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prodromosSt. Basil the Great said, “Extirpate two thoughts within yourself: do not consider yourself worthy of anything great, and do not think that any other man is lower than you in worthiness. Learn humble mindedness which the Lord commanded in word and showed forth in deed. Hence, do not expect obedience from others, but be ready for obedience yourself.”

Humble-mindedness is a great Christian virtue. Christ was clothed in humility and His very words, actions and example were penetrated with this virtue. Humble-mindedness is not merely acting meek and timid, but genuinely believing that God is the source of all good while I am cause of much strife: the emphasis isn’t merely on appearing humble, but being humble, hence the humble-mindedness because it refers to the interior state of a person.

Humble-mindedness is believing whatever good exists in me is from God, whatever bad, is from me.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast once said, “We are dirt, and are worthy of being used as plaster on the walls of an outhouse.” Humble-mindedness is not thinking we are less than we are, but rather seeing and accepting exactly what we are: nothing “of the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7).

It is, of course, not easy to keep such humble thoughts in mind but all we do is show God our good intention and He does everything else. Like all Christian virtue, it takes effort to attain and maintain humble-mindedness.

By being obedience to our spiritual father; by condemning ourselves in our thoughts (blaming ourselves instead of others); by earnestly listening when someone else is speaking; and by struggling to only see the good in someone and cover the bad our actions display humility. When we keep the fasts of the Church we are acting with humble-mindedness. When we struggle to maintain the faith of our Fathers – without deviation or skepticism toward the god-seeing Fathers’ decisions – we act with humble-mindedness.  When we avoid worldly activity and conversation, when we  faithfully keep our prayer rule, and when we finally begin to put into practice the words of the Holy Forerunner: “He must increase but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30) not only in regard to Christ, but to our neighbour. Then we know we are not far from attaining authentic humility because we are allowing our mind, heart, and soul to be molded by the god-pleasing thoughts and actions of a humble person, always through the grace of God.

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I learned numerous tips from monastics – nuns and monks alike – with regards to reverence of small and great matters pertaining to our Orthodox faith. Although I have not always been vigilant when it comes to exhibiting this great virtue, I have nonetheless remained convinced of the utmost importance of this virtue in all faucets of our lives.

According to Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain reverence is “the fear of God and spiritual sensitivity”. He said that reverent people “behave carefully and modestly, because they intensely feel the presence of God.”

Reverence is a great virtue, a necessary Christian virtue. It is essential in our daily Christian struggle. Reverence with regard to little things is the foundation for acquiring and maintaining reverence toward greater, holier things. When we let our reverence for the little things subside, when we neglect to show reverence toward the little things, then we can be sure that we will very quickly begin neglecting the great things of our faith.

Some of the little ways in which I was taught we can exhibit reverence are:

-Being careful not to place icons or holy books in inappropriate places like piled on the floor or on seats or beds (except on pillows).

-Not hanging icons in washrooms

-Being sure to dispose of damaged or paper icons (even those from Church bulletins) by burning them

-Not disposing of blessed items in the garbage but being sure to burn anything brought home from the church which was blessed (ie. palms, pussy willows, flowers, bay leaves, etc.)

-Only pouring holy water in soil that people won’t walk on

-Not spitting or brushing one’s teeth for a set number of hours after receiving Holy Communion

-Fasting for a set number of hours from food and drink before eating antidoron (blessed bread)

-Never allowing a cross to be upside down, or placed on a floor or seat

-Being careful not to place paper icons or crosses, or any other holy object, in one’s back pocket

-Not eating or drinking anything apart from blessed food and drink in the church (ie. Holy Communion, holy bread, holy water, etc.)

