Monday, March 30, 2009

The 29th Day: The Time Given Us by God

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty-ninth Day

Today is the feast day of St. John Klimakos (March 30), and yesterday we brought to mind St. John as he is also commemorated on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. In his classic book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John teaches that one of the fundamental virtues of the Christian life is the "remembrance of death." I wrote about this in a fairly recent meditation (Thursday, March 19), within a different context. My point is not to morbidly pound home this theme of our ascetical tradition, but to make the simple point that it is a consistent teaching that can be found throughout the centuries from among the writings of the saints. And that means that the "remembrance of death" is "positive" and not "negative," for is counted as one of the virtues; and the virtues are the energies that imbue our lives with a God-centeredness that a lack of the virtues deprives us of.

This theme was brought back to my mind not only from looking through the Ladder of Divine Ascent again, but by a beautiful prayer that I just discovered coming from a certain Archimandrite Sophrony, entitled "A Prayer at Daybreak." This is a relatively lengthy prayer that covers over two pages in a newly published Prayer Book (that I will discuss below), that covers many aspects of our life as we place ourselves before God as humble servants seeking His daily blessing of our actions, words and thoughts. Near the end of this prayer, Archimandrite Sophrony includes the following paragraph that is a prayerful expression of the theme of the "remembrance of death:"

Yea, O Lord, by your Holy Spirit, teach me good judgment and knowledge. Grant me to know your truth before I go down into the grave. Maintain my life in this world until I may offer unto you worthy repentance. Take me not away in the midst of my days, nor while my mind is still blind. When you shall be pleased to bring my life to an end, forewarn me that I may prepare my soul to come before you.

The "time" we are given by God in this world is a time of repentance, service to and praise of God. It is also a time to grow in the love of God and neighbor. It is a time to establish loving relationships that will endure throughout eternity. It is a time to practice and perfect the activities of prayer, almsgiving and fasting, so that we can be worthy of these thrice-blessed goals. This is the only true way to "enjoy" life. It is nothing but an empty temptation to believe that the more pleasures we experience (hedonism); or the more things that we accumulate (materialism); or the more ego-satisfaction we pursue (solipsism), that our lives will be more complete - or whatever. Most human beings that make those pursuits the center of their lives are terrified of dying, because death is a meaningless frustration - if not absurd imposition - on their passion-filled lives. The "remembrance of death" would only be a hateful aberration that threatens one's psychological equilibrium.

We pray with Archimandrite Sophrony that we are spared from such blindness. We pray to know the Truth - Christ - before we go down into the grave. The "grave" is a forbidding word, but St. John Chrysostom in his paschal homily teaches that since Christ is risen, there are no longer any that are in the graves! The resurrection of the dead has already begun with the Resurrection of Christ. If there is only this life then one perhaps should "eat, drink and be merry;" "go for it;" or "get it while you can." (It may be true that you "only live once;" but it is also true that you live forever, and that there is a "second death" that will make that life unending misery). These are pathetic and pitiful replacements for the paschal mystery of dying and rising with Christ. The "remembrance of death" - certainly a practice that Great Lent can restore to our lives - will protect us from such counterfeit substitutions. Then we can concentrate on the Reality of Christ.

I found the prayer from Archimandrite Sophrony in a newly-published Prayer Book in Accordance with the Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, published by St. Arseny Press, Victoria, Canada. This is not the most complete Prayer Book that I have found to date. If you are interested, follow the provided link, or please let me know.

Fr. Steven

Friday, March 27, 2009

The 26th Day: Forbid Obsessive Thoughts

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty-Sixth Day

It is beyond our power to prevent obsessive thoughts
from troubling and disturbing the soul.
But it is within our power to forbid such imaginings
to linger within
and to forbid such obsessions to control us.

Withdrawal from the world means two things:
the withering away of our obsessions
and the revelation of the life that is hidden in Christ.

- St. Theodore the Ascetic (7th c.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Annunciation: "Today is revealed the mystery..."

Dear Parish Faithful,

Every year during Great Lent we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation to the Most-Holy Theotokos (March 25). This beautiful "festal interlude" allows us to again marvel before the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. For at His conception "without seed" the "Word became flesh." He will be born in nine months time, but the actual incarnation is marked when He entered the womb of the Virgin Mary when she was "overshadowed" by the Holy Spirit. Since her Son is the pre-eternal Son, Word and Wisdom of God, she becomes the Theotokos (literally, the "God-bearer"). In an extraordinarily fine passage, St. Nicholas Cabasilas (14th c.) explains the role, not only of the Holy Trinity in this great mystery, but also that of the Theotokos, thus revealing to us the meaning of synergy, or of co-operating with God:

"The incarnation of the Word was not only the work of Father, Son and Spirit - the first consenting, the second descending, the third overshadowing - but it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin. Without the three divine persons this design could not have been set in motion; but likewise the plan could not have been carried into effect without the consent and faith of the all-pure Virgin. Only after teaching and persuading her does God make her his Mother and receive from her the flesh which she consciously wills to offer him. Just as he was conceived by his own free choice, so in the same way she became his Mother voluntarily and with her free consent."

