Monday, August 21, 2006

Victory Over the Demons

(10th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matt. 17:14-23a)

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear the disciples are unable to cast out a demon from a man. When they ask our Lord why this happened, he tells them that their failure is a result of their unbelief – that is, their lack of faith. He then gives them a key instruction: “This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”

The Fathers tell us more. The man who came to the Lord to seek the healing of his son lacked faith. Indeed, the man who was possessed lacked faith – and it was his lack of faith that allowed the demon to enter him, and to control him.

The holy monk-martyr Dometius, whose memory we celebrate today, did not lack faith. Born a pagan during the time of the Emperor St. Constantine, he came to know the Christian faith, and was baptized. The depth and beauty of the Orthodox faith caused him to give up all worldly things and to enter a monastery. He lived among the brethren for a time, and then withdrew into silence. The archimandrite made him a deacon, but when he sought to make Dometius a priest, the saint ran away to a distant mountain, and lived there in a cave, praying, fasting, keeping vigils, and meditating. This brought about an increase in perfection, so that he was able to heal the sick. When the Emperor Julian the Apostate heard of the saint, he sent men to wall up the entrance to the cave in which St. Dometius lived, with two of his disciples. They died in the year 363.

So we have these contrasts: the man whose lack of faith caused him to fall under the control of a demon; and the holy martyr Dometius, whose faith led him to victory over his passions, and a heavenly crown.

What about us? How do we live? I suspect that most of us, if we try to place ourselves on a spectrum described by these two contrasting lives, would have to place ourselves closer to the first man than to the saint. Not a very flattering picture, to be sure! Not only that: what does it say about our bearing witness to Christ in us when we live as we do? Take a moment, and recall the sins that you commit frequently, even regularly. Isn’t it a form of lunacy, aren’t we insane in some way, when we continue to do what we do? Now, to be sure, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us; so, on one level, we cannot be possessed by a demon; but that does not mean that we are necessarily free of demonic influence, against which we must be on our guard, against which we must fight, against which we must strengthen ourselves. And that brings us back to prayer and fasting.

We are called to be disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ – and more than that, we are called to bear Him within ourselves, and make Him known in the world. Can this be possible? We have the example of the martyr Dometius for an answer: Yes, it is possible. He manifested Christ in the world by healing the sick, as well as by his holy life, and by his teaching two disciples the Orthodox faith and way of life.

Victory over the demons comes by prayer and fasting – and we know these to be hallmarks of the Orthodox faith and way of life, together with alms-giving and struggle against our passions. If we would be set free of the demonic influences over our own lives, we must fast and pray. Remember that one purpose for fasting is to weaken the power of our flesh, so that our will can direct it in its desires. Remember also that one purpose for prayer is to teach our will the will of God, so that we can properly direct our lives in the way that is pleasing to God, and beneficial to the salvation of our souls. We also come into the presence of God through the worship of the church, including the vigils that are served on the eve of every Divine Liturgy; and we can learn more of the will of God by studying and contemplating the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers.

Brothers and sisters, as we do these things: fast, and pray, worship, and contemplate – we will find ourselves moving away from being like the demon-possessed man, and moving to be more like the saint. Who knows what wonders God might perform through us as we devote ourselves to be like Him, leaving behind, as much as we can, the way of life that is in the world? Let us dedicate ourselves to drawing nearer to Him, that we may know Him better, and make Him known: to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy monk-martyr Dometius, pray to God for us!

Shining with the Light of Christ

(The Transfiguration of our Lord) (Matt. 17:1-9)

One of the most striking elements of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ is the way in which He is revealed to His disciples while He is speaking with Moses and Elijah. Our Lord’s face shines as brightly as the sun, and his clothing appears to be a pure white. Peter, James and John are unable to look directly at him.

The Fathers tell us that our Lord shone in this way as He revealed, in a small way, His divinity. He shines forth with the light of the uncreated glory of God, a glory, and a light, which words are incapable of describing. The light of the Transfiguration shows us the divinity of Christ.

