Monday, July 31, 2017

The Dormition Fast: Commitment vs. Convenience

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

August 1 is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that culminates with the celebration of the Great Feast of the Dormition on August 15.

 As we contemplate our own destiny in that of the Theotokos, it is theologically and spiritually appropriate that this is the culminating major Feast Day of the liturgical year. The preparatory fast is very well-placed, falling as it does at the midpoint of summer.

Coming after the relatively slow and  "silent" month of July, liturgically speaking, the ascetical effort that we are called to embrace can potentially lift us up out of any spiritual torpor that may be afflicting us. This is especially true if the summer heat has taken its toll on us both physically and spiritually.  Spiritual vigilance can replace the apathy and indifference that may be clinging to us at this time of year. As we honor the "translation" of the Mother of God into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, we simultaneously experience the much-needed spiritual renewal of our being through the time-honored and life-affirming practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting (Matt 6:1-18).

Yet, every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice.  In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.”  

We can choose convenience because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly in-convenient.  It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self denial, and an overall concerted effort.  It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance.  To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance.

And perhaps we need to admit that as middle-class Americans we are impatient with inconvenience, since just about every aspect of our lives today is meant to amplify convenience as a "mode of existence" that we need to embrace "religiously." We may think and feel that we are entitled to live by the "philosophy" of convenience!

So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church.  I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of furthering our growth in the life “in Christ.”  It may rather mean a missed opportunity.

Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.”  To be committed means to care - the spiritual antidote to the passion of acedia which literally means "not caring."

Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful.  It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ.” And this we have as a gift within the life of the Church.

That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes.  I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes.  (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes).  It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree.  We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals and admittedly there are times when that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present way of life. Yet, the Church as  "second choice" can easily harden into an automatic and unchallenged principle. It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars!”  The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church.  In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment.  Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us.

But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired.  That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives.  In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding – to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today!

I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience.  

We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy.  With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls.  We can lift up our “drooping hands” and strengthen our "weak knees" (Heb 12:12) in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving.  

The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death—or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Dormition Fast is our spiritually vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!”  (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

'Precious Vessels' #3: Elder Porphyrios

Dear Parish Faithful,

I thought to share a few more of the "Counsels" of yet another 20th c. elder, in this case the Elder Porphyrios (1906-1991). Here was a man who lived in very impoverished conditions and who therefore only had a few years of formal education, but who was wise in the Spirit. And he reached this high level of spiritual virtue, though struggling with many illnesses - kidney problems, a hernia, a heart attack, stomach hemorrhaging, and eventually blindness - throughout his life. He lived his life in many diverse places in Greece, and spent the last six months of his life on Mount Athos. 

It was said of him: "Elder Porphyrios taught that Christ's greatest desire was for the unity of the faithful, for each member of the Orthodox Church to identify with the struggle and pain of his brothers and sisters, to carry one another's burdens and to live our lives as though we are one body." (Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 105)

It was also said of him that he repeated over and over again the words of Christ's that we find in His "High Priestly Prayer" in the Gospel According to St. John: "That they may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (JN. 17:21).  We spent some time discussing these words of Christ in this Summer's Bible Study. Be that as it may, there is a good deal to reflect upon in the wisdom offered below.

Counsels of the Elder Porphyrios

  • Christ is our Friend, our Brother; He is whatever is beautiful and good. He is everything. In Christ there is no gloom, melancholy or introversion, whereas man suffers from various temptations and situations which make him suffer. Christ is joy, life, light, the true  light, which makes man glad, makes him fly, makes him see all things, see all people, suffer for all people, and want all people to be with him, close to him.
  • Our love in Christ must reach all places, even to the hippies in Crete. I very much wanted to go there, not to preach to  them, or to condemn them, but to live with them, without sin of course, and leave the love of Christ to speak of itself, which transfigures life.
  • There is an electric generator and in the room is a lamp. If, however, we don't flip the switch, we will remain in darkness. Similarly, there is Christ and there is the soul. If, however, we don't flip the switch of prayer, our soul will not see the light of Christ and will remain in the darkness of the devil.
  • I am not afraid of hell and I do not think about Paradise. I only ask God to have mercy on the entire world as well as on me.
  • What is the spiritual battle? Well, the soul is a garden divided into two parts. On one half are planted thorny bushes, and on the other half, flowers. We also have a water pump with two taps and two channels. The one guides the water to the thorns and the other to the flowers. I always have the choice to open one or the other tap. I leave the thorns without water and they dry up, I water the flowers and they blossom.

