Archive for the ‘Tips from the Monastery’ Category

Our friend, Fr. Gregorie, doing the service of Lesser Agiasmos at my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment in Greece.

The nuns always stressed how important it is to have our home blessed regularly with agiasmos (holy water). I remember when we first moved to Greece I was speaking with the Abbess of a nearby monastery about the trouble we were having with our neighbours and to my surprise she asked, “Have you had your house blessed?” And I said we hadn’t. She told me to get it done as soon as possible, especially since the owner’s son had left furniture behind in our apartment when he moved out.

When it comes to anything second-hand Greeks always suggest sprinkling a little agiasmos on it. “You never know who previously owned this or that thing, or what they did while wearing it,” etc., my Nona (godmother) would always tell us.

We save some holy water from the feast of the Theophany and keep it year round in order to use it. The agiasmos which we receive on the feast of the Theophany can only be drunk after fasting (ie. this Friday morning we can drink it because we’ll fast on Thursday), and before eating antidoron. However, the holy water that is blessed on the first day of every month, for example, can be drunk when we wake up in the morning (ie. after fasting six hours while we sleep).

Something else about agiasmos that I found helpful to learn is that it’s a good idea to sprinkle some in one’s home after a couple has gotten into an argument, or if one feels particularly tempted in the home. The Church offers us so many blessings and so many ways to sanctify our life, we should take advantage of them as much as we can.

In the photo on the right you can see a Romanian custom: The priest melts some of the beeswax from the candles used in the service of agiasmos and puts a cross with the initials IC XC NI KA (Jesus Christ Conquers) in each room of the home after the service is over. So as not to tick our landlord off too much [when we lived in Greece], we only had our friend do it in our living room.

To read more about these services of blessing the water, and when and how we partake of agiasmos see here.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Originally posted in 2013)

Many times the sisters at some of the monasteries I visit will try to commit one or more akathists or supplicatory canons to memory. Here is how they do this:

Some print off the prayers they want to learn and cut them into small sections to keep in their pocket. When they are doing some of the more simpler jobs or tasks around the monastery they take out one piece of paper at a time and lay it in front of them. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen they say that section over and over again until they have it committed to memory. Afterward they take out the next piece of paper, adding another stanza or ode and so on until they have memorized the whole thing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOthers will use small prayer books to do they same thing – taking them out to read when they get stumped.

In the monastery there is always work to be done, rarely will a nun find herself idle. But in the world we are constantly waiting in lines at the grocery store, at the mechanic’s shop etc. And so, even if we don’t particularly care to commit a large prayer to memory, we can keep our mind occupied with prayer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wanted to memorize some prayers, so I took a tip from the sisters and made my own miniature prayer book. I thought writing out the prayers would help. So I that’s what I did. I keep it in my bag so that I have it wherever I go.

When I’m on the bus or waiting for something I pull it out and read an akathist. It only fits two akasthists and a few other favourite prayers but it is very helpful – mostly because it’s size makes reading the prayers in public somewhat discreet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou don’t have to hand-write a prayer book, you could simply glue photocopies of prayers in a small book, or keep a larger prayer book with you. The point is to offer our attention – our nous – to God, to make an effort to “pray without ceasing”. I haven’t memorized any akathists yet, but I try to tell myself the point is to pray them, not accomplish something arbitrarily so I can feel self-righteous.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd besides, I love an excuse to try and make something look pretty. Having a notebook filled with prayers and icons and a little calligraphy makes the work worthwhile.

“Be thankful to God that this desire for the Prayer and this facility in it have been manifested in you. It is a natural consequence which follows constant effort and spiritual achievement…. Now you see with what admirable gifts God in His love for mankind has endowed even the bodily nature of man. You see what feelings can be produced even outside a state of grace in a soul which is sinful and with passions unsubdued, as you yourself have experienced. But how wonderful, how delightful and how consoling a thing it is when God is pleased to grant the gift of self-acting spiritual prayer, and to cleanse the soul from all sensuality! It is a condition which is impossible to describe, and the discovery of this mystery of prayer is a foretaste on earth of the bliss of Heaven. Such happiness is reserved for those who seek after God in the simplicity of a loving heart.” (The Way of the Pilgrim – a word from the pilgrim’s spiritual father)


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Image from Gladsome Light Dialogues

I hope you are all having a peaceful, grace-filled Holy Week thus far.  May God make us worthy to worship His Cross and see His glorious Resurrection!

