Basic Christianity

“One cannot say that Christianity is a religion. Christianity is a revelation of eternity and life. The angels rejoice greatly because God has revealed Himself mystically to His creature, man. Our human nature has become part of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and that is a great gift which we do not even appreciate; instead, we have cleaved to the things of this world. We have been given the opportunity to prepare ourselves for eternity, to vanquish evil, and to always be with our heavenly Father.”

 (Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, p. 148)

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Blessing the Lord


Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—

(Psalms 103:1-2)

We believe the Bible to be the Word of God.  Yet, what that means is not clear in the text itself.  For the Scriptures are made up of many kinds of literature – poetry, history, prophecy,  wisdom, liturgical direction, narratives, fictional stories (parables for example), rules, regulations, stories of exemplary behavior and of  sin.  Some of the words of the Bible are directed to God, and some are from God directed to us.  Some are prescriptive and some descriptive.  The verse quoted above from Psalm 103 is the Psalmist talking to himself, and in turn when we appropriate the text, it is our own giving direction to our self, and is not directed to God.

In that Psalm, I am reminding and commanding myself to bless the Lord.  And I am to do it “with all that is within me.”  ALL that is within me – with my heart, soul, mind, body.  With my lungs, brain, stomach, kidneys, muscles and joints.  With my thoughts and yes with my temptations, my feelings, my pains, sorrows, drowsiness and my boredom.  The cobwebs in my brain are to bless the Lord, so too my addictions, my doubts, my fears, my joys, my passions, my energies.  Everything within me is called to bless the Lord.

And if we could direct everything within us to bless the Lord, our life indeed would be changed!  Nothing then would separate us from God, for we would be directing everything within us toward the Lord God.  We would become unified and whole, single-hearted, with our entire being directed toward our Creator, Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Nothing would separate us from God and nothing would be moving us away from God.

I would indeed in that moment call to mind every blessing God had ever given me, and not only me but everyone I knew, and had given the entire creation.   This complete change of heart, mind, direction, a true metanoia, all resulting from blessing the Lord, and simply doing what one verse of the Scriptures tells me to do.

And how long am I to continue this blessing God?  For as long as I am alive.

I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;

I will sing praise to my God while I have being.

May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD.

(Psalms 104:33-34)

I am to bless the Lord with all that is within me, and to do it as long as I am still alive.  The praising of God is not dependent on how I feel, or whether things are going well or badly, or whether I’m successful or failing, or whether I’m rich or poor, whether or not my prayers have been answered, whether things are happening as I believe they should or not.  As long as I live I am to sing this praise to God, to bless God, and to think about things that are pleasing to Him.

And, I can also ask, and just where am I to bless the Lord?

Bless the Lord, all you His works,

in every place of His dominion.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

(Psalm 103:22)

I am to bless the Lord in every place of His dominion, which turns out to be everywhere and anywhere.  I do not need to go to a special place to bless the Lord for the earth is the Lord’s, and everywhere I am is the place of His dominion, and so I should be blessing the Lord wherever I am.  I don’t need to wait until I am in church, nor do I need to go to a monastery to bless the Lord.  As St Nikitas Stethatos remarks:

“I have heard people say that one cannot achieve a persistent state of virtue without retreating far into the desert, and I was amazed that they should think that the unconfinable could be confined to a particular locality… the desert is in fact superfluous, since we can enter the kingdom simply through repentance and the strict keeping of God’s commandments.  Entry into the kingdom can occur, as David states, in all places of His dominion, for he says, in all places of His dominion bless the Lord, O my soul (Psalm 103:22).”  (quoted in PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, p 293)

How different the world would be if we Christians blessed God with all that is within us, in every place and in each moment that we are alive.  It would be as we pray: On earth as it is in heaven.

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Jesus in Context

Most Orthodox calendars list daily Scripture readings in which we have perhaps a Gospel lesson for the day.  And while we certainly benefit from the daily reading of Scriptures and from considering a short Gospel lesson, we can also gain additional insight by reading any one Gospel lesson in its context – considering how it fits in to the other lessons before and after it.  So, for example if we take the Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 (Christ forgiving a paralytic his sins and then healing the paralytic) which we read on a summer Sunday and look at that lesson in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel we may note other details.  Consider  Matthew 8:14-9:13 as a larger context for the miracle of healing the paralytic:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also all those who were ill or demon possessed.  There is no sense in this event that Jesus made discipleship a pre-condition for being healed, nor do we even see Him requiring people to make some ascetical effort to obey God, or even a demand that they repent before He will heal them.  The story is one of God’s grace towards sinners and the sick, not about people attempting to be righteous or being rewarded for their efforts.   Christ does not seem in this case to determine if they are worthy of the miracle nor if they have a proper faith or even if they practice any faith.   Jesus heals all who are brought to Him.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus, unlike modern televangelists or healers, is not trying to attract attention and a crowd.  When Jesus sees the crowd gathering, he says it is time to move on.  He is not there to set the stage for a bigger ministry nor to collect accolades or donations. He completely misses the PR opportunity.  He receives no glory from adoring followers.

