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The Creator of All [1]

Metropolitan Avgoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina

             All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:3)

             Who is Christ? We hear one, two thousand different opinions. One person says he is a philosopher, another that he is a sociologist, and yet another that he is a poet. Others say still other things. Today’s Gospel reading gives us the correct answer: it says that Christ is God. You believe this? Then you are a Christian. You don’t believe this? Then you are not. You may well belong to one school of philosophy or another, but you are not a Christian!

Christ is God, then. He is not just a man; he is the God-man Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and who is God. In this passage, we hear that there was never a time when the Son and Word of God did not exist. There was indeed a time when man did not exist – science even concedes this – but there was never a time when Christ, the second person of the Triune God, did not exist. The Holy Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three suns in one sun; three-sunned Divinity. All Holy Trinity, have mercy on your world!

Further on, the Gospel says that Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity, is he through whom all things were made – all things both seen and unseen. “All things,” it says, “were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3). This requires analysis.

These God-inspired words speak of the world’s ontology, of the creation of things in other words. One of humanity’s ten greatest spiritual men, Blessed Augustine (whose name I unworthily bear), says that all the created things around us, from those we see through a telescope to those which may only be seen through a microscope, belong to the following four categories.

To the first category belong those things which are endowed with ‘being’ and being alone. In other words, they simply exist. What are these? They are the dust of the earth, the water, stones, the hills, priceless and useless metals, minerals, but also the heavenly bodies – the stars and even the galaxies.

To the second category belong those things which have something beyond being: they grow. What are these? They are the plants and the trees. Beyond existence, these things grow. Where does a tree begin? As a small seed. This seed then falls to the earth and grows. It is watered and it grows. It sprouts; it grows and develops, becoming a great tree.

On to the third category. According to Blessed Augustine, those things which belong to this category have something beyond existence and growth: they feel. Which things are these? These are the animals. A cute little lamb, for example, exists, grows and feels. It feels pain. O how it suffers these very days at the hands of men who slaughter it for their Paschal feast! Animals feel. Some of them even have senses which are stronger than those of other beings. The eagle, for example, has a sharp eye, he has crystal-clear vision, or what we call an ‘eagle-eye’, which allows him to soar as high as the sun and yet from this height he is able to discern the most miniscule thing on the earth below. The dog has both a very keen sense of smell and excellent hearing. I have read somewhere that in London the police have special dogs, as well as officers equipped with whistles which, when blown, cannot be heard by man. Only the dogs can hear these whistles. When the dogs hear these whistles they run immediately to find the officer calling them. The dog is also the first animal to sense an earthquake; he senses it even before the seismograph.

Creation of Eve

In summary; rocks have ‘being’, they just ‘are'; the trees both ‘are’ and ‘grow'; the animals ‘are’, ‘grow’ and ‘feel’. And now we have arrived at the peak of the ladder of beings; we have arrived at man. Man is matter, he is earth – we do not deny it! – and thus he has ‘being’. He grows, since from an embryo, from a little child, he grows into a full-grown man. He also feels, for he too experiences pain. He does not have these things alone, however; he also has something beyond these. What does he have beyond these? It is that he thinks; he has a mind. O, the human mind! Let them say, let them shout, that man comes from the ape, from the orangutan! This is a grave error. What separates us from the animals is the ability to think. The mind is a great thing. Next to it, the computer is nothing. The computer is nothing – a toy – next to that incomprehensible piece of equipment which we call the human intellect. It is this which separates us from all other beings. It is by means of the intellect that man understands, that he plans, that he invents, that he creates. Take an ape. Put him in school for ten years. He will not learn the alphabet; he will only grunt! From the time he is a young student, man grows in knowledge, eventually becoming a wise researcher or inventor. He is capable of progress on account of his intellect.

