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Archive for the ‘Orthodox Theology’ Category

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Abba Sisoes’ humility and longing for repentance was epitomised by the manner of his departure from this life. When he lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father” St Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.” After these words the face of the holy Abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoes told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odour, and Abba Sisoes departed to the Heavenly Kingdom.

St. Sisoes is today well known for his depiction in an icon which became popular upon its appearance in Greek monasteries following the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 15th Century. This icon, the “Astonishment of Sisoes”, is a contemplation on death, but not only the death of a man, but of an earthly empire. The icon shows St. Sisoes over the dead bones in Alexander the Great’s open tomb and with the following inscription:

“SISOES, THE GREAT ASCETIC, BEFORE THE TOMB, OF ALEXANDER, KING OF THE GREEKS,WHO WAS ONCE COVERED IN GLORY.

ASTONISHED, HE MOURNS FOR THE VICISSITUDES OF TIME AND THE TRANSCIENCE OF GLORY, AND TEARFULLY DECLAIMS THUS:

‘THE MERE SIGHT OF YOU TOMB, DISMAYS ME AND CAUSES MY HEART TO SHED TEARS, AS I CONTEMPLATE THE DEBT WE, ALL MEN, OWE.

HOW CAN I POSSIBLY STAND IT? OH, DEATH! WHO CAN EVADE YOU?‘”

ossuary in meteora

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Father Alexis Trader, an American priestmonk living in Greece, not only writes with great spiritual and scientific knowledge, he writes about matters of central importance to Orthodox Christians. I found his article on leaving one’s gift at the altar very informative and beautifully written. Below is just an excerpt, to read  the article in its entirety see here. Visit Father Alexis’ website and peruse his collection of articles here.

We all like consistency between our thoughts and our actions. It is as though we have a map to a goal and we are following it. When we lose that consistency, we feel lost, distressed, and uncomfortable on account of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, a condition that becomes worse in proportion to the meaning and importance of those thoughts and actions. This state of discomfort is actually a gift that under the most important of circumstances the Fathers would refer to as pangs of conscience. Those with a refined conscience for whom living in accord with God’s will is highly important will experience great cognitive dissonance when they act in an un-Christian way. Saint Jerome refers to such cognitive dissonance when he asks, “How have we been able to say in our daily prayers ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,’ while our feelings have been at variance with our words and our petition inconsistent with our conduct?” (Letter 13 to Castorina).

Oh, and Happy Independence Day to our American friends and readers!

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Below is a great article written by a Greek Orthodox priest concerning the recent events in Jerusalem and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s perplexing statements concerning the Church.

May God enlighten us all!

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What is one to make of the recent events in Jerusalem commemorating the 50th anniversary of the meeting of Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI, during which the Patriarch of Constantinople, along with the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and other hierarchs of the Patriarchate, met with the Pope of Rome to conduct joint prayer services and issue joint statements? What problems, if any, do these meetings and statements pose to us as Orthodox Christians and to our Orthodox Faith? And, what, in the final analysis, is the essential theological problem at stake here?

These are some of the questions that many faithful ask, and they deserve a thorough answer in return. This short article will attempt to provide some answers, or at least the beginnings of such answers.

Those who would see in these ecumenical gatherings an overwhelmingly positive development speak of them as “exchanges of generosity, goodwill and hope,” and “exchanges in the spirit of Christian love” which are “true expressions of the faith of the Apostles, the Fathers, and the Orthodox.” The champions of these gatherings never fail to admit that “although there are serious differences” between the Orthodox Church and Catholicism “which must not be overlooked, nevertheless our faith demands that we join together and witness to our shared Christian commitments.” This is how a well-known American Orthodox theologian referred to the Jerusalem event and I believe he is accurately repeating the general conception among supporters.

If, however, we are to understand the meaning of these events in a spiritual and theological manner, we must go beyond the tired clichés and overused platitudes and examine the underlying ecclesiology which is either being implied or being expressed by the Patriarch and his supporters during these meetings. It is quite easy, and unfortunately quite common even among Orthodox Christians, to be satisfied with the flowery language of love and reconciliation and not pay attention to the deeper significance of the theology being expressed in word and deed. If we are to avoid such a pitfall and assist others in the same, we must acquire an Orthodox mindset and judge these important matters within the Orthodox framework and criteria.

