"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

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Of True Fasting and Its Reward

While fasting and sitting on a certain mountain, and giving thanks to the Lord for all His dealings with me, I see the Shepherd sitting down beside me, and saying, “Why have you come hither so early in the morning?”

“Because, sir,” I answered, “I have a station.”

“What is a station?” he asked.

“I am fasting, sir,” I replied.

“What is this fasting which you are observing,” he continued?

“As I have been accustomed, sir,” I reply, “so I fast.”

“You do not know,” how to fast unto the Lord” he says, “This useless fasting which you observe to Him is of no value.”

“Why, sir, do you say this,” I asked?

He answered saying, “I say to you that the fasting which you think you observe is not a fast. But I will teach you what is a full and acceptable fast to the Lord. Listen,” he continued: “God does not desire such an empty fasting. For fasting to God in this way you will do nothing for a righteous life; but offer to God a fasting of the following kind: Do no evil in your life, and serve the Lord with a pure heart: keep His commandments, walking in His precepts, and let no evil desire arise in your heart; and believe in God. If you do these things, and fear Him, and abstain from every evil thing, you will live unto God; and if you do these things, you will keep a great fast, and one acceptable before God.”

He continued, “Hear the story which I am about to tell you relative to fasting. A certain man had a field and many slaves, and he planted a certain part of the field with a vineyard, and selecting a faithful, beloved and much valued slave, he called him to himself, and said, ‘Take this vineyard which I have planted, and stake it while I am gone, and do nothing else to the vineyard; and attend to this order of mine, and you shall receive your freedom from me.’

The master of the slave departed to a foreign country. And when he was gone, the slave took and staked the vineyard; and when he had finished the staking of the vines, he saw that the vineyard was full of weeds. He then thought to himself, ‘I have kept this order of my master: I will also hoe this vineyard, and it will be more beautiful when dug up being free of weeds. It will yield more fruit, not being choked by the weeds.’ He took, therefore, and dug up the vineyard, and rooted out all the weeds that were in it. And that vineyard became very beautiful and fruitful, having no weeds to choke it.

Now after a certain time the master of the slave and of the field returned, and entered into the vineyard. Seeing that the vines were suitably supported on stakes, and the ground, moreover, was dug up, and all the weeds rooted out, and the vines fruitful, he was greatly pleased with the work of his slave. Thus, calling his beloved son who was his heir, and his friends who were his councilors, he told them what orders he had given his slave, and what he had found performed. Together they rejoiced along with the slave at the testimony which his master bore to him. That master said to them, ‘I promised this slave freedom if he obeyed the command which I gave him; and he has kept my command, and besides this he has done a good work to the vineyard, and has pleased me exceedingly. In return, therefore, for the work which he has done, I wish to make him co-heir with my son, because, having good thoughts, he did not neglect them, but carried them out.’

With this resolution, that the slave should be co-heir with the son of the master, the master’s son and friends were well pleased. After a few days the master made a feast, and sent to his slave many dishes from his table. The slave, receiving the dishes that were sent to him from his master, took of them what was sufficient for himself and distributed the rest among his fellow slaves. His fellow slaves rejoiced to receive the dishes, and began to pray for him, that he might find still greater favor with his master for having so treated them with such goodness. His master heard all these things that were done, and was again greatly pleased with the slave’s conduct. Thus the master again called together his friends and his son and reported to them the slave’s proceeding with regard to the dishes which he had sent him. Hearing this they were still more satisfied that the slave should become co-heir with his son.”

I said to him, “Sir, I do not see the meaning of these similitudes, nor am I able to understand them unless you explain them to me.”

“I will explain them all to you,” he said, “and whatever I shall mention in the course of our conversations I will show you. Keep the commandments of the Lord, and you will be approved, and inscribed amongst the number of those who observe His commands. If you do any good beyond what is commanded by God, you will gain for yourself more abundant glory, and will be more honored by God than you would otherwise be. If, therefore, in keeping the commandments of God, you do, in addition, these services, you will have joy if you observe them according to my command.”

I said to him, “Sir, whatsoever you enjoin upon me I will observe, for I know that you are with me.”

The Shepherd replied, “I will be with you because you have such a desire for doing good; and,” he added, “ I will be with all those who have such a desire. This fasting is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord are observed. Thus, then, shall you observe the fasting which you intend to keep. First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows: Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.”

The Shepherd said, “If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord. These things, therefore, shall you thus observe with your children, and all your house, and in observing them you will be blessed; and as many as hear these words and observe them shall be blessed; and whatsoever they ask of the Lord they shall receive.”

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Philip Schaff, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, The Shepherd of Hermas,  Similitude Fifth, Of True Fasting and Its Reward: Also of Purity of Body, ch. I-III. (Slightly edited for readability)

The Shepherd of Hermas (Ποιμήν του Ερμά) is a Christian literary work of the 1st or 2nd century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and as canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers such as St. Irenaeus.  The Shepherd had great authority in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It was bound with New Testament in the Codex Sinaiticus.

Monday, February 20, 2012

On the Stormy Sea of This World

God has, as though deliberately, left the righteous unarmed and unprotected in this world, in order to reveal His strength and to place a stumbling block before tyrants. A thread of righteousness is therefore stronger than a chain of unrighteousness. The Tyrant attempts to break the thread of righteousness, but will become entangled in it and will perish.

