sweetnessI thought I’d keep with the pattern I’ve set for Sundays in Great Lent and share yet another story from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.  The story posted on the Sunday of  St. Gregory Palamas was about a vigil in Thessaloniki on the feast of St. Gregory and the story posted on the Sunday of the Cross was composed of vignettes about the True Cross of Christ . Although this story is not explicitly on St. John Climacus, it references him so I thought I’d share it. It is from Chapter 7, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God”. 

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.


He Who Comes in the Name of Lord

Acquiring a spiritual father requires prayer and discernment, a humble disposition, and an openness to the will of God, because a spiritual father “becomes the means of leading the life of men out of hell (by the negative effect of their passions), and into pure Christian life and spiritual freedom”.[i] Thus, it is a precious treasure when one’s spiritual father not only preaches Christ, but lives like Christ, as Monk Isaiah wrote to Nun Theodora: “The Holy Spirit is for everyone; but in those who are pure of the passions, who are chaste and live in stillness and silence, He reveals special powers”.[ii]

The greatest spiritual guides are those whose manner of life teaches as much or more than their words and advice. If a spiritual guide does not live the commandments of Christ, if he has not experienced temptation, if he does not actively struggle to overcome his passions, then how will he teach others to do likewise? On this point Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex says, “If the word that the spiritual father says is not seasoned with grace, nor proceeds from a heart that is warmed by the love of Christ, it becomes like the work of psychologists or counselors—a ‘half-blind’ worldly activity. The word of the spiritual father must bear the seal of grace, the seasoning of grace”.[iii]

I was once visiting a women’s monastery when it was announced that the spiritual father of sisterhood would be arriving shortly. We all went to the courtyard to await his arrival. The nuns were abuzz with excitement, running from here to there in anticipation, getting ready to greet their beloved father and teacher.

Once he was close to the monastery, the church bells began to peal a joyous greeting for the sisterhood’s spiritual elder with the honor and respect due to a person of great importance. The sisters opened wide the gates and allowed the car to drive right into the monastery (their elder was old and sickly and couldn’t walk very far).

They had set out a chair for him in the shade of the garden beside the small chapel. He was led to his seat and offered some water while we all—nuns and visitors—gathered around him. Once the sisterhood had all taken his blessing (which took some time on account of the large number of nuns), we, the visitors, approached to receive his blessing. He smiled sweetly at us and passed on good wishes. He briefly addressed all present, but it was difficult for us to hear him on account of the crowd. His humble disposition and kind demeanor made an impact on me, but the sisters’ joy and overwhelming love at having their spiritual father among them was more impressive still, contagious even.

The sisters’ excitement and love for their holy elder was a beautiful testament to the great importance of spiritual fatherhood. For it is the spiritual father who gives “spiritual rebirth, who introduce[s us] to the life in Christ, and who guides [us] on the path of salvation. Our rebirth in Christ . . . makes us members in the community of our church and offers us the ability to live a life in Christ”.[iv]

Truly, what a great thing it is to follow our spiritual father on the path to salvation. “Let’s not search for foretellers or foreseers,” St. John Climacus advises us, “but above all for those who have humble mindedness in all things, and those who can deal with our spiritual illnesses” (Ladder 4, p. 88, 725D).

[i] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, (Mount Thabor Publishing: South Canaan, 2006), p. 174.

[ii] The Matericon: Instructions of Abba Isaiah to the Honourable Nun Theodora (St. Paisius Serbian Orthodox Monastery: Safford, 2001), p. 160.

[iii] Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart, (Mount Thabor Publishing: South Canaan, 2006), p. 174.

[iv] Symeon Koutsas, The Spiritual Father According to Orthodox Tradition, trans. Constantine Zalalas, (St. Nicodemus Press: Bethlehem, 1995).



sweetnessJust as I did last Sunday, I wish to share an excerpt from my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith Publishing  in honour of the Cross which is commemorated today, the third Sunday of Great Lent.  The story is from Chapter 8, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”, pp. 264-269.

