Prayer or Empty Praying — Holiness of Life

“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. “But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. “So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. (Matthew 6.5-8)

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And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. “The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ “I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18.9-14)

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And He sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)

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“Nevertheless, we should not collect too many prayers. A few prayers, correctly read, are better than many prayers raced through. And, of course, it is hard to keep from rushing when, in our eagerness to pray, we have gathered more prayers than we can handle.”
-St. Theophan the Recluse, Letter 47

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“The power of prayer does not lie in too many words but in the simplicity and sincerity of the heart.”
-from the video, “You are Three and We are Three”

If you desire to learn the heart of prayer and the mutual relationship between it and holiness of life, and have never read “The Three Hermits,” by Leo Tolstoy, I wonder if it is not time to do so. It can be found here. A video dramatization of it can be found here.

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Let Us Be Attentive

“The principal thing is to walk before God, or under God’s eye, aware that God is looking at you, searching your soul and your heart, seeing all that is there. This awareness is the most powerful lever in the mechanism of the inner spiritual life.” -St. Theophanes the Recluse

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.

Prayer as the Alpha and Omega of Discipleship

The first and last motivation and action of the disciple is prayer. You might say, “I thought the first and last action was ‘love.’ Isn’t that the greatest commandment? Of course you are right. It is. And the way to authentic love as an action is prayer in its essential form and content.

“What is prayer? What is its essence? How can we learn to pray? What does the spirit of the Christian experience as he prays in humility of heart?

All such questions should constantly occupy the mind and heart of the believer, for in prayer man converses with God, he enters, through grace, into communion with Him, and lives in God. And the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church give answers to all these questions, based on the grace-given enlightenment which is acquired through the experience of practicing prayer – experience equally accessible to the simple and to the wise.

Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong…

What then is prayer? Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God in praise and thanksgiving to Him and in supplication for the good things that we need, both spiritual and physical. The essence of prayer is therefore the spiritual lifting of the heart towards God. Th mind in the heart stands consciously before the face of God, filled with due reverence, and begins to our itself out before Him. This is spiritual prayer, and all prayer should be of this nature.” St. Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer, p. 51 & 53

We have a snapshot of prayer as St. Theophan is describing it displayed for us in the Old Testament.

[1] In the year that King Uzzi’ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple.
[2] Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
[3] And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
[4] And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
[5] And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
[6] Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
[7] And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
[8] And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” (Isaiah 6.1-8)

What is more, we have an interpretive presentation of both of these descriptions in the classic, The Way of the Pilgrim.

“…St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions. ‘First of all, thee should be prayers offered’ (1 Tim. 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ… The Spirit comes to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray (Rom. 8:26). Consequently, our only contribution toward perfection in prayer, the mother of all spiritual good, is regularity and constancy.” (pg.8)

What then could the Lord be saying in all of this? If prayer is the first thing and love is its fruit, then the event/reality in experience that is prayer is the life-creating and offering encounter of God and man. It is the intersection and dynamic union of revelation and repentance the fruit of which is love in all of its various forms and effects — purification, illumination, and deification. Is this not, in essence, to borrow other words, “the fear of the Lord”?! Truly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning, end, and essence of all prayer, and the beginning and end of all things that concern the life of the disciple — love.

Fr. Thomas

“… let us be attentive!”

“… let us be attentive!”

Three times, in the course of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, worshippers are given this exhortation.

First, just before the reading of the Gospel. Second, at the beginning of the Anaphora (the Great Thanksgiving). And third, after communion before the post-communion thanksgiving.

It is a call away from distraction to single-minded-hearted attention. It is a call out of slumber and sleep of distraction and illusion into the truth of alertness. In other words, “Wake the heck up and pay attention!!” It is a call to remembrance. Paradoxically, this call to remembrance is not a call to retreat into the past or into the future, but into the present. It is the call to be as fully present as possible to God who is fully present to us.

The liturgists of the early Church were offering us the exhortation of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:

“Therefore it is said, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5.14-17)

One of the fruits of sin is forgetfulness or distraction. Indeed, the concept of “remembrance” is one of the cardinal themes of the Holy Scriptures.

The Passover meal is the great feast of remembrance.

