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)

Christ in Me

“Where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, d. 107AD)

“Where the Church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the Church.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, d. 202AD)

In the writings of the post-apostolic fathers and early Patristic writers, there is made a close union between Christ the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.  St. Irenaeus describes them as being “the two-hands of God” at work in creation.  In the quote below by St. John Chrysostom, we see how closely he identifies the presence of Christ in us with the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  To have “Christ in me” is to have the Holy Spirit.  Likewise, to have the Holy Spirit abiding in oneself means that Christ is present as well.

St. John Chrysostom writes, ‘You will ask, “What will happen if Christ is within us?”  “If Christ is in you, your body is dead to sin, but your spirit lives unto righteousness” (Rom. 8:10). You see how much evil comes from not having the Holy Spirit within you: death, enmity towards God, the impossibility of pleasing Him by submission to His law, or of belonging to Christ and having Him dwelling in you. Look also how good it is to have the Spirit within you: really to belong to Christ, to have Christ Himself within you, to compete with the angels! For to have a body dead to sin, means to begin to live in eternal life, to carry within you – even here on earth – the pledge of the resurrection and the reassuring power to advance upon the path of virtue.

Note that the Apostle said not only, “the body is dead”, but added, “to sin”, so that you should understand that it is the sins of the flesh, and not the body itself, that is mortified. It is not of the body as such that the Apostle speaks; on the contrary he wants the body, although dead, still to remain alive.  When our bodies, in so far as carnal reactions are concerned, do not differ from those that lie in the grave, this is a sign that we have the Son within us, and that in us dwells the Spirit.’ As darkness cannot stand before the light, so all that is carnal, passionate or sinful cannot stand before our Lord Christ and His Spirit.

But as the existence of the sun does not abolish the fact of darkness, so the presence within us of the Son and Spirit does not abolish the existence within us of something that is sinful and passionate, but only takes away its power. As soon as an occasion arises, the passionate and sinful elements step forward and offer themselves to our consciousness and will. If our consciousness pays attention and occupies itself with them, then our will may also turn towards them. But if, at that moment, our consciousness and will pass over to the side of the spirit and turn to our Lord Christ and His Spirit, then all that is carnal and passionate will disappear immediately like smoke before a breath of wind. This means that the flesh is dead, powerless. Such is the general rule of life for true Christians; but they are at different stages.

When someone remains steadfastly with his consciousness and will on the side of the Spirit, in living and tangible union with Christ our Lord in His Spirit, then at that time nothing carnal or passionate can so much as show itself, any more than darkness before the sun or cold before flames. In such a case, the flesh is quite dead and immobile.”   (Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pp 176-177)

A Healthy Heart and Soul

“My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
because of the destruction of my people…”

(Lamentations 2:11)

I think we all have experienced gut wrenching sickness – we are emotionally devastated by news and events and feel sick to our stomachs.  We lose our inner peace and equilibrium and emotion turns into visceral response.  We become physically ill.   St.Theophan the Recluse advises us:

“Do not overlook the fact that health does not depend on food alone, but above all on inner peace. Life in God, cutting us off from worldly turmoil, brings peace to the heart and, through this, keep the body also in good health. Activities are not the main thing in life. The most important this is to have the heart directed and attuned to God.”  (The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p 235)

 

Directing our hearts toward God, becoming attuned to God in our hearts is the preparation for dealing with events that completely upset us.  The bottom drops out beneath us, but focusing on God helps us cope with the loss of control, the dizzying changes and the nausea of life spinning out of control.   We need to develop this relationship to God while in calm waters in order to hold on to God in the stormiest of seas.

Prayer as Standing in God’s Presence

Moses standing in prayer

“First, then, to worship or to pray is to stand before God. Note immediately the wideness of St. Theophan’s definition. To pray is not necessarily to ask God for something; it need not even be to employ words, for often the deepest and most powerful of all prayers is simply to wait upon God in silence. But whether we are worshipping with words, through symbols and sacramental actions, or in silence, always our underlying attitude is the same: we are standing before God. To stand before God: this implies that worship is an encounter meeting between persons. The purpose of worship is not just to arouse emotions and to produce appropriate moral attitudes, but to enter into a direct and personal relationship with God the Holy Trinity. ‘As a friend talking with his friend,’ writes St. Symeon the New Theologian, ‘we speak with God, and with boldness we stand before the face of Him who dwells in light unapproachable.’ Here St. Symeon briefly indicates the two poles of Christian worship, the two contrasting aspects of this personal relationship: God ‘dwells in light unapproachable,’ yet we human beings are able to draw near ‘with boldness’ and to speak with Him ‘as a friend talking with his friend.’ God is beyond all being, infinitely remote, unknowable, ‘the Wholly Other,’ the mysterium tremendium et fascinans. But this transcendent God is at the same time a God of personal love, uniquely close, around us and within us, ‘everywhere present and filling all things’ (Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit).” (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, pp 59-60)

Awareness of God

St. Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) writes:

“Work with the Jesus Prayer.

