Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Prayer Rule

Lindisfarne Priory on the island of Lindisfarne (UK). Irish monks originally arrived here about the year 600. The ruins here date to the 12th century.


First off, I am eager to say that a “prayer rule” is not about rules to pray by.  The name is a little bit of a misnomer, but it has been used for centuries.  We can say that it is less about rules and more about being a guide.  It is concerned with what and when you pray.  

“Do I really need to be told when and how to pray?” someone might ask.


The Lord gives us freedom.  We can do as we wish.  However, if we wish to make progress in the spiritual life, there does need to be some regularity in our prayer life and our spiritual life.  This really doesn’t happen by accident.  We need to discipline ourselves and work at it.  But again, we are not following rules, rather, we are finding a spiritual life and a life of prayer that works for us and we can be consistent in.


Rather than try to explain it further, I will give you two examples from my own life.  The first one will be when I first became a Christian at the age of 33.  Formerly, I was an atheist.  The second one, is almost 30 years later and is the one I am using now.


Coming out of atheism, I did not know what to do.  I joined the local Catholic Church in my town and went to Mass every Sunday.  During the week I tried to read the Bible and I attended the parish Bible study.  Looking back on it now, I realize that what I was doing back then was a typical American Christian approach to church: get lots of teaching.  I was soaking up a lot of head knowledge and I enjoyed it immensely!  And yet, even at the time, I knew there was something else I was missing.  My prayer life consisted of “winging it.”  I prayed at meal times and before bed.  It was basically, “Thanks Lord for this and that.  Oh, and I need this and that other thing.  And while you’re at it, can you do this other thing for me too?  Thank you Lord.  Your friend, Dionysius.”


While my brain was being activated in the spiritual life, my ‘nous,’ as the Orthodox say ( the word is used numerous times in the New Testament) was not being engaged to a great degree.  Recall what the nous is.  It is a classical Greek word used even by the likes of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle. The Eastern Fathers used this term often in their writings as well.  To them, the nous is our mind’s eye, or third eye if you will, and it is the center of soul.  It is translated most often as “the mind” or “the intellect.”  It is always good to remember that to the Orthodox, the mind resides in the heart.  The brain is merely the organ we use to think and have emotions.  We Westerners think of the brain and the mind as the same things, but not so in the East.  When we study things (i.e. Bible Study) we use the brain.  When we pray, or engage in other more “mystical” activity, it is the nous centered in our soul, which resides in the heart, that is primarily engaged.


OK, back to my story.  About one year into my Catholic Christian journey, I went to a Benedictine monastery for a weekend retreat.  It happened to also be Palm Sunday that weekend.  It was a blessed time.  I learned a lot of head stuff, but I also encountered, for the first time, things that we would typically call mystical. 


One thing that I noticed was their schedule.  Every day was the same except it was a little lighter on Sundays.  I was impressed by the regularity of prayer.  The monks prayed together in the church at 6:00 am,  11:00 am (prayer and Mass), at 5:00 pm, and at 7:30 pm.  They had private prayer, called lectio divina, at 9:00 am and at 3:00 pm in their cells.


Perhaps not coincidently, I had been to the book store only about a month before my retreat and I stumbled upon a book called, “Christian Prayer.”  I hadn’t really made a much progress with it, but as I prayed with the monks the entire weekend, a light went on and I realized this book I had, was basically the same prayerbook the monks were using.  They were praying the Psalms (and other parts of the Scriptures).  I could hardly contain my joy.  Over the next few months, I was deepening my relationship with the monks by attending prayer with them more often and acquiring a spiritual director.  A spiritual director is someone who comes alongside another person more or less as a guide in the spiritual life.  And a big part of this is one’s prayer life.  One of the first things we addressed was prayer.


And so, what became my prayer rule (although I never called it that at the time) was to place a high priority on morning and evening prayer every day.  I used my book for this.  This was my basic, no compromise “rule.”  Each of these prayer times took about 20-25 minutes.  As a bonus, when I had time, I prayed as many of the “hours” as I could.  


The keys here, when one makes a first prayer rule, are these:  Make it something more than you are doing now.  Make it every day.  Be consistent to develop a discipline of praying.  Make it attainable.  Don’t make it a heroic leap, but just a nice stretch that doesn’t place an undo burden upon you and your existing schedule.


