"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

Sunday, April 29, 2012

St. Silouan on Freedom

One day the Staretz [Silouan] had a conversation with a young student visiting Mt. Athos who talked a great deal about freedom. As always he listened gently to the ideas and experiences of his lively, nice but naïve visitor. Naturally, the latter’s conception of freedom meant political freedom on the one part and, for the other, being able to follow the dictates of one’s heart.

In reply, the Staretz explained his own ideas and aims.

‘Who doesn’t want freedom?’ he said. ‘Everyone does, but few know what freedom consists of, and how to attain it... To become free, one must first of all “bind” oneself. The more you bind yourself, the more freedom your spirit will know... One must pinion the passions in oneself, so that they don’t get possession of you, restrain yourself so as not to harm your neighbor. People generally seek freedom in order to do what they like. But that is not freedom but the power of sin over you. Freedom to fornicate, overeat and get drunk, or be spiteful, use violence and kill, and so on, is certainly not freedom but, as the Lord said, “Whosoever commits sin is the servant of sin”. One must pray hard to be delivered from such bondage.

‘We believe that true freedom means not sinning, in order to love God and one’s neighbor with our whole heart and our whole strength.

‘True freedom means constant dwelling in God.’

...The Staretz would pray, ‘Lord, people have forgotten You, their Creator, and they seek freedom for themselves. They do not realize that You are merciful and love the repentant sinner, and that You accord him the grace of the Holy Spirit.’

He was sparing of words in his prayer to the omniscient God and did not amplify his thoughts. ‘Men seek their own freedom,’ that is to say, freedom outside of God, outside of true life, in ‘outer darkness’ where there is, and can be, no freedom, for freedom can only exist where there is no death, where there is authentic eternal being – in God, that is.

‘You are merciful and You accord them the grace of the Holy Spirit.’ God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit and then man becomes free. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’

Ontological or, as the Staretz called it, experienced knowledge of human liberty is extraordinarily profound in the prayer of grace. With his whole soul he recognized that there is only one real servitude – the servitude of sin – and one real freedom, which is resurrection in God.

Until man attains his resurrection in Christ everything is him is disfigured by fear of death and, consequently, by servitude to sin, also; while of those who have not yet come to know the grace of the resurrection only the ‘blessed...that have not seen, and yet have believed’ escape such disfiguring.

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St. Silouan the Athonite, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakhorov), St. John the Baptist, Essex, p. 65, 107-107.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Blessed Life Rests on More Than Eyes Can See

Some there are who think that a blessed life is impossible in this body, weak and fragile as it is. For in it one must suffer pain and grief, one must weep, one must be ill. So I could also say that a blessed life rests on bodily rejoicing, but not on the heights of wisdom, on the sweetness of conscience, or on the loftiness of virtue. It is not a blessed thing to be in the midst of suffering; but it is blessed to be victorious over it, and not to be frightened by the power of temporal pain.
Suppose that things come which are accounted terrible as regards the grief they cause, such as blindness, exile, hunger, violation of a daughter, loss of children. Who will deny that Isaac was blessed, who did not see in his old age, and yet gave blessings with his benediction? Was not Jacob blessed who, leaving his father’s house, endured exile as a shepherd for pay, and mourned for the violated chastity of his daughter, and suffered hunger? Were they not blessed on whose good faith God received witness, as it is written: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”?
A wretched thing is slavery, but Joseph was not wretched; no, clearly he was blessed, when he, while in slavery, checked the lusts of his mistress. What shall I say of holy David who bewailed the death of three sons, and, what was even worse than this, his daughter’s incestuous connection? How could he not be blessed from whom the Author of blessedness Himself sprung, Who has made many blessed? For: “Blessed are they who have not seen yet have believed.”
All these felt their own weakness, but they bravely prevailed over it. What can we think of as more wretched than holy Job, either in the burning of his house, or the instantaneous death of his ten sons, or his bodily pains? Was he less blessed than if he had not endured those things whereby he really showed himself approved?
True it is that in these sufferings there is something bitter, and that strength of mind cannot hide this pain. I should not deny that the sea is deep because inshore it is shallow, nor that the sky is clear because sometimes it is covered with clouds, nor that the earth is fruitful because in some places there is but barren ground, nor that the crops are rich and full because they sometimes have wild oats mingled with them. So, too, count it as true that the harvest of a joyful conscience may be mingled with some bitter feelings of grief. In the sheaves of the whole of a blessed life, if by chance any misfortune or bitterness has crept in, is it not as though the wild oats were hidden, or as though the bitterness of the tares was concealed by the sweet scent of the corn?
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. 10, On the Duties of Clergy, Book 2, Chapter 5, 19-21.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Waving the Branches of Our Spirit

O Savior, all came with palms on the occasion of Thy arrival, crying out "Hosanna" to Thee;

Now all of us bring hymns to Thee out of piteous mouths,

As we wave the branches of our spirit and cry out:

"O Thou, truly among those on high, save the world which Thou hast created, Lord,

And  blot out our sins, just as formerly Thou hast dried the tears of Mary and Martha."

O Lover of man, the holy church holds a high festival, faithfully calling together her children;

It meets Thee with palms and spreads out garments of joy

So that with Thy disciples and Thy friend,

Thou mayest advance and legislate a deep peace for Thy servants,

And release them from oppression, as formerly Thou hast checked the tears of Mary and Martha.

Incline Thy ear, O God of the universe, and hear our prayers, and snatch us from the bonds of death,

For our enemies who always surround us, visibly and invisibly,

Threaten to have us put to death and besides to deprive us of our faith.

Arise, and quickly let all be destroyed and let them know

That Thou art God and dost pity us as Thou didst have pity on the tears of Mary and Martha.

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Romanos the Melodist, Kontakia of Romanos, Byzantine Melodist I: On The Person of Christ: 15:14-16, (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1970) p. 155.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Death Itself Cast Into Affliction

Lazarus appeared, resembling an impromptu trophy over death. He appeared without having left to Hades any of the burial wrappings. For, bound, he came forth. His feet did not bear him, rather, grace provided him with wings. Lazarus appeared, having left Hades behind mourning. As he put an end to the grief of brothers, he cast death into affliction.

Seeing his kingdom destroyed and unable to prevent this, death lamented, crying, "What is this change in my affairs, what is this miraculous alliance of nature? The dead are returning to life, and the tombs have become wombs of the living. Alas, for these misfortunes! Even the tombs are faithless to me with regard to the dead, and the dead, although putrefying, are leaping out. They are all dancing in their swathing bands, mocking my laugh. Still mourned, they are going up toward those that mourn them. By showing themselves, they undo the tragedy, leaving me an heir to grief. Who is it who teaches the dead to challenge death? Who is it who is enlisting the deceased against death? Who is the One whose voice the prisons underground cannot support? Who is the One before whom the tombs tremble? He merely speaks, and I am not able to hold on to those whom I have in my power. Oh, in vain was I entrusted with a kingdom! Oh, in vain was I confident in an angry God! 

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Basil of Seleucia, Homily on Lazarus 11-12. Translated by Mary B. Cunningham, from Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, vol. IVb, John 11-21, InterVarsity Press.