Life is Hard

But as you know, everything good in us does not take place easily, but with labor, force, and effort: “The kingdom of heaven is taken by force, and those who exert effort gain it” (Matt. 11:12). Therefore, let us not be discouraged by the difficulty of this feat, but rather let us look for the means to accomplish it.

(St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 1181-1183)

Virtues: An Extensive List

Lest after reading the Extensive List of Passions  of St Peter of Damaskos one wonders, ‘did he have nothing better to do than list sins?’, he also provided a list of everything he considered to be a virtue, though he acknowledges the list is not exhaustive.   Peter says he derived his list of passions from the Scriptures and the list of virtues from the fathers  – those earlier generations of monks and teachers of the church, many considered to be saints.  While he came up with 298 passions, he only listed 228 virtues but admits the list is not complete.   If you are wondering what virtue you should work on next in your spiritual life, here are some virtues you can consider.

It is from the fathers that I myself have learned about the virtues, and I will give a list of them, so far as I can, even though it is not complete because of my lack of knowledge. The virtues are:

moral judgment, self-restraint, courage, justice, faith, hope, love, fear, religious devotion, spiritual knowledge, resolution, strength, understanding, wisdom, contrition, grief, gentleness, searching the Scriptures, acts of charity, purity of heart, peace, patient endurance, self-control, perseverance, probity of intention, purposiveness, sensitivity, heedfulness, godlike stability, warmth, alertness, the fervor of the Spirit, meditation, diligence, watchfulness, mindfulness, reflection, reverence, shame, respect, penitence, refraining from evil, repentance, return to God, allegiance to Christ, rejection of the devil,

keeping of the commandments, guarding of the soul, purity of conscience, remembrance of death, tribulation of soul, the doing of good actions, effort, toil, an austere life, fasting, vigils, hunger, thirst, frugality, self-sufficiency, orderliness, gracefulness, modesty, reserve, disdain of money, unacquisitiveness, renunciation of worldly things, submissiveness, obedience, compliance, poverty, possessionlessness, withdrawal from the world, eradication of self-will, denial of self, counsel, magnanimity, devotion to God, stillness, discipline, sleeping on a hard bed, abstinence from washing oneself, service, struggle, attentiveness, the eating of uncooked food, nakedness, the wasting of one’s body, solitude, quietude, calmness, cheerfulness, fortitude, boldness, godlike zeal, fervency, progress, folly for Christ, watchfulness over the intellect, moral integrity, holiness, virginity, sanctification, purity of body, chasteness of soul, reading for Christ’s sake, concern for God, comprehension, friendliness, truthfulness, uninquisitiveness, uncensoriousness, forgiveness of debts, good management, skilfulness, acuity, fairness, the right use of things,

cognitive insight, good-naturedness, experience, psalmody, prayer, thanksgiving, acknowledgment, entreaty, kneeling, supplication, intercession, petition, appeal, hymnody, doxology, confession, solicitude, mourning, affliction, pain, distress, lamentation, sighs of sorrow, weeping, heart-rending tears, compunction, silence, the search for God, cries of anguish, lack of anxiety about all things, forbearance, lack of self-esteem, disinterest in glory, simplicity of soul, sympathy, self-retirement, goodness of disposition, activities that accord with nature, activities exceeding one’s natural capacity, brotherly love, concord, communion in God, sweetness, a spiritual disposition, mildness, rectitude, innocence, kindliness, guilelessness, simplicity, good repute, speaking well of others, good works, preference of one’s neighbor, godlike tenderness, a virtuous character, consistency, nobility, gratitude, humility, detachment, dignity, forbearance, long-suffering, kindness, goodness,

discrimination, accessibility, courtesy, tranquility, contemplation, guidance, reliability, clearsightedness, dispassion, spiritual joy, sureness, tears of understanding, tears of soul, a loving desire for God, pity, mercy, compassion, purity of soul, purity of intellect, prescience, pure prayer, passion-free thoughts, steadfastness, fitness of soul and body, illumination, the recovery of one’s soul, hatred of life, proper teaching, a healthy longing for death, childlikeness in Christ, rootedness, admonition and encouragement, both moderate and forcible, a praiseworthy ability to change, ecstasy towards God, perfection in Christ, true enlightenment, an intense longing for God, rapture of intellect, the indwelling of God, love of God, love of inner wisdom, theology, a true confession of faith, disdain of death, saintliness, successful accomplishment, perfect health of soul, virtue, praise from God, grace, kingship, adoption to sonship

– altogether 228 virtues. To acquire all of them is possible only through the grace of Him who grants us victory over the passions.”

