Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Sayings of Maximus the Confessor

     I don't suppose there can ever be one ULTIMATE theologian within the Church—maybe, for Orthodox, it would be, quite rightly, Saint Gregory the Theologian—but I think if I was a betting man, my money might be, just might be, on Saint Maximus the Confessor.
     Here are a few sayings from Saint Maximus that give us just a glimmer of the Saint's broad, deep thought.

Food is not evil, but gluttony is. Childbearing is not evil, but fornication is. Money is not evil, but avarice is. Glory is not evil, but vainglory is. Indeed, there is no evil in existing things, but only in their misuse.

Temptations come on some people for the cleansing of previous sins, on other for the beautification of their current perfection, and on yet others, as preparation for things to come, except temptations, which are for the increase of a man's faith and virtue, as it was with Job.

Theology without practice is the theology of demons

Do not say that faith in Christ alone can save you, for this is not possible if you do not attain love for Him, which is demonstrated by deeds. As for mere faith: "The demons also believe and tremble" (James, 2:19). The action of love consists in heartfelt good deeds toward one's neighbor, magnanimity, patience, and sober use of things.

If God suffers in the flesh when He is made man, should we not rejoice when we suffer, for we have God to share our sufferings? This shared suffering confers the kingdom on us. For he spoke truly who said, 'If we suffer with Him, then we shall also be glorified with Him' (Rom. 8:17).

For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own or another's, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or between male and female. But because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all. For in him there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, bond not free, but Christ who 'is all, and in all' (Col. 3:11; cf. Gal. 3:28).

The person who loves God cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified. But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds.

He who has not yet attained divine knowledge energized by love is proud of his spiritual progress. But he who has been granted such knowledge repeats with deep conviction the words uttered by the patriarch Abraham when he was granted the manifestation of God: 'I am dust and ashes' (Gen. 18:27).

Dispassion and humility lead to spiritual knowledge. Without them no one will see the Lord.

Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Modern Project

     The following is from Father Stephen Freeman—who hosts a wonderful podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, and is also the author of the acclaimed "Glory to God for All Things" blog.  This is the transcript of one of his talks from a couple of years ago.  It is a good presentation on how "modernity" is often at odds with classical Christianity.  Most Christians in America, and in the West in general, who think of themselves as "conservative" if not "classical" are just as much products of modernity as their more liberal counterparts.  Only in the Christianity offered to us by the Church Fathers and the Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Churches (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Orthodoxy) do you find proper representations of classical Christianity, and, even there, classical Christianity is often threatened by "Catholics" and "Orthodox" who are themselves shaped by modernity and its offspring.

The Modern Project
by Father Stephen Freeman

When I was doing a graduate degree in theology, it was not uncommon to hear discussions of what was called the “project of modernity.” It was an academic catch-phrase to describe the social-philosophical-political-religious efforts to construct the modern world. The Enlightenment, which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries describes a collection of efforts that changed how people saw the world, how they saw themselves, how they saw their faith, how they saw the state. It brought new ways of thinking into the mainstream of Western culture and newly imagined the meaning and construction of politics; it pondered and reinvented Christianity. Most importantly, it re-imagined what it meant to be a human being. We, today, are heirs of that legacy. The most uneducated person who never heard anything about the Enlightenment, the most uneducated person in our society shares the assumptions of the “modern project,” regardless of whether they’re even remotely aware of I, for we are the modern project.

In the modern project, human beings are understood to be autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization. That’s a mouthful, but I’ll explain what I mean. First, we are autonomous centers of consciousness. That is, we understand that our identity is rooted in the fact that we’re conscious and aware and that the center of myself belongs to me alone. I can choose to share with others and make common cause with others, but I am defined only by myself. So this is also a heart of individualism: I am my own man.

Secondly, our choices and decisions are what bring about our self-actualization, that who I am in the world we think of as being a product of our experiences and the choices and decisions we make and have made. Those decisions, we think, create our identity—they are our means of actualization. So we’re self-actualized; my decisions and choices are what determine the meaning of my life so that I am who I choose to be.

When you look at these critical ideas, it’s easy to understand why the primary driving force of modern history is freedom. This definition of what it means to be human makes a certain version of freedom the most essential part of life, such that a nything that restricts freedom quickly becomes an enemy of individual existence and self-actualization. Only if I am free to choose am I able to properly exist as a self-actualized individual.

These are not necessarily conscious ideas, but they are almost universal in the modern world. We don’t have to think about them; we think them. We discuss “freedom” and “choice” without ever having to define our terms, with a wide-range of social agreement. Just as certain Christian groups played a major role in the development of the modern world-view, so their spiritual heirs today have become the dominant modern form of Christianity.

Churches, for instance, that practice infant baptism, which used to be a normative classical Christian practice and was once the dominant practice among all Protestants with the exception of Baptists, but churches who engage in that practice today constantly have to defend themselves. Infant baptism in the modern world seems to contradict the most basic assumptions about human freedom. “Shouldn’t a child be able to choose for themselves whether to be baptized?” The logic of that seems obvious to a modern man. Anything that impinges or limits choice seems dangerous or questionable within the modern project. A relationship with Christ is something that must be freely chosen. “The Hour of Decision” is a phrase that resonates with the modern heart.

