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Here is a very informative lecture on the council held in Crete in 2016 and its influence on the new emerging ecclesiology that is foreign to Orthodox Tradition and to previous conciliatory Councils.  A written version is available here.

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Bobby Maddox, host of Ancient Faith Radio’s Ex Libris, graciously took the time to interview me on my new book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.

You can listen to it here.

In the interview Bobby references the interview I did for The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery back in 2012. You can listen to that interview here.

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Ladies, this post is for you. Men, you may also be Marthas, but mostly it’s us women running around the kitchen while the Saviour sits in the living room with the men and the Marys.

I think it’s common that when we think and speak of “being a Martha” what we mean is, “I do things; I don’t have the time or luxury of just standing in the icon corner praying. I have responsibilities that necessitate being a Martha.” I think most of us feel far too much like Martha than we’d like.

If you visit an Orthodox monastery you’ll quickly realize how busy the monastics are, how much they work, and how seemingly little time remains for private prayers after so much work. So how can they be said to “choose what is better”, how can they be said to focus on “the one thing needed”? Similarly, for us living in the world, with our work schedules, various activities, volunteer obligations, and endless to do lists, how can we possibly find the time to focus on the one thing needed?

Let’s take a moment and really consider what it means to be a Martha and what it means to be a Mary.

Luke 10:38-42

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

When the Lord rebuked Martha for complaining about her sister’s choice to sit on the floor rather than help her, he wasn’t condemning her work. He wasn’t saying what she was doing was unnecessary, unimportant or even superfluous. He spoke instead of Martha’s internal state, not her external works. What He was highlighting and disapproving of was not what she was doing but how she was feeling. He expressed His disapproval of her worry, her anxiety, her upset state of being. When he said Mary chose what is better, it was not to necessarily approve of her not working, but rather to highlight that her heart and mind were focused on Him, the one thing needed.

This is how we too can be Marys when we need to be Marthas, by calling our attention back to Christ in all we do. Are we rushing to our next appointment feeling anxious we won’t be on time? We need to say the Jesus Prayer. Are we doing the third load of laundry only to realize we shrunk a favourite sweater? We need to implore the Mother of God to keep us from becoming upset. Are we washing the dishes while also cooking supper and starting to feel flustered? We need to verbally glorify God.

This is what monastics are doing too. They’re being Marys while running around like Marthas. It’s not that they don’t set aside appropriate time for prayer, they do. But they also work like busy bees all the while struggling to be watchful, to guard their nous and heart from harmful thoughts, and to keep their focus on Christ through prayer.

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“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” “Most Holy Theotokos save me,” “Glory to God for all things,” these, and many more, are simple prayers that make being a Martha much more like being a Mary.

Christ reminds us,

“Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.”

Externally we can be Marthas but internally we must be Marys. We must be praying and glorifying God and constantly reminding ourselves that all our running around is in fact spiritually detrimental if we allow our minds to be so distracted that we “forget our first love”.  Conversely, we can find our lives very busy and still choose the one thing needed if only we push ourselves to cry out to Christ to sanctify our every activity, so long as in our heart we have the peace of soul to “sit” at the Saviours’ feet. Only we know the balance between being busy and being anxious/ upset about many things; each of us must find a way to become a Mary even when life necessitates we be Marthas.

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Originally posted on Ancient Faith BlogsBehind the Scenes

By Constantina Palmer

Sweetness of Grace Stories of Christian Trial and VictorySTORY FOR BODY AND SOUL

Storytelling is a characteristic feature of our Orthodox Tradition. It is an ancient and effective means of sharing high ideals, universal truths, with the common man through images and examples relative to his experience in daily life. Not only is our history replete with books full of stories about holy desert dwellers, repentant sinners, sayings and anecdotes of anchorites and hermits, but the Gospel itself, Christ’s own teachings, are dispensed in the form of story, in parables.

The parables Christ describes in the Gospels contain profound depths of spiritual insight and wisdom, only discernible to those who wish to seek the truth. Parables are straightforward enough that the carnal man (i.e., the non-spiritual person) would believe he understands Christ’s teaching because, on the surface, he does. However, in reality the mystery of their depth remains hidden from him.

And the disciples came, and said unto him, “Why speakest thou unto them in parables?” He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.” (Matt. 13:10-11)

Every aspect of the spiritual life requires effort. And so, it should not surprise us that even grasping the deeper meaning of parables obliges humble-mindedness and spiritual insight. To him who makes the effort to dig deeper, Christ reveals hidden, divine truths: “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).

