That Which is Bread

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? – Isaiah

Tag: Askesis

A Lenten Challenge

This was first written with my own parish in mind, but I post it here with the thought that it might apply more widely.

A Lenten Challenge
During the Great Fast, the Church invites us to struggle harder and to pray more fervently for our salvation and spiritual growth. As part of its invitation, the Church offers us a wealth of services every week of the Fast to help us draw closer to our Lord. As anyone who attends these services can tell you, not all of us take advantage of them: attendance is often quite poor.
May I offer a challenge for this Lenten season? Come to at least one Lenten service every week of the Great Fast. (The Sunday Divine Liturgy isn’t really a Lenten service and doesn’t count!). Many, but not nearly all, of our faithful already do more than this. God will surely bless them for their faithfulness.
Anyone who can get to church has the ability to meet this very modest challenge. Do we tell ourselves that we’re “too busy” to fit in even one weekday service? Perhaps we have filled our lives with other activities, but in doing so we have said about each activity: “This is more important than church.” This is a delusion.
Here is a bonus challenge: Read the rest of this entry »

Spiritual Sunbathing

A few months ago I visited Nativity of the Theotokos Monastery in Saxonburg, PA, to venerate a myrrh-streaming icon of the Mother of God that was visiting there. When the crowds of clergy, monastics and pilgrims had thinned a bit, I was able to spend some time sitting in the back of the small monastery church, not consciously praying, just taking in the presence of this holy icon in this holy place. Afterward I described this to our priest, a bit whimsically, as “spiritual sunbathing.” The metaphor reminded me of this well-known passage from St Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit (ch. 9, 22–23):

Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature, not by his ability to give. As clear, transparent substances become very bright when sunlight falls on them and shine with a new radiance, so also souls in whom the Spirit shines become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others.

Read the rest of this entry »

Seek First

If there is one overarching debasement of the Christian vision in our days, it is the loss of a constant gaze upon the future life of man in the Kingdom… While the Christian may often acknowledge the Kingdom, may even speak of its attainment and its nature, how rarely today does an orientation of all life and living around and toward the Kingdom actually manifest itself, even among the baptized. Rather, the Kingdom of God is often taken as a kind of “backdrop” by which one can give a Christian flavor to the present. “I shall do such-and-such now, because such an act is loving, and the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of love.” Or, “I shall seek this good now, rather than that, because God’s Kingdom focuses on such aims.” It is not that there is no nobility in such reflections (certainly, they are better than a view which takes no account at all of the Kingdom); but the Christian life demands more than this. Christ does not say, “When you consider this life, remember the Kingdom and so let it inform what you seek.” Rather, He commands: Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Only after He has given this sole and primary focus to Christian endeavor, does He add: and all these things will be added unto you.

— Archimandrite Irenei, The Beginning of a Life of Prayer pp.23-24

Archimandrite Irenei’s book is short but intense. Available from St. Herman Press. Emphasis added.

The inner house

Every word of Christ displays God’s mercy, justice and wisdom, and through hearing introduces the power of these into those who hear them gladly. Wherefore the unmerciful and the unjust, hearing without pleasure, were not able to know the wisdom of God, but even crucified Him for teaching it. Let us also observe whether we hear him gladly (cf. Mark 12:37). For He says: “He that loves me will keep my commandments, and he shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (John 14:21). Do you not see how He hid His manifestation in the Commandments? Of all the Commandments, therefore, that of love for God and for neighbor is the most comprehensive. This love is made firm by abstinence from worldly things and by stillness of thoughts. Knowing this, the Lord enjoins us saying, “Take no thought for the morrow” (Matthew 6:34); and reasonably. For how will he who has not freed himself from worldly things and anxiety about them, be freed from evil thoughts? And how will he who is surrounded by such thoughts see the inherent sin concealed in him? … If one has not seen this comprehensive sin, when will he pray regarding it and be cleansed? And how will he who has not been cleansed find the place of pure nature? And how will he who has not found this behold the inner house of Christ? For we are the house of God, according to the Prophetic, Evangelical and Apostolic saying (Hebrews 3:6).

— St. Mark the Ascetic, in the Philokalia (Trans. Constantine Cavarnos)

I was especially struck by the message, paradoxical to many ears, that love can only be founded on renunciation of worldly things.
The drawing is of St. Maximos the Hut-burner of Mount Athos.

Water on a stone

St. Isaac of Syria
by Photios Kontoglou

Forsake not Isaac. Every day one page of Abba Isaac. Not more. Isaac is the mirror. There you will behold yourself. The mirror is so that we may see if we have any shortcoming, any smudge on our face, in order to remove it, to cleanse ourselves. If there is a smudge on your face or on your eyes, in the mirror you will detect it and will remove it. In Abba Isaac you will behold your thoughts, what they are thinking. Your feet, where they are going. Your eyes, if they have light and see. There you will find many sure and unerring ways, in order to be helped. One page of Isaac a day. In the morning or at night, whenever. Suffice it that you read a page.
Elder Ieronymus of Aegina (+ 1966)

Taking Elder Ieronymos’ counsel, I’ve been trying to read a page a day of The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac of Syria. It’s easy to see why the Elder recommended small doses: the texts are remarkably intense and concentrated. Here’s a sample passage from the Second Homily:

Remember the fall of the mighty, and be humble in your virtues. Recollect the grievous transgressions of those who of old trespassed and repented, and the sublimity and honour of which afterwards they were deemed worthy, and take courage in your repentance. Be a persecutor of yourself, and your enemy will be driven from your proximity. Be peaceful within yourself, and heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Be diligent to enter into the treasury that is within you, and you will see the treasury of Heaven: for these are one and the same, and with one entry you will behold them both. The ladder of the Kingdom is within you, hidden in your soul. Plunge deeply within yourself, away from sin, and there you will find steps by which you will be able to ascend.

Reading that, I’m tempted to think that a sentence, rather than a page, each day would be more suited to my poor understanding.

“Small doses, regularly taken”, seems to be a good rule of thumb for much of the spiritual life. In various places we’re also told about prayer and Scripture reading that five minutes every day is much better than an hour once a week. I’m reminded of this, from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

[Abba Poemen said:] The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God: it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, from Holy Transfiguration Monastery, used to be available only in a bulky scholarly edition packed with footnotes, introductory material and appendices. Recently they’ve produced a new edition much better suited to devotional reading: they’ve done a bit of revising of the text, eliminated many footnotes, taken out a lot of supportive material, and reduced the size of the book to something that that can be carried around in a book bag. Recommended. (If you want all the scholarly material, they still supply it in PDF form.)


Taking the podvig of the holy fool — This man’s name is Dobre, a Bulgarian man living in abject poverty. He has donated over 20k euros to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Every day, he stands in the church and begs, but not for himself. All money given to him, he donates to the church. He is the biggest individual donor to the church in the past few decades. He walks several kilometers to and from the church each day. He is known as “The Righteous from Bajlo”.

This photo, along with the caption above, is re-posted from the Lessons from a Monastery blog. I tried to track the original source, but found that it’s a multi-generation re-post (to which I’m now adding another generation), and I gave up before finding the beginning of the chain.

Next time I’m tempted to think that this sort of unreserved faith is a thing of the past, or to hesitate when called on to give, I hope I’ll remember this modern-day fool-for-Christ and his podvig.

Note: €20,000 is about $25,000.