Archive for the ‘Tips from the Monastery’ Category

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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prodromosSt. 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 obedience 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 neighbour. 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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I learned numerous tips from monastics – nuns and monks alike – with regards to reverence of small and great matters pertaining to our Orthodox faith. Although I have not always been vigilant when it comes to exhibiting this great virtue, I have nonetheless remained convinced of the utmost importance of this virtue in all faucets of our lives.

According to Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain reverence is “the fear of God and spiritual sensitivity”. He said that reverent people “behave carefully and modestly, because they intensely feel the presence of God.”

Reverence is a great virtue, a necessary Christian virtue. It is essential in our daily Christian struggle. Reverence with regard to little things is the foundation for acquiring and maintaining reverence toward greater, holier things. When we let our reverence for the little things subside, when we neglect to show reverence toward the little things, then we can be sure that we will very quickly begin neglecting the great things of our faith.

Some of the little ways in which I was taught we can exhibit reverence are:

-Being careful not to place icons or holy books in inappropriate places like piled on the floor or on seats or beds (except on pillows).

-Not hanging icons in washrooms

-Being sure to dispose of damaged or paper icons (even those from Church bulletins) by burning them

-Not disposing of blessed items in the garbage but being sure to burn anything brought home from the church which was blessed (ie. palms, pussy willows, flowers, bay leaves, etc.)

-Only pouring holy water in soil that people won’t walk on

-Not spitting or brushing one’s teeth for a set number of hours after receiving Holy Communion

-Fasting for a set number of hours from food and drink before eating antidoron (blessed bread)

-Never allowing a cross to be upside down, or placed on a floor or seat

-Being careful not to place paper icons or crosses, or any other holy object, in one’s back pocket

-Not eating or drinking anything apart from blessed food and drink in the church (ie. Holy Communion, holy bread, holy water, etc.)

-Dressing modestly for church services and while on the grounds of monasteries

-Struggling to be ever-mindful of the presence of holy saints and angels

-Making the sign of the cross before starting a task

-Saying a prayer before and after meals

“‘The grace of God,’ the elder [Paisios] observed, ‘comes to reverent people, and it makes the soul beautiful.’ But he observed with sadness that contemporary people pay little attention to such things. ‘If a person’s not reverent,’ he said, ‘If he scorns divine things, then divine grace abandons him, and he’s overcome by temptations, and becomes like the demons. Divine grace won’t come to an irreverent person – it comes to people who honour it.'” (Elder Paisios of the Mount Athos, by Hiermonk Isaac, pg. 420)

If only we would exhibit reverence toward the little things, perhaps we would acquire it with regards to the greater: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much” (Lk. 16:10).

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Fr. John (as a deacon) with Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis, August 2012.

Christ is risen!

According to Wikipedia self-deprecation is the “act of belittling or undervaluing oneself”. But according to the behaviour of monastics (those who shine brightly as examples for us struggling in the world), self-deprecation is the act of knowing one’s self and revealing that knowledge in word and action.

Such statements are perhaps disconcerting when we first hear them. The first few times I heard a monastic say “I had the thought – with my stupid mind – that [insert opinion here]” it threw me off guard. And being the over-analytical person I am an inner dialogue began:

Does speaking like this draw unnecessary attention to one’s self ? Or is it prudent and constructive to speak openly and inexcusably about our weaknesses, our fallibility?

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov says: “Everyone who wants to dispassionately and seriously investigate the state of his soul will see the illness of insensibility in it; he will see its broad significance, its gravity and consequence, and will have to admit that it is the manifestation and witness of his deadness of soul.”

In one of his many “classes” (held in the church hall) Protoprebyter Theodoros Zisis said, “Self-knowledge was the virtue of paganism; self-abasement is the virtue of Christianity”. And what exactly is self-abasement? Isn’t it “a broken and contrite heart”?

Elder Joseph the Hesychast once said, “We are dirt, and are worthy of being used as plaster on the walls of an outhouse”. Do you find that statement hyperbolic? I don’t, because the truth is the only thing that is good in us comes from God, having been made in His image, and the only good we do we do because God works through us. Therefore self-deprecating statements woven through our speech – and especially when we are stating our own opinions – are neither showy nor meaningless, but practical ways of reminding ourselves and others that without God “we can do nothing” (Jn. 14:5).

So the sisters approach conversation with a healthy dose of self-deprecating thoughts and words in order to acquire and maintain a “broken and contrite heart” which we know “God will not despise” (Ps. 50:19). They never speak as though what they say has authority. Everything is qualified by “in my opinion” or “the way I see it” so that they do not make the mistake of indiscreetly clinging to their thoughts and opinions, or worse still pressuring others to blindly accept what they say as the last word on the matter.

Elder Paisios says, “The devil does not hunt after those who are lost; he hunts after those who are aware, those who are close to God. He takes from them trust in God and begins to afflict them with self-assurance, logic, thinking, criticism. Therefore we should not trust our logical minds. Never believe your thoughts.”

In making self-deprecating statements the individual never forgets the possibility that he can, and more than often does, err. So when it comes to their own thoughts and opinions they can call them “stupid” and yet when it comes to the doctrine of the Church monastics state the teachings of the Church unequivocally and with firm convictions, just as we in the world ought to do.

Practicing healthy self-deprecation is the perfect combination of self-knowledge and self-abasement. It is completely counter-cultural but perfectly in line with life in Christ, Whose divine self-abasement wrought salvation for the world: “In amazement angel armies lift up their song as they glorify Thy self-abasement, Lord”!

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(The following is an excerpt I translated from the fabulous Greek book Words οf the Heart – Λόγια Καρδίας – pp.176-177, a collection of sayings by Gerontissa Macrina of the Holy Monastery of Odigitria in Portaria, Greece)

An eternal Hell exists and an eternal Paradise exists. Eternal hell: I see it, there is gnashing of teeth. All day I see hell and I cry and I say: “Why do you cry?” [I cry thinking of] us being in that flame, in a frozen river, with maggots that never die. [I cry so that] we might be able, now during Great Lent, to pass our time peacefully and very spiritually.

Even above temperance and ascesis, the Fathers held up silence and they searched to learn how to fight their passions. They would say in their confessions: “This passion has grown, this trial has sprung up, the untamed beast [of such and such a passion], egotism wars against me, and I am not able to conquer it. Jealousy, envy, judgementalism, suspicion, and fault-finding all war against me.  What can I do with these demons? How can I fight them, Geronda? With what method can I fight these demons that war against me?”

Do we do thus in our own confessions? And these are the greater [or obvious] things we should be confessing. Or do we go to our spiritual father and, as one person did, say: “Geronda, so-and-so did this to me”? And since the person goes and tells the spiritual father everything so-and-so did when he kneels down for the prayer of absolution instead of saying the name of the one confessing “forgiven and absolved”, [the priest] says the name of the other person who was blamed [for everything]. Suddenly the man is startled: “Why, my father, did you say that name?”

“It’s him I confessed today, you didn’t say anything about your own sin, you weren’t humbled, so-and-so is at fault, he does everything [bad] to you.”

Forbearance is needed, patience is needed, whatever life we lead, patience is needed. We don’t have patience? We don’t have salvation.

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