Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Akathists

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Praises to the Virgin, 16th Century

The akathist hymn is one of the most well-loved services of devotion in the Orthodox Church. Although there is some debate concerning the particulars of its authorship, many scholars agree with the pious tradition which states that the Akathist was composed in the imperial city of Constantinople, "the city of the Virgin," by St. Romanos the Melodist, who reposed in the year 556. The Akathist Hymn has proved so popular that many other hymns have been written following its format, particularly in the Russian Orthodox Church. These include Akathists to Our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Cross, to various saints, etc.

The word "akathistos" literally means "not sitting," i.e., standing; normally all participants stand while it is being prayed. The hymn is comprised of 24 stanzas, alternating long and short. Each short stanza (kontakion) ends with the singing of "Alleluia." Each longer stanza (ikos) ends with the refrain: "Rejoice, O Bride Unwedded."

The majority of the hymn is made up of praises directed to the Mother of God, always beginning with the salutation of the Archangel Gabriel: "Rejoice." In each of them, one after the other, all the events related to our Lord's incarnation pass before us for our contemplation. The Archangel Gabriel ( in Ikos 1) marvels at the Divine self-emptying and the renewal of creation which will occur when Christ comes to dwell in the Virgin's womb. The unborn John the Baptist (Ikos 3) prophetically rejoices. The shepherds (Ikos 4) recognize Christ as a blameless Lamb, and rejoice that in the Virgin "the things of earth join chorus with the heavens." The pagan Magi, (Kontakion 5) following the light of the star, praise Her for revealing the light of the world.

As the hymn progresses, various individuals and groups encounter Christ and His Mother. Each has his own need; each his own desire or expectation, and each finds his or her own particular spiritual need satisfied and fulfilled in Our Lord and in the Mother of God. So too, each generation of Orthodox, and each particular person who has prayed the Akathist, has found in this hymn an inspired means of expressing gratitude and praise to the Mother of God for what she has accomplished for their salvation.

In the same way, may the readers of the akathists find God, the Theotokos and the Saints to be a help and consolation for their souls as well.

OFFSITE: Akathist to the Holy Virgin - Original, unaltered article by Fr. Michael Carney 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Prayer Rule

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The basis of the Orthodox Christian’s life is fasting and prayer. Prayer, said Saint Philaret of Moscow, "is the conversation of the soul with God." And as in a conversation it is impossible to hear one side all the time, so in prayer it is good to sometimes stop and listen to the Lord’s answer to our prayer.

The Church, daily praying "for all and for all," determined for every one a personal, individual prayer rule. The content of this rule depends on the spiritual growth, the living conditions, the person’s opportunities. The prayer book offers us morning and evening prayers, accessible to anyone. They are directed to the Lord, to the Mother of God, to our Angel Protector. With the blessing of the confessor, the private rule can include prayers to particular saints. If there is no opportunity to read the morning prayers before icons in a peaceful setting, then it is better to read them along the way than to omit them entirely. In any case, one should not breakfast before reading the prayer "Our Father."

If a person is ill or very tired, then the evening rule can be read not right before sleep, but a short time before that. But just before lying down to sleep, one should read the prayer of St. John of Damascus: "Lord and Lover of Mankind, is it possible that this bed will be a coffin…" and everything following it.

It is very important to include in the morning prayers the reading of remembrances. It is absolutely necessary to pray for the peace and health of the Most Holy Patriarch, the ruling archbishop, the spiritual father, the parents, relatives, godparents and godchildren, and for all people, with whom one way or another we are connected. If one cannot be reconciled with another person, even if not through one’s own fault, he is required to remember the "one who hates" and truly desire him good.

In the personal (cell) rule of many Orthodox are included the reading of the Gospel and the Psaltery. Thus, the Optina monks blessed many to read, during the day, one chapter of the Gospel, in order, and two chapters of the Apostolic letters. In addition, the last seven chapters of the Apocalypse were read, one each day. In this way, the reading of the Gospel and the Apostle (that is, the book with the Apostolic letters) were finished concurrently and a new cycle would be begun.

The prayer rule is determined by the one praying, and is confirmed (the rule, as well as any changes) — by the confessor. Once determined, the rule becomes in its way a commandment, and any deviation from it must be looked upon as a deviation, which must be told the confessor.

The main purpose of the prayer rule — is to dispose the soul of the Christian to active association with God, to awaken in him repentant thoughts, to purify the heart of sinful corruption. For this reason, by thoroughly fulfilling what is required, we learn, by the words of the Apostle, "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit…with all perseverance and supplication for all saints" (Eph. 6:18).

OFFSITE: Beginning Orthodoxy, Part 2 - The orginal article

Prayerbooks

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Many Protestants would argue that using a prayer book results in formal, ritualistic prayer and stifles a truly personal relationship with God. By contrast, some Orthodox are of the opinion that it is wrong to pray without a prayer book, that this can lead to spiritual presumption and deception. What, in fact, is the purpose and proper place of the prayer book in Orthodox practice?

