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sweetnessIn honour of the Sunday of St. Gregory of Palamas, here is an excerpt from my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory published by Ancient Faith Publishing. It is from Chapter 7, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God”, pp. 214-216. 

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

st-gregory-palamas-st-cyril-and-methodius-church In Praise of Thessaloniki

I would do a great disservice to the great saint and co-protector (together with St. Demetrios) of Thessaloniki if I were to write this whole book and not mention our father among the saints, Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki.

You can hardly go two paces in that Byzantine city without being reminded of the various local saints and historical faith of the Thessalonians. But two places in particular always occupied a special place in my heart: the church of Hagia Sophia, where St. Gregory preached against the Barlaamite heresy, and the Cathedral of St. Gregory Palamas, in which his relics reside in a side chapel covered in icons depicting his life. Any time I was downtown, I made a point to venerate his holy, fragrant relics.

In a city like Thessaloniki, the cloud of witnesses feel more like companions, such is the intimacy of their presence. In many respects, life there is a living continuation of the Scriptures, and the many churches, sites of martyrdom or imprisonment of saints, and holy relics are enough to make you forget the modern world and enter into the spiritual world.

Practically every night you can attend a vigil in the city. The vigil service according to the Greek Typicon begins with Small Vespers, followed by Compline, Great Vespers, Matins, Hours, Liturgy and finally the Ninth Hour. These vigils can last up to five, six, or more hours. They usually end well after midnight.

I remember one we went to in the heart of town for the feast of St. Gregory Palamas (November 14). During the Matins service, when the life of the saint is read from the Great Horologion, one of the chanters proceeded to the middle of the church to read a long version of St. Gregory’s life. Looking at this young man in his long, black chanter’s robe, standing before the royal doors with only vigil lamps and a lone candle stand illuminating the passage he read aloud, it was easy to be confused as to whether it was the first or twenty-first century, whether we were on earth or in heaven. Coming out of a vigil like that, you felt as though the whole city was more sanctified, as if the stones and stars themselves had participated in our celebration of the Bloodless Sacrifice.

O Thessaloniki, the city Apostle Paul wrote to, preached in, wept over; the city St. Demetrios fought for and continues to protect even after his martyric death; the city St. Gregory Palamas guided, instructed, reprimanded, and loved! Through the prayers of the great hesychast and of all saints of Thessaloniki, may you always remain blessed.



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Turning on the radio this time of year all manner of Christmas songs can be heard. There is one song that gets a lot of air time around this season and it always evokes a deep sadness within me whenever I hear it. It’s called “I Believe in Father Christmas” by Greg Lake.

It evokes such sadness because I think the singer conveys the feeling of unfulfilled hope that I believe is an unfortunate, but common, experience. The song begins thus:

They said there’ll be snow at Christmas
They said there’ll be peace on earth
But instead it just kept on raining

These lyrics could be said by any individual in the modern era who has ever anticipated peace and joy during the Christmas season but was left with an even greater feeling of emptiness instead.

The song continues:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
’till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise


And who sold him this false “dream of Christmas”? Was it the Creator of heaven and earth Who became Man so that mankind could become god by grace? Was it the poor shepherds who received the good news of the Incarnation from an angel? Maybe it was the three wise men who traveled from distant lands to satisfy their longing to see and know God? No. It was the world, the spirit of the world, that sold him this dream. A spirit that is contrary to the Gospel.

You’ll notice he points to two characters of a “fairy tale” he was duped into believing in: the Israelite (a rather derogatory title for Christ) and Father Christmas. And what happens when the dream of Truth is mingled with falsehood? Both the Truth and the falsehood are perceived as a fairy tale. This is why we need to be careful not to blur the lines between Christ’s Nativity and Santa Clause, between celebrating the feast with exaltation and celebrating it as an opportunity to acquire more stuff, eat more food.

Peace and joy at Christmastime are themes continually perpetuated but often people’s experience of Christmas is devoid of authentic peace or joy.  Many are left feeling cheated as the lyricist of this song so aptly conveys. Simply turning on pretty lights and giving gifts, while nice, is not enough to fill the human soul with the kind of joy it is actually longing for.

Worldly joy provides something temporary, something ephemeral for the moment. It cannot provide what spiritual joy provides.  Spiritual joy is life in Paradise, those who have first gone through the Crucifixion, and have been resurrected spiritually, live in the joy of Pascha.

-St. Paisios the Athonite

And so, I wish you all a good end to the fast, our minor “crucifixion” (of the passions) before our spiritual resurrection on the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

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Elder Joseph

(November 2, 1837 – May 9, 1911)

Commemorated on May 9

img_0232Having been born into a pious family, the future Elder Joseph grew up in the fear of God. John Efimovich Litovkin enjoyed reading and being by himself. In his youth, he had a vision of the Queen of Heaven, and he began to withdraw for more prayer and privacy. He grew to have a gentle and sensitive soul and felt the grief of others. Both of his parents died early, and the young John was left to work odd jobs to make ends meet. His sister had become a nun and wrote to him of Optina at which time he decided to go.

