Christ is risen!
On May 22 (the feast of the Righteous Melchisedek), 1995, Gerontissa Macrina fell asleep in the Lord.
May we have her blessing!
Christ is risen!
On May 22 (the feast of the Righteous Melchisedek), 1995, Gerontissa Macrina fell asleep in the Lord.
May we have her blessing!
Christ is risen!
This is the first of (hopefully) many posts in which I combine a beautiful image from my world travels with an edifying quote from the Holy Father and Mothers.
Christ is Risen!
(An excerpt from Abbess Thaisia’s book Letters to a Beginner: On Giving One’s Life to God, pp. 90-91)
The event which I want to tell you about took place on one of the Saturdays of Great Lent. After dinner both novices went away somewhere, and the nun, taking advantage of the solitude, wanted to pray. Here is what she told me about this occurrence: “I remember only that I began to recite the Akathist to the Sweetest Jesus, Whose presence I still felt in my heart, for that day I had received the Holy Mysteries. I read an ikos, I read another, and I felt that my soul became ever more and more moved and warmed by the love towards the Lord. I remember that I gradually began to wholly tremble both in soul and body, pouring out tears. My physical powers failed me, and in order not to fall I knelt and prostrated before the holy icons, continuing to read the Akathist mentally. It seems that I read it to the middle, but after that I don’t remember anything. Everything around me in the cell, the very floor on which I lay prostrate, everything as it were vanished somewhere, and it seemed to me all different, as though afar off was the Throne of God with Jesus Himself seated on it. Around the Throne was a very great number of those who stood – I don’t know whether they were people or angels – but they all sang wonderfully, wonderfully well. I stood there behind everyone and rejoiced. Anything more I don’t remember and cannot say. Whether this vision lasted long I also don’t know; only afterwards my cell attendants told me that when they came into the cell and saw me cast down before the icons, they thought at first that I was praying, but then seeing that I didn’t arise for a long time, they took me for being asleep and began to call me by name, but without success – and left me in peace. When I came to myself from the wonderful rapture and vision, there was again no one in the cell, for which I was very glad. The floor, on the place where my head had lain, was copiously wet with tears, as though water had been spilled on it. That meant that my bodily members were not devoid of life at that time – my eyes shed streams of tears, but I didn’t feel it and didn’t know. Or to speak more correctly, I didn’t know at all what was happening with me; but the sweetness which filled my heart in those most holy moments long remained in it, as a pledge of the heavenly visit.”
You see Sister, examples of lofty, contemplative prayer of nuns contemporary to us. Who hinders you and us from attaining this height? In the books of the Holy Fathers there are very many similar kinds of examples, but I purposely brought you ones from lives of our own times, because we, reading and listening to narratives about the great exploit of the saints often say in our justification: “Then there were saints!… That was in those former times! But now people are weak and our time is not then!” So, behold, understand from experience that even now there are true strugglers. Neither the time nor the place makes a man holy, but his good free volition and firm will. Pray unremittingly, and the Lord will not deprive you of His blessing.
(Repost from last year)
St. Cassiane (commemorated on September 7) is one of few female hymnographers in the Church. She was born into an aristocratic family some time before 805 and lived during the height of the iconoclastic period. From an early age she desired to become a nun and by the grace of God managed to pursue the monastic life. She was tonsured around 820 and founded a monastery on one of the seven hills in Constantinople. Despite her responsibilities as abbess, she wrote countless hymns and poems, many of which were sung by her nuns, and eventually incorporated into the Church’s liturgical books.
Many of St. Cassaine’s hymns are famous; one of her most famous hymns is sung during the Matins service of Holy Saturday. It foreshadows Christ’s glorious victory over death: “Weep not for me, O Mother, as you now see me buried whom you conceived within your belly seedlessly, your Son, for I shall rise from the dead and shall be glorified and as God shall in glory unceasingly exult those who longingly praise you in faith…” But the most famous of all her hymns is sung on Holy Tuesday evening. This hymn tells the story of “the sinful woman” from the Gospel of St. Luke and often leaves its many listeners in tears.