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.

Sunday of the Cross 2

Sunday of the Cross, Holy Lady of Vladimir Mission, St. John’s, NL

 The Power of Your Cross, O Lord

“We should always make the sign of the cross, before we do something, before we speak,” Sr. Silouani instructed us. “While caught up in a conversation, even if we can’t make the sign of the cross over our mouth externally, we can do it internally, noetically, so as to be protected, to say what is necessary with the right words in an appropriate manner.”

The symbol of the cross holds great importance for Orthodox Christians; we make the sign of the cross countless times a day. In a monastery, the respect and honor attributed to the cross is even more obvious. You cannot but notice the frequency with which monastics employ the cross, the great ensign “dread and most awesome in war” (Kontakion for Ss. Constantine and Helen).

Before beginning any task—even simple tasks like washing the dishes—a nun crosses herself; when cooking food in the oven, a nun makes the sign of the cross over it; when baking bread, a nun will cut a small cross in the top of each loaf. Monastics sew small, unobtrusive 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. They make the sign of the cross when they yawn to ward off sleep potentially induced by the evil one, while they cross their mouths when they laugh because they struggle to practice temperance even in regard to laughter. Before eating or drinking, they cross themselves as well as their food and drink.

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 Athonite monks used to check the soles of their shoes—and those of pilgrims—to make sure they were not walking on symbols of the cross. If they found cross patterns on their soles, they would cut those pieces out.

I once read in the Gerontikon 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 on the sign of the cross. Such is a monastic’s watchfulness and care for sacred symbols.

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 but the power of the cross. They look to the sign of the cross to help, enlighten, and protect them. As is said in an Orthodox hymn, “The power of Your cross, O Lord, is very great!”

We too should try to incorporate the sign of the cross into our daily lives as much as possible. To help inspire us to employ the sign of the cross and contemplate its great power, I will share the following stories.

When our friends were getting married, their koumvaroi[1] wanted to give them a special present. They had been given a small relic, a piece of the True Cross—the very wood on which Christ was crucified. They wanted to share this relic with our friends in honor of their wedding. The only problem was they didn’t know how to break a piece off. By the grace of God, such an action was unnecessary, for when they opened the reliquary they saw that the relic of the Cross had already divided into two pieces on its own, without anyone having touched it.


Another dear friend of ours—more like a lay spiritual mother than a friend—had made a pilgrimage to a monastery for the Feast of the Theophany. During the service for the Great Blessing of the Waters, when the priestmonk placed the cross in the water, she saw the water bubble as though it were rapidly boiling each of the three times the priest immersed the cross to sanctify the water. She was astonished and looked around to see if anyone else was as surprised as she was to witness the physical manifestation of the spiritual reality. No one else seemed to observe this miracle, and so our friend waited to speak with the priestmonk after the conclusion of the service.

She told him what she had seen when he placed the cross in the water, and he told her, “That was a gift from God to prepare you for a great temptation.” Needless to say, she witnessed with her own eyes the power of the cross.


While we were on a pilgrimage to the city of Xanthi in Greece, our priest told us about a holy patriarch, Joachim of Alexandria. At that time there was a king in Egypt of the region of Misiri. Despite his impiety, the king heard about the virtuous and venerable patriarch and began to admire the holy man. The king’s servant, however, did not share his master’s enthusiasm, and in order to demonstrate to the king that the patriarch was not as great as he seemed, he encouraged the king to invite the patriarch to visit.

When the patriarch arrived, the cunning servant proposed a debate, thinking he would defeat the patriarch. However, with ease the patriarch refuted all the servant’s empty and false comments about the Christian Faith. Recognizing his defeat, the servant came up with what he thought was a cunning plan to humiliate the patriarch and demonstrate that he wasn’t as holy as the King took him to be.

Knowing something of the Gospel, the servant challenged the patriarch to demonstrate the Christian ability to move a mountain with faith, promising to believe in the Christian God if the patriarch was successful. The patriarch requested a number of days to pray, and when he returned, he made the sign of the cross over himself three times, bowed, and invoked the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the mountain split into three parts and began moving toward them.