In the Holy Gospel, Christ gave an example and many instructions in how to pray. When the disciples asked our Savior to teach them to pray He taught them - and us through them - the Lord's Prayer. Prior to the Incarnation of the Lord the holy prophets and righteous had offered many beautiful prayers which are recorded in the Old Testament, especially the Psalms. But even before the saints were inspired to compose and offer these prayers we read how when Enos, the grandson of Adam and son of Seth, was born that they then began to call upon the name of the Lord God (Gen. 4:26). Prior even to that, newly-created man conversed with God in Paradise.

With the fulfillment of the expectations and promises of the Old Testament in Christ we now call upon the name of the Lord in the words of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me!" But in addition we also have a rich treasure of psalms, hymns and prayers with which we can offer our thanksgiving and praises, our petitions and repentance to our God and His Saints.

Prayer has been called the science of sciences and art of arts, and rightly so. We should be aware of the need to pray just as the disciples did, and we should beg the Lord to teach us just as they did. In our own persistent and sincere efforts at prayer, as well as through reading the Scriptures and writings of the saints we can obtain this instruction.

The Prayer Book consists of prayers composed by Saints of God that have been collected in a convenient form for our daily use. The words of these prayers give direction and expression to our desire and need to pray. The teach us what kind of things we should pray for and how to express ourselves reverently and humbly before God and His saints. Because of our ignorance about spiritual matters we need these prayers to open our eyes to our true spiritual needs.

In using the Prayer Book we must first set aside other worries and tasks, gather our thoughts and concentrate on offering our prayers to God. Before opening the book we may want to stand quietly before the icons, making the sign of the Cross and asking the Lord, the Mother of God, our Guardian Angel and the Saints to help us to pray. Some people light a lamp or candle or burn incense so that these offerings accompany their sacrifice of prayer.

We might think of our prayer as the flame that burns the wax, gathered by the bees from many flowers like the spiritual nectar of the prayers gathered in the Prayer Book from many saints. The inspired words of these prayers can be like pearls of fragrant incense placed on the hot coals of a fervent heart whence there rises up a sweet-smelling sacrifice pleasing to the Lord.

Reading unfamiliar prayers offers our minds and hearts fresh images and thoughts and insights. But when we use prayers that are very familiar, even prayers that we know by heart, various expressions and words have special force or touch our heart in different ways at different times, on different occasions. When we offer these words in prayer with attention and sincere feeling they become living words, as it were. This is also true of proper reading of the Holy Scriptures and Fathers. We may repeat a particularly moving or meaningful phrase several times.

Some people never learn many prayers by heart and always rely on reading them from a book. Others learn them by memory and find it easier to concentrate on prayer without the book. Whichever case applies, the goal is to pray sincerely, to commune with God and His Saints.

Hannah, the mother of Samuel, set an example for all generations of heart-felt prayer, "Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard" (I Kings 1:13).

A great man of wonder-working prayer, St. John of Kronstadt, discusses this in his own spiritual diary:

"Outward prayer is often performed at the expense of inward prayer, and inward at the expense of outward; that is, when I pray with my lips or read, then many words do not penetrate into the heart, I become double-minded and hypocritical; with my lips I say one thing, whilst in my heart I feel another. The lips speak truth, whilst the disposition of the heart does not agree with the words of the prayer. But if I pray inwardly, heartily, then, without paying attention to the pronunciation of the words, I concentrate it upon their content, their power, gradually accustoming my heart to the truth, and thus entering into the same disposition of spirit in which the words of the prayer were written. In this way I accustom myself, little by little, to pray in spirit and truth in accordance with the words of the Eternal Truth: They that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). When a man prays outwardly aloud, then he cannot always follow all the movements of his heart, which are so rapid that he is necessarily obliged to pay attention to the pronunciation of the words, to their outward form. Thus the prayers of many... who read rapidly become quite untrue; with their lips they seem to pray; in appearance they are pious, but their hearts are asleep, and do not know what their lips say. This proceeds from the fact that they hurry, and do not meditate in their hearts upon what they are saying. We must pray for them, as they pray for us; we must pray that their words may penetrate into their hearts and breathe warmth into them. They pray for us in the words of holy persons, and we must pray for them also.

When praying, we must pronounce each word from the heart with the same power that is contained in each one of them, just as medicines are usually taken with a curative power corresponding to each of them, and bestowed upon them by the creator. If we leave out the power or the essence of the medicine, then it will not take effect, but will only set our teeth on edge; likewise, if during prayer we pronounce the words, disregarding their power, without feeling in our heart their truth, we shall not derive any benefit from the prayer, because true, fruitful prayer must be in spirit and in truth."

In striving to fulfill the commandment of the Apostle to pray without ceasing (I Thes. 5:17), it is helpful to cultivate the habit of praying. This means that at certain times of the day we by habit, as a rule, devote ourselves to prayer. It also means cultivating this habit in our thought patterns so that as often as possible our mind and thoughts turn to God in prayer.