There are, then, four categories of beings. First, those things that ‘are'; second those things that ‘are’ and ‘grow'; third, those things that ‘are’, ‘grow’ and ‘feel'; and fourth, those things that ‘think’. Have we finished with the ladder of beings, I wonder? No! Because there exist not only those being that we see, but also those we cannot see. Those things that we see are few in comparison with those we cannot see. Beyond the world we see is found the invisible world which is infinite and wondrous. It is in this world that the bodiless hosts, the heavenly powers, the angels and archangels, are found, as well as the souls of men which have passed from the earth, and the demons who of their own will fell away from the aim for which they were created.

My brothers, this is the pyramid of beings, “of all things visible and invisible,” and at the peak of this pyramid is the Creator, the Triune God. As the Fathers and teachers of our Church teach, all things are made by the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This dogma, this truth of our faith, is affirmed in today’s Gospel which says concerning the Son and Word of the Father: “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.” The Son and Word of God, who humbled himself and came down to the earth, was incarnate, was crucified, and who arose from the dead and whose resurrection we celebrate today, is he, “by whom all things were made”.

All things, everything, from the smallest to the greatest, from the grass which we walk on to the huge trees, from the mite to the elephant, and from the atom to the planets and galaxies which swirl in outer space, all things were made by Christ. Do you believe this? Then you are a Christian. You don’t believe this? That is your right. Christ and the Church do not need followers. I am in favour of a Church of quality, not a Church of quantity. Thousands of faithless people are not worth one faithful Christian. He who believes does not say, “I have my opinion”. What is your opinion, sir? What God says here in the Gospel: “All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.”

To Christ himself, the eternal God – in spite of the atheists and unbelievers of all ages – to him be glory, honour and worship unto the ages of ages. Amen.

[1] From the book Εμπνευσμένα Κηρύγματα Ορθοδόξου Ομολογίας και Αγιοπατερικής Πνοής (Orthodoxos Kypseli: Thessaloniki, 2011), 22-26. Translated by Fr John Palmer.

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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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Below is an excerpt from Part 2 of a three-part article “A Search for Wholeness: An Orthodox Response to Organ Donation and Retrieval” written by Matushka Linda Korz, M.D. and published in Orthodox Canada: A Journal of Orthodox Christianity.  You can read all three parts of the article here, here and here. I highly recommend reading it, whether you are considering organ donation or working in an environment in which you must play some part in organ retrieval, Matushka’s article is very enlightening.

WHEN DOES DEATH OCCUR?

Some will argue that the greatest gift one can offer is to give ones life for another. Surely the Church teaches that, doesn’t it? The Lord Himself tells us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.“(John 15:13) But does this apply to the state of organ retrieval at the present time? Does the harvesting of organs from one individual at the point of death as it currently occurs in North American hospitals, constitute a sacrifice to save life, or a sin that takes a life?

Currently, in Canada and the United States of America there are two legal definitions of death: the traditional definition of death, irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions (cardiac death) or cessation of the brain whether as a whole or in part (neurological determination of death, NDD or brain death).[9] In 1971, the historic ad hoc committee of the Harvard Medical School presented its report on the definition of Brain Death and described scientific and medical criteria on which to base the diagnosis. This landmark paper opened the door for legislation to sanction the removal and use of organs for transplantation from patients who did not fit the medical criteria for cardiac death, but were found to have severe irreversible brain injuries leading to a state of prolonged coma. These patients were successfully resuscitated and kept alive by advances in circulatory medicine and mechanical ventilation.