Church discipline on moral matters—or on other matters, but on moral matters—has come under increasing scrutiny. Church discipline, of course, impinges on people’s freedom. Modern persons may associate themselves with a church so that they become “Catholic” or “Orthodox” or “Presbyterian,” or whatever, but that the moral details of their lives should be governed by that association seems questionable to them. For instance, a majority of Americans who identify as “Roman Catholic” ignore that Church’s teaching on many social issues—particularly those issues that they regard as “private,” that is, sexual issues. The Church serves a function in their lives, but only the private choice of the individual is given the power to define and determine true identity. In such a world, words like “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” “Calvinist” are more a label, a self-chosen identifier, than a community in which identity and life themselves are formed.

There is a civilizational clash between classical Christianity and the “modern project,” and I’ll explain that. In the classical understanding we are not autonomous individuals. We are contingent beings, that is, beings whose lives depend on something else. We’re contingent beings whose existence is in fact a gift: a gift with purpose, meaning, and direction that’s given by God. We have value as persons not because of our choices or our ability to choose but because we are created in the image of God. Thus the least of us, including the incompetent, even those in a vegetative state, have true worth and dignity, because it’s a gift.

We’re not defined by our choices and decisions. Who we are is the gift of God—it’s a given. Its identity is a matter of revelation and transformation in the Christian life and not a private work of self-construction. Our choices and decisions are not unimportant, but they only have relative merit or power. In the end, we are God’s creation, and our decisions only have meaning in relationship to him.

The civilizational clash is perhaps most poignant at the places where modern choice and classical “givenness” most contradict one another. The most common points have been on the level of biology and relationships. The instincts of classical Christianity are to treat biology and relationships as “given"s. For instance, gender, in classical Christianity, is not a choice; it’s something you’re born with. Family is biological rather than associational. We don’t choose our family; our family is given to us. Sexual relationships serve a given order rather than our private needs. We don’t self-define our sexuality.

The instincts of the modern period are to maximize freedom and choice. Biology it considers to be real, but not necessarily determinative (thus some today even self-identify their gender). Family is increasingly defined as a set of choices: relationships, that is, that we prefer, not that are given to us. The “givenness” of blood-ties with inherent responsibilities [is] largely disappearing in current jurisprudence, that is, in the practice of our courts. Thus we have what we call the “accident of birth,” which cannot begin to compete with “freedom of choice.” How can family have the same power as my freedom, since I didn’t choose my family?

The often maligned popular version of relativism that says, “If it’s true for you,” is simply an expression that maximizes choice. Truth that is not chosen is experienced in the modern world as oppressive. “You’re trying to put your truth on me.” The classical Christian world of doctrine and dogma is thus endangered as a set of extremely inconvenient truths. They wonder in the modern project, “Why would it be wrong for us to re-imagine God?”

Christian civilization ended somewhere around the time that the modern world began. It depends on where you want to set the dates, but somewhere around the time the modern world began, classical Christian civilization ended. They cannot co-exist. The “modern project” has not asked how it could save Christian civilization; that civilization was its enemy from the beginning. The modern question has been: “What do we want the world to look like?” For how the world looks is considered to be a matter of choice. Thus Protestant theology, which is itself a modern project, has largely been driven not by deeper exploration of its roots and traditions, but by continued exploration and re-imaginings of the Christian gospel. Sola Scriptura was never imagined to be a controlling force directing the course of civilization. It was first and foremost a wedge used to dismiss the classical Church and its Traditions. Like the American Constitution, Scripture has been “evolving” ever since in the hands of moderns.

Today, classical Christianity has not disappeared. It remains and is a thorn in the side of modernity. The popular media keep a constant watch, for instance, on the Vatican, hoping for any sign that its classical foundations are slipping. Orthodoxy in its resurrected Russian vehemence is characterized as allied with a “thug,” and as thoroughly reactionary.

Meanwhile, Christianity in its classical form is set upon a difficult road. The temptation is simply to be reactionary, that is, for classical Christianity to see itself as simply the conservative “choice,” in which case the “modern project” will be complete. For if Christianity will simply agree to be a choice, then it can be understood in modern times—and marginalized. It is, however, the classical contention that we are not the product of our own choices, that our lives are defined by God’s gracious gift and that all things are relative to God alone, and this flies in the face of the modern world. It is the place of Tradition—something given that is not a choice—that refuses to yield to modern pressures.