And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she found out that He was reclining at table in the house of a Pharisee, brought an alabaster of perfumed ointment, and she stood beside His feet behind Him, weeping; and she began to wet His feet with her tears, and was wiping them off again with the hairs of her head, and she was kissing His feet ardently and anointing them with the perfumed ointment (Luke 7: 37-38).
The above woman’s identity is disputed. Some think she is St. Mary of Bethany, the sister of Sts. Martha and Lazarus, others think she is St. Mary Magdalene, still others think she is someone else. We know she cannot be St. Mary of Bethany, however, for her story of anointing Christ’s feet is told in the Gospel of St. Matthew (26:6-7). It is unlikely that she is St. Mary Magdalene, for it would have been unnecessary to keep her name hidden when she is later revealed to be one of Christ’s disciples. No, this sinful woman is unknown, and yet one of the most well remembered penitents in all of history. Her story, as told poetically by the nun and hymnographer Cassiane, paints a story of sin and salvation:
Lord, O Lord, when the woman, who had fallen into many sins, perceived Your divinity she assumed the role of a myrhh-bearing woman, and lamenting brought ointment to anoint You before Your burial. “Woe is me,” she said “for night is forming a frenzy without restraint.” Very dark and moonless, a passionate love affair with sin. “Accept the fountain of my tears, You who draw out from the clouds the water of the sea, take pity on me and incline to the sighing of my heart, You who bowed the heavens by Your ineffable self-emptying. I shall cover your unstained feet with kisses and wipe them dry again with the locks of my hair. Those feet whose sound at twilight in Paradise of old echoed in Eve’s ears whereupon she hid herself in fear. The countless number of my sins and the depth of Your Judgment, who can fathom? O my life-saving Saviour. Do not despise me Your servant since without measure is your mercy!” (To hear this hymn in its original language, go here. Or listen to the English version below.)
What can I say about such spiritual poetry? St. Cassiane saw the sinful woman’s repentance with clear sight. When she read the words in the Gospel she understood their spiritual potency and conveyed it in her hymn. And her poem reveals her own repentant heart. For how can one express the piercing, redemptive pain of repentance without having been wounded by it themselves?
The imagery she uses surpasses any praise I could offer. How profound to equate sin with night, “very dark and moonless” indeed! Not even the moon is able to suffer shedding light upon our sins. And what is the moon? What is its source of light? – the sun. The light of the moon is merely a reflection of the light of the sun, the source of light. Like our Panagia (the All-holy Mother of God), reflecting the light of her Son and our God, how often does she hide her face from us when we sin? Where is the light of God to be found illuminating those dark moments?
Our first mother Eve is woven into the story. She, being naked – no longer wearing the garment of illumination – hid herself in fear. She hid herself because she was guilty of sin. In contrast, the sinful woman reveals her nakedness. She reveals it to Christ, and not just Him alone, but also to the Pharisse (in whose house Christ was staying) and all those present. Why does the one woman hide her nakedness and the other reveal it?
Eve was guilty of sin, and thus, out of shame (not humility) she hid her nakedness, her sin. The sinful woman, burning with repentance and love for our life-saving Saviour hastened to reveal her nakedness so that Christ would be pleased to look upon her sincerity and forgive her sins.
I admire the sinful woman’s bold repentance, to purchase costly ointment, to enter the house of a pharisee with no regard to what others would think of her, and “ardently kiss” the Lord’s feet! What humility, what repentance, what love! I hope that through the prayers of the sinful woman, and those of St. Cassiane the Hymnographer, we might inherit the same humble-mindedness, and celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection with contrite hearts.
May God make us worthy!
Today, by the prayers of a great many, I present myself as a candidate for ordination to the Holy Priesthood and thus I stand on the verge of the most fearful of Christian mysteries.
