Overcoming Evil

So many of the sayings and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers are based on the teachings offered us in the New Testament.  In the desert fathers we find this:

“Malice will never drive our malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice.”  (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 43)

In the New Testament we find this:

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)

 

Preparing for Pascha

“Therefore, I exhort all of you not to take in your hands these divine mysteries because you feel that the feast forces you to do so. If ever you should be going to share in this holy sacrificial offering, I urge you to cleanse your hearts many days before. How? By repenting, praying, giving alms, and devoting your efforts to things of the spirit. Do not, like a dog, turn yourself back again to your own vomit.

Is it not foolish to show such great concern for material things? Yet, many days beforehand, because the feast is coming, you select the best clothes from your wardrobe and get them ready. You buy new shoes. You prepare a more sumptuous table. You think of many means to provide for yourself in every way. You overlook nothing which will brighten your appearance and make you look stylish and smart. But you take no account of your soul. It is neglected, clothed in shoddy garments, unwashed, wasted with hunger, and you let it stay uncleansed. Will you bring here to church your stylish body but overlook your soul, which is half clad and filled with disgrace? Your fellow servants see only your body, and it does them no harm no matter how you have neglected it. But the Master sees your soul and he inflicts the greatest punishment on it since you have been careless and negligent about it.”   (St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 181-182)

Love God with ALL Your Heart

St Gorazd of Prague

“For example, God says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our might’ (Deut. 6:5); yet how much have the fathers said and written – and still say and write – without equaling what is contained in that single phrase? For, as St. Basil the Great has said, to love God with all our soul means to love nothing together with God; for if someone loves his own soul, he loves God, not with all his soul, but only partially; and if we love ourselves and innumerable other things as well, how can we love God or dare to claim that we love Him? It is the same with the love of one’s neighbor. If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbor, as were Moses and St. Paul, how can we say that we love him? For Moses said to God concerning his people, ‘If Thou wilt forgive their sins, forgive; but if not, blot me as well out of the book of life which Thou hast written’ (exod. 32:32); while St. Paul said, ‘For I could wish that I myself were severed from Christ for the sake of my brethren’ (Rom. 9:3). He prayed, that is to say, that he should perish in order that others might be saved – and those others were the Israelites who were seeking to kill him.” 

(St. Peter of Damaskos, The Philokalia, pp. 175-176)

Fasting and Humility

“Following the example of Christ, humility is the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian life, and the foundation for our relation with God. The more humble we are, the more God will reveal Himself to us. And the more we know about God, the more humble we become. We need all the virtues, but without humility they achieve nothing. Even fasting, prayer, and love itself can do nothing without humility. But when prayer and fasting are joined with humility, we become the companion of God, and enter the divine environment in such a way that, as we’ve said, we become gods ourselves.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, p. 313)

“When Abba Macarius was returning from the marsh to his cell one day carrying some palm-leaves, he met the devil on the road with a scythe. The [devil] struck at him as much as he pleased, but in vain, and said to him, ‘What is your power, Macarius, that makes me powerless against you? All that you do, I do, too; you fast, so do I; you keep vigil, and I do not sleep at all; in one thing only do you beat me.’ Abba Macarius asked what that was. He said, ‘Your humility. Because of that, I can do nothing against you.’”(Apoth., Macarius 11, p.130)

True Orthodoxy

A meditation for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

“In the course of my own winding, pilgrim’s, road to Orthodoxy it was the tangible sense of beauty that served as a constant allure. It was the radiant kindness of a few luminous souls, several of them bishops and priests, that made flesh for me what I had been searching for, not so much the zealotry that many were eager to offer me as their witness to the truth. Years later I came across a saying of St Symeon the New Theologian to the effect that a candle can only be lit from the flame of another living candle, and it struck me as exactly apposite.

When Truth is a living person, we can no longer try to make it synonymous with mere accuracy. What is at stake is more a question of authenticity. Orthodoxy is often approached by those outside it as a system of doctrines. But it is far more than this, and this is why a book of systematic theology does not quite capture reality. Orthodoxy is the living mystery of Christ’s presence in the world: a resurrectional power of life. It cannot be understood, except by being fully lived out; just as Christ himself cannot be pinned down, alaysed, digested, or dismissed, by the clever of this world, whom he seems often to baffle deliberately. His message is alive in the world today as much as when he first preached it.

The Orthodox Church is, essentially, his community of disciples trying to grow into his image and likeness, by their mystical assimilation to the Master who abides among them.”

