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Archive for the ‘Tips from the Monastery’ Category

Below is an excerpt from my new book The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing. The story is called “Set a Watch Before My Mouth” from the seventh chapter, ‘Blessed Are the Peacemakers’, pp. 236-238. Purchase your copy of The Sweetness of Grace through Ancient Faith Store or Amazon.com.

sistersSR. SARAH AND SR. THEKLA, having become novices around the same time, had a special bond. Not only did they share books and stories, work together, and were even tonsured together they had a unique pact. From the very beginning of their monastic lives they agreed they would never, under any circumstances, indicate to each other that they had gotten into an argument, were upset with, or had been offended by, a member of their monastic community. This decision to safeguard the bond of peace within the sisterhood was a very wise one.

“See, if I had a problem with a certain sister, if for some reason I got upset with her and went and vented to Sr. Thekla, then she might also find herself becoming embittered or disliking the other sister. You know, the way a person sometimes dislikes those whom their friends dislike. We never wanted this to happen, so we agreed that we would never say anything bad about another sister, ever.”

This simple commitment brings with it immeasurable protection. Many times we allow ourselves to vent. We convince ourselves that it is better to get it all out than to allow our anger to boil up inside us, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, we are wrong on two counts for engaging in such behavior.

First, venting allows our thoughts and suspicions, our hurt feelings and offenses, to become solidified. We confirm our thoughts by justifying them, explaining why we are right and the other person is wrong, how we are wounded and the other is the cruel offender. Second, we pull the other person or persons listening to us into sin with us. We infiltrate their thoughts and perceptions, tainting the way they think and feel about the supposed offender. This is actually worse than the first wrongdoing, because we are not only sinning but creating a stumbling block for someone else.

It is an easy enough temptation to fall into, especially given that contemporary society encourages expressing our anger; it teaches us it’s a necessary evil to pour out the poison in order to avoid blowing up. But since when has the authentic Christian embraced what the world teaches? Here is what Elder Thaddeus teaches we ought to do to resolve our inner turmoil:

When the period of warfare comes, we are overwhelmed by thoughts… This is when we must turn to the Lord in our hearts and keep silent. If we cannot abandon the thought that is bothering us immediately then we must keep silence. We should not think about anything. It is not ours to think. The Lord knows what we can take and what we cannot. Then, when we are in silence and our minds are quiet, we should give it something to do so that it will not wander [and return to the matter that is bothering us]. We should pray.[1]

When we are confronted by strong emotions and thoughts, instead of venting to someone else, we can apply the elder’s advice. And then we go to confession. It is in confession that our venting can take place. Not that confession is an opportunity to accuse, slander, or even simply reveal the faults of others, but it is here in confession that we can reveal our honest feelings and perceptions. Most importantly, it is through confession that our erring thoughts are corrected and we receive consolation for our sorrow. A wise spiritual guide can help us discern where we are at fault in a conflict, or, if we are innocent, how we can bear the injustices done to us.

The sisters protected themselves and each other by committing to keep silent instead of venting. Silence doesn’t mean the heart is at peace, but it does ensure that sin does not progress into action through word or deed. By their silence the sisters “silence the enemy and the avenger” of mankind (Ps. 8:2).

 

[1] Elder Thaddeus, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, trans. Ana Smiljanic (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Press, 2014), p. 116.

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From the author of The Scent of Holiness, The Sweetness of Grace is a collection of stories derived from conversations with Orthodox nuns, monks, and laypeople, along with experiences of Orthodox life in South Korea, Greece, and North America. These stories of faith, courage, struggle, and everyday miracles will inspire and delight you.

 

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Happy feast of St. Paisios the Athonite!

A short Prologue: As shown in the photos, I recently finished a canvas I painted to be put on the wooden candle stand that was kindly donated to our community last summer. The monasteries always have beautiful flowers and vines painted on candlesticks with gold backgrounds so I was excited to have an excuse to do likewise. I truly believe art is the one talent God gave me completely for free and it is really important to me to make sure I at least try to pay back the Master with interest. I’m deeply grateful that I get to use my talent to beautify our small, domestic Orthodox temple.

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Per-canvas

One of the nicest elements of an Orthodox monastery is not only the cultivation of virtue but the opportunity one has to offer her talent for the good of the community and to the glory of God.