For me, I worked Monday - Friday, 7:00 to 5:00.  Rarely, did I work outside this schedule.   It was consistent.  Getting up a few minutes early didn’t bother me and I really came to enjoy the evening prayer after work and found it to be a way to leave the stress and problems of work at work and transition to being a peaceful presence at home.  


Now, most people would not speak of reading Psalms and other prayers from a book as a mystical or spiritual experience.  I have had not just a few discussions about this with Protestant folks who look at this practice as legalism or “just mindless, written prayers” that don’t touch the heart.  “You can’t pray that way.  It isn’t prayer!” they say.


First, as far as the Psalms go, they were given by God and have been used as a prayer book for perhaps 3,000 years.  Maybe God actually wants us to pray these prayers to teach us how to pray.  


Second, give yourself to the prayers.  Make them your own.  I won’t give you any advice beyond that in this essay, but be consistent.  Keep your prayer rule.  If it is too much, back up a little, feel free to adjust.  Some people just give up, but don’t do that, adjust.  Find what works for you.  Then after a year or two, or a period of time when you just know inside that you are called to do more or different, then alter your rule again.  I have done so fairly often during the past 28 years.


Again, I’ve been at this awhile and I have a consistent work schedule and a simple life that makes it possible.  In these things I am blessed.  You may not have a life like this.  I went through a time when I had to juggle four jobs at the same time.  My prayers were mainly prayers “on the run.”  I used the Jesus Prayer and the Rosary extensively and my time with the Psalms was curtailed.  I want to say this loud and clear that we are not talking about legalism here.  Prayer rules can bend with life but at the same time provide an anchor, an oasis of peace when life gets out of hand.  A solid prayer rule can help bring stability back to your life.  Just don’t give up.


 My second example looks much like my encounter with the monks in the monastery.  Again, I have a simple life and this works for me.  Some days are not so easy, so I do have my minimum, but then I also have what I am able to do most often.


My minimum is moring and evening prayers.  I incorporate my Orthodox prayer book along with the Psalms (my goal is to pray through them all every two weeks).  During my prayer time, I read through the Gospels.  I try to read one entire Gospel per month, then start over again.  I do this with the rest of the New Testament taking 3 months to read it through, then start over again.  Occasionally, I add an Old Testament book too.  Each morning and evening this gives me about 45 minutes to an hour of prayer.  


As time permits, I add 6th hour prayers (noon) and Compline (prayers in the later evening before bedtime).  My noon prayers are during my lunch at work so they are short, about 10 minutes.  Compline is about 30 minutes.  I mostly use my prayer book, but a few Psalms too. 


The last part of my rule includes the Jesus Prayer throughout the day as much as possible.  Oh, one more thing that is relatively new for me: I do my very best not to ask the Lord for anything for myself beyond what is in the Liturgy and the prayers in the Prayer Book.  Why?  When we were young, we asked our earthly parents for many things.  As we grew older and became mature adults, we asked for less and less.  Then perhaps, hardly noticing, came a time when we didn’t ask our parents for anything, or at least things much smaller and simple.  The same is true in the spiritual life.  When we are young in our faith, it is quite normal and natural to ask for things.  As we grow up and become mature, this seems to become out of place.  One saint I read, and I forget whom, said, “Never ask God for anything that you can do yourself.”  Now, don’t take this as a hard and fast rule as if you are a bad person if you pray to be healed of some anger or some physical disease.  Mostly, I am referring to asking for things such as a new job, a new house, or more money.  There is a time when prayer must truly become something we do out of love and for relationship. 


So, there you have it.  All I can add to that now is to say if this will be your first prayer rule, start small and then grow.  Be patient with yourself.  Try to find a monk or a priest to guide you.  It is a great help.  If no one is available, seek the Lord and He will help you.


Be blessed and at peace my friend,


Dionysius


Monday, May 30, 2022

Getting to the meat of the matter of prayer: the prayers

Ruins of Villers Abbey, Belgium

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and the prayers,” Acts 2:42.  The text does not say that they devoted themselves to praying or to prayer, but THE prayers.  As written, the phrase implies that there was a prayer book.  And there was.  We call it the Book of Psalms.

On one hand it really doesn’t matter what you pray, but on the other hand, it is essentially important which prayers are said and the things you pray about.  What do I mean?


If you are a beginner in prayer, I recommend that you start small, short and sweet. Don’t ask for anything, or at least very little.  And if you ask for anything, ask for others, and very little for yourself.  Even if you are more experienced in prayer, I stick to the above advice.  


