Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Elder Ephraim of Arizona on Great Lent

Jesus Christ, "Extreme Humility" (source)
At this time we’re entering the great spiritual arena of the blessed Great Lent. Holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction, for repentance, for tears, for a change in ourselves, for a new stage in the spiritual life. Like an affectionate mother caring for her children, us Christians, the Church has designated this time of Lent as dedicated to the struggle, in order to help its children fight harder, to purify themselves, draw closer to God and to be counted worthy of celebrating the great day of the radiant Resurrection.

Christians, especially monks, have always paid particular attention to this spiritual arena and have thought it especially sacred, because it’s a period which envisages both spiritual and bodily struggles. There’s the struggle of fasting, the struggle of vigils, the struggle of purification and the struggle to fulfill one’s spiritual duties which are many more than at other times of the year. There’s a spiritual “defragmentation” and people pay greater attention to the voice of their conscience in order to correct what they’ve maybe neglected and to improve spiritually.
The Church assists us but with penitential hymns and services, as well as with teachings, to oil us up for the fight for the purification of our souls.
We have the penitential evening Divine Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. The Presanctified is extremely beneficial. It’s Cherubic Hymn is full of spirituality, contemplation, angelic presence. That’s why we should come to these liturgies during Great Lent with even greater compunction. We who consume the Body and Blood of Christ must be so pure and clean, so straight in body and soul for divine grace to have its effect. For this reason we must lead very careful lives. Both in our cells and in church we must wet our face with tears so as to wash our souls and be worthy to take communion. Of course, the devil often makes us wanting in compunction, me more than anyone. Which means we can’t have tears and we often have bad thoughts. Bad thoughts and the sinful images that accompany them must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance. And when we have wicked thoughts or our soul is cold towards one of the brethren, let’s not approach the God of love, Who is so pure and holy.
Throughout this period, at every service in Great Lent, we say the prayer of Saint Efraim the Syrian, which is as follows: “Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, lust for power or idle talk, but give rather the spirit of sobriety, humility, patience and love to me, your servant. Indeed, Lord King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen”.
With these words, the saint wishes to make us understand very clearly, that, apart from other virtues we need to take special care with the last case, that of self-censure and of criticism of our bothers and that without love for our fellow human beings there’s no chance of making even the slightest progress towards our spiritual purification. If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, our words and our heart, there’s no benefit in fasting. Fasting is of benefit when it’s combines with love for our neighbour and when we don’t criticize others. When we don’t criticize our fellows and instead criticize ourselves, then we’re marked by love for others and love for our soul, concern for purification and the fulfillment of the great commandment, that of love of God and one’s neighbour. Love for God and for our fellows  are the two great virtues which support the whole of the spiritual structure, because if they are absent, they others cannot take form. “God is love and those who live in God in love have God living in them, too” (I. Jn. 4, 16).
Another issue which demands that we push ourselves as hard as possible is prayer We should pray in the name of Christ, without neglecting any opportunity and without any waste of time. In the personal vigil in our cell, we should push ourselves, shouldn’t let sleep overcome us, nor neglect nor idleness; we should engage willingly I spiritual matters. As soon as we wake up, prayer should take first place then our rule, our prayer-rope, study and the contemplation of God. We should go to church with great readiness and so get the best results from our presence in the arena.
Apart from this, fasting together with bodily exertion helps as regards the forgiveness of sins. “Behold my humility and my efforts and forgive all my sins”. When we labour with the fast, with kneeling, with prayers, with an effort from our heart and mind, this Godly exertion is holy and is richly rewarded by God, because it make people worthy of the crown of glory and honour. The demons fear the fast greatly, because it lays them low. “This kind [of demon] will not depart other than with prayer and fasting”, said the Lord (Math. 17, 21). This is why the holy fathers always began any Godly task with a fast. They considered a fast to be very powerful and that the Holy Spirit does nor overshadow people when they’re replete with food and their stomachs are full. And any Christian who desires purification has to start from this foundation which is fasting, prayer and vigilance. When these three are combined, then people have acquired great stature.
In olden times, the fathers had a holy custom. On the eve of Lent, they would leave the monasteries and go deeper into the desert, where they lived in great asceticism until Lazarus Saturday, when they returned in order to celebrate Palm Sunday all together. Some would take a few of the basic essentials as far as food was concerned, others would eat only green plants, in order to struggle more fiercely in the desert. Thereafter they would spend all the days on Great Week together in church, existing on a piece of dried rusk and a few nuts a day. We were given the blessing and the grace of knowing ascetic people who spent not only Great Lent in fasting and spiritual struggle.
Our departed elder, Elder Iosif the Cave-Dweller (he used to live in caves, which is where I met him), kept a very strict fast during Great Lent. And, of course, he imposed it on us, too. From Monday to Friday, five days of the week there was no food, except a handful of flour, from which we made a batter with just water. That was it. A little plate every twenty-four hours. And, at the same time, hard work lifting loads on our back during the day and the whole night hundreds of prostrations and hours of prayer. And all of this in order to purify the inner person, to make it cleaner, more honourable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before God and be able to pray for the whole world. Because the world, people everywhere, needs the prayers of the saints, particularly those of ascetics. Saint Anthony the Great supported the whole world with his prayers.
 Of course, we must keep the fast only as far as we’re able, with discretion, because we’re not all the same. “Unless the good be done well, it is not good”. In other words, unless good is done in a good way, method, time and amount, but instead is done without discretion, then it’ll do more harm than good. Fasting is certainly extremely necessary, it’s good, but it’s a means rather than an end The means has an end and that is humility. This is why we need to arrange everything in accordance with the discretion of a spiritual father, someone illumined by the Holy Spirit. Your spiritual father will tell you  how much to fast, how often to receive communion, where to strike at the enemy, what you should do here and what there. And then, through the discretion of your spiritual father, you can put your house in order. We shouldn’t do more than is appropriate, we need moderation in all things, because immoderation cancels out any benefit. So fasting is holy, but it’s a means. We should adjust it according to what our spiritual father says and what out psychosomatic powers allow. As long as there’s good will. Basil the Great says there’s as much difference in resilience between people as there is between iron and grass.
Saint Synklitiki fell ill towards the end of her life with a throat disease. Her blessed throat, which had always spoken the word of God, festered on the inside. Her mouth had saved countless people. The devil had asked permission to test her and God had granted it. The stench from her rotting flesh became so bad that the nuns had the greatest difficulty in seeing to her needs. They used the most pungent perfumes to try and bring her a little respite in her sickness. When her mouth had been healthy, it had spoken and brought benefit to many, but when she fell ill, she was able to preach even more strongly. How could a silent and rotting mouth preach? She noiselessly declared her great patience and endurance in God’s trial. She made a titanic effort to deal with the devil of impatience, of complaint, of the labour and toil of sickness. What did she need with fasting? This is why illness is regarded as involuntary asceticism. One person has cancer, another diabetes, somebody else has lots of troublesome health problems. How will these people purify themselves? How will they see God’s light?
Through patience and giving thanks to Him. These make up for the fast which, because of their illness, they’re unable to keep, and, in fact, often struggle ten times harder than if they were fasting.
During this period, we really have to struggle to purify ourselves. From the ascetic tradition we have hermits who spent the whole of their lives in the desert, with labours, toil, fasts, tears, sleeping on the ground and deprivation of every other kind of pleasure. And all this effort, together with the struggle of the soul against all kinds of thoughts concerning the rebellions of the flesh, engendered sanctity.
So every Christian who’s a monk and wants to experience purification has the right to labour and not be deprived of his reward. Purity brings great boldness towards God, because He Himself is pure, the Mother of God is most pure and Saint John the Theologian lived his life as a virgin, as did so many other saints. The whole beauty of the Church is founded on purity and spotlessness. When our heart is pure and beautiful it will exude fragrance and loveliness. But if people have filth in their hearts, that’s what they’ll expel. Let’s struggle to cleanse the inside of our glass, our heart, so that we’ll be pure and pleasing in God’s eyes.

