Thursday, February 15, 2018
Today we come to step six in the spiritual disciplines outlined by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and it’s a biggy: Do not judge.
In Matthew 7:1 we read, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
We all miss the mark on this one, don’t we? Or even, how much of the day have I just totally ignored this command? It seems that even while I am at peace and all recollected, I am susceptible to judging others. If I don’t judge people I know, people who have hurt me, it seems I can effortlessly move on to the condemnation of politicians, groups of people in other faiths or religions, or it might be rich people, poor people, and just about any kind of people. I can even think judgmental thoughts about dogs and cats. How on earth do we make progress in this area?
If you have not listened to Fr. Evan’s comments about this, I would encourage you to do so now. Otherwise, here is a brief recap of his comments, drawn from the Fathers and the saints.
First, let us begin with the attitude that this is not an “all or nothing.” This is a big piece of Christian morality, but we have to bite it off in smaller pieces and work on them little by little.
First, remembering past wrongs. Get rid of grudges and the lists of wrongs that others have done to you. We like to talk about them, don’t we? We like the sympathy. We like it when others feel sorry for us. Well, stop it. (I need to say that to myself about once per month.) We love to expose the sin of others, but we need to stop that too. If we want to do good, confront the other person directly and tell them that they hurt you. If they do not repent, gather two or three witnesses and go to that person again. If he still does not repent, go to the Church. These are the instructions of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20. If we do not wish to follow the Lord in this, then I think it is incumbent upon us merely take the problem to prayer. Pray for the person and let the Lord work on him or her. The results can often amaze us. At the same time that we are praying, we must do our best to stop talking about the person in a bad light and also watch our thoughts. When we notice an anger or bitterness welling up inside, we must turn to prayer. Maybe an Our Father or a Hail Mary or a few Jesus prayers. The focus must be on a request for mercy for the person you are angry at and also mercy for yourself, for you are a sinner too and have offended many. We must adopt the attitude of St. Paul who thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Get rid of the “victim mentality” that is so pervasive in our culture. Suffering is part of life and the sooner we come to peace with that thought the better! The Christian life is about suffering and uniting our suffering to that of our Lord. Today, we seem to think that Christianity is all about healing and getting cool stuff from God, but we forget that the sign of our salvation is the cross and each of us has to bend over and pick ours up and carry it all the way to Calvary. Certainly the Cross of Christ opened the door to salvation for us, but it is in the carrying of our cross where we punch our ticket. The New Testament has many, many verses about suffering and trials that we must endure on our way into the Kingdom. St. Peter and St. James speak much about suffering in their letters. The Gospel of Mark is much about the spirituality of suffering. There is no way around it. Acts 14:22 adds, “...through many tribulations we must enter the Kingdom of God.” So add this to the list: bear with some of those things that others do to us. Surely they hurt. Turn that bitterness and anger towards mercy. Make that suffering you feel a cross that you can carry for the other person. Jesus carried the cross for everyone of us, for all of humanity. Perhaps He is asking you to carry a cross for your son, or your spouse, or one of your co-workers. Not as big as the cross Jesus carried, but difficult enough, isn’t it? To carry this cross you will need the other five disciplines of being humble while you pray, fast, give alms, and trust God in your pain. Yes, let us call it what it is and it is painful. You might be completely wrong in your anger and bitterness. While carrying your cross you just might come to seeing or understanding.
Second, work conquering the outward signs of your anger and animosity. Ask yourself these questions:
Do I dislike certain people (individuals or groups)?
Am I angry with a specific person now?
Do I yell and shout?
Do I call people names like idiot, dummy, jerk etc?
Am I hard to get along with?
Am I sarcastic?
Do I need things “just right” or am I hard to please?
Are others always wrong?
This is not a long list, per se, but it is a difficult one. You know, we want to justify ourselves. We want others to like us and so we protect our reputation. “It wasn’t my fault!” And so if there was some wrong doing, we tend to put a lot of it on others. We need to try to get to the point where we rarely, if ever, need to blame anyone for our problems. We need to just be able to work them out.
