MONDAY MORNING MEDITATIONS 2001

by V. Rev. Fr. Steven Kostoff
Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, Cincinnati, Ohio

 

MONDAY, DECEMBER 31

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

CHRIST IS BORN! GLORIFY HIM!

 

This Monday morning is the Leavetaking of the Feast of our Lord's Nativity in the flesh. As we leave the Feast, I would like to leave yet another text with you so as to further amaze everyone with the inexhaustable meaning of the Incarnation. A liturgical hymn from the Vespers of the Feast reveals the cosmic dimensions of Christmas to us:

What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes hast appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks: The angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star; the wise men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger. and we offer Thee a virgin mother! O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

All of creation was suffering and "groaning in travail" as it also awaited the "revealing of the sons of God" since the time of the Fall into sin, when it too

was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope … (cf. ROM. 8:19-25)

According to the hymn above, in the "fullness of time" when God sent His Son into the world, all of creation — from the angelic realm to the humble earth itself — mysteriously and mystically responded to the re-creation of the world and humanity. This re-creation was accomplished once and for all when heaven was united to earth when Christ was born. When the "virgin mother" offered herself in response to the Lord's initiative, revealed through the angel Gabriel, all of humanity was represented, so to speak, by her obedience and love. A contemporary Athonite elder, Archimandrite George Capsanis, explains this in a Christmas address he delivered entitled "Theotokos — Guide to Freedom:

Morever, we could not have offered the Virgin Mary to God is she had not ofered herself to God. This free offering of the Virgin made the incarnation of God possible, for God wold not violate our freedom by becoming incarnate without our own consent. The Virgin was able to stand before God as our representative, and to say 'Yes' to God. Her deed is a deed of unique responsibility, of love, and of freedom. She gave God what He Himself did not have — human nature — in order that God might give man what he did not have — deification (theosis). Thus the Incarnation of Christ is not only God's free act of offering to man, it is also a free offering from man to God through the Virgin.

A bold expression, indeed, when Fr. George says: "she gave God what He Himself did not have!" The anthropological implications of the above passage from the Archimandrite George are truly "awesome" and worthy of our meditation. "Responsibility," "love," "freedom." What do we do with these incredible gifts that set us apart from the rest of creation? Have we used them recklessly? Toward what goal do we direct them? How often do we consciously offer these gifts back to God in thanksgiving and obedience so as to use them effectively for His service?

The very "richness" of our human nature can be turned against God's will in order to introduce and perpetuate evil in the world. This is revealed in the "slaughter of the innocents," a dark event that attempted to extinguish the Light that entered the world from its very inception.

King Herod was furious when he felt deceived by the magi. Bp. Nikolai Velimirovich offers the following commentary in one of his homilies on the Nativity of Christ:

Fury was an atmosphere that he breathed every day, as is the case, without exception, with men who are slaves to their passions. We can examine this in ourselves: the more we give ourselves over to some passion, the more we find ourselves the children of anger. And anger is the father of murder, as it ultimatley leads to murder.

Although others were the actual executioners of the innocent children, it is Herod who bears the guilt according to Bp. Nikolai:

… Herod alone was guilty. The Evangelist seeks bythis to teach us to be aware of doing evil through others. If we incite anyone to kill, we have killed, and not he; is we incite anyone to lie, we have lied, and not he; if we incite anyone to steal, we have stolen, and not he; if we incite anyone to commit adultery, we have done this, not he; if we incite anyone to commit any sort of sin, we are the sinners, not he …

And further:

So it was children that were the first martyrs for Christ. Their premature death by martyrdom is explained by the depths of human sin, and justified by their receiving wreaths of glory and immortality in Christ's Kingdom. They, the most beloved by Christ, suffered first for Him.

Is there something "Herodian" about our courts and legislators that have legalized — and through that very legalization tempted many — a massive "slaughter of innocents" in our day — a "slaughter" covered up by euphemisms and pseudo-philosophical jargon about the beginning of human life? We have simply lowered the age — the nine months of pregnancy — and changed the environment — now the womb. And what is our level of resistance to all of this?

However, it is spiritually better to look into our own hearts for "Herodian traces" of fury, blindness, paranoia, lust for power and the other passions that place us in the darkness that the Son of God has come to illuminate. May that process of illumination begin or continue as we now await a new year in which we will continue to battle against "dark forces," both in the world and sometimes in our own hearts, fully knowing that the darkness can not overcome the light (cf. JN. 1:5).

A blessed New Year to one and all!

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, DECEMBER 17

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

If the incessant rain of the last two days was snow then we would all be home enjoying a "day off," delaying the inevitable shovelling — or is that snowblowing — until driven by some necessity. As it is there exists a certain dreariness as people scurry about seeking protection under their unseasonably-raised umbrellas. In other words, the climate resembles something found in one of Dostoevesky's "Petersburg Tales."

On Friday afternoon I sat by the radio, pencil in hand, taking notes while listening to a feature on NPR about the practice of fasting. This was presented as a "spiritual response" to September 11. From an assortment of personal sources — pastors, social advocates, etc. — we heard of various reasons for reviving the "ancient practice" of fasting during a time of upheavel and uncertainty. My notes indicate the following about the goals and benefits of fasting:

 

  • an increase in spiritual awareness that brings one closer to the "divine";
  • a practice that allows one to break so many of our inessential attachments to earthly things;
  • a personal struggle against the corrupting and corrosive effects of consumption and materialism;
  • an anticipation of the "world to come" as we await the spiritualization of our existence (this came from a Jewish speaker);
  • a sharpening of the capacities of the heart through a victory "over the self" and our many desires;
  • an increase in our understanding of the poor of this world who more often than not lack even food itself.

 

We also heard that the Pope has asked the Roman Catholic faithful to fast "one day a week" leading up to Christmas for "peace and justice." (I think that is how it was presented). And further, the Muslim period of Ramadan was referred to with its total abstinence from food, drink and sex from sunrise to sundown for a full month.