“And Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place; no leavened bread shall be eaten.’ This day you are to go forth, in the month of Abib. And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. And you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 13.3-8)

In Deuteronomy we hear,

“Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, `My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish.  Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 8.11-20)

The voice of the prophets agree,

“The way of the Godly is straight; and the way of the Godly is prepared. For the way of the Lord is judgment. We hope in Your name and in the remembrance of You, which our soul desires at night. My spirit rises early in the morning to You, O God, for your commands are a light upon the earth.”  (Isaiah 26:7-9)

Jesus says, in the context of the Last Supper,

“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19)

When we forget, we walk in foolishness not wisdom. What does the great verse from the book of Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” mean if it does not mean, simply put, “walk constantly (unceasingly) in the awareness of God’s presence and work?”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is often quoted regarding the danger of forgetting God. In his Templeton Address he says,

“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Templeton Address” March 1983)

Forgetting God in the course of our everyday life – the mundane things – is not trivial. It is not just a personal foible. It is one of the most effective tools of the devil, the flesh, and the world. Forgetfulness of God has, according to Solzhenitsyn, changed the course of nations and, therefore, of the history of the world!

To the voice of this 20th century Russian prophet, if I can call him that, let me add two more voices.

First, St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th century Russian elder.  He reminds us that prayer is, in essence, being attentive to God.

“The recollection (or remembrance) of God is mentally standing before God in the heart. Everywhere and always God is with us, near to us and in us. But we are not always with Him, since we do not remember Him; and because we do not remember Him, we allow ourselves many things which we would not permit if we did remember. The more firmly you are established in the recollection of God, the more quiet your thoughts will become and the less they will wander. Remembrance of God is something that God Himself grafts upon the soul. But the soul must force itself to persevere and to toil. Work, making every effort to attain the unceasing remembrance of God, and God, seeing how fervently you desire it will give you this constant remembrance of Himself. To succeed in this remembrance it is advisable to accustom oneself to the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ holding in mind the thought of God’s nearness, His presence in the heart. [If one prays the Jesus Prayer when one is idle for a time, while driving, doing dishes, etc., will help greatly in building prayer in the heart and mind.] To pray does not only mean to stand in prayer. To keep the mind and heart turned towards God and directed towards Him…this is already prayer.” (St. Theophan the Recluse “The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It”)

“I have explained to you briefly two aspects or two levels of prayer, namely: prayer which is read, when we pray to God with the prayers of others, and one’s mental prayer, where we ascend mentally to God through contemplation of God, dedicating all to God, and often crying out to Him from our hearts.1

But this is still not all. There is a third aspect or level of prayer, which makes up true prayer, and for which the first two aspects are only preparation. This is the unceasing turning of the mind and heart to God, accompanied by interior warmth or burning of the spirit. This is the limit to which prayer should aspire, and the goal which every prayerful laborer should have in mind, so that he does not work uselessly in the work of prayer.” (St. Theophan, “Homily 3, On Prayer”)

Second, St. Justin Popovich, 20th century theologian, writer, and critic of the church’s life. He reminds us of the struggle that attentiveness requires.

“It is by the ascesis of faith that the treatment and cure of a soul which is sick with the passions is begun. Once faith begins to live in a man, the passions begin to be uprooted from his soul. But ‘until the soul becomes intoxicated with faith in God, until it comes to feel faith’s power,’ it can neither be healed of the passions nor overcome the material world. There is both a negative side to the ascesis of faith, freedom from sinful matter, and a positive side, oneness with God.

The soul, which was dispersed by the senses among the things of this world, is brought back to itself by the ascesis of faith, by fasting from material things and by devoting itself to a constant remembrance of God. This is the foundation of all good things. Freedom from enslavement to sinful matter is essential for advancement in the spiritual life. The beginning of this new way of life is found in the concentration of one’s thoughts on God, in incessant pondering on the words of God, and in a life of poverty.

Through faith the mind, which was previously dispersed among the passions, is concentrated, freed from sensuality, and endowed with peace and humility of thought. When it lives by the senses in a sensual world, the mind is sick. With the help of faith, however, the mind is delivered from the prison of this world, where it has been stifled by sin, and enters into the new age, where it breathes in a wondrous new air. “The sleep of the mind” is as dangerous as death, and it is therefore essential to rouse the mind by faith to the performance of spiritual works, by which man will overcome himself and drive out the passions. ‘Drive out self, and the enemy will be driven from your side.’

In the ascesis of faith, man is asked to act according to a paradox that denies understanding: ‘Be dead in your life, and you will live after death.’ By faith the mind is healed and acquires wisdom. The soul becomes wise when it stops ‘consorting shamelessly with promiscuous thoughts.’ ‘Love of the body is a sign of unbelief.’ Faith frees the intellect from the categories of the senses and sobers it by means of fasting, by pondering on God, and by vigils.

Intemperance and a full stomach cloud the mind, distract it, and disperse it among fantasies and passions. The knowledge of God cannot be found in a body that loves pleasure. It is from the seed of fasting that the blade of a healthy understanding grows–and it is from satiety that debauchery comes, and impurity from excess.

The thoughts and desires of the flesh are like a restless flame in a man, and the way to healing is to plunge the intellect into the ocean of the mysteries of Holy Scripture. Unless it is freed from earthly possessions, the soul cannot be freed from disturbing thoughts, nor feel peace of mind without dying to the senses. The passions darken the thoughts and blind the mind. Troubled, chaotic thoughts arise from an abuse of the stomach.

Shame and the fear of God steady the tumult of the mind; the lack of this shame and this fear disturb the balance of the understanding, making it fickle and unstable. The mind is only on a firm foundation if it keeps the Lord’s commandments and is ready to endure suffering and affliction. It is enslaved by the things of life, it is darkened. Collecting himself through faith, a man awakens his intellect towards God, and by prayerful silence cleanses his mind and overcomes the passions. The soul is restored to health by silence. It is therefore necessary to train oneself to silence–and this is a labor that brings sweetness to the heart. It is through silence that a man reaches peace from unwarranted thoughts.

Faith brings peace to the intellect and, in bringing it, uproots rebellious thoughts. Sin is the source of restlessness and strife in the thoughts and is also the source of man’s struggle against heaven and with other men. “Be at peace with yourself, and you will bring peace to heaven and to earth.” Until faith appears, the intellect is dispersed among the things of this world; it is by faith that this fragmentation of the intellect is overcome. The wandering of the thoughts is provoked by the demon of harlotry, as is the wandering of the eyes by the spirit of uncleanness.

By faith the intellect is confirmed in pondering God. The way of salvation is that of the constant remembrance of God. The intellect separated from remembrance of God is like a fish out of water. The freedom of a true man consists in his freedom from the passions, in his resurrection with Christ, and in a joyous soul.

The passions can only be overcome by the practice of the virtues, and every passion must be fought to the death. Faith is the first and chief weapon in the struggle with the passions, for faith is the light of the mind that drives away the darkness of the passions and the strength of the intellect that banishes sickness from the soul. Faith bears within itself not only its own principle and substance, but the principle and substance of all the other virtues–developing as they do one from the other and encircling one another like the annual rings of a tree. If faith can be said to have a language, that language is prayer. (St. Justin Popovich [Trans. Asterios Gerostergios], Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, (Institute For Byzantine And Modern Greek Studies, 1997), pp. 123-127)

The ascesis that salvation requires is the struggle (warfare) to live “in the present” and “in The Presence,” and to “be present.” To be attentive and awake is to become open, receptive, and responsive to God, others, and the world around us. In essence, it is to live “in spirit and in truth”; to obey the command of our Savior to do what can only be done if we are all of these – to love.

Fr. Thomas

Unseen Warfare: “One should never believe in oneself or trust oneself in anything” – Chapter Two

We have been exhorted, for the sake of victory in the unseen warfare, to invest our energy as disciples in four dispositions and spiritual activities:

“…if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer.”

It is worth reflecting on the fact that each of these four is BOTH a disposition AND an activity. Attaining perfection and victory in the unseen warfare is not just having the right ideas or information about Christianity. It is about LIVING what we profess with our lips and hold to be true in our minds and hearts. Two of my favorite prayers from The Book of Common Prayer make this point very clear:

“And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days…” (“General Thanksgiving” at Morning Prayer)

“Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.” (Collect for the Second Sunday of Easter)

Salvation is a synergy of wills and effort – the Divine in union with the human by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our identifiable response in everyday life is essential to victory. But herein lies a problem. While it is true that human effort is essential to spiritual transformation, trusting in ourselves is a hindrance to that transformation.

The author(s) now spend time in Chapter 2, instructing us in the meaning and operation of the first disposition and activity: “never rely on yourself in anything.”

We trust ourselves on a regular basis. We think very highly of ourselves. This truth is, in fact, the basis for most of our dispositions and activities. Now, of course, we will never proclaim that that is the case. We profess that we base our dispositions and activities on our “trust in the Lord” – His wisdom and provision. After all, do we not quote Psalm 125.1 and Isaiah 40.31 with great gusto?

“Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides for ever.” (Psalm 125.1)

“…they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40.31)

But, do we believe what we are saying? Do we live what we profess? If so, then why are we so often unable to withstand the smallest attack of the enemy in a wide variety of areas in our life? We are so easily overcome. This is exactly the question asked at the beginning of chapter 2. With regard to our need to “never rely on [ourselves] in anything,” the author(s) exhort us, “engrave this deeply in your mind and heart.” Sounds a lot like Deuteronomy 6.1-12 doesn’t it?

“Our daily experience,” our guide(s) remind us, “very effectively proves to us the falseness of this [high] opinion of ourselves; in our incomprehensible self-deception we do not cease to believe that we are something, and something not unimportant.” Well, here we are again… The whole issue of actions. Our actions prove that we do have a high opinion of ourselves and it is depriving us of the fruit of the Spirit – of abundant life.

Let me put a blunt point on it. We are deceiving ourselves. It is not others who are leading us into the snare of the fowler (Psalm 91). No, it is we ourselves! There is a reason it is called self-deception. This passion is a powerful subtle one – “hard to perceive and acknowledge.” It is an inner contradiction between what we profess (and really believe intellectually to our credit) but fail to live.

The cost is great. We cannot recite Psalm 91 with integrity. By continuing to live in self-deception regarding our trustworthiness and abilities we slam the door to grace. For, as our guide(s) say, “…how can grace, which comes to help and enlighten us, enter that man, who thinks of himself that he is something great, that he himself knows everything and needs no outside help?”

What is the response of God to this destructive “vainglory and self-esteem?” First, there is the reprimand of God. He warns us in whatever way He can, hoping to save us from our own destructive tendency to “think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think” (Romans 12.3 & 16). God seeks to impress upon us His abhorrence of narcissism in any form.

Any yet, as always we continue to be reminded through the Divine Liturgy and other means that God is a “good and loving God.” For the sake of our salvation:

“…there is nothing He loves and desires to see in us more than a sincere consciousness of our nothingness and a firm and deep-felt conviction that any good we may have in our nature and our life comes from Him, alone since He is the source of all good, and that nothing truly good can ever come from ourselves, whether a good thought or a good action.”

Remember my brother or sister in the Lord; you are the beloved of God. In view of this it is not surprising that the reprimand of the Lord is one that is filled with loving-care. How does He plant and nurture this seed of saving wisdom in our hearts?

“Sometimes He does this through the action of grace and inner illumination, or sometimes through external blows and tribulations, sometimes through unexpected and almost unconquerable temptations, and sometimes by other means, not always comprehensible to us.”

The “action of grace and inner illumination” sounds pretty good. But, the rest sounds really painful and costly. Sometimes the only cure is extremely painful and costly. I believe that is the reason we continue in our self-deception. We want to be cured but not if it is going to be painful and costly. We want our life of discipleship to be painless and fairly costless. Our self-deception tells us that the cure could NEVER include  “…external blows and tribulations, sometimes through unexpected and almost unconquerable temptations…” We cannot bring ourselves to embrace such a God as one who “is good and loves mankind.” The result? Continued defeat and delusional living.

Self-deception is subtle and not easily acknowledged. Self-deception is fueled by the noble and high sounding lies that we continue to tell ourselves.

But, nonetheless, we must struggle against this insidious villain within us! It is never too late.

“… although expecting no good from ourselves and not relying on ourselves is the work of God in us, we on our side must make every effort to acquire this disposition, doing all we can, all within our power.”

Though subtle and hard for us to acknowledge, self-deception and self-trusting is conquerable. Grace is always available to join itself to our smallest effort, our “bruised reed” and dimly burning wick” of effort. What is the form of this all important effort? It comes in the form of four activities with which God unites and fills with His grace.

First, we must “realize our nothingness” and be ever mindful of it. Our father St. John Chrysostom says, “He alone knows himself in the best way possible who thinks of himself as being nothing.”

Second, we must “ask for God’s help in this with warm and humble prayers” for this gift. We must ask with the full conviction that what we will receive is not ours by right but as a GIFT. This is huge!! Self-deception attempts to creep in again in this exact spot. We cry out for help with the underlying conviction that it is somehow our RIGHT to receive it or that God is somehow BOUND to provide it. Subtle… And yet we must be bold in our asking. Here is the key; our boldness does not FORCE God to provide. It rather, expects God in His freedom to meet our trust and boldness with His free offering of grace. The manner of His provision is His to choose but we KNOW we shall receive it. God is freely faithful.

Third, attentiveness or mindfulness is key to the victory. We must be every wary and sober regarding the enemy’s strategies. Our enemy has had lots of experience with human beings. More experience than we have to be sure. They are adept at ambushes and disguise of numerous kinds (Psalm 31.4 & 35.7 & 2Corinthians 11.14-15).

