Christ the Teacher

Christ the Teacher

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines IV, Prayer, Part 2

Last time I wrote about our need for prayer, today I will write about the “what” we should pray.  In light of my previous article, my personal opinion is that we must, to the best of our ability, pray with the mind of the Church.  When we come to truly encounter the Church we encounter Christ.  I do not mean that everyone in the Church is perfect or that all the bishops and the priests are holy and live rightly.  Certainly not!  We must take the big picture, and over the long haul.  The Church is the people of God, the Body of Christ.  One thing that I think needs to be said is that the Church is more than the bishops and the priests.  We tend to think along those lines.  In doing so we forget the holy person, the prophet, and the mystic.  We ignore mothers and fathers and holy lay people who work and pray.  The Church could not exist without the priests and the bishops.  This is true.  Yet, the Church also needs the people and the people are much more than cattle, we are also the presence of Christ in the world.  Now, this is not automatic.  We can be the presence of evil too!  We must pray.  We must acquire the mind of the Church in order to become a little Christ and His presence among the people.

So, what do we pray?  As I said before, I think it is important to prayer “The Prayers.”  Surely we can pray with our own words, but if this is all we do, we eventually come to babble before God.  What is the focus?  Where is the growth?  What grounds us?  What or who instructs us in prayer?  Certainly the Holy Spirit prays within us, but if all we do is babble on and on, I am not sure how much the Holy Spirit has to do with this prayer.  It is better to have a guide.  

So first, speak with your guide, your spiritual director, your pastor.  If you do not have one, pray for one.  If you cannot find one, I will be one for you.  I say this in all humility.  I can do my best.  This CAN be done over the Internet or the telephone.  It just takes some perseverance and patience.  As with any spiritual director or spiritual father, we must meet a few times to determine if there is a “connection.”  This is important.  There must be peace too.  You must, we must, be comfortable together.  You can email me at ponderintheheart@gmail.com.

If this still does not prove fruitful to you, there is always the counsel of the saints and Holy Fathers.  We have the Bible, and we have the Lord.  The last case can be immensely fruitful too, but we must get out of the way!  We must lay aside our ego, our pride.  The texts we read and the times in prayer that we listen, we must really listen!  I can’t tell you how often I have not gotten it right!!  Especially when I was younger and just “knew” I was right.  Oh, how humbing this can be.  This might be something to keep in mind too: as you look for a spiritual father, look for someone who is humble.  You know, we are all easily swept away by those who come across as very charismatic.  Someone who has the gift of speaking the right words to us might not be the best for us in the long run.  Also, be humble yourself.  Be as humble as you can be.  Hopefully, you will see over time, as you pray, as you practice the spiritual disciplines, that you will grow in humility.

Transaction versus transformation

OK, now, that you have a spiritual director, whether this be a person, a saint, or the Lord, the question before you is what should you pray?  For this we need what is called a prayer rule.  Think of it as your commitment to pray that also lists what you are going to pray.  You make this commitment to do so every day, no matter what.  

At this point, I know some people will say, “But what if I don’t feel like it?  Then it just becomes legalism and saying words.”  I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.  The opposite is actually true.  It is precisely when I don’t feel like praying yet I still pray, that growth can happen.  It builds discipline.  Take an athlete.  If he or she trained only when they felt like it, would they be on the Olympic team or playing professionally today?  I doubt it.  You want to make the Olympic prayer team!  So, when it is time to pray, pray!  

It has been said that to become an expert in anything you need to put in about 10,000 hours.  That’s a lot of time.  That is a lot of sitting down and playing the flute, or shooting baskets, becoming an astronomer, or becoming a Christian.  You can think of this as practice or exercise.  In fact, there is a word for this: asceticism.  The word itself had its origins in the training of athletes.  Later it became a word used for the training necessary in religion.  Christianity adopted this from its earliest times.  Asceticism involves prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  It is our practice and training.  It is the 10,000 hours that we put in to become an expert.  It makes sure that what we call Christianity does not become merely a mental exercise or an idea in our heads, you know, a vague belief that Jesus is my savior so now I am saved and there is nothing that I need to do beyond going to a Bible study perhaps.

In light of the above, I would offer to you that legalism or “juridical” religion, or Christianity that is based on a transactional model, is actually the one that says I do not need to do anything, or learn how to pray, or to use a prayer book.  The transaction is, “I accept the Lord as my Savior, so now I will go to Heaven.”  See what has been done?  It’s like this: If I believe in Him, then He will save me.  If I give the clerk $5, I get the box of cereal.  See?  It’s a transaction.  I will give you something in order to receive something.  You can hopefully make the connection with our culture and our capitalistic thinking.  Almost everything we do in our culture is a transaction in order to get something.

The transformational model says we do something regardless of a payoff.  In the doing, will come understanding, growth, and virtue.  Of course, the Lord is in this too!  We do not fast, pray, or give alms in hopes that we can save ourselves!  Heavens no!  But in this doing, combined with grace, we come to understanding, to change, to growth, and love.  And who is it that we love and want to be like?  The Lord!  Through His grace and through the ascetic practice, we cast aside the ways of the world and adopt the ways of the Kingdom of God.  Little by little we transform, like a caterpillar into a butterfly, into a person more and more like Christ.

