Thursday, October 26, 2006

O Lord, Thou hast given us Thy Cross as a weapon against the devil; / for he quails and trembles, unable to contemplate Thy power; / for Thou didst raise the dead and abolish death: / Wherefore we worship Thy Burial and Thy Rising.

[From the Ochtoechos]

"O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?"
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!

{St. John Chrysostom]

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

On Thankfulness: St. Peter of Damascus

From the "Philokalia"

"We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of the soul and body that he bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the elements of the world and all that comes to being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given each individual.

These include wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity; poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude; authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue; obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul; health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God; sickness, so that one can earn the crown of patience; spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue; weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one's back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility; unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one's possessions or even giving alms; ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls; trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection.

All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful to the soul and body. Better than them all, however, is the patient endurance of afflictions; and he who has been found worthy of this great gift should give thanks to God in that he has been more blessed."

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Praying Human Soul: A Microcosm of the Cosmos

The reciting of the Jesus prayer vocally. We repeat the Jesus prayer with our lips while trying at the same time to focus our attention on the words of the prayer. The nous takes the Jesus prayer and says it noetically. Our whole attention is centred again in the words, but is concentrated on the nous. After the nous has rested, we start again to concentrate our attention there. St. Neilos advises: "Always remember God and your nous will become heaven". The Jesus prayer then descends into the heart. Nous and heart are united. The attention now is centred in the heart and is immersed again into the words of the Jesus prayer, and primarily into the name of Jesus which has an imperceptible depth. The prayer now becomes automatic. It is done while the ascetic is working, eating, discussing or while he is in church or even while he is sleeping. "I sleep but by heart waketh" is said in the Holy Scripture. (Song of Songs 5. 2)

[excerpt from "A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain"]

Thursday, October 19, 2006

St. Maximos Kafsokalyvites: On Self-Impelled Prayer

What Hesychast prayer actually signified to Maximos is revealed most fully in the long conversation between him and Gregory the Sinaite ... Gregory, so we are told, having learnt about Maximos' fame and wishing to meet him, sent his disciples to seek out the hermit. But Maximos was still in his nomadic phase; he had recently burnt his cell, and no one knew where he had gone. The disciples searched in vain for two days, suffering severely from the winter cold. Eventually Maximos came out from hiding of his own accord, and agreed to meet Gregory. The Sinaite pressed Maximos to tell him about his spiritual life. Initially he refused, claiming that his wits were deranged: πεπλανημένος ειμί. As ever, folly serves as a mask behind which to shelter, as a way of avoiding praise. Under pressure he then consented to give a full answer. He began by telling Gregory about his youthful experiences, about his "feigned madness and folly", his vision of the Mother of God, and the divine light that encircled him then and on other occasions. "Tell me", asked Gregory, "do you possess inner prayer (νοερά προσευχή)?" "Yes," Maximos answered with a smile, "Ι have possessed it from my youth." And, stressing once more his special love for the Mother of God, he went on to describe an experience that had happened to him before he became a hermit. One day he was praying to the Virgin with tear for the grace of inner prayer:

And when with longing Ι kissed her most pure icon, suddenly Ι felt within my chest (στήθος) and in my heart (καρδία) a great warmth (θέρμη), not burning me up but filling me with refreshment and sweetness and deep compunction (κατάνυξις). From that moment, father, my heart began to say the prayer inwardly; and at the same time my reason (λογιστικόν), together with my intellect (νους), holds fast to the memory of Jesus and of my Theotokos, and it has never left me.

This remarkable passage contains several features characteristic of St Maximos, in particular his love for the Mother of God and the strongly affective note that distinguishes his spiritual personality. By the phrases "the prayer" and, still more clearly, "the memory of Jesus", Maximos evidently means the Jesus Prayer, the repeated invocation of the name of Jesus, although there is no indication what precise form of words he employed. As a hermit Maximos would not have recited the Divine Office -the outward conditions of his life clearly rendered this impossible- but would have replaced it by the Jesus Prayer. In saying, "it has never left me", Maximos implies that this "memory" or "remembrance" (μνήμη) has become somehow continuous, not a periodic activity but an uninterrupted state conferred by divine grace. He has attained what the Russian writer Theophan the Recluse (1815-92) terms unceasing "self-impelled" or "self acting" prayer.

