Saturday, June 27, 2015

Communion with God

A Sermon given by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra at the Church of St Andrew, Athens, 1975.

The man who was brought before the Lord in today's Gospel lesson, my beloved children, is a compelling figure indeed! He was both deaf and dumb, and although he longed to communicate, he could neither hear the words of others, nor give voice to his own thoughts. Above all, he could not communicate with the Lord, to Whom he had been brought.

Faced with the great misfortune of a soul unable to speak to its Redeemer, the Saviour sighed deeply (Mk 7:34), just has He did at the tomb of Lazarus, who had been dead for four days (cf. Jn 11:38). On both occasions our Saviour sighed, because a man who is dead and buried is no different from a man who is incapable of speaking to the Lord or hearing the voice of God.

This is why the Lord addressed only one word to him: Ephphatha - Open! (Mk 7:34). Open ears and hear! Open, mouth and speak! At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak (Mk 7:35). His mouth was opened, the bonds were broken, and his ears began to hear the words addressed to him by God, Who was standing before him in the flesh.

You may think that this event, which took place long ago, has little to do with us. But it seems to me - and I have always been moved by the thought - that all of us are deaf and mute with respect to God. How many of us can say that we've spoken to God, and that God has heard us? How many of us can say that we've heard the words of God; that we've received within ourselves the deep impressions of the divine voice? On the contrary, we are deaf mutes, forever silent and unhearing though standing in the presence of God.

Let us consider, my beloved, the meaning of the word "Ephphatha" - "Open!" Let us consider how God addresses this word to us; let us see how our bonds can be broken, and how we can enter into communion with God.

When we stand before God, we know that, in order to hear and be heard, we must enter into a personal dialogue with Him, and this can only take place by means of the intellect. God is spirit (cf. Jn 4:24), and He communicates Himself to man spiritually, addressing Himself to man's highest spiritual faculty: the intellect. When we open our mouths and cry out to God, God hears us, because He receives the waves of the mind which pulsate outward like sounds from the mouth.

It follows, then, that for my intellect to speak to God, it must first of all turn towards Him. Such a turn is necessary because the intellect is in constant motion, it is forever being side-tracked, thrown off its course, endlessly shifting its focus upwards and downwards, this way and that.

As a result, communication with God requires a movement towards God. It presupposes a passage of the intellect to the creator of the intellect, an exhalation of the mind to the source of inspiration (cf. Gen 2.7); a movement to Him from Whom the intellect came forth, and to Whom it naturally returns.

My beloved, communicating with God requires that the intellect be kept in a certain tension, as if I were about to release it from a sling, and send it flying to God directly, without any deviation from its path. It requires, in other words, an exclusively dedicated movement of the intellect, in which the intellect is free from all thoughts, feelings, concepts, images, and indeed from anything whatsoever that might absorb it, attract its attention, and make it go astray.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Importance of Humility according to St Anthony the Great

St Anthony the Great.jpg
On the 17th of January the Church celebrates the memory of one of the greatest desert fathers St. Anthony the Great (c. 251-356), who is known as The ‘Father of Monks’. Below we provide a very moving story from the life of St Anthony with an invaluable practical lesson on humility.

 At some time, St. Anthony the Great thought to himself “I wonder with whose spiritual achievements my spiritual life can be compared with”. God, however, in order to humble this thought revealed to him in a dream that superior to him was a shoe-maker who had a store in the back streets of Alexandria.

Once it was daybreak, the saint took his staff and headed off to the city. He wanted to meet in person this famed shoe-maker and see his virtues. With great difficulty he discovered his store, sat down at the counter and began asking about his life.

The man was simple and didn’t even occur to him who this elderly monk was that had come so unexpectedly into his store querying him. The man, while continuing to work and without taking his eyes off the shoes he was working on replied gently;

“Elder, I don’t know if I have ever done anything good. Every morning after waking up, I pray and then I start work. First, I think to myself how every person in this city, from the smallest to the greatest will be saved, and only I will be condemned due to my countless transgressions. And in the evening when I go to sleep I have the same thoughts.

The Elder rose with wonder and embraced and kissed him and said emotively:

“You, my brother, like a good merchant, have gained the priceless pearl without toil. I have grown old in the desert, sweated and toiled but have not reached your level of humility.”


Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Acquisition of the Holy Spirit - A Convesation with St Seraphim of Sarov (+1833)

An example of the grace of the Holy Spirit at work within the life and words of St. Seraphim of Sarov has been preserved for us. In November of 1831, a pious Orthodox Christian named Nicholas Motovilov met with Saint Seraphim, and recorded his conversation. The entire conversation can be found here:

Below is an extract from the conversation:

"But how," I asked Father Seraphim, "can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit?"

"It is very simple, your Godliness," he replied. "That is why the Lord says: All things are simple to those who find knowledge (Prov. 8:9, Septuagint). The trouble is that we do not seek this divine knowledge which does not puff up, for it is not of this world. This knowledge which is full of love for God and for our neighbour builds up every man for his salvation.

"Nevertheless," I replied, "I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself His true manifestation in me?"

Father Seraphim replied: "I have already told you, your Godliness, that it is very simple and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize His presence in us. So what do you want, my son?"

"I want to understand it well," I said.

Then Father Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: "We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don't you look at me?"

I replied: "I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain."

Father Seraphim said: "Don't be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am."

Then, bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear: "Thank the Lord God for His unutterable mercy to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: 'Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.' And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the eyes? Just look, and don't be afraid! The Lord is with us!"

After these words I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder. You can imagine the state I was in!

"How do you feel now?" Father Seraphim asked me.

"Extraordinarily well," I said.

"But in what way? How exactly do you feel well?"

I answered: "I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it."

"This, your Godliness," said Father Seraphim, "is that peace of which the Lord said to His disciples: My peace I give unto you; not as the world gives, give I unto you (Jn. 14:21). If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (Jn. 15:19). But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). And to those people whom this world hates but who are chosen by the Lord, the Lord gives that peace which you now feel within you, the peace which, in the words of the Apostle, passes all understanding (Phil. 4:7). The Apostle describes it in this way, because it is impossible to express in words the spiritual well-being which it produces in those into whose hearts the Lord God has infused it. Christ the Saviour calls it a peace which comes from His own generosity and is not of this world, for no temporary earthly prosperity can give it to the human heart; it is granted from on high by the Lord God Himself, and that is why it is called the peace of God. What else do you feel?" Father Seraphim asked me.

"An extraordinary sweetness," I replied.

And he continued: "This is that sweetness of which it is said in Holy Scripture: They will be inebriated with the fatness of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy delight (Ps. 35:8). And now this sweetness is flooding our hearts and coursing through our veins with unutterable delight. From this sweetness our hearts melt as it were, and both of us are filled with such happiness as tongue cannot tell. What else do you feel?"

"An extraordinary joy in all my heart."

And Father Seraphim continued: "When the Spirit of God comes down to man and overshadows him with the fullness of His inspiration, then the human soul overflows with unspeakable joy, for the Spirit of God fills with joy whatever He touches. This is that joy of which the Lord speaks in His Gospel: A woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. In the world you will be sorrowful; but when I see you again, your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you (Jn. 16:21-22). Yet however comforting may be this joy which you now feel in your heart, it is nothing in comparison with that of which the Lord Himself by the mouth of His Apostle said that that joy eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for them that love Him (I Cor. 2:9). Foretastes of that joy are given to us now, and if they fill our souls with such sweetness, well-being and happiness, what shall we say of that joy which has been prepared in heaven for those who weep here on earth? And you, my son, have wept enough in your life on earth; yet see with what joy the Lord consoles you even in this life! Now it is up to us, my son, to add labours to labours in order to go from strength to strength (Ps. 83:7), and to come to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13), so that the words of the Lord may be fulfilled in us: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall grow wings like eagles; and they shall run and not be weary (Is. 40:31); they will go from strength to strength, and the God of gods will appear to them in the Sion (Ps. 83:8) of realization and heavenly visions. Only then will our present joy (which now visits us little and briefly) appear in all its fullness, and no one will take it from us, for we shall be filled to overflowing with inexplicable heavenly delights. What else do you feel, your Godliness?"

I answered: "An extraordinary warmth."

"How can you feel warmth, my son? Look, we are sitting in the forest. It is winter out-of-doors, and snow is underfoot. There is more than an inch of snow on us, and the snowflakes are still falling. What warmth can there be?"

