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Mission Monthly – September 2005

“I think it best that a man should have a little bit of all the virtues. Therefore, get up early every day and acquire the beginning of every virtue and every commandment of God. Use great patience in the love of God, with all the fervor of your soul and body. Exercise great humility; bear with interior distress; be watchful and pray often with reverence, with purity of speech and control of your eyes.”

St. John the Dwarf

During the days immediately surrounding January 1st much talk can be heard of making resolutions for the New Year. As with all beginnings, many resolve to better their lives in such areas as diet, exercise, relationships, finances, home organization, time management and so on. I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions, however this season is one of my favorite times of the year. The months of December and January are filled with a special “holiday” spirit, but more importantly they are rich with anticipation and celebration of the feasts of Christmas and Theophany. Truly, it is the Church that brings lifeto this beautiful time of the year.

September 1st is “New Year’s Day” for the Church. This year I find myself more aware than ever before of the richness of this holy season. At Christmas, we have the Nativity Fast to help us prepare for and then celebrate our Lord’s Nativity, His Circumcision (together with the feast of St. Basil the Great), and His Holy Baptism. For the Orthodox Church New Year the months of August and September provide a comparable setting of holy anticipation and celebration. In August we have the Dormition Fast, the great feasts of Holy Transfiguration and the Dormition of the Theotokos, and the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. In September we have the great feasts of the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Elevation of the Holy Cross. These particular months certainly have a unique feeling as summer comes to end and a new school year begins, but again, it is the Church that truly brings life to this beautiful time of the year.

It is so easy to allow our senses and feelings to be governed by the more worldly sentimentalities of these seasons—but how aware are we of the holiness of these beautiful times of the year? As I myself experience a growing awareness of the Church year and her holy seasons, I hope to bring the beauty of this ecclesiastical fragrance to the sensibilities and future of this church—for it is truly life-giving!

Now at the dawn of the New Church Year, I may not be one to make “resolutions”, but I am always thankful for new beginnings! I believe each of us echoes this sentiment. As Orthodox Christians this is at the core of what we believe. In Holy Baptism and Chrismation, in Holy Confession and Communion we celebrate new beginnings in the salvific action and activity of the Church. When Jesus said from the Cross, “It is finished”, in terms of our salvation what we must also hear is, “It is begun!” And so it does begin, each new day, each moment, from the time of our God’s Passion, Death and Resurrection until today—as most beautifully expressed by St. Herman of Alaska: “For our good, for our happiness, at least let us give a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!”

St. John the Dwarf put into very plain terms the daily task set before us. It has nothing to do with how we may have succeeded or failed the day before or with worrying about what tomorrow may bring. “…get up early every day and acquire the beginning“, he says. And pay attention to what he does not say—that we need to be great at everything right now; no—only that we be consistent in seeking daily a beginning to all the virtues. St. Herman instructs us to make a “vow” with ourselves. What else is a vow but a resolution? As we proceed through the holy season of our Church’s New Year let us consider making some vows to ourselves: a commitment to daily prayer and scripture reading; being present when the Church gathers for worship (a maximum, not a minimum); a better preparation for Holy Communion and a more acute discernment of our readiness to approach the Holy Chalice; the daily practice of virtue; making our homes a godly refuge of love, joy and peace; keeping the fasts of the Church; giving attention to consistent physical activity and moral living; and being truly committed to growing in our awareness of and participation in all the seasons of our Church year. In the world the resolutions of January 1st are a strong indication that people are usually ready to improve themselves. Let us make our vows, therefore, on September 1st as well, as we ask God to forgive our sins of the year past and to bless us in the year to come (from the prayers of the Induction of the new liturgical year). And with thankfulness and sincerity let us be resolved to a daily commitment “above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!”


Mission Monthly – August 2005

“Came then the men from the East, telling how the frontiers were closing one by one on the Christian idea. And how one by one the old missionary foundations were being destroyed while the idea of an earthly paradise took hold of the minds of men who needed it so desperately because they had so little time to enjoy it.”

The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the expression, “The world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket.” I don’t know the origin of this saying but having heard it several times as of late I am pressed to give thought to what I’m sure we all would agree is a world in crisis. Examples of injustice, terror or moral depravity need not be cited here for each of us to be reminded of what a perilous place our world can be.