St. Paisios put it this way, “Ask for repentance in your prayer and nothing else, neither for divine lights, nor miracles, nor prophecies, nor spiritual gifts—nothing but repentance. Repentance will bring you humility, humility will bring you the Grace of God, and God will have in His Grace everything you need for your salvation, or anything you might need to help another soul.”


And so, prayer really becomes a simple matter.  Both East and West have come up with their own prayer books that rely very heavily on the Psalms.  In the West, it is the Liturgy of the Hours.  In the East, there are the traditional prayers available in various books issued by the churches.  Generally speaking, they are the same prayers.  And again, they use the Psalms extensively.  


I have had people question me about this.  They say it is wrong to use a prayer  book!  “Prayer has to come from your heart,” they say.


I look at it  this way: If we believe that God had something to do with the writing of the Scriptures, then He is also giving us the prayers in the Psalms.  In doing so, it is one way He can teach us how to pray.


Now, this isn’t the final say on prayer by any means.  Nor is prayer the only thing we give attention to in the spiritual life.  There are a few other disciplines we must engage in, and battle, in the spiritual life, as we tread the path of healing.  These must be saved for another time.


For now, some suggestions,


If you are Orthodox, I probably don’t need to direct you to a prayer book, but if so, try the Ancient Faith Prayer Book, published by Ancient Faith Ministries.  It’s very nice.  I would also recommend this to those of you who don’t know what you are.  The only thing I would add, is that you could use your Bibles to add more Psalms while you are praying.  You should also discover, if you have not already, the Jesus prayer.  Listen to a couple programs on YouTube about the Jesus Prayer.  


For Catholics, the one volume “Christian Prayer” is a good selection.  This is the Liturgy of the Hours.  There is a four volume set as well, but unless you are already a very serious prayer already, go with the one volume.  It will fulfill your needs for years to come.  In addition, consider also adding the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary to your prayers.  


Next time, I will talk about a “prayer rule.”


Peace in all things,


Dionysius Exiguus


Monday, May 23, 2022

Attitudes to Prayer

 


France has some of the best preserved Roman ruins.
Here is an aqueduct in Nimes, France.


Last time I suggested that one key to our healing and forgiving is to have a prayer life.  Some people might be wondering what is a prayer life and how do I obtain one?  I will get to that in time, but today, I want to examine the attitude we must have as we build our prayer life, and ultimately, our attitude as we approach the Lord.


The truth would be that this has a very long, very deep answer.  The shortest possible answer could be to let your prayers influence your life and how you live it, what you believe, and how you treat other people.  A quality that I think goes along with a prayer life is an understanding that life itself is a journey and that salvation in Christ is a journey or a process as well.  This life isn’t quickly learned. A prayer life isn’t quickly gained.  Salvation isn’t attained in an instant.  


Christianity must be seen as a life style. Something that if it is to be real and have power, must be put into practice, we must try to live as Jesus did and how He instructs us how to live.  And truly, much of what I am trying to put forth in this essay is that your prayer life is going to shape your attitude to have a prayer life.  As you continue to pray as the years pass by, you will be able to look back and see how you have changed, your attitudes have changed, and how you are becoming more like Jesus. 


The second chapter of the First Letter of St. John tells me that to live the Christian life, or even to know Jesus, there must be a lived experience of following the commandments of Jesus.  From 1 John 2:3-6:


And by this we may be sure that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” but disobeys His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him truly love for God is perfected.  By this we may be sure that we are in Him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.


What are these commandments of Jesus?  First, we must do our best to become like Jesus.  He gives us rules all throughout the Gospels and through other New Testament writers.  His great sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of St. Matthew chapters 5-7, gives each person God’s will for them.  He tells us that we are to pray, fast, and give alms.  We need to love God and our neighbor.  We must love our enemy.  We must repent.  We must carry our cross.  About the cross, He says if we refuse our crosses, we are unworthy of Him and will have no part in Him.  St. Paul even goes so far to tell us that it is in the cross that we have power.  He isn’t talking only about the cross of Christ, but our crosses too.  Don’t run from them.  They are given to us and prepared for us by Christ to teach us and to bring us to salvation.  


One of our most painful crosses is the cross of seeing the truth of who we are.  I wonder if this isn’t the biggest obstacle we encounter that keeps us from going to confession.  We don’t want to admit to another human being what our deepest faults are.  We even try to hide them from ourselves.


