Archive | Meditations

Mission Monthly – March 2007

“But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face…”

Matthew 6:17

(After many inquiries about this year’s first Presanctified Liturgy pot-luck dinner reading, the following is adapted from the Homily of St. Nikolai Velimirovic on the Gospel of Cheese Fare Sunday, Matthew 6:14-21)

This is the meaning of the words “anoint your head”: bridle and restrain your inner man from every evil, and incline him to everything that is good. This is the meaning of the words “and wash your face”: cleanse your body from the committing of every sin, every impurity and every evil. Keep your senses from everything that is superfluous and dangerous. Restrain your eyes from constantly wandering through the diversity of this world; restrain your ears from listening to anything that does not serve the soul’s salvation; restrain your nose, lest your soul inbreathe the smell of this world that turns quickly to a stench; restrain your tongue from talking too much, deceit, and from unseemly speech; restrain your stomach from craving much food and drink; restrain the whole of your body from becoming over-refined and demanding of you more than it needs for survival. Along with this, restrain your hands and your feet from taking you into sin, into the abuse and torment of others, into foolish merrymaking, into godless amusements, into immorality. In contrast, make your whole body into a true temple for your soul; not a wayside tavern, where criminals gather to share ill-gotten gains and plan new attacks, but a temple of the living God. This is the fasting that leads to salvation. This is the fast that Christ teaches, a fast free of hypocrisy, a fast that drives out evil spirits and brings man a glorious victory and many fruits, both in this life and the next.

It is important to note here that Christ speaks first of the head and then of the face—first of the soul and then of the body. The hypocrites fasted only in the body, and showed this fasting to men by bodily means. In contrast to this, Christ puts interior fasting in first place: that of the soul, and then the outward, bodily fasting, not in order to undervalue bodily fasting—for He Himself practiced bodily fasting—but to begin at the beginning: first to purify the source and then the river; first to cleanse the soul and then the soul’s mirror. A man must first strive to make fasting his own, in his mind, heart and will, and then fulfill it willingly and joyfully in his body. And so bodily fasting should be joyful, not sad. This is why the Lord uses the words “anoint” and “wash”; because, as these give pleasure and joy to the physical man, so fasting—of both soul and body—must give pleasure and joy to a man’s soul. For fasting is a weapon, a very powerful weapon, in the battle against the evil spirit. How could a Christian not rejoice when he arms himself by fasting against his soul’s most fearsome opponents? How could his heart not rejoice and his face not be radiant when he sees in his hands a weapon from which the enemy flees in confusion? Gluttony makes a man gloomy and fearful, but fasting makes him joyful and courageous. And, as gluttony calls forth greater and greater gluttony, so fasting stimulates greater and greater endurance. When a man realizes the grace that comes through fasting, he desires to fast more and more. The graces that come through fasting are countless. By fasting, a man lightens both his body and his spirit from the weight of darkness and grossness. His body becomes light and vigorous, and his spirit bright and clear. By fasting, a man lifts his soul above its earthly prison and penetrates through the darkness of animal life to the light of God’s Kingdom, to his own true homeland. Fasting makes a man strong, decisive and courageous before both men and demons. Fasting also makes a man generous, meek, merciful and obedient.

By fasting, Moses was made worthy to receive the Commandments from God’s hands.

By fasting, Elijah closed the heavens, so that there was no rain for three years; by fasting, he called down fire from heaven onto the idol-worshippers, and by fasting made himself so pure that he was able, on Horeb, to talk with God.

By fasting, Daniel was saved from the lion’s den, and the Three Children from the burning fiery furnace.

By fasting, King David lifted up his heart to the Lord, and God’s grace descended on him and he sang the sweetest and most surpassing of prayers that any man, before the coming of Christ, has ever raised to God.

By fasting, King Jehoshaphat crushed his enemies, the Ammonites and the Moabites (II Chronicles 20:23).

By fasting, the Jews were saved from persecution by Haman, the imperial deputy (Esther 4:3).

By fasting, the city of Nineveh was saved from the destruction that the prophet Jonah had prophesied for it.

By fasting, John the Baptist became the greatest of those born of woman.

Armed with fasting, Saint Anthony overcame all the hordes of demons and drove them from him. What? Only Saint Anthony? An uncountable army of Christian saints, both men and women, have purified themselves by fasting, strengthened themselves by fasting and become the greatest heroes in human history. For they conquered that which it is most difficult to overcome—themselves. And, in conquering themselves, they conquered the world and Satan.