Elder Porphyrios is now recognized by the Church as a saint. He was glorified and entered into the calendar of saints in November 2013 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

  • Continue along your path. The devil will come with his tempting thoughts and will tug at your sleeve, so as to disorient you. Don't turn to him, don't start a conversation with him, and don't oppose him. In this way the devil will get bored and will leave you alone.
  • When I became a monk I felt better. Even my health improved. Although previously I had been sickly, afterwards I became healthier, with the ability to bear labors with psychical courage. Above all, however, I felt eternal. The Church is a mystery. Whoever enters the Church doesn't die, he is saved, is eternal. Thus I always feel eternal, as though immortal. Having become a monk I believe that death does not exist. This thought captivates me.
  • Orthodox asceticism is not just for the monasteries, but also for the world.
  • When asked how one should vote, the Elder responded in parable. The Orthodox Church is like a brooding hen. Under Her wings she covers black chicks and white chicks, yellow chicks and chicks of every different color.
  • What can politicians do for you? They are confused by their psychical passions. When a person is unable to help himself, how can he help others? We are also to blame for this situation. If we were Christians, we would be able to send to parliament, not a Christian political party of course, but Christian politicians, and these things would be different.
  • Today people want to be loved and for this reason  they are unsuccessful. The correct way is to not be interested in whether or not people love you, but whether or not you love Christ and people. This is the only way that the soul is fulfilled.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

'Precious Vessels' #2: The Elder Epiphanios of Athens

Dear Parish Faithful,

"I am not afraid of death. Not, of course, because of my works, but because I believe in God's mercy."  - The Elder Epiphanios of Athens

I would like to continue with sharing some of the wonderful "Counsels" of the elders found in the book I am currently reading: Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit. (I initially wrote about this book and the practice of eldership on July 5). 

The second (Greek) elder covered in the book is Elder Epiphanios of Athens (1930-1989). 

It was said of him: "As a child of  two he would tell people of his desire to become a priest, and donning a sheet, would play priest. From the tender age of five he attended all the services of the local church, fasting and preparing for Holy Communion in the same way as the Church prescribes for adults" (p. 63). 

The elder was indeed ordained as a priest later in life, and for the most part served the faithful in the city of Athens.  He wrote twenty-two books and numerous articles during his ministry. He founded a monastery later in life a few hours away from Athens. Having prepared for his funeral he died in 1989 at the age of 58.

Here are some of his Counsels:

  • "When I study the Holy Scripture and the patristic books, I leave the earth and go to Heaven.... I don't manage to write my thoughts in time, for I am flooded as with flakes of snow. I feel as though my pen has wings."
  • "I want whoever is near me to feel that he has room to breathe, not that he is suffocated. I don't call anyone to me. I don't hold onto to anyone. I don't chase anyone away. Whoever wants comes, whoever wants stays, whoever wants leaves. I don't consider anyone a supporter or a follower."
  • "True love is like the flame of a candle. However many candles you light from the flame, the initial flame remains unaffected. It doesn't lessen at all. And every freshly lit candle has as much flame as the others do."
  • "Parents should love their children as their children and not as their idols. That is to say, they should love their children as they are and not how they would like them to be - to be like them."
  • "Whoever fears God doesn't fear anything else."
  • "God appointed the salvation of the world to His Son and not to us.... We must first look at our soul and if we can, let's help five or six people around us."
  • "Don't sit glued to the television ... Guard yourselves from the means of mass blinding."
  • "I have made an agreement with God: I will empty my pockets in almsgiving and He will fill them. He has never violated our agreement. Will I violate it? May it never happen!"
  • "When someone is free, he has rights and responsibilities. When he marries, he has few rights and very many responsibilities. When, however, he has children, he doesn't have any right at all, but only responsibilities."
  • "My heart only has entrances. It doesn't have exits. Whoever enters remains there. Whatever he may do, I love him the same as I loved him when he first entered into my heart. I pray for him and seek his salvation."
  • "My worst hell is to realize that I have saddened a beloved person."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

'Sitting at the feet of Jesus...'

