Thursday, 14 September 2017

True Orthodoxy

 By the ever-Memorable 

Archbishop Averky of Jordanville, + 1976

Few people today know that the Orthodox Church is nothing less than that Church which has preserved untainted the genuine teachings of Jesus Christ, the very teachings delivered to every subsequent generation of believers. These teachings came down the centuries. from the Holy Apostles, explicated and carefully interpreted by their legitimate successors (their disciples and the holy Fathers), traditioned and conserved unaltered by our Eastern Church which is alone able to prove her right to be called "the Orthodox Church."

The divine Founder of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ, said clearly, "I will build my Church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against Her" (St. Matt xvi, 18). To the Church, He sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit descended upon the Apostles, the Spirit of Truth (St. John xv, 16f) Who "manifests all things" to Her and guides Her (St. John xvi, 13), protecting Her from error. Indeed, it was to declare this Truth to men that the Lord came into the cosmos, according to His own words (St. John xviii, 31). And Saint Paul confirms this fact in his letter to his pupil, the bishop Timothy, saying that, "the Church of the living God is the ground and pillar of the Truth" (I Tim iii, 15).

Because She is "the ground and pillar of the Truth," "the gates of Hell cannot prevail against Her." It follows, then, that the true Christian Church—palpably unique since Christ established but one Church—has always existed on earth and will exist to the end of time. She has received the promise of Christ, "I will be with you even unto the end of the age." Can there be the slightest doubt that the Lord refers here to the Church? Any honest and sane judgment, any act of good conscience, anyone familiar with the history of the Christian Church, the pure and unaltered moral and theological teachings of the Christian religion, must confess that there was but one true Church founded by our Lord, Jesus Christ, and that She has preserved His Truth holy and unchanged. History reveals, moreover, a traceable link of grace from the holy Apostles to their successors and to the holy Fathers. In contrast to what others have done, the Orthodox Church has never introduced novelties into Her teachings in order to "keep up with the times", to be "progressive", "not to be left at the side of the road," or to accommodate current exigencies and fashions which are always suffused with evil. The Church never conforms to the world.

Indeed not, for the Lord has said to his disciples at the Last Supper, "You are not of this world." We must hold to these words if we are to remain faithful to true Christianity—the true Church of Christ has always been, is and will always be a stranger to this world. Separated from it, she is able to transmit the divine teachings of the Lord unchanged, because that separation has kept Her unchanged, that is, like the immutable God Himself. That which the learned call "conservativism" is a principal and, perhaps, most characteristic index of the true Church.

Since the TRUTH is given to us once and for all, our task is to assimilate rather than to discover it. We are commanded to confirm ourselves and others in the Truth and thereby bring everyone to the true Faith, Orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, there have appeared in the very bosom of the Church, even among the hierarchy, opinions expressed by well-known individuals which are detrimental to Her. The desire to "march with the times" makes them fear that they will not be recognized as "cultured", "liberal" and "progressive." These modern apostates to Orthodoxy are "ashamed" to confess that our Orthodox church is precisely the Church which was founded by our Lord Jesus Christ, the Church to which appertains the great promise that "the gates of Hell will not prevail against Her," and to which He confided the plenum of divine Truth. By their deceit and false humility, by their blasphemy against the Lord, these false shepherds and those with them have been estranged from the true Church. They have given tacit expression to the idea that "the gates of Hell" have "prevailed" against the Church. In other words, these apostates say that our holy Orthodox Church is equally "at fault" for the "division of the churches" and ought now to "repent" her sins and enter into union with other "Christian churches" by means of certain concessions to them, the result being a new, indivisible church of Christ.

This is the ideology of the religious movement which has become so fashionable in our times: "The ecumenical movement" among whose number one may count Orthodox, even our clergy. For a long time, we have heard that they belong to this movement in order "to witness to the peoples of other confessions the truth of holy Orthodoxy," but it is difficult for us to believe that this statement is anything more than "throwing powder in our eyes." Their frequent theological declarations in the international press can lead us to no other conclusion than that they are traitors to the holy Truth.

As a matter of historical fact, the "ecumenical movement"—of which the WCC is the supreme organ—is an organization. of purely Protestant origin. Nearly all the Orthodox Churches have joined, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia being the most notable exception. Even those churches behind the "iron curtain" have joined. For some time the Russian Patriarchate resisted, flattering herself with the purity of her Orthodoxy and quite naturally viewing this movement as hostile to Orthodoxy. She has since become a member.

The Russian Synod almost stands alone in her opposition to the "ecumenical movement." How can we explain her isolation from the rest of "global Orthodoxy"? We must understand the situation in terms of the words that "this Must take place" (St. Luke xxi, 9), that is, the "great apostasy" clearly predicted by the Lord (Sol ii, 3-12). "it is permitted by God," as [St.] Ignatius Brianchaninoff said almost a century ago. (Another spiritual father, Theophan the Recluse, announced with grief that the horrendous apostasy would begin within Russia.) [St.] Ignatius wrote: "We are helpless to arrest this apostasy. Impotent hands will have no power against it and nothing more will be required than the attempt to withold it. The spirit of the age will reveal the apostasy. Study it, if you wish to avoid it, if you wish to escape this age and the temptation of its spirits. One can suppose, too, that the institution of the Church which has been tottering for so long will fall terribly and suddenly. Indeed, no one is able to stop or prevent it. The present means to sustain the institutional Church are borrowed from the elements of the world, things inimical to the Church, and the consequence will be only to accelerate its fall. Nevertheless, the Lord protects the elect and their limited number will be filled."

The Enemy of humanity makes every effort and uses all means to confound it. Aid comes to him through the total co-operation of all the secret and invisible heterodox, especially those priests and bishops who betray their high calling and oath, the true faith and the true Church.

Repudiation of and preservation from the apostasy which has made such enormous progress demands that we stand apart from the spirit of the age (which bears the seeds of its own destruction). If we expect to withstand the world, it is first necessary to understand it and keep sensitively in mind that in this present age all that which carries the most holy and dear name of Orthodoxy is not in fact Orthodox. Rather, it is often "A fraudulent and usurped Orthodoxy" which we must fear and eschew as if it were fire. Unlike this spurious faith, true Orthodoxy was given and must be received without novelty and nothing must be accepted as a teaching or practice of the Church which is contrary to the Holy Scriptures and the dogma of the Universal Church. True Orthodoxy thinks only to serve god and to save souls and is not preoccupied with the secular and ephemeral welfare of men. True Orthodoxy is spiritual and not physical or psychological or earthly. In order to protect ourselves from "the spirit of the age" and preserve our fidelity to the true Orthodoxy, we ought firstly and with all our strength live blamelessly: A total and rigorous commitment to Christ, without deviation from the commandments of God or the laws of His holy Church. At the same time, we must have no common prayer or spiritual liaison with the modern apostasy or with anything which "soils" our holy Faith, even those dissidents who call themselves "Orthodox." They will go their way and we will go ours. We must be honorable and tenacious, following the right way, never deviating in order to please men or from fear that we might lose some personal advantage.

The sure path to perdition is indifference and the lack of principles which is euphemistically called "the larger view." In opposition to this "larger view" we put the "rigor of ideas" which, in modernity, it is fashionable to label "narrow" and "fanatical." To be sure, if one adopts the "modern mentality," one must consider the holy martyrs—whose blood is "the cement of the Church"—and the Church Fathers—who struggled all their lives against heretics—as nothing less than "narrow" and "fanatical." In truth, there is little difference between "the broad way" against which the Lord warned and the modem "larger view." He condemned the "broad way" as the way to "gehenna."

Of course, the idea of "gehenna" holds no fear for those "liberals" and avant-garde theologians. They may smugly "theologize" about it, but in rashly and wantonly discussing "the new ways of Orthodox theology" and acquiring a number of disciples, they give evidence that they no longer believe in the existence of Hell. This new breed of "Orthodox" are really no more than modem "scholastics."

