.  We become fully human when we realize we can rise above biological determinism and can develop our spiritual lives – and fulfill the Gospel law of love.

The Nativity of the Theotokos (2017)

On September 8 we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos – the birthday of the mother of Jesus.

“The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it ‘For us men and for our salvation’ is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the other of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.

The feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, therefore, is a glorification of Mary’s birth, of Mary herself and of her righteous parents. It is a celebration as well of the very first preparation of the salvation of the world. For the ‘Vessel of Light,’ the ‘Book of the Word of Life,’ the ‘Door to the Orient,’ the ‘Throne of Wisdom’ is being prepared on earth by God himself in the birth of the holy girl-child Mary.” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith, Vol. 2, Worship, p. 132).

Courage, People of God

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 31:24)

St. Alexander Schmorell, Martyr

There are so many divisive issues in our society today, many of which discourage or threaten Christians.   Sexual immorality, big government, Islam, secularism, fascism, communism, anarchy, dictatorship, Obamacare, catastrophic illness, ruthless capitalism, poverty, war, aimless hedonism, global warming, unemployment.  From every side and every one looks, one can find issues that threaten our existence with uncertainty, chaos, suffering, persecution and nihilism.

How are we to respond?   With faith, hope and love.  That is what we are taught in Christianity.  No suffering in this world is ever viewed as the end all or final word on anything.  The final word, like the first word, belongs to God.  All things happen within God’s universe, and within God Himself.  For those who believe, this is to be of comfort.  No matter how bad things may seem, God and God’s plan are still outside of the control of this world and greater than the world.

St. Paul

St. Paul told the members of the nascent church which was threatened with persecution and extinction: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous (Gr: literally, “play the man” – see 2 Sam 10:12), be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).   Their situation was not better than ours.  They were a tiny minority without any political support or power.   The established religions all opposed them, as did the rich, the educated, the powerful, the empire.  St. Paul tells them and us the same words that God’s prophets and kings had been telling the people of God throughout history.

So God tells Moses:

“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel,

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

After Moses, death, God said to Joshua:

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)

King Joab facing war told Israel:

“Be of good courage, and let us play the man for our people, and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 10:12)

King David used the same words to strengthen his people:

“Then you will prosper if you are careful to observe the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD commanded Moses for Israel. Be strong, and of good courage. Fear not; be not dismayed.” (1 Chronicles 22:13)

And again King David encouraged his son, Solomon with these words:

“Be strong and of good courage, and do it. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the LORD God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

In Daniel’s vision he is told while in captivity:

“O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And when he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:19)

There are numerous other such examples sprinkled throughout the Old Testament – often before a battle,or before some struggle, God’s people were reminded to be courageous.  Even against superior odds, even when defeat seemed inevitable, even when the people suffered great loss and defeat, they were called to courage.  St. Paul in his words to his flock is simply copying the words of his ancestors and trying to get the nascent Church and struggling Christians to be courageous even in the face of opposition. He is invoking the memory of their forefathers.  Today is our turn to hear the call and heed the words to be courageous, no matter what is happening in history.  Courage is not folly.  We are not being called to the reckless abandon of super heroes, nor to go on some ravaging offensive to destroy others.  We are called to be courageous no matter what else is happening – to be people of faith, hope and love.  Courage is faithfulness to God.

 

The Various Forms of Our Love for God

“Love of God takes various forms.

The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents – he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome.

St. John the Forerunner

But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 438-439)

Welcoming the Day and Its Blessings

“This day is blessed by God, it is God’s own and now let us go into it.

You walk in this day as God’s own messenger; whoever you meet, you meet in God’s own way. You are there to be the presence of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the presence of the Gospel – this is your function on this particular day.

God has never said that when you walk into a situation in His own Name, He will be crucified and you will be the risen one. You must be prepared to walk into situations, one after the other, in God’s name, to walk as the Son of God has done: in humiliation and humility, in truth and ready to be persecuted and so forth.

Usually what we expect when we fulfill God’s commandments is to see a marvelous result at once – we read of that at times in the lives of the saints. When, for instance, someone hits us on one cheek, we turn the other one, although we don’t expect to be hit at all, but we expect to hear the other person say ‘What, such humility’ – you get your reward and he gets the salvation of his soul. It does not work that way. You must pay the cost and very often you get hit hard. What matters is that you are prepared for that.

As to the day, if you accept that this day was blessed of God, chose by God with His own hand, then every person you meet is a gift of God, every circumstance you will meet is a gift of God, whether it is bitter or sweet, whether you like or dislike it. It is God’s own gift to you and if you take it that way, then you can face any situation. But then you must face it with the readiness that anything may happen, whether you enjoy it or not, and if you walk in the name of the Lord through a day which has come fresh and new out of His own Hands and has been blessed for you to live with it, then you can make prayer and life really like the two sides of one coin.

You act and pray in one breath, as it were, because all the situations that follow one another require God’s blessing.”  (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pp. 46-47)

Love for Another and the Effects of Sin

“…we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:42)

“Your own, of Your own, we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.”

“And all mankind.”   (From the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

Anyone who does not want the same things for his fellow human beings or pass the same judgement on them as he wishes for himself, is certainly foolish, particularly as this judgement and this wish are an inherent part of our nature. For it is a natural impulse in all of us to want to be loved and well treated by others as much as by ourselves. The will to do good and to be as well disposed towards all as we are towards ourselves is therefore also inborn in us. We were all made in the image of Him who is good. Then when sin entered and multiplied, it did not extinguish our self-love, since it was not at all opposed to that, but it cooled down love for one another, the crown the virtues, changed it and rendered it useless. As a result, He who renews our nature, recalling it to the grace of His own image and putting His laws, as the prophet tells us, in our hearts (Jer. 31:33), says “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), and “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:32, 34).