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

This last Sunday we heard St. Matthew's account of the healing of the Gadarene demoniacs (Matt. 8:28-9:1). The following meditation is about the same event, but as it was narrated by St. Luke. 

As is often the case, the details may differ (St. Luke tells us that this occurred in "the country of the Gerasenes") but the same over-all meaning can be found as in this text as in St. Matthew's.  I first look at how a major 19th c. novelist grappled with this extraordinary text, before then turning to a wonderful detail peculiar to St. Luke's Gospel.

Jesus then asked him, "What is your name?" And he said, "legion;" for many demons had entered him.  And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss.  Now a large herd of swine was feeding there on the hillside; and they begged him to let them enter into these.  So he gave them leave.  Then the demons came out of the man and entered into the swine and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled, and told it in the city and in the country.  Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus, and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.  And those who had seen it told them how he who had been possessed with demons had been healed.

(LK. 8:30-36)

The text above - a partial account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac - served as one of two epigraphs for Fyodor Dostoevsky's gripping novel that was entitled, simply, Demons.  (The novel's title has also been translated, less accurately, as The Possessed). 

For Dostoevsky, living and writing in 19th c. Russia, the "demons" were the newly-emerging revolutionaries who were not only determined to overthrow the Russian monarchy; but also committed to abolish belief in God and the Orthodox Christian culture that was shaped by that belief.  Aspiring to such a radical rejection of the prevailing political, social, cultural, and religious order, these revolutionaries were named "nihilists," for they believed, essentially, that nothing was sacred or beyond their desire to destroy.  Out of the ashes of this nihilistic disorder something resembling a utopian society was to emerge, now cleansed of any dead remnants from the past.

Dostoevsky was hoping that the nihilistic revolutionaries of his era would self-destruct as did the demons - called "legion" - of the Gospel account. In his compelling novel that is precisely what happens, but Dostoevsky was enough of a realist to realize that the outcome could be different, especially with the decay that was eroding the effectiveness of the very institutions he was hoping would withstand such an onslaught. And the reality was that this nihilistic orgy of violence would occur in the generation following his death in 1881.

Thus, Dostoevsky uncannily "prophesied" the later Russian Revolution that engaged in precisely such a sweepingly destructive movement against what was considered a God-established order.  But  the person who would repent of such nihilistic tendencies and return to faith in Christ was to enjoy the transformative experience of "sitting at the feet of Jesus clothed and in his right mind."  This is basically what happens to a major character in the novel. Demons thus proved to be an unforgettable artistic actualization of the Gospel account of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac and what it means to turn to Christ.

It is only in St. Luke's account that we read that wonderful verse of the healed demoniac sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Yet, the story of the Garasene demoniac also appears in the Gospels of Sts. Mark and Matthew. It is thus a story that must have made a strong impact on the early Church. 

Details will differ - St. Matthew actually records the healing of two demoniacs instead of one - but the intense drama of this narrative cannot but stand out against the bleak background of the rugged landscape, the tombs where the demoniac(s) lived in isolation, and of course the cliff with the abyss below that swallowed up the herd of trampling and frenzied swine.  It is an account that more-or-less assaults our modern sensibilities -  especially a kind of rationalistic and moralistic Christianity.  The realm and reality of the demonic and the "spiritual warfare" implied by recognizing such a realm and reality opens up our minds and hearts to both the irrational and supra-rational world of the Gospel in which Christ has come to "bind" the "strong man." 

This is a fierce battle that demands a greater commitment to Christ and the Gospel than conventional Sunday morning church attendance. 