We have instances from Church history of many people “in the world” (not monastics, that is), who pleased God and became great. Abba Paphnuti [from Ancient Egyptian = “man of God”], an ascetic of great gifts, once prayed to God and said: “God, who have You placed me with. With whom do I share the same measure of virtue?”. And he heard a voice, saying to him: “Down in Alexandria there’s a poor man, a cobbler, down in a basement. You have the same amount of virtue as he does”. “But I’ve been a hermit in the desert from childhood and I’m equal in virtue with a lay person, a married man?”. “Yes, you’re equal to him”. The next day, the saint picked up his staff and his bag, put in some dry rusks and set off for Alexandria. He went down into the city, found the layman and said to him: “What do you do here, friend?”. “What should I do, father? I’m a sinner, the worst person in the world”. “Can we talk?”. “Certainly”. “What’s the virtue that you’re working on acquiring?”. “Virtue, me? I live ‘in the world’ and am completely mixed up. Now you, you’ve got virtues”. “No, you’re doing something”. “I’m not doing anything”. “God showed me, so you can’t tell me lies. I prayed and He told me that we share the same measure of virtue. There must be something about you”. “Sorry, Father. If what I do can be considered something, I’ll tell you. I married, and from the moment I put on the crown, I said to my wife: ‘If you love me, we’ll live apart, like brother and sister and work for the sanctification of our souls. Do you agree’. ‘I agree’. And since then we’ve lived in purity and virginity”.*
[*Note: This marital chastity described is similar to that experienced by other saints, for example, St. John of Kronstadt. St. Paphnoutios is not at all implying that sex and childbearing in marriage are evil or impure. But all married Christians are called to some degree of self-control and purity, (as is prayed for in every wedding service) according to their strength, according to their mutual consent and the guidance of their spiritual fathers, not all to a life of virginity.]
In the desert, Blessed Paphnuti tried to cleanse himself through the ascetic life, and restraint, in which he was greatly assisted by the condition of his way of life. The other man lived “in the world”, with a wife, with all the challenges of secular life and, with God’s help had reached the stature of a saint. And his struggle was greater than that of the hermit. Proof that he was great in the eyes of God.
After that, something else happened which has to do with this cobbler. One day a Christian went to the Blessed Paphnuti and said:
“Father, I quarrelled with a priest and I don’t know how he reacted, whether he cursed me or swore at me, but he’s now departed this life and we weren’t reconciled. What do I do now?”.
“There’s nothing I can do in this case, but there’s a holy man who I’ll send you to and he’ll help. Go down to Alexandria, to a basement where there’s this cobbler. Tell him I sent you, mention the problem and he’ll help”.
The Christian said to himself: “For goodness’ sake. A hermit can’t help and a layman can?”. Nevertheless, out of obedience to the hermit, he did as he was told. The cobbler told him to wait until night fell and then took him to a church in the city. After again telling him to wait, the cobbler went up to the large door made the sign of the cross and it opened. The inside of the church was bathed in light and there was heavenly music. The cobbler told the man:
“Go in there and look at the choirs on the left and right. You’ll see the priest there”.
The man went in, saw the priest in the left choir and received his forgiveness.
You see what ascetic effort can achieve? What the soul’s struggle can do? What did that layman do to purify his soul. When he told the girl he’d married  that they should live like brother and sister, was that an end to it? No, they fasted and kept vigil together, they made prostrations and read the Gospel. They read Patristic books, went to church, confessed, took communion, chased  away evil thoughts and struggled assiduously. And that’s how they became saints “in the world”.
So here is proof that even “in the world”, when Christians take on the struggle with good will, the Grace of God does not exclude anyone. But we make excuse for ourselves and say that because we’re “in the world”, we can’t. Desire gets the better of us. What do we need to do? Fight in the body and in the soul. In other words, control our thoughts. Thoughts come, sinful fantasies, images, faces, idols and scenes. We must get rid of them immediately with “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me”. When the mind is careful not to accept all of that and has the divine weapon, the Name of Christ, then every enemy of our soul is slain, whether it be the devil, sordid fantasies or repulsive thoughts. Then, if we guard our soul, mind and heart in this way, our inner self will remain clean and pure.
Let’s struggle really hard now, and the rewards will be very great. Nobody finds grace unless they make the effort. If a farmer doesn’t tend his crops, he won’t see any yield. When our fast is accompanied, reinforced and flanked by prayer, study, vigilance, church attendance, confession, Holy Communion, good works- especially almsgiving- then the beauty of the preparation of the soul for the reception of Great Week is complete. Then we’ll experience the Holy and Sacred Passion of Christ  more intensely, because our heart will soften, it’ll alter and it’ll realize how great God’s love for humankind is. Then, within us, we’ll experience very forcibly the Holy Resurrection, we’ll celebrate it in a way befitting to God and we’ll celebrate Holy Easter together with the angels. Amen.
Brethren, may we all have a blessed and spiritually-profitable Lent, and be made worthy of partaking in Christ's Passion and Resurrection! Please forgive me, and may God forgive us all!
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Elder Sophrony of Essex on the Love and Pain of the Theotokos

