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Archive for the ‘Orthodox Theology’ Category

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Written by one who intimately knows the bitter taste of death, Presvytera Katherine Baker’s reflection on death and (so-called) living during the global pandemic is a must-read. It is entitled A Pandemic Observed and can be found here.

Fr. John and I are both very grateful to her thoughts. I am deeply impressed by her insight, her candor, and her call for all to live well, as faithful Christians, despite the surety of our death, whether today from Covid or tomorrow from something else.

Friends, if you have allowed fear or fear of illness or death to cripple you during these dark days of constant media attention on the potential risks of contracting or spreading Covid, take a minute, read this reflection from a priest’s wife whose husband died suddenly and tragically in a car accident in 2015. Take a minute to ask yourself if closing churches, refraining from venerating icons or taking the priest’s blessing, or shying away from corporeal worship honours the Christian Way, the Incarnation of the God-Man Christ, or in any way exemplifies the life of the Gospel we are called to live. When you come to the conclusion these things are foreign to our life in Christ then arise quickly and go to the Father and even while you are “still afar off” (Luke 15:20) He will see you and  meet you before you have even arrived to offer your prayer of repentance!

Be emboldened to live again as Christians. Christians were always known for their bravery in the face of death, for their refusal to cease good deeds even when threatened with torture, and for cherishing faith in Christ as their most prized possession. Call on the names of such saints and they will encourage you to do likewise!

An excerpt from Presvytera Katherine’s article follows, but please read the whole article HERE.

May her words inspire us to make a new beginning in our spiritual life!

I fully expect, if we are living as Church, there could be large outbreaks of COVID-19 in Christian communities, just like in any other human encounter, should God will it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” And if we are blamed by the authorities for being “super-spreaders,” it would not be the first time in history.

No one blames a person for going to the store for groceries and spreading or picking up germs there, but it seems worship is being approached more like a concert than like “daily bread.” But gathering for Sunday liturgy and fellowship should be a help to facing the possibility of death, which is exactly what we need right now. A priest’s job is not to keep me alive; it’s to help me live and die well.

Christians should never judge someone who chooses safety from suffering and death as did the early Donatist heretics who cast out of the church those who fled persecution. However, Christians should neither judge nor exclude those who choose honorable risk either. A principal of non-judgment is our example. Force and manipulation should be rejected whether that force or manipulation be in favor of risk or against it.

My husband wrote in a sermon shortly before his death: “God created man in the year 33, on a hill called Golgotha.” Christ, declared his great work “accomplished” from the agony of the cross. It is in union with Christ that we become who we ought to be, and so how can we escape death when even Christ did not? In one of his last sermons, my husband suggested to his flock, “….may we make our own these words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, written to his fellow Christians on his way towards martyrdom for refusing the idolatry of pagan Rome: ‘It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth… The pains of birth are upon me. Allow me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to be stillborn… Allow me to imitate the passion of my God …when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being.’” (Epist. ad Rom., 6).

The question isn’t will I die? Or will the people I love die? The answer to that has always been, yes. A better question might be will I let the anticipation of death make me and my world, better or worse?

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While eating breakfast this morning with Fr. John we started listening to this homily by a spiritual son of St. Paisios the Athonite. This spiritual son is in fact the “young man” in the book The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios. If you have not read this book I highly recommend it.

The “Young Man”, whose real name is Athanasios Rakovalis, begins the homily with these words, “I’d like to thank you all for being here, and to say that I am happy you are all here because your presence here shows that you wish to learn about St. Paisios, and this contains a type of grace. Before I begin my talk, I’d like to request from all of you if you are able to say an internal prayer to St. Paisios now, to ‘lend a hand’ to help me make my talk and for us all to leave here benefited – both you and I.”

When I heard these words by St. Paisios’ lay-disciple I paused the video and turned to Fr. John, “That is what it was like in Greece!” I said.

While it is customary for different cultures to have words of greeting, the charm of the Orthodox mindset is the humility and mutual love shared amidst Orthodox Christians.

Athanasios, a physics teachers, is there to give a homily, to teach and instruct, but rather than show himself to be “an expert” he first calls on his Christian brothers and sisters so that through their prayers – not his words – all might be benefited. This kind of mindset is not easily taught. It is the kind of mindset we must “put on” (Galatians 3:27) ourselves as Orthodox Christians. This, I believe, is what is meant by “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Brothers and sisters, this is the mind of Christ!: to humbly ask others’ for their prayers, to firmly believe with all your heart and mind that the only profit we can give one another is founded on Christ’s love, not on our own intellect or talents.