It is just such a deeper commitment that will perhaps "reward" us with sitting at the feet of Jesus "clothed" in our right mind.  (A weaker commitment may mean that we are content with standing in the back of the church at a safe distance and only occasionally listening - or listening only when we hear something that appeals to us, while shutting out the "hard sayings").

Sitting at the feet of Jesus implies listening to his words, allowing them to penetrate our hearts, and acting upon them to the extent that we are able.  We claim that Christ is the "Lord and Master" of our lives.  Such a claim means that there is really no other place that we want to "sit" and absorb and be nourished by what we are hearing. 

To be in our "right mind" does not simply mean that we have not been diagnosed with a clinically-defined mental disorder.  It implies a clarity of vision and a "worldview" grounded in the reality of God's existence and gracious presence.  It also means freedom from moral, ethical and spiritual disorders. 

Perhaps to sit at the feet of Jesus and to be clothed and in our right mind indicates a state of spiritual sanity.  

With a surrounding world engulfed in modes of behavior that can only be considered "insane," the Church remains the "place" where we retain our sanity.  That may take some time and some work. The "demons" must first be expelled. We must fear the abyss of destruction that swallows up the possessed swine of the Gospel account.  Then we can join the ranks of the saints and sit at the feet of Jesus "clothed and in our right mind."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Saturday Evening Great Vespers and Christian Martyria

Dear Parish Faithful,

As our usual pattern of over-all poor parish attendance at Great Vespers on Saturday evenings is once again the norm with the coming of Summer, I wanted to re-issue a short meditation about this service that I wrote after a visit by His Grace, Bishop Paul, and his comments about the positive nature of this service and our Christian martyria. Whether anything changes or not, I believe that many of you are missing something important in our parish life, and should at least give it some consideration. The "invitation" to the service comes, ultimately, from God: "Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ ..." is the first hymn that we sing at Great Vespers. Since we would consider any other Saturday evening invitation with great care and attention - and probably accept it - we may want to think of applying that same care and attention to the things of God.

The Saturday Evening Great Vespers and Christian Martyria

Continuing a series of short meditations based upon Bp. Paul's talk on the content and shape of a contemporary Christian martyria (meaning witness), I would like to apply it to the Saturday evening service of Great Vespers.

Actually, the first topic that Bp. Paul addressed to those of us present last Saturday evening following the service, was the missionary content of the Great Vespers service, a real point of contact and a potential source of  appeal to an inquirer or non-Orthodox visitor to the church.

In fact, His Grace shared his opinion that Great Vespers is the best introductory service to such an inquirer/visitor.  Its compactness has something to do with this, but he stressed primarily the content of the service.  This service proclaims the Gospel - it is "evangelical" - because it proclaims the Crucified and Risen Lord. This could be an element of strong appeal to a visitor hungering for the truth of the Gospel.

However, first and foremost, the service of Great Vespers on Saturday evening is for the members of the Church! 

Saturday evening Great Vespers is a splendid proclamation of the Death and Resurrection of Christ at the heart of the service.  Meaning that in addition to the basic structure of the service which remains the same, the hymnography (called stichera and aposticha) is devoted to glorifying the Crucified and Risen Lord.

Great Vespers not only prepares us for the Lord's Day on Sunday - the Day of Resurrection in our weekly liturgical cycle - but we actually enter into the Lord's Day at the service on Saturday evening. As it is written in the Scriptures:  "And there was evening and there was morning, a second day" (GEN. 1:8).  Liturgically, therefore, Sunday begins during the service on Saturday evening, following the biblical reckoning of time. Returning to the theme of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, a random selection from the eight tones will eloquently make the point:

We stand before Thy life-bearing tomb unworthily, O Christ God,
Offering glory to Thine unspeakable tenderness of heart.
Thou hast accepted the cross and death, O sinless One,
To grant resurrection to the world, as the Lover of man.
Saturday Vespers, Stichera, Tone 1 

Descending from heaven to ascend  the cross,
The eternal Life has come for death -
To raise those who have fallen;
To enlighten those in darkness!
O Jesus, our Savior and Illuminator, glory to Thee!
Saturday Vespers, Aposticha, Tone 8

As one of the expressions of an Orthodox Christian martyria in the contemporary world mentioned by Bp. Paul, we can leave the cares and attractions surrounding us, enter into the prayerful atmosphere of the church, and praise the Crucified and Risen Lord on Saturday evening as we prepare for the Lord's Day. At least, with some kind of pattern or regularity. This is our witness that the life of the Church comes first in our lives.

