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This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read concerning the difficult points in one’s struggle to attain holiness. I thought you’d all benefit as well from the elder’s divinely-inspired words. From Archimandrite Athanasios Mitilinaios.  Homilies on the Book of Revelation. trans. Constantine Zalalas (St.Nikodemos Publications: Bethlehem, 2009), 201-202:

When you begin to climb spiritually, at some point you will reach a critical point.  And the crisis is that you will have that feeling that you cannot climb anymore because you are tired.  This is a crisis that we meet along the way.  Everyone goes through this.  Those that set out toward a spiritual life go on and on and on and then at some point they become afraid, they panic…We need to understand that when we come to the point of panic or exhaustion, it means that we have reached that critical plateau.

…Let us consider an example from the area of supersonics.  When a jet takes off, and its speed increases, the behaviour of the air changes as the plane goes faster and faster.  The air becomes increasingly a solid mass.  At a certain point, as the speed of the plane increases and comes close to the speed of sound, the air takes on the dimension of a solid, and the jet feels like it is cutting through a mountain.  The jet feels almost ready to fall apart because the air acts like a solid mass.  Now if the jet succeeds in passing this critical level, which is called the sound barrier, then the airplane glides very nicely.  Not only does it escape danger but now this plane becomes supersonic.  It went beyond the sound barrier; it flies very comfortably and it feels that the air does not exist anymore.  Well, my friends, this very thing happens in the spiritual life.  The moment you have reached this critical point, you will succeed – if you do not lose heart.

…Now if you do not cower, if you do not give up from exhaustion, and you succeed in passing this barrier, then the spiritual life that awaits you is wonderful; it is actually great.  It feels so great and so natural that you could not consider living in any other way.  If feels like it is in your blood, like something woven into your entire existence.  So if you happen to meet a very spiritual person, an ascetic, he will act surprised if you tell him that you cannot reach that sort of spirituality, that you cannot possibly reach his level.  He will say, “How can you say that?  But it is so easy.  It is not hard at all.”  It feels like the easiest thing for him because he went beyond the critical point and now that he is beyond that point, the life of the spirit is for him something very natural and effortless.

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51wy9gzguql-_sx321_bo1204203200_Abbess Thaisia of Leushino: An Autobiography of a Spiritual Daughter of St. John of Kronstadt: How could I read anything written by this uncanonized saint and not absolutely love it, especially her own autobiography? I first read this while Fr. John and I spent four weeks at a women’s monastery in Canada one summer. Reading it again brought back a lot of good memories; it was also really nice to become reacquainted with the incredible person of Abbess Thaisia in such intimate detail.

0b2351d9-c59d-11e1-a7b0-889ffadf43f7_40892163-920b-11e2-b998-0015174458e8-resize1Instructions for the Immortal: Or, What to do if You Still Die by Fr. Daniel Sysoev: Readers of this blog know how much I love and admire Fr. Daniel. This book, with its witty title, is wonderful. It’s very small, almost like a long pamphlet but bound like a tiny hard-cover book. And yet, Fr. Daniel manages to go into detail concerning death, life after death, and the aerial toll-houses. The topic of aerial toll-houses is often labeled “controversial” but anyone who reads the Fathers of the Church know they are an accurate image of a spiritual reality experienced by all who have and will repose.

homilies-revelation-large-1Homilies on the Book of Revelation (Vol. 1) by Archimandrite Athanasius: I only have a few more pages to go in this book and I have high praise for it. It is jam-packed with information. It not only offers incredible insight into the Book of the Revelation, but gives detailed accounts of the geographical and social histories of the seven churches to whom Christ has St. John the Theologian address an epistle. Translated by Costas Zalalas, this book should be read by all Orthodox Christians, not merely those who are inclined toward reading commentaries on Scripture. It is very informative and yet also manages to challenge the reader to become a more authentic Christian.

nopnikona-01Letters to Spiritual Children by Abbott Nikon: The small size of this book is deceiving for great spiritual grandeur is contained within its few pages. I literally have nearly as many sticky notes attached to the pages as it has paragraphs. The book is a composition of the elder’s letters to his spiritual children. Reading it gives you the impression that he has condensed into these select letters all that is necessary for an Orthodox Christian to find and remain on the straight and narrow path that leads to life. If you only read one book from this list, let it be this one. But, please don’t just read it, struggle to put the Abbot’s words into practice!

