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September 1 is the beginning of the Orthodox ecclesiastical year. According to Tradition, it was on September 1 that our Lord and Saviour entered the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and was given to read a scroll from the prophet Isiah. It was customary at that time for the Jewish male to read in the synagogue once he had reached his thirtieth year. It was not a coincidence that Christ read prophetic words which referred to Him personally. It was the will of God for Him to be revealed in this manner. When He stood to read these were the words He uttered:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Isiah 61:1-2).

St. Luke’s gospel tells us Christ then “closed the book, and gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (Luke 4:20-22).

The Church, in her wisdom, decided the appropriate day to begin the Church year was the very day on which Christ began His ministry, the day He began to “preach the acceptable year of the Lord”.

Interestingly, the ecclesiastical year begins and ends with the Theotokos. On September 8 we celebrate her nativity, just one week into the new Church year. We celebrate her dormition, or falling asleep, on August 15, two weeks before the end of the Church year.

I don’t think we can view this as a coincidence. Our salvation begins with her as she was the long-awaited one; without her Christ would not have been born. So her own nativity is a kind of “beginning of our salvation” (Troparion of the Nativity of Christ). Her falling asleep and being escorted by her Son to Paradise is the appropriate ending. Taking our cue from the Lady Theotokos an appropriate “new year’s resolution” should be to die with Christ so that we can live with Him, to endure so that we too will reign.

“For if we have died with him, we will also live with him; and if we endure we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11).

vladimirOur mission here in Newfoundland is named in honour of the Holy Lady of Vladimir: an icon of the Mother of God, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Savior ate together with His All-Pure Mother and the Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.”

In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to the Rus and installed in the Devichi Monastery in the city of Vyshgorod. In 1155 St Andrew Bogoliubsky brought the icon to the city of Vladimir and installed it in the renowned Dormition cathedral which he built. At this time the icon received the name “Vladimir icon”. The icon was first brought to Moscow in the year 1395 where it remains today. Thus, the blessing of the Mother of God established the spiritual bonds between Byzantium and Rus via Kiev, Vladimir and Moscow.

The festal celebration of the Vladimir Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos occurs several times during the year (May 21, June 23 and August 26). The most solemn celebration occurs on August 26, the feast established in honour of the meeting of the Vladimir icon upon its transfer from Vladimir to Moscow.*

Below you will find the hymn to the Holy Lady of Vladimir.

*Much of this information is taken from the OCA’s website.

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Excerpt from St. Gregory Palamas’ Homily on the Transfiguration of the Lord (you can read the homily in its entirety here).

“What does it mean to say: He was transfigured?” asks the Golden-Mouthed Theologian (Chrysostomos). He answers this by saying: “It revealed something of His Divinity to them, as much and insofar as they were able to apprehend it, and it showed the indwelling of God within Him.” The Evangelist Luke says: “And as He prayed, His countenance was altered” (Lk 9:29); and from the Evangelist Matthew we read: “And His face shone as the sun” (Mt 17:2). But the Evangelist said this, not in the context that this Light be thought of as subsistent for the senses (let us put aside the blindness of mind of those who can conceive of nothing higher than what is known through the senses). Rather, it is to show that Christ God, for those living and contemplating by the Spirit, is the same as the sun is for those living in the flesh and contemplating by the senses. Therefore, some other Light for the knowing the Divinity is not necessary for those who are enriched by Divine gifts.

That same Inscrutable Light shone and was mysteriously manifest to the Apostles and the foremost of the Prophets at that moment, when (the Lord) was praying. This shows that what brought forth this blessed sight was prayer, and that the radiance occurred and was manifest by uniting the mind with God, and that it is granted to all who, with constant exercise in efforts of virtue and prayer, strive with their mind towards God. True beauty, essentially, can be contemplated only with a purified mind. To gaze upon its luminance assumes a sort of participation in it, as though some bright ray etches itself upon the face.

Even the face of Moses was illumined by his association with God. Do you not know that Moses was transfigured when he went up the mountain, and there beheld the Glory of God? But he (Moses) did not effect this, but rather he underwent a transfiguration. However, our Lord Jesus Christ possessed that Light Himself. In this regard, actually, He did not need prayer for His flesh to radiate with the Divine Light; it was but to show from whence that Light descends upon the saints of God, and how to contemplate it. For it is written that even the saints “will shine forth like the sun” (Mt 13:43), which is to say, entirely permeated by Divine Light as they gaze upon Christ, divinely and inexpressibly shining forth His Radiance, issuing from His Divine Nature. On Mount Tabor it was manifest also in His Flesh, by reason of the Hypostatic Union (i.e., the union of the two perfect natures, divine and human, within the divine Person [Hypostasis] of Christ, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity). The Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon defined this Hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, divine and human, as “without mingling, without change, without division, without separation.”

We believe that at the Transfiguration He manifested not some other sort of light, but only that which was concealed beneath His fleshly exterior. This Light was the Light of the Divine Nature, and as such, it was Uncreated and Divine. So also, in the teachings of the Fathers, Jesus Christ was transfigured on the Mount, not taking upon Himself something new nor being changed into something new, nor something which formerly He did not possess. Rather, it was to show His disciples that which He already was, opening their eyes and bringing them from blindness to sight. For do you not see that eyes that can perceive natural things would be blind to this Light?

