How did you get the idea for the East Meets West retreat?
Very Rev. Father Mark Shuey, dean of the Mid-Atlantic deanery for the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Josaphat, and pastor of two North Carolina missions, wanted to provide clergy with ongoing formation and at the same time explore the possibility of developing a mission in the Western North Carolina mountains following the request of a local group.
We developed the retreat for both of these purposes. The retreat, we believed, would be a good way to gather together all interested in a Ukrainian Catholic mission in the mountains and, once developed, to provide ongoing formation for all who attend. With the retreat, clergy gather for prayer, talks, liturgy, and fellowship. At the same time, anyone interested in the mission can attend our prayer services and talks; experience Byzantine Rite liturgy; and meet with clergy during fellowship.
How did you choose Canton as a location?
In June of 2014, we were invited to celebrate Divine Liturgy in Leicester by a group interested in our developing a mission in the area. We were then offered the use of St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Sylva for our first retreat in August.
Following our retreat, we were offered the opportunity to use Immaculate Conception Mission in Canton for regular services. From October of 2014 to January of 2015, we offered liturgical services at Immaculate Conception. We were unable to continue with these services at the time, because we had no clergy to send. For the next two years, we continued to hold our retreat in Sylva to gather all interested in our developing a mission.
In the spring of 2017, a deacon became available to offer monthly services in Canton and he began to do so in June, with a commitment for a priest to celebrate Divine Liturgy at least twice a year. With services now being held regularly in Canton, it was the ideal time to move the retreat to Immaculate Conception.
Why is the retreat called East Meets West?
We had three reasons for naming the retreat “East Meets West.”
First, the name honors the heritage of our Church. The Ukrainian Catholic Church is a daughter Church of the Church of Constantinople, and Constantinople historically has been known as the city where east meets west. In addition, St. John Chrysostom, whose liturgy we celebrate, was Patriarch of Constantinople from 398 to 404. The name also honors him.
Second, the retreat was planned as a way to gather our clergy, priests and deacons, who reside across the state of North Carolina, east and west, for fellowship, liturgy, and prayer.
Third, the retreat’s services and talks are held at a Roman Catholic church and open to the public, many of whom are Roman Catholic, or western. In addition, we encourage clergy seeking ongoing formation, whether eastern or western, to attend. We see the retreat, therefore, as a meeting or gathering of members of the one Church east and west.
Why did you choose the Beatitudes as a theme?
The Beatitudes are a summary of all Our Lord teaches. With the Beatitudes of the Sermon of the Mount, Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us how to live in the world as Christians. In the Byzantine Rite, the Beatitudes are prayed as part of Divine Liturgy and as part of Typica, a service prayed on days Divine Liturgy is not offered. We hope our talks will give those who attend the retreat greater insight into why the Beatitudes are included in our liturgy and why they are an essential guide to the Christian life.
Why did you choose the book on the Beatitudes by St. Gregory of Nyssa?
St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330-394) is considered one of the great early theologians of Christian mysticism. He teaches us that with the Beatitudes Jesus Christ leads us up a ladder to perfection by keeping his commandments and living an ascetical life.
We return to our discussion of passages from Spiritual Gems from the Gospel of Matthew (Holy Cross Orthodox Press), a collection of selections from the homilies of St. John Chyrsostom translated and edited by Robert Charles Hill.
Today we will look at six passages.
The lesson of Sodom, Mt 11:24
“I mean, when Paul is read out and you take no notice, when John is proclaimed and you do not listen, at what point will you receive a needy person when you do not receive an apostle? In order, therefore, for our houses to be continually open to the former and our ears to the latter, let us clear out the filth and mud in the ears and the body, so lascivious songs, worldly gossip, talk of debts and loans and mortgages block the hearing of the mind to a worse degree than any dirt—or, rather, they not only block it but also make it impure.”
On one level, this is a passage that concerns action and contemplation. If you are a person of action and you believe you can serve the Lord without also being a person of contemplation your action is worthless, your motivation for serving others suspect.
All true service for the Lord emerges from contemplation, from prayer. You cannot know the will of God without prayer, fasting, and spiritual reading. You cannot serve others for the Lord if you do not have a life that balances action and contemplation.
To think that you can serve others, as some do, without being a person of prayer leads to the sins of greed, vainglory, and pride.
You may in fact, as some do, act out of a belief that you are doing good, when you are actually doing evil.
At the core of this passage is the message that we gain nothing from Scripture if we do not read it and meditate on it and listen attentively when we hear it during liturgy.
Even if we do read and meditate on Scripture and listen attentively, if we are filled with the filth and mud of the world it will be difficult and in some cases impossible to receive Our Lord’s teachings.
We are influenced by the mud and filth of the world in a variety of ways, among them popular music, gossip, and the distraction of money, bills, and other worldly concerns that can fill us with anxiety.
St. John’s message reminds us that Christians must renounce the world. At times this means a complete rejection of worldly things, at others it means a limiting of our exposure to them.
To hear the Lord, and to follow his teachings, we must become purified of the mud and filth of this world.
Renunciation of worldly ways makes this possible.
To stop the flow of mud and filth of the world that damages our souls, we might avoid certain persons, places, things, and events.
We might stop watching television and movies, or at least be highly selective in what we watch.
We might stop listening to popular music that promotes values counter to our faith, particularly the music of performers who take positions and support values that undermine Christianity or are anti-Christian.
We might stop watching and supporting college and professional sports teams and events such as the Super Bowl, March Madness, and the Olympics.
We might limit our use of the internet and be more discerning when it comes to the books we choose to read.
Try abstaining from watching television shows and movies and spending time on the internet during a fasting period and you most likely will find that you have missed nothing. Your ascetical practice for a fasting period may lead to a permanent practice, one that will help you grow closer to Our Lord.
Be more attentive to how much time you spend worrying about your finances. Think of the birds.
Be a good steward of your finances but be sure you place your trust in God.
I know this is demanding and difficult, but the more you renounce the world the more you will open your soul to Christ. Only if you truly open your soul to Christ will you be able to serve others.
The Ninevites, Mt 12
“I say this to myself, I give this advice firstly to myself; let no one take offense as though condemned. Let us set out on the straight and narrow. How long laziness? Are we not fed up with being slothful, fun-loving, dilatory? Will it not be more of the same—feasting to excess, lavish expenditure, money, possessions, buildings? And what comes at the end? Death. And what kind of end? Ashes and dust, coffins and worms. So let us give evidence of a new kind of life; let us turn earth into heaven.”
St. John recognizes that he, like everyone else, finds it difficult to renounce the ways of the world.
When it comes to faith, most of us tend to be lazy.
We want to follow Christ, but we do not want to limit what we eat and drink, how much we spend, how much time we give to television and popular music, how much we own, how much we worry about what we own.
We do not want to give up things we believe pleasurable, even if they damage our souls (and our bodies). We do not want to live by the commandments.
Death awaits each of us. When we die, we do not take the things of world we have accumulated into the next. You could be buried like a pharaoh with your favorite things, but they will be of no use to you. They will be corrupted by moth and rust or perhaps looted by thieves. We do, however, take with us the darkness we have gathered, which corrupts our souls and makes us impure. For this, we will be judged.
If we have been made new by Christ in this life, we will reveal this through how we live. The evidence that we are moving toward heaven in this life is revealed by how we live.
Hidden treasure and the pearl, Mt 13-44-45
“We can learn not only this, that we ought to strip ourselves of everything else and cling to the message, but also that we should do it with joy; the person giving up possessions should be aware that the process means gain, not loss. Do you see how the message lies hidden in the world, and good things hidden in the message? … So two things are required: refraining from earthly things and staying on the alert.”
We may receive temporary satisfaction from worldly things, but our temporary joy is sure to turn into sorrow.
The more we have, the less dissatisfied we become, because what we have is never enough; we always want more. This endless seeking of more keeps us in a state of anxiety. This is a particular problem in our society today, but it was a problem as well in St. John’s times. It’s interesting how often the Fathers speak in their times directly about problems that are with us today.
