Archive for the ‘Orthodox Customs and Tradition’ Category

orthodoxpathAs quite a few readers of Lessons from a Monastery are from various countries and know various languages, I wanted to introduce you to a new website called The Orthodox Path, a multilingual Orthodox website. It is a great resource and has made spiritual articles available in many languages, including Greek, English, German, Albanian, Romanian, Turkish, as well as others. Below is just one of the website’s many jewels. It is a translation of a talk given by the renowned Elder Symeon of Panorama. Enjoy!

People today are complicated, multi-faceted, confused, and in one way or another, their souls are layered: layer upon layer of blindness, layer upon layer of callousness, layer upon layer of pride. For this reason they are never healed once and for all. As soon as you take a humble attitude, though, Grace intervenes and works a miracle: you are freed. But the work does not end here. This Grace, this light, this healing that comes proceeds also to the next layer further down. And here the sin is more unyielding, is more strongly rooted, the resistance is uncompromising. If you say, “May it be blessed, My God. I will look even deeper and I will acknowledge my stubbornness and my sin, and will humble myself”, then another miracle takes place. And in some incomprehensible way, the second and the third, the fourth and the fifth layers of the soul are put right. But some people will not accept this. They remain at the superficial layers, and spend their life like this and are never healed.” 

Transcribed talks by Arch. Symeon Kragiopoulos (trans. by Fr. Matthew Penney)

Through the prayers of the Holy Fathers, may we have the courage to continually look deep within ourselves and receive the grace of healing!

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I was commissioned to paint this icon by a dear Romanian friend of ours from New Brunswick. That is why the names Archangel Michael and St. Archippus are written in Romanian.

I was commissioned to paint this icon by a dear Romanian friend of ours from New Brunswick. That is why the names Archangel Michael and St. Archippus are written in Romanian.


The Miracle of the Holy Chief Commander Archangel Michael at Colossae. In Phrygia, not far from the city of Hieropolis, in a place called Cheretopos, there was a church named for the Archangel Michael, built over a miraculous spring.

This church was built by a certain inhabitant of the city of Laodicia in gratitude to God for healing his mute daughter. The holy Chief Commander Michael appeared to this man in a dream and revealed to him that his daughter would receive the gift of speech after drinking from the water of the spring. The girl actually did receive healing and began to speak. After this miracle, the father and his daughter and all their family were baptized. In fervent gratitude, the father built the church in honor of the holy Chief Commander Michael. Not only did Christians begin to come to the spring for healing, but also pagans. In so doing, many of the pagans turned from their idols and were converted to the faith in Christ.

At this church of the holy Chief Commander Michael, a certain pious man by the name of Archippus served for sixty years as church custodian. By his preaching and by the example of his saintly life he brought many pagans to faith in Christ. With the general malice of that time towards Christians, and especially against Archippus, the pagans thought to destroy the church in order to prevent people from coming to that holy place of healing, and at the same time kill Archippus.

Toward this end they made a confluence of the Lykokaperos and Kufos Rivers and directed its combined flow against the church. St Archippus prayed fervently to the Chief Commander Michael to ward off the danger. Through his prayer the Archangel Michael appeared at the temple, and with a blow of his staff, opened a wide fissure in a rock and commanded the rushing torrents of water to flow into it. The temple remained unharmed. Seeing such an awesome miracle, the pagans fled in terror. Archippus and the Christians gathered in church glorified God and gave thanks to the holy Archangel Michael for the help. The place where the rivers plunged into the fissure received the name “Chonae”, which means “plunging.”

The Chudov (“of the Miracle”) monastery in Moscow is named for this Feast.

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(Originally posted in 2012)

September 1 is the beginning of the Orthodox ecclesiastical year.

According to Tradition, it was on September 1 that our Lord and Saviour entered the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and was given to read a scroll from the prophet Isiah. It was customary at that time for the Jewish male to read in the synagogue once he had reached his thirtieth year. It was not a coincidence that Christ read prophetic words which referred to Him personally. It was the will of God for Him to be revealed in this manner. When He stood to read these were the words He uttered:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Isiah 61:1-2).