I haven’t posted a ‘Tips from the Monastery’ in quite some time.  The other day I remembered the practice of reading the Acts of the Apostles on Holy Saturday and I was happy to share it in a ‘Tips’ post.

Spending time at Orthodox monasteries I learned of a revered custom that still takes place in some monasteries today.  On Holy and Great Saturday, after the Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated in the morning, the Acts of the Apostles is read in its entirety.  In the Catholicon of the monastery the Evangelist Luke’s account of the early years of the Church is read until the Paschal Vigil begins.  For obvious reasons the whole brotherhood or sisterhood would not necessarily be able to be present for the whole reading, but the 28-Chapter book is easily read by one or a few chanters.

I find this practice so beautiful.  For the first few years I was Orthodox I would read it in my home.  I don’t have as much time now, but truth be told with technology the way it is I could certainly listen to a recording of the Acts of the Apostles while getting ready for Pascha.

During Holy Week we hear the whole account of Christ’s last days.  We hear Him declare He is going up to Jerusalem to suffer.  We listen as He nudges the Apostles awake, admonishing them to ‘keep watch’.  Our hearts break at the words ‘Judas, do you betray me with a kiss?’.   With Peter we ‘weep bitterly’ at the realization of our own denial of Christ the Master.  And finally, our hearts are pierced by Christ’s words ‘It is finished’ as He hangs on the Cross.  Joseph of Arimathea takes Him from the Cross.  We sing His lamentations and kiss His most pure body in the Epithaphios icon.  And as we wait for His Resurrection, as we go with the women to see His empty tomb, we read of what became of His Apostles in the Book of Acts-the same Apostles who hide themselves in fear following Christ’s Passion.  It’s the perfect compliment to all we’ve heard this week.  It describes Christ’s ascent into Heaven.  It tells us what became of Judas the betrayer.  It reminds us of the power of God through Jesus Christ, and it inspires us to go out and preach Christ crucified, ‘foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews’.

Having gone with Christ up to Jerusalem, having been ‘crucified with Him’ that we might live with Him in His Kingdom, we arrive at Holy and Great Saturday.  Reading the Acts of the Apostles we have the great blessing of hearing all about the Apostles “Preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence”.  May we, through the prayers of the Holy Apostles, be found worthy to Resurrect with Him and to follow in their footsteps!

To listen to the Acts of the Apostles go here.

Thank God for such beautiful, inspiring customs that our Church and Tradition are replete with!



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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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It is a well known fact that all Orthodox faithful greatly love and revere the Most Holy Theotokos. In all faithful Orthodox homes icons of her holy countenance are displayed, venerated and prayed before. But perhaps it can be said that no where is she more revered and honoured than in Orthodox monasteries. On a daily basis hymns of praise are offered to her.

most rightlyLove of and prayer to the Most Holy Lady, the Panagia, was something I became particularly accustomed to while visiting and working alongside the sisters in the monasteries I visited in Greece. If the nuns weren’t softly whispering the Jesus Prayer interspersed with “Most Holy Theotokos save us” then they were overtly praying to her by reciting the Akathist hymn from memory. Additionally, every evening the Supplicatory canon and the Akathist to the Theotokos were chanted in the monastery’s catholicon. Icons of her were found throughout the monastery: in every workroom, every cell and every chapel. Her name was constantly on the sisters’ lips.

Paraclesis3Metropolitan Hierotheos rightly summarizes the Orthodox tradition of praying to the Most Holy Theotokos by stating: “The Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, assumed human nature from the pure blood of the Most holy Theotokos. This unity came into being in her womb, in which human nature was made divine by the divine nature… [Thus,] the honour paid to the Most holy Theotokos is referred in reality ‘to Him who was incarnate of her’” (Saint Gregory Palams as a Hagiorite, p. 269). And so, the whole atmosphere of devotion in a monastery to the Most Holy Virgin creates an environment of prayer and contemplation of Him Who “by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became Man” (the Nicene Creed).

Paraclesis2Inspired by the sisters’ deep devotion I began making small, handwritten prayer books containing hymns to her. As you can see in the photos included in this post I have a very small prayer book in which I wrote her Akathist hymn and the Magnificant (the prayer she says in the presence of her cousin St. Elizabeth as recorded in the Gospel of St. Luke). In the larger prayer book I have written the Small Paraclesis (the Supplicatory Canon) as well as a few apolytikia and kontakia to her that have particular significance for me. I strongly encourage you all to make praying to the Panagia a daily activity (if it is not already). Call out to her continually, pray unceasingly, so that you might acquire her protection and the grace of Her Son and our God!