When he arrived in Optina in 1861, he met Elder Ambrose, talked with him and decided that he never wanted to go anywhere else, and so it happened. Shortly after that he became Elder Ambrose’s cell attendant and did not leave his side until the elder’s death thirty years later. For years, Fr. Joseph did not even have a cell of his own. Instead, he waited until all the pilgrims left who were visiting Elder Ambrose and then slept in the waiting room only to have to rise for Matins at 1:00 a.m.

After three years he was tonsured a novice, with the name John, and after ten years he was tonsured a monk with the name Joseph after St. Joseph the Hymnographer. When the Shamordino Convent was consecrated in 1884, Fr. Joseph was ordained a priest.

He was very quiet and serious. When speaking with pilgrims, he spoke few but profound words of instruction and comfort. He was of exemplary obedience and humility. It is said of him that his humility was tangibly apparent and readily transmitted; his very presence brought to the Elder’s always-crowded reception room a perceptible tranquility. Elder Ambrose said of him, “Father Joseph will surpass me,” just as he also used to tell his spiritual children, “I give you to drink wine diluted with water, but Fr. Joseph will give you unmingled wine.”  As for Fr. Joseph, he never ascribed to himself any gifts or spiritual achievements:  “What do I know,” he would say, “without Batiushka?  Zero, and nothing more.” When pilgrims had messages they wanted him to relay to the Elder he would bring back a response without adding anything of his own. Soon, Elder Ambrose would send people to him for counsel. Many were amazed at how he would give the same advice as Elder Ambrose. After Elder Ambrose’s repose, his disciples felt comfortable to go to Elder Joseph.

In 1888, Fr. Joseph became very sick, near the point of dying but recovered through the prayers of Elder Ambrose and a vision of the Mother of God in which she said to him: “Endure, my beloved one, little time is left.” At this time he was tonsured with the great schema.

In 1890, Elder Ambrose was preparing to go to Shamordino, Elder Joseph, who regularly accompanied him for several weeks every summer, began likewise to prepare but this time the Elder told him, “You need to stay here, you’re needed here.” While at Shamordino, Elder Ambrose became very sick. The nuns called for Elder Joseph who then communed Elder Ambrose for the last time before he died. Elder Joseph was left to become the confessor of the Skete, of the monastery, and of the nuns at the Shamordino Convent.

In April 1911, Elder Joseph became ill with malaria. He was lucid and conscious to the very end inviting the Shamordino nuns and the Optina monks for one last visit to say farewell and offer one last piece of counsel to any question and to ask everyone’s forgiveness. He became weaker and weaker until his repose on May 9.

–Subdeacon Matthew Long

Sayings of Elder Joseph of Optina


Without patience, even a temporary home is not built, let alone the eternal one … But we keep looking for the easy way.  What is easy for the body is not useful for the soul, and what is useful for the soul is difficult for the body – so we should proceed through labor to the Kingdom of Heaven.


It is impossible for us, sinful people, to be entirely free of distractions during prayer.  Nevertheless, one should strive as much as possible to gather one’s thoughts and lock one’s mind into the words of prayer, into each word.  One should not be troubled by coldness and hard-heartedness but persist in forcing oneself towards prayer, recognizing oneself as unworthy of consolation and compunction.  If prayer is cold, one mustn’t conclude that it is displeasing to God; sometimes even such prayer is counted as an ascetic feat if only the person humbles himself in everything before God.


As a ray of the sun cannot penetrate fog, so the speech of a person who, although educated, has not mastered his passions cannot affect the soul.  But he who has vanquished the passions and acquired spiritual understanding finds access to every heart, even without formal education.


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5On Holy and Great Wednesday the divine Fathers ordained a commemoration to be kept of the woman who was a harlot and who anointed the Lord with myrrh before His Passion. In honour of this great and beautiful display of repentance I am posting a wonderful article my sister-in-law wrote for a Lenten e-mail group a few years ago.

May we be granted such bold repentance as that of the sinful woman!