Feast Days are not just theological ideas. They are days of worship, because it is in worship that we actualize and participate in the reality being commemorated: "Today is revealed the mystery that is from all eternity ..." We celebrate the Feasts Days of the Church liturgically, so that we can gather as the Body of Christ and rejoice together over the saving events that manifest God's mercy and grace to the world. I hope to see many of you make the effort of coming to church in order to praise God for the awesome mystery of the Incarnation.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The 23rd Day: He takes up the Cross...

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty Third Day

We read from the Gospel of St. Mark during Great Lent. The Cross is at the very heart of this Gospel, as the Son of Man "must" suffer many things. After His death He will be raised from the dead as Christ reveals to His disciples during His ministry. Here, in the words of the biblical scholar Donald Senior, is an excellent summary of how St. Mark profoundly presents the meaning of the Cross in his particular Gospel:

"The cross is not an arbitrary final act in the Jesus drama. It takes on meaning from the commitment of Jesus' life and vision. Mark's Gospel demonstrates how the character of Jesus' ministry provoked the opposition and misunderstanding that built into a hostile death-dealing force. The Jesus of Mark's Gospel is no mere victim, passively accepting an unjust death. He "takes up the cross," not by morbidly choosing death, but by choosing a way of life that would ultimately clash with those who could not see Jesus' way as God's way."

- The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, p. 15

Fr. Steven

Monday, March 23, 2009

The 22nd Day: On Gossip

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Twenty second day

Do not listen to gossip
at your neighbor's expense,
and do not spend time talking with
those who love to find fault in others,
otherwise you will fall away from the love of God
and find yourself alienated from the eternal life.

- St. Maximus the Confessor

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The 18th Day: On Death and Life

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT - The Eighteenth Day

"We see the water of a river flowing uninterruptedly
and passing away, and all that floats on its surface,
rubbish or beams of trees, all pass by. Christian! So
does our life ... I was an infant, and that time has
gone. I was an adolescent, and that too has passed. I
was a young man, and that too is far behind me. The
strong and mature man that I was is no more. My hair
turns white, I succumb to age, but that too passes; I
approach the end and will go the way of all flesh. I was
born in order to die. I die that I may live. Remember
me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!"

- St. Tikhon of Voronezh (18th c.)

Now that is genuine Christian realism. A healthy, sober, clear, and illusion-free understanding of how things are. Nowadays, of course, such thoughts would be mistaken for - and denounced as - pessimism. We are supposed to live for the moment, emphasize the positive, and not reflect gloomily on our eventual death. Society scolds us for dwelling on the "negative." But is that possible for a reflective human being? Should we ignore or abandon our human capacity to reflect on our mortality because it causes us dread and anxiety? We know that an awareness of our mortality will always seep through the most well-constructed defenses, and then whisper its terrible truth when least expected or desired. And the tension caused by the simultaneous denial and awareness of our mortality is psychologically and spiritually debilitating. The greater the awareness, the greater the denial. The great saints were right when they spoke of memento mori - the remembrance of death - as a positive theme for reflection and meditation. It keeps one humble, realistic, and able to see things in a greater and truer perspective. Of course, this has nothing to do with a morbid and exhaustive preoccupation with death, which can have a paralyzing effect upon one's life. The remembrance of death raises the question of the existence of God and the meaning of life. Without God, just how much meaning does a life that ends in death actually have?

Thus, there is nothing in what St. Tikhon writes that is not a precise description of what he calls "the way of all flesh." Or, a bit more starkly, but still realistically, he writes: "I was born in order to die." From the "moment of conception," the hourglass, so to speak, is turned over and our allotted time begins to run its irretrievable course: birth, infancy, adolescence, maturity, and decline. However, youth and a strong sense of indestructibility seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps, then, what St. Tikhon writes is most meaningful for those of us in decline. Experience reinforces the truth of his words. The "handwriting is on the wall!" Great Lent is a time to meditate upon these realities with the soberness and clarity mentioned above, yet all within the context of the Death and Resurrection of Christ

