Two Different Ways to Make a Sincere Confession

St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) says there are two very different but equally acceptable ways to do a sincere and proper confession.  Though the two ways are very different, they both result in the same desired goal: one is humble before God.  Usually, today we think of confession as consisting of enumerating the sins we have committed.  St. Maximos says the other way is to list all the things in our lives for which we are thankful.

 

 “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

Faith and Reason

Though opposing faith against reason seems to be a modern issue resulting from a scientific mindset opposing faith, the difference between faith and reason has been long understood in the Church, centuries before the modern scientific age.   St. Isaac the Syrian for example sees faith as greater than reason/knowledge because knowledge really deals only with the things of this world while faith deals with things beyond this world.  Knowledge is thus limited to the study of nature, but then there exists the world beyond nature – divinity, spiritual beings, heaven, the soul.  The natural world has its edges and limits, and thus knowledge is bound and limited.  The life beyond nature is an existence which might be boundless, and thus is greater than nature itself.

“For knowledge is opposed to faith; but faith, in all that pertains to it, demolishes laws of knowledge—we do not, however, speak here of spiritual knowledge. For this is the  definition of knowledge: that without investigation and examination it has no authority to do anything, but must investigate whether that which it considers and desires is possible… but faith requires a mode of thinking that is single, limpidly pure, and simple, far removed from any deviousness. See how faith and knowledge are opposed to one another! The home of faith is a childlike thought and a simple heart… But knowledge conspires against and opposes both these qualities. Knowledge in all its paths keeps within the boundaries of nature. But faith makes its journey above nature.”  (The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, page 257)

What Do I Have to Confess? I’ve Not Broken the 10 Commandments.

27115683561_ff3c6dacf6_mSometimes people ask what it is they might have to confess – they haven’t violated the 10 Commandments, so what else do people confess?

The 7th Century  martyr, St John of Damaskos , provides us with a list of vices which we might consider as we prepare for our confession.  For St. John, even some things we might consider to be normal human traits can be sinful or sins.  To uproot them from our own hearts requires us to admit to them so that we can overcome them.

“The passions of the soul are

forgetfulness, laziness and ignorance.

When the soul’s eye, the intellect, has been darkened by these three, the soul is dominated by all the other passions. These are

impiety, false teaching or every kind of heresy,

blasphemy, wrath, anger,

bitterness, irritability, inhumanity,

rancor, back-biting, censoriousness,

senseless dejection, fear, cowardice,

quarrelsomeness, jealousy, envy,

self-esteem, pride, hypocrisy,

falsehood, unbelief, greed,

love of material things, attachment to worldly concerns,

listlessness, faint-heartedness, ingratitude,

grumbling, vanity, conceit,

pomposity, boastfulness, love of power,

love of popularity, deceit, shamelessness,

insensibility, flattery,

treachery, pretence, indecision,

assent to sins arising from the soul’s passible aspect and dwelling on them continuously, wandering thoughts,

self-love: the mother of vices,

avarice: the root of all evil (cf. 1 Tim. 6:10),

and, finally, malice and guile.”

(THE PHILOKALIA , Kindle Loc. 22299-311)

Charity: The Lenten Discipline

Three great Orthodox saints and teachers offer thoughts that can help us keep Great Lent.    

“Do not consider your riches as belonging to yourselves alone; open wide your hand to those who are in need; assist those in poverty and pain, comfort those who have fallen into extreme distress, console those who are in sorrow or oppressed with bodily maladies and the want of necessities.”  (St. Cyril of Alexandria)

The worst kind of selfishness is not to give transitory things to those who live in poverty.  .  .  .   If you help a poor person in the name of the Lord, you are making a gift at the same time granting a loan. You are making a gift because you have no expectation of being reimbursed by that poor person. You are granting a loan because the Lord will settle the account. It is not much that the Lord receives by means of the poor, but He will pay a great deal on their behalf. They who are kind to the poor lend to the Lord’ (Prov. 19:17).”  (St. Basil the Great)

“Lift up and stretch out your hands, not to heaven but to the poor; for if you stretch out your hands to the poor, you have reached the summit of heaven. But if you lift up your hands in prayer without sharing with the poor, it is worth nothing…Every family should have a room where Christ is welcomed in the person of the hungry and thirsty stranger. The poor are a greater temple than the sanctuary; this altar the poor, you can raise up anywhere, on any street, and offer liturgy at any hour.” (St. John Chrysostom)

(The Pearl of Great Price: The Wisdom of the Fathers of the Holy Orthodox Church, pp. 58-59)

 

 

 

Theosis: Creation and Creator Have Become One

Today, the 2nd Sunday of Great Lent, in the Church we honor the memory of St. Gregory Palamas.  As a theologian, St. Gregory is famous for defending the Orthodox faith and explaining how we participate in the Divine Life.  He is noted for having helped explicate the theology of salvation as deification/theosis.  Many Orthodox saints helped to explain theosis, or reveal it through their own lives.  St. Isaac of Ninevah writes:

We give thanks to You, O God, for Your gift to the world, (a gift) whose richness created beings are not capable of describing; seeing that I too am part of that (world), may I not begrudge my portion of thanksgiving which I owe to You. For this reason I will praise You and confess Your name. You have given Your entire treasure to the world: if You gave the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and from the throne of Your Being for the benefit of all, what further do you have which You have not given to Your creation? The world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!

