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!
Saint Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople, a great Father and teacher of the Church, was born into a Christian family of eminent lineage in the year 329, at Arianzos (not far from the city of Cappadocian Nazianzos). His father, also named Gregory (January 1), was Bishop of Nazianzus. The son is the St Gregory Nazianzus encountered in Patristic theology. His pious mother, St Nonna (August 5), prayed to God for a son, vowing to dedicate him to the Lord. Her prayer was answered, and she named her child Gregory.
When the child learned to read, his mother presented him with the Holy Scripture. St Gregory received a complete and extensive education: after working at home with his uncle St Amphilochius (November 23), an experienced teacher of rhetoric, he then studied in the schools of Nazianzos, Caesarea in Cappadocia, and Alexandria. Then the saint decided to go to Athens to complete his education.
On the way from Alexandria to Greece, a terrible storm raged for many days. St Gregory, who was just a catechumen at that time, feared that he would perish in the sea before being cleansed in the waters of Baptism. St Gregory lay in the ship’s stern for twenty days, beseeching the merciful God for salvation. He vowed to dedicate himself to God, and was saved when he invoked the name of the Lord.
St Gregory spent six years in Athens studying rhetoric, poetry, geometry, and astronomy. His teachers were the renowned pagan rhetoricians Gymorias and Proeresias. St Basil, the future Archbishop of Caesarea (January 1) also studied in Athens with St Gregory. They were such close friends that they seemed to be one soul in two bodies. Julian, the future emperor (361-363) and apostate from the Christian Faith, was studying philosophy in Athens at the same time.
Upon completing his education, St Gregory remained for a certain while at Athens as a teacher of rhetoric. He was also familiar with pagan philosophy and literature.
In 358 St Gregory quietly left Athens and returned to his parents at Nazianzus. At thirty-three years of age, he received Baptism from his father, who had been appointed Bishop of Nazianzus. Against his will, St Gregory was ordained to the holy priesthood by his father.
In his works St Gregory, like that other Theologian St John, directs everything toward the Pre-eternal Word. St John of Damascus (December 4), in the first part of his book AN EXACT EXPOSITION OF THE ORTHODOX FAITH, followed the lead of St Gregory the Theologian.
St Gregory was buried at Nazianzos. In the year 950, his holy relics were transferred to Constantinople into the church of the Holy Apostles. Later on, a portion of his relics was transferred to Rome.
In appearance, the saint was of medium height and somewhat pale. He had thick eyebrows, and a short beard. His contemporaries already called the archpastor a saint. The Orthodox Church, honors St Gregory as a second Theologian and insightful writer on the Holy Trinity.
O glorious Father Gregory, Your knowledge has overcome the pride of false wisdom. The church is clothed with your teaching as a robe of righteousness. We your children celebrate your memory crying out: Rejoice, O father of unsurpassable wisdom!
The world that lives far away from God hates you. It hates light and truth. The disbelieving, corrupt world never forgives you, because you say “no” to the nameless desires of this generation. You raise a lash, smite their evils, and brand their sins. If it were possible, they would crucify you in the town square! Lies, intrigue, and slander are the rewards with which Satan fills your world. And what will you do? Will you seek revenge? Rather than sacrifice one iota of Gospel law, make sharp rebukes against error and evil, but be sympathetic and forgiving to people who hate you, raise you on a cross, and subject you to the most fearful martyrdom. Pray the Lord to give you forbearance to forgive them, so that you can repeat the words of the First-Martyr Stephen, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). This will be the loftiest sermon of your life, and it cannot possibly leave souls unmoved. There are aromatic trees which when cut bathe the ax with fragrance. Faithful servants of the Lord, aromatic trees in Christ’s Church, you also should bathe with the aroma of heavenly forgiveness the world which strikes you and crucifies you.
(An excerpt from Blessed Augoustinos Kantiotes’ Follow Me, translated by Asterios Gerosterigios, pp. 184-185)
Can you read these words and possibly doubt that they proceeded from the heart and mind of a great saint? Blessed Augustinos Kantiotes was a bishop in Florina, in Northern Greece. He reposed in 2009 and left us his life and many books as everlasting examples of a true shepherd, an apostle to this corrupt generation. May we have his blessing!
St Anthony spent twenty years in complete isolation and constant struggle with the demons, and he finally achieved perfect calm. The saint’s friends removed the stones from the entrance, and they went to St Anthony and besought him to take them under his guidance. Soon St Anthony’s cell was surrounded by several monasteries, and the saint acted as a father and guide to their inhabitants, giving spiritual instruction to all who came into the desert seeking salvation. He increased the zeal of those who were already monks, and inspired others with a love for the ascetical life. He told them to strive to please the Lord, and not to become faint-hearted in their labors. He also urged them not to fear demonic assaults, but to repel the Enemy by the power of the Life-Creating Cross of the Lord.
