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Archive for the ‘The Sweetness of Grace’ Category

Recently I finsihed the audio recording of The Sweetness of Grace. God willing it will be released later this year. I thought I would repost this interview Byzantine TX did with me some years ago.

page_1(As posted on Byzatine Texas in 2017)  Matushka Constantine R. Palmer has written another book – this one entitled “The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory.” I earlier interviewed her about her book “The Scent of Holiness” a few years back; a title that continues to be quite a popular read. She has again agreed to answer a few questions for the blog about her latest book in the following interview. Enjoy!


So what prompted this second book? I know your first publication was well received and it seems to be a staple in many church bookstores that I’ve visited.

A large impetus for this book was all the “untold stories” that I had mentally compiled even while writing The Scent of Holiness. I felt that I couldn’t tell all the stories I would have liked to because they wouldn’t necessarily fit in the confines of a book predominantly about women’s monasteries. I believe I snuck one story about my theology professor in the first book, and maybe one about my parish priest from Thessaloniki. But even then I was aware that those stories fell a little outside the perimeters I had constructed for the book.

It wasn’t until one of the sisters started asking me about writing a second book that I even thought seriously about trying to present various stories of my experiences and conversations not only in Greece but in South Korea and North America.

But to be frank, the honest truth behind why I wrote this book is that I don’t like to keep things to myself. I’m excitable and I like to share stories that inspire me because I get excited and inspired all over again when I see that my stories resonate with others. I also felt like after the first book my readers would know me well enough that I could perhaps share some of the more weighty experiences without scaring them off. I hope and believe these stories compliment the light-hearted elements of The Scent of Holiness and bring out another layer of Christian spiritual struggle.

You took a very circuitous path to end up in a mission church in Newfoundland. Can you speak a little about the journeys through Greece, South Korea, to your new home in Canada? How did that all work out and do you feel like a Newfie yet?

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Middle Cove

In 2006 I finished an amazing undergraduate degree in a Great Books program in New Brunswick (where we’re originally from). Around the same time my husband, John (now Fr. John), was finishing his Masters degree in Patristics at Durham University in England. While we have never regretted our choice of studies, they didn’t exactly provide us with a means of living right off the bat.Friends of ours had previously lived in South Korea teaching English and this inspired my brother and sister-in-law to take the leap and move there. For anyone who has ever heard my brother speak you will know his power of persuasion was enough to convince us to do likewise. So we moved to South Korea mostly to pay off student loan debt but also to buy some time while we tried to figure out our next steps in life.

 

While living in Seoul we heard about the School of Modern Greek Language in Thessaloniki where foreign students would learn Greek and then proceed to study at Aristotle University. At the time my husband wanted to continue his studies so we were looking for a university anyway. While we spoke of different European schools I really wanted us to go to an Orthodox country to further immerse ourselves in Orthodoxy. Our spiritual father agreed that Greece would be a good next step and we headed in that direction just a few months after we finished teaching English in Seoul for one year.

In Greece, as most may know of me, I studied theology as well. My Master’s thesis was on the iconographer and the theology of icons more generally. During the nearly six years we lived there we spent significant amounts of time at women’s monasteries and I also learned to paint icons and I (somewhat) learned Byzantine chant.

Midway through our Greek adventure we came back to Canada one summer to visit our families and while visiting with an abbess she suggested we meet Bishop Irenee of Quebec City, the OCA bishop responsible for Eastern Canada. (He is now Archbishop Irenee of Ottawa and all of Canada). We began getting to know the bishop and about a year later Fr. John was ordained to the deaconate. However, he continued to serve in Greece until his PhD studies were finished.

It was very important for us to be able to return to the East Coast as Canada is so large you really connect with where you live regionally. Vladyka spoke to us about trying out a few places: St. John’s, Newfoundland was one of those places. My father is from Corner Brook (the second largest town on Newfoundland – population 20,000). So I wasn’t unfamiliar with Newfoundland and Newfoundland culture or dialect (despite living on the mainland for over 35 years my father still has an accent).