41pjjqruu2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_1Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by Elder Thaddeus: Elder Thaddeus’ well known work is a joy to read. This text is very applicable to modern man: it both admonishes and inspires the reader to lead a proper Christian life. Having lived and reposed in our times, Elder Thaddeus shares wonderful personal insight, insight into his own character and development. This allows the reader to not only learn more about this holy person but to see his own character and development in light of the elder’s inspired words.

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The Art of Salvation by Archimandrite Ephraim: This is an English translation of a collection of 33 homilies by Elder Ephraim of Arizona. Every homily is rich in wisdom and yet the spiritual depth of each is conveyed in a simple and applicable way. Although likely delivered to his monastic brotherhoods, I believe there is not one sentence in the book that does not apply to the modern layman who wishes to also taste of God’s grace and goodness.

51ro95u4rbl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Life of the Virgin Mary by St. Maximos the Confessor: Fr. John gave this book to me Christmas, 2014. I read it just before Christmas 2015 and loved it. The information is predominately drawn from the Proto-evangelium, the same primary source the book The Life of the Theotokos – published by Holy Apostle’s Convent – draws from. While much of what it contains was not something unfamiliar to me as I’ve read The Life of the Theotokos, it was very beautiful to read St. Maximos the Confessor’s description of the events and person of the Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos. It’s a more condensed version of her life and I highly recommend it. We can never read enough insights into this all-holy person who was made worthy to contain the Uncontainable God in her holy womb.

1068192Shepherd of Souls: Life and Teachings of Elder Cleopa: I bought this book while in Boston, MA at Holy Apostle’s Bulgarian Orthodox Church during a retreat I was invited to speak at. I started reading it while waiting for my plane back to Newfoundland and finished it rather quickly. I was incredibly impressed by the person of Elder Cleopa. In particular I found the description of his childhood and his early inclination toward asceticism very beautiful. I loved this book and already feel like re-reading it.

What good books have you read lately?

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The Grace of St. Barbara

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Having just finished his PhD in Germany, and feeling confident about his knowledge of holy icons, the young graduate student visited his father’s good friend, a blind monk. He spoke to him a bit about some things and then got to his point:

“Geronda, although you’re blind, you venerate icons. Do you know and understand what you are venerating?” the young graduate asked the monk.

“Of course I do!” the blind monk responded.

“Is that so? Well then, would you mind if I gave you a little quiz?” he asked the monk.

“Not at all,” came the response.

There was a shelf of icons just above where they were seated. So the graduate student took down an icon of St. Catherine the Great Martyr, and gave it to the blind monk to venerate.

Making his cross and bowing low to the ground, the monk kissed the icon.

“So, Geronda, which saint did you venerate?”

“St. Barbara the Great Martyr,” he answered.

“Geronda, I’m sorry but it’s not St. Barbara,” the young man said.

“Perhaps you want to venerate the icon again and see if you’re making a mistake,” he told the monk.

“I know the grace of St. Catherine. It is different than that of St. Barbara. You’re making the mistake. Perhaps you should read the name again,” the monk answered resolutely.

Looking down at the icon again the young graduate student couldn’t believe his eyes. There, written on the icon was the name Saint Barbara. The likeness of the saint was that of St. Barbara. How could he have mistaken her for St. Catherine? Sure, some icons show their resemblance, but this was shocking!

“Geronda, I’m sorry. I was mistaken. The icon is of St. Barbara,” he apologized.

“The grace of each saint is distinct. I can tell which saint I am venerating by the saint’s particular grace,” the monk informed him.

Years later, narrating this story to his students, Professor Tselingidis would say: “I, who have eyes to see, did not see. While the monk who was blind saw what was for me, invisible.”

And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, in order that they who see not may see; and that they who see might be made blind.” (John 9:39)

The above (incredible) story was told by my professor, Demetrios Tselingidis. He teaches Dogmatic Theology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.  The topic of his PhD dissertation was on the theology of holy icons, entitled Iconological Works. (To read the English summary of his PhD go here.)

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adelfi efpraxia

Modern Saints is a new series wherein I post biographical details and a few inspiring words from contemporary holy men and women who have not yet been included in the Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church (ie. have not formerly been canonized by the Church).

The following is an excerpt from the book Elder Arsenios the Cave-Dweller, pp. 38-39

Elder Arsenios’ like-minded sister, Parthena, was also tonsured a rassofore nun at the young age of 16, at the Holy Monastery of the Protection of God at Pontos, and renamed Efpraxia. Aflame with divine zeal, she also reached the sacred holy sites of Palestine and met up with her brother, Anastasios [Elder Arsenios’ pre-tonsure name], who arranged for her stay at the female cenobitic monasteries.