As interesting and insightful as all of this was, it was also rather frustrating and disappointing, at least for me as an Orthodox priest, that not one of the speakers interviewed about the practice of fasting was an Orthodox Christian. With a little research and effort surely someone could have been found! Fasting is a time-honored and life-tested practice of Orthodoxy that is very much an integral aspect of the "spiritual life" as practiced by many of the faithful very seriously to this day. In fact, we are now within the period of the Nativity Fast as part of our preparation for the glorious Feast of our Lord's Advent in the flesh. Orthodox Christians do not have to rediscover the ancient practice of fasting, but simply practice it with humility and sobriety seeking only the "reward" of our heavenly Father.

As an NPR feature, there was not a whole lot of focus on God, but rather that over-used term of "spirituality." Therefore, the link with prayer was also hardly mentioned. So, we always want to remember that Christ taught us that trinity of virtuous practices: almsgiving, prayer and fasting and how they need to be combined and balanced:

When you give alms ..
And when you pray ...
And when you fast ...
(MATT. 6:1-18)

Not "if" but "when."

It would be ironic and unfortunate if, while others are discovering the discipline of fasting (or prayer, almsgiving, etc.), Orthodox Christians would simply take it all for granted or even abandon such essential practices under the pressures and enticements of a hedonistic culture that is intent on serving only the elusive "self." If the Orthodox are going to proclaim "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (JUDE 3) effectively and convincingly, then it must be done in all of its fulness, including the "ancient practices" of the early Church.

Our immeditate task is to complete the current Nativity Fast in a good spirit and thus rejoice and feast when we proclaim that "Christ is born!"

This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting. (MK. 9:29)

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, DECEMBER 10

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

Greetings to one and all on yet another Monday morning! In Cincinnati we are enjoying a fine, crisp late-fall morning that is, considering the late date, only faintly exuding a taste of the winter to come. The aging process leaves me with no feelings of impatience for the snow and ice to come; yet, based upon my experience as a child - golden memories indeed! - I always enjoy a "white Christmas." To this day, I cannot quite imagine Christmas in Florida or Arizona. (If someone is out there in cyberspace from one of these places, please let me know what I am missing). For those who share the more Northern Hemisphere experience of the Lord's Nativity, I would highly recommend the particular poem describing a wintry Nativity scene in the cycle of Yuri Zhivago's poems found as an appendix to Pasternak's novel DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. (As I sit here at my computer, the exact title of the poem eludes me, but I do recall that the title is obvious enough).

To finally get to my original intention this Monday morning, I would simply like to pass on a passage or two from one of the real 'classics' of Christian theology, the work of the fourth c. Christian bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasius the Great, entitled ON THE INCARNATION. As C.S. Lewis has said, the 'modern Christian' will often fear to pick up such a work, convinced ahead of time that it will too difficult or technical to understand. In so doing, we then lose a more direct contact with the great Christian minds of the past and their insights. For actually, a 'classic' is so designated because it is very readable as it combines profundity of thought with clarity of expression. This is quite true of ON THE INCARNATION. The 'style' is very straightforward, being rather 'jargon-free' and direct in its development of the main thesis of the work. Rather liberating actually, when you think of, or are familiar with, contemporary theological writing; some of which is so 'heavy' or precisely jargon-filled that you need a seminar led by a scholar to unpack its meaning!

St. Athanasius is simply presenting the theology of the Church as one who is immersed in the 'mind of the Church.' His treatise ON THE INCARNATION, brings out many of the implications of the one overwhelming Truth of the Christian faith:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (JN. 1:14)

The Incarnation, according to St. Athanasius, was God's 'solution' to the 'divine dilemma' caused by the Fall, uperbly and movingly described in the following passage:

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits ... What then, was God being God, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? .. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

Ingenious! Not only did humanity find itself in the horrible dilemma of now living in a world filled with sin and death — which is the ultimate cause of anxiety, anguish, fear, etc. But God is faced with a dilemma concerning His own world, the world He loves and has created. With his clarity and directness, St. thanasius writes of the Incarnation thus:

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world … now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us … Pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own … He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless Virgin, without the agency of a human father … This He did that He might again turn to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection.

We need to read the Fathers directly, just as, of course, we need to read the Holy Scriptures directly. The Fathers help us understand the Scriptures with their great insights, a result of holy living based on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Such classics as ON THE INCARNATION allow us to look above and within, not simply around and without to the bright lights and commercial packaging, if not exploitation, of the great mystery of the Word becoming flesh.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 26

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

Monday morning sometimes has the effect of "bringing all good things to an end" — rather abruptly perhaps. I refer, of course, to Thanksgiving Day and the entire weekend that just passed. I hope it was a time of good fellowship and rest for those who particularly needed it. For some, there could still be some disorientation from the calamity of Sept. 11 and the ensuing war that we find ourselves in. Here, we need to pray for that true consolation that comes only from Christ.

On this particular Monday morning, we could find ourselves thinking or saying one of two things (though usally they are intermingled):

"Only thirty shopping days left before Christmas - and I have'nt even started!"

Or:

"In thirty days we will celebrate the Feast of our Lord's Incarnation - the first time in the new millenium."

As I said above, these two thoughts may for the most part be working simultaneously in our minds. Both demand time and effort. The deeper issue is one of "priorities" or, to use more biblical language, to discover where the "treasure" of our heart is to be found:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (MATT. 6:21)

Gift-giving for our friends and loved ones takes on meaning and significance within the context of celebrating the Nativity of Christ. Otherwise, we are faced with a whirlwind of activity (and spending) that will leave us dissatisfied (and wondering why) once all the gifts are opened and all the meals eaten.

In order to "orient" us toward Christ, I would like to present some texts that speak of the mystery of Christ's Person and simply the overwhelming mystery of the entrance into our world of the "Word made flesh." If genuine philosophy begins with a sense of wonder; then genuine Christianity must also begin with a sense of wonder when we meditate upon the Incarnation and all of its implications for human life. (I "wonder," though, just how much wonder remains when Christ is no longer believed in as the God-Man, He who is truly God and truly man).