We visited the community here in St. John’s after Fr. John’s ordination to the priesthood in 2013. We arrived late on Lazarus Saturday and stayed until after St. Thomas Sunday. Fr. John served every single day; very quickly we both felt that this was where we should be.

There has been a OCA mission in St. John’s since 2003; the first two years of which there was a priest. In the following eight years the mission had two other priests come, but each only stayed briefly. While the mission now has a permanent priest it still does not have a permanent location for our chapel. We use a chapel at the Anglican seminary here which means we have to set-up and take-down the chapel every weekend. Glory to God, since 2015 we also have a house-chapel that we use for daily services (Matins and Vespers) as well as for vigils when feasts fall during weekdays. [If any reader would like to be the benefactor of a small, but beautiful, Orthodox church on the island of Newfoundland please contact us! :)]

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My kindergartners, Seoul 2007

When you come to a place where there is only one Orthodox mission on a huge island with no priest it makes it very difficult to turn away and head elsewhere. Through the grace of God we have managed to stay here despite the strong winds (both literally and figuratively). We collected a lot of blessings both in South Korea (with its two Orthodox churches in Seoul) and in Greece and owe a great debt to God. Perhaps I could say just as we moved to South Korea to pay off student loans, we’ve moved to Newfoundland to pay off spiritual ones.

The book has what I might characterize as a distinctly feminine voice to it. I don’t mean that this book would only appeal to women – far from it – but in the same way some religious works come off as inescapably paternal. This text reverberates with a lot of the topics that worked so well in your first book. Has anyone else said something similar?

Like you, I in no way believe this book, nor The Scent of Holiness, should only appeal to women, though I know some think that way. Although my books are written from a woman’s perspective I still think there is something for everyone.

I’m not one for thinking we need to categorize everything into male and female. For instance, the Orthodox Church is often seen as a cut-and-dry, male-ruled institution, but I do not see this. I mean, yes, our hierarchs are men, our priests and deacons are men. However, do you walk into a fully adorned Orthodox temple and think, “Wow, this place is rather starkly paternal”? No. You think, “My goodness this is beautiful!” because Orthodoxy speaks to the human person. It is so distinctly human and spiritual at the same time. This is what testifies to it being the Truth. It appeals to the whole person. I’ve never heard that in the Heavenly Kingdom there will be a women’s section and men’s section. I’ve just heard saints will experience grace in proportion to the good works they did in life and their love for God and His Church.

The Sweetness of Grace, as you’ve noted, contains similar topics as in my first book. I think this is reflective of the experiences and conversations that have meaning for me, whether they involve nuns, monks, priests or laypeople. With my books I am trying to appeal to the whole person. My personal lens is a feminine one, but I don’t think it distracts from the message, which is – at its core – an Orthodox Christian message. I came to Orthodoxy as an adult. I learned at the feet of nuns. I try to take in everything my spiritual father has taught me by his words and deeds. I live on an island with a small Orthodox community composed of various Orthodox ethnicities. This is my lived-experience of Orthodoxy. This all has contributed to my desire to live and express Orthodoxy not as a religion but as a faith, a way of life. I try to do this in my personal life just as I do in my books. When people ask me about my “religion” I tell them it is not a religion; it is, as described in the Scriptures, the Way. It is the way of living, the way of thinking, the way of loving and the way of dying.

The things that I value are the things I have noted in my travels. Some of these things stand out to me because I’m a woman, some because of my personality, still others because of my upbringing. But I’m hoping that through prayer and reflection I am able to frame those experiences in a manner consistent with our Orthodox tradition, both written and oral, which is composed of both male and female voices.

This book in no way shrinks from the “mystical” aspects of a life lived inside the Church. While not all the stories touch on that facet of the spiritual life, there are a number of stories about how God and His saints are active in our lives. Thinking about my own pastoral experiences, I think at least anecdotally I can say that such experiences are not common “parish talk” in many of our churches. What accounts for this do you think?

I am hesitant to offer an opinion on this because I genuinely don’t know the answer. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. All I can say is the stories about the mystical aspects of Orthodox life were collected over ten years, having lived on three different continents and having recorded such stories when I heard them. These are not all my experiences; they are a collection of experiences.