St. Luke’s gospel tells us Christ then “closed the book, and gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (Luke 4:20-22).

The Church, in her wisdom, decided the appropriate day to begin the Church year was the very day on which Christ began His ministry, the day He began to “preach the acceptable year of the Lord”.

Interestingly, the ecclesiastical year begins and ends with the Theotokos. On September 8 we celebrate her nativity, just one week into the new Church year. We celebrate her dormition, or falling asleep, on August 15, two weeks before the end of the Church year.

I don’t think we can view this as a coincidence. Our salvation begins with her as she was the long-awaited one; without her Christ would not have been born. So her own nativity is a kind of “beginning of our salvation” (Troparion of the Nativity of Christ). Her falling asleep and being escorted by her Son to Paradise is the appropriate ending. Taking our cue from the Lady Theotokos an appropriate “new year’s resolution” should be to die with Christ so that we can live with Him, to endure so that we too will reign.

“For if we have died with him, we will also live with him; and if we endure we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11).

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Looking through old files of photos and videos I found this video of the holy icon of Axion Esti (It is Truly Meet) arriving at the port of Thessaloniki from Mount Athos for the feast of St. Demetrios the Great Martyr and the 100th anniversary of the city’s liberation from Ottoman rule (October, 2012). We were blessed to be there and to record the procession which began at the port and led to the Church of St. Demetrios.

Below is the history of the icon, from the Pemptousia’s website here:

The icon or “Axion Esti”, which is said to be miraculous, is kept in the sanctuary. This is the most saintly icon of the whole monastic state. Placed on a throne behind the altar, it is about 3′ l’ by 2′ 2″ in size. The center of the icon is domi­nated by the Virgin holding the Child Jesus, while its oblong perimeter is occupied by twenty small medallions, each picturing the patron saints of the monasteries of Mt Athos. The following story is told about this icon. North-east of Karyes, in the direction of Pantokratoros monastery and at a place called Sakkos, there were a few kellia, one of them dedicated to the Assumption of the Bles­sed Virgin. One Saturday afternoon the Elder of this Kelli before starting for Karyes, where he intended to attend the vigils at the church of the Protaton, instructed his hypotaklikos to read the vespers himself. That evening a young monk who was a complete stranger appeared at the kelli and begged leave to stay for the night, which was granted. During matins next morning, the hypotaktikos was preparing to chant Kosmas’s hymn to the Virgin Mother before her icon. This begins with “Την τιμιωτέραν των χερουβείμ” (“More honourable than the Cherubim”) but he was in­terrupted by the visitor who started chanting the then unknown hymn “‘Αξιον εστίν ως αληθώς μακαρίζειν σε την Θεοτόκον, την αειμακάριστον και παναμώμητον και Μητέρα του Θεού ημών” (“It is truly meet to call thee blessed, the Theotokos and ever-virgin, all-immaculate and Mother of our God”).

Having finished this he continued with that of “Την τιμιωτέραν των χερουβείμ.” Greatly moved, the hypotaktikos begged the guest to write down the hymn for him. Finding no paper or ink he produced a marble slab on which the stranger carved the hymn with his bare finger. He ordered the monk that the hymn should thereafter be sung in praise of the Virgin. He then vanished. When the elder returned and was told what had passed between the hypotaktikos and the stranger, he at once notified the Assembly of the Elders at Karyes. Those had both the icon of the Virgin before which the angel-carved hymn was first sung, as well as the marble slab brought to the Protaton. The icon was placed on a throne in the sanctuary, with a hanging lamp burning before it day and night while the marble slab was sent to Constantinople and both the Emperor and the Patriarch were accordingly informed. Furthermore they communicated the event to al1 the fathers on the Holy Mountain, whom they instructed that the hymn should be sung henceforth. The kelli in question was named “Axion Estin” and its locality is still called “the Pit of Singing”.