The Prayer Rule

I hope you understand now the importance of keeping to a rule of prayer, the commitment you make through your spiritual father to the Lord.  In the absence of your own spiritual father or mother, I would recommend prayers to begin and end your day.  Your prayer rule should also address the ancient hours of prayer.  If this is your first prayer rule, keep it simple, short, and attainable.  If you have never done this before, then your first task is to set aside time for prayer, both in the morning and also in the evening.  Again, if this is the case, be brief.  Set aside five minutes.  And for the Hours, pray an Our Father mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon.  If you are able, add a short Psalm.

What are some of the prayers to build your prayer rule with?  Well, here is my prayer rule.  It will appear very Orthodox.  If you are Catholic, substitute Catholic Prayers and liturgical readings.  Above all, make your prayer rule something that is attainable.  Simple is best, especially when you are just beginning.  You can always add more prayers later or make things longer in the future.  What is important right now is that you pray!  Even if just for five minutes.

My prayer rule for morning and evening prayer:

  1. Trisagion Prayers.
  2. Pray one of the Old and New Testament prayers from my list.
  3. Pray the Psalms for the day.  (I pray all the Psalms monthly, so I need to read about two pages of Psalms from my Bible each day.)
  4. Conclude pray time with New Testament Canticles, prayers for the deceased, intercessory prayers, prayers from the saints that I like and an Our Father.

During the day at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hours (at 9:00 a.m., noon, and 3:00 p.m.):

  1. If busy at work, pause a moment and pray an Our Father at a time near the time of the hour.
  2. If time allows, select a short Psalm
  3. Remember anyone who is in need of prayer.

I also give myself the freedom to change things from time to time.  It is best to not become rigid in your prayer life.  Perhaps you feel as though you are in a rut.  Sometimes, ruts are best dealt with by continuing in prayer without changes.  At other times, it is good to substitute some things.  Sometimes I will lay aside the Psalms and pray an akathist instead.  Or I will pray the entire Orthodox prayers for the morning.  How do you know when to stick with it or to change your prayers?  Trial and error.  First, I’d recommend sticking to it.  Dryness in prayer is OK.  It is not a reason to run from prayer.  Think of it as time in the desert, where you can find out deeper things about yourself and about God.  It is a time for growth.  Perhaps it is your 40 days in the wilderness like Jesus as He began His public ministry.  It is important to pray through these times.  Don’t always look for consolation in prayer.  The Lord is giving you this dryness to draw you closer.  Show the Lord that you are willing to love Him even if you do not receive consolations or little rewards along the way.  In truth, you are learning to love the Lord unconditionally.  You are learning to love without the need for a reward.  

For Catholics, the Liturgy of the Hours fits beautifully into a schedule of prayer.  If you can do only the morning and evening prayer, they are in the book.  If you can add prayers at night, or during the hours of the day, they are in the book.  I have used the one volume “Christian Prayer.”  My copy is well worn through twenty years of use.  There are memories that go with certain prayers.  I can remember events associated with certain days of prayer.  You will come to this too.  Significant events will go hand in hand with prayers you prayed on a specific day.  This is called building your life on prayer!  Your prayer and your life will build on each other.  This is part of your growth.  You will notice prayer becoming an important part of your life.

And this is a Christian life!  Your ritual of prayer, morning, evening, before bed, or during the daytime hours is not a legalistic endeavor.  It is spending time with the Lord and it becomes a labor of love, a time you look for to, a time you will not find to be a burden but rather a time of rest and a time spent with your best friend and Savior.  Prayer is a time of refuge, a safe harbor to recharge your batteries for whatever your life is about.  Spend some time to construct a prayer rule for your life.  Amend as necessary to fit your changing needs and your growth.  Take prayer seriously.  Spend it joyfully.  Your life will be enriched!  

So, to summarize, as you begin to pray, or pray better or deeper, we all need:

  1. Seek spiritual counsel.  Find a spiritual director or spiritual father/mother.
  2. Write out a prayer rule and follow it diligently.
  3. Change your prayer rule as you grow.
  4. Always choose humility, always.
  5. Enjoy your time with the Lord.

Many blessings to you as you build your life on prayer.  And remember, if you need a little assistance, please send me an email.

God bless.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines III: Prayer

Prayer is universal in the Christian world.  No one denies that we must pray.  Somehow we must
connect to God.  How we do that is different from person to person.  Where we go to church has a large impact on whether or not we pray and it impacts the details of our prayer life.  How?  Is our prayer in our own words?  Do we use Scripture?  A prayer book?  And we hear or read about things such as mental prayer, contemplative prayer, meditation, or vocal prayer to name a few.  For some, prayer is something we only do with the mind.  For others, the heart (or more specifically, the nous, the center of our being) is engaged.  We can even pray with our bodies.  In fact, there are those who would say that it is important to use your bodies in prayer.  It helps to engage our other faculties when we pray so it does not become just a mental thing.

Jesus talks about prayer in Matthew 6:5-15.  What does Jesus say about prayer and how we are to pray?