It was expedient that a more liberal and utilitarian definition of death be ethically, morally, and, more importantly legally, accepted. “Brain death has proved to be a most important concept for the progress of organ transplantation…. In parts of the world where brain death was given legal standing and became standard practice, vital organ transplantation increased rapidly.”[2] During the process of brain death donations, the duration of oxygen deprivation (known in medical literature as warm ischemic time) and the extent of loss of viable cells in the body are minimized since the heart continues to perfuse and nourish the tissues while mechanical ventilation sustains breathing (recently, the more descriptive term of heart-beating donation is preferred). In North America and most parts of Europe, organ retrieval from NDD individuals is by far the leading source of all organs for transplantation.[18]

Over three decades later, there is still disagreement worldwide regarding the definition of brain death and, unsurprisingly, how to diagnosis it. Henry Beecher, chairman of the historic ad hoc committee of the Harvard Medical School to examine the definition of Brain Death stated:

“At whatever level we choose to call death, it is an arbitrary decision. Death of the heart? The hair still grows. Death of the brain? The heart may still beat. The need is to choose an irreversible state where the brain no longer functions. It is best to choose a level where, although the brain is dead, usefulness of other organs is still present. This, we have tried to make clear in what we have called the new definition of death(…). Here we arbitrarily accept as death, the destruction of one part of the body; but it is the supreme part, the brain…”[9]

How much of the brain? Current tests only look at selective parts of the brain, whether it be brain stem or higher cognitive function, and thus, by definition, these tests can not confirm the death of the whole brain.

In a recent issue of a leading Canadian medical journal the authors concluded: “the current evidence base for existing NDD (neurologic determination of death) guidelines is inadequate … . We recommend that after NDD, the patient be declared dead.”[11] Father John Breck, an Orthodox author on bioethics, clearly outlines the problem in regard to the state of organ donation throughout the world today:

“Using brain-stem criteria to determine death, we are left with the gruesome fact that vital organs can only be harvested from patients who are technically still alive… Human personhood is determined not by medical diagnosis but by divine Providence.”[12]

The acceptance of brain death whether legally or morally is not equal or universal among countries. In India, organ transplants are largely limited to live or cadaveric donations due to religious and cultural rejection of NDD. In Japan, heart transplants were not done until 1997 when government legislation finally permit organ donation after neurologic or brain death. Despite these realities, and despite the growing challenge within the scientific community to acknowledge that biological death cannot be proven with certainty in brain death, information given to families and patients about organ procurement continues to falsely represent brain death as physical death. Furthermore, in some cases, religious and cultural consent to organ retrieval after neurologic death is misrepresented and misleading. John Gillman, pastor and ethicist in California, in his article titled Religious Prospectives on Organ Donation[10] attempts to outline the Christian prospective. The statement that the Greek Orthodox do not oppose organ donation was subsequently reinterpreted by the Trillium Gift of Life Network (an agency created in 2000 by the Government of Ontario, Canada) as the Greek Orthodox Churchs support organ donation. (see www.Giftoflife.on.ca)

For Orthodox Christians, the supreme part of the body is not the brain (which is an Aristotelian notion; c.f. De Anima) but the heart. “The heart is not just a physical organ or centre of his psychic life but something indefinable yet capable of being in contact with God, the Source of all being.”[13] In the Book of the prophet Isaiah, we read, “make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.”(Isaiah 6:10) Later, in another passage, “these people draw near to Me with their mouth, And honour Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Isaiah 29:13) Christ tells us, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21).

The reality that the noetic heart is located within the physical heart has always been the teaching of the Orthodox Church. St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a champion of the Orthodox understanding of the knowledge of God, writes:

“Since our soul is a single entity possessing many powers, it utilizes as an organ the body that nature lives in conjunction with it. What organs, then, does the power of the soul that we call ‘intellect’ make use of when it is active?… For some locate it in the head, as though in a sort of acropolis; others consider that its vehicle is the centremost part of the heart, that aspect of the heart that intelligence is neither within us as in a container – for it is incorporeal – nor yet outside us, for it is united to us; but it is located in the heart as in its own organ.”[1]

St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite (1749-1808) on instruction for stillness in prayer writes:

“You must free the energy (energeia) of your mind, whose organ is the brain, form all the external things of the world, through the guarding of the senses and of the imagination. Then you must bring the energy into the heart, which is the organ of the essence (ousia) of the mind. This return is customarily brought about in the case of beginners – as the Divine Wakeful Fathers teach – by turning the head down and resting the chin on the chest.”[20]

Secular man, having lost the quietness and gentleness of heart, can not know God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”(Matthew 5:8) As a consequence, he finds incredulous the Truth of self knowledge, the essence of the soul is located within the physical heart. Thus, ignorant of the mystery of life, how can he define the mystery of death and more specifically, how can the definition of death be measured by some grotesque notion of cessation of some part of the brain?