More than everything else about Greece I miss this mindset the most. It permeated so many faithful, and did not produce words like “clanging brass” (1 Corinthians 13: 1) but Spirit-filled, God-inspired words that drilled into your heart and soul a desire to emulate the love and humility you saw in your fellow Christians.

I’m sure Athanasios goes on to say many more beautiful things in his homily. But I stopped just a few minutes in to reminiscence and contemplate how it’s in the little things (as St. Paisios often said) that we make large gains or big loses.

St. Paisios defined reverence as “the fear of God and spiritual sensitivity”. He said that reverent people “behave carefully and modestly, because they intensely feel the presence of God.” In my opinion, just one minute into this homily Athanasios Rakovalis illustrates what it means to douse your words and thoughts with reverence.

May we be made worthy, through the prayers of St. Paisios, to do the same in our own lives!

 

 

 

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eldersFrom one of the most beautiful homilies I’ve heard by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol. I encourage you to listen to the whole homily. It is less than 10 minutes long and has English subtitles. What follows are just my favourite parts.

On Charismatic Elders:

…these people, in my experience, were characterized by great balance, they were very well-adjusted people, not unbalanced. They were well-adjusted and charitable. They never presented you with a dilemma; they got you out of one. Nor did they present you with a God who’d be a problem, but one who’d be the answer to all problems. That’s why people flocked to them, because they found relief. People didn’t go to them to leave troubled and weary; they left relaxed and light-hearted.

They were people who know how to have their own views, but also how to exploit the potential of each person and to know how to arrange things for each soul, what each person was capable of, what they could do from where they were. And they’d each decide in accordance with their own situation. They didn’t say: ‘Look, I’m a hermit and to become the way I want you you’ll have to become like me.’ They came to where you were; you didn’t go to where they were.

In general, I think that as time went on I saw that everything they did brought them to a perfection in Christ, which is in no way extreme, but is a mean, an endless balance and peace. There was no sharpness about them; it was something absolutely clear, something like a calm sea that you sail over with great joy. They weren’t at all sharp, those people. It’s not the Gospel’s fault, it’s ours for the way we live out our misery and express it to others. As a continuation of what I was saying about these holy people, they showed us exactly the image of the person who is perfect in Christ. All those people were in harmony, balanced, not at all facetious. They didn’t make you feel: ‘But he’s a simpleton, he’s ingenuous, he’s somebody who walks on the clouds, he’s not properly grounded’. Because that’s no good either. It’s not a good thing to be fatuous, nor to be ingenuous, or facile or obtuse. Just as it’s not good to be pessimistic and all miserable. At the same time as they mourned human pain, the saints were joyful, very sweet people who embraced everyone. They wouldn’t put up with darkness in people’s souls.

You might say that’s easy for everybody. No, it isn’t. We’ve got a long way to go to get there; it’s not easy, nor can it be feigned. You can’t say: ‘What was Elder Aimilianos like? I’ll imitate him.’ It can’t be done. You have to tread the path that Aimilianos trod and you have to be Aimilianos to do so. Because if you’re not Aimilianos, you’ll be a caricature, you’ll be a poor imitation. You have to find yourself. You’re not Aimilianos. You’re Adrianos, you’re Athanasios, you’re Ignatios. You’ll become who you are, given the qualities you have. Let the grace of God work in your soul without preconditions. I don’t believe the Gospel is there to batter the human personality or tread it underfoot. The Gospel saves the human person, it doesn’t trample it down. It removes the toxins and the passions and the sin, but saves the person.

This is why these saints accepted others so easily. Even people who are acknowledged to be spiteful and sinful are justified by them to such a degree that you end up thinking they’re saints. …when we went and told [Elder Paisios] about different things that were happening on the Holy Mountain or about monks who were less than careful in their lives, he’d find ways to justify things and you’d say ‘Lord have mercy, this man’s a saint.’ He’d find an excuse for them and put good thoughts into your head and say good things about them. He’d say: ‘Look, don’t concentrate on that. The man’s got good points, so that’s the least thing compared to the many good things he’s done.’ Because he himself was such a man – the way God sees people, not the way we do. …The saints aren’t facile, nor insensitive to the pain of others. They experience the pain and they experience the whole of our apostasy from God, but because they’re now in full health, they deal with things as God does.