When Sister P. first became a novice she was so excited to learn embroidery and iconography – all the beautiful handicrafts one hears about nuns doing. She was a little surprised when her time was occupied with more mundane tasks. Of course this is understandable in the beginning but the nuns taught me that all things done in a monastery are done in honour of the saint and for God’s glory, no matter the task. We ought to offer all the talents we have to the glory of God.

Sister N. told me when she was a child visiting her older sister at the monastery she heard the abbess say that every deed done in the monastery was recorded by the monastery’s saint and shown to Christ on the day of judgment. After this she would rush around looking for things she could do, any scrap of garbage she could dispose of.

We should never underestimate the value of what we can offer to the Lord since He Himself greatly valued the widow’s two mites. I’m happy to say that now when Sister P. writes me letters she even mentions her duties washing the monastery’s vehicles. I often observed how the sisters lent their talent “to the One Who gave it” in a variety of ways.

That is how our parishes should be. One sings, another cleans, and still another figures out how to adhere the canvas Matushka painted to the wooden candle stand for the domestic chapel :).

I would really encourage you to seriously think about all the different talents, great and small, you have to offer and then seek opportunities to “give them to the poor” (ie. to the Church, to your parish community, a nearby monastery) for the glory of God.

Gerontissa M. used to instruct our Byzantine chant class to help out with chanting if we could be of assistance. She would say, “Why should the chanting be done poorly. If you can help and you have a good voice, help.”

So, if you can sing, sing. If you can bake, bake. If you can clean, clean. If you can visit the sick, do so. If you can make prayer ropes, give them out. If you love to pray, commit to saying an extra service (the Paraclesis or an Akathist) once a week for the benefit of your parish. Whatever you have to give, give it. Do anything you can to lend the talent the Lord gave you to Him Who gave it through “spending” it at your parish for the benefit of your church community.

I’m certain the saint of your parish will do as the monastery patron and show Christ your good deeds on the Day of Judgment.

Behold how to you, my soul, the Master has entrusted the talent, with fear accept the gift of the Lord. Lend it to the One Who gave, distribute it to the poor and earn the friendship of the Lord Himself. So that you may stand on His right when He comes in His glory.  (A portion of the Aposticha of Great and Holy Tuesday).

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“May it be blessed” is the standard monastic response when a nun is asked to complete a task. It signifies her obedience. Having heard it over and over again while visiting with the sisters or working alongside them, I too would integrate this helpful statement into my own speech. However, it is one thing to grow accustomed to uttering a phrase here or there and quite another to genuinely mean what we say. We say things like “thank you” or “you’re welcome” all the time but these customary phrases are often uttered out of habit, without any true intention behind them on our part. This is not what “may it be blessed” should be.

It should be an external sign of our inward willingness to the do the will of another. It should, ideally, signify the peace we feel when we are asked to do something even when it contradicts our own will. But again, “should feel” is different than how we often actually feel when we are required to go against our will.

The point of this practice, of verbally uttering this phrase, is to cultivate our inner man, our willingness to lay aside our will and acquire peace. Just like the sign of the cross, or bows and prostrations, our person is made up of body and soul. So, first we utter the phrase (with conscientious attention) and then we learn to freely lay aside our will.

Unfortunately, in the world it is difficult to engage in these external, Orthodox gestures because our society is not accustomed to such things. This makes it more difficult for us to practice the virtue of obedience, but not impossible.

Just as a nun is obligated to obey those who are older than her both in age and in spiritual order (ie. a nun who has come to the monastery before her is her “superior” regardless of age), so we can look for opportunities to obey our managers, our bosses, and supervisors. This does not happen without a concerted effort (especially for those of us who are strong-willed). But, it is possible.

papouliWe should strive to obey our bosses, our managers, our co-workers with a happy heart. It’s not always easy, however, being obedient is made easier if we look at our boss as a microcosm of Christ, our manager as a microcosm of Christ, regardless of how he or she lives. It doesn’t matter how they live. For this relationship that we have with them is an opportunity for us to serve Christ through serving them, to submit or “cut off” our will (as Blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast often taught).

I will be the first to say I really struggle with obedience. I am very strong-willed and opinionated. But, in order for me to get better I try and think of the sisters’ example and write down how I can imitate their virtue. I thought you might find their example helpful also.

Navigating the un-spiritual world in a spiritual manner can be additionally difficult since the onus is on us to take on these spiritual exercises moreso than in a monastery. While it’s easy to allow ourselves to react negatively to circumstances in our workplace, just making a small effort, consciously obeying our managers and co-workers, brings with it a world of peace.

I tried it once and it worked.

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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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