As I think about these things I am reminded of a striking passage from the Epistle of St. James, “What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (4:1-4). If this is true then we must be ready to ask ourselves some very serious questions. What is it that I most treasure? Is the structure of my life built on the sole desire to fulfill the will of God? Are my soul, mind and strength set in pursuit of heavenly things? Am I thankful for my situation in life or is complaining a part of my daily routine? Am I really attending to the daily disciplines of a life of faith? Am I at all drawn to the true joy that comes from a life of sincere repentance or am I mostly drawn to the things which “the world” tells me will bring me satisfaction and pleasure? Have I ever given serious thought to what St. James wrote, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”

Morris West’s fictional character, His Holiness Kyril Lakota, often meditates on these very practical questions as he walks in “the shoes of the fisherman” as Pope and bishop of Rome. His story is set in a time of great world unrest similar to the time of the “Cold War”. Weapons of mass destruction were in the hands of a hungry world, putting mankind in great peril. Capitalism, communism, socialism, democracy, monarchy, dictatorship—all forms of social government were failing – ways which make ideological promises of happiness. China’s over-populated Marxist society was starving, Russia’s Communist society was crumbling from within, and the Capitalist West was adrift, growing wealthier and suffering from rapid moral decay. Men were looking for answers and they were desperate; a fictional world not much different from our own.

It is the “men looking for answers” that caught my attention, and the notion that man in general is still looking for that illusive “earthly paradise.” Whether obvious or subtle, what has really changed since the time of Babel when men sought to build a tower leading to heaven? The ideology of pleasure still rules the minds of so many, even to the extreme of Islamic suicide bombers who reportedly are “promised” a certain number of virgin women to enjoy in heaven should they give their life in serving the holy jihad.

This is a difficult climate in which to proclaim—and live—the Good News of Jesus Christ. In our own western society—which I believe we must be most concerned with—the ideologies of personal freedom, self-expression and the pursuit of material “happiness” often and clearly stand in direct conflict with the central Christian doctrine of joining ourselves to Christ as co-redeemers. While we must not reject the world outright there are many aspects of the world which must be viewed as anti-Christian. The ideologies of personal pleasure and self-indulgence have not created a thrifty class of spiritually motivated Christians who remember that the heaven we seek is not of this world.

I would discourage the negative view of the world as “going to hell in a hand basket.” There is so much joy in the life God intends for us. But we must never forget that heaven is not of this world, and that no system of government, personal freedom or carnal pleasure will ever satisfy our longing for “paradise.” The limited time we are given in this life is blessed for friendship with God; and when this is our pursuit we will find the one true paradise our hearts are seeking.


Mission Monthly – July 2005

“Everything that you gain in your inner battles will be reflected in your life in God. Struggle against every passion which arouses in you critical thoughts about others. Do not accept what the enemy suggests to you against someone who is unjust towards you. Whether you are alone in your room or in company, every critical thought, every negative inner movement, creates a crack in your spiritual fortress and in that of your community. No thought is born or passes without consequence. With good thoughts, you will be able to see in every person that you meet someone very beloved. With negative thoughts, on the contrary, your facial expression and your psychological energies will spoil your relationships and affect the environment around you. When grace is with us, we do not see the defects of others; we only see the sufferings and the love of our brethren.”

Archimandrite Sophrony

One of the greatest blessings I see in the midst of our beloved congregation is our common striving to truly “love one another” and to live in harmony together in our life in Christ—even though spiritually we are as diverse as each of our characters and personalities. Some are able to pray more fervently, others are just beginning to discover and appreciate the higher standards of the life of the Church. Some are able to make greater faith sacrifices, others are not exactly sure how God fits in their lives. The beautiful thing about this is that it can be no other way as the Good Sower of Seeds continues to sow, looking for good soil where roots can grow deep and plants can yield an excellent harvest! Oh, that all our soils might be deep and rich with spiritual nutrients to receive and give life to the life-giving seed of Life!

Where I find myself most encouraged is that despite our diversity there is in our midst such a striving to love one another that it is easy to see the diversity of gifts and truly hard to distinguish the diversity of struggle. I would like to believe this is because people are not looking “to the right or to the left” but are concentrating on their own inner weaknesses and sins. I am encouraged by the love of this community and the willingness each of us has in striving to forebear the sins of others. This truly is the cornerstone of any quality relationship be it between spouses, friends, or co-workers; or within families, church communities or any group. Maybe I am looking through rose colored glasses, but what I see in this church community is real commitment to non-judgment.