Joy in this world comes from following Christ. The grief and sorrow in this life cannot take away the joy of the Christian whose primary focus is on Christ.
Cleanse your soul, Mt 15:16-20
“Weep and groan, give alms, make it up to the person you’ve insulted, be reconciled in this way, wipe your tongue clean so as not to provoke God further.”
Have you ever wept and groaned in agony thinking about the suffering you have caused Our Lord, the suffering you have caused others in this life?
Have you ever wept when thinking of the sins you have committed?
Have you ever prayed with David:
“I am worn out with my groaning.
Each night I bathe my bed
and sprinkle my couch with my tears.”
(Psalm 6, The Holy Psalter: The Psalms from the Septuagint, trans. Fr. Lazarus Moore)
A number of the Fathers teach us that without weeping and groaning there is no repentance.
Even if you have confessed your sins and know that you are forgiven through the mercy of God, to be repentant means that you will have wept and groaned over the sins you have committed, even after you have confessed them, the way Peter wept and perhaps groaned as well after he realized that he had fulfilled the prophecy and betrayed Our Lord, the way Paul contended with the thorn that troubled him throughout his life as a Christian.
Filled with sorrow for our sins, we weep and groan. Yet our sorrow becomes joy because we are are reconciled to Our Lord and follow him.
Filled with joy, we freely give alms. We give not for the approval of others or because we falsely believe we can save ourselves but because we love Christ, who has opened the gates of Heaven to us.
We sin with our tongues more often than we realize.
Reconciling with those we have insulted with our tongues will fill us with joy. We are filled with joy when we reconcile with those we have insulted because we have been restored to Christ.
Peter and the Cross, Mt 16-23
“When you make that sign, fill your forehead with complete confidence, make your soul free. You should, in fact, make its mark not idly with your fingers, but first deliberately in deep faith.”
Never be too fearful or too proud to mark yourself with the sign of the cross, a sign of belief and a prayer.
Each time we make the sign of the cross we express our faith and say a short prayer.
In making the sign of the cross we dedicate the activity we are about to do to the Holy Trinity.
Every time you make the sign of the cross know why you are making it and make it deliberately.
Know, too, that the sign of the cross is a sign of freedom.
Your soul, Mt 16-26
“Do not neglect the welfare of yourself while attending to others, as everyone does, thus resembling miners: they gain no benefit for themselves from their work or from the rich produce; rather, it means a great loss to them because they go to risk to no purpose, incurring the risk for other people while reaping no benefits from their own labors and death.”
If you serve others without spending time in prayer, fasting, and spiritual reading you neglect God and yourself, and you gain nothing from your service. The work that gives you joy is infertile, your joy false, your service a loss.
Prayer, fasting, and spiritual reading train us to know when our almsgiving and serving others is the result of our love of God and not of ourselves without God.
Those who neglect themselves while attending to others fall to pride, the devil’s sin. They believe that they live, but they are dead spiritually.
If you neglect your welfare in this way, you will lose your soul. So make sure you do not neglect your own welfare in attending to others. Attend first to Christ and your love of Christ will give meaning to your serving others.
[Notes from our July 21, 2018, talk]
Spiritual Gems from the Gospel of Matthew (Holy Cross Orthodox Press) is a collection of passages from the homilies of St. John Chyrsostom.
Translated and edited by Robert Charles Hill, a prolific and highly regarded translator of the saint’s works, the book includes 80 excerpts from St. John’s homilies on Matthew’s gospel.
Hill’s aim is to provide the reader with those passages in which the saint “gets straight to the heart of Jesus’ message…and applies it to the people of his time and ours.”
Although the book can be read in one sitting, reading each of the homilies one day at a time, and spending some time in reflection on each as part of your spiritual reading, would produce better results.
I am going to take us through nine of these excerpts. I will excerpt these excerpts to pull from each one what I consider to be the heart of the message in each.
We are born with Jesus
“…he was born of the flesh so that you might be born in the spirit, he was born of a woman so that you might cease to be the son of a woman.”
To think of how we are born with Jesus at his birth is a different way of thinking about the Nativity.
St. John suggests that we consider how with the birth of Jesus we are given a life.
This life opens to us the possibility of union with God. Because he was born as a man, we can become through him sons of God.
Like us Jesus, God incarnate, was born of a woman. Like him, and through him, we become adopted sons of God when we are baptized.
To reap the benefits of this sonship, however, we must live a Christian life.
St. John’s approach to the Nativity also is a different way of stating what St. Athanasius states when he says: “… the Son of God became man, so that we might become God.”
The Magi, Mt 2:1-10
“Let us also, then, follow the Magi….Let us keep ourselves from earthly things: though it was in Persia that the Magi saw the star, it was when they left Persia that they spied the Sun of Justice.”
To bring their gifts to Jesus at his birth the Magi had to leave their own land.
Seeing the Son of God in the manger was without a doubt a life-changing experience for the Magi. If they had stayed in Persia, they would not have seen the new-born Son of God.
Like the Magi who followed the star to see and pay homage to the Christ child, we must leave the land we know, the world of earthly things, to follow Christ.
This is difficult for many to do and even accept.
Yet turning away from the ways of the world, the pleasures of the world, is not only for saints, monks, and clergy.
Each Christian must turn away from the world and set his sight on Christ.
There is an important distinction about the world that we must consider. In Scripture, the world has two meanings, one positive and one negative.
The first is the creation of the world by God or God’s creation, which is positive or good.
The second is the world of man, or earthly things, which leads us away from God and so is negative or bad.
St. John teaches us with this passage that the call to self-renunciation for the Christian has been a core element of Christianity from the very birth of Jesus Christ.
I am sure that he would tell us that the models of the Blessed Virgin and St. John the Baptist teach us the same.
He also would reach back into the Old Testament for other models.
But here, he wants us to consider carefully the birth of Jesus Christ.
Satan and temptation, Mt 4:1-11
“We ourselves are not so anxious for our salvation as he is for our ruin….Let us do nothing that pleases him, this being the way to everything pleasing to God.”
It is often said that while we sleep, Satan and demons never sleep. They are always looking for ways to steal our souls.
We have spoken about this before. The Lord was led out into the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism where he would be tempted by Satan.
In the desert, Our Lord defeats Satan. In defeating Satan, he shows us how Satan will tempt us and how we are to respond. He shows us how to reject the false promises of Satan.
“Place no faith in him [Satan] at all, block your ears hate his attempts at flattery, and at the time he makes greater promises, then shun him more resolutely.”
The world tempts us with false promises. These include wealth, possessions, pleasures.
Many in the world fall to these temptations. Many in the world today believe that they are in control, not God.
Many reject God’s order to live by their own disorder.
Satan is ruining them because they do everything to please themselves, and so they please Satan instead of living to please God.
A Christian must do everything he can in this life to please God.
To do this, we must be watchful, ever vigilant. We must be more anxious for our salvation than Satan is for our damnation.
Poor in spirit, Mt 5:3
“Why did he not say the humble but the poor? Because the latter is more significant than the former: he is speaking here of those in fear and trembling at God’s command.”
Pride defeated Satan:
“…expecting to become God, he lost even what he had. Since then, this was the capital vice, and the root and source of wickedness.”
Being poor in spirit is the remedy to being prideful:
“Christ prepared a remedy to match the ailment.”
To be poor in spirit does not mean to be financially poor, even though a Christian will have a different attitude toward earthly riches than others.
To be poor in spirit means to turn your life over completely to God.
To be poor in spirit means that we understand that we have nothing without God.
To be poor in spirit means that we put God first, before all else.
To be poor in spirit means that when we put God first, we are rich, although the world may not understand this.
To be poor in spirit means you live by commandments and not the world’s or your own.
To be poor in spirit ensures that you are anxious for your salvation.
Beatitudes, Mt 5:11
“So do not think that the prize is for the poor in spirit only: it is also for those who hunger for righteousness, for the meek and for all the others without exception.”