Mission Monthly – February 2007

“This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures.”

St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians

Every facet of the Orthodox Church is founded, whether explicitly or implicitly, on the Holy and Eternal Word of God. The Scripture as we know it is the written Word, but yet we know there is more to the Word than only what is written. The familiar end passage from the Gospel of St. John states, “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (St. John 21:25). While in a finite way I suppose it is theoretically possible, however unlikely, that every spoken word and action of Jesus’ earthly life could have been recorded; in His eternal nature, however, there would be no way to “contain the uncontainable.” The written Word truly is only the smallest of records of God’s revelation of His Divine Life to His creation; and yet, it is absolutely fundamental to our life in Christ and His Church. It is not surprising, therefore, that the lack of knowledge of this Word would be “the cause of all evils.”

If one were to label a possible single deficiency in the regular devotional lives of many Orthodox Christians it would be a lack of knowledge of Holy Scripture. It would be ridiculous to say that Orthodox Christians have no knowledge of Scripture—certainly those Orthodox Christians who regularly attend services above and beyond Sunday Liturgy. The broader worship of the Church is filled with Scripture: the Psalms, Old Testament readings, the Epistle and Gospel readings and the multitude of prayers which directly quote Scripture. Vespers, Matins, Divine Liturgy, Great and Small Compline, Akathists, the Hours—all are filled with the richness of Scriptural content. Even those Orthodox Christians who generally attend only Sunday Liturgy are exposed to much Scripture. Yet whether or not one is frequently attending the various services of the Church these can never be a substitute for the direct knowledge one gains from the regular (daily) reading of Holy Scripture.

I suppose it would be a fair question to ask why some Christians do not read Scripture. Some might answer that they just don’t have the time, while the honest would probably answer out of laziness. Some might answer that they are doing alright without it, while the honest would probably answer that they are afraid to face the Truth of what they might see in themselves. St. John of Kronstadt asked it in this way, “Of those who do not read the Gospel, I would ask: Are you pure, holy, and perfect, without reading the gospel? Is it not needful for you to look in this mirror? Or is it that your soul is so deformed that you fear to look upon your deformity?” Some might answer that it’s just too hard and they don’t understand it, while the honest would say their lack of understanding is a result of neglect.

Another obvious question to ask would be how serious is the lack of Scriptural knowledge in causing evil. I remember a deep impression made upon me several years ago when reading “The People of the Lie” by psychologist, M. Scott Peck. This book probed the essence of human evil from cases Dr. Peck encountered in his psychiatric practice, vivid incidents of evil in everyday life, and also from examples of social evil drawn from events and periods of historical human madness. I clearly remember his definition of evil as simply “the absence of truth.” It is in this context that I can truly understand how a lack of Scriptural knowledge can be the cause of all evil. Scripture is Truth and so a lack of the knowledge of Scripture can also be considered a lack of knowledge of Truth; and the lack of knowledge (or absence) of Truth, according to M. Scott Peck, is evil.

It is expected of unbelievers to be more inclined to question and even oppose the Word though we know for certain that evil is not a monopoly held by unbelievers. The Devil himself “believes” in God and even quoted the word to the Word (St. Matthew 4:3-10), and yet his “lack of knowledge” of the Scripture is evidenced by the war he has raged against God ever since he deceived himself into believing he could be “like God” (Isaiah 14:14).

It is not my intention to prove anything here. I believe we are all well aware of the fundamental importance of reading and knowing the Scripture. Maybe this little reminder is to reiterate the urgency with which we need to address the matter. Our world needs the Truth: church life, public policy, the work place, our schools, intercultural relations, neighborhoods, families and each and every one of us. So many basic truths have been called into questions that many (even many Christians) believe there is no such thing as absolutes. This lie has only led our world into seemingly irreversible violence and virtual moral collapse.

In the grand scheme of things there may not be much that any one of can do but in this I am reminded of the words of Mother Teresa, “Do small things with great love.” The attention each of us gives to the Word of God will help even if it only brings the warming presence of Christian zeal into the circles of our tiny existence. Each of us can help deter this “cause of evil” and who knows how far the ripples may spread. The tiniest pebble in the largest pond could be enough to change the world, one heart at a time, starting with our own.