First, he tells us not to be like the hypocrites (actors).  They would go out in public and perhaps even pretend to pray.  Others would see and praise them.  The followers of Jesus are to go into the inner room to pray.  Our inner room, according to many of the Church Fathers, is our heart, the center of our being.  In modern times, we connect the heart to emotions, but in regards to this teaching of the Fathers, it might be better to think of the heart as the center of our being or our soul.  Emotions are technically part of our minds.  And while we might use emotions in prayer, emotions themselves do not mean we are praying better than when we are not emotional in prayer.  Our goal in prayer is union with God and this is usually NOT accomplished by emotions alone.  We must go deeper than our emotions.

Next, our Lord is telling us that we don’t have to ramble on and on, repeating ourselves, saying the same things with different words.  He is not saying that repetition is wrong, or that long prayers are wrong, rather we need to be about what we are saying.  What are we saying when we pray?  Don’t say a bunch of words just because you think God loves a lot of words.  He desires union and our whole self.  He is always willing, open, and able.  It is we who have the problem.  Our words can get in the way if we use them thinking it is the words that are important, or that we try to say the right things in the right way so God will do as we ask.  No, there is no formula to prayer.  Don’t bring legalism into your prayer.  Later, Jesus will say things like, “Ask in my name and My Father will give it to you.”

Actually, this phrase, or something similar to it, is said a number of times by Jesus.  And you hear many people end their prayers with the phrase, “In Jesus’ name.”  So, is that it?  Is that all I have to do is pray that little phrase and God the Father will grant me to win the lottery or some other wonderful thing I have been coveting?

I am afraid not.  Of course the trouble with this is many use it to put others down.  They will say, “Oh, if you would just have faith, God will answer your prayers.”  Well, on one hand this is true, but what is “enough faith” and again, what is it to ask in Jesus’ name?

Well, here is where I would make the case for a prayer book, the Psalms, or some kind of written or memorized prayers such as the Rosary or the Jesus Prayer.  Why?

First, go to Acts 2:42.  My RSV says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.”

In chapter 3, read the first verse.  Where are Peter and John going?  They were going to the ninth hour prayers.  What is that?  The Orthodox and Catholic Churches to this day still pray the prayers of the hours.  There are prayers said at the “hours.” They hours begin at  6 a.m.  There are first hour prayers, then the third, sixth, and ninth hour prayers.  The older, Latin terms for these prayers are words like vespers, matins, terce, sext, and none (pronounced with a long “O”).  Psalms 119:164 says that seven times a day I praise you, meaning that there were seven times when the people would pray.  This is pretty much relegated to the monastery these days, but we should have some kind of regular prayer throughout the day, and some people do.   Surely you are busy, but it would be a good goal to at least have prayer in the morning and prayer in the evening before bed or after supper.  Perhaps other prayers throughout the day, simple ones, maybe an Our Father and Hail Mary, or ten Jesus prayers at the times of the hours.  It can be very simple.  What we are looking for is something to allow the sacred and the holy into our day.  We need a pause from work and activity designed to make money or make products, things that are earthly, things that are temporary.  We need to interject the infinite, the holy, the All Holy One, and some type of experience of Him so that while we know that what we are doing is important, we know that ultimately there is Our Lord Who is much, much more important.

Now back to my answer of the question above.  Peter and John went to pray at the ninth hour, at 3:00 p.m.  They went to the Temple.  The people did not gather just to start praying in their own words.  There were prayers to pray.  In the Christian era, the same is true.  There were, and are, prayers to pray.  Acts 2:42 mentions “the prayers.”  Of course some modern, protestant Bibles change this.  They drop the word “the” but that is not correct.  It is THE prayers.  What are THE prayers?  The Psalms.  The early Christians, and Jews also, had a prayer book.  We use it today.  The Psalms.  Every Christian should pray the Psalms.  It is not difficult or constraining, but rather it is a very freeing activity.  

I would never tell anyone NOT to pray in their own words, but we should use God’s words when we pray too.  In this manner God is able to teach us and to touch us.  This is one way He can speak to us by using our own prayer.  You will not notice the difference by praying one Psalm for just one day.  You will notice something only if you keep doing it over time.  The Psalms will calm you down.  They can strengthen your confidence and trust in God.  They can help your faith grow and many more things.

Now, my other question about praying in Jesus’ name.  Well, we need to pray as disciples, as followers of Christ, as people who seek God’s will.  Then there is our personal freedom to overcome.  God will not violate a person’s freedom, or in other words, God cannot make anyone do anything.  So, already I think you can see some obstacles to the notion of getting something, even something good, by using the phrase “in Jesus’ name.”  Also, I hope you make the connection that prayer isn’t about “getting something” or talking God into giving us something.  This would be almost the opposite of prayer in the Tradition sense.  Oh yes, don’t get me wrong.  We can certainly petition to the Lord, but again, the primary purpose of prayer is union with the Lord.  And this union connects us to Him and not just to His giving us things.  This union connects us to the cross, our crosses, His suffering and ours.  As we pray the prayers from a good prayer book and the Psalms, we are made aware of His presence and His activity in our hearts as we walk a road of suffering or trial.  He is with us on this narrow path walked by few.  We should not even seek the wide, easy path traveled by many.  Common sense tells you where the growth is.  