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As we are about to embark on the Apostles’ Fast, I wanted to share this great reminder of the great importance of fasting both physically and spiritually!


Those who do not fast… teach that fasting consists in not thinking and doing evil and quote from our Saviour, the Apostles and Fathers to support their views. They usually forget that our Saviour, the Apostles and Fathers all fasted the physical fast as well as the spiritual fast. When man partakes of the glory of God, he does not partake of it in the spirit only, but physically also in a complete sense. When one praises God, he does not praise Him only in the Spirit, but with physical voice also in chant and prayer. When one worships God, he does not worship him noetically only but physically also the body participating by standing in prayer, by making prostrations and using the fingers and hand to seal itself with the sign of the Cross. When one communicates God, he does not communicate in spirit only but eats the very Body and drinks the very Blood of the Lord unto healing of soul and body. Thus one praises God and is united with God not in part, but completely as one whole soul and body. When one labors in virtue, one labors not only noetically but physically also, even unto blood, in order not to deny our Saviour. Our Holy Martyrs did not witness just by words and thought, resisting evil in their hearts and minds, but gave their bodies up to torments and their heals to be cut off, that they might remain with our Saviour. Thus, since we are not just spirits, but “wear flesh and live in the world,” we cannot possibly fast spiritually only and not fast physically also. There is a unity and interaction between the body and the soul. They cannot be separated while we are still in the body. In the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John writes “Satiety of food is the father of fornication; an empty stomach is the mother of purity.” He who always keeps his stomach full and he who fasts know the strength of this saying. 

-A Monk of the Orthodox Church

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St. Andrew of Constantinople, Fool-for-Christ

The following is translated and compiled from Russian Orthodox Women’s Monasticism by Nun Taisia, Jordanvllle, 1985; St. Seraphim of Sarov by Dr. A. Timofieyvich, Novo-Diveyevo, 1953; A Chronicle of Diveyevo Monastery, St. Herman of Alaska Monastery, 1978; “The Fools for Christ of Diveyevo”, a samizdat at-tide translated by Nun Evfrosinia; and “Blessed Pelagia Ivanovna, Fool-for-Christ,” in Nadezhhda, Vol. 12, Possev, Frankfurt.


One of the principal values in reading Lives of Saints is that these are men and women with whom we can identify and in some small measure emulate, striving towards those virtues which they so brilliantly reflect. By contrast, one might question the utility of describing the extreme and even scandalous behavior of these fools-for Christ, whose path to salvation is so foreign to our own. In fact, the purpose here is not to provide examples for emulation; in this age of spiritual immaturity and fakery this would invite disaster. Rather, it is to jolt our rational sensibilities, our devotion to what is “reasonable,” so coveted by our Western culture, and to open our eyes to Christianity’s essential otherworldliness. These Lives serve as a stark reminder that, as bishop Theophan the Recluse wrote, “the spiritual world is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world does not penetrate.”

Foolishness-for-Christ’s-sake is considered to be the most difficult of Christian spiritual exploits. It is frequently misunderstood and, if undertaken outside the will of God, is a sign of spiritual deception–prelest. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who himself manifest on occasion certain traits of this ‘holy folly’, warned of the peril of embarking upon such a path without a special call from the Lord. The primary purpose of such an undertaking is to intensify humility and thereby to defeat the demon of vainglory, who avidly preys upon those richly endowed with spiritual gifts, those well advanced on the ladder to perfection. These ascetics feign madness, deliberately provoking others to make fun of them and offend them; they are voluntary martyrs, dying to the world, to what is considered “acceptable” and “reasonable,” for the sake of a life hidden in Christ, a realm which lies above the level of purely human understanding. By their strange behavior and enigmatic words–they often speak in riddles and parables—these chosen ones of God also serve as living reminders of the transcendent aim of life. It has been noted that they appear in Christian societies at times of spiritual laxity: when piety has become mere habit, when Christian love runs shallow and people’s hearts are not illumined by the grace of God.

