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IMG_8439I remember years ago, while living in Thessaloniki, my husband and I became acquainted with a couple; he was American, she was Greek. We met at church and were invited to lunch with them in their apartment. During the meal we were talking about how we each became Orthodox (including the Greek wife as she had gone through her own experience of repentance and a conscious embrace of the Orthodox faith she was raised in).

The American had been Orthodox for a number of years, whereas my husband and I were only a few years into being Orthodox. He told us, “Well, hopefully you’ll do better than I have, because it’s been 8 years and I have only gotten worse, spiritually.” I remember at the time thinking, He is mistaken; I’m sure he has spiritually progressed and is just exaggerating. Now, years later, I know from my own experience what it is like to start out full of zeal and love and fervor… only to suddenly wake up and feel as though the spiritual life and the presence of God is a far away dream:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost. (Canto I of Dante’s Inferno)

And yet, I have to fight despairing thoughts and remember all hope is not lost. To feel our weakness in an intimate way, to arise from sleep everyday and know that we must fight hard to acquire grace, this is not spiritual digression so much as it is God gently reminding us that we must rely on Him.

Just listen to what St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain says:

“You advance a little; then you forget your weakness, and Christ removes His Grace.  Deprived of divine Grace, you again see your weakness and begin to recover.  If you had said to me that as you advance you become better, then I would have been scared.  For I would have seen that you are prideful.  But now that you see yourself getting worse, I am glad.  For I see that you are well.  Do not fear.  The more one advances, the more he is able to detect his weaknesses and his imperfections.  And that is progress.”

Inhale deep breath. Exhale sigh of relief.

God is with us by his grace and love toward mankind, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

 

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Today is a wonderful feast day of the above beautiful icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos that was brought from Greece to Ukraine by architects appointed by the Mother of God herself to build a church at the Kiev Caves.

Now, I must say, if the Mother of God entrusts 3 years worth of gold to you, and asks you to build a church for the Orthodox faithful in Newfoundland, you will be most welcome here!🙂

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The Kiev Caves Icon of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos is one of the most ancient icons in the Russian Orthodox Church. The Mother of God entrusted it to four Byzantine architects, who in 1073 brought the icon to Sts Anthony and Theodosius of the Caves. The architects arrived at the monks’ cave and asked, “Where do you want to build the church?” The saints answered, “Go, the Lord will point out the place.”

“How is it that you, who are about to die, have still not designated the place?” the architects wondered. “And they gave us much gold.”

Then the monks summoned all the brethren and they began to question the Greeks, saying, “Tell us the truth. Who sent you, and how did you end up here?”

The architects answered, “One day, when each of us was asleep in his own home, handsome youths came to us at sunrise, and said, ‘The Queen summons you to Blachernae.’ We all arrived at the same time and, questioning one another we learned that each of us had heard this command of the Queen, and that the youths had come to each of us. Finally, we beheld the Queen of Heaven with a multitude of warriors. We bowed down to Her, and She said, ‘I want to build Myself a Church in Rus, at Kiev, and so I ask you to do this. Take enough gold for three years.’”

“We bowed down and asked, ‘Lady Queen! You are sending us to a foreign land. To whom are we sent?’ She answered, ‘I send you to the monks Anthony and Theodosius.’”

“We wondered, ‘Why then, Lady, do You give us gold for three years? Tell us that which concerns us, what we shall eat and what we shall drink, and tell us also what You know about it.’”

“The Queen replied, ‘Anthony will merely give the blessing, then depart from this world to eternal repose. The other one, Theodosius, will follow him after two years. Therefore, take enough gold. Moreover, no one can do what I shall do to honor you. I shall give you what eye has not seen, what ear has not heard, and what has not entered into the heart of man (1 Cor.2:9). I, Myself, shall come to look upon the church and I shall dwell within it.’”

“She also gave us relics of the holy martyrs Menignus, Polyeuctus, Leontius, Acacius, Arethas, James, and Theodore, saying, ‘Place these within the foundation.’ We took more than enough gold, and She said, ‘Come out and see the resplendant church.’ We went out and saw a church in the air. Coming inside again, we bowed down and said, ‘Lady Queen, what will be the name of the church?’”

“She answered, ‘I wish to call it by My own name.’ We did not dare to ask what Her name was, but She said again, ‘It will be the church of the Mother of God.’ After giving us this icon, She said, ‘This will be placed within.’ We bowed down to Her and went to our own homes, taking with us the icon we received from the hands of the Queen.”

Having heard this account, everyone glorified God, and St Anthony said, “My children, we never left this place. Those handsome youths summoning you were holy angels, and the Queen in Blachernae was the Most Holy Theotokos. As for those who appeared to be us, and the gold they gave you, the Lord only knows how He deigned to do this with His servants. Blessed be your arrival! You are in good company: the venerable icon of the Lady.” For three days St Anthony prayed that the Lord would show him the place for the church.

