Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Early Christian

I bet the evangelist John, Christ’s youngest and beloved disciple, would have been surprised had he known that his very personal letter to his dear friend Gaius would someday be included in the scriptures, taken up by God to be an expression of His holy and divine Word.
There isn’t anything particularly doctrinal about it. It doesn’t set forth any explanation of divine things. It doesn’t gives us any additional details about his Master and ours, Jesus the Christ. As profound as is John’s writing of the gospel, this letter to Gaius seems very day-to-day.

Well, yes, and that is why, I think, it was included in the written Word of God. It demonstrates that the Lord is present and intimately concerned with all the details of our lives, with everything we think, say and do, with our successes and with our failures, our loves and, yes, our hates.

It also demonstrates that the Church, right from the beginning, was not perfect, was not unified, was plagued right from its first days by the same worries and conflicts that it faces today. Nothing changes. We are still sinners even in the best of life, and the Church is still where we work out our salvation.

Listen in, and be an early Christian, and feel the warmth and the worries of John’s beloved disciple in his old age. Not that he worried without faith or hope, but even the saints have troubles, and like anyone of us today, are told by the Lord how to handle them, and they pass on that instruction to us.

The Third Letter of John, well, the third one that we have—think of how many he must have written, and how wonderful it would be to have them and to read them! But then Holy Mother Church, instructed by the Spirit that lives in her, saved or selected these three; that’s economy!

John writes,

From the Elder: greetings to my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth. My dear friend, I hope everything is going happily with you and that you are as well physically as you are spiritually. It was a great joy to me when some brothers came and told of your faithfulness to the truth, and of your life in the truth. It is always my greatest joy to hear that my children are living according to the truth.

My friend, you have done faithful work in looking after these brothers, even though they were complete strangers to you. They are a proof to the whole Church of your charity and it would be a good thing if you could help them on their journey in a way that God would approve. It was entirely for the sake of the Name that they set out, without depending on the pagans for anything; it is our duty to welcome men of this sort and contribute our share to their work for the truth.

I have written a note for the members of the church, but Diotrephes, who seems to enjoy being in charge of it, refuses to accept us. So if I come, I shall tell everyone how he has behaved, and about the wicked accusations he has been circulating against us. As if that were not enough, he not only refuses to welcome our brothers, but prevents other people who would have liked to from doing it, and expels them from the church. My dear friend, never follow such a bad example, but keep following the good one; anyone who does what is right is a child of God, but the person who does what is wrong has never seen God.

Demetrius has been approved by everyone, and indeed by the truth itself. We too will vouch for him and you know that our testimony is true.

There were several things I had to tell you but I would rather not trust them to pen and ink. However, I hope to see you soon and talk to you personally. Peace be with you; greetings from your friends; greet each of our friends by name.
3 John

Version française, ici.

Bad alliances

If you make yourself a friend of the world,
you cannot be God’s friend.

The father of the prodigal son was a pious and God-loving man, because only such a man could have allowed his sons their full freedom and still receive one of them back with love and honor (and unself-conscious forgiveness) after he had abused his freedom and defiled himself.
The boy was ‘brought up right.’

A good marriage and family life does not come about by magic. It begins with mutual faith. It grows and is sustained by mutual faith and faithfulness. And it continues blessed and good right to the end only as long as the first faith and trust is preserved inviolable.

What can destroy it? Wanton breaking of the commandments, adultery, bearing false witness, theft and covetousness—all of which stem from forgetting who is the Lord: ‘I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.’

I have passed on to my sons what my dad passed on to me, ‘If you are looking for a good wife, you don’t go looking for one in bars. You go to church and find one.’ Though I did not exactly follow his instructions—he told me this after I was married—I followed a slightly different route, which is maybe even better: Pray to the Lord to send you a wife, and then watch closely whom He sends to you, just as you watch for friends that He sends you, and one of these will be your wife. It goes without saying—or does it?—that you are living a life of discipleship when you make this prayer.

How simple all of life is, especially family life and our circle of relationships, when we follow the commandments! Jesus says, ‘If you love Me, you will follow my commandments.’ That’s what I’m talking about, not some rigorous set of rules whether biblical or self-improvement-minded, neither of which will ever succeed in really making anyone better. ‘Branch out for a time they may, but when you look for them they will be gone, vanished like their vain hopes.’ Christ is at once the source of all righteousness, the way to it, and the achievement of it. ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,’ says Jesus (John 14:6).

Even being raised in a pious family, a son does not become a Christian by magic. As soon as he reaches the age of independent decision, his parents’ faith no longer speaks for him the moment he makes the conscious choice to take the world for his friend, instead of God. Even after making that choice, he can repent, and God our heavenly Father, can and will take him back. But just as the father of the prodigal son did not restrain that son from the choices he made, neither does God, or the parents, restrain him or constrain him. They may advise, they may teach, they certainly must pray for him to turn away from his friendship with the world, but they cannot force him to give it up. He must want a better friendship.

So it is, that a man who has taken the world for his friend no longer thinks of God, except of the punishment that he will receive after everything he does is done and his life is over—if there is a God.

Instead of memories of a youth spent in innocent fun and friendships, he finds memories only of riotous relationships, infidelities, the waste of his virginity and that of one he might have truly loved and been wedded to, and years of profound loss: spoiled friendships, missed opportunities, time and money wasted, and all for what? Now the mercy of God can only drive him to even more miserable states, to where he, like the prodigal son feeding unclean animals (pigs) and not even being given their slop for food, finds himself at another point of decision: To utterly despair, or to return to his Father.

Rather than flee from house to house, or from town to town, to escape his brown girls and their offspring, like John of Puritania this son needs to turn around and start traveling Home, facing East. The road back will look very different than that same road looked when he made the world his friend and followed it to the place of bondage. By making God, in Christ, his Friend, the road will turn into something very, very narrow, but he won’t mind that, because he will hear his Friend going ahead of him, saying, ‘Follow Me.’

It is for the Lord to call us

Though I never use the animal terms ‘dogs’ or ‘pigs’ with regard to humans to whom the gospel is addressed, I know from tradition that ‘dogs’ refers to male homosexuals and ‘pigs’ to people who have no understanding of, or use for, the gospel—pigs can’t wear pearl jewelry, nor would they want to. I encounter these kinds of people everywhere, and how to deal with them as with ‘those for whom Christ died’ is something that I struggle with every day.