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29993-30050)

Holding Fast to the Faith

“The faith that is in many church attendees is as much American folk religion as Christianity. Their focus tends to be consumerist (“What’s in it for me?”),

moralistic (“Live by the rules!”),

therapeutic (“I want peace of mind and happiness”)

Deism.

As I overhear God’s people talk, Christianity is almost reduced to accepting Christ as your Savior so you can go to heaven when you die, and between now and then you attend church, have a daily devotional, live a clean life, and “let” God meet your needs and attain your goals.

There may be more right than wrong in that reduction of the faith, but it is a form of Christianity with some of the heart removed, more of the mind, and most of the vertebrae. It is not a version of the Christian faith that has a fair chance of changing the world or its devotees. No ancient martyrs would have been fed to the lions if their faith had been reduced to that.

(George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Kindle Location 1539-1547)

It’s Not All or Nothing

For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not.   (2 Corinthians 8:12)

One temptation in the spiritual life is to understand perfection to mean you do everything perfectly right and then to decide that anything less than perfect is utter failure.  This “all or nothing” spirituality shows itself in people who start out to keep Great Lent perfectly, but then falter along the way and give up on the whole enterprise thinking if I can’t keep it all, why try to do anything?  The same thing happens with people who set up for themselves a demanding spiritual discipline or prayer life and soon cannot keep to their high standards and so decide to abandon the spiritual life altogether.

Additionally, it is not the one who begins the race but who never finishes it who wins the prize.  So beginning any spiritual endeavor with zeal and the mind toward perfection but then abandoning the effort  because of a failure along the way is worse than beginning the race with only moderate effort but then persevering to the end.

Between everything and nothing there is a lot of middle ground, and there are many stories and lessons in the lives of the Fathers to support that point.  The desert fathers knew that Jesus commanded us to practice charity and hospitality.  Yet some of the monks struggled in subsistence level conditions and had little to give to others.   Rather than advocating all or nothing, the spiritual advice is to keep at the spiritual life and do the best you can, fulfilling as much of the Gospel as you can, but not worrying about what you can’t do.  Here are two from monastic fathers, adpated from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2) :

“And if you art unable to give alms of your work at least supply all your needs by your own hands.”  (Kindle Loc. 3156-57)

If you can’t earn enough to be able to give charity, at least earn enough so you don’t have to beg from others.  There is a wisdom here to help the struggling Christian who may feel the demands of the Faith are more than he or she can do daily.  The wisdom response is do what you can.  A second example on the same theme of charity:

A brother asked Abba Joseph, saying, “What shall I do? For I cannot be disgraced, and I cannot work, and I have nothing from which to give alms.”  The old man said unto him, ” If you can not do these things, keep your conscience from your neighbor, and guard yourself carefully against evil of every kind, and you shall live; for God desires that the soul shall be without sin.”   (Kindle Loc. 1465-68)

As with many of the desert father stories, they are short and so leave out some details.  In the story above it appears that the one monk is ill or injured and so cannot work and thus cannot give alms.  Should he quit being a monk?  No, he is advised to continue on doing the things he can do – be a good neighbor, not nosey, not a gossip, and don’t do any evil yourself.   Even if you cannot practice charity because you haven’t anything to give, you can still be a Christian by following other teachings of Christ.  All or nothing doesn’t work.  There is no one shoe size for all.  Each of us has to work out our own salvation.  Do you know how Christ loves you?  Then love others as you have been loved.

… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life…  (Philippians 2:12-16)

Repentance: Telling God What to Do

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThis is the second post in his blog series exploring Psalm 51.  The first post is Repentance: Being Washed By God.

In Orthodoxy when we think about repentance, probably the Psalm that comes most to mind is Psalm 51, which is prayed in many of our services, especially those with a penitential theme.  When we think about repentance, we think about the things that are required of us – to change, metanoia, compunction, conscience, morality, tears, confessing sins, judging one’s self, contrition, self-reproach, remorse, self-denial, bearing the fruit of repentance, returning to the father, begging mercy, self-blame, self-examination, humbling one’s self, promising never to repeat the sin.