After the first night there was a dew throughout all the land, but it was dry on the holy spot. On the second morning throughout all the land it was dry, but on the holy spot it was wet with dew. On the third morning, they prayed and blessed the place, and measured the width and length of the church with a golden sash. (This sash had been brought long ago by the Varangian Shimon, who had a vision about the building of a church.) A bolt of lightning, falling from heaven by the prayer of St Anthony, indicated that this spot was pleasing to God. So the foundation of the church was laid.

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Meetings Focused on the Church of Georgia’s Response to the Synod in Crete

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(Seated: (L-R): Archpriest Theodore Zisis, His Beatitude, the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, Professor of Dogmatic Theology, Demetrios Tselengidis, Hieromonk Miqaeli Bregvadze, Monk Seraphim (Zisis); Standing: (L-R): Hierodeacon Peter, Archpriest Symeon, Protopresbyter Peter Heers, Protopresbyter Matthew Vulcanescu, Metropolitan of Zugdidi and Tsaishi, Gerasimos (Sharashenidze), Metropolitan of Alaverdi, David (Makharadze), Archbishop of Stepantsminda and Khevi, Iegudiel (Tabatadze), Metropolitan of Akhaltsikhe and Tao-Klarjeti, Theodore (Chuadze), Protopresbyter Anastasios Gotsopoulos, Archpriest Bessarion.

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FROM July 25th through July 28th an ecclesiastical delegation of clergy from the Church of Greece were visitors to and the guests of the Patriarchate of the Georgia and His Beatitude the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II. The delegation consisted of Archpriest and Professor Emeritus of Patrology of the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki, Fr. Theodore Zisis, Professor of Dogmatic Theology in the Department of Theology of the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki, Demetrios Tselengidis, Protopresbyter and Rector of the Parish of St. Nicholas of the Diocese of Patra, Fr. Anastasios Gotsopoulos, Protopresbyter and Rector of the Parish of the Prophet Elias, Petrokerasa, in the Diocese of Ierissou and Agion Oros, Fr. Peter Heers, and Protopresbyter and Rector of the Parish of All-Holy Directress, Bokos Hill, in the Diocese of Peiraeus, Fr. Matthew Vulcanescu.

In a series of meetings with hierarchs of the Apostolic Orthodox Church of Georgia responsible for inter-Orthodox affairs, as well as with the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, His Beatitude Ilia II, who graciously received and honored his guests at his summer residence, the delegation was warmly received in a spirit of brotherly love and sincere cooperation and shown exceptional hospitality over their 5 day stay. The purpose of delegation’s visit was twofold: on the one hand to express – on behalf of all faithful Orthodox Christians in Greece – their heartfelt gratitude to the Patriarch, Hierarchy and Faithful of the Venerable and Martyric Church of Georgia for their confession of the Orthodox Faith over and against the rise – in council – of syncretistic ecumenism, and, on other hand, to consult and discuss in person with His Beatitude and Hierarchs the proper response to the unorthodox “Council of Crete.”

In particular, the Georgian Church’s faithfulness to Orthodox ecclesiology, as evidenced in the now twenty-year old decision to depart and remain apart from the syncretistic-ecumenist, Protestant-dominated body, the so-called “World Council of Churches,” was praised and held up as a model for all Orthodox Churches. This faithfulness was, moreover, most evident in the stance the Church has maintained via-a-vis the texts and organization of the mis-labeled “Great and Holy Council,” an episcopal conference of a small portion of bishops representing less than half of the Orthodox faithful, which was held this past June in Crete.

The discussions centered on the problems created by the innovative and unorthodox “Council in Crete” and the necessary response to it based upon the dogmas and canons of the Church and Orthodox ecclesiology. The need for a clear rejection of both the methodology and organization of the Council, as well as the innovative and unorthodox texts adopted at the Council, and for a new, Orthodox Council to be called in response, was stressed by the Greek delegation. The Patriarch welcomed his guests and praised their love and devotion to the Church and Faith, assuring them that “there are not many churches, but only one Church, the Orthodox Church,” and that he and the Holy Synod will “work for the unity of all of the Orthodox,” which can only be assured on the basis of the faith once delivered. The representatives of the Church of Georgia to the pan-Orthodox conferences, Metropolitans Gerasimos of Zugdidi and Theodoros of Akhaltsikhe, also, for their part, stressed their Church’s commitment to their pre-conciliar rejection of the unorthodox texts “The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments” and “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.” Furthermore, the Patriarch and Metroplitans also stated that the documents of the Council will be translated into Georgian and examined and an official response will be issued after the general meeting of the Hierarchy in October.

In general, both the guests and the hosts found common ground and oneness of mind on all matters of faith with respect to the Dogma of the Church and Her boundaries and the need to continue unwavering in the Orthodox Confession of Faith in the face of the spread of syncretistic ecumenism. They pledged to continue cooperation in this regard in the immediate future.