Our society seems to have become post-Christian, people from complete atheists to church-going types can all fall into this category, which seems to me to be the ‘pigs’ scripture is talking about. What? Church-goers can be post-Christian? They can be the pigs before whom one must not throw pearls, lest they turn on us and trample us underfoot? Well, sorry, but yes.

To receive Christ and the good news is precisely as the Lord says in the letters to the churches in Revelation: ‘I stand at the door and knock...’ Everyone, from atheists, to agnostics, to the christianised masses who may be quite religious but are blind to Jesus Christ as He really is, can be so inclined that they either will not open the door, or can not, for they no longer hear Him knocking, if they ever did.

This poses the question, for me at least, of evangelism in the lands ofchristianosis,’
is it worth it?

Well, of course it is, because even one soul that is led to salvation through mine or anyone's witness—I am not here speaking about just talking, but about one's whole Christian life as a visible witness—is worth it. But it still is very discouraging to be placed in an environment where everyone around you has already chosen, and chosen wrong. It's like working in a pigsty, so to speak.

On good days, I still love the pigs and try to let that love alone be the witness, even though they see me coming and run. On bad days, when I am weak and am crying out for mercy for even my own life, being surrounded by pigs is almost more than I can bear. Almost more? Yes, because if I give in to the old man, I too become a pig, and that herd is headed for a lake, and it's not the sea of Galilee.
Christ have mercy!

Fortunately for us, babies are still being born who turn into youths and then into young adults. That cream of the crop of humanity is still there, white for harvest, and it is primarily for them that we hang on to a life that otherwise would be almost unbearable, living as we do among people who hate, lie and slander at every opportunity. But it is for the Lord to call us to follow Him into that harvest field, and I hope He calls us there every day.

Therein is life, and without end.

Religious animals

Sometimes it seems to me that modern man, modern Christian man, is no better off with regard to God than were his ancient pagan ancestors. The gods of the nations, our old gods, were very mysterious, very enigmatic, hiding themselves from us by day, revealing themselves to us in fleeting, dreamlike encounters by night, fostering an ever-increasing legacy of mythology that, poetic though it was, offered no real clues that could be followed to their source. As Orual, the queen of Glome, mused in C. S. Lewis’ greatest novel Till We Have Faces, ‘Why must holy places be dark places?’

So the modern Christian often complains of finding God, his God, mysterious, elusive, unresponsive, disprovidential, and even absent. It makes good subject matter for book writers, both for those who lodge the complaint and for those who seek to defend God against it, as well as for those who try to lay down some method to track and trap God, so that the believer can finally pin Him down and make Him own up to His responsibilities.

All this comes from a pre-existing religious condition in mankind. This is something that, like original sin, seems to be universal. Every race of mankind has it, something like a spiritual birth defect, a built-in compensation for original sin. It makes mankind a species of religious animals, always trying to cover up their nakedness before God, while simultaneously shifting the blame elsewhere, and hoping to gain God’s approval somehow.

Religious animals is what we became after the fall of Adam. Before that fall, there was no such thing as religion. Man walked with God, and God walked with man. Our mutual familiarity and intimate friendship left no room for religious exercises. We walked with God, He walked with us. That was all the exercise we had need of.

But after the fall, what do we find?
Starting with Adam’s grandson Enosh the son of Seth, scripture says, ‘At that time men began to call on the name of the LORD’ (Genesis 4:26 NIV). Now it’s not a bad thing to call upon the name of the Lord, but it shows perhaps that we believe that God is somewhere else, or that we are, and He has to be called. Hence, religion came into being as a channel of communication with Him with whom we used to talk face to face.

Now, this is where we find ourselves in the natural man. An opaque veil shrouds us from the Divine Nature, to protect us, in the same way that the Ark of the Covenant is shrouded when carried among the people, not to hide the Ark from their eyes, but to protect them from it. The natural man follows after the First Adam, no longer able to walk with God because of sin, or to see Him and speak to Him face to face.

There has come a Second Adam, however, who like the first is called ‘the Son of God’ but who, unlike the first, has not disobeyed and fallen. He still walks with the Lord and speaks to Him face to face, and this ability to speak to the Father and to walk with Him side by side, as in the Garden, He has given ‘to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name.’ To them, to us, ‘He gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God’ (John 1:12-13 NIV). This is something that appears quite incredible to the world, and to the natural man, but to the spiritual man, the man of faith, this is an open door.

The Second Adam has opened the gates of Paradise to us, starting with the repentant thief who, not being able to steal the things of this world anymore because he was nailed like Jesus to a cross, stole something immeasurably greater, re-admittance to the Garden, going in as thoroughly naked as an infant enters into this world.

What happened to the religious animal that is the natural man? Walking in the Garden with Jesus, side by side with His Father and our Father, speaking to Them both face to face as one speaks to his friend, religion like the skins of animals has been left behind without being replaced by fig leaves.

‘Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’

Luke 2:14 NIV

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

If we dare

A deviation in Christian Orthodoxy rears its head from time to time, a spirit foreign to the Spirit of God, the seed of such tares as are planted by the evil one, clad in the husks of false piety. Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol speaks about it. So do other saints of God from the first holy Apostles until now, even using such unworthy people as I, sharing in the humiliation and rejection of Christ.

Usually what I say or write is, thankfully, ignored by these zealots. I suppose one isn't bothered too much by mosquitos if one has thick skin. A few days ago an anonymous comment was left on my blog at a post about Fr Seraphim Rose in which the author castigated me for departing from the Orthodox faith because I do not accept the toll-house myth.

He or she writes, ‘You write: “I do not promote Fr Seraphim Rose because he represents a very rigorous form of Orthodoxy that is also committed to excessive speculation...” You are unclear as to whether you oppose his “rigorous form of Orthodoxy” or his theological speculations. If it is his theological speculations on the “tollhouses” you reject, do you also reject all the canonized saints who wrote about them? If, on the other hand, it is his “rigorous form of Orthodoxy” you oppose, then perhaps you should become a Roman Catholic. They disposed of all such “rigors” and in so doing became just another irrelevant Protestant denomination. Orthodoxy is rigorous. Orthodoxy is extreme. Just like its Founder. Orthodoxy is Christianity Without Compromise.’

