God Provides What We Need

We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual.

These include wealth so that one can perform acts of charity; poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude; authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue; obedience & service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul; health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God, sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience; spiritual knowledge & strength, so that one may acquire virtue; weakness & ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility;

unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms; ease & prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls; trials and hardship – so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection. All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

(St Peter of DamascusThe Philokalia: Vol. 3, p. 172)

O Give Thanks to the Lord

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“… we are led to give thanks to our Benefactor through the good things of this world, by which I mean

                                                     health,

                                                prosperity,

                                            strength,

                                        rest,

                                    joy,

                                light,

                            spiritual knowledge,

                        riches,

                    progress in all things,

                a peaceful life,

            the enjoyment of honors,

        authority,

   abundance and

all the other supposed blessings of this life.

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We are led to love Him and to do what good we can, because we feel we have a natural obligation to repay God for His gifts to us by performing good works. It is of course impossible to repay Him, for our debt always grows larger. On the other hand, through what are regarded as hardships we attain a state of patience, humility and hope of blessings in the age to be; and by these so-called hardships I mean such things as

illness,

discomfort,

       tribulation,

               weakness,  

          unsought distress,  

                             darkness,

                                 ignorance,

                                           poverty,

                               general misfortune,

                                            the fear of loss,

                                                           dishonor,

                                                                  affliction,

                                                                       indigence,

and so on. Indeed, not only in the age to be, but even in this present age these things are a source of great blessing to us.”  (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA ,   Kindle Loc. 28948-67)

In the quote above, St. Peter of Damascus (whose Namesday it is today, February 9) gives us a long list of blessings which lead us to God.  These are blessings in this world and in this life – blessings even monastics, who are not supposed to live for this world alone, recognize and appreciate.  Even hardships (of which he also makes a long list, and monastics and non-monastics alike can agree they are things we want to avoid) become a blessing because they can increase certain virtues in us as we deal with them in faith, hope and love.

All of the above  was simply an introduction to the good news I can share about my own health.  First, let me thank all of your for your continued prayers as indeed the last 4 years have been difficult with 4 major surgeries plus chemotherapy for cancer.  This week I had both an oncology appointment and a 3-month post operative appointment with my neurosurgeon.    The good news in oncology is no news – labs continue to show no change (I continue to be anemic but that seems expected due to the surgeries and the on-going chemo).  I will have my next CT scan in about a month as they keep vigilant watch for any new tumors.  There have been none since the lung resection surgery in May of 2015.

The neurosurgeon is totally happy with the spinal fusion which seems to be holding in place.  I can walk without a cane and have none of the crippling back pain that led me to accept surgery.  I will have to live with a number of physical limits, but I no longer need the back brace (pictured above, in case you can’t recognize what it is).  That back brace first hugged me on November 8  and embraced me like a python 23.5/7 ever since.   My cane (pictured here) – I was able to lay aside immediately after surgery.   It now stands in a corner awaiting a new walking partner.  The good news is for the time being I need neither of those devices, though I have a handful of other tools and devices which help me pick up things, reach things, get my socks and shoes on and the like.   My back will never be what it was years ago, and will never be “normal” (though it is now a “new normal”) but I am able to continue to function, for which I am grateful daily.

I have learned to rejoice in the blessings of life and to see blessings in the hardships as well.   I have learned to admire those who cope with and even overcome disabilities.  I am ever thankful for those who have invented the medical devices that made my surgeries possible as well as those who improved them through engineering.  I am grateful for all of those who have learned to use technology in the medical sciences – doctors, nurses and technicians.

I give thanks to God that God has entrusted such wisdom in the sciences to help us all.  God has made it possible for us humans to remove all obstacles to our being healed by God.  Medical science removes the physical obstacles to our healing, and repentance removes the spiritual obstacles to our becoming whole and human.  Medicine and confession are thus both gifts from God which make healing possible.  Both require human help and intervention.

I have accepted that in this life there are trials and illness.  A few have asked me as to why instead of healing us, God doesn’t just prevent disease and injuries in the first place.  I can only speak about reality – in this world, we have sickness, sorrow and suffering.  Perhaps in some other world it doesn’t exist, but in our world it does, and it can serve a purpose, even be beneficial to us, though it doesn’t always seem so.    I can ask why is grass green instead of being orange or purple?  Maybe in some other world it is, but in this world, the only reality I know, it is green and must be so of necessity.  Photosynthesis requires it, we and animals depend on it for food and oxygen.  I also am reminded of a quote from St. John Cassian:

“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me (cf. Luke 22:42). Always entreat Him in this way – that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.”  ( THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1326-29)

What We Should Remember to Fear the Lord

Blessed is the one who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so, but are like chaff which the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.    (Psalm 1)

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) reflects on what it takes to just keep the first of the Ten Commandments: fear the Lord.  Perhaps surprisingly, Peter doesn’t call to mind threats from God about punishment for sin.  Rather, he feels we need to call to mind all of the blessings which God bestows upon us, including God’s willlingness to suffer for us and for our salvation on the cross.  For Peter of Damascus what we should fear the most regarding God is sinning against the One who created us and who continually nurtures us and endeavors to save us.

