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)

Prayer: The Journey to the Kingdom

Prayer is the journey to the kingdom: the arrival is union with God. The kingdom is not far from us, but is within us. The union with God that the saintly fathers experienced is the end of all endeavours: corporal acts of mercy, the labor of the soul, or perseverance in spiritual contemplation. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid for me a crown of righteousness” (2 Tim 4.7).   

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, p. 113)

Overcoming Addiction

Repeated sins and compensations sought out in order to avoid being present, when repeated enough, become deeply rooted to the point that they take the heart captive so you cannot not do them. As we become aware of this condition and begin to struggle, it causes a lament to build in the heart like St. Paul: “The good I would do I do not and the evil I would not do that I do! Who will free me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:19). Fortunately, God’s love is just the reverse of addiction. God refuses to take captive our freedom to resist him. God is without compulsion. At its most extreme, captivity to a passion seems all powerful and God utterly helpless, abandoning. Unavailable. We are alone with our suffering and the sea of human misery.

Freedom, on the other hand, is found in the mystery of Christ freely assuming human nature and the cross and when he seemed most vulnerable, most overpowered, he was actually opening up the possibility of humanity freely responding to God’s love. Choosing to turn and let ourselves be loved by God in the abandoned places and at the moments we feel most compulsively unable to and most unworthy of love is paradoxically the first step toward freedom to love. According to St. Isaac the Syrian, “nothing is stronger than despair, for it is then that we discover God’s strength and grace, not in comfort.”

(Stephen Muse, When Hearts Become Flame, p. 240)

Acting Spiritually Reacting

“If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction. Something happens and we respond, someone speaks and we answer.

But when we are left without anything that stimulates us to think, speak or act, we realize that there is very little in us that will prompt us to action in any direction at all.

This is really a very dramatic discovery. We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

(Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, The Modern Spirituality Series: Metropolitan Anthony, p. 38)

Spiritual Training: Overcome Evil

God cares for man’s freedom as the most precious principle that he possesses, and so in humility draws the soul to His love. But on the path to this love man comes up against the violator, the devil. The Lord allows that it should be so. God trains man’s soul, not by removing evil from his path by giving him the strength necessary to overcome all evil.

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 220)

Overcoming Evil

So many of the sayings and teaching of the desert fathers and mothers are based on the teachings offered us in the New Testament.  In the desert fathers we find this:

“Malice will never drive our malice. But if someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may destroy his malice.”  (The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 43)

In the New Testament we find this:

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Romans 12:17-21)

 

Where There is No Struggle, There is No Virtue

Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it: where there is no struggle, there is no virtue; where there are no temptations for faithfulness and love, it is uncertain whether there is really and faithfulness and love for the Lord. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations.      (John of Kronstadt, A Treasury of Russian Spirituality, p. 391)

Overcoming Anger

for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:20)

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Ephesians 4:31-32)

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St. Paul warns that those who act in anger will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (Galatians 5:20-21).   The spiritual literature of Christianity through the centuries kept anger (or one of its manifestations – wrath, rage, revenge, hatred, etc) as one of the deadly sins or passions which Christians were to work to overcome.  And though the New Testament does allow for anger as long as it doesn’t involve sin (Ephesians 4:26), anger was viewed as a dangerous and destructive passion for it often overwhelms the rational thought process and pushes people to act hastily and with force disregarding wisdom or a measured response.

Christ does not want you to feel the least hatred, resentment, anger or rancor towards anyone in any way or on account of any transitory thing whatsoever. This is proclaimed throughout the four Gospels.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 13842-44)

Anger can give us a sense of empowerment – even when we are in the wrong or have not authority in a situation.  Our angry response towards others is often more a measure of our own feelings than a proper evaluation of the wrong we think someone else has done.  Anger can arise in prayer, making us think it is righteous, but often is a sign of our own spiritual illness.

When you pray as you should, thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry. But anger with your neighbor is never right. If you search you will find that things can always be arranged without anger. So do all you can not to break out into anger. Take care that, while appearing to cure someone else, you yourself do not remain uncured, in this way thwarting your prayer.  (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 1302-8)

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The cure for anger?  Humility is a cure all for much of what ails us spiritually in Orthodox literature.  The humble person maintains an even keel no matter what is going on – be it praise or criticism – and does not react to others but carefully chooses their actions.  Humility stops us from getting emotionally charged by everything that happens around us.  But anger can also be overcome by the combination of courage and mercy – which may not seem like they can go together, but they are at the heart of what it is to be a Christian.

Nothing so converts anger into joy and gentleness as courage and mercy. Like a siege-engine, courage shatters enemies attacking the soul from without, mercy those attacking it from within.   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 43079-43081)

 

Great Lent: We Now Begin the Spiritual Contest

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”   (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

St. John Chrysostom at one point describes our spiritual lives as Christians as being like the battles in the Olympic arena with countless spectators watching with excitement the unfolding fight.  The spectators in his metaphor include both fellow Christians and the angels.  Jesus Christ presides over the contest, sitting in the judgment seat.  He, however, is not there to judge us nor is He just an impartial observer, but rather is there to help us in our contest.  It is Christ Himself who through baptism and chrismation prepared us for this battle.  And in so preparing us, Christ has shackled our opponent, Satan, so that the advantage is ours.  His comments are completely apropos the beginning of Great Lent.

“Up to now you have been in a school for training and exercise; there falls were forgiven. But from today on, the arena stands open, the contest is as hand, the spectators have taken their seats. Not only are men watching the combats but the host of angels as well, as St. Paul cries out in his letter to the Corinthians: We have been made a spectacle to the world and to angels and to men. And whereas the angels are spectators, the Lord of angels presides over the contest as judge. This is not only an honor for us, but assures our safety. Is it not an honor and assurance for us when He who is judge of the contest is the one who laid down His life for us?

In the Olympic combats the judge stands impartially aloof from the combatants, favoring neither the one nor the other, but awaiting the outcome. He stands in the middle because his judgement is impartial. But in our combat with the devil, Christ does not stand aloof but is wholly on our side. How true it is that Christ does not stand aloof but is entirely on our side you may see from this: He anointed us as we went into combat, but he fettered the devil; He anointed us with the oil of gladness, but He bound the devil with fetters that cannot be broken to keep him shackled hand and foot for the combat. But if I happen to slip, He stretches out His hand, lifts me up from my fall, and sets me on my feet again. For the Gospel says: You tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. (Baptismal Instructions, p. 58)

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Imitate the Publican

Amma Syncletica teaches us to imitate the Publican not the Pharisee in our piety and behavior.

She also said, “Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.” ( The Forgotten Desert Mothers, p. 52)

She is, of course referring to the parable of Jesus found in Luke 18:10-14 –

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’

And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”