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

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

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

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

“I was sad today.”

“What was my thought pattern like?”

“I had a lot of negative thoughts.”

“What could have potentially caused such thoughts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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indexModern Saints is a new series wherein I post a small biography and a few inspiring words from contemporary holy men and women who have not yet been included in the Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church (ie. have been formerly been glorified).

A Glimpse of Her Holy Life:

Abbess Thaisia was born in 1840 to a noble family in Novgorod. She was named Maria in honour of the Most Holy Theotokos who had granted Maria’s parents the safe arrival of their baby after two previous children reposed at birth. Little Maria was enrolled in the Pavolovsky Institute for young women in St. Petersburg where she received the (prophetic) nicknames ‘nun’ and ‘abbess’. Even at this young age Maria’s spiritual nobility began to emerge as she received multiple visitations of divine grace. To her mother’s dismay Maria disclosed that she wished to pursue monasticism. After her mother received a vision of the Mother of God reprimanding her for prohibiting Maria from following in the footsteps of countless holy fathers and mothers, Maria became a novice in Tikhvin at the Holy Monastery of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (the feast day is November 21). In 1870, at the age of 30, Maria was tonsured a nun with the name Arcadia. She was tonsured again, into a higher degree of monasticism, with the name Thaisia in 1872. Over the next 10 to 13 years or so Mother Thaisia lived in three or four different monasteries, suffering on account of poor living conditions and cruel treatment by the sisters. In 1885 Mother Thaisia was made Abbess of a convent in Leushino. Here she laboured to establish a firm foundation for the holy monastery, as well as set up a school for orphans of clergymen which later became a centre for spiritual education as an ecclesiastical college for girls. In 1891 she met her beloved spiritual father, St. John of Kronstadt, to whom she “poured out her soul”* even after his repose. In 1915, after serving as abbess for some 30 years, Mother Thaisia reposed on January 2. May we have her blessing!

Wise Counsel from the Abbess:

“It is through sorrows that the great designs of God’s Providence are manifested to us. ‘God is known in His burdens.’ But how heavy and hopeless our sorrows appear to our short-sighted and faint-hearted minds! We do not understand, we do not even want to see in the sorrows that befall us the great purposes of Providence; we are unable to obey God without murmuring” (Abbess Thaisia: An Autobiography, p.131)

“Commit yourself, I repeat, without defence to the will of your [spiritual] guides – give way to them, like clay to the potter, like iron to a smith; let them mold and hammer on the forge of obedience (as was expressed by St. John, author of the Ladder) your unruly and proud will, until it will be ground into the soft wax of humility, so that with understanding and discernment you may repeat the words of the Psalmist: “In our humiliation the Lord remembered us” (Ps. 135:23), or, “It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I might learn Thy statutes (Ps. 118:71).” (Letters to a Beginner, p. 47)

*This is a line from a poem the abbess wrote about her spiritual father after his repose

Death and Resurrection[1]

Metropolitan Augoustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina

I hesitate to speak to you, brothers and sisters, for our times are like those described in a certain prophecy wherein it is said that the ears of men will be open to the devil, but not to Christ.[2] For your sakes, however, I will deign to say a few words, knowing that though not everyone will listen to me, perhaps half will; and if not half, perhaps ten; and if not ten, perhaps one. If even one hears me, this is enough! The reward is great! As Christ himself says, one soul is worth more than the whole visible world.[3]

There is one lone word which causes everyone to quake with fear. What word is it? It is the word ‘death’. When people hear the word ‘death’, they become agitated and uneasy. Once when I was a young ierokyrakas (preacher) visiting a village,[4] I uttered the word ‘death’ somewhere in the context of my sermon, and at that very moment I overheard someone in the crowd cry out with terror, “Knock on wood!” They thought that by doing this they might chase death away. Death will come, however; it is a fact of life.

When will it come? It will come at the moment we least expect it. It comes at night – in the middle of the night; it comes in the morning; it comes while one is at work; it may come anytime. The hour when we will give up our soul to God is unknown to us.

What is death? Is it oblivion? Non-believers say that it is oblivion. You die, they say, and that’s it; you are finished, gone! But we say that beyond the grave there exists another life. The body may dissolve into those elements from which it is composed, but the soul is immortal and eternal and lives on until one day the body will resurrect and the immortal soul will return to it. There will be a resurrection!

