The Place Where No Human Had Trod

And finally, those who received His teaching were confirmed in the hope that He gave them, thanks to His sealing His words to them with His very own blood. Through His death and resurrection He confirmed the twelve men who had been chosen, through the foreknowledge of God, out of the entire race of Adam for this ministry.

Then, amid ineffable splendour (the Father) raised Him to Himself to heaven, to that place which no created being had trod, but whither He had, through His own (action), invited all rational beings, angels, and human beings, to that blessed Entry, in order to delight in the divine light in which was clothed that Man who is filled with all that is holy, who is now with God in ineffable honor and splendor. (St Isaac of Nineveh, Isaac of Nineveh, p. 61)

St. Paul Living On Earth as In Heaven

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

St. John Chrysostom writes about the Apostle:

“For this Paul, who stripped down to his flesh, renouncing his body, and almost naked, encircled the whole world with his soul, having exiled from his mind every passion. And imitating the apathea of the bodiless powers, and living on earth as if in heaven, and standing with the cherubim above, and taking part in their mystical song, he easily bore everything – enduring, as if he were in another’s body, imprisonment, chains, arrests, scourgings, threats of death, stonings, dunkings, and every other kind of punishment.”

(Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 78)

God’s Love Means Our Salvation

“If a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, continues Isaac. This is why God gave people repentance as a remedy, for it can heal a person from sin in a short time. Not wishing human beings to perish, God forgives everyone who repents with his whole heart. God is good by nature, and he ‘wishes to save everyone by all sorts of means’.

Isaac resented the widespread opinion that the majority of human beings will be punished in hell, while only a small group of the chosen will delight in paradise. He was convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time necessary for their repentance and remission of sins:

By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy nature is so good and so compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right: how he can forgive human beings their sins—like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer or like the case of a woman with two small coins or the man who received forgiveness on the cross. For God wishes our salvation, and not reasons to torment us.

Earthly life is given to everyone as a time of repentance. It is enough for a person to turn to God to ask forgiveness for his sins immediately to be forgiven. The token of this forgiveness is the Incarnation of the Word of God, who, when all creation had abandoned and forgotten God, came down to earth in order to redeem humankind and the whole universe by his death on the cross.”

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 294-295)

The Intercessions of the Theotokos

“The Mother of God, who is also the Mother of all humankind, pleads at the tribunal for universal mercy, not for the forgiveness of sins (which is impossible, for sins must be completely expiated and suffered through) but for mercifulness to sinners. The existence of hell is surrounded not by the cold of an egotistical indifference but by the radiant cloud of the caring love of saved humankind, that is, of the Church which abides for ages of ages in its sobornost as one, holy, and universal. In the Church, the one humankind is not divided into two and is not reconciled with the severing of its parts – hell – but sorrows over this part.”  (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 193-194)

According to Fr. Sergius, the Theotokos intercedes for us all – pleads that God will be merciful to all of us.  She does not ask God to forgive sins, but rather that the God of justice will show as much mercy, leniency and compassion as is possible to everyone who lived on earth.  She does not ask God completely to lay aside judgment, but rather to behave according to His nature – God is love.  If it is necessary that God corrects us or punishes us, may God do it in His love and His mercy, not to destroy us but to bring us to holiness.

Fr. Sergius’ imagery is most interesting, for he doesn’t envision the saints in heaven being self-satisfied as they leer down on sinners in hell.  The saints aren’t rejoicing in the punishment of sinners but rather the saints of God surround hell with their prayers and love.  Saints do not rejoice that any of humanity is punished in hell.  Saints do not rejoice that humanity can be divided between those in heaven and those in hell, but rather those in heaven continue to extend love to their fellow humans by joining the Theotokos in beseeching God: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy!

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)

The Church: Stronger than Heaven

And Jesus said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”  (Mark 2:27)

St. John Chrysostom reasons that although our Lord Jesus Christ said heaven would pass away, in saying His word would endure for ever, he was proclaiming the Church as the witness to and bearer of the word of God to be stronger than heaven itself.  Heaven exists for the Church, the Church doesn’t exist for heaven.

“The Church is placed on earth but its life is lived in heaven?   How does this emerge?

The facts give clear proof: eleven disciples were under attack, and the whole world did the attacking; but those attacked had the victory, and attackers were done away with. The sheep prevailed over the wolves: do you see the shepherd sending the sheep amidst the wolves so that they would not achieve salvation even by flight? What sort of shepherd does this? Christ did it, however, to show you that good deeds are done not in the normal course of events but in defiance of nature and normal events.

The Church’s roots, in fact, are stronger than heaven.

But perhaps the Greek charges me with arrogance: let him await factual proof and learn the force of the truth, how the sun would more easily be snuffed out than the Church disappear. Who proclaims this, you ask? Its founder:

‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.’

Instead of simply making this promise, he actually brought it to fulfillment; after all, why did he give it a firm foundation than heaven?

The Church, you see, is more important than heaven.

For what reason does heaven exist? For the Church, not the Church for heaven. Heaven is for the human being, not the human being for heaven. This is clear from what he actually did: Christ did not take up a heavenly body.” (Old Testament Homilies, Vol. 2, pp 82-83)

Seeing is Believing

“… William Blake turned to a friend, who had never ventured out beyond the confines of his social and culturally circumscribed world and asked, while looking at the sun, ‘What do you see?’  The friend answered easily, ‘A yellow orb, of a certain size and presumably a certain distance from the earth, warming us.’