So, once again I have been put in my place, I have been invited to leave Holy Church and become a heretic, a Roman Catholic or whatever. Yes, Orthodoxy is Christianity without compromise, but Christianity is first and foremost, and maybe only, to follow Jesus Christ, not only to obtain from Him mercy and the undeserved gift of eternal life, but to do what we see Him doing, speak what He speaks, love whom and how He loves.

Let the zealous barricade themselves in their religious fastnesses behind clouds of incense smoke and frightening, childish myths. As for me, as holy prophet Joshua says, I will serve the Lord. And in serving Him, I accept whomever, and whatever, the Lord sends. That is, for me, Christianity without compromise. Once again, I want to remind myself of these things…
It’s a funny thing, but in the last few years it has become clearer than ever to me that the doctrinal issues really don’t matter at all. It doesn’t even really matter what we believe about the nature of Christ. What matters is that we believe He is the Savior of the world, and that He is the Truth, the Way and the Life. How can a man be the Truth? I don’t know, but He is. Before you decide to stone me, try to hear what it is I am saying, and not jump to conclusions.

That the Truth is a Man, and not a doctrine, fits in so well with God’s very nature.

Notice, in the Old Testament there is no doctrine at all except, ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods but Me.’ Nothing else. How simple! And look what happened. The rabbis turned that into a vast theological system.

And into that system comes a man who is Who He is, who does not argue, who does not teach doctrine. Do you ever hear Jesus teaching doctrine? or religion? No, He just speaks the Truth, and that Truth is Himself, that He is sent by the Father to do His will, and to speak what the Father tells Him to speak. Nothing else.

And look what the fathers have done to that. We have had councils and even wars over questions that not Christ, not the apostles, were ever concerned about. We have disputes over the oneness of God, and about the Trinity not being written up in the bible. Of course it’s not written up! It doesn’t have to be!

That the Divine Nature is a triad is not a doctrine to be believed
what good does it do if we believe it, what evil if we don’t?
It is a reality to be lived, to be lived, really and truly, the pattern of all being: three are one, not two, not one, but three.
It’s just how things are.

Jesus came to demonstrate that and to invite us to join in that threesome by sending us the Holy Spirit who incorporates us into the Body of God, making us ‘one of the Family.’ It is so awesome!
How petty we are to nitpick each other and tear each other’s flesh over trifles!

I have no problem with Orthodoxy and with its Christological dogma, because I really believe it is an expression in human thinking of the livable reality that I have just been describing, otherwise I would not be an Orthodox Christian.

And even though the Orthodox Church is responsible for a lot of the turmoil in the early Church, defining what’s what and who’s who, and even though it has canons and rules and jurisdictions and squabbles enough to tear the heads off many chickens, the Orthodox life is really quite simple, just as simple as the life of any Christian of any denomination or lack of one.

As simple as the life of any lover and disciple of Jesus.
I know, because I have met them there, as everywhere,
and I hope I am one of them.

I have declared many times, not to contradict, but simply to state a fact about myself: I am not an ecumenist. Ecumenism is for those who think the Church is divided and so they take pains to reunite it. But if we know it as one, we just live in that knowledge.

That is, if we dare.


Salvation is not about doctrine, but about love. There is, in fact, no salvation outside of love, because God is love, proven by His becoming one of us, and everything that follows from it. We approach God always through love and never through doctrine. Does this mean that doctrine is pointless or of no importance? Not at all. But it is always love that gives doctrine its true meaning and value.

Loving God will always bring you to Him, but thinking about God at best brings you to the threshold of love, at worst locks you into a mental prison.

The invisible God becomes visible through love, but the visible God, our brother and sister, can become invisible through doctrine.

What is ‘the first and great commandment’? And what is ‘the second, that is like unto it’? And on what hang ‘all the Law and the Prophets’?

‘With the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near!’ intones the priest or deacon, announcing the readiness of God to receive us unto Himself in the Holy Mystery of His divine and life-giving Passion, fed to us spiritual infants on golden spoons. ‘You have only to open your mouth, for Me to fill it,’ says the Lord Almighty through His holy prophet, the psalmist. And, ‘precious in the eyes of God is the death of His saints.’

Yes, with fear, that is, utmost respect, even awe, approach God in your brother and sister.
Yes, with faith and love, trusting in the One who upholds all faithfully and who loves both you and them with an unconditional mercy.

We can do no more and no less than what we see our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ doing every moment of every day, not just in His ‘little Book’ the written scripture, but also in His ‘great Book’ the world.

Archimandrite Vasileios writes,

How frequently the Lord would stop people who wanted to start a ‘theological’ conversation with Him. They ask, ‘Will those who are saved be few?’ and the Lord replies, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door’ (Luke 13:23-24).

Again, with the Samaritan woman who is surprised when the Lord asks her for water, and explains her surprise, ‘For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’ (John 4:9), Jesus cuts short her comments on the relations between the religious communities with the command, ‘Go, call your husband’ (John 4:16). In a moment He leads the conversation into the field of personal life, of true theology.

In every case He is interested in the person, not in theological discussion as an isolated occupation remaining out of touch with life and with the very person who is speaking. ‘I seek not what is yours, but you’ (2 Corinthians 12:14), says Paul; I seek the person and his salvation.

Therefore, while the Jews of Christ’s day were so eager for theological discussions, He let them go unanswered; ‘But He was silent.’ For He did not come to discuss, He came to seek out and save the one that had gone astray (Matthew 18:11). He came and took on our whole nature. He entered into us, into the shadow of death where we are, and drew us to the light. We passed into His life: we live in Him.
Hymn of Entry, pp. 32-33 passim

Monday, January 28, 2013

Curing the sickness of Pharisaism

Most people know that the famous ‘Fr. Maximos’ in the well known book Mountain of Silence is the Metropolitan of Lemessos, Athanasios. He was a monk on Athos, who had the opportunity to spend time with such holy elders as Elders Paisios and Ephraim of Katounakia and others. He was, at the time of the writing of the book, the abbot of the monastery of the Panaghia Machera. Since then he was consecrated bishop of Lemessos (or Limassol). His Eminence gives talks almost weekly and these talks—in the thousands—have now circled the globe, being reproduced by his spiritual children.

