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An excerpt from Metropolitan Hierotheos Nafpaktos, Entering the Orthodox Church, (trans. Marina Mary Robb), Birth of the Theotokos Monastery (2004), pp. 98-101.

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A true member of the Church and a real Christian is the person who has the following attributes.

First, he remains within the Church, without leaving it through atheism or heresy. He is not cut off from this living organism and does not participate in heretical sects. This means that he accepts the faith confessed in the Symbol of Faith absolutely, that he participates in the sacraments of the Church, is sanctified by them and practices ascesis in his personal life so that he will keep God’s commandments. He feels that he remains within the Church in order to be saved rather than to save, because the Church does not need saviours.

Second, he feels that he is a son of God, that is, he has a father and is not an orphan. His great Father is God. Yet, the clergy are also fathers, because they are the type and place of Christ’s presence. Hence, a real member of the Church is obedient to the bishops, the clergy and has a spiritual father, who guides him in his spiritual life. Of course, he also accepts the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Church and tries to imitate their life, that is to say, their ascetic practice and witness.

Third, he feels that he belongs to a family, and, therefore, has spiritual brothers and sisters, He is not alone within the Church. This clearly means that he loves his brothers and sisters. He does not judge them, regardless of the mistakes they may have made and he does not condemn them. He is tolerant and shows forbearance towards their chance weaknesses. In addition, he shows his love in a variety of ways. He participates in their pain and in their joy. The happiness of other people is his own happiness, their sorrow is his own sorrow, their love is a fellowship of love and their faith a unity of faith. He should that everything is in common. He should feel that the Church is a family, just as the first Christians felt her to be, according to the description in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts :41-47). If he tries to keep God’s law, but does not have love, he is not a real Christian; he is a sick member of the Church.

Fourth, in the instance of sin, he follows a therapeutic course of treatment. Man is changeable. This means that he alters and is wounded throughout his life. In consequence, he sins. The Holy Scriptures say, “Who can become clear from filth? But no one, even if his life on earth is only for a day” (Job 14:4-5 Septuagint). St. John the Evangelist writes, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8).

Sins are not guilty acts or simple rejections of the law; they are first and foremost wounds of sicknesses. The sinner is spiritually sick. Consequently, sin should be encountered within a therapeutic and healing framework. The priest is a healer or doctor, who practices this function in the name of the Great Physician, Christ. He cleans and dresses the wounds, intervenes surgically, if necessary, and in general, heals the wounds. Within this framework, we should look at repentance, confession and the orders of the spiritual father, ie. what is known as penance. We must repent. We must really feel our fault and our illness, we should want to be cured, and resort to the therapist [ie. our spiritual father or confessor] to disclose our illness and reveal all hidden and concealed points of the sickness. We will then follow the therapeutic advice of the spiritual doctor with zeal ad resolve. The Church has the sacrament of repentance and of confession…

From all of this we realize that Baptism alone is not enough; one must also live in accordance with God’s commandments in order to become a true member of the Church. If a Christian happens to fall ill, there is a special method through which he will gain his health again.

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It is said concerning Abba Agathon that some monks came to find him, having heard tell of his great discernment. Wanting to see if he would lose his temper, they said to him, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is said to be a fornicator and a proud man?” “Yes, it is very true,” he answered. They resumed, “Aren’t you that Agathon who is always talking nonsense?” “I am.” Again they said, “Aren’t you Agathon the heretic?” But at that he replied, “I am not a heretic.” So they asked him, “Tell us why you accepted everything we cast at you, but repudiated this last insult.” He replied, “The first accusations I take to myself, for that is good for my soul. But heresy is separation from God. Now I have no wish to be separated from God.” At this saying they were astonished at his discernment and returned, edified.

(From The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG, Cistercian Publications, 1984).

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Introduction.

            Moments ago, brothers and sisters, we heard the Holy Apostle Paul offer a hymn in praise of faith: “By faith Moses refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin.”[1]  By faith kingdoms have been subdued, righteousness has been worked, promises have been obtained, the mouths of lions have been stopped; by faith women received their dead raised to life again, and others fearlessly endured torture refusing release when it was offered, “…that they might obtain a better resurrection.”[2]  “Great are the accomplishments of faith,” sings the Church just prior to the Nativity: “Great are the accomplishments of faith.”[3]  Faith is truly a great virtue, but it is not a stand-alone virtue; it requires a focus.  True faith requires that we believe in something, and the focus of our faith as Orthodox Christians is the One True God who is the source of all those wonders we heard the Holy Apostle Paul describe moments ago.