Repentance. I must admit, when I hear this word there’s something in me that almost shudders – or even better – freezes.  There’s a ‘heaviness’ to it that is almost unbearable. I guess you could say, ‘repentance is heavy; it’s serious and there’s nothing light about it.’  That would be true, but I would have to explain myself a bit more for you to see where my error lies, since – as far as I can see – this ‘heaviness’ that I feel has nothing to do with real repentance at all; even worse, it’s just an imposter, a false repentance – mixing me up.  I’ll explain a bit, and hopefully you’ll see through my ridiculousness.For example, hearing that ten-letter-word my mind rushes to images of the harsh ascetic labours that such Repentant Ones did, and still do: the deprivations, the sighs, the exile and loneliness, the severe fasting, never ending prostrations, the flight from this world, and finally the terrible tortures, and horrific deaths – all due to their great repentance.  Unable to identify in the least bit with such actions, such feats, I feel a crushing weight set into my bones. That’s when I’d sigh. And that’s when my mind despairs of my weakness – of my lack of love. And then the distance sets in – the utter separation.  I am not good enough.  With Christ having such good friends, I have no chance.

My thinking this way, it seems to me, is utter poison. I am wrong to identify these deeds – these actions – with the state of repentance.  In themselves they are nothing, since even these can be done out of pride.  Didn’t I learn from the Publican and the Pharisee? Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee! And learn humility from the Publican’s tears!  Certainly these great acts done by Christ’s Saints truly spring from repentant hearts, but even these God-pleasing, pure, deeds are not the repentance – an expression of it, yes, but not the repentance itself.  It’s not the knees pounding into the floor that pleases Christ, but the repentant heart inspiring such a bodily response. I don’t measure up – this is undeniable – but why should I let this bring hopeless despair or utter coldness of heart?  Why do I think I should earn Christ’s love? Don’t I realize that this is impossible? In this moment of realizing how very far away I am from Christ – right before the despair (in myself) and cool feelings of helplessness – lies the possibility for repentance, but only if I take it.

Through their recorded lives, we see that all these saints known especially for their repentance had these moments – and usually in extreme degrees.  Feeling the utter weight of the truth (that they were very far from God) they acknowledged this fact and fell down beneath the weight of it. But at the very same moment, God permeates them (and us if we want it) with Himself, and overcomes this impossible divide.  The harlot, so far away just moments before, accepts this reality and because of it leaps towards Christ: “ A harlot knowing you, the Son of the Virgin, to be God, imploring you with weeping, for she had done things worthy of tears, said, ‘Loose my debt, as I unloose my hair; love one who loves, though justly hated, and along with tax-collectors I shall proclaim you, O Benefactor, who loves mankind’”(Holy Wednesday). To feel the weight of our nothingness before God, but then to cry out to Him – with hope and belief – because that’s what He’s told us to do!  That’s what we see his Holy Ones do!  And from this the distance is overcome, and we are raised high, “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (Luke 14, 10).


It seems to me that the true weight of this word ‘repentance’ comes not from anything crushing, or overwhelming.  St. Mary of Egypt tells us: “Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the life-giving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance.  Thus, repentance for her (and for us) was a key – an entrance into something otherwise closed.  The true weight of this word ‘repentance’ lies in its incomprehensible power – and from this the demons tremble.  By it, we are able to call down the divine; we empty ourselves but only to be filled.  And in this – we are told – lies incredible sweetness.  Have we surmounted our sins, fixed our problems, before this moment? Absolutely not!  It seems to me, there’s no more powerful, dynamic, way of approaching God than this.  It is not about being “good” or “bad” – of course we must strive to acquire the virtues – but it’s about the state of the heart.  Let us become good! But let us first have repentance! And let us keep this repentance! “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15, 7).

When we hear the cry of the Baptist and Forerunner: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” let us not be overwhelmed – let us not freeze!  Repentance is not heavy, but light! It is freedom – perhaps disguised to those of us lacking this sweet experience – but it is there for the taking.  There are no prerequisites. No divine ladder which must first be climbed.

Let us be like the thief on the cross and repent, so that Christ can also say to us: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23, 43).

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Blessing of the waters in the domestic chapel of St. Nektarios

A portion of St. Sophronius of Jerasalem’s awesome prayer for the Feast of the Theophany:

We glorify you, the Creator and Fashioner of the universe. We glorify you, only-begotten Son of God, without father from your Mother, without mother from your Father. For in the preceding feast we saw you as a babe, but in the present one we see you full and perfect man, our God, made manifest as perfect God from perfect God.
For today the moment of the feast is here for us and the choir of saints assembles here with us, and Angels keep festival with mortals. Today the grace of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove dwelt upon the waters. Today the Sun that never sets has dawned and the world is made radiant with the light of the Lord. Today the Moon with its radiant beams sheds light on the world. Today the stars formed of light make the inhabited world lovely with the brightness of their splendour. Today the clouds rain down from heaven the shower of justice for mankind. Today the Uncreated by his own will accepts the laying on of hands by his own creature. Today the Prophet and Forerunner draws near, but stands by with fear seeing God’s condescension towards us. Today the streams of Jordan are changed into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today all creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the failings of mankind are being washed away by the waters of Jordan. Today Paradise is opened for mortals and the Sun of justice shines down on us. Today the bitter water as once for Moses’ people is changed to sweetness by the presence of the Lord. Today we have been delivered from the ancient grief, and saved as the new Israel. Today we have been redeemed from darkness and are filled with radiance by the light of the knowledge of God. Today the gloomy fog of the world is cleansed by the manifestation of our God. Today all creation shines with light from on high. Today error has been destroyed and the coming of the Master makes for us a way of salvation. Today things on high keep festival with those below, and those below commune with those on high. Today the sacred and triumphant festal assembly of the Orthodox exults. Today the Master hastens towards baptism, that he may lead humanity to the heights. Today the One who does not bow bows down to his own servant, that he may free us from servitude. Today we have purchased the Kingdom of heaven, for the Kingdom of the Lord will have no end. Today earth and sea share the joy of the world, and the world has been filled with gladness. The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and were afraid. The Jordan turned back when it saw the fire of the godhead descending in bodily form and entering it. The Jordan turned back as it contemplated the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, descending and flying about you. The Jordan turned back as it saw the Invisible made visible, the Creator made flesh, the Master in the form of a servant. The Jordan turned back and the mountains leapt as they saw God in the flesh, and the clouds uttered their voice, marvelling at what had come to pass, seeing Light from Light, true God from true God, the Master’s festival today in Jordan; seeing him drowning the death from disobedience, the goad of error and the bond of Hell in Jordan and granting the Baptism of salvation to the world. Therefore I too, a sinner and your unworthy servant, recount the greatness of your wonders and, seized with fear, in compunction cry out to you:
Great are you, O Lord, and wonderful your works, and no word is adequate to sing the praise of your wonders!

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bf2c84ea6332b95c29294b84515cb114Today in the Holy Orthodox Church we commemorate the Hieromartyr Eleutherius, his mother Evanthia and Caribus the Eparch:

(Source) Saint Eleutherius, the son of an illustrious Roman citizen, was raised in Christian piety by his mother. His virtue was such that at the age twenty, he had been elevated to bishop of Illyria. In the reign of the emperor Hadrian, Saint Eleutherius was tortured for his bold preaching about Christ, then was beheaded at Rome with his mother Evanthia. The Eparch Caribus, who had tortured Saint Eleutherius, also came to believe in Christ and was executed.

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Cappadocia in Asia Minor (eastern Turkey) is virtually devoid of Christians now, but in 1840, when St Arsenios was born there, there were still vital Orthodox communities. St Arsenios became a monk and was sent to his native town, Farasa, to serve the people. He pastored his Greek Orthodox flock amidst extremely difficult conditions. Under the harsh yoke of the Turks, the Greek people of Farasa formed an oasis of Orthodox Christianity. They sought refuge in holy St. Arsenios, who was their teachper, their spiritual father, and the healer of their souls and bodies. His reputation as a healer was so great that not only Greek Christians but also Turkish Muslims came to him for healing. Many times his village was threatened with violence from marauding Turks, but each time it was preserved in a miraculous way by St Arsenios.

He lived in a small cell with an earthen floor, fasted often and was in the habit of shutting himself in his cell for at least two whole days every week to devote himself entirely to prayer.

St Arsenios predicted the expulsion of the Greeks from Asia Minor before it happened, and organized his flock for departure. When the expulsion order came in 1924, the aged Saint led his faithful on a 400-mile journey across Turkey on foot. He had foretold that he would only live forty days after reaching Greece, and this came to pass. His last words were “The soul, the soul, take care of it more than the flesh, which will return to earth and be eaten by worms!” Two days later, on November 10, 1924, he died in peace at the age of eighty-three. He was officially declared a Saint by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1986.

St. Arsenios was the spiritual father of the late St. Paisios’ family. He baptised St. Paisios as an infant. Throughout his life Elder Paisios had great love and reverence for the memory of St. Arsenios, and it was out of this love that he compiled the book “Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian” which provides us with the details of his life. Accounts of these miraculous events were documented by the St. Paisios from eyewitnesses, and they testify to how powerfully God works through His holy ones, and to how lovingly He cares for and protects His children amidst adversity.

Since 1970, many apparitions and miracles have occurred near his holy relics, which reside in the Monastery of Souroti near Thessalonica. The relic of St. Arsenios has also been known to heal those who have cancer and to grant children to infertile couples. In 1983 St. Paisios forwarded a portion of his holy relic to Pantanassa Monastery. This relic is available for veneration at all the St Arsenios Feast Day services. We pray that the intercessions of our Venerable Father Arsenios of Cappadocia, the Wonderworker, and of the late St. Paisios, be with you and your families always.

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