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Quidi Vidi

Having said that I truly believe God and the saints are a lot more active in all our lives than we perhaps perceive. It is God who makes the sun to shine, the grass to grow, the flowers to blossom and the wind to blow. This is our everyday reality. But who reflects thus? Few.

I find our minds are so occupied with our to-do lists, with the cares and concerns of everyday life that we can easily overlook the mystical aspects of life. And that’s okay. That happens. I know it happens to me anyway. But life is so much more full, more meaningful, more bearable when we consciously take the time to seek God and the intercession of the saints, to make them apart of our everyday life. Effort is required for us to truly feel the presence of God and the saints in our lives. It’s like a friendship; it is two-sided. They will not invite themselves over for coffee unless we make room for that friendship.

We shouldn’t place too much value on the miraculous either though. We should look at the dry spells as blessings also. We should see God’s presence in our lives even in the most dark, most difficult situations. He is always there, the saints are always there. We just need to call on them more often: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

What was your process for in selecting stories and did you have any help in organizing the material?

I first wrote out all the stories I wanted to include but felt I needed a unique way of presenting them to compliment the 33 Knots of the first book. I have always loved the Beatitudes and while writing the book I often found myself singing them so I started playing with the idea of grouping stories into thematic sections within the framework of the Beatitudes. In order to do this I needed to better understand them so I read a few different Patristic interpretations of them. This filled out their deeper meaning for me. So, for example, “blessed are the poor of spirit” not only refers to those who are humble but also obedient, etc.

Once I felt better equipped to see the variety of Christian virtues contained within the Beatitudes I started looking at the content of the stories and figuring out where best they fit. I was happy with the result, though I found it does make that last chapter a bit more weighty as the stories are reflective of “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”. At the same time, this Christian attribute is the highest form of sacrifice, the pinnacle of expressing our complete love for Christ so it’s also fitting to end with that in mind.

Returning a bit to your current home. What does the future of Orthodoxy in Newfoundland look like? Are there any aspects of life up there that make evangelism unique for you both?

I can honestly say I don’t know what the future of Orthodoxy in Newfoundland looks like. All we can do is plant the seed. Sometimes it feels like it will never bear fruit and other times I can see the tree budding and find myself holding my breath waiting for it to bloom. I have to constantly remind myself that God measures progress differently than I do. Progress isn’t necessarily in church attendance numbers or in owning a beautiful church building. True progress is the amount of confessions that take place, the amount of prayer ropes that not only get given out but used. Before moving here I went to visit a well-known elder and he told me, “If you can save just one soul it will be worth all your effort”. I try to remember that.

The thing we’ve found that makes evangelism a little more challenging here on the Rock is that Newfoundlanders (at least those in St. John’s) are hesitant to approach anyone who appears different, so they are not as open to Orthodoxy as people may be who live in a place very open to different cultures and religions. But we keep toiling and praying. It’s really important to my husband to offer daily services and it means a lot to both of us that the island of Newfoundland is commemorated in the services: “for this island… and the faithful that dwell therein…”. So people are benefited by the prayers of our mission whether or not they even know we exist.

newf2There is one Newfoundland story I’d like to share that occurred last summer. Fr. John and I went hiking near a frequently-visited ocean beach. On our way back we encountered a Russian family. The man, seeing Fr. John’s cassock and cross, asked if he were a priest in Newfoundland. It turned out this man had lived in St. John’s for over 20 years and had never heard of our mission. We spoke a bit and he asked where we held services. We went on our way, not really expecting to ever see him again as we had met many ethnic Orthodox who always asked where the church was but rarely showed up. To our surprise this man came to church the very next Sunday and has come every single Sunday since. We later found out he had been praying for God to lead him to an Orthodox church as all the years he lived in Newfoundland he had kept his faith, read copious amounts of Orthodox books and would attend Divine Liturgy whenever he visited Russia or places that had churches.

This is one example of many that keeps our hearts at peace with our decision to live and serve Christ in Newfoundland. All of these blessings encourage us to keep planting so God may reap.

