The Son of Man draws His glory from the cross. Do I/we?

From who or what do we draw our strength to meet the challenges of everyday life? What do we use as the paradigm for the meaning of what is occurring and our right response and/or participation?

Jesus testifies and the apostles amplify the testimony that it was His passion and death – His cross.

If that is the case then it should be our testimony too. Not a testimony that “gets us saved” but one that informs how we live every moment of every day; and how we respond to every event and situation. It is a testimony that is characteristic of our “journey of salvation.” It is a permanent testimony not just one that gets us started in the Christian life and is then filed away. No. The Christian life is the cross-shaped life. At first it is perhaps vaguely cross-shaped. How and why is this so? Well, as I understand it, every event and circumstance, no matter how pleasant is considered and participated in by us in a cross-shaped manner.

That last statement should touch something of the wrong-headed impression we have of the cross and taking it up. We, at least I am, tempted to continue to think of it in grime ways, as an unfortunate necessity. We think that cross-shaped events are ones that have gone wrong and become cross-shaped.

Well, there you have it. It is this presupposition that robs us of the joy of the cross, albeit a painful joy. It is this presupposition St. Paul opposes and rejects on so many occasions in his letters.

So, as we grow/mature into the likeness of Christ the shape becomes more and more defined – permanently. We GLORY in the cross, not from a distance. We glory in the cross by having our life become a living cross by the grace of God.

In the Divine Liturgy, the priest articulates the many facets of God’s saving work. The cross is one of them. Here is the prayer.

May He Who rose from the dead, Christ our true God, a good, loving, and merciful God, have mercy upon us and save us, through the intercessions of His most pure and holy Mother; the power of the precious and life-giving Cross; the protection of the honorable, bodiless powers of heaven; the supplications of the honorable, glorious, prophet, and forerunner John the Baptist; the holy, glorious, and praiseworthy apostles; the holy, glorious, and triumphant martyrs; our holy and God-bearing Father (name); the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; Saint (of the day) whose memory we commemorate today, and all the saints. May the blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and His mercy come upon you through His divine grace and love now and ever and to the ages of ages.  Amen.

Please understand that I in no way can proclaim my own life to stand up to this test. I struggle on, “press on” by the grace of God, to become victorious over all the passions that war against the desire to become the living cross by grace. The living testimony of the victorious power of self-giving love. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Here is what St. Thomas Aquinas says:

Some people draw glory from their knowledge, but the apostle Paul finds supreme knowledge in the cross. “No, he says, I desired to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ crucified” (1Cor 2,2). Is not the cross the fulfilment of the whole law and art of living well? To those who glory in their own power, Paul can answer that he draws matchless power from the cross: “The language of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1,18). Do you draw glory from the freedom you have gained? Paul draws his from the cross: “Our old self was crucified with him… that we might no longer be in slavery to sin” (Rm 6.6).

Yet others draw their glory from being chosen as members of some famous group or other; but as for us, through Christ’s cross we are invited to the congregation of heaven. “Reconciling all things, whether those on earth or those in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1.20). And finally, some people glory in the insignia of victory bestowed on the victorious, but the cross is the triumphal standard of Christ’s victory over demons: “He destroyed Principalities and Powers, making a public spectacle of them, leading them away in his triumphal procession” (Col 2,15)…

What is it that the apostle Paul wants to glory in above all else ? In that which can unite him to Christ. What he desires is to be with Christ.  Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), “Commentary on the Letter to the Galatians, Chapter 6”

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“Good Lord Deliver Us”

“The world” is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world. But when we wish to distinguish them by their special names, we call them the passions. The Tintern Abbey insidepassions are the following: love of riches, desire for possessions, bodily pleasure from which comes sexual passion, love of honor which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments, the itch for human glory which is a source of rancor and resentment, and physical fear. Where these passions cease to be active, (in the saints) there the world is dead; for though living in the flesh, they did not live for the flesh. See for which of these passions you are alive. Then you will know how far you are alive to the world, and how far you are dead to it. (St. Isaac the Syrian [7th century])

Remember not  Lord, our offences, nor the Offences of our forefathers, neither take thou  vengeance of our sins : spare us good Lord, spare thy people, whom thou hast  redeemed with thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.

Spare us, good Lord.

From all evil and  mischief, from sin, from the crafts, and assaults of the devil, from thy wrath,  and from everlasting damnation.

Good Lord deliver us.

From all  blindness of heart, from pride, vain glory, and hypocrisie, from envy, hatred,  and malice, and all uncharitablenes.

Good Lord deliver us.

From fornication,  and all other deadly sin, and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and  the devil.

Good Lord deliver us.

From lightning  and tempest, from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battel, and murder, and  from sudden death.

Good Lord deliver us.

From all  sedition, privy conspiracy, and rebellion from all false doctrine, schism &  heresy from hardnes of heart, and contempt of thy word and commandemente

Good Lord deliver us.

By the mysterie  of thy holy Incarnation, by thy holy Nativitie, and Circumcision, by thy  Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation.

Good Lord deliver us.

By thine Agony,  and bloody sweat, by thy Cross and Passion, by thy precious Death, and Buriall, by thy glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the holy  Ghost.

Good Lord deliver us.

(Book of Common Prayer 1662)

Promises Made. Promises Kept?

Thursday of Advent 2 – December 13, 2012

Isaiah 41.13-20 (RSV)
13 For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.”
14 Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you, says the LORD; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
15 Behold, I will make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff;
16 You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. And you shall rejoice in the LORD; in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.
17 When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
19 I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together;
20 that men may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Psalm 145 (KJV)
1 I will extol thee, my God, O king; and I will bless thy name for ever and ever.
2 Every day will I bless thee; and I will praise thy name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable.
4 One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.
5 I will speak of the glorious honour of thy majesty, and of thy wondrous works.
6 And men shall speak of the might of thy terrible acts: and I will declare thy greatness.
7 They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness.
8 The LORD is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.
9 The LORD is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.
10 All thy works shall praise thee, O LORD; and thy saints shall bless thee.
11 They shall speak of the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power;
12 To make known to the sons of men his mighty acts, and the glorious majesty of his kingdom.
13 Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and thy dominion endureth throughout all generations.
14 The LORD upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.
15 The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season.
16 Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.
17 The LORD is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works.
18 The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth.
19 He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them.
20 The LORD preserveth all them that love him: but all the wicked will he destroy.
21 My mouth shall speak the praise of the LORD: and let all flesh bless his holy name for ever and ever.