For the passage above from St. Tikhon is not a stoical resignation in the face of the inevitable. He is reflecting precisely as a Christian who is appealing to fellow Christians. (Toward the end of his life, St. Tikhon was a retired bishop living in seclusion. He was known as a man pastorally sensitive and compassionate toward all human suffering. His humble life greatly impressed the great Russian novelist, Dostoevsky). His reflection closes on the paradoxical hope of all Christians: "I die that I may live." Here is something new - "life in death" as St. Ignatius of Antioch expressed it in the 2nd c. The certainty of that "life in death" is interwoven into the Tradition of the Church as it unfolds from generation to generation. It begins and ends with Christ. Which is why St. Tikhon concludes with the prayer of the "good thief:" "Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom!" He is offering his long life back to God in humility and the recognition that only God can "save" his life.

Our culture silently lives by the denial of death. The Church loudly proclaims the destruction of death. Not biological death, but death as the annihilation of our personhood. What is temporarily separated - "soul and body" - will be reunited, reintegrated and renewed in the "resurrection of the dead." No sense dressing up for Pascha if you do not believe this. To live is to die; and to die is to live. That is the realistic hope of the Christian. It is foolish to deny the one; and hopeless to deny the other.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The 17th Day: The Daily Effort

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Seventeenth Day

"For daily supplications before God in prayer and psalmody lightens
and transforms every attack, turns the fleshly
desires aside, diminishes the inclination towards
acquisitiveness, casts down arrogance, does away with envy,
moderates anger and causes the remembrance of wrongs to disappear."

- St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Fifteenth Day: St Gregory Palamas on Repentance

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Fifteenth Day

"Repentance is to hate sin and to love virtue, to avoid what is bad and to do what is good."

"The person repenting with all his soul reaches God by both his good disposition and his opposition to sin."

"The awareness of one's own sins is followed by conscious self-reproach, and self-reproach is followed by sorrow on account of one's sin, a sorrow which St. Paul referred to as godly. An offshoot of this godly sorrow is redeeming Confession and supplication to God with a contrite heart, together with the promise to henceforth abstain from evil. This is repentance."

~ St. Gregory Palamas (+1359)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Presanctified Liturgy: "A Day in Our Life," and "Our Life in One Day"

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT: The Eleventh Day

If we look inside our hearts
and find there even a trace of animosity toward others
for the wrongs they have done to us,
then we should realize that we are still far removed
from the love of God.
The love of God absolutely precludes us
from hating any human being.

~ St. Maximus the Confessor


Yesterday evening, we served the Liturgy of the Presanctifed Gifts for this second week of Great Lent. I believe that it was Fr. Thomas Hopko who said that this is one of the true "masterpieces" of the Byzantine liturgical tradition. After a long, hard day of work - combined with fasting - we enter into the presence of our Lord within the stillness and solemnity of this superb lenten service. Into the darkened church Christ will come as the "Gladsome Light" that "illuminates all." We are all tired, hungry and humbled by our weakness. Thus we learn of our great dependency on God - for truly "man does not live by bread alone." We offer the day back to God, with its sorrows and joys; its successes and failures. And God does not disappoint us, for at the end of the service we will receive the very Body and Blood of Christ from the presanctified Gifts that were prepared for this moment. This is the manna that sustains us through the "desert" of the Fast. This is the "Bread from heaven" which is Christ Himself. Now we are strengthened in order to "complete the course of the Fast." What an incomparably blessed way to end the day! Yet another gift from God. Many will stay for the "agape" meal to follow; others will have to leave. Either way, we then return to our homes - still tired! - but no longer hungry because our hunger was fulfilled by receiving the Eucharist. At the end of the day there is Christ - and that is everything.

Perhaps we can understand this day of the Presanctified Liturgy as a microcosm of our entire lives. At the end of our lives, we hope to encounter the glorious Light of the presence of Christ. We hope to enter the Kingdom of Light where the Holy Trinity dwells in inexpressible glory. That will be the unending Banquet of Life where are fellowship with God will be our fellowship with each other. Our entire life is a preparation for that encounter. It means a life spent in prayer and fasting; in following the commandments of Christ amidst all of the temptations and tests that life presents before us. There are sorrows and joys; successes and failures. And we will offer all of this back to Christ Who will "judge" it. Thus, we are "rehearsing" our greatest hope as Christians when we experience Christ in this particular service at the close of the day. It makes for a long, perhaps even exhausting day; but that is how life is often.