For obvious reasons the podvig of foolishness-for-Christ is not a common phenomenon; within the Church’s rich hagiographical depository, there are relatively few fools-for-Christ: St. Andrew of Constantinople, St. Basil of Moscow, St. Xenia of Petersburg, Blessed Feofil of the Kiev Caves… It is striking, therefore, to find in Russia’s Diveyevo Convent a succession of holy fools, “blazhenni,” not unlike Optina’s “golden chain” of God-bearing elders.

The first fool-for-Christ of Diveyevo was blessed Parasceva Semyonovna Meliukova. In blessing her on this path, St. Seraphim told her to undertake it only after his death, a time of troubles for the Convent, in order to defend the truth. After barely a week she collapsed under the strain–which gives one an idea of the spiritual stamina necessary to bear it successfully. Nine days later she died.

Still in her lifetime there settled in Diveyevo another fool-for-Christ, Pelagia Ivanovna Sembrenikova. As a young married woman she visited St. Seraphim, who conversed privately with her for a long time. On parting, the Elder bowed to her and said, “Go, Matushka, to Diveyevo and defend my orphans. God win glorify you there.” And he handed her a prayer rope. As she walked away, a young monk standing outside the elder’s cell asked him who she was. “Trust God, Fr. John,” replied the Saint, “this woman whom you see will be a great luminary for the whole world….She is Pelagia Ivanovna, from Arzamas.”

pelagiaOn returning home, Pelagia Ivanovna began acting as though she had gone mad, running around Arzamas and shouting inanities. For several years she endured unspeakable torments from her relatives: her husband locked her up, beat her, chained her to a wall, and finally abandoned her altogether. Half-dressed, she spent freezing winter nights on a church porch. But she remained unshaken, encouraged in her exploit by another fool-for-Christ living in the same town, who evidently guided her.

After four years of this harsh’ life, she was sitting one day in the road when a Diveyevo nun of considerable spiritual experience came up to- her. “You’ve been acting crazy here long enough; it’s time you came to us in Diveyevo, for this is pleasing to God.”

In Diveyevo Pelagia Ivanovna continued her tormenting struggle. She deliberately visited the cells of those nuns who were rather severe and didn’t like her, and vexed them no end. For example, she would bring into their cells rocks, clay and all kinds of dirt, patiently enduring in return verbal abuse and sometimes even beatings. No one understood her. She was considered to be an ordinary crazy woman and quite unbearable. Only young Mother Anna was patient and loving with her, and for forty-five years Pelagia lived in her care. The blessed one straightway loved the young nun for her kind heart, but she sometimes provoked her as well. For example, she would throw rocks into a clay pit filled with water and come home covered with mud, and Mother Anna would have to wash and change her. She did this constantly. Mother Anna kept all her recollections about the blessed one’s life in Diveyevo. Finally, the following incident served to open everyone’s eyes.

To everyone’s consternation, Pelagia Ivanovna began running every day to the local tavern. Through her God-given gift of discernment she knew that the owner of the tavern was diabolically inspired to murder his innocent wife. But she told no one about this. And so, late one night, thinking he was alone with his wife, the tavern owner raised his knife to kill her. At that very moment the blessed one, having hidden behind some kegs, jumped out in front of him. “You fool, what are you doing?!!” . she shouted. The fear of God seized the guilty man. He dropped the knife, and the blessed one, having accomplished her mission, ran off. The next day the tavern owner came with his wife to the convent and, with a contrite heart, related all that had happened. From then on, peace and concord established themselves in his home, and the blessed one ceased going to the tavern. At the same time, the sisters’ attitude towards her changed: they understood that among them was a genuine ascetic.

Gradually, Pelagia Ivanovna began to manifest other spiritual gifts, especially the gift of directing souls. All the sisters came under her spiritual guidance, and she had quite a number of spiritual children among the laity as well. As for the abbess, she did nothing without consulting the blessed one, and only with the abbess did the blessed one converse normally, without acting the fool.

The painter, M. P. Petrov, was a living example of that grace-filled action through which she directed people’s hearts to the way of salvation.