-Dressing modestly for church services and while on the grounds of monasteries

-Struggling to be ever-mindful of the presence of holy saints and angels

-Making the sign of the cross before starting a task

-Saying a prayer before and after meals

“‘The grace of God,’ the elder [Paisios] observed, ‘comes to reverent people, and it makes the soul beautiful.’ But he observed with sadness that contemporary people pay little attention to such things. ‘If a person’s not reverent,’ he said, ‘If he scorns divine things, then divine grace abandons him, and he’s overcome by temptations, and becomes like the demons. Divine grace won’t come to an irreverent person – it comes to people who honour it.'” (Elder Paisios of the Mount Athos, by Hiermonk Isaac, pg. 420)

If only we would exhibit reverence toward the little things, perhaps we would acquire it with regards to the greater: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” (Lk. 16:10).

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Fr. John (as a deacon) with Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis, August 2012.

Christ is risen!

According to Wikipedia self-deprecation is the “act of belittling or undervaluing oneself”. But according to the behaviour of monastics (those who shine brightly as examples for us struggling in the world), self-deprecation is the act of knowing one’s self and revealing that knowledge in word and action.

Such statements are perhaps disconcerting when we first hear them. The first few times I heard a monastic say “I had the thought – with my stupid mind – that [insert opinion here]” it threw me off guard. And being the over-analytical person I am an inner dialogue began:

Does speaking like this draw unnecessary attention to one’s self ? Or is it prudent and constructive to speak openly and inexcusably about our weaknesses, our fallibility?

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov says: “Everyone who wants to dispassionately and seriously investigate the state of his soul will see the illness of insensibility in it; he will see its broad significance, its gravity and consequence, and will have to admit that it is the manifestation and witness of his deadness of soul.”

In one of his many “classes” (held in the church hall) Protoprebyter Theodoros Zisis said, “Self-knowledge was the virtue of paganism; self-abasement is the virtue of Christianity”. And what exactly is self-abasement? Isn’t it “a broken and contrite heart”?

Elder Joseph the Hesychast once said, “We are dirt, and are worthy of being used as plaster on the walls of an outhouse”. Do you find that statement hyperbolic? I don’t, because the truth is the only thing that is good in us comes from God, having been made in His image, and the only good we do we do because God works through us. Therefore self-deprecating statements woven through our speech – and especially when we are stating our own opinions – are neither showy nor meaningless, but practical ways of reminding ourselves and others that without God “we can do nothing” (Jn. 14:5).

So the sisters approach conversation with a healthy dose of self-deprecating thoughts and words in order to acquire and maintain a “broken and contrite heart” which we know “God will not despise” (Ps. 50:19). They never speak as though what they say has authority. Everything is qualified by “in my opinion” or “the way I see it” so that they do not make the mistake of indiscreetly clinging to their thoughts and opinions, or worse still pressuring others to blindly accept what they say as the last word on the matter.

Elder Paisios says, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost; he hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. Therefore we should not trust our logical minds. Never believe your thoughts.”

In making self-deprecating statements the individual never forgets the possibility that he can, and more than often does, err. So when it comes to their own thoughts and opinions they can call them “stupid” and yet when it comes to the doctrine of the Church monastics state the teachings of the Church unequivocally and with firm convictions, just as we in the world ought to do.

Practicing healthy self-deprecation is the perfect combination of self-knowledge and self-abasement. It is completely counter-cultural but perfectly in line with life in Christ, Whose divine self-abasement wrought salvation for the world: “In amazement angel armies lift up their song as they glorify Thy self-abasement, Lord”!

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(The following is an excerpt I translated from the fabulous Greek book Words οf the Heart – Λόγια Καρδίας – pp.176-177, a collection of sayings by Gerontissa Macrina of the Holy Monastery of Odigitria in Portaria, Greece)

An eternal Hell exists and an eternal Paradise exists. Eternal hell: I see it, there is gnashing of teeth. All day I see hell and I cry and I say: “Why do you cry?” [I cry thinking of] us being in that flame, in a frozen river, with maggots that never die. [I cry so that] we might be able, now during Great Lent, to pass our time peacefully and very spiritually.