Christ crucified, in extreme humility, beside His Most-holy Mother, the Theotokos (source)
Our Panagia was pained much more than all other women, much more than all other mothers in the world, because no one else was struck, to no one else was done evil like that which was done to Her, the greatest evil of the whole world. They crucified Her Son.

And seeing Him upon the Cross, She was pained so much in her heart...Because of this She can understand every painful existence, and She suffers together with every human who is pained, because She exactly knows what "pain" means. When the soul is seized by the love of God, then, O, how gracious, beloved and joyous is everything! Love, however, goes together with sorrow, and the deeper the love is, even greater is the sorrow.

The Theotokos never sinned, not even in thought, and She never lost grace, and even She had such great sorrows. When she stood beside the Cross, then Her sorrow was impassable like the ocean, and the pains of Her soul were incomparably greater than the pain of Adam after the expulsion from Paradise, because Her love was incomparably greater than the love of Adam in Paradise.

And though She survived it, She survived only with divine power, with the strength of the Lord, because His will was for the Theotokos to later see the Resurrection, and later, after His Ascension, that She might remain the consolation and joy of the Apostles and of the new Christian people. We do not reach the fullness of the love of the Theotokos, and because of this we cannot fully conceive of the depth of Her sorrow.

Her love was perfect. She loved her Son and God incomparably, but She also loved the people with great love. And what did She sense, then, when they whom She herself loved so greatly and whom She so greatly pained for their salvation, when She saw them crucifying her beloved Son?