Praise to You for Your inscrutable purpose: truly this mystery is vast. Glory to You for Your mysteries which are hidden from us. Make me worthy, Lord to taste of this great mystery which is hidden and concealed, (a mystery) of which the world is not yet worthy of perceiving. Maybe You indicated something of it to Your saints who live in the body above the world and who are at all times above the impulses of the flesh.

O Christ who are covered with light as though with a garment, who for my sake stood naked in front of Pilate, clothe me with that might which You caused to overshadow the saints, whereby they conquered this world of struggle. May Your divinity, Lord, take pleasure in me, and lead me above the world to be with You.

(Isaac of Nineveh: The Second Part, pp. 13-15)

Keeping Great Lent: Controlling the Tongue

“So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.”   (James 3:5-10)

While we often think of Great Lent as mostly being about what foods we put into our mouths, or the quantity of food, St. Basil the Great says there is an even more important aspect of Lent which involves the mouth – what comes out of it!  Just in the book of Proverbs we find these adjectives associated with the tongue:  lying (4 times), smooth, perverse (twice), mischievous, backbiting, flattering.  The tongues sins aren’t involved in the foods it tastes, but in the words it speaks! We are to control our tongues and how much we talk and what we say.  If you think you can’t really keep the food fast strictly in Lent, then practice fasting from the words your tongue speaks!  It would be a better Lenten discipline!   St. Basil describes the variety and numbers of sins which we commit through our tongues and our speech.

‘Keep thy tongue from evil and thy lips from speaking guile.’ If you wish to live in the good days, if you love life, fulfill the precept of life. ‘He who loves me,’ He says, ‘will keep my commands.’ The first command is, ‘Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile.’ The most common and varied sin is that committed through the tongue. Were you provoked to anger? The tongue is already running on. Are you possessed by concupiscence? Before all things you have a tongue, a sort of pimp and promotore, as it were assistant to the sin, subduing your neighbors by histrionic arts. Your tongue is also a weapon for your injustice, not uttering the words from the heart, but bringing forth those inspired by deceit. But, what need is there to put in words all the sins committed through the tongue? Our life is filled with faults due to the tongue. Obscenity, scurrility, foolish talk, unbecoming words, slanders, idle conversation, perjuries, false testimony, all these evils and even more than these, are the work of the tongue.  adolf_hitlerBut, they who open their mouth against the glory of God and talk of injustice on high, do they perform their act of impiety by some other instrument and not through the instrumentality of the tongue? Since, then, ‘by thy words thou wilt be justified, and by thy words thou wilt be condemned,’ check your tongue from evil and do not fabricate empty treasures with a deceitful tongue. Stop also your lips from speaking guile; instead, let the whole organ, which was given to you for the service of speech, have nothing to do with wicked deeds. Guile is hidden wrongdoing brought to bear against the neighbor under a pretense of better things.

‘Turn away from evil and do good, seek after peace and pursue it.’ These counsels are elementary and are channels to piety; they describe accurately how to prevail over the tongue, how to refrain from deceitful schemes, how to turn away from evil. Mere abstinence from evil is not a characteristic of a perfect man; but, for one recently instructed in basic principals it is fitting to turn aside from the impulse to evil and, being delivered from the habits of a depraved life as from a bad road, to pursue the performance of good. In fact, it is impossible to cleave to the good unless one has withdrawn entirely and turned away from the evil, just as it is impossible to repair one’s health unless one rids himself of the disease, or for one who has not completely checked a chill to be in a state of warmth; for, these are inadmissible to each other. So also, it is proper for him who intends to live a good life to depart from all connection with evil.”   (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, Homily 16, pp. 265-266).

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit. (Psalm 34:13)

Returning to the Beautiful Paradise Lost

St. Ephrem the Syrian used poetry as the venue for expressing theology. He wrote many brilliant, beautiful poems.  Since today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, it is good for us to consider what was lost by humanity when we exited Paradise in order to pursue our own way to divinity.  St. Ephrem writes:

Paradise surrounds the limbs

with its many delights:

the eyes, with its handiwork,

the hearing, with its sounds,

the mouth and the nostrils,

with its tastes and scents.

Blessed is that person who has gathered for himself

the company of all

who have kept vigil and fasted;

they, in return for their fasts,

shall delight to graze

upon its luxurious pastures.