Even above temperance and ascesis, the Fathers held up silence and they searched to learn how to fight their passions. They would say in their confessions: “This passion has grown, this trial has sprung up, the untamed beast [of such and such a passion], egotism wars against me, and I am not able to conquer it. Jealousy, envy, judgementalism, suspicion, and fault-finding all war against me.  What can I do with these demons? How can I fight them, Geronda? With what method can I fight these demons that war against me?”

Do we do thus in our own confessions? And these are the greater [or obvious] things we should be confessing. Or do we go to our spiritual father and, as one person did, say: “Geronda, so-and-so did this to me”? And since the person goes and tells the spiritual father everything so-and-so did when he kneels down for the prayer of absolution instead of saying the name of the one confessing “forgiven and absolved”, [the priest] says the name of the other person who was blamed [for everything]. Suddenly the man is startled: “Why, my father, did you say that name?”

“It’s him I confessed today, you didn’t say anything about your own sin, you weren’t humbled, so-and-so is at fault, he does everything [bad] to you.”

Forbearance is needed, patience is needed, whatever life we lead, patience is needed. We don’t have patience? We don’t have salvation.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany times the sisters at some of the monasteries I visit will try to commit one or more akathists or supplicatory canons to memory. Here is how they do this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome print off the prayers they want to learn and cut them into small sections to keep in their pocket. When they are doing some of the more simpler jobs or tasks around the monastery they take out one piece of paper at a time and lay it in front of them. Then they say that section over and over again until they have it committed to memory. Afterward they take out the next piece of paper, adding another stanza or ode and so on until they have memorized the whole thing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOthers will use small prayer books to do they same thing – taking them out to read when they get stumped.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the monastery there is always work to be done, rarely will a nun find herself idle. But in the world we are constantly waiting in lines at the grocery store, at the mechanic’s shop etc. And so, even if we don’t particularly care to commit a large prayer to memory, we can keep our mind occupied with prayer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wanted to memorize some prayers, so I took a tip from the sisters and made my own miniature prayer book. I thought writing out the prayers would help. So I that’s what I did. I keep it in my bag so that I have it wherever I go.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I’m on the bus or waiting for something I pull it out and read an akathist. It only fits two akasthists and a few other favourite prayers but it is very helpful – mostly because it’s size makes reading the prayers in public somewhat discreet.

You don’t have to hand-write a prayer book, you could simply glue photocopies of prayers in a small book, or keep a larger prayer book with you. The point is to offer our attention – our nous – to God, to make an effort to “pray without ceasing”. I haven’t memorized any akathists yet, but I try to tell myself the point is to pray them, not accomplish something arbitrarily so I can feel self-righteous.

And besides, I love an excuse to try and make something look pretty. Having a notebook filled with prayers and icons and a little calligraphy makes the work worthwhile.

“Be thankful to God that this desire for the Prayer and this facility in it have been manifested in you. It is a natural consequence which follows constant effort and spiritual achievement…. Now you see with what admirable gifts God in His love for mankind has endowed even the bodily nature of man. You see what feelings can be produced even outside a state of grace in a soul which is sinful and with passions unsubdued, as you yourself have experienced. But how wonderful, how delightful and how consoling a thing it is when God is pleased to grant the gift of self-acting spiritual prayer, and to cleanse the soul from all sensuality! It is a condition which is impossible to describe, and the discovery of this mystery of prayer is a foretaste on earth of the bliss of Heaven. Such happiness is reserved for those who seek after God in the simplicity of a loving heart.” (The Way of the Pilgrim – a word from the pilgrim’s spiritual father)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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monastery“Orthodox monasticism is a life, an intense life, of prayer and asceticism removed from the world. In order that we ourselves grow in a deeper relationship with God. In order to serve our fellowman better. We believe that if we grow spiritually, if we deepen our spiritual relationship with God, if we deny ourselves, then we follow Christ’s example of sacrifice for the world. In this way Orthodox monastics sacrifice themselves for the whole world.