We cannot live only one beatitude, we must live by all of the beatitudes, which are a summary of Our Lord’s teachings.
If we live each, we will be rewarded with the Lord’s peace in this life and salvation in the next.
Salt of the earth, Mt 5:13
Our Lord tells the apostles, and each of us:
“Your responsibility will be not for your own life but for the whole world: far from sending you to two cities, or ten, or twenty, or even a single nation like the prophets, I am sending you to land and sea and to the whole world, ill-disposed as it is.”
“…those who are gentle and open, merciful and righteous do not confine their good deeds to their own benefit, but ensure that these excellent springs flow over to the benefit of others as well.”
St. John reminds us that commandments of Our Lord are more demanding than those of the Old Testament.
He reminds us that while we have responsibility for our own salvation, we have responsibility for the salvation of others.
Our Lord sent the apostles out into the world to bring the light of Christ to all corners of the earth.
A Christian’s good deeds in these corners of the earth is for the benefit of those in that part of the world.
The Christian, like Christ, will be rejected by others, but he will still live for Christ. And in living for Christ, he will do good for others.
Light of the world, Mt 5:14
A Christian is salt for the earth, but he also is a light for the world. He is a light in the darkness of the world that cannot be hidden:
“Do not have in mind he is saying, in fact, that we are seated here, in tiny corner: you will be as conspicuous as a city on a mountain top, as a lamp in a house shining on a lamp-stand.”
One who lives a Christian life stands out in the world. He is not like others. His life becomes a beacon of light for others.
His light helps illuminate the way of Christ.
Angry words, Mt 5:22
“…why is it, tell me, the commandment seems demanding? Are you not aware that the majority of punishments and sins have their beginning in words?”
The Lord tells us that if we call another a fool we are liable.
He tells us, then that what we say and think about others matters for our salvation.
The monk lives many hours in silence. We too must know when to be silent.
We must know when to speak and when not to speak.
We also must watch what we think and say. We must watch our words, spoken aloud or as thoughts.
When we understand that we can sin with words, we no longer will think the Lord is demanding when he tells us that if we call another a fool we are liable for hell.
One who calls another a fool without repenting is not watchful. One who is not watchful pleases Satan, not God.
Enemies, Mt 5:44
“…he did not bid you simply to love but even to pray….”
Loving your enemies, hard as it is, is not enough.
Our Lord holds us to a higher standard. This is why we pray each night for those who love us and those who hate us.
We cannot respond to hate with hate. We must respond to hate with love.
[Notes from our June 16, 2018, talk]
We are going to take a look today at some of the writings of the Church Fathers on the Mother of God and on the thoughts today of Fr. Luigi Gambero.
Fr. Gambero, a Marianist priest and expert on Mary and early Christianity, collects these writings and discusses them in his book, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought (published by Ignatius Press).
In his book, he includes and examines the work of more than thirty Church Fathers and so gives us a comprehensive look at the thought of the Church Fathers on Mary.
For our talk today, we can only look at a few of the Church Fathers included in Fr. Gambero’s book, so I have chosen six to consider:
We will look at Ignatius and Irenaeus, because they are the earliest here and so help create a foundation on which the others build.
We will look at Athanasius, because of the important role he played in developing the understanding of Mary.
We will look at Gregory of Nyssa, because he is often overlooked and because he is the focus of our August retreat on the Beatitudes.
We will look at Andrew, because his Great Canon is prayed each Great Lent and because he has some important things to say about Mary’s purity.
And we will end with John Damascene, because he is the last of the Church Fathers and because Fr. Gambero tells us that his work synthesizes the thinking of the Church Fathers on Mary. In addition, each Pascha we pray his Canon of Pascha.
Because we will look at only six means that we cannot look at the excellent work of other Church Fathers such as Origen, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Romanos the Melodist.
Perhaps we can do so at another time.
The Church Fathers Defined Our Faith
Before we look at Ignatius, let’s consider why the teachings of the Church Fathers are important.
Gambero notes that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: 11:23 that “I hand on to you what I received from the Lord.”
He says that this is the mandate — a “divine mandate” — that the Fathers “put into practice.”
The Church Fathers lived from the first through seventh centuries. During that time, they defined the faith.
They are “faithful and authoritative witnesses to the faith.”
They are essential to the foundation of tradition.
They are considered Fathers by the Church because of their authority and their holiness.
Little attention was given to Mary until the second through fourth centuries and then particularly in the fifth century after the Council of Ephesus in 431 and Council of Chalcedon in 451.
After these councils, Gambero notes:
“Mary’s extraordinary role as Virgin Mother of the Savior had more and more influence on the faith of the Church. Christians began using the texts of Scripture to reflect on the mystery of this woman, in whom the Lord’s extraordinary intervention was interwoven with her own faith and openness.”
The Fathers wrote homilies about the Blessed Virgin, the devotion of the faithful grew, and Christians began to consider Mary as “a model for Christian life.”
Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius, the earliest of the Church Fathers we will look at, spoke sparingly about Mary. But with his spare comments he begins to lay the foundation for our understanding today.
He speaks of Jesus as being “born and unborn,” born from Mary, unborn from the Father; of Jesus being born of the “seed of David” and the Holy Spirit through Mary; he emphasizes that Jesus was truly born and that he is “David’s descendent” and “Mary’s Son.”
He writes, too, that Jesus is the Son of God and “was truly born of a virgin and baptized by John in order to fulfill every command.”
Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus heard the teaching of Polycarp, a disciple of St. John the Theologian.
He follows St. Paul’s teaching that through Jesus there is a second creation, one that repeats the first creation but restores it to the Father’s original intent.
Irenaeus, therefore, teaches that sin and death have been destroyed by Jesus Christ, the new Adam, and that mankind has been restored to the image of God.
The Paschal Troparion includes something of this early understanding of Our Lord when we sing that that Our Lord has trampled upon death by His death.
Irenaeus develops the understanding of Mary as the New Eve, which Justin the Martyr (100-165) had first noted.
Fr. Gambero states: “Irenaeus clearly establishes a perfect parallel between the two women … just as the apostle Paul had done with Adam and Christ. Eve and Mary, though both married, were still virgins. But while Eve disobeyed, causing ruin and death for herself and the human race, Mary by obeying became the cause of salvation.”
Adam and Eve upset God’s plan; Jesus Christ and Mary restore it and perfect it.
Irenaeus states that Adam is the first of the dying, Jesus the first of the living and that “What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith.”
Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius is one of the most important defenders of Our Lord’s divinity.
He was involved in the Council of Nicea in 325 and was an outspoken opponent of the Arians.
Arianism, named after the priest Arius (250 or 256 - 336), is the belief that Jesus was created and the Son of God, but that he was not fully God. Arians did not believe in the Holy Trinity.
The First Ecumenical Council of Nicea declared Arius a heretic and Arianism a heresy.
As a result of his opposition to the Arian heresy, Athanasius was elevated to Bishop of Alexandria in 328.
His opponents were able to exile him five times, but he regained his office in 336 and remained in office through 373, the year of his death.
Athanasius declares that Jesus in the Son of God and that Mary, therefore, is the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
The Council of Ephesus in 431 would later state that Mary is the Theotokos.
Jesus, Athanasius says, truly was born of a woman, a virgin, and while Son of God was truly man with a human body.
He emphasizes the perpetual virginity of Mary and that Mary could not have had other children because at his death Jesus did not place any other but Mary into the care of John.
Mary, as virgin, he believes, would inspire many women in the Church to remain as virgins.
In one of his homilies Athanasius writes of Mary:
“O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness, for who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word. To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all….You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides.”
Mary, therefore, is the Ark of the New Covenant.
He called Eve, “the mother of the dead.” Of Mary, he said:
“In you, instead, O Wise Virgin, dwells the Son of God: he, that is, who is the tree of life.”
Through Mary, he says, “life came to all” through “the mercy of God, your beloved Son.”