We can begin by remembering the long period of preparation and expectant waiting upon the coming of a Savior. This period of expection and preparation that demands patience and perseverance as well as trust in God's promises, is precisely given to us to experience in a condensed form, so to speak, in the Advent Season/Fast that leads up to the Feast of the Nativity. The Nativity Fast is thus something of a "microcosm" of the expectant longing of Israel and the whole world for the dawn of a new day of deliverance. This is beautifully expressed in the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great in the form of a prayer:

Through the tender compassion of Thy mercy, Thou didst visit him (humanity) in various ways: Thou didst send prophets; Thou didst perform mighty works by Thy saints, who in every generation were well-pleasing to Thee; Thou didst speak to us by the mouth of Thy servants the prophets, foretelling to us the salvation which was to come; Thou didst give us the law as a help; Thou didst appoint angels as guardians. And when the fulness of time had come, Thou didst speak to us through Thy Son Himself ...

In a prayer saturated with scriptual allusions, the last sentence paraphrases the words of St. Paul:

But when the fulness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law. (GAL. 4:4)

An early and somewhat unknown Jewish-Christian text from the second century - The Odes of Solomon - speak poetically of the "emptying" of the Son of God on our behalf:

His love for me brought low his greatness.
He made himself like me so that I might receive him.
He made himself like me so that I might be clothed in him.
I had no fear when I saw him,
for he is mercy to me.
He took my nature so that I might understand him,
my face so that I should not turn away from him.

The Incarnation of the Word and Son of God made possible our communion with God, called "deification" by the great Fathers of the Church. An early Church father, St. Irenaeus of Lyons said it well:

How could the human race go to God if God had not come to us? How should we free ourselves from our birth into death if we had not been born again according to faith by a new birth generously given by God, thanks to that which came about from the Virgin's womb? (Against Heresies, IV, 33, 4)

This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became the Son of Man; so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God. Indeed we should not be able to share in immortality without a close union with the Immortal. How could we have united ourselves with immortality if immortality had not become what we are, in such a way that we should be absorbed by it, and thus we should be adopted as Sons of God?

The Nativity of Christ begins the "process" of the regeneration of humanity; of drawing us back into communion with God; and of redirecting our fallen lives back toward the Kingdom of Heaven. For this we are
filled with wonder, we rejoice, and hopefully we re-orientate our lives toward Christ, the "Word made flesh." Sounds like Christmas can be very exciting!

 

Fr. Steven

 

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 21

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

Having missed on Monday morning, I thought to again resort to the (alliterative) back-up of a Midweek Morning Meditation as you begin to prepare for Thanksgiving Day and the entire weekend perhaps. Those in the Orthodox Church in America have received a blessing/dispensation to "break the fast" on this one day of our national holiday which resonates with profound Christian themes through its very name of "Thanksgiving."

As Christians we are "eucharistic beings" who celebrate and participate in the Eucharist. Now, eucharist is derived from the Greek word eucharistia which means, precisely, "thanksgiving." As we prepare to receive the Eucharist, we give thanks to God for the Gift of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gives Himself to us as "food" through and in which we have communion with Him. The deified Flesh and Blood of our Savior are truly "holy things" that are a "provision for the journey of eternal life;" and by them we "receive communion of the Holy Spirit." (Prayer of St. Basil the Great)

So, as the food of our Thanksgiving feast that is perhaps already on our minds passes into our systems to delight our palates and fill our stomachs to satiation and beyond (hopefully not to put us to sleep in front of the television set in the presence of our company); we need to examine the organic connection between food, thanksgiving, communion and God, so that the essential dimension of this day is not lost to us.

Our sure guide for such a "meditation" is Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who has written with great insight on these particular themes and their inner connection. In his now classic FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD, we encounter his "eucharistic vision" of all of human life, as he relates God, food, communion and thanksgiving in the initial act of creation in the magnificent opening chapter entitled, "The Life of the World."

On the gift of food, Fr. Alexander writes the following:

In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as COMMUNION WITH GOD. The world as man's food is not something "material" and limited to material functions, thus different from , and opposed to, specifically "spiritual" functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God BLESSES everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: 'O taste and see that the Lord is good." (p. 14)

How different from how we make look at the food we eat (and waste)! Fr. Alexander exposes "this world's" understanding of food as ultimately connected with death:

Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. Food itself is dead, it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse. (p. 17)

Our mouth-watering hunger, inescapable for us as biological beings, can nevertheless serve as a "sign" for something higher, as an expression of our capacity to transcend the merely biological as human persons created in "the image and likeness of God:"

Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by "eating." The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to BLESS God for the food and the life he receives from Him. (p. 14-15)

To "bless" God is to thank Him for all of the gifts we receive from Him, beginning with the very food that sustains our life. To sit down to a "thanksgiving dinner" groping around for "someone" or "something" to thank is rather pitiful. This is why it should be inconceivable for a Christian family to sit down to any meal and not offer a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving to the living God Who is the Source of all life and all gifts. All of this is fulfilled in the Eucharist itself, the "ultimate food" for it is the "Bread of life" given "for the life of the world." Everyone needs to carefully and prayerfully read the "Bread of Life" discourse found in JN. 6 (esp. v. 35-59)

Our "priestly vocation" - "you ... are a royal priesthood" (I PET. 2:9) - has truly cosmic dimensions when understood in the light of the themes traced above. We will allow Fr. Alexander the last word in today's Midweek Morning Meditation:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is THE PRIEST. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (p. 15)

May your Thanksgiving Day be blessed.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 12

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

In his very popular book THE WINTER PASCHA, Fr. Tom Hopko begins the first chapter in the following manner:

When winter begins to make its way into the northern hemisphere, the Church of Christ begins to celebrate a "splendid three-day Pascha."

For some who may be reading this   especially our non-Orthodox friends, or those new to the Orthodox Church   that may seem to be a rather esoteric statement. Just what is a "splendid three-day Pascha?" What is being referred to? Very simply, the Nativity of Christ or, as we like to say, Christmas. The word Pascha, of course, means "passover" or "passage," and is used to designate the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the Christian Passover celebration of our salvation and deliverance from death to life. This word Pascha, which resonates so deeply in the minds and hearts of Orthodox Christians, is thus also applied to the Feast of Christ's birth. Why is this so? In the words of a Russian Orthodox commentator (quoted in Fr. Hopko's book):

… similarly to the feast of Christ's Glorious Resurrection, the feast of Christ's Nativity is called PASCHA. This emphasizes its close conncection with the mystery of our salvation and deliverance from sin and death; the mystery which the holy Church proclaims in her dogmatic teachings and with which she brings us into direct spiritual contact in her liturgical services and sacraments.