They Lord knows what is best for us.  He fashions our crosses, trials, and sufferings for us.  Through prayer, honest and deep prayer, we realize that He is with us every step of the way.  This is not popular teaching.  The MTD church will tell you that suffering is bad and you should avoid it at all costs.  Surely we need not seek out suffering, but when it comes, and it will come, we only need to trust the Lord and to take refuge in Him through prayer while continuing to seek His will.

What is His will?  The Sermon on the Mount.  Prayerfully read this sermon often.  Let it seep into your bones, so to speak, and you will be blessed.  And keep praying.  Make your prayer more than just a list of requests.  Use the Psalms to teach you.  There will be fruit.  Persevere and be patient.  Prayer is not easy.

I will have a part 2 on prayer next time.  

Peace always in the Lord.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines II: Charity

I am tempted to say, “Moving on from humility…”  But you know that we must never “move on from humility!”  Humility must be our ultimate foundation.  As many of the saints say, it is the main virtue from which all others flow.  Hopefully, you will see that as you live out these other six disciplines, your humility will grow, and as we grow in humility, we will be able to live the others in a deeper way.  Not that we want to measure our progress, oh no!  Let the Lord take care of our progress and certainly any measuring.  Our great task is to be humble and through humility, we become obedient to the Lord.  

Yes, obedience has become almost a dirty word in our culture, but it is through obedience (which requires humility) that we give up our will for His will.  Doing His will is the condition for eternal life with Him (Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven.”)  But even obedience and doing His will has become distorted in our culture.  What is the Father’s will?  Read the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus is giving us the Father’s will.  But people in many circles will insist it is God’s will that they are rich, or have this fancy house and fancy boat. clothes, car, job, and the list goes on.  We have deluded ourselves and immersed ourselves in this culture to such a degree that we read the Gospel, but the false gospel of MTD is what takes hold of us.  This delusion distracts us and we think in worldly ways.  And so when we ask ourselves, “What is God’s will for me,” we naturally go to worldly things such as our career, where we will live, and the like.  All too often, these things deal with money.  In all truth, we are tempted in the same way Christ was in the desert, which is right before the Sermon on the Mount.  No coincidence!

My notes written in my Bible for this passage include a lot of “p” works: power, pride, prestige, possessions, position, privilege, and perks.  We are tempted to be successful (in the eyes of the world).  

In a nutshell, according to Fr. Thomas Hopko, what are the temptations about?  The devil is tempting Jesus to not be a crucified Messiah and rather, just give the people what they want.  Don’t bring the people into the Kingdom of God and all the freedom and suffering that entails, but just satisfy their earthly needs and give them some mighty miracles along the way.  And they will love you for it!

Yes, this is our temptation too, and the Church in particular.  We must resist these temptations and others that come to us that are particular in our lives.  These cause us suffering.  But as St. Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles’ 14:22, it is “Through many tribulations that we must enter the Kingdom of God.”

So, is salvation free?  Certainly.  But you will suffer for it.  You will have a cross to bear.  You will be crucified on it even.  Fr. Tom adds, “Don’t come down from your cross.”  Because when we do, we are in the hands of the devil.  Then we go to church to get all the things from God that the devil tempted Jesus with in the first place.  We are asking for mammon.  You know, I need a job, a better job, more money, less stress, change this situation and that situation, make this work out and that work out.”  Jesus wants to give us freedom and eternal life.  We keep praying for things in this life.  We keep wanting to be satisfied by earthly things, we want to be happy, and we give ourselves to the devil.  

Our life does not consist in what we eat, drink or wear.  All the earthly things we need will be given to us as we need them, Jesus promises.  But we do not trust in God.  We listen to the devil and forsake our dignity in the Kingdom, we reject our divine sonship.  We want the mammon.

If you’d like to listen to a very important podcast about these temptations, listen to Fr. Tom on Ancient Faith Radio.

Listen here.

Which brings us to today’s topic: giving alms or being charitable, Matthew 6:2-4.  I included the part on temptation before I talked about alms, because it is so easy to get carried away.  We must remember what our primary goal is: to serve God and to do His will.  Speaking from personal experience, it is very nice when someone compliments me when I would do good things in the community.  Yes, and these will come when we do good things, but we must constantly ask what we are doing and why.  As much as possible, the things we do need to be in secret.  To do otherwise, would be pride.  The direction we must take is humility.  

The alms we give, or literally “acts of mercy” must be rooted in love and compassion.  Others have faults that annoy us and yet, in peace, must our charity be given.  We must be able to become non-judgmental, which will be discipline number six.  To those who are unkind to us, are we able to show kindness and even love?  And here we see that we must “become less and less” so that Jesus can become “more and more.”  Here we encounter some building blocks that lead us to become more like Christ.  We learn to lay aside our bitterness, hurt feelings, and our judgments in order to serve Christ in the person who annoys us.  

Who annoys you?  Is there some act of kindness you can show them?  Perhaps you can do something kind to them in secret, so they will never know that it was you?  This might be more formative for our souls that working at a soup kitchen and getting our picture in the paper.  I am not saying that you should not do the latter, oh yes, we must!  The poor,in various expressions, exist all around us, and we must do what we can.  If we have no means to help materially, we must pray for them and love them the best we can.  