Gregory of Nyssa
The younger brother of St. Basil the Great, Gregory was ordained Bishop of Nyssa in 371, was deposed by Arians in 376, and like Athanasius eventually regained his office, in his case in 378.
He was involved in the Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Synod of Constantinople in 394.
Gregory writes that Mary is the Mother of God because she bore the incarnated Son of God and that Jesus assumed his human nature in her womb.
“When the Holy Spirit came upon the Virgin and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, the new man was formed in her.
Mary’s virginity, he says, was foretold in the Old Testament and notes in particular Isaiah 9:6 and Isaiah 7:14.
“O marvelous event! The Virgin becomes a mother and remains a virgin! Observe this new ordering of nature.”
The burning bush witnessed by Moses, he writes, also foretold of Mary:
“What was prefigured at the time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin….As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted.”
Gregory also writes that in saying “Yes” to the angel Gabriel she intends a vow of perpetual virginity.
He writes, too, that Mary fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah (66:7) that she as virgin bore the Son of God without the pain of childbirth.
Andrew of Crete
Each Great Lent we pray Andrew’s Great Canon.
Each of the odes of this magnificent prayer ends with a verse in honor of Mary that encapsulates Church teaching. (The Great Canon is Included in the Publican’s Prayer Book with instructions for praying it.)
For example, the First Ode ends with:
“O Theotokos, hope and protection of those who praise You, take from me the heavy yoke of sin, and accept me in repentance, O Pure Lady!”
The Third Ode ends:
“Hail, O Womb that held God! Hail, Throne of the Lord. Hail, Mother of our Life.”
Besides the Great Canon, Andrew wrote three other canons in honor of Mary, along with a number of homilies.
Andrew shares the view of earlier Church Fathers that Mary was pure at the Annunciation.
Andrew emphasizes that in addition to being a perpetual virgin, Fr. Gambero writes, “the Blessed Virgin lived her whole life without being contaminated by any moral stain.”
Some believe his writings support the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and he is mentioned in the papal bull that declared the dogma.
In one of his writings he states:
“This is Mary, the Theotokos, the common refuge of all Christians, the first to be liberated from the original fall of our first parents.”
But Fr. Gambero cautions that since “he does not define the nature of the intervention God wrought in her….we would not be justified to attribute to him the concept of preservation from original sin as we understand the concept today, precisely as the solemn Magisterium of the Church has defined it.”
Fr. Gambero emphasizes that Andrew did not have the understanding of original sin that was set forth in the West; however, Andrew writes that God prepared Mary in advance so that she would be worthy to be the Mother of God.
Since Mary was holy, Andrew questions whether she would be subjected to death, a punishment for sin.
Fr. Gambero notes that Andrew writes in his homilies on the Dormition that Mary’s death was different from ours:
“Death, natural to men, also reached her; not, however, to impress her, as happens to us, or to vanquish her. God forbid! It was only to secure for her the experience of that sleep which comes from on high, leading us up to the object of our hope….”
Andrew writes that Mary is a mediator because she is the Mother of God, but her mediation is not superior to that of Our Lord.
Like Athanasius, John is a Doctor of the Church. Gambero calls his thought on Mary “a complete and substantial synthesis of patristic faith and teaching about the mystery of the Mother of God.”
He states as well that John’s work “sums up the whole tradition of the Eastern Fathers.”
He wrote a number of hymns in honor of the Mother of God. He also wrote homilies.
Fr. Gambero notes that “His four Marian homilies (one on the Nativity and three on the Dormition) are of particular importance.”
He writes about:
The meaning of the name Mary (from Hebrew mara, meaning the beautiful or the perfect one)
Fr. Gambero notes that “He was the first author to speak of consecration to Mary.”
He is cited, along with Andrew of Crete, in the papal document on the Assumption, as well as Lumen Gentium and Redemptoris Mater.
John praises Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna:
“O blessed loins of Joachim, whence the all-pure seed was poured out! O glorious womb of Anna, in which the most holy fetus grew and was formed, silently increasing!”
He calls Mary “a new heaven”:
“This heaven is clearly much more divine and awesome than the first. Indeed he who created the sun in the first heaven would himself be born in the second heaven, as the Sun of Justice.”
He speaks of Mary’s beauty:
“She is all beautiful, all near to God. For she, surpassing the cherubim, exalted beyond the seraphim, is placed near to God.”
He writes of the Dormition:
“Even though your most holy and blessed soul was separated from your most happy and immaculate body, according to the usual course of nature, and even though it was carried to a proper burial place, nevertheless it did not remain under the dominion of death, nor was it destroyed by corruption.
He writes of Mary’s role as mediatrix and compares her in this role to Jacob’s ladder:
“So you have assumed the role of a mediatrix, having become the ladder by which God comes down to us….”
He also speaks of her role in our salvation:
“From her we have harvested the grape of life; from her we have cultivated the seed of immortality. For our sake she became Mediatrix of all blessings; in her God became man, and man became God.”
He writes that she deserves our veneration, which includes venerating icons of her, because when we venerate Mary we glorify God:
“If the memory of all the saints is celebrated with panegyrics, who will refuse to praise the font of justice and the treasury of holiness? This is not done to glorify her but so that God might be glorified with an eternal glory.”
He speaks of his own devotion to Mary:
“What is sweeter than the Mother of my God? She has taken my mind captive; she has taken possession of my tongue; she is on my mind, day and night.”
With his book, Fr. Gambero give us an excellent overview of the development of Marian doctrine in the Church.
Let us close then with a statement from Fr. Gambero, which pertains to the importance of understanding the Patristic view of Mary, the Mother of God:
“...the teaching of the Fathers contains something indispensable, whose value the Church constantly recalls to us, so that we may build our Christian faith and Christian mentality upon the foundation left us by the Fathers.”
[Notes from our May 19, 2018, talk.]
Today we are going to look at one of the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022).
St. Symeon was a monk, abbot, mystic, and great proponent of spiritual fatherhood.
He was born in Galatia in Asia Minor and educated in Constantinople. We celebrate his feast day, the day of his death, during Great Lent on March 12. Some Orthodox transfer his feast to October 12.
St. Symeon is known as the “New Theologian,” which recognizes that he is the successor of the only other two saints in the Eastern tradition who have received this title: St. John the Evangelist and St. Gregory Nazianzus.
St. Symeon is known for his mystical writings and writings on Hesychasm, or Eastern Christian contemplative prayer.
If you read the Gospel and Apocalypse of St. John, the orations and poetry of St. Gregory, and St. Symeon’s hymns in particular, you find that all three have a mystical understanding of the Holy Trinity that transforms our hearts.
Pope Benedict XVI writes of St. Symeon in his Church Fathers and Teachers (Ignatius Press) that:
“The holy Eastern monk calls us all to pay attention to our spiritual life, to the hidden presence of God within us, to the sincerity of the conscience and to purification, to conversion of heart, so that the Holy Spirit may really become present in us and guide us.”
Self-renunciation is part of the practice of the hesychast. The Jesus Prayer also is part of his practice, because the praying of Our Lord’s name can lead to prayer of the heart or unceasing prayer.
Through prayer of the heart one can attain inner stillness, or interior peace, which then can lead to the experience of the uncreated light of God.
The material we will look at today is included in The Philokalia: The Complete Text (volume four), a four-book collection of the writings of Eastern saints on the spiritual life compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, and translated and edited from the Greek by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware.
If you have read The Way of the Pilgrim, you have heard of The Philokalia and have been exposed to one of the works included in this collection.
I am going to quote specifically from St. Symeon’s work included in a one-volume collection of writings from The Philokalia that was translated earlier from the Russian by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer: Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart.
The works included in The Philokalia are essential to understanding Eastern Christian spirituality and the contemplative life.
If you can, make the four-volume set central to your spiritual reading. If you cannot read the four volumes, read at least this one volume. Let me add that it is worth owning and reading both to give you a different view of the same material.