The spirituality of classical Christianity is that of self-emptying rather than self-choosing. It recognizes that life is, finally, always a “given.” The demands of blood and kinship are real and rightly lay claim on us. My imaginings and demands for a world of my own fashioning are seen as temptations that draw me away from the difficult tasks that lay most rightly at hand. The “modern project” has always promised a better world, and for those with the wealth and intelligence to profit most from freedom, the promise has paid great dividends. But the promise has also been a hollow mockery of our existence, for we are, in fact, contingent, and though we may imagine ourselves able to be something other than what we are, in the end, the grave refuses to yield to our choices. In perhaps the greatest irony of all, the “modern project” now champions the right to die—as if we actually had a choice.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Peace of Mind During the Storms of Our Life

A Teaching from Elder Thaddeus of Vetovnica on Retaining Peace of Mind During Life's Struggles and Storms

     A man came to visit Elder Thaddeus at his monastery.  The man asked, "What is the most important thing in one's spiritual life?"
     Elder Thaddeus replied, "To guard the peace in our hearts.  Do not let this peace be disturbed at any cost.  Peace should reign in our hearts—peace and silence.
     "Chaotic thoughts are the state of fallen spirits.  Our mind, however, must remain concentrated, whole, and vigilant.  God can only enter a mind that is whole.
     "Besides guarding the peace in your heart, practice standing before the Lord.  This means being unceasingly aware that we are standing in the presence of the Lord, and he is watching us all the time.  We must learn to awake with the Lord and to go to sleep with Him, and eat, work, and walk with Him.  The Lord is present everywhere in all things.
     "We can find the Kingdom of God within ourselves.  'Descend into your heart, and in it you will find the ladder which leads to the Kingdom of God,' says Saint Isaac the Syrian.
     "The Holy Scriptures teach us that the Kingdom of God is... righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17).  The first step toward communion with God is to give oneself completely over to Him.  After that, it is God's Energies that work in us.
     "Communion with God means that God has made His abode in us and His Energies are working in us.  Our spirit puts on God and He governs all our feelings, our will, and our mind.  We are then like a tool in his hands.  He moves our thoughts, desires, and feelings and directs our words and the works of our hands."

Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vetovnica, published by Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press.

Holy Mother Mary of Egypt — Saint of Repentance and Asceticism

     Today, April the 1st, is the Feast Day of Saint Mary of Egypt.  She has long been one of my favorite Saints, and one of the first Saints that I really felt an affinity to pray to when I converted to the Holy Orthodox and Catholic Church.  (The other two Saints that I felt an affinity toward—if anyone is actually interested—would be Saint Moses the Black and my patron Saint: Saint Christopher the "Christ Bearer.")
     Saint Mary—along with Saint Moses the Black—is sort of THE Saint of the repentant and ascetical life.  Repentance and asceticism, from the Classical Christian point-of-view, are both necessary for salvation.  To become repentant is to realize your brokenness, and, in so doing, you take up ascetical works in order to aid in your spiritually repentant manner of prayer (and life).
     What follows is a brief life of the great Saint—from the Orthodox Church in America website, where you can find other "saints-of-the-day".  May her life story aid you as you walk the path that leads to salvation.

     The image of God was truly preserved in you, O mother, / For you took up the Cross and followed Christ. / By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away; / But to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. / Therefore your spirit, O holy Mother Mary, rejoices with the Angels.
       —Troparian hymn to Saint Mary of Egypt