In other words, the way of these "progressivists" is not our way. Their way is deceptive, and it is unfortunate that it is not evident to everyone. The "broader" or "larger view" alienates us from the Lord and His true Church. It is the road away from Orthodoxy. This view is sinister, maliciously invented by the Devil in order to deny us salvation. For us, however, we accept no innovations, but choose the ancient, proven way, the way in which true Christians have chosen to serve God for 2,000 years.

We choose the way of fidelity to the true Faith and not the "modern way." We choose faithfulness to the true Church with all Her canons and dogmas which have been received and confirmed by the local and universal Councils. We choose the holy customs and traditions, the spiritual riches of that faith transmitted complete and entire to us from the Holy Apostles, the Holy Fathers of the Church, and the Christian heritage of our venerable ancestors. This alone is the faith of the true Orthodox, distinct from the counterfeit "orthodoxy" invented by the Adversary. We receive only the Apostolic Faith, the Faith of the Fathers, the Orthodox Faith.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Month of September

September is the first month of the Church Year, and contains two Great Feasts, the Birth of the Virgin and Holy Cross. We also celebrate the festival of Saint Edward's Enshrinement (1984) on Saturday 3rd/16th. 

Of course we do not know the date of the All-holy Virgin's birth, but the feast is kept on 8th/21st September, the eighth day of the New Year. This reminds us that in the beginning God created all things in six days and rested on the seventh day. The eighth day begins the New Creation. Saint Andrew of Crete referred to this feast as "the beginning of festivals, which serves as the door to grace and truth." Just as the Saviour was contained within the Virgin's womb, so the feasts of the Saviour throughout the year are contained within the cycle of services which span the Virgin's earthly life, from her Nativity to her Dormition. Of course, historically as well, the Virgin's much longer life contained that of her Divine Son.

The date of the celebration of the Holy Cross on 14th/27th of the month was appointed because the feast is attached to that of the consecration of the Church of the Resurrection (the Holy Sepulchre) in Jerusalem. This is an event we can date exactly. It was first celebrated on 13th September, 335 A.D. On whatever day of the week the feast falls it is kept as a fast day in remembrance of our Saviour's Passion.

In September, we also celebrate the memory of the holy Martyr Vasilissa of Nicomedia on the same day as we keep the enshrinement of St Edward. She was a nine year old girl when she was brought before the governor of Nicomedia accused of being a Christian. Seeing her youth, the governor, who was named Alexander, tried to persuade her to renounce her faith by offering certain inducements and by his kind and sweet words. When Vasilissa was not tempted by this approach, he ordered that she be beaten, and then burned on various parts of her body. When he saw Vasilissa still remained resolute, he commanded that she be put to death by being thrown into a burning furnace, but by God's dispensation she remained unharmed. Alexander then ordered that she be exposed to the wild beasts in the arena, but neither would they touch her. Seeing how a young girl was thus protected by Divine grace, Alexander's heart was enlightened, and he begged the forgiveness of the martyr, asking her prayers and declaring that he believed in her God. Vasilissa lived a few more years and died in peace. Alexander was instructed by the local Bishop and baptized and ended his earthly course in piety. St Vasilissa is an example of a number of saints, who are commemorated as martyrs even though they did not die for their faith. The sufferings that she endured and her witness before the persecutors won for her the crown of martyrdom although in this instance they did not actually kill her.

The Venerable Adamnan of Iona (6th/19th) is best known to us for his life of his renowned predecessor, St Columba of Iona. This work is still in print in an English translation and published by Penguin. St Adamnan died just over a hundred years after St Columba and so must have been one of the third or fourth generation of monks on Iona, and might well have known earlier fathers who remembered St Columba. As abbot of Iona, he visited Northumbria as an ambassador to its King Aldfrid, and thus came to know the monks of Wearmouth. He studied the differences of usages and calendar which had grown up between his native Celtic Church and the English Church, which was then following the Roman, and universal, usages. He had conversations with St Ceolfrid, and through these and his deep knowledge of the Scriptures and the traditions of the Church, he became convinced that the usages of his own Church were not sound. He tried by gentle persuasion to convince his monks at Iona of this and to have them reform their usages, but they were not to be persuaded, and being a gentle and tolerant man, Adamnan did not force them to comply. He visited communities in Ireland and there he found the Irish fathers more ready to bring their usages into line with the Church's general practice, and under his influence they adopted the Roman method of calculating the date of Easter. He returned to Iona but was still unable to persuade his monks to comply with the Roman usage, and he died within a year of his return in 704 A.D. Iona did later accept the reform which St Adamnan had urged upon it. Besides his life of St Columba, St Adamnan compiled on book on the holy places of Palestine. As far as we know he had never visited the Holy Land, but he gathered materials from a French bishop, Arculphus, who on his return from Jerusalem was driven by a storm at sea upon the shores of Britain.

The Venerable Cloud of Paris (7th/20th) was the grandson of the first Christian King of the Franks, Clovis, and his consort, St Clothilde. When Clovis died he left four sons, parting his domains among them. The second of these, Clodomir, was killed in battle with the Burgundians, and his three sons were left in the care of their saintly grandmother. In the dynastic quarrels of that period, the two eldest of these princes, aged ten and seven, were assassinated, but the third, Clodoald or Cloud, was taken to safety in Provence. There he grew up, and disdaining an earthly kingdom for the sake of the heavenly, he took up the monastic life. He lived for some years in obscurity as a hermit. Once he was approached by a beggar and, having nothing else to give him, gave him his monastic cowl. That evening when the beggar wore it as a protection against the weather, it was seen to shine with a radiance, and thus the hermitage and the sanctity of the saint were revealed. Later, St Cloud returned to Paris, where, no longer a threat to the dynastic ambitions of his uncles and cousins, he was granted a parcel of land to found a monastery. Eusebius, the bishop of Paris, ordained him to the priesthood, and there in his monastery he ended his earthly course in about 560 A.D. At the time of his death, he would not have been much above thirty-five years of age, but his virtue and purity had won for him the heavenly kingdom, whose riches he sought after having his earthly inheritance snatched from him.

Saint Cyprian of Moscow (16th/29th) was a Bulgarian by birth, and was born in 1330 A.D. As a young man he placed himself under obedience to the Venerable Theodosius, himself a disciple of the renowned hesychastic father, Saint Gregory the Sinaite. Wishing to progress further in the monastic life, he travelled to Constantinople and settled in the renowned and ancient monastery of Studion. His abilities were recognized by the Patriarch, St Philotheus. When the Patriarch was deposed in 1354, Cyprian went with him to the Holy Mountain Athos, where he was able to drink more deeply of the Palamite tradition. In 1364, Philotheus was restored to his cathedra, and he summoned Cyprian to join him in the Imperial City. At this period he was instrumental in restoring full communion between the Church of Serbia and the Œcumenical Throne, and then between his native Church of Bulgaria and Constantinople. 

At this time the Russian Church was still under the Œcumenical Patriarchate, and St Philotheus was desirous that it should remain united. However, the still pagan Prince of Lithuania, Olgerd, who held sway over parts of Western Russia was threatening to convert to Catholicism and force his Orthodox subjects to do so. To placate him and avoid a persecution of the faithful, in 1376 Philotheus consecrated Cyprian Metropolitan of Kiev, but, to ensure the subsequent unity of the Russian Church, also designated him successor of the aged St Alexis of Moscow. When St Alexis died two years later, Cyprian set out for Moscow, but was arrested being assumed to be a Lithuanian spy. He managed to return to Kiev, but political turmoil in Constantinople and in Russia prevented any resolution of the situation until in 1381, when on the initiative of Prince Dimitri Donskoy, he was recalled to Moscow. There the Prince publicly asked his forgiveness for his ill-treatment, and Saint Cyprian was installed as Metropolitan of the whole Russian Church. Shortly afterwards he was deposed and replaced by one Pimen, and it was not until 1389 that he regained his see.