Thanks so much for the benefit of your time in this interview. It has been a joy to discuss your latest book and evangelical efforts. May God bless your mission work and all your future writing endeavors!

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This is a talk I delivered for young adults this past March at St. George’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Montreal.

It’s odd to hear myself answer questions on the spot. I am often critical of my answers and wish I had more time to consider the questions, but that’s the nature of an on-the-spot Q & A. But, hopefully I didn’t say anything incorrect or harmful.

I found the questions really poignant; they demonstrated how seriously this crowd take their faith and that was inspiring. In fact the Q & A went on so long I didn’t include it all in this recording because it took me so long to edit the recording so that you could somewhat hear the questions being posed.

In addition to this talk I did two talks earlier that day for a retreat organized by the Orthodox Christian Women of Montreal, and on Sunday, after Divine Liturgy, I spoke with the teens in their Sunday school class. It was so nice to be surrounded by plenty of Orthodox Christians! I’d like to extend my gratitude to Fr. Justin and Matushka Catherine for inviting me, as well as the Orthodox Christian Women of Montreal, and of course to the parish of St. George’s for hosting me.

 

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fake it 'til you make it

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An excerpt from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, Chapter  Two: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn (for they shall be comforted), pp. 57-58. 

parable-publican-pharisee-iconThe Subway-station Publican

We stepped off the subway and onto the multicolored tile floor of the station. As we were swept along with the surging crowd my eyes fell on a beggar. To see a beggar in a subway station was not strange in Seoul, South Korea, but to see a beggar lying prostrate, his face to the ground, was.

I don’t definitively remember us giving him change; I only remember his hands, cupped and poking out in front of his head. He didn’t even raise his eyes to those passing by. He simply and humbly begged.

A sight such as that would most likely have stayed with me, but on that day all the more because of what day it was.

We had just come from the Korean Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, having celebrated the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. And so, when we saw the man lying prostrate on the ground our minds were immediately drawn toward the icon of the publican: prostrate, humble, not daring even to raise his eyes as he supplicated for mercy. Here in front of us was such a one. What an example of humility right before our very eyes.

We walked up the staircase leading to a different subway line, discussing among ourselves the sheer coincidence that we would see such a beggar on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee.

Some eighty days later, yet again we encountered our subway-station publican. It was Pentecost Sunday and we were again transferring to the next line. This time I distinctly remember giving him change. First my brother, than my sister-in-law put money into his cupped hands. I reached into my pocket and saw that I only had 300 won (about 30 cents). I cringed that that is all I had, but still I reached down and put the nearly useless amount of money into the beggar’s hand. To my shock he grabbed my hand and pulled it close to his lowered head and kissed it. A kiss from a lowly beggar: perhaps not something most would consider a great gift – or so it might seem to one not on the receiving end of such a gift. I pulled my hand back in surprise. He raised his eyes and I saw he was crying. Tears began to well up in my own eyes.

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Some man who misunderstood the situation, thinking I was distressed by this beggar, began to come toward us. I made some gesture to show him everything was alright and I turned to go.

The feeling that energized in me the moment the dear publican kissed my hand is something very difficult to express. It is very humbling to have one’s hand kissed, even more so when all I gave to the poor beggar was a mere 30 cents. But that is life in Christ: all we have to offer God is a few cents and He gives us back one hundred fold.

I never saw our friend again, but I have never forgotten him. Every Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee he is brought to mind and I reflect on how much his humble gesture, his humble kiss, made me feel like I had received the blessing of a great saint. Truly, angels are disguised in many forms, and encounters with seemingly insignificant people can be as special as those with angels.

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The following story is from the chapter “Blessed are the Merciful”, pp. 158-159, in The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing.

The Quickest Way to Lose Grace

“One of the quickest ways to lose grace is to judge your fellow human being,” the hieromonk told a small group of us after a baptismal service.

“Elder Ephraim of Katounakia saw a monk’s soul fall from grace for a simple judgmental thought. There was a brother who would walk around his chapel before services and bang a talanton [the long wooden plank used in monasteries to call people to prayer by hammering a rhythm on it]. However, he lived in an isolated area, alone. A monk judged him for this. He had the thought, ‘What is he doing? There is no one around to call to prayer.’ And immediately Elder Ephraim saw grace depart from the monk who passed judgment.