It is hard to write about negativity. I do not want to produce negativity by talking about it. Nevertheless it really is an important topic, especially today in America where it is the social norm to complain and criticize. The politics of personal destruction that has arisen over the last couple of decades is maybe the best example of this; regardless of one’s political affiliation, the gaining of popular support today is often sought not in the arena of good ideas but rather through the defamation of one’s opponent. So much of our news media is more about opinion than about actual news. Even our “entertainment” media has a critical overtone where parents are made fools of in situation comedies and traditional moral and ethical values are disparaged in drama. We have been so deeply formed by the social revolution of self-determined opinion that virtually any person, idea, or institution can become the target of criticism and complaint. The only thing that doesn’t seem to be a focal point of our negativity is ourselves. “God forbid” that we should criticize ourselves or be criticized by others!

Within the Church we must demand something better and always guard against the ease with which a man can rapidly slip into the spirit of criticism and complaint! I have felt this temptation affect me, and have seen how “cracks” can develop in the fortress of my faith. Thankfully, as by grace I am better able to resist these destructive thoughts, I see how beautifully positive thoughts do further the seeing of the “beloved” in every person. While we do have a beautiful and loving community I will continue to encourage each of us to pursue vigilantly the grace to resist the spirit of negativity, especially against those whom we love! And beyond that, may we strive to become true witnesses of love and forbearance to the society in which we live. There are enough voices out there ready to point out our defects, how beautiful when we are filled with grace only to see the sufferings and love of our brethren!


Mission Monthly – June 2005

“Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms, cannot bear fruit, so it is with us. This present age is a storm, and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.”

Mother Theodora

Another winter has passed and we are enjoying the end of a rather splendid spring. Though it has been more cold than usual the beautiful blooms of early spring flowers have brought their fragrant color-burst to the dormant winter landscapes of home and meadow. Each year we look forward to the signs and coming of spring and all her beauty, and to the season of warmth that follows—summer and all her glory!

As the blooms of spring awaken, brandishing branches of leaves and the aromas of lilac, lily and rose, it is important to remember the season of hibernation that precedes the season of new life, and howthis new life would not be possible without its preceding winter. Most of us here in the upper mid-west appreciate the winter, its cold, darkness, and, yes, even the snow. I remember one friend saying, “You have to attack winter or it will attack you.” Even as a life long resident of Wisconsin it is good to be reminded of this saying. Things always take a little longer in winter, getting dressed to go out, scraping off car windows, shoveling driveways and walks. The importance of this season holds many benefits, and in that these benefits go way beyond the hibernating bulb and blossom let us explore the “narrow gate” of winter as a parallel to living a spiritual life as the incubation of a heavenly inheritance!

The life of the Church is filled with times and seasons, rhythms and reasons; attention must be given to Her subtleties if we ever hope to gain knowledge of the how, why, what and where’s of Orthodoxy—”right faith.” The first place we learn is through participation in the life of the Church Herself. The rhythms of our seasonal feasts span the whole of creation and all of time. At the beginning of Great Lent we are taken back to the “beginning” where the daily scripture readings of the Church return to Genesis and creation, and the tracing of the roots and lineage of God’s Israel. At Pascha we begin reading the Acts of the Apostles and see again the “kerygma”—the proclamation—of the Apostles as they preached the Good News of New Life throughout the whole world. Throughout the year we re-collect and re-enter the most notable events in the life of our Lord, His Holy Mother and the Saints and the Church. Our prayers are directed towards God and through this life we are directed and instructed in His mercy, His justice, and His salvation.

Great and Holy Lent is marked by certain practices that are intended to increase awareness in us of a world absent of Christ. The dark season that precedes Pascha can be compared to a time of winter, silent and frozen in the grips of death. We are asked to somehow recall a time in creation history when salvation had not yet come, and live as though it hasn’t, even though it has. One of the most challenging and beautiful questions I was asked this year was why doesn’t the Church celebrate normal, Eucharistic liturgies on weekdays of Lent (with the general exception of the Feast of Annunciation)? My usual answer involved explaining the Church’s discipline of suspending weekday Eucharistic consecrations as we anticipate the Paschal celebration, and the Church’s mercy in providing for us Lenten Eucharistic nourishment in the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts. This year I was given an even deeper understanding of this discipline, seeing it in the light of darkness, the darkness of the world prior to the coming of Christ and the darkness of the world which has yet to receive Christ. How do we who have received Christ live again as if we haven’t? Obviously this could never be a literal condition but it can be a beneficial challenge in preparation, appreciation and celebration of our Lord’s Pascha and His victory over darkness and death.