May God bless you.

But with the habit of reciting this prayer orally, unite remembrance of the Lord, accompanied by fear and piety.

The principal thing is to walk before God, or under God’s eye, aware that God is looking at you, searching your soul and heart, seeing all that is there.

This awareness is the most powerful lever in the mechanism of the inner spiritual life.” (The Art of Prayer, pp 89-90)

A Spiritual Manner of Living

“‘The Lord is the Commander in Chief. You are the warrior. He expects you to repulse the enemy. Do not let Him down.’ …. And yet there will be a struggle. Without combat the warrior is but a poor solider. Everything is learned in combat.’ The Christian life runs into many obstacles at the very start, and further on there are more. Whoever enters upon this life, let him arm himself with a firm courage, that he may approach without fear the struggles and obstacles which await him. Force yourself to acquire the habit of standing watch over your heart, and do not give free rein to your thoughts, feelings or instincts, if they are not moved by a spirit that is pleasing to God, but suppress them at once. There is a way to spiritually raise up the Cross in your heart. You do this when you make the firm resolution to crucify yourself or mortify your passions, something which is so essential for Christians that according to the Apostle only those belong to Christ who have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. This spiritual combat should never be relaxed; it must be taken up again and again. If you have fallen, do not despair, get up at once with the firm resolve to fall no more. And continue you struggle. It is especially important not to be discouraged, not to give up the fight.”  (Bishop Theophan in Russian Piety by Nicholas Arseniev , p 119)

Fasting and the Spiritual Harvest

As we approach the final week of Great Lent, we consider the purpose of fasting in the following quotes.  Fasting was never the goal of Lent, but is a tool of learning to be a disciple of Christ.  We have to learn not to pay attention to all of our whims, desires, lusts, wants, so that we can hear Christ teaching us to love God and neighbor.  St. Theophan the Recluse (d. 1894) says:

“The rule of fasting is this: to remain in God with mind and heart, relinquishing all else, cutting off all pandering to self, in the spiritual as well as in the physical sense. We must do everything for the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor, bearing willingly and with love the labours of the fast and privations in food, sleep, and relaxation, and foregoing the solace of other people’s company. All these privations should be moderate so as not to attract attention and not to deprive us of strength to fulfill the rule of prayer.” (The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pg. 217)

Even a strict ascetic like St. Theophan recognizes the fast must not be so severe as to interfere with our ability to pray, and certainly must never be so severe that people notice that we look gaunt, drawn or pallid.   Moderation is the rule of fasting, so that we are not so self absorbed as to be incapable of love.  St. Makarios of Egypt (d. 392AD) also reminds us that the hardships of lenten fasting are not the goal of the spiritual life.  He says:

“When we cultivate a vineyard, the whole of our attention and labour is given in the expectation of the vintage; if there is no vintage, all our work is to no purpose.  Similarly, if through the activity of the Spirit we do not perceive within ourselves the fruits of love, peace, joy and the other qualities mentioned by St. Paul (cf. Gal 5:22), and cannot affirm this with all assurance and spiritual awareness, then our labour for the sake of virginity, prayer, psalmody, fasting and vigil is useless. For, as we said, our labours and hardships of soul and body should be undertaken in expectation of the spiritual harvest; and where virtues are concerned, the harvest consists of spiritual enjoyment and incorruptible pleasure secretly made active by the Spirit in faithful and humble hearts. Thus the labours and hardships must be regarded as labours and hardships and the fruits as fruits. Should someone through lack of spiritual knowledge think that his work and hardship are fruits of the Spirit, he should realize that he is deluding himself, and in this way depriving himself of the truly great fruits of the Spirit.” (The Philokalia: Volume Three, pg. 295)

Lent, asceticism and fasting are the road upon which we walk toward our goal.  The ability to fast is not a spiritual fruit, but the labor we do to attain the fruit of the Spirit.

That We Might Spend the Remaining Time of our Life in Repentance

“The conscience is cleansed by repentance: consequently it is necessary to repent unceasingly. For repentance cleanses all pollution from the soul and makes it pure (1 John i. 9). Repentance does not just consist in the words, ‘Forgive, O Lord; have mercy, O Lord’. To receive remission of sins we must also realize to the full the definite impurity of each thought, glance, and word, of each kind of allurement, we must be conscious of our own guilt and of our own lawlessness and absence of justification, we must recognize our need to pray for God’s forgiveness, until the spirit attains peace.