I answered: "Such as there is in a bath-house when the water is poured on the stone and the steam rises in clouds."

"And the smell?" he asked me. "Is it the same as in the bathhouse?"

"No," I replied. "There is nothing on earth like this fragrance. When in my dear mother's lifetime I was fond of dancing and used to go to balls and parties, my mother would sprinkle me with scent which she bought at the best shops in Kazan. But those scents did not exhale such fragrance."

And Father Seraphim, smiling pleasantly, said: "I know it myself just as well as you do, my son, but I am asking you on purpose to see whether you feel it in the same way. It is absolutely true, your Godliness! The sweetest earthly fragrance cannot be compared with the fragrance which we now feel, for we are now enveloped in the fragrance of the Holy Spirit of God. What on earth can be like it? Mark, your Godliness, you have told me that around us it is warm as in a bath-house; but look, neither on you nor on me does the snow melt, nor does it underfoot; therefore, this warmth is not in the air but in us. It is that very warmth about which the Holy Spirit in the words of prayer makes us cry to the Lord: 'Warm me with the warmth of Thy Holy Spirit!' By it the hermits of both sexes were kept warm and did not fear the winter frost, being clad, as in fur coats, in the grace-given clothing woven by the Holy Spirit. And so it must be in actual fact, for the grace of God must dwell within us, in our heart, because the Lord said: The Kingdom of God is within you (Lk. 17:21). By the Kingdom of God the Lord meant the grace of the Holy Spirit. This Kingdom of God is now within us, and the grace of the Holy Spirit shines upon us and warms us from without as well. It fills the surrounding air with many fragrant odours, sweetens our senses with heavenly delight and floods our hearts with unutterable joy. Our present state is that of which the Apostle says; The Kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). Our faith consists not in the plausible words of earthly wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power (cp. I Cor.2:4). That is just the state that we are in now. Of this state the Lord said: There are some of those standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Kingdom of God come in power (Mk. 9:1). See, my son, what unspeakable joy the Lord God has now granted us! This is what it means to be in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, about which St. Macarius of Egypt writes: 'I myself was in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.' With this fullness of His Holy Spirit the Lord has now filled us poor creatures to overflowing. So there is no need now, your Godliness, to ask how people come to be in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Will you remember this manifestation of God's ineffable mercy which has visited us?"

"I don't know, Father," I said, "whether the Lord will grant me to remember this mercy of God always as vividly and clearly as I feel it now."

"I think," Father Seraphim answered me, "that the Lord will help you to retain it in your memory forever, or His goodness would never have instantly bowed in this way to my humble prayer and so quickly anticipated the request of poor Seraphim; all the more so, because it is not given to you alone to understand it, but through you it is for the whole world, in order that you yourself may be confirmed in God's work and may be useful to others. The fact that I am a Monk and you are a layman is utterly beside the point. What God requires is true faith in Himself and His Only-begotten Son. In return for that the grace of the Holy Spirit is granted abundantly from on high. The Lord seeks a heart filled to overflowing with love for God and our neighbour; this is the throne on which He loves to sit and on which He appears in the fullness of His heavenly glory. 'Son, give Me thy heart,' He says, 'and all the rest I Myself will add to thee (Prov. 23:26; Matt. 6:33),' for in the human heart the Kingdom of God can be contained."

"And so, your Godliness, I have now told you and given you a practical demonstration of all that the Lord and the Mother of God have been pleased to tell you and show you through me, poor Seraphim. Now go in peace. The Lord and the Mother of God be with you always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen. Now go in peace."

And during the whole of this time, from the moment when Father Seraphim's face became radiant, this illumination continued; and all that he told me from the beginning of the narrative till now, he said while remaining in one and the same position. The ineffable glow of the light which emanated from him I myself saw with my own eyes. And I am ready to vouch for it with an oath.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"This was from me"

by St. Seraphim of Viritsa
"This was from me" is a famous letter written by Saint Seraphim of Viritsa that he sent to his spiritual child, a bishop who was in a Soviet prison at that time; this homily "This was from me" is written as a consolation and counsel to the bishop to let him know that God the Creator addresses to the soul of man.

 "Have you ever thought that everything that concerns you, concerns Me, also? You are precious in my eyes and I love you; for this reason, it is a special joy for Me to train you. When temptations and the opponent [the Evil One] come upon you like a river, I want you to know that This was from Me.