I wonder if part of our problem to begin with (when we blame or hold grudges) comes from a lack of trust in the Lord? We trust in ourselves and live our lives as if everything depends on me. I have gotten angry or depressed because I didn’t get a job or didn’t feel like there was any hope that life would get better. At these times I would look for others to blame. I could even get bitter! Well, maybe I just need to seek God’s will and guidance. Maybe God’s will, or my lack of following it, has something to do with why I am where I am, or why my problems are my problems.
One final thought. I have been praying to St. Therese a lot these days. I have been studying her “Little Way.” There is a man, Brother Joseph Schmidt, who has some nice teachings on the Little Way on Youtube that you would profit from. I have. I have picked up a number of things from his interpretation of the LIttle Way. A couple of points:
Our love must not be violent. We must not put ourselves down, or others. This is a violence.
We must come to truly love ourselves before we can come to truly love another. A large part of this is acceptance. We must accept who we are and what is happening in our lives as a gift from God.
Here is the link to part one.
One more insight from “Letters to Spiritual Children,” by Abbott Nikon who was a monk in Russia under communism. He suffered greatly and had to bear a prison camp for a number of years, finally being released during World War II. He died around 1960. Here is just one little nugget for us to ponder:
In one letter, he spoke about how suffering is the only path to salvation that is open to us. That we must be patient in our sufferings and accept it as coming from Jesus Himself. The Lord HImself is teaching us in our suffering.
Acceptance. Saying “Yes.” Cultivating a heart that is soft enough to see Jesus even in our suffering and allow Him to teach us there. Oh yes. I think these things go a long way to teaching us not to judge. We must abide in a place where it is so easy to judge another, especially when they are the ones who may be causing us to suffer. Well, we must learn to love them right there, in that place and in that moment. We must learn to not react with violence. We must learn that yes, we can have emotions, because they can come and go. We can control them. But it is not good if our emotions control us. Then we fall into violence and judgment of others, even ourselves. This is not the spiritual path that leads to God, freedom, and joy. Let it all go. Fall into the loving arms of God.
Peace be with you.
Monday, February 12, 2018
All the spiritual disciplines are interrelated to each other. I cannot say that I am going to pray but not fast. I cannot say that I will be charitable but not merciful or trust in God. I cannot say that I am saved but I am very judgmental. The disciplines go together and grow together as we grow. Our prayer life deepens as we learn to fast, trust God, and become less and less judgmental.
Last time I had an article about fasting. Lent is nearly here so please do your best to fast. It will deepen your spiritual life because everything is connected! In specific, and this list is not a complete list, but as Fr. Evan Armatas points out, here are some things that fasting will do within us:
brings intimacy with God
These are just a few. I would add that as we grow in all the disciplines, the same thing will happen with each. But we cannot say I will do number 1, 2, 3, and 4 and the rest we are not going to bother with. No, that is not a complete spiritual life. That will not bring us to intimacy with God. Some counter this by telling me that I am being legalistic. Far from it! If I want to be a concert pianist I probably need to play 5,000 to 10,000 hours on the piano before I am even in the ballpark for applying for a position in an orchestra. Is this a legalistic requirement or is it practicing how to play the piano well? The same is true in the spiritual life. People argue with me that it is all free. God just pours it in your lap, but I would counter that it is not that simple. Oh, He might on occasion do this for someone, but most of us need to work at it. We learn how to pray by praying, we learn how to fast by fasting, we learn things like humility by doing all these disciplines over time, growing little by little. And little by little our intimacy with the Lord grows.
Today’s topic is to trust God in everything. The first four disciplines must lay a pretty good foundation because how do we come to trust a person? It takes time! It takes surrender, vulnerability, a willingness to expose yourself to being hurt by the other, and it also takes some time being together as well.