In a similar fashion, stories of Orthodox life, mindset, and spiritual realities provide two layers of insight. The first is the basic level of understanding: “That’s a nice story,” is perhaps (at best) the impression a non-spiritual person has. The second layer, however, is capable of penetrating the heart. The content of the story first enters the intellectual mind and then, for those well-disposed, proceeds to have an effect (whether or not the person is cognizant of it) on the inner man.

Like all spiritual things, there is the exterior and the interior. Like Christ’s parables, stories of spiritual depth offer both.

When asked which was more important for salvation, bodily asceticism or interior vigilance, Saint Agathon said, “Man is like a tree. Bodily asceticism is the foliage, but interior vigilance is the fruit. Holy Scripture says that ‘every tree which does not bring forth good fruit shall be cut down and thrown into the fire’ (Mt.3:10). Therefore, we should focus our attention on the fruit. But a tree also needs the protection of its foliage, which is bodily asceticism.”

Obviously, Abba Agathon is speaking here of external good works and internal spiritual works, but the idea is the same. Man is of two natures: bodily and spiritual. Stories and parables that provide two layers speak to man as consisting of both body and soul.

STORY AS MOSAIC

Another element of spiritual stories is the communal nature inherent in them. A story is something to be shared. What good is a storyteller if she has no one to whom she can relay the story? Like love, the greatest Christian virtue, it is worthless unless we share it with others. Spiritual stories are a means by which a person supports and edifies his neighbour and is himself supported and edified in his own spiritual journey.

My own stories – stories of Christian trial and victory, of lessons learned and spiritual conversations with holy ones – do not merely involve a storyteller and her listener. They are themselves communal. They are not merely my own; they are also the story of others. They describe the spiritual warfare and spiritual riches of others. They are an exchange, a mosaic; they are both my story and their story. Like St. Nikolai Velimirovich, I too,

…am searching for those who have listened, my Lord, and I share my joy with them. I tell them about Your ways and Your wisdom, and they confirm what I relate. And we multiply our joy and share it. I listen to the tale of those who have listened, how You removed the stumbling blocks before their feet, and I add my own story, and our room is filled with heaven.

The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory is a mosaic of all the things I learned, saw, and heard as an Orthodox Christian striving to live the faith in South Korea, Greece, and here on the Atlantic-encircled island of Newfoundland. It contains examples of the sweet and difficult aspects of Christian life. These stories, my own and those of others, are a petition to take life in Christ seriously; they are a challenge to put into practice the Gospel precepts exactly in the life circumstances in which we find ourselves. They are a sharing of stories, intended for the whole person – body and soul – intended to inspire good works in the reader.

STORY AS MOTIVATION FOR ACTION

Spiritual stories, Christ’s parables, the sayings of the desert fathers (please God, even my own simple stories) differ from secular stories in that they are intended to motivate the listener to flee from vice and acquire virtue. When we hear a spiritual story the proper response is to learn and express this learning through our actions.

“I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw” (Proverbs 24:32).

Spiritual stories are like a feast, the storyteller a gracious host. A host decorates his banquet hall, offers the finest foods and wine, and invites all he knows to eat and drink so that they may be filled. Having a story fall on deaf ears is like a person who is invited to the beautiful feast, arrives, sees the sights, smells the aroma, but does not ingest the food. What good is there in a feast if it is not eaten? The same is true of spiritual stories. They must be digested. We must grind them in the mill of our hearts, extract a lesson and apply it with zeal. In this way we are ever vigilant, ever learning, ever applying the commandments of Christ. This is what it means in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers when it states the visitor “went away greatly edified” (Sayings, p. 52).

When we hear or read a spiritual story, when we receive “the words of life”, the fruit of these words ought to be born in our hearts. This fruit becomes wisdom, understanding, forgiveness, self-reflection, courage, patience, endurance, fortitude. The benefits of spiritual stories are unfathomable if only we are not passive when we hear them. We must greet them with an open and eager heart and display our gratitude through action.

This is true both of he who hears (or reads) spiritual stories, and he who relays them. As a storyteller, I myself must strive not to be a “teacher who teaches but doesn’t practice what she preaches” (as the ever-memorable Gerontissa Makrina of Portia was wont to say). I, like all listeners, must “produce fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Repentance is, in the truest sense, an action. It entails turning away from sin and toward God; this occurs first in one’s mindset and afterward is reflected in one’s deeds.

Often, when St. John Chrysostom would preach, his divinely-inspired words would evoke rapturous applause from the listening crowds, and his response would often be (in essence), “Don’t clap; rather, put my words into action.” The same can be said of every parable, every spiritual story, we hear or read. Let’s not merely clap our hands in enthusiasm, let’s show forth good works, let’s go away “greatly edified.”