The underlying problem here that few discuss is the ecclesiological implications of the Patriarchate and its supporters’ new view of the Church. If the Jerusalem meeting and the accompanying gatherings (such as those in Paris, Boston and Atlanta) are judged to be destructive of Church unity and to undermine the mission of the Church, it is not, of course, because of the flowery language of love and understanding incessantly used on all sides, but because they are not grounded in the Orthodox Faith, in Orthodox ecclesiology. If, however, our representatives in these meetings are not expressing an Orthodox teaching on the Church, what are they expressing?

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of previous statements by hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople one could reference in order to answer this question. Citing them is both beyond the scope of this article and unnecessary, for in remarks made by the Patriarch of Constantinople in his first speech given in Jerusalem on May 23rd, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the essence of the new ecclesiology is clearly articulated:

The One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, founded by the “Word in the beginning,” by the one “truly with God,” and the Word “truly God”, according to the evangelist of love, unfortunately, during her engagement on earth, on account of the dominance of human weakness and of impermanence of the will of the human intellect, was divided in time. This brought about various conditions and groups, of which each claimed for itself “authenticity” and “truth.” The Truth, however, is One, Christ, and the One Church founded by Him.

Both before and after the great Schism of 1054 between East and West, our Holy Orthodox Church made attempts to overcome the differences, which originated from the beginning and for the most part from factors outside of the environs of the Church. Unfortunately, the human element dominated, and through the accumulation of “theological,” “practical,” and “social” additions the Local Churches were led into division of the unity of the Faith, into isolation, which developed occasionally into hostile polemics.

Note that the Patriarch states:

  1. The One Church was divided in time.
  2. That this division was the result of the dominance of human weakness. It is not stated, but it follows that this human weakness was stronger than the Divine Will for the Church He founded.
  3. That the various groups, parts of the One Church, which resulted from this division each “claimed” to be the authentic and true Church. The implication here is that none of them, including the Orthodox Church, can rightfully lay claim to being exclusively the One Church.
  4. And, yet, somehow, in spite of these competing groups all exclusively claiming authenticity and truth, the Church is one. Once again, it follows from all that is said that this oneness exists only outside of time, since the Church, as he said, was divided in time.

In order to gain a total picture of the new ecclesiology being presented, we should add to these views on the Church the Patriarch(ate)’s stance vis-à-vis Catholicism, which was on exhibit in both word and deed throughout the Jerusalem event. In all of the promotional material and patriarchal addresses, Catholicism—which synods of the Church and saints have for centuries now considered to be a heretical parasynagogue—is considered to be a Local Church, the Church in Rome. Likewise, the current Pope is considered to be a “contemporary successor of the early apostle [Peter] and current leader of the ancient church [of Rome].” The Patriarch has also referred to the current Pope as his brother bishop, co-responsible for the good governing of the One Church. He considers the sacraments performed by the Pope and his clerics as the self-same mysteries of the One Church. Thus it is not surprising that he views the Church as divided in history and yet somehow still one, if only outside of history.

What can we now say of this image of the Church presented by the Patriarch? We can say that:

  1. It is in total harmony with the Second Vatican Council’s new ecclesiology as laid out in the conciliar documents Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio.
  2. It is entirely at odds with the vision of the Church presented in relevant conciliar documents of the Orthodox Church, such as the decisions of the Council of 1484, the Patriarchal Encyclicals of 1848 and 1895, and in the writings of those Holy Fathers who have expressed the mind of the Church on the subject, such as Sts. Gregory Palamas, Nectarius of Pentapolis, Mark of Ephesus, Paisius Velichkovsky, and many others.