When a person has become accustomed to praying with the Prayer Book, he finds these prayers express very eloquently various needs and feelings, but there are also occasions when in private we may need to express some particular offering or petition to God in our own words. But even here, the divinely-inspired prayers of the saints can teach us the language of prayer.

In his advice to people cultivating a rule of prayer in their lives, the saintly bishop Theophan the Recluse recommended the daily morning and evening prayers in the Prayer Book. But after a person learns these prayers and develops a habit of praying each day he also advises to take note of the amount of time they usually devote to prayer and to use this time saying the Jesus Prayer on some occasions. Since the state of our mind and soul are constantly changing, at various times and under various conditions, it is profitable to pray in different ways, sometimes with prayers from the Prayer Book or Psalms, sometimes in our own words, sometimes with the Jesus Prayer or other short prayers, sometimes aloud, sometimes silently.

Becoming familiar with the prayers in the Prayer Book adorns our minds and memories with sanctifying offerings to God. Habitually making the effort to pray sincerely and attentively releases us from the tensions and anxieties of our worldly life so that the peace and grace of God can cleanse and heal, so that our soul can find freedom from its frustrations to find its rest and fulfillment in God. Prayer is not just reading or thinking; it is an offering from our entire being: mind, heart, body and soul.

In addition to the morning and evening and other daily prayers, most prayer books also contain prayers of intercession for others, both the living and the dead, as well as intercessory canons to the saints and in particular to the all-holy Mother of God. We can make use of these when fulfilling our obligation to pray for others.

Let us conclude with some further words of instruction from St. John of Kronstadt: "When you ask for life, faith, and spiritual understanding for others, do you ask sincerely, not hypocritically, only with your tongue? Do you desire from all your soul that they should progress in these? Are you yourself progressing in the same? Do not you yourself remain in the bondage of the passions? Beware, the Master sees everything with His clearest eyes; it is necessary to pray to Him with understanding, in the simplicity of your heart, with a fervent spirit.

Why has our sincere prayer for each other such great power over others? Because of the fact that by cleaving to God during prayer I become one spirit with Him, and unite with myself, by faith and love, those for whom I pray, for the Holy Spirit acting in me also acts at the same time in them, for He accomplishes all things.

Endeavor to attain to a child-like simplicity in your relations to men and in your prayer to God. Simplicity is man's highest good and dignity. God Himself is perfectly simple, for He is perfectly spiritual and perfectly good. And do not let your soul be divided between good and evil."

OFFSITE: An Aid to Prayer Some Thoughts on the Use of a Prayer Book - Original article
OFFSITE: Jordanville Prayerbook - A very useful compilation

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Sacred Scripture

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A new commandment I give unto you,
that you love one another, as I have loved you
 - John 13:34


We believe that the Scriptures constitute a coherent whole. They are at once divinely inspired and humanly expressed. They bear authoritative witness to God's revelation of Himself—in creation, in the Incarnation of the Word, and the whole history of salvation. And as such they express the word of God in human language. We know, receive, and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is one of obedience.

Reading the Bible with Obedience 

First of all, when reading Scripture, we are to listen in a spirit of obedience. The Orthodox Church believes in divine inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is a "letter" from God, where Christ Himself is speaking. The Scriptures are God's authoritative witness of Himself. They express the Word of God in our human language. Since God Himself is speaking to us in the Bible, our response is rightly one of obedience, of receptivity, and listening. As we read, we wait on the Spirit.

But, while divinely inspired, the Bible is also humanly expressed. It is a whole library of different books written at varying times by distinct persons. Each book of the Bible reflects the outlook of the age in which it was written and the particular viewpoint of the author. For God does nothing in isolation, divine grace cooperates with human freedom. God does not abolish our individuality but enhances it. And so it is in the writing of inspired Scripture. The authors were not just a passive instrument, a dictation machine recording a message. Each writer of Scripture contributes his particular personal gifts. Alongside the divine aspect, there is also a human element in Scripture. We are to value both.

Each of the four Gospels, for example, has its own particular approach. Matthew presents more particularly a Jewish understanding of Christ, with an emphasis on the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark contains specific, picturesque details of Christ's ministry not given elsewhere. Luke expresses the universality of Christ's love, His all-embracing compassion that extends equally to Jew and to Gentile. In John there is a more inward and more mystical approach to Christ, with an emphasis on divine light and divine indwelling. We are to enjoy and explore to the full this life-giving variety within the Bible.

Because Scripture is in this way the word of God expressed in human language, there is room for honest and exacting inquiry when studying the Bible. Exploring the human aspect of the Bible, we are to use to the full our God-given human reason. The Orthodox Church does not exclude scholarly research into the origin, dates, and authorship of books of the Bible.

Alongside this human element, however, we see always the divine element. These are not simply books written by individual human writers. We hear in Scripture not just human words, marked by a greater or lesser skill and perceptiveness, but the eternal, uncreated Word of God Himself, the divine Word of salvation. When we come to the Bible, then, we come not simply out of curiosity, to gain information. We come to the Bible with a specific question, a personal question about ourselves: "How can I be saved?"

