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Monthly Meditation – May 2010

“In Paradise it was in man's power to work without labor.”

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom's biblical commentaries always cover a lot of ground. This quote is taken from his commentary on the healing story of the paralytic at the pool by the Sheep Gate (St. John 5:1-15). In it he distinguishes between work and labor in relationship to Adam in Paradise and man after Adam's fall.

After numerous conversations I find it more and more clear that most people do not actually “work” for a living but rather (at least according to St. John's definition) “labor” for a living. There is both sadness and blessing in this which I hope to briefly address as we strive to distinguish between work and labor.

The sadness I feel and see is the way so many people seem unable to find their true vocation in life, often times ending up with jobs that just chase the dollar. From what I hear this has been a philosophical point often adopted by high school and college students. Recent polls and statistics have shown that when asked what they hope to do for a living many students reply, “Whatever makes me the most money.” Sadder still, the goal of making money is often notably empty of any form of humane stewardship, focusing rather on maximizing time for disposing one's income on interests of pleasure and ease.

Man needs to work; there is no question about that. What man doesn't need is to reduce work to the purposes of paying bills, obtaining security and pleasure, and being influenced to make employment decisions on the basis of dollars. When this is the case a man has already crossed the line of enslavement to the shackles of labor, diminishing the possibility of him ever understanding the true meaning of vocation.

In our fallen state, while I believe it is not impossible for a man to “work without labor” (“for with God all things are possible”) it will be rare, like the gift of Uncreated Light given to St. Seraphim of Sarov, because it is only through laboring that a man's work can become a true vocation. St. John puts it this way, “God gave us at the beginning a life free from care and exempt from labor. We used not the gift aright, but were perverted by doing nothing, and were banished from Paradise. On which account He made our life for the future one of toil, assigning as it were His reasons for this to mankind, and saying, 'I allowed you at the beginning to lead a life of enjoyment, but you were rendered worse by liberty, wherefore I commended that henceforth labor and sweat be laid upon you.' This is why life is laborious, because not to labor is wont to be our ruin.”To me, this is so encouraging! It helps me to understand why even in my life as a priest, a life to which I believe God has called me to a true vocation and a life in which I have been given many joys; there are still many laborious days.

In the story of the Paralytic, St. John relates that the “thirty and eight” years this man waited and did not receive his desire was not due to any “carelessness” on his part; and that during this immense time of waiting his faith was never dulled. He goes on to say, “While we if we have persisted for ten days to pray for anything and have not obtained it, are too slothful afterward to employ the same zeal.” Here we are guided to see how the affliction of the Paralytic became his vocation, and how his faith and attitude, however long it took to gain this grace, defines the difference between labor and work. Undoubtedly he had laborious days but it was through his labor that his affliction became his work and ultimately his healing (salvation).

How many of us are of the mind to see our jobs as a means to a worldly end rather than a heavenly one? This is a great challenge for us in this era of business and economy. Often times it seems to me that the economic environment we have created for ourselves has virtually destroyed the notion of work as virtue and vocation, precisely the very things that we as Christians are called to pursue, bringing to our lives through work the blessed boundaries of order and discipline. The beauty of it all is that there is the possibility that a man can actually pursue work that is meaningful and as a vocation his work can express a priestly character. St. John concludes his commentary with this, “For it is possible to work and not be wearied, as do the angels.” May we learn in our lives, through our labor and our best choices to find soul-enriching vocations, to truly labor for all seasons necessary to obtain the joy that never grows old and the virtue that inspires the workman with all hope and pleasure in the grace and glory of God.

Christ is Risen!

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Monthly Meditation – April 2010

FROM THE MISSIONARY LETTERS OF ST. NIKOLAI VELIMIROVICH: About the Paschal Service in Jerusalem

Silouan of Mt. Athos

The awaited has arrived! When the old patriarch sang “Christ is Risen” the heavy stone was lifted from our souls. We felt like bodiless spirits. Like we were resurrected! Suddenly, thunderous voices of nations and tribes roared, like the sound of many waters, down by the Sepulcher, up by Golgotha, in galleries, on the pillars, on the beams of the iconostas, in window frames. Wherever there was room for a human head, a whole man squeezed into it. By these exclamations, our brothers from Asia and Africa expressed their joy. It was a strange sight for Europeans, but such are the people of the East. Pain to the point of ecstasy and joy to the point of ecstasy. During Holy Week, they sobbed out loud around the Sepulcher of the Lord, kissing the tomb, touched it with their faces and their hands, beat their chest, mourned, and lo this morning—roaring and shouts of joy. Like children—sincere and without reservations. Did not the Lord promise the Heavenly Kingdom to the children? I heard a Copt say about Europeans, “They know how to laugh, but not how to rejoice.” The joy of easterners is without laughter, especially the higher, spiritual joy.