Mission Monthly – January 2007

“Experience shows us that physical hunger can sometimes nourish the soul. The clearest proof of this is fasting. A fully-satisfied body generally denotes a completely empty soul. He who fasts nourishes his soul. The more a man accustoms himself to fasting, the fewer cares he has for his body and the greater joy in his soul. This is not something that comes by hearsay; it is only clear in itself, when a man tries it and practices it in his life.”

St. Nikolai Velimirovich

I can only hope that this Christmas/Theophany season has been as beautiful for others as it has been for me and my family! I do not want to dampen that beauty with further talk of fasting, but for two reasons I cannot help but think about the ongoing training of our bodies even in the heart and height of our celebrations.

First, as we keep our eyes on the calendar, it is important to note that Holy Pascha will be celebrated relatively early this year—April 8th. This means that Great and Holy Lent will begin earlier as well. Meatfare Sunday (February 11) is only just over five weeks away and Clean Monday (the first day of Lent) is February 19. The layout of any year’s calendar requires us as Orthodox Christians to keep our eyes open to it, but years such as 2007 require an even greater attentiveness that we be very well prepared—spiritually, emotionally, and physically—to fully embrace our life in Christ and His Church. I would hate for any of us to be surprised on February 11th and possibly be tempted to be embittered towards the Church.

Another outcome of the earlier Pascha is an earlier Pentecost followed by an earlier All-Saints Sunday (the Sunday following Pentecost). This is most significant because on the Monday following All-Saints we begin the Apostle’s Fast which takes us through the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul on June 29th. This year almost the whole month of June (the 4th-29th) will be another fasting period. In the years when Pascha comes late—after April 27th—the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul would fall in the week following Pentecost so essentially there would be no Apostle’s Fast. This year, however, this is not the case.

Secondly, it seems good to think about fasting “even in the height and heart of our celebrations.” While I consider myself only an average faster at best God certainly has been good in allowing me some measure of progress in attaining fewer cares in my life. The provocation of the passions in any man is what leads him to anxious care for his life and ultimately to sin. It is only within a man that this anxiousness can be detected, unless its severity leads him to act out his passions. Whether it be anger or irritability, over-eating or laziness, impure thoughts or fornication, gossip, disobedience, self-love or pride, whatever it is there is no question we need to sincerely submit ourselves to seeking freedom from care for our bodily impulses, our lives “in the world,” if we ever hope to find it.

St. Nikolai in the above quote was writing about the life of St. John the Baptist. Listen further to what he had to say about the Holy Forerunner, “As all the holy men who lived, not by a wisdom culled from books but by tried realities, so St. John lived. He learned to be free from care about his bodily life, not by reading books and listening to wise men, who “say” but do not “say how”, but by practicing freedom from care. He tried fasting, and saw that man can live, not only without all those foods over which he takes such pains, but also without bread. John fed himself on “locusts” and wild honey, “locusts” being a growth on a desert tree and “wild honey” the bitter honey of wild bees. He took no wine, nor any strong drink. And yet it is not said that he ever lacked food or drink. It was not the locusts and wild honey that nourished him, but God’s power, that was given to His faithful servant by this means This is how it generally happens with the faithful and obedient, while the faithless and the disobedient need many medicines with their rich diet. The rich foods of the faithless and disobedient do not give nourishment to their bodies, but heaviness, wrath and sickness.”

The thing that is most noticeable in our struggle today for true joy and freedom is man’s lack of trust and even contempt for the proven methods that will lead to the effect. Since the fall of Adam man has been undaunted in unimaginable self-indulgence in attempting to find missing paradise. Even today men are commonly seeking the old ways of paganism that Christianity throughout time has fought against and even shed its blood to defy. Today’s sensual materialism is as powerful and alluring as it was in ancient Rome. The one difference is that our modern “enlightened” world is willfully and eagerly returning to the pursuit of intemperate pleasure and ease (today called: fun), even after centuries of the Church’s Godly effort to lead men heavenward, and rejoicing in unrestrained human self-love while mocking the restrictions of God’s commandments.

Remembering the ongoing training of our bodies should not diminish our joy as we enjoy the celebrations of Christmas and Theophany . The truth is that any true joy we do have is only come from the training we have completed. This is the “practicing freedom from care” St. Nikolai has written about and is the only proven method that makes clear “in itself” what is the true purpose of our lives: life with God above all things, even above life itself.