So, we believe in God.  But most of us I suspect would admit that we are still children in the spiritual life, and as such our manner of living is a long way from those who are pure in heart and who therefore see God and know him well. On account of our sins and impurity, “…we see in a mirror dimly,” while they see and experience him, “…face to face.”[4]   And so we need to have them described God for us; we need to have his portrait painted and set before our minds so that we know something about him in whom we believe.  And this portrait–this precious portrait–is painted for us by the dogmas of the Church, brothers and sisters!

Today, then, as we celebrate the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the triumph of true teaching concerning God over falsehood and heresy, let us take the few moments we have together and try to come to an understanding of what dogma is, of what purpose the dogmas of the Church serve with respect to our spiritual life and salvation, and lastly of how heresy, or erroneous dogmas arise, and why they are dangerous.  And let us take as our guides in this pursuit the Holy Fathers, and particularly the three Great Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom, whose authority in these matters is universally acknowledged.

  1. What is Dogma?

So, first question, what is a dogma?  Dogmas are human words used to give expression to the experience of God.  The Prophets and Apostles were not philosophers. They were not like Pythagoras, or Plato, or Aristotle who simply thought about God, who used their brains to guess at what God was like without ever knowing if they were correct.  Rather, the Prophets and Apostles were holy people, and as a consequence they were allowed first-hand, infallible, experience of God.  When we speak about God, writes Saint John the Theologian, we speak of one, “…we have heard, [one who] we have seen with our eyes, who we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,”[5] not only bodily in the person of Jesus Christ, but also spiritually in the soul.  On the basis of this experience they wrote words to encourage others to advance toward the same experience they had attained, but their words were not always the same at this phase of history.

The Prophets, having met the three persons who were yet one God, described him using the terms ‘God’, ‘the Angel of Great Counsel’, and the ‘Spirit of God’, while the Apostles used the words Father, Son or Word, and Holy Spirit. With the passage of time, to the choir of saints were added the Holy Fathers–people with the same degree of spiritual experience as the Prophets and Apostles–and these saw that this difference in terms sometimes lead to misunderstandings and confusion, and so they gathered in Councils and together sought to refine and perfect the language used to describe God, they sought to make it precise so that people would not fall into error.  They determined, for example, that God should be described as Trinity; as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; as three co-eternal persons (hypostasis) of one essence (ousia). This is the dogma of the Trinity: God is three persons, who have all existed from eternity, and who are all equally God.  And the words the Holy Fathers used, because they were the product of consensus arrived at in Council where so many saints gathered together, these remain with the Church forever.

Something similar happened with the person of Christ.  The Holy Fathers came together and based on their first-hand experience of him they determined that he should be described as one person (prosopon) of two natures (phisies), divinity and humanity, which have come together without confusion, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably. Christ, in other words, is perfect God and perfect man at once, and these two natures exist united in him without having mixed together and they will never come apart.

So a thread of common experience–the exact same experience, in fact–ties together the Apostles and Holy Fathers: “The preaching of the Apostles and the dogmas of the Fathers sealed one faith for the Church,” as the Church sings.[6]  The only difference between the two is the way they express this experience.  The Apostles expressed themselves with great simplicity in the Scriptures, while the Holy Fathers at Councils expressed themselves very precisely in dogmas.

  1. Necessity of Dogma.

Now, the world around us tempts us to think that this refined teaching, this dogma, is useless.  Firstly, we are told that it is useless because it is supposedly the product of philosophical speculation about God which no one can prove right or wrong.  We have already disproved this claim, having shown that dogma is not philosophy, but it is how the saints have chosen to speak about the God whom they know.  Secondly, it is argued that dogma is useless because what really matters is how a person lives, not what they believe.  This, brothers and sisters is a very unorthodox thought!  And no one responds more clearly to this claim than Saint John Chrysostom who writes:  “It is necessary, you see, if we would wish to avoid Hell and to reach Heaven, to be distinguished for both correctness of dogma and attention to life for the Lord says blessed is he who does and teaches,”[7] and elsewhere he writes, “…even if we have sound teaching but fail in living, the teaching benefits us nothing; likewise, if we take pains with life but are careless about teaching (dogma), that will not be of any good to us either…it is necessary to shore up the spiritual edifice of our soul in both directions.”[8]  With respect to salvation, then, it is clear:  right belief, our embracing right dogma, is equally important as how we live.