In addition to the above mentioned meetings and discussions, the gracious hospitality for which the Georgian people are so well-known was extended to the visiting clergy with a full program of visits to historic pilgrimage sites of the venerable Church of Georgia.

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Below you will find the first in a series of posts concerning the Optina Elders, what I have labelled ‘A Holy Heritage’. Our dear friend, Subdeacon Matthew Long, has taken the time to compile mini-bios and sayings of the Optina Elders. He has graciously shared them with me so I can share them with you, my readers. I hope and pray this will be an opportunity for us to learn more about the saints God has revealed even in these modern times.

For those wishing to learn more about the holy Optina Elders, you can check out the book series published by St. Herman’s Press.

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Elder Moses

(January 15, 1782 – June 16, 1862) 

Commemorated on June 16

 First in the line of Optina Elders is Moses, born Timothy Putilov. He and two brothers became monks and later abbots at different monasteries. On their father’s gravestone was written: “He was the father of three abbots: Moses of Optina, Isaiah of Sarov, and Antony of St. Nicholas Monastery of Little Varoslavetz.” He was always an avid reader which nurtured in him the desire for the monastic life. As a young man, he was influenced by Eldress Dosithea of the Moscow Ivanovsky Convent and under her encouragement he set out for the Novo-Spassky Monastery. Later he went to Sarov Monastery where St. Seraphim had been struggling for thirty-seven years already. Here, young Timothy had many occasions to talk with the experienced Elder. He left Sarov for the Svensk Monastery where he was made a novice and then in 1811 he was tonsured a monk in the Roslavl forests by the eldest of the anchorites there, Hiero-schemamonk Athanasy. He was given the name Moses after St. Moses, the Ethiopian. He would stay in these forests continuing under the tutelage of the disciples of the Moldavian Elder, Paisius Velichkovsky, who grew to greater influence amongst monastics in Russia and even further abroad. In the Roslavl forests, Fr. Moses’ main occupation, apart from his rigorous cell rule, was the reading and copying of many texts of the Church Fathers. He copied many translations from books which had been copied by Elder Paisius Velichkovsky, and he also compiled volumes of anthologies. Interestingly, he always stood when he read and wrote.

In 1821, at the invitation of Bishop Philaret of Kaluga, he was invited to create a skete at Optina for those who wanted to devote themselves more completely to prayer, later to be known as the Skete of Saint John the Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord. He arrived there with his younger brother, Fr. Anthony, and three other monks. Five years later, in 1826, he was appointed Abbot of the whole monastery and then shortly after that invited Fr. Leonid – another Paisian disciple whom he had met and lived with earlier in his life – to come and live in the Skete. In 1834, Hieromonk Macarius (Ivanov) accepted an invitation to settle in the Skete with Fr. Leonid. With these two elders began the establishment and growth of eldership.

The Optina skete and monastery were revived under the supervision of Elder Moses with the building of the St. Mary of Egypt refectory church, more cells, a library, apiary and various other buildings. More importantly, though, was the spiritual flowering of the monastery the preservation of the ancient wisdom of monasticism, fostered under his guidance. With the rise of eldership persecution also came from those who did not understand it. Despite the persecution, Elder Moses firmly supported Elders Leonid and Makary and did all he could to protect them. Elder Moses himself depended on them in the daily running of the monastery. He would not accept or tonsure anyone without their advice. From them, he constantly sought direction and had Fr. Leonid as his confessor. The crowds of people seeking help from these Elders for their troubled souls grew steadily.

In 1862, after reviving the life at the Optina Monastery and establishing Eldership in the Skete life of Optina, Elder Moses reposed. At the time of his repose was read, “For the Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then He shall reward every man according to his works. Amen, I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in His Kingdom” (Matthew 16:27-28). His body was later found to be incorrupt.

 Sayings of Elder Moses of Optina

On being grieved by others

We must bear one another’s spiritual infirmities cheerfully, without bitterness. After all, if someone is physically ill, not only are we not offended with him, but we even help him in any way we can. That is how we must treat spiritual illnesses also.

On nurturing the fear of God

Moreover, truly we need only ceaselessly keep watch and be prepared, as if mentally on the lookout, beholding God’s omnipresence with the eye of our intellect and reflecting that He dwells not outside us only, but also within us, in our heart, in our soul as in His temple. It is in this spiritual practice that the fear of God consists. For one who knows with an exactness that God is everywhere present, that He sees all his thoughts and that he tries his heart and reins – such a one will fear not only to do evil but even to think evil.

Patience

We must thank the Lord for everything, the labor which he imposes on us to teach us patience, which ennobles the soul and is more beneficial for us than comfort. Evidently, this is pleasing to the Lord. Sorrows cannot befall us except through God’s permission – for the sake of our sins. Moreover, these very sorrows protect us from other temptations.

– Subdeacon Matthew Long

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Bibliography

Clare, Fr. Theodosius, Glinsk Patericon (Wildwood: St. Xenia Skete, 1984).

Holy Trinity Convent (trans.) The Elder Moses of Optina (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1996).