The normal American pretty much trusts in himself and the things we have stored up such as the money in our bank accounts, retirement accounts, and our stock portfolio. We are building a home here as if we are going to spend eternity here! And this is part of our problem in trusting the Lord. We are attached to this world. We place too much value on things like our reputation, how we look, how our things look, and how much power or money we have. Even our churches seem to follow the path of riches and there seems to be a spirit of building fancy churches, paving parking lots, and really making things look wonderful. And many are. I do not have a problem with beauty. Beauty is Godly and is important. But I fear that our priorities can become mixed up. We get distracted by things that do not matter.
An example is the church I attended in a small town I lived in for nearly many years. We had the largest congregation in town. As the years went by and the people got older, and the congregation got smaller, a movement was started to build a parking lot. Over the next 10-12 years we purchased two homes on nearby lots, tore down the houses, and paved the lots. Now, with the smaller number of people, they have two nice parking lots that are half full for the typical Sunday Mass. My argument while I was there is what are we doing for the poor or those who might need something extra? I had no problem with parking lots, really! But if we had money to buy and demolish two homes, could we not afford to buy a house and give someone cheap rent or use it in some manner for those less fortunate? Or what about some money spent on a parish retreat of some kind to deepen our spirituality or love for the Lord? It seemed that the only “spiritual” thing we spent money on was religion classes for youth. After confirmation, well, confirmation was “graduation” and no more had to be done it seems.
Well, money was saved, a lot of money by the way, hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on projects to improve the church building. I am not against the church saving money! But we have to be honest about what is going on here. Perhaps 90% of the effort and the resources were spent on the building. Bible studies and prayer groups attracted six or seven souls out of 350 families, and then they would disband after a few months. Special collections for missions would garner $200-300 on a weekend collection, but also you must note that the people, by and large, had nice cars to drive, most lived in very nice homes, and surely there were a few people like me who struggled, but not so many. The average Sunday collection was about $1500. This is less than $5 per family! Not much of a commitment, is it?
While I worked for the church, my priest was always after me to buy a new car. Mine was functional, but it had over 200,000 miles on it, and it certainly had seen better days, and not just on the engine, the body too. It was rusty. It was an eyesore. When I finally did buy a different car when my old one died, his attitude was more of relief. Then it dawned on me: he wasn’t concerned about me. He did not want a respected employee of the church to be driving a tattered and worn car not to mention having it sit in “his” parking lot!
Sometimes the things we are enslaved to disguise themselves very, very well. This priest was deathly afraid of poverty. He grew up poor and worked on a farm but had done well for himself. He had a lot of money. He was given much over the years by different parishioners in their wills. But he also did not appreciate poor people in general. Poverty, to him, meant alienation from God. Poverty was a kind of punishment or at least a sign that you are not doing something right. Of course, on the other hand, my wages at the church were barely at minimum wage. Every year, the staff would go before the parish council and the pastor for an increase, and my goodness, the howls were audible across the street! A 25 cent raise for the staff was akin to sin, and what if we couldn’t pay the heat bill because of “all this extra money spent on staff?” (Most of the parish council members were affluent, with incomes at or over $100,000 per year. I can think of more than a couple who were millionaires and could have easily funded the church by themselves for an entire year if it were truly necessary.) If I recall correctly, the average wage of the staff was about $8.50 per hour.
Here is my ultimate point: What is important? We need to look at our life. What is the most important thing, or things? Are we struggling to make our way in the world or are we striving for the kingdom?
“Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” James 4:4.
Living in a capitalistic and very materialistic nation, it is difficult for us to separate what is spiritual or the Kingdom and what is earthly and perhaps not as important.
So, as I come to the end of this article, here are some thoughts about trusting God with everything, or everything that really matters.
1. Most people trust themselves and not God. We trust in what we have saved up. We trust our money, our intelligence, our friends, or maybe the government, but most people do not rely on God very much.
2. We will not grow up to trust God unless we apply the first four disciplines. Things do not just happen for no reason. We must be purposeful. Trusting God is a big thing, a major development in life. It takes time. It takes prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and humility.