What Christ does is give freely God’s abundant mercy and then He moves on.  If people want to become part of His successful ministry, they themselves have to give up everything to follow Him.  No wonder Jesus appeared in such a backward time and such a strange land with no mass communication.  Jesus was seeking neither fame or fortune – he was seeking nothing that today’s mass media gives and which those who want stardom can’t resist.  Jesus built nothing like those who create media empires today.  He chose His time and place for a reason.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have seen all that Jesus did – healing all the sick, casting out demons, and they have witnessed the crowds being attracted to Jesus.  But now, when they experience their own personal miracle in the storm at sea, the best they can do is wonder about what kind of man Jesus is.  They wonder why the winds and sea obey Jesus, but besides being dumbfounded, they show little insight into understanding who Jesus is.  They apparently think there might be something special about Jesus, but they are not sure what!

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

While the disciples are uncertain what to make of Jesus’ special powers, the demons have no doubt about who He is – the Son of God!  The demons show their powerlessness in the face of Christ.  They have to ask permission to leave.     The crowd this time reacts strongly to Christ – they expel him from their land.  The crowd of city dwellers perform their own exorcism of they land by begging Jesus to leave the neighborhood.  Jesus answers their prayer.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus, now back on the Jewish side of the lake, performs another miracle, but some of the Jewish leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, thinking Jesus is a fraud or worse, they are accusing Jesus of leading people away from God.  On the other hand,  the crowd reaction is fear as they are astounded by what Jesus can do – and they are afraid of Him!  The proximity to divinity is terrifying, but really in this passage we are considering it is only the demons who obey Christ and declare Him to be God’s Son.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus continues on His sojourn, now sitting to eat with a bunch of sinners rather than with those who were known to practice the faith.   These practitioners of the faith cannot understand why Jesus has table fellowship with people who are obvious sinners.   Jesus responds with the astonishing message that these sinners are exactly the people He is seeking out – hardly the kind of Messiah the righteous are working so hard for.

Seeing Jesus in context, we realize what it is for Him to be the Christ and the Son of God and the Lord.  He heals all, not just believers.  He eats with and has fellowship with sinners not just with the spiritual ascetics.  He flees from the crowds who would want to be empowered by Him make Him their earthly ruler.  He lives according to a Kingdom not of this world.  He does God’s will and brings God to all without wanting the prestige and power humans want to attribute to Him.   No wonder the disciples were so confused about who He is.

Jesus taught: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”

Demonic Influence vs. Free Will

“…angelic and demonic thoughts as gifts or temptations from the outside involve some degree of free choice. While it is not in a person’s power to decide whether a demonic or angelic thought will pass through one’s mind, people can choose to act on it or to ignore it. Upon determining the origin of a given thought, a person is quite free to reject the thought or admit it by lingering on it. No matter how enticing a demonic thought maybe, it can only urge not coerce. This can be seen both in the account of the fall and of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness.

Being made in the image of God, each human being receives as a royal birthright the sovereign power of the intelligence and the free will. In fact, Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, well-aware of the radiant examples of the martyrs and great ascetics, writes,

‘God bestowed on our will so much freedom and power, that even if every kind of sensual provocation, ever kind of demon, and the entire world united to take arms against our will and vehemently to make war against it, despite all that, our will remains entirely free to despise that attack and will what it chooses to will or not will what it does not choose to will.’”

(Fr. Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 60)

Praying for Everyone

My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.   (1 John 2:1-2)

“I beg and beseech You, Lord, grant to all who have gone astray a true knowledge of You, so that each and everyone may come to know Your glory.

In the case of all who have passed from this world lacking a virtuous life and having had no faith, be an advocate for them, Lord, for the sake of the body which You took from them, so that from the single united body of the world we may offer up praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the kingdom of heaven, an unending source of eternal delight.”

(St Isaac the Syrian, Scriptores Syri, T. 225, p. 18)

Vices vs. Virtues

“Let us rather avoid greed, through which injustice thrives and justice is banished, brotherly love is spat on and hatred of mankind is embraced. Let us avoid drunkenness and gluttony, which are the parents of fornication and wantonness; for excess of every kind is the cause of insolence, and outflow is the begotten child of plentitude, from which fornication and wantonness are hatched. Let us avoid strife, division, seditions, whereof plots are born and murders begotten; for evil crops grow from evil seed. Let us avoid foul speech, whereby those who are accustomed to it slip easily into the pit of evil deeds; for what one is not ashamed to say, one will not be ashamed to do either, and what one enjoys hearing one will be drawn into committing. Let us abominate these things and spit upon them, but let us love the Lord’s commandments and adorn ourselves with them.