Transcript of a tape-recorded homily
by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus

Having promised yesterday that we would say a few words on the topic, I will say a few things, just so that I won't be untrue to yesterday's promise. As a follow-up to all those things, one wonders: all these things that take place—everything that we do—our pilgrimages, our candles, our night-vigils, our prayers, our fasts, our gestures of charity—everything that we do in our life—are for what purpose and what is the reason that we do them? The answer to this question is very important, because our correct or incorrect spiritual life is dependent on it.

Let me give you an example: I ask the children at the summer camps that we have now: What is God's greatest commandment? What is God's most important commandment, my children? And all the children—all of them—quote various commandments: do not not not be unjust to your fellow-man....respect your parents.... how should I know? your neighbour... but not one child has suspected that none of these commandments is God's first commandment.

People think that the first commandment is ‘love thy neighbour,’ and when I'd tell the children ‘no, that is not the first commandment,’ a child would reply ‘yes, yes, I know which one it is...’ ‘Which is it?’ I would ask. ‘Increase and multiply.’

Well, of course that wasn't the first commandment either, right? God's first and only commandment—the first and only one, as all the other commandments are the result of this first one—is to love God with all of your heart. Christ Himself said that the first commandment is: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all of your soul, with all of your heart, with all of your might and with all of your mind.’ And a second commandment—a second one, similar to the first—which springs from within the first commandment—is the one that says ‘love your neighbour.’ Everything else is a result of these.

If you love your neighbour, you will not rob him, you will not lie to him, you will not be unjust with him, you will not take his things, you will not tamper with his wife, you will not interfere with his home, you will not censure him... that's what we mean by ‘results of the first commandment.’  The ‘love your neighbour’ is likewise a result of the first commandment.

If you truly love God, it is impossible to not love your neighbour. A person who loves God will have—as a natural result of his love towards God—a love towards his brethren also. Therefore, the first and only commandment by God is to love God Himself with all our heart. Subsequently, whatever we do in church, has that precise purpose. And that is why we go to pilgrimages, why we fast, why we pray, why we go to confession, why we light candles, why we read the lives of saints, why we do everything: it is our way of loving Christ.

Now, where is the mistake? The mistake is that unfortunately, we say that we do all these things in order to just become good people.... to become better people....and that is where the big hoax lies. It is the step that we all stumble over. Because, if the purpose of the church was just to make us better people, then there wouldn't be any need for a personal relationship with Christ, nor would there be any reason for Christ to have come to the world.

Why do you think we aren't able to understand the saints? Or, to say something simpler, why we can't understand those who love God? We tend to say ‘is it necessary to do this thing in order to be saved—to be near to God? Is it necessary—let's say—to depart to the mountains? Must we go and do all these things?’

Of course not. It is not a necessity. If we could understand that our relationship with God is not only for the sake of salvation, but is a relationship of love, only then will we understand the saints also and why they did the things they did (which can't be interpreted rationally). This is because love transcends logic. Even secular love—the way that one person loves another person—for example when one wants to get married he loves his wife; he loves the young lady that he will wed—and the same applies to the young lady—then they do things that seem totally irrational.

If, for example, you were to ask her or him who is the most beautiful or handsome one in the world, they will probably say it is their beloved. Naturally, they are seeing the other through their own eyes.... Our eyes see other things.... If, for example, you were to ask her who the best man in the world is, she will describe the man she loves with the finest words. She sees no flaws in him, no faults... she can't see anything bad about him, because love transcends all these things.

Love cannot be forced into the molds of logic. Love is above logic. That is how God's love is. God's love surpasses human logic. That is why we can't judge with logical criteria those people who love God. That is why the saints reacted with a logic of their own—they had a different kind of logic, and not the logic of humans; because their logic was the logic of love.

So, the church does not teach us just to become good people—not in the least. It is only natural, that we have to become good people, because if we don't, then what have we succeeded in doing? These are nursery school things.

Our Church teaches us to love Christ—to love the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Inside the church, a relationship develops. It is a personal relationship between man and Christ; not with the teaching of Christ—no—not with the Gospel. The Gospel is something that helps us to reach the point of loving Christ. When we reach that point of loving Christ, the Gospel will no longer be needed. Nothing will be needed... all these things will cease... only man's relationship with God will remain.

That is the difference between the Church and religion. Religion teaches you to do your duties, the way the idolaters did. An example: let's say that we went to our pilgrimage sites, paid our respects, left some money in the charity box, left some lit candles, some oil, or even our entreaties, our names, our offering-bread, everything. All these things are religious duties, but our heart has not changed in the least. The hour of duty ends, and we are the same as we were before: we are ready to attack the other, ready to protest about the other, ready to be sour again, the way we were before.... Our heart doesn't change. We do not acquire that relationship with Christ, because we simply confine ourselves to duties—to religious duties. And you must know that such people—you know, ‘religious’ people—are the most dangerous kind in the church. Those religious people are truly dangerous. May God preserve us from them...

Once, when I was officiating in church and we were citing the words ‘Lord, save the pious,’ a Holy Mountain monk jokingly remarked: ‘Lord, save us from the pious...’ In other words, God save you from those ‘religious’ types, because ‘religious person’ implies a warped personality, which has never had a personal relationship with God. These types [of persons] merely perform their duties towards Him, but without any serious relationship involved and that is why God does not say anything about this type of person. And I too must confess that—from my own experience—I have never seen worse enemies of the church than ‘religious people.’    

Whenever the children of religious people, or of priests and theologians—or even of those who in church act like theologians and with self-importance—tried to become monks or priests, they [the parents] became even worse than demons. They would become exasperated with everyone. They became people's worst enemies. I remember parents who would bring their children to homilies, and when their child moved one step further, they became the worst of people, who would say the worst about others. And I would say to them: ‘But you were the ones who brought the child to the homily; I didn't bring it.’