3. As you grow in your trust in God, you will become more and more filled with peace, even to the peace that is beyond understanding, Philippians 4:7.
4. Enslavements, addictions, our disordered passions keep us from the Kingdom. We must disentangle ourselves from the world. It is like Jesus when He says we cannot serve both God and mammon, Matthew 6:24. We have to choose one. It is one or the other. You can’t put energy into building your financial empire AND claim to be a Christian, a disciple. Don’t get me wrong, we need money in this society to live. We need houses to live in and cars to get to work. The ultimate point is, “Where do you abide?” Do you NEED that new Cadillac? Are you embarrassed to drive an “old beater?” What are you embarrassed by? Some time spent, over time, in prayer with this topic can be very revealing of who we are and lead to number 5 below.
5. Guard your hearts! What are your desires? Engage in battle against those that are contrary to the Gospel! Battle against your sin! Many think that Christians somehow are supposed to be moral people and not sin. And yes, we claim to have a morality to be sure, but we must be honest with our struggles. We DO sin. We ARE human. And we repent of our sin. We must do this and battle against sin, or we end up giving into it and then there is no growth, no power. Lent is upon us. Use this time to battle against one of your sins, your tendencies, or one of those desires that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. We can be sure of His help! Remember, it is not our sin that will condemn us to hell,it is our lack of repentance! We blind ourselves to the truth of ourselves all the time. Open the eyes of your soul to see yourself as you are. This is a terrible, terrible journey into the unconditional love of God. He loves us not because we are perfect but because He is perfect.
6. All this must happen daily and include normal, daily things. Accept everything as being from the hand of God, all the good in your life (His blessing) and all the bad things in life (as His correction or teaching or His calling you forth to make you strong).
Do these things and you will live, you will grow and you just might become an oasis of peace in a world which seems to hardly understand the concept at all.
And so, may the peace of the Lord be with you now and always.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
Let us continue now with the fourth discipline: fasting. This one is always the crowd favorite! Who
enjoys fasting? Oh, the thought and idea are wonderful. Not many people will say that fasting is bad. Yet, I do not run into many people who actually to fast on a regular basis. Many people, many good Protestant people, tell me that because we are in the New Covenant, Jesus is with us so we do not have to fast. And if we decide to fast from time to time, it is up to the individual believer and not something for the church to dictate to us, because then it becomes legalism and is not of the spirit.
enjoys fasting? Oh, the thought and idea are wonderful. Not many people will say that fasting is bad. Yet, I do not run into many people who actually to fast on a regular basis. Many people, many good Protestant people, tell me that because we are in the New Covenant, Jesus is with us so we do not have to fast. And if we decide to fast from time to time, it is up to the individual believer and not something for the church to dictate to us, because then it becomes legalism and is not of the spirit.
Well, why do we fast?
In fasting from food we must make the connection to the spiritual life. Most of us don’t do this. We fast when the doctor tells us not to eat before having some blood work or some other procedure. Many people say that certain fasts help cleanse our bodies of toxins or impurities so that we can be more healthy. Here, the focus is on our bodies and we see that it is good.
The fast that the Church encourages us to participate in is for our spiritual health. How can this be? How can altering what and how much we eat change or improve our spiritual health?
First, I think that living in America, most of us have adopted an Evangelical Protestant mindset. I do not mean any disrespect, but the common mindset is the spirit is good and the body is bad. The spirit is godly. The body is sinful. This is perhaps an oversimplification, and not all Evangelicals would believe this, but generally speaking, this teaching is pretty common and has invaded the outlook of most of us. I would also add, it is false.
According to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, we are mind (or soul, literally “nous”, body, and spirit, 1 Thessalonians 5:23. We are “embodied souls.” The body and soul, or the physical and the spiritual, go together as one unit. When we separate them and call one bad, then we become Platonic, humanistic, even pagan, but not Christian. Ancient Christians came up with the novel idea that the body, and all of creation, are good. They arrived at this conclusion because this is what the Scriptures say! When we die, we are not liberated from our “evil flesh” as many say today in our culture. The early Christians made creedal statements about the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of the body. We will be united with our bodies in eternity. Humans are a unique. We have spirits like the angels and bodies like the animals. We are the physical and spiritual in one creature. In our bodies is written a truth of the cosmos and of God: spirit and matter (or the physical) are one.