  1. Purpose of Dogma.

Why would Saint Chrysostom make such a claim?  What does dogma do that makes it so important, so indispensible to our spiritual life?  First, it represents a series of road signs pointing us toward the goal of our spiritual life, which is union with God.  Our goal is to get to God.  But we haven’t been there yet.  So the saints, who have been there, leave us signs that point us in the right direction.  They get us thinking about him properly.  So true dogma, as an expression of the saints’ authentic experience of God, points us toward God who is the object of our desire; false dogma is an intellectually made-up picture of God and therefore leads us away from him. Reinforcing this point, Saint Gregory the Theologian writes that wrong dogma will, “…scatter you from the truth and send you to the mountains, to the deserts, and throw you into pitfalls, and places where the Lord does not visit; it would lead you away from the sound Faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the One Power and Godhead, Whose Voice my sheep always heard (and may they always hear it), but with deceitful and corrupt words would tear them from their true Shepherd.”[9]

Second, dogma has implications for our life.  What we believe deeply impacts the way we live. If we don’t believe rightly we will not practice our faith properly, which obviously affects our salvation.  Not only can incorrect dogma lead to an immoral way of life, our embracing incorrect dogma can actually strip whatever virtues we have acquired of their merit:  “It is pitiable, therefore,” writes Saint Basil the Great, “when the soul that abounds in bringing forth fruit of good deeds becomes prey to the adversaries [the demons], who are not satisfied without our desolation until they bring about our overthrow.  For the overthrow results from evil dogma, when the soul of those led astray is as it were dashed to the ground, and the desolation is the deprivation of what was acquired by the previous life.”[10]  The demons, then, want to harm those who live a God pleasing life, and the way they do this is by causing them to reject the dogmas of the Church, which in turn causes the good works they have done in their spiritual life up to that point to lose their value in terms of salvation.  Here we need to make an important distinction.  For someone born outside of the Orthodox Church and outside the sphere of Orthodox dogma, their good works will serve to bring them to the truth.  Saint Chrysostom says, “…it is not in any case possible for a person in error, but living uprightly, to remain in error.”[11]The Holy Apostle Nathaniel who we read about in today’s Gospel came to embrace Christ and confess him to be the Son of God on account of his being, “…an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”[12]  But if we who have seen the true light fall away into heresy and reject Orthodox dogma, whatever good works we have done in our spiritual life up to that point will actually become displeasing to God, like salt robbed of its saltiness.

And there is a third reason the dogmas are important to the spiritual life. That there is one true set of beliefs, that there is one true set of dogmas, that there are not multiple acceptable opinions, is a reflection of the fact that God is one and that his Church is one.  Our choosing to believe rightly, our choosing to assent to the dogmas of the Faith as the Holy Fathers have formulated them, is an outward display of our membership in the one Church and shows that we have truly put on the mind of Christ.  “Those who boast that they have kept the teaching of the Apostles and through the succession from them have received the preaching of the Gospel,” writes Saint Basil, ought to, “…show through their agreement in dogma that they are parts of the one Church of Christ!”[13]How do we demonstrate our membership in the Church?  By adhering to the one Faith.  Conversely, one who denies the teaching of the Church breaks from this unity and finds himself outside of the Church causing, as Saint Gregory the Theologian writes, “…the great and venerable body of Christ [to be] split and torn apart…and [leaving] the Evil One [to] rip to shreds the coat, indivisible and woven throughout and appropriated it for himself.”[14]