Yet when we read Psalm 51, we see repentance in a different way, for this Psalm, like many Orthodox prayers, is not about us, but about God.   Most of Psalm 51 tells God what to do rather than focusing on what I am now going to do to show that I have truly repented.   We are indeed telling God what to do – and specifically what we need God to do for us.  Theophan Whitfield says in the Jewish Masoretic Text of Psalm 51, “it is possible to find further evidence that the psalmist is not simply pleading for mercy, he is actually arguing for mercy.”    (“Hearing Psalm 51: Masoretic Hebrew vs. LXX Greek”, FESTSCHRIFT IN HONOR OF PROFESSOR PAUL NADIM TARAZI, p 43)

As the prayer “Lord, have mercy” is a command to God, not woefully and helplessly begging a reprieve from an abusive tyrant, but rather telling God what to do for us, so too Psalm 51 is our giving direction to God as to the things we need from God.  As other Orthodox writers have noted, we spend a lot of time in our prayers and liturgical services telling God to be God:  Be Yourself, God!   You are love, You are merciful, You are forgiving, You are kind, You are tenderhearted, You are compassionate.  So be Yourself and do divine love, mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion for us.  In Psalm 51 we acknowledge we need God to be God and we are telling God to be God because we are suffering in this world -the world of the Fall in which we are alienated from God often by circumstances not of our making and/or under God’s judgment for things we actually did and/or because we have forgotten God or disobeyed God whether knowingly or because of ignorance.

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When we understand this nature of Psalm 51, we come to understand how it reflects the prayers of the Liturgy and how the Liturgy really is praying this Psalm.  The Liturgy is our experience of the Kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven.  It is our experience of being the lost sheep hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd and following Him.  As such, it is the Good Shepherd who does the things necessary to restore us to God’s flock – He is the one who seeks us, forgives us, heals us, cleanses us, teaches us, wipes away our tears, and brings us to our heavenly Father interceding for us that we might be forever in God’s presence.

In Psalm 51, “I” tell God to:

Have mercy on me
blot out my transgressions.  Wash me 
cleanse me from my sin!
teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop
wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart
put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
take not your holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
uphold me with a willing spirit.
Deliver me from blood-guiltiness,
open my lips
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem

39062344981_6d64786e1bThe way the Psalm is written I don’t ask God to do these things for me, I tell God to do these things for me.

What is listed above is all the things we tell God to do in this one Psalm which is supposedly about repentance.  It is not God who is repenting, but it is God who does all the work of the Good Shepherd to bring the lost sheep safely home, to heal the wounds, and to wipe away our sins.  We are commanding God to do all the things necessary for our salvation.  The same imperative attitude is found in the Divine Liturgy where in our prayers we repeatedly tell God what to do for us.  Just pay attention at any divine liturgy, especially to the priestly prayers and see how many things we tell God to do for us.

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Conversely, just think about “me” in this Psalm –  Have mercy on me, wash me, cleanse me, teach me, purge me, fill me, create in me, put a new and right spirit within me, cast me not, take not your holy Spirit from me, restore to me, uphold me, deliver me.  Quite the laundry list we give to God!  And “me” turns out to be the subject upon which God acts.   In this Psalm, repentance means submitting oneself to God’s saving actions.  Repentance is not so much something I do, but more is my commanding God what to and, therefore,  accepting what God does both to and  for me to restore me, make me whole and safely bring me back to the flock.  In the words of St John the Forerunner, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).  That is the real nature of repentance – not everything I must do, but realizing how much I need from God to correct me.  Psalm 51 is my agreeing to submit myself to everything God does by God’s own nature.  God has a lot of work to do to make us into the human beings He wants us to be.

Repentance as is turns out is not so much what I do for myself, but my inviting God into my life, allowing God to be Lord in my life.  What does God want to do with me?  Remove all obstacles to salvation, restore me to the right relationship with God, and to unite Himself to me, to fulfill what God intends for humanity in the incarnation:  God becomes human so that we humans might become god.  It is only in this exchange that we become fully human.  Psalm 51 really is the pot telling the Potter, “You created us humans in your image and likeness, but I have distorted and misshapen that image, so now resume your artistry and craft me into the beautiful and good creation which you intended every human being to be.”