In the words of Saint Paul, a priest is one who acts, “on behalf of men in relation to God,” offering, “gifts and sacrifices for sins.” Thus, when the very Word of God, the second person of the holy, consubstantial, and life-creating Trinity, took on the fullness of humanity in the Incarnation and then willingly offered himself up to death upon the Cross for the salvation of all humanity he became for us the “Great High Priest”, who had been prefigured in the Old Testament – first in the Levitical priesthood, and then in the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. And now, “…that the mystery of this Divine priesthood has descended to human agency, it runs not by line of birth, nor is that which flesh and blood created chosen, but without regard to the privilege of paternity and succession by inheritance those men are received as its rulers whom the Holy Ghost prepares.”
The grace of participation in Christ’s own priesthood was first bestowed upon the Apostles, who went forth into the world, baptizing men into his death, absolving their sins in accordance with Christ’s declaration that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever they would loose on earth would be loosed in heaven, and celebrating the mystery of the Lord’s body and blood, whereby Christ’s death is proclaimed, “until he comes.” The Apostles, in accordance with the will of God, “prayed and laid their hands,” on men, “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” who would succeed them in exercising Christ’s priesthood. In turn, these bishops – or archpriests – would share a portion of their ministry with the men they ordain to the order of priests, again through the laying on of hands in ordination.
Much is required of one whom God has called to be, according to Saint Nektarios of Pentapolis, “…the visible organ of the Holy Spirit which is at work invisibly within the Church.” The picture of the priest is painted vividly within the various facets of our tradition; within the scriptures for example, Saint Paul, who has left us nothing short of a textbook on the priesthood in his epistles to Saints Timothy and Titus, teaches that a candidate for ordination must be “beyond reproach”.
Saint Paul’s description is then elaborated upon with the texts of our Holy and God-bearing Fathers; in the Celestial Hierarchy attributed to Saint Dionysios the Areopagite, the priest is charged with the responsibility of overseeing the second phase of the spiritual life – that of illumination. In other words, he is to lead men to the very cusp of union with God himself, a responsibility made all the more fearful when one considers the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian, who reminds us that, “It is necessary first to be purified, then to purify; to be made wise, then to make wise; to become illumined, then to illumine”.
Finally, Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain reminds us that the priest is to be, “…counselor of the people, appointed by God to serve them and to advise them what is the right way and to convince them of this rather than to order them.” To do this effectively, however, to prove that the Gospel is more than, “plausible words of human wisdom,” he must, again in the view of Saint Gregory the Theologian, either possess the ability to work miracles on account of his holiness, or he must possess deep knowledge of the Church’s holy tradition: “Just tell me one thing,” he writes, “can you exercise devils, deliver a man from leprosy, or the dead from the tomb; does the paralytic have his limbs restored by you, or does the touch of your hand on the ailing drive out disease? It is by those means that you will persuade me to hold learning in small esteem.”
Firstly, he has provided me with you, Your Grace, who with much trust ordained me to the Holy Diaconate now almost two years ago. It was by your permission, and with your blessing, that I was allowed to spend this time in the blessed Orthodox country of Greece for my spiritual improvement. Throughout which time I never felt bereft of your prayers and fatherly care and concern.
I have been given a spiritual father, who has walked the narrow path of Christ’s commandments, and who has thus been for me the surest of guides.
While in Greece, I was blessed to serve at the Church of Saint Anthony the Great in Thessaloniki, under the careful eye of the Emeritus Professor of Patristics, Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis. In Fr Theodoros I found one who not only knows the Orthodox tradition, but one who also gives it living expression.
Two particular friends also warrant acknowledgement for their significant roles in today’s events; Fr Dn Matthew Penney, my brother-in-law, and his wife Diakonissa Catherine’s lives have been deeply intertwined with mine in a manner which might only be understood as belonging to God’s Providence. We were undergraduates together, beginning our Christian struggle at roughly the same time, my wife and I then followed them to Korea where we spent a year together after my Master’s Studies, and then they followed us to Greece where were again together for 3 of our six years. Each in their own way has been for me both a support and source of humility.