We must love them as ourselves.  They ARE ourselves.  We meet Jesus in the poor, but in a certain sense, we meet ourselves.  When we assist the poor, hopefully we can see our own need.  When I was involved in prison ministry years ago I was always very touched by the men we served.  Then it dawned on me that I kept meeting myself, and my own failures or needs in each of the men that I met in the prison.  While I was physically free, I was just as much in an internal prison as some of the men I was trying to help.

I can see in my own self MY need to be relevant when I help others.  It is the temptations of Jesus!  I need to be powerful, in control, smart, have the answer to solve their problem, have the power to help them, to be a miracle worker, and all these things add to my personal prestige.  Well, then, who needs Jesus when they have me?

Big problem.

And so I urge you to do this inner work as you do the outer work of helping others.  Whether you share your money or your time and talent, be careful.  Yes, be loving and do the work, but do so in a manner that brings little attention to yourself.  Keep your ego in check.  And maybe try to help those that do annoy you.  You might find out that the real reason they annoy you has its origins within yourself.

One last thing, if you are wondering what and why all this stuff about humility going along with our charity, I would remind you of St. Therese and the Little Way.  I know I keep recommending things for you to read, but if you have the time, The Story of a Soul would be one that is rich, rich, rich!  Reading this book, St. Therese’s autobiography, would benefit your soul too.  

So in all your giving and your prayers for others, be little, be hidden.  And you will be blessed.  Ask St. Therese to go with you and even to guide you.  Pray to God that you would not spoil His work.

Peace to one and all.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Spiritual Disciplines in the Sermon on the Mount


Last time I wrote about how we can overcome the comfortable church.  How do we do that?  On one hand, this is the million dollar question.  There are no easy fixes, easy answers.  Neither will the results of our fixes be quick.  A short answer, or perhaps a little more depth to the answer, is a recommendation for you to read Rod Dreher’s book entitled, “The Benedict Option.”  This book has been woefully misunderstood by many, and many in the Church.  In a nutshell, Mr. Dreher is advocating people, especially lay people, to form small Christian communities and live their faith.  This is not to be understood in a way that they avoid society or become hermits.  No way.  But these communities merely function as a way to support each other and to be a way in which people can radically live their faith and become the “light in the world” or “salt of the earth” as Jesus exhorts us to be in the Sermon on the Mount.

Last time I encouraged you to read this sermon, Matthew chapters 5-7 as well as the articles that I have written about it.  Another resource is to listen to Father Evan Armatas’ special on Ancient Faith Radio.  You can find it HERE.  You will be blessed to listen to the entire four episodes.  In this article, I am going to write about what Fr. Evan describes as the spiritual disciplines in Jesus’ sermon.  I also offer this to you as a way to “draw the line in the sand” so to speak and to push back against the comfortable church and its MTD gospel.

The first thing that I notice about the spiritual disciplines is that they are very ordinary.  Many people in our culture today seem to be looking for a great thing, some awesome new exercise, a practice that will quickly unite them with God or give them wonderful experiences.  The Buddhist practice of mindfulness is one.  Used properly, it probably is not so bad, but the practice is an atheistic one and you are the center of attention.  In this, I believe, is where the danger is.  We must focus on the Lord.  And if we are having problems in life, and we all certainly have our struggles and crosses to bear, we need to come alongside the Lord to help us with these struggles.  He will help us bear our crosses.  The beauty of these seven disciplines is that practiced consistently over time they will in fact bring you to the peace that we all strive for.  

The seven spiritual disciplines given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are:

  1. Be humble, 6:1
  2. Be charitable, 6:2-4
  3. Be prayerful, 6:5-15
  4. Fast, 6:16-18
  5. Trust in God, 6:19:33
  6. Release judgment, 7:1
  7. Accuse yourself, 7:2-5

This does not sound like a profound list, does it?  Keep in mind that this list is given to us by the Lord Jesus.  Second, There is much more than meets the eye at first glance here.  Please listen to Father Evan speak about them.  I have my own comments that I will write about now.

Humility

Upon seeing the challenges that lie before all of humanity, and the great web of thoughts that surround us, St. Anthony the Great asked the Lord, “Who can be saved?”  The Lord replied to Anthony, “Only those who are meek and humble of heart.”  Why?  Elder Thaddeus says that the reason is they are united to peace and silence.  They have no negative thoughts.

There is a most wonderful book about the life and teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica.  The name of the book is “Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.”  You would be doing yourself more than a favor by buying, reading and rereading this book.  As I look at the above list of the spiritual disciplines, Elder Thaddeus touches on them all.  The main  themes of the book however, are humility, not allowing the negative thoughts, and trust the Lord in all things.  It is truly, truly very profound.  It is one of those books that I read through fairly quickly because it was a book club selection, but since, I have kept it with me and have reread it often.  It has made a difference in my life, my spirituality, and my inner peace.

If you are like me, we think that we have arrived at most of our endeavors before we truly arrive.  Humility is one such thing.  Here is a quote by St. Isaac the Syrian:

A humble man is he who is never rushed, hasty, or agitated or has hot or volatile thoughts, but at all times remains calm, is not fearful of accidental occurrences, he knows his own weakness and he is in need of divine help.