“If, then, we wish to keep the first commandment – that is, to possess fear of the Lord – we should meditate deeply upon the contingencies of life already described and upon God’s measureless and unfathomable blessings. We should consider how much He has done and continues to do for our sake through things visible and invisible, through commandments and dogmas, threats and promises; how He guards, nourishes and provides for us, giving us life and saving us from enemies seen and unseen; how through the prayers and intercessions of His saints He cures the diseases caused by our own disarray; how He is always long-suffering over our sins, our irreverence, our delinquency-over all those things that we have done, are doing, and will do, from which His grace has saved us; how He is patient over our actions, words and thoughts that have provoked His anger, and how He not only suffers us, but even bestows greater blessings on us, acting directly, or through the angels, the Scriptures, through righteous men and prophets, apostles and martyrs, teachers and holy fathers.

Moreover, we should not only recall the sufferings and struggles of the saints and martyrs, but should also reflect with wonder on the self-abasement of our Lord Jesus Christ, the way He lived in the world, His pure Passion, the Cross, His death, burial, resurrection and ascension, the advent of the Holy Spirit, the indescribable miracles that are always occurring every day, paradise, the crowns of glory, the adoption to sonship that He has accorded us, and all the things contained in Holy Scripture and so much else.

If we bring all this to mind, we will be amazed at God’s compassion, and with trembling will marvel at His forbearance and patience. We will grieve because of what our nature has lost – angel-like dispassion, paradise and all the blessings which we have forfeited – and because of the evils into which we have fallen: demons, passions and sins. In this way our soul will be filled with contrition, thinking of all the ills that have been caused by our wickedness and the trickery of the demons.”

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 26185-206)

In Everything Give Thanks

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) writes about the importance of being grateful to God for every blessing we receive.  His words are most appropriate for us to consider during our Thanksgiving Holiday.

“Thus we should all give thanks to God, as it is said: ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thess. 5:18). Closely linked to this phrase is another of St Paul’s injunctions: ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), that is, be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things.

When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you;

when you see the sky,

the earth,

the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator;

 

when you put on clothing,

acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life.

In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St Paul commends (cf. 1 Thess. 5:15). For as St Dorotheos explains, remembrance of God rejoices the soul; and he adduces David as witness: ‘I remembered God, and rejoiced’ (cf. Ps. 77:3. LXX). (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 28921-41)

Thanking God for Every Gift

“We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures.

The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual. These include

wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity;

poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude;

authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgement and establish virtue;

obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul;

health, so that on can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God;

 

 

sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience;

spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue;

weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility;

unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms;

ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls;

trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.” (St. Peter of Damaskos – 12th Century, The Philokalia: Vol. 3, p 172)

The Invaluable vs. The Valueless

Our Lord Jesus Christ taught:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:44-45)

As recorded in THE PHILOKALIA,  St Peter of Damaskos writes:

“I marvel at God’s wisdom, at how the most indispensable things – air, fire, water, earth – are readily available to all.”

St. Paul the Apostle says in his Letter to the Romans (6:23), words that have become well known to most Christians:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How hard we work for the valueless; how freely available is the invaluable.  St. Peter of Damaskos continues:

“And not simply this, but things conducive to the soul’s salvation are more accessible than other things, while soul-destroying things are harder to come by. For example, poverty, which anyone can experience, is conducive to the soul’s salvation; while riches, which are not simply at our command, are generally a hindrance. It is the same with dishonor, humiliation, patience, obedience, submission, self-control, fasting, vigils, the cutting off of one’s will, bodily enfeeblement, thankfulness for all things, trials, injuries, the lack of life’s necessities, abstinence from sensual pleasure, destitution, forbearance – in short, all the things conducive to the spiritual life are freely available. No one fights over them. On the contrary, everyone leaves them to those who choose to accept them, whether they have been sought for or have come against our will.”

