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Once, while he was praying, Saint Macarius heard a voice: “Macarius, you have not yet attained such perfection in virtue as two women who live in the city.” The humble ascetic went to the city, found the house where the women lived, and knocked. The women received him with joy, and he said, “I have come from the desert seeking you in order to learn of your good deeds. Tell me about them, and conceal nothing.”

The women answered with surprise, “We live with our husbands, and we have not such virtues.” But the saint continued to insist, and the women then told him, “We married two brothers. After living together in one house for fifteen years, we have not uttered a single malicious nor shameful word, and we never quarrel among ourselves. We asked our husbands to allow us to enter a women’s monastery, but they would not agree. We vowed not to utter a single worldly word until our death.”

Saint Macarius glorified God and said, “In truth, the Lord seeks neither virgins nor married women, and neither monks nor laymen, but values a person’s free intent, accepting it as the deed itself. He grants to everyone’s free will the grace of the Holy Spirit, which operates in an individual and directs the life of all who yearn to be saved.”

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Below is an amateur translation I did. It’s an excerpt from Λόγια Καρδίας (pp. 246-250), a collection of homilies by Abbess Makrina of the Holy Monastery of Panagia Odigitria in Volos, Greece. It is a beautiful story that tells of the great rewards God has prepared for those who practice patience when confronted with great trials and temptations, and the spiritual exhalation the soul experiences when we abstain from passing judgement, even on those who openly hate and harm us. 

Let’s be watchful concerning the matter of passing judgment. Let’s be very watchful concerning passing judgement! It is indescribable how fearful this matter is! “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Do we safeguard this saying? Even if we don’t have virtues, Christ will save us, He will take us into Paradise if we abstain from judging.

I will tell you something else, again from experience. Once a sister[1] in the world wanted to say something about me that didn’t happen to me; it was slander. For the glory of Christ I tell you this. Was it a temptation that put her up to it? Was it from hatred? Was it from jealousy that she did it? In any case, I said many, many prayers for her, I mean many prayers. I cried neither for my father, nor for my mother as much as I cried for this sister. With much pain I cried and I said: “My God, save me, help me, give me strength.” The prophet David said: “Deliver me from the slander of men and I will keep thy commandments” (Ps. 119: 134). I felt a great deal of pain inside.

I saw her coming to me in a vision. Her face had two indentations on account of her tears. It was so real! In the indentations she had clots of perspiration. Her whole face was covered in perspiration and black from suffering and fatigue. She had a sack on her back, too heavy to be lifted. And as soon as I saw her, I wanted to go and help her, to lift the weight from below, but it was like a stone wall and the weight lay there immovable. I said to her: “You are tired!”

“Yes, I am tired of lifting this weight!” she said. It was a stone like the porters used to carry on their backs a long time ago.

She said to me, “This evening is the Queen’s reception and she wants you to go.”

“The Queen wants me?” I asked.

And suddenly a vehicle arrived, not like any carriage or car, it was very different, and Gerontissa Theophano was sitting inside. She looked like a young child, like a young lady of fifteen years. She said: “Come, the Queen will have us at the reception this evening.”

I made the sign of the cross and I got into the vehicle. We proceeded to a beautiful turnpike. I saw a church in front of us – it was like looking at the church of Panagia in Tinos – such a nice church, it was bright, resplendent! I made the sign of the cross as I passed by. Across the way, toward the east, was what seemed to be a palace. The door to the palace was huge, just as doors are in large buildings. There in the middle of the doorway was the Queen, who, from her neck up I couldn’t see on account of the light of her face, because she was shining so brightly. I saw her resplendent sandals; she wore a feloni[2] and vest, each had two inches of piping embroidered around them.

Two lines were configured in front of her: one line with children who were wearing lace and ribbon in their hair, dressed just as the angels are, while the other line seemed to be composed of widows[3], as though they were nuns, wearing monastic clothing, just like we wear.