Despite the political turmoil through which he lived, Saint Cyprian was able to achieve much. He laboured to correct liturgical abuses that had become prevalent in the Russian Church and corrected the service books. He translated from the original Greek a number of liturgical works, wrote a eulogy to St Peter of Moscow and glorified St Alexander Nevsky. He added to the Russian Synod icon of Orthodoxy the clauses relating to Saint Gregory Palamas' defence of Orthodoxy, and he arranged to aid to be sent to Constantinople when the people there were suffering on account of the siege of Bajazet. He died on 16th September, 1406, having dictated an address which he asked to be read at his funeral. His sacred relics were uncovered in 1472, and were enshrined in the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Moscow Kremlin.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Why do we wear a cross?

Most of us can answer this question quite simply by saying that we wear a cross because we were given a cross to wear at our baptism. The priest puts a cross around the neck of the newly-baptized in the Orthodox baptism service. We don’t have to wear this exact same cross (children are often given another one to wear in case they lose their baptismal one), but we must wear a cross. 

In the light of the recent controversy in the UK about a foster-child allegedly being made to remove her cross by her Muslim foster parents, it might be worth looking into why Orthodox Christians wear a cross and why others (even heterodox Christians) object both to wearing a cross and to making the sign of the cross.

The idea of Christians having to remove a cross is unfortunately not new. In 2006, British Airways asked a female employee to cover up the cross she was wearing, despite permitting the wearing of other visible religious symbols such as the hijab and turban. The woman, a Coptic Christian, appealed and the case ended up in the European Court of Human Rights which ruled in her favour. During the dispute the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, stated that it was not necessary for Christians to wear a cross and that it was merely an optional decoration.

The woman, on the other hand, argued that wearing a visible cross was an essential part of her Christian witness. Orthodox Christians, however, take a different view. It is not essential that people see our cross – most often they can’t because we wear it under our clothes. So why do we wear a cross? It is not just a decoration and it’s not necessary for us to display it.

The cross is the example of how we should live our Christian life because Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow Him (cf. Matt 16:24) Through the cross, Christ destroyed death and the power of the devil. The symbol of the cross is therefore invested with the power and grace to destroy the snares and traps of the devil which is why, as well as wearing a cross, we make the sign of the cross when we pray, when we bless our food, before starting work and in times of temptation. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the foundation of Christianity. This sacrifice occurred so that we might be reconciled to the Father through God’s surpassing love for us. It is this love that we must remember when we look on the cross.

Jews and Muslims understandably do not accept the cross because they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God. It is more surprising that some heterodox Christian groups do not accept it either. The Roman Catholic Church is superficially the closest to the Orthodox on this issue. Roman Catholics make the sign of the cross and many Catholics wear a cross. The biggest contrast with the Orthodox is that the wearing of a cross is optional for Roman Catholics – the cross is not given as part of the Roman Catholic baptism service.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are perhaps the most well known of those object to the cross, however this group cannot strictly be called Christian because they do not believe that Christ is God. Unlike Protestant Christians, they teach that Christ was not crucified on a cross but on a stake – this teaching is unknown in any Christian tradition.

Among Protestants there are many different opinions concerning the significance of the Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the relevance of the symbol of the cross today. Most (with the exception of the Lutherans) do not make the sign of the cross or even wear a cross. Most Protestant churches, although rejecting the use of a cross in worship, might have one somewhere in the building. The fish symbol has replaced the cross in newer Protestant churches.

The nearest Protestants to the Orthodox position on the cross are the Lutherans, who make the sign of the cross as taught by one of the founders of Protestantism Martin Luther (d.1546): ‘In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer’.

Strangely, some of the biggest opponents of the wearing and use of the cross in worship are Anglicans who are otherwise pretty liberal in their beliefs. In the nineteenth century the Protestant wing of the Church of England spent a small fortune prosecuting Anglican priests (and successfully getting them sent to prison) for the crime of having a cross on the altar table which was regarded as being too Roman Catholic.

The Anglican Church is not really Protestant in the sense that the Lutheran Church is; the traditional beliefs and practices of the Church of England owe more to the Puritans than the sixteenth century Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther. The Puritans were dedicated to removing all trace of Roman Catholicism from sixteenth century England. They destroyed relics, shrines, books, vestments and persecuted anyone who dared oppose them. They could perhaps be described as the ISIS of the sixteenth century. In the newly emerging United States, Puritans arriving from England carried on in much the same fashion.

As a result of their influence, Puritan teachings began to supplant the teachings of Luther and this explains why, even today, most Protestants regard the sign of the cross as Roman Catholic and are almost frightened of making it – little knowing that one of the most important founders of Protestantism regarded it as essential.

The idea that wearing a cross is ‘Roman Catholic’ is also tied up with the modern Protestant idea of rejecting everything ‘old’ in favour of the ‘new’. Most young Protestants today would reject all the Ecumenical Councils - even if they had heard of them. Most would regard the Creed as an unnecessary invention. It is this opposition to tradition that fuels their rejection of the cross. It is strange though that the ancient Christian fish symbol is used instead of the cross in these churches. Surely, it would be more logical to accept the Creed and make the sign of the cross as Martin Luther did? The reason that Luther’s practice isn’t followed is because these modern Protestants believe that Luther himself was wrong and had deviated from the truth. For them, Christianity ended sometime in the first or second century and was only re-invigorated in the late twentieth century.

Some Evangelical Protestants reject the cross because they are not really convinced that it was necessary. For them, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a far-off event that doesn’t really matter anymore. This idea is sometimes called ‘easy-believism’ or more properly ‘Non-Lordship Salvation’. The general idea is that one only has to believe that one is saved in order to be saved; there is no need to accept Jesus as Lord, to follow His commandments or to take up one’s cross and follow Him. This belief is quite common especially among the newer churches that have emerged over the last twenty years or so. This teaching is clearly contrary to Scripture. Saint Paul teaches that we become ‘heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him’ (Rom. 8:17).

‘Easy-believism” is also not traditionally Protestant. John Calvin, who along with Luther, was one of the most important founders of Protestantism speaks of the importance of Christians ‘bearing their cross’. The Protestants who follow Calvin’s teachings do not make the sign of the Cross, but also completely reject the idea of ‘easy-believism’. Calvin himself said:
Now, by saying that the world was crucified to him and he to the world, it is certain that Paul means the same thing, yet he wants to reinforce that we can indeed renounce this world and be separate from it, by being crucified to ourselves with regard to the world.
Some Protestants object to the symbol of the cross because it is an object of suffering and humiliation. This is a common view among Protestants whom the Orthodox literature refers to as ‘Judaizing’. In modern English we would probably refer to them as ‘Christian Zionists’. This idea is common among Protestant Fundamentalists in America and is based on the idea that the Jewish people are the chosen of God and that the State of Israel is a continuation of the Old Testament Israel. These Protestants are waiting for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and the reestablishment of the Old Testament priesthood and worship including animal sacrifices.

Because they do not believe that Christ is the Son of God, it is understandable that Jewish people still regard the cross as an instrument of punishment that should not be reverenced. However, this opposition to the cross is not confined just to the Jews. Saint Paul says: ‘But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God’ (1. Cor. 23-24) Orthodox Christians venerate the cross because by being raised on It, Christ opened the way to Paradise for us again and made us heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Homily on the Dormition of the Mother of God

 By Saint John of Damascus

LOVERS are wont to speak of what they love, and to let their fancy run on it by day and night. Let no one therefore blame me, if I add a third tribute to the Mother of God, on her triumphant departure. I am not profiting her but myself and you who are here present, putting before you a spiritual seasoning and refreshment in keeping with this holy night. We are suffering, as you see, from scarcity of eatables. Therefore I am extemporising a repast, which, if not very costly nor worthy of the occasion, will certainly be sufficient to still hunger. She does not need our praise. It is we who need her glory. How indeed can glory be glorified, or the source of light be enlightened? We are weaving a crown for ourselves in the doing. “I live,” the Lord says, “and I will glorify those who glorify Me.” Wine is truly pleasant to drink, and bread to eat. The one rejoices, the other strengthens the heart of man. But what is sweeter than the Mother of my God? She has taken my mind captive, and held my tongue in bondage. I think of her by day and night. She, the Mother of the Word, supplies my words. The fruit of barrenness makes barren minds fruitful.