The King cried out in fear that they would be crushed and implored the patriarch to make the mountain stand still. (To this day the mountain is called Dur Dag, which means, “Stay still, mountain!”)

Despite this miracle of faith, the wicked servant still refused to believe and instead proposed another test. He had also heard that the Gospel says that whoever has faith will not die even if he drinks poison. So once again he told the patriarch if he accomplished this feat, the servant would believe. But the servant, knowing something of the power of the cross, told the patriarch he could not cross himself.

When the cup of poison was placed before the patriarch, the holy man asked, “But from which place should I drink? From here, here, here, or here?” touching the four sides of the cup in turn. By asking this the patriarch cunningly made the sign of the cross over the cup of poison.

“Anywhere you wish,” came the answer, and the patriarch drank down the poison and remained unharmed. The servant, thinking the poison must not have been strong enough to kill the patriarch, rinsed out the cup and drank from it. He, however, was not protected from the poison and fell down dead.


The grandfather of a friend served as a soldier in the Greek army during the first half of the nineteenth century. He had a small piece of the True Cross sewn into his uniform for divine protection, and it worked a great miracle. The enemy opened fire on him, but he was preserved unharmed. To his astonishment, however, when he removed his uniform, he saw it was riddled with bullet holes. Such is the power of the Cross!


A young girl I know also had firsthand experience of the power of the True Cross. She had gone to visit a priest from Crete who had in his possession a piece of the Cross. Countless people visit him in order to be blessed with the Cross, and many receive healing. Doctors had found a tumor in the bone of this young girl’s leg, and when she was blessed by the Cross it stuck—of its own accord—to the very place where the tumor was in her leg.

Many people had similar experiences to this: the Cross would stick to the very place they had a health problem, sometimes healing the person on the spot; sometimes they would come back for multiple blessings. It’s a wonderful reminder that even two thousand years after the death of our Savior, the wood of the Cross on which He suffered death for our sakes still works miracles.

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

[1] Koumvaros/a/oi: the Greek title for a sponsor, someone who is in good standing with the Orthodox Church, and who supports the spiritual life of the married couple he/she is sponsoring.


Written by Fr. John Palmer

According to the renowned Patrologist Fr Theodoros Zisis, Orthodox theology teaches that, “…[t]wo phases, two economies are readily distinguished within the mystery of man’s salvation and renewal: the economy of the Son, and the economy of the Holy Spirit.”[1]  Vladimir Lossky fills out this assertion for us, stating that, “The redeeming work of the Son is related to our nature.  The deifying work of the Holy Spirit concerns our persons.  But the two are inseparable.  One is unthinkable without the other.”[2]  In other words, Christ renews human nature through his Incarnation and the Holy Spirit then applies this renewed nature to individual persons by various appointed means in order that they might be united to God, becoming partakers of the divine nature, and saved.  From an Orthodox perspective, then, both economies – that of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit – are equally important and integral to the mystery of salvation, with Pentecost serving as the ‘Metropolis of Feasts’ wherein the salvific mystery is perfected.

In contrast, Frankish theology (the foundation of Roman Catholicism and Western theology in general) develops a one-sided understanding of the mystery of salvation as a result of its emphatic focus on redemption.  Here salvation is largely reduced to a legal drama, Lossky writes, “…played between God, who is infinitely offended, and man, who is unable to satisfy the impossible demands of vindictive justice.  This drama finds its resolution in the death of Christ, the Son of God who has become man in order to substitute himself for us and pay our debt to divine justice.”   Within the context of this drama, the Holy Spirit largely vanishes and consequently the feast of Pentecost fades into the background, at least soteriologically speaking.[3]

The groundwork for this aberration was laid by the adoption of the filioque heresy and the novel Trinitarian theology that arose from it.  The Holy Fathers derided the filioque not only because of its addition to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed when every addition to said Creed was prohibited by the Ecumenical Councils, but because it introduced an inequality among the Divine Persons wherein the Holy Spirit ranked last.  For example, in his Mystagogy, St Photios the Great writes that,

