HE Must Increase, Not I

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John the Forerunner speaking about Jesus, John 3:30)

“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord: First a man must deny himself, and secondly he must follow Christ (Mark 8:34). The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity–whether in great matters or small.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse, Heavenly Wisdom from God-illuminated Teachers on Conquering Depression, pp. 55-56)

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.

Meekness: A Strong Virtue

The apostles of Christ taught meekness. St. Paul mentions it in all his writings and St. James insists upon it.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as it comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits…   (James 3:13-17).

To be meek means to be gentle and kind, to be empty of all selfishness and earthly ambition. It means, in a word, never to return evil for evil but to overcome evil by good (Romans 12:14-21).

Meekness means to distrust and reject every thought and action of external coercion and violence, which in any case can never produce fruitful, genuine and lasting results.

Meekness is to have the firm and calm conviction that the good is more powerful than evil, and that the good ultimately is always victorious.

To refer once more to St. John Climacus:

Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind which remains the same in honor and dishonor. Meekness is the rock overlooking the sea of irritability which breaks all the waves that dash against it, remaining itself unmoved. Meekness is the buttress of patience,the mother of love and the foundation of wisdom, for it is said, “The Lord will teach the meek His way” (Psalm 24:9). It prepares the forgiveness of sins; it is boldness in prayer, an abode of the Holy Spirit. “But to whom shall I look,” says the Lord, “to him who is meek and quiet and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). In meek hearts the Lord finds rest, but a  turbulent soul is the seat of the devil. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 24).”

 (Thomas Hopko, Spirituality Vol. 4, pp 40-4)

Why a Fast Free Week Before Lent?

In the Synaxarion of the Lenten Triodian and Pentecostarion (pp 14-15) we find an interesting explanation for why there is a fast free week before Great Lent begins (in 2017 this week occurred February 5-11).  The Synaxarion says the fast free week is good for the monk to remind them not to become proud and arrogant because of his fasting discipline.  It is a reminder to us all that if during Lent we find ourselves judging and condemning others (especially for their Lenten practices), then Lent is a failure because we have got off track.  It is not a failure to find Lent difficult or to not be able to keep it strictly.  We learn about ourselves, our weaknesses, our addictions, all the things on which we are dependent other than God, and all the things that have become more important to us than God.  It is not failure to come to know one’s own weaknesses, temptations, dependencies and sins.  Such knowledge helps us deal with truth and reality.    But there is failure if Lent causes us to think we are better than other Christians, that we do more than others, that we are closer to God than others because of our supposed righteous behavior or that we engage in schadenfreude – rejoicing when others can’t keep Lent as well as we can which makes us feel superior to them.    Humility is a difficult virtue to learn and practice.  If keeping Lent makes us proud and arrogant, then Lent has failed and even made us demonic!  To do what we need to do because it is right, not because we will be recognized and praised for it or because it will get us into God’s favor or His kingdom.  Lent is the time to learn about our inner self and to find there what separates us from God and what prevents us from loving neighbor, so that we might repent of this and change our lives.  The Gospel Parable of the Publican and Pharisee is placed right before Lent begins to remind us if we think like the Pharisee as a result of our Lenten discipline, we have failed in our spiritual discipline.

“…the saints advise that no one should be elated over concerning his own accomplishments and exalt himself over his fellow man, but one should always be humble. For ‘God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble’ (1 Peter 5:5). It is better to sin and repent than to succeed and become prideful. ‘I tell you, the Publican went down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee.’ (See Luke 18:14)

Therefore, this parable demonstrates that no one should become prideful, even if he commits acts of kindness and righteousness, but one should always be humble and beg God’s favor with all his soul. Even if he has fallen into the worst evils, he should never lose hope or courage, as he is never far from salvation…

So that we can learn to avoid the pride of the Pharisee by following our own self-imposed and self-directed fasting practices–instead of the moderate and time-tested traditions of the Church–the following week is fast-free. Through Your unspeakable compassion, O Christ our God, grant that we may be counted worthy to regain our former delight in Paradise, and have mercy on us and save us. Amen.”