“What makes a good monastic is one who can bear in one’s heart the joys and sorrows of the world. Is one who has reached that level of identifying with the pain and suffering of the world, with the needs of every Christian who lives in the world. And because monastic communities are somewhat removed from the world, from the noise of the world, from the activities of the everyday world, then it provides a place also for pilgrims to come and find rest and peace, a word of counsel and of comfort.”

-Mother Gabriella, Abbess of the Holy Monastery of the Dormition of the Mother of God (Rives Junction, Michigan)

I transcribed the above from an interview, Life in a Monastery, with Mother Gabriella on Ancient Faith Radio from 2006. The whole interview is great but I found the above passage too special not to share.

For those who don’t know Mother Gabriella wrote the beautiful foreword for my book The Scent of Holiness. I had the great blessing of meeting her here in Greece (in 2009) and we’ve kept in contact since then. I’m honoured that she wrote such a wonderful foreword!

On a somewhat unrelated note: although I had plane tickets to leave Greece and return to Canada today (for good) due to some unforeseen (though entirely not surprising) circumstances I will be here for another two and a half months. So please keep us in your prayers!stylized peacock

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A photo from a monastery’s calendar: The sisters busy at work.

Here are some words from the Ever-Memorable Gerontissa Macrina to her nuns about work, taken from the newly published book about her life and words  Λόγια Καρδιάς [Words from the Heart] pp. 353-354:

We shouldn’t [have] disdain for anything in the monastery, rather we should care for it [all] like the pupil of our eye, because we will [have to] give an account to God. We should think that we are in a palace and we are the servants. Because we are all servants for the love of Christ, servants for our Panagia, and for the love of Christ we work for her…

When we go to work we shouldn’t diddle-dally. And if we meet an obstacle in our work, we should have [yarn for] a prayer rope that we can make during that time. A person shouldn’t sit idly… We should have a [small] Gospel book. Did our hands get tired of making the prayer rope? We should open the Gospel.

…In your obediences, in the icon shop, in the embroidery room, in the tailor shop, begin the [Akathist hymn] to Panagia, don’t [bring up things] that won’t offer us any benefit… So, prayer and watchfulness. Through the prayers of our Geronda I pray to the all-good God that we make a good beginning [so that] we have a good end. Work and prayer are two conjoined rings. With these two [things] let’s [also] be conjoined, so that we will live the will of God… 

We can apply these divinely-inspired words to our own lives as well. Whether at home or at work, we too can serve our family and co-workers for the love of Christ. We can always make sure that we have something in our purse, something in our hands, so that when we have a free moment we can “sweat” to receive grace; that is, we can keep our hands busy so that we can pray without distracting thoughts, or at very least so that we work for the glory of God. We can keep a prayer rope, a spiritual book, or a prayer book close by at all times so that when we have a moment we can spend time conversing with God. When we have something we want to say we can first ask ourselves if we think it will benefit ourselves or those around us.

Through the prayers of the Holy Abbess Macrina of Volos, may we never be found sitting idly without prayer on our lips or work in our hands!

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I loved the care with which they carried the icon of the Panagia (All-holy one) on her feast day for the procession at the monastery we were at. There were two girls – dressed in traditional clothing – even holding the white cloth on which the icon rested. And they carried an umbrella above the icon, treating her like we would an empress since she is the Queen of Heaven.

“During the visitation of divine grace,” [Elder Paisios the Athonite] said, “the heart leaps. One time, I was praying for fourteen hours straight, and instead of getting tired, I felt exultation and joy! At one point I thought, ‘Since I’m so old, and missing two ribs to boot, I should put on on my belt and attach it to the ceiling with a rope. If I had some makeshift crutches, too, to hold myself up by the armpits, I could keep going and give it all I’ve got. And that was that! As soon as I had the thought, I collapsed, and all the exhaustion appeared. I was on the floor unable to move for fifteen minutes. It was like God was telling me, ‘It’s My grace that holds up, not your belt.’ It’s not that the thought was sinful or proud. I just thought, ‘In the the condition I’m in, I should be careful.’ How much more will a proud thought chase away grace? Spiritual life is so fragile, and you need to be so careful!” (From Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac, pp. 264-65)

Chasing away grace. It’s something we probably do everyday without noticing it. If we are truly spiritual people we can perceive it at times, the loss of grace, but for those of us who are spiritually insensitive our thoughts, words, and actions chase grace away little by little and we become less aware that God had pulled away from us.