Next: Psalm 51: What Do “I” Do?

Worthily Partaking of Communion

St. Cyril of Alexandria  considers what the Lord Jesus teaches us in John 6:56 – “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  He writes:

6219061154_d4264b409d_mNow if we really yearn for eternal life, if we long to have the provider of immortality within ourselves, let us not abstain from the Eucharist like some of the more negligent, nor let us provide the devil in the depths of his cunning with a trap and a snare for us in the form of a pernicious kind of reverence. “Yes, indeed,” someone might say, “But it is written, ‘Any one who eats of the bread and drinks of the cup unworthily, eats and drinks judgment upon himself’ [1 Cor 11:29]. I have examined myself and I see that I am not worthy.” But then when will you be worthy? . . . Make up your mind, then, to lead a more devout life in conformity with the law, and so partake of the Eucharist in the conviction that it dispels not only death but even the diseases that are in us [1 Cor 11:30].”  (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4998-5003)

Fr Vassilios Papavassiliou comments:

Cassian JohnAs St. John Cassian put it, and which is a good note to end on, We must not avoid communion because we deem ourselves to be sinful. We must approach it more often for the healing of the soul and the purification of the spirit, but with such humility and faith that considering ourselves unworthy … we should more greatly desire the medicine of our wounds. Otherwise it is impossible to receive communion once a year, as certain people do … considering the sanctification of heavenly Mysteries as available only to saints. It is better to think that by giving us grace, the sacrament makes us pure and holy. Such people manifest more pride than humility … for when they receive, they think themselves as worthy. It is much better if, in humility of heart, knowing that we are never worthy of the Holy Mysteries we would receive them every Sunday for the healing of our diseases, rather than, blinded by pride, think that after one year we become worthy of receiving them.”   (Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy, Kindle Loc. 854-62)

Being Taught by God

But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

God promised that the day would come in which He would write His law upon our hearts.   That internalizing of the Word has several possible meanings but one thing it seems to imply is that there will be no need of some kind of intermediary between God and people.  We won’t need Scriptures, nor will we need teachers to interpret the Word for us.  This isn’t even a matter of memorizing scripture verses, for even that falls far short of what God has in mind for us.  God will place His Word directly on our hearts and we will know that Word from within ourselves.  We won’t even have to call the Word to mind, for we will be one with the Word.  We will no longer forget or be ignorant, for God’s Word will abide in us and we will always be aware of the Lord.   Would that that day would come.  For still today many know neither God’s Word nor God’s presence.  And even many of us who believe the Word and know the Word, still at times forget it, or ignore it, or avoid it or deny it.   And so we struggle while living in the world with temptation, sin, ignorance, confusion, doubt and all human foibles, failures and hubris.

Christ Teaching – 4th Century Roman

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346AD) was particularly mindful of God’s promises and prophecies to be with His people.  He especially found Isaiah‘s words, which the Apostle John quotes, to be significantly important to us.

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.   (John 6:45)

St Gregory says we have to move beyond the words printed in Scripture to understand what the Spirit is saying, and in so doing we come into union with God.  In this way the Scriptures cease to be external to us for they unite us to God.

The physical eye perceives the outward or literal sense of things and from it derives sensory images. The intellect, once purified and reestablished in its pristine state, perceives God and from Him derives divine images. Instead of a book the intellect has the Spirit; instead of a pen, mind and tongue – ‘my tongue is a pen‘, says the Psalmist (cf. Ps. 45:1); and instead of ink, light. So plunging the mind into the light that it becomes light, the intellect, guided by the Spirit, inscribes the inner meaning of things in the pure hearts of those who listen. Then it grasps the significance of the statement that the faithful ‘shall be taught by God‘ (cf. Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), and that through the Spirit God ‘teaches man knowledge’ (Ps. 94:l0).     (St Gregory of Sinai,  THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 40928-40948)

In this process we move beyond simply reading the words of Scripture to having them transferred to our hearts, but they don’t remain as words still needing to be interpreted, for we grasp their meaning, and they grasp our hearts and minds, so that we live the Word, rather than merely reading it, memorizing it, or interpreting it.  Now the Word abides in us and we know God rather than simply know about God.  We experience God in our hearts as the Prophet Jeremiah promised.