At least in the words above, Ephrem gives Paradise a very physical dimension.   Humans used all their senses to delight in the ecstasy of the Garden of Eden.  Or perhaps, he is telling us that spiritual joy is not without a physical dimension.  God gave us our bodies to enjoy His creation and as the means by which we can know Him and communicate with Him.  We don’t escape the body to encounter God.  We are the Church of the Incarnation – God took on human flesh!

We also are reminded that this world is not Paradise.  What perhaps is more challenging for many of us is to think that in Paradise humans did not enjoy gourmet foods, steaks, lobster, spices, sauces, deserts, cuisines, chefs and restaurants.  They ate plants which is the only food God gave them in Paradise!

Ephrem uses an unusual phrase claiming those who keep the fast on earth will enter Paradise and  shall delight to graze upon its luxurious pastures”.  Most of us might imagine a paschal banquet with roast lamb, or glazed ham or steak or fine cheeses and cheesecakes.  Will we delight to graze on its pastures?  Or do we really love this earth without God more than Paradise with God?

Paradise raised me up as I perceived it,

it enriched me as I meditated upon it;

I forgot my poor estate,

for it had made me drunk with its fragrance.

I became as though no longer my old self,

for it renewed me with all its varied nature.

I swam around

in its magnificent waves;

and in the place that, burning like a furnace,

had made Adam naked,

I became so inebriated

that I forgot all my sins there

St. Ephrem in totally enthralled by Paradise.  He is swept up into its glorious beauty and just thinking about it changes his life.  Adam and Eve through sin lost their place in the Garden of Delight, and became stripped of all its beauty and mystery.  Ephrem is made drunk by its magnificent waves.  He is made giddy and was able to forget his sins because of what God made Paradise to be.

Although I was not sufficient

for all the waves of its beauty,

Paradise took me up and cast me

into a sea still greater;

in its fair beauty I beheld those who are far more beautiful than it,

and I reflected:

if Paradise be so glorious,

how much more glorious should Adam be,

who is in the image [ Gen 1:27 ] of its Planter,

and how much fairer the Cross,

upon which the Son of its Lord rode.

Paradise it turns out is not a destination, but rather a bridge to even greater glory.  Our growth in Paradise is not limited, we never peak, we never plateau, but ever grow in glory, from one degree to another says St. Paul (2 Corinthians 3:18).   However wonderful Paradise is, humans were created for even greater glory!  Thus when we sing of the Theotokos that she is more honorable than the Cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, we are acknowledging that she does attain to the level of glory that God intended for all humans.  God intended humans to be more glorious than Paradise.

It was not Paradise

that gave rise to the creation of mankind;

rather, it was for Adam alone

that Paradise had been planted,

for to its buds Adam’s heart is superior,

to its fruits his words,

because rational speech has more savor

than the produce of Paradise;

truth in mankind

surpasses its plants,

and love is likewise more comely

than its sweet scents.

(Hymns on Paradise, “Hymn VI,” pp.109-111)

Paradise was created by God to serve humans.  Humans were not created to serve the glories of the Garden.  In what ways are humans superior to the wonders of Paradise?  The human heart is more glorious than the blessed buds of the trees in Paradise, human rational speech exceeds in splendor the produce of Paradise, human capacity for truth surpasses all the God given plants of the Garden.  Finally, human love is more beautiful than the sweetest scents of the Garden.  Humanity is the glory of God, not Paradise.  We may marvel over what Paradise was and is to be, but humanity is more glorious in the eyes of God than Paradise will ever be.

Humanities expulsion from Paradise is an epic tragedy.  Not because we lost our place there, but because we dehumanized ourselves!  We became less than human, we became inhuman, and this was the greatest loss the universe ever experienced.

The incarnation – God taking flesh from the Theotokos is the beginning of the restoration not only of humanity but of the universe itself.

 

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

O Give Thanks to the Lord

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“… we are led to give thanks to our Benefactor through the good things of this world, by which I mean

                                                     health,

                                                prosperity,

                                            strength,

                                        rest,

                                    joy,

                                light,

                            spiritual knowledge,

                        riches,

                    progress in all things,

                a peaceful life,

            the enjoyment of honors,

        authority,

   abundance and

all the other supposed blessings of this life.

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We are led to love Him and to do what good we can, because we feel we have a natural obligation to repay God for His gifts to us by performing good works. It is of course impossible to repay Him, for our debt always grows larger. On the other hand, through what are regarded as hardships we attain a state of patience, humility and hope of blessings in the age to be; and by these so-called hardships I mean such things as

illness,

discomfort,

       tribulation,

               weakness,  

          unsought distress,  

                             darkness,

                                 ignorance,

                                           poverty,

                               general misfortune,

                                            the fear of loss,

                                                           dishonor,

                                                                  affliction,

                                                                       indigence,

and so on. Indeed, not only in the age to be, but even in this present age these things are a source of great blessing to us.”  (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA ,   Kindle Loc. 28948-67)

In the quote above, St. Peter of Damascus (whose Namesday it is today, February 9) gives us a long list of blessings which lead us to God.  These are blessings in this world and in this life – blessings even monastics, who are not supposed to live for this world alone, recognize and appreciate.  Even hardships (of which he also makes a long list, and monastics and non-monastics alike can agree they are things we want to avoid) become a blessing because they can increase certain virtues in us as we deal with them in faith, hope and love.

All of the above  was simply an introduction to the good news I can share about my own health.  First, let me thank all of your for your continued prayers as indeed the last 4 years have been difficult with 4 major surgeries plus chemotherapy for cancer.  This week I had both an oncology appointment and a 3-month post operative appointment with my neurosurgeon.    The good news in oncology is no news – labs continue to show no change (I continue to be anemic but that seems expected due to the surgeries and the on-going chemo).  I will have my next CT scan in about a month as they keep vigilant watch for any new tumors.  There have been none since the lung resection surgery in May of 2015.

The neurosurgeon is totally happy with the spinal fusion which seems to be holding in place.  I can walk without a cane and have none of the crippling back pain that led me to accept surgery.  I will have to live with a number of physical limits, but I no longer need the back brace (pictured above, in case you can’t recognize what it is).  That back brace first hugged me on November 8  and embraced me like a python 23.5/7 ever since.   My cane (pictured here) – I was able to lay aside immediately after surgery.   It now stands in a corner awaiting a new walking partner.  The good news is for the time being I need neither of those devices, though I have a handful of other tools and devices which help me pick up things, reach things, get my socks and shoes on and the like.   My back will never be what it was years ago, and will never be “normal” (though it is now a “new normal”) but I am able to continue to function, for which I am grateful daily.

I have learned to rejoice in the blessings of life and to see blessings in the hardships as well.   I have learned to admire those who cope with and even overcome disabilities.  I am ever thankful for those who have invented the medical devices that made my surgeries possible as well as those who improved them through engineering.  I am grateful for all of those who have learned to use technology in the medical sciences – doctors, nurses and technicians.

I give thanks to God that God has entrusted such wisdom in the sciences to help us all.  God has made it possible for us humans to remove all obstacles to our being healed by God.  Medical science removes the physical obstacles to our healing, and repentance removes the spiritual obstacles to our becoming whole and human.  Medicine and confession are thus both gifts from God which make healing possible.  Both require human help and intervention.

I have accepted that in this life there are trials and illness.  A few have asked me as to why instead of healing us, God doesn’t just prevent disease and injuries in the first place.  I can only speak about reality – in this world, we have sickness, sorrow and suffering.  Perhaps in some other world it doesn’t exist, but in our world it does, and it can serve a purpose, even be beneficial to us, though it doesn’t always seem so.    I can ask why is grass green instead of being orange or purple?  Maybe in some other world it is, but in this world, the only reality I know, it is green and must be so of necessity.  Photosynthesis requires it, we and animals depend on it for food and oxygen.  I also am reminded of a quote from St. John Cassian:

“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me (cf. Luke 22:42). Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.”  ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1326-29)

A Chariot Race: The Publican vs. The Pharisee

The Gospel lesson of Luke 18:10-14, the Publican and the Pharisee:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men-extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

St. John Chrysostom comments:

However, it is no humility to think that you are a sinner when you really are a sinner. But whenever a man is conscious of having done many great deeds but does not imagine that he is something great in himself, that is true humility. When a man is like Paul and can say: “I have nothing on my conscience,” and then can add: “But I am not justified by this,” and can say again: “Christ Jesus came to save sinners of whom I am the chief,” that is true humility. That man is truly humble who does exalted deeds but, in his own mind, sees himself as lowly. However, in his ineffable loving-kindness, God welcomes and receives not only the humble-minded but also those who have the prudence to confess their sins. Because they are so disposed toward him, he is gracious and kind to them.

           To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.

For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility. You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice. Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility. The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.

So, humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcomes the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God. In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.

           To help you to see that the one team is swifter than the other, recall to your mind the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisee yoked a team consisting of justice and pride when he said: “I thank you, O God, that I am not like the rest of men, robbers, greedy, nor like this publican.” What madness! His self-claimed superiority to all his human nature did not satisfy his arrogance, but he even trampled the publican, who was standing nearby, under the foot of his great haughtiness. And what did the publican do? He did not try to evade the insults, he was not troubled by the accusation, but he patiently accepted what was said. But the dart shot at him by his enemy became for him a curing medication, the insult became a word of praise, the accusation became a crown of victory.       (Homily V, The Fathers of the Church, p. 158-160)