The Christian practice of watchfulness – carefulness, simply put – is vital to our spiritual health. It is our guardian on the path of salvation, it keeps us from straying too far into sin. If, however, we do not attend to it, if we live our spiritual lives carelessly than suddenly we will find ourselves “Midway upon the journey of life,”  in a dark forest, “For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (opening lines to Dante’s Divine Comedy) But then what can be done? If we’re lost in the dark forest we don’t know how to discern the appropriate route back to the straight path. Only repentance and humility can save us then. So, what can we do to avoid this predicament?

One of the most practical methods to cultivate and encourage watchfulness is keep track of our thoughts everyday. Keeping a little notebook where we write down the predominant negative and positive thoughts and feelings we have each day can go a long way in helping us see the roots of our problems. Interior dialogues can reveal a lot to us:

I was sad today.

What was my thought pattern like?

I had a lot of negative thoughts.

What could have potentially caused such thoughts?

Well, I read a disturbing news article this morning over breakfast that made me feel sad and after that it kind of coloured my attitude for the day.

Okay, well, let’s try to avoid reading things that cause us unnecessary distress.

You see, this is just a small example of what we can do to keep an eye on our thoughts. We are not all as spiritual as Elder Paisios so our thoughts – even if they’re also not sinful or prideful – will not necessarily be as noble as the Elder’s mistaken thought was above. However, his example perfectly depicts how easily our silly thoughts can lead us astray.

Whether we realize it or not everyday we can either acquire grace by praying, struggling to have humble thoughts, brushing off offenses (ie. justifying others’ bad behaviours with thoughts like, “So-and-so is just having a hard day, he didn’t mean to be offensive”). Or, we can chase grace away, as the Elder mentions in his story, not only with sinful thoughts and actions, but with careless thoughts and actions.

As you may read in The Scent of Holiness, Sr. Sarah once confided in me, “the success of my day wholly depends on whether or not I have controlled my thoughts.” I think there is much wisdom in this statement. It begins with  not being attentive to our careless thoughts and ends with more sins and passions than we initially had. By accepting one stupid thought about someone, “She doesn’t seem to like me” for example, down the road we find ourselves envious or strongly disliking this person. If we trace our thoughts back we realize the passion came as a result of the negative thought that came into our mind which we unwittingly accepted.

So, let’s be careful since the spiritual life is, as Elder Paisios has said, so fragile.

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Lord, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance!

Grant victory to the faithful over adversaries,

and by the power of thy cross, do thou preserve thy commonwealth.

The cross holds great importance for Orthodox Christians. We make the sign of the cross countless times a day. Perhaps living in the world, those around us don’t notice the cross all that often. But in a monastery the sign of the cross cannot be ignored. Here are some of the many ways I have observed the presence of the cross in monasteries.

Before beginning any task – even simple tasks like washing the dishes – a sister will cross herself.

When cooking food in the oven, a sister will make the sign of the cross over it.

When baking bread the sisters cut a small cross in the top of each loaf.

They sew unobtrusive, small red crosses on their clothes (usually on the underside), as well as on blankets and pillowcases.

When they compliment or congratulate someone, they often cross the person as well.

When they yawn or laugh very hard, the sisters mark their lips with the sign of the cross. (Doing this while yawning seemed strange to me at first, but they explained it by saying that sleepiness can come about as a temptation. They make the sign of the cross over their lips when laughing because they try to practice temperance even in laughter.)

Before eating they cross themselves as well as their food.