St Gregory of Sinai goes on:

“As the great teacher St John Chrysostom states, we should be in a position to say that we need no help from the Scriptures, no assistance from other people, but are instructed by God; for ‘all will be taught by God‘ (Isa. 54:13; John 6:45), in such a way that we learn from Him and through Him what we ought to know. And this applies not only to those of us who are monks but to each and every one of the faithful: we are all of us called to carry the law of the Spirit written on the tablets of our hearts (cf. 2 Cor. 3:3), and to attain like the Cherubim the supreme privilege of conversing through pure prayer in the heart directly with Jesus.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 42158-42168)

St Gregory says this is what every Christian should experience.  We cease looking for God “out there” somewhere in a distant heaven or at the end of time, for God enters our hearts here and now, and makes our heart heaven, makes us the temple of the Spirit, makes us realize that God is with us and within us.  This in turn helps us get through each day in good cheer  even with all the trials and tribulations that might assail us.  Christianity is not a “die and go to heaven” religion for the Kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21)

 

 

 

Prayer is God

7342515708_983ca96522_mThe purpose of prayer is to enable our union with God.  It’s purpose is not to make all our wants, needs, desires, hopes and wishes known to God.  God already knows all of those things.  We can reduce prayer to a list of wants and needs, but then we miss the very purpose of prayer.  St Gregory of Sinai leads us into an ever deeper understand of what prayer is because it becomes obvious that for the Christian prayer is everything.  St Gregory writes:

Or again, prayer is

the preaching of the Apostles, an action of faith or, rather, faith itself, ‘that makes real for us the things for which we hope‘ (Heb. 11:1),

active love, angelic impulse,

the power of the bodiless spirits, their work and delight,

the Gospel of God, the heart’s assurance,

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hope of salvation, a sign of purity, a

token of holiness, knowledge of God,

baptism made manifest, purification in the water of regeneration,

a pledge of the Holy Spirit, the exultation of Jesus,

the soul’s delight, God’s mercy,

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a sign of reconciliation, the seal of Christ,

a ray of the noetic sun, the heart’s dawn-star,

the confirmation of the Christian faith,

the disclosure of reconciliation with God, God’s grace,

God’s wisdom or, rather, the origin of true and absolute Wisdom;

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the revelation of God,

the work of monks, the life of hesychasts, the source of stillness, and expression of the angelic state.

Why say more?

Prayer is God,

who accomplishes everything in everyone (cf. 1 Cor. 12:6), for there is a single action of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, activating all things through Christ Jesus.”  

THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 41660-41675)

Being Newly Baptized Forever

Paul was baptized and illumined by the light of truth, and in this way became a great man; as time when on, he became a much greater one. For after he had contributed his fair share – his zeal, his ardor, his noble spirit, his seething desire, his scorn for the things of this world – there flowed into him an abundance of the gifts that come from God’s grace. 

Imitate him, I beg you; and you will be able to be called newly baptized not only for two, three, ten or twenty days, but you will be able to deserve this greeting after ten, twenty, or thirty years have passed and, to tell the truth, through your whole life. If we shall be eager to make brighter by good deeds the light within us – I mean the grace of the Spirit – so that it is never quenched, we shall enjoy the title of newly baptized for all time.”

(St. John Chrysostom, Ancient Christian Writers: Baptismal Instructions, pp. 88-89)

The Priest as Instrument of the Holy Spirit

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of the truth, who is everywhere and fills all things.  Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life: Come! Abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.”

I think that, as priests and pastors, if we are to do our job properly, we must have our time alone with God and we must live our own personal tragedy first, and speak to Him from our own heart. Then we will have a word of consolation for everybody we meet. And that is the task of the priest: to console his people, to bring a word of consolation. ‘My priests, my priests, console my people,’ says the Lord through Isaiah the Prophet [Isaiah 40:1 (LXX)]. The task of the priest is to be a comforter of souls. But we cannot give a word of comfort unless we ourselves have been comforted. In the beginning of the second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul says, ‘Blessed is the God of all comfort who comforteth us to be able to comfort those who come to us with the comfort by which we are comforted ourselves.‘ He uses the words ‘comfort’ and ‘consolation’ nine or ten times. And it is not easy to be able to administer such comfort to the people unless we have our time with God.

(Archimandrite Zacharias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 376)