I want you to know that your weakness has need of My strength, and your safety lies in allowing Me to protect you. I want you to know that when you are in difficult conditions, among people who do not understand you, and cast you away, This was from Me.

 I am your God, the circumstances of your life are in My hands; you did not end up in your position by chance; this is precisely the position I have appointed for you. Weren't you asking Me to teach you humility? And there - I placed you precisely in the "school" where they teach this lesson. Your environment, and those who are around you, are performing My will. Do you have financial difficulties and can just barely survive? Know that This was from Me.

 I want you to know that I dispose of your money, so take refuge in Me and depend upon Me. I want you to know that My storehouses are inexhaustible, and I am faithful in My promises. Let it never happen that they tell you in your need, "Do not believe in your Lord and God." Have you ever spent the night in suffering? Are you separated from your relatives, from those you love? I allowed this that you would turn to Me, and in Me find consolation and comfort. Did your friend or someone to whom you opened your heart, deceive you? This was from Me.

 I allowed this frustration to touch you so that you would learn that your best friend is the Lord. I want you to bring everything to Me and tell Me everything. Did someone slander you? Leave it to Me; be attached to Me so that you can hide from the "contradiction of the nations." I will make your righteousness shine like light and your life like midday noon. Your plans were destroyed? Your soul yielded and you are exhausted? This was from Me.

 You made plans and have your own goals; you brought them to Me to bless them. But I want you to leave it all to Me, to direct and guide the circumstances of your life by My hand, because you are the orphan, not the protagonist. Unexpected failures found you and despair overcame your heart, but know That this was from Me.

 With tiredness and anxiety I am testing how strong your faith is in My promises and your boldness in prayer for your relatives. Why is it not you who entrusted their cares to My providential love? You must leave them to the protection of My All Pure Mother. Serious illness found you, which may be healed or may be incurable, and has nailed you to your bed. This was from Me.

 Because I want you to know Me more deeply, through physical ailment, do not murmur against this trial I have sent you. And do not try to understand My plans for the salvation of people's souls, but unmurmuringly and humbly bow your head before My goodness. You were dreaming about doing something special for Me and, instead of doing it, you fell into a bed of pain. This was from Me.

 Because then you were sunk in your own works and plans and I wouldn't have been able to draw your thoughts to Me. But I want to teach you the most deep thoughts and My lessons, so that you may serve Me. I want to teach you that you are nothing without Me. Some of my best children are those who, cut off from an active life, learn to use the weapon of ceaseless prayer. You were called unexpectedly to undertake a difficult and responsible position, supported by Me. I have given you these difficulties and as the Lord God I will bless all your works, in all your paths. In everything I, your Lord, will be your guide and teacher. Remember always that every difficulty you come across, every offensive word, every slander and criticism, every obstacle to your works, which could cause frustration and disappointment, This is from Me.

Know and remember always, no matter where you are, That whatsoever hurts will be dulled as soon as you learn In all things, to look at Me. Everything has been sent to you by Me, for the perfection of your soul. All these things were from Me."

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Saint Paisios and the Young Man With Protestant Leanings

The following conversation between Fr. Paisios with a pious young man, who had been deceived by the falsehoods of Protestantism, was published in the annual publication O Hosios Gregorios of the Holy Monastery of Gregoriou in Mount Athos in the year 1995.

The late elder with seemingly simplistic answers to the existential questions of the young man, saved that soul from being lost and restored him to the embrace of the Orthodox Church. The Abbot of the Sacred Monastery of Gregoriou, Archimandrite George, gave us permission to republish the text of this conversation:

A Severe Illness Requires a Big Hospital

Eventually I decided to go to the Orthodox Church. I confessed and began to receive communion regularly. Yet I had many serious questions to which I could not find answers. I sought the answers by meeting with theologians and clergy, but still no avail.

“Kosta, no matter how much I try I cannot satisfy you with anything. You want to understand the mysteries of God with your reason. This isn’t Orthodox. Only one thing will save you: let’s go to the Holy Mountain. Will you come?”

This was the opinion of an Archimandrite to whom God led me, I believe. After I agreed, he informed me of a great surgeon (my own characterisation) who is there, so we went. His name was Fr. Paisios. Another blessed elder from Pyrgos, I later learned, said the following about me: “If Fr. Paisios receives him, there is hope, if not, he will be lost in his pride.” He had a point. Fortunately Christ shed His blood for our sins. Glory to His holy name.