The Patriarch and his supporters are aligning themselves and attempting to align all of Orthodoxy with the ecclesiological line drawn during the Second Vatican Council. This new ecclesiology allows for a division of the Church “in time,” such that the Orthodox Church and Catholicism are considered “two lungs” of the One Church—yet nevertheless divided. In this ecclesiology, the universal Church includes both Catholicism and all other Christian confessions. It is supposed that the Church is a communion of bodies that are more or less churches, a communion realized at various degrees of fullness, such that one part of the Church, that under the Pope, is considered “fully” the Church, and another part of the Church, such as a Protestant confession, “imperfectly” or only “partially” the Church. Thus, this ecclesiology allows for participation in the Church’s sacraments outside of her canonical boundaries, outside of the one Eucharistic assembly, which is antithetical with a properly understood “Eucharistic ecclesiology.”

Hence, the ecclesiology expressed in word and deed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the ecclesiology of Vatican II converge in the acceptance of a divided Church, or a Church rent asunder by the heavy hand of history. It might be characterized as ecclesiological Nestorianism, in which the Church is divided into two separate beings: on the one hand the Church in heaven, outside of time, alone true and whole; on the other, the Church, or rather “churches,” on earth, in time, deficient and relative, lost in history’s shadows, seeking to draw near to one another and to that transcendent perfection, as much as is possible in “the weakness of the impermanent human will.”

In this ecclesiology, the tumultuous and injurious divisions of human history have overcome the Church “in time.” The human nature of the Church, being divided and rent asunder, has been separated from the Theanthropic Head. This is a Church on earth deprived of its ontological nature and not “one and holy,” no longer possessing all the truth through its hypostatic union with the divine nature of the Logos.

This ecclesiology is, without doubt, at total odds with the belief and confession of the Orthodox in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Church of Christ, as the Apostle Paul supremely defined it, is His body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all (τὸ σῶμα Αὐτοῦ, τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσι πληρουμένου). The fullness of Christ is identified with the Body of Christ which is, like Christ when He walked on earth in time, as Theanthropos, visible and indivisible, being marked by divine-human characteristics. As Vladimir Lossky has written, all that can be asserted or denied about Christ can equally well be applied to the Church, inasmuch as it is a theandric organism. It follows, then, that just as we could never assert that Christ is divided, neither could we countenance the Church ever being divided. (cf. 1 Cor 1:13).

Saviour_by_Rublev_bigThe Church, it goes without saying, was founded, established, spread, and exists to this day in time (and will exist until the Second Coming, and beyond). This is so because the Church is the Theanthropic Body of the Christ, who entered into time, walked, died, rose, ascended and is to return again in time. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation in time. And just as our Lord was seen and touched and venerated in the flesh, in time, so too does His Body, the Church, continue—united and holyin time. If we were to accept the division of the Church, we would be accepting the nullification of the Incarnation and the salvation of the world. As this new ecclesiology of a “divided church” ultimately annuls man’s salvation, it could be rightly considered as heresy.

Our belief in the unity and continuity of the Body of Christ, our confession of faith, this dogma of the Church, is based on nothing less than the divine promises of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, when he said such words as these:

“When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.” (Jn. 16:13).

“I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock [of faith] I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt 16:18).

“Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (Mt 28:16).

“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33).

Likewise, from the mouth of Christ, the divine Apostle Paul, we hear more promises of the indivisibility and invincibility of the Church:

“And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is His body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” (Eph 1:22-23).

“The house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” (1 Tit 3:5).

“There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Eph 4:5).

“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” (Heb 13:8).

And, from the Apostle of Love, John the Theologian, we read that it is our faith in the God-man and His divine-human Body that is invincible and victorious over the fallen spirit of this world, which is above all, a spirit of division:

“For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” (1 Jn 5:4).

So, then, has not the Spirit of Truth led His Church into “all truth”? Or, are we as Orthodox only advancing a “claim” of authenticity and truth? Has He not guarded His Church so that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it? Or, has “human weakness” overcome Christ’s Body? Has He not remained with us, guiding us even until today and on to the end of time? Or, does He no longer exist as One “in time”? Has not our faith in the God-man overcome the world and the spirit of division? Or, is it, as the Patriarch supposes, that the “human element” and “human weakness” has overcome our faith and the unity of the Body of Christ?