I give you these things not that you accomplish them before you begin to pray, or build your prayer life, but these things are well worth considering because here lies the battlefield.  Prayer is a battlefield.  As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, the line dividing good and evil passes through each person’s heart.  In prayer, we take up the battle.  Prayer isn’t a one and done deal, I’m saved now, I don’t need to do this anymore.  Think of your rosary or prayer rope as a sword.  When we pray, we engage the enemy and we do battle with our own selfish will and all the things that we do or desire to do that are not of God.


1 John 2:15-17:


Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in Him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.


St. John is not saying that we should not love the created world, or the animals, or the beautiful landscapes all over the planet.  He is talking about the systems of the world.  The retirement systems, the monetary system, the healthcare system, and so on.  In modern, secular life it is these things that we worry about the most.  We have wants and needs that are typically supplied by these systems.  What St. John is warning us about is we do not want to become slaves to these systems or these ideas so that we depend on the systems of the world rather than on God and we lose confidence in God.  Or worse, we turn God into a Santa Claus figure that needs to provide us with better jobs, better investments, and a better life that is made so by material things or money.  


It is like someone heading into retirement with a pension, social security, and a million dollars in the bank.  And yet, he or she is afraid of not having enough while the person across the street lives on an $800 social security check that barely pays for rent, health care, and food.  And then, the more wealthy person closes his heart and is not generous to others.  The attitude of,  “I worked hard for this.  You could have done what I did too.”  If we were honest, this attitude resides in most of us who have some means.  But we must overcome these worldly orientations and trust that the Lord will provide for our true needs.


My last thing for today is to counter the idea that one must be perfect in all of this.  There is an accusation that this is salvation by works or even works alone.  But that is not true.  And while there is a concept of Christian perfection, is does not mean that one does not sin.  It means spiritual maturity which would include things like seeing oneself as we are and seeking forgiveness for our sins regularly.  It means we repent regularly, daily, if not more often.  We do not judge or condemn others.  We live a simple and peaceful life, fasting and praying and giving what we have to others.  It’s doing as best we can to live out the will of God.  And in all of this there are failures and sins.  In the moment, we often choose a selfish desire.  This is no surprise, but when we see it, we must repent before the Lord.  Going to confession is a great help too.  I find it helpful to pick a frequency and stick to it.  Some people like to go once during each of the four fasting seasons.  Others choose once per month.  Either way, choose a frequency and stick to it, but always include a time of repentance within your daily rhythm of prayer.


More next time on setting up a prayer life.


Peace to all,


Dionysius Exiguus


Monday, May 16, 2022

Cultivating Mercy and Forgiveness

Ruins of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius in the background


Last time I wrote about mercy.  Today I will write a little bit about cultivating the attitude of mercy and forgiveness.  For much of my life I have heard how hard it is to forgive someone.  I can’t argue with that except that mercy and forgiveness do not happen in a vacuum.  They don’t “just happen” or fall from the sky into your lap and into your heart.  These attitudes must be cultivated.


From my earliest memories, I can remember hearing the phrase, “I’ll never forgive him (or her) for that.”  Of course, this isn’t everyone, but if we were honest, doesn’t this attitude reside in many of us?  


Speaking only for myself, growing up in a Lutheran family (I was born in 1960), but being an atheist until I was 33 years old, I really was confused about things like virtue, God, and how the human person should live.  On one hand, since my mother made sure I was in church every Sunday, I heard the message from the pastor, I listened to the Gospel passages, and I can’t remember ever thinking that this stuff was bad or anything like that.  I just didn’t believe in the “God part.”  I could see that the message of Jesus was good.  That we are all in need of forgiveness and that we needed to forgive others.  I just couldn’t get beyond the idea that God existed.  


My confusion came about as I listened to others, read things in the newspapers, watched the news, and just observed how people lived in this culture that was basically still a Christian culture.  I observed that the people of this culture were living far from what Jesus was talking about.  There was a lot of turmoil in the 60’s.  I can remember some public drinking fountains labeled “White only” and “Colored.”  How could this happen in a culture that claimed to be Christian, I wondered?  


Surely, the true answer to that question is complicated.  From my place now, and having lived almost 30 years as a Christian, I think a big part of the answer is “a prayer life.”