Returning from a trip to Mount Athos, Petrov stopped in Sarov and Diveyevo. He was taken to see, Pelagia Ivanovna. His first impression was oppressive. Pelagia did not respond to his questions; she sat by the door, all hunched up, with huge fingernails and toenails. Ho had been at the Convent about a month when, acquiescing to the persistent urging of the sisters, he rather reluctantly decided to go see her again.

“When I entered,” related Petrov, “she got up and, drawing herself to her full height, began running about the room laughing; then she ran up to me and hit me on the shoulder: ‘Well?’ That arm had long pained me as a result of palsy, but after that hit the pain instantly subsided and disappeared altogether. I was overcome by a kind of panic and stood speechless, shaking with fright. She then proceeded to tell me all about my past life, including amazing details which no one but I knew about. She even related the contents of a letter which I’d sent that day to Petersburg.”

Astounded, Petrov fell to his knees and kissed her hand. From then on he became her earnest visitor and admirer.

“She pulled me from the depths of hell,” he said later.

Before her repose on January 30, 1884 (O.S.), she was granted to receive the Holy Mysteries from angels, as witnessed by Mother Anna. After her repose she was seen in a vision, kneeling before the Most Holy Mother of God together with St. Seraphim. Blessed Parasceva Semyonovna called her “a second Seraphim,” and she became known as “Seraphim’s Seraphim.”

During this time there lived in Diveyevo yet another fool-for-Christ, Natalia Dmitrievna–“Natashenka”.     Little is known of her background, other than that she came from a peasant family of the Orenburg province. At first, she too sorely tried the nuns’ patience—she would stand by the choir, her head uncovered, and make faces–and she would have been evicted had not Blessed Pelagia appeared in a vision to one of the senior nuns with a paper on which was written in large letters: “Do not touch Natalia; she is assigned to live here!”

It was generally believed that she had been secretly tonsured in Kiev and, judging from her behavior and way of life, she had been directed by the elders onto an exceptionally difficult path. Weeks, even months at a time she would spend in the hay shed – a shelter consisting of little more than a roof—in winter, summer, good weather and bad; she ate little and on fast days nothing at all; she never combed her hair, never bathed and changed her clothes only once a year—on the Feast of Protection; she never lay down to sleep but rested in a sitting position. She would spend whole days in church and never missed a service. Her obedience was to read the Psalter at night. One of her most striking peculiarities was her habit of moving sideways, and always along the same path or floorboards. She insisted that visitors not come up to her directly but that they take steps backwards and forwards for several minutes while reciting, “Theotokos and Virgin, rejoice…”

This evidently allowed her time to pray for the Lord’s guidance, and also prepared her visitors to receive her advice. Unlike many “holy fools,” who spoke in riddles, Natashenka was very clear and direct in her counsel. Her wisdom was profound.

To the ordinary person, these “eccentricities” seem senseless, bizarre, idiotic, irrational. But it is for just this reason that the elder prescribed them-in order to vanquish human reasoning, self-will, and, with the help of such a harsh obedience-intolerable for most–to force a complete renunciation of the world, a complete turning inward, into the heart where the Kingdom of Heaven is’ to be found. Few have the spiritual eyes to see the real meaning of such severe exploits. Worldly people are horrified by their utter and deliberate neglect of personal hygiene; some even think they must find this pleasurable, although it is rare that a person can tolerate such bodily filth. The very fact that it disgusts people and that it is so unbearable constitutes a real struggle and shows that the ascetic has subjugated his carnal passions by the spirit and celebrates victory in the sweetest feeling of love for Christ.

When Natasha grew old, she ceased her foolishness. She died in 1899, having spent more than fifty years in Diveyevo.