I started toward the nuns and they told me it wasn’t my turn yet, I would go when it was my turn. Suddenly I heard chanting, “This is the day of the Resurrection, let us be radiant…” And the Queen began to say, “Come martyrs to the platform, come great-martyrs!” They were taking her blessing and going to the platform. From within the palace was heard, “This is the day of the Resurrection…”

When I approached, I took the hand of the Queen: her slender hand, those nails, that gentle hand has been imprinted on my soul. Padding me on the back she said, “Patience, patience, patience.” Then she addressed one of her maids of honour: “Escort Maria[4] to the royal garden.”

I paused for a moment to see where they were chanting “This is the day of the Resurrection”. And I saw that inside the palace a banquet was laid out with very beautiful white tablecloths. What could you desire that the banquet didn’t have!

I lingered to listen and the maid took me by the hand and said, “That is for the martyrs, those who endured great temptations” and she gave me to understand that patience is needed. Afterward she took me to the royal garden, and I saw a vast place which had something like lilies, the brown lily had a cross. Just as the wind blew, so the lilies swayed. A vast place: green, beautiful, enchanted! Within this beautiful exhalation which I found myself, the sorrow in my soul fled, and pleasantness and joy came!

In the morning I went and found this sister who had slandered me, and hugged and kissed her. I didn’t know what to do for her; I didn’t know how to thank her for the false words she had said, I really didn’t know.

This experience stayed in my soul and from that time I have kept the commandment of God: judge not, so as not to be judged – even if I see the act committed in front of me, whatever I happen to see in front of me.

That which I saw in the vision stirred me and left me such comfort. I forgot everything. A purity entered into my nous, a passionlessness, a peacefulness, a heavenly thing entered my soul and I didn’t know how to thank that sister who was the cause of such good.

And I say what a good thing it is for someone to be patient! For this reason the Queen said, “Come martyrs of Christ, come great-martyrs of Christ, enter into the platform…” How can I have the boldness to touch such a banquet? It was the banquet for the martyrs who had struggled, who had endured martyrdom and for whom God had prepared greatness!

[1]Although Gerontissa calls this woman “sister” it seems that she was a laywoman.

[2]A feloni (φελόνι) is a chasuble, which in its origin was a traveling garment in the late Roman Empire. It is like a poncho, a circular garment with a hole in the middle for the head.

[3]It is a tradition in Greece for widows to wear black head-scarfs and dress.

[4]Gerontissa Macrina’s name before monastic tonsure was Maria.

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The Oikos for the Feast of the Theophany:

Upon Galilee of the Gentiles, upon the land of Zebulon and the land of Nepthali, as the prophet said, a great light hath shone, even Christ. To Those that sat in darkness a bright dawn hath appeared as lighting from Bethlehem. The Lord born from Mary, Sun of Righteousness, sheds His rays upon the whole inhabited earth. Come then, unclothed children of Abraham, and let us clothe ourselves our Him, that we may warm ourselves. Thou Who art a protection and veil to the unclothed, a light to those in darkness, Thou has come, Thou art made manifest, O Thou Light unapproachable.

 

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Great Vespers and Paraclesis to the Theotokos in the Domestic Chapel, December 27

Merry Christmas!

It seems every time the end of the year rolls around I post an update about our life and mission here on the island of Newfoundland. I’m posting once again as I wanted to keep this tradition alive – after all, we are Orthodox Christians who love and honour Tradition :).

20171228_145033We have now lived in St. John’s for four years. In fact, we’ve celebrated five Christmases here. We celebrated six in Greece; I can’t believe that we’ve lived here almost as long as we lived in Greece.

[For those interested, updates from previous years can be read herehere, and here.]

If you were to ask me how life is as a missionary I would answer honestly: “Man, it’s hard.” While I firmly believe attempting to spread Orthodoxy anywhere in this day and age would be met with innumerable challenges, being 1,500 kilometers from the nearest Orthodox church makes the natural isolation of mission work feel a tad bit more acute. After all, there is a 10-12 hour boat ride from where we live just to get to the Canadian mainland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But, to be honest, it’s not the isolation that is the hardest element of mission work in Newfoundland. It’s our times. Few are interested in a faith built on a model of a self-sacrificial God. Our times are fraught with ego-centricism and the selfish, materialistic mindset of our times poisons the human heart and makes it difficult for people to be attracted to a way of life which values and cultivates self-discipline and humility. And yet, while few, there are still individuals being drawn to the truth of our faith. We had one adult baptism last September and another this past August.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to daily services of Matins and Vespers, Fr. John began to offer the Service of Supplications (Paraclesis) after Vespers every Wednesday evening in the domestic chapel. A senior priest had suggested this to him as he found people would attend Supplication services for their various needs. We rotate between the Paraclesis to the Theotokos and the Paraclesis to St. Nektarios Wonderworker of Pentapolis (the patron of the domestic chapel). The uptake has been inspiring. Attending a service specifically designed for us to lay our pain, passions, and yearnings before God and His saints and seek healing, consolation and spiritual encouragement obviously resonates with the human soul. We have also taken this opportunity to pray for a solution to our need for a permanent worship space.