In life there may be times when it seems that God is absent, be it because of sin or the direction our life takes because of illness or death, loss of relationships or employment, uncertainty of future or maybe even persecution for our faith. Thankfully we have been given all we need to prepare for any and all eventualities, for Christ is risen! Yet, our Lord’s Resurrection and “trampling” of death, while freeing us from captivity to the Devil, did not abolish temptation or the consequences of sin from the fallen world. Inevitably there will be spiritual darkness and winter in each of our lives, but like the season that follows winter’s death so too is new life to follow our faithful struggles with life’s trials and temptations. And like the crocus, daffodil and tulip, and every springtime bud from every tree, we learn to appreciate winter’s darkness as a necessary preparation to the bearing of pleasing and resplendent fruit worthy of our hopeful inheritance of the kingdom of heaven.


Mission Monthly – May 2005

“How Easy it is to be Holy”

From Abandonment to Divine Providenceby Jean-Pierre Caussade

If the business of becoming holy seems to present insufferable difficulties, it is merely because we have a wrong idea about it. In reality, holiness consists of one thing only: complete loyalty to God’s will. Now everyone can practice this loyalty, whether actively or passively.

To be actively loyal means obeying the laws of God and the Church and fulfilling all the duties imposed on us by our way of life. Passive loyalty means that we lovingly accept all that God sends us at each moment of the day. Now is there anything here too difficult for us? Certainly nothing in active loyalty, for if its duties are beyond our powers, we are not expected to attempt to fulfill them. If we are too ill to go to Church, we need not. And it is the same for all other precepts which lay down duties. But, of course, there can be no exemption from precepts which forbid wrongdoing, for we are never allowed to sin. Can anything be more sensible? Or easier? We are left without any excuse. Yet God asks nothing more than this. But he does require it from everyone, without exception. Class, time and place mean nothing. Everyone must obey. Yet all he is asking from us is very straight-forward and quite easy. We can become truly holy by obeying these simple rules. However, apart from the Commandments, he gives us counsels of perfection; yet, even here, he takes care that the practice of them fits in with our temperament and our position in life. He never drives anyone beyond his strength or ability. What could be fairer?

God has compelled me to write this to help you who seek to be holy and are discouraged by what you have read in the lives of saints and some books dealing with spiritual matters. So do, please, try to learn from me.

God, who is all goodness, has made easily available all the things necessary for life, such as earth, air and water. And what could be more vital than breathing, eating and sleeping? And what is easier? When we turn to spiritual matters, love and loyalty are just as vital, so they cannot be as difficult to acquire as we imagine. Consider your life, and you will see that it consists of countless trifling actions. Yet God is quite satisfied with them, for doing them as they should be done is the part we have to play in our striving for perfection. There can be no doubt about this. Holy Scripture makes it very plain: “Fear God, and keep his commandments, since this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc1es. 12:13). This is all we have to do. This is active loyalty. If we do our part, God will do the rest. Grace will pour into us and will perform marvels far beyond our understanding, for “no eye has seen and no ear has heard things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9). To be passively loyal is even easier, since it implies only that we accept what very often we cannot avoid, and endure with love and resignation things which could cause us weariness and disgust. Once again, this is what being holy means. It is the mustard seed which is almost too small to be recognized or harvested, the drachma of the Gospels, the treasure that no one finds, as it is thought to be too well hidden to be looked for.

But what is the secret of finding this treasure? There isn’t one. This treasure is everywhere. It is offered to us all the time and wherever we are. All creatures, friends or foes, pour it out in abundance, and it flows through every fiber of our body and soul until it reaches the very core of our being. If we open our mouths they will be filled. God’s activity runs through the universe. It wells up and around and penetrates every created being. Where they are, there it is also. It goes ahead of them, it is with them and it follows them. All they have to do is let its waves sweep them onwards. If only kings and their ministers, princes of the Church and of the world, priests, soldiers and ordinary people knew how easy it would be for them to become very holy! All they need to do is fulfill faithfully the simple duties of Christianity and those called for by their state of life, accept cheerfully all the troubles they meet and submit to God’s will in all that they have to do or suffer without, in any way, seeking out trouble for themselves. It is this attitude which gave such holiness to those patriarchs and prophets who lived long before there were so many methods of spirituality and so many directors of souls. This is the true spirituality, which is valid for all times and for everybody. We cannot become truly good in a better, more marvelous, and yet easier way than by the simple use of the means offered us by God, the unique director of souls. It is the ready acceptance of all that comes to us at each moment of our lives.