The Incarnation of the Word of God (Christmas) begins that descent of the Son of God into the space and time of our fallen world that will culminate in His redemptive death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection from the dead (Easter). This movement of descent, and even abasement on the Cross, manifests the kenosis ("self-emptying") of our Lord. It actually begins when He is conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit; but is revealed to the world when He is truly born in the cave near Bethlehem. This entire divine dispensation — the economy of our salvation — is "paschal" in that it continually leads us to abundant life. As Fr. Hopko puts it:

The Pascha of His Cross was prepared by the Pascha of His Coming. The Pascha of His Resurrection was begun by the Pascha of His Incarnation.

In other words, to use the insightful phrase of, I believe, St. Gregory of Nyssa: He did not die because He was born; rather He was born in order to die.

Beginning tomorrow, November 15, that celebration of our Lord's nativity in the flesh is still/only forty days away. No one will let you forget that. Especially our retail industries' advertising strategists. Catalogues, promotions, enticing offers and the like will begin to pour into our mail or over the television and radio. If we so choose, we can "add items to our cart" in the comfort of our homes as we surf the net for the best bargains out there. (This, of course, eliminates parking lots and piped-in music - but also human contact).

Shopping and spending will even be cast in patriotic terms this Christmas season I would assume - take your part in "stimulating the economy" and thus aid in the struggle against terrorism! I am not going to argue against this. But I will try and direct your focus and energy elsewhere (if, indeed, we want to discover the "reason for the season").

On November 15, we begin the forty-day Nativity/Advent Fast. Every great Feast in the life of the Church is preceded by a Fast. This is the rhythm of our liturgical life, a rhythm that demands patience and perseverance. Also trust and obedience in the wisdom of the Church. It essentially means that we "party" after Christmas - not before. That may make us something of "non-comformists" in relation to others around us, but we can only say, "so be it."

Does this mean there is to be no joy? How can that be, when anything and everything connected to Christ brings joy! The "tone" may be different between "fasting" and "feasting" but in the one seamless life of the Church … a life in Christ … all of our efforts and practices are sources of joy and spiritual uplift.

It is time … the very eve actually … to embrace prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to prepare to meet the Feast of Our Lord's Nativity in the Flesh with that inner joy and readiness that takes us far beyond a "Merry Christmas" but rather into the depths of the "mystery of godliness: God manifest in the flesh." (I TIM. 3:16)

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 5

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and
the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He
is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and
cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (I JN. 1:8-9)

Disorder and instability reign in the "baseball universe" on this Monday morning (not to be confused with the text above from St. John!), for the mighty New York Yankees   the "Bronx bombers"   have been dethroned as world champions, and in a most uncharacteristic manner. (Since I was pulling for the Yankees, I found this most disagreeable). However, I doubt that you are looking for any meaningful post-game analysis from me, so my one parting comment is that losing can potentially be more character-building than winning, given the type of emphasis we put on winning in American sports. This was summed up years ago by a famous football coach who said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing!"

Actually, what is on my mind this Monday morning is SIN. Not that I am consciously planning anything, of course; but due to the fact that sin will be the subject of our discussion in the church this evening based upon the SCOBA encyclical "And the Word Became Flesh ..." The second section of this finely-written document from our bishops is entitled "The Sin that Separates Us from God." We need to be consciously aware of the "bad news" before we can embrace the "Good News" with our entire being — body, soul and heart. We have been saved from sin and its consequences — corruption and death. As St. Paul wrote:

The sting of death is sin, and the power of
sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who
gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus
Christ. (I COR. 15:56-57)

For the wages of sin is death, but the free
gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus
our Lord. (ROM 6:23)

But God shows his love for us in that while we
were yet sinners Christ died for us. (ROM. 5:8)

Salvation is about eternal life or eternal death. It is that simple and that ultimate. This is why we must be intensely serious about the "sin that separates us from God," and equally serious about our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no room or time for a casual or "feel good" Christianity. The stakes are too high. We have only so much time, perhaps less than we would like to acknowledge. In fact, there was an Orthodox monk who always used to say,

It is later than you think! Hasten, therefore,
to do the work of God.

And yet, as the bishops write in this document:

Perhaps one of the most curious aspects of modern
American society is the relationship to sin. The
action of sin is not new, but American society's
understanding of it may be. Most people do not
believe that they are actually sinning. Notice
how the word sin itself has almost disappeared from
our vocabulary. Even in Church many people are
uncomfortable when the word sin appears in a sermon
or hymn. Par. 38

We may have "problems" or "dysfunction" for which we may just have to seek therapy in order to make the necessary "adjustments." But sin - the very word sounds too strong or even too "ultimate" in that it implies a religious category of thought that makes us feel uneasy because it points toward an unltimate Truth that refuses to be reduced to a kind of moral/spiritual relativism. So, our battle is against the sin that works within our hearts and the prevailing ideas that seek to convince our minds that sin is an outdated if not dangerous concept that will lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with interior self-examination or probing of the heart (precisely what we need to do before coming to Confession).

If sin is defined narrowly or legalistically, then perhaps that could be true. If sin is understood as a series of transgressions against a firmly-placed moral law or abstract standard, which ultimately results in feelings of guilt or inadequacy, then we may find ourselves is an "unhealthy" cycle that seems inescapable. But what does the word sin actually mean? The Greek word "amartia" means, according to the bishops' document:

… "missing the mark," as in archery or darts.
You shoot the arrow and you miss the bull's
eye, sometimes by more and sometimes by less.

Our first question should be: "What is the mark?"
What exactly are we aiming for? The short answer
is that we are to strive to be everything that
God expects us to be, to truly reflect the image
and likeness of God. Striving for holiness is
not becoming something other than ourselves. It is
precisely becoming ourselves, becoming authentic.
Sin takes us further away from that "mark" and as a
consquence we become something less than ourselves.