Kontzevitch, I.M. “Abbot Moses: the Builder of the Optina Tradition” in The Orthodox Word (May-June, 1985): 125-128.

“Life in the Forrest by Abbot Moses of Optina” in The Orthodox Word (May-June, 1985): 129-135.

Makarios, Hieromonk of Simonos Petra, The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, trans. Christopher Hookway, vol. 1 (Chalkidike: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady Ormylia, 1998).

Optina’s Elders: “Instructor of Monks and Conversers with Angels” at http://www.roca.org/OA/97/97k.htm accessed on Dec. 17, 2013.

Schaefer, Archimandrite George (trans.) Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina (Jordanville: Printshop of St. Job of Pochaev, 2009).

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The Seven Youths of Ephesus: Maximilian, Iamblicus, Martinian, John, Dionysius, Exacustodianus (Constantine) and Antoninus, lived in the third century. St Maximilian was the son of the Ephesus city administrator, and the other six youths were sons of illustrious citizens of Ephesus. The youths were friends from childhood, and all were in military service together.

When the emperor Decius (249-251) arrived in Ephesus, he commanded all the citizens to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. Torture and death awaited anyone who disobeyed. The seven youths were denounced by informants, and were summoned to reply to the charges. Appearing before the emperor, the young men confessed their faith in Christ.

Their military belts and insignia were quickly taken from them. Decius permitted them to go free, however, hoping that they would change their minds while he was off on a military campaign. The youths fled from the city and hid in a cave on Mount Ochlon, where they passed their time in prayer, preparing for martyrdom.

The youngest of them, St Iamblicus, dressed as a beggar and went into the city to buy bread. On one of his excursions into the city, he heard that the emperor had returned and was looking for them. St Maximilian urged his companions to come out of the cave and present themselves for trial.

Learning where the young men were hidden, the emperor ordered that the entrance of the cave be sealed with stones so that the saints would perish from hunger and thirst. Two of the dignitaries at the blocked entrance to the cave were secret Christians. Desiring to preserve the memory of the saints, they placed in the cave a sealed container containing two metal plaques. On them were inscribed the names of the seven youths and the details of their suffering and death.

The Lord placed the youths into a miraculous sleep lasting almost two centuries. In the meantime, the persecutions against Christians had ceased. During the reign of the holy emperor Theodosius the Younger (408-450) there were heretics who denied that there would be a general resurrection of the dead at the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some of them said, “How can there be a resurrection of the dead when there will be neither soul nor body, since they are disintegrated?” Others affirmed, “The souls alone will have a restoration, since it would be impossible for bodies to arise and live after a thousand years, when even their dust would not remain.” Therefore, the Lord revealed the mystery of the Resurrection of the Dead and of the future life through His seven saints.

The owner of the land on which Mount Ochlon was situated, discovered the stone construction, and his workers opened up the entrance to the cave. The Lord had kept the youths alive, and they awoke from their sleep, unaware that almost two hundred years had passed. Their bodies and clothing were completely undecayed.

Preparing to accept torture, the youths once again asked St Iamblicus to buy bread for them in the city. Going toward the city, the youth was astonished to see a cross on the gates. Hearing the name of Jesus Christ freely spoken, he began to doubt that he was approaching his own city.

When he paid for the bread, Iamblicus gave the merchant coins with the image of the emperor Decius on it. He was detained, as someone who might be concealing a horde of old money. They took St Iamblicus to the city administrator, who also happened to be the Bishop of Ephesus. Hearing the bewildering answers of the young man, the bishop perceived that God was revealing some sort of mystery through him, and went with other people to the cave.

At the entrance to the cave the bishop found the sealed container and opened it. He read upon the metal plaques the names of the seven youths and the details of the sealing of the cave on the orders of the emperor Decius. Going into the cave and seeing the saints alive, everyone rejoiced and perceived that the Lord, by waking them from their long sleep, was demonstrating to the Church the mystery of the Resurrection of the Dead.

Soon the emperor himself arrived in Ephesus and spoke with the young men in the cave. Then the holy youths, in sight of everyone, lay their heads upon the ground and fell asleep again, this time until the General Resurrection.

The emperor wanted to place each of the youths into a jeweled coffin, but they appeared to him in a dream and said that their bodies were to be left upon the ground in the cave. In the twelfth century the Russian pilgrim Igumen Daniel saw the holy relics of the seven youths in the cave.

There is a second commemoration of the seven youths on October 22. According to one tradition, which entered into the Russian PROLOGUE (of Saints’ Lives), the youths fell asleep for the second time on this day. The Greek MENAION of 1870 says that they first fell asleep on August 4, and woke up on October 22.

There is a prayer of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus in the GREAT BOOK OF NEEDS (Trebnik) for those who are ill and cannot sleep. The Seven Sleepers are also mentioned in the service for the Church New Year, September 1.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Originally posted in 2013)

Many 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:

Some 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. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen 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.

In 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.