One other time, I told a father whose daughter I could tell had a zeal for the church: ‘Make sure you don't bring her again to any homily. Don't bring her to talk with me, because your daughter will become a nun and afterwards you will say that I was to blame.’ He replied: ‘Oh no, father, far be it! We adore you!’ And his daughter did in fact become a nun.... It has been seven years now, and he still isn't talking to me...

People who wouldn't miss a homily—not a single homily—those who were always the first... at homilies, night-vigils, reading books.. I don't know... at doing everything.... they would also bring their children along, but when the time came for the child to exercise its freedom—to decide by itself which path to choose—then those people would move to the extreme opposite camp, thus proving that Christ had never spoken to their hearts.... They were merely ‘religious people.’  That is why religious people are the toughest kind in the church. Because, you know what? Sometimes, people like these will never be cured, because they only think they are close to God. Sinners, on the other hand—the ‘losers,’ so to speak—at least they know they are sinners.

That is why Christ said that publicans and whores will go to the Kingdom of God, whereas to the Pharisees He had said: ‘You, who are 'religious', shall not enter the Kingdom of God. Because the word of God had never changed your heart.’ They had merely adhered to the observance of religious formalities. 

Therefore, we should all pay close attention and understand that the church is a hospital that cures us and helps us to love Christ, and our love for Christ is a flame that ignites inside our heart so that we can examine ourselves, to see if we are within God's love. If we discern all those forms of malice and selfishness and wickedness inside us, then we should be concerned, because it is not possible for Christ to be in our heart when we are full of ‘vinegar’ inside.

How can you be praying and at the same time be full of bile towards another person? How is it possible to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? How is it possible to say “I have been in the church for so many years”—either as a monk or a priest or whatever—and yet, where is that alpha and omega, which is love? Where is that patience—showing some patience towards your brother? By not embracing that, it means you have accomplished nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

We saw how Christ reached the point of telling those virgins that He would have nothing to do with them. He threw them out of the wedding hall even though they had all the virtues, because what they didn't have was love. Because He would have wanted to tell them that ‘you may have external virtues, you may have remained virgins, you may have done a thousand things, but you didn't achieve the essence of that which is the most important.’ If you can't achieve that, then what do you need the rest for? What's the use, whether I consume olive oil today, or I don't? 

I may [fast and] not eat olive oil, for example, but I devour my brother from morning to night.... They used to say on the Holy Mountain ‘Don't ask if I eat fish; as long as one doesn't eat the fisherman, he can eat fish’; or, ‘As long as you don't eat the oil-bearer, you can have a drop of olive oil to eat’...

To devour someone with a sharp tongue is far worse than consuming a spoonful of olive oil. And yet, we focus on things like that: we eat oil—we don't eat oil; we eat fish—we don't eat fish... I don't know what to say... someone may dip his spoon into another dish and this could be the cause of an argument—a cause for a huge quarrel with another person, just because he dipped his spoon earlier on into another dish... You can see how ridiculous these things are and how the demons make fun of us, as well as they who are outside the Church.

And when they do approach us, instead of seeing the people of the Church transformed into Jesus Christ, into sweet-natured people and mature people—well balanced, fulfilled people—full of harmony inside them, unfortunately, with all those passions of ours and all that sourness, they will inevitably say: ‘What? And become like one of them? I'd rather not!’ You, who are a churchgoer, tell me how the church has benefited you. As we said yesterday you went to the pilgrimage sites, you saw the fathers, you saw the holy relics, you saw the Holy Mountain, the Holy Mother at Tinos Island—all those places that we went to, and returned.

What was the end benefit of all those things? Was our heart transformed? Did we become humbler people? Did we become more sweet-natured? Did we become meeker people in our homes, our families, our monastery? Or at our place of work? That is what counts. If we did not achieve those things, at least let us become humbler... from within our repentance.... let us become humbler... If we didn't manage that either, then we are worthy of many tears—we are to be pitied. Because unfortunately, Time flies, and we are counting years....

When asked how many years he had lived on the Holy Mountain, the Elder Paisios used to say: ‘I came here the same year as my neighbour's mule.’ (His neighbour, old Zitos, had a mule—and you know how every cell on Mount Athos has an animal, a mule, for carrying their things. That animal has a long life span; you don't buy a mule every day—they are too expensive).

‘Well, the year that I came here, to the Holy Mountain, my neighbour purchased his mule in the same year. We have the same number of years on the Holy Mountain, and yet that poor beast remained a mule, but then so did I. I didn't change at all.’ So, we quite often say ‘I've been here for forty years’—and we priests and monks tend to say these words: ‘I have been in the monastery for forty years.’

But what you don't realize is that those years are not in your favour. God will say to you ‘Forty years, and you still haven't managed to become something? You are still angry after forty years, you still censure, you still contradict, you still resist, you still don't submit? You've had forty years, and you still haven't learnt the alpha—the first thing—about monastic life, about Christian life? What am I supposed to do with your years? What am I to do with you, if you have spent fifty years with confessions and you can't respond to another person with a kind word? What use are all these things to me?’

These all weigh against us. And I am saying all these things, firstly about myself. Because they apply to me first... And because I know these things from myself, that is why I'm telling you about them (and why you must think I'm saying them to each one of you). People think that I'm referring to them, but it is not you I'm referring to. It is firstly about me that I mentioned these things... about me first.... We need to say these things to at least humble ourselves; to keep our mouth shut, as all those egotistic and other displays unfortunately ridicule us and make us look foolish in the presence of the Lord.

If we humble ourselves and cease to have grand ideas about ourselves, maybe then can a person begin to correct himself gradually through repentance—which is born out of humility. A person who doesn't strive to justify himself truly repents. He who keeps justifying himself will never repent; and that person who always justifies himself—either externally or internally—will never learn what repentance means. That is why we should always examine ourselves.

‘Test yourselves, brothers,’ the Apostle says. Test yourself, to see if there is a love of God inside you. And not so much that, but more so if we are living within the realm of repentance, so that God can cure our existence—so that this kind of association with the Church can heal us, and so that we can become people who have been cured of their passions and their sins.

Many ask how we can reach that point. How do we get there? 

Well, when we leave ourselves in the hands of the good physician—God; when we leave ourselves trustingly in God's hands; because when we are in various circumstances, in difficulties, God knows what is best for each one of us and will lead us along those paths that will slowly, slowly, slowly over the years perfect us—they will perfect us... All we need to do is give ourselves to God with trust, the way we give our trust to a doctor, or—say—the captain of a ship.