This we cannot conceive of, because our love for God and man is small. However, the love of Panagia was incomparable and inconceivable, thus incomparable also was her pain, which remains inconceivable to us.

The Theotokos did not relate in the Scriptures Her thoughts, nor her love for Her Son and God, nor the sorrows of Her soul at the hour of the Crucifixion, because even then they couldn't conceive of it. Her love for God was stronger and more fervent than the love of the Cherubim and Seraphim, and all the powers of the Angels and Archangels were amazed with Her.

Icon of Saint Sophrony of Essex (+1993) (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Elder Symeon Kragiopoulos on Cheesefare Sunday

Icon depicting the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (source)
Great Lent is a forty-day period for us to return to God. Due to our sins, we find ourselves outside of paradise. Realizing this fact we seek forgiveness of our sins. If God forgives us, He will put us in paradise. For this reason, the Gospel reading for today’s divine liturgy highlights the first thing needed: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matt. 6, 14-15). Run and do whatever you want. Strive according to your desire. But if you do not look after this very first thing, do not expect your sins to be forgiven. And if your sins are not forgiven, you will not enter into paradise. However much we seek forgiveness from God, that much more must we too forgive others.
And, now for the second point. It is impossible to conceive of Great Lent without fasting, as this fasting is a law of God and a law of the Church. During this period, our Lord, and our Church, want us to fast from material foods, but also from our passions, and from our weaknesses.
The third point that we, during this period, must pay attention to for our return to be true is: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” (Matt. 6, 19). When you do almsgiving, when you love, forgive others, think of others, think of heavenly things, of spiritual goods, and of all the things the Lord has promised us –not the earthly things down here–then you gain treasure there. Your heart, then, is there in heaven.
If your heart truly desires Christ, it will go towards heaven. From that perspective, we can take stock. Since our hearts do not go towards God  –as if difficulties come to us, and like clockwork there are roadblocks– this means that we love other things more deeply than we love our Christ. This is in accordance with that which the Lords says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, ” (Matt. 6, 21).
Holy Hesychasterion “The Nativity of Theotokos” Publications.
Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
Beautiful icon depicting Christ as the Good Samaritan (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Turn not Your face away from me, O Lord..."

The Second Coming of Christ at the Last Judgment (source)
Turn not Your face away from me, O Lord, may I not hear Your voice raised against me in anger, do not let me be cast into the fire, but may I enter into the joy of Your spotless bridle chamber, that I might be together with Your Saints.
-from the Matins Canon for the Sunday of the Last Judgment.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A vision of Panagia, and the repose of Elder Nektarios Vitalis

The Most-holy Theotokos, who ever prays to the Lord for the salvation of the world (source)
Recently, Elder Nektarios Vitalis (who reposed today in the Lord, see below), in the chapel of St. Nektarios, Kamariza, Lavrio, saw a young woman praying fervently in front of the Icon of Christ.

Two hours passed, and the woman continued to pray. Elder Nektarios, even though he was tired, he was waiting for the woman dressed in black to finish her prayer in order to lock the church. He approached her and told her:

"My girl, I am tired and am waiting to close the church."

She girl responded: "I am praying before the Icon of my Son for Greece, because she will be found in a very difficult situation."
Elder Nektarios Vitalis (source)
Today, February 8th, 2018, Elder Nektarios Vitalis reposed in the Lord.

It should be noted that the blessed Elder Nektarios recently was facing serious health problems, but despite this, day and night he would give people his blessing and his guidance to the hundreds of the faithful who came to see him.

When in 1965 he suffered a stroke, his situation was dire, but St. Nektarios the Wonderworker granted him healing.

As soon as he became well, he moved to Lavro.

A short time later, he again saw St. Nektarios in his sleep, who asked him to build his "house" in Kamariza, Lavro [a famous pilgrimage of the saint, where many miracles have occurred], and who informed him that he would help him.

In 1980, the sacred Elder had an astonishing conversation with St. Nektaros, and during this, he was healed of an incurable illness...

A few days later, the general director of the Cancer Hospital "St. Savas" was astonishingly informed him that his cancer had disappeared. In Kamariza the bells rang joyously at the joyous news of the miracle.
Elder Nektarios Vitalis (source)
A short encomium written by Mr. Manolis Melinos, who wrote several books on St. Nektarios, his life and miracles, and especially came to know Elder Nektarios:
The sweet, the simple, the father,
The brother, the fellow man,
The consoler, the humble one,
The child among children, the great one among the great, the elder among the elders, in other words, the child-elder, reposed today, February 8th, 2018 at the age of 88. Now he is an intercessor for us at the heavenly Altar, together with St. Nektarios, near the Great High Priest Christ, Whom he had and never abandoned!
You all and everyone knows my spiritual relationship with him for 33 years, and I am deeply thankful to God Who made me worthy to be near him and to write his biography...
Now, humanly, our large spiritual family is in mourning along with my biological family, and I unworthily entreat God to make him worthy to continue to pray on behalf of us. In the proper time, I will return to write more in detail, but I am compelled at least to write this.
Manolis Melinos,
orphaned of a "Father"
Portrait of Elder Nektarios Vitalis (source)
May his memory be eternal! May he have a blessed Paradise and may we have his blessing!
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

"You were given as a gift by God to the world..."