To better understand the impossibility of both the Orthodox Church and Catholicism maintaining the identity of the One Church while being divided over matters of faith, let us look briefly at the marital union. In marriage, a man and a woman are united in Christ. There exists a three-fold unity, or a unity between two persons in a third Person. This is no mere human accord. This is a theanthropic unity, a manifestation of the mystery of the Incarnation and thus of the Church, according to the divine words of the Apostle Paul: This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Eph 5:32).

All unity in the Church is theanthropic. Indeed, truly united human beings are only to be found in the Church, for in the Church alone does man put on divine-humanity (Gal 3:27), the human nature of Christ. As the fallen, unredeemed human nature is hopelessly broken and divided within itself, separated from the principle of his unity, God, man can only be united by “putting on” a new human nature, the human nature of the God-man, which takes place in the mysteries, first of which is baptism. Therefore, we are restored to unity in ourselves, between ourselves and with God only through unity with the God-man in His human nature, in His Body, the Church.

Has there been division? Has the “marriage” fallen apart? Know that first one of the two persons ceased to exist “in Christ,” fell away from Christ, and only then from the other. This human division is necessarily preceded by a break in communion with the Divine Person in which the two persons were united. Something similar can be said on the ecclesiastical plane.

The Patriarch maintains that even though “the Local Churches were led into division of the unity of the Faith” and “the One Church was divided in time,” nevertheless both the Orthodox Church and Catholicism are united to Christ and manifest this unity with Him in common sacraments. This is impossible, however, for if both were united to Christ, they would necessarily be united to one another, since they find their unity in Christ. Simply put: if we are both in Christ, we are united. If we are divided, we can’t both be in Christ. In terms of ecclesiology, this means that both can’t be “the Church.”

From the moment that one holds that the Church is divided, he can no longer hold that the members of the Church are united to the theanthropic nature of the Body of Christ. The Church that is envisioned is necessarily a merely human organism, in which the “dominance of human weakness and of [the] impermanence of the will of the human intellect” reigns and brings division.

We can also see this truth evidenced in the words of the Apostle of Love, the beloved Evangelist, John the Theologian. He states that if a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar. (1 Jn 4:20). Similarly, since love unites us to God, if we say that we are united with God but divided from our brother, we do not speak the truth. Furthermore, on the ecclesiastical plane, if we say that the “churches” are both united with God but are divided between themselves, we do not speak the truth. For, if both are united to God they would also be united to one another, since unity in the Church is in and through Christ.

Based on this new teaching from the Patriarch(ate), some maintain that a “false union” has already been forged. Most dismiss this claim straightaway. It is true that the common cup, at least officially and openly, was not at stake in Jerusalem or immediately anywhere. However, a type of “false union” has undeniably been established on the level of ecclesiology. For, when the mysteries of a heterodox confession are recognized per se, as the very mysteries of the Church, and, likewise, their bishops are accepted and embraced as bishops of the One Church, then have we not already established a union with them? Have we not a union both in terms of recognizing their “ecclesiality” (i.e., the One Church in Rome) and in adopting a common confession of faith with respect to the Church?

If we recognize their baptism as the one baptism, it is inconsistent not to recognize the Eucharistic Synaxis in which their baptism is performed. And if we recognize their Eucharist as the One Body, it is both hypocritical and sinful not to establish Eucharistic communion with them immediately.

It is precisely here that the untenable nature of the Patriarchate’s stance becomes apparent. The fact that the Church has never accepted inter-communion with Catholicism witnesses not to just some tactical decision or conservative stance, but to her self-identity as the One Church and to her view of Catholicism as heresy. If this were not the case, it would be as if we are playing with the mysteries and the truth of the Gospel. As St. Mark of Ephesus famously expressed it, the “cutting off of the Latins” was precisely because the Church no longer saw their “church,” their Eucharistic assembly, as if in a mirror, as expressing the “Catholic” Church in Rome. Their identity was no longer that of the Church, but of heresy.