We keep today the feast of her blessed and divine transfer from this world. Let us then climb the mystical mountain, where beyond the reach of worldly things, passing through the obscurity of storm, we stand in the Divine light and may give praise to Almighty power. How does He, who dwells in the splendour of His glory, descend into the Virgin’s womb without leaving the bosom of the Father? How is He conceived in the flesh, and how does He spontaneously suffer, and suffer unto death, in that material body, gaining immortality through corruptibility? And, again, ascending to the Father, He drew His Mother, according to the flesh, to His own Father, taking into the heavenly country her who was heaven on earth.

Today the living ladder, through whom the Most High descended and was seen on earth and conversed with men, was taken into heaven by death. Today the heavenly table, she, who contained the Bread of life, the fire of the Godhead, without knowing man, was taken from earth to heaven, and the gates of heaven opened wide to receive the gate of God from the East. Today the living city of God is transferred from the earthly to the heavenly Jerusalem, and she, who conceived her first-born and only Son, the First-born of all creation, the Only Begotten of the Father, rests in the Church of the first-born: the true and living Ark of the Lord is taken to the peace of her Son. The gates of heaven are opened to receive the receptacle of God, who, bringing forth the tree of life, destroyed Eve’s disobedience and Adam’s penalty of death. And Christ, the Cause of all life, receives the chosen mirror, the mountain from which the stone cut without hands filled the whole earth.

She, who brought about the Word’s divine Incarnation, rests in her glorious tomb as in a bridal-chamber, whence she goes to the heavenly bridals, to share in the kingdom of her Son and God, leaving her tomb as a place of respite for those on earth. Is her tomb indeed a resting-place? Yes, more renowned than any other, not shining with gold, or silver, or precious stones, nor covered with silken, golden, or purple adornments, but with the divine radiance of the Holy Spirit. The angelic state is not for lovers of this world, but the wondrous life of the blessed is for the servants of the Spirit, and passing to God is better and sweeter than any other life. This tomb is fairer than Eden. And may I not speak of the enemy’s deceit in the first [Eden]: of his, so to say, clever counsel, his envy and covetousness, of Eve’s weakness and pliability, the bait, sure and tempting, which cheated her and her husband, their disobedience, exile, and death. Let us not speak of these things so as not to turn our feast into sorrow.  

This grave gave up the mortal body it contained to the heavenly country. Eve became the mother of the family of mankind, and is not man, made after the Divine image, convicted by her condemnation: “earth thou art, and unto earth thou shalt return”? This tomb is more precious than the tabernacle of old, receiving the real and life-giving receptacle of the Lord, the heavenly table, not the loaves of presence but of heaven, not material fire, but her who contained the pure Fire of the Godhead. This tomb is holier than the ark of Moses, blessed not with types and shadows, but the Truth itself. It showed forth the pure and golden urn containing the heavenly Manna, the living tablet receiving the Incarnate Word of God from the impress of the Holy Spirit, the golden censer of the supersubstantial Word. It showed forth her who conceived the divine Fire embalming all creation.

Let demons take to flight, and the thrice miserable Nestorians perish as the Egyptians of old and their ruler, Pharaoh the younger, a cruel devastator. They were swallowed up in the abyss of blasphemy. Let us who are saved with dry feet, crossing the bitter waters of impiety, raise our voices to the Mother of God at her departure.

Let Mary, personifying the Church, lead the joyful strain. Let the maidens of the spiritual Jerusalem go out in singing choirs. Let kings and judges, with rulers, youths, and virgins, young and old, proclaim the Mother of God, and all peoples and nations in their different ways and tongues, sing a new song. Let the air resound with praise and instrument, and the sun gladden this day of salvation. Rejoice, O heavens, and may the clouds rain justice. Be glad, O divine apostles, the chosen ones of God’s flock, who seem to reach the highest visions, as lofty mountain tops. And you God’s sheep and His holy people, the flock of the Church, who look to the high mountains of perfection, be sad, for the fountain of life, God’s Mother, is dead.

It was necessary that what was made of earth should return to earth, and thus be taken to heaven. It was fitting that the earthly tenement should be cast off, as gold is purified, so that the flesh in death might become pure and immortal, and rise in shining immortality from the tomb.

Today she begins her second life through Him who was the Cause of her first being. She gave a beginning, I mean the life of the body, to Him who had no beginning in time, although the Father was the Cause of His Divine existence. Rejoice, holy and divine Mount Sion, in which reposes the living divine mountain, the new Bethel, with its grace: human nature united with the Godhead. From thee her Son ascended to heaven, from the the Mount of Olives.

Let a world-embracing cloud be prepared and the winds gather the Apostles to Mount Sion from the ends of the earth. Who are these who soar up as clouds and eagles to the cause of all resurrection, ministering to the Mother of God? Who is she who rises resplendent, all pure, and bright as the sun? Let spiritual lyres, the apostolic tongues, sing to her. Let grave theologians raise their voices in praise. Hierotheus, the vessel of election, in whom the Holy Spirit abides, knowing and teaching divine things by the divine indwelling, - let him be wrapt out of the body and join willingly in the joyful hymn. Let all nations clap their hands and praise the Mother of God. Let angels minister to her body. Follow your Queen, O daughters of Jerusalem, and, together with her virgins in the spirit, approach your Bridegroom in order to sit at His right hand. Make haste, O Lord, to give Thy Mother the welcome which is her due. Stretch out Thy divine hands. Receive Thy Mother’s soul into the Father’s hands unto which Thou didst commend Thy spirit on the Cross. Speak sweet words to her: “Come, my beloved, whose purity is more dazzling than the sun, thou gavest Me of thy own, receive now what is Mine. Come, My Mother, to thy Son, reign with Him who was poor with thee.”

Depart, O Queen, depart, not as Moses did who went up to die. Die rather that thou mayest ascend. Give up thy soul into the hands of thy Son. Return earth to the earth, it will be no obstacle. Lift up your eyes, O people of God. See in Sion the Ark of the Lord God of powers, and the Apostles standing by it, burying the life-giving body which received our Lord. Invisible angels are all around in lowly reverence doing homage to the Mother of their Lord. The Lord Himself is there, who is everywhere present, filling all things, the universal Being, not contained by place. He is the Author and Creator of all things. Behold the Virgin, the daughter of Adam and Mother of God! Because of Adam she gives her body to the earth: her soul to her Son above in the heavenly courts.

Let the holy city be sanctified, and rejoice in eternal praise. Let angels precede the divine tabernacle on its passage, and prepare the tomb. Let the radiance of the Spirit adorn it. Let sweet ointment be made ready and poured over the pure and undefiled body. Let a clear stream of grace flow from grace in its Source. Let the earth be sanctified by contact with that body. Let the air rejoice at the Translation. Let gentle breezes waft grace. Let all nature keep the feast of the Mother of God’s Dormition. May youthful bands applaud and eloquent tongues acclaim her, and wise hearts ponder on the wonder, priests hoary with age gather strength at the sight. Let all creation emulate heaven, even so the true measure of rejoicing would not be reached.