“She is a promise of the prophets, foundation of Apostles, support of the martyrs, platform of teachers; she is the glory of those on earth, the delight of those in heaven, the adornment of all creation; she is also the principle and source and root of the ineffable good things, she is the summit and completion of every saint” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 53 as quoted in Metropolitan Hierotheos’ Saint Gregory Palams as a Hagiorite, p. 297).


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monastic silence

In an Orthodox monastery a visitor may perceive many things: fragrant smells, beautiful sights of flowers, trees and architecture, the sound of church bells chiming or wooden talatons being rhythmically knocked. But sometimes the greatest impression is made by the lack of sound, by silence. Silence in a holy monastery seems to permeate the air.

For some silence is a welcomed escape from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives in which we can’t buy groceries without pop music playing overhead. A great deal of white noise accompanies our every move, our every thought. For others silence may make our unaccustomed ears ring, having experienced it so infrequently.

For me the silence of a monastery was contrasted with the loudness of my voice, my thoughts and my feelings. In the face of the monastery’s silence I began to reflect on how loud I am both externally as well as internally. It was a liberating experience because I was recognizing a character flaw for the first time which had previously gone unnoticed, unchecked and unchallenged. I made a mental and emotional note that from that point on I was going to struggle to be more quiet, more silent. Of course it is one thing to will something and another to carry it out, but knowledge and will are important first steps in our battle with the passions.

In the Desert Fathers we are told that “Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 81)

Silence, hesychia in Greek, is not only the absence of speech, but a spiritual state of being. This is why the Abba said if the Bishop was not edified by his silence he would not be edified by his speech, because to be edified by his silence is to perceive and understand the higher spiritual state the abba occupied.

Incorporating more silence into our daily lives is not easy, but it is possible. A few things I noticed the sisters do may help shed light on the practical side of acquiring silence: They measure their words, they restrain themselves from speaking too much about superfluous things, they replace idle talk with prayer, they laugh in moderation, avoid gossip, they share spiritually uplifting stories and anecdotes, and they speak in soft voices to maintain the respect due to the grounds of a holy monastery which is dedicated to the glory of God and is an extension of the sacredness of the holy church temple. This creates a peaceful and comforting atmosphere. By imitating the sisters’ virtue and by paying attention to the measure of noise in our own lives (externally and internally) we too can begin to be edified by silence and offer a peaceful haven for others, our family and friends, who are no doubt weary from the noise of the world.

May the Master of All grant us His grace and mercy to not only be edified by silence but edify others by our silence also!


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St. Theodora’s Monastery, Thessaloniki

St. Basil the Great said, “Extirpate two thoughts within yourself: do not consider yourself worthy of anything great, and do not think that any other man is lower than you in worthiness. Learn humble mindedness which the Lord commanded in word and showed forth in deed. Hence, do not expect obedience from others, but be ready for obedience yourself.”

Humble-mindedness is a great Christian virtue. Christ was clothed in humility and His very words, actions and example were penetrated with this virtue. Humble-mindedness is not merely acting meek and timid, but genuinely believing that God is the source of all good while I am cause of much strife: the emphasis isn’t merely on appearing humble, but being humble, hence the humble-mindedness because it refers to the interior state of a person.

Humble-mindedness is believing whatever good exists in me is from God, whatever bad, is from me.

Elder Joseph the Hesychast once said, “We are dirt, and are worthy of being used as plaster on the walls of an outhouse.” Humble-mindedness is not thinking we are less than we are, but rather seeing and accepting exactly what we are: nothing “of the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7).

It is, of course, not easy to keep such humble thoughts in mind but all we do is show God our good intention and He does everything else. Like all Christian virtue, it takes effort to attain and maintain humble-mindedness.

By being obedient to our spiritual father; by condemning ourselves in our thoughts (blaming ourselves instead of others); by earnestly listening when someone else is speaking; and by struggling to only see the good in someone and cover the bad our actions display humility. When we keep the fasts of the Church we are acting with humble-mindedness. When we struggle to maintain the faith of our Fathers – without deviation or skepticism toward the god-seeing Fathers’ decisions – we act with humble-mindedness.  When we avoid worldly activity and conversation, when we  faithfully keep our prayer rule, and when we finally begin to put into practice the words of the Holy Forerunner: “He must increase but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30) – not only in regard to Christ, but to our neighbor – we act with humble-mindedness. Then we know we are not far from attaining authentic humility because we are allowing our mind, heart, and soul to be molded by the god-pleasing thoughts and actions of a humble person, always through the grace of God.


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