From all that has been written here, it should be clear that there are eternal consequences from every new departure from “the faith once delivered,” and the new ecclesiology is no exception. By ignoring the contemporary voices of the Church—from St. Justin Popovich to the Venerable Philotheos Zervakos, to the Venerable Paisios the Athonite—those who went to Jerusalem espousing the new ecclesiology are leading their unsuspecting followers out of the Church and those already outside further away from entry into the Church.

This new ecclesiology is the spiritual and theological challenge of our day to which every Orthodox Christian remains indifferent to his own peril, for it carries with it soteriological consequences. In the face of a terribly divisive and deceptive heresy, we are all called to confess Christ today, as did our ancient forbearers in the days of Arianism. Our confession of faith, however, is not only in His Person in the Incarnation, but His Person in the continuation of the Incarnation, the Church. To confess the faith today is to confess and declare the unity of His divine and human natures in His Body, the one and only Orthodox Church—unmixed, unchanged, undivided and inseparable (ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως). [Oros of the Fourth Ecumenical Council].

Mosaic showing Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I in Jerusalem. If anyone has any information about the blue man holding a child who is holding a dove (and wearing what appears to be a wedding ring on his right hand) I’d love to hear an explanation.

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If you wish you can read the homily in its entirety here.

Christ had ascended bodily into heaven, so if He had not sent His Holy Spirit to accompany and strengthen His disciples and their successors in following generations who taught the Gospel of grace, He would not have been preached to all nations, nor would the proclamation have been passed down to us. That is why the Lord, in His all-surpassing love for mankind, showed at Pentecost that His disciples were partakers, fathers and ministers of everlasting light and life, who bring us to new birth for eternal life and make those who are worthy children of the Light and fathers of enlightenment. Thus, He Himself is with us unto the end of the world, as was promised through the Spirit (Matt. 28:20). For He is One with the Father and the Spirit, not according to hypostasis, but in His divinity, and God is One in Three, in one tri-hypostatic and almighty divinity. The Holy Spirit always existed and was with the Son in the Father. How could the Father and divine Mind be without beginning if the Son and Word were not also without beginning? How could there be a pre-eternal Word without there also being a pre-eternal Spirit? Thus the Holy Spirit ever was and is and will be, co-Creator with the Father and the Son, together with them renewing that which has suffered corruption, and sustaining the things that endure. He is everywhere present and fills, directs and oversees everything. “Whither shall I go from Thy Spirit”, says the Psalmist to God, “And from Thy presence whither shall I flee?” (Ps. 138:6).

He is not just everywhere, but also above all, not just in every age and time, but before them all. And, according to the promise, the Holy Spirit will not just be with us until the end of the age, but rather will stay with those who are worthy in the age to come, making them immortal and filling their bodies as well with eternal glory, as the Lord indicated by telling His disciples, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever” (John 14:16). “It is sown”, says the Apostle (meaning buried and committed to the earth), “a dead natural body”, that is to say, an ordinary created body with a created soul, stable and capable of movement. “It is raised” (that is, comes back to life), “a spiritual body” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44), which means a supernatural body, framed and ordered by the Holy Spirit, and clothed in immortality, glory and incorruption by the Spirit’s power (cf. 1 Cor. 15:53). “The first man, Adam”, he says, “was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. The first man is of the earth, earthy; the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45,47-48).

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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.

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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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…and lifting his hands he blessed them. While blessing them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Lk 24:51-52).

(Source)

The Church’s celebration of the ascension, as all such festal celebrations, is not merely the remembrance of an event in Christ’s life. Indeed, the ascension itself is not to be understood as though it were simply the supernatural event of a man floating up and away into the skies. The holy scripture stresses Christ’s physical departure and his glorification with God the Father, together with the great joy which his disciples had as they received the promise of the Holy Spirit who was to come to assure the Lord’s presence with them, enabling them to be his witnesses to the ends of earth (Lk 24:48-53; Acts 1:8-11; Mt 28:20; Mk 16:16-14).