Come, let us depart with her. Come, let us descend to that tomb with all our heart’s desire. Let us draw round that most sacred bed and sing the sweet words, “Rejoice, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Rejoice, fore-ordained Mother of God. Rejoice, thou chosen one in the design of God from all eternity, most sacred hope of earth, resting-place of Divine fire, holiest delight of the Spirit, fountain of Living Water, paradise of the tree of Life, divine vine-branch, bringing forth soul-sustaining nectar and ambrosia. Full river of spiritual graces, fertile land of the divine pastures, rose of purity, with the sweet fragrance of grace, lily of the royal robe, pure Mother of the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world, token of our redemption, handmaid and Mother, surpassing angelic powers.”

Come, let us stand round that pure tomb and draw grace to our hearts. Let us raise the ever-virginal body with spiritual arms, and go with her into the grave to die with her. Let us renounce our passions, and live with her in purity, listening to the divine canticles of angels in the heavenly courts. Let us go in adoring, and learn the wondrous mystery by which she is taken to heaven to be with her Son, higher than all the angelic choirs. No one stands between Son and Mother.

This, O Mother of God, is my third sermon on thy departure, in lowly reverence to the Holy Trinity to Whom thou didst minister, the goodness of the Father, the power of the Spirit, receiving the Uncreated Word, the Almighty Wisdom and Power of God. Accept, then, my goodwill, which is greater than my capacity, and give us salvation.

Heal our passions, cure our diseases, help us out of our difficulties, make our lives peaceful, send us the illumination of the Spirit. Inflame us with the desire of thy Son. Render us pleasing to Him, so that we may enjoy happiness with Him, seeing thee resplendent with thy Son’s glory, rejoicing for ever, keeping feast in the Church with those who worthily celebrate Him who worked our salvation through thee, Christ the Son of God, and our God. To Him be glory and majesty, with the uncreated Father and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, 18 August 2017

On the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ

Homily on the Day of the Lord’s Transfiguration

By our Venerable Father Ephraim the Syrian, the Deacon + 373 A.D.

Our Saviour led the Apostles up into the mountain to show them the glory of His Divinity and to grant them to know that He is the Redeemer of Israel, as He had declared through the Prophets, and so that they would not be tempted concerning Him, when they would see His voluntary Passion, which He was to suffer for our sakes in His human nature.  For they knew Him as a man, but they did not comprehend that He was God.  They knew that He was the Son of Mary, a man, living with them in the world.  And on the mountain He gave them to comprehend that He is the Son of God, and God.  They saw that He ate and He drank, that He was wearied and that He rested, that He became tired and that He slept, that He experienced fear and that He poured forth sweat, but all of this did not correspond to His Divine nature, but pertained only to the human. Therefore He led them up into the mountain, so that the Father might proclaim His Son, and so that He might show them that He was in actuality the Son of God, and God.

    He took them up into the mountain and He showed them the glory of His Divinity before the Resurrection so that when He rose from the dead in the glory of His Divine nature, they would understand that He had not received that glory as a reward for this feat, or as one who had been in need of such glory, but that before the ages the glory had been His together with the Father and of the Father, as He Himself said when going to the voluntary passion: O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own Self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was (John 17:5).

    Thus this glory of His Divinity, invisible and hidden in the human nature, was manifested to the Apostles on the mountain. They saw His face shining like lightning, and His clothes white as light. The disciples beheld two suns: the one was visible to them and was shining upon the world from the firmament, and the Other manifested His face to them alone.  His clothing appeared white as light, because from His whole Body the glory of His Divinity poured forth, and in all the members of His flesh the light shone forth.  It was not as with Moses; it was not something exterior to Him that lightened His flesh with splendour, but rather the glory of His Divinity pouring forth from Him; His light rose up from within Him and in Him was it concentrated; it did not transfer from Him to something else, thus leaving Him; it did not strike Him from the side so as to adorn Him, and it was not something borrowed for Him.  Nor did it show them the whole abyss of His glory, but only as much as the pupils of their eyes could apprehend.

    There appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with Him (Matt. 17:3). Thus the ascent of the mountain was a joy to the prophets and the Apostles.  The prophets rejoiced seeing His humanity, which they had not known; the Apostles rejoiced seeing His Divinity which they had not apprehended.  And when they heard the voice of the Father, bearing witness to the Son, they understood thereby what had not formerly been clear to them: that He had become man. And together with the voice of the Father, the glory of His body, with which unalterably and unconfusedly the Divinity was united in Him, and which glory had become manifest, bore testimony to them.  And the testimony was sealed by three voices, that of the Father, as well as those of Moses and Elias, who stood before Him as servants. 

    And they looked one upon another, the prophets upon the Apostles and the Apostles upon the prophets.  The leaders of the Old Testament and the leaders of the New Testament beheld each other there. Moses the holy beheld the sanctified Simon. The steward of the Father’s house saw him who had given lodging to the Son.  The one had divided the sea, so that the people might cross between the billows; the other had proposed a tabernacle so that he might build the Church.  Elias looked upon John; he who had ascended in a fiery chariot upon him who had leaned upon the burning breast.  Thus this mountain became an image of the Church, and Jesus unites therein the two Testaments which the Church accepts, and He gave us to comprehend that He Himself is the Giver of both Testaments: the one received His mysteries and the other manifested the glory of His works.

    And Peter said: Let us make here three tabernacles, one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias (Matt. 17:4). Simon was sent to build the Church in the world, and behold he makes three tabernacles on the mountain, because he still regarded Jesus as a man and places Him on a level with Moses and Elias.  But the Lord immediately shows him that He does not require his tabernacles, because He is the One Who for the course of forty years provided a tabernacle of cloud for his forefathers in the wilderness.  For as he yet spoke, such a bright cloud overshadowed them (Matt. 17:5).  Behold, Simon, a tabernacle made without travail, a tabernacle which protects from the heat and in which there is no shadow, a tabernacle which is like lightning and radiant.

    While the disciples yet wondered, the voice of the Father was heard from the cloud: This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.  The Father speaks of the Son, not separating Him from the glory of the Divinity. For the Father and the Son with the Holy Spirit are of one Nature, one Power, one Essence and one Kingdom.  And He addresses the One with a name which is not exalted, but is awesome in its glory.  Mary also calls Him Son, Who in His human body is not separated from the glory of His Divinity. For One is God, Who was manifest in the world in the body. His glory proclaims His Divinity which is from the Father, and His body proclaims His human nature which is from Mary, for both natures have been united in the one hypostasis.  The Only-Begotten of the Father is the only One born of Mary.  And whosoever would separate the natures in Him will themselves be separated from His Kingdom, and whosoever should confuse them will have no part in His life.  Whosoever denies that Mary gave birth to God will not see the glory of His Divinity; and whosoever denies that He bore flesh free from sin, such a one will not be granted salvation and life, which are granted through His body.  His deeds themselves and His Divine powers instruct those of sound judgment that He is true God.  And His sufferings show that He is true man.

    And if this does not convince those who are weak of understanding, then they shall be given over to punishment on His dread day. If He were not flesh, then for what reason did Mary bring Him forth?  And if He were not God, Whom did Gabriel name as Lord?  If He were not flesh, then who lay in the manger?  And if He were not God, Whom then did the Angels who had come down glorify?  If He were not flesh, who was bound in swaddling clothes? And if He were not God, Whom did the shepherds adore?  If He were not flesh, whose hands and feet were pierced with nails?  And if He were not God, why was the veil of the Temple rent in twain, and the rocks split asunder, and the graves opened?  If He were not flesh, who cried out My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me (Matt. 27:46)?  And if He were not God, Who said, Father, forgive them (Luke 23:34)?  If He were not flesh, who was crucified on the Cross with the thieves?  And if He were not God, Who said to the thief, Today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)?  If He were not flesh, to whom did they offer the gall and vinegar?  And if He were not God, at Whose voice did Hades tremble?  If He were not flesh, whose side was pierced with a spear, and blood and water flowed forth?  And if He were not God, Who broke the gates of Hades and burst the bonds, and by Whose command did the dead held captive there come forth?  If He were not flesh, whom did the Apostles see in the Upper Room?  And if He were not God, Who entered there, the doors being closed?  If He were not flesh, in whose hand did Thomas feel the wound of the nails and in whose side that of the spear?  And if He were not God, to Whom did Thomas cry out, My Lord and My God (John 20:28)?  If He were not flesh, who ate by the Sea of Tiberias?  And if He were not God, by Whose decree were the nets filled?  If He were not flesh, who did the Angels and Apostles see received into Heaven?  And if He were not God, to Whom were the Heavens opened, Whom did the Powers worship with trembling, and to Whom did the Father say, Sit Thou on My right hand (Heb. 1:13), as even David says, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit Thou at My right hand (Ps. 109:1) and so on? And if He were not God and man, then, as a consequence, our salvation would be false, and the proclamations of the Prophets false too. 