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Some of my favorite spiritual stories are contained in the following books:
Practical Teachings on the Christian Life by Abba Dorotheos
Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters by St. Paisios the Athonite
An Athonite Gerontikion by Priestmonk Ionnikios Kotsonis
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Benedicta Ward
The Dialogues by St. Gregory Dialogos
Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon
The Prologue of Orhid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich

About Constantina Palmer

Constantina R. Palmer is from New Brunswick, a quaint province on Canada’s Atlantic coast. She lived in Thessaloniki, Greece for almost six years, during which time she received a Master’s degree in theology from Aristotle University, studied Cretan style iconography, as well as Byzantine chant. Not one to simply learn from books she also spent significant time at a number of women’s monasteries throughout northern Greece. Currently, she lives with her husband, an Orthodox priest, in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, serving the only Orthodox parish on the island of Newfoundland. She is also a social worker. Constantina is the author of two books: The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.

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Image from the Daily Mail

While the below is a re-post of a book review I did in 2012, I wanted to include it in this year’s Truth of Our Faith series because I believe it is important for Orthodox Christians to know there is a handbook out there for how to take on the Christian task of preparing a body for burial.

Although as Christians we know that the aim of this life is preparation for the next, and although we go to great extents to plan weddings, showers, baptisms, and birthday parties, we are reluctant to plan – or even speak at length – about our burials, let alone death itself.  Deacon Mark and Matushka Elizabeth Barna’s A Christian Ending eases its reader into an important conversation concerning Christian death and burial.

The book is split into two parts, what I would call a theoretical part and a practical part. The first five chapters make up part one and consist of a discussion on different burial customs – both ancient and modern – as well as the Christian view of death and the body. The remaining eight chapters make up part two and involve a detailed description of the how and why of natural, or “ancient”, burial, as well as the necessary forms and prayers. Both parts are equally full of well-researched information on a variety of theoretical and practical aspects of burial. From information about the importance of avoiding embalming, “it is imperative that the funeral director be informed immediately, preferably in writing, that the body is not to be embalmed. Standard Operating Procedure is to embalm” (p. 60) to traditionally worn headbands on the deceased, “another tradition is a headband bearing an inscription based on the thrice holy hymn… ‘Holy God, Holy Might, Holy Immortal’” (p. 78), the book is full of interesting and helpful facts.

The text as a whole is uncomplicated; the instructions are clear and concise. The reader is given a good understanding of the method and work entailed in natural burial. It explains what exactly to expect when considering taking on such a task. It is a true handbook, an indispensable resource to have at one’s side during the burial process. While I found the book as a whole quite interesting, I found the description of how exactly to prepare the body very interesting. A Christian Ending makes a strong case for the need for such customs to be introduced to our North American Orthodox culture.

Yet, at the same time, natural burial does not come across as a light and easy task. In fact, the book reveals this type of burial to be more intense than perhaps one would initially think. The Barnas are right to stress the need for multiple volunteers; it is not something one can accomplish alone. It is a wonderful (and necessary) act of love to offer our community, and I would like to believe that this book will encourage many Orthodox parishes to rise to the occasion when those in our Orthodox family need help with the last of life’s important transitions.

The most impressive aspect of A Christian Ending, more impressive than the vast amount of reading and research that went into writing the handbook, is the great reverence with which death and the body are treated. The piety with which they write about such things never comes across as contrived, rather as something completely natural. The same can be said of the many poetic yet very real descriptions of death, “We know that the dissolution of the corpse is not the end of the body but the end of corruption. The seed in the ground has dissolved and is the beginning of the future harvest” (p. 93).

A Christian Ending is filled with practical advice for how to handle, clean, anoint, and dress the body, but it also offers a fair bit of insight into how we ought to approach death, the grieving family, and how we can help the deceased person’s eternal soul.

“A proper memorial for the dead, besides our own amended and virtuous life, would be alms to the poor or in an anonymous gift to the church. Perhaps one of the best memorials to all those who have gone before and all of us yet here, is to redeem the time, to practice virtue and recapture our own tradition; the act of mercy, the preparation and burial of the dead” (p. 95).

In short, A Christian Ending: A Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition is a necessary book for all those who desire to help revive this respectful, Christian manner of burial.

Purchase your copy of this praise-worthy book here.

BUY NOW

Click on this link to buy your copy: http://store.ancientfaith.com/the-sweetness-of-grace/

You can also read a sample chapter at the above link!