St Zosimas (April 4) was a monk at a certain Palestinian monastery on the outskirts of Caesarea. Having dwelt at the monastery since his childhood, he lived there in asceticism until he reached the age of fifty-three. Then he was disturbed by the thought that he had attained perfection, and needed no one to instruct him. “Is there a monk anywhere who can show me some form of asceticism that I have not attained? Is there anyone who has surpassed me in spiritual sobriety and deeds?”
Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Zosimas, you have struggled valiantly, as far as this is in the power of man. However, there is no one who is righteous (Rom 3:10). So that you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land, like Abraham from the house of his father (Gen 12:1), and go to the monastery by the Jordan.”
Abba Zosimas immediately left the monastery, and following the angel, he went to the Jordan monastery and settled in it.
Here he met Elders who were adept in contemplation, and also in their struggles. Never did anyone utter an idle word. Instead, they sang constantly, and prayed all night long. Abba Zosimas began to imitate the spiritual activity of the holy monks.
Thus much time passed, and the holy Forty Day Fast approached. There was a certain custom at the monastery, which was why God had led St Zosimas there. On the First Sunday of Great Lent the igumen served the Divine Liturgy, everyone received the All-Pure Body and Blood of Christ. Afterwards, they went to the trapeza for a small repast, and then assembled once more in church.
The monks prayed and made prostrations, asking forgiveness one of another. Then they made a prostration before the igumen and asked his blessing for the struggle that lay before them. During the Psalm “The Lord is my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear? The Lord is defender of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 26/27:1), they opened the monastery gate and went off into the wilderness.
Each took with him as much food as he needed, and went into the desert. When their food ran out, they ate roots and desert plants. The monks crossed the Jordan and scattered in various directions, so that no one might see how another fasted or how they spent their time.
The monks returned to the monastery on Palm Sunday, each having his own conscience as a witness of his ascetic struggles. It was a rule of the monastery that no one asked how anyone else had toiled in the desert.
Abba Zosimas, according to the custom of the monastery, went deep into the desert hoping to find someone living there who could benefit him.
He walked into the wilderness for twenty days and then, when he sang the Psalms of the Sixth Hour and made the usual prayers. Suddenly, to the right of the hill where he stood, he saw a human form. He was afraid, thinking that it might be a demonic apparition. Then he guarded himself with the Sign of the Cross, which removed his fear. He turned to the right and saw a form walking southward. The body was black from the blazing sunlight, and the faded short hair was white like a sheep’s fleece. Abba Zosimas rejoiced, since he had not seen any living thing for many days.
The desert-dweller saw Zosimas approaching, and attempted to flee from him. Abba Zosimas, forgetting his age and fatigue, quickened his pace. When he was close enough to be heard, he called out, “Why do you flee from me, a sinful old man? Wait for me, for the love of God.”
The stranger said to him, “Forgive me, Abba Zosimas, but I cannot turn and show my face to you. I am a woman, and as you see, I am naked. If you would grant the request of a sinful woman, throw me your cloak so I might cover my body, and then I can ask for your blessing.”
Then Abba Zosimas was terrified, realizing that she could not have called him by name unless she possessed spiritual insight.
Covered by the cloak, the ascetic turned to Zosimas: “Why do you want to speak with me, a sinful woman? What did you wish to learn from me, you who have not shrunk from such great labors?”
Abba Zosimas fell to the ground and asked for her blessing. She also bowed down before him, and for a long time they remained on the ground each asking the other to bless. Finally, the woman ascetic said: “Abba Zosimas, you must bless and pray, since you are honored with the grace of the priesthood. For many years you have stood before the holy altar, offering the Holy Gifts to the Lord.”
These words frightened St Zosimas even more. With tears he said to her, “O Mother! It is clear that you live with God and are dead to this world. You have called me by name and recognized me as a priest, though you have never seen me before. The grace granted you is apparent, therefore bless me, for the Lord’s sake.”
Yielding finally to his entreaties, she said, “Blessed is God, Who cares for the salvation of men.” Abba Zosimas replied, “Amen.” Then they rose to their feet. The woman ascetic again said to the Elder, “Why have you come, Father, to me who am a sinner, bereft of every virtue? Apparently, the grace of the Holy Spirit has brought you to do me a service. But tell me first, Abba, how do the Christians live, how is the Church guided?”
Abba Zosimas answered her, “By your holy prayers God has granted the Church and us all a lasting peace. But fulfill my unworthy request, Mother, and pray for the whole world and for me a sinner, that my wanderings in the desert may not be useless.”
The holy ascetic replied, “You, Abba Zosimas, as a priest, ought to pray for me and for all, for you are called to do this. However, since we must be obedient, I will do as you ask.
The saint turned toward the East, and raising her eyes to heaven and stretching out her hands, she began to pray in a whisper. She prayed so softly that Abba Zosimas could not hear her words. After a long time, the Elder looked up and saw her standing in the air more than a foot above the ground. Seeing this, Zosimas threw himself down on the ground, weeping and repeating, “Lord, have mercy!”
Then he was tempted by a thought. He wondered if she might not be a spirit, and if her prayer could be insincere. At that moment she turned around, lifted him from the ground and said, “Why do your thoughts confuse you, Abba Zosimas? I am not an apparition. I am a sinful and unworthy woman, though I am guarded by holy Baptism.”
Then she made the Sign of the Cross and said, “May God protect us from the Evil One and his schemes, for fierce is his struggle against us.” Seeing and hearing this, the Elder fell at her feet with tears saying, “I beseech you by Christ our God, do not conceal from me who you are and how you came into this desert. Tell me everything, so that the wondrous works of God may be revealed.”
She replied, “It distresses me, Father, to speak to you about my shameless life. When you hear my story, you might flee from me, as if from a poisonous snake. But I shall tell you everything, Father, concealing nothing. However, I exhort you, cease not to pray for me a sinner, that I may find mercy on the Day of Judgment.
“I was born in Egypt and when I was twelve years old, I left my parents and went to Alexandria. There I lost my chastity and gave myself to unrestrained and insatiable sensuality. For more than seventeen years I lived like that and I did it all for free. Do not think that I refused the money because I was rich. I lived in poverty and worked at spinning flax. To me, life consisted in the satisfaction of my fleshly lust.