The theme of light is found throughout the Scriptures. When God created the heavens and the earth, His first command was, “Let there be light!” Later, He created what are called the “lesser lights”: the sun to shine and give light in the day, and the moon and stars to give light at night. The physical experiences of light and darkness became a means for instructing the people of God in the higher concepts of spiritual light, and spiritual darkness. Isaiah the prophet foretold the time when the people who dwelt in darkness would see a great light; and this light would also be a “light to the Gentiles’ – that is, would be a guide to bring them into the same understanding as was being given by God to His people by the prophets. Isaiah also spoke of the situation in heaven, when the sun and moon and stars would no longer give their light; for the light of heaven comes from God, and He shall be His people’s light. There are also many similar instances of this theme in the Psalms.

The holy Apostle and Evangelist John spoke of the Logos, the Word of God, and called Him, “the light of the world,” and, “the light of men” – and of how some chose darkness, rather than the light, and so could not know what could be known in the light. Our Lord Himself called Himself “the Light of the world”; and said that His mission was to enlighten us, so that we would not have to live in darkness.

The Apostle Paul, while still living as Saul, the accuser of the brethren, was stricken on the road to Damascus by the Lord, Who appeared to Him in the great light of His glory, which blinded him for a time, until he was healed. There are also many instances of the saints shining with a heavenly light, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, as reported in the account of his conversation with Motovilov. The merchant, a seeker after the truth, learns from his encounter with the saint that he, also, shines forth with this light – the light of the glory of God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord tells His disciples – and we are His disciples, if we follow Him – “You are the light of the world.” He then commands us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may glorify God in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, do you see? We are also meant to shine the light of Christ in the world. We are meant to bear witness to the divinity of Christ; and the best way to show Him forth is to let Him be seen in us, and to let His light shine forth from us. We are more than whom we appear to be; we are more than our physical existence suggests. But if we do not know of our spiritual being, and if we do not pursue the expression of the life of Christ that dwells in us, who have been baptized, who have been chrismated, who have been fed with the heavenly food of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot pursue our purpose: to make Christ known, to the glory of God. Whenever we sin; indeed, whenever we live in any way that is not meant for the glory of God, we are not shining with the light of Christ; we are not living to give glory to God.

As our Lord was seen shining with the light of God on the mountain of His Transfiguration, may God also grant unto each one of us His grace to allow Christ to be seen in us; that we may bring light to those in darkness; that our good works for God may be seen by men; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Desire and the Will

(9th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 14:22-34)

Last week, you’ll recall, we reflected upon the part that our desires play in shaping and motivating our lives. We found that we are made in such a way that our mind and will work to accomplish whatever it is we desire to have in our lives: fame, power, money, comfort, and so on.

Desire, however, is only part of the equation. Desire, regardless of the form it takes, can be tamed by the will, if we are willing to exert ourselves, if we are willing to make the effort, if we are willing to pay the price to put our will in charge of our mind, and our will in charge of our flesh. If we will do this, then we can tame our desires, and properly harness their power, and put our desires to work in obedience to our will, in order to live a life that is pleasing to God and beneficial to the salvation of our souls.

This “secret” is revealed to us in the teachings of the fathers. For example, we are told that Abba Mark once went to St. Arsenius to ask the saint why he lived as a hermit, and not in a community. St. Arsenius replied that, in heaven, there are thousands of thousands who have but one will, and that, the will of God, as their own; while among men, each of us has our own will – which is usually not focused on the will of God, but upon the desires of our flesh, and of our pride. The reason ascetics go into the desert is to bring their will into full and complete obedience to the will of God; that is, to have no will of their own, but to so desire to do the will of God that they surrender their freedom of will – a God-given aspect of our very being – in order to do the will of God faithfully and completely, without hesitation, and without question.

But what about us, who do not have the opportunity, or even the desire, to flee into the desert, to live in solitude, so that we may directly confront our weaknesses and our desires? Does that mean we cannot follow the path of the desert ascetics? We have two examples that teach us otherwise.