[Excerpted from “St Maximos of Kapsokalyvia and Fourteenth-Century Athonite Hesychasm” by Bishop Kallistos Ware in Kathegetria: Essays Presented to Joan Hussey for her 80th Birthday, ed. Julian Chrysostomides (Camberley 1988)]

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit: St. Seraphim of Sarov

God’s all-saving will consists in doing good solely to acquire the Holy Spirit, as an eternal, inexhaustible treasure which cannot be rightly valued…This is the oil in the lamps of the wise virgins which could burn long and brightly, and these virgins with their burning lamps were able to meet the Bridegroom Who came at midnight, and could enter the bridechamber of joy with Him. But the foolish ones, though they went to market to buy some oil when they saw their lamps going out, were unable to return in time, for the door was already shut. The market is our life; the door of the bridechamber which was shut and which barred the way to the Bridegroom is human death; the wise and foolish virgins are Christian souls; the oil is not good deeds but the grace of the All-Holy Spirit of God which is obtained through them and which changes souls from one state to another – that is, from corruption to incorruption, from spiritual death to spiritual life, from darkness to light, from the stable of our being (where the passions are tied up like dumb animals and wild beasts) into a temple of the Divinity, into the shining bridechamber of eternal joy in Christ Jesus our Lord, the Creator and Redeemer and eternal Bridegroom of our souls.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Place of the Greek Language in Greek-American Orthodoxy

At the Detroit Youth Conference, the question of the place of the Greek language was posed for general debate and discussion. Some of the views expressed refocused the issue on three points:

a) The problem of liturgical awareness: Ignorance of the structure and purpose of the services represents the true problem as language plays only a secondary role in liturgical experience. Experience of the liturgy must be active and engaged, regardless of the language.

b) The study of the Greek language has universal significance, beyond the narrow confines of Modern Greek identity. Rigorous study of the ancient Greek language promotes critical thinking skills indispensable for civic and spiritual engagement and spiritual survival in our modern cultural-economic system.

c) Parish life must be complemented by a culture of education that promotes the pursuit of higher education among the youth. Young Orthodox Christians must cultivate critical-thinking skills as the methods and temptations of modern media culture are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Now, more than ever, critical thought is united to the contemplative life of an Orthodox Christian.

Some of the dangers outlined were:

1) Intellectual idleness and passivity as a problem that has engrained itself in modern media culture. Its presence within Greek-American culture is particularly distressing. The Socratic maxim "an unexamined life is not worth living" was fully embraced by the Fathers of the Church who believed that examining one's life was the first step in the theoretikos bios, or the contemplative life.

2) The creation of a "feel-good culture", particularly as it relates to the language issue, as a problem that is tied to secularization. Retaining Greek for the sake of Greek or instituting English for the sake of English, are two parallel moves that often look not to the liturgical engagement of the faithful, but to a "feel-good" culture.

3) Greek identity without action as a problem of secularization. Throughout its history Greek identity was an inclusive category that made itself universally appealing by embodying universal values, the most salient of which were critical thought, rhetorical eloquence, and philosophical contemplation. Over the last century, Hellenism has lost its universal appeal and ecumenicity. Greek identity can no longer be particularistic and exclusive.

On the Dangers of a "Feel-Good" Culture

The danger is that language should not be an end in itself. Often Greek Parishes resist the implementation of English in the services because they claim to understand the Greek better. Most Modern Greek speakers cannot understand Classical Greek and can barely make their way through New Testament Greek unless trained, particularly in aural interaction.

For these Parishes, the insistence on Greek is aimed at nothing less than a desire to "feel good" about conducting the Divine Liturgy in Greek, and less about an active engagement with the Liturgy. Thus, "Greek for the sake of Greek".

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many Greek Americans have regrettably lost their zeal for preserving the Greek language. For many--though neither all nor most--it is a matter of convenience to institute English in the Liturgy, minimizing the amount of work they would have to do to participate in Liturgy. This too is not about an active engagement with the Liturgy. Thus, "English for the sake of English".

American converts to Orthodoxy have an absolute right to understand the Liturgy. Orthodoxy is not particularistic or an ethnic phenomenon. American converts often find themselves in the middle of the contest between Hellenizing Greek-Americans and the Anglicizing Greek-Americans.