I am going to focus in particular on some of St. Symeon’s thoughts in the work “Practical and Theological Precepts,” which consists of 184 paragraphs, about 45 pages, directed to monks.
We too can benefit, however, from his advice, since all Christians, not just monks, should seek to pray always.
Faith (Paragraphs 1-3)
“To have faith is to die for Christ and for His commandments....”
“To have faith in Christ means not only to stand aloof from the delights of this life, but also to endure patiently every temptation and test that brings upon us distress, affliction and misfortune, for as long as God wishes and until He comes to us.”
“Those who in any way esteem their parents above the commandments of God do not possess faith in Christ....”
Are we willing to die for our faith in Jesus Christ?
When we read or hear this question we usually think of physical death, martyrdom. And we should.
But most of us will not be martyrs.
How many of us realize that having faith means dying for Christ through self-renunciation and for His commandments, which show us how to renounce our desires and conform our wills to God’s will for us?
Life tempts us with delights that lead us astray. The commandments teach us how “to endure patiently every temptation.”
Living the commandments will give us great freedom and happiness. But this does not mean that we will never experience temptations or distress.
Dying to Christ, willingly climbing up on the cross with him, and living the commandments, however, will help us to endure.
Renunciation of the world (Paragraphs 5-6, 9)
“Renunciation of the world and complete withdrawl from it—if it includes withdrawl from all worldly things, habits, opinion and people, and the disowning of the body and will—in a very short time bring great profit to a man who is fired with such zeal.”
Those of us who live in the world, who make our living in the world, who must work, who must raise families cannot completely withdraw from the world.
We have responsibilities to others and to ourselves that demand our attention.
Yet we can withdraw much more than we often think from things, habits, opinions, and people. We also can disown the body more than we think. And, even in our state of life, we must disown the will.
Things—How much do we really need? Have we convinced ourselves that we need the things we have? How often have you heard questions like this and ignored them?
Families once made do with much smaller and less expensive cars and houses. The more we focus on the cars we own, the houses we live in, the less we focus on Christ.
Jesus Christ usually is not even a flicker of a thought when we buy a car or a house. We think instead of how much pleasure the new car or house will bring us, or how much we need the new car or house.
We often define ourselves by the cars we drive, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear.
We often buy things to gain in some way the attention of others, even things that are good, and even when we convince ourselves that we have a good reason to buy something.
Habits—It is difficult to break bad habits. Eating poorly is a bad habit. Using crude language is a bad habit. Sexual sins often are bad habits. Our bad habits can lead to illness and death in this life and hell in the next.
Opinions—We often are very proud of our opinions. Our opinions often lead us to disagreements, arguments, false understandings and impressions, lies, gossip, and malice.
Will—As Christians, we must deny the will. We must become Christ in the world. This only can happen if we decrease so that he increases.
There is much we can withdraw from in our lives.
Renunciation of the pleasures of the body (Paragraphs 26-27)
“It is impossible to fill the body to satiety with food and at the same time have spiritual enjoyment of mental and Divine blessings. For inasmuch as a man panders to his belly, in the same measure he deprives himself of spiritual blessings....it is through the body that lusts are excited and brought into action....”
Most of us are deprived of spiritual blessings because we eat and drink too much and enjoy what we eat and drink far too much.
Most in our society today think primarily of pleasure, especially pleasures of the body.
We pay a high price for this physically and emotionally. Consider how many of the ills of the world today are related to pleasures of the body.
We pay an even higher price for this spiritually.
Those who lust for pleasures of the body have placed, to use an image from the poet William Blake, manacles on their own minds. They live in a prison of pleasure, which they believe is freedom.
Arguing (Paragraphs 29-30)
“A man given to arguing...destroys his soul, without knowing it....”
Our society tends to argument, often out of anger. We argue with our spouses, our friends, and those we think of as enemies. Arguments often lead to lies, malice, gossip, and grudges.
We must be careful. Even when we argue with someone because of an injustice, we can destroy the soul.
Cares of this life (Paragraph 54)
“A man whose thoughts are occupied with cares of this life is not free...whether he worries for himself or others.”
We are often tripped up by the cares of this life. We worry about those we love. We worry about money. We worry about clothes. We worry about what others think of us. We worry about the Church. These are some of the cares of life that enslave us.
If your thoughts are occupied with the cares of this life, you have let yourself be controlled by the passions.
Hesychasm teaches us to be dispassionate. If we are dispassionate, we have learned how to control our passions. We learn to handle the thoughts that can lead us away from Jesus Christ.
Keeping the commandments (Paragraph 95)
“A house is roof is held up by the foundations and the rest of the building....So it is with the soul: the grace of the Holy Spirit is preserved by keeping the commandments.”
We return to and end with the commandments. We have ten, which Our Lord summarized as two. He then gave us the Beatitudes as a way of showing us how to live the commandments in our daily lives.
Our Lord is our cornerstone. All we do as Christians must be built on his teachings, just as the Church is built on his teachings.
If you spend any time reflecting on the Psalms, you will notice that they often speak of the necessity of learning, knowing, and living the commandments. This is the core teaching of Psalm 118 (Septuagint numbering), but you will find it in many others.
Reflect on the commandments and the Beatitudes. But also reflect on Psalm 118 and the rest of the Psalms. This will help you preserve the grace of the Holy Spirit you have received and will receive.
[Notes from our April 21, 2018, talk.]
We live in time.
God is immortal and not bound by time. He is the creator of time.
When the Son of God became man, however, he entered time and as a man of flesh and blood he died on the Cross for our salvation.
To paraphrase Tolkien, for the Christian life is only a question of how we use God’s gift of life and time.
Time and Eternity Joined Together
Christ Our Pascha tells us that the Church's Divine Services are a "memorial of the saving mysteries of Jesus Christ."
It is in the liturgy that we "reach the unreachable God" and become "divinized."
When we celebrate the Eucharist and partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we experience "the union of the seen and unseen, the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine--of time and eternity."
Linear and Cyclical Time
Time for us is chronological and historical, or linear, as well as cyclical or circular.
Each of us has a beginning, we are born, and an end, we die.
In the time between these two points, we pass through the days, weeks, months, and seasons of a year and then repeat them year after year as we move forward toward our end.
As Christians we believe that if we use our time wisely and follow Jesus Christ, if we truly live by his commandments, when we die we will spend eternity with him in heaven.
The liturgical time of the Church, with Christ’s Pascha at the center, is daily, weekly, and yearly, and so follows this same linear and cyclical pattern.
The Horologion, or Chasoslov in Church Slavonic, is a compilation of the daily liturgical prayer services.
With liturgical prayer, we mark the hours of each day as we move through each week, month, and season throughout the year.
Liturgical time is organized to help us attain our goal of spending eternity with Our Lord.
Memorial to Light and Darkness
In Genesis we read:
“And God said: Be light made. And light was made.
And God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness.
And he called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day.” (Genesis 1:3-4, Douay Rheims Bible)
We read further:
“And God said: Let there be lights made in the firmament of heaven, to divide the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years:
To shine in the firmament of heaven, and to give light upon the earth. And it was done.” (Genesis 1:14-15, DRB)
Liturgical prayer is a memorial to light and darkness, day and night, the years, and the seasons created by God. It is a memorial to salvation history.
Our daily cycle of prayer, found in the Horologion, consists of nine services prayed in this order to mark the liturgical day:
During this daily cycle of prayer, which Christ Our Pascha calls “an icon of the history of salvation,” we:
Each of the days of the week has a special significance.
Our weekly cycle of prayer begins with Sunday, the Eighth Day, the day of Our Lord’s resurrection.
Each Sunday, therefore, is a little Pascha. Christ Our Pascha states:
“Every Sunday is a commemoration of Pascha, when at the Divine Liturgy the Risen Christ manifests his presence. Sunday is an icon of the glorious second coming. In this way the Resurrection, as the Feast of Feasts, enters a person’s entire life; it sanctifies it and transfigures all of it into a feast.”