The Lord Jesus commanded:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  (John 6:27)

Staying with the same text from THE PHILOKALIA, we find St. Peter of Damaskos next says:

“Soul-destroying things, on the other hand, are not so readily within our grasp – things, like wealth, glory, pride, intolerance, power, authority, dissipation, gluttony, excessive sleep, having one’s own way, health and bodily strength, an easy life, a good income, unrestricted hedonism, lavish and costly clothes, and so on. People struggle greatly for these things, but only a few attain them, and in any case the benefit they confer is fleeting. In short, they produce a great deal of trouble and very little enjoyment. For they bring to those who possess them, as well as to those who do not possess them but desire to do so, all manner of distress.”

In the bible, we find these words attributed to St. Paul the apostle:

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

The text from St. Peter of Damaskos concludes with these words:

“None the less, it is not the thing itself, but its misuse, that is evil. For we were given hands and feet, not so that we might steal and plunder and lay violent hands on one another, but so that we might use them in ways agreeable to God.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28332-56)

Wrestling with Being A Christian

Anyone who has taken the spiritual life seriously quickly comes to realize how much harder it is than one imagines to live by the Gospel commands.  Our own hearts and minds become mazes filled with traps, rabbit holes and dead ends for our weary souls sojourning ans struggling to follow Christ.  Not only are there temptations to navigate through, but living according to wisdom (moderation in all things!), and dealing with one’s passions and predilection toward self-preservation make keeping even a straight-forward command to ‘love one another’ a treacherous path.  We easily are side tracked from loving the other, to thinking about how other’s perceive us, being obsessed with what others think about us, doubting whether we are loving enough or  becoming self-absorbed with whether others are even noticing how loving we are trying to be.  St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) offers us one saint’s lament at just how difficult being a disciple of Christ is.  His plaint is sometimes humorous in its pathetic nature, especially for those who can empathize with his struggle based on personal experience.   And yet in the end, he realizes the simple truth that all of these struggles with doing the simple right thing are in fact the spiritual warfare.  Unless we are faithful in these ‘little’ things, we will never be entrusted by God with the great deeds (Luke 16:10-13) He needs us to accomplish for the world and for its salvation. St Peter writes:

“How many tears would I like to shed whenever I gain even a partial glimpse of myself! If I do not sin, I become elated with pride; while if I sin and am able to realize it, in my dismay I lose heart and begin to despair. If I take refuge in hope, again I become arrogant. If I weep, it feeds my presumption; if I do not weep, the passions visit me again. My life is death, yet death seems even worse because of my fear of punishment. My prayer proves a source of temptation to me, and my inattention a cause of disaster. ‘He that increases knowledge increases sorrow,’ says Solomon (Eccles. 1:18). I am at a loss, beside myself, and do not know what to do. And should I know, and then not do it, my knowledge would contribute to my condemnation. Alas, what shall I choose? In my ignorance all things seem contradictory and I cannot reconcile them. I do not find the virtue and wisdom hidden in my trials, since I do not endure these trials with patience. I flee from stillness because of my evil thoughts, and so I find myself beset by the passions that tempt me through the senses. I want to fast and to keep vigil, but am impeded by presumption and laxity. I eat and sleep lavishly, and sin without knowing it. I withdraw myself from everything and flee out of fear of sin, but listlessness is again my undoing. Yet I realize that many, because they had a firm faith, received crowns of victory after going through battles and trials like these. It was because of their faith that they were granted fear of God; and through this fear they were enabled to practice the other virtues.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31956-79)

The Dexterous God

I look at your heavens,

the work of Your fingers,

the moon and the stars

that You have established

 (Psalm 8:3)

“… learn to look with wonder at the divine wisdom hidden in our limbs.

For through God’s providence our hands and fingers are apt for every skill and activity, whether writing or anything else.

From God, too, comes the knowledge of numberless arts and scripts, of healing and medicine, of languages and the various other branches of learning.

In short, all things, whether past, present or future, have been and are always being given to us by God in His great goodness, so that our bodies may live and our souls may be saved, provided we use all these things according to His purpose, glorifying Him through them with all thankfulness.”

(St. Peter Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28360-67)

You have given the human dominion

over the works of Your hands

(Psalm 8:6)

earth

Seeking God in Simplicity

“For, as St John Klimakos  (d. 649AD) says, God reveals Himself, not in response to our exertions, but in response to the humility and simplicity that come through faith, that is, through the contemplation of the Scriptures and of created beings.”  (St. Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 32216-20)

porphyrios Elder Porphyrios, A Greek monk and priest who died in 1991 and was canonized a saint in December of 2013, offers in his spiritual guidance direction very much in the tradition of St. John Climacus mentioned above.  Elder Porphyrios was concerned that too often Orthodox assume that the only way to follow Christ is to follow a strenuous life of ascetic self-denial.  Instead he emphasized that there is another way which he termed “bloodless” – a way in which we each focus with love on Christ rather than on self-inflicted suffering.  It is being a disciple of Christ through love.