In the year 311 there was a fierce persecution against Christians, in the reign of the emperor Maximian. Wishing to suffer with the holy martyrs, St Anthony left the desert and went to Alexandria. He openly ministered to those in prison, he was present at the trial and interrogations of the confessors, and accompanying the martyrs to the place of execution. It pleased the Lord to preserve him, however, for the benefit of Christians.
At the close of the persecution, the saint returned to the desert and continued his exploits. The Lord granted the saint the gift of wonderworking, casting out demons and healing the sick by the power of his prayer. The great crowds of people coming to him disrupted his solitude, and he went off still farther, into the inner desert where he settled atop a high elevation. But the brethren of the monasteries sought him out and asked him to visit their communities.
St Athanasius [a disciple of St. Anthony the Great] took part in the First Ecumenical Council when he was still a deacon. He surpassed everyone there in his zeal to uphold the teaching that Christ is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and not merely a creature, as the Arians proclaimed.
This radiant beacon of Orthodoxy spent most of his life in exile from his See, because of the plotting of his enemies. He returned to his flock as he was approaching the end of his life. Like an evening star, he illumined the Orthodox faithful with his words for a little while, then reposed in 373. He is also commemorated on May 2 (the transfer of his holy relics
I’ve had this post planned for a month or so. I had even translated a story from the Greek edition of My Elder (O Gerondas Mou) and planned to link to the new, amazing English edition (pictured above). But then I received my Christmas present from my brother and sister-in-law: the English translation! So, instead of a shotty translation by yours truly, below is an excerpt from the newly-released, most complete biography of Elder Joseph (not only in the English language, but world-wide!). This edition includes even more stories and anecdotes than the original Greek, thanks to the efforts of the fathers of St. Anthony’s Monastery, shedding light on the person, life and works of this great saint of our times, Elder Joseph the Hesychast!
Now that it is finally available in English I highly recommend you read it immediately! (I was at the end of a 500 page book, and 150 pages into another book, but everything gets put on hold for My Elder!)
Every Orthodox Christian should own this book! Buy your copy here.
That evening as light was falling, he had become completely exhausted from the pain and fasting, and his tears dried up. In this state, feebly gazing at the chapel of the Transfiguration at the summit of Mount Athos, he beseeched the Lord: “O Lord, as Thou wast transfigured to Thy disciples, transfigure Thyself also to my soul! Stop the passions and bring peace to my heart! Grant prayer to him who prayeth and restrain my unrestrained nous!”
As he was praying like that with great pain, a subtle breeze full of fragrance came from the chapel. His soul was filled with joy, illumination, and divine love; and from within his heart the prayer began to flow with so much bliss that he thought to himself: “This is Paradise! I don’t need any other Paradise.”
He saw that the prayer was being said within him with mathematical precision like a clock. He was amazed that the prayer continued on its own without any effort on his part.
As soon as he saw this, he was astounded and said: “What’s happening to me now? How is the prayer being said within me? I tried so hard for so long, and I never felt what I feel now.”
When he saw that the prayer was continuing and that he felt so much bliss and happiness, he joyfully said to himself: “So, is this the noetic prayer that I read about in the books of the Philokalia? Is this how it tastes? Is this the light?
He then got up, invigorated by this miracle of noetic prayer, went inside the cave and began saying the prayer synchronized with his breathing, just as the holy Fathers teach. As soon as he had said the prayer a few times, his nous was immediately caught up into theoria. It was to be the first of many times his nous was raptured by God’s grace. He would later wrote about this event in the third as if it had happened to someone else (My Elder Joseph the Hesychast, p. 59).
Have you bought your copy yet? No? Well, what are you waiting for?
The holy Prophet John was related to the Lord on His mother’s side, the son of the Priest Zachariah and Righteous Elizabeth. The holy Forerunner, John, was born six months before Christ. The Archangel Gabriel announced his birth in the Temple at Jerusalem, revealing to Zachariah that a son was to be born to him.
Through the prayers offered beforehand, the child was filled with the Holy Spirit. St John prepared himself in the wilds of the desert for his great service by a strict life, by fasting, prayer and sympathy for the fate of God’s people.