“One summer I saw a crowd of people from Libya and Egypt heading toward the sea. They were on their way to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. I also wanted to sail with them. Since I had no food or money, I offered my body in payment for my passage. And so I embarked on the ship.
“Now, Father, believe me, I am very amazed, that the sea tolerated my wantonness and fornication, that the earth did not open up its mouth and take me down alive into hell, because I had ensnared so many souls. I think that God was seeking my repentance. He did not desire the death of a sinner, but awaited my conversion.
“So I arrived in Jerusalem and spent all the days before the Feast living the same sort of life, and maybe even worse.
“When the holy Feast of the Exaltation of the Venerable Cross of the Lord arrived, I went about as before, looking for young men. At daybreak I saw that everyone was heading to the church, so I went along with the rest. When the hour of the Holy Elevation drew nigh, I was trying to enter into the church with all the people. With great effort I came almost to the doors, and attempted to squeeze inside. Although I stepped up to the threshold, it was as though some force held me back, preventing me from entering. I was brushed aside by the crowd, and found myself standing alone on the porch. I thought that perhaps this happened because of my womanly weakness. I worked my way into the crowd, and again I attempted to elbow people aside. However hard I tried, I could not enter. Just as my feet touched the church threshold, I was stopped. Others entered the church without difficulty, while I alone was not allowed in. This happened three or four times. Finally my strength was exhausted. I went off and stood in a corner of the church portico.
“Then I realized that it was my sins that prevented me from seeing the Life-Creating Wood. The grace of the Lord then touched my heart. I wept and lamented, and I began to beat my breast. Sighing from the depths of my heart, I saw above me an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos. Turning to Her, I prayed: “O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.”
“After I had spoken, I felt confidence in the compassion of the Mother of God, and left the spot where I had been praying. I joined those entering the church, and no one pushed me back or prevented me from entering. I went on in fear and trembling, and entered the holy place.
“Thus I also saw the Mysteries of God, and how God accepts the penitant. I fell to the holy ground and kissed it. Then I hastened again to stand before the icon of the Mother of God, where I had given my vow. Bending my knees before the Virgin Theotokos, I prayed:
“‘O Lady, you have not rejected my prayer as unworthy. Glory be to God, Who accepts the repentance of sinners. It is time for me to fulfill my vow, which you witnessed. Therefore, O Lady, guide me on the path of repentance.’”
“Then I heard a voice from on high: ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find glorious rest.’
“I immediately believed that this voice was meant for me, and I cried out to the Mother of God: ‘O Lady, do not forsake me!’
“Then I left the church portico and started on my journey. A certain man gave me three coins as I was leaving the church. With them I bought three loaves of bread, and asked the bread merchant the way to the Jordan.
“It was nine o’clock when I saw the Cross. At sunset I reached the church of St John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan. After praying in the church, I went down to the Jordan and washed my face and hands in its water. Then in this same temple of St John the Forerunner I received the Life-Creating Mysteries of Christ. Then I ate half of one of my loaves of bread, drank water from the holy Jordan, and slept there that night on the ground. In the morning I found a small boat and crossed the river to the opposite shore. Again I prayed that the Mother of God would lead me where She wished. Then I found myself in this desert.”
Abba Zosimas asked her, “How many years have passed since you began to live in the desert?”
“‘I think,” she replied, “it is forty-seven years since I came from the Holy City.”
Abba Zosimas again asked, “What food do you find here, Mother?”
And she said, “I had with me two and a half loaves of bread when I crossed the Jordan. Soon they dried out and hardened Eating a little at a time, I finished them after a few years.”
Again Abba Zosimas asked, “Is it possible you have survived for so many years without sickness, and without suffering in any way from such a complete change?”
“Believe me, Abba Zosimas,” the woman said, “I spent seventeen years in this wilderness (after she had spent seventeen years in immorality), fighting wild beasts: mad desires and passions. When I began to eat bread, I thought of the meat and fish which I had in abundance in Egypt. I also missed the wine that I loved so much when I was in the world, while here I did not even have water. I suffered from thirst and hunger. I also had a mad desire for lewd songs. I seemed to hear them, disturbing my heart and my hearing. Weeping and striking myself on the breast, I remembered the vow I had made. At last I beheld a radiant Light shining on me from everywhere. After a violent tempest, a lasting calm ensued.
“Abba, how shall I tell you of the thoughts that urged me on to fornication? A fire seemed to burn within me, awakening in me the desire for embraces. Then I would throw myself to the ground and water it with my tears. I seemed to see the Most Holy Virgin before me, and She seemed to threaten me for not keeping my vow. I lay face downward day and night upon the ground, and would not get up until that blessed Light encircled me, dispelling the evil thoughts that troubled me.
“Thus I lived in this wilderness for the first seventeen years. Darkness after darkness, misery after misery stood about me, a sinner. But from that time until now the Mother of God helps me in everything.”
Abba Zosimas again inquired, “How is it that you require neither food, nor clothing?”
She answered, “After finishing my bread, I lived on herbs and the things one finds in the desert. The clothes I had when I crossed over the Jordan became torn and fell apart. I suffered both from the summer heat, when the blazing heat fell upon me, and from the winter cold, when I shivered from the frost. Many times I fell down upon the earth, as though dead. I struggled with various afflictions and temptations. But from that time until the present day, the power of God has guarded my sinful soul and humble body. I was fed and clothed by the all-powerful word of God, since man does not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God (Dt 8:3, Mt.4:4, Luke 4:4), and those who have put off the old man (Col 3:9) have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks (Job 24:8, Heb 11:38). When I remember from what evil and from what sins the Lord delivered me, I have imperishible food for salvation.”
When Abba Zosimas heard that the holy ascetic quoted the Holy Scripture from memory, from the Books of Moses and Job and from the Psalms of David, he then asked the woman, “Mother, have you read the Psalms and other books?”