“…if, according to their babble, the Spirit proceeds also from the Son, then the Spirit is differentiated from the Father by more properties than the Son.  Both issue forth from the Father, and even if one issues forth by begetting and the other by procession, nonetheless, one of two modes equally separates them from the hypostasis of the Father; but here the Spirit is differentiated by a second distinction arising from the dual procession.  If more distinctions differentiate the Spirit from the Father than differentiate the Son from the Father, then the Son would be nearer to the Father’s essence, and the Spirit, equal in honour, will be blasphemed as being inferior to the Son…”.[4]

This leads Lossky to conclude rightly that if Frankish theology, “… could stop at the redeeming work of Christ…it was precisely because [by this] time the West had already lost the true idea of the Person of the Holy Spirit, relegating him to a secondary position by making him into a kind of lieutenant to the Son.”[5]  Similarly, Zisis writes, “First the filioque was introduced into the Symbol of Faith and made into a dogma, initially with serious protest coming from certain of the Popes, resulting in a diminution of the Holy Spirit…”[6]

As we have asserted in previous posts, Ælfric of Enysham (+1051) finds himself caught in the middle of the West’s transition from one point to the other, and his Sermones Catholici help us plot the particular path taken by England as it left behind the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and Orthodox Faith.

Though his life and activities pre-date the Norman Conquest of 1066 – the date typically assigned to England’s apostasy – England was already experiencing a cultural captivity during Ælfric’s time.  The heavy Norman influence characteristic of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) caused England to gradually forfeit its Orthodox theological heritage in favour of those Frankish theological ideals embraced by the Normans.  Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the Sermones Catholici show Ælfric to be a firm devotee of the filioque (though he never expounds it in a polemic manner, suggesting that he simply received it from his teachers and was unaware of its controversial nature).  For example, in his homily On the Beginning of Creation he writes:

Ðeos þrynnys is án God; þæt is se Fæder and his wisdom of him sylfum æfre acenned; and heora begra willa, þæt is se Halga Gast: he nis na acenned, ac he gæð of þam Fæder and of þam Suna gelice. This Trinity is one God, that is, the Father, and his Wisdom, of himself ever produced; and the Will of them both, that is, the Holy Ghost: he is not born, but he goeth alike from the Father and from the Son.

Moreover, in his sermon Of the Catholic Faith, he offers the following exposition of the dogma of the Holy Trinity which concludes asserting the filioque:

Soðlice se Fæder, and se Sunu, and se Halga Gast, habbað áne Godcundnysse, and án gecynd, and án weorc. Ne worhte se Fæder nán ðing ne ne wyrcð, butan ðam Suna, oððe butan þam Halgan Gaste. Ne heora nán ne wyrcð nán ðing butan oðrum; ac him eallum is án weorc, and án rǽd, and án willa. Æfre wæs se Fæder, and æfre wæs se Sunu, and æfre wæs se Halga Gast án Ælmihtig God. Se is Fæder, seðe nis naðer ne geboren ne gesceapen fram nanum oðrum. Se is Fæder geháten, forðan ðe he hæfð Sunu, ðone ðe he of him sylfum gestrynde, butan ælcre meder. Se Fæder is God of nanum Gode. Se Sunu is God of ðam Fæder Gode. Se Halga Gast is God forðstæppende of ðam Fæder and of ðam Suna. Verily the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, have one Godhead, and one nature, and one work. The Father created nothing nor creates, without the Son, or without the Holy Ghost. Nor does one of them anything without the others; but they have all one work, and one counsel, and one will. The Father was ever, and the Son was ever, and the Holy Ghost was ever One Almighty God. He is the Father, who was neither born of nor created by any other. He is called Father, because he has a Son, whom he begot of himself, without any mother. The Father is God of no God. The Son is God of God the Father. The Holy Ghost is God proceeding from the Father and from the Son.