We can also look at two events in salvation history to verify if fasting makes a difference spiritually. First, look at Adam and Eve. What did God tell them? His first command was, “Do not eat….” What happened? They ate. And now we are, all of us, saddled with the burden of sin. Adam and Eve were given a command to fast and they disobeyed.
How was this first disobedience remedied? Jesus came and after His baptism, He went into the wilderness for 40 days and he fasted. Then the devil tempted Him. In HIs obedience, he undid the disobedience of Adam and destroyed the power of the devil. But, and it is a big but, we still have a choice to make. Jesus refused to listen to the devil and went to the Cross to offer us the Kingdom of God. Our choice is we can listen to the devil and get all the earthly goodies he tempts us with or we can go to the Cross and enter the Kingdom as Jesus did. You might think of the two paths here, the easy and wide path, and the difficult and narrow way. Fasting is one of our tools to fight the devil. First, we learn to fast from food. Then, we learn to fast from other things like the vices such as anger, greed, lust (not for just sex but for money, power, prestige, and even an abundance of possessions), and pride, just to name a few. I think of the prosperity gospel. You know, those churches are attempting to give to the people everything the devil tempted Jesus with. No fooling. But other churches are doing the same. How many Catholic and Orthodox churches are going through the motions of fasting but the people are living lives just like our unbelieving neighbors? They drive the same kind of cars, live in big, fancy houses, and have so many possessions that they need to rent storage space to keep it all. What is made out to be evil are illegal immigrants or people on food stamps. The solutions offered build walls of hate or ignorance. This is a distraction to the real problem which is the sin that is internal. We need to fast so we can see, or at least begin to open our eyes to what is happening spiritually around us and within us. Fasting can be that key!
At this point, I would highly recommend the podcast by Fr. Tom Hopko about the Temptation of Jesus. Find it here.
What was He tempted to do? What are we tempted to do? HInt: it is one and the same thing. And most of us fall for it. Many churches do too. We do, we have. I have. Now, listen to the podcast and quit falling for the sham and the lie!
Back to my question above, why do we fast? One of the goals of fasting is that you should feel a little hungry. This hunger within the body speaks to our soul. The soul, little by little, is to regain its authority over the body, so to speak. Without this discipline, the body has control over the soul and we end up living a life with the body dictating its needs and we fulfill them. Fasting helps reverse this. We want the soul to be in charge. A second purpose is that while the body is hungering for food, or a particular kind of food like meat, we are reminding ourselves of our hunger for God. Only God can truly satisfy us. We will stumble from time to time in our fast and eat that hamburger or whatever we were fasting from. This stumbling is actually good in a way, because when reflect on what happened, we will notice that our feeling of satisfaction lasted only a few moments. The feelings of yearning for more meat (or other menu item) will soon return. Yes, we are fasting from food, but we are really yearning for the Lord. Fasting shows us how incomplete we are, how weak we are, how needy we are before God. Even if we are to complete our fast in perfect order, we will notice that something is missing, something about us is incomplete. Fasting is a teacher, pointing us to the way of enrichment.
OK, now, how and when do we fast? Or, what are some guidelines so someone can fast properly?
First, if you have never fasted before, or have done so only rarely, the first thing that is needed is a regular fast. Second, you need something simple to start. So, as you begin, I would refer you to your spiritual father or director. In absence of you having one, I will give some basic advice.
Being a Traditional, ancient Christian, I see how the Orthodox have kept the ancient ways of fasting, and while the Roman Church still advocates fasting, they have allowed things to slip a bit. So, my recommendations are going to look a lot like Orthodox teachings. If you want to see the Orthodox guidelines, check them out here.