How do we acquire humility?

. . . through unceasing remembrance of transgressions, preferring the last place, running to do tasks that are most insignificant and distasteful, and the ability to suffer wrongs with joy.

Abba Sisoes encourages us to consider ourselves as inferior to others.  Others have encouraged us to make excuses for others when they do wrong or annoy us.  An example is if someone bumps into us and we drop something, maybe even break something.  It is easy to become angry and accuse the person for being blind or some other rude comment.  In our own mind, we can quickly change our direction from anger to helping to mercy.  We can say to ourselves, “I was walking too fast and he did not see me.”  Or, “I should have been more aware and seen him before he bumped into me.”  You get the point?  If we can make statements like this our attitude, we will become more humble.  The challenge for me is when I am in familiar surroundings and with people I spend a lot of time with, i.e. at home!  It is usually more difficult for me to be this way with those whom I am familiar with rather than a stranger.  This is true for all of us, I suspect.

One more way to increase humility is to keep silence as much as possible.  You know, when your friends are discussion some religious doctrine or practice, or something that happened in the world of politics, you (or I) don’t have to comment on it.  This one gets me in trouble quite often.  Worse, I often get a little worked up when it is something I feel strongly about.  

I think I need to stop here,  I’ll continue with the other disciplines next time.  However, before I close, I want to highlight the idea of “reward” that the Lord speaks about with each of these disciplines.  Yes, there are rewards!  In verses 6:1, 6:4, 6:6, 6:18, 6:33, 7:1, and 7:5 Jesus either mentions that there is a reward or He implies what one will receive.  In 7:5, perhaps others see this differently, but I would say that the reward is sight.  Specifically, the ability to see oneself clearly, which in turn implies humility.  And here we have circled back to the first discipline.

I do not think this is an accident.  These disciplines are not something that we can do once and forget them or that they are something to scratch off a list of accomplishments.  These are treasures of limitless growth, mountain peaks that reach to the heavens.  But we must DO them.  We must push ourselves with the help of God’s grace.  We must fail and fall a million times.  And, we must get up.  Little by little we will grow.  Little by little, we will become holy.  We eventually live into what Jesus calls us to in Matthew 5:48: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Can we be perfect?  No, not in a logical understanding.  Look at the saints.  What sets them apart are things like humility, mercy, silence, not judging others, and trust in God.  Hmmm, it looks a lot like our list, eh?  More next time.

Peace always my friends.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

St Seraphim the Wonder Worker of Sarov


January 2, is the feast day of St. Seraphim of Sarov.  He was a very remarkable and holy man.  He is almost universally regarded as the greatest of 19th century Russian saints.  He is the favorite of many.  His story, his life, has many things for us to consider.  I am not going to write about him, but I will merely encourage you to at least consider reading the wikipedia article about him.  

In addition, Fr. Tom Hopko has two podcasts about him.  One concerns the acquisition of the Holy Spirit and the other is about the conversation between St. Seraphim and a man named Nikolay Motovilov.  Find those podcasts here and  here.

You may read the conversation between Seraphim and Motovilov .  It is not too lengthy, being only a few pages, but it will be very rewarding for you to do so.  Find the web page here.

May you be blessed today in your reading and your prayers and your life.  God bless you one and all.


Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Pushing Back Against the Comfortable Church



Archangel Michael
"Defend us in battle"
I wrote last time about faith and truth.  Living our faith is of utmost importance.  Living faith is more than having some kind of belief in Jesus, Christianity, or the Church.  It must somehow come alive.  There must be a contrast between real faith and truth and what I have been writing about as the MTD gospel, or Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism, or what we could also call “The Comfortable Church.”

The comfortable church is about feeling good about oneself, being happy, and being nice.  It is about a vague concept of being good and that good people go to heaven.  There is a god, but he doesn’t have much to do with us except when we get cancer or some calamity happens, then we can call upon him to help us out.  Then, at the end of our lives, we all go to heaven where we can play golf or do the things we liked doing while we were alive on the earth.  To most people, there is no concept of hell, or if it does exist, it is reserved for those who are truly bad people such as Hitler and Stalin.  
Well, that might sound nice, it might be an easy way to explain things to oneself, but it isn’t true and it isn’t true Christianity, it isn’t what converted the ancient Roman Empire or any other empire that has persecuted the Church.  Incidentally, the concept of faith in Apostolic times was more than having good feelings or a belief in Jesus.  If one was of “the faith,” it meant that he or she belonged to the Church and lived the teachings and lifestyle of the Church, as opposed to being a pagan or a Jew.  But enough of that, for my purposes today, I want to write about what can we do to counter this idea, almost a movement of sorts.  And I think we can come up with some good, solid things from the Tradition itself.