She smiled at hearing this question, and answered, “Believe me, I have seen no human face but yours from the time that I crossed over the Jordan. I never learned from books. I have never heard anyone read or sing from them. Perhaps the Word of God, which is alive and acting, teaches man knowledge by itself (Col 3:16, 1 Thess 2:13). This is the end of my story. As I asked when I began, I beg you for the sake of the Incarnate Word of God, holy Abba, pray for me, a sinner.
“Furthermore, I beg you, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, tell no one what you have heard from me, until God takes me from this earth. Next year, during Great Lent, do not cross the Jordan, as is the custom of your monastery.”
Again Abba Zosimas was amazed, that the practice of his monastery was known to the holy woman ascetic, although he had not said anything to her about this.
“Remain at the monastery,” the woman continued. “Even if you try to leave the monastery, you will not be able to do so. On Great and Holy Thursday, the day of the Lord’s Last Supper, place the Life-Creating Body and Blood of Christ our God in a holy vessel, and bring it to me. Await me on this side of the Jordan, at the edge of the desert, so that I may receive the Holy Mysteries. And say to Abba John, the igumen of your community, ‘Look to yourself and your brothers (1 Tim 4:16), for there is much that needs correction. Do not say this to him now, but when the Lord shall indicate.”
Asking for his prayers, the woman turned and vanished into the depths of the desert.
For a whole year Elder Zosimas remained silent, not daring to reveal to anyone what he had seen, and he prayed that the Lord would grant him to see the holy ascetic once more.
When the first week of Great Lent came again, St Zosimas was obliged to remain at the monastery because of sickness. Then he remembered the woman’s prophetic words that he would not be able to leave the monastery. After several days went by, St Zosimas was healed of his infirmity, but he remained at the monastery until Holy Week.
On Holy Thursday, Abba Zosimas did what he had been ordered to do. He placed some of the Body and Blood of Christ into a chalice, and some food in a small basket. Then he left the monastery and went to the Jordan and waited for the ascetic. The saint seemed tardy, and Abba Zosimas prayed that God would permit him to see the holy woman.
Finally, he saw her standing on the far side of the river. Rejoicing, St Zosimas got up and glorified God. Then he wondered how she could cross the Jordan without a boat. She made the Sign of the Cross over the water, then she walked on the water and crossed the Jordan. Abba Zosimas saw her in the moonlight, walking toward him. When the Elder wanted to make prostration before her, she forbade him, crying out, “What are you doing, Abba? You are a priest and you carry the Holy Mysteries of God.”
Reaching the shore, she said to Abba Zosimas, “Bless me, Father.” He answered her with trembling, astonished at what he had seen. “Truly God did not lie when he promised that those who purify themselves will be like Him. Glory to You, O Christ our God, for showing me through your holy servant, how far I am from perfection.”
The woman asked him to recite both the Creed and the “Our Father.” When the prayers were finished, she partook of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. Then she raised her hands to the heavens and said, “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen Your salvation.”
The saint turned to the Elder and said, “Please, Abba, fulfill another request. Go now to your monastery, and in a year’s time come to the place where we first time spoke.”
He said, “If only it were possible for me to follow you and always see your holy face!”
She replied, “For the Lord’s sake, pray for me and remember my wrechedness.”
Again she made the Sign of the Cross over the Jordan, and walked over the water as before, and disappeared into the desert. Zosimas returned to the monastery with joy and terror, reproaching himself because he had not asked the saint’s name. He hoped to do so the following year.
A year passed, and Abba Zosimas went into the desert. He reached the place where he first saw the holy woman ascetic. She lay dead, with arms folded on her bosom, and her face was turned to the east. Abba Zosimas washed her feet with his tears and kissed them, not daring to touch anything else. For a long while he wept over her and sang the customary Psalms, and said the funeral prayers. He began to wonder whether the saint would want him to bury her or not. Hardly had he thought this, when he saw something written on the ground near her head: “Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body of humble Mary. Return to dust what is dust. Pray to the Lord for me. I reposed on the first day of April, on the very night of the saving Passion of Christ, after partaking of the Mystical Supper.”
Reading this note, Abba Zosimas was glad to learn her name. He then realized that St Mary, after receiving the Holy Mysteries from his hand, was transported instantaneously to the place where she died, though it had taken him twenty days to travel that distance.
Glorifying God, Abba Zosimas said to himself, “It is time to do what she asks. But how can I dig a grave, with nothing in my hands?” Then he saw a small piece of wood left by some traveler. He picked it up and began to dig. The ground was hard and dry, and he could not dig it. Looking up, Abba Zosimas saw an enormous lion standing by the saint’s body and licking her feet. Fear gripped the Elder, but he guarded himself with the Sign of the Cross, believing that he would remain unharmed through the prayers of the holy woman ascetic. Then the lion came close to the Elder, showing its friendliness with every movement. Abba Zosimas commanded the lion to dig the grave, in order to bury St Mary’s body. At his words, the lion dug a hole deep enough to bury the body. Then each went his own way. The lion went into the desert, and Abba Zosimas returned to the monastery, blessing and praising Christ our God.
Arriving at the monastery, Abba Zosimas related to the monks and the igumen, what he had seen and heard from St Mary. All were astonished, hearing about the miracles of God. They always remembered St Mary with faith and love on the day of her repose.
Abba John, the igumen of the monastery, heeded the words of St Mary, and with the help of God corrected the things that were wrong at the monastery. Abba Zosimas lived a God-pleasing life at the monastery, reaching nearly a hundred years of age. There he finished his temporal life, and passed into life eternal.
The monks passed on the life of St Mary of Egypt by word of mouth without writing it down.
“I however,” says St Sophronius of Jerusalem (March 11), “wrote down the Life of St Mary of Egypt as I heard it from the holy Fathers. I have recorded everything, putting the truth above all else.”
“May God, Who works great miracles and bestows gifts on all who turn to Him in faith, reward those who hear or read this account, and those who copy it. May he grant them a blessed portion together with St Mary of Egypt and with all the saints who have pleased God by their pious thoughts and works. Let us give glory to God, the Eternal King, that we may find mercy on the Day of Judgment through our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is due all glory, honor, majesty and worship together with the Unoriginate Father, and the Most Holy and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Venerable Louis of Granada on Serving God and the Virtuous Life