Certainly this is a "little cross!"  And it should be a "joyous cross" that we assume lightly and gladly.  We are, after all, according to St. John the Evangelist, "children of God!"

I am not trying to twist anyone's arm, and I do not work through "guilting" anyone into anything.  I am simply trying to raise parish awareness of an integral part of our parish life and the liturgical cycle at the heart of our communal worship. And I have been doing this for years. In this way, we can grow beyond the usual (and to this day relatively small) "Vespers crowd" as our personal and communal martyria to the secular world's indifference toward Christ.  My appeal is to make the martyria concrete and practical in its effect. I believe this was Bp. Paul's point.

Plan on coming to a Great Vespers service in the near future, and let that be a beginning, a starting point for expanding your participation in the liturgical life of the Church by integrating the Lord's Day cycle into your life as an event to be anticipated and embraced with regularity.  Allow the Bible Study, the great Feasts and Saturday evening Great Vespers to assume a place in your lives that manifests the modest Christian martyria that nevertheless reveals a great deal about our life in the Church.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sayings from the 'Golden-Mouthed'

Dear Parish Faithful,

Some fine quotations from St. John Chrysostom ("Golden Mouthed"). These were prepared by Presvytera Deborah.

Fr. Steven

  • If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.
  • Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.
  • No matter how just your words may be, you ruin everything when you speak with anger. 
  • Happiness can only be achieved by looking inward & learning to enjoy whatever life has and this requires transforming greed into gratitude.
  • When you are weary of praying, and do not receive, consider how often you have heard a poor man calling, and have not listened to him.
  • If you wish to leave much wealth to your children, leave them in God's care. Do not leave them riches, but virtue and skill. For if they learn to expect riches, they will not mind anything besides, and their abundant riches shall give them the means of screening the wickedness of their ways.
  • The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path.    (Was this a message for me? - Fr Steven)
  • The rich man is not one who is in possession of much, but one who gives much.
  • God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Elders and Eldresses - Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Forget your sins; our Christ has blotted them out from the Book of Life."  (Elder Amphilochios of Patmos)

I am currently reading the book Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit - The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece (2003). In this case. the title pretty well conveys the contents of the book. A further notation informs us that the material in this book has been "compiled, written, translated from the Greek, and edited with a preface, introduction, notes, and glossary," by H. Middleton.

There are eight such elders of Greece covered in the book, with each elder's life described in the form of a short biography. All of the elders lived primarily in the 20th c. Following the biography, there is an appended section to each chapter under the heading of  'Counsels'.  In this section, we hear the voice of each elder through a short sampling of their more memorable sayings. And this might be the heart of the book.

The elder (fem. eldress) are key figures in Orthodox spirituality.  Either male or female, these are great guides of the spiritual life known for the depth of their faith, the wisdom of their teaching, the perspicacity of their discernment, in addition to being living icons of the great virtues of humility, patience and love. All of the elders covered in this book had an air of sanctity and holiness about them.

In his famous novel The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky has an artistic version of an elder - Zosima by name - as a key character of the novel, whose presence pervades much of the novel's drama as a beacon of light and inspiration. In the process of developing his literary elder, Dostoevsky includes the chapter "Elders" in which he provides some background to this figure in Orthodox history and spirituality (he had occasion to visit and speak with the prominent 19th c. Russian elder Ambrose of Optina).  In attempting to capture the role of the elder, Dostoevsky wrote the following:

What is an elder? An elder is  one who takes your soul, your will into his soul and into his will. Having chosen an elder, you renounce your will and give it to him under total obedience and  with total self-renunciation.
A man who dooms himself to this trial, this terrible school of life, does so voluntarily, in the hope that after the long trial he will achieve self-conquest, self-mastery to such a degree that he will, finally, through a whole life's obedience, attain to perfect freedom - that is, freedom from himself - and avoid the lot of those who live their whole lives without finding themselves in themselves.