P1010308.JPGWe are going through a difficult transitional period right now with our temporary chapel situation. And as it looks now like things are only going to get more “tangly” (as they say here in Newfoundland) in the near future. But we’re trying to place our trust in Christ.

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Fr. John and I with Pres. Catherine

Despite the ups I find I focus far too much on the downs. This is a struggle for me. Once when I was lamenting the hardships of mission work in Newfoundland my spiritual father told me to think of St. Gregory of Neocaesarea. There were only seventeen Christians in the city of Neocaesarea when St. Gregory was first appointed bishop over the flock there. Through his holy life, his God-inspired preaching and his grace-filled miracles by the time St. Gregory reposed only seventeen pagans remained in the city. His life is a reminder that by working on one’s own spiritual life we can affect change and spread the Gospel even when it feels impossible.

As we close out 2017 we keep struggling to “set a safe course”:

Those who put out to sea at first sail with a favorable wind; then the sails spread, but later the wind becomes adverse. Then the ship is tossed by the waves and is no longer controlled by the rudder. But when in a little while there is calm, and the tempest dies down, then the ship sails on again. So it is with us, when we are driven by the spirits who are against us; we hold to the cross as our sail and so we can set a safe course.

–St. Syncklektiki

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We had my brother, Fr. Matthew, and sister-in-law, Pres. Catherine, visit us over Christmas

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(This post is written by Fr. John Palmer)

My studies in homilietics have taken me to some unexpected, yet rather interesting places.  Of late I have found myself reading mostly about pre-Norman Britain, and particularly about a significant Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical writer named Ælfric of Eynsham (955-1010).  Ælfric is perhaps best known for having produced two Latin series of sermons – the Sermones Catholici – which he later translated into Old English, intending them to be used by priests as an aid in homily preparation, or in some cases even read aloud by unlearned priests at liturgy over the course of a two-ecclesiastical-year cycle.  He writes:

“[I]t occurred to my mind, I trust through God’s grace, that I would turn this book from the Latin language into the English tongue, not from confidence of great learning, but because I have seen and heard of much error in many English books, which unlearned men, through their simplicity, have esteemed as great wisdom…” (Ælfric, Sermones Catholici I, [Preface], 3).

There are some beautiful expositions of the Scriptures and explanations of Feast of the Church contained in these sermons.  There is a particularly nice section wherein he comments on the quality of the Protomartyr Stephen’s prayer and its role in the conversion of the Holy Apostle Paul, and I thought this section to be worthy of sharing today, St Stephen’s feast.  Below I will post the original Old English text (I find it impossible to penetrate if read silently in my head, but somewhat more intelligible if read out loud) next to the Modern English translation:

Understandað nu, mine gebroðra, þa micclan lufe þæs eadigan weres. On deaðe hé wæs gesett, and ðeah he bæd mid soðre lufe for his cwelleras; and betwux ðæra stana hryre, ðaða gehwá mihte his leofostan frynd forgytan, ða betæhte hé his fynd Gode, þus cweðende, “Drihten, ne sete þu ðas dæda him to synne.” Swiðor he besorgade þa heora synna þonne his agene wunda; swiðor heora arleasnysse þonne his sylfes deað; and rihtlice swiðor, forðan ðe heora arleasnysse fyligde se eca deað, and þæt ece líf fyligde his deaðe. Saulus heold ðæra leasra gewitena reaf, and heora mod to þære stæninge geornlice tihte. Stephanus soðlice gebigedum cneowum Drihten bæd þæt hé Saulum alysde. Wearð ða Stephanes bén fram Gode gehyred, and Saulus wearð alysed. Se árfæsta wæs gehyred, and se arleasa wearð gerihtwisod.