Not long before Pelagia Ivanovna died, she saw from her window a woman coming towards her from the convent gates. She shouted at her, shaking her finger threateningly. The woman stopped. “Is it still too early, mother?” she asked. “Early,” answered the blessed one. The woman bowed low and left as she had come. She would return periodically for extended visits and, after Pelagia Ivanovna died, she remained there to live. Who was she? Her name in holy baptism was Nadezhda, but everyone knew her as Pasha of Serov, or Parasceva Ivanovna. Years earlier, after enduring frightful trials, she had gone on pilgrimage to Kiev; on her return she had begun to act the fool and call herself Parasceva. It was therefore surmised that in Kiev she had been secretly tonsured and the elders had guided her onto the path of foolishness- for-Christ’s-sake.

At first she undertook this podvig in a village, then she went to live as a hermit in the Sarov forest. Tall, thin, sunburnt and barefoot, wearing a man’s shirt, she resembled St. Mary of Egypt. Like St. Seraphim she was beaten up by robbers who left her in a pool of blood.

In Diveyevo Pasha straightway took Pelagia Ivanovna’s place as spiritual directress. The abbess likewise consulted her in every undertaking. The sisters called her “Little Mother,” and, like Pelagia Ivanovna, she had many spiritual children among lay people. In contrast to Blessed Natalia, Pasha was very clean and liked everything to be tidy. She loved to wear bright colors. Her bed was covered with fat pillows and dolls. She herself rarely used it. In her spare time she would knit socks or crochet while saying the Jesus Prayer –for which reason the items she made were much coveted.

When the Royal Family came to the Diveyevo Convent at the opening of the relics of Saint Seraphim, July 19, 1903, Blessed Parasceva foretold the birth of their son, Tsarevich Alexis. Before they arrived she prepared a large boy doll, which she gave to the Empress. (She often prophesied using dolls, as did Elder Nectarius of Optina). The Tsar, after speaking with the blessed one, said that he had visited and spoken with many holy people, and all of them had received him as Tsar, but only Parasceva Ivanovna received him as an ordinary person. After this the Tsar corresponded with the blessed one through a special courier, Not long before her death she answered the Tsar’s last question with the words, “Sir, leave the throne yourself.” The blessed one would cross herself before a portrait of the Tsar that hung in her ceil, and daily made a prostration before it, in spite of being already ill and so weak that her cell attendant had to assist her in getting up. In 1914, while praying before the portrait, she said, ‘There’s not much time left now for our dearest one.” Several limes the blessed one called the Tsar a martyr and said, “This Tsar will be higher than all the other tsars.” She died in 1915 at the age of 120.

pashaPasha’s successor was Maria lvanovna, a clairvoyant and wise spiritual directress. She had a spiritual son, Michael Ar…ov, with whom she often joked. Once Misha’s cousins, nuns, came to Diveyevo to see Maria Ivanovna. They asked how Misha was doing. “He’s gotten involved with a gypsy,” she told them. The sisters worried, and at the next opportunity they asked their cousin, “You must tell us what’s happened to you? Surprised, Misha asked, “But what could have happened?” “Maria Ivanovna told us that you’re involved with a gypsy.” Misha began to laugh and then explained that he hadn’t smoked for many years, but not long ago he succumbed to the temptation; he bought a pack of “Gypsy” brand cigarettes and started smoking again.

Soon after the Revolution Maria Ivanovna began to use really terrible, foul language. She did this for a number of days. The nuns who lived with her couldn’t bear it and would leave the house from time to lime to get some relief. Finally, they could tolerate no more and began to rebuke Maria Ivanovna, “How can you use such foul language?! Parasceva Ivanovna never did that.” The blessed one replied, “Under Nicholas she could speak nicely, but try doing that under the Soviets!”

Blessed Maria Ivanovna died in 1927.