First, I think we should get rid of any notion that we are going to convert the entire nation back to true faith or make some kind of difference because of who we are or what we pray or what we write on the Internet.  Alone, we are nothing.  Christianity is about “us” and whose we are.  We belong to Jesus and His Body on the earth which is the Church.  From St. John’s Gospel, near the end of the Book of Signs, 12:36b-43, Jesus acknowledges that the world did not believe in Him, or that they could not believe in Him as Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah.  If they did not believe Isaiah, Jesus, the other prophets, and countless saints, why would anyone believe me?  They won’t.  Let us be humble enough to understand that whatever mission we embark on, however exalted our little ministries, they will fall short.  In fact, I would venture to say, almost 100 percent of them will fail, if they are true to the Gospel.  This is of course if we measure from a worldly perspective.  The prosperity gospel people, the MTD gospel people fill up their worship spaces often enough to give the impression that they are thriving.  Their bank accounts are generally pretty flush.  Their ministers drive nice cars.  The most well to do of them claim worldwide ministries and appear on television and have their own planes as they criss cross the globe for converts and make them fit for hell.  Yes, this is what Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew (23:15).  I think it applies to our worldly “pastors.”  Don’t fall for their lies of prosperity and the easy life.  Stick with the Tradition.  You may sweat a little now, but you will be saved in the end.  Think of the Rich Man and Lazarus, (Luke 16:19-31).  The Gospel account does not tell of any great sin of the Rich Man.  And yet, it was his ignoring Lazarus that put him outside the KIngdom.  His pursuit of riches blinded him to the poor man in his midst.  We must consider this and that his sin of omission was great indeed.  May we give generously to the poor out of our love for Christ.  Our salvation depends on it!  It begs the question, “How much is enough?”  I would counter that this is a legalistic question, something that we have far too much of in the West.  We diminish the power of the Gospel with questions such as this.  The answer, if one desires one, is that it must become part of your lifestyle.  Is there a place for the poor in your life?  Do you treat the poor differently?  Read St. James 2:1-7.

Second, the next thing is to live a Christian lifestyle.  “What is that?” or, “How do I do that?” you might ask.  That almost everyone I speak with asks that question, or that they have a completely wrong impression of what a Christian life is, tells me that this is a grave problem with Christianity as we practice it in the West, and perhaps all over the world.  It has been said that through all history, there has never been more than about 5% of the people who have been serious followers of Christ (disciple might be a good word here) and this percentage has been given of the members of the Church, not just the population at large.  “So who can be saved?” one might ask.  Well, that is a totally different question and topic, but there is hope for all.  We hope in the mercy of Christ.  His disciples act as a leaven amongst all the people.  It is the leaven, the yeast, a very small part of a loaf of bread that in fact, makes the whole loaf rise.  That is what we must become.  Salvation is not an individual project as we constantly here about in America.  It takes a community, a faithful community, sprinkled with some very devoted disciples who act as a leaven to raise it all up to the Lord.  But in order to do that and be effective, we must be content to be leaven.  You know, the yeast in the loaf is content to be yeast.  It doesn’t compete with the flour or the sugar or the salt.  It is content to be leaven.  But if there was no leaven, then flour mixture would not become bread.  

You must be content to be leaven.  Don’t worry about the accolades that Agnes gets because she does such a great job in the kitchen or the attention John gets because he knows the Bible so well, or Suzy because she is a great organizer of different social events in the local church, oh no!  We must honor and respect all these gifts and talents.  We must believe and hope that this is their path to salvation.  Oh, are they prideful in it?  Do they love the attention, even parade themselves in front of others?  Don’t worry.  The Lord has them.  He will deal with them.  He has the perfect cross for them to bear that will lead them to salvation and eternal life with Him.  We have to trust Him that He has a better plan that we could possible devise.  Here we must simply trust.

So, now what?  What do we do?

The short answer is to first read the Sermon on the Mount.  Then, little by little, try to incorporate this homiletical masterpiece into your lives, i.e. live it!  And oh!  My brothers and sisters in the Lord, you and I will find this so difficult.  But remember the line from the Gospel of St. Luke, 21:19, “By your endurance you will gain your lives.” Stick with it.  Or, as they say, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”  Well, neither is your salvation accomplished in a day.  You must work it out over the course of your entire life in fear and trembling.

Or if I can paraphrase a short story I heard recently (perhaps someone can remind me who the persons were).  Someone approached a priest and said gleefully, “I’ve just become an Orthodox Christian!”  To which the priest offered congratulations and added that he had been trying to do the same for the past 50 years and has yet to succeed.  May we have the humility of that priest.

One thing you can also do is to read the articles I have posted on this blog about the Sermon on the Mount.  They begin on June 24, 2016 and end on May 29, 2017.  There are 32 articles in all that are entitled “Christian Spirituality.”

Read these if you are so inclined.  I will also have more articles along the theme of spiritual disciplines.  So, look for them to appear in the near future.

Peace and blessings to all

Monday, January 1, 2018

Witness to Faith and Truth



Happy New Year!

May the peace and blessings of the Lord be upon you.  

My mind a swirling typhoon of thoughts this morning.  Morning prayer was somewhat distracted, but one thing that I felt drawn to this morning was the idea of truth and how it relates to our faith, God, religion, and life.

There are many who argue things like faith is free or that salvation is a free gift from God.  On one hand, this is true, but even as Christmas and our happy celebrations are still near, we must confront the reality of things, the truth of what is.  For starters, why does the Church put on the Liturgical Calendar feast days honoring St. Stephen the first martyr, the Holy Innocents a day later, and the example of the little known saint of December 30 St. Anysia of Thessaloniki, who was murdered by a pagan soldier around the year 300.  He was on his way to worship the gods, while she was on her way to the Holy Liturgy.  