In the 20th c., we have a passage from Archbishop Kallistos Ware, who spent some time at the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on the island of Patmos. While there, in his early years of spiritual formation as an Orthodox Christian, he was blessed with having met the first elder covered in this book, Amphilochios of Patmos (+1970). Archbishop Kallistos has left us a fine sketch of this living elder that is included in Precious Vessels:

What most distinguished his character was his gentleness, his humor, the warmth of his affection, and his sense of tranquil yet triumphant joy. His smile was full of love, but devoid of all sentimentality. Life in Christ, as he understood it, is not a heavy yoke, a burden to be carried with sullen resignation, but a personal relationship to be pursued with eagerness of heart. He was firmly opposed to all spiritual violence and cruelty.
It was typical that, as he lay dying and took leave of the nuns under his care, he should urge the abbess not to be too severe on them: "They have left everything to come here, they must not be unhappy."
Two things in particular I recall about him. The first was his love of nature  and, more especially, of trees... 
A second thing that stands out in my memory is the counsel which he gave when, as a newly-ordained priest, the time had come for me to return from Patmos to Oxford, where I was to begin teaching in the university. He himself had never visited the west, but he had a shrewd perception of the situation of Orthodoxy in the Diaspora. 
"Do not be afraid," he insisted. Do not be afraid because of your Orthodoxy, he told me; do not be afraid because as an Orthodox in the west, you will be often isolated and always in a small minority. Do not make compromises but do not attack other Christians; do not be either defensive or aggressive, simply be yourself." 
(Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 48-49).

Together with some of you reading this meditation, I had the blessed opportunity to meet and speak (and serve Liturgy together with) another contemporary elder, Fr. Roman Braga of the Monastery of the Dormition in Rives Junction, MI.  His funeral a couple of years ago was a memorable experience.

Be that as it may, I would like to include a few choice "counsels" from Amphilochios of Patmos, as compiled in this book. Hopefully, these few words will pass on something of the great love of Christ the elder had within his heart and how this love had a profound effect on every other aspect of the elder's life, from creation to human persons - saints and sinners alike. Hopefully, everyone will find something here worthy of meditation and application.

From the "Counsels" of the Elder Amphilochios of Patmos

  • Consider all people to be greater than yourself, though they may have many weaknesses. Don't act with hardness, but always think that each person has the same destination as we do. Through the grace of God I consider all people to be saintly and greater than myself.
  • I was born to love people. It doesn't concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.
  • When a person partakes of Holy Communion he receives  power and is enlightened, his horizons widen and he feels joy. Each person experiences something different, analogous to his disposition and the flame of his soul. One person feels joy and rest, another peace, another a spirit of devotion and another an inexpressible sympathy towards all things. Personally, I have often felt tired, but after Holy Communion I felt myself completely renewed.
  • Love Christ, have humility, prayer and patience. These are the four points of your spiritual compass. May the magnetic needle be your youthful Christian heart.
  • We must love Christ; this is necessary for the life of our soul. We also need to love God's creation: animals, trees, flowers, birds, and above all, the most perfect of God's creation, men and women.
  • Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love, and has the blessings of God.
  • When someone opens your heart, I'd like him to find nothing there but Christ.
  • An egotistic person doesn't attract anyone. And if someone is attracted, that person will soon distance himself. The spiritual bond becomes indissoluble only when it meets a child-like spirit of innocence and holiness.
  • He who is without love cannot be called a Christian, lest we mock Christianity.
  • My children, I don't want Paradise without you.

From Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit, p. 51-61.

July: A “month-long spiritual desert”

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Unless we find ourselves on an exciting vacation somewhere far from home, it seems that nothing can conceivably be more uneventful than a Monday morning in mid-July.  The only “variety” offered seems to be found in the weather.  Will it rain or will the sun shine?  Will the blistering heat continue, or will we feel some relief? 