After realizing that God was real, I joined the Catholic Church.  I was very fortunate to have a monastery nearby that I visited regularly.  Immediately I noticed a rhythm to their lives.  I deeply desired to have this in my life too.  Part of this rhythm was prayer at set times of the day and they had a prayer book.  Their life was steeped in prayer.  This was so different for me to experience as this did not exist in my former Protestant understanding of things.  The Psalms, and other parts of Scripture, were prayed.  Wow.  And one thing that was inescapable about the monastery was the peace that seemed to reside there.  I learned that the monks came together once per month to air their grievances with one another and to seek mercy and forgiveness.  Surely, 30 men living together had grievances, were guilty of sins towards one another, but here was a way to remedy problems and help each person to practice forgiveness and to heal.

As much as is possible, I have tried to incorporate the monks’ way of life into my own.  The backbone of this way of life is prayer.  Because I work, I cannot live as a monk in reality, but I do my best.  I do my best to follow the way of prayer in the monastery.  I began slowly, but these days I pray morning, noon, late afternoon, and prayers before retiring for the night.  These prayers are basically the Psalms and I also use my Orthodox prayer book.  Both Orthodox and Catholic prayer follow the same rhythm, the same cycle of the day, but also the seasons and feasts (The Liturgical Calendar).  The calendar is our guide to the life of Christ, the various events of His life.  This is how the Church has come to know the various seasons such as Advent and Lent.  These are given to us to help us follow Christ.  


Looking into my own heart, seeing how all these prayers (prayed over and over again in its own cycle) and living and observing the cycle of feasts and fasting during the years, I have come to realize that, at least for me, this is how we slowly but surely become like Christ.  I see how in the beginning, while knowing full well that we need to forgive, how hard it was for me to do so.  As the years go by however, as these prayers and the Psalms seep into my soul deeper and deeper, it is much more easy to let things go and to show mercy and to forgive.  There is no more gritting of the teeth.  No more arguing with myself about whether or not I should show this or that person mercy, if they “deserve it” or not.


I will add that it has become a more natural thing.  I would emphasize that what I think is happening is, as St. Paul says, it is not me, rather it is Christ living in me.  


Of course, we get tested from time to time, don’t we?  As I was becoming aware of this new found ability, or virtue, within me, I encountered an old nemesis: a theological debate with some evangelicals who have always been a thorn in my side so to speak.  Over the years, various members have attacked me for my beliefs.  They say I am going to hell for many reasons.  They say God is punishing me for these beliefs.  My two children who died are proof, they say.  Oh!  I would get so angry.  This kind of thing went on for years.  Emails, anonymous letters in my mail box, notes stuck under my windshield, and more recently Facebook notes.  Well, I never backed down.  I held firm to my beliefs, but I could also feel hatred inside, and there was no forgiveness.


I had another debate that I was lured into recently.  It was me against 4 or 5 other people.  And I did hold firm to my faith, but my blood pressure never went up.  It was the usual comments about how Catholics and Orthodox go to hell, prayers to Mary, the saints are dead, I am in league with Satan, and similar things.  This debate went on for days, but finally yesterday, noone posted anything.  So I think I am done.  All I basically did was to affirm their love for Christ and to say that I am trying to be like Christ too.  And I tried to give some reasons and Scripture how and why the Catholic and Orthodox Churches believe differently than they do.  I was even told that my comments were calm and respectful, but that I was still going to hell if I didn’t change!  


There is no “winning” in these debates, but I only hope to be able to plant seeds.  But one thing that I believe has made the difference in me is how my prayer life has planted seeds in me and has grown within me a life of Christ that has also been nurtured by regular fasting and almsgiving.  These other two disciplines are very important too, and for different reasons, but all three are necessary for a complete spiritual life in Christ.


And so, I offer this to you, dear reader.  If you have trouble forgiving, if you feel anger inside for what someone did to you, I recommend as part of your healing a regular prayer life.  Buy a Catholic or Orthodox prayer book.  Start slowly.  If you don’t have much of  a prayer life now, start with 5 minutes in the morning and a few minutes before going to bed.  Make your prayers basic, but use a book or use the Psalms.  Make repentance a part of every time you pray.  Take a minute to review your day before going to bed.  Over time, we get the idea that we are flawed too, not just our neighbor.  This last line is a common subject in a number of Orthodox prayers.  I am convinced, that over time, these words seep into our soul, and if we continue to water and feed this attitude with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, they will grow inside of us, and we too will become merciful, forgiving people, and disciples of Christ.


