"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
C. S. Lewis

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Superior Way


"There were Paesius and Isaias, sons of a Spanish merchant. When their father died, they divided the estate they held, namely five thousand coins, clothes and slaves. They deliberated and planned together: 'Brother, what kind of life shall we lead? If we become merchants, such as our father was, we will still be entrusting our work to others. Then we would risk harm at the hands of pirates on the high seas. Come, let us take up the monastic life so that we may profit by our father's goods and still not lose our souls.'

"The prospect of monastic life pleased them, but they found themselves in disagreement. For when they had divided the property, they each had in mind to please God, but by taking different ways of life.

"Now the one shared everything among the monasteries, churches, and prisons; he learned a trade so that he might provide bread for himself and he spent his time at ascetic practices and prayer. The other, however, made no distribution of his share, but built a monastery for himself and took in a few brethren. Then he took in every stranger, every invalid, every old man, and every poor one as well, setting up three or four tables every Saturday and Sunday. In this way he spent his money.

"After they were both dead, various pronouncements were made about them as though they had both been perfect. Some preferred one, some the other. Then rivalry developed among the brethren in regard to the eulogies. They went to the blessed Pambo and entrusted the judgment to him, thinking to learn from him which was the better way of life. He told them: 'Both were perfect. One showed the work of Abraham; the other, that of Elias.'

"One faction said: 'By your feet, we implore you, how can they be equal?' And this group considered the ascetic to be greater, and insisted that he did what the Gospel commanded, selling all and giving to the poor, and every hour both day and night carried the cross and followed the Saviour even in his prayers. But the others argued heatedly, saying that Isaias had shared everything with the needy and even used to sit on the highways and gather together the oppressed. Not only did he relieve his own soul, but many others as well by tending the sick and helping them.

"Pambo told them: 'Again I say to you, they are both equal. I firmly insist to each of you that the one, if he had not lived so ascetically, would not be worthy to be compared with the goodness of the other. As for the other, he refreshed strangers, and thereby himself as well, and even if he appeared to carry the load of toil, he had also its relief thereafter. Wait until I have a revelation from God, and then come back and learn it.'

"They returned some days later and he told them: 'I saw both of them standing in Paradise in the presence of God'." 

Palladius: The Lausiac History (a seminal work archiving the Desert Fathers -- early Christian monks who lived in the Egyptian desert -- written in 419-420 by Palladius of Galatia, at the request of Lausus, chamberlain at the court of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II), chapter 14 (Newman press: New York, 1964) pp. 49-51.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

St. John Chrysostom on a Genuine Friend

"He who loves, ought so to love, that if he were asked even for his soul, and it were possible, he would not refuse it. I do not say "if he were asked," but so that he would even run to present him with the gift. For nothing, nothing can be sweeter than such love; nothing will fall out there that is grievous. Truly "a faithful friend is the medicine of life." (Ecclus. vi. 16.) Truly "a faithful friend is a strong defense." (Ib. 14) For what will not a genuine friend perform? What pleasure will he not afford? what benefit? what security? Though you should name infinite treasures, none of them is comparable to a genuine friend. And first let us speak of the great delight of friendship itself. A friend rejoices at seeing his friend, and expands with joy. He is knit to him with an union of soul that affords unspeakable pleasure. And if he only calls him to remembrance, he is roused in mind, and transported.

"I speak of genuine friends, men of one soul, who would even die for each other, who love fervently. Do not, thinking of those who barely love, who are table-companions, mere nominal friends, suppose that my discourse is refuted. If any one has a friend such as I speak of, he will acknowledge the truth of my words. He, though he sees his friend every day, is not satiated. For him he prays for the same things as for himself. I know one, who calling upon holy men in behalf of his friend, besought them to pray first for him, and then for himself. So dear a thing is a good friend, that times and places are loved on his account. For as bodies that are luminous spread their radiance to the neighboring places, so also friends leave a grace of their own in the places to which they have come. And oftentimes in the absence of friends, as we have stood on those places, we have wept, and remembering the days which we passed together, have sighed. It is not possible to represent by speech, how great a pleasure the intercourse with friends affords. But those only know, who have experience. From a friend we may both ask a favor, and receive one without suspicion. When they enjoin anything upon us, then we feel indebted to them; but when they are slow to do this, then we are sorrowful. We have nothing which is not theirs. Often despising all things here, on their account we are not willing to depart hence; and they are more longed for by us than the light.

'For, in good truth, a friend is more to be longed for than the light; I speak of a genuine one. And wonder not: for it were better for us that the sun should be extinguished, than that we should be deprived of friends; better to live in darkness, than to be without friends. And I will tell you why. Because many who see the sun are in darkness, but they can never be even in tribulation, who abound in friends. I speak of spiritual friends, who prefer nothing to friendship. Such was Paul, who would willingly have given his own soul, even though not asked, nay would have plunged into hell for them.With so ardent a disposition ought we to love.