As God's divine word of salvation in human language, Scripture should evoke in us a sense of wonder. Do you ever feel, as you read or listen, that it has all become too familiar? Has the Bible grown rather boring? Continually we need to cleanse the doors of our perception and to look in amazement with new eyes at what the Lord sets before us.

We are to feel toward the Bible with a sense of wonder, and sense of expectation and surprise. There are so many rooms in Scripture that we have yet to enter. There is so much depth and majesty for us to discover. If obedience means wonder, it also means listening.

We are better at talking than listening. We hear the sound of our own voice, but often we don't pause to hear the voice of the other person who is speaking to us. So the first requirement, as we read Scripture, is to stop talking and to listen—to listen with obedience.

When we enter an Orthodox Church, decorated in the traditional manner, and look up toward the sanctuary at the east end, we see there, in the apse, an icon of the Virgin Mary with her hands raised to heaven—the ancient Scriptural manner of praying that many still use today. This icon symbolizes the attitude we are to assume as we read Scripture — an attitude of receptivity, of hands invisibly raised to heaven. Reading the Bible, we are to model ourselves on the Blessed Virgin Mary, for she is supremely the one who listens. At the Annunciation she listens with obedience and responds to the angel, "Be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). She could not have borne the Word of God in her body if she had not first, listened to the Word of God in her heart. After the shepherds have adored the newborn Christ, it is said of her: "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). Again, when Mary finds Jesus in the temple, we are told: "His mother kept all these things in her heart" (Luke 2:51). The same need for listening is emphasized in the last words attributed to the Mother of God in Scripture, at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee: "Whatsoever He saith unto you, do it" (John 2:5), she says to the servants — and to all of us.

In all this the Blessed Virgin Mary serves as a mirror, as a living icon of the Biblical Christian. We are to be like her as we hear the Word of God: pondering, keeping all these things in our hearts, doing whatever He tells us. We are to listen in obedience as God speaks.

Understanding the Bible Through the Church 

In the second place, we should receive and interpret Scripture through the Church and in the Church. Our approach to the Bible is not only obedient but ecclesial.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture. A book is not part of Scripture because of any particular theory about its dating and authorship. Even if it could be proved, for example, that the Fourth Gospel was not actually written by John the beloved disciple of Christ, this would not alter the fact that we Orthodox accept the Fourth Gospel as Holy Scripture. Why? Because the Gospel of John is accepted by the Church and in the Church.

It is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, and it is also the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. Coming upon the Ethiopian as he read the Old Testament in his chariot, Philip the Apostle asked him, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" And the Ethiopian answered, "How can I, unless some man should guide me?" (Acts 8:30-31). We are all in the position of the Ethiopian. The words of Scripture are not always self-explanatory. God speaks directly to the heart of each one of us as we read our Bible. Scripture reading is a personal dialogue between each one of us and Christ—but we also need guidance. And our guide is the Church. We make full use of our own personal understanding, assisted by the Spirit, we make full use of the findings of modern Biblical research, but always we submit private opinion—whether our own or that of the scholars—to the total experience of the Church throughout the ages.

The Orthodox standpoint here is summed up in the question asked of a convert at the reception service used by the Russian Church: "Do you acknowledge that the Holy Scripture must be accepted and interpreted in accordance with the belief which has been handed down by the Holy Fathers, and which the Holy Orthodox Church, our Mother, has always held and still does hold?"

We read the Bible personally, but not as isolated individuals. We read as the members of a family, the family of the Orthodox Catholic Church. When reading Scripture, we say not "I" but "We." We read in communion with all the other members of the Body of Christ, in all parts of the world and in all generations of time. The decisive test and criterion for our understanding of what the Scripture means is the mind of the Church. The Bible is the book of the Church.

To discover this "mind of the Church," where do we begin? Our first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How, in particular, are Biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? We should also consult the writings of the Church Fathers, and consider how they interpret the Bible. Our Orthodox manner of reading Scripture is in this way both liturgical and patristic. And this, as we all realize, is far from easy to do in practice, because we have at our disposal so few Orthodox commentaries on Scripture available in English, and most of the Western commentaries do not employ this liturgical and Patristic approach.

As an example of what it means to interpret Scripture in a liturgical way, guided by the use made of it at Church feasts, let us look at the Old Testament lessons appointed for Vespers on the Feast of the Annunciation. They are three in number: Genesis 28:10-17; Jacob's dream of a ladder set up from earth to heaven; Ezekiel 43:27-44:4; the prophet's vision of the Jerusalem sanctuary, with the closed gate through which none but the Prince may pass; Proverbs 9:1-11: one of the great Sophianic passages in the Old Testament, beginning "Wisdom has built her house."

These texts in the Old Testament, then, as their selection for the feast of the Virgin Mary indicates, are all to be understood as prophecies concerning the Incarnation from the Virgin. Mary is Jacob's ladder, supplying the flesh that God incarnate takes upon entering our human world. Mary is the closed gate who alone among women bore a child while still remaining inviolate. Mary provides the house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as his dwelling. Exploring in this manner the choice of lessons for the various feasts, we discover layers of Biblical interpretation that are by no means obvious on a first reading.