     The following is from the Venerable Roman Catholic—and prominent writer during the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation—Louis of Granada.  He has long been an inspiration to many Catholics over the last several centuries (he wrote during the 16th century) and I think he is a perfect witness to classical Christian spirituality.
     Currently, I am reading his book "The Sinner's Guide", and I will post excerpts from it when I come across some material that I believe to be of benefit to readers.  And what follows are just that: excerpts.  If you want to read the book in its entirety, then I strongly recommend that you do so.  Included is a link to Saint Benedict Press at the bottom of the post.  They are publishers of high-quality Catholic classics, and they publish a very beautiful edition of this ascetical and mystical work.

Louis of Granada

The First Motive Which Obliges Us to Practice Virtue and to Serve God:
His Being in itself, and the excellence of His Perfections:

     Two things, Christian reader, particularly excite the will of man to good.  A principle of justice is one, the other the profit we may derive therefrom.  All wise men, therefore, agree that justice and profit are the two most powerful inducements to move our wills to any undertaking.  Now, though men seek profit more frequently than justice, yet justice is in itself more powerful; for, as Aristotle teaches, no worldly advantage can equal the justice of virtue, nor is any loss so great that a wise man should not suffer it rather than yield to vice.

     God being essentially goodness and beauty, there is nothing more pleasing to Him than virtue, nothing He more earnestly requires.  Let us first consider upon what grounds God demands this tribute from us.

     The first, the greatest, and the most inexplicable is the very essence of God, embracing His infinite majesty, goodness, beauty, mercy, justice, wisdom, omnipotence, excellence, fidelity, immutability, sweetness, truth, beatitude, and all the inexhaustible riches and perfections which are contained in the Divine Being.
     All of these are so great that if the whole world, according to Saint Augustine, were full of books, if the sea were turned to ink, and every creature employed to writing, the books would be filled, the sea would be drained, and the writers would be exhausted before any of His perfections could be adequately expressed.  Augustine adds, "Were any man created with a heart as large and capacious as all men together, and if he were enabled by extraordinary light to apprehend one of the Divine Attributes, his joy and delight would be such that, unless supported by special assistance from God, he could not endure them"

     All beings are in His power; He disposes of them as He wills.  It is He who propels the heavenly bodies, commands the winds, changes the seasons, guides the elements, distributes the waters, controls the stars, creates all things; it is He, in fine, who, as King and Lord of the universe, maintains and nourishes all creatures.

     To lead us to a knowledge of God, St. Dionysius teaches us first to turn our eyes from the qualities or perfections of creatures, lest we be tempted to measure by them the perfections of the Creator.  Then, turning from things of the earth, he raises our souls to the contemplation of a Being above all beings, a Substance above all substances, a Light above all lights—rather a Light before which all light is darkness—Beauty above all beauties and before which all other beauty is deformity.  This is what we are taught by the cloud into which Moses entered to converse with God, and which shut out from his senses all which was not God.  And the action of Elias, covering his face with his cloak when he saw the glory of God passing before him, is a lively expression of the same sentiment.  Therefore, to contemplate the glory of God, man must close his eyes to earthly things, which bear no proportion to this supreme Being.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Elder Sophrony on Knowledge of the Divine Person

     O Thou Who art
     O God the Father, Almighty Master:
     Who has created us and brought us into life:
     Vouchsafe that we may know Thee,
     The One true God.
                 —prayer of Archimandrite Sophrony

Icon of Elder Sophrony

     One of the most mis-understood theological terms in all of Christian theology is that of the Divine Persons (Hypostasis) of the God that we Christians hold to be Triune.  It is just as misunderstood among Christians, unfortunately, as it is among pagans, atheists, and modern secularists.
     One of the clearest voices in recent times on Triune theology was/is that of Archimandrite Sophrony of blessed memory, also known as Elder Sophrony of Essox.  Elder Sophrony knew well the Trinity because he had experienced the Triune Being in the depths of contemplative prayer.
     Here is what he had to say about the Divine Persons in his book His Life is Mine:

     The revelation of God as I AM THAT I AM proclaims the personal character of the Absolute God which is the core of His life.  To interpret this revelation, the Fathers adopted the term hypostasis, which first and foremost conveys actuality and can be applied to all things, to man or to God.  In many instances it was used as a synonym for essence.  (Substance is the exact Latin translation.)  In the second Epistle to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 11.17) hypostasis denotes sober reality and is translated into English as confidence or assurance.  In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the term describes the Person of the Father: "Who being... the express image of his Person."  Other renderings to be found in the same Epistle are substance—"Now faith is the substance of things hoped for"—and very being—"the stamp of God's very being."  So then, these three words, Person, substance, very being, taken together impart the content of the Greek theological expression hypostasis, to be understood as comprising, on the one hand, the notion of Countenance, Person, while, on the other, stressing the cardinal importance of the personal dimension in Being.  In the present text, the terms Hypostasis and Person are identical in meaning.