  1. Cause of Heresy.

For the Orthodox Christian, then, dogma is not something to be disputed; it is given to us as an aid to serve in the process of our salvation and therefore is something we ought to receive without question.  “Dogma and kyrigma (the way we speak to those outside the Church) are two distinct things,” writes Saint Basil, “the latter is proclaimed to all the world, but the former is observed in silence.[15]  So how, then, do false dogmas (heresies) arise?  Saint Chrysostom answers our question:  “…an unclean life is an obstacle to high doctrines.”[16]People will often say ‘I reject the Church’s teaching for this reason, or that reason,’ but most often the true reason is sin, hidden somewhere in their soul.  They prefer to paint pictures of God that reflect and make room and allowances for their sins and passions.  And a particular problem in this regard is the sin of pride.  Saint Basil writes that, “Some claim to believe in Christ Jesus but are found, ‘not to be established in the same mind and in the same conviction,’ and split into opposing factions; some of these through ignorance, but there are not few who do it through a love of rule and vainglory, wishing to show the public that they are wise and surpass others in knowledge.  This is why every place is full of people fighting each other and pronouncing opposing dogmas.”[17]  Why are there heresies?  Why do people rebel against the Church’s dogmas and fall away from the Church?  Because they value their own speculative intellectual ideas, their own thoughts, more than the teaching of the consensus of the saints, and want to show themselves better, set apart from others on account of their supposed intellectual prowess.  How, then, do we protect ourselves, how do we keep ourselves from giving up the benefit these monuments on the path to salvation afford us?  By being humble; both in general in our lives, but also particularly by standing before the dogmas themselves with humility and quiet reverence as Saint Basil describes, perhaps seeking to understand them but never questioning their validity and correctness.

  1. Conclusion.

Brothers and sisters, the New Testament is full of warnings against falling away from the dogma of Christ that we have received through the Apostles and Holy Fathers.  “Watch out that no one deceives you,” says the Lord, “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”[18]  Many, in other words, will come cloaked in the name of Christian, but they will teach things contrary to Christ, and inconsistent with the Apostles’ and Fathers’ experience of him.  And elsewhere he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.”[19]In other word, he who comes through the door, preaching true dogma, is a legitimate pastor, but he who enters by some other way, teaching something else, comes and does spiritual harm.  And lastly, Saint Paul says, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be anathema.”[20]

We live in a time when many other, foreign Gospels are preached.  The words Saint Basil wrote concerning his own day might easily be applied to our own times:  “…now men are contrivers of cunning systems [of thought]rather than theologians [who actually know God]; the wisdom of the world wins the highest prizes and has rejected the Glory of the Cross.”[21]Let us beware, then, brothers and sisters!  In things pertaining to our faith, let us only listen to the Master’s voice and the voices of those who actually know him, believing those dogmas they have given us as signposts leading to salvation, and unwaveringly confessing, “This is the Faith of the Apostles! This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox!  This is the Faith that has established the world!”[22]  In doing anything else, we only harm ourselves.  Amen.

Rev Dr John Palmer

Sunday of Orthodoxy

5 March 2017

 

[1]               Hebrews 11:24.

[2]               Hebrews 11:33-35.

[3]               Apolytikion for the Sunday of the Forefathers.

[4]               1 Corinthians 13:12.

[5]               1 John 1.

[6]               Kontakion for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers.

[7]               Homilies on Genesis.3. 178.

[8]               Homilies on Genesis.2. 37.

[9]               Oration One. [7].

[10]             Commentary on Isaiah. 1. 23-24.

[11]             Homilies on First Corinthians. 8. [4].

[12]             John 1:47.

[13]             Commentary on Isaiah. 5. 201.

[14]             Oration Six. [1].3.

[15]             On the Holy Spirit. 27. [66].

[16]             Homilies on First Corinthians. 8. [4].

[17]             Commentary on Isaiah. 5. 200.

[18]             Matthew 24:4-5.

[19]             John 10: 1-2.

[20]             Galatians 1:8-9.

[21]             Letter 90. [2].

[22]             From the Synodikon of Orthodox.

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I’m happy to announce the release of my second book, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, published by Ancient Faith Publishing.

Product Description

Item No. 9781944967048

by Constantina R. Palmer

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. Those who enjoyed Everyday Saints will enjoy these similar stories from other parts of the Orthodox world.

Author: Constantina R. Palmer

Format: Paperback

Publisher: Ancient Faith Publishing

Retail Price: $20.95

You can order your copy here.

_____________________

From the dedication at the beginning of the book:

 Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then Abba Joseph stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you wish, you can become all flame.”

I would like to dedicate this book to all the struggling and holy monastics, priests, and laypeople who, like Abba Joseph, showed me by means of their own bright and brilliant example that if only I wish, I too can become all flame.

_____________________

Watch the book trailer below which features many of the places and a few of the people I wrote about:

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“This life has been given to you for repentance, do not waste it in vain pursuits”

An excerpt from the superb biography of St. Paisios, Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hiermonk Isaac regarding St. Isaac the Syrian and how he was not a Nestorian, a misinformed opinion held by too many.