Take as another example Vespers on Holy Saturday, the first part of the ancient Paschal Vigil. Here we have no less than fifteen Old Testament lessons. This sequence of lessons sets before us the whole scheme of sacred history, while at the same time underlining the deeper meaning of Christ's Resurrection. First among the lessons is Genesis 1:1-13, the account of Creation: Christ's Resurrection is a new Creation. The fourth lesson is the book of Jonah in its entirety, with the prophet's three days in the belly of the whale foreshadowing Christ's Resurrection after three days in the tomb (cf. Matthew 12:40). The sixth lesson recounts the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites (Exodus 13:20-15:19), which anticipates the new Passover of Pascha whereby Christ passes over from death to life (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7; 10:1-4). The final lesson is the story of the three Holy Children in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), once more a "type" or prophecy of Christ's rising from the tomb.

Such is the effect of reading Scripture ecclesially, in the Church and with the Church. Studying the Old Testament in this liturgical way and using the Fathers to help us, everywhere we uncover signposts pointing forward to the mystery of Christ and of His Mother. Reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, and the New in the light of the Old—as the Church's calendar encourages us to do—we discover the unity of Holy Scripture. One of the best ways of identifying correspondences between the Old and New Testaments is to use a good Biblical concordance. This can often tell us more about the meaning of Scripture than any commentary.

In Bible study groups within our parishes, it is helpful to give one person the special task of noting whenever a particular passage in the Old or New Testament is used for a festival or a saint's day. We can then discuss together the reasons why each specific passage has been so chosen. Others in the group can be assigned to do homework among the Fathers, using for example the Biblical homilies of Saint John Chrysostom (which have been translated into English). Christians need to acquire a patristic mind.

Christ, the Heart of the Bible

The third element in our reading of Scripture is that it should be Christ-centered. The Scriptures constitute a coherent whole because they all are Christ-centered. Salvation through the Messiah is their central and unifying topic. He is as a "thread" that runs through all of Holy Scripture, from the first sentence to the last. We have already mentioned the way in which Christ may be seen foreshadowed on the pages of the Old Testament.

Much modern critical study of Scripture in the West has adopted an analytical approach, breaking up each book into different sources. The connecting links are unraveled, and the Bible is reduced to a series of bare primary units. There is certainly value in this. But we need to see the unity as well as the diversity of Scripture, the all-embracing end as well as the scattered beginnings. Orthodoxy prefers on the whole a synthetic rather than an analytical approach, seeing Scripture as an integrated whole, with Christ everywhere as the bond of union.

Always we seek for the point of convergence between the Old Testament and the New, and this we find in Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy assigns particular significance to the "typological" method of interpretation, whereby "types" of Christ, signs and symbols of His work, are discerned throughout the Old Testament. A notable example of this is Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, who offered bread and wine to Abraham (Genesis 14:18), and who is seen as a type of Christ not only by the Fathers but even in the New Testament itself (Hebrews 5:6; 7:l). Another instance is the way in which, as we have seen, the Old Passover foreshadows the New; Israel's deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea anticipates our deliverance from sin through the death and Resurrection of the Savior. This is the method of interpretation that we are to apply throughout the Bible. Why, for instance, in the second half of Lent are the Old Testament readings from Genesis dominated by the figure of Joseph? Why in Holy Week do we read from the book of Job? Because Joseph and Job are innocent sufferers, and as such they are types or foreshadowings of Jesus Christ, whose innocent suffering upon the Cross the Church is at the point of celebrating. It all ties up.

A Biblical Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, on every page of Scripture, finds everywhere Christ.

The Bible as Personal 

In the words of an early ascetic writer in the Christian East, Saint Mark the Monk: "He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work, when he reads the Holy Scriptures, will apply everything to himself and not to his neighbor." As Orthodox Christians we are to look everywhere in Scripture for a personal application. We are to ask not just "What does it mean?" but "What does it mean to me?" Scripture is a personal dialogue between the Savior and myself—Christ speaking to me, and me answering. That is the fourth criterion in our Bible reading.

I am to see all the stories in Scripture as part of my own personal story. Who is Adam? The name Adam means "man," "human," and so the Genesis account of Adam's fall is also a story about me. I am Adam. It is to me that God speaks when He says to Adam, "Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:9). "Where is God?" we often ask. But the real question is what God asks the Adam in each of us: "Where art thou?"

When, in the story of Cain and Abel, we read God's words to Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" (Genesis 4:9), these words, too, are addressed to each of us. Who is Cain? It is myself. And God asks the Cain in each of us, "Where is thy brother?" The way to God lies through love of other people, and there is no other way. Disowning my brother, I replace the image of God with the mark of Cain, and deny my own vital humanity.