When 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd 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)

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From a Presentation by the Very Reverend Abbot of St. Anthony’s Monastery, Archimandrite Paisios, to the San Francisco Diocese clergy conference at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Florence, Arizona. Spring, 1998.

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Many Christians during the first centuries of the Church were moved by a holy zeal to forsake the world and distribute almost all their belongings to the poor or to a common treasury, and then lived a secular life, praying and reading the Holy Scriptures. They usually lived not far from their own families. By doing handicrafts, they earned what they needed for their basic living necessities. They distributed the little money that was left over to the poor. These people were called “ascetics.” This way of life developed even more during the following years, and from this mode of living the monastic life was born. Women who wanted and desired to dedicate themselves completely to God confessed before witnesses that they desired a life of virginity and thenceforth lived—in the beginning—with their parents, who provided for their livelihood. Later it was customary for the virgins to live together in “Parthenons,” Pachomios the Great organized monasticism for women more perfectly and founded many monasteries for men and many for women.

The monastic life was called the “apostolic life” in the ancient church.  It imitated – and still imitates – the life of the first Christians, who lived under the direct or indirect spiritual direction of the Apostles.  In essence, it is a life of repentance and purification of the heart from our passions, while fulfilling the commandments of the Lord.  The beatitudes of the Lord find their fulfillment in monasticism, and more generally in ascesis, just as in the time of the ancient church.

The ascetical life of the monasteries is just like the ascetical life of the first Christians.  We find in the Acts of the Apostles that the faithful “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers… All who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.  Continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food. . .” (Acts 2:42-46) And later we find another similar testimony: “The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32)

Sozomenos writes in the Ecclesiastical History that the Jews who became Christians led a philosophical life, as he called it – their way of life was just as we see it organized today, says Sozomenos, by the Egyptian monks.  They imitated as much as they could the Prophet Elias and St. John the Baptist.  “They forsake belongings, relatives, friends; they live outside of the city in sacred houses called monasteries, in which they conduct august sacraments and worship God day and night.  They do not eat before sunset, or they eat once every three or more days.  They abstain from meat and wine.  There are old virgins living with them…” We see that ascesis was never limited only to men.

In an account of St. Justin the Philosopher, in the second half of the second century, the saint describes the life of the Christians which is similar to that of the first Christians; “We bring whatever we have to the common treasury and we distribute it to whomever is in need.”  Their spiritual life was such that, according to St. Justin, they would not even contract marriages, except for the sake of raising children, or they would set aside marriage to keep complete continence.  In other words, the monastic way of life, according to the saint, was a normal phenomenon.

The Lord’s words, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given,” were actually meant to help his disciples strive for a life of celibacy.  Thus, according to St. John Chrysostom, the Lord presents the issue of not marrying as a great and significant achievement in order to attract them and exhort them, since the Lord wanted to inspire the desire for celibacy in them.

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IMG_0725     Then, to show the possibility of virginity, He said, “There are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,” that is, they destroyed the evil thoughts and purified their heart.  In this way He led them with these words to prefer celibacy, as St. John says.

Celibacy existed in the beginning of the creation of Adam and Eve.  St. John Chrysostom describes the life of Adam and Eve in his eighteenth homily on the Book of Genesis: “At the outset and from the beginning the practice of virginity was in force. However when due to their indifference they disobeyed and sin began, that lifestyle was taken away.

Also in his work On Virginity, he describes the life of Adam and Eve saying: “It was deemed necessary for him to have a helpmate, and it came to be, yet not even in this manner was marriage considered necessary.  It did not even appear, for they lived without marriage, abiding in paradise as if in heaven, and enjoyed the pleasure of associating with God…. Thus did they live in that place, adorned with virginity.” So it was natural for Adam and Eve to live in virginity and in continuous communion with God, since, as St. Nicholas Cabasilas says, “Adam and Eve were created in the image of the Incarnate God the Logos. Christ was the archetype. The Old Adam was not the prototype for the New, but the New Adam was the prototype for the old.  St. Gregory Palamas and St. Maximos the Confessor say exactly the same thing. In this monastic life, the life of celibacy, mankind has its beginning.

Therefore, monasticism is not something foreign to the Church; it is not something that began much later. Celibacy is the life that Christ the Prototype of the old Adam, wanted mankind to live.

When the Church was besieged by blasphemous heresies, the monks and nuns greatly contributed to fight against them. They fought against and hated the dogmas of the heretics, but sincerely loved the heretics. With sincere love in imitation of Christ they brought the heretics back to the bosom of the Church. The sacrament of communion was the final, the crowning stage of the heretics’ return to the Church. However, without the complete rejection of the heresy, this was impossible. Their confession of faith in the decision of the Ecumenical Councils was considered a basic prerequisite of the expression of the orthodoxy of the monks. The catholicity of the Church during the era of the Ecumenical Councils is lived in the eucharistic assembly with obedience to a bishop, as well as through the unconditional acceptance of the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. The voice of the infallible Church is expressed both through the Ecumenical Councils and through the other regional councils, whose authority is acknowledged by the universal Church’s conscience.