Conversely, they do not sit with their legs crossed (over the thigh) out of respect for the symbol of the cross, nor would they put a cross pattern in a floor because people would walk on it. In fact, it is said that people use to check the soles of their shoes to make sure they were not walking on symbols of the cross, and if they saw that they were they would cut pieces out. I read once that a monk was walking through the woods and saw two twigs on the ground in the form of a cross. He bent down and uncrossed them so that no one would trample the sign of the cross, such is a monastic’s watchfulness.

In all these ways and more, monastics try to keep the memory of the cross before them at all times, and not only the memory of the cross, but the power of the cross. They look to the sign of the cross to help, enlighten, and protect them. The power of thy cross O Lord is very great! We should try to incorporate the sign of the cross into our daily lives as much as possible as well.

Before Thy Cross we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify!

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Bells at St. Theodora’s Monastery, Thessaloniki

When the sisterhood has a great amount of work to be done they are given a blessing from the Abbess to continue working while a select few read the Hours, Vespers, Akathist, Paraclesis and Compline services in the church each evening. The monastery has a broadcasting system set up so that while the chanters do the services the other sisters can hear them via radio. (Since the monastery is so far into the mountains their own station is the only one they can access).  And so, wherever one is working all she needs to do is turn on the radio to hear the services.

During the two-week fasting period before the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God the sisters are required to finish their work before Vespers so that they can attend the services. After Vespers the sisterhood chants the Paraclesis service to the Mother of God. Throughout the whole Paraclesis the sisters do continual prostrations, and oddly they don’t mind because they are pleased to have the opportunity to “have to” attend the services.

However, most of the year they don’t have the opportunity to attend the evening services on account of all the work. Many times while visiting I have continued working with them, choosing to listen to Vespers on the radio. The last time I visited I was thinking about what a great idea it is for us in the world to also “attend” services even when we are not able to on account of work, children, illness or what have you. There are so many resources in our times. If we miss the Akathist hymn during Great Lent, we can listen to it on CD when we have the time. If we miss Vespers or Matins, there are CDs available for us to listen to. If we don’t own liturgical CDs, there is so much on Youtube we can listen to. We can also remedy not having services to listen to by recording ourselves reading various services in our free time. Then, when we don’t have time to attend weekday services, or whenever we want to listen to a service, we are able to. (Recording oneself and listening to it continuously is also a helpful tactic in memorizing services – like the Akathist hymn to Panagia).

This “tip” came to mind these last few days as I reflected on the custom of praying the Paraclesis to the Mother of God every night for the two-week fasting period. To hear this service chanted you can do so HERE. It is a three part video in English. I highly recommend it.

Having said all that, if we have the time and means, it is always better for us to attend church services in a church. But the next best thing is “attending” services whenever and wherever we may be. We control “where” we are by our will and our nous (mind).

My professor told me an elder once asked his friend after a service at the monastery: “Where were you during the service?”

The man replied he was in church. The elder told him he wasn’t. My professor testified in his defense: “I was standing beside him. We were both there.”

“No, he was elsewhere, surveying the land he is thinking about buying. Isn’t that right? You weren’t in church, but out looking at the land you might buy,” the elder responded.

The man was left dumbfounded. But he understood that although his body was in church his mind was wandering around, and that is the same as not coming to the service at all.

We must struggle to keep our attention on worship and prayer. If it strays we shouldn’t become distraught, we should simply call our mind back. Even if it happens a thousand times, the point is to struggle. Our thoughts have such strength that they can carry us away from church, and so conversely, our thoughts and will can take us to church even when our bodies are elsewhere.

This is why it is said that at the Second Coming of Christ, when the dead will arise, some who lived, died and were buried in the world will arise on Mt. Athos, while some monks who lived, died and were buried on Athos will arise in the world – indicating where each noetically passed his time during life.

And so, if you want to attend services, attend services whether or not you are able to go to church.

“Where your treasure is there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34).

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