In reading Scripture, we may take three steps. First, what we have in Scripture is sacred history: the history of the world from the Creation, the history of the chosen people, the history of God Incarnate in Palestine, and the "mighty works" after Pentecost. The Christianity that we find in the Bible is not an ideology, not a philosophical theory, but a historical faith.

Then we are to take a second step. The history presented in the Bible is a personal history. We see God intervening at specific times and in specific places, as He enters into dialogue with individual persons. He addresses each one by name. We see set before us the specific calls issued by God to Abraham, Moses and David, to Rebekah and Ruth, to Isaiah and the prophets, and then to Mary and the Apostles. We see the selectivity of the divine action in history, not as a scandal but as a blessing. God's love is universal in scope, but He chooses to become Incarnate in a particular corner of the earth, at a particular time and from a particular Mother. We are in this manner to savor all the uniqueness of God's action as recorded in Scripture. The person who loves the Bible loves details of dating and geography. Orthodoxy has an intense devotion to the Holy Land, to the exact places where Christ lived and taught, died and rose again. An excellent way to enter more deeply into our Scripture reading is to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Galilee. Walk where Christ walked. Go down to the Dead Sea, sit alone on the rocks, feel how Christ felt during the forty days of His temptation in the wilderness. Drink from the well where He spoke with the Samaritan woman. Go at night to the Garden of Gethsemane, sit in the dark under the ancient olives and look across the valley to the lights of the city. Experience to the full the reality of the historical setting, and take that experience back with you to your daily Scripture reading.

Then we are to take a third step. Reliving Biblical history in all its particularity, we are to apply it directly to ourselves. We are to say to ourselves, "All these places and events are not just far away and long ago, but are also part of my own personal encounter with Christ. The stories include me."

Betrayal, for example, is part of the personal story of everyone. Have we not all betrayed others at some time in our life, and have we not all known what it is to be betrayed, and does not the memory of these moments leave continuing scars on our psyche? Reading, then, the account of Saint Peter's betrayal of Christ and of his restoration after the Resurrection, we can see ourselves as actors in the story. Imagining what both Peter and Jesus must have experienced at the moment immediately after the betrayal, we enter into their feelings and make them our own. I am Peter; in this situation can I also be Christ? Reflecting likewise on the process of reconciliation—seeing how the Risen Christ with a love utterly devoid of sentimentality restored the fallen Peter to fellowship, seeing how Peter on his side had the courage to accept this restoration—we ask ourselves: How Christ-like am I to those who have betrayed me? And, after my own acts of betrayal, am I able to accept the forgiveness of others—am I able to forgive myself? Or am I timid, mean, holding myself back, never ready to give myself fully to anything, either good or bad? As the Desert Fathers say, "Better someone who has sinned, if he knows he has sinned and repents, than a person who has not sinned and thinks of himself as righteous."

Have I gained the boldness of Saint Mary Magdalene, her constancy and loyalty, when she went out to anoint the body of Christ in the tomb (John 20:1)? Do I hear the Risen Savior call me by name, as He called her, and do I respond Rabboni (Teacher) with her simplicity and completeness (John 20:16)?

Reading Scripture in this way—in obedience, as a member of the Church, finding Christ everywhere, seeing everything as a part of my own personal story—we shall sense something of the variety and depth to be found in the Bible. Yet always we shall feel that in our Biblical exploration we are only at the very beginning. We are like someone launching out in a tiny boat across a limitless ocean.

"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" - Psalm 118(119):105

OFFSITE: How to Read the Bible - Original article, by Bishop Kallistos Ware

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Sign of the Cross

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"Make the sign of the cross, sonny," said a middle-aged woman softly to a youth standing beside her, when the priest on the lectern made the sign of the cross with the Gospel over the parishioners in prayer. Together with his mother the boy started making the sign of the cross over himself. "In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," the boy was whispering almost inaudibly, with the solemnly reverent expression on his face.

How happy we are to witness that! But very often unfortunately we would see something different. Some believers who have been attending church services for years would make the sign of cross utterly incorrectly. One would wave his hand around as if he is driving flies away, another put his fingers together as if not for making the sign of the cross, but for putting salt over himself. A third one would beat his fingers into his forehead with all his might as if he is driving nails into it. Needless to say that the most widespread mistake is when the hand does not go as far as the shoulder, but is reduced to a place closer to the neck.

Is that a trifle, an unimportant thing, a mere formality? No, by no means. Basil the Great wrote long ago, "Everything in Church is appropriately fine and has its rules." The sign of the Cross is a visible evidence of our faith. In order to find out if a person facing you is an Orthodox Christian, just ask him to make the sign of the Cross. Whether he or she would do it and how they would do it will make everything clear. Let’s quote the Gospel here, "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much" (Luke 16:10).

The sign of the Cross is extremely powerful. There are many cases described in the Lives of Saints telling us how making the sign of the Cross over a human body, even once, dispelled the demon’s bewitching. That is why those who make the sign of the Cross inattentively, listlessly and restlessly are simply making the demons rejoice.

So how should we make the sign of the Cross correctly?