We show trust. He leads us, and we don't worry about the destination and when we will arrive, because we know that the one steering the ship is mindful, vigilant, and he knows the way and is careful.

Another important element that I would like to say something more about (also because some of you have asked me to) is the matter of time. Did you notice during these days that we have been spending on this ship, how we had no external distractions? We had nothing to draw our attention elsewhere, like at home—for example television. Did you see how much time we had available? We even conversed among ourselves. You who are married had time to talk to each other—the spouses and the children. The children played together, they talked amongst themselves, and we had lots of time to ourselves and we communicated with each other, and that is the most important element of all: that we could communicate.

The most tragic thing is at home, when everyone is sitting in front of the television and they don't talk to each other... time slips away and people do not communicate with each other. And the worst of all? It is the things we see on television... that's the source of the worst corruption for the ones close to us, our children and our souls.

One of these days, when we had disembarked and were walking about the place, I noticed in one of those places where the youngsters serve different things, where they are offered refreshments, that they had a television switched on which was playing, and even though nobody was paying attention to it, it was still on. So I stood there for a moment, to see what it was showing—although I don't know what kind of film it was... I guess it was something... it was showing some people who were chasing after some other people all the time, and there was a constant chase....there were guns, bullets, cars, explosions, jumping from one house to another... But these are things that your children—your young children—sit and watch; so much violence... and I'm not even talking about all the other obscenities that I don't want to mention, which have even destroyed elderly people.

And don't you tell me that it's not like that, because I know it is, first hand: these are admissions that we hear during confession. Elderly people, very old people, who are otherwise very respectable, have been ruined by television, from all that vulgarity that they are exposed to every day. I'm not referring to that specific damage right now; I am referring to all the other things—all the violence that the television projects.

How do expect the children to not become familiarized with violence? They will naturally become unruly and disobedient and do things that are entirely foreign to their nature! Have you any idea what an ugly sight it is, when you see young children mimicking older people? They mimic adults, and they destroy their innocent childishness.

Sometimes, when I'm invited to an event, they bring along tiny toddlers and tell them to dance. And you see these little girls or boys, ten or twelve years old, full of innocence, making dance moves that they have seen older women do—women who are entirely disgraceful, with another morality altogether. You can actually see how those children are being destroyed, with their emulations of the adults that they see on television. And also doing all sorts of things and entertaining themselves with choices that are catastrophic. And I am not saying this from the spiritual aspect only, but from every aspect—psychological and social and family.

Keep them as far away as you can from all these things. Help your children to not be dependent on television, because they will be filled with all those obscene images, and so will you. If you don't allow your children to watch obscene movies, but you the adult does, then what's the use? And what about those silly warnings that they write on screen—that the movie is not suitable under 18 or something... or whatever else it says... younger than 12 or something like that.... Does that mean that if they turn 12 the sight is a suitable one?

Of course those warnings only arouse the youngsters' curiosity and every one of them will inevitably watch the film. They think to themselves that if this movie is forbidden for those younger than 12, it must have something that is deserving of every curiosity... In my opinion, the destruction that is inflicted on people's inner world is incalculable. Because, as we said yesterday, all positive images, all the good images that one absorbs are extremely beneficial in one's spiritual life. The same applies in reverse, with the bad images that a person observes—they create so many bad situations, that the damage caused is literally incalculable and sometimes we can't tell if it can be cured.

But if someone were to observe matters and study them, he will see just how great a catastrophe television can wreak on a person's psyche, and especially in younger people. But it is not only that; you see, one evil will bring on another. It will be a whole chain of evils, because it destroys communication, it destroys time, it destroys the innocence of a person's soul, and then man becomes exhausted, and being exhausted, he has no desire to do anything. Because his soul was filled with things that wearied him, and then he wonders why he is tired - he can't understand why...

Try to experiment, by eliminating or at least minimizing these evils, and you will see how much more relaxed you will become and how much free time you will have at your disposal, which will be far more fruitful for anything else that you may do. Naturally, these things are not unrelated to our spiritual life, because a person's spiritual life is a product of all the activities that a person has. By this, I don't mean to say stop watching television altogether. I am not against it per se; it's just that things like these make our life more difficult instead of making it easier, and they destroy it, the way it was destroyed by technological ‘progress’ which has otherwise facilitated our lives.

You catch a plane, and you're there. You get on a ship, and you get there quickly—you don't need to row with oars like they used to do in olden times.... or a thousand other conveniences... which in the long run are conveniences that may have facilitated our lives, but they also trapped us inside one big difficulty and made us lose ourselves, they made us lose the beauty of our life and we eventually destroyed the world we live in, and now we want even more sciences and discoveries, to see if we can salvage what is left of it...

Of course all these things that constitute the tragedy of our Fall and the mangling of our personality make it abundantly clear just how impossible it is to humanly tackle the problem, and yet, if one turns to God, then we will see that which Christ had said: that whatever is impossible for man to accomplish, is possible by God. Whatever seems impossible for people is possible for God—and we can see around us that miracle by God, which, even in our day, with all the information and all these provocations taking place around us, and the accessibility to sin, still, there are people who love God and from among the thorns, we see roses spring forth... Roses blossom from among the thorns, and the immense miracle of man's salvation becomes reality, regardless of our own human weaknesses, our wretched state, our problems, the difficulties with our self, our church, our family, our society and the other elements that unfortunately bombard every person.

That is why—to return from all these things—we need to return where we started from, when we said that the solution and the answer to all problems is for man to turn towards loving God, and that when man loves God, then God will cure him, God will resurrect him—even if that person is dead and decomposing—God will restore him, provided man discards from inside him all that is useless and put in his heart a love for God, and build his life around that love for God, and atop that love for God—to build his life, his marriage, his family, his path, his studies, his course.

If man does that, then he will truly come to enjoy life and his life will become a paradise, because paradise is nothing more than God's love, whereas ‘hell’ is nothing more than the absence of God's love. So, it is my wish, as a conclusion to our broadcast, that the love of God will always accompany all of you, and that we should not forget that everything we do, we must do for that reason, and not just to be religiously behaving people. We must become God-loving people, so that our lives can be transformed correctly and we ourselves be transformed into Jesus Christ our Lord.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

It is the Lord!