(Fr. John A. McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, p. XI)

Icons: To See Beyond the World into the Kingdom

We have arrived at the First Sunday in Lent.  Saying “we have arrived” keeps up the imagery that we are travelling – the spiritual journey of Great Lent.   We are doing what Christ calls all of His disciples to do, as we heard at the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson:  “Follow me.” (John 1:43).  We can follow Christ only by being on this spiritual sojourn.  Spirituality, being a Christian, is not a state of mind or the soul, but our movement toward the kingdom of God.  To follow Christ we have to move ourselves towards God.

We still have a long way to travel, just to get through Lent.  At the midweek services this past week, I mentioned to you about how God’s call to Israel to leave Egypt behind was a wakeup call.  For though we usually think of the Hebrew people as being slaves in Egypt, there is another spiritual reality there.  They had voluntarily and willfully entered Egypt to escape their own poverty and famine in order to benefit from the wealth of Egypt.  They left behind their lives of being desert nomads for a life in the great civilization of Egypt.  And they had enslaved themselves to the all that Egyptian empire had to offer.  Moses comes to awaken them from their dream and delusion, but he doesn’t call them to overthrow their Egyptian overlords in a slave revolt and to take over that society.  Rather God calls them to leave society, culture and civilization behind and to go into the desert to worship God and to see the glory of God.  It is not a civil war to which they are called but a war against the flesh, their own desires and comfort.

They are asked to leave behind the glory of human civilization – all that they knew about the world – and to walk into the great unknown of the barren, lifeless and desolate desert.   They were called to leave the known and to seek the unknown.  And all week long I’ve told you that is what Great Lent is supposed to be to us – leave behind all that you know and love about your lives – your food, your entertainment, your beds, all that comforts you, your couches and clothes, all that enriches you and attracts you and satisfies you – and practice the abstinence, the self-denial, the fasting which Great Lent, which the great desert demands of you.  When we enter into Great Lent we are called to wake up out of the delusion that our lives are so wonderful and blessed and comfortable, and to see that there is an entire life available to us – a spiritual life, a life in God, which we miss because we are so busy pursuing comfort, careers, pleasure, the good life, the American dream.   Great Lent reminds us this life we so value really is a dream and will pass away.  The American dream does not last forever for it belongs to this temporary earth.  One day we will awake from this dream because we hear Christ calling us to wake up and arise.  And when we do we shall see God and realize all we so valued in this world was not that important or helpful. We in effect are called to join our spiritual ancestors to make an exodus into the desert of our lives.

This awakening happened to Moses as we heard at the beginning of today’s Epistle:

By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

Moses refuses the dream of being Pharaoh’s grandson and embraces the reality that the pampered life of the elite is really enslavement to the world.  Moses looked  to this spiritual reward, and to do so he had to see beyond the great empire of which he was in the ruling class.  He lived a privileged life, and yet it was a dream deluding him.   And here we see another great theme of Lent, besides sojourning, besides fasting, we are to see God.

So Moses and Aaron said to all the people of Israel, “At evening you shall know that it was the LORD who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the LORD . . .  And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.  (Exodus 16:6-10)

It was only when these people looked away from the grand empire of which they were a part did they see the glory of God.  God was not seen by them in the greatest nation on earth but in the wilderness where there was no city, no culture, no comfort, no power, no wealth.

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus say:

“Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”  (John 1:51)

The story of God’s people, of our exodus from Egypt, our sojourn through Great Lent is so that our eyes might be opened and so that we not be so dazzled and seduced by all the riches this world has to offer, and that we consider the glory of the Lord.  We are called to see the depth and riches of the Kingdom of God which are invisible to us when we focus only on life in this world.

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  (Hebrews 12:1-22)

That great cloud of witnesses to God’s glory is visible to us in the icons all around us.  Icons open heaven to our eyes and our eyes to heaven.  They tell us to see with the eyes of our heart, don’t just look at the external, but see the reality that these people and events represent.  Look into the hearts of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said we will see heaven wide open but also that our eyes would be open wide by what we see.

Our eyes can be opened to God’s revelation, to understanding salvation, to the Kingdom of God if our hearts are open and receptive to what God reveals to us.

And what do we see with the eyes of our heart?

A loving God, a forgiving Father hoping for us to seek Him no matter how far away we may feel we are from Him.

We see where and in whom heaven and earth meet.