Fourth, we must confess our sins quickly in our heart and then to our confessor (be it a priest or trusted friend). The longer we delay the more likely we are to rationalize away our sin and fall more deeply into self-deception. If we do not wish to reaffirm our distrust of self and our utter nothingness, we will not quickly turn from our sin. We will save a portion of what we consider our “dignity” or “ability.” In reality it is likely to not be our dignity we are protecting but the root of self-deception and need to still reserve a place to stand on our own as a person.

If there is some area where we trust in our own strength or capabilities, considering ourselves to be reliable, trustworthy, talented, and strong it will be in that very area where God will allow the downfall will take place. It will be in that place and not some other that God will desire the realization that we cannot trust in ourselves to take place. This is an extreme measure on God’s part as our teacher(s) indicate:

“This method, although very effective, is also not without danger, and God does not always use it, but only when all the other means we have mentioned, which are easier and more natural, fail to lead a man to self-knowledge. Only then does He finally let a man fall into sin, great or small, in accordance with the degree of his pride, conceit and self-reliance. So that where conceit and self-reliance are absent, instructive failures do not occur.”

Please let me parenthetically note that I do not believe the author(s) are talking about rejoicing in the gifts of God in our life (capabilities, reliability, talent, etc). In as much as they are recognized and celebrated as God’s gifts, all is well. They are talking about attributing these to ourselves.

It must be reaffirmed that God’s intention is that suffering bear the fruit of self-knowledge by His grace and our cooperation. This knowledge is of our weakness not to needlessly humiliate us but to humble us.  The motivation is salvation not condemnation. As St. Paul says,

“For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. (2Corinthians 1.8-10)

A searching and fearless inventory of our thoughts, words, and actions over the course of just one day will affirm our weakness and the futility of trusting in our own strength and capabilities. But, as was established by our author(s) at the beginning of this chapter, without such an inventory, self-deception will deepen and ultimately destroy us. The warfare is unseen but real. The enemy we battle is so very often ourselves.

Let me reiterate the point I made earlier. I do not believe that the intention of the author(s) is to encourage self-loathing or self-hatred. If there is loathing and hatred to be exercised, it is against the false self. The false self is destructive. Self deception builds self-hatred not self-love in the true sense. The tricky thing about self-deception is that it can never be satisfied. Just as sure as we have our sense of self-reliance affirmed and satisfied, it is almost immediately followed by the need of more and more assurance. We end up needing an endless supply of self-assurance of our ability to rely on ourselves. The downward spiral is debilitating and filled with endless restlessness and dissatisfaction.

Fr. Jack Sparks, in his book Victory in the Unseen Warfare, which is his re-presentation of the material in Unseen Warfare in modern language speaks on the subject of the possible misunderstanding of what the author(s) meant:

“We are all of infinite worth in the eyes of God. He values eachof us. Thus, we do not consider ourselves worthless. At the same time there is a self-esteem which is full of pride and arrogance, a self-reliance which is conceited and haughty… In addition, there is a certain sort of pride sometimes taught my modern psychology which also takes our eyes off God and makes us think we are ‘okay’ just as we are. God accepts us as we are, that He might change and remake us according to His will.” (Victory in the Unseen Warfare, pg. 141-142)

The true self is to be affirmed and encouraged and established. Self-reliance is not a characteristic of the true self in Christ. Radical reliance on the Holy Spirit is characteristic of the true self and of the peace of Christ that can perfectly guard and guide us.

This distinction calls for an environment of Godly direction and fellowship. But, once again, when I find myself getting the wrong idea about the deep truths communicated in a chapter like this one, it is often just another example of my seemingly endless ability to deceive myself and refuse to move deeper into the mystery of Christ’s love…

So, what can we take away from this chapter that is of benefit?

  • I really am created to be the receiver of everything good and perfect from God, and not the initiator of it.
  • I need, in a positive way to adically and joyfully cast all my burdens on the Lord rather than deceiving myself into believing that I can trust in my own strength or ability apart from God.
  • I am not intended to beself-producing individual or the member of a self-producing community.
  • I need to be honest about my tendency to deceive myself and enlist the help of others to do so.
  • God desires to use any and all means to save me from my false self. I need to look for Him at work in all
    circumstances and encounters and His invitation in each encounter to die to my own self-importance and self-reliance.
  • I need to engage in self-examination on a regular basis, keeping a short list of sin and responding more quickly in my heart when I realize that I am trusting in my own strength. As Johnny Cashsays, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time.”

We will investigate the “other side of the coin” in the Chapter 3. If we should not “never rely on [ourselves] in anything” then it stands to reason that we should rely in everything on God.

Fr. Thomas

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 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