From his perch at the edge of the world, riding the back of an invisible dragon rising up from the abyss where I and Thou encounter one another, Blake responded with incandescent wonder,

‘I see the angelic hosts of heaven in chariots of fire singing, Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou O Lord God Sabbaoth.'”

(Stephen Muse, BEING BREAD, p 183)

The Church as a Haven

“For every holy church is also a piece of heaven on earth. And whenever you are in a church, behold, you are already in heaven. When the world torments you with its hell, hasten into a church; enter it, and behold, you have entered paradise. If people persecute you with their evil, take refuge in church, fall down before God, and He will take you under His gentle and almighty protection. Should it happen that entire legions of demons attack you, flee into church – among the angels; for a church is always full of angels, and the angels of God will defend you from all the demons of this world.” (Archimandrite Justin Popovich in The Struggle for Faith and other writings of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich and Archimandrite Justin Popovich, pg. 86)

Why Pray? (II)

This is the 2nd blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is  Why Pray?   The collection of quotes was assembled through decades of reading various texts, then tagging passages which stuck out in my mind for various reasons with the tag, “prayer.”   Through the years (and being a voracious reader) a large number of passages accumulate under the tag of prayer.

These passages I’m now assembling and organizing together.  So this is not a “research” paper in which I sought out information on the topic of prayer, but rather a collection of passages from books I read through the decades and found in them quotes which seemed at the time I read them important to my understanding of prayer.  Tagging and collecting the quotes was made easy by my use of computer word processing.   Word processing made the computer immediately important to my life.   Computers are absolutely phenomenal at collecting and storing data.  I will admit that I had never conceived of writing as “word processing” until the existence of the home computer.  The word processor is a wonderful tool in the hands of the skilled word smith.

Now I intend to publish in a blog series these quotes which I tagged and collected under the topic “prayer.”  Perhaps at times I will impose an order on them to indicate what significance I found in the quote. At other times I will simply let the passage which spoke to me in some way at the time I originally read it, to speak for itself.  As an assemblage of quotes, they may sometimes appear to offer opposing or contradictory thinking.  I didn’t read them all at once but over many years.  I didn’t collect them because they followed a homogeneous train of thought on prayer.    I like to read and as I read I highlight in the books I own passages which stand out in my thinking.   It is part of my own word processing system.  Now I am publishing in this blog series a collection of quotes on prayer which have shaped my own thinking on the topic.  When I found one, I’ve included a hyperlink to the book which is being quoted in case you want to check the quote or get the book.

“Prayer is necessary for acquiring the love of God, because from prayer we discover the causes for loving God.”  (St. Isaac the Syrian, THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 303)

Acquiring the “love of God” in itself justifies the activity of prayer.  There is nothing greater that I can wish for my children or parishioners than that they acquire a love of God.  I wish that for everyone in the world.  It is the most valuable thing in the world, and perhaps the only truly valuable thing.  To have the awareness of God’s love in life, makes every moment not only tolerable but worthwhile.  Without it we are left with a world with many wonders and wonderful things, but ultimately empty for it all is passing away and has no meaning.  That is my evaluation of the world.

I wish each of you might have a constant awareness of the presence of God and that this experience would serve as a compass to your life.

Without the love of God,  Orthodox spiritual literature tells us there is that risk that we subject ourselves to other forces and powers at work in the world.   God is love, and His purpose is to love all of His creation.   But in creation there exist those forces which do oppose the love of God, as unbelievable as that seems.

“When a man is not with God, he is always a plaything of the devil, and the devil plays with him:  one moment he fills his soul with impure thoughts, another moment he kindles his tongue with cursing, another moment he leads him into slandering, into calumny, into thievery, into debauchery, and into every other evil deed.  And it continues this way until a man remembers God, takes refuge in the temple of God, and falls down before God.  Then – he is entirely in heaven, and neither the human evils of the world, nor sins, nor demons can touch him.  At that moment he is in a fortress defended by the angels, defended by God’s saints, and with the fiery ardor of their prayers they consume every evil that is assailing him from men, from the world, from demons, from hell.”  (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, THE STRUGGLE FOR FAITH,  p 87)

Prayer acquires for us the love of God and places us in heaven.  Heaven is term used to describe the place “where” God dwells.  And God dwells even in the hearts of humans.

 For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Finally, prayer does not require us to have obtained perfection before we can pray.  Prayer is always available to us all as a way to find the God of love.  Even at times when we are tempted, when we have lost the sense of God’s presence, or when we are in despair.

“The more dejected we feel, the greater the necessity for prayer.  This is surely what John of Kronstadt felt one day when he was praying, watched by a devil who was muttering, ‘You hypocrite, how dare you pray with your filthy mind, full of the thoughts I read in it’.  He answered, ‘It is just because my mind is full of thoughts I dislike and fight that I am praying to God.’”   (METROPOLITAN ANTHONY , p 66)

It is always the appropriate time for prayer, and we might in any condition realize our need for prayer and for God’s love.

Next:  Why Pray (III)

The Ascension (2012)

A blessed Feast of the Ascension to all who celebrate it this day.

Christ ascended in glory, granting joy to all of us, His disciples.

“‘To see heaven open’:

 … these four words signify the very mystery of Christ, of the Christian faith and hope.  

‘For we have the certainty that heaven, which opened three times in the unfolding of the mystery of salvation, remains henceforth open forever.  Nothing and no one can reconstruct the barrier that the sin of the first man erected between God and man.  No one can excavate again the abyss which Jesus has filled between heaven and earth.'”  

(Maxime Egger in THE COMPASSION OF THE FATHER, p 32)