Parthena, the little sister of Anastasios, was not lacking in zeal or virtue. From many amazing incidents, I will mention only one from her first steps in monasticism. As her parents were from Pontos, they mainly spoke Turkish and knew a little Pontian. When they migrated to Russia, long before she followed the example of her brother. So she went to the Holy Monastery of the Protection of God at Pontos.

There, however, she couldn’t speak Greek nor even understand anything from the church services. This made her very upset. One night, she saw someone in her dream who asked: “Why, my child, are you so upset?”

“You see, Elder, I don’t know how to speak, nor to read, nor to write, nor to chant.”

“Don’t worry, my child. I will give you medicine for it.”

He opened her mouth and put inside something like a lolly. She ate it and woke up. Well, from that moment, her mind was and to understand, indeed very clearly, the meanings in the liturgical books.

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vladimirOur mission here in Newfoundland is named in honour of the Holy Lady of Vladimir: an icon of the Mother of God, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God was painted by the Evangelist Luke on a board from the table at which the Savior ate together with His All-Pure Mother and the Righteous Joseph. The Mother of God, upon seeing this image, exclaimed, “Henceforth, all generations shall call Me blessed. The grace of both My Son and Me shall be with this icon.”

In the year 1131, the icon was sent from Constantinople to the Rus and installed in the Devichi Monastery in the city of Vyshgorod. In 1155 St Andrew Bogoliubsky brought the icon to the city of Vladimir and installed it in the renowned Dormition cathedral which he built. At this time the icon received the name “Vladimir icon”. The icon was first brought to Moscow in the year 1395 where it remains today. Thus, the blessing of the Mother of God established the spiritual bonds between Byzantium and Rus via Kiev, Vladimir and Moscow.

The festal celebration of the Vladimir Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos occurs several times during the year (May 21, June 23 and August 26). The most solemn celebration occurs on August 26, the feast established in honour of the meeting of the Vladimir icon upon its transfer from Vladimir to Moscow.*

Below you will find the hymn to the Holy Lady of Vladimir.

*Much of this information is taken from the OCA’s website.

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(Source) O discerning listeners, come and listen to the dispute between Marina and Satan, and sing praise to the Lord of all.

SATAN: The Evil One said to Marina, the dearly beloved virgin, ‘Desert and Sown, in their envy, have spoken falsehood against you’.

MARINA: ‘Every word Desert and Sown have spoken against me is in falsehood: in the name of the Lord do I put my hope to escape victorious from them’.

SATAN: ‘In the name of the Lord you shall escape if you pay attention and listen to me, my daughter: reveal your identity, that you are a woman, and you will escape from all guile’.

MARINA: ‘Those men and women who have emerged victorious first entered into trials and were rescued by the hope they held in the name of the Lord – and like them I too have hope’.

SATAN: ‘ I have revealed and shown you the right path by which you shall be victorious, but you won’t listen; I am greatly upset in my concern for you, and my pain won’t go away since you won’t listen to me’.

MARINA: ‘My skin cleaves to my bones [Lam.4:8]: I have greatly toiled in my labours so as to be numbered among males in order to steal righteousness from them’.

SATAN: ‘If you wish to be numbered among males, listen to what I have to say to you: go and reveal your identity, how you are a woman, and then go and live in the world along with men’.

MARINA: ‘What you have to say is miles away from what I have in mind: my desire is to die in the wild and I shall not do what you have said’.

SATAN: ‘This wild place shall be your tomb and you will not get away from trials, for if you don’t listen to my words, you will die and perish, with your hope cut off’.

MARINA: ‘Great woe is reserved for you and for whoever listens to any of your words. There is hope in God, and those who hope in him are not ashamed’. [Ps 25:3]

SATAN: ‘It is a double woe that you will have if you fail to listen to any of my words: you will die in the wilderness and wild beasts and birds of prey will devour you’.

MARINA: ‘I will sing praise while I live, [Ps 146:2] while I have a place where to sing; and whether I live or whether I die, it is to the Lord I belong all the time’.

SATAN: ‘Sing on then, and don’t stop for in a little while your song will come to an end; you will go down to Sheol without hope and your lot will be a double woe’. [cp Ps 31:18, 55:16]

MARINA: ‘The Lord is living and holy is his name, and whoever hopes in him will not be ashamed: [Ps 25:3] from this monastery I will not depart. and will not go away from its gate’.

 SATAN: ‘Savage animals are roaring, eager to rip you apart, and vultures too; if you don’t carry out my advice they will tear you apart and drink up your blood’.