    Yet the Prophets abode in the truth and their testimonies are not lies. For what they were commanded, that they spoke through the Holy Spirit. For this reason also the chaste John, who leaned upon that flaming breast, confirming the prophetic saying, theologising in the Gospel, instructs us, and says: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 3, 14).  The One Who is of God, God the Word, the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, of one essence with the Father, the One Who is from the One Who is, the pre-eternal Word, inexpressibly begotten of the Father without mother before all ages, the Same in the last days was born of a daughter of mankind, from Mary the Virgin without father; He was born God incarnate, bearing in Himself flesh taken from her, made man, which formerly He was not, and remaining God, which He was, so that He might save the world. 
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of The Shepherd

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

What is 'Sergianism'?

The cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist regime is known as ‘Sergianism’ after its founder Metropolitan Sergius (1867-1944). Sergianism did not simply pledge obedience to the civil authority, but complete oneness of mind with the atheistic regime which was, at the same time, imprisoning and executing thousands of Orthodox Christians. Although the Russian Church under the Soviets retained an outward liturgical conservatism, Sergianism involved substantial theological modernisation, particularly in the area of the relationship between the Church and the state. 

In his declaration of July 20th 1927, Metropolitan Sergius stated: ‘We want to be Orthodox, and at the same time to see the Soviet Union as our civil Fatherland, whose joys and successes are also our joys and successes, whose failures are our failures.’ He also praised Joseph Stalin as a ‘great, God given leader of the Russian people.’[1] For his loyalty to the USSR, Metropolitan Sergius was appointed as Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943 by Joseph Stalin. Later Patriarchs were similarly rewarded: Patriarch Alexis II (agent DROZDOV) was awarded an honorary citation by the USSR KGB chairman for services to state security.[2]

Undoubtedly, these were difficult times, and many bishops and priests cooperated unwillingly with the Soviet regime. Some, placing themselves in great danger, outwardly cooperated, but were secretly spreading the truth about the oppression of Christians under Communism. Father Vladimir Rusak, imprisoned in the USSR for spreading religious literature, explained the terrible dilemma that many faced: ‘I love my Church, I grieve for its fate and I want to serve it, but of course, not at the price of subservience, that terrible price which our Church leadership is paying and which it proposes that I also should pay’.[3]

In the USSR, the Christians who had separated themselves from the Sergianist Church were known as the Catacomb Church and worshipped in secret. Many were betrayed by bishops and priests of the official Church and ended their lives as martyrs. However, the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate consistently proclaimed, without a trace of irony, that there was no religious persecution in the USSR. According to Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev and Galicia, (later to become ‘Patriarch’ of the Ukrainian Church): ‘no one is persecuted for religious convictions in the Soviet Union...The attitude of the Soviet State to the needs of the Church is considerate and understanding’.[4]

Solovki Monastery. Turned into a Gulag (concentration camp) by the Soviets. Many members of the Catacomb Church were imprisoned here.
Sergianism was not simply a Russian phenomenon, but was adopted by all Orthodox Churches within the territories controlled by the Soviets. It is also possible to see the influence of Sergianism in the ‘official’ Orthodox Churches today – an outwardly correct ‘canonical’ Orthodoxy is maintained, but many of the bishops fight against Orthodox Tradition. Christians that oppose these innovations are punished by their own church, and in some countries the ‘official Churches’ are also able to call upon the state to carry out judicial and extra-judicial punishments.

Sergianism teaches complete obedience to the hierarchy –  even  when this hierarchy is betraying Orthodoxy. This false obedience has penetrated into the minds of many Orthodox Christians who believe that obedience to their bishop, rather than to the Orthodox Faith, is the only requirement for Orthodoxy. On the contrary, faithful Orthodox Christians should not, in any circumstances, consent to a betrayal of Orthodoxy but should separate themselves from these wolves in sheep’s clothing (cf. Matt. 7:15).

[1] M. Spinka, The Church in Soviet Russia (New York: OUP, 1956) p. 86.

[2] C. Andrew, V. Mitrokhin, The Mitrokhin Archive (London: Allen Lane, 1999) p. 650.

[3] Orthodox Life, Vol. 38, No. 1 (1988) p. 20.

[4] J. Ellis, The Russian Orthodox Church (London: Croom Helm, 1986) p. 209.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

The Month of August

IN August we celebrate the last two Great Feasts of the Church Year: the Lord's Transfiguration (6th/19) and the Dormition of the All-holy Virgin Theotokos (15th/28th). The placing of the first of these in August is evidence of a calendar change. Originally the festival was kept forty days before the Lord's Crucifixion, because as the Gospel narrative tells us the Lord's Transfiguration on Mount Thabor was a preparation for "His decease which He should accomplish in Jerusalem." The hymns of the feast, inspired by the Holy Spirit, emphasize that the Apostles were permitted to see the glory of the Lord, so that when they should see Him crucified they would know that His Passion was voluntary, and that they would thus be strengthened for the coming trauma. Later, because the festival always fell in the penitential days of Great Lent, it was shifted to its present date, forty days before the festival of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. Thus the link with the Cross is unbroken, although the actual date of the festival has been changed.

In the fourth century, the Empress St Helen founded a church on Mount Tabor for the feast. When in the Middle Ages, the Crusaders entered Palestine they found a number of churches and monasteries on the holy mountain, and they commandeered them for Roman Catholic worship. After the Crusaders retreated from the Holy Land, the churches were either destroyed or fell into ruin. It was not until 1849, that the possibility of erecting a church there presented itself. In that year, the Patriarch Cyril II of Jerusalem began to petition the Ottoman authorities for permission to build there. Even so, it was only in 1860 that permission was granted and a new church was built on the foundations of the ancient Byzantine one. To this day, each year on the festival, a radiant cloud is seen to come and stand over the monastery there.

The Russians count three festivals of the Saviour in August. The first of these is the Procession of the Wood of the Cross on the first of the month, the second is the Transfiguration and the third is the translation of the Holy Mandilion, the icon not made by hands, from Edessa to Constantinople (16th/29th). Of these only the Transfiguration ranks as one of the Twelve Great Feasts.

The Dormition of the Mother of God is one of the Twelve and the last in the Church Year. Three days before her death, the Mother of God was again visited by the Archangel Gabriel, who foretold her demise. She prayed that the Lord's closest disciples, the Apostles, might be with her at the end, and her prayer was granted miraculously. The Apostles, who, in their teaching ministry, were scattered over the face of the earth, were wonderously brought to Jerusalem to be with her. On the icons of the festival, they are shown being borne on clouds. The Virgin ended her earthly course in Sion, and her body was take to Gethsemane to be buried. There her family had a family tomb, and there her parents, Sts Joachim and Anna, and the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed had been buried. The body was borne to burial accompanied by the Apostles and other eminent Church leaders such as St Dionysius the Areopagite and Saint Hierotheus, and by the company of the Christians in Jerusalem, as well as by a multitude of Angels. A priest of the Jews, Athonius, seeing the funeral procession, and being filled with wrath against her whom he thought to be the mother of a deceiver, rushed forward and attempted to overturn her bier. As he grasped it, an Angel appeared and severed his hands at the wrists. Immediately, he understood his sin and repented, the Apostles prayed that he should be healed, and he was. Later, he was baptized and joined the Christian community. Just as he had been chosen to confirm the Resurrection of his Saviour, St Thomas was allotted a special ministry at this festival. Alone among the Apostles he had not been present at the Virgin's death.