The righteous Eudocimus was an officer in the army of the Emperor Theophilus during the 9th century. Even as he lived as a soldier, he sought to live according to the teachings of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He kept himself pure in thought, word, and deed; was generous in giving to the poor; spent his time in the reading of the Bible and other holy books; and above all, was dedicated to coming into the presence of God each day in prayer. He had no time or desire for idle conversation or worldly diversions. His virtuous life brought him to the attention of the Emperor, who appointed him to be the military governor of Cappadocia. Apart from increasing his responsibilities, his life did not change. Having died at an early age (33), his relics were found, after eighteen months, to be completely incorrupt; and many were healed by his intercessions, including a man whose insanity was cured when he touched the saint’s tomb.

Our other example is the apostle Peter, who, as we heard in today’s first reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, left the boat in which he and the other disciples were traveling while in a storm, and walked on the water, even if only for a few steps, to be with our Lord. This was an act of will. It was founded on the apostle’s faith – but it took an act of his will to put his faith into action, and to brave the wind and the waves to get out of the boat.

Neither the Apostle Peter nor the righteous Eudocimus were ascetics dwelling in desert solitude. Each of them had lives in the world, with responsibilities, as also do most of us. But each of them set their will to do the will of God, and achieved the same – and so can we, if we choose to do so.

To accomplish this, we need to take time to examine ourselves, and all our decisions, and all our motives, and all our thoughts. Is the action we are contemplating pleasing to God? Is the manner in which we are going to act pleasing to God? Why are we doing what we are doing: to serve God, or to serve ourselves? What does God require of us in this situation? Unless we teach ourselves to think in this way, we will not change what we do, or why we do what we do.

There’s more, of course. We must be careful about how we use the time that God has entrusted to us. How much time do we spend each day in idle talk or activities, which we see the righteous Eudocimus avoided? How much time de we spend serving our flesh? How much time do we devote to the reading and study of God’s Word, and to the teachings of the saints? How much time and effort do we devote to prayer, in which we can, if we choose, draw closer to God?

The world is a tempestuous place; and, unless we are careful, we will do little more than huddle in the bottom of the boat, hoping that somehow we will make it through. Instead, we must gather ourselves together, and summon our will, and take the step, and get out of the boat – and walk with our Lord Jesus Christ each day; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Holy Righteous Eudocimus, pray to God for us!

Monday, August 07, 2006

What is It You Desire?

(8th Sunday after Pentcost) (Great-martyr Christina)

What is it you desire? Riches? Fame? Power? Comfort?

This is not an idle question. Our Lord Jesus tells us, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We are made in such a way that we pursue what we desire. If we want to be rich, or famous, or powerful, or comfortable, the choices we make, both consciously and unconsciously, are designed to help us get rich, or famous, or powerful, or comfortable. This does not always mean we will succeed in obtaining what we desire – but these unfulfilled desires both motivate us to continue, and bring us unhappiness, anger, and even depression when we cannot have what we so desperately want. As such, if we want to be happy, and if we want to be fulfilled, we must know ourselves well enough to answer the question, what is it you desire?

Today the Church remembers and celebrates the martyrdom of the Great-martyr Christina of Tyre, who suffered for Christ in the third century. Born to a life of wealth and luxury, she was also a beautiful child – so much so that her father caused her to live in a tower, apart from the world. In that life, she had everything she needed, including the best food, and servants to care for her every desire. Being a pagan family, there were also gold and silver idols for Christina to use in worship. Her father’s intent was doubtless that she marry a man whose family was equally wealthy and powerful, and so bring honor and glory to their families.

But this was not Christina’s desire. From her tower, she watched the sun by day, and the stars by night, and came to a natural knowledge of God, Who, in response to Christina’s request, sent an angel to her to instruct her in the true faith. Made bold by her desire to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ, she smashed the idols, and threw the gold and silver pieces to the people in the street below the tower. Her father, in a rage, had her arrested and turned over to torture. She would not renounce her faith, not even when her tormentors cut off her breasts and cut out her tongue. The martyr was put to death by being impaled on a stake.

Do you ever ask yourself what you might do if you had to suffer for your faith, as the Great-martyr Christina suffered for hers? Most of us complain at even the least bit of unpleasantness. How often do we become angry, resentful, perhaps even abusive, when we’re forced to wait in line, or when someone says or does something we don’t like? We’re most likely to respond poorly when the actions or circumstances thwart us as we attempt to obtain our desires – not that we are being tortured, mind you – just frustrated by not being able to have what we want. And so we must ask ourselves: what is it that we desire?