The champions of these decisions were the monks, distinguished for their orthodox faith. Since heresy appeared as a threat to the unity of the Church, the bishops, being responsible for their flock, sought the help of spiritual men to confront the heresies. St. Anthony the Great was summoned from his mountain by the bishops many times to help confront the Arians. St. Makarios was called upon by a bishop to help him against Ierakitos. The nun Melani was active in Palestine. Besides all the other public welfare institutions and women’s and men’s monasteries she founded, she brought about 400 schismatics back to Orthodoxy, who belonged to the sect of the Meletians. Likewise, she worked with other spiritual men to bring all the Spirit-fighting heretics of her area back to the Church. In the book of Barsanuphios and John, the faith in the Ecumenical Councils is praised and extolled. In Palestine, St. Efthymios and St. Symeon the Stylite brought Evdokia back from the anti-Chalcedonian heresy of Dioscoros to the Universal Church. And along with her, a multitude of people deceived by Theodosios returned to the Orthodox Church.

The confessors of the Orthodox Church Sts. Savvas and Theodosios the Abbot also engaged in similar struggles. St. Savvas not only anathematized the leaders of heresies – Eutuches, Nestor, and Severos – but also “supported” the council of Chalcedon. Countless other monks struggled for the authority of the Ecumenical Councils and against the heresies. Not only did monks and hieromonks struggle for them, but they also took part in the Ecumenical Councils. In particular in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, out of the 350 Orthodox Fathers, 136 were abbots and monks.

Even the emperors themselves believed in the positive role of the monks to bring back those who had gone astray from the Church, “which is one.” The letters of the emperor Marcian to the Fathers of Sinai which exhort them against Theodosios the heretic, show the conviction of the emperor that the peace of the Church and the return to her of those who have gone stray was possible through the sound advice and support of the monastics.

The ascetic monastic fathers of the desert, having traversed the path of their spiritual journey free of deception, that is, by passing from the purification of their soul, and progressing to illumination and theosis, in other words to the state of beholding God, to the true theology of our Church, were able to present the truth successfully against errors.

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IMG_0730     Our Church honors marriage in Christ as well as virginity in Christ. So when a monk or nun criticizes or despises marriage, he shows that he does not have an ecclesiastical mind-set (phronema), since he criticizes something that the Church blesses. A true monk never criticizes the blessed state of marriage. And of course a married person should not criticize monasticism because this also shows a lack of an ecclesiastical mind-set (phronema). Divine Grace is acquired by the monk with virginity in Christ, while by the layman with a marriage in Christ. But in either case, a struggle, ascesis, is required, according to Orthodox teaching.

St. John Chrysostom teaches: “Those who live in the world, even though they are married, ought to resemble the monks in all ways.” “You are greatly deceived if you think that there are things that are required of laymen and other things of monks…. All are equally accountable.” St. Basil the Great says in his Ascetical Works: “Submission to the Gospel is required for all men, both for monks and for laymen.

How much, and to what degree must each and every person apply himself in order to attain salvation?  According to Father Justin Popovitch, “all of God and all of man, nothing less. It is not measured by just how much is needed and who gives more but God gives all of Himself and man must give all of himself, and in this consists salvation.” And this again applies to monks as well as laymen.

Monasticism expresses the apostolic life of the ancient Church as the continuation of that Church. It is the heart of the Church. But because the world does not provide the capability for people to live in it evangelically to the degree that many would want to, they withdraw from the world, aflame with a divine inspiration, which for several people is uncontainable, for even in their sleep they keep the commandments of the Lord. They withdraw from the world not out of self-love or cowardice or to avoid assuming worldly responsibilities, but out of a purely holy desire to be freed of their passions and that their heart be cleansed, so that they be united with Him Whom they yearn for.

“A Monk,” according to St. Nilus of Sinai, “is he who, withdrawing from all men, is united with all men. A monk is he who regards himself as existing with all men and sees himself in each man. The more a monk overcomes the world, the brighter shines his grace-filled rays and the greater the number of people who can be warmed and illumined by them. From his isolate cell, he sees deeper and becomes familiar with his fellow human beings and grows far closer to them in heart than is possible for those living in the world, for he sees them all and is united with them in God.”

Monasticism is similar to the first apostolic parishes, not only in their common belongings and common daily prayers, but primarily in their common therapeutic treatment. In the ancient Church, the catechumen would pass through the stage of purification, would be enlightened in Holy Baptism, and would even reach theosis. In a similar fashion, a novice monk struggles in the stage of purification and repentance, as the catechumen would, and when his repentance is completed, he enters the stage of enlightenment with the “Second Baptism” which he receives, that is, in his tonsure, and then by the grace of God, he proceeds, if God wills it, towards theosis. If we study Orthodox Monasticism, we would understand how the first apostolic parishes functioned.