It’s hard to believe that life can go on after the end of something glorious: the death of a beloved child or spouse, the loss of an irreplaceable friendship, or, for the disciples of Jesus, no longer having Him among them, daily walking with Him, eating with Him, sleeping with Him out in the wilds as they journeyed together, hearing His words and seeing His divine acts hidden from the world. ‘Of all men You are the most handsome, Your lips are moist with grace, for God has blessed you forever’ (Psalm 45). The most wonderful Man they had ever known was no longer with them.

Yes, they had not forgotten that the impossible had happened. Not just one impossible, but a whole string of them, all events that never should’ve happened, never could have happened, unless this Man really were who He said He was, who they were beginning to understand, gradually, that He is: How could they have arrested Him, who had never done anything wrong? How could they have stripped and beaten Him, who had healed their sick and filled their hungry with good things, literally feeding multitudes?

How could they have put Him to death, and ignominiously, mocking Him, deriding Him, who had brought the only life worth living among them? How could they have rejected Him, who was so obviously Moshiach, the Savior of Israel who had appeared to tell them that God had not rejected them, but had come to them, in Him, to end their exile from the Father? For the greatest of all impossibles had happened, He had risen from the dead, not as He raised Lazarus His beloved friend, but forever.

The winter and the midnight
Could not hold him,
The fire could not burn him
Nor earth enfold him.
Rise up Lazarus,
Sweet and salty!
Brother soldiers,
Stop your gambling and talk to me.
The thieves were stealers,
But reason condemned him,
And the grave was empty
Where they had laid him.

And how did they know this? Was it just through the ravings of some hysterical women? Some of the brothers had murmured in their hurt and doubt, even against their sisters. But no, not just through their testimony, for Peter and John had run as quick as they could to the tomb: John, the youngest, stopping at its gaping mouth, but Peter, older, braver perhaps, but no wiser, plunging into its depths to see for himself: Yes, the tomb was empty. Now, greater fear than ever: What had happened?

They didn’t have to wait long to find out, but it must have seemed long. They were still hiding out behind locked doors when the Truth came to them: Jesus suddenly stood in their midst, almost as He always had, stood among them and once again told them as He had when He walked on the waters of the turbulent lake: ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ Stood among them almost, but not exactly, as He had been with them before. This time it was different. He embraced them with His pierced hands, but His face which came close to theirs in a kiss, was free of blood, grime and pain.

Yes, it was different then, and now. He would come among them, but it was always a surprise, and He didn’t stay with them very long, and He would appear when they were not expecting Him. Why couldn’t it be like it was before? Why couldn’t He stay with them always, so they could walk the roads of the land of Israel again, joyfully doing whatever He asked of them, following Him everywhere? They were never sad, hungry or tired when He was with them. Nothing was too difficult for them. Nothing was impossible. Why? Because Love never tires, and Love was walking with them as a Man.
And they followed Him.

But now, it was different. He hadn’t appeared to them for a long time. How many days had it been? They waited excitedly, anticipating they would meet Him again around the next corner of time, but the Lord didn’t appear. Peter got angry with himself for being so impatient and he crossly said out loud, ‘I’m going fishing!’ Well, yes, a man has to eat, and the disciples had suddenly found themselves sent home, back to their relatives, crabby, selfish, contrary and back-biting as some of them were. They had all reluctantly gone back to their former work. You can’t wait for Jesus forever, can you?

So, some of the brothers, sympathizing with Peter, dropped whatever they were doing and joined him in his old fishing boat on the lake. They fished all night, not talking much, as each of them had a night in his own soul to deal with, an emptiness that could only be filled with Jesus, a darkness that only the Light of the world could dispel. They fished all night but caught nothing. It was already getting light, the sun had even come up and was hanging just above the horizon, shining vermilion between two long banks of slate clouds. A man was walking down to the shore from somewhere.

They were now close enough to see him, but not clearly. Suddenly a voice rang out, ‘Caught anything, friends?’ One of them called back, ‘Nothing!’ The man was probably hoping to buy a few fish from them for his breakfast. He cried out to them, ‘Throw the net out to starboard and you’ll find something!’ Almost before those words had died on the morning breeze, John’s heart leapt, and without thinking, something made him cry out to the others with him in the boat,
‘It is the Lord!’

Peter, quickly tying his wrap around his naked torso, dove into the lake and started swimming for shore. John and the others stayed and followed the man’s instructions, only he and Peter knowing for sure who it was whose words they had believed. Sure enough, the net filled with fish, one for every nation in the known universe, it seemed. Hauling the net in, they too made for shore in the boat. There they found Peter standing a little ways off from the man who spoke the word that saved their night’s efforts.

The man had bread, and there were already some fish roasting over a charcoal camp fire, but the man said to Peter, smiling, ‘Looks like we’ll need some of your fish if we’re going to feed this crew!’ Nobody dared to speak, while Peter ran to where the boat was beached and dragged the whole haul to them. They started counting and sorting the fish, but the man said, ‘Come now and have breakfast! We can start with the ones I brought, and have some more later if we’re still hungry.’ This is how it always was, and is, for the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, not just in those significant forty days, but for always. With Him the impossible always happens, and by this we can know for sure, that ‘it is the Lord.’

Peter turned and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them… Seeing him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘What about him, Lord?’ Jesus answered, ‘If I want him to stay behind till I come, what does it matter to you? You are to follow Me.’
John 21:20-22 Jerusalem Bible

Thursday, January 10, 2013

She points the way

Mary of Nazareth was invited to the wedding in Cana. Her son Jesus and His disciples were also invited. This shows that if you invite Jesus into a situation, anything can happen. This shows that Jesus will come to as mundane a thing as a village wedding. This shows that no one and nothing is unimportant to Him.

Things don’t go as expected. They run out of wine. Mary turns to Jesus and says, “They have no more wine.” She knows her own son. She knows what He can do. She bore Him, she raised Him. It wasn’t as if she was going to force Him to do anything, but three things are being demonstrated here.