At the age of thirty, he came forth preaching repentance. He appeared on the banks of the Jordan, to prepare the people by his preaching to accept the Savior of the world. In church hymnology, St John is called a “bright morning star,” whose gleaming outshone the brilliance of all the other stars, announcing the coming dawn of the day of grace, illumined with the light of the spiritual Sun, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Having baptized the sinless Lamb of God, St John soon died a martyr’s death, beheaded by the sword on orders of King Herod at the request of his daughter Salome. (On St John the Baptist, see Mt.3:1-16, 11:1-19, 14:1-12; Mark 1:2-8, 6:14-29; Luke 1:5-25, 39-80, 3:1-20, 7:18-35, 9:7-9; John 1:19-34, 3:22-26). The Transfer of the Right Hand of the holy Forerunner from Antioch to Constantinople (956) and the Miracle of Saint John the Forerunner against the Hagarenes (Moslems) at Chios:
The body of Saint John the Baptist was buried in the Samaritan city of Sebaste. The holy Evangelist Luke,who went preaching Christ in various cities and towns, came to Sebaste, where they gave him the right hand of the holy Prophet John, the very hand with which he had baptized the Savior. The Evangelist Luke took it with him to his native city of Antioch.
Below are two chapters of a sixteen-chapter short story I wrote a few years ago about the great Czech king and martyr Weneceslaus (or St. Vaclav as he is also called in the Orthodox Church). His title was actually Duke of Bohemia but he was named “King” posthumously as an honour. The short story is based on true events and people in his life. (Podevin, for example, was believed to be the name of the saint’s faithful page). The famous Christmas carol Good King Weneceslaus tells of a miracle the saint worked on the “feast of Stephen” which we in the Orthodox Church celebrate on December 27. St. Vaclav’s feast day is September 27, and his holy grandmother St. Ludmilla’s feast day is September 16. Enjoy!
“He who gives to the poor will lack nothing” (Proverbs 28:27)
The night was dark, the sky rich with the light of many stars. The white snow lay sparkling as it reflected the glow of the half moon. Every now and again a gusty wind swept the snow up into a spiral, dancing.
“Even the earth rejoices in Your birth, O Lord!” the Duke of Bohemia whispered as he gazed out from a large window of Prague castle.
“Sire, could I offer you a cup of hot wine?” the page asked, interrupting Duke Václav’s thoughts, having entered the room without notice.
“No, thank you, my good page,” the Duke responded, leaning forward and straining to see a moving figure, hindered by the high snow.
“Podevin, that old man there, gathering wood, do you know him?”
“Why yes, Sire. That’s Old Hermit Jiří. He lives not far from here,” the young page responded, now standing by his master’s side at the window.
“Where exactly does he live?”
“Oh I would say a mile or so hence, just at the foot of Blaník mountain, quite close to St. Agnes’s spring, in fact.”
“Well then, why don’t we go pay him a visit, and wish him a happy Christmas?”
“But Sire, it’s awfully cold out tonight. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have one of your men in arms go in your stead?”
“No, no, my boy, after all, the Lord King our God became incarnate Himself, He didn’t send someone else in His stead, so neither shall I,” the Duke said, patting the page’s back.
“Say, go fetch some wine and bread. It’s best if we bear some gifts with us for the old hermit,” the Duke told the page.
“Oh, and grab a bundle of kindling as well, would you?” he added.
“May it be blessed, Sire,” Podevin said, bowing to his master and exiting the room.
Václav, finding himself alone, walked over to the illumined corner of his bedchamber and stood before a wooden board in front of which burned a small, red glass oil lamp. On the board was painted an image of the Incarnate Lord, gently held in the arms of His mother.
He who holds all creation in His hand, today is born of a virgin. He whose essence none can touch, today is bound in swaddling clothes as a child. He who in the beginning established the heavens, today is laid in a manger.
“I worship Your birth, O Christ, my King!” the Duke finally said aloud. Crossing himself, he bent low, resting his knees on the ground as he lowered his head.
Hearing footsteps echoing through the corridor he quickly stood up, not wanting anyone to see his moment of reverence.
“Here we are Sire, ready for our visit,” the page said, gesturing toward the basket he held, clearly weighed down by generosity.
“Well done, my boy. Let us be off then.”
They walked down the long passageway together, stopping before exiting the large castle in order to dress appropriately for the cold night.
“We should be plenty warm, don’t you think Podevin?” Duke Václav asked cheerfully.
“I should hope so, Sire,” Podevin responded, betraying a look of doubt.
“Well then, may an angel of peace accompany us, directing our way before the Lord,” the Duke proclaimed, and taking the glass lantern from off the wall he set out.
“Amen, so be it,” the young page contributed, a response he had grown accustomed to sharing.
“He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do” (John 14:12)
Bundled up, bearing light and gifts, the two set off into the night. Vácslav walking confidently ahead while the page, about ten years the Duke’s junior, trudged along behind him as quickly as he could.