Let us honor virginity, let us attain gentleness, let us preserve brotherly love, let us give lodging to hospitality, let us cling to fortitude, let us cleanse ourselves with prayers and repentance, let us welcome humbleness that we may draw near to Christ; for the Lord is near to those who are of a contrite heart, and He will save the lowly in spirit. Let us embrace moderation; let us practice the judgment and distinction of the good from the bad. Let the soul be undaunted by the evils of life, especially if they are inflicted on us on account of Christ and His commandments, for we know that justice will follow, and it is thanks to them that we are easily carried up to heaven.”

(St Photius, The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, p. 71-72)

What is the Truth?

“The claim of religion is to reveal Truth, to bear witness to Truth. It is the first and fundamental claim. Its aim is not primarily to bring comfort to souls – by preaching beautiful, edifying ideas and hopes…

The reason it is necessary to believe in God, the only reason which embraces all others is that this is Truth. We have to believe in God because this is Reality, the decisive, fundamental Reality – and life-giving Truth. Only the Truth that really exists, the Divine Truth, can be truly life-giving, truly fructifying, comforting, restoring and truly creative. But this Truth cannot be proved by man. It reveals itself by taking hold of man. It is self-revealing, there is no other way to it. The spontaneous Self-Revelation of a living God who is Truth and Life is the basis of every authentic religious experience…

…there must be a change, we must be transformed by the power of Truth.”

(Nicholas Arseniev, Revelation of Life Eternal, pp. 13-15)

What is the Truth?  Jesus Christ.  All truth leads us to Him, reveals Him and is revealed by Him.

A Christian End to Our Life

Then, I come to our faith. What is our faith concerning death? It can again be described in simple sentences, but behind each one lies a wealth of experience and vision. In Christian doctrine, death is first of all called the “sting of sin.” It is not just an elementary answer about biological or physical death. In Christian vocabulary death means separation from God as a result of sin – a kind of ontological catastrophe that has made creation, or rather man’s life, into what it was not when God created it. Thus death carries the sting of sin. As separation from God, death – not physical, not physiological death, but death as sin and separation – has been abolished by Christ’s death. Therefore the dead – those who sleep – are alive in Christ.

(Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, p. 145)

For the human, separation from God is the definition of death.  Christ’s death has changed everything – for even in death we are not separated from Christ our God. There is no place we can go where we will be separated from Christ. As it says in Psalm 139:8 –

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 

 He descended to the place of the dead, filling all things with Himself.  In death we are with Christ who triumphed over death and its separation from God.  Christ is Lord of the dead as well as the living for all are alive in Him.

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.   (Romans 14:8-9)

Turning Our Heart to God

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Blessed 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 forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
(Psalms 146:3-7)

That which a man loves, to which he turns, that he will find. If he loves earthly things, he will find earthly things, and these earthly things will abide in his heart, will communicate their earthliness to him and will find him; if he loves heavenly things, he will find heavenly things, and they will abide in his heart and give him life. We must not set our hearts upon anything earthly, for the spirit of evil is incorporated in all earthly things when we use them immoderately and in excess, this spirit having become earthly by excessive opposition to God.

When God is present in all a man’s thoughts, desires, intentions, words, and works, then it means that the kingdom of God has come to him; then he sees God in everything—in the world of thought, in the world of action, and in the material world; then the omnipresence of God is most clearly revealed to him, and a genuine fear of God dwells in his heart: he seeks every moment to please God, and fears every moment lest he may sin against God, present at his right hand. “Thy kingdom come!

Examine yourself oftener; where the eyes of your heart are looking. Are they turned towards God and the life to come, towards the most peaceful, blessed, resplendent, heavenly, holy powers dwelling in heaven? Or are they turned towards the world, towards earthly blessings; to food, drink, dress, abode, to sinful vain men and their occupations? O that the eyes of our heart were always fixed upon God! But it is only in need or misfortune that we turn our eyes to the Lord, whilst in the time of prosperity our eyes are turned towards the world and its vain works. But what, you would ask, will this looking to God bring me? It will bring the deepest peace and tranquillity to your heart, light to your mind, holy zeal to your will, and deliverance from the snares of the enemy.

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 76-77)

 Then Jesus said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.  (Matthew 22:21-22)

Labor as Light to the World

Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.  (Ephesians 6:7-8)

Another example of light is our work, which here [in the monastery] is not servile labor but a diakonia, a service performed for monastic community without gain, without necessity, without force; a well-pleasing sacrifice which is illuminated by prayer and becomes a transfiguration of the world and of objects, a way of continuing the Divine Liturgy outside church.

Because here the light is the contemplation and use of the physical world, not for pleasure but for the needs of the community; not like the destructive consumption based in technology, but in order to make nature already now a partaker of the glory of the children of God, and allow it to sing praise with them.   

(Archimandrite Amilianos of Simonopetra, from Living in God’s Creation, p. 112)