Satan sought to destroy righteous Job, but God raised Job to the skies. It was when Job seemed weak that he was the victor. Satan sought to destroy King Herod, and Herod, in his wickedness, gave him no opposition. It was when Herod seemed all-powerful that he perished. All that is from God in this life seems to be weak, but is stronger than the stars and the sounding ocean.

Look and learn from these opposites that God has provided for our instruction: Moses and Pharaoh, David and Goliath, Job and Satan, Jerusalem and Babylon, the Three Children and King Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel and Darius, the apostles and Rome. If we understand the teaching that God has given us in these clear examples, we shall joyfully cry out with wonderous David: “Some put their trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will remember the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 19/20:7). We shall then wonderfully understand with our minds and make our own with our hearts the words of the Apostle Paul: “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

(excerpt from Bishop Nikolai of Velimirovic, Homilies, vol. 2, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, (Lazarica Press: Birmingham, 1996) pp. 149-150.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Love In a World of Violence

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven. For He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them that love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father who is in Heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
In a world of violence, the Cross, that eminently counter-cultural symbol that lies at the heart of the Christian faith, is a scandal. At its core, however, the scandal of the Cross in a world of violence is not the danger associated with self-sacrifice. Jesus' greatest agony was not that He suffered. Suffering can be endured, even embraced, if it brings forth desirable fruit, as the experience of giving birth illustrates. What turned the pain of suffering into agony is abandonment; Jesus was abandoned by the very people who trusted Him and, it would appear to fully human eyes, by the God in whom He trusted. "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34).
My God, my God, why did my radical, self-sacrificial obedience to Your way lead to the pain and disgrace of the Cross? The ultimate scandal of the Cross is the all too frequent failure of self-sacrifice to bring forth positive fruit: you give yourself for the other – and violence does not stop but destroys you; you sacrifice your life – and stabilize the power of the perpetrator of the evil. Though self-sacrifice often issues in the joy of reciprocity, it must reckon with the pain of failure and violence. When violence strikes, the very act of self-sacrifice becomes a cry before the face of God. “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, ( Abington Press, Nashville) p. 26, edited and adapted)
So we must ask, do we offer ourselves a living sacrifice of love even to our enemies, to bear fruit that we may qualify and quantify in this world? Or do we offer ourselves a living sacrifice of love even to our enemies, because this is the Divine Commandment, the Divine Order where the fruit itself is not only of this world, even unrecognizable to this world, and thus beyond created means of measure? We must love because we are Christian, and God Himself is Love (1 John 4:8).

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Personal Reflection on Life... and Death

The Holy Elders of the Optina Hermitage (Оптина пустынь) of Russia have always held a dear place in my Orthodox heart, though I am an American. It was during the 18th and 19th centuries that the monastery became the center of Russian staretsdom. Those startsy attracted countless numbers of Russian Orthodox people who longed for the full Christian life people such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vasily Zhukovsky, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and Vasily Rozanov. This was a period when Orthodox Christianity was not flourishing in the rest of the "Orthodox" world which was under the oppression of the enemy of Truth.  

In 1898 came to America the humble hieromonk Tikhon (Bellavin). Of course, we know him as Saint Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, (31 Jan. 1865 - 7 Apr. 1925). He was head of the Russian Orthodox Church in America, becoming himself an American citizen,  and looking at the Orthodox faith in America not simply as "Russian" or "for" Russians, but as a faith for the life and salvation of all people. In 1907, because the godliness of his life and vision were widely recognized and loved, he was called back to Russia where, in 1917, at the very moment that the Revolution would defy and threaten all true freedom, he was raised to the dignity of Metropolitan of Moscow. For this he suffered greatly, never losing his divine vision of Orthodox Christianity for all mankind.

What the startsy of Optina taught, St. Tikhon lived. And so, when I read the words of St. Nikon of Optina, I hear the words of our blessed first hierarch saying,  "We must strive so that all our life, as a whole, and not certain hours and days, is based on the Law of God. We must arrange all of our activities so that they are in agreement with the will of God. Only under these conditions will our hearts be pure, and only the pure in heart will see God (Mt. 5:8)". And what is this Law?  Jesus said, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it [literally, just like it]: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor {literally, everyone else] as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

St. Barsanuphius of Optina tells us, "Life is blessedness, and not simply because we believe in blessed eternity, but here on earth life can be blessed if we live with Christ, fulfilling His holy commandments. If a man is not tied to earthly goods, but will in all things rely on the will of God, will live for Christ and in Christ, then life here on earth will become blessed."  And St. Ambros of Optina tells us, "We live in a vale of tears. Therefore we must pass the time sometimes weeping, sometimes leaping... Everything will quickly pass by, will flash by like a shadow, like an echo, and eternity will begin, permanent, unchanging, and hopefully for us, blessed and radiant."

So, my friends, how ought we to live our life this life? My earthly father reposed yesterday. My heart is full of sadness as I remember his many good and loving deeds. And I am made to consider, in this brief life what is truly worth striving for? God makes it rather clear as we hear in the words of His saints, while the world around us, in the grasp of death, screams that we must spend life in pursuit of ourselves. But in the end, when the gentle voice of our Lord and the shouting yell of our adversary are silent, we are left with only one thing... the truth of a life lived. What shall it be?