Our faith does cost us.  For most of us, it is in small ways.  It happened to me just the other day, I had something in my lunch bag at work.  When I got home that evening I noticed something was missing.  My first thought was to accuse one of my co-workers, one whom I do not hold in high esteem.  The truth made itself know two days later when I found the missing object and I had to repent.  I had to see in myself how quickly I am to pass my problems onto others or to think it is someone else’s fault.

One saint whom I truly admire and love is St. Therese of Lisieux.  Little incidents like the one I shared above serve to show me how far I am from the Little Way of St. Therese.  The little nothings or the little sufferings that she speaks about are really not so little.  They are the heart of the Gospel.  How weak I am and slow to believe the power of the Gospel.  It seems that I would much rather live my own version of the Gospel, one that puts me and my small opinions and ideas at the center.  Oh!  Lord have mercy!

Even the other day at my friend’s home.  We used to work together and so had the same boss who has many undesirable characteristics.  Do you suppose that I could resist the temptation to say bad things when we spoke about him?  There is a lack of humility and a lack of healing in my soul for some of the things that happened in the past and so I blurt out things that, while they may be true, do not further truth, the truth of the Gospel, the truth of love and forgiveness.  It is a witness that I do not live the life of the saints or the life of the martyrs.  It is like wanting the benefits of the Kingdom while also wanting to stay in the pig sty of sin.  It is like wanting to be healthy and live a full life while enjoying Twinkies and Fritos and spend most of my free time in front of a television (or computer screen).

And so we must deal with truth and the undesirable aspects of faith such as how I do not live it.  

One thing that I am very guilty of and have been most of my life is that I settle for a false peace and I overlook sin, or brush it off with comments like, “Oh, that’s OK.”  Well, sometimes it is OK but other times it really isn’t.  This morning a Scripture text is on my mind that will not let me alone: Luke 12: 49-53.

49 “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; 52 for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

When I think of this text, I think of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  He said, “When you live in this world filled with lies, wickedness, and evil, you can do three things: Give into it and it will crush you; Give up and become part of the system and become evil yourself; or you can stand over and against it in truth.  Then you will suffer greatly, but you will be free.”

I am not sure if that is an exact quote, but it is pretty close (I am going by a note I tucked into my Bible).  

My life is characterized by, “Let’s just get along.”  This attitude stems from a fear that I have of conflict that in turn stems from some abuse issues in childhood.  This has caused a huge lack of self-confidence and with a wink and a nod, I excuse the evil or the bullies that have been in my life.  I have tried my best to ignore them and “just get along.”  But what I have found to be true is that by doing this, as Solzhenitsyn says, it has crushed me.  You can’t just get along.  You can’t appease the bullies in your life and find peace.  What you find is a false peace, a peace that lasts a moment or two, and when the shoe drops again, there will be hell to pay.  For the past few months, I have been painfully realizing all the debts I have been paying to hell, the devil and his demons.  It has not been an enjoyable experience to say the least, but I must say it has been necessary and freeing.  But I am not at the end yet.  I still have some distance to go.  And so trudge ahead.    

What can you take from this little article?  Well, I wonder how many of us are really healthy, are really in tune with truth, and ultimately the Gospel?  What lies do you ignore, whether they are lies in general or perhaps lies said about you?  Do you have lies that you tell others or yourself?

Perhaps what could prove useful to you is to enter into an examination of self.  Examine what you believe to be true.  Examine why you believe these truths.  Examine the truths of the Church.  Where are there differences?  What is the reason for these differences?

As I examine myself, what I used to consider virtues in my person was really a lack of courage in some cases.  One example is patience.  Yes, I am a patient person, but where this has become a vice is that I use patience as an excuse to not act or say something sometimes.  Surely, we can speak too soon, or say things in a rash manner when we should have kept quiet.  But I now see many instances in my life when silence, or patience, or advocating for peaceful resolution was really an attempt on my part to smooth over evil or to not ruffle feathers.

Ideas are another good hiding place.  I am not a psychologist, so I do not know for sure if this is correct, but I suspect that ideas of philosophy or religion make a great hiding place for people like me.  Truth becomes a mental exercise or a thing that can be manipulated.  Truth must be lived however.  And sometimes it is messy.  You know, it is just like your home: you have to sweep, vacuum, and mop.  You have to make your bed and clean up the refrigerator from time to time.  We don’t like to do these maintenance kind of things, but we must, or we will end up living in a messy house.  Truth is the same.  We need to take a daily inventory.  We need to examine our conscience daily.  With the grace of God, we can listen, we can encounter truth.  We can survive the encounter with truth.  It may wound us and we might suffer for it, but the alternative is to suffer anyway.  So, we may as well seek the truth and at least live in peace.  

I hope these thoughts help you attain to the peace of Christ and to the truth of Who He is and the truth of who you are. Alas, “Now we see in a mirror dimly…”  Now we know in part.  We do not fully understand.  I pray that we all come to know the truth, the truth that sets us free, the truth that is in fact a person and not a thing at all.  The truth is Jesus.  He is the Light.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He is the One who sets us free.  He is the One who heals us.

Peace be yours this new year.