St. Theodore Stratelates (The Commander), the Great Martyr (source)

You were given as a gift by God to the world, according to your name, a divine gift, a greatly-desired gift, a gift enriching every one of the faithful, a gift that is sweetly received in deed and name, as you send down upon all gifts accordingly, and fulfill the requests of your servants.

You were given by God as the physician of those ailing, the deliverance of captives, the entreaty for sinners, the remission for those guilty, the consolation of those who mourn, O greatly-compassionate Theodore.
-from the Matins Canon to St. Theodore Stratelates
St. Theodore Stratelates (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Metropolitan Athanasios on Pharisaism

Christ telling the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (source)
Having promised yesterday, I will say a few words on the topic of Pharisaism.
 All these things that take place—everything that we do—our pilgrimages, our candles, our night-vigils, our prayers, our fasts, our gestures of charity—everything that we do in our life—are for what purpose and what is the reason that we do them? The answer to this question is very important, because correctness about our spiritual life is dependent on it.

Let me give you an example: I ask children at our summer camps: "what is God’s greatest commandment? What is God’s most important commandment, my children?" And all the children—all of them—quote various commandments: do not steal... do not lie... do not be unjust to your fellow-man... respect your parents... love your neighbor... However, none of the children suspect that not a single one of these is God’s first commandment. I suspect that the same is likely true among most grown ups as well.
God’s first and only commandment—all others are in reality the result of this first one—is to love God with all of your heart. Christ Himself said that the first commandment is: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. (Mk 12:30)
And a second commandment, similar to the first—which springs from within the first commandment—is the one that says love thy neighbor. Everything else is a result of these. If you love your neighbor, you will not rob him, you will not lie to him, you will not be unjust with him, you will not take his things, you will not tamper with his wife, you will not interfere with his home, you will not censure him... That is what we mean by "it springs from the first commandment." The love thy neighbor is likewise a result of the first commandment. If you truly love God, it is impossible to not love your neighbor. Therefore, the first and only commandment by God is to love God Himself with all our heart. Subsequently, whatever we do in church, has that precise purpose. And that is why we go to pilgrimages, why we fast, why we pray, why we go to confession, why we light candles, why we read the lives of saints, ... It is our way of loving Christ.