The prayers and hymns of our liturgical services are chanted in the tone of the week. There are eight tones that cycle one through eight from Thomas Sunday, the first Sunday after Pascha, to Palm Sunday, or the Sunday immediately preceding Pascha.
Christ Our Pascha notes the Paschal connection of the tones and states that they:
“... resemble the rungs of a spiritual ladder which joins the present time to the Day of the Lord’s coming. Each year the building of this ladder begins on Thomas Sunday and concludes on Palm Sunday. Thus, the Paschal time of the weekly cycles encompasses, as it were, historical time and allows us to accept all of life in light of Paschal joy.”
The tones are found in the liturgical service book called the Octoechos—from the Greek octo for eight and echos for sound.
In addition to the Octoechos, we also use the following books for our daily cycle of liturgical prayer (and so our weekly, monthly, and weekly cycle):
During the year, we have services that our immoveable, or fall on the same date each year, and services that are moveable, or fall on different dates.
The liturgical year begins each year on September 1 for those using the Gregorian calendar and September 14 for those using the older Julian calendar.
The calendar was reformed in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII to bring it in line with astronomical cycles.
The Julian calendar continues to be used the Orthodox and Orthodox Catholics. There is a thirteen day difference between the two calendars now.
The difference is most noticeable in the celebration of Pascha, a moveable date not always celebrated on the same date by those who use the Julian and those who use the Gregorian calendar.
The same is true of the immoveable date for Christmas. Those using the Gregorian calendar celebrate Christmas on December 25, while those using the Julian calendar celebrate Christmas on January 7.
During Great Lent, we use the Triodion for the four weeks leading up to Lent and the weeks of Lent.
During Lent, we “set out with joy upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat,” as we sing at Vespers on Cheesefare Sunday, the Sunday before Lent. Lent then begins on Monday.
Each of the four Sundays of preparation for Lent has a theme:
St. John Chrysostom writes that through fasting “we shall come by little and little to the very summit of virtue.”
Each Sunday of Lent also has a theme:
Major dates our our immovable cycle include (dates are Gregorian/Julian):
[Notes from our catechetical talk based on Christ Our Pascha, pages 179-193.]
God wants us to share in his eternal life and shows us how to attain eternal life by following his will.
The path the Lord shows us to eternal life is revealed in the commandments.
Psalm 118, called the Blessed, speaks of the necessity of knowing and living the Lord’s commandments.
The psalm teaches us that we are to ponder the commandments, meditate on them, delight in them, not forget them, seek to know and understand them, desire them, and believe in them.
The Commandments and God’s Will
The commandments of the Lord guide us and teach us to know God’s will.
Psalm 118 begins with these words:
“Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.
Blessed are they that search out his testimonies; with their whole heart shall they seek after Him.”
We learn later in the psalm that those who follow the way of the commandments come to understand that: “The law of Thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver.”
Although it is the longest of the psalms, Psalm 118 is considered so important a guide in the Greek tradition that it is prayed every day of the week as part of the Divine Praises.
St. John Chrysostom speaks of the importance of our aligning our will with God’s will:
“... the soul, if it has not the beam of its own thoughts fixed, and firmly riveted to the law of God, being carried round and drawn down, will not be able to judge aright of its actions.”
We pray that God’s will be done in the Our Father, which Our Lord gave to us through the apostles.
St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:17 that we do the will of the Father when we follow his commandments.
The Sacrament of Repentance
Through the sacrament of Repentance, a necessity for all Orthodox Catholics, we confess the ways we have failed to follow the Lord’s commandments and receive the grace to build up our virtues and endure in our battle against vice and sin.
A good practice is to receive the sacrament of Repentance at least once a month. Some receive the sacrament more frequently.
The priest also can offer spiritual direction in the sacrament of Repentance to help us grow in our faith.
The sacrament of Repentance is where most members of the Church receive spiritual direction. Spiritual direction also is offered outside the sacrament.
The virtues help us become like Jesus Christ. God has placed these virtues in the soul. They give us the strength to cooperate with his grace and to become perfected, or divinized.
Christ Our Pascha explains:
“Virtue is the power and capacity of a person, created in God’s image, to become like God and attain deification.”
The three theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – help us attain eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky writes that “a living and strong faith .... gives eternal life ... saves ... leads from death to life ... grants the ‘power to become children of God’ (Jn 1:12)."
When we have such a “living and strong faith,” we enter into union with Jesus Christ and are open to the actions of the Holy Spirit in our life.
We become new persons. We have the the ability to live a moral and virtuous life and the power to keep the first three of the Ten Commandments: To know God, to honor God’s name, and to worship God.
Faith leads us to the virtue of hope.
With hope, a Christian believes without doubt the teachings and promises of Jesus Christ. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky writes:
“Hope is certain because it is grounded in God’s testimony, in his promise, in his goodness, in the fact that it is simply impossible for God to fail to keep his promise. No one and no thing can weaken this certainty; it grows to the extent that we grow closer to the Lord our God, that is, as we progress in God’s grace or simply how we live Christian lives.”
Love is the most important virtue.
The Father is the source of love, who reveals his love through the Son and gives his love to us through the Holy Spirit.
Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky writes: “Without love everything in the soul is dead.”
We express our love through love of God and neighbor. Christ Our Pascha teaches that such love for neighbor “is selfless and sacrificial.”
Through God’s love for us, we become his adopted children. With such love, we love our enemies and become Christ to sinners, who are saved, as we are, through God’s love.
Divinization or Theosis
Our primary goal in life is union with God, or divinization (also called theosis).
We become divinized when we accept and cooperate with God’s love and become transfigured through the Holy Spirit.
Christ Our Pascha teaches: “The grace of transfiguration is granted to those who have completed the path of ascetic purification and live a virtuous life.”
St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202), a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Theologian, writes in Against Heresies that Jesus Christ became man so: “...that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.”
St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), a disciple of Irenaeus, tells Christians that: “...you shall be a companion of the Deity, and a co-heir with Christ....”
St. Athanasius the Great (ca. 296/298-373) writes in On the Incarnation of the Word that: “God became man that man might become God.”
Christ Our Pascha teaches: “Interior purification, a virtuous life, and life in holiness are the primary conditions for divinization, for union with him who is the Source of Holiness, Purity, and Perfection.”
St. Maximus the Confessor writes that through God’s love the Christian becomes “a partaker of divine love.”
Through God’s love, Christ Our Pascha states, the transfigured Christian “becomes a god by grace.”
[Notes to our talk on “An Ascesis which Purifies,” pages 264-272 in Christ Our Pascha; psalm quotations are from the The Psalter According to the Seventy, Holy Transfiguration Monastery.]
Along with fasting and almsgiving, prayer is a weapon we use in spiritual warfare.
When we pray, we talk or communicate with God; we enter into a dialogue with God. We also demonstrate that we have a spiritual life and that we are reconciled to God.
God speaks first to us. What God has to say to us is more important than what we have to say to him. He teaches us, therefore, to listen to his words.
Degrees of Prayer
We use our body when we pray.
We use our a voice to chant or speak. We use our right hand to make the sign of the cross. We may fold our hands reverently. We stand. We kneel. We bow. We make prostrations.
When we pray, a reverent posture can help concentrate.
Prayer of the Mind
Prayer of the mind is considered a higher form of prayer than bodily prayer.
We use our mind, the soul’s highest power, to focus our attention, to concentrate when we pray. The mind enables us to enter the interior world.
We use our mind in our combat with the eight evil thoughts and with memories or fantasies.
Through prayer we can recognize, with God’s help, “our thoughts, desires, and feelings.”
If distracted in prayer, re-focus. To do this, recognize where the distracted began, start over there, and to pray more attentively. This can lead to deeper prayer.
Prayer of the Heart
Prayer of the heart is praying without ceasing, which St. Paul spoke about in 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
With prayer of the heart, we become true children of God. We bond with God, open ourselves to receiving his love and grace, and experience joy. We also see others as children of God.