I will try to convey as accurately as possible the conversation I had with Fr. Paisios.

Question: Holy Scripture teaches that only Jesus Christ saves. In the Orthodox Church we ask the Virgin Mary to save us. Is this correct?

Answer: Jesus is the only Savour. He offered Himself for us. If you were someone with great power and went to the city with your mother, everyone waiting there for you would greet both you and your mother. They would even say the best words about her, even if they knew nothing about her. And when you heard them, you would rejoice, and would be proud for your mother. So also does Christ rejoice and is proud for his mother, when He hears our good words about her. Look, if a poor woman went to your mother and begged to ask you to appoint her to a position and you did this favour of your mother, then that poor woman would say your mother saved her, even though you appointed her. Well, so we also say that the Virgin Mary saves us, and her Son who as the One in power, yet is humble, rejoices to hear good words being spoken by us about His mother.

Question: The Lord taught us to pray to God the Father. The Orthodox Church prays to the Theotokos and the Saints who are people. Is this correct?

Answer: Listen. All prayers go to God. We pray to the Virgin Mary and the Saints, that is, we ask that they pray to the Lord for us. And their prayers have great power

Question: Yes, but (I interrupted) the Virgin Mary and the Saints were people and they died. They do not hear us, nor are they present everywhere. Perhaps God is angered over the fact that we pray to them?

(Here it is my great obligation to stress with emphasis what happened to me. At the moment I said the word “but”, I felt a spear pinning me down to the earth without hurting me and without me making a noise, but something opened up within me and “sucked” in whatever the elder said to me.)

Answer: My child, to God no one dies. When someone dies, they die to us who are left here on earth. They do not die to God. And if that person has boldness before God, they learn from Christ that we are asking them to pray for us, and so they pray for us, and Christ hears and rejoices. The prayer of the righteous has great power.
Question: The Lord says: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no idols nor images, to venerate them. Nor shall you worship them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” The Orthodox Church venerates icons. Is this correct?

Listen. A mother whose child is at war, fears for him day and night. She has much suspense for him. Suddenly she receives a letter from her child with a photograph of him inside. When she sees it, what does she do? She takes it in her hands and kisses it, then puts it to her bosom to touch it to her heart. Well, what do you think? This mother with such fiery passion for her child, does she believe she is kissing the photograph? She believes she is kissing her child. The same is believed by those who have a fiery passion for the Virgin Mary or the Saint depicted in an icon that they venerate. We do not venerate the icons because of the icons, but because of the Saints, and these not for them in themselves, but because they strove for Christ. It is true that God is jealous. However not for His own, but for the devil. A father is not jealous of his own children. Don’t worry, for the Lord rejoices when He sees us revering and loving His Mother and the Saints.
Question: What about the Protestants, the Evangelicals, the Pentecostals?
Answer: Luther had a complaint with the Pope, and for this he was justified. If he was sincere, then why didn’t he go to the Orthodox Church about which he had no complaint? Instead, he made another “church” of his own. Leave them be. Do not go there again. Go to church, you and your wife should confess to the same spiritual father, and everything will be well.

Question: Father Paisios, I don’t know how to pray. How should I pray?

Answer: You should feel as if you are a small child and God is your Father. Then seek Him. If you seek Him and not stupid things, do not be upset, He will not be angry. He sees your heart and will give what is best for you. It is like a child that asks his father to buy him a motorcycle, because he believes he is old enough, and because the father is afraid something bad will happen to his child, he may be slow to grant the child what he wants, but in the end he buys the child a car.

Question: When we pray is it good to wait in our prayers until we feel joy? I do this often and it happens.

Answer: No. Then it is like a child who asks its father for something, not to buy him something, but only to caress him.

I thank and glorify God that He made me worthy to know a holy man while he was alive on earth, to be counselled by him and for him to pray for me and my family.

Truly how wonderful God is. How all-benevolent and all-merciful! Glory to His holy name. This is how I became – not I became, but the Lord made me – an Orthodox Christian, without of course forgetting something else Fr. Paisios told me, how at every moment we are under examination.

Source: The periodical Dialogos. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.