On ðyssere dæde is geswutelod hu micclum fremige þære soðan lufe gebed. Witodlice næfde Godes gelaðung Paulum to lareowe, gif se halga martyr Stephanus swa ne bæde. Efne nú Paulus blissað mid Stephane on heofenan rice; mid Stephane hé bricð Cristes beorhtnysse, and mid him hé rixað. Þider ðe Stephanus forestóp, mid Saules stanum oftorfod, ðider folgode Paulus gefultumod þurh Stephanes gebedu. Þær nis Paulus gescynd þurh Stephanes slege, ac Stephanus gladað on Paules gefærrædene; forðan þe seo soðe lufu on heora ægðrum blissað. Seo soðe lufu oferwann ðæra Iudeiscra reðnysse on Stephane, and seo ylce lufu oferwreah synna micelnysse on Paule, and heo on heora ægðrum samod geearnode heofenan rice. Eornostlice seo soðe lufu is wylspring and ordfruma ealra godnyssa and æðele trumnys, and se weg þe lǽt to heofonum. Se ðe færð on soðre lufe ne mæg hé dwelian, ne forhtian: heo gewissað, and gescylt, and gelæt. Þurh þa soðan lufe wæs þes halga martyr swa gebyld þæt he bealdlice ðæra Iudeiscra ungeleaffulnysse ðreade, and he órsorh betwux ðam greatum hagolstanum þurhwunode; and he for ðam stænendum welwillende gebæd, and þær to-eacan ða heofenlican healle cucu and gewuldorbeagod inn-ferde.

 

Mine gebroðra, uton geefenlæcan be sumum dæle swa miccles lareowes geleafan, and swa mæres cyðeres lufe. Uton lufian ure gebroðra on Godes gelaðunge mid swilcum mode swa swa ðes cyðere þa lufode his fynd.

Understand now, my brethren, the great love of this blessed man [namely, of St. Stephen]. He was placed in death, and yet he prayed with true love for his slayers; and amid the falling of the stones, when any one might forget his dearest friends, he commended his foes to God, thus saying, “Lord, place thou not these deeds to them as sin.” He was more afflicted on account of their sins than of his own wounds, more for their wickedness than his own death; and rightly more, seeing that eternal death followed their wickedness, and eternal life followed his death. Saul held the garments of the false witnesses, and zealously instigated their minds to the stoning. But Stephen with bended knees besought the Lord that he would redeem Saul. Stephen’s prayer was heard, and Saul was redeemed. The pious one was heard, and the impious justified.

By this deed is shown how greatly avails the prayer of true love. Verily the church of God would not have had Paul as a teacher, if the holy martyr Stephen had not thus prayed. Behold, Paul now rejoices with Stephen in the kingdom of heaven; with Stephen he enjoys the brightness of Christ, and with him he rules. Whither Stephen preceded, stoned with the stones of Saul, thither Paul followed, aided by the prayers of Stephen. Paul is not there defiled through Stephen’s murder, but Stephen rejoices in the fellowship of Paul, because true love rejoices in them both. True love overcame the cruelty of the Jews to Stephen, and the same love covered over the greatness of his sins in Paul, and it in both of them together earned the kingdom of heaven. Verily true love is the fountain and origin of all goodness, and noble fortitude, and the way that leads to heaven. He who journeys in true love cannot err nor fear: it directs, and shields, and leads. Through true love was the holy martyr rendered so courageous that he boldly reproved the disbelief of the Jews, and he continued tranquil amid the great stones, and benevolently prayed for the stoners, and, in addition thereto, entered the heavenly hall living, and crowned with glory.

 

 

 

My brethren, let us in some degree imitate so great a teacher’s faith, and so great a martyr’s love. Let us love our brothers in God’s church with such affection as that with which this martyr loved his foes.  (Ælfric, Sermones Catholici I, ‘The Passion of Blessed Stephen, Protomartyr, 51-53).