Thus, according to the Synaxarion the fast free week reminds  us that we like everyone else is human, we each have a body which is given to us by God as the means to come to know Him.  We are taught that fasting itself cannot lead to salvation if our heart is weighed down by the sin of pride.  The most important part of Great Lent is overcoming our passions, of repenting of our sins, not of denying ourselves some food.

Rejoice in the Lord

“St. Paul urges us again and again, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice’ (Phil. 4:4).  Notice that he says, rejoice, not in your circumstances but in the Lord. This is where the joy is – in the Lord- not in our circumstances. We cannot squeeze a drop of rejoicing out of our circumstance or our past or our prospects, but we can always rejoice in the Lord. Habakkuk expressed it this way:

Though the fig tree does not blossom

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail,

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,

I will joy in the God of my salvation.

(Hab. 3:17-18)

Rejoice in the Lord – not in your circumstances, not in your empty stalls and parched fields, but in the Lord.” (Anthony Coniaris, HOLY JOY, pp 57-58)

 

Thanksgiving (2016)

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St. John of Kronstadt says, ‘Prayer is a state of continual gratitude.’ If I do not feel a sense of joy in God’s creation, if I forget to offer the world back to God with thankfulness, I have advanced very little upon the Way. I have not yet learnt to be truly human. For it is only through thanksgiving that I can become myself. Joyful thanksgiving, so far from being escapist or sentimental, is on the contrary entirely realistic – but with the realism of one who sees the world in God, as the divine creation.” (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p 55)

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We are Co-Workers with God

Jesus taught: “For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”  (Luke 6:43-44)

“…Even though the Church is a unity, it is a unity of distinct personalities. It is an assembly of persons, each one of them whole and complete, standing before God, and not an anonymous, undifferentiated mass. Thus it is entirely possible for all of us to be gathered together in church, to be standing next to each other and chanting in unison, but for each of us to get something different out of the experience. And what each of us receives is known only to that person, only to the spirit of the man, which is in him, as well as to God the Spirit, Who searches the depths of our own spirit (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10-11). What, then, did we receive? In the first place, we received what we prepared ourselves to receive. Whatever food you’ve prepared, that’s what you’ll eat. Whatever bed you’ve made, that’s the one you’re going to lie on. Whatever you’ve sown in your field, that’s what you’ll reap. Throughout the liturgical year, then, we receive what we have prepared ourselves to receive. God will not bring something to fruition that we have not had a hand in cultivating; and what we cultivate, that which we expect to bear fruit, grows directly from the seeds we’ve sown within ourselves.

Consequently, we’ll get whatever it is our heart has prepared for itself. One person will get God; another will be moved by the chanting; another will gain a few insights; someone else the kingdom of heaven. Each will receive whatever it is he desired.[…]What we find depends on the way we seek for it. The way we see God, in other words, determines what we shall see in God. This is what I say: what you’ve prepared yourself is exactly what you’ll receive. One person cultivates the wind, and reaps nothings. Another prepares to receive the Holy Spirit. It all depends.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp 129-130)

Resisting Self-Indulgent Passions

The Triumph of Dionysus

Self-Indulgent: What is meant is the appetites of the self, an unhealthy individualism that serves evil and leads to idolatry (Gal. 5.9). When self-indulgence is at work the results are obvious:

fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility; idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels, disagreements, factions, envy, murders, drunkenness and similar things (Col. 3.5 adds evil desires and greed, spitefulness, abusive language, dirty talk and lies).

What the Spirit brings is the opposite of self-indulgent (Gal. 5.22). By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self control….

If the Spirit is the source of our life, let the Spirit also direct its course. We must stop being conceited, provocative and envious (1 Cor. 2:21-3:3).”