To draw near to God in a loving relationship, to be authentially human in the process, to actually partake of the holiness of God through His grace … This is our human vocation. This gives dignity and purpose to our lives as well as point to the "greatness" of the human person. Sin distorts all of this because it redirects our passion elsewhere — where God is not, so to speak. Then we are lost and must begin the journey back to the "mark" through repentance. With the reality of the Risen Christ before us and even within us, we always are able to experience a "change of mind" that characterizes true repentance. Through repentance we leave behind the emptiness and delusion of sin and return to the fulness of God:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and
Christ shall give you light. (EPH. 5:14)

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2001

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends,

And as for that in the good soil, they are
those who, hearing the word, hold it fast
in an honest and good heart, and bring forth
fruit with patience. (LK. 8:15)

It is very difficult indeed to look "inwardly" when so many demands are made on us "outwardly" — our jobs, schedules, family, relationships, responsibilities, etc. However, when the outward becomes a source of tension or even conflict — a sure sign of impatience — it is probably because the inward has been neglected if not forgotten. A "good heart," like a good garden, demands care and cultivation. When applied to the heart, we call this care and cultivation "interior activity." The word "activity" alerts us to the fact that this will demand hard work. For this work to be fruitful, the grace of God is essential — the Gospel has nothing to do with "self-help" philosophies — but we must also manifest desire:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (MAT. 6:21)

To have a "good heart" as Christ spoke of, really has nothing to do with sentimentality and "good feelings" (or having the ability to shed copious tears when watching a melodramtic film for that matter). It all goes much deeper. If our word heart is from the Greek "kardia," then perhaps we can speak of an "Orthodox kardiology" that approaches the subject primarily on the interior level, both psychological and spiritual. Bp. Kallistos Ware, in describing the place of the heart in THE PHILOKALIA, which he has translated into English, describes the heart as follows:

HEART (kardia): not simply the physical organ but the spiritual center of man's being, man as made in the image of God, his deepest and truest self, of the inner shrine, to be entered only through sacrifice and death, in which the mystery of the union between the divine and human is consummated.'"I call with my whole heart," says the psalmist - that is, with body, soul and spirit.' (LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT, Step 28) Heart has thus an all-embracing significance...

Bishop Kallistos is simply synthesizing an ancient and profound tradition of spiritual wisdom in this insightful passage and in his many other writings about Orthodox Christian spirituality. One of the most well-known and beloved of such passages come from the 7th c. mystic, St. Isaac the Syrian:

And what is a compassionate heart? It is a heart that burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts, for the devils, for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion … that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and the suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears every moment … for all the enemies of truth and for all who cause harm, that they may be protected and forgiven. he prays even for serpents in the boundless compassion that wells up in his heart after God's likeness.

Such an experience comes after years of labor spent in cultivating the garden of the heart — through prayer, fasting and almsgiving combined with a deep and abiding faith in God. If we look into our hearts, just what may we initially find there? In his great SPIRITUAL HOMILIES, St. Macarius tells us all things indeed, the "good, the bad and the ugly:"

The heart inself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. There also are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the Kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace — all things are there. (HOMILY 43:7)

In the interior activity of cleansing the heart, our goal is to expel the bad and the ugly so that only the good remains, for as Christ taught us:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (MATT. 5:8)

The great philosophical novels of Dostoevsky are in many ways explorations of the heart. As the heart goes, so goes the path to salvation or damnation for Dostoevsky, which is why sin and redemption are so central to his novels. In the agonizing reflections of Dmitri Karamazov over the enigmatic and mysterious reality of beauty and its connection to the heart, we hear the following:

The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man. (Before you die, you must read THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV!)

We can lose that battle and thus forfeit our salvation in the process. But we can lose that battle on a daily basis in the so-called simple events of life that test our hearts and its "condition" by lying, cheating, gossiping, stealing, judging, hating. Through envy, lust, anger, vanity or pride. Or by simply being "hardhearted" in our relationships with others through a lack of charity, care, compassion or, finally, love. To "sin against love" is the ultimate sin that squeezes the life out of our hearts. We will bitterly regret this at the end of our life, when we reflect back at how well we served God through love or the Evil One through hatred. In fact, St. Isaac tells us that the anguish of those in hell is primarily the horrible awareness of having "sinned against love" and not being able to repent of it! The passage at the beginning of this meditation was taken from the Gospel, read yesterday in the Liturgy, about the patience which is the fruit of a good heart. Patience is essential for love to be present, but this virtue must be cultivated through the interior activity of purifying the heart. If we are "too busy" for such activity, then we may just have to begin at the beginning and take a hard look at where our treasure actually is. May our Lord Jesus Christ "illumine our hearts" for that essenial task.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2001

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Anger lodges in the bosom of fools" (ECCLES. 7:9)

"Man's anger does not bring about the righteousness of God." (JAS. 1:20)

The Church New Year began on September 1. Therefore, we are ten days and one Great Feast - the Nativity of the Theotokos - into the Church New Year according to the ecclesiastical calendar of the Orthodox Church. This September beginning reflects both the Old Testament way of determining the New Year (still to this day a practice among the Jews, though they use a moveable calendar for the precise date); and the practice of the Roman/Byzantine Empire which was the cultural world of the Church for centuries. Without futher digression, may I simply express my hope that our Lord will bless your "comings and goings" as you hopefully begin anew.

It was two Mondays ago when I wrote on the pernicious practice of slander and gossip; suggesting that we succumb to the temptation of "idle words" almost thoughtlessly because, when uncontrolled, it becomes a pattern of behavior. And yet we also know that many of our harsh, brutal and "deadly" words are provoked by anger. So, I would like to pass on some thoughtful insights into the passion of anger for this morning's meditation. "Anger, slander and gossip" form something of an "unholy trinity" of unrighteousness.

Once anger sets in, it is almost impossible to control the explosion of hurtful or abusive words that will come pouring out. Whoever said that words are harmless is either terribly naive or rather dense. Words are weapons of destruction when hurled forth by the power of anger. Just a few words, said from a heart poisoned by anger, are like a knife in the heart of the other. We can later ask for forgiveness, of course, but we also know that the words can never actually be taken back once said. These words serve to build a "stockpile' of resentment over the course of time. How often have we been reproached by a loved one (perhaps years later!) with the words:

I'll never forget when you said so-and-so to me!