Prayer of the heart requires few words. An example is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
We are spiritually healed through prayer of the heart. Our prayer becomes our entire life.
Contemplative prayer is considered the highest form of prayer. Only those of pure heart and mind can enter into contemplative prayer, a gift of the Holy Spirit.
With contemplative prayer, we enter into the presence of God. We see with interior eyes, in silence, and without “words, images, and conceptions born in thought.”
We experience the inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible God.
We see as God sees.
Types of Prayer
Filled with God’s light, we praise God for allowing us, as St. Irenaeus writes, to “partake of his glory.”
We thank God, because we recognize that all is a gift of God.
Divine Liturgy is our highest prayer of thanksgiving to God. We give thanks to God in Divine Liturgy when the priest prays the words of “The Anaphora, the Great Eucharistic Prayer”:
“It is right and just to sing of You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You everywhere in Your domain; for You are God—ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, always existing and ever the same—You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us from nothingness into being, and after we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your future kingdom.”
With penitential prayer, we express sorrow for our sins, for having offended God with our sins.
There are three stages of repentance:
1. Conversion: We turn from sin and return to God.
2. Purification: We are cleansed of our sin and healed.
3. Union with God: We experience contemplative prayer.
These stages are also considered the stages of the spiritual life.
With our penitential prayers, we recognize God’s goodness and mercy. We recognize our sinfulness. We then ask for God’s mercy in prayer.
Some common penitential prayers are:
Prayer of Supplication
With prayers of supplication, we make a request of God.
Our Lord prayed a prayer of supplication for the apostles before his death (John 17:11). He also prayed that we would know him through the apostles (John 17:20-21).
In Divine Liturgy and other liturgical services, we pray litanies of supplication.
Our Lord tells us to make requests of the Father (Matthew 7:7-8) He tells us the Father already knows what we will ask of him (Matthew 6:8).
In our prayers of supplication we should make a request of God with the belief that he will grant those things that are good for our salvation.
In his Homilies on Repentance, St. John Chrysostom reminds us to trust in God and to persevere in our prayer whether we believe we are heard or not:
“If you are heard praying, continue to give thanks in the prayer; if you not heard, remain praying so that you may be heard...God protects you with the pretext of need so that you may converse with him more closely and devote yourself to prayer.”
[Notes to our talk on “Prayer in the Spiritual Life,” pages 258-264 in Christ Our Pascha]
We become soldiers in a spiritual war against sin and evil at Baptism.
In this war, we fight against the spirits of wickedness, or demons, that use the eight thoughts to attack us. The weapons we use are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, which help us to win control over the passions.
Armor for the Battle
St. Paul speaks of the battle against spiritual evil in Ephesians 6:12:
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
He tells us what we need to defeat these hosts of wickedness in Ephesians 6:13-20:
In fighting this evil, “the flaming darts of the evil one,” we must:
St. John Cassian writes that spiritual warfare:
“...is in accordance with the will of God. It serves human good and awakens in a person ardent striving for greater perfection.”
When we fast, we emulate Our Lord’s forty-day fast in the desert and his defeat of Satan’s three temptations after his Baptism.
From the times of the early Church, monks have fasted to achieve purity of heart. Through fasting, we learn to control the body and to protect the soul from the passions.
St. John Chrysostom writes that fasting is more than limiting the amount of food we eat:
“Do you not eat flesh? Feed not upon indecency by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive slander and calumnies...For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes; and yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters.”
The Shepherd of Hermas, a text from the late first to the second century, links fasting with almsgiving.
Almsgiving, Hermas tells us, demonstrates love of neighbor and benefits both the giver and the receiver:
“In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.”
When we give alms we imitate God, who has freely given to us.
The Process of Giving in to an Evil Thought
Thoughts are either good or evil. We choose whether to give in to an evil thought. Giving in to the temptation of an evil thought follows a five step process: Suggestion, conversation, struggle, assent, and captivity.
First, we receive a suggestion that we commit a sin.
Second, we carry on a conversation with the suggestion and consider reasons for accepting or rejecting it.
Third, we enter into a spiritual battle or a struggle.
Fourth, we assent to, or accept, the evil thought.
Fifth, we become captive to the passion. Once in the state of captivity, a person becomes inclined to evil and finds it difficult to resist the thought to commit the evil whenever it occurs. Such a person can become addicted to the passion or a slave to it.
How to Defeat the Passions
Christ Our Pascha teaches that:
“The battle against evil thoughts and passions, and the acquiring of virtues, is the essence of Christian ascesis.”
We cannot attain perfection as long as the passions have power over us. To become free of the passions, we must employ ascetical practices, which train us and give us the strength to defeat the passions.
Just as giving in to the temptation of an evil thought follows a five step process, struggling against and defeating the passions follows a three-step process: Awareness, resistance, and eradication.
In this process, we use our reason and become aware of a passion through grace. Once we have awareness, we use our will and cooperate with God’s grace to resist the passion. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, our love of God then eradicates the passion.
To be free from the passions is called apatheia, a Greek word. When we are in this state, we have the ability to resist the eight evil thoughts. Temptation, though, remains.
[Notes to our talk on “Spiritual Combat in the Life of the Christian,” pages 255-258 in Christ Our Pascha]
Christ Our Pascha defines ascesis, a word derived from Greek, as exercise.
The term “spiritual exercises” is derived ascesis.
Ascesis has two other meanings important to the Church Fathers: Practice and athletic training.
In fact, the Church Fathers often describe those who take up ascetical practice as athletes for Christ.
When we take up ascesis, we renounce sin and cooperate with the Lord as he purifies us and cleanses us from our sins.
The Christian who takes up ascesis, St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:21, becomes “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
In renouncing sin, Paul reminds us, we refuse to give in to our passions and so also become “instruments of righteousness.”
Sin is “the refusal to obey God.” Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve. Their sin separated humanity from God.
Sin also separates us from family and neighbor.
Sin brought death and illness into the world.
Sin can be thought of as an illness, because it deprives us of spiritual health.
Ascesis, therefore, is therapeutic for us, because it restores us to and keeps us in spiritual health.
Since the sin of Adam and Eve, human beings are inclined to sin. When we sin, we choose to reject God and God’s commandments.
Our Lord teaches us that we should love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves. When we sin, we break both of these commandments, a summary of the decalogue.
James 2:10-11 reminds us that when we break one commandment we are guilty of failing to follow the entirety of God’s law.
When we commit one sin, we also commit additional sins.
The Eight Thoughts, Vices, or Capital Sins in Evagrius, Cassian, and Pope Gregory
Evagrius Ponticus, (345-399), also called Evagrius the Solitary, is credited with developing a system for understanding what we call the eight deadly thoughts (thoughts are also called logismoi, from the Greek), vices, or capital sins.
Evagrius covers this material in The Praktikos, On Thoughts, Eulogios, and On the Eight Thoughts. He also makes a reference to the thoughts in Chapters on Prayer.
Thoughts, Evagrius tells us, have three sources: Angels, demons, and ourselves. The vices generally are thought of as demons.
St. John Cassian (360-435), who was a disciple of Evagrius and later of St. John Chrysostom, introduced the eight vices to the Latin Church.
A thorough explanation of the vices and their remedies is contained in Cassian’s The Institutes.
Cassian also covers this material in The Conferences, a long work that one noted translator of these works, Boniface Ramsey, says gives us the feel of the desert.
Ramsey notes that Cassian’s works have had a great influence on Western monasticism and civilization.
From the time of St. Benedict until today, Cassian’s works have remained an important source of spiritual reading for Benedictines.
Pope Gregory the Great learned of the eight vices through Cassian. He then transformed these vices into what is known in the West as the Seven Deadly Sins.
To fully understand the eight thoughts and their opposites, one must study deeply the writings of Evagrius and Cassian.
Evagrius and Cassian provide the foundation for understanding ascetical practice.
Although similar to the list given in Christ Our Pascha, which is attributed to St. John of Damascus, the list of eight thoughts Evagrius writes of is slightly different.