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“Justify others. Condemn yourself. Say, ‘I’m acting like this, feeling this way because of my passions. If I didn’t have passions I wouldn’t act like this, react like this.’

“Don’t even pass judgment in your mind,” he continued. “Fight thoughts: push them out, don’t let them stay in your head, don’t argue with them. If they are strong, confess them right away. When judgmental thoughts come, if you immediately condemn yourself, ‘I’m like this because of my passions,’ then immediately grace will come to your aid, if you fight back with humility and self-condemnation.

“It helps to remember King David’s words: ‘I was brought low’—humbled, in other words—‘and the Lord saved me.’ Be compassionate and loving toward others, just as the Lord was and is compassionate and loving toward you.”

And with those words we left with the weighty knowledge that one of the easiest sins to slip into results in one of the quickest departures of grace.

*  *  *

And here’s a cool video of an Orthodox monk calling all to prayer through the hammering on the symandron. A symandron is basically a stationary talaton. The difference is the talaton is portable, carried in one hand with a hammer in the other.

Fun fact: Tradition says that it was by hammering on a wooden plank that Noah called the animals into the ark. And it is by hammering on a wooden plank that monastics call the “rational sheep” into the Ark of Salvation (the Church).

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Last night, June 22, the Feast of St. Alban the Proto-martyr of Britain, I gave a talk via google videos for a group in Toronto, organized by the Apostle Paul brotherhood.  It was on my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing.

While sitting in our domestic chapel here in Newfoundland (the iconostasis and altar are to my right in this video), I gave an overview of the book and read a sample story from each of the eight “Beatitudes” (chapters). Although the video drops a handful of times just after the halfway point it continues uninterrupted.

Here is the list of stories I read in the video:

ONE: Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, Visitations of Grace (an excerpt), p. 17

TWO:  Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted, Hope in Eternal Life, p. 43

THREE:  Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth, He Condescended, p. 103

FOUR:  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled, Not to Send Them Away Hungry, p. 117

FIVE:  Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy, The Quickest Way to Lose Grace, p. 158

SIX:  Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God, Holy Icons as Vehicles of Grace, p. 194

SEVEN:  Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons, Set a Watch Before My Mouth, p. 236

EIGHT:  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, Theirs is the Kingdom, p. 275

At the end of the talk I mention the Romanian translator of both books, Luminita Irina Niculescu, who reposed in the Lord just two weeks ago. May her memory be eternal!

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5aeb1412ceeb20.18392692.300x450-normalIt’s with great joy that I am writing to say the Romanian translation of The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing, is now available for purchase.

The Romanian publisher Editura Sophia is offering readers the opportunity to read my simple but love-filled stories in the Romanian language.

Here is what they have offered as the book’s description on their website:

Înzestrată cu darul de a-și împărtăși trăirile du­hov­nicești cu smerenie, naturalețe și dragoste față de tainele relației sufletului cu Dumnezeu, Constantina Palmer a învățat multe lucruri de o deosebită valoare duhovnicească din vizitele la numeroase mănăstiri din nordul Greciei, unde a locuit în perioada studiilor de masterat.

Autoarea îmbină nobila, dar dificila îndeletnicire a scriitorului cu o profundă înțelegere a învățăturilor Bisericii Ortodoxe, prin povestiri captivante care ilustrează Fericirile cuprinse în minunata Predică de pe Munte a Mântuitorului (Matei 5, 1-12). Prin dezvăluirea acestor comori, pe care Sfântul Ioan Gură de Aur le considera „adevăruri atât de noi, atât de uimitoare și tot atât de puternice pe cât era de mare măreția Celui ce le vestea”, Hristos Domnul le făgăduia împărăția cerurilor nu numai apostolilor Săi, ci și nouă, tuturor.