We are to put together the first three fingers of the right hand, which symbolizes the Unity of the Holy Inseparable Trinity. The other two fingers should be bent towards the palm signifying the descent of the Son of God to earth from Heaven (two fingers being the image of two natures of Christ). The fingers put together first touch the forehead — to sanctify the mind, then — the belly near the solar plexus — for sanctification of feelings, then to the right and finally to the left shoulder — to sanctify one’s bodily strength. We bow only after the hand is dropped along the body. Why? Because we have just shown the Calvary Cross on ourselves and we bow to it. Incidentally, there is one more widespread mistake: a bow performed simultaneously with the sign of the Cross. We should not do that (break the Cross).

In many old textbooks on the law of God the lower end of the sign of the Cross is mistakenly proposed to be made at the level of the breast. In that case the Cross appears as if it is upside down (the lower part is shorter) and involuntarily it turns into a cross of the Satanists.

The sign of the Cross follows a believer everywhere. We make this sign when we get up and go to bed, going out of our house and entering a church; we make the sign of the Cross both over ourselves and the meal before eating. The sign of the Cross of Christ sanctifies all and everything, so when a believer is making this sign over himself it is brings him closer to salvation and is good for his soul.

Common mistakes when making the sign of the Cross:
  • Sign is made swiftly, as in a reflex. 
  • Instead of touching the left shoulder, the hand touches the area around our heart. 
  • Our hand goes in a motion similar to making a spiral. 
  • We touch the lower part of our chest, right and left, making the cross upsidedown. 
  • We make huge arches as the hand moves towards the navel and shoulders.
OFFSITE: Beginning Orthodoxy, Part 1 - The original article

Monday, July 3, 2017

Fasting

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Refectory of Monastery Hilandar, Mount Athos


The Church of Christ commands its children to lead a temperate way of life, particularly singling out days and periods of required abstention —fasts. The righteous of the Old Testament fasted, Christ Himself fasted (Matthew 4).

The weekly fast days ("continuous" weeks excepted) are Wednesday and Friday. The Wednesday fast was established in memory of Judas’ betrayal of Christ, and on Friday — in memory of the Savior’s sufferings and death. On these days it is forbidden to eat meat or milk products, eggs, fish (according to the Charter, fish and oil are permitted from Thomas Sunday to the feast of the Holy Trinity), and during the period from the All-Saints’ Week (the first Sunday after the Feast of the Holy Trinity) until Christmas one should refrain from fish and oil on Wednesdays and Fridays.

There are four protracted fasts in the year. The longest and strictest is Great Lent, which lasts for seven weeks before Easter. The strictest of the weeks are the first and the last, Passion Week. This fast was established in memory of the Savior’s forty-day fast in the desert.

The Assumption fast is similar to Great Lent in strictness, but it is shorter, from August 14 to the 27th. The Church devotes this fast to the Most Holy Mother of God, Who, standing before God, unfailingly prays for us. In these two strict fasts fish can be eaten only three times — on the Feast of the Annunciation (April 7), the Entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem (a week before Easter) and the Transfiguration of the Lord (August 19).

The Christmas fast lasts 40 days, from November 28 to January 6. Fish is permitted during this fast, except for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. After the feast day of St. Nicholas (December 19), fish can be eaten only on Saturdays and Sundays, and during the period from January 2 to January 6 strict fasting should be observed.

The fourth fast is the fast of the Holy Apostles (Peter and Paul). It begins on the Week of All Saints and concludes on the feast day of the Heads of the Apostles Peter and Paul, July 12. The charter concerning food in this fast is the same as for the first half of Christmas fast.

Single days of strict fasting are the eve of Epiphany (January 18), the feast day of the beheading of John the Baptist (September 11) and the Elevation of the Lord’s Cross (September 27).

Some weakening of the strictness of the fasts is permitted the sick, as well as those doing heavy labor, expectant and nursing mothers. This is done, so that the carrying does not lead to a steep drop in strength, and the Christian would have enough strength for prayer rule and necessary duties. But fasting should not be strictly physical, but also spiritual. "He who considers that fasting is simply abstinence from food is mistaken. True fasting," teaches St. John Chrysostom, "is the withdrawal from evil, the curbing of the tongue, the laying by of anger, the subduing of passions, the ceasing of gossiping, lying and perjury."

The body of one fasting, not burdened with food, becomes light, and is fortified for accepting blessed gifts. Fasting subdues the desires of the flesh, softens the temperament, suppresses anger, restrains impulses of the heart, invigorates the mind, brings serenity to the soul, eliminates intemperance. By fasting well, says St. Basil the Great, by refraining from all sin, with all the senses, we fulfill the pious duty of an Orthodox Christian.

OFFSITE: Beginning Orthodoxy, Part 2 - Original article



Sunday, July 2, 2017

Prayer

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Food and rest are essential to sustain human life; knowledge, art, and culture in general enrich the mental capabilities of men, but only prayer reveals and expands our spiritual faculties.