I must thank God for the family environment within which I was raised. I grew up in a home of boundless love, under the watchful eye of conscientious parents who encouraged me to learn God-pleasing virtues, and who sought to shield me from soul-destroying vices.
Finally, and most importantly, God has given me a wife who is my constant support and inspiration. She knows the responsibilities of the clergy better than I do myself and is ever exhorting me to live a manner befitting of my calling. In countless moments of darkness, despair and temptation, it is she who has played the role of consolatrice.
It is impossible, then, that I claim to be anything but the first among sinners, for there is no one who has done less with such a bounty of gifts.
Adding to my apprehensions are the stern warnings found within our Tradition for those who do not succeed in their high calling, having approached it ill-equipped. For example, Saint John Chrysostom writes: “What severe punishment, then, must be expected by one who has not only to render an account of the offenses which he himself has separately committed, but also incurs extreme danger on account of the sins committed by others?”, while Saint Kosmas the Aetolian warns that a priest ought to, “Imagine that the buttons on his stole represent the souls of Christians; should he lose any of these he will answer for it on the day of judgement.”
All I can offer is my burning desire – now over a decade old – to be a steward of God’s mysteries, to serve Christ as a priest, combined with a firm conviction that my very salvation is bound up with this calling. It is my belief that in not taking this step, despite my unworthiness, I would be somehow denying that which God has asked of me. Therefore, it is on this ground, in confidence that God’s, “power is made perfect in weakness”, in prayer to Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and begging the intercessions of the Most Holy Lady Theotokos, of Saint John the Theologian, that I stand now prepared to present myself as “a living sacrifice”:
May God have mercy on me,
Fathers, brothers, and sisters forgive me,
“Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be unto me according to thy word.”
 Hebrews 5:1.
 Hebrews 4:14.
 St Leo the Great. Sermon III. .
 Romans 6:3.
 Matthew 18:18.
 1 Corinthians 11:26.
 Acts 6:3-6.
 Pastoral Handbook. 2., 23.
 1 Timothy 3:2.
 The Celestial Hierarchy. 5.1..
 Second Theological Oration. .
 Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, 181.
 Poem Twelve: On Himself and the Bishops. [211-215].
 On the Priesthood. 3..
 Third Teaching, 161.
 1 Corinthians 4:1.
 Romans 12:1.
 Luke 1:38.
Repentance is the renewal of baptism and is a contract with God for a fresh start in life. Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort. Repentance is critical awareness and a sure watch over oneself. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the refusal of despair. The penitent stands guilty – but undisgraced. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the performance of good deeds which are the opposites of the sins. It is the purification of conscience and the voluntary endurance of affliction.
(St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 5, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 2001)
To hear two wonderful talks on repentance listen to Fr. Joseph of St. Gregory Palamas Monastery on Ancient Faith Radio. Part One is here, and Part Two is here. Thanks to The Dutiful Bee for suggesting them!
I found here a haven of stillness;
Be healthy, my soul and my body;
Swim, O my nous, in the sweetest tranquility,
and ask not at all what your neighbour is doing.
-(Blessed) Elder Joseph the Hesychast and Cave-dweller, Monastic Wisdom: The Letter of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Letter Forty-Eight, p. 242
It’s never too late: not for fasting, not for prayer, not for conquering our passions. The spiritual clock never passes the “eleventh hour” until the day our soul departs from our body. That is what I have been reminding myself lately.
Sometimes I look back on my life, particularly on the last several years of being an Orthodox Christian and sigh: “What did I do?” I ask myself dejectedly. “How could I let my spiritual life slip away from my control? How could I have loosened my grip on the zeal I once had for Christ?” And in those moments I need to remind myself – scold myself into remembering – that repentance, true, honest, ugly repentance can bring us to heights of holiness read about in the lives of the saints.