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Ultimul capitol al cărții, intitulat „A lor este împărăția cerurilor”, ne surprinde și ne emoționează în mod deosebit, deoarece este dedicat martirilor desprinși din mulțimea de pătimitori creștini care au suferit în temnițele României schilodite de urgia comunismului. În cuvintele autoarei, „Sfinții martiri români întruchipează cea de-a opta fericire. Fericiți sunt – cu adevărat nespus de fericiți – «cei prigoniți pentru dreptate», cei care au câștigat împărăția cerurilor nu numai pentru că au acceptat suferințele nedrepte la care au fost supuși, ci și pentru că au căutat dreptatea și, în același timp, virtuțile creștine, bunătatea și sfințenia, ori de câte ori s‑au aflat în ghearele suferinței. Fie ca ei să ne fie izvoare de inspirație, pentru a trăi și noi în Hristos cu aceeași evlavie, fermitate și dârzenie – cu același zel și aceeași iubire de poruncile Lui, asemenea Lor!”.

The Sweetness of Grace (entitled Tot mai aproape de Dumnezeu. Povestiri despre încercări, povestiri despre biruințe in Romanian) is available for purchase here.

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My first book, The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery, was translated and published by Editura Sophia in 2015. The Romanian title is Mireasma sfinteniei. Povestiri dintr-o manastire de maici. It is available for purchase here.

In addition to offering these books in Romania, Editura Sophia has provided a great opportunity for bookstores in North America to offer Orthodox literature to their Romanian readers. You may consider carrying the English and Romanian versions of my books in your parish bookstores.

I would like to thank Editura Sophia from the bottom of my heart, and most especially the translator Luminita, for this great gift. I am so grateful to them for allowing my stories to be shared throughout the world.

My Christ our True God bless them for this work and may all those who read my stories remember me, the unworthy one, in their holy prayers!

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As is evident, I am a very poor photographer, but it’s nice to see all my books together!            Glory to God!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Christ is risen! (Update: I had some technical issues, so a version of this post published earlier but some paragraphs and photos were out of sync).

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In June of last year I received an email asking if I would be interested in speaking at a pan-Orthodox women’s retreat in Saskatoon in April, 2018.  I was happy to accept such a gracious invitation and set to work on four one-hour long talks for the retreat.

By God’s grace, last weekend I had my first experience of the Canadian prairies and delivered my talks while in the company of wonderful Orthodox sisters-in-Christ.  I enjoyed my time so much that I can only hope the women felt as inspired and encouraged by my talks as I did from my experience of Orthodox Saskatoon.

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This was during the last talk, Saturday night. The ladies placed a chair next to me since it was about 1AM Nfld time by this point.

I chose “Keeping Our Spark Alight For Christ” as the retreat theme. The four talks I delivered were designed to build on each other. I drew from a lot of the material in my books The Scent of Holiness: Lessons from a Women’s Monastery  and The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and VictoryAs I said in the talks, I don’t have any other stories to draw from since I put them all in my books :).

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Saskatoon’s St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox church

Session 1: Preparing our Lamp

This talk had four sub-sections, each on a fundamental element of our Orthodox spiritual life. They were: a.) Church attendance, b.) Fasting, c.) Confession, and d.) Humble-mindedness

Session 2: Lighting a Spark

The sub-sections in this talk were: a.) Reverence, b.) Prayer rule, c.) Reading the Holy Scriptures, and d.) Cultivating a relationship with the saints.

Session 3: Fanning the Flame

Once again, this talk also had four sub-sections: a.) Good works, b.) Lending our talent to the Master, c.) Praying without ceasing, and d.) Pilgrimage to Orthodox monasteries

Session 4: Safeguarding the Light

This last talk had three sub-sections: a.) The Jesus Prayer (this focused more on noetic prayer, or prayer of the heart, in other words the perfect form of the Jesus Prayer), b.) Taking a spiritual inventory, c.) Spiritual endurance.

I was trying to structure these talks so as to show a gradual ascent; I was hoping each session would represent a rung of a ladder leading us ever upward.  So, I started with the basics and increasingly moved up to the weightier spiritual topics.

While it was around 12AM Newfoundland time when I delivered the first and last talks (one was given on Friday night, one on Saturday night), I managed to get through them.  Although, I found I stumbled over my words a little more than I did while delivering the other two talks during the day.