Peace to all,


Dionysius Exiguus



Thursday, May 12, 2022

Mercy

 

Ancient Minoan ruins at Gournia, Crete.


I don’t often include personal examples in my articles.  I don’t want to publicize people in my life that might not want even the little notoriety that my posts generate.  But truly, most of my posts have a very personal content or reason why I write about them.  Most of what I write about has some personal experience involved.  And as I read and study about the faith, it is these personal examples that connect with something that I read about.  Today’s article is even more personal, but again I won’t divulge the people or what is happening.  I will add that it is about lies, and the objective is to turn two very lovely people against me.  This is something that has been going on for years actually, but it is coming to a head now.  And so, the decision and choice that confronts me, and all of us who call ourselves Christian is this: Jesus says, “If you want to come after Me and be my disciple, deny yourself and take up your cross.”  Or, you know who chimes in, “Don’t do that!  Only fools and the weak do that.  Go to court!  Clear your name!  You’ll win and people will look up to you.  But if you don’t, you’ll be ridiculed and called a fool.”  Carrying the cross takes courage and, in this case, demands a clear cut act of mercy, completely undeserved with little or no reward.  Or I can go to court and I presume I would win, but there would also be the chance of damage to others, innocent bystanders.  


This is from a Facebook post just a few days ago:


“Don’t confuse people, who are images of God, with the wickedness they bear inside them. This evil is merely incidental, it’s their misfortune, their sickness, the devil’s deceit. Their real being, the image of God, is always there inside them,” St John of Kronstadt.


And my comments:


Yes, the image is always there, through our sin and dysfunction we blur the likeness.  It is interesting to note that Seth was born (and the rest of us after him) in the image and likeness of Adam, his father, Gen 5.  We all have to deal with the sin and dysfunction of our parents. But don’t feel bad, our children have to deal with ours!  No one is left off the hook on this.  A measure of how well we are doing is holiness, but in this manner from this quote from Fr Richard Rohr, “Holiness isn’t what you do.  It’s what you allow to be done to you.”  You know, how do you react when you are ignored, slighted, treated unjustly, when you are blamed for something you didn’t do, etc?


And so we, as Jesus says, must not judge.  We do not know the cards another person is dealt.  But He knows.  Perhaps the sin and dysfunction we see in others can be used to soften our own hearts and lead us to compassion instead of judgment. And we will see our own sin and dysfunction which will hopefully cause each of to repent and seek the Lord’s Mercy and healing.  Repentance is an essential daily spiritual exercise.  


And thus ended my post.


What can I add?  I will include this from the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, 4th Sunday of Lent, this is Psalm 112 (Psalm 111 LXX) with antiphon.


Ant. Happy the man who shows mercy for the Lord’s sake; he will stand firm for ever.


Happy the man who fears the Lord,

who takes delight in all his commands.

His sons will be powerful on earth;

the children of the upright are blessed.


Riches and wealth are in his house;

his justice stands firm for ever.

He is a light in the darkness for the upright:

he is generous, merciful and just.


The good man takes pity and lends,

he conducts his affairs with honor.

The just man will never waver:

he will be remembered for ever.


He has no fear of evil news;

with a firm heart he trusts in the Lord.

With a steadfast heart he will not fear;

he will see the downfall of his foes.


Open-handed, he gives to the poor;

his justice stands firm for ever.

His head will be raised in glory.


The wicked man sees and is angry,

grinds his teeth and fades away;

the desire of the wicked leads to doom.


Ant. Happy the man who shows mercy for the Lord’s sake; he will stand firm for ever.


A few closing comments:


This blog is about healing.  Mercy is about healing.  Are you serious?  No, really, are you serious about healing or do you just want to feel good about getting what you want?


To do an act of mercy means one must absolutely believe that what Jesus says is true.  This might make the rest of my life stink, but again, it goes back to that we live what we believe.  And of course, it helps to have correct beliefs.  Remember, while there is some fudge room, many things we moderns say about Jesus simply aren’t true and there is no power in them.  St. Paul tells us in his first letter to the Corinthians that the Cross is the power of God.  Most people in our culture believe that St. Paul is only talking about Jesus on the Cross (because then that lets us off the hook and we can just thank Him for being on the cross for us), but then that negates a lot of comments by Jesus about carrying our crosses.  Hmmm.  I think I’ll believe Jesus over the prevailing attitude of our manipulated culture and religious landscape.  