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Annunciation
AFTER TWELVE YEARS, God inspired the father and mother of the Theotokos and they saw to her betrothal in accord with the divine dispensation. Later the most gracious God sent the angel who said to the Theotokos: “Mary, you should rejoice more than anyone in the world. You will give birth to the Son and Word of God, Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, without man, as a virgin. And you will remain a virgin so that Jesus Christ can save Adam and Eve and the entire human race.” The Lady Theotokos replied and said: “My Lord, I wonder, and glorify you, I honour and worship you because you have condescended to be born of me, your servant. I am ready, therefore, and let your will be done.” And immediately the Theotokos became pregnant and she gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son and Word of God, without man, a virgin, who remained a virgin.
OUR LORD WAS BORN of a woman so that women would be blessed, because women first received the curse and we were expelled from paradise. And so woman had to receive the blessing so that she would put us back into paradise. Our Lord was born of a virgin so that virginity would be preferred. You, my brother, who want to preserve your virginity, hate the world. Then you are good enough to become thrice blessed; then you will safeguard your virginity; then you will become like an angel. Out Lord was born of one affianced to bless marriage.

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early-chruchBelow is an excerpt from Revelation: The Seven Trumpets & The Antichrist (Vol III), a commentary on the book of the Revelation by Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios of Larisa (pp.79-80). The passage the elder is commenting on is Revelation 10:1-4

I saw still another mighty angel coming down from heaven, clothed with a cloud. And a rainbow was on his head, his face was like the sun, and his feet like pillars of fire. He had a little book open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, and cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roars. When he cried out, seven thunders uttered their voices. Now when the seven thunders uttered their voices, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Seal up the things which the seven thunders uttered, and do not write them.” 

At this very moment, we should all try to understand that we are living a Pentecost, the presence of the Holy Spirit, where the word of God is heard and worship is offered to God. Could you imagine that this group of ours, made up of just a few people, might have to disperse?* Let’s not forget that the gathering of the faithful is a manifestation of the Church.

Doesn’t it impress you that the faithful met in the catacombs and secret places, using secret methods so as not to be detected by their oppressors?  Yet they insisted on meeting every night. They endangered their very existence and risked confiscation of their property. Did you ever ask yourself why they did it when any one of them could have asked, ‘Why must I leave my house and expose myself to danger by going out to a secret Church gathering?’ Couldn’t each person have stayed home and worshiped God by himself? In fact, the faithful acted this way because it was in this manner that the presence of the Church was established in history. They gathered because they needed to reinforce the presence of the Church among them, regardless if the pagans or non-believers were persecuting them. Rather, they gathered as the faithful who have the presence of the Church and consequently, the Body of Christ. The Church was and is the proof of Pentecost. For us, who are gathered here and for everyone gathered in every Church, we gather, not only for the sermon, but also for the worship, because all the past events can repeat themselves.

According to the prophetic word, the isolation of the faithful is very realistic. One isolated in his home might wonder if there were any other believers in his town. This is much like the prophet Elijah, who was unaware that there were other faithful people and thought he was alone.

…This is why this intermission [of the events unfolding in the book of the Revelation] with the angel clothed in a cloud, which represents both the protection and presence of Christ, is of such consolation and encouragement.

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*The elder is being modest here, on any given Sunday he would minister to around three thousand believers in the city of Larisa. However, in the 1990s Fr. Athanasios was secluded to his monastery and thus not permitted to go into the city to preach to the faithful. As a result only a few hundred faithful were able to attend his homilies – those able to travel to the monastery. 

Take courage brothers and sisters, Christ is in our midst!

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Αυγουστίνος

by Fr. John Palmer

Every second Thursday evening, with an open invitation to the public, members of our community meet in a public venue – a coffee shop – where we read aloud and then discuss a section of St Augustine’s beautiful work, the Confessions.  This initiative, which I have aptly dubbed ‘Coffee House Theology’, has been one of the greatest joys and consolations in my work as a mission priest.

On the one hand, joy springs from the fact that our sessions have been relatively well attended and met with enthusiasm.  Indeed, every priest rejoices to see the flame of holy learning kindled in the faithful committed to his charge.  Moreover, I rejoice that in an age where Christ has been pushed into the background – both in broader society and in the lives of individual Christians – this remnant, this two or three gathered in his name, offers a small confession, setting our Lord before men without any regard for strange, disapproving looks.

