that the holy angels encourage us to pray,
and when we do pray,
they stand beside us with great joy,
praying for us.
But if we grow careless
and admit wicked thoughts,
we greatly vex the angels,
for there they are struggling hard on our behalf,
and we cannot even be bothered
to pray to God for our own benefit
but have scorned their assistance
and dishonored their master and their God.
— Evagrius of Pontus
(Tr. Fr John Anthony McGuckin)
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.
Every Divine Liturgy is a bottomless Mystery. In the Liturgy itself, we’re reminded more than once that the Angelic Hosts are active participants. What most of us see in church is only the earthly part of the whole Divine-human Liturgy. ¶ A few Orthodox Christians have at times been granted the grace to see a bit more of the Liturgy’s vastness; a small number of those have spoken about it.
¶ I’ve been reading The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina, which includes this awe-inspiring example. As a cantor in our parish church, I could easily sympathize with the plight of the cantors in the story.
On another occasion [Elder Ieronymos] told us about a certain priest of Kelveri named John, married and with a family. He was very compunctionate and when he served the Liturgy he wept and sighed and cried like a little child. He would often tarry at the time of the epiclesis when the Precious Gifts are sanctified — five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and more. The chanters didn’t know what to do in their bewilderment. They would slowly chant “We hymn Thee, we bless Thee…” once, twice, thrice — after that they didn’t know what to chant. Begin to chant the Polyeleos? But that would be out of place. Chant the Communion Hymn? That wouldn’t do either. So one day they said to some of Father John’s disciples, ‘The Teacher [that is, the priest] takes a long time at the epiclesis, and we fall into despair about what to do. We chant ‘We hymn Thee’ over and over, but the blessed one doesn’t finish, we don’t hear the ‘Especially our all-holy, immaculate…,’ and everything’s in confusion out here.” ¶ They in turn said to Father John, “Venerable Father, you often take a long time at the epiclesis, and the chanters and the people are waiting outside. The chanters fall into despair and perplexity about what to say. Forgive us, is it not possible for you to finish the prayer, that confusion might be avoided?” ¶ At that the blessed one answered them, saying, “How can this be?” ¶ “Easily,” they said. “As you are prostrate, get up, seal the Precious Gifts with your right hand with the sign of the Cross, and say ‘And make this bread… and this cup… and the rest of the prayer, and so you finish.” ¶ “The prayer I know,” he answered. “It’s even written in the book. But I can’t.” ¶ “Why can’t you, our Father? Forgive us, it’s easy! Just say the prayer and seal the Precious Gifts, and then we can finish.”
¶ “It’s not that easy. For there is a fire round about the Table, and I am not able. I say the prayer up to a certain point, but suddenly I am unable to enter into the fire to seal the Precious Gifts. There is fear and terror then, and I don’t know what to do. I fall down prostrate, I weep, I sigh, I beseech the Father of Lights, my sweet Jesus, the All-holy Spirit. I cry out, ‘Lord and Master of my life! My Fashioner and God! Spare Thy creatures and take away these flames so that I can approach and seal the Precious Gifts.’ I then lift up my eyes and gaze towards the Holy Table. If the flames have ceased, I get up and seal the Gifts. If not, then I pray again and beseech with tears and deep sighs until either the fire ceases, or a way is found that I might be able to enter into the veil of fire without being burned. Sometimes the fire ceases and everything is as it was before. At other times the flames divide to one side and the other, and become like an arch, and thus trembling I enter and dare to stretch out my hand and seal the Precious Gifts.”
¶ Hearing such astonishing things, they didn’t bother Father John any more about the length of the epiclesis.
— The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina by Peter Botsis, Pub. Holy Transfiguration Monastery; pages 282–283
I was so affected by today’s post on the Morning Offering blog of Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Monastery that I’m going to re-post the whole thing (below).
Curiosity is a big part of me, and I hope that it sometimes has an energizing effect for good in my life. But it also leads to a chronic temptation to spend time trying to be up on things, reading the news to excess, and so on. Along with the many edifying Orthodox sources we’re blessed to have online, I sometimes look in on a handful of muckraking sites that have made it their mission to expose various wrongdoings and buffoonery in high places in the Orthodox Church. I hope that the authors of these blogs mean to do good, and it’s easy to be drawn in to the feeling that in reading them we’re somehow helping to solve the Church’s “problems.” But, Abbot Tryphon reminds me, this is a self-serving delusion.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, in his Conversation with Motovilov, gave in a few words what I increasingly think is, or should be, the Church’s entire “social action program”: “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”
Abbot Tryphon tells us that one thing we can “do about” our hierarchs and their problems is to pray for them. Along with our monastics, our bishops stand in the front lines of defense against the Enemy’s relentless attacks upon the Church. For any hierarch, facing these attacks is like trying to stand upright while a fire hose is aimed straight at him at close range. Sometimes they stand, sometimes they fall; always they need the help of our prayers.
Here is Abbot Tryphon’s post. Do check out his blog, daily if possible.
Letting the Church be Put in Order
Whenever we hear of problems in the Church it is our natural inclination to want to read all about it and root out all the details. Yet if we really want to benefit our soul, we should take the advice of the Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos. His advice: “If you wish to be calm do not read rebellious books or pamphlets that mention Church matters, since you are not responsible for such serious affairs. You have need of books that will assist you in your repentance. If you want to help the Church, correct yourself and immediately amendment is made to a small part of the Church. Naturally, if everyone did this, then the Church would be put in order.”