Mission Monthly – December 2006

“But one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself”

C.S. Lewis, A Horse and His Boy (from “The Chronicles of Narnia”)

There are many tragic consequences to the violent and dehumanizing practice of slavery. One need not look far to see its lasting effects. In our own nation people of color are still healing from this terrible history which inflicted upon an entire people a state of generational dependence and entitlement.

The opposite of slavery is, of course, freedom. Freedom is THE concept which is so tightly woven into the very identifying fabric of what it means to be “American.” Every war fought by our country, whether justified or not, is claimed to have been fought in the name of freedom. Ultimately freedom is a right which men, when necessary, must fight for. As Orthodox Christians, however, freedom must first be seen as a concept of correct faith. In this light, a deeper look at freedom, and slavery for that matter, may not be seen in the same way.

Jesus offered a very significant clue about the state of man when he said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Here we see an ultimate purpose of our God’s Gospel, and it has very little to do with whether we are slaves or free. In the first words of Jesus’ public ministry He announced His intentions for freedom, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18-19). But what is the meaning of this “liberty” and from what has the Lord proclaimed “release” to the captive? This is a very important question to answer if we ever hope to understand, as C.S. Lewis infers above, the paralyzing consequences of slavery. Our bodies and souls are connected, and it is how we respond to the state of our bodies that determines our soul’s ability to live, and to live free.

Plainly stated, the freedom we enjoy as citizens of this country is not the freedom imparted by our Lord, and the slavery from which He came to set men free has little to do with forced labor. Man has been enslaved to the fallen nature ever since the fall of Adam. It is an oppression hardly noticed in modern times where comfort and convenience mask our fallen ways with all kinds of distracting and alluring temptations. The disquieting traffic of modern society, in my view, has further enslaved men beyond comprehension. So much so that most do not even realize their subjugation. The trickery and lies of worldly interests have led men to believe they are free when they really are not. A deeply honest look at social norms today should reveal just how significantly man is subject to, “The lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). a’s Secret isn’t a secret any more! The Apostle Peter tells us, “[False prophets] promise [men] freedom, but they themselves are subject to corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). The false prophets of today are those who promise men freedom when fulfilling their worldly desires, be it the pursuit of wealth and comfort, the pursuit of pleasure, or simply one’s own will. It is to these things that man is enslaved and it is from these things that our Lord came to set us free.

Herein lies the difficulty. If we have been such willing participants in this slavery how are we ever to embrace true freedom when we lack the knowledge or the will to pursue it? Do you ever wonder why it is so difficult to fast, or to resist anger when we feel justified, or to forgive, or to pray, or simply to submit our lives to the will of God and to the life of the Church? At least partially it is because no one is forcing us! AND because we do not (or just do not want to) recognize just how relentlessly the life-draining lifestyle of growing materialism and continuous gratification is being formed in us.

This has been a challenging meditation. I see in myself only a weak desire for true freedom, knowing that I am the only one who can assert any force in making daily choices for myself to submit to the law of God. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). “Emmanuel, God with us,”—how thankful we should be that the One Who would restore freedom and the “force” to seek it has come! Christ is born, and our slavery is no more. The Gospel is our true Emancipation Proclamation and we as former slaves need now only learn to live as free men, no longer subject to the will of the flesh but rather dependent on the grace of the Spirit. This is the only war of independence that ever need be fought, that in becoming dependent on the Spirit we may become truly free in Christ!


Mission Monthly – November 2006

Prior to his death on December 13, 1983, Father Alexander Schmemann celebrated his last Divine Liturgy on Nov. 24, Thanksgiving Day, at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. At the end of the Liturgy he called upon all of us to give thanks to God. It has been four years since I last presented Fr. Alexander’s words to this congregation. Here, once again, are these most precious words from one of contemporary Orthodoxy’s most precious treasures, Fr. Alexander Schmemman:

“Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy. Thank you, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which is offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with “the joy, peace, and righteousness in the Holy Spirit.” Thank you, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and for giving us the foretaste of Your Kingdom. Thank you, O Lord, for having united us to one another, in serving You and Your Holy Church. Thank you, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, and temptations and for having restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank you, O Lord, for the sufferings you bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and remind us of the “one thing needed: your eternal Kingdom.” Thank you, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to worship You. Thank you, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed. Thank you, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children, who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise. Thank you, O Lord, for everyone and everything. Great are you, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate your miracles. Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.”