(The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church annotated by Paul N. Harrilchak, p 58)

The Single Eye

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The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound (single), your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!  No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:22-24)

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Although we naturally have two eyes, good vision occurs when the eyes work together giving us a single vision.  With two eyes we can have depth perception.  Although each eye is separate, they normally work together.   In Matthew 6:22 when Jesus talks about the eye being “sound”, He uses a word that also means “single”.  We have two eyes but we do understand Christ’s expression about the eye (singular) being the lamp of the body – we see best when our two eyes see as one.  We use eye in the singular when talking about the eye of the mind or the eye of the heart.  The vision is one.  When our two eyes see as the one eye, our vision is good, sound, whole.  Such vision, whether physical or spiritual, is what we seek as Christians, and such healthy vision we believe is possible for us in Jesus Christ.   To have such single vision is health and wholeness.

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We know in our English language, such singleness of heart and mind is considered whole and good.  Think about the expression :

Double minded.    What does it imply?

Two faced.

A divided heart.

A forked tongue.

Speaking from both sides of the mouth.

All this doubleness and divisiveness we understand as not good.

So, we can also encounter this in church humor.

Why does priest have 2 eyes?

With one as the good shepherd he always watches out for his flock, his parish.

With the other, he always is looking for a better parish.

Conversely,

why do parishioners have 2 eyes?

With one they can watch their priest and look after him.

With the other, they can always be looking for a better priest.

We realize in the humor, that divided vision is not good, wholesome, holistic, loving.  It is divided vision with different interests.

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We believe Christ, the incarnate God came to bring an end to all divisions, to bring healing and wholeness to us humans.

Christ Jesus, God incarnate, brings together  Divinity and humanity, Creator and creation, spiritual and physical, heaven and earth.

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And we Orthodox believe in the Divine Liturgy we also experience this unity of all things found in Christ.  In the Liturgy we encounter the bringing together of heaven and earth, of the spiritual and physical worlds, of saints and sinners, of the living and dead, of humans and angels, of humanity and all creation.

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As we Orthodox understand salvation, in Christ, healing takes place and all the divisions which resulted from sin are brought to an end.

No more double vision, or divided hearts and minds.

St. James tells us to let our yes be yes and our no be no (James 5:12)- no doubleness of meaning or speech.  St. James goes on to say:

For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish? Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.  (James 3:7-12)

In Christ, we are to live a wholeness, a unity of being, united in God.  This is also the goal of our spiritual life – to bring our self into unity with Christ, into a oneness of being with our incarnate Savior.  We are to rid ourselves of all double standards, divisions, brokenness.  We are striving to be whole at every moment of our life.

So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.   (Matthew 7:17-19)

The Day of the Holy Spirit

“There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen and are not just putting God to the test – for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, ‘It is found by those who do not put it to the test, and manifests itself to those who do not distrust it’ (cf. Wisd. 1:2).

In some it appears as awe arising in the heart,

in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation,

in others as joy,

in others as joy mingled with awe, or

as tremulousness mingled with joy, and

sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe.

For the soul is joyous at God’s visitation and mercy, but at the same time is in awe and trepidation at His presence because it is guilty of so many sins. Again, in some the soul at the outset experiences an unutterable sense of contrition and an indescribable pain, like the woman in Scripture who labors to give birth (cf. Rev. 12:2). For the living and active Logos – that is to say, Jesus – penetrates, as the apostle says, to the point at which soul separates from body, joints from marrow (cf. Heb. 4:12), so as to expel by force every trace of passion from both soul and body.

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In others it is manifest as an unconquerable love and peace, shown towards all, or as a joyousness that the fathers have often called exultation – a spiritual force and an impulsion of the living heart that is also described as a vibration and sighing of the Spirit who makes wordless intercession for us to God (cf. Rom. 8:26). Isaiah has also called this the ‘waves’ of God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 48:18), while the great Ephrem calls it ‘spurring’. The Lord Himself describes it as ‘a spring of water welling up for eternal life’ (John 4:14) – He refers to the Spirit as water – a source that leaps up in the heart and erupts through the ebullience of its power.”   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 44476-44502)