Evagrius speaks of gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory, and pride.
His order is significant. The three fundamental thoughts are gluttony, avarice, and vainglory, Evagrius tells us in On Thoughts (in Evagrius of Pontus, The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz).
Gluttony, avarice, and vainglory are the vices on the front line, Evagrius tells us. They wound us so that we are placed under the demon’s power and then fall into other sins.
“All the other demons march along behind these ones and in their turn take up with the people wounded by these. For example, it is not possible to fall into the hands of the spirit of fornication, unless one has fallen under the influence of guttony....”
We fall into anger, he says further, when we are “fighting for food or wealth or esteem.”
We become sad when we are “deprived of all these things, or ... unable to obtain them.”
Evagrius, an astute reader of Scripture, tells us that this is why Satan tempted Our Lord with these three sins in the desert.
Evagrius addresses the vices from the psychological position of the human being. His order allows us to see how the vices and, therefore, sins are related.
Understanding these relations allows us to cooperate with God’s grace and to work more effectively against our sins.
Cassian provides the same list and order.
Pope Gregory the Great’s list includes these seven vices in a different order from the list developed by Evagrius. He places pride in the first position. His list: Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
How each of these writers addresses the vices and virtues is similar.
The Eight Capital Sins and Their Opposite Virtues in Christ Our Pascha
The list of the eight capital sins and their opposites found in Christ Our Pascha are drawn from On the Eight Evil Spirits by St. John of Damascus (675 or 676-749), who was influenced by the works of Evagrius. His list, however, differs slightly from the list developed by Evagrius.
Guttony and Temperance
We need to eat and drink to survive.
Some, however, turn food and drink into idols.
We turn food and drink into idols when we either eat and drink primarily for pleasure rather than for sustenance and we eat and drink to excess.
In such situations, we fail to exhibit self-control; we fail to use food and drink appropriately; we misuse the body and so damage the soul.
We call this behavior gluttony.
Overindulgence of this type leads to our overindulging in other ways; excessive spending or collecting, for example.
Temperance is the virtue that helps us defeat gluttony.
By temperance we mean moderation. When we have the virtue of temperance, we exhibit self-control, self-restraint. We control our desires.
Fasting and abstinence help us grow in the virtue of temperance.
Lust and Wholeness of Being
Evagrius tells us in On the Eight Thoughts that “Abstinence gives birth to chastity; gluttony is the mother of licentiousness.”
Sexual desire is natural. Lust, Christ Our Pascha tells us, is “the unrestrained and disordered quest for bodily gratification.”
Fornication, adultery, pornography, prostituion, and all types of disordered sexual activity result from lust.
Lust enslaves us and is related to gluttony.
Evargius tells us in On the Eight Thoughts:
“The one who fills his stomach and then announces that he is chaste is like one who says he can hold in check the action of fire in a reed. In the same way that it is impossible to restrain the momentum of rushing fire through a reed, so is it impossible to stop the licentiousness impulse that is fired by satiety.”
Fornication and satiety are allies, Evagrius tells us. Fight fornication and satiety will leave as well.
Our sexual desire becomes ordered through wholeness of being, which helps us to become chaste.
When we are chaste, we love neighbor and self as God intends.
Christ Our Pascha states: “Chastity allows a person to control one’s sexual impulse and restores the harmony of body, soul, and spirit.”
Avarice and Generosity
“Avarice is a passion for money and material goods.”
Avarice, or love of money and material goods, is not part of our nature. It is a distortion of our nature.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “Wealth is not a bad thing, but avarice and love of money are. A covetous person is one thing, and a rich person is another.”
The virtue that opposes avarice is generosity.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “Arm your right hand against him [the devil] ... stow away all your fortune in your mind, and instead of a chest and a house, let heaven keep your gold.”
St. John Chrysostom reminds us, therefore, that our minds should be set on heavenly things, not earthly.
Melancholy and Joy in the Holy Spirit
Melancholy is a desire for something that cannot satisfy us. It is type of a anxiety. It can lead to depression, despair, and to suicide.
Melancholy differs from sorrow for your sins, which can be salvific; melancholy is a form of self-inflicted suffering that leads away from God.
Joy in the Holy Spirit, or rejoicing in the Lord is the opposite virtue. Prayer, therefore, is essential.
Anger and Long-Suffering
The Fathers speak of three types of anger:
Anger can result in violence and murder.
Anger divides us from others and can result in war.
“The most fierce passion is anger,” Evagrius tells us in The Praktikos. “In fact it is defined as a boiling and stirring of wrath against one who has given injury—or is thought to have done so.”
Long-suffering, a quality ascribed to Our Lord, is patience and gentleness. A long-suffering person has strong faith and trust in God.
Acedia and Cheerfulness
Acedia, the attack from the noonday demon, has been called the illness of our times. The Fathers define acedia, or despondency, “as exhaustion and fatigue of the soul.”
Other words used to describe acedia are boredom, depression, listlessness, and sloth.
Acedia robs us of our hope in God.
Evagrius writes in The Praktikos that:
“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all.... he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself....”
Prayer helps us fight acedia, but many find it difficult to pray or are distracted in prayer when attacked by this demon.
This is why one attacked by the demon of acedia must pray despite a lack of desire or distractions.
One must, again, rejoice in the Lord to fight this demon.
Psalm 12 teaches us: “They that afflict me will rejoice if I am shaken; but as for me, I have hoped in Thy mercy. My heart will rejoice in Thy salvation.” (Psalter According to the Seventy, Holy Transfiguration Monastery)
Praying the Our Father, the Angelic Salutation (the Hail Mary in the West), and short verses from the Psalms such as the one above from Psalm 12 are effective during these times.
Praying with the body is also effective; for example, making a number of prostrations.
Vainglory and Humble-Mindedness
The vainglorious seek and thrive on the approval of others. They seek esteem.
They seek attention. They seek praise. They seek honors and glory.
They seek to be found among the powerful. They seek power over others for themselves.
They are boasters.
They are attached to earthly goods.
Many today suffer from this sin, both inside and outside the Church.
Humble-mindedness allows us to know that we are created and not the creator.
Humble-mindedness allows us to accept all that occurs in our lives and to offer all to God’s glory.
The humble-minded can say with Job: “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10, RSV)
The humble-minded are like the monks Cassian describes who seek quiet and solitude and prayer and are not seduced by the temptations of the world.
Pride and Humility
While the vainglorious seek earthly honors and glory, the prideful ascribe to themselves powers that belong only to God.
Pride, the devil’s sin, is considered “the most dangerous passion and the mother of all sins.”
Pride is at the root of many of the sinful behaviors we find in our culture today.
The prideful love themselves. They fail to see their own sins.
They believe that all they have comes from their own actions and have nothing to do with God’s mercy and grace.
Their necks are stiff and their hearts are hard.
The cure for the illness of pride is humility.
Repentance: Walking in the Commandments, Guided by Jesus Christ
Christ Our Pascha teaches that “Repentance forms the foundation of Christian spirituality.”
If we are to make the most of the wisdom the Church Fathers have given us concerning the virtues and vices, we must become repentant.
Like the prodigal son, the repentant return home to the Father.
In returning home to God, the repentant turn away from sin.
Through repentance, we embrace humility.
Repentant, we walk in the way of God’s commandments guided by the light of Jesus Christ.
Repantance is not a one-time event in our lives. Instead, it is a daily commitment.
When we live a life of repentance we grow closer to God.
Through the mercy of God, repentance frees us from sin. Repentance opens our hearts to God’s grace.
Christ Our Pascha tells us:
“The closer we come to God, the more clearly we see how sinful we are. The light of Christ illumines us and leads us to repentance, to a vision of beauty rather than deformity, to an awareness of God’s glory rather than our own destitution.”
[Notes to our talk on “An Ascesis which Purifies,” pages 246-255 in Christ Our Pascha; some material is derived from works by Evagrius and St. John Cassian mentioned above.]