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)

The Unveiling in the Temple

In the Old Testament, the idea of The Temple is a place where the invisible God might meet His people.   Many believe the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 is really God laying out the design for His Temple – which was supposed to be creation itself.  Humans however in wanting a life apart from God forced God to abandon His plans and to expel us out of Paradise, the intended Temple, and put us on earth where we could lives separated from God as we had chosen.

Temple

The Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the original design which God revealed to Moses.  It was still designed to be the place where God met His people, however events on earth made it difficult for this to be realized.  God’s people were not always faithful, the Temple as an earthly building became a target for destruction.

In the Orthodox Church on February 2 we celebrate the Feast of the Meeting of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, in the Temple.  At last the Temple became the place where humans encountered God.  So we read in Luke 2:25-40 –

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”  And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Simeon the Righteous meets God in stages: 1) He had been told he wouldn’t die until He saw the Lord’s Christ.  He was looking for someone but he didn’t know who or what he looked like.  2)  He is inspired by the Spirit to come to the temple – he whom he had been looking for was now present and could be seen.  3)  He sees Christ as a child.  He sees what the child, the Messiah, is to be and so is able to prophecy about Him.

St. Mark the Ascetic describes a similar three fold encounter with Christ our God:

While we are being strengthened in Christ Jesus and beginning to move forward in steadfast watchfulness.

He at first appears in our intellect like a torch which, carried in the hand of the intellect, guides us along the tracks of the mind;

then He appears like a full moon, circling the heart’s firmament;

then He appears to us like the sun, radiating justice, clearly revealing Himself in the full light of spiritual vision. (The Philokalia,  Kindle Loc. 5707-12)

The Three Hierarchs

On January 30, we commemorate in the Orthodox Church The Synaxis of the Ecumenical Teachers and Hierarchs: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.

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One of the Matins hymns for the Feast appealed to me because of my interest in our friendly pollinators, the blessed bees.

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LIKE BEES HOVERING OVER THE MEADOW OF THE SCRIPTURES,

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YOU EMBRACED THE WONDERFUL POLLEN OF THEIR FLOWERS.

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TOGETHER YOU HAVE PRODUCED FOR ALL THE FAITHFUL

THE HONEY OF YOUR TEACHINGS FOR THEIR COMPLETE DELIGHT.

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THEREFORE AS WE EACH ENJOY THIS, WE CRY OUT WITH GLADNESS:

BLESSED ONES, EVEN AFTER DEATH,

BE ADVOCATES FOR US WHO PRAISE YOU!

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Charity Transforms the World

A common theme in the post-Apostolic and Patristic writers is that Jesus Christ in His various works, reverses the deeds of Adam, thus restoring humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Christ obeys the Father, whom Adam disobeyed.  Christ obeys the Father even to death.   Christ’s obedience leads to the resurrection of Himself and all humanity from the dead.

And while every action of Christ was seen as undoing Adam’s disobedience and sin, we who are united to Christ become part of that saving process.  So when we obey God, when we love our fellow human, when we give food to the poor for example, we are using food for what is was created and  intended – a means of expressing love and communion.  When we give in charity to feed the needy, we undo Adam’s treacherous use of food for self gain.  When we remedy the hunger of another, we return to Paradise and make all food again to be love.  So, St. Basil the Great, writes how the most simple of human gestures – sharing food, can also be the undoing of original sin so that we can participate in God’s love and salvation.

“For Basil, giving food does more than cover sin: it redeems the cosmic flaw. . . .  he asserts that ‘as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, we we ourselves if we remedy the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating.”     (Susan R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying, p 83)

In giving food to the hungry, we blot out Adam and Eve’s turning away from God for selfish reasons.  We participate in salvation, in the work of Christ, in making the Kingdom of God present on earth.

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First Among Sinners

The conversion of St. Paul
The conversion of St. Paul

 St. Paul the Apostle writes to his spiritual son, Timothy (who is one of the 70 Apostles):

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
  (1 Timothy 1:15-17)
St. Isaac the Syrian says:
“Love sinners, but hate their works; and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same.”  (Orthodox Prayer Life, p. 160)

When God Becomes Visible

 The Gospel lesson of Luke 18:35-43 –
Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.
We can contemplate with St. Gregory of Nyssa what sight is, how can we see God who is invisible?
“From what has been said then, it is clear that the Lord does not deceive us when He promises that the pure of heart shall see God (Matt. 5:8); nor does Paul deceive us when he teaches us in his epistles that no one has seen God nor can see Him (1 Tim. 6:16). For being by nature invisible, He becomes visible only in His operations, and only when He is contemplated in the things that are external to Him.”

The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

Be Nourished by the Eucharist of Love

“For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (J0hn 6:55-58)

[St.] Isaac’s use of the symbolism of wine and inebriation is sometimes transformed into a Eucharistic symbolism which is characteristic of the Syriac tradition from [St.] Ephrem onwards. According to Isaac, love is food and drink, bread and wine, and these are at every hour given to those who love God:

“When we find love, we partake of heavenly bread and are made strong without labor and toil. The heavenly bread is Christ, who came down from heaven and gave life to the world. This is the nourishment of the angels. The person who has found love eats and drinks Christ every day and every hour and is thereby made immortal. ’He that eateth of this bread,’ he says, ’which I will give him, shall not see death unto eternity.’ Blessed is he who consumes the bread of love which is Jesus! He who eats love eats Christ, the God over all, as John bears witness saying, ’God is love’…Love is the kingdom where the Lord mystically promises his disciples [they will] eat in his kingdom.

For when we hear him say, ’Ye shall eat and drink at the table of  my kingdom,” what do we suppose we shall eat, if not love? Love, rather than food and drink, is sufficient to nourish a man. This is the wine ’which maketh glad the heart of a man.’ Blessed is he who partakes of this wine!

Licentious men have drunk this wine and become chaste;

sinners have drunk it and have forgotten the pathways of stumbling;

drunkards have drunk this wine, and become fasters;

the rich have drunk it and desired poverty;

the poor have drunk it and been enriched with hope;

the sick have drunk it and become strong;

the unlearned have taken it and become wise.”

(Hilarion AlfeyevThe Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, page 255-256)

The Nativity of Christ: The Incarnation of God

“All these changes did the Merciful One make,

stripping off glory and putting on a body;

for He had devised a way to reclothe Adam

in that glory which Adam had stripped off.

Christ was wrapped in swaddling clothes,

corresponding to Adam’s leaves,

Christ put on clothes, instead of Adam’s skins;

He was baptized for Adam’s sin,

His body was embalmed for Adam’s death,

He rose and raised up Adam in his glory.

Blessed is He who descended, put Adam on and ascended! (Nativity 23:13)

The Most High knew that Adam had wanted to become a god,

so He sent His Son who put him on in order to grant him his desire.”

(St Ephrem the Syrian, The Luminous Eye, pp 85,  102)