Now, where is our mistake? The mistake is that, unfortunately, we say that we do all these things in order to just become good people... and that is where the big hoax lies. It is the step that we all stumble over. Because, if the purpose of the church was just to make us better people, then there wouldn’t be any need for a personal relationship with Christ, nor would there be any reason for Christ to have come to the world. Why do you think we aren’t able to understand the saints? Or, to ask it in a simpler manner, why is it that we cannot understand those who love God?
We often ask whether it is necessary to do certain deeds in order to be saved, to be near to God. Is it necessary, let’s say, to depart to the mountains or the desert (as some saints did)? Of course not. If we could understand that our relationship with God is not only for the sake of salvation, but is a relationship of love, only then will we understand the saints and why they did the things they did (much of which cannot be interpreted rationally). This is because love transcends logic. Even secular love—the way that one person loves another person—for example when one wants to get married, he loves the young lady that he will wed, and the same applies to the young lady—then they do things that seem totally irrational. If, for example, you were to ask her or him who is the most beautiful or handsome one in the world, they will probably say it is their beloved. Naturally, they are seeing the other through their own eyes... Our eyes see something entirely different... The prospective bride will describe her man with the finest words. She sees no flaws in him, no faults... she can’t see anything bad about him, because love transcends all these things. And, of course, the same holds true for the groom as well.
Love cannot be forced into the molds of logic. Love is above logic. That is how God’s love is. God’s love surpasses human logic. That is why we can’t judge with logical criteria those people who love God. That is why the saints reacted with a logic of their own; they had a different kind of logic, and not the logic of humans; because their logic was the "logic" of love. So, the church does not teach us just to become good people, not in the least. It is only natural, that we have to become good people, because if we don’t, then what have we succeeded in doing? Our Church teaches us to love Christ, to love the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
Inside the church, a relationship develops. It is a personal relationship between man and Christ; not with the teaching of Christ and not with the Gospel. The Gospel is something that helps us to reach the point of loving Christ. When we reach that point of truly loving Christ, the Gospel "will no longer be needed." Nothing will be needed... all these things will cease... only man’s relationship with God will remain. That is the difference between the church and religion.
Religion teaches you to do your duties, the way the idolaters did. An example: let’s say that we went to our pilgrimage sites, paid our respects, left some money in the charity box, left some lit candles, some oil, or even our entreaties, our names, our offering-bread, everything. All these things are religious duties, but our heart has not changed in the least. The hour of duty ends, and we are the same as we were before: we are ready to attack the other, ready to protest about the other, ready to be sour again, the way we were before.... Our heart has not changed. And thus, we do not acquire that relationship with Christ, because we simply confine ourselves to duties—to religious duties.
And you must know that such people—you know, "religious" people—can become the most dangerous kind in the church. May God protect us from them... Once, when I was officiating in church and we were citing the words Lord, save the pious...; a Holy Mountain monk jokingly remarked: "Lord, save us from the pious..." In other words, God save you from those "religious" types, because their behavior often implies a warped personality, which has never had a personal relationship with God. These types [of persons] merely perform their duties towards Him, but without any serious relationship involved and that is why God says nothing about this type of person. And I too, must confess, that—from my own experience—I have never seen worse enemies of the church than this type of "religious people."
Whenever the children of religious people, or of priests and theologians—or even of those who in church act like theologians and with self-importance—tried to become monks or priests, they [the parents] became even worse than demons. They would become exasperated with everyone. I remember parents who would bring their children to our homilies, and when their child progressed spiritually, they became the worst among all and found faults with all others. And I would say to them: "But you were the ones who brought the child to the homily; I didn’t bring him..." One other time, I told a father whose daughter I could tell had a zeal for the church: "Make sure you don’t bring her again to any homily. Don’t bring her to talk with me, because your daughter will become a nun and afterwards you will say that I was to blame." He replied: "Oh no, father, far be it! We adore you!" And his daughter did in fact become a nun... It has been seven years now, and he still isn’t talking to me...
People who wouldn’t miss a single homily, all those who were always the first to show up at homilies, night-vigils, Bible studies... they would also bring their children along; however, when the time came for the children to exercise their freedom—to decide by themselves which path to choose—then those people would move to the extreme opposite camp, thus proving that Christ had never spoken to their hearts. They were merely "religious people." That is why religious people are the toughest kind in the church. Because you know what? Sometimes, people like these will never be cured, because they only think they are close to God. 
Sinners, on the other hand—the "losers," so to speak—at least they are aware of their sinful nature. That is why Christ said that publicans and prostitutes will go to the Kingdom of God, whereas to the Pharisees He had said: This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.(Mt 15:8). They had merely adhered to the observance of religious formalities.
Therefore, we should all pay close attention and understand that the church is a hospital that cures us and helps us to love Christ, and our love for Christ is a flame that ignites inside our heart so that we can examine ourselves, to see if we are within God’s love. If we discern all those forms of malice and selfishness and wickedness inside us, then we should be concerned, because it is not possible for Christ to be in our heart when we are full of "vinegar" inside. How can you be praying and at the same time be full of bile towards another person? How is it possible to read the Gospel and not accept your brother? How is it possible to be part of the church for so many years—either as a monk or a priest or whatever—and yet, where is the alpha and omega of our faith, which is love? Where is that patience towards your brother? By not embracing true love, it means that you have accomplished absolutely nothing.