She is His mother, so as a son He will honor her by doing what she asks. She trusts Him to do what is right. Without even having to ask Him, she merely brings it to His attention, saying in effect “Thy will be done” in this situation. She believes that He is the Son of God, and that He can do all.

His response, “What has this got to do with you and me?” draws out the fact that what happens next is the result of man (in this case woman) and God working together. When He says, “My time has not yet come,” demonstrates that faith can even move mountains, “If you undo your will for the will of heaven, heaven will undo its will for yours.”

John has to record this miracle, because it’s the first of the miracles of Jesus, and the first of anything always shows the characteristics of all the rest: A miracle of Jesus always has an objective beyond itself. It is never done just for show, as a magic trick is. It never does anything that is not already being done in the natural world, though in a different way, as regards time or sequence.

In the miracle of changing the water to wine, the objective beyond itself was to reveal the Son of God to His disciples, to initiate their faith in Him. The miracle was not made into a spectacle. Only the man who brought the new wine to the master of ceremonies knew exactly what had happened. The disciples would have noticed something had happened, and the truth of it would have circulated only among them. Water does not normally change into wine without going through several more natural steps: being absorbed into the grape vines, being stored in the grapes, being fermented with the juice of the grapes, and being stored in wineskins to preserve it from changing further into vinegar. Jesus merely eliminates some of the steps.

Is the focus on Mary or on her divine Son Jesus of Nazareth in this story? Or is the focus on the miracle? Each part of the story—a true story by the way, not a didactic myth—is of equal importance.

What is important here is to understand that nothing happens without the synergy between man and God. If God willed to do all without man’s participation, we would not have been created. God has chosen to include us in His divine plan so intimately that He comes to dwell in our midst, not a spiritual presence only—a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night—but as one of us. When He comes to live as one of us, He follows His commandments perfectly, even to the point of honoring his mother. What draws Him into participation in the life of man is… our invitation, our trusting His righteousness, our bringing to His attention our concerns, our belief that He can do all, our doing what He asks of us.

As always, Mary of Nazareth, the first Christian, shows us the way, shows us her Divine Son, who He is, what He does, what He wills. That is why one of the ikons of Christ’s humanity showing His mother holding him in her lap and pointing towards Him is called Οδηγήτρια, Odigítria or “She points the Way.”
True to her prophecy, we are among those generations who call her “blessed” till the end of time, and for good reason. She has followed Him to the uttermost, and so He has glorified her in Himself, just as He will glorify all those who, imitating her faith, will be glorified above the denizens of mere earth, and raised on high, will live in the family of the Holy Triad forever.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The repose of Severinus

Fragment of a broadside on six Austrian patron saints; right half of the woodcut with three standing saints, named underneath within a tablet, from left to right, St Severinus holding the Bible open to John 1:1, St Coloman, and St Leopold.
Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1515.

On the fifth of January he began to be slightly disquieted by a pain in the side. When this persisted for three days, at midnight he commanded the brethren to be with him. He gave them instructions as to the disposal of his body, strengthened them with fatherly counsel, and bestowed upon them the following earnest and admirable discourse.

‘Most beloved sons in Christ,’ he said, ‘ye know that blessed Jacob, when he was about to leave the world, and the time drew nigh that he must die, called unto his sons, and said, “Gather yourselves together”; that he might tell them that which should befall them in the last days, and bless them every one according to his blessing.

‘But I am lowly and of lukewarm faith. I am inferior to such piety. I dare not assume the burden of this privilege. Yet there is one thing which is accordant with my humility, and which  I will say. I will refer you to the examples of the elders, whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation. For Abraham, when called of the Lord, obeyed in faith. He went forth into a place which he was to receive into his possession; and he went forth not knowing whither he was to go. Therefore imitate the faith of this blessed patriarch, copy after his holiness, despise the things of earth, seek ever the heavenly home.

‘Moreover I trust in the Lord, that eternal gain shall come to me from you. For I perceive that ye have enlarged my joy by the fervor of your spirit, that ye love justice, that ye cherish the bonds of brotherly love, that ye neglect not chastity, that ye guard the rule of humility. These things, so far as the eye of man hath power to see, I confidently praise and approve.

‘But pray that those things which to human view are worthy, may be confirmed by the test of the eternal judgment; for God seeth not as man seeth. Indeed, as the divine word declareth, he searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts. Therefore constantly hope and pray for this, that God may enlighten the eyes of your understanding, and open them, as blessed Elisha prayed, that ye may see what hosts of saints surround and support you, what mighty aids are prepared for the faithful. For our God draws nigh to them that are without guile.

‘Let the soldiers of God fail not to pray without ceasing. Let him not be reluctant to repent, who was not ashamed to sin. Sinners, hesitate not to lament, if but by the overflowing of your tears the wrath of God may be appeased; for he hath seen fit to call a contrite spirit his sacrifice. Therefore let us be humble in heart, tranquil in mind; guarding against all sins and ever mindful of the divine commands; knowing that meanness of garb, the name monk, the word religion, the outward form of piety, profiteth us not, if touching the observance of God's commands we be found degenerate and false.

‘Therefore let your characters, my most beloved sons, accord with the vow which ye have assumed. It is a great crime to lead a sinful life, even for a man of this world; how much more then for monks, who have fled from the enticements of the world as from a hideous wild beast, and have preferred Christ to all desires; whose gait and garb are held to be evidence of virtue?

‘But why, dearest sons, delay you further with a long address? It remains to bestow upon you the last prayer of the blessed apostle, who saith, “And now I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, who is able to preserve you, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” To him be the glory for ever and ever.’

After this edifying address, he bade all in succession approach for his kiss. He received the sacrament of the communion; and altogether forbade that they should weep for him. Having stretched out his hand, and made the sign of the cross over his whole body, he commanded that they should sing a psalm. When the grief that overspread them kept them silent, he himself started the psalm, ‘Praise ye the Lord in his sanctuary; let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.’

And so, on the eighth of January, repeating this verse, while we could hardly make the responses, he fell asleep in the Lord. When he was buried, our elders, implicitly believing that, like his many other prophecies, what he had foretold in regard to our removal could not fail to come to pass, prepared a wooden casket; that when the predicted migration of the people should take place, the commands of the prophet might be fulfilled.