However, while the Abbot of Enysham receives and indeed clearly teaches the filioque, he yet manages to remain aloof from its implications.  In an impressively Orthodox manner he expresses the economy of the Holy Spirit as this pertains to salvation, and clearly presents salvation as deification, and what is more he does this in his sermon, On the Holy Day of Pentecost.  In a passage where he describes the importance of the feast (and ironically again affirms the filioque) he writes:

Þyses dæges wurðmynt is to mærsigenne, forðan ðe se Ælmihtiga God, þæt is se Halga Gast, gemedemode hine sylfne þæt he wolde manna bearn on ðisre tide geneosian. On Cristes acennednysse wearð se Ælmihtiga Godes Sunu to menniscum men gedon, and on ðisum dæge wurdon geleaffulle men godas, swa swa Crist cwæð, “Ic cwæð, Ge sind godas, and ge ealle sind bearn þæs Hehstan.” Þa gecorenan sind Godes bearn, and eac godas, na gecyndelice, ac ðurh gife þæs Halgan Gastes. An God is gecyndelice on ðrim hadum, Fæder, and his Sunu, þæt is his Wisdom, and se Halga Gast, seðe is heora begra Lufu and Willa. Heora gecynd is untodæledlic, æfre wunigende on anre Godcundnysse. Se ylca cwæð þeah-hwæðere be his gecorenum, “Ge sint godas.” Þurh Cristes menniscnysse wurdon menn alysede fram deofles ðeowte, and ðurh to-cyme þæs Halgan Gastes, mennisce men wurdon gedone to godum. Crist underfeng menniscnysse on his to-cyme, and men underfengon God þurh neosunge þæs Halgan Gastes. The dignity of this day is to be celebrated, because Almighty God, that is the Holy Ghost, himself vouchsafed to visit the children of men at this time. At the birth of Christ the Almighty Son of God became human man, and on this day believing men became gods, as Christ said; “I said, Ye are gods, and ye are all children of the Highest.” The chosen are children of God, and also gods, not naturally, but through grace of the Holy Ghost. One God is naturally in three persons, the Father, and his Son, that is, his Wisdom, and the Holy Ghost, who is the Love and Will of them both. Their nature is indivisible, ever existing in one Godhead. The same has, nevertheless, said of his chosen, “Ye are gods.” Through Christ’s humanity men were redeemed from the thraldom of the devil, and through the coming of the Holy Ghost human men were made gods. Christ received human nature at his advent, and men received God through visitation of the Holy Ghost.

[1] Επόμενοι τος Θείοις Πατράσι· ρχές καί κρίτήρια τς Πατερικς Θεολογίας (Thessaloniki: 1997), 173.

[2] ‘Redemption and Deification’ in In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: 1974), 109.

[3] ‘Redemption and Deification’ in In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: 1974), 99.

[4] On the Mystagogy of  the Holy Spirit (New York: 1983), 84.

[5] ‘Redemption and Deification’ in In the Image and Likeness of God (Oxford: 1974), 103.

[6] Επόμενοι τος Θείοις Πατράσι· ρχές καί κρίτήρια τς Πατερικς Θεολογίας (Thessaloniki: 1997), 180.

sweetnessIn honour of the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas, here is an excerpt from my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith Publishing. It is from Chapter 7, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God”, pp. 214-216. 

To read more stories, you can purchase an e-book or paperback copy from the publisher here or on amazon here.

st-gregory-palamas-st-cyril-and-methodius-church In Praise of Thessaloniki

I would do a great disservice to the great saint and co-protector (together with St. Demetrios) of Thessaloniki if I were to write this whole book and not mention our father among the saints, Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

You can hardly go two paces in that Byzantine city without being reminded of the various local saints and historical faith of the Thessalonians. But two places in particular always occupied a special place in my heart: the church of Hagia Sophia, where St. Gregory preached against the Barlaamite heresy, and the Cathedral of St. Gregory Palamas, in which his relics reside in a side chapel covered in icons depicting his life. Any time I was downtown, I made a point to venerate his holy, fragrant relics.