The parish life can be inspired by the monastic life. “Angels are a light for monastics, and the monastics are a light for laymen,” according to St. John of Sinai. The monastery reminds the faithful that the commandments of the Lord are common, they apply to all. It drives them on towards new spiritual struggles. Some even experience a spiritual rebirth, according to just how receptive they are to the Grace of the Holy Spirit.

The monastery is a clinic, in precisely the same way that the first apostolic parishes were. The uncreated grace of God perfects man. Once man achieves the healing of this soul, he lives the tradition of our Church; he becomes a bearer of Tradition. When the great Fathers of the Church, who were for the most part monks spoke about purification, illumination, and theosis, they spoke as ones with the experience of the uncreated light; they lived this reality, they lived this tradition of the Church, they lived Orthodoxy. And Orthodoxy, according to Father Justin Popovitch, is: “life and experience of grace, and through this grace, knowledge of God and men.”

The monks, and all Christians, who are cleansed of their passions, find the cure of their soul become the most social of people. And since they themselves have found interior peace and perceptibly know what it means to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, they are able to guide others as well towards the purification of their soul. Spiritual guides are not limited merely to the clergy or to the monks and nuns, but all clergy and laity, married and celibate, men and women are able to guide souls towards perfection if they themselves have been purified of their passions and have attained the state of enlightenment. Or even if they are still in the stage of the purification of their soul, they are able to help.

The love that one has towards monasticism, towards the apostolic life is proof that one lives Orthodox tradition. It is love towards the essence itself of Orthodoxy and this is why all the saints loved ascesis.

The ascetical life is our effort assisted by the Grace of God to apply the commandments of Christ. As St. Gregory Palamas has said ‘ascesis is primarily the evangelical life which is based on repentance. It is man’s preparation for his union with Christ. The commandments of the Lord are directed to all married and celibate, without exception. The only difference is that monks pursue the more perfect application, according the words of the Lord, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and come and follow me.”

Ascesis along with repentance requires bodily effort. As Abba Isaac the Syrian says, “The nous is not glorified with Jesus Christ if the body does not suffer for Christ.” When by means of an ascetical life man is united with Christ, or at least is progressing towards this communion and union, then he is able to see within himself how the achievement of the image and likeness of God is brought about. When man struggles, he simply shows his good intentions to God, and it is the uncreated grace that performs the ineffable union.

When a monk, or a Christian, lives properly, that is, when he progresses spiritually and passes through purification and attains enlightenment, and progresses in accordance with the will of God towards theosis, then he lives Pentecost. He comes into direct contact with Christ through His uncreated energies, which has an impact on the whole world for a person’s spiritual rebirth, as the Fathers of the Church understand it and as it is lived primarily in monasticism, is noticed by all of creation. He effectively benefits all of creation. His teaching, his life, his behavior, his entire spiritual world are all different. He reflects the eternal life, the new life that Christ brought to the world. This new man is what we, too, are called to live in order to see in practice the difference between the genuine Orthodox Christian and the life of a worldly man.

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IMG_0791    The transfiguration of each soul takes place also with constant repentance. In beginning His work to save the world, the Lord preached repentance.

A monk through constant repentance renews his baptism. According to St. John of the Ladder, the tears of repentance are a second baptism, a reconciliation with the Lord, and a purification of the conscience. According to St. Isaac, the fruit of the inner man begins with tears. This is why tears are a sign of true repentance, and they are required of all Christians. But there are also other kinds of tears. According to St. Isaac, there is “an order of tears which belongs to him who sheds tears unceasingly both night and day …. The eyes of such a man become like fountains of water for two years’ time or even more. But afterwards he enters into peace of thought and purity of heart. And once he enters into it, it shall abide with him till death. And God raises up the fruit of the Spirit in him. And in this present life he perceives, dimly somehow, and in a figure as it were, the change nature is going to receive at the renewal of all things.” This marks the completion of the heart’s purification process.

The saints of our Church know that divine Grace abides in and transfigures our soul with a desire for struggling, with humility – which is the basis and foundation of the virtues – with watchfulness, and with prayer.

The prayer which the monk uses above all, more than all the other prayers of the Church is the so-called Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” It has tremendous power when it is used constantly and with zeal, and primarily when it is used under the super-vision of an elder who possesses this prayer, that is who has experience of how it acts in the soul of a person. The Jesus prayer contains a confession of the God-man and a confession of our sinfulness. In this combination of these two truths lies the whole spirit of our Orthodoxy. With time, the Jesus prayer guides us towards Christ-like humility, which, according to St. Maximos, guides us to the two-fold knowledge: the knowledge of the omnipotence of Christ and the knowledge of our own weakness. The ignorance of the omnipotence of Christ and the ignorance of our own weakness constitute pride.