'I wish to give you an example of friendship. Friends, that is, friends according to Christ, surpass fathers and sons. For tell me not of friends of the present day, since this good thing also has past away with others. But consider, in the time of the Apostles, I speak not of the chief men, but of the believers themselves generally; "all," he says, "were of one heart and soul: and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own ...and distribution was made unto each, according as any one had need." (Acts iv. 32, 35) There were then no such words as "mine" and "thine." This is friendship, that a man should not consider his goods his own, but his neighbor's, that his possessions belong to another; that he should be as careful of his friend's soul, as of his own; and the friend likewise.
And where is it possible, somebody says, that such an one should be found? Because we have not the will; for it is possible. If it were not possible, neither would Christ have commanded it; he would not have discoursed so much concerning love. A great thing is friendship, and how great, no one can learn, and no discourse represent, but experience itself. It is this that has caused the heresies. This makes the Greeks to be Greeks. He who loves does not wish to command, nor to rule, but is rather obliged when he is ruled and commanded. He wishes rather to bestow a favor than to receive one, for he loves, and is so affected, as not having satisfied his desire. He is not so much gratified when good is done to him, as when he is doing good. For he wishes to oblige, rather than to be indebted to him; or rather he wishes both to be beholden to him, and to have him his debtor. And he wishes both to bestow favors, and not to seem to bestow them, but himself to be the debtor. I think that perhaps many of you do not understand what has been said. He wishes to be the first in bestowing benefits, and not to seem to be the first, but to be returning a kindness. Which God also has done in the case of men. He purposed to give His own Son for us; but that He might not seem to bestow a favor, but to be indebted to us, He commanded Abraham to offer his son, that whilst doing a great kindness, He might seem to do nothing great.

'For when indeed there is no love, we both upbraid men with our kindnesses and we exaggerate little ones; but when there is love, we both conceal them and wish to make the great appear small, that we may not seem to have our friend for a debtor, but ourselves to be debtors to him, in having him our debtor. I know that the greater part do not understand what is said, and the cause is, that I am speaking of a thing which now dwells in heaven. As therefore if I were speaking of any plant growing in India, of which no one had ever had any experience, nospeech would avail to represent it, though I should utter ten thousand words: so also now whatever things I say, I say in vain, for no one will be able to understand me. This is a plant that is planted in heaven, having for its branches not heavy-clustered pearls, but a virtuous life, much more acceptable than they. What pleasure would you speak of, the foul and the honorable? But that of friendship excelleth them all, though you should speak of the sweetness of honey. For that satiates, but a friend never does, so long as he is a friend; nay, the desire of him rather increases, and such pleasure never admits of satiety. And a friend is sweeter than the present life. Many therefore after the death of their friends have not wished to live any longer. With a friend one would bear even banishment; but without a friend would not choose to inhabit even his own country. With a friend even poverty is tolerable, but without him both health and riches are intolerable. He has another self: I am straitened, because I cannot instance by an example. For I should in that case make it appear that what has been said is much less than it ought to be.

"And these things indeed are so here. But from God the reward of friendship is so great, that it cannot be expressed. He gives a reward, that we may love one another, the thing for which we owe a reward. "Pray," He says, "and receive a reward," for that for which we owe a reward, because we ask for good things. "For that which you ask," He says, "receive a reward. Fast, and receive a reward. Be virtuous, and receive a reward," though you rather owe a reward. But as fathers, when they have made their children virtuous, then further give them a reward; for they are debtors, because they have afforded them a pleasure; so also God acts. "Receive a reward," He says, "if thou be virtuous, for thou delightest thy Father, and for this I owe thee a reward. But if thou be evil, not so: for thou provokest Him that begot thee." Let us not then provoke God, but let us delight Him, that we may obtain the kingdom of Heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be the glory and the strength, world without end. Amen."

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--St. John Chrysostom, 2 Homily on 1 Thessalonians 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Secrets of the Heavenly Life

A brother once went out on a pilgrimage from the monastery of Abba Poemen, and came to a hermit, who lived in love towards all and received many  visitors.  The brother told the hermit stories of Abba Poemen.  And when he heard of Poemen's strength of character, he longed to see him.
 
"The brother returned to Egypt.  And after some little time, the hermit rose and went from his country to Egypt to see the brother who had visited him: for he had told him where he lived.  When the brother saw the hermit, he was astonished, and very glad.  The hermit said to him, "Of your charity towards me, take me to Abba Poemen."  And the brother rose up and showed him the way to the old man.

"And the brother told Abba Poemen this about the hermit, "A great man of much charity, and particular honor in his own province, has come here wanting to see you."  So the old man received him kindly.  And after they had  exchanged greetings, they sat down.

"But the hermit began to talk of the Holy Scripture, and of the things of the spirit and of heaven.  But Abba Poemen turned his face away, and answered nothing.  When the hermit saw that he would not speak with him, he was distressed and went out.  And he said to the brother who had brought him there, "My journey was useless.  I went to the old man and he does not deign
to speak to me."

"The brother went to Abba Poemen, and said, "Abba, it was to talk with you that this great man came here, a man of much honor in his own land.  Why did you not speak to him?"  The old man answered, "He is from above, and speaks of the things of heaven.  I am from below, and speak of the things of the earth.  If he had spoken with me on the soul's passions, I would willingly have replied to him.  But if he speaks of the things of the spirit, I know nothing about them."
 
"So the brother went out and told the hermit, "The reason is that the old man does not easily discuss Scripture.  But if anyone talks to him about the soul's passions, he answers."
 
"Then the hermit was stricken with penitence, and went to the old man and said, "What shall I do, Abba?  My passions rule me."  And the old man gazed at him with gladness and said, "Now you are welcome.  You have only to ask and I will speak with understanding."  And the hermit  was much strengthened by their discourse, and said, "Truly, this is the way of love." And he thanked God that he had been able to see so holy a man, and returned to his own country." 

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from In the heart of the desert: the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, By John Chryssavgis, Zosimas (Abba), pp. 60, 61

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Feeling Overwhelmed

"Certain people often become overwhelmingly distressed about the state of the world. They are vexed when they see that the will of God is not done today by others and by themselves and they suffer with the physical and psychological pain of others. This sensitivity is a gift of God. We find it most frequently among women. Souls with this sensitivity are especially receptive to the will of God. These sensitive souls have the ability to advance greatly in the life of Christ, because they love God and do not wish to cause Him vexation. They do, however, run a danger. If they do not entrust their life fully to Christ, it is possible for the evil spirit to exploit their sensitivity and to lead them to depression and despair.

"Sensitivity cannot be corrected. It can only be transformed, altered and transfigured so as to become love, joy, and worship. How? By turning upwards. By turning every sorrow into knowledge of Christ, love of Christ and worship of Christ. And Christ, who constantly waits with eagerness to help us, will give you His grace and His strength to transform sorrow into joy, into love for our fellows and worship of Him. Thus darkness will flee. Remember Saint Paul. What did he say? Now I rejoice in my sufferings.

"Let your soul devote itself to the prayer 'Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me' in all your worries, for everything and everyone. Don't look at what is happening to you, look at the light, at Christ, just as the child looks to its mother when something happens to it. See everything without anxiety, without depression, without strain and without stress. There is no need to exert yourselves and strain yourselves. Let your every effort be dirrected towards the light and towards acquiring the light, so that instead of devoting yourself to thoughts of despair, which do not come from the Spirit of God, you devote yourselves to the praise of God."
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Elder Porphyrios, Wounded By Love: The life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios (Denise Harvey: Limni, Evia, Greece, 2009) pp. 144-145.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Before the Transgression of Adam

"Before the transgression, Adam shared in divine illumination and brilliance. He was clothed in the true robe of glory and was not naked, nor was he ugly in his nakedness, but was truly unspeakably better adorned than those who wear diadems embellished with much gold and precious stones. When our human nature was stripped of this divine illumination and radiance as a result of the ugly transgression, the Word of God had mercy on this nature and in His compassion took it upon Himself. On Mount Tabor He showed it clothed once more to His chosen disciples (cf. Lk. 9:28-37), proving to all what we had once been, and what those of us who believed in Him and attained to perfection in Him would be through Him in the age to come. You will find that the earnest of this perfection of those who live according to Christ is openly given here and now to God's saints. They reap, so to speak, the good of the age to come." 

St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies Vol. 1 (St. Tikhon's Seminary Press) pg. 207

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Seeking Relief

"When you are sick, you feel weak and feeble, and your face is pale; you are incapable of performing your normal tasks, and people remark how ill you appear. So you go to the doctor. What do you want from him? You say that you want some medicine to cure your sickness. But if the cause of your sickness was cured, and you remained feeble and pale, would you be satisfied? Of course not! The truth is, a person goes to the doctor for relief of symptoms of disease, not disease itself. The doctor, on the other hand, knows that the symptoms cannot be relieved unless their cause is overcome. Similarly, when we declare ourselves to be disciples of Christ, we claim that we want him to cure our spiritual and moral disease. Yet in truth we want Him to relieve the symptoms, such as misery, discontent, despair, and so on. Jesus, by contrast, knows that He cannot relieve the symptoms unless He overcomes their deep, inner cause. And this is where the problems arise. While we would like to be rid of the symptoms, we stubbornly resist the efforts of Jesus to penetrate our souls. We do not want our deep-set feelings and attitudes to be changed. But only when we truly open our souls to the transforming grace of God will the symptoms of spiritual disease begin to disappear."

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St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom, compiled by Robert Van De Weyer (Liguori/Triumph, 1996) p. 75.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ravishing the Soul With Self-Esteem


"Just as self-esteem (presumably-κενοδοξια: vainglory, self esteem, empty pride) ravishes the soul aloft and gives it freedom to float amid the clouds of its thoughts and to wander all over creation; so humility collects the soul into singleness by silence and makes it concentrate within itself. As the soul, living in the body, is hidden from sight and communion with people; so a truly humble man not only does not wish to be seen or known by others, but more, his will is to plunge away from himself into himself, to become nothing, as if not existing, not yet come into being. And while such a man is hidden, enclosed within himself and withdrawn from the world, he remains wholly with his Lord.

"A humble man never stops to look at gatherings, crowds, excitement, noise, merrymaking; he does not pay attention to words, conversations, calls or anything that disperses the senses; he is not wishful to possess many things and be constantly occupied with activities, but wants to be always free, without cares, that he may keep his thoughts from going out of him. For he is sure that if he becomes involved in many things, he will be unable to keep his thoughts undisturbed, since numerous activities produce many cares and a swarm of complicated thoughts; and this opens the door of passions, banishes calm discrimination and closes the door to peace. Therefore a humble man protects himself from all the multiple, and thus ever remains in stillness, quiet, peace, modesty and reverence.

"A humble man is never hurried, hasty or perturbed, never has any hot or flitting thoughts, but at all times remains calm. Nothing can ever surprise, disturb or dismay him, for he suffers neither fear nor change in tribulations, neither surprise nor elation in enjoyment. All his joy and gladness are in what is pleasing to his Lord.

"A humble man does not dare even to pray or petition God about something, and does not know what to ask for; he simply keeps all his senses silent and waits only for mercy and for whatever the Most Worshipful Majesty may be pleased to send him. When he bows down with his face to the earth, and the inner eyes of his heart are raised to the gates of the Holy of Holies, where He dwells Whose abode is darkness , before whom the Seraphim close their eyes, he dares only to speak and pray thus: 'May Thy will be done upon me, O Lord!'

"Walk before God in simplicity, and not is subtleties of the mind. Simplicity brings faith; but subtle and intricate speculations bring conceit; and conceit brings withdrawal from God."

St. Isaac of Syria, Directions on Spiritual Training, from Early Fathers from the Philokalia, Faber, pp. 214-215.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Tale of Two Young Brothers

Once there were two young brothers who had spent all of their lives in the city, and had never even seen a field of pasture. So one day they decided to take a journey into the countryside. As they walked along, they saw a farmer plowing his field, and they were puzzled over what it was he was doing.

"What strange behavior is this?" they asked themselves. "This fellow marches  back and forth all the day long, scarring the earth with long troughs. Why should anyone destroy such a lovely meadow like this?"

Later in the day they passed the same place once again, and this time they saw the farmer sowing grains of wheat in the furrows.

"Now what does this fellow do?" they asked themselves. "Surely he is a madman! For he takes perfectly good wheat and tosses it into these ditches he has made!"

"The country is no place for me," said one of the brothers. "The people here act as though they had no sense. I shall return home." And he did indeed return to the city.

But the second brother remained in the country, and a few weeks later he saw a wondrous change. Fresh young green shoots began to cover the field with a lushness he had never imagined. He quickly wrote to his brother and told him to hasten back and see the miraculous growth.

So his brother returned from the city, and he also was amazed at the change he saw before him. As the days passed they saw that the green earth of the field became golden with tall wheat. And now they understood, in part, the reason for the farmer's labor.

The wheat in the field grew ripe, and the farmer came with his scythe and began to cut it down. The brothers from the city were astounded. "What is this fool doing now?" they exclaimed. "All summer long he labored so hard to grow this beautiful wheat, and now he destroys it with his own hands! He is indeed a madman after all! I have had enough," said the one brother. "I shall return to the city."

But his brother, again, had greater patience. He remained in the country and watched as the farmer collected the wheat and took it into his granary. He watched and saw how cleverly the farmer separated the chaff, and how carefully he stored the rest. And he was filled with awe and wonder when he realized that by scarring the field and sowing the bag of seed, and by tending to it day after day, the farmer had harvested a whole field full of golden grain. Only then did he truly understand that the farmer had a reason for every single thing he had done.

"And this too is how it is with God's work," the young man thought to himself. "We mortal creatures see only the beginnings of His plan, and that with no understanding. So we must, in all humility, have faith with patience and trust in His Divine Wisdom for the harvest."

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From "The Book of Virtues", by William Bennet. The actual author of this story was not listed and I took the liberty to edit it a little.