In a city like Thessaloniki, the cloud of witnesses feel more like companions, such is the intimacy of their presence. In many respects, life there is a living continuation of the Scriptures, and the many churches, sites of martyrdom or imprisonment of saints, and holy relics are enough to make you forget the modern world and enter into the spiritual world.

Practically every night you can attend a vigil in the city. The vigil service according to the Greek Typicon begins with Small Vespers, followed by Compline, Great Vespers, Matins, Hours, Liturgy and finally the Ninth Hour. These vigils can last up to five, six, or more hours. They usually end well after midnight.

I remember one we went to in the heart of town for the feast of St. Gregory Palamas (November 14). During the Matins service, when the life of the saint is read from the Great Horologion, one of the chanters proceeded to the middle of the church to read a long version of St. Gregory’s life. Looking at this young man in his long, black chanter’s robe, standing before the royal doors with only vigil lamps and a lone candle stand illuminating the passage he read aloud, it was easy to be confused as to whether it was the first or twenty-first century, whether we were on earth or in heaven. Coming out of a vigil like that, you felt as though the whole city was more sanctified, as if the stones and stars themselves had participated in our celebration of the Bloodless Sacrifice.

O Thessaloniki, the city Apostle Paul wrote to, preached in, wept over; the city St. Demetrios fought for and continues to protect even after his martyric death; the city St. Gregory Palamas guided, instructed, reprimanded, and loved! Through the prayers of the great hesychast and of all saints of Thessaloniki, may you always remain blessed.


The miracle depicted and described in this video is so awe-inspiring. The hymn, sung first in Greek and then in English, is so beautiful. It is the same hymn chanted at the end of the Akathist services held on Friday nights during Great Lent.

May we have her blessing!

Awed by the beauty of thy virginity, and the exceeding radiance of thy purity;

Gabriel called out unto thee, O Theotokos,

What worthy hymn of praise can I offer unto thee?

And what shall I name thee?

I am in doubt and stand in awe! Wherefore as commanded, I cry to thee:

Rejoice, O full of grace.



Holy Friday, Thessaloniki (2012) A perfect image: the cross and the resurrection side-by-side

As Triodion comes to an end and Great Lent approaches I am filled with a nostalgic love for Christ. I think this is because I became a catechumen on Forgiveness Sunday (12 years ago now). I had found what my heart was longing for and there was no turning back. I would embrace Him in Orthodoxy and start out on a new path, the one that leads to Life. I was hungry for Orthodoxy and all the beauty, grace, and peace it offered. And this time of year my hunger pains return, a faint reminder of that insatiable longing for Christ first ignited in those days leading into Great Lent.

Of course, with each passing year the hunger pains seem to grow a little less intense. Time, while given to us for spiritual progress, often results in ever-increasing spiritual negligence instead.

I used to have unbridled hope and zeal, a hungering to share Christ with people. I need to reclaim this unbridled hope. For, I’d rather live with unrealistic hope in Christ (unrealistic, by the world’s definition) than in the grey reality that no one, nowhere, wants Him or Orthodox truth.

I’m going to make a commitment to allow my heart to hope. To hope for the Gospel to be preached throughout the world. To hope that egotism can still be conquered by humility. To hope that Christ’s sacrifice will satiate those who are currently being fed by the malnourishing food of the world. I’m going to hope, to trust, that although “In the world [we] shall have tribulation” we should be of good cheer for Christ has “overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Kali Sarakosti [Good 40-days], everyone!


Never even think of pleasing men. To be dishonoured by men – this is good. And what if people say that you have sins? Don’t you? We must endure insults, my dear, because the Savior Christ praised us for this: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake (Matt. 5:11). We must endure everything with humility, my dear, endure with humility for the love of Christ, in order to win not all of Paradise but only a little corner, however small.

–Elder Paisius of Sihla from A Little Corner of Paradise, p. 77.