‘Are there proofs of this?’ the atheists ask. There are, indeed! What are these proofs? There are three kinds of proofs, in fact: first, we have the testimony of nature; second, we have the various prophesies of the Holy Scriptures; and third, we have the relevant miracles of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So there are proofs of the resurrection! Every seed proclaims this to us. What is a seed? It is but the tiniest little thing. You sow it in the earth, it decays, and then from it a little stem grows, eventually peeking out from the earth and sprouting sometimes thirty, sometimes sixty, sometimes one hundred bean sprouts. During the summer months these plants cover entire fields like a green sea – what a beautiful sight! Once a non-believing scientist visited the Holy Mountain, staying at a kelli whose elder loved flowers. As the courtyard was fragrant with the scent of multi-coloured flowers, the elder asked his visitor, “Do you know where all these came from?” “Where?” replied the scientist. “I will show you,” said the elder. Disappearing for a moment, he returned with a box containing seeds. If you have ever seen a seed, you will know that it is often smaller than the head of a pin, and yet within it hides a flower, a plant, or even a great tree. How can this be? Try as it may, science cannot make a seed. The Apostle Paul himself uses this example. “You doubt that there is a resurrection?” the elder continued, “Just look at the seed. Just as a seed falls to the ground, decays, and then grows into a beautiful plant or tree, so man dies and his body decays under the earth so that one day from that decayed body a new, more beautiful body might proceed.”[5] The whole of nature preaches the resurrection: the sun which rises in the morning, the moon which comes out at night, the stars which shine in the heavens; the whole universe proclaims this!

Prophesies, too, announce the resurrection of the dead. We hear one such Old Testament prophesy read on Holy Saturday. What does it say? The Prophet Ezekiel stood over a plain which was full of bones and suddenly heard a voice saying, “Can these bones live?” To this he replied, “Lord, you know.” God then commanded him, “Preach, speak to these bones.” Then the earth began to shake and the bones came back together forming skeletons, and sinews bound them together and skin covered them. They were yet missing souls, however, so lastly God commanded Ezekiel to preach again, and finally all those bodies resurrected.[6] This vision is a prophesy concerning the resurrection of the dead.

But the greatest argument proving that death has been overcome lies in those miracles where Christ raised men from the dead. There are three such miracles that he worked on others: first, he raised Jarius’ daughter; second, he raised the son of the widow of Nain – weeping loudly over the loss of her only child, Christ approached her and said, “Weep not”;[7] and third, he raised his friend Lazarus who was four days in the tomb.[8] Finally, after enduring death on the Cross and three days in the tomb, Christ then resurrected himself.

There is such a thing as the resurrection then! As certain as you are that tomorrow will be Monday, so certain should you be that the dead will rise! Accordingly, death should not be called ‘death’, but rather ‘sleep’. When a mother sees her child sleeping does she weep? No! For she knows that he will wake up energetic and refreshed. And nekrotafia (graveyards) should not be called nekrotafia, but rather koimitiria (sleep-yards).[9] Death is a sleep – this is what the Gospel, the Church, and Saint Kosmas all tell us – and therefore Christians should not weep inconsolably on its account. Just as one who sleeps eventually wakes up, so one day will all the dead be resurrected in order to be judged in accordance with their works, “…and these (those on the left) shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”[10]

The resurrection of Christ and of every mortal man – the common resurrection – is a fact. And this we confess every time we say the Creed: “And I look for the resection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

This is what I had wanted to say to you. And I preach with the hope that what I have said has not fallen on deaf ears for without having met certain preconditions, it is impossible for one to believe in the resurrection: I hope that none among you is an atheist; everything around you cries out that God – the Lord of life and death – exists; I hope that none among you is impious or a blasphemer – he who believes in the resurrection and the judgement does not disrespect the judge; I hope that all of you go to church. Be honorable and hard-working, labour all week. Then, when daybreak comes on Sunday and the bells ring out, fly to the church. Are any of you absent? There are 168 hours in a week; God asks but one! That is how long the Divine Liturgy lasts from “Blessed is the Kingdom…” until, “Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers…”. Come to church, then, say a “Glory to thee, O God”, say a thank-you for the good things he has given you. Finally, I hope that you all long for the Jerusalem-on-High. You love your earthly homeland, boasting that we built the Parthenon and the Hagia Sofia while other peoples were still living in caves and eating acorns. But if we love our earthly homeland this much, how much more ought we to love our heavenly and eternal homeland?

With this hope, then, as a bishop, I bless you. I bless your homes, your families, your work, and I pray that, through the prayers of the Theotokos, God will be with you now and always. Amen.

[1]               From the book Εμπνευσμένα Κηρύγματα Ορθοδόξου Ομολογίας και Αγιοπατερικής Πνοής (Orthodoxos Kypseli: Thessaloniki, 2011), 413-417. Translated by Fr John Palmer.

[2]               See 2 Timothy 4:4, “And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”

[3]               See Matthew 16:26, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” and Mark 8:37, “Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

[4]               One who has a licence to preach in a particular diocese.

[5]               See 1 Corinthians 15:36-38, “Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die. And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.

[6]               See Ezekiel 37:1-10.

[7]               Luke 7:13.

[8]               See John 11:39.

[9]               Nekrotafia is a composite word combining the words nekros – dead – and taphos – grave roughly translated as ‘cemetery’. Here Metropolitan Augustinos is telling us to prefer to word koimitirio which also means ‘cemetery’ is rooted in the Greek work koimaw meaning ‘to sleep’.

[10]             Matthew 25:46.

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