He arrived on the third day, and the others opened the cave tomb for him to venerate the body that had borne God. The tomb was found to be empty. The Most Holy Mother of God had been taken body and soul into the Heavenly Mansions.

The tradition of the Elevation of the Panagia (now usually confined to monasteries) refers back to this festival. Before the Dormition, the early Christians had established a custom of setting aside a portion of bread, which at their meal, they would lift up, intoning, "Great is the name of the Holy Trinity. O Lord Jesus Christ, help us." This was done in honour of the Risen Saviour. When on the third day after her Dormition, the Apostles were about to do this and elevated the bread, the Mother of God appeared in heavenly glory, assuring them and us that she would be always with us through her mediations and intercessions. The Apostles therefore raised the bread, chanting "Most Holy Mother of God, help us!" This little rite has been somewhat elaborated, but is still done on festivals of the Mother of God. The bread which is elevated is called the Panagia. It is usually cut in the form of a three-sided pyramid. The word Panagia means All-holy, and it is one of the titles accorded the Mother of God.

Another very important feast in August is that of the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (29th August/11th September). It is usually celebrated with a Vigil Service, and because Herod and those with him were feasting on that day, and through surfeiting and drunkenness were lead into sin, Orthodox Christians always observe a fast on this day on whichever day of the week it might fall.

Among the Saints we have in August are:- Our Holy Father Myron of Crete (8th/21st) was a farm labourer, who made it his practice to give of the produce of his fields to the poor. Such was his unpossessiveness that once he caught some thieves stealing grain from his threshing floor, and rather than stopping them or rebuking them, he helped them fill their sacks and load them up to take them away. Later, when they learned who he had been, they were brought to repentance by the example he had given them, and thereafter lived righteous lives. For his virtuous life and his kind-heartedness, Myron was chosen by the townsmen to be their priest and was later consecrated Bishop. He cared assiduously for his flock, nurturing them in piety. At the time of persecution he encouraged the martyrs, and he was granted the gift of working miracles. He lived to be an hundred years old, and entered into rest in the year 350.

The New Martyr Christos of Ioannina (15th/28th): In August 1823, the Turkish militia in the region of Ioannina started a particularly violent suppression of the Christians there. The hieromonk Christos comforted and encouraged the suffering Christians, and for this he was arrested, beaten and, for refusing to give up his Christian confession, was condemned to death. The Orthodox Christians were celebrating the festival of the Dormition, and the Turks chose this time to execute the Saint. Furthermore, they deliberately chose to mock the Saviour's Passion in the way they devised to kill him. Father Christos was crowned with thorns, stripped and spat upon, and nailed to a cross, which was set up by the plane trees at Kalou Tzesme. As he expired on the cross, he prayed for his tormentors, but they sat around and taunted him. One of the Turks eventually pierced his side with a sabre and he gave up his soul. Even in death they did not cease tormenting him; they coated his body in tar and set it alight so that it was consumed in the flames.

The Venerable Martyrs Liberatus, Boniface and the five others with them (17th/30th) lived in the fifth century and were members of a monastic community. Liberatus was the abbot, Boniface the deacon; two others Servius and Rusticus were subdeacons, and the remaining three, Rogatus, Septimus and Maximus unordained monks. They were slain not by pagans but by people who claimed to be Christians. They lived in North Africa at the time when Huneric the King of the Vandals ruled there. Huneric was a fervent Arian, and instigated a persecution of the Orthodox Christians. Thus these seven monks were arrested and taken to Carthage. There they were required to embrace the heretical faith of the Arians, but they steadfastly refused. They were confined to prison, but certain Orthodox Christians bribed the guards to let them visit them so that they could encourage them in their ordeal. This came to the ears of Huneric, who ordered that they be put in an old boat and set out to sea, and then the boat fired. However, try as they might the persecutors were unable to fire the ship, and so the martyrs were returned to land and were done to death by having the brains brutally dashed out with clubs. They received the crowns of martyrdom in the year 483 and an authentic and contemporary record of their contest exists.

The Venerable Edbert of York (20th August/2nd September) succeeded his kinsman Ceolwulf as King of Northumbria. His brother, Egbert, was the first Archbishop of York to receive the pallium since the time of St Paulinus. Edbert ruled his kingdom wisely and justly for twenty years, and then abdicated in favour of his son, Oswulf. Such was the respect in which he was held that his allies and his noblemen tried to persuade him not to abdicate, however Edbert was resolved upon taking up the monastic life. He retired to York, where he placed himself under obedience to his brother the Archbishop, and spent the last ten years of his life as a monk. His brother predeceased him by two years, and his sacred relics were laid next to those of the Archbishop when he himself died in 768 A.D.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Way of Life

"Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; because strait in the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).

With these words, O Christ-loving brothers and sisters, the Lord enjoins us to follow that narrow path in life, the way of afflictions, of privation and of bitter experiences, the way which leads to life eternal; there can be no other way there except this one of sorrows. Indeed there is a way, the broad, wide way, but this way leads to destruction, and even though it does lead to destruction there are many who, in the Lord's words, go in thereat. In the words of the holy Apostle Paul, the people who take the broad way in life live "according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). 

Such people forget about God completely, and they always give themselves over to drunkenness, sexual licence, fornication, stealing, envy, hatred, pride, anger, laziness, irritability, self-love, love of money, extortion, slander, pleasing the stomach, foolishness and to the other lusts of their flesh. Let such people not think that they are alive. No, they have been a longtime dead, for of such the Holy Spirit says: l know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead" (Rev. 3:1). Then reflect, beloved brothers and sisters, how shall we, being dead, appear before the face of our Lord? Don't we know that He will then repudiate us? "I," He says, "am not the God of the dead, but the God of the living." And He goes on to emphasize this, saying: "Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41).

This is the portion, beloved brethren, that will fall to those people who go by the broad way in this life. Then let the reader pause on these last words of the Lord, let him reflect deeply and ask himself: how will it be if in actual fact I come to hear that dread and fearsome sentence from the Lord, and am plunged in the eternal, inextinguishable fire of hades? And in that fire we will burn not for a hundred, a thousand or even a million years, but eternally. When as many ages have passed as there are drops of water in the oceans, as there are grains of sands over the whole of the earthly globe, then the torments of hades will be as if they have only just begun, and even then there will be as many ages to follow as have already been. This is what our living on the broad way, our luxuriating way of life, should tell us.

Very few journey in this life by the narrow path of afflictions. The Lord Himself said, that "few there be that find it" (Matt. 7:14). We might ask. Why is it thus? Because, according to the word of the Psalmist, "they are all gone astray, they are altogether rendered useless, there is none that doeth good, no not one" (Ps. 13:3). Woe to that town or that country, says Saint Demetrius of Rostov, in which there is not even one righteous man; such places are close to destruction and devastation; as an example of this we have the Old Testament cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. During the time that the righteous Lot sojourned there they were safe, but when he left, at that very same time, the whole land was destroyed. Then let us marvel that the very same Saviour bears so long with the present times, in which we see the destruction of cities, the devastation of lands, civil wars, the shedding of blood, and everywhere countless misfortunes. What is the reason for all this? Because, the same hierarch (St Demetrius of Rostov) himself replies, the number of the righteous has grown few.