At this point in the summer, we may have already been on vacation – which means that there isn’t much to look forward to—or we are awaiting an upcoming trip that at least fills us with some sense of anticipation and “escape.”  Which poses a further question:  are those carefully-planned vacations into which we invest so much time, energy, money – and even hope – always as rewarding, relaxing and renewing as anticipated?  I suppose that can only be assessed once we have returned – hopefully as intact as when we departed!  

Whatever the case may be, the following passage from the Scriptures may just inspire us to see beyond the tedium that leads to the forgetfulness of God:  

“Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather healed” (Heb 12:12-13).

Adding to our spiritual ennui is, admittedly, the fact that July is the most uneventful month of the year liturgically:  no major fasts or feasts occur during this month.  Basically, there is “only” the Liturgy on Sundays and the commemoration of a few well-known saints throughout the month.  With vacationing parishioners, there can be a noticeable drop in church attendance.  There may also be certain signs of “spiritual laziness” setting in (induced, perhaps, in part by the haziness of the weather) leading to that condition of spiritual torpor known in our spiritual literature as akedia.  

July, therefore, is something of a month-long stretch of desert, for we celebrated the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul at the end of June and await the major Feasts of the Transfiguration and Dormition in August within the context of the two-week fast from August 1-14.

Of course, we never want to find ourselves saying that there is “only” the Liturgy on Sunday mornings.  The word “only” is hopelessly inadequate when applied to the Lord’s Day celebration of the Eucharist!  

“Only” implies “uneventful.”  Yet, every Liturgy is the actualization of the Paschal Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and our participation in that mystery.  And every Liturgy is simultaneously the actualization of the Pentecostal mystery of the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit: "Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here offered."  

At every Liturgy we proclaim and bless the presence and power of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are praying to and praising the Holy Trinity together with the angels and the saints.  We are in direct communion with God and one another in the Liturgy.  This means that every Liturgy is “eventful” in a manner that we can barely comprehend!

If, indeed, the summer proves to be something of a spiritual drought, then we can only thank God for the weekly liturgical cycle that begins and culminates with the Divine Liturgy on the Lord’s Day so that we can recover and renew our genuine humanity that has been created, redeemed and transformed “in Christ.”  

To speak of our life “in Christ” on the communal level we believe that at every Liturgy, we anticipate the messianic banquet where and when “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11).  The heavenly manna, or the “Bread from heaven” that we receive by the grace of God, strengthens us in the somewhat outward and inward “desert-like” conditions of the world around or within us.

On a more interior level, we may one day make the wonderful discovery that we need not travel far away geographically in order to embark upon a life-transforming journey.  In the Prologue to his book The Orthodox Way, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware relates the following anecdote.

“One of the best known of the Desert Fathers of the fourth-century Egypt, Saint Sarapion the Sidonite, traveled once on pilgrimage to Rome.  Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lives always in one small room, never going out.  Skeptical about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Sarapion called on her and asked:  ‘Why are you sitting here?’  To this she replied: ‘I am not sitting, I am on a journey'.”

Admittedly, this will not work well with the children.  But at one point in our lives, we need desperately to make that discovery of our interior depths wherein we find a point of stillness that will further still our excessive restlessness that endlessly pushes us “outward” rather than “inward.”  In one of my favorite sentences in The Orthodox Way, Metropolitan Kallistos puts it this way:  

“We are on a journey through the inward space of the heart, a journey not measured by the hours of our watch or the days of the calendar, for it is a journey out of time into eternity.”

“Vacations” are one thing, and “journeys” (or pilgrimages) another.  The packaging and planning of the former make them much more predictable that the limitless possibilities of the latter. So, as we plan our outward vacations by plane or car, we need make provisions for the interior journeys into the greater space of our hearts through “faith, hope and love,” as well as through the practices of prayer and fasting, so as to remain attentive to the “still voice of God” that gives direction and meaning to our lives.  Be that as it may, we pray that God will bless us on both forms of travel!