“Devote your efforts, therefore, to these spiritual things and ignore all the other things.  We can attain to the worship of God easily and bloodlessly.  There are two paths that lead to God: the hard and debilitating path with fierce assaults against evil and the easy path with love.  There are many who chose the hard path and ‘shed blood in order to receive Spirit’ until they attained great virtue.  I find that the shorter and safer route is the path with love.  This is the path that you, too, should follow.

That is, you can make a different kind of effort: to study and pray and have as your aim to advance in the love of God and of the Church.  Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul.  Open a tiny aperture for light to enter, and the darkness will disappear.  The same holds for our passions and our weaknesses.  Do not fight them, but transform them into strengths by showing disdain for evil.  Occupy yourself with hymns of praise, with the poetic canons, with the worship of God and with divine eros.   All the holy books of our Church – contain holy, loving words addressed to Christ.  Read them with joy and love and exaltation.  When you devote yourself to this effort with intense desire, your soul will be sanctified in a gentle and mystical way without your even being aware of it.   . . .

By reading these books you will gradually acquire meekness, humility and love, and your soul will be made good.  Do not choose negative methods to correct yourself.  There is no need to fear the devil, hell or anything else.  These things provoke a negative reaction.  I, myself, have some little experience in these matters.  The object is to live, to study, to pray and to advance in love – in love for Christ and for the Church.

What is holy and beautiful and what gladdens the heart and frees the soul from every evil is the effort to unite yourself to Christ, to love Christ, to crave for Christ and to live in Christ, just as Saint Paul said, It is no longer I who live; Christ lives in me.  This should be your aim. Let all other efforts be secret and hidden.  What must dominate is love for Christ.  Let this be in your head, your thought, your imagination, your heart and your will.  Your most intense effort should be how you will encounter Christ, how you will be united to Him and how you will keep Him in your heart.”  

(WOUNDED BY LOVE: THE LIFE AND THE WISDOM OF ELDER PORPHYRIOS,  p 136-137)

St. John Chrysostom: Real Fasting

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says regarding fasting and abstinence:

“There are, after all, better ways than abstinence from food to open for us the doors of a confident approach to God. Accordingly, let the person who partakes of food and is unable to fast give evidence of more generous almsgiving, fervent prayers, and a heightened enthusiasm for listening to the divine sayings; let such a person be reconciled with enemies and eradicate from the soul all vindictiveness.  If that is the intention, then such a person has practiced real fasting, and the kind the Lord requires most of all.  . . .

Fasting, in other words, holds the body under restraint, checks its unruly movements, and, on the other hand, renders the soul transparent, gives it wings, and makes it light and raises it on high. But as for those of our brethren unable to fast on account of bodily weakness, urge them not to desist from this spiritual diet; teach them and show them, as they have had communicated to them from us also, that it is not the person who eats and drinks in moderation that is unworthy of this audience but the lax and dissolute. Address to them also the apostolic dictum, that ‘the one who eats eats in the Lord, and the one who abstains abstains in the Lord, and gives thanks to God.’

So the person fasting gives thanks to God for having the power to be able to withstand the rigors of fasting; and likewise the person who eats gives thanks to God that no harm can come from this for the soul’s salvation, if that is God’s will. The loving God, you see, has marked out for us such ways as it is impossible to mention, through which we can, if we wish, share in the utmost confidence.”  (Homilies on Genesis 1-17,  pp 129-130)

Chrysostom’s admonition on fasting is echoed in the teachings of the 12th Century writer, St. Peter of Damaskos:

“He who fasts likewise does so for love’s sake, so that others may eat what he would otherwise have eaten. In short, every work rightly done is done out of love for God or for one’s neighbor.”   (THE PHILOKALIA,  Kindle Loc. 31466-68)

St. Peter understands fasting not as merely giving up some foods, or substituting a lenten diet for a normal diet, or eating less for ascetic reasons.  Rather for him fasting involves taking one’s normal  food intake and sharing it with the needy poor.  One could also say fasting could be spending less on food and then giving that portion of one’s food budget which one is not eating  to the poor.  It is about love for God and for one’s neighbor, not about earning one’s way into heaven.   St. Peter’s understanding of fasting is very much in line with what God the Lord commands us in Isaiah 58.

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness