Spiritual Warfare and the Holy Eucharist

The Divine Liturgy is according to the Holy Tradition both normative and essential to the Christian life. God never sent out a memo, as far as I can tell, that said “if you feel like it” or “if it works for you.” By means of the Divine Liturgy (Holy Eucharist) we appropriately engage in spiritual warfare. This is all pre-schism and pre-reformation. The affirmation is at the heart of the “apostles’ teaching” to quote Acts. Wow…

Today’s gospel (March 30, 2014) is Mark 9:17-31. It is a story about spiritual warfare. Here is a reflection from “Dynamis.” Notice the portion I have highlighted. The author of this reflection is passing on a crucial “given.” He says it as if you, the reader, are already aware of it and he is simply reminding you of it. The author of the reflection uses the term “Holy Mysteries.” Notice that the term is plural. In the Western Church we would say “Sacraments.” So, the long and short of it is that the Sacraments are essential weapons in our spiritual warfare. Wow…

Notice also some of the other weapons – the Word of God, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving – the cardinal disciplines of Great Lent. Just a note: all of these are essential to a healthy participation in the Holy Eucharist.

I have, after the reflection, also included a pre-communion and post-communion prayer that reiterate the spiritual warfare dimension of the Divine Liturgy.

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Basic Weapons: Mark 9:17-31, especially vss. 28-29: “His disciples asked Him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ So He said to them, ‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.’” This passage does not simply provide another account of a healing by the Lord Jesus; it constitutes an “action report” from the battlefield of spiritual warfare. A father and his son are overwhelmed by the enemy (vss. 17=18). The disciples skirmish with the unclean spirit, but cannot dislodge it (vs. 18). Finally, the Lord enters and defeats the foe (vss. 19-27).

After the victory, the Commander instructs His trainees as to why certain weapons are crucial in spiritual combat (vss. 28-29). In the concluding verse, the Lord Jesus announces the approach of His great and final battle and His subsequent victory (vs. 31). This Gospel is directed to all of us who are engaged in constant spiritual skirmishes and battles.

It is helpful to begin our approach to these verses with a passage from Ephesians in which the Apostle Paul discusses the basic rules of engagement with the enemy. First and foremost, our strength comes from the Lord (Eph 6:10). We must use the armor He provides (vss. 11, 13) when we are confronted by the wiles and power of our foe (vss. 14-16). In addition, the apostle describes the weapons required to win the spiritual struggle: Holy Scripture, prayer, the holy mysteries, and watchfulness (vss. 10, 17-18). Although Saint Paul does not mention fasting, the Lord reminds us of that weapon in today’s passage.

Addressing the relationship between fasting and prayer, Blessed Theophylact says: “Both are necessary. Good sense dictates that . . . one . . . must not only fast, but also pray; and he must not only pray, but also fast, for true prayer is rendered when it is yoked to fasting” (Explanation of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 77).

Saint John Chrysostom explains the connection: “He that fasts is light, and winged, and prays with wakefulness, and quenches his wicked lusts, and propitiates God, and humbles his soul when lifted up” (“Homily 57 on Matthew,” NPNF First Series, vol. 10, p. 356).

Let us thoughtfully review each of the five essential weapons of spiritual warfare. Holy Scripture – the life-giving words of God – is a must for discerning truth and the will of the Lord in the midst of the myriad attacks we endure. As the core of Orthodox tradition, Scripture provides us with the light to cut through the smokescreen of lies from the enemy.

Prayer is our second essential weapon, and draws directly from Holy Scripture. In fact, we should become adept at using the language of Scripture to form our words of prayer. The Divine Liturgy, which is soaked in Scripture, demonstrates the method we follow.

The holy mysteries are the third weapon for disciples in combat. According to the pre-communion prayer of Saint Basil the Great, they move us to “boldness . . . increase of virtue . . . [and] keeping of [God’s] commandments.” The sacrament of communion shapes and molds our lives, making us resilient in Christ.

Fasting, in the manner prescribed by the Church, sharpens our spiritual awareness of what is happening around and within us. Let us carefully observe the days, seasons, and times of fasting, always following the directions of regular Orthodox practice as our guide.

Finally, watchfulness is the hallmark of Christ’s warrior at all times and in all circumstances. We are especially blessed to have the Jesus Prayer to aid us in the struggle against “the evil imagination, wicked deeds, and work of the devil” that seek to oppose us.

O Lord of mercies, enlighten the eyes of our understanding by Thy Holy Scriptures, enable us by Thy Spirit to pray as we ought to pray, strengthen our wretched souls and bodies through Thy Holy Gifts, help us to subject our flesh by abstinence and blameless fasting, and awaken us to cultivate watchfulness zealously that we may be victors unto the end.

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Pre-Communion Prayer by St. Basil the Great
I know, O Lord, that I have communion unworthily of Thy most pure Body and Thy most precious Blood, that I am guilty and drink condemnation to.myself not discerning Thy Body and Blood, O my Christ and God. But daring upon Thy generous loving-kindness I come to Thee who hast said: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” Be merciful, therefore, O Lord, and do not rebuke me a sinner, but deal with me according to Thy mercy, and let Thy holy things be for my purification and healing, for enlightenment and protection, for the repulsion of every tempting thought and action of the devil which works spiritually in my fleshly members. Let them be for boldness and love for Thee, for the correction and grounding of my life, for the increase of virtue and perfection, for the fulfillment of Thy commandments, for the communion of the Holy Spirit, for the journey of eternal life, for a good and acceptable answer at Thy dread judgment, but not for judgment or condemnation. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer by St. Simeon Metaphrastes
Freely Thou hast given me Thy Body for my food, O Thou who art a fire consuming the unworthy. Consume me not, O my Creator, but instead enter into my members, my veins, my heart. Consume the thorns of my transgressions. Cleanse my soul and sanctify my reasonings. Make firm my knees and body. Illumine my five senses. Nail me to the fear of Thee. Always protect, guard, and keep me from soul destroying words and deeds. Cleanse me, purify me, and adorn me. Give me understanding and illumination. Show me to be a temple of Thy One Spirit, and not the home of many sins. May every evil thing, every carnal passion, flee from me as from a fire as I become Thy tabernacle through communion. I offer Thee as intercessors all the saints: the leaders of the bodiless hosts, Thy Forerunner, the wise apostles, and Thy pure and blameless Mother. Accept their prayers in Thy love, O my Christ, and make me, Thy servant, a child of light. For Thou art the only Sanctification and Light of our souls, O Good One, and to Thee, our Master and God, we ascribe glory day by day. Amen.

Source for prayers

Salvation by the Power of the Union of Persevering Trust and Effort

Method, strategy, tactics, formulas… None, all by themselves, will save. Christ Jesus saves in relationship with the soul who yearns for salvation, the community of those who also yearn in baptismal newness of life, a universe of people who are indifferent and/or intensely opposed to this work who are, none the less, positive participants in salvation by virtue of the redemptive power of God’s love. I could point out more of the facets of this ongoing work of salvation but you probably get the idea.

This is Mystery. This is relationship. This defies the either/or linear model of “cause and effect” of “faith vs. works” and all the rest.

This is way bigger than what I can manage. And it is exactingly designed for me to perfectly participate because I cannot manage it but must participate by offering – mysteriously — trusting surrender and persevering effort. In an essential way not only do I participate in my own salvation but I also participate in the salvation of others as well.

The matrix of prayer, scripture, mystical fellowship, ministry, witness, sacrament, iconography, obedience to our spiritual father, fasting, almsgiving, etc. offer an organic environment for this Mystery of salvation. Let me focus, briefly, on one aspect of it.

The “both and” of our work and the work of God. The conflict between who does the work – God or me – or how much does God do in proportion to how much I do and vice versa is a false conflict. There is no such conflict. To be sure, we can make it a conflict but that is not God’s design for the relationship between “His work” and “my” and “our” work.

There is no such thing as an “equilibrium” or “creative tension” or any such other label that describes the relationship. Those conceptualizations so easily reduce persons to projects and objects of our concern and dedication. If the person is to remain a person I have to relate not formulate.

There is living union without separation and without confusion between persons. There is the Mystery of the power of a healthy marriage of love between God and me. But, even that is not right because I used the word “me.” In point of fact, “my” salvation is yours as well. And, likewise, yours is mine as well. This brings up the whole issue of obedience. Obedience is more than “doing what you are told.” It is about entering into the truth of the interrelatedness of our salvation as persons (without separation and without confusion).

Now, of course, if heard in a linear, formulaic context, such a statement is problematic. Rightly so in such a context. But, the truth of the statement cannot be understood using that paradigm of understanding. That is why so many of the sayings of Jesus from an earthly point of view, make no sense.

The “sense” of it is the sense of the heart first and foremost not the sense of the head. It is noetic in nature first and foremost rather than rational first and foremost.

I am passing on to you a saying that was passed on to me by a friend. It is a Mysterious saying. It is a relational saying. It is definitely not linear or formulaic. Be careful not to read it that way. You may feel the urge to “solve” the passage. Forget it. Just receive it. Let the weight of it take you to the “place” where it really “makes sense.”

68. No one among us can prevail by his own unaided strength over the devices and wiles of the evil one; he can prevail only through the invincible power of Christ. Vainly, therefore, do conceited people wander about claiming that they have abolished sin through their ascetic accomplishments and their free will. Sin is abolished only through the grace of God, for it was made dead through the mystery of the Cross.

This is why that luminary of the Church, St John Chrysostom, says: ‘A man’s readiness and commitment are not enough if he does not enjoy help from above as well; equally help from above is no benefit to us unless there is also commitment and readiness on our part. These two facts are proved by Judas and Peter. For although Judas enjoyed much help, it was of no benefit to him, since he had no desire for it and contributed nothing from himself. But Peter, although willing and ready, fell because he enjoyed no help from above. So holiness is woven of these two strands. Thus I entreat you neither to entrust everything to God and then fall asleep, nor to think, when you are striving diligently, that you will achieve everything by your own efforts.

69. ‘God does not want us to be lying idly on our backs; therefore He does not effect everything Himself. Nor does He want us to be boastful; therefore He did not give us everything. But having taken away from each of the two alternatives what is harmful, He has left us what is for our good.’ Truly does the psalmist say: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain’ (Ps. 127:1). For it is impossible to tread on the asp and basilisk and trample on the lion and dragon’ (Ps. 91:13. LXX), unless you have first cleansed yourself as far as you can, and have been strengthened by Him who said to the apostles: ‘See, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and on all the enemy’s power’ (Luke 10:19). It is on this account that we have been commanded to entreat the Master not to ‘lead us into temptation, but to deliver us from the evil one’ (Matt. 6:13). For if we are not delivered from ‘the fiery arrows of the evil one’ (Eph.

6:16) through the power and help of Christ, and found worthy of attaining dispassion, we are laboring in vain, thinking that through our own powers or efforts we shall accomplish something. Therefore, he who wishes ‘to stand against the wiles of the devil’ (Eph. 6:11) and render them ineffectual, and to share in the divine glory, ought day and night to seek God’s help and divine succor with tears and sighs, with insatiable longing and fire in his soul. He who wishes to share in this glory purges his soul of all worldly pleasures and of hostile passions and desires. It is of such souls that God Speaks when He says: ‘I will dwell in them’ (2 Cor. 6:16). And the Lord said to His disciples: ‘if a man loves Me, he will keep My commandments; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and take up Our abode with him’ (John 14:23).

82. Love has fittingly been called the citadel of the virtues, the sum of the Law and the prophets (cf. Matt. 22:40; Rom. 13:10). So let us make every effort until we attain it. Through love we shall shake off the tyranny of the passions and rise to heaven, lifted up on the wings of the virtues; and we shall see God, so far as this is possible for human nature. St Theodoros the Great Ascetic A Century of Spiritual Texts, The Philokalia, Volume 2.

Lent – The Flame

Great Lent – A season to fan the flame of transformation in the Spirit by guarding, feeding, and nurturing it through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, dwelling richly in Word and Sacraments, and the fellowship of the Word and Sacrament; and by noticing, confessing, and addressing what threatens to blow out the flame.**

St. Theophan the Recluse, says:

From the moment when your heart starts to be kindled with divine warmth your inner transformation will properly begin.  This slight flame will in time consume and melt everything within you, it will begin and continue to spiritualize your being to the full.  Indeed, until this flame starts to burn, there will be no spiritualization, in spite of all your strivings to achieve it.  Thus the engendering of its first flicker is all that matters at this moment, and to this end be sure to direct all your efforts.

But while you must realize that this kindling cannot take place in you while the passions are still strong and vigorous, even though they may not in fact be indulged.  Passions are the dampness in the fuel of your being, and damp wood does not burn.  There is nothing else to be done except to bring in dry wood from outside and light this, allowing the flames from it to dry out the damp wood, until this in its turn is dry enough to begin slowly to catch alight.  And so little by little the burning of the dry wood will disperse the dampness and will spread, until all the wood is enveloped in flames…

Recollection of God is the life of the spirit.  It fires your zeal to please God, and makes unshakeable your decision to belong to Him.  It is, I repeat, the mainstay of the spiritual life; and it is, I will add, the base for your campaign against every passion that invades the heart.  The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology,” (London: Faber & Faber, 1966)

“…and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish…” Isaiah 42.3

** A couple of phrases from “Pray as you go” for Saturday, March 1, 2014 were used to craft this statement.

The Risk of Lent – An Increase of Love

I posted previously that the goal of Great Lent is an increase of love. Lent transforms us into not only the vessel of love but love Himself, by grace. Easter/Pascha is the fulfillment of Lent just as Lent is the precursor of Easter/Pascha. They are an organic whole without separation and without confusion.

AND all of this is a big risk. Or, to put it another way, this Way of Love requires us to open the gates of our life (inner and outer) to the whole of humanity. No more private spirituality. No more individual/private agendas of growth. The poor, stinky, rude, unkempt, disagreeable, disrespectful of humanity who we would rather not have upset our little applecart of private healing and self-created tools for navigating life come through the gates we desire to open to “just Jesus.” (I know this to be true based my own tendencies/predispositions, so please don’t think I am just pontificating from atop some ivory tower.)

So, the promise of Lent is the risk of Lent.

Lent is costly in terms of the disciplines to be sure. But it is even more costly in terms of the Spirit’s agenda – lived love, manifest love, love given and received.

I, for my part, need the reminder of the main point of Great Lent. In light of the main point, we really are in over our heads. We say and do things that are essential to our salvation but we are saying and doing things we really don’t understand or whose results we can never control. We are in way over our heads! That is, of course the way it needs to be. If we could comprehend it, it would terrify us so much we would never engage in it. Better to leave the comprehension of it all to later when it is, thank goodness, “too late to turn back.”

Pope Francis, in his remarks at his general audience, Wednesday, 12 February 2014, said this:

“Dear Brothers and Sisters, Good morning.

In the last Catechesis I emphasized how the Eucharist introduces us into real communion with Jesus and his mystery. Now let us ask ourselves several questions that spring from the relationship between the Eucharist that we celebrate and our life, as a Church and as individual Christians. How do we experience the Eucharist? When we go to Sunday Mass, how to we live it? Is it only a moment of celebration, an established tradition, an opportunity to find oneself or to feel justified, or is it something more?

There are very specific signals for understanding how we are living this, how we experience the Eucharist; signals that tell us if we are living the Eucharist in a good way or not very well. The first indicator is our way of looking at or considering others. In the Eucharist, Christ is always renewing his gift of self, which he made on the Cross. His whole life is an act of total sharing of self out of love; thus, he loved to be with his disciples and with the people whom he had a chance to know. This meant for him sharing in their aspirations, their problems, what stirred their soul and their life. Now we, when participating in Holy Mass, we find ourselves with all sorts of men and women: young people, the elderly, children; poor and well-off; locals and strangers alike; people with their families and people who are alone…. But the Eucharist which I celebrate, does it lead me to truly feel they are all like brothers and sisters? Does it increase my capacity to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and cry with those who are crying? Does it urge me to go out to the poor, the sick, the marginalized? Does it help me to recognize in theirs the face of Jesus? We all go to Mass because we love Jesus and we want to share, through the Eucharist, in his passion and his resurrection. But do we love, as Jesus wishes, those brothers and sisters who are the most needy? For example, in Rome these days we have seen much social discomfort either due to the rain, which has caused so much damage to entire districts, or because of the lack of work, a consequence of the global economic crisis. I wonder, and each one of us should wonder: I who go to Mass, how do I live this? Do I try to help, to approach and pray for those in difficulty? Or am I a little indifferent? Or perhaps do I just want to talk: did you see how this or that one is dressed? Sometimes this happens after Mass and it should not! We must concern ourselves with our brothers and sisters who need us because of an illness, a problem. Today, it would do us such good to think of these brothers and sisters of ours who are beset by these problems here in Rome: problems that stem from the grave situation caused by the rain and social instability and unemployment. Let us ask Jesus, whom we receive in the Eucharist, to help us to help them.

A second indication, a very important one, is the grace of feeling forgiven and ready to forgive. At times someone may ask: “Why must one go to Church, given that those who regularly participate in Holy Mass are still sinners like the others?”. We have heard it many times! In reality, the one celebrating the Eucharist doesn’t do so because he believes he is or wants to appear better than others, but precisely because he acknowledges that he is always in need of being accepted and reborn by the mercy of God, made flesh in Jesus Christ. If any one of us does not feel in need of the mercy of God, does not see himself as a sinner, it is better for him not to go to Mass! We go to Mass because we are sinners and we want to receive God’s pardon, to participate in the redemption of Jesus, in his forgiveness. The “Confession” which we make at the beginning is not “pro forma”, it is a real act of repentance! I am a sinner and I confess it, this is how the Mass begins! We should never forget that the Last Supper of Jesus took place “on the night he was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23). In the bread and in the wine which we offer and around which we gather, the gift of Christ’s body and blood is renewed every time for the remission of our sins. We must go to Mass humbly, like sinners and the Lord reconciles us.

A last valuable indication comes to us from the relationship between the Eucharistic Celebration and the life of our Christian communities. We must always bear in mind that the Eucharist is not something we make; it not our own commemoration of what Jesus said and did. No. It is precisely an act of Christ! It is Christ who acts there, who is on the altar. It is a gift of Christ, who makes himself present and gathers us around him, to nourish us with his Word and with his life. This means that the mission and the very identity of the Church flows from there, from the Eucharist, and there always takes its shape. A celebration may be flawless on the exterior, very beautiful, but if it does not lead us to encounter Jesus Christ, it is unlikely to bear any kind of nourishment to our heart and our life. Through the Eucharist, however, Christ wishes to enter into our life and permeate it with his grace, so that in every Christian community there may be coherence between liturgy and life.

The heart fills with trust and hope by pondering on Jesus’ words recounted in the Gospel: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). Let us live the Eucharist with the spirit of faith, of prayer, of forgiveness, of repentance, of communal joy, of concern for the needy and for the needs of so many brothers and sisters, in the certainty that the Lord will fulfil what he has promised us: eternal life. So be it!” Source

Thomas Merton says this about the priesthood. And, I believe it applies to all who engage in the Holy Eucharist, not just “the priest”. So, when he says priest, fill in your name.:

“If you are afraid to love, never become a priest, never say Mass.  The Mass will draw you down upon your soul a torrent of interior suffering which has only one function:  to break you wide open and let everybody in the world into your heart.  For when you begin to say Mass, the Spirit of God awakens like a giant inside you and bursts the locks of your private sanctuary.  If you say Mass, you condemn your soul to the torrent of a love that is so vast and insatiable that you will never be able to bear it alone.  That love is the love of the Heart of Jesus, burning within your own heart and bringing down upon you the huge weight of His compassion for all the sinners of the world.” Source

In light of all this, it is, perhaps, appropriate to add this quote:

John 6.67-69
“Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’  Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”