In the Church the believers in Christ celebrate these very same realities with the conviction that it is for them and for all men that Christ’s departure from this world has taken place. The Lord leaves in order to be glorified with God the Father and to glorify us with himself. He goes in order to “prepare a place” for and to take us also into the blessedness of God s presence. He goes to open the way for all flesh into the “heavenly sanctuary … the Holy Place not made by hands” (see Hebrews 8-10). He goes in order send the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father to bear witness to him and his gospel in the world, making him powerfully present in the lives of disciples.

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pascha-vatopaidi-3

Christ is Risen!

Happy Pascha everyone! May we cling to the victory of Christ’s Resurrection throughout every day of our earthly life! Amen! So be it!

And check out this amazing rendition of Come Receive the Light on a Native American flute! It’s a little nod to my family’s Native heritage as well!!

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Excerpt from St. Gregory Palamas’ Homily on the Annunciation from Mary the Mother of God, pp. 56 & 58-59

Continuing as you are now with your virginity inviolate, you shall conceive a child and bear the Son of the Highest. Isaiah foresaw this many years before and prophesied, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son”, and, “I went unto the prophetess”. In what way did the Prophet go to the Prophetess? In the same way the Archangel now came to her. What the Archangel now saw, the Prophet foresaw and foretold. That the Virgin was a prophetess with the gift of prophecy, is proved to all by her hymn to God in the Gospel (Luke 1:46-55).

…Surely it is obvious to anyone that the Virgin Mother is both the burning bush and the tongs. She conceived the divine fire within her and was not burnt, and an Archangel ministered at the conception, and through her the Bearer of the sins of the world was united with the human race, purifying us thoroughly by means of this indescribable bond. The Virgin Mother, and she alone, is the frontier between created and uncreated nature. All who know God will recognize her as the one who contained Him Who cannot be contained. All who sing hymns to God will praise her next after Him. She is the cause of the benefits which preceded her, the protectress of those which came after and through her those good things which are eternal shall be received. She is the theme of the prophets, the first of the Apostles, the support of martyrs, the dais of the teachers. She is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of the whole Creation. She is the beginning, fount and root of the hope store up for us in heaven.

To which may we all obtain her prayers for us, to the glory of Him Who was begotten of the Father before all ages, and, in these last times, became incarnate of her, even Jesus Christ Our Lord. To Whom belong all glory, honour and worship, now and for ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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“God, I thank you that I am not like other people!” Lk. 18:11

When I was in Ontario giving talks at a few different venues back in November, I received a variety of questions, good questions. In fact, I was quite impressed with the questions I was asked. I think good questions demonstrate the audience’s seriousness, their desire to learn and be instructed. I tried my best to offer good answers to those good questions. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried.

Among all these questions there was one scribbled on a piece of paper that stood out to me because I believe it revealed an opinion many of us have our ourselves – an opinion, I would venture to say, which is misinformed and misguided.

The question went something like this: “How can we deal with the low spiritual level of others?”

I was a little taken aback by this and without a lot of thought I immediately responded: “By saying: Gee, I wish I was as spiritual as that person!” But truth be told the person asking the question was verbalizing the silent and unspoken thoughts many of us have from time to time, or at least have had in the past: that is, that we are more spiritual than others and that it is toilsome to have to “deal” with what we perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the “low” spiritual state of others.

I went on to explain that if we think we are more spiritual than anyone else then we know, right off the bat, that we aren’t spiritual because a true spiritual person doesn’t think themselves spiritual. A true spiritual person knows how carnal, how flawed, how fumbling, and how sinful he or she is, because true spirituality – and by “true” I mean Orthodox spirituality – gradually opens the eyes of the heart to see one’s sinfulness, one’s mistakes, shortcomings, and more than anything one’s attachment to this world, this body, and the passions associated with the body, the “lesser pleasures” as they’re called: food, sleep, etc. revealing us to be far more carnal, in fact, than spiritual.

A spiritual person follows the rules of fasting set down by the Church; he prays a consistent amount everyday; he bridles his tongue, has humble thoughts; thinks he hasn’t yet made a beginning; feels, sees and understands his own worth, that he is nothing without Christ. A spiritual person looks at everyone beside himself as more spiritual, more holy, more worthy of Christ’s love and mercy.

