Called to the Abundant Light

“Whereas the old law proclaimed that God was the Maker and Lord of heaven, and laid down God-pleasing ordinances for those under the law, it did not give any promise of heavenly benefits, nor did it offer communion with God, or an eternal, heavenly, inheritance to those who obeyed it. But once Christ the King of all had visited us in the flesh ‘to call sinners,’ as He says Himself, ‘to repentance’ (Matt 9:13), there were greater rewards for those who obeyed and repented, and, through works of repentance, ordered their lives according to Christ’s gospel, keeping the holy commandments it contains.

Nor were these rewards simply greater, but also incomparably more excellent.

For what was promised was

the kingdom of heaven,

light without evening,

heavenly adoption as sons,

celestial dwellings,

and a divine and eternal way of life,

and even more than this:

for we shall be ‘heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17), and ‘I am come,’ says the Lord, ‘that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10).

These are not resounding but empty phrases, nor just a litany of vain words, but an account of the unchanging things actually stored up as prizes for those who believe and live according to Christ.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 445)

Sins Which Entice Good Christians

St. Mark the Ascetic writes about sins that do overcome even good Christians and monks.  These are the kinds of sins we might commit daily, sins we assume everyone commits, sins which are part of human nature.  They are sins nevertheless from which we are to repent and to replace them with Christian virtues.  They are sins from which we are to abstain, especially during Great Lent.    St. Mark laments that:  

“They were secretly enticed and overcome by

malicious envy, by jealousy that hates everything good,

by strife, quarreling, hatred, anger,

bitterness, rancor, hypocrisy,

wrath, pride, self-esteem,

love of popularity, self-satisfaction,

avarice, listlessness,

 

by sensual desire which provokes images of self-indulgence,

by unbelief, irreverence, cowardice,

dejection, contentiousness, sluggishness, sleep,

presumption, self-justification, pomposity,

boastfulness, insatiateness, profligacy,

greed, by despair which is the most dangerous of all,

and by the subtle workings of vice”

(The Philokalia,  Kindle Loc. 4273-78).

God as the Prodigal’s Father

The Prodigal’s father watched for his son’s return and while the Prodigal was still a long way from home the father saw him and ran to meet him.  So too God is always watching for our repentance.  In Great Lent Christ calls us to confess our sins and return to God our Father.

“It is a spiritual gift from God for a man to perceive his sins. When God sees that we suffer grievously in multifarious trials, this gift penetrates into our thought, lest we should depart from life in the midst of all these calamities and afflictions, having reaped no profit from this world. Our lack of understanding is not due to the difficulty of temptations, but to our ignorance. Often it happens that while some are in the midst of these trials, they depart from the world laden with guilt, since they did not confess, but rather denied and blamed. But the merciful God waited with the hope that somehow they might be humbled, so that He might forgive them and make for them a way of escape. And He would not only have provided them with a way of escape from their temptations, but would have forgiven them their transgressions by reason of the brief confession of their hearts.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian: Homily 74, pp. 262-263).

Correcting Vices with Virtues

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.”  (Matthew 12:43-45)

Repentance has as its goal spiritual healing as we endeavor to overcome the sickening affects of the Fall.  Confession is not mostly about enumerating sins but rather about finding healing for our spiritual ills.   Fr Alexis Trader reminds us that in penance we are trying to find an antidote for our sins and the church fathers did suggest specific virtuous behaviors to replace sinful ones.  He writes:

“Ascetic tradition singles out eight principal bad thoughts that encompass and engender all the other sins that the mind can commit. The eight bad thoughts include gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. They are the conceptual analogues to specific behaviors, for “what the body acts out in the world of things, the nous acts out in the world of conceptual images.” Hence, the thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms as the gluttonous behavior of someone overeating, the unchaste conduct of someone having illicit sexual relations, the avaricious actions of someone gambling, and for forth. This patristic connection between thought and behavior links the subjective reality of the eight bad thoughts to the objective reality of concrete actions that can be observed and measured by an external observer. 

Furthermore, if bad thoughts can be formulated in behavioral terms, their antidotes can also be framed in like manner. For example, in a text attributed to St. John of Damascus, the author notes that

“gluttony can be corrected by self-control;

unchastity by desire for God and longing for future blessings;

avarice by compassion for the poor;

anger by goodwill and love for all men;

worldly dejection by spiritual joy;

listlessness by patience, perseverance, and offering thanks to God;

vain-glory by doing good in secret and by praying constantly with a contrite heart;

and pride by not judging or despising anyone in the manner of the boastful Pharisee, and by considering oneself the least of all men.”

(Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p. 79)

It is not enough in confession to simply catalog one’s misdeeds.  If we don’t replace our sinful behaviors with virtuous ones, we will find the momentary gain of emptying our sins in confession is confounded by the fact that the same behaviors will continue and become worse.  Healing takes place as we rid ourselves of our sins by replacing bad behaviors with good deeds.  We have to fill our time and our hearts with good things or the empty heart will remain the haunt of our sinful thoughts which also are our demons.

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)

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)

A Poetic Phrasing of St. Ephrem’s Prayer

Poet Scott Cairns gives us a fresh look at the Prayer of St. Ephrem in his poetic rephrasing of the Great Lenten prayer.

O Lord and Master of my life,

remove from me this languid spirit,

this grim demeanor, this petty

lust for power, and all this empty talk.

endow Thy servant, instead,

with a chaste spirit, a humble

heart, longsuffering gentleness,

and genuine, unselfish love.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant

that I may confront my own offenses,

and remember not to judge my brother.

for You are–always and forever–blessed.

(Love’s Immensity, pp. 17-18)

 

Being Watchful in Prayer

Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)

In the Great Canon of St. Andrew, chanted in the first week of Great Lent, there are many wonderful spiritual uses and interpretations of the Scriptures.  St. Andrew reminds us to be vigilant in prayer.

“But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.”  (Luke 21:36)

Vigilance in prayer, mindfulness in general, are modes of being for the Christian to be able to see God.  It may seem odd to say it, be the invisible God can be seen if you are looking for God when God chooses to reveal Himself to us.  St. Andrew says in his canon:

Be watchful, O my soul, be full of courage like Jacob the great patriarch, that you may acquire action with knowledge, and be named Israel, “the mind that sees God.” So shall you reach the innermost darkness through contemplation, and gain great merchandise. Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me. 

The mind that sees God enters “the innermost darkness”!   St. Andrew’s language is poetic mystery.  The encounter with God comes not when or how we expect for God is not controlled by our reason or perspective.  Andrew’s canon contains verses with unusual and unexpected perspectives which help us to see anew, and not with our eyes alone but in our hearts and minds as did the Patriarch Jacob.

 

Prepare for Confession: Examine Your Conscience

St. Tikhon of Moscow offers some thought on how to prepare for Confession by examining your own conscience.  These are questions we can ask ourselves to help us know what it is we have to confess at the sacrament.

“And that is why the Fathers of the Church persistently command Christians to be sober, attentive to themselves, to their thoughts, words, and deeds. ‘Every evening,’ says St. Ephrem the Syrian, ‘enter your heart, reflect, and ask yourself,

“Have I offended God in any way?

Have I spoken an idle word?

Have I been negligent?

Have I offended my brother?

Have I judged someone?

When I opened my lips to glorify God, did my soul become dispersed among worldly things?

When sensuality awakened in me, did I take pleasure in it?

Was I carried away by earthly cares?”

If in all of these things you suffered failure, try to make up for it; sob, cry, in order not to suffer failure again.’”   (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc. 1154-1159)

The Stages of Sin and Repentance

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The Gospel lesson of Luke 15:11-32, the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Father, has become in the Orthodox Church the second Pre-Lenten Sunday, used to help prepare us for keeping the season of Great Lent.   Below is the text of the Gospel Lesson itself interspersed with comments from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware taken from The Lenten Triodion (p 46).

Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. 

“The parable of the Prodigal forms and exact ikon of repentance in its different stages. Sin is exile, enslavement to strangers, hunger.” 

But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ And he arose and came to his father.

“Repentance is the return from exile to our true home; it is to receive back our inheritance and freedom in the Father’s house. But repentance implies action: ‘I will rise up and go…’ (Luke 15:18).” 

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But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

“To repent is not just to feel dissatisfied, but to take a decision and to act upon it.” 

Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”

 

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Interestingly in the parable, the older brother of the Prodigal plays as big a role as the Prodigal himself – at least in terms of the length of the text.  One can repent and seek reconciliation with our merciful and forgiving God.  Sin however is never just between the sinner and God, for it affects all of one’s relationships.  God may forgive, but we may find those around us unable or unwilling to be reconciled with us.  Repentance involves a tremendous amount of energy, working on our relationships, and learning to deal with how others judge us for what we have done.  Even the Father could not force his elder son to be reconciled to the younger brother and prodigal.  We can find our way back to God, but still find ourselves estranged from community.  This is because our sins cut us off from our brothers and sisters and cut into our relationship with them.   Repentance, our confession of sins, needs to acknowledge all of those whom we have hurt through our shallow, selfish and self-centered sinfulness.  We need to acknowledge not just that our sins cut us off from God, but that they also showed a callous disregard for our friends and family.  We are the cause of their hurt.  Our sins may have damaged permanently our relationships on earth, and we must humbly accept the consequence of that.  It may not be until the Kingdom comes that we find ourselves having in heaven the relationships we desired on earth when we repented.

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