God’s Love and Loving God

“This has taught me never to condemn anyone: as the prayer says: ‘There is no man who lives and does not sin.’

Remember, all our faith is based on our love of God and of the Mother of God and on our veneration of the saints. We can express all this by loving all people and by never refusing them help. I always tell everybody the words of the Gospel, ‘Love your God with all your heart and all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself.’

Do you find yourself lonely? You have icons in your apartment–icons of Jesus Christ, of His Holy Mother, of our Saint Anastasia, of the Guardian Angel, of Archangel Michael, and probably you have others as well. If you feel seized by feelings of despondency, walk over to an icon and pray, and the dark forces will step away.

Read a chapter of the Gospel every day. In the Four Gospels there are eighty-nine chapters, so in the course of a year you will be able to read the whole Gospel four times. I started reading a chapter of the Gospel every day from an early age. I have been a heiromonk for fifty years and I celebrate the liturgy almost every day, but every time I read a chapter I find something new in it, something good and inspiring.

Be with people and help them, whoever they are. They can be your colleagues, your friends, or your relatives. Help everyone and those who around you will understand what a Christian is and will come to the Church, to God. ”

 (Father Arseny, A Cloud of Witnesses, pp. 109-110)

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).

Fasting: Refraining from Sin

Fasting in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin.” This is the Church’s song in the lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints

…in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.

 

A man who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility and proves himself a skillful builder’ (St. Abba Dorotheus, 7th c., Directions on Spiritual teaching).”

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, Spirituality: Vol. 4, p. 135)

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).

St. Mary of Egypt: The Flesh Passes Away

St. John of Kronstadt writes that we can take Great Lent seriously while rejoicing in our Christian way of life if we remind ourselves that the world is our temporary home, not the only life we will know.  If we think the world is all there is we cling to it and try to drain every drop of life out of every little thing.  When we truly believe in God’s Kingdom, we realize life on earth is only a tiny portion of all that exists, and that life is very short compared to the eternity in the afterlife.  His thoughts are a good mediation as we honor St. Mary of Egypt on the 5th Sunday of Great Lent.

“The material objects to which we attach ourselves in our hearts, which we passionately desire or grudge others, kill the soul by withdrawing it from God, the Source of life. The heart out to be always in God, Who is the inexhaustible Source of spiritual and material life: for who is the author of the existence of all creatures, and of organic, vegetable and animal life, of the existence, order and life of all worlds, both great and small?  The Lord God.  We must look upon everything material as dross, as unimportant, as nothingness, as transitory, destructible, corruptible, and evanescent, and pay attention to the invisible, single immortal soul which cannot be destroyed: “To despise the flesh, for it passeth away, and to take care for the soul, the thing immortal.” [*Hymn for St. Mary of Egypt – see below] Prove this by your deeds: fast, gladly bestow charity upon the poor, entertain 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.”  (My Life in Christ, pp. 175-176)

The Troparion for St. Mary of Egypt:

The image of God was truly preserved in you, O Mother, for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. Therefore your spirit, O Holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the angels.

 

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.

Not the Flesh, But Its Desires

“The Son of man has come eating and drinking; and you say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” (Luke 7:34)

Ascetic practice including fasting is not supposed to kill the body, but only the sinful desires that arise in our bodies.  We practice self denial not because God’s creation is evil, but rather because of our own attitudes toward the world.  As  John Chryssavgis notes:

“…what is in fact avoided in authentic ascetic practice is not so much the world, or the things in the world…[but] the desire of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride in riches (I John 2:15-16). Flesh of course signifies the whole of one’s life in the state of conflict with oneself, with the world, and with God. Lust of the eyes implies the blurred vision of the world as created and as intended by God. Pride constitutes the ultimate hubris of humanity that usurps the role of God and seeks to dominate the world.” ( Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, pp. 64-65).

Keeping Lent Strictly

Some of the most well known Orthodox saints were courageously outspoken against abuses within the Church as well as abuses by Orthodox civil rulers or hierarchs.  St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for example is sent into exile where he dies because of his criticisms of clergy as well as of the Empress.  St. Maria of Paris (d. 1945)  is a more contemporary saint who was troubled by what she saw in the Church of her day as the strict adherence to external ritualism while not having one’s heart changed by the Gospel.  Her stinging criticisms of Russian Orthodox Church life were intended to awaken Church members to live their Christian lives and not reduce Orthodoxy to mindless ritualism.  She refers to the example of Jesus Christ Himself who challenged the Pharisees of His day by declaring Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, not a slave to Sabbath rules. St. Maria says:

“‘We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated the Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be the slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man…Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have here a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifest in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules, and prohibitions–a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man?’

Likewise, [St. Maria Skobtsova] considers the ascetic mentality dominant in traditional monasticism, namely the conviction that everything one does is done out of obedience–to God, to the superior, to the monastic rule. The purpose for all of this is the salvation of one’s own soul, becoming “perfect even as your Father in heaven.” Once more, something is not right in such a vision, for

‘The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels–this is a kind of huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ–I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put virtues into practice and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love–and we must love.’

But where is there any recognition of the other, the neighbor who is being fed, clothed, or visited? Rather than self-renouncing, self-giving love that embraces the other, this “strange and fearsome holiness” pursues all kinds of works of love because it is the rule, because God or the superior orders it, because it is necessary for the salvation of my soul.”

(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity, p. 666).

We can live the Gospel by living a life of love – through acts of generous giving to others, to those in need, to our neighbors or to strangers, we can curb our own desires and serve others.  We turn our self denial into the service of others.  This is an ascetic act which everyone is capable of doing.  We don’t need to leave the world in order to follow Christ.  We can use Great Lent as a time to increase our service to others and thus deny ourselves.

Moses and the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Yesterday on the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorated the monastic father, St. John Climacus, author of the LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT.

The imagery of the spiritual life being a ladder that we climb to heaven is based in the Bible.  In the Old Testament, the Patriarch Jacob dreams about such a ladder which connects earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12). In John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (John 1:51).   In church hymnography, Mary has also been described as a ladder uniting earth to heaven.

St. Gregory of Nyssa also made use of the ladder imagery in his THE LIFE OF MOSES.  There the ladder stretches on eternally into heaven since there is no plateau to the spiritual life: one continues the ascent to God forever.    For St. Gregory no matter how much we ascend to God we will always realize God is even more beautiful than what we perceive.  This  thought causes us to ever move spiritually upward seeking that greater, more beautiful vision of God.  He writes:

“For this reason we also say that the great Moses, as he was becoming ever greater, at no time stopped in his ascent, nor did he set a limit for himself in his upward course. Once having set foot on the ladder which God set up (as Jacob says), he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because he always found a step higher than the one he had attained. . . .

He shone with glory. And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken, beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity to partake, but according to God’s true being.

Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype.”   The Life of Moses, pp. 113-114)

The writings of St. Gregory on Moses also help clarify for us the goals of ascetic practice.  We are not trying to perfect fasting, rather we are trying to develop in our souls the love and desire for what is perfectly beautiful.  Fasting has an end point – we can only fast so much, we can only deny our self food to a finite degree.  Whereas the love for God, the development of the spiritual life goes on forever.  Fasting belongs to this fallen world, while the ascent to God and spiritual growth continues for all eternity.