Who then rejoices but the Evil One? For this reason Christ taught:

You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. (MATT. 6:21-22)

The implication of our Lord's words is that to even call someone a 'fool' out of the anger of the heart, is to "murder" that person. With his usual forceful directness, St. John Chrysostom describes anger in the following manner:

Anger is a strong fire, consuming all things in its path; it wastes the body and corrupts the soul, and renders a man base and odious to look upon. And if it were possible for the angry man to see himself at the time of his anger, he would not need any other admonition, for there is nothing less pleasing than an angry countenance. Anger is an intoxicant and more wretched than a demon.

The softest of faces can become unrecognizable when distorted by anger. Such a transformation can hardly be described as anything else but ugly.

St. John Cassian, the Roman (+428) describes anger thus in his discussion of the Eight Vices (found in Vol. I of THE PHILOKALIA):

Our fourth struggle is against the demon of anger. We must, with God's help, eradicate his deadly poison from the depths of our souls. So long as he dwells in our hearts and blinds the eyes of the heart with his sombre disorders, we can neither discriminate what is for our good, nor achieve spiritual knowledge, nor fulfill our good intentions, nor participate in true life.

St. John anticipates our defense of saying that our anger is often "reasonable" or justified:

No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul's eyes, preventing it from seeing the Sun of Righteousness. Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, WHETHER REASONABLE OR UNREASONABLE, obstructs our spiritual vision.

According to the Fathers (based upon their reading of the Scriptures) there is a good use of anger when properly understood and directed. St. John sums up this insight in the following manner:

Our incensive power (vehement feelings in the soul such as anger) can be used in a way that is according to nature only when turned against our own impassioned or self-indulgent thoughts. This is what the Prophet teaches us when he says: 'Be angry, and do not sin' (PS. 4:4 LXX) - that is, be angry with your own passions and with your malicious thoughts, and do not sin by carrying our their suggestions.

We need to direct our "anger" against wickedness and evil - from the Evil One or from our own hearts. Then we can redirect this energy away from our neighbor and escape the captivity of a deadly passion that
enslaves us. Only then can we begin to speak of genuine freedom.

"Be angry but do not sin; and do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil." (EPH. 4:26-27)

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, AUGUST 27, 2001

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"A man who has the habit of a slanderous tongue will never mature in character as long as he lives." (SIRACH 23:20)

Greetings on the last Monday morning of the Church's liturgical year! By next Monday — that of the upcoming Labor Day weekend — we will already be into September, and hence will have begun the new Church year which commences on September 1.

We may cast a glance backward and try and honestly assess how we prayed, fasted, and gave alms over the course of that year which is now about to end. But what if we were to honestly determine just how many idle, useless, abusive, profane, obscene, blasphemous or simply empty words poured forth from our mouths over the course of that same year!? Is your mind reeling? Are you desparately searching for such words as incalculable? Mathematically, are we thinking perhaps ten to the power of ten? Does that elusive concept of the "infinite" now begin to make sense?

This is a serious question well worth some reflection, for the simple but sobering fact that our Lord Jesus Christ said:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render
account for every CARELESS WORD they utter; for by
your words you will be justified, and by your words
you will be condemned. (MATT. 12:36-37)

Perhaps this is because we, as human beings made "in the image and likeness of God," (the one, unchanging anthropological principle that informs every discussion of what it means to be human) are the only creatures with the gift of the "word" from the Word of God Himself. (The "language" of the angels, for now at least, remains beyond our comprehension). We communicate through this gift - with God and with our fellow human beings. We praise and bless God, sing songs, write poetry, articulate theology, and say to other persons "I love you" through this extraordinary gift of the word. And yet, through the fall into sin, we abuse this gift through our careless words, thus provoking the stern words of the Lord. Because of sin, we can now say with passion, "I hate you." In his Epistle, St. James writes:

And the tongue is a fire … From the same mouth
come blessing and cursing … Does a spring pour
forth from the same opening fresh water and
brackish? … No more can salt water yield fresh.
(JM. 3:6-12)

Of course, before we even get to words of slander or judgment, there is that seemingly innocent realm of gossip, where the poison only seeps out before it pours forth in a flood. It usually begins innocently enough:

"How is so-and-so doing"?

"Did you hear what I heard …?"

"Someone told my first cousin who told my wife's brother-in-law, who then told …"

The sheer anticipation of what we might then hear can build up into some kind of ecstasy! We become "all ears" with an attentiveness that we rarely experience when listening to the Holy Scriptures in our liturgical assemblies! (I remember, while a seminarian, how Fr. Schmemann once said that he never trusted a conversation between two seminarians that lasted more that five minutes).

Perhaps we can see that fateful — and fatal — dialogue between Eve and the sepent in the Garden of Eden as a deadly form of gossip. They were essentially talking about God "behind His back" and slandering Him in the process. The implicit impudence here is staggering. (see GEN. 3) With bitter regret and lamentation, Adam and Eve learned how such "gossip" has far-reaching consequences. Gossip can become such a compulsive passion that we only fool ourselves when we claim that we can stop it at will. We actually have no more freedom or control here than the alcoholic who claims that he can stop drinking; or the hopeless gambler who makes the same claim about his next bet. In reality, we are caught up into a "habit" that seems to push the very words out of our mouths. Gossip may be the very basis for certain relationships we have with other people in our lives — at work, at school, in the neighborhood, etc. Once begun, it is difficult if not "impossible" — to stop.

I just picked up a short pamphlet entitled: "What the Church Fathers Say about Anger, Slander & Gossip." I would like to pass along some insights from the Fathers from this pamphlet for our meditation today. Their words are sharp and unsparing. The only way to deal with a disease perhaps. Here are some examples:

"What is slander?" someone asked St. Anthony. He replied, "It is every sort of wicked word we dare not speak in front of the person about whome we are complaining."