One day, sitting at the bench outside of Stavronikita, the Elder was visiting with pilgrims, among whom was a high school teacher of theology. The theology teacher, repeating a popular Western error, claimed that Abba Isaac the Syrian was a Nestorian. Father Paisios tried to persuade him that Abba Isaac was not only Orthodox but also a saint, and that his Ascetical Homilies possess great grace and strength. But the Elder’s words were in vain: the theology teacher stubbornly insisted on his views. The Elder left for his hermitage, praying and so sad that he was in tears.

When he had come to a spot on the path near a large plane tree, something happened to him. These words, “something happened”, were the only description he gave us of the incident, not wanting to reveal the exact details. According to one testimony, he saw in a vision the choir of the holy fathers passing before him, and one of them, stopping, said to him, “I am Isaac the Syrian. I am completely Orthodox. The Nestorian heresy was indeed present in my region, but I fought against it.” We are not in a position to endorse or to reject the reliability of this witness. We know for certain only that the Elder experienced a supranatural occurrence that confirmed with perfect clarity the holiness and total Orthodoxy of Abba Isaac.

The Elder had the Saint’s Ascetical Homilies by his pillow, and he studied them constantly. For one six-year period, it was his only spiritual reading. He would take one line and call it to mind frequently throughout the day, studying it in a deep and practical way – “like animals chew over their food,” as he put it. As a blessing, he distributed a selection of the homilies in order to encourage their study. “Studying the Ascetical Homilies of Abba Isaac the Syrian,” he once wrote, “will help you a lot, because it helps us understand the deeper meaning of life. Whatever kind of complex a believer might have, big or small, the Homilies help him get ride of it. There are a lot of vitamins in Abba Isaac, so a little study transforms the soul.”

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac, The Holy Monastery of Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian (2012), pp. 225-226.

*As a side-note, Blessed Elder Joseph the Hesychast also greatly loved Abba Isaac and frequently read and contemplated his Asectical Homilies.

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For the fifth year Lessons from a Monastery is pleased to present the Truth of Our Faith series. Beginning on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, each day of the week a blog post relating to our faith will be featured. While the topics of each post vary, they all distinguish, in their own way, between truth and falsehood.

Every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent the Church remembers the confessors of our faith and once again proclaims anathama to those who knowingly choose falsehoods. The intention of this series is to inspire us to become rich in wisdom with regard to our faith. To acquire knowledge concerning what is beneficial and in line with the Gospel and our Tradition and what will lead us astray.

“This is the Apostolic faith, this is the Orthodox faith, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith that is the foundation of the world.” –Confession of faith of the Day of Orthodoxy.

So let us learn it, live it, cherish it, and if required, die for it.

Our Orthodox faith,

our wealth, and our glory,

our stock, our crown,

our pride.

We will never deny you, O beloved Orthodoxy,

nor belie you, O time-honoured reverence,

nor walk away from you, O mother piety.

We have been born in you, we live in you,

and we will die in you.

If time asks for it,

we will sacrifice ten thousand times our lives for you.

-Joseph Vriennios (Spiritual Father o f St. Mark of Ephesus)

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kyra-sarakosti.jpg(Originally posted here in 2012, when I still lived in Greece)

I don’t know the practices and customs of other Orthodox countries, but in Greece many laity try to observe what is called the “three-day” (trimero), the first three days of Great Lent, by abstaining from all food and drink. From what I gather it is a custom always practiced in Orthodox monasteries. I’ve been told it used to be kept for the first six days in earlier times.

The idea behind it is to enter the Fast as strictly as possible, fasting from all food and drink the first three days then on Wednesday communing at the first Pre-sanctified Liturgy of Great Lent. In Greece the Pre-sanctified Liturgies are celebrated on Wednesday and Friday mornings.

For those who are unable to abstain from all food and drink I know it is also customary to eat flat bread (something the bakers make special for “Kathara Devtera”, Clean Monday) and halva. Others who try to keep the three-day a bit more strictly eat some nuts and drink some juice in the evenings. Others fast from food but take drink throughout the three days. I’ve heard that it is common to at very least not eat cooked food on Clean Monday, (hence the flat bread and halva). I suppose people fast as strictly as their strength and health allows them. But as our priest said this morning, “For those who can keep the ‘three-day’ they will find it makes the rest of the Fast much more manageable.”

However you observe the first three days of the Great Fast I wish you all good strength and a productive Lent! May we contend well so that we will be found worthy to ascend with Christ to Golgotha, and see His Glorious Resurrection!

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