In this passage, He refers to those who are not called by His name and those who do not order their lives according to the gospel, as sinners, including them all in the same category, for it is of no benefit to us to be called Christians if we act no differently from the heathen. Just as the great Paul told the Jews, “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom 2:35), so now Christ tells us through the Gospel, “You who are Mine will find grace in My presence if you keep my Commandments, but if you do nothing more than sinners do, loving those who love you and doing good to those who do the same to you, you will have no confidence towards Me on that account.” He does not speak like this to deter people from loving or doing good or lending to those who will repay them, but He shows that such acts do not earn a reward, so they have their recompense here and now, and do not bring any grace to the soul, nor cleanse it from the ingrained defilement of sin.” (St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 355-356).

Opposing Racism: Commending OUR LIFE to Christ

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“Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!”   (Psalm 146:5-10)

In many Orthodox churches, it is customary to sing the above Psalm 146 at the Eucharistic Liturgy.  The Psalm expresses an ideal for the life of the people of God and how we are to be godlike, and to act toward the stranger, the sojourner and the oppressed with the same intention as God Himself: executing justice for them all.  In fact, we are to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12).  It is for this same reason, this same vision, that the Orthodox in America need to stand together with those who oppose racism and bigotry.  It is why we believers need to oppose white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups: such ideology goes against the very understanding we have of God, of what it is to be human and of Christianity.  All humans are called by Christ into a holy unity.  It may be natural to us to identify with people like us – same ethnicity, or race or social class.  These may be the people we spend the most time with, marry and live with in our neighborhoods.  Scripture itself has a great deal of “us” and “them” thinking.  We can choose to live with and marry people like ourselves, but in Christ, we are to treat all others – the stranger, the alien – as we treat people like ourselves.  St. Paul writes forcefully:

12801397374_0fe3e55abb_n“… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”   (Ephesians 2:12-22)

Our vision as Orthodox calls us to this peace in Christ – to live at peace with those who are our neighbors.   As Christ taught, the real question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather “how can I prove myself to be a  neighbor to those I meet?”  (Luke 10:29-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan).  We Orthodox in America need to prove we are Christ’s neighbor by standing against violence and racism and hatred, by siding with those we think of as the stranger, the alien, the sojourner.  Many of us Orthodox came to America as strangers and aliens (or our ancestors did), and many Orthodox as immigrants encountered prejudice and hatred for no other reason than our names, our languages, our Orthodox Faith.  Our message within our parish communities is to be Christ’s message of being neighbors, of love, of caring for the oppressed.  Our Communion is with Christ, not with those who practice or preach hatred and violence nor with those who teach any form of racism.

We would do well to remember our scriptures and the story of the great flood, and what prompted God to want to drown evil and send it back to the depths of the sea out of which it came:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”  (Genesis 6:11-13)

Those promoting violence and hatred embrace a way of life which God has hated (Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 11:5-6; Proverbs 6:16-19) throughout the existence of the human race.

We Orthodox Christians are called to be one race, a race united in Christ, not based on genes but on faith and holiness:

4263457299_d973374b2e_n“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  (1 Peter 2:9-12)

If we pay attention in the Divine Liturgy, we realize all of us share in the same life.  The Liturgy doesn’t speak about “lives” but life (in the singular, one life shared by all of us):

let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life.

May the Holy Spirit Himself minister together with us all the days of our life.

 I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful;

To You we commend our whole life and our hope, O loving Master.

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We all share the same life given to us by God which is why we need to stand with those whose life is threatened by those who rant and rail for violence, hatred and racism.  Life is precious and sacred.  Racism precisely denies “our life” – our common humanity which Christ took on in the incarnation – the one human life given to us all by our Creator.

[The Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America has issued a statement regarding the events which took place  last week in Charlottesville, VA.  The statement deals with racism and violence in America and a call for all of us Orthodox Christians to adhere to the Gospel commands of Christ and to the Tradition of our Church.  You can read their statement at:

Living in the Present

“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-12)

“And the taskmasters forced them to hurry, saying, “Fulfill your work, your daily quota…”  (Exodus 5:13)

“The mistake we often make with our inner life is to imagine that if we hurry we will be in our future sooner – a little like the man who ran from the last carriage of the train to the first, hoping that the distance between London and Edinburgh would be shortened as a result. When it is that kind of example we see how absurd it is, but when we continually try to live an inch ahead of ourselves, we do not feel the absurdity of it. Yet that is what prevents us from being completely in the present moment, which I dare say is the only moment in which we can be, because even if we imagine that we are ahead of time or ahead of ourselves, we are not. The only thing is that we are in a hurry, but we are not moving more quickly for this.”  (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, p. 50)

The Sweetness of the Sun and the Eucharist

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“The soul climbs up unceasingly.  And the further up it goes, the higher it longs to go.  The ascent kindles its desire, and the food of the Divine Eucharist increases its hunger for mystical contemplation.  St Symeon the New Theologian, who looked upon the beauty of the uncreated light and was nourished on the food of incorruption, uses a unique image:

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‘I do not know which give me greater delight, the sight and enjoyment of the purity of the rays of the Sun, or the drinking and the taste of the wine in my mouth.

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I want to say the latter [the taste of the wine], and yet the former [the rays of the sun] attracts me and seems sweeter.  And when I turn to them, then I enjoy still more the sweetness of the taste of the wine.  So the sight [of the rays] does not lead to satiety, nor can I have enough of drinking [that wine].

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For when it seems that I have drunk my fill, then the beauty of the rays sent forth makes me thirst greatly, and again I find myself hungry and thirsty.'”  (Hiermonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY, pp 221-222)

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