So, first the regular. In Catholicism, Friday is a “penitential day.” The Church recommends that we do not eat meat. So, here is your start: don’t eat meat on Fridays. It is simple and regular. I’d say, do this for awhile at least, maybe a few months.
Then, perhaps another step is to incorporate Wednesday along with Friday. This may seem strange to some, but it goes back to the earliest days of Christianity and is mentioned in the Didache (written about the year 100). We fast on Wednesday to honor the betrayal of the Lord and on Friday to mark His crucifiction.
Feel free to experiment. A traditional Catholic fast is to fast on bread and water. Try it. Perhaps you may modify this somewhat. When I do this fast, I make it bread, water, and coffee. Always the point of fasting is to incorporate hunger into your routine. The hunger you feel in your body, or the desire for meat or a chocolate malt, is to help you to focus your desire on the Lord, or our need for the Lord. Another tip that might prove helpful, especially when starting, is fast until the noon meal. So, basically your fast is to skip breakfast. Later on, you can move the time forward to afternoon snack or even to supper. Pretty soon you will be able to fast the entire day. It is still, and always will be a struggle at times, fasting is never easy, but you will get to the point where you have the experience and know how to get through the periods when you have a strong desire for a piece of meat or cheese. Yes! You can do this and part of it is just being patient with yourself as you grow.
The orthodox fast is basically a vegan diet. Try to incorporate more items from this list. if you do, do not use substitutes. If you drink milk and milk would be an item you fast from, don't switch to almond milk and think you are obeying the fast. You haven’t changed anything really. You are still getting your milk and cereal. Remember, we don’t fast from milk, for example, because dairy milk is bad and almond milk is good. This puts the focus on the item of the fast. The focus is on the Lord! If you are fasting from dairy products you can still have the Cheerios, but have them with water or plain.
This brings up another point of fasting: perhaps your going without an item will help you to have some solidarity with those who go without all the time. While you are feeling hungry, think of the millions of people who will go without food today because there is not food to eat or because they have no money to buy food. Offer a prayer for them at that moment! Then, you can ask, “What am I going to do about it?” You know, we have a share in all the evil in the world. I didn’t cause all the hungry people in the world to go without food today, but by my lifestyle, I must come to the realization that I am either part of the problem or part of the solution. I hope we can all come to the point of repentance and resolve to become part of the solution. Do it with a regular gift of money, prayer, a change of lifestyle, or invite someone who struggles into your home for supper once and a while.
And so you see, fasting is much more than an individualistic endeavor of going without a food item for a day. We are all in this together. This article merely scratches the surface. My hope is that as you grow in your fasting, you will discover the other benefits on your own, and believe me, there are many. Persevere. Don’t experience failure and quit. Your failures are part of the battle and your ultimate victory! This is a spiritual battle that will help usher in the Kingdom of God. May your fast help you become a more faithful and peaceful person. May it aid in the growth of virtue as you do battle with your vices. May it help you enter the Kingdom more fully and to be an example to those around you. Let us always have our neighbor in mind as we do our spiritual labors.
So, peace be with you. I will offer you up in my prayers and my fasts. May it be will with you. God bless you.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
- Trisagion Prayers.
- Pray one of the Old and New Testament prayers from my list.
- 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.)
- 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.):
- If busy at work, pause a moment and pray an Our Father at a time near the time of the hour.
- If time allows, select a short Psalm
- 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:
- Seek spiritual counsel. Find a spiritual director or spiritual father/mother.
- Write out a prayer rule and follow it diligently.
- Change your prayer rule as you grow.
- Always choose humility, always.
- 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.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Prayer is universal in the Christian world. No one denies that we must pray. Somehow we must
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
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.
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?
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
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:
- Be humble, 6:1
- Be charitable, 6:2-4
- Be prayerful, 6:5-15
- Fast, 6:16-18
- Trust in God, 6:19:33
- Release judgment, 7:1
- 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.
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.