The Great-martyr Christina desired to be one with our Lord Jesus Christ; and pursued her desire with a single-minded devotion that enabled her to endure both physical torments, and the knowledge that she had been betrayed and delivered to such torments by her father. We work and make sacrifices to obtain earthly desires that will not endure; she obtained an eternal reward that will never be lost.

Brothers and sisters, we must first become aware of what we desire, as this is what moves us, and directs our lives. With this knowledge, we must then measure our desires against the teachings of the Church, and the way of life of the Orthodox faith. Are we pursuing what is pleasing to God? Or are we only seeking to please our flesh? If we do not desire to be with Christ, and to be like Him; if we do not desire to be patient, loving, and forgiving; if we do not desire to be holy and righteous – we desire what will lead us to condemnation, rather than into the presence of God, along a path to which we can direct others, as well.

Let us honor and remember the Great-martyr Christina, and all the saints, by examining ourselves; and, when we find our desires are not those which God would choose for us, let us repent, and confess, and beseech God’s help in transforming our lives, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy Great-martyr Christina, pray to God for us!

Distinguishing Truth from Error

(7th Sunday after Pentecost) (Fathers of the 1st Six Councils)

Today the Church remembers and celebrates the Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils. By their labors, they have given us a better understanding of the teachings of the Orthodox Church and faith, and of what we believe, and why we believe as we do.

The first Ecumenical Council rejected the teachings of Arius, who incorrectly believed that our Lord Jesus Christ was not divine in nature, but was a created being. In reply, the Church tells us that the Son of God is of one essence with the Father, equal in divinity, equal in power, and equal in honor and worship and praise. The second Council declared the fullness of divinity of the Holy Spirit. These teachings about the Holy Trinity are summarized for us in the Symbol of Faith, which we recite at every Divine Liturgy – and were written by these first two Councils. The second Council also declared an anathema against anyone who would change the Creed from the form in which it was approved by that Council.

The third Ecumenical Council refuted the false teachings of Nestorius, proclaiming that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God; and that His mother, the Ever-virgin Mary, is rightly called the “Theotokos”; which means, “the God-bearer.” Nestorius had taught that she was the “Christotokos,” or, “the birth-giver of Christ”: but this was recognized by the Church as an attack on the divinity of the child borne by Mary, and affirmed her child as being divine.

The fourth Council refuted the false teachings of Eutychus, proclaiming that our Lord Jesus Christ is fully and perfectly God, and also fully and perfectly human, both contained without confusion in Him, One Person. The fifth Council reaffirmed the teachings about the Trinity and about our Lord, in opposition to the continued claims made by those who had not accepted the decisions of the first four councils, but rather had become heretics. The sixth Ecumenical Council reaffirmed the Church’s teaching about the true humanity of our Lord Jesus by insisting upon the reality of His human will and action, as well as His divine will and action. As the fourth council had rejected as heretical the teaching that our Lord, after becoming Incarnate, had only one nature, and not both His human and divine natures in one Person, without confusion, so the sixth Council rejected as heretical the teaching that our Lord, after His Incarnation, had only one will. The Church fathers considered it crucial that our Lord did possess, not only two natures in one Person, but both wills – or else our own ability to be saved would be called into question.

Many of us are not aware of the actions and teachings of the Ecumenical Councils, and this is unfortunate, for, after each council met and deliberated, there were those who did not accept the decision of that council, and so left the Church. But these groups, or their heretical teachings, did not disappear: these heresies persist to the present day and time. These heresies are right outside our door – and, to the extent that we are ignorant, we might be influenced by such teachings. Therefore, we would do well to study the teachings of the holy fathers we celebrate today.