Perhaps my life will look like defeat, aka Jesus, Paul, Peter, and almost every saint, and certainly every martyr, yes, but  I’ll have good company.  


So my dear friends, remember this, remember the cross when it comes.  This is not only your instrument of salvation, but in many ways, it is your instrument of healing.  


Peace to all.  And mercy.


Dionysius


Saturday, May 7, 2022

Do Not Judge


Ruins on the island of Rhodes

“Judge not, that you will not be judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get,” Matthew 1:1-2.


This saying of Jesus is prominently displayed in His sermon of sermons, The Sermon on the Mount.  And yet, I see and read many Facebook posts, overhear peoples’ conversations, and even get involved in conversations myself about how far does this admonition of Jesus go?


One thing in common with the majority of these posts and conversations, is the tendency of Western Christianity to “look for an angle,” to attempt at a definition and establish a rule so one can be comfortable and assured that he or she is “following the law” while still being able to judge others .  In more Evangelical circles we can even be “assured of our salvation” without obedience to anything except to claim you have faith in Jesus, whatever that means or whatever that looks like.  Why can’t we simply obey Jesus and love one another?  That would be the simplest way to follow the law or a rule or a saying of Jesus.  After all, did He mean what He said or did He come here just to look wise?  We want to give ourselves “wiggle room,” don’t we?  And we are all guilty, are we not?  And here you might already be thinking, “But Dionysius, you are sounding a bit judgmental now, aren’t you?”  Being faithful to what Jesus is commanding us is not easy.  It is possible, but obedience to this command is very treacherous, indeed.


Archimandrite Pavlos of St. Catherine’s Monastery, of blessed memory, says, “Non-judgment, prayer, and a pure heart are the foundation for spiritual work.”  


To become “non-judgmental” is hard work and takes time.  I hear from others very often that we MUST judge because we have to correct behavior in others and even to know what is right and wrong for ourselves.


True, we must be discerning about various behaviors and if they are sinful or not.  And of course, we should not do them if they are sinful.  This part is legitimate.  What often happens, and I am guilty here too, is once we determine a behavior to be sinful, we don’t stop.  We crucify the sinner, especially be they politicians, wealthy people in business, and people in our community that we don’t especially like.  We all have groups or types of individuals that we receive a certain enjoyment to assassinate through our words.  This is even more evident in our times with our preoccupation with identity politics whereby ideas and beliefs are sources of judgment even more than our character and behavior.


How do we combat this judgmentalism?  We must look beyond the circumstance and our preoccupation of blaming the victim.  The three things Fr. Pavlos tells us (non-judgment, prayer, and a pure heart) are all developed in unison and with each other as we seek the Lord in everything.  


Here is a verse from the Proverbs and then I’ll give you an example of what I am talking about:


“He who closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself cry out and not be heard,” Proverbs 21:13.


Form about 15 years I was involved with a Catholic group that did prison ministry by putting on retreat weekends within the prison.  It is a marvelous program.  What I noticed happening in my own heart was how many people can look at someone in prison, whether it is something like drugs or murder, and have some very strong attitudes about them as people, mostly very derogatory.  I’ll tell you a story (I could tell you fifty) of how the Lord opened my heart to have compassion on people, not to excuse them from what they did, but to understand that sometimes there are profound reasons behind people’s actions.  We don’t need to approve of those actions, but we can understand, be merciful, and pray for people with a loving heart.


One man I know is in the penitentiary for life.  He was 19 years old at the time. He grew up with his mother who was a drug addict.  One evening a man showed up demanding money.  He heard the conversation and subsequent yelling and decided to go see what was going on.  He was scared.  He was 13 years old.  Just as he was a short distance behind his mother, the man shot her in the head.  He told me, tears rolling down his cheeks, that on his face and his shirt were his mom’s blood and her brains.  He was taken to his father’s house to live.  HIs father kicked him out after a few days.  He told the boy, “I don’t want you.” He lived on the streets after that and lived a life of depression, drugs, violence, and crime.  Eventually, he was involved in murder and here he was.  


The judgment that come so easily to us is to condemn this man as a sinner or a bad person.  A little more subtle form is to look at him and say he should have sought help but he must not have wanted to change or something along this train of thought.  And a third is to say, “Poor man.  I am glad I have lived a good life.  I rose above my difficulties.  I did things the right way.”