I can’t go back and change the past. I can’t undo the knots I have tied in my heart, or the harmful thoughts I have knit into my mind unless I turn toward Christ with tears, with longing to change, and conviction to struggle against my bad habits, my negligence, my self-created environment of sin and anger.
Great Lent is a joyful and difficult time in the Orthodox Liturgical year. It is the long sought for time period of reflection, the challenging time of abstinence, and the perfect time for repentance. I regret that I have allowed myself to become slothful in regards to my spiritual life, but regret only gets us as far as Judas, who regretted he betrayed Christ, we need to follow St. Peter’s example and change. Otherwise I will merely fulfill the words of Abbess Thaisia, the spiritual daughter of St. John of Kronstadt, who said:
We fast from foods, yet with the soul and mind we take pleasure in forbidden fruits in various forms. We keep vigil, but our mind is weighed with earthly cares. We stand in prayer and psalmody, and our thoughts wander in all directions. We have come to the spring of Love, and in our hearts we often carry “the evil-smelling deceit” of Judas (Sticheron, Holy Thursday), “who with a kiss, as with a sign of love, betrayed his Master and Lord,” the Saviour of light and life, Whom he had once approached precisely to become His disciple and follower.
I need to turn around, face my sin, my laziness, my negligence, and with the help of God change my thoughts, words, and actions so that I keep the Great Fast inwardly as much as outwardly. This Great Lent I’ll be contemplating the following words sung on Holy Tuesday long before I arrive there in hopes that I will have, by then, made a beginning: O Saviour, I have gone astray still count me worthy of this joy, in Your great mercy!
our wealth, and our glory,
our stock, our crown,
We will never deny you, O beloved Orthodoxy,
nor lie to you, O time-honoured reverence,
nor walk away from you, O mother piety.
We have been born in you, we live in you,
and we will die in you.
If time asks for it,
we will sacrifice ten thousand times our lives for you.
-Joseph Vriennios (Spiritual Father o f St. Mark of Ephesus)
This post is the last in our series Truth of Our Faith – a week of posts honouring the confessors of Orthodoxy who did not, or do not, shy away from preaching the truth and enlightening the darkness of ignorance and pointing out the fruitlessness of heresy. I felt that this beautiful poem was the perfect ending to our Lenten “Sunday of Orthodoxy” week. I hope and pray that I and all of you have the courage to live the words of this poem. And if we don’t have the courage, may we strive to acquire it during this time of prayer and fasting. Tomorrow is another brilliant feast day, our own saint and archbishop of Thessaloniki – St. Gregory Palamas. May we have his blessing!
(An excerpt from The Life of Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac, pp. 658-659.)
From what has been related from the elder’s time at Stomio, it is clear that he was a resolute opponent of heresies. In matters of the faith he was exacting and uncompromising. “The Truth is not up for negotiation,” he said. “The Truth is Christ.”
He fought against ecumenism and spoke about the magnificence and uniqueness of Orthodoxy, obtaining his information by divine grace within his heart. His life attested to the superiority of Orthodoxy.
Discerningly, he stated, “There’s no need for us to tell Christians who aren’t Orthodox that they’re going to hell or that they’re antichrists; but we also mustn’t tell them that they’ll be saved, because that’s giving them false reassurances, and we’ll be judged for it. We have to give them a good kind of uneasiness – we have to tell them that they’re in error.”
Orthodoxy was extremely important to him, and this is why he didn’t accept the practices of communion or common prayer with non-Orthodox people. “In order for us to pray together with someone,” he stressed, “we must agree on the faith.” He cut off relationships with and avoided seeing clergy who participated in common prayer with heterodox. He didn’t recognized the “sacraments” of the heterodox and advised that those coming to the Orthodox Church should be well-catechized and then baptized.
For a time, together with almost the entire Holy Mountain, he ceased commemoration of Patriarch Athenagoras in response to his dangerous overtures toward the Roman Catholics. However, he did it with pain. “I pray,” he once told someone, “for God to take days away from me and give them to Patriarch Athenagoras, so he can fulfill his repentance.”