What we really need is an active engagement in the Liturgy: Education in the Typikon and the Liturgical structures. Whether the liturgy is in English or in Greek, or mixed, language cannot be an end in itself. We still need to do some intellectual work--whether in English or in Greek--to be engaged.

In the absolutely worst category is a mere passive, non-engaged presence in liturgy, whatever the language.

On Greekness and Ecumenicity

There are Greeks who wear their "Hellenicity" on their sleeve, yet they fail to act in a way that is true to the values of Hellenism. The ancient Romans called such Greeks "Graeculi', or "little Greeks". Such Greeks boast about the greatness of their ancestors, yet they do little to reflect their ancestry. Such Greeks also project an exclusive and particularistic view of their communities and even of the Church.

The point about "Greek identity" is that, Greek civilization once had an ecumenical significance. Since 1453, it lost that significance politically and gradually it lost it morally as well.

If Greek identity is to survive, it needs to be ecumenically significant again, that is non-exclusive. This is a challenge to Greek Americans to live up to what they profess. This is not a call for American Orthodox to become Greek. This is a call for the full realization of the ideals of Romaiosyni: a universal, ecumenical (in its Orthodox sense) ideal, devoid of racism and ethnic prejudice.

Romaiosyni was the culture of the Christian Roman Empire. This was also the culture of the Fathers of the Church. It was multicultural and multiracial. Romaiosyni included all and welcomed all, regardless of race. It could do this because it embodied universal values and abandoned particularism. It was a catholic identity.

Racism, ethnophiletism, and ethnocentricism were condemned as heresies in the 19th century by the Orthodox Church. Nationalism and ethnocentricism have hurt the Orthodox Church gravely in the last 200 years.

In the Church there is no room for ethnic difference. The identity of the Church was always catholic and ecumenical. The ethnic identities that have taken the Church hostage now must be transformed into catholic identities. For Greeks, this means returning to the traditions of Romaiosyni--a cultural identity that expanded and grew to give to all and to embrace all. After all, is that not the spiritual trajectory of the Christian life?

The Orthodox Church: A Theanthropic Body

"The whole mystery of the Christian faith is found in the Church; the whole mystery of the Church is in the God-Man; the whole mystery of the God-Man lies in the fact that that God became flesh and brought his entire Godhead, with all His divine values and perfection, with all the mysteries of God, into that flesh. The entire Gospel of the Theanthropos, the Lord Christ, is condensed into a few words, into this Good News: Great is the mystery of true religion, God was manifest in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16)" (Fr. Justin Popovich, "The Orthodox Church and Ecumenism", 3)

Indeed, the entire life of the Church as the theanrthopic Body of Christ lies in this truth. It is in the Church that humanity is united to divinity, since it is the body of Christ that was raised to the right hand of the Father. It is in the Church that the Holy Spirit breathes His uncreated gifts, manifesting the Son and uniting man to Him, since it was Christ the Word that sent the Spirit which proceeds from the Father to His disciples. And it is to the Church that all of humanity is called, summoned to freely participate in the life of God as He partakes in humanity's.

Thus, in Orthodoxy, the Church is not merely a socio-temporal community, since it is the unity of humanity; it is not merely an institution, since it is not limited to its administrative structures and hierarchies; it is not a cultural artifact, but a mode of life, a mode of thought, a mode of being that is ineffibly interpenetrated by the life uncreated Godhead.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Angelic Victory

The angels attained victory over spiritual death and the passions by acquiring the immutability of the will, according to St. Gregory Palamas, when they witnessed the Incarnation of the Logos.

On the Faith that Brings Victory: Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich

'This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith' (I Jn. 5:4).

Christ the Lord conquers the world, and that victory, my brethren, is ours also. The apostles conquered the world, and that victory is ours also. There is nothing of greater power in the world, my brethren, than the Christian faith. The swords that cut off this Faith are blunted and broken, but the Faith has remained; kings who fought against this Faith suffocated under the anathema for their crime; kingdoms which waged war against this Faith were destroyed; cities which cast out this Faith lie thrown down in their destruction; heretics who perverted this Faith perished in soul and body and went out of this world under the anathema, but this Faith remained.