(Source) St. Anthony the Great once prayed: “Lord, reveal to me how the faithful person in the city among the noise can reach the spiritual level of the ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.”

He had not even finished this request to the All-good God when he heard a voice tell him:

“The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony. And if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the small cobbler’s store, which is simple and poor. It is there below the last road of the city.”

“To the cobbler’s store, Lord? And who there can help shine some light on my thought?” replied the puzzled Saint.

“The cobbler will explain to you,” replied the same voice.

“The cobbler? What does this man know about struggles and temptations? What does the poor toiler know of the heights of faith and of the truth?” He wondered.

His objections however could not be straightened [out] by the divine explanation. Because of this, at dawn he traveled to the city. As God had shown him, he stopped at the small cobbler store that he found.

Happily and reverently the simple man welcomed him in and asked him: “In what way could I be of use to you, Abba? I’m an illiterate and uncouth villager, but for the stranger, whoever he is, I will try to help, whatever the need.”

“The Lord sent me for you to teach me,” replied the ascetic humbly.

The poor worker jumped up in wonder. “Me? What could I, the illiterate one, teach your holiness? I don’t know if I have done anything good or noteworthy in my life, something which could stand unadulterated before the eyes of God.”

“Tell me what you do, how you pass your day. God knows; He weighs and judges things differently,” replied St. Anthony.

“I, Abba, have never done anything good, I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel. And further, I try to never forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day I think and say to myself: O wretched man, all will be saved and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin, you will never be worthy to see His Holy Face.

“Thank you, O Lord,” the ascetic said raising his weeping eyes towards heaven. And as the cobbler remained puzzled at this, the ascetic embraced him with love and bid him farewell saying: “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of Paradise.”

And as the poor cobbler continued to stare uneasily, without at all understanding this, St. Anthony took his staff and departed for the deep desert.

He walked, his only companion being the sound of his staff. He walked and his prayer burned like the the sands of the desert, rising towards heaven.

He traveled all day and prayerfully reflected on the lesson that he received that day from the poor cobbler.

“Humility! This therefore is the quickest path to the gate of Paradise,” he said in his thoughts. “Humility is the robe which God clothed himself with and came to earth as man,” the Saint said, and he struggled to perceive the greatness of this holy virtue.

He walked, praying in his nous, and he brought to mind whatever God had taught him, until immediately before him he saw thrown underfoot a countless number of traps. Traps of every sort, terrible notions, machinations never before seen.

“My God,” he exclaimed and turned the frightened eyes of his soul towards heaven. “Who could ever flee, O Lord, from such traps and ruses?

“Humility, Anthony. This can singularly deliver [one] from all of these [traps],” [the Saint] again heard the sweet, beloved voice [say] deep within his heart. And this was the response which instilled light within him and gave him courage for the new battles which he experienced within the deep desert with the eternal enemy of man. 

So, I guess the simple answer I could have given to that question back in November would have been: Humility. Humility is how we deal with the “low spiritual state” of our neighbour.

May we make an effort, as Great Lent approaches, to struggle for such God-pleasing thoughts and opinions as the holy cobbler had, both regarding our own spiritual state and that of others!

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st. theodora monastery

(Source)

By their nature, angels are active spirits endowed with reason, will and knowledge; they serve God, fulfill the will of His Providence and praise Him. They are incorporeal spirits, and because they belong to the invisible world, cannot be seen by our bodily eyes. St. John of Damascus writes: “When it is the will of God that angels should appear to those who are worthy, they do not appear as they are in their essence, but, transformed, take on such an appearance as to be visible to physical eyes.” In the book of Tobit, the angel accompanying Tobit and his son says of himself: “All these days I was visible to you, but I neither ate nor drank, this only appeared to your eyes” (Tobit 12:19).

But St. John of Damascus also writes: “An angel can only be called incorporeal and non-material in comparison with us. For in comparison with God, Who alone is beyond compare, everything seems coarse and material, only the divinity is totally non-material -and incorporeal.”

mikos aggelos

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