We saw how Christ reached the point of telling those virgins that He would have nothing to do with them. He threw them out of the wedding hall even though they had all the virtues; what they didn’t have was love. It is as if He was telling them that "you may have external virtues, you may have remained virgins, you may have done a thousand things, but you didn’t achieve the essence of that which is the most important." What’s the use, whether I consume olive oil today, or I don’t? I may [fast and] not eat olive oil, for example, but I devour my brother from morning to night... They used to say on the Holy Mountain "don’t ask if I eat fish; as long as one doesn’t eat the fisherman, he can eat fish"; or, "as long as you don’t eat the oil-bearer, you can have a drop of olive oil to eat." To "devour" someone with a sharp tongue is far worse than consuming a spoonful of olive oil. And yet, we focus on things like that: we eat oil, we don’t eat oil; we eat fish, we don’t eat fish... 
You can see how ridiculous these things are and how the demons make fun of us, as well as all those who are outside of the Church. And when such non-Orthodox minded folks approach us, instead of seeing the people of our Church transformed into Jesus Christ—into sweet-natured people and mature people, well balanced, fulfilled people, full of harmony inside them—they instead observe us driven by all of our passions and the sourness that accompanies them; and they will inevitably say: "What? And become like one of them? I’d rather not!"
You, who are a churchgoer, tell me how the church has benefited you. You have visited several pilgrimage sites, you saw the fathers, you saw the holy relics, you saw the Holy Mountain, the Holy Mother at Tinos Island. What was the end benefit of all these experiences? Was your heart transformed? Did you become humbler people? Did you become sweet-natured? Did you become meeker people in your homes, your families, your monastery? Or at your place of work? That is what truly counts. If we did not achieve those things, let us at least become humbler, with true repentance. And, if we did not manage that either, then we are worthy of many tears—we are truly pitiful...
When asked how many years he had lived on the Holy Mountain, Elder Paisios used to say: "I came here the same year as my neighbor’s mule." (His neighbor, old Zitos, had a mule—and you know how every cell on Mount Athos has an animal, a mule, for carrying their things. That animal has a long life span; you don’t buy a mule every day—they are too expensive). "Well, the year that I came here, to the Holy Mountain, my neighbor purchased his mule in the same year. We have the same number of years on the Holy Mountain, and yet that poor beast remained a mule, but then so did I. I didn’t change at all." 
So, we quite often say "I’ve been here for forty years;" and we, priests and monks, tend to say these words: "I have been in the monastery for forty years." But what we do not realize is that all these years are not in our favour. God will say to us: Forty years, and you still haven’t managed to become something? You are still angry after forty years, you still censure, you still contradict, you still resist, you still are not submissive to your Elder? You’ve had forty years, and you still have not learnt the first thing about monastic life and about Christian life. What am I supposed to do with your years? What am I to do with you, if you have spent fifty years with frequent confessions and you cannot respond to another person with a kind word? What use are all these things to Me?
All of these facts weigh against us. And I am saying all these things first about myself. Because they apply to me first... And because I know these things from myself, that is why I am telling you about them (and why you must also think I am saying them to each one of you). People think that I’m referring to them, but it is not so. It is first about me that I mentioned these things... about me first... We need to consider these things to at least humble ourselves; let’s keep our mouth shut, as all those egotistically-driven behaviors ridicule us and make us look foolish in the presence of the Lord.
If we humble ourselves and cease to have grand ideas about ourselves, maybe then can we begin to correct ourselves, gradually, through true repentance, which is born out of true humility. He who does not strive to justify his actions truly repents. He who keeps justifying himself will never repent; and that person who always justifies himself—either externally or internally—will never learn the meaning of repentance. That is why we should always examine ourselves. As the Apostle says, let us test ourselves, to see if there is a love of God inside us, if we are living within the realm of repentance, so that God can cure our existence; this kind of association with the Church can heal us, and thus we can become people who have been cured of their passions and their sins.
Many ask how we can reach this point. How do we get there? Well, we do it by leaving ourselves in the hands of the Good Physician—God; when we leave ourselves trustingly in His hands; because when we are in various circumstances, in difficulties, God knows what is best for each one of us and will lead us along those paths that will slowly, over the years, perfect us. All we need to do is give ourselves to God with trust, the way we give our trust to a doctor, or the captain of a ship. We show trust. He leads us, and we do not worry about the destination and the arrival timer; we know that the one steering the ship is mindful, vigilant, and he knows the way and is careful.
Another important element that I would like to discuss a little further with you (also because some of you have asked me to do so) is on the issue of time.
Did you notice during these days that we have been spending on this ship, how we had no external distractions? We had nothing to draw our attention elsewhere, like at home, for example our televisions. Did you see how much time we had available? We even conversed among ourselves. You who are married had time to talk to each other. The children played together, they talked amongst themselves, and we had lots of time to ourselves and we communicated with each other, and that is the most important element of all: that we could communicate. The most tragic thing is at home, when everyone is sitting in front of the television and they don’t talk to each other... time slips away and people do not communicate with each other. And even worse than this are the program we see on television! They are the source of the worst corruption for us, for our children and for our souls.
One day, when we had disembarked and were walking about, I noticed in one of those refreshment cafes, that a television was on; and, even though nobody was paying attention to it, the TV was still on. So I stood there for a moment, to see what it was showing: I guess it was something like some people who were chasing after some other people all the time, and there was a constant chase, there were guns, bullets, cars, explosions, jumping from one house to another, etc. But these are things that your children, your young children, sit and watch; so much violence... and I’m not even discussing the obscenities that can be heard, which have destroyed even elderly folks. I hear about such things during confession. Elderly people, very old people, who are otherwise very respectable, have been ruined by television, from all that vulgarity that they are exposed to every day. I’m not referring to that specific damage right now; I am referring to all the other things—all the violence that the television projects. Our children become over-familiarized with violence and will naturally become unruly and disobedient; they will do things that are entirely foreign to their human nature!