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Below is a wonderful article my sister-in-law wrote for our Lenten e-mail group a few years ago, I initially posted it in 2012. I wanted to share again because I think that it is a great reflection on repentance for Holy Week. It’s not too late, even now at the “eleventh” hour we can turn our hearts to God. I wish you all a very fruitful finish to Holy Week, and as we say in Greek, “Good Repentance!”
I must admit, when I hear this word there’s something in me that almost shudders – or even better – freezes.  There’s a ‘heaviness’ to it that is almost unbearable. I guess you could say, ‘repentance is heavy; it’s serious and there’s nothing light about it.’  That would be true, but I would have to explain myself a bit more for you to see where my error lies, since – as far as I can see – this ‘heaviness’ that I feel has nothing to do with real repentance at all; even worse, it’s just an imposter, a false repentance – mixing me up.  I’ll explain a bit, and hopefully you’ll see through my ridiculousness.For example, hearing that ten-letter-word my mind rushes to images of the harsh ascetic labours that such Repentant Ones did, and still do: the deprivations, the sighs, the exile and loneliness, the severe fasting, never ending prostrations, the flight from this world, and finally the terrible tortures, and horrific deaths – all due to their great repentance.  Unable to identify in the least bit with such actions, such feats, I feel a crushing weight set into my bones. That’s when I’d sigh. And that’s when my mind despairs of my weakness – of my lack of love. And then the distance sets in – the utter separation.  I am not good enough.  With Christ having such good friends, I have no chance.

My thinking this way, it seems to me, is utter poison. I am wrong to identify these deeds – these actions – with the state of repentance.  In themselves they are nothing, since even these can be done out of pride.  Didn’t I learn from the Publican and the Pharisee? Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! And learn humility from the Publican’s tears!  Certainly these great acts done by Christ’s Saints truly spring from repentant hearts, but even these God-pleasing, pure, deeds are not the repentance – an expression of it, yes, but not the repentance itself.  It’s not the knees pounding into the floor that pleases Christ, but the repentant heart inspiring such a bodily response. I don’t measure up – this is undeniable – but why should I let this bring hopeless despair or utter coldness of heart?  Why do I think I should earn Christ’s love? Don’t I realize that this is impossible? In this moment of realizing how very far away I am from Christ – right before the despair (in myself) and cool feelings of helplessness – lies the possibility for repentance, but only if I take it.

Through their recorded lives, we see that all these saints known especially for their repentance had these moments – and usually in extreme degrees.  Feeling the utter weight of the truth (that they were very far from God) they acknowledged this fact and fell down beneath the weight of it. But at the very same moment, God permeates them (and us if we want it) with Himself, and overcomes this impossible divide.  The harlot, so far away just moments before, accepts this reality and because of it leaps towards Christ: “ A harlot knowing you, the Son of the Virgin, to be God, imploring you with weeping, for she had done things worthy of tears, said, ‘Loose my debt, as I unloose my hair; love one who loves, though justly hated, and along with tax-collectors I shall proclaim you, O Benefactor, who loves mankind’”(Holy Wednesday). To feel the weight of our nothingness before God, but then to cry out to Him – with hope and belief – because that’s what He’s told us to do!  That’s what we see his Holy Ones do!  And from this the distance is overcome, and we are raised high, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (Luke 14, 10).

It seems to me that the true weight of this word ‘repentance’ comes not from anything crushing, or overwhelming.  St. Mary of Egypt tells us: “Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance.  Thus, repentance for her (and for us) was a key – an entrance into something otherwise closed.  The true weight of this word ‘repentance’ lies in its incomprehensible power – and from this the demons tremble.  By it, we are able to call down the divine; we empty ourselves but only to be filled.  And in this – we are told – lies incredible sweetness.  Have we surmounted our sins, fixed our problems, before this moment? Absolutely not!  It seems to me, there’s no more powerful, dynamic, way of approaching God than this.  It is not about being “good” or “bad” – of course we must strive to acquire the virtues – but it’s about the state of the heart.  Let us become good! But let us first have repentance! And let us keep this repentance! “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15, 7).

When we hear the cry of the Baptist and Forerunner: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” let us not be overwhelmed – let us not freeze!  Repentance is not heavy, but light! It is freedom – perhaps disguised to those of us lacking this sweet experience – but it is there for the taking.  There are no prerequisites. No divine ladder which must first be climbed.

Let us be like the thief on the cross and repent, so that Christ can also say to us: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23, 43).

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