God loves all His creations, and in particular He loves each of us since He is our Heavenly Father. As it is natural for children to want to see and converse with their parents, so it should also be natural and pleasant for us to converse with our Heavenly Father and to want to be in spiritual communion with Him. This conversation with God is called prayer. The soul, while uniting with God in prayer, simultaneously is united with the whole spiritual world — with the angels and saints. According to Saint John of Kronstadt, "Prayer is a golden bond of the Christian — a stranger and wanderer on earth — with the spiritual world of which he is a part, and even more so with God, the source of life."

Prayer is frequently accompanied by devout words and other outward signs of piety: the sign of the Cross, kneeling, prostration, etc. But prayer can also be offered without words, and without other external manifestations. This is the inner or hidden prayer of a pious soul, which is familiar through experience to many earnest Christians.

There are many types of prayer. During prayer a Christian pours out his soul before God: the glorifies Him for His great perfection, thanks Him for His mercy and goodness, and makes requests for his needs. Hence there are three main forms of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, and petition.

Praise (Doxology) — is the most perfect and selfless type of prayer. The more pure and blameless a person is, the more the perfection of God is reflected in him, and through this he involuntarily calls forth happy words of praise and glory. Thus the angels in the heavens unceasingly glorify God in hymns. "Praise," says Bishop Theophan the Recluse, "is not an indifferent contemplation of God's attributes, but a living experience of them, full of joy and exaltation."

Thanksgiving is sent up to God for all the good things received from Him. It arises naturally in a grateful and sensitive soul. God is merciful to all of us, but not many of us remember to thank Him. Out of the ten lepers healed by our Savior, only one, a Samaritan, returned to thank Him (Luke 17:12-17).

The most widespread form of prayer is petition, offered in acknowledgment of our weaknesses, infirmities, and lack of experience. Because of sins and passions, our souls become weak and sick. Therefore, it is essential in prayer to ask God to forgive us and help us to overcome our faults. Sometimes requests are made because of an impending danger hanging over us, a need, etc. Petition in prayer is inevitable in view of our weakness and is readily accepted by the all-merciful Lord (Matt. 7:7; John 16:23). But if our prayer has only a predominant character of request, if the voice of praise and thanksgiving is almost unheard, this indicates poor development of our spiritual life.

Often these various forms of prayer become combined in one. A person begs the Lord about his needs and simultaneously praises Him for His greatness and goodness and thanks Him for being able to fearlessly address Him as to his merciful Father. The most festive hymns of praise in the Church frequently turn into compounded petitions ("Glory to God in the highest," "We praise Thee, O God"), and sometimes the opposite: tearful prayers to God for help resolve into a sublime harmony of grateful thanks and praise. Many Psalms reflect this type, for example, Psalms 146, 148, and others.

How we should pray? When praying, it is important to turn away from our usual cares and preoccupations, collect our scattered thoughts, as if closing the door of the soul against all that is worldly, and direct all our attention towards God.

Placing oneself before the face of God and bringing to mind His greatness, one who prays must necessarily recognize his unworthiness and spiritual poverty. "While praying one should imagine all creation as nothing compared to God, and only God as everything" (St. John of Kronstadt). An edifying example of the proper attitude of prayer was given by our Savior in the parable regarding the publican who was justified by God for his humility (Luke 18:9-14).

Christian humility does not cause depression or hopelessness. On the contrary, it is linked with firm faith in the goodness and omnipotence of the Heavenly Father. Only prayer of faith is accepted by God, as we read in the Gospel: "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them" (Mark 11:24). Warmed by faith, a Christian's prayer is very powerful. The Christian remembers the command of Jesus Christ that it is necessary to pray always and not lose heart (Luke 18:1), and His promise: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" (Matt. 7:7).

The Gospel has many examples of the great power of prayer: the Canaanite woman who begged the Lord to heal her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28), the defenseless widow who persuaded the unjust judge to take her side (Luke 18:5-8 and others). One should not despair if his prayer is not answered immediately: this is a test, not a refusal. "This is why the Lord said `knock,' to show that if He does not open the doors of His mercy immediately, we should nevertheless remain waiting with the light of hope" (St. John Chrysostom). The true Christian will continue his prayer with uninterrupted effort until he convinces the Lord, and until he calls down upon himself His mercy, like the Old Testament patriarch Jacob who said to the stranger wrestling with him, "I will not let You go unless You bless me!" (Gen. 32:26) and indeed he received God's blessing.

Because the Lord is our Heavenly Father, we are all brothers. He will answer our prayer only when we have a true, brotherly, benevolent relationship with each other, when we have vanquished all strife and enmity and have shrouded all offenses with forgiveness and made peace with everyone. "Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11:25).

What to ask for? Regarding how to pray, St. Isaac the Syrian writes: "Don't be thoughtless in your petitions, in order not to offend God by your foolishness. But rather be wise, to become worthy of the greatest gifts. Ask for a treasure from Him Who is a stranger to stinginess and you will receive a treasure from Him in accordance with the reasonableness of your request. Solomon asked for wisdom and together with it he received an