As long as we struggle against the passions and sins of this world, there will be problems in the Church. Just as nations and all human institutions suffer because of the passions of people, so does the Church. Although divinely instituted by Christ Himself, the Church is made up of sinful men and women who bring in the baggage of their sinful nature. This very place of healing, like all hospitals, houses both the healthy and the sick. If we desire to become numbered among the healthy, we must remain aloof from the din of Church politics, and leave the governance of the Body to the hierarchs.
When we witness the fallen side of human nature within the walls of the Church, we must not respond like news reporters seeking out all the details. Nor should we think knowing the inner workings of the Church will make a difference. Better that we concentrate on the nurturing of our own soul and remaining above the fray. Let those who have been called to service in the Church, the bishops, do their job. If we trust God and pray for our bishops, the Holy Spirit will guide them in their role as our shepherds, the Church will stay the course, and the “gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18)”.
Love in Christ,
Not long ago I posted a reflection on how our habits of rationalism prevent us from recognizing the miracles that sometimes occur right in front of our noses.
I’m now reading a fine book, Elder Païsios’ Athonite Fathers and Athonite Matters. The Elder, who reposed in 1994, had mixed feelings about the modern-day revival of monasticism on the Holy Mountain. He rejoiced in the influx of monks, but felt that much of the simplicity and unreserved faith of previous generations was being lost.
In his book, he returns several times to the thought that miracles were once common and taken as part of everyday life among the brethren, but that the growth of a modern, rationalistic spirit now actually prevented miracles from occurring so easily. In writing about this, the Elder relates one delightful story that I’m happy to pass along:
When I was a beginner at the Monastery of Esphigmenou, I was told by the God-fearing Elder Dorotheos that an elder of great simplicity used to come to help at the monastery infirmary. He thought that the Ascension, the feast which the monastery celebrates, was a great saint, like Saint Barbara,* and when he prayed with his komboskini [prayer rope] he used to say “Saint of God, intercede for us!” One day, a sickly brother had arrived at the infirmary, and since there wasn’t any nutritious food there, the elder hurried down the steps leading to the cellar, stretched his hand out of a window overlooking the sea and said, “Saint Ascension, please give me a little fish for the brother.” What a miracle! A large fish leapt out into his hand. He took it quite naturally, as if nothing had happened, and happily went off to prepare it so as to strengthen the brother.
— Athonite Fathers, pp. 17–18
So, as I read, I’m continuing to ponder the “unbelief is the air we breathe” theme of the earlier post. Do our mostly-unconscious habits of unbelief not only prevent us from recognizing the miracles around us, but actually stand in their way — hinder the flow of divine grace in our lives and in the world?
I remember the very sobering words from the Gospel, of how in Nazareth Christ “did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Mt 13:58; emphasis added).
* This makes more sense in Greek than in English: Where we say “Saint Nicholas,” Greek (like most languages) says “Holy Nicholas”; hence the simple elder’s confusion in thinking that “Holy Ascension” is the name of a saint.
Good order generates peace; peace gives birth to light in the soul; and peace makes the pure air in the mind radiant. The more a man’s heart draws near to wisdom, the more it receives joy from God.
This is how a man can distinguish spiritual wisdom from worldly wisdom: a man perceives in his soul that spiritual wisdom causes silence to reign within him, but worldly wisdom produces a fountain of distraction.
When you have discovered spiritual wisdom, you will be filled with much humility, gentleness and peace that holds sway over your thoughts; and as a result of this, your members will be at rest and be undisturbed by turmoil and wantonness.
When, however, you have become possessed of the second wisdom, you will acquire a proud mind, unspeakably perverted thoughts, a disturbed intellect, shamelessness and haughty senses.
A small but always persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop, falling persistently, hollows out hard rock.
— St. Isaac of Syria, Ascetical Homily #48 (emphasis added)
This post is a bit more personal and confessional than usual, but maybe it will be useful to some.
A few nights ago, one of my teeth started to hurt, and by bedtime it was very painful and sensitive; pushing down on it caused intense pain. I thought to myself, “most likely an abscess, which means a few days of pain, a trip to the dentist, and probably a root canal.” As we were going to bed, I mentioned it to my wife, who suggested I take some holy water. I did, and while at the icon table I also took a little oil blessed at the shrine of St John Maximovitch and rubbed it on the tooth, asking St John to intercede for my health and salvation.
The next morning I woke up to find that the pain was completely gone; the tooth hasn’t bothered me again. It seems clear to me (now) that this was a small miracle of healing through the prayers of Vladika John. Glory be to God!
What strikes me in retrospect, though, is that my very first thought, when I found that I was healed, was not thanks to God, but a purely rational, unbelieving response: “I guess I must have just banged that tooth.” (without noticing?). Unbelief was the automatic, ‘default’ response, which I needed to correct on second thought. I reflected that in our day, unbelief is a kind of toxic cloud that we live in and breathe every moment of our lives; a response of thanksgiving and praise that would once have been the most obvious and natural one has for many of us come to require a little internal struggle. Lord, have mercy!
Through the prayers of our Holy Father John, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us!
The icon of St John Maximovitch is from Uncut Mountain Supply.