Just as the deaf man cannot hear or understand what is said, so it is with the absent person someone slanders. That person who is absent cannot reply or rectify the errors of which he is the object. — St. Gregory of Nyssa

Since you get angry with others when they speak evil against you, get angry with yourself when you speak evil against someone. — St. Augustine

You are a human being, and yet you spit the venom of a poisonous serpent. You are a human being and yet you become like a raging beast. You have been given a mouth not to wound but to heal. — St. John Chrysostom

"God is all feet, all hands, all eyes." Do not attempt to excuse your slander by saying, "that is what people are saying. I'm just telling you what I heard." My friends, isn't it illegal to resell stolen or damaged merchandise? You heard something — well, act as if you had not. This is the advice of the son of Sirach in Scripture, "Let anything you hear die within you; rest assured, it will not make you burst." — St. Augustine

The Fathers counseled us about a "holy silence." Perhaps we can begin by consciously trying to carefully select our words so that we become bearers of "good tidings" rather than gossip, slander or judgment. With God "all things are possible."

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, JUNE 25, 2001

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

We have made the transition from Spring to Summer since last Monday morning's meditation.  Though I have the suspicion that many of us were not exactly feeling 'spring-like' as recently as last Monday! Forgive me if I am mistaken. As most of our experiences, the approaching summer has two aspects to it: on the one hand time off, vacations, over-all 'slow down' of sorts; on the other, the weary thought of someone standing on one edge of a desert staring into the shimmering heat and reluctant to begin the trek to an unseen end-point.

Tired and wilting bodies can lead to a tired and wilting soul due to the intimate connection between body and soul. Weariness of soul and body is thus an ever-present possibility for us. As some would like to say, this is part of the 'human condition.' (Air conditioning helps, but the issue goes much deeper I suspect!) The most penetrating analysis of this on both a psychological and spiritual level that I recall, goes back to the writing of a fourth c. monk by the name of Evagrius of Pontus (+399). In a famous work of his known as THE PRAKTIKOS, he describes how a monk living in the desert is assailed by the "noonday demon" so as to give up his life of prayer and solitude. Even living in twenty-first century America, we can somehow feel the strength of this temptation as described by Evagrius. The passage is lengthy, but deserves a careful reading for its superb and down-to-earth insights:

The demon of acedia, also called the noonday demon (cf. PS. 91:6) is the most oppressive of all the demons. He attacks the monk toward the fourth hour and beseiges the soul until the eighth hour. He begins by giving the impression that the sun is hardly moving or not moving at all, and that the day has at least forty hours. After this, he continually draws the monk to his window; he forces him to go out of his cell, to look at the sun and calculate how much time still separates him from the ninth hour (the hour of Vespers and of the meal), and finally to look hear and there to see if some brother is not coming to see him … The demon makes him disgusted with the place he is in, with his way of life, with his manual labor. Then he makes him think that the brothers are lacking in charity, that he has nobody to console him. And if anyone at such a time has given pain to the monk, the demon makes use of this to increase his hatred. Again, he drives him to desire some other place, where he would easily find what he needs, where he could do some work that would be easier and more profitable. He adds that one can be pleasing to God anywhere. Together with this, he reminds the monk of his family and his previous way of life. He describes the long time that the monk still has to live and sets before his eyes the efforts of asceticism; finally, so to say, he sets the machine going that will drive the monk to leave his cell and flee from the arena.

Now that is keen observation, the kind of observation made through years of experience in combatting just such a demon. (Evagrius spent the last sixteen years of his life in a very austere form of desert monasticism and became a great teacher bases upon the fruits of his perseverance. He is, by the way, the first to come up with the list of the "eight passions" that was later transformed in the West into the "seven deadly sins."). On our part, besides the appreciation it should fill us with precisely for the great desert fathers and mothers, we need but substitute the word "Christian" for "monk," and imagine how those same psychological processes work in us to deflect us from our goal — the keeping of the commandments of Christ and the Kingdom of heaven.

With this in mind, we should acknowledge the appropriateness of yesterday's Gospel reading taken from the Sermon on the Mount. "Appropriate" in the sense of being a providential preparation for the summer battle ahead with the noonday demon of indifference, apathy, despondency and the like. For Our Lord clearly states some of the basic choices before us, reminding us of our true calling as Christians with even a poetic simplicity and beauty when He speaks of the "birds of the air" and the "lilies of the field." Yet, it is that ever-stark choice between God and mammon that demands our attention and the loyalty of our heart:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (MATT. 6:24)

The surrounding culture conspires against us in leading us toward the lure of mammon — money, comfort, indulgence of the passions, etc. — while the voice of the Church calls us to worship of the one, true and living God and Jesus Christ:

And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. (JN. 17:3)

Which "voice" is the one that resonates the most for us? Let us indeed enjoy the summer, but in the process let us stay close to the Church so as not to stray into the desert of a spiritual wasteland that leaves us hungry, thirsty, bewildered and, perhaps worst of all "lukewarm" toward the Lord. The Son of Man that St. John sees in a vision warns us sternly:

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth. (REV. 2:15-16)

Yet, the same Lord holds us a promise that should fill us with a holy zeal:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. (REV. 2:20-22)

Our main choice this summer will not be between Disneyworld or Myrtle Beach. It will be between God and mammon.

May everyone's summer be blessed.

 

Fr. Steven

 

MONDAY, JUNE 18, 2001

Dear Fathers, Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

 

"Monday, Monday … can't trust that day."

If you remember well where the above lyric comes from — when it was playing over the radio as a popular song — then you are no longer young! It nicely captures our American approach to Monday morning (or maybe it is actually universal): back to work after a (peaceful?) weekend interlude of family, friends, etc. Or, can we even speak of "peaceful interludes" amymore? Of necessity, or by choice, how many continue to work on Saturdays and Sundays? Or, how many bring the anxieties and cares of work home for the weekend, so that even though we are not there it is as if we were on an interior level? Or yet again, are frantic on "catching up" with so much neglected work around the house? (Hopefully, yesterday's "Fathers Day" brought a good deal of our busy-ness to a temporary halt).