When the world rushes upon us, my brethren, with its illusions; with the illusion of exterior beauty, the illusion of riches, of pleasure. of transitory glory, with what shall we resist and by what shall we be the victors but by this Faith? Truly, by nothing but this invincible Faith, which knows of something better than any of the good things of this world.

When all the illusion of this world reveals its other face; when beauty turns to ugliness, health to sickness, riches to poverty, glory to dishonour, power to degradation and all the flowering of physical life to filth and pollution; by what shall we overcome that misery, that filth and pollution and keep ourselves from despair but by this Faith? Truly, by nothing but this invincible Faith, which teaches us enduring and unchanging values in the Kingdom of God.

When death shows its destructive power over our neighbours, our relatives and friends, over our flowers, our crops, over the work of our hands, and when it turns its irresistible teeth on us ourselves, by what shall we conquer the fear of death and by what unlock the door of life, that life that is stronger than death, if not by this Faith? Truly, by nothing but this invincible Faith, which knows resurrection and life without death.

O Lord Jesus, Thou Conqueror of the world, help us also to conquer the world by faith in Thee. To Thee be glory and praise for ever. Amen.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Psalm 68: Victory in Spiritual Warfare

To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David. A Song.

1 Let God arise,
Let His enemies be scattered;
Let those also who hate Him flee before Him.
2 As smoke is driven away,
So drive them away;
As wax melts before the fire,
So let the wicked perish at the presence of God.
3 But let the righteous be glad;
Let them rejoice before God;
Yes, let them rejoice exceedingly.

4 Sing to God, sing praises to His name;
Extol Him who rides on the clouds,[a]
By His name Lord,
And rejoice before Him.

5 A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation.
6 God sets the solitary in families;
He brings out those who are bound into prosperity;
But the rebellious dwell in a dry land.

7 O God, when You went out before Your people,
When You marched through the wilderness, Selah
8 The earth shook;
The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God;
Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.
9 You, O God, sent a plentiful rain,
Whereby You confirmed Your inheritance,
When it was weary.
10 Your congregation dwelt in it;
You, O God, provided from Your goodness for the poor.

11 The Lord gave the word;
Great was the company of those who proclaimed it:
12 “Kings of armies flee, they flee,
And she who remains at home divides the spoil.
13 Though you lie down among the sheepfolds,
You will be like the wings of a dove covered with silver,
And her feathers with yellow gold.”
14 When the Almighty scattered kings in it,
It was white as snow in Zalmon.

15 A mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan;
A mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan.
16 Why do you fume with envy, you mountains of many peaks?
This is the mountain which God desires to dwell in;
Yes, the LORD will dwell in it forever.

17 The chariots of God are twenty thousand,
Even thousands of thousands;
The Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the Holy Place.
18 You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even from the rebellious,
That the LORD God might dwell there.

19 Blessed be the Lord,
Who daily loads us with benefits,
The God of our salvation! Selah
20 Our God is the God of salvation;
And to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death.

21 But God will wound the head of His enemies,
The hairy scalp of the one who still goes on in his trespasses.
22 The Lord said, “I will bring back from Bashan,
I will bring them back from the depths of the sea,
23 That your foot may crush them[b] in blood,
And the tongues of your dogs may have their portion from your enemies.”

24 They have seen Your procession, O God,
The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.
25 The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after;
Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.
26 Bless God in the congregations,
The Lord, from the fountain of Israel.
27 There is little Benjamin, their leader,
The princes of Judah and their company,
The princes of Zebulun and the princes of Naphtali.

28 Your God has commanded[c] your strength;
Strengthen, O God, what You have done for us.
29 Because of Your temple at Jerusalem,
Kings will bring presents to You.
30 Rebuke the beasts of the reeds,
The herd of bulls with the calves of the peoples,
Till everyone submits himself with pieces of silver.
Scatter the peoples who delight in war.
31 Envoys will come out of Egypt;
Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God.

32 Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth;
Oh, sing praises to the Lord, Selah
33 To Him who rides on the heaven of heavens, which were of old!
Indeed, He sends out His voice, a mighty voice.
34 Ascribe strength to God;
His excellence is over Israel,
And His strength is in the clouds.
35 O God, You are more awesome than Your holy places.
The God of Israel is He who gives strength and power to His people.

Blessed be God!