But there is another aspect of this celebration that we must recognize, and which we should emulate. How did the fathers know to distinguish truth from error? In part, they were knowledgeable about the teachings of the Church in their own day – but that, by itself, would not be enough. They were also pious and faithful men, doing all in their power to live according to the Orthodox way of life, struggling against their passion and their sins, pursuing holiness and righteousness, repenting, and confessing, loving God with the fullness of their being, and loving all those made in the image of God as they loved themselves. This personal holiness allowed the Holy Spirit of God, in accordance with the promise given by our Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples, to lead the holy fathers into all truth – and through them, to us – if we will listen and learn, and if we will also pursue holiness.

Brothers and sisters, let us hear the call given to us by the holy fathers we celebrate today. Let us learn from them, that we may be knowledgeable; and let us pursue holiness through prayer, and fasting, through giving, and struggle, and, above all, by love fro God, and for each other – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy fathers of the first Six Councils, pray to God for us!

The Reason for Pain and Suffering

(6th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matt. 9:1-8)

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear of the man who, “sick of the palsy,” is brought to the Lord in order to be healed. Our Lord tells him, “Your sins are forgiven.” This causes the scribes and Pharisees to grumble: Who can forgive sins, except God? Our Lord, in order that they might know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins, then says to the sick man, “Arise, take up your bed, and go home.” Many in the crowd are amazed, and (rightly) glorify God.

Most of us, in a similar situation, would ask God to restore us to heal – by which we usually mean, to bodily health. There are several messages here for us in this account of our Lord’s ministry. The first is that God knows our needs – better, even, than we know ourselves. The second is that God acts to provide for our needs, and sometimes does so even before we have asked for His help. The first speaks of the omniscience of God – that is to say, God is all-knowing. The second speaks to us of the great love God has for each one of us.

But it is possible to ask, “Well, if God’s love for us is so great, why is there pain and suffering in the world? Why was that man sick with the palsy? Why are there people today who are sick, even dying, of cancer, and AIDS, and heart attacks, and strokes? Why is there pain and suffering in the world? How is this possible, if God is so loving?”

We need to remember that all of the evil in life is the result of sin – that is, of our failure to walk in the way that God has appointed for us, and in which God delights to bless us when we live in accordance with His commandments. We also need to remember that suffering, pain, illness, and disease are not punishments sent by God; but rather are permitted by God in order to remind us, as Adam and Eve failed to remember, that we are not God. This is important, because every time we choose to depart from the ways of God, we are, in effect, saying that we know more than God, and that we can establish for ourselves the way we want to live. This arrogant pride is at the root of all sin; and this arrogant pride requires desperate measures, requires strong medicine, in order to bring us to our senses, and change our way of life.

Think about it – it makes sense. After all, if being overweight puts us at risk of diabetes, heart attack, and stroke, well, isn’t that enough to cause us to change our eating habits, and to exercise? Sometimes, yes – but usually something more serious has to happen before we’ll actually take the steps needed to correct the problem. We know that there is a direct link between smoking and lung cancer. Perhaps the mere knowledge of this has stopped some from taking up the habit, and caused some others to stop – but most require a more serious warning, the onset of some physical ailment, to change their behavior.

Sin is every bit as deadly as a heart attack; sin is every bit as lethal as cancer. God, in His mercy, therefore allows us to encounter times of suffering – including illness – in order to alert us to our situation, and to remind us of our need for Him. The course of treatment for our sins is to repent, and confess, and seek God’s help and grace and strength for the transformation of our lives, so that we turn from a way of life that is leading us to spiritual death, and return to living in accordance with God’s commandments. When we repent, when we confess, the Lord says to us, as He said to the man sick of the palsy, “Your sins are forgiven.” This does not always mean that our bodily health will be restored – for the consequences of our choices that may have brought us to fall ill may continue. If this is so, we need to remember that whatever God allows is for the sake of our salvation – and we will know we are on the right track when we accept our situation, giving thanks to God for our suffering, and seeking to draw from our condition the peace that comes with understanding that all that takes place is meant to bring us to a life without end in the joyous experience of the presence of God.

Brothers and sister, let us repent and confess; and let us prepare ourselves to receive the holy Mysteries of our Lord’s Body and Blood, which are given to us for our healing and salvation. Let us give thanks to God for all the circumstances of our lives, and put our trust in Him, and in His love: to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.