We all like to claim purity, but how many of us really are?  Looking into a mirror, looking into our heart, honestly and with repentance takes a lot of prayer and listening.  And it is a good attitude to have that I don’t need to assign guilt or come up with a solution to anyone’s problem, and I certainly don’t need to come to a conclusion about someone’s life’s worth or anything about his or her life.  


And now, going back to the Proverb I gave you earlier.  Turn it around: He who hears the cry of the poor will himself be heard.  And in doing this my friend you will be helping another to heal.  Your heart will become softer with each act of mercy that you do, each act of trying to understand, each moment that you are trying to love rather than judge.  Because you know, when you come to the end of your life, I guarantee you will not be pleading for justice, but rather for mercy.  So let us get used to being merciful.  It is the merciful who will receive mercy.


If we do that, it will be as St. Paul says in Philippians 2:3 ...in humility, count others better than ourselves.


So often I hear and read about how we can be anything we want and that we can change the world.  I think most of this is talk to sell us a college to attend or career path to choose that actually enriches others.  Because by the time you get to be my age, one realizes that one is quite powerless to affect anything.  We can influence a few people, but the world?  We can do anything?  Except for a very, very few people who have ever lived, this is not true, not by a long shot.  


And so my friend, my advice in this essay is merely to ask you to see what is truly the greater and attainable thing: live a humble and simple life by being non-judgmental, prayerful, and cultivate a pure heart within yourself.  This might not change the world but it will change you.  And you will be more at peace with yourself, happy, and you will notice a healing taking place within. 


Peace in all things,


Dionysius Exiguus


Tuesday, May 3, 2022

So How Did He Do It?


Ruins of an ancient Japanese castle. There is something beautiful about ruins, no matter where they are. It's as if God is speaking to us, drawing us forward. The ruins of our lives seem willing to give birth to something beautiful as well.

What I really want to tell everyone is that my brother in law talked to me and learned all the teachings of the Orthodox Church.  Then talked to me some more and…. Boom!  Just like that the light went on and he was healed and happy.  

No.


This is not how it went.  


He has suffered.  He was suicidal because of the pain and lack of mobility.  He is bedridden with pretty much zero chance of ever walking again.  He can’t even move his legs.  He is in pain 24-7.  


We’re talking about a division one basketball player when he was young.  He’s 6 feet 8 inches tall.  When he was young and in shape, he was well over 300 pounds.  He’s a big man.  He owned two businesses during his life.  He is someone who had a good life and had some things.  He lived the American Dream in a lot of ways.  My friend and brother-in-law is a Black man.  He is a good man.  


Oh sure!  He made some mistakes.  Quite a few.  How about you?  How about me?


Well, as the more recent years of his life unfolded, he became increasingly immobile.  This caused a lot of mental pain and anguish and depression to go along with his physical pain and lack of abilities to do even basic things.  


I often wonder how I would do in the same condition.  Too many of us jump to conclusions like, “Oh, I would do this or that and have a great attitude.”  Well, the truth is we do not know.  We might be right.  We might be patient.  We might be kind to everyone.  We might remain in loving contact with God.  But we might not.  


My brother in law is not Orthodox, but much of what he did for his remedy and healing, is right out of what the Orthodox recommend.  He read, he prayed, and he fought this terrible internal battle of becoming more aware, while becoming less and less.  Oh, I should add, that his prayers were less about being able to walk and live a normal life again as much as they were about, “Lord, grant me wisdom and peace.”  He did a lot of reading, especially about philosophy.


He is at the point now that he could never choose suicide.  He told me that he now knows that the assisted suicide movement is so wrong.  He said, “I have so much more to learn.  I know my life has a purpose.  I am still learning what that is.  I will continue to read and learn and meditate until it is time for me to go.  I am in pain, but I am at peace.”


To hear someone talk like this who was pretty much the opposite a few months ago, is incredible.  It tells me that the things I am trying to share in this blog, is not a secret.  None of it is.  And I wonder if many of our religious traditions have elements of this teaching, if not most of it.  And more importantly, it is true.  There is a God who loves us and is trying to teach us, comfort us, and live along side of us.  On one hand, this journey is not difficult, but it is not easy either.  It demands humility and surrender.  Somehow, the Lord is able to bring each of us to that place where we will stop running and finally listen to Him.  Then, we will know salvation. We will know the truth and it will set us free, mostly free from ourselves and our delusion.


Peace to all,


Dionysius