MARINA: ‘A great blessing will be mine if they tear my body apart and drink up my blood, for my Lord is the Lord of all: he will not do what you have said’.

SATAN: ‘So torture you consider a blessing? What then do you think of eternal woe? Flee from the error in your mind; follow my advice and live’.

MARINA: ‘Let the sea and land testify concerning me, the heavens too, and all that is in them, [cp Deut 4:26, 31:28] that I renounce you and your words: cursed is your counsel, and accursed your name’.

SATAN: ‘I know that women don’t have much intelligence or brain, for they don’t know what they are saying, and they do what is harmful to themselves’.

MARINA: ‘All the advice that you give is bad; your words are bad too because you are bad: as our Lord said in his Gospel, “a tree that is bad bears bad fruit”’. [Matt7:17]

SATAN: ‘Check your words, stupid woman, and shut up: you don’t realize it is your duty to save yourself, as far as you are able, and live a normal life, and not perish’.

MARINA: ‘Accursed are your words, Satan, and accursed is the instruction which you teach. for your mouth is full of cursing and wickedness, and on your tongue are fraud and deceit’.

SATAN: ‘You haven’t read or learnt the Scripture; you are ignorant and you don’t listen. My words and utterance are full of truth, and deceit is far from my heart’.

MARINA: ‘If I listen to you I will indeed perish, for you have set a trap that leads to perdition, and I won’t be able to save myself if I listen to you and your counsel’.

SATAN: ‘My advice is crystal clear, its light is illumined by the sun, but because the light of your mind is darkened you don’t see the light even when it shines out’.

MARINA: ‘Take a rest from laying your traps, for I shall break them all up: I place my hope in Jesus’ name and no harm will come to me’.

SATAN: ‘You should give a rest to your words: that I should rest is not my wish. It is a great sin that you commit if you remain in this wild place.

SATAN: ‘You will do yourself harm at the hands of marauding robbers: if they realize you are a woman I don’t know what they will do to you!’.

MARINA: ‘The hope that I’ve placed in God will rescue me and I will not be harmed; he is the hope of the poor and the orphans, and to all who hope on him’.

SATAN: ‘Escape from all sorts of harm while you still have a chance to escape: don’t put the Lord, your Lord, to the test, hoping he will perform a miracle with you’.

MARINA: ‘It is from you that I will make my escape and I won’t touch your words of advice; if I escape from you and your words, then will I be accounted blessed!’.

SATAN: Satan replied and said ‘If you reveal that you are a woman all the abuse you are getting will go away and then you can sing praise and rejoice’.

MARINA: ‘I will not give you any answer for all your talk is importunate: all that you say is false. You give a lot of advice, but you are the one who needs it’.

SATAN: ‘Cruel crosses are set up in readiness for you on every side: summer is preparing burning heat for you, and winter, snow and ice’.

MARINA: ‘Our Saviour endured the Cross because of our human race, and if he holds me worthy to endure it, then this will be a great blessing for me’.

SATAN: ‘Get up and prepare yourself to receive crosses, sufferings and torments which evil people, and the monks, will bring upon you – just as you are wanting!’.

MARINA: ‘I have already received these from you, and I will do so in future for I am ready for suffering: whether from you, O Evil One, or from human beings, from wild animals, or from reptiles’.

SATAN: ‘It is pride that women love, and boasting is in their heart, but in a little while they grow weak and are defeated: then tears start coming, flowing from their eyes!’.

MARINA: ‘Yes, women love pride – as you have said in your pride; but they are humble before their Lord, while it is you and your pride they will trample down’.

Give peace to your Church and her children with that peace that pacifies all; rebuke the Evil One and his band: let them be scattered like smoke! [cp Ps 37:20]

Let peace reign in the midst of your Church; let fights and schisms be brought to an end:may they be brought under your yoke and do service before you.

May your handmaid enter her monastery and in the Holy of Holies offer up to you a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – and may both Desert and Sown be joined in peace.

May my supplication enter and be accepted in the presence of your divine tribunal;  may the Evil One and his band feel shame, and may the Church be radiant in giving praise!

*Translated by Sebastian P. Brock

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And the winners are…

christmas voyageJustine Anna has won the e-book and Maria Melniciuc has won the paperback! Justine, the e-book will be e-mailed to you, and Maria if you could send me your mailing address we’ll have the book out to you as soon as possible. Congratulations!

For all the non-winners I’m sure it will come as a great consolation to hear the book is still 20% off the regular price, so head on over to the website and snatch a copy up for Christmas!

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