Overcoming Our Sins

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos muses:

Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)

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Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

Better Sleep Than Slander

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:3-4)

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

In Orthodoxy, humility is a highly valued virtue.  It is opposed to judgmentalism which is born in the sin of pride.  Judgmentalism leads to self-vaunting self-righteousness – considering oneself better than others.  Humility is what allows us to see our own sins and not to judge our sisters and brothers.   It doesn’t mean being blind – we are not taught to be blind to what is really going on – we are to see clearly even the sins of others.  It is what we do with what we see and how we react to what we see which shows us whether we live in love.  

The wisdom to love rather than judge is found in many spiritual traditions, here is a story from the Islamic tradition:

Sa’di of Shiraz tells this story about himself:
When I was a child I was a pious boy, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap.

Everyone else in the room began to slumber and soon was sound asleep, so I said to my father, “None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his head to say his prayers. You would think that they were all dead.”

My father replied, “My beloved son, I would rather you too were asleep like them than slandering.” (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 107).

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up 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 every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)

Practice Hearing God

For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind…”  (Wisdom of Solomon 1:5)

There is a bit of wisdom that I’ve seen even on a bumper sticker which says: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think“.   One can find similar warnings in Orthodox spiritual literature where one’s constant buzz of thoughts are sometimes compared to a swarm of bees, or worse, a swarm of flies (and we know what attracts flies!).  Or this from Sirach  – “The heart of a fool is like a cart wheel, and his thoughts like a turning axle” (33:5).   Our minds are always busy – always turning, but the spiritual literature says we can learn to discern our own thoughts better by slowly, gently ignoring some of them until we are able to hear another voice – that of God.  Especially if we have allowed God’s Word to enter into our hearts and minds through attending liturgical services, reading scripture and through prayer.   Fr. Meletios Webber writes:

“For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts–not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness–a place of love, joy, peace, and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.” (“When Taking Cover Is Not Enough”, In Communion, p. 14).

Spiritual directors warn that if we only read those passages of Scripture which we like or agree with, then we aren’t listening to God but are only listening to ourselves.  If we read the Scriptures through our political bent, we shaped the Scriptures into a text that agrees with us.  It is much harder to allow the Scriptures to speak to us and far easier for us to read into them what we want them to say.  So the Lord Jesus teaches:

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

People who have memorized a text and repeat it often, sometimes don’t even notice when the written text has been changed, even when it is right in front of them.  They are not reading the text, but rather saying what their mind has already believed the text to say.   Sometimes they literally can’t even see the change in the text because their brain expects the text to say what it has memorized.   So the person has to slow down their mind, and actually pay attention to the text which is before them.  Sometimes they stumble over the words, sometimes the different words appear and they suddenly realize what they are saying is different than the text before their eyes and they feel the cognitive dissonance as they say one thing but read something different.  Sometimes they have to stop and actually read the printed words carefully and intentionally.  That is the experience that Fr Webber is describing: how it is necessary at times to slow our thinking down and filter some of the thoughts so that we can actually hear that voice from God who speaks to us but who we drown out with all the other things to which we want to pay attention.

We might consider the experience of the Holy Prophet Elijah who didn’t find God in the explosion winds, earthquake or fire, and all the thoughts that resulted from them.  Rather, only when all else had been cleared from his mind did Elijah hear the “still small voice” which was God speaking to him.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

HE Must Increase, Not I

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John the Forerunner speaking about Jesus, John 3:30)

“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord: First a man must deny himself, and secondly he must follow Christ (Mark 8:34). The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity–whether in great matters or small.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse, Heavenly Wisdom from God-illuminated Teachers on Conquering Depression, pp. 55-56)

Resisting Self-Indulgent Passions

The Triumph of Dionysus

Self-Indulgent: What is meant is the appetites of the self, an unhealthy individualism that serves evil and leads to idolatry (Gal. 5.9). When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious:

fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions, envy, murders, drunkenness and similar things (Col. 3.5 adds evil desires and greed, spitefulness, abusive language, dirty talk and lies).

What the Spirit brings is the opposite of self-indulgent (Gal. 5.22). By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control….

If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct its course. We must stop being conceited, provocative and envious (1 Cor. 2:21-3:3).”

(The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church annotated by Paul N. Harrilchak, p 58)

Imitating St. Mary of Egypt

One of the hymns regarding St. Mary of Egypt says that she taught us “To despise the flesh, for it passes away, and to care instead for the soul, since it is eternal.”

St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can fulfill this ideal –

“Prove this by your deeds; fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain your guests heartily; do not grudge anything to those who belong to your household, zealously read the Word of God, pray, repent, lament your sins, strive with all your might after holiness, meekness, humility, patience, and obedience.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp 175-176)

 

 

Spiritual Warfare: The Passions

Not infrequently in the writings of church teachers from the Patristic period, we find descriptions of how the passions and sins are related to each other, one becoming the seedbed for the next.  To rid oneself of sin, one has to find the root cause of the chain which moves us ever away from God.

There may be a ladder of divine ascent that leads us step by step to the kingdom, but there also is ladder that step by step takes us into the depths of sin.

Here is one description of cause and effect relationship of passions to sins, written by Oliver Clement.

“Pride and greed form an alliance in a sort of metaphysical usurpation that annexes the whole being to the ego.

Spiritual writers, especially Maximus the Confessor, speak here of philautia, self-love, self-centeredness, that snatches the world away from God to annex it, making neighbors into things. […]

Greed unleashes debauchery as an expression of sexuality. The two together, to satisfy themselves, breed avarice.

Avarice produces depression – grief at not possessing everything – and envy – of those who possess.

Thus arises anger, against anyone who threatens my goods, or who forestalls me in securing something that I covet.

Pride, in its turn, begets ‘vain glory’, the display of riches and temptations, followed by anger and depression when the sought-for admiration and approval is lacking.”

(The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp 134-135)

Contemplating Great Lent

“Armed with fasting, Elijah the wonderful, was taken up in a chariot of fire;

through fasting Moses received a vision of secret mysteries; and if we also fast like the, we shall see Christ.”  

“Adam ate the food and his greed banished him from Paradise.  But may the keeping of the Fast lead us to true repentance, O Lord who loves mankind.”

“Let us observe a fast acceptable and pleasing to the Lord.  True fasting is to put away all evil, to control the tongue, to forbear from anger, to abstain from lust, slander falsehood and perjury.  If we renounce these things, then is our fasting true and acceptable to God.”

(Three hymns from the Lenten Triodion, 1st week)

 

Afflictions

“The ancient fathers counsel the faithful to view life’s reversals and afflictions as a whetstone to sharpen their minds, thereby keeping them active and making them wise. Saint John Chrysostom is even of the opinion that the presence of adversities has blessed humanity with the development of the arts. Full of realistic optimism based on observed experience, patristic tradition regards problems as opportunities that can make people resourceful and even strong.” (Father Alexis Trader, Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, p 171)