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered, says the patriarch. Hristos Anesti, Christ is Risen—the Greeks sing. The Tomb is transformed into paradise, a torture chamber into the palace of joy. We hold candles in our hands, but our souls are brighter than candles.

Hristos Voskrese—Russians sing. Beautifully and with compunction, soft like silk, like only Russians can. But in this hour, in this place, even the ugliest singing seems nice. Yes, and the ugliest face seems beautiful. The light and joy of the resurrection changes everything, transforms everything—voices, faces, things. Everything around us is beautiful, clean, holy, heavenly.

Christ is Risen—the Arabs sing, clapping their hands and dancing with their feet. Tears pour down their faces and glow from the thousand lights of candles from all sides. The expression of sadness is put into the service of joy. How great is the human soul in its sincerity! There is nothing greater other than God and His Angels!

Christ is Risen—sung by Serbs, Copts, Armenians, Bulgarians, Abyssinians, Blacks, one after another, each in his language and in his tone. But they all sing nicely. I tell you, all the people around us look beautiful and good. The black sons and daughters of Africa—all beautiful and good like Angels. It is a miracle that only the Resurrected Lord can perform. This is the only true foundation of brotherhood among people—seeing all people as good and beautiful.

After all the languages had their turn in singing of the tropar, the procession around the Holy Sepulcher started. Asians with their fezzes and Africans with their covers sang some song of theirs giving it the rhythm by clapping and beating: One faith is true The Orthodox Faith

And then the canon and the Liturgy. But all the readings and singing are overcome by one and the same victorious song—Christ is Risen from the dead!

At dawn, the Paschal service finishes in the church but continues in our souls. We started seeing everything in the light of Christ's Paschal glory, and everything looked different than yesterday. Everything is more beautiful, more sensible, more glorious. Only in that light of the Resurrection does life have meaning.

At noon, Antipascha is served – a glorious procession through the Holy City and the reading of the Gospel in many languages. After that, we watched how Arabs play with swords and carry the patriarch on their hands.

We felt like going down to the Russian church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane. And we were invited by the kind Russian sisters. So we walked down the Via Dolorosa again. But behold, it was different now, radiant, beautiful! The soul was at such ease. Victory has swallowed death, and along with it the torments and the sufferings. Nothing else is seen from the bright light of the Resurrection.

Truly, truly Christ is risen!

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Monthly Meditation – March 2010

“We live a long time on this earth and we love the beauty of the earth: the sky and the sun, gardens, sea and river, forest and meadow, music too, and all the beauties of the world. But when the soul comes to know our Lord Jesus Christ then she has no further desire for the things of the earth…. The spirit of the man who has come to know God by the Holy Spirit burns day and night with the love of God, and his soul can form no earthly attachment.”

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos

Many of us may have read, or tried to read, St. John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. I have read only the first three steps and referenced a few others. The very first step, Renunciation of Life, challenged me immensely. The next two steps showed me without question that I was not ready to read further. This is not light reading and cannot be treated as such. Its content is certainly for every man (even St. John said to those living amongst worldly cares, “Do whatever good you may.”) yet its complete application needs a true guide, a proper environment and a dedicated commitment, which is why this text was intended for the monastic.

In the midst of our Lenten journey let us meditate for a moment simply on the first two steps of the Ladder: Renunciation of Life and Detachment. It is good for us as Orthodox Christians to be reminded that it is completely normal for us to consider earthly attachment as detrimental to our Christian life. I mention this as particular to Orthodoxy because of the overwhelming majority of conversations I’ve had with “western” Christians who consider it odd that an Orthodox Christian would actively withdraw (or

fast) from this God’s activities and attachments. Something as natural to the Orthodox as fasting from food seemed unbelievably foreign to one Christian pastor who couldn’t believe that we would ever “deny ourselves” anything that was created by God. Let us therefore consider the instructions of Renunciation and Detachment and see even a sliver of their benefit for those who desire to grow in their love for God.