An icon shows us our salvation comes when God is united to humanity.

Icons remind us the Kingdom of Heaven is not a distant place but, rather, is right here right in our midst. As Jesus Christ said, “the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

Christ is in our midst!

I Worship the Creator Who Became Matter

“But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through  matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter that wrought my salvation.”

(St. John of Damascus from Eugen J. Pentiuc’s The Old Testament in Eastern Orthodox Tradition, p. 263).

 

The Salvation of the Body

This glory of the body, however, does not belong only to the End but is foreshadowed at various moments throughout salvation history. Before the fall the bodies of Adam and Eve shone with light in Paradise , and they were “covered with God’s glory in place of clothing” (Homilies 12:8).

Once they had fallen into sin, this robe of glory was taken away from them and they were left naked (cf. Genesis 3:7). Then at Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after the giving of the Law, the final restoration of our bodily glory was briefly anticipated when his face shone so brightly that he had to cover it with a veil (cf. Exodus 34:29–35): “He went up as a mere man; he descended, carrying God with him….The Word of God was his food and he had a glory shining on his countenance” (H. 12:14). A far more significant foretaste of the eschatological glory came at Christ’s own transfiguration: “As the body of the Lord was glorified when he climbed the mount and was transfigured into the divine glory and into infinite light, so also the bodies of the saints are glorified and shine like lightning” (H. 15:38). What happened then to the Savior will happen to all true Christians in the age to come.

In so far as anyone, through faith and zeal, has been deemed worthy to receive the Holy Spirit, to that degree his body also will be glorified in that day. What the soul now stores up within shall then be revealed as a treasure and displayed externally in the body…. The glory of the Holy Spirit rises up from within, covering and warming the bodies of the saints. This is the glory they interiorly had before, hidden in their souls. For what they now have, that same then pours out externally into the body (H. 5:8–9).

(Kallistos Ware, from Pseudo-Macarius: The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, p. XVI-XV)

Ancestral Sin, Great Lent and Hope

“Because the coming redemption of men and women is the defining feature of the Lenten season, the elaboration of the sin of Adam and Eve is never meant to lead to despair. Quite the opposite; it underscores the audacious mercy shown toward mankind. In light of Christ, the sin of Adam leads to exaltation, not condemnation. Another key concept to bear in mind is that crucifixion is not a one-time event limited to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth; in the liturgy of Easter, it is continually reappropriated in the life of the Church.

Paul says that baptism is our participation in the glory of the cross, gloria crucis – ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism unto death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…so we too might walk in newness of life’ (Rom. 6:3-4).” (Gary A. Anderson, In Dominico Eloquio – In Lordly Eloquence, pp. 29-30)

Forgiveness and Friendship

What exactly does forgiveness look like?  There is no doubt that a lot depends on the people involved both the one forgiving and for the one being forgiven.  I don’t think there is any one result that happens.  A friend recently told me this story:

He had done something that deeply offended a dear friend, making a serious accusation against his friend that turned out not to be true.  His friend walked away from him in disgust and anger.

When he realized that he had been wrong in what he had thought and said, he went to his friend and admitted he was wrong, asking for forgiveness.  His friend told him that he forgave him, but never renewed the friendship.  This man told me he pondered that for years thinking his friend never really forgave him, for if he had really forgiven him, the friendship would have continued on as before.

After many years, he said he came to realize that though his friend had forgiven him, his friend still held him accountable for what he had done.  He said he had imagined wrongly that forgiveness was like a free pass – if you forgive me, you can’t hold me accountable for what I’ve done.  But he said he realized his friend held him to a high standard of friendship – as friends we are accountable to one another, and we should not let friends off the hook too easily if we really value the other person and want them also to learn and grow in wisdom.   We should never let someone off the hook if that only will enable them to continue to commit the same fault – for if they are really a friend they will want to learn and change.

He said he came to realize that in fact in his lifetime he had several times been let off the hook when he had done something that hurt another.   He came to realize his friend  wanted him to be the best person he possibly could be and that meant he had to learn accountability.    A really profound lesson in forgiveness and friendship.  He said he came to understand that his own apology was probably more self seeking – he didn’t want to lose his friend – whereas his apology really needed to include taking full responsibility for what he had done.

He had damaged the friendship irreparably and he had to take full responsibility for  that.  His friend may indeed have forgiven him but that meant he had to share in carrying the burden of the damage.  His friend carried his share of the damage and he had to own up to carrying his own share of the damage done.