Have you any idea what an ugly sight it is, when you see young children mimicking older people? They mimic adults, and they destroy their innocent childishness. Sometimes, when I am invited to an event, they bring along tiny toddlers and tell them to dance. And you see these little girls or boys, ten or twelve years old, full of innocence, making dance moves that they have seen older men and women do, entirely disgraceful, with another morality altogether. You can actually see how those children are being destroyed, with their emulations of the adults that they see on television. And also doing all sorts of things and entertaining themselves with choices that are catastrophic. And I am not saying this from the spiritual aspect only, but from every aspect—psychological, social and family.
Keep your children as far away as possible from such things. Help your children to not be dependent on television, because they will be filled with obscene images, and so will you. If you don’t allow your children to watch obscene movies, but you the adult does, then what’s the use? And what about those silly warnings that they write on screen—that the movie is not suitable under 17 or 13 or... Does that mean that if they turn 13 this sight becomes a suitable one? Of course those warnings only arouse the youngsters’ curiosity, and every one of them will inevitably watch the film. They think to themselves that if this movie is forbidden for those younger than 13, it must have something that is deserving of every curiosity...
In my opinion, the destruction that is inflicted on people’s inner world is incalculable. All positive and good images that one absorbs are extremely beneficial in one’s spiritual life. The same applies in reverse; the bad images that a person observes create damage that is literally extreme, and sometimes, we cannot tell if it can be cured.
If someone would study this phenomenon, he would see just how great a catastrophe television can wreak on a person’s psyche, and especially in younger people. But that is only the beginning; one evil will bring on another. It will be a whole chain of evils, because it destroys communication, it destroys time, it destroys the innocence of a person’s soul, and then man becomes exhausted; and being exhausted, he has no desire to do anything, especially anything spiritual. His soul gets filled with things that wearied him, and then he wonders why he is tired—he cannot understand why... Try eliminating television and the like (or at least minimize these evils), and you will see how much more relaxed you will become and how much free time you will have at your disposal. 
Naturally, these things are not unrelated to our spiritual life, because a person’s spiritual life is a product of all the activities that a person does. By this, I don’t mean to say stop watching television altogether. I am not against it per se; it’s just that things like these make our life more difficult instead of making it easier, and they destroy it, the way it was destroyed by technological "progress" which has—otherwise—facilitated our lives. You catch a plane, and you are there. You get on a ship, and you get there quickly... or a thousand other conveniences. In the long run, such conveniences may have facilitated our lives, but they also trapped us and made us lose ourselves; they made us lose the beauty of our life and we eventually destroyed the world we live in, and now we want even more sciences and discoveries, to see if we can salvage what is left of it...
All these things that constitute the tragedy and by-product of our Fall make it abundantly clear just how impossible it is to humanly tackle this problem; and yet, if one turns to God, then we will see that which Christ had said that: With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. (Mt 19:26). We can see around us that miracle by God, which, even in our day, with all the information and all these provocations taking place around us, and the accessibility to sin, still, there are people who love God and from among the thorns, we see roses spring forth.
Roses blossom from among the thorns, and the immense miracle of man’s salvation becomes reality, regardless of our own human weaknesses, our wretched state, our problems, the difficulties with our self, our church, our family, our society and the other elements that unfortunately bombard every person. That is why, to return from all these things, we need to return where we started from, when we said that the solution and the answer to all problems is for man to turn towards loving God, and that when man loves God, then God will cure him; God will resurrect him—even if that person is dead and decomposing—God will restore him, provided man discards from inside him all that is useless and put in his heart a love for God, and build his life around that love for God. And atop that love for God, to build his life, his marriage, his family, his path, his studies, his course in life. If man does that, then he will truly come to enjoy life and his life will become a paradise, because paradise is nothing more than God’s love, whereas "hell" is nothing more than the absence of God’s love.
So, it is my wish, as a conclusion to this homily, that the love of God will always accompany all of you, and that we should not forget that everything we do, we must do for that reason, and not just to be religiously behaving people. We must become God-loving people, so that our lives can be transformed correctly and we ourselves be transformed into Jesus Christ our Lord.
God be with you.

Transcript of a homily by Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol, Cyprus (as transcribed by the Orthodox Center for Dogmatic Enquiries—translated by the staff of "Orthodox Heritage," edited for length).
Jesus Christ Deisis with the Most-holy Theotokos and the Precious Forerunner (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

"The Sun is being carried by the light cloud..."

Christ being carried by the Theotokos to the Temple, meeting the Elder Symeon (source)
Let the clouds sprinkle forth rain, for the Sun is being carried by the light cloud in spotless arms*, as Christ is being brought to the Temple as a child. Therefore O faithful, let us cry out: Sing to the Lord, for gloriously is He glorified.
-from the Matins Canon for the Meeting of Christ in the Temple

*"See, the Lord rides on a swift cloud" (Isaiah 19:1), a great prophecy of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, Who was carried in the spotless arms of the Theotokos.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

"You struggled till being cut and burned..."

St. Tryphon the Great martyr and Unmercenary (source)
You struggled till being cut and burned, till the shedding of your blood, and even till death at the end, and struggled against sin, O Martyr of Christ, and now, you partake of the hidden life in Christ, as we cry out: O you Priests, bless Him, O you people exalt Him supremely unto all the ages.
-From the Matins Canon to St. Tryphon the Great Martyr and Unmercenary
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!