We must first acknowledge that man is a being of vitality. There is life in us. We are given the gift of God’s image. We have the ability to appreciate, to recognize and to participate in all that belongs to God, save His essence. Each spring, as life and beauty emerge from beneath the winter snows I especially feel this vitality—this love of life. As I look upon my wife, my son, my family, my church, my friends, my vocation, I see all that is truly beautiful and I must again acknowledge how much I love life. So one might ask, “What could possibly be wrong about that, Father?” It’s not that the love of these things is wrong, but rather the question of whether or not I love these things more than the One who gave them to me? Am I ready to follow the example of Job?

To be in the world but not of the world is a perplexing and difficult problem. It affects everything, not just the sin we are asked to repent of but also that which is good in our lives, which must not become a stumbling block to our relationship with God. As an example I recall a reference made by Fr. Alexander Schmemman that at first shocked me and took me a while to understand. He said, “Even something as good as family can become demonic.” Indeed it is good for us to contemplate this along with all other attachments that might take on a greater importance than my relationship with God.

Beloved, if our Lenten disciplines can provide us any spiritual benefit let us hope that by withdrawing from whatever worldly cares we can, even for this short time, we would be given greater discernment regarding anything that might interfere with our love for God; and thereby begin to discover what is truly meant by Renunciation of Life and Detachment. Ours is a royal way which leads to a Kingdom greater than anything this world has to offer. May God grant us a fervent love for Him, appreciating the abundant goodness of this life but preferring the Paradise yet to come!

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Mission Monthly – February 2010

“If we have true love with sympathy and patient labor, we shall not go about scrutinizing our neighbor’s shortcomings.”

St. Dorotheos of Gaza

True love? It’s probably easier to define true love by what it is not rather than by what it is. And while there is not
enough space on this page maybe I will try to sum up an explanation by simply saying that true love has absolutely nothing to do
with what one “feels.”

Great and Holy Lent is at our doorstep and I can think of no greater topics to meditate on than love, labor and non-judgment.
If our goal in life is to enter into the eternal life of holiness in the kingdom of God, then these three virtues should indeed
be the daily aim of all our activity and thought.

How do we develop “true love” in caring for others? Isn’t this something we possess by right of our very birth as enlightened
and civilized human beings? If it were only that simple! The unfortunate reality that we must face as fundamental to our fallen
nature is how much of every decision we make in life has to do with the way any given situation makes us feel and how
circumstances can be best manipulated to serve our self-interest. Every person who has reached the age of reason should be aware
of this, if not through mature self-examination then certainly by observation of the very fabric of our society of
self-interest. However, society’s struggle with self-interest is simply the individual’s struggle with self-interest: it is
my own struggle.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said, “Save yourself and a thousand will be saved around you.” Do not misunderstand. “Saving oneself”
is not an act of self-interest based on feelings or manipulation, rather it is an act of faith in which one dies to himself for
the sake of the other. Others are saved around us by our living first for them. This is the irony of Christian self-interest: we
truly only receive by giving; as the old saying goes, “Love is the only treasure that increases the more it is given away.”

It would seem that the absence of “true love” would be very obvious, however, we understand from the spiritual teachings of
our Holy Church that more often than not this “absence” is very subtle and requires careful self-examination. Let us look
attentively into the inner depths of our hearts and see the many ways in which we are easily offended or are ready to see and to
judge the sins of others. As a priest there is a passage from the scripture I call to mind again and again. As members of the
priesthood of believers I believe this passage applies to all of us: “For every high priest chosen from among men is
appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the
ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness”
(Hebrews 5:1-2). Are we not all “beset with weakness?”
Should this not be the strongest of reasons for each of us to have “sympathy” for others rather than scrutinizing them, while we
patiently work out our own salvation “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)?

“True love” requires only action and has nothing to do with what or how we feel. Anger, resentment, judgment, envy are all
feelings that result from another feeling: that of having been offended or provoked; and the truth of the matter is, if we truly
see ourselves (as we say in our pre-Communion prayers) as the “chief [first] among sinners,” is not the more serious sin that of
the offended rather than that of the offender? With the ease with which people are offended, believer and non-believer alike, it
is clear that “true love” is not as common as the world, and we ourselves, would like to think. Nevertheless let us be hopeful
and diligent as we embrace these true and precious teachings, especially now as we prepare to enter into the patient labor of
lent, confident that we will continue to be transformed by God’s grace and His “true love” for us.