Matthew 11.7-15
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind?
8 Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses.
9 Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
10 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’
11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.
13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John;
14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Eli’jah who is to come.
15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

St. Augustine on God as Promise Keeper
God had a time for making his promises and a time for fulfilling them. His time for making promises was from the days of the prophets until the coming of John the Baptist. His time for fulfilling them was from then until the end of the world.

God is faithful and he has put himself in our debt, not by receiving anything from us but by promising so much. Nor was a promise sufficient for him; he even bound himself in writing, giving us as it were a pledge in his own hand. He wanted us to see from Scripture, when the time for fulfilment came, how he was carrying out his promises one by one.

God promised us eternal salvation, everlasting bliss with the angels, an incorruptible inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after the resurrection from the dead no further fear of dying. This is what he holds out to us at the end as the goal of all our striving. When we reach it we shall ask for nothing more. But as to how we are to reach our final goal, he revealed this too by promises and prophecies.

God promised men divinity, mortals immortality, sinners justification, outcasts glory. But because his promise that we who are mortal, corruptible, weak and of low estate, mere dust and ashes, were to be equal to the angels seemed incredible, God not only made a written covenant with us to win our faith, but he also gave us a mediator of his pledge. This mediator was not a prince, an angel, or an archangel, but his only Son; through his own Son he meant both to show us and give us the way by which he would lead us to the promised goal. He was not satisfied with sending his Son to show us the way. He made him the way itself.

God’s only Son, then, was to come among us, take our human nature, and in this nature be born as a man. He was to die, to rise again, to ascend into heaven, to sit at the right hand of the Father, and to fulfil his promises among the nations. After that he was also to fulfil his promise to come again, to demand what he had previously requested, to separate those deserving his anger from those deserving his mercy, to give the wicked what he had threatened and the just what he had promised.

All this had to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future so that we should not be terrified by its happening unexpectedly, but wait for it with faith. (St Augustine, In ps. 109, 1-3 (CCL 40, 1601-1603), from Word in Season 1, found in TWO YEAR LECTIONARY, PATRISTIC VIGILS READINGS, ADVENT & CHRISTMASTIDE, YEAR 1)

St. Cyprian on Patience
Patience is a precept for salvation given us by our Lord our teacher: Whoever endures to the end will be saved. And again: If you persevere in my word, you will truly be my disciples; you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Dear brethren, we must endure and persevere if we are to attain the truth and freedom we have been allowed to hope for; faith and hope are the very meaning of our being Christians, but if faith and hope are to bear their fruit, patience is necessary.

We do not seek glory now, in the present, but we look for future glory, as Saint Paul instructs us when he says: By hope we were saved. Now hope which is seen is not hope; how can a man hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it in patience. Patient waiting is necessary if we are to be perfected in what we have begun to be, and if we are to receive from God what we hope for and believe.

In another place the same Apostle instructs and teaches the just, and those active in good works, and those who store up for themselves treasures in heaven through the reward God gives them. They are to be patient also, for he says: Therefore while we have time, let us do good to all, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith. But let us not grow weary in doing good, for we shall reap our reward in due season.

Paul warns us not to grow weary in good works through impatience, not to be distracted or overcome by temptations and so give up in the midst of our pilgrimage of praise and glory, and allow our past good deeds to count for nothing because what was begun falls short of completion.

Finally the Apostle, speaking of charity, unites it with endurance and patience. Charity, he says, is always patient and kind; it is not jealous, is not boastful, is not given to anger, does not think evil, loves all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. He shows that charity can be steadfast and persevering because it has learned how to endure all things.

And in another place he says: Bear with one another lovingly, striving to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. He shows that neither unity nor peace can be maintained unless the brethren cherish each other with mutual forbearance and preserve the bond of harmony by means of patience. (from Celebrating the Seasons)

Reflection:
The story of salvation is one of a promise made and a promise kept. Can we see that in the season of Advent and Christmas? God and real people (forefathers, foremothers, fathers, mothersm, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, and for every righteous spirit made perfect in faith) in concert with God keeping promises…

“Promises, Promises!” Those words have some history in the lives of each and every one of us. We make promises but do not keep them. Promises are made to us and never kept. That is the tragic reality of a fallen world and our collusion with that fallen state. I remember, back in the early 90’s, the birth and meteoric popularity of the “Promise Keepers” movement in the United States. It was, and is, a legitimate response to the lack of responsibility shown by men in relationships. The mission statement of the movement says,

The promises are being:

  • committed to honoring Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit
  • committed to pursuing vital relationships with a few other men, understanding that he needs brothers to help him keep his promises.
  • committed to practicing spiritual, moral, ethical, and sexual purity
  • committed to building strong marriages and families through love, protection and biblical values
  • committed to supporting the mission of his church by honoring and praying for his pastor, and by actively giving his time and resources
  • committed to reaching beyond any racial and denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity.
  • committed to influencing his world, being obedient to the Great Commandment (see Mark 12:30-31) and the Great Commission.

Hard to argue with such a list. I have nothing but deep respect for the efforts of the leaders of the movement over the last 22 years. I bless the name of God for the restoring, healing, and preventative work of the Holy Spirit in and through it. But that is OK if the tried and true soldiers of the effort stand firm and stay the course. Regardless of the fact that like many other truly life-changing efforts of the Church keep the center stage for only so long and then are upstaged by the “next big thing,” they have, evidently, shown themselves to be good Promise Keepers by staying the course and learning that, at the core of a lack of the ability to be a promise keeper is the passion of “restlessness” and an addiction to “the next big thing.” And, what is it that makes Promise Keepers or any other effort of the Church effective? Let me offer a couple of educated guesses…

It takes patience and perseverance. The making of legitimate promises and co-operating with the Holy Spirit in working toward the actualization of the shape of life those promises portray is hard work. It is the work we must do. There is no way around it. It is a warfare work that focuses not on gritting our teeth and trying hard, but of confronting our broken inner life and seeking to stay the course of that warfare until the fruit of it is borne out in our outer life. Will a person keep keeping promises when people don’t notice it anymore (except those who are being blessed by the keeping) and it becomes boring and often a matter of sheer private integrity? Promise Keepers and all the other initiatives we make as Christians, be they personal or corporate, must endure “the test of time.”

Now, of course, there are outward boundaries we must set up and seek the Holy Spirit’s power to respect and keep. But, even so, it is still NOT a matter of trying hard or harder. It is, and this may sound un-manly, a matter of surrender, trust, and vulnerability. No room for the “rugged individualist” or the “self-made man.”

The bottom line whether it is the Promise Keepers movement or any other expression of Godly integrity is to recognize from the very beginning that God is THE promise keeper that makes all promise keeping possible. The work is not, primarily one of moral improvement but of relational integrity and all integrity is the fruit of God’s involvement as THE promise keeper. Integrity of life is not built on the foundation of trying hard but of trust – first and foremost, trust in God, trust in the other person(s) with whom you have a relationship, and their trust in you. Once again, we come back to patience and perseverance. Without all of the ingredients: promises, trust, patience, perseverance, growing consistency in follow through, and most of all the power of God, it is all for naught. It is just more empty promises filled with sound and fury, signifying nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

During this Advent season, let all of us make a commitment to be authentic promise keepers by allowing the Lord to keep His saving promise in and through us. Let us commit ourselves to becoming like Christ not by imitation of Him (trying hard) but by dynamic union with Him (embrace and surrender).

St. John puts is powerfully in his epistle:

13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.
14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.
15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.
16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. (1 John 4.13-17)

Fr. Thomas

The Desires and Convictions of Your Mind and Heart

What are the desires that reside deep down within you? What are the desires that provide the fuel for and are the final arbiter of your decisions and the underlying direction of your life? Are they the desires/passions of a unregenerate mind or the
desires/passions of the very heart of God within you?

One of the most important fueling and guiding desires revolves around the concept of transformation. It involves the realization that my life is not what I yearn for it to be and there is a way for it to change. At the very core of transformation is the conviction that change is possible. Not, in fact, change that I can bring about on my own, but which can come as the result of uniting myself to the Lord and His covenant people. Walking in weakness but with a heart that is deeply convinced that change is possible in such a transformative and life-giving community is a key to a new present and future.

 Psalm 50(51).6-12

[6] Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret
heart.

[7] Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
[8] Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
[9] Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
[10] Create in me a clean
heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

[11] Cast me not away from thy presence,
and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
[12] Restore to me the joy of thy salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Psalm 36(37).4-5

[4] Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of
your heart.

[5] Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.

James 4. 4-10

[4]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.
[5] Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”?
[6] But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
[7] Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
[8] Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind.
[9] Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to dejection.
[10] Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

Hebrews 10.23-25

[23] Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful;
[24] and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,
[25] not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

1 Peter 1.13-22

[13] Therefore gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
[14] As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,
[15] but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;
[16] since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
[17] And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile.
[18] You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold,
[19] but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
[20] He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.
[21] Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
[22] Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart.

Psalm 130(131).3

[3] O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and for evermore.

To some degree, it boils down to the following two statements in the life of all people. As Christians, we must take seriously the fact that this dynamic is still operative:

  • You will make time for the things that you truly desire and are of utmost importance to you.
  • Nothing will change if nothing can change.

What do you desire in your life and the life of others? What do you believe about the possibility for change and transformation in your life and the life of others?

Fr. Thomas

The Power of Our Thought Life: The Counsel of Two Elders – Part 1

Okay, so this is a really long post.

But, the intention of this blog is to provide you, its readers, with resources that I have “gleaned.” My hope and prayer is that you will find them helpful as you pursue transformation into the likeness of Christ Jesus. So, I ask your patience with this one. You might find it most helpful to cut and paste the whole text and print it out to make it easier to read and digest. With that disclaimer I offer the following:

The Power of Our Thought Life: The Counsel of Two Elders – Part 1

I love to read the counsels of various holy Elders before turning off the light and falling asleep each night. Their words are so refreshing, so “not of this world” and yet very available and present to me.

Recently, I have been reading the counsels of Elder Thaddeus of Vitonvnica1 and Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Both have a lot to say about our “thought life.” They both are proponents of the value of “positive thinking.”

In this post – Part 1 – I will share the words of Elder Thaddeus which will be MORE than enough for one article. In Part 2, I will share some Elder Paisios’ counsels on the same subject.

But first, some words of caution and clarification.

Elder Thaddeus

Before you make the immediate association of the term “positive thinking” with Norman Vincent Peale, let me assure you that is not what these Elders are talking about. Nor are they talking about “positive confession,” a movement in the Western Church that advocates a kind of “name it and claim it” strategy. Another movement in the Church is the “prosperity gospel.” The prosperity would include such things as money, love, health, long life, fame, and influence. In other words, the thinking goes, God wants us to have everything we want for ourselves. In a manner of speaking these are all manifestations of the “spirit of entitlement.” And make no mistake it is a “spirit.”Nor is it a version of the New Age movement in which it is taught that you can create your own reality through the power of your thoughts – “manifestation.” That is related to another very dangerous way of thinking of the power of our thoughts; the idea that we can actually change material reality through the use of our minds alone. All of these teachings essentially proclaim that we can manifest whatever we want in our life by just consistently thinking correctly.

Make no mistake, the reality of our life is, indeed, affected by our thoughts. That is the tricky thing about all of this. There is a sense in which we do create our own reality, to some degree by our thoughts. They do become reality in the way we perceive people, circumstances, and the meaning of experiences; and the way we respond to them in words and deeds. That is why it is sooo important to be rooted in Christ when dealing with the whole matter of thoughts and their power. In Christ, our powerful thought life can be life-giving because they result in actions that build up and bless. Outside of Christ, our powerful thought life can be, and is, terribly life-robbing.

The quotes I am going to include in this post can sound a lot like the movements I have mentioned above. But, they are not!! This calls for maturity and considerable reflection in the context of the Holy Tradition in which these counsels are intended to be heard and practiced.

The underlying principle informing the counsels of the elders regarding our thought life is humility as it expresses itself in love for God and love for neighbor. They presuppose and emphasize the complete submission of one’s thought life to the governance of the Holy Spirit on a consistent basis. They assume that you are actively seeking to live a life characterized by:

“… take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5)

“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” (James 4.10)

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3.1-2)

“For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.  For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12.3-10)  

When the Elders speak of the Christian thought life they are talking about the mind of Christ. Thinking positively is synonymous with having the mind of Christ. Our goal is to attain the mind of Christ by letting go of our delusional thinking – darkened thought life – by means of the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is not about being “optimistic” which the term “positive thinking” seems to mean. Christians are not called to be optimistic. They are called to be hopeful.

Hope and optimism are not the same thing. Let me give you an example. I am not optimistic that I will be raised from the dead by Christ. I do have a reasonable and holy hope in the resurrection of the dead based on the faithfulness of God.  Optimism is man-centered based on how well we think we or others will perform. It concerns a likelihood of something. Hope is Christ-centered based on God’s faithfulness. One is “relatively likely” (emphasis is intentional). The other is “certain.” (See Hebrews 10.19-23, in which hope is spoken of not in terms of a heart “filled with optimism” but “a true heart in full certainty of faith.”) Our optimism is dashed continually but “hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5.5). Henri Nouwen sheds light on the difference.

“Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things-the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on-will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands”2

Transformation of the thought life does not issue forth from an optimistic heart but rather a heart filled with the certainty (full confidence) of faith in hope. A life based on the law can be associated with optimism at best (it offers no hope). A life based on grace in Christ Jesus can be associated with confidence, boldness, and certainty. This is the difference between the authentic (positive) and inauthentic (darkened) thought life. Positive thinking as the Elders describe and define it is thinking based on and submitted to the Truth of Christ. Having said all of that, I can now share some of their counsels, with you:

“Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kin, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.

Everything, both good and evil comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and I the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us. But we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kind of thoughts and desires we breed.

If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us – in our family, in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only heart on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However, when we breed negative thoughts, that is a great evil. When there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go. So you see, we can be very good or very evil. If that’s the way it is, it is certainly better to choose good! Destructive thoughts destroy the stillness within, and then we have no peace.”

Are you comfortable with the power that Elder Thaddeus assumes our thoughts have over those around us and, as we will see, the whole created order?? Our thoughts always find expression in words or deeds that reflect our thoughts and perceptions. We may not be comfortable with the idea that our thought life has that much power, but we know it by experience only too well.

I hear something more than just the power of words and actions. I hear something about attitudes and dispositions. People can feel our unrest, resentment, peace, or kindness. And, we can feel theirs. Those attitudes and dispositions radiate out in a very powerful way too. Perhaps the secular word for it is “our vibes.” How many times have you said to someone, “Man that was an oppressive environment!! I couldn’t way to leave. You could cut the tension with a knife!!”  Only a rough approximation, but you get the idea. Or, here is another one, did you ever have anyone say to you, “You didn’t have to say anything, your attitude spoke volumes.”

I am reminded of the passage from which is taken, the final blessing at the end of the Divine Liturgy: “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4.7-8)

I need to take a look at my starting point, the thought patterns, preconceived convictions that govern my attitudes, words, and actions. What is my “default setting,” to use computer lingo?

“Our starting point is always wrong. Instead of beginning with ourselves, we always want to change others first and ourselves last. If everyone were to begin first with themselves, then there would be peace all around! St. John Chrysostom said that on one can harm the man who does not injure himself – nor even the devil. You see, we are the sole architects of our future…

You can see now how it goes. When we nurture evil thoughts, we become evil. We may think that we are good, but evil is in us. We do not have the strength to resist it. And we know that, as Christians, we must not even think evil, let alone do it.

We, however, have Divine power, Divine life, and Divine energy. On the day of the Final Judgment we shall have t give an answer for the way we have used this Divine power, life, and energy which have been given to us: whether we have contributed to the harmony in the universe, or have sown disharmony…

A man who has the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, Divine thoughts. The Kingdom of God creates within us an atmosphere of heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in the world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.

We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will imperceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us; they will want to be near us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak about this. The atmosphere of heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things. It will radiate from us even though we may not be aware of it.”

Really powerful words! So, we, by virtue of our thought life, row with or against the flow of the “eternal flood tide” of the Kingdom of God. That fills these statements that our by our Lord new meaning:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye… So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.1-5, 12-14)

 “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18.8-9)

Elder Ephraim,archimandrite and former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, said about judging others: “Each person must bear the weaknesses of others. Who is perfect? Who can boast that he has kept his heart undefiled? Hence, we are all sick, and whoever condemns his brother does not perceive that he himself is sick, because a sick person does not condemn another sick person.”

There is a lot of “logging,” “cutting off,” and “plucking it out” that needs to happen in my thought life!! How about yours?

Once again, our thoughts radiate in the form of attitudes and dispositions as well as words and actions. Our thoughts have the power to give life or take life away in a huge variety of ways.

Elder Thaddeus continues.

“A person who is entrapped in the vicious cycle of chaotic thoughts, in the atmosphere of hades, or has only so much as touched it, feels the torments of hell. For example, we read the newspapers or take a walk in the streets, and afterwards we suddenly feel that something is not quite right in our souls; we feel an emptiness; we feel sadness. That is because by reading all sorts of things, our mind becomes distracted and the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds.”

Yikes, “the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds”?! I need, as Johnny Cash used to sing, “… to keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Jesus said, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15.17-19) Cleanse our thought life, oh God so that our words and actions will radiate love and peace not hate, fear, and discord. Hear also these words:

“Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4.23)

“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” (Genesis 6.5-8)

The power of our thought life – as it finds its way into words or actions – has cosmic significance. This sheds new light on the flood story but the story of the tower of Babel.

The thought life is a two way street. We not only affect others by our thoughts – the words and actions that are the fruit of them – but we are affected by them as well. We interpret, based on our thought life, the actions and words of others. Depending on the state of our thought life, this could be a blessing or a curse. But, it is not just the words and actions of others. It is also what we suspect and believe about people and what we believe about their attitudes toward us. We second guess the thoughts of others whether they say or do anything or not. People don’t have to do or say anything for us to have a huge set of convictions about them based on a thought life that is chaotic and affected by life robbing passions.

“Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure and peaceful thought that would have come from your. If your are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good thoughts and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy?…

Thoughts are planted in our minds all the time, from all sides and directions. Were it given to see the radii of thoughts, we would see a real net of thoughts. Everyone has a ‘receiver’ in his mind, one that is much more precise and sophisticated than a radio or a television set. How wonderful is the mind of man! Unfortunately, we do not appreciate this. We do not know how to unite ourselves with the Source of life and to feel joy. The adversary is always planting seeds in our minds. St. Anthony was permitted to see the nets of thoughts around him, and when he saw them, he exclaimed, ‘Lord, who can be saved?’ And he heard a voice saying, ‘Only those who are meek and humble of heart.’ The evil spirits cannot touch those who are meek and humble of heart, for they are united with peace and silence. They have no negative thoughts.”

A very famous example of the difference between positive thinking as the Elders conceive of it and the “darkened” thought life we are addressing can be depicted in the story of two monks:

“Two monks were making a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a great Saint. During the course of their journey, they came to a river where they met a beautiful young woman — an apparently worldly creature, dressed in expensive finery and with her hair done up in the latest fashion. She was afraid of the current and afraid of ruining her lovely clothing, so asked the brothers if they might carry her across the river.

The younger and more exacting of the brothers was offended at the very idea and turned away with an attitude of disgust. The older brother didn’t hesitate, and quickly picked the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the river, and set her down on the other side. She thanked him and went on her way, and the brother waded back through the waters.

The monks resumed their walk, the older one in perfect equanimity and enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger one grew more and more brooding and distracted, so much so that he could keep his silence no longer and suddenly burst out, ‘Brother, we are taught to avoid contact with women, and there you were, not just touching a woman, but carrying her on your shoulders!’

The older monk looked at the younger with a loving, pitiful smile and said, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river; you are still carrying her.’”3

We see that one monk had a positive thought life that shone with the light of Christ in his words and deeds toward the woman, while the other had a “darkened” thought life in which he, in essence, lusted after the woman and was trapped in sin.

The real life examples given by the Elders are extraordinary. The advice the Elder gives doesn’t seem to be at all practical. The advice, at times, seems to promote weakness, compromise, being a “door mat,” or acting in ways that I would judge as “mean spirited.” They often offend my sense of fairness and justice. But, the fact that they have that effect on me when I read them might (just might) mean that I have some “governing thought patterns” that are not “positive,” i.e. Christ’s own thoughts. Elder Thaddeus tells a story of a woman who was bother by the behavior of her neighbor.

“An old woman came to me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things into her yard, so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. But the old woman said that she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, ‘You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever it is she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.’”

Here is another example from the lives of the saints. In this case, St. Dennis.

The Forgiveness & Compassion of St. Dennis of Zakynthos

 “There was at one time, as confirmed by the records of the Republic of Venice, a deadly enmity between the Mondinos family and the family of St. Dennis, the Sigouros. The efforts of the saint to effect reconciliation between the two families had been in vain. Things had reached a point where murders had been committed and the population was divided into two factions.

Furthermore, the hatred between the two families eventually led to St. Dennis’ brother, Constantine, being murdered. Fearing his victim’s relatives, the murderer (who was a complete stranger to St. Dennis), by chance or by God’s will, sought refuge in the monastery where St. Dennis was the abbot. When the saint asked the fugitive why he was so frightened, he confessed his sin and revealed the name of the man he had murdered, asking to be protected from the family’s vengeance. St. Dennis wept for his only brother, as was natural. Then he comforted the murderer and hid him, showing him great compassion and love.

Soon the saint’s relatives came to the monastery with a group of armed men and told him what had happened. He pretended to know nothing about it. After weeping with them and trying to console them, he sent them off in the wrong direction. Then he told the murderer that he was the brother of the man he had killed. He admonished him as a father, and brought him to repentance. After forgiving him, St. Dennis brought him down to the shore and helped him to escape to another place in order to save his life.” 

Like I said, the counsels and examples of the Elders issue from a depth of truth and surrender and trust in God that few of us have touched. There is wisdom in the Elder’s counsel to the old woman that sets aside the “immediate” and “logical” answers we would be led to offer. I believe it is because we have not allowed the Lord to crucify enough of our thought life and baptized it in His death and resurrection. There is a difference between acting out of knowledge that is lodged in the head and out of wisdom that proceeds from the heart of Christ.

They are not, to be sure, advocating the sponsoring or advocating sin in either our life or the life of others. But, what they are doing is pointing us to the root of sin that the axe might be effectively laid to it!! In the end, a much more practical, albeit mysterious, approach.

Let me conclude with one last word that is actually the combination of two separate statements from Elder Thaddeus.

“This is how we must live – controlling our thoughts. It is not good to dwell on every thought that comes to us; otherwise we lose our peace. If we learn to refuse such proposals, we are quiet. We do not fantasize or create any images in our mind… We must struggle for our own good and strive for peace to take root in our souls – peace, joy, and Divine love. Our Heavenly Father wants all of His children to have His Divine properties. He wants us to be full of love, peace, joy, truthfulness, and kindness. He wants us to be able to comfort others. We also want to become meek and humble, for only such a person radiates goodness and kindness. Such a person is never insulted even when you shout and scold him; you can even hit him and all he does is pity you for tormenting yourself so. There are very few such people on this earth, but they are the reason why the sun still warms planet Earth and why God gives us His blessing to go on living and to have everything we need in order to live. You see now why our thoughts must change.”

Our thought life is of immense importance. The discipline of positive thinking and the specific actions that issue out of it, which the Elders recommend as a way of addressing (purifying and ordering) our impure and chaotic thought life is a tricky thing.

It is not to be entered into without a solid fellowship of accountability. Heresy and delusion begin, usually, with a kernel of truth. They have just enough of the truth mixed in to them to cause the unwary to be attracted to them. Be careful! The truth always, if properly followed, leads to Christ, never “alongside” Him or in addition to Him. Only to Him and forever in Him. We must not stop along the way and settle for the embracing of any “truths” that we do not submit to Christ. The several interpretations of this discipline of “positive thinking” or “ordering our thought life” I mentioned at the beginning of this article are only some of the traps we can fall into unintentionally. “The faith” is not a smorgasbord of truths from a variety of sources in which we have permission to bring aspects of those sources along with the truth that we encountered there. One of my mentors used to say, “Many ways to Christ, but only one way to the Father.” If you find a jewel in the mud, take it out of the mud, wash it, set it in a beautiful setting, and treasure it. So also with positive thinking. Our thoughts are powerful. The ancient ways of addressing our thought life by the Holy Spirit are powerful disciplines. But, this work of the Holy Spirit must be saved from the setting that hinders its right use and the blessing it was designed to provide. It must be washed and placed in the setting where it can give shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory and give light to all.

Be careful. As you approach or come into contact with disciplines that have to do with addressing the thought life, ask this question, “Does it conform to the Holy Tradition – the fullness of the faith once for all delivered and lived by the Apostolic Church over the last 2000 years?”

Obviously, there is more to say about the thought life as the Elders conceive of it and how to address it. In Part 2, we will hear what Elder Paisios has to say and the examples he offers.

 God Bless,

Fr. Thomas

Notes:

  1. All quotes from the Elder are taken from Chapter 1 of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, St. Herman Press, 2009.
  2. I found this quote on several websites. However, none of them offered a citation for it.
  3. Admittedly, this story comes out of the Buddhist tradition. I have chosen a Christianized version of it. But, the truth of the difference between the thought life that is filled with the light of Christ’s love and the darkened thought life is beautifully depicted.
  4. This story is taken from “Milk and Honey,” a wonderful blog. http://theinnerkingdom.wordpress.com/

Unseen Warfare: Our Struggle toward Perfection #2

In the introduction, Staretz Nicodemus, the author of, Unseen Warfare, gives us a detailed list of the weapons of our unseen warfare. He will speak of these in the course of the book. They are:

“With what weapons are warriors armed for this unseen warfare? Listen. Their helmet is total disbelief in themselves and complete absence of self-reliance; their shield and coat of mail – a bold faith in God and a firm trust in Him; their armour and cuirass – instruction in the passion of Christ; their belt – cutting off bodily passions; their boots – humility and a constant sense and recognition of their powerlessness; their spurs – patience in temptations and repudiation of negligence; their sword, which they hold ever in one hand, is prayer whether with the lips or within – in the heart; their three-pronged spear, which they have in their other hand, is a firm resolve in no way to consent to the passion which assails them, but to repulse it with anger and wholehearted hatred; their pay and food, sustaining them in their resistance to the enemy, is frequent communion with God, both through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, and inwardly; the clear and cloudless atmosphere, which enables them to see the enemy from afar, is a constant exercising of the mind in the knowledge of what is right in the eyes of the Lord, and a constant exercising of the will in desiring only what is pleasing to God, peace and quiet of the heart.” (pg. 72)

I am, of course, immediately reminded of the list in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6.10-20)

Nicodemus is reiterating what St. Paul and Jesus before him taught that the most important location of spiritual warfare is the inner man. The Apostle makes this point clearly when he says, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

The word “listen,” should set off a connection with the Rule of St. Benedict. That word is the first word of his “Rule.” And, not surprisingly, St. Benedict makes it clear that the rule of life is for the purpose of doing battle in union the Christ the Lord. It is only by engaging in the warfare, in the context of a community of accountability and encouragement, abiding in Christ at all times, St. Benedict says, that we will “be found worthy to be coheirs with Him [Christ] of His Kingdom.”

“Listen, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving Father, that by the toil of obedience thou mayest return to Him from whom by the sloth of disobedience thou hast gone away. To thee, therefore, my speech is now directed, who, giving up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience, to do battle for Christ the Lord, the true King… We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But even if, to correct vices or to preserve charity, sound reason dictateth anything that turneth out somewhat stringent, do not at once fly in dismay from the way of salvation, the beginning of which cannot but be narrow. But as we advance in the religious life and faith, we shall run the way of God’s commandments with expanded hearts and unspeakable sweetness of love; so that never departing from His guidance and persevering in the monastery in His doctrine till death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ, and be found worthy to be coheirs with Him of His kingdom.”(The Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue)

With the warfare come the weapons. The Apostle, during his lifetime as well as the staretz during his lifetime, point to the need for the warrior to be armed if he or she intends to enter the warfare.

We could, contrast these who accounts of the weapons of our warfare, but we need not. They are not comparable. Rather, they are complementary. They inform and deepen one another issuing out of the lived experience of the living Christ in their own circumstances and challenges. At one and the same time, the lists are different and yet they are the same.

  • They refer to the power of God.
  • They refer to the powerlessness of the disciple.
  • They, none the less, refer to the intentionality and effort that is required of the believer
  • They refer to the “passions of the flesh” that still reside and operate within the disciple and must be addressed.
  • They refer to the presence and diabolical intention of the enemy.
  • They refer to the commitment to join the battle (make the effort) in the midst of present circumstances not to use our energy wishing for a better set of circumstances in which to live out life of faith, hope, and love.
  • They refer to a nourishment and atmosphere of clarity and wisdom in which the warfare is waged. They refer, therefore, by implication, to the great cloud of witnesses, in the midst of whom and with whose aid we wage war within, and to the Lord Himself in whom we must constantly abide and under the shadow of whose wings we prevail against every foe and rejoice.

It is this clarity (the opposite of it being fantasy and delusion) that are so very important in confronting the passions within us that keep us under their control and frustration our “sanctification” (the western term) and “deification” (the eastern term).

It is this danger that Nicodemus refers to in the next paragraph of his introduction:

“It is here, — here in this ‘Unseen Warfare’ (that is, in this book) or rather in the ‘Wars of the Lord’, that Christ’s warriors learn to discern the various forms of prelest (the nearest English equivalent seems to be “beguilement”), the different wiles, the incredible subterfuges and military ruses, which our invisible foes use against us through the senses, through fantasy, through loss of the fear of God, and in particular through the four suggestions, which they introduce into the heart at the moment of death – I mean suggestions of unbelief, despair, vainglory, and of the demons themselves assuming the aspect of angels of light. But in learning to discern all this, men learn at the same time how to frustrate these wiles of the enemy and to resist them. They learn how to find out what tactical moves to make and what laws of war they must follow in each particular case, and the courage needed to enter into battle. In brief, I would say that every man, who desires salvation, will learn through this book how to conquer  his invisible foes, in order to acquire the treasure of true and divine virtues and to be rewarded with an incorruptible crown and a token of eternity, which is union with God, both in this life and in the future.” (pg. 72-73)

The passions blind us to truth and keep us blind. They numb us to our own blindness. Whatever their original reason for being set into place by us – perhaps survival  – they have come to serve a destructive purpose. They keep us from accessing the “new life” we have “in Christ” by virtue of our Baptism.

All things bear their own fruit. It is no exception with the passions. They bear the fruit that speaks of them and their essence.

“Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”(Matthew 12.33-37)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. (Galatians 5.16-26)

Unseen Warfare invites me to realize the necessity of spiritual warfare —  a subject that has become problematic in the Church over the last 50 years. The use of that term conjures up all kinds of images and experiences in my mind. I have, in my 32+ years of ordained ministry rubbed up against, relatively speaking, the best and the worst incarnations of the conviction. I venture to say we could share some wonderful and scary stories. But, according to the Church Fathers, the Apostles, the saints over the centuries and our Lord Jesus, there is a warfare in which to engage. It is not vague – ill-defined. It is not left up to me as an individual believer to figure out a way to deal with it nor is it allowable for a group of well-meaning believers to do so either. I am called to neither shrink from the fight nor engage in it in a cavalier way.

The way of warfare is definite within the historic Body of Christ and there is a “tried and true” way to engage in it.

I invite you to read on with me and receive more of the witness of the Lord in and through the Church regarding nature of the unseen warfare and how to engage in it.

Fr. Thomas

Unseen Warfare: Our Struggle Toward Perfection

The Forward of the classic, Unseen Warfare begins in this way:

“This book, which profits the soul, is justly named ‘Unseen Warfare’… for it teaches not the art of visible and sensory warfare, and speaks not about visible. Bodily foes but about the unseen and inner struggle, which every Christian undertakes from the moment of his baptism, when he makes a vow to God to fight for Him, to the glory of His divine Name, even unto death… It speaks of invisible and incorporeal foes, which are the varied passions and lusts of the flesh, and of the evil demons who hate men and never cease to fight against us, day and night, as the divine Paul says: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Eph. Vi. 12).

This book teaches that the warriors who take part in this unseen war are all who are Christians; and their commander is our Lord Jesus Christ, surrounded and accompanied by His marshals and generals, that is, by all the hierarchies of angels and saints. The arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place is our own heart and all our inner man. The time of battle is our whole life.” (pg. 71-72)

The author(s) (there are several authors) make it quite clear, by implication, that in order to reach the desired aim of perfection in Christ Jesus, we must engage in an inner warfare. It is essential. Unless we actively oppose, in concert with the Holy Spirit, all that wars against God’s purpose within us – the “desires of the flesh,” St. Paul calls them – we will never realize our heart’s desire.

Many, I fear, have never been instructed either in the existence of the war; the necessity of the warfare; and the manner of its conduct. (I include myself in that number until my college days.) I would like, therefore, to spend some time moving through Unseen Warfare on this blog, from time to time for the purpose of receiving from the Lord, through His faithful servants – St. Theophan the Recluse, Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, and Lorenzo Scupoli.

I will include a pertinent quote in course and reflect on it. I invite your reflections and comments toward the end of embracing the fullness of the True Faith.

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.13-14)

“Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13.24)

Fr. Thomas

The True Church – In But Not Of the World

In a recent post, I spoke of, what I believe to be, an aspect of the “true Church,” namely, “Giving it your all with perseverance.” I want to add another aspect to the list, “life witness.” Now, when I use the word “witness,” I intend for you to understand that I bring to it the connotations of the Greek word, “martyr.” When you read the word “witness” in your New Testament, most likely the Greek word is martyr.

I do not want to take the space in this post to give a detailed exposition of the threads of meaning that this connection exposes. Suffice it to say, martyrdom in some form or another (as the Holy Spirit determines), is the inevitable shape that true discipleship in Christ takes when we are “giving it our all with perseverance.” In short, martyrdom is simply dying to all that is not of Christ in your life – interior and exterior – and living in more and more practical conformity with all that is of Christ – interiorly and exteriorly.

Several passages from the New Testament will take us deeper into the nature of the true Church, which is martyrdom.

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Matthew 6.24

“But take heed to yourselves; for they will deliver you up to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.  And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” Mark 13.9-13

“But now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth. As thou didst send me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.” John 17.13-19

“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.” James 4.4

Our martyrdom, in essence, begins with the commitment to no longer live according to the standards and priorities of “this world.” We are citizens of “another world” – the Kingdom of God – which has been and is breaking in to the kingdom which is “this world,” and transforming it (according to ways that are appropriate to God’s economy of purpose) to the Kingdom of Heaven. The “flow” is toward the consummation of the Kingdom of Christ no matter what appearances may indicate. The gates of hell shall not (are not) prevailing against this progress no matter how hidden and subtle.

Our commitment, according to our Lord and Master, Christ Jesus and the “witness” of the Holy Spirit within us, is to decide at all times and in all places with all persons, to make our decisions and live in identifiable ways that are in agreement with the standards and priorities of the Kingdom of God.  It is coming to the point where, nothing less than this is acceptable to us in our own life before we even begin to say or do anything about our conviction of this in the lives of others (I must be actively addressing my own stuff before I presume to speak to others about taking care of what I believe to be their stuff! Don’t get me wrong. I am not advocating letting sin slide. Just the opposite. I am advocating NOT letting sin slide but taking care of it in our own life first.).

Such a commitment to not “give in” to the standards of this world is, of course, huge. But, I at least, cannot rationalize it away. I cannot pretend that it is anything less than the true baseline of, as Watchman Nee termed it, “the normal Christian life.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, called anything less than such a commitment, “cheap grace.”

Will we fall back into the old ways, the ways of the world? Will it be painful and feel artificial and seem many times like no progress is being made? Yes. The Church Fathers make it abundantly clear that “walking in the light” – living the Kingdom life beginning here and now, in the midst of this world, is tantamount to warfare. Warfare of an invisible kind with the “passions of the flesh” that have reigned within us unchallenged.

The passions of pride, self-love, and vainglory desire to keep us enslaved, sowing in the soul confusion, delusion, and vain reasoning. When we realize this is the case and begin to oppose the “powers and principalities” that war against Christ within us, we must intentionally lay aside all our acquired learning, every opinion about God and ourselves. We must allow the Holy Spirit through use of the Holy Tradition, “which has great holy power and is filled with divine wisdom,” teach and conform us to the likeness of Christ Jesus.

Because the roots of the “ways of this world” have grown deep and strong into the depths of our souls, the journey of spiritual healing and maturing will be lifelong. Our Lord made it abundantly clear: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.13-14)

We need to become as children not just when we are new to the faith. No. We must remain teachable children and grow up into the kind of maturity that remains deeply teachable. The Holy Tradition calls this characteristic, humility. St. Paul is speaking of this character trait when he says, “If any man thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know.” (1 Corinthians 8.2)

You and I will lapse into times of forgetfulness and revert to the ways of the world. Then, all of a sudden we will be awakened out of our stupor by the Holy Spirit. But we must, never give up. We must never let ourselves become despondent or give in to feelings or thoughts of resignation or self-condemnation. Breaking the power of the ways of the world in our life is hard work that takes time to accomplish. The healthiest thing to do at the moment we realize our lapse is to cry out to God in thanksgiving for the merciful “wake-up call,” agree with the truth God has shown us, re-turn to our right mind (truthful mind) regarding our life, and move forward from that point with great thanksgiving.

The old ways cannot be overcome by our own strength. We must be being continually strengthened and equipped by the Holy Spirit. But, it is also true that the old ways cannot be overcome without the exertion of our will with regularity and constancy. It is the union of our will with the strengthening and equipping will of the Holy Spirit that can successfully overcome the power of the spiritual inertia of the old “frame of reference” and our tendency to “fall back” into the way of life we have forsaken.

You and I will not “win friends and influence people” according to “this world.” But, we may be the leaven of salvation to many. St. Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th century Russian saint, greeted all with these words: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.”

The most important questions that the true Church of Christ Jesus over the last two millennia asks us are: Do you know what the Lord desires for you to do? Are you doing it? If not, why not? When will you do it? What price are you paying for the delay? Are you, in short, setting your hand to the plow and looking back?

Be blessed by the “witness” of St. Mamas, who is commemorated today…

The Holy Martyr Mamas of Caesarea – September 2 — Mamas, was born in Paphlagonia of renowned Christian parents, Theodotus and Rufina. His parents were cast into prison for Christ’s name. His father died first in prison, and as soon as Rufina bore Mamas, she also died. Thus the newborn child was left alone between the dead bodies of his parents. However, God the Provider sent an angel to a noble widow, Ammia. Ammia saw the angel in a dream: he told her to go to the prison and take the child in. The local eparch granted Ammia permission to bury the dead and to take the child to her home. When Mamas reached his fifth year, he began to talk and his first word was “Mama!”-for which he received the name “Mamas.” In school, Mamas displayed unusual intelligence, and as he had been reared in a Christian spirit, he did not hide his faith, but confessed it to the other children and laughed at the idols. During the reign of Aurelian there was a bitter persecution of Christians. The pagans did not even spare the Christian children. Mamas was fifteen years old when he was brought before the emperor. The emperor told him that he needed only to deny Christ verbally. Mamas replied: “Neither in my heart nor with my lips will I renounce my God and King, Jesus Christ.” The emperor ordered him to be beaten, burned with torches, and finally thrown into the sea. But an angel of God saved him, and took him to a high mountain near Caesarea. There he lived in solitude and prayer. Even the wild beasts were tamed by his sanctity. He was finally discovered by his persecutors and subjected to torture again. When he had overcome torture both by fire and by wild beasts, St. Mamas was run through with a trident by a pagan priest. Thus, in A.D. 275, he gave his holy soul to God, to Whom he had been faithful during all of his tortures. From his relics many healings of the sick have taken place. (The Prologue from Ochrid, pg. 279)

I know, I haven’t given you or myself much “wiggle room.” But then, neither does Jesus. The character of our martyrdom is NOT determined by us. It is decided by God. Your decision and mine is whether or not to embrace it with gratitude, humility (a truly repentant attitude – “joyful sorrow”), and perseverance when it becomes known. This we do, it must be stated, in the context of the visible and invisible fellowship of the saints. To God be the glory…

Fr. Thomas

The True Church

The higher the cost for confessing the life of Christ Jesus in life and word the deeper the authenticity of the Church constituted by such confessors. Perhaps we need to listen to the “witnesses — confessors” (martyrs) of the faith in past generations and our own more deeply who speak to us of the inner warfare that must be embraced by all those who desire to be added as living stones into the building which is the the true Church.

Ephesians 6.10-20

[10] Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
[11] Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
[12] For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.
[13] Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
[14] Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
[15] and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;
[16] besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.
[17] And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
[18] Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints,
[19] and also for me, that utterance may be given me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel,
[20] for which I am an ambassador in chains; that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Let us embrace the death of the old man that must continue in order for the new man to be set free to shine forth as a light to all who sit and walk in darkness. Let us continue to pay the price that grace demands with hope that we may lay hold of the fulfillment of the promise of grace with joy.

Fr. Thomas

The Arena and Warfare We Wage

I am in the process of rereading Unseen Warfare, as edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse. It is a wonderful read, filled with rock solid, inspiring statements regarding the core issues we face as Christians and practical counsel regarding how to best cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our own transformation into the full likeness of Christ Jesus.

Let me quote from the “Foreword,” by Staretz Nicodemus:

“This book, which profits the soul is justly named ‘Unseen Warfare’… For it teaches not the art of visible and sensory warfare, and speaks not about visible, bodily foes but about the unseen and inner struggle, which every Christian undertakes from the moment of his baptism, when he makes a vow to God to fight for Him, to the glory of His divine Name, even unto death.(It is of this warfare that the book of Numbers speaks allegorically: ‘Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the Lord’ [Numbers xxi. 14.]) It speaks of invisible and incorporeal foes, which are the varied passions and lusts of the flesh, and of the evil demons who hate men and never cease to fight against us, day and night, as the divine Paul says: ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world,  spiritual wickedness in high places’ (Eph. vi. 12).

This book teaches that the warriors who take part in this unseen war are all who are Christians; and their commander is our Lord Jesus Christ, surrounded and accompanied by His marshals and generals, that is, by all the hierarchies of angels and saints. The arena, the field of battle, the site where the fight actually takes place is our own heart and all our inner man. The time of battle is our whole life.

With what is weapons are warriors armed for this unseen warfare? Listen. Their helmet is total disbelief in themselves and complete absence of self-reliance; their shield and coat of mail – a bold faith in God and firm trust in Him; their armour and cuirass – instruction the passion of Christ; their belt – cutting off bodily passions; their boots – humility and a constant sense and recognition of their powerlessness; their spurs – patience in temptations and repudiation of negligence; their sword, which they hold ever in one hand, is prayer whether with the lips or within – in the heart; their three-pronged spear, which they hold in the other hand, is a firm resolve in no way to consent to the passion which assails them, but to repulse it with anger and wholehearted hatred; their pay and food, sustaining them in their resistance to the enemy, is frequent communion with God, both through the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, and inwardly; the clear and cloudless atmosphere, which enables them to see the enemy from afar, is a constant exercising of the mind in the knowledge of what is right in the eyes of the Lord, and a constant exercising of the will in desiring only what is pleasing to God, peace and quiet of the heart…

In brief, I would say that every man, who desires salvation, will learn through this book how to conquer his invisible foes, in order to acquire the treasure of true and divine virtues and to be rewarded with an incorruptible crown and a token of eternity, which is union with God, both in this life and in the future… repeating the words of David: ‘Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty’ (I Chron. xxix. 11) for ever and ever. Amen.” Unseen Warfare, pgs. 71-74

It was this Foreword that inspired me to read this book thirty years ago as a newly ordained priest. It is this Foreword that inspires me again as I journey deeper into a new phase of me and my family’s life and ministry. So, perhaps, Unseen Warfare is, for me, a pivotal book that has been used by the Lord to minister His encouragement and strengthen for deeper transformation and more effective Kingdom service in union with Him.

What book(s) does the Lord use in your life over and over to minster His faith, hope, and love to and through you?!

Fr. Thomas