 

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George, a young man of sixteen or seventeen, came to Mount Athos to go from one monastery to another. Though Greek by blood, he had been raised abroad from early childhood among Tibetan Buddhist monks in their monastery. He had made a great deal of progress in meditation, and he had become an accomplished sorcerer, able to summon any demon he wanted.[1] He was also an expert in the martial arts.  Using the power of Satan, he made impressive displays of his abilities: he broke hazelnuts in his palm, and tossed away the shells while the nuts remained attached to his hand. He could read closed books. He struck large rocks with his bare hand, and they shattered like walnuts.

Some monks brought George to the Elder so that he could help him. George asked the Elder what powers he had, what he could do, and the Elder answered that he himself didn’t have any power, and that all power is from God.

George, wanting to demonstrate his power, concentrated his gaze on a large rock in the distance, and it shattered. Then the Elder took a small rock and made the sign of the Cross over it, and told him to destroy it too. He concentrated and performed his magic, but he couldn’t shatter it. Then he started trembling, and the satanic powers―which he thought he controlled―since they weren’t able to break the rock, turned against him and hurled him to the opposite bank of the river. The Elder picked him up in a miserable condition.

“Another time,” recounted the Elder, “while we were talking, he suddenly stood up, grabbed me by the arms and spun me around backward. ‘Let’s see Hadjiefendis get you lose, if he can,’ he said. I felt it was like blasphemy to say that. I moved my hands a little, like this, and he was jerked away. He jumped up in the air and tried to kick me, but his foot stopped near my face, like it had hit an invisible wall! God protected me.

“At night, I kept him there, and he slept in my cell. The demons dragged him down into the pit and thrashed him for failing. In the morning he was in a bad state, injured and covered in thorns and dirt. He confessed, ‘Satan beat me up because I couldn’t defeat you.’”

The Elder convinced George to bring him his magical texts, and he burned them. “When he came here,” the Elder recalled, “he had some sort of charm or amulet with him. I went to take it, but he wouldn’t give it to me. I took a candle and said, “Lift the leg of your pants up a little.” Then I put the lit candle against his leg―he yelled and jumped up. “Well,” I said, “if the flame from a little candle is for you, how are you going to endure the fire of hell that you’re going to end up in because of what you’re doing?”

The Elder kept the young man close to him for a little while and helped him, so long as he was willing to be obedient. He felt such compassion for him that he said, “I would leave the desert and go out into the world to help this boy.” He made an effort to learn if he had been baptized and even found out the name of the church where his baptism had taken place. Shaken by the power and the grace of the Elder, George wanted to become a monk, but he wasn’t able to.

The Elder would refer to George’s case to show what a delusion it is to think that all religions are the same, that everyone believes in the same God, and that there’s no difference between Tibetan Buddhist and Orthodox monks.

 

[1] .The place of magic in Buddhism is unknown to many Westerners, who for the most part have been introduced only to a modernist Buddhism that excludes such content. A useful corrective is provided by the scholar Georges Dreyfus, the first Westerner to receive the Geshe degree of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

“Unlike modern intellectuals, Tibetan scholars are never tempted to reject magical elements and often engage in these practices, though they may view them as limited in their effects and not relevant to the soteriological goals of the tradition. In this regard they are also unlike modern Buddhists, who are profoundly uncomfortable with the magical practices that exist in Asian Buddhist traditions” (pp 303–304). George Dreyfus, Sounds of two hands clapping. The education of a Tibetan Monk  Dreyfus discusses at length the Tibetan Buddhist practice of propitiating the “mundane” “dharma protectors”. “These violent spirits have taken an oath … to protect the Buddhist teaching. Despite this commitment, they are not completely tamed and are prone to quasi-human emotions such as anger, jealousy, and so forth. Hence, they are partial and can be enlisted in morally unseemly actions such as helping practitioners to secure worldly advantages or even kill an adversary” (p. 299). In fulfillment of their oath, meanwhile, the spirits “protect the person or the group, often by violent means,” from“‘ enemies α Buddhism’ (bstan dgra)“ (p. 300). Although “many Tibetans feel the tension between the reliance on these deities and the normative ideals of the tradition,” they “figure prominently in the ritual life of Tibetan monasteries…. But most of the rituals devoted to these deities are not performed in public but in the House of the Protectors (dgon khang), a separate temple devoted to them” (p. 300). Indeed, “Tibetans are often unwilling to introduce outsiders to [the practice’s] secrets. Temples are always open to anybody, but the House of Protectors is often less accessible and can even at times be closed to non-Tibetans” (p. 302).―eds.