Welcome to Classical Christianity

     Christianity is still rather popular these days in America.  If you live in the South as I do—the so-called “Bible Belt”, to be precise—then you might even say that it’s wildly popular.
     And therein lies the problem.  Popular. Pop.
     When things are popular in our modern culture, then one needs to take a serious look at just what is being taught and practiced.  Much of what passes for Christianity these days rarely resembles the ancient Tradition[1].  Christianity in today’s world is too often simply a reflection of the culture itself.  And modern culture is most decidedly not Christian.
     The goal of this blog will be to present essays, articles, quotes, art, and prayers that are representative of traditional, classical Christianity.
     About 8 years ago, I “re-converted” to the religion of my youth.[2]  And 4 years ago, I formally converted to the Orthodox Church.  Orthodoxy is ancient, classical, and traditional.  That’s what I love about it and part of the reason for my conversion.
     I grew up in the South—Texas, Arkansas, Alabama—and, like a vast majority of southerners, what I learned about Christianity came from my upbringing in the Southern Baptist Church.  And, although I am sure that there are classical Christians in many Southern Baptist churches, the church doesn’t teach, and therefore practice, classical Christianity.[3]  When I discovered Christianity as it was practiced in the Early Church, and then the classical branches that sprang forth from it, I recall being miffed that none of it was taught in the churches I attended during childhood.
     But that’s exactly what this blog is going to be about: Classical Christianity, its thought, and its practice, and how it should be applied in the modern, secular world that we live in.  Here are some of the things that we will cover (although this is not necessarily an exhaustive list):
  • Classical theism: Traditional Christians, both ancient and modern, were, and always have been, proponents of what is typically termed classical theism.  This is in opposition to what is commonly (but not always) termed theistic personalism.  Most modern-day atheists, for instance, attack not classical theism, but theistic personalism, but that is not the theistic God of classical Christianity.  (Nor is it the God of classical Islam or Judaism, for that matter.)
  • Sacraments: Classical Christianity is, by and large, sacramental Christianity.  (If you are confused at all by what that means, I will attempt to find plenty of articles to answer your confusion.)
  • Salvation:  When classical Christians speak of salvation—especially as the term is often used in the Early Church—they typically mean something different than what is meant by modern-day Americans.  (Along these same lines, we will discuss theosis as the synonym for salvation.)
  • The reading of Holy Scripture: Classical Christians typically read scripture in ways other than literalism—although it may certainly be read that way on occasion, too.  Often, the allegorical, metaphorical, and mystical meanings of scripture are just as important—more so, in many cases—than the literal meaning.  We will approach Holy Scripture from the vantage of point of how it was classically read in the Early Church and by the Church Fathers.
  • Saints: Christianity—to paraphrase Tertullian—was built on the blood of the martyrs.  We will discuss why the Saints are important in order to properly understand Christianity in its classic context.
  • Prayer: Prayer is much more than the vague prayers that many modern-day Christians utter to an equally vague deity.  Classical Christianity has a rich heritage of prayers that will be posted here.
Varied Sources
     I have a couple of other “Christian” blogs that primarily deal with specifically Orthodox issues and elements.  Unfortunately, due to the time involved in crafting pieces, I never get around to writing on them.  That’s where this blog comes in; it’s going to be different.  Instead of relying on my own mind and writing ability, I will post articles, essays, quotes, and excerpts from books written by more qualified authors than myself.  Much of the material will be directly from classical—and, therefore, ancient—texts, while others will be new material written from the classical point of view.
     I will try to include a lot of material that will be of interest to the average reader and churchgoer.  A lot of the artwork, poetry, prayers, and theologically rich hymnography of the Church can be understood by all people—I don’t want readers to think that it will simply be stuffy academia that’s presented (although I won’t shy away from some of that).
     I will try my best to include writers both Eastern and Western, Greek and Latin, Orthodox and Catholic—not to mention some Protestants that “fit the mould” of the classicist.

[1] Here I have in mind much of popular “non-denominational” Christianity, mega-churches, and movies such as the recent “God is NOT dead.”  If modern Christians actually think these things constitute Christianity, then we are already in deep trouble.  And, yes, I understand that there are well-meaning, “good” people that are followers of all of the above, but it’s still not Christianity, in the classical, traditional sense.
[2] To put an exact date, or even a year, on it would be inaccurate.  It wasn’t simply a matter of there being a “before” and an “after”, but, rather, it was an ongoing, organically evolving process with many halts, and then many leaps forward—and sometimes backward—at other times.
[3] A lot of evangelical Christians are “conservative”, to be sure, but this doesn’t mean that they are traditional.