It is sad but not surprising that, for the most part, the medical community does not truly understand the nature of death. Acknowledging this limitation, Zameretti et al. advocate the substitution of the word (and thus concept of) death with the term irreversible coma or more precisely, irreversible apnoeic coma, understood not as equivalent to death, but as describing a particular condition in which life support should be legitimately forgone and organs can be retrieved from consenting patients.[9] Even more pathetic is the disregard, at best, and denial at worst that the human person is a creation of body and soul. So long as the medical community is ignorant of the soul of an individual, the medical definition of death will never be complete. Organ retrieval will remain an act of taking life, since it concentrates only on questions of physiology, ignoring the relationship between the soul and the body. Saint Paul cautions, that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh.” (Romans 8:5) For Orthodox Christians, death is simply an impermanent separation of body and soul which afflicts mankind until the final judgement.[14] Saint John of Damascus reminds us, that “truly most terrible is the mystery of death, how the soul is violently parted from the body, from the harmony, and most natural bond of kinship is cut off by the divine will.”[8]

[9] Nereo Zamperetti et. al. Irreversible apnoeic coma 35 years later: Towards a more rigorous definition of brain death? Intensive Care Med 2004; 30(9):1715-22.

[10] John Gillman. Death and organ procurement: public beliefs and attitudes. Kennedy Institute Ethics J 2004; 14(3):217-34.

[11] Brain arrest: the neurological determination of death and organ donor management in Canada. CMAJ 2006; 174(6): Supplemental S1-30.

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http://lessonsfromamonastery.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/christ-and-panagia.jpg?w=626&h=254

(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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From the Synaxarion:

On August 6 in the Holy Orthodox Church, we commemorate the divine Transfiguration of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Verses

Tabor was glorified above earth’s every region

When it looked upon God’s nature shining in glory.

On the sixth Christ transformed His form as a man.

This glorious event is recorded in the Gospels of Mark (9:2-13), Luke (9:28-36 in Orthros) and Matthew (17:1-9 in Liturgy). In the third year of His preaching, the Lord Jesus often spoke to His disciples of His approaching passion and His glorious Resurrection. So that His impending passion would not totally weaken His disciples, the All-wise Savior wanted to show them His divine glory before His passion on the Holy Cross. (This is why we sing the Katavasias of the Holy Cross on this day.) For that reason, He took Peter, James and John with Him and went out at night to Mount Tabor. The Lord took only three disciples on Tabor because the Lord did not want to leave the unworthy Judas alone at the foot of the mountain so that the betrayer would not, by that, justify his betrayal. Our Lord was transfigured on a mountain and not in a valley to teach us two virtues: love of labor and godly-thoughts. For, climbing to the heights required labor and height represents the heights of our thoughts, i.e., godly-thoughts. Moses and Elijah appeared in order to destroy the erroneous thought of the Jews that the Christ is one of the prophets; that is why He appears as a King above the prophets and that is why Moses and Elijah appear as His servants. Until then, our Lord manifested His divine power many times to the disciples but, on Mount Tabor, He manifested His divine nature. This vision of His Divinity and the hearing of the heavenly witness about Him as the Son of God would serve the disciples in the days of the Lord’s passion, in strengthening of an unwavering faith in Him and His final victory.

Unto Christ God be glory and dominion unto the ages. Amen.

mt tabor1

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(Source)

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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