On the other hand, joy has come from my re-discovery of the absolutely Orthodox heart of St Augustine.  Yes, it is true, in places Augustine was tempted by his truly staggering intellect and fell; yes, on occasion he exchanged the revelation of God acquired by a pure heart for his own speculations, choosing a lowly, created light over the uncreated; yes, he seriously errs on occasions. Consequently, he needs to be read with a degree of discernment, plucking the rose from among the thorns, just as we see him approached by his strongest advocates within the Patristic Tradition.  However, despite all this, when it comes to the vigilant attention to God’s Providence; when it comes to the struggle with the passions; when it comes to repentance; when it comes to Christian living, I continually stand in awe of him.

In the last section we read together this past Thursday, what particularly struck me was the witness he bears to the Orthodox tradition of Eldership in the Pre-Schism West.  In Book VIII, Augustine is faced with a question with no obvious correct answer, at least in the abstract.  He is torn between marriage and monasticism.  “The voice of truth had told me that there are some who have made themselves eunuchs for love of the Kingdom of Heaven.  But he also said, let only those take this in whose hearts are large enough for it.” (VIII.[1])  Unsure of what to do with respect to one of the fundamental question of life, he uneasily spun his tires, succumbing to listlessness.

Faced with this quandary, what does the Saint do?  Addressing God he writes, “By your inspiration it seemed to me a good plan to go and see Simplicianus…” (VIII.[1]),  the spiritual father of St Ambrose of Milan.  And listen to how he describes this man:  Simplicianus, “…I could see for myself,” he says, “was a good servant of yours [of Christ]”; “…the light of grace plainly shone in him…”; “…from boyhood he had always led a most devout life…”; and, “…in all the long years he had spent to such a good purpose in following your way he must have gained great experience and much knowledge”.  And so Augustine hoped that if he put his problem to him, “…he would draw upon his experience and his knowledge to show me how best a man in my state of mind might walk upon your way.” (VIII.[1])  Simplicianus was deeply experienced in the spiritual life, had served Christ well, and had obviously acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit which shone in him.  Is there any better definition of an Elder?

Augustine, in the midst of a dilemma which required the grace of discernment and insight and not just the reiteration of general principles, might have simply gone to the local parish priest, but he didn’t.  Clearly, in his inherited Orthodox consciousness he knew that ordination itself does not render one an infallible guide in such matters; only experience and grace will suffice.  And so he – often criticized as the ‘least orthodox’ of Holy Fathers – does something very Orthodox: he goes to an Elder.

And what is the result?  The Elder recounts a story for Augustine which itself is a monument to his discernment, and not surprisingly his discerning words hit their mark, stirring the Saint from his listlessness.  “When your servant told me the story of Victorinus, I began to glow with fervor to imitate him.  This, of course, is why Simplicianus had told it to me.”  (VIII.[5])  Words spoken in the spirit of discernment are the words of eternal life for an individual.

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Blot out, O Lord, all my memories – except one.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Bishop of Ochrid
Poem XXX (30)

Blot out, O Lord, all my memories–except one. For memories make me old and feeble. Memories ruin the present day. They weigh down the present day with the past and weaken my hope in the future, for in legions they whisper in my ear: “There will only be what has already been.”

But I do not wish for there to be only what has been. I do not wish and You do not wish, O Lord, for the future to be the past repeated. Let things happen that have never appeared before. The sun would not be worth much, if it only watched repetitions.

Worn paths mislead a wayfarer. Earth has walked over the earth a long time. Earthly walkways have become boring, for they have been traveled again and again from generation to generation throughout all time. Blot out, O Lord, all my memories except one.

Just one memory do I ask You not to blot out, but to strengthen in me. Do not blot out but strengthen in my con­sciousness the memory of the glory that I had when I was en­tirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.”

Do not blot out this memory, my Father, but strengthen it. Even if it reveals to me the abyss along which I am journeying in humbleness and nothingness.

Even if it separates me from friends and pleasantries, and demolishes all the barriers between Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

Even if it leads me outside of myself, and makes me seem mad in the eyes of my fellow wayfarers.

In truth, no companionship pleases me except Yours, and no memory pleases me except the memory of You.

O my Merciful Father, blot out all my memories except one alone.

 

 

From the spiritual desert to the geographic desert, from a land surrounded by physical water to a land springing forth spiritual water.

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