When the "grind" of daily life begins to overwhelm us, then questions about meaningfulness, purpose, and direction will inevitably arise. For these are precisely the questions that assail us in our humanity, thus distinguishing us from all other creatures. If or when our faith in God is weak, then our answers to these questions are tentative or unconvincing. In short, confusion and then despair or depression to some degree will afflict us. In fact, these conditions are like the "enemy at the gates," ever-present and seemingly inexorable in their readiness to attack. In our success-driven, affluent society that keeps us too busy to even think about the important questions of life, how many people are on some form of anti-depression medication?!

The saints, based upon one of the psalm verses (90:6), offered many insights into the "noonday demon" of despondency or depression. They understood well the assaults of this particular demon and how it seeks to drive away from our minds and hearts the consolation of Christ by filling us with feelings of emptiness, listlessness, etc. It trys to convince us to not care about anything, for ultimately there is nothing to care about. All that really matters is the "self' and the futile attempt to satisfy our physical needs as long as this is possible. In fact, the Fathers teach us that this is one of the eight passions or "thoughts" that maliciously seeks access to our hearts. The technical term is "accedia," usually translated as "spiritual torpor," "apathy," and the like.

There exists a book entitled CONQUERING DEPRESSION, published by St. Herman of Alaska Press. (Actually, the full title is HEAVENLY WISDOM FROM GOD-ILLUMINED TEACHERS ON CONQUERING DEPRESSION). The main body of the book is further entitled, 'One Hundred Fifty-Three "Caught Fishes" by the Holy Fathers and Mothers On Depression.' In other words, this is a collection of one hundred fifty-three texts from the great saints and teachers of the Church concerning the topic of depression — its definition, origin and ways to overcoming it. The one hundred fifty-three caught fishes correspond, of course, to the miraculous catch of precisely that number of fish by the disciples as recorded in the Gospel of St. John, when the Risen Christ commanded them to throw their nets overboard after their own efforts had been unsuccessful. These sayings are "spiritual gems" of practical insight and assistance. The editor of the book, Abbot Herman, comments thus:

Thus, beloved struggler of the 20th century, accept this "fish basket" of sayings on the subject of depression and despondency, and do not let the fish spoil while they are in your hands. Use them to fortify your spiritual powers. Make yourself happy and strong by using the experiences or victorious men and women who took pains to share their knowledge with you.

Allow me to pass on just a few of these insights so that we can meditate upon them in order to struggle as Christians against the "gloom and doom" that seeks to undermine our relationship with our living Lord, Jesus Christ. First, we must understand the enemy in order to defeat him. From the first section of the book, entitled "What is Depression?" we encounter the following description:

Our major struggle is against the demon of gloom, who obscures the soul's capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying eagerly, from reading Holy Scriptures with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our neighbor. He instills a hatred of every kind of work and even of the Christian life itself. Undermining all the soul's salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralyzed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts.
— St. John Cassian (+435) "On the Eight Vices"

Murmuring, impatience, faintheartedness and especially despair are sins before God — they are the ugly children of sinful disbelief.
— St. Igntius Brianchaninov (+1867) "The Cup of Christ"

If this sounds familiar; in other words, if this describes our inner life when we also feel distant from God, then we want to further understand from whence does this all come from, especially for those of us who call ourselves Christians and seek God's mercy. In the section entitled, "The Origin of Depression," we read the following excerpt:

Despondency first of all comes from faintheartedness and from seeking comfort out of temporal or worldly consolations. It often is a stubborn wilfullness to feel egotistically satisfied at the expence of trusting God's Providence. And since it is ungodly and thus not capable of giving spiritual satisfaction to the soul, man's whole being moans in dejection, lacking God's sunshine. If man continues to seek humanistic, earthly and temporal gratifications … he will increase the pain of depression until the soul gets really sick, actually sick and tired of itself, and feels like a caged bird, confined and thus literally depressed, or pressured by this psychological noise of its wings being battered by the cage, hoping to get peace of quieting down. The real remedy is self-inflicted quietude, stillness in the hope of God's grace.
— Fr. Andrew of New Diveyevo (+1979) "Pastoral Commentaries"

Or, bluntly:

Despondency is born of cowardice, idleness, and idle talk.
— St. Serahim of Sarov (+1833) "A Spiritual Biography"

Our Lord will never leave us defenseless in the struggle. We are victorious in Him, for He is victorious over death itself! Our "Fathers in the Faith" teach us the following in the section entitled, "How to Overcome Depression:"

During times of dryness we should look to see whether there has been any feeling of conceit or self-presumption in the soul; and having found it, we should repent before the Lord and resolve to be more cautious in the future … The cure is to return to the state of grace. Since grace comes by the will of God, all we can do is to pray that He will free us from this dryness and stone-like insensitivity.

What keeps grace in the soul more than anything else? Humility. What makes it withdraw more than anything else? Feelings of pride, a high opinion of oneself, self-reliance. Grace departs as soon as its senses this evil stench of inner pride.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord:  first a man must DENY HIMSELF, and secondly he must FOLLOW CHRIST (MK. 8:34).  The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity — whether in great matters or small.
— St. Theophan the Recluse (+1894) THE ART OF PRAYER

Patient endurance kills the despair that kills the soul; it teaches the soul to take comfort and not to grow listless in the face of its many battles and afflictions.

If a person is constantly mindful of God, he will rejoice: as the psalmist says, "I remembered God, and I rejoiced" (PS. 76:3) For when the intellect is gladdened by the remembrance of God, then it forgets the afflictions of this world, places its hope in Him, and is no longer troubles or anxious.
— St. Peter of Damascus (+12th c.) "Twenty-Four Discources"

In a famous passage, Evagrios the Solitary tells us that the "noonday demon" strikes most often between the fourh and eighth hours of the day, that is, between ten a.m. and two p.m. We are right about in the middle of that assault right now! If that is the case in your life today, then may the Lord be with you — protecting and strengthening you against the assaults of the evil one, filling you with His grace and love!

Flog the foes with the name of Jesus; for there is no stronger weapon against them either in heaven or on earth.
— St. John Climakos (+7th c.) THE LADDER OF DIVINE ASCENT

 

Fr. Steven

p.s.  If this sounds like a book that you would like to add to your library, please contact me and I will tell you from where to order it

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