 

Beyond this specific passage, Ælfric proves an interesting figure to Orthodox Christians for at least a couple of more general reasons.  First, his works (along with that handful of other vernacular collections of homilies belonging to late Anglo-Saxon England), show us one local Orthodox church’s approach to linguistic adaptation and vernacularization.  Today, many are inclined to consider linguistic adaptation a sort of ‘all or nothing’: vernacularization ought to occur instantaneously and unilaterally or it means that there is something dramatically wrong in the Church.  In Anglo-Saxon England, however, where Orthodox Christianity dated back to Apostolic times, we encounter an alternative model, a sort of middle road, which endured for a significant period of time.  All services were conducted in Latin rather than the vernacular English, but by Ælfric’s homilies we are shown that preaching could often be in English.  Perhaps the realization of the existence of the British example can help us in North America to be patient with our current situation, seeing that it is not unprecedented.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Ælfric represents a living example of Fr John Romanides’ point concerning cultural captivity and the West’s fall into heresy.  The Abbot of Eynsham’s death well predates the Schism (1054), as well as the Norman invasion (1066) which marks the official imposition of Franko-Latin doctrine (what we today call, ‘Roman Catholicism’) on the English people; he reposes some forty years before the former, and some fifty years before the latter.  In this sense, then, he is an Orthodox Christian.  But while his sermons contain many beautiful, Orthodox thoughts (like that quoted above), having lived under the philo-Norman regime of Edward the Confessor, one begins to see Norman influence rear its head in his writings – for example, he clearly assents to the filioque.  In the person of Ælfric, then, we see the gradual dimming of the light of Orthodox Britain even before the official date of the Schism or the Norman Conquest.  This is particularly important to recognize when it comes to developing an understanding of the Schism, but also when it comes to discerning issues associated with the Orthodox Western Rite.  It is not enough to use the dates of the Schism and the Conquest as so-called ‘cut-offs’ when determining Orthodox liturgical practices; rather we need to develop a subtle sensitivity to the issue of cultural captivity.

The Arabic version of this beautiful moving icon from Hamatoura Monastery (in Lebannon) is my favourite, but you can hear the English version here and the Greek version here.

Merry Christmas all! May the light of Christ bring you peace and joy!

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Turning on the radio this time of year all manner of Christmas songs can be heard. There is one song that gets a lot of air time around this season and it always evokes a deep sadness within me whenever I hear it. It’s called “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake.

It evokes such sadness because I think the singer conveys the feeling of unfulfilled hope that I believe is an unfortunate, but common, experience. The song begins thus:

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining

These lyrics could be said by any individual in the modern era who has ever anticipated peace and joy during the Christmas season but was left with an even greater feeling of emptiness instead.

The song continues:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

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And who sold him this false “dream of Christmas”? Was it the Creator of heaven and earth Who became Man so that mankind could become god by grace? Was it the poor shepherds who received the good news of the Incarnation from an angel? Maybe it was the three wise men who traveled from distant lands to satisfy their longing to see and know God? No. It was the world, the spirit of the world, that sold him this dream. A spirit that is contrary to the Gospel.

You’ll notice he points to two characters of a “fairy tale” he was duped into believing in: the Israelite (a rather derogatory title for Christ) and Father Christmas. And what happens when the dream of Truth is mingled with falsehood? Both the Truth and the falsehood are perceived as a fairy tale. This is why we need to be careful not to blur the lines between Christ’s Nativity and Santa Clause, between celebrating the feast with exaltation and celebrating it as an opportunity to acquire more stuff, eat more food.

Peace and joy at Christmastime are themes continually perpetuated but often people’s experience of Christmas is devoid of authentic peace or joy.  Many are left feeling cheated as the lyricist of this song so aptly conveys. Simply turning on pretty lights and giving gifts, while nice, is not enough to fill the human soul with the kind of joy it is actually longing for.

Worldly joy provides something temporary, something ephemeral for the moment. It cannot provide what spiritual joy provides.  Spiritual joy is life in Paradise, those who have first gone through the Crucifixion, and have been resurrected spiritually, live in the joy of Pascha.

-St. Paisios the Athonite

And so, I wish you all a good end to the fast, our minor “crucifixion” (of the passions) before our spiritual resurrection on the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.