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Mission Monthly – January 2010

The Nativity and Epiphany:

The fullness of celebrating

By Father Nicholas Speier

In approaching the Christmas Feast and celebrating the beginning of the New Year (2009) we recall that the historic Christian center of this time of year is Epiphany (Theophany). The Church in her wisdom has placed these feasts together so we might experience the fullness of celebrating the coming of our Lord.

The Nativity of our Lord is a feast of joy, but at Epiphany the joy is greater still. In the stable cave we see God becoming man and sanctifying humanity, and we see His humility and His love for us. But at Epiphany we see the greater work of sanctifying all of creation in the baptismal water. We know from our reading of the Gospel of St. John that Christ came to save not only man but all of creation.

The Nativity has the angel proclaiming glad tidings, but at Epiphany the forerunner prepares the way. At His birth Christ brought us the message of peace on earth and good will toward man, a true sign of His condescending love. But at Epiphany we see the forerunner preparing the way for all humanity to walk in peace and good will. For God not only wants us to know about life in Him but to live our life in Him.

The Nativity has blood spilt, as Bethlehem wails in her childlessness, but at Epiphany this water gives way to many sons. As Christ is born, this world begins its rejection of the Savior to end at His crucifixion and death. But at the Baptism of Christ we see that His presence can not be stamped out. He is forever making things new through death and resurrection and the new children of God entering the Kingdom through Baptismal water.

At the Nativity, the star proclaims Christ to the Wise men, but at Epiphany the Father reveals Christ to the whole universe. Mary and Joseph quietly come into Bethlehem and Christ is born of her amidst a few, but now at Epiphany the Father's voice declares to all men, angels, and all creation that Christ is the Beloved and only begotten Son of the Father.

As we can see, the two feasts together help us to experience the fullness of the coming of our Lord. They emphasize his humility in lowering himself to save us, His beloved. The two feasts declare to us, beyond doubt, God's great love for mankind and all creation. He did not wait for us to make things better or right, but He came to us in our distress to save us and to save this world. May the depth and joy of these celebrations lift our spirits so we may rejoice with the angels and all the saints at the coming of Christ our Lord.

A SHORT MEDITATION

“At the approach of a great feast you must watch yourself with particular care. The enemy endeavors beforehand to chill your heart towards the event being celebrated, so that you will not honor it by whole-heartedly considering its reality. He acts upon us through the weather, or through the food and drink we have taken, or through his own arrows thrown plentifully at the heart and inflaming the entire person, at which time evil, impure and blasphemous thoughts occur to us, and we feel thoroughly averse to the solemnity. We must overcome the enemy by forcing ourselves to meditate and pray devoutly.”

St. John of Kronstadt

This year's Nativity season reminded me of past holy seasons interrupted with illnesses, weather and other various struggles. One recent year I recall how Kh. Vanessa, after Great Lent's long journey, because of Anthony's illness, simply had to miss virtually all of Holy Week and Pascha itself. This year, due to ill-timed ice storms, we came as close as we ever have to possibly having to cancel both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services (and by the grace of God and the vitamin intervention if Susan Miglautsch I was able to stave off an approaching cold to complete our Confession schedule and the beautiful services of Christmas). Most certainly each of us have our own stories to tell. The question I raise here is whether or not we need to see the “enemy” in these inopportune interruptions or if these are just inconvenient coincidences? Personally I take seriously what has been said here by St. John of Kronstadt. It is no light matter and to simply reject outright the influence of the evil one over the conditions of our lives would be fool-hearty. But rather than assigning blame to the cause of our struggles, we might simply grow in the awareness of spiritual warfare and how it affects our lives; and work more diligently at maintaining warmth towards God which allows us with humility and zeal to absorb all of life's trials. If God allowed Job's entire life to be intentionally taken from him by the Devil should we not expect even these smallest of attacks, and remain devoted to solemn prayer, repentance, contemplation and celebration? Beloved, THIS is our reality, and by the grace of God and our watchfulness may we always be ready to “overcome!”

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