When you choose to attend and then prepare for the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, you are anticipating your deepest desire for how you want your life to end - in union with Christ. One of the many gifts that Great Lent brings to us.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Great Lent - The Ninth Day: On Love

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Ninth Day

Love is a most holy condition of the soul
in which it values the mystical knowledge of God
above all other existent things.
We cannot enter into such a state of love, however,
if we are still obsessively clinging
to material values.

~ St. Maximus the Confessor

Fr. Steven

Friday, March 6, 2009

Great Lent - The Fifth Day: Closing the Mouth

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT - The Fifth Day

You need a spiritual pilgrimage.
Begin by closing your mouth.

Never look down on anyone.
You do not know whether the spirit of God
prefers to dwell in you or in them.

Never pass judgment on anyone, for any cause.
Never do evil to anyone.
Discipline yourself and purge yourself
from material and spiritual evil.
Cultivate a modest and gentle heart.
If you can do all these things
and see only your own faults, not those of others,
the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
will be with you abundantly.

~ Sayings of the Egyptian Fathers

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Great Lent - The Third Day

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT - The Third Day

A furnace puts gold to the test.
The assiduous practice of prayer
tests a disciple's zeal and love for God.

+ St. John Klimakos

Last night I noticed that our parish website now has Four Homilies on Prayer by St. Theophan the Recluse posted there. Click on "Great Lent" from the homepage and scroll down to the bottom to locate them. They are quite thorough, and clear and accessible with a great deal of practical guidance about establishing a Rule of Prayer, seeking concentration in prayer, etc. With so much teaching in these four homilies, I will therefore find other material for further short lenten meditations than from the writings of St. Theophan. I would suggest printing them so that you can read them carefully when you have the opportunity to concentrate on these rich homilies. Below the homiles, you will also find Fr. George Metallinos' classic essay about Heaven and Hell.

Also, at there is a marvelous article on "Prayer and Silence" by Bishop Ilarion Alfeyev, one of the best Orthodox theologians writing today.

Our parish Church School students are participating this year in a Lenten Read-A-Thon. They will choose age-appropriate books of a religious/spiritual nature and keep a "log" of their book titles and the minutes spent in reading. Sounds like an excellent tool for introducing them to good Orthodox literature. I believe that this "goal-oriented" program is going to result in a good deal of reading on the part of our students.

Have you chosen your "lenten reading" yet?! Our webmaster has created an excellent Great Lent resource page, that has many good titles recommended and summarized. Most of those books are in our parish library. Again, a good beginning is important.

I like looking through book catalogues when they come through the mail. I recently noticed a book by a Roman Catholic scholar entitled Seven Secular Challenges Facing the 21st Century Catholic. Admittedly, I don't intend to read the book, but the seven challenges that this writer saw from secularism are the following, and it is a quite an interesting list:

1) lack of respect for authority
2) cynicism
3) uncritical openness
4) ideology
5) learned helplessness
6) anti-intellectualism
7) political correctness

Answering those secular challenges as Orthodox Christians is not an option for us - but an urgent necessity.

*Webmaster's Note: The "Seven Challenges" together with two responses from Christ the Savior parishioners appears on our Orthodox Q&A blog.

Fr Steven

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Theophan the Recluse: Stages of Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

I hope to provide some "lenten meditations" with some consistency as we pass through the forty days of the Fast. As I am now re-reading The Art of Prayer compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, I will begin by drawing on that excellent source. This book is an anthology of texts on the meaning and practice of prayer as developed within our spiritual tradition. Most of the book is comprised of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) a nineteenth c. Russian bishop. With his profound grasp of the Holy Fathers from the earlier centuries, he was able to summarize and synthesize their teaching in a very accessible manner. He writes with clarity and depth about prayer, having been a man immersed in inner prayer for many years, and having corresponded with pious laymen and laywomen from all walks of life about the spiritual life. As a footnote, I would encourage every serious Orthodox Christian struggling to develop a mature prayer life to purchase a copy of this book, since you will be able to turn to it endlessly for guidance.

This first excerpt is rather longer than usual, but it is an excellent outline to the whole issue of how we must strive to deepen our prayer from its initial beginnings:


There are various degrees of prayer. The first degree is bodily prayer, consisting for the most part in reading, in standing, and in making prostrations. In all this there must needs be patience, labour, and sweat; for the attention runs away, the heart feels nothing and has no desire to pray. Yet in spite of this, give yourself a moderate rule and keep to it. Such is active prayer.

The second degree is prayer with attention: the mind becomes accustomed to collecting itself in the hour of prayer, and prays consciously throughout, without distraction. The mind is focused upon the written words to the point of speaking them as if they were its own.