So, beloved brethren, let us examine ourselves. Do we not resemble the Old Testament and the New Testament sinners, who go by the broad path, and of whom the Word of God says, "many will seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door... and he shall answer and say: I know you not whence ye are" (Luke 13:24-25). Those who wish to go by the narrow path, that is, to lead a pious life, will always be persecuted and hated by all, for it is said: "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12). All the holy Apostles pursued the earthly course of this life by this narrow way of much affliction, and they test this way well, desiring to show an example to those servants of God, who manifest a desire to journey by that narrow way. The holy Apostles said: "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). And the Lord enjoins His disciples, and through them all His true followers, to journey by that same narrow way: lf any man will come after Me," He says, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24). 

From the Lord's words it is clear, that He does not in any way forcibly require anyone to follow Him, but He leaves this to the individual will of each man. He does not say that, whether you want it or not, you must suffer; rather He says: If any man will come after Me. I do not compel anyone, I do not require anyone, but I leave this to the individual will of each man. He who denies himself, renounces his own natural will and disposition, surrenders himself to the will of God, renounces everything for himself for the sake of Christ and for His sake is ready for every affliction, every deprivation, persecution and suffering, - in a word, such an one is prepared for every affliction even death itself. The Apostle Paul asks him that desires to set out on this narrow and much-afflicted path, and to continue thereon until the end of his earthly life, to first of all labour in prayer: "I exhort, therefore, that, first of all" that is before the start of every good endeavour, "supplications ... be made" (1 Tim.2:1). 

From this it is evident that without prayer it is not only impossible to make progress, but even to set out upon the accomplishment of any good deed. Saint Chrysostom says that without prayer it is in no way possible for one to have virtue as one's companion or travel the path of life with her. For who can begin to struggle in virtue, without having frequent recourse to, and falling down before, the One, Who is the Bestower and Granter of virtue? He who strengthens the desire for chastity and righteousness in himself by constant nourishing it, will he not pleasurably linger in converse with the One, Who requires this of us, and ever do this more and more? But I shall give my attention to showing briefly that, even if perforce we have been filled to repletion with every sin, the prayers, both those which are born within us and those which we initiate, quickly cleanse us from them. And, if such be the case, what can be greater and more divine than prayer, if it is demonstrated to be a healing medicine for those who are sick in soul? Consider the Ninevites, the first manifest as being cleansed through prayer of their many sins before God. As soon as prayer embraced them as her charges, immediately she made them righteous, - and the city, which formerly had been accustomed to live in dissipation, evil and every kind of lawlessness, was corrected, overthrowing her earlier evil practices, installing instead the laws of heaven, it committed itself to chastity and philanthropy, to meekness and care for the poor. It had been without these virtues and they had no place in their souls, but suddenly there settled in every soul that thing which makes for every righteousness, which disposes one to every virtue, and which casts out every evil. If, at that time, someone who had known Nineveh well had visited her, he would not have recognised the city, so speedily had she converted from the life of dissipation to that of piety. "Behold, here you have a clear and true demonstration of the fact that if one does not travel the path with prayer, it is impossible to perfect good deeds." And St John of the Ladder calls prayer “the mother of all the virtues" (Step 28). 

So then, imitator of Christ, if you are considering or if you have already set out on the narrow path in this life, with God's help your first duty is to be instructed in prayer; and as prayer if the mother of all the virtues, you must also unite it with the father, which is attention, for from a mother children are not born without a father. So from this mother, which is prayer there will be born no children, that is virtues, unless she is united to the father, which is attention. Thus, if with the help of God you learn to pray with attention, then spiritual fruits will come to you, such as the holy Apostle Paul recounts: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, goodness, kind-heartedness, faith, meekness, temperance, against such there is no law" (Gal. 5:22-23). Now perhaps, a desire to understand how one can learn to pray as is outlined above has come to the reader. To this we can in reply use the words of the blessed Patriarch Kallistos, who says: lf you desire to maintain the genuine activity of prayer, then emulate the psaltery player, who inclines his head a little and turns his ear to the strings, who skilfully plucks the strings that they emit a harmonious sound, and who himself is delighted by their melody.

Is this example clear to you? The psaltery is the heart, the strings are the feelings, the plucking of the strings is the remembrance of God (the repetition of the Jesus Prayer), and the player is the mind. The mind, mindful of God and of Divine things, elicits from the God-fearing heart holy feelings, from which a certain ineffable sweetness fills the soul and mind, which, when purified, is illumined with a Divine effulgence. The psaltery player sees nothing and hears nothing at all except his melody, by which he is delighted, and the mind at the time of prayer is actively sober, that is without any thoughts, and is immersed in the heart, and can pay no attention to anything save God alone. His whole inner being speaks to God with the voice of David: ‘My soul hath cleaved after Thee' (Ps. 62:8). Saint Hesychius the Presbyter of Jerusalem speaks of attentive prayer thus: "Here is an image and order for stillness of heart. If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare (successfully and as you should) then let that little animal, the spider, always be your example for stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be still in your intellect as you should be. The spider hunts and kills small flies; and you, if you will be like him, sitting in his spider's web, most assiduously remaining still in your soul, will continuously slay the children of Babylon,' that is evil thoughts, and for this slaying through David (Ps. 136:12) the Holy Spirit will bless you. If you do not achieve this, you will not be silent in mind as should be."

Do not think, beloved reader, that one can pray without attention, standing in prayer only physically, and that in this way you can achieve any virtue or please God. No, do not accept any such thoughts. This idea comes from the enemy, for he well knows that prayer without attention is not prayer, but simply empty words. Someone asked Saint Abba Agathon about this: "Tell me, Abba, what is greater bodily labour or the guarding of the heart?" The Abba replied to him: “Man is like a tree; bodily labours are the leaves, and the guarding of the heart is the fruit." Furthermore, according to the Scriptures, "every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matt. 3:10). Thus, beloved brothers and sisters, all that we have said might be summed up in the words of Saint Abba Esaias, who says: "Brethren, be attentive to yourselves. How long will you labour profitlessly, your work perishing through carelessness? How long will you submit to the enemy, who lives in us and entices us daily towards defilement, who deflects us from virtue, and does not permit us to lift up our eyes to contemplate the Divine light".

Examine yourself, poor one, you who were baptised into Christ and into His death! Think what a death He surrendered Himself to for you, and do you follow in His footsteps? Show me your morals - are they akin to Him, Whose image you bear? He is sinless and in all things gave Himself as an example for you to emulate. He loved lowliness, and you avoid lowliness. He did not have where to lay His head (Matt. 8:20), and you seek spacious and comfortable accommodation. He bore with every kind of abuse, and you do not want to accept any kind of reproach. He did not return evil for evil, and you thirst for vengeance. He did not become wrathful even when He bore sufferings from others, and you, when you are put upon by others, are enraged. In the depth of dishonour He was not in the least disturbed, and you are disturbed by the slightest disgrace. He benevolently called sinners to Himself, and with your words you even alienate your friends. He good-heartedly bore offenses, and you are irritated by a slight insult. He was condescending to sinners, and you exalt yourself over them and even over those who are better than you. He gave Himself over to those who afflicted Him that He might redeem them, and you are afflicted even by those are doing good for you. 

Think on this: that He gave Himself for you, and what for your part you give Him. Recognize Him from His deeds, and yourself from your own deeds. If you have died with Him [in Baptism], then who is it that is doing these things, these sins? And so, brethren, be attentive in your life lest your mind stagnate on account of your evil deeds, lest you lose time, lest you not achieve the peace of a son of God, which peace consists in these things: that in all things you guard your humility and innocence, that you not be at enmity with anyone, that you not find comfort in anything that God detests, and that you always have your sins before your eyes, and be dead to all evil deeds. For in such a way, the God "Who cannot lie" (Titus 1:2) will come to us and, in His kind-heartedness, will heal our infirmities. Amen.

Published as an anonymous paper by the Russian Saint Elias Skete on Athos in 1896. Published in English translation in The Shepherd September 2002