The Jesus prayer purifies the nous of thoughts and fantasy, an indispensable prerequisite without which man does not achieve the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God, in other words, does not fulfill his purpose as a Christian. As St. John Chrysostom says, this prayer illuminates man with uncreated light. “Prayer done with zeal is light for the nous and soul… It is an unquenchable and continuous light.” However, it is not achieved without labor and temptations. In fact, according to St. Isaac the Syrian, “Reckon every prayer, wherein the body does not toil and the heart is not afflicted to be a miscarriage.”

When prayer, and in particular the Jesus prayer, is done with zeal and persistence and under obedience, it brings man to “true knowledge of God, it is an intercessor between God and men, a physician of the passions, and antidote for illnesses, peace of soul, a guide that leads to heaven, it is communion and union with God. And man’s soul is directed towards God, enlightened, and is thoroughly brightened by His indescribable light.” The monk constantly strives to occupy himself with prayer and mainly with the Jesus prayer, lest he be found unworthy of this divine conversation and end up spiritually lifeless and dead. For the Jesus prayer to purify the soul of man, it must be said without ceasing. This work is not only for monks. Praying without ceasing is for all Christians, according to the Apostle Paul. St. Gregory Palamas as Archbishop of Thessaloniki taught the same thing, that ceaseless prayer, the Jesus prayer, it not only for monks, but for all Christians, as well. But for man to make progress in the Jesus prayer, stillness and seclusion are indispensable aids.

In the Gospel, the Lord often went out into the wilderness to pray. “Why did he ascend the mountain?” asks St. John Chrysostom. And he answers, “In order to teach us that solitude and isolation are good things when we want to come into contact with God. The wilderness is the mother of hesychia and it keeps us far from all noise.

All the hours of the day are appropriate for prayer, but the nighttime hours are most suitable. The night has darkness and quiet, essential aids for the execution of prayer. This is why monks prefer the nighttime hours for noetic prayer and their communication with God. The wilderness has shown forth tens of thousands of saints of our church.

The monk gives priority to the person. Ascesis delivers him from thoughts, the imagination and the passions and by the grace of God he acquires peace and becomes a fountain of peace for all the world. “Find peace within yourself,” says St. Seraphim of Sarov “and thousands all around you will be saved.” He means here not just those who come into contact face to face with such a person but also those far away are changed and become partakers of the grace of such a saint, and turn towards God. This is why today the world needs such people more than ever before.

“Perhaps,” St. Silouan writes, “You will say that nowadays there are no monks who would pray for the whole world; but I tell you that when there are no men of prayer on the earth, the world will come to an end and great calamities will befall: they have started already.”

External stillness must be accompanied with interior stillness. The beginning of the development of the passions and of one’s fall is thoughts, which proceed from a soul lacking peace. The imagination is also a diseased condition of the soul. Of course, in our Lord the New Adam, and in Adam and Eve before the Fall, these did not exist. When we initially undertake by the Grace of God to cure of soul of its illness, a real struggle is required so that we do not, according to St. Dorotheos, “remain all the time rotting in our thoughts.” When a monk joins ceaseless prayer with endless vigilance and complete spiritual obedience to an experienced elder, then he gradually achieves the purification of his soul, and “the purity of soul,” according to St. Isaac the Syrian, “is the first gift of our nature; and without purity of the passions the soul is not healed of the illness of sin, nor does it acquire the glory which it has lost through the Fall.”

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IMG_0823     Since we have briefly mentioned the virtues which we as Christians must work at, it would be good to mention also the virtue which is the mother of all virtues, obedience, which without great toil brings all the virtues chained together.

Obedience is a great mystery of our Church, as St. Silouan has said. “The Holy Fathers,” according to St. Silouan, “ranked obedience, which is in essence humility, above fasting and prayer.” In a broader sense, we must have more obedience to Church Tradition and to the visible point of organizational unity, that is, to the bishop and to the canonical structure of the Church. However, more specifically, spiritual obedience to a spiritual father who has reached the state of illumination and theosis renders the disciple, in proportion to the faith and obedience he has towards his elder, a recipient of the uncreated energies of God, through his spiritual father.

“He who has cut off his self-will and put himself under obedience in all things to his elder and his confessor has an unfettered mind… and obedience brings him all the virtues and gifts one by one. He who has true obedience fulfills all the commandments and becomes like Christ who was ‘obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ The Holy Spirit loves the obedient soul,” according to St Silouan, “and quickly comes to know the Lord, and obtains prayer of the heart…. And thus
God gives His wisdom and anything else the obedient soul asks of Him.”

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  The Church today, the world, is passing through a very serious crises, a crisis both moral and spiritual. The problem in the world today is man – the individual. If man by means of ascesis purifies his nous from thoughts and fantasies and then his heart from the passions, then the Grace of the Holy Spirit comes permanently to his soul, and in this manner he becomes at peace with himself and with God. He comes into contact with God and is at peace with his fellow man and with all of creation. The achievement of one soul being cured of his passions means a positive change to all of society, it is a beginning of the cure of all society. This is primarily what monasticism – the apostolic life – has offered and continues to offer to the Church throughout its history, either by word or through silence, to those who draw near.IMG_0831

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