The third degree is prayer of feeling: the heart is warmed by concentration so that what hitherto has only been thought now becomes feeling. Where first it was a contrite phrase now it is contrition itself; and what was once a petition in words is transformed into a sensation of entire necessity. Whoever has passed through action and thought to true feeling, will pray without words, for God is God of the heart. So that the end of apprenticeship in prayer can be said to come when in our prayer we move only from feeling to feeling. In this state reading may cease, as well as deliberate thought; let there be only a dwelling in feeling with specific marks of prayer.

When the feeling of prayer reaches the point where it becomes continuous, then spiritual prayer may be said to begin. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit praying for us, the last degree of prayer which our minds can grasp.

But there is, they say, yet another kind of prayer which cannot be comprehended by our mind, and which goes beyond the limits of consciousness: on this read St. Isaac the Syrian.

~ St. Theophan the Recluse - The Art of Prayer p. 52

Monday, March 2, 2009

Unless We Fast

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Great Lent: The first day

"But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face." (MATT. 6:17)

"But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires." (ROM. 13:14)

A bit cold today to begin "the springtime of the fast." Yet, perhaps as something of a blessed coincidence, it will begin to warm up outside once we begin to "warm up" inside and our cold hearts begin to "thaw out" by the fire of divine grace. The process of warming up to the presence of this "holy fire" is called repentance. And Great Lent is the School of Repentance. Not only our "attendance" in this school, but our attentiveness to Christ the Teacher is essential. As members of a consumer society, we can bring a mentality of "picking and choosing" to the words of Christ according to our desires and "tastes." That may mean that we are interested in some of the teachings of Jesus, but it would hardly be indicative of believing in Him as the "Lord and Master of our lives" (Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim).

We heard both of the recorded texts above at the Divine Liturgy yesterday as parts of the Epistle and Gospel readings. On the eve of Great Lent these words are well-timed as scriptural reminders of the meaning and purpose of Great Lent. How can we "make no provision for the flesh" unless we fast? How can we resist the impulses to "gratify its desires" without the practice of abstinence? The "flesh" in this context is not limited to food, drink, sex, and acquisitiveness, powerful as these impulses are in preoccuping our minds and hearts at the expense of our focus on God. For the Apostle Paul, "flesh" has the broader meaning of our alienation from God, be it through conscious disobedience or sheer indifference. The "works of the flesh" imply the misuse of our intellectual and imaginative capabilities:

Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party strife, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. (GAL. 5:19-21)

If we indeed "put on the Lord Jesus Christ," then clearly the "works of the flesh" just enumerated hardly conform to such a claim. We return again to the practice of fasting as the means to liberate us from these temptations that not only surround us, but which may have ensnared us in moments of weakness and lack of vigilance. That may be a slow and even painful process, but one worth struggling through. All of our passions and desires are like addictions that hold us in their grip, and breaking through any addiction is hard work demanding first and foremost that the addictive behavior itself be stopped. Gluttony is much more concrete than envy or party strife; but both are "passions" that work through the "flesh." The goal is to be a vessel of the Spirit of God, united to the Body of Christ through both our faith and works. Then the Resurrection of Christ becomes actualized in our own personal lives. That is true freedom.

In a fascinating article in which he explains the Apostle Paul's use of such terms as "flesh," "body," "soul," heart," "intellect," etc., Fr. John Romanides summarized the contrast/conflict between a fleshly existence and a spiritual existence in this manner:

Unity with God in the Spirit, through the body of Christ in the life of love, is life and brings salvation and perfection. Separation of man's spirit from the divine life in the body of Christ is slavery to the powers of death and corruption used by the devil to destroy the works of God. The life of the Spirit is unity and love. The life according to the flesh is disunity and disolution in death and corruption.

The choice is simple: life or death. It is the required effort that leads to life that is daunting. That is why even Christians make excuses as to why such effort is not necessary: "God/Jesus loves me just as I am." "As long as I accept Jesus into my heart as my personal Savior, I will be saved." "Human works are of no real importance." This is the religious version of "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" with a happy ending: for we will all be saved, anyway! Somehow there is an empty ring to all of this. Having succumbed to the flesh, we need to struggle in order to save our "soma/body" (a term that biblically means the human person restored to God). Again, from Fr. Romanides:

Before sharing in the life of Christ, one must first become an actual soma/body by being liberated from the devil in passing through a death to the ways of this world and living according to the "spirit."

Our ascetical "efforts" are sustained and completed by the grace of God. We are saved by God alone, not by our efforts. But we have been admonished to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (PHIL. 2:12-13) As we move toward the paschal mystery of our Lord's Death and Resurrection, the period of Great Lent is a gift that allows us that blessed opportunity.

Fr. Steven