As far as great sins are concerned, they must be confessed immediately to our spiritual father and pardon obtained, because in the case of such sins we cannot restore peace to our spirit simply by daily acts of repentance in our private prayers. Therefore the duty of continual repentance is the same as the duty of keeping our conscience pure and irreproachable.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pg. 228)

Christ Who Lives in Me

“St. John Chrysostom writes, ‘You will ask, “What will happen if Christ is within us?” “If Christ is in you, your body is dead to sin, but your spirit lives unto righteousness” (Rom. viii. 10). You see how much evil comes from not having the Holy Spirit within you: death, enmity towards God, the impossibility of pleasing Him by submission to His Law, or of belonging to Christ and having Him dwelling in you. Look also how good it is to have the Spirit within you: really to belong to Christ, to have Christ Himself within you, to compete with the angels! For to have a body that is dead to sin, means to begin to live in eternal life, to carry within you – even here on earth – the pledge of the resurrection and the reassuring power to advance upon the path of virtue. Note that the Apostle said not only, “the body is dead”, but added, “to sin”, so that you should understand that it is the sins of the flesh, and not the body itself, that is mortified. It is not of the body as such that the Apostle speaks; on the contrary he wants the body, although dead, still to remain alive. When our bodies, in so far as carnal reactions are concerned, do not differ from those that lie in the grave, this is a sign that we have the Son within us, and that in us dwells the Spirit.’ As darkness cannot stand before the light, so all that is carnal, passionate, or sinful, cannot stand before our Lord Christ and His Spirit. But as the existence of the sun does not abolish the fact of darkness, so the presence within us of the Son and Spirit does not abolish the existence within us of something that is sinful and passionate, but only takes away its power.” (Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pgs. 176-177)

“… Christianity is the personal encounter with Christ, and not, in the final analysis, the acceptance of one or another teaching or dogma about Christ, but of Christ himself.” (Alexander Schmemann in Tradition Alive edited by Michael Plekon, pg. 250)

Prayer as Relationship with God (IV)

This is the 39th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is Prayer as Relationship with God (III).

Archbishop Anthony Bloom in his writings challenges us to think deeply about what prayer is, and what we should not reduce it to.

“When we read the Gospel and the image of Christ becomes compelling, glorious, when we pray and we become aware of the greatness, the holiness of God, do we ever say ‘I am unworthy that he should  come near to me?’  Not to speak of all the occasions when we should be aware that He cannot come to us because we are not there to receive Him.  We want something from Him, not Him at all.  Is that a relationship?   Do we behave in that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love?” (BEGINNING TO PRAY, p 5)

What are we seeking in prayer?  What do we want from God?   We become spiritual beings when we want a relationship with the God who created us rather than simply wanting things from Him, or for Him to do things for us.  Archbishop Bloom says:

“First of all, it is very important to remember that prayer is an encounter and relationship, a relationship which is deep, and this relationship cannot be forced either on us or on God.  …  The second very important thing is that a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us.  We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned.  … ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘judgment’.  To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment I our lives, and thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because ewe might not be able to endure such a meeting.  Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity.  Therefore, the first thought we ought to have when we do not tangibly perceive the divine presence, is a thought of gratitude.  God is merciful; He does not come in an untimely way.”  (Anthony Bloom, BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 2-3)

Because prayer places us in a relationship with the Holy God, we in encountering His holiness are made ever more aware of our sinfulness and unworthiness.  Prayer places us in contact with divine power, so it is not something to be taken lightly.  For to come into contact with God is also to enter into judgment for we are exposed completely by One who knows our true nature and is not deceived by our efforts to hide our true selves.

God desires that we approach Him in prayer, so He calls us to this great activity, knowing we are sinners.  We in response recognize the need to be humble in his presence and we recognize our need for His great mercy.  Thus we call upon the Name of Jesus to invoke God’s own mercy.

“Delve deeply into the Jesus Prayer (Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner), with all the power that you possess.  It will draw you together, giving you a sense of strength in the Lord, and will result in your being with Him constantly whether alone or with other people, when you do housework and when you read or pray.  Only you must attribute the power of this prayer, not to the repetition of certain words, but to the turning of the mind and heart towards the Lord in these words – to the action accompanying the speech.”    (St. Theophan the Recluse, THE ART OF PRAYER, pp 90-91)

Next:  Prayer as Relationship with God (V)