The walk to St. Agnes’s spring was nothing short of a stroll in fine weather. Why, the page had often gone there with his father as a child. But the snow made the walk much longer, and the cold much less pleasant.
As time passed the page, only a teenager, fell further and further behind. For each step he took in the snow, it seemed he slipped two feet back.
“Come now, Podevin, give over the basket. You shouldn’t have been carrying it to begin with!”
“No, Sire, please, it’s disgraceful and inappropriate for you to carry it,” the page protested.
“Now, now, don’t think that way. Why, how is it that you expect me, a ruler, to treat the ruled as less important than myself? And especially on this the very day we celebrate the divine condescension of the King of all!
“He who is worshiped by angels, saw fit to be born in a cave alongside dumb beasts. No, I don’t think myself worthier than any other. I’m just His lowly servant, ruling on earth, but desiring only to be ruled by Him,” the Duke finished, taking the basket from his page.
“I’m sorry, Sire, it’s only that the wind blows hard against us and I find the snow too high to walk through at such a brisk pace.”
“Of course, I understand. Why don’t you step in my imprints instead, I think you’ll find it easier to continue that way,” Václav suggested.
To Podevin’s surprise, not only was walking made easier by stepping in the Duke’s footprints, but indescribable warmth emitted from each one.
How can this be? the page thought. How can the snow, imprinted by the Duke’s stride, give off warmth?
But knowing his master well he abstained from asking such burning questions. He knew from experience it always made the Duke uncomfortable when someone pointed out the benefits and comforts that came of his words, his ways, his very gaze.
“Where to?” Václav asked, gesturing toward the wall of forest they had come upon. “Can you remember where the old father’s hut is from here?”
“Yes, Master, it’s there, through the trees and to our right. We’re not at all far now.”
They continued trekking along through the snow, now significantly more high – though noticeably contributing to the Duke’s joy.
“How I love this blessed white!” he exclaimed.
“There, Sire, draw your light over here. I believe that is Old Hermit Jiří’s hut.”
“So it must be,” the Duke said.
And drawing closer the two were both surprised to see the door to the hut open before they were even a stone’s throw away from it.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” the old man called out, opening wide the door of his small hut. His thick grey beard and scruffy hair were illuminated by the light coming from behind him.
“Greetings, my good man,” the Duke said in his deep and cheerful voice. “Christ is born!” he called out, still in the thick of the forest.
“Glorify Him!” the old man responded, smiling and bowing low to greet the ruler of his homeland.
“You were expecting us?” the page asked, surprised by the way the hermit conducted himself, as if he had invited them and was anticipating their arrival for some time now.
“All who arrive are invited, and not even one passes by who is not,” the old hermit answered, his eyes sparkling the reflection of light from Václav’s lantern.
“Come in, come in! May my humble abode be as comforting to you as your majestic castle,” the hermit said, guiding them further into the one room that appeared to make up the entire hut.
(Excerpts from Abba Dorotheos: Practical Teachings on the Christian Life, p. 60 and p. 63). I highly recommend this book. The English translation is superb and it comes with an audio CD of the text.
Perfect obedience is this:
[St. Dorotheos] never allowed [his disciple, Dositheos] to become attached to any material objects. Dositheos took everything with joy and faith and obeyed willingly in everything. When he needed a cloack, Dorotheos provided him with the cloth and he would go away and sow it carefully with style. When he had finished, he would ask, “Dositheos, did you sow that cloak?”
Dositheos would reply [in simplicity], “Yes, Father, I made it most beautifully and well.”
He would then say to him, “Go and give it to that brother or to that sick man.”
He would go and give it away willingly. Dorotheos provided him with more material again and likewise, after he had sewn it and finished it with great care and style, he would say to him, “Give it to that brother” and he would immediately give it away without feeling distressed and without grumbling, or saying, “Why should he take it away from me and give it to someone else, after all, I was the person who took the trouble to sew it and finish it stylishly and carefully?” Rather, he would willingly do good whenever there was good to be done.
* * *
God wanted to reveal the glory which was prepared for [Dositheos after death] because of his holy obedience and also the gift which blessed Dorotheos had, for saving souls, even while still a disciple. Dorotheos guided Dositheos so unwaveringly and quickly to God. Therefore, shortly after the blessed end of Dositheos, a saintly man, a great elder, desired to see all the saints of the community who had passed away and asked God to grant him this wish. He then saw all of them standing together as a choir and amongst them was a certain younger monk. He said, “I wonder who this young man I saw amongst the fathers is?” When he described his facial features, everybody realized that it was Dositheos. So they glorified God, marvelling at the fact that Dositheos had become worthy of reaching such a great height in such a short time, despite his earlier life and discipline, simply through obedience and denying his own will.