20180429_005534I really enjoyed giving the talks.  Anyone who has heard me speak in person can attest that I get very excited to have the chance to talk about what I love. And there is nothing on this earth I love more than Orthodoxy.  (My actions may not reflect this, but I do love our Orthodox faith and love talking about our faith.)

As you can see from the above side-by-side images, prayers were held in a makeshift chapel for the weekend. I was a touch sad to be in a city with multiple Orthodox churches and to have services in a non-Orthodox temple, since we only have a temporary chapel here in Newfoundland. But, it made sense because the whole retreat was held at a retreat center, so at least we had a place to pray.

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St. Vincent of Lerins

Sunday evening I had the great joy of visiting Saskatoon’s Antiochian parish of St. Vincent of Lerins where, after evening prayers, we went downstairs for a bite to eat and an informal talk, mostly questions and answers. I especially enjoyed this because I find when people ask questions you get a better insight into what is important to them and I was very impressed to learn how seriously they take their faith.

20180429_205146“There is no distance in the spiritual life,” Gerontissa told me on my last trip to her monastery in Greece. Truly, there is neither distance nor strangeness. By this I mean within Orthodoxy you can meet a person for a brief moment and immediately feel one with the person, united, bound through Christ.  Glory to God!

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Saskatchewan river (I don’t remember if it is the North or South river)

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sweetnessBelow is yet another excerpt from The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith PublishingIt is from Chapter 1, “Blessed are the Poor of Spirit”, pp. 29-31. 

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

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Contemplating the Virtue of the Theotokos

During the winter months, the sun had already set by the time I reached the Holy Dormition Monastery of the Mother of God. Vespers was most often held in the large catholicon outside the monastery gates.

Entering the outer narthex, I would light a beeswax candle in front of the festal icon the sisters had set out on the icon stand. As soon as I opened the large wooden door to the nave, I would be greeted by the sound of the nuns’ melodic chanting and surrounded by the sweet fragrance of burning incense. I would then proceed to the large icon of the Mother of God depicted with the Lord on her lap.

In those sacred if fleeting moments, I felt genuinely connected to the Mother of God. In the dim light of the church, I could even supplicate her with tears and be noticed by no one. As far away as she seemed out in the world at times, she seemed very near in the sacred space of her holy monastery.

To stand in the presence of a holy icon is to stand in the presence of the person depicted therein. Whether we stand before a large icon encased in an elaborately decorated wooden frame or before a paper icon taped on the refrigerator, we are in the presence of the holy person whose countenance is painted in line and color. But in the peaceful, prayerful atmosphere of a holy monastery, we are often more attuned to the spiritual reality surrounding us, which makes our prayer flow more readily and brings the contemplation of holy mysteries within our grasp.

It is in moments such as those that I contemplate the person of the Most Holy Theotokos. Thinking on her life and works, her sufferings and sacrifice, I feel she offers us the answer to all our problems. The example of her life is the cure for our illness, the source of joy to heal our sorrow. By means of merely two of her countless virtues—obedience and purity—she teaches us everything. In her obedience to God, she shows us that perfect freedom and the attainment of our full potential are found in submitting our fallen and corrupted will to the all-good Father. Thus we mold our will into His will and therefore become able eventually not only to know the good but to will it and do it.

With her outward and inward purity, the Theotokos points us to the easy path of sanctification. By keeping our souls and bodies pure, by not even accepting corrupted thoughts, we maintain the ability to hear and communicate with God and thus learn how to live in conformity to His will. If we have long ago lost our mental, spiritual, and/or physical purity, we have the opportunity to restore them through confession and repentance. These are our constant means of imitating her virtue and, as she does most of all, pleasing her Son and our God.

And so, no matter how ill we are, no matter our upbringing, no matter the genetic weaknesses of body and soul we have inherited, no matter the state of the world around us, we have the opportunity, by God’s grace and through the prayers of the Theotokos, to become healthy. We too can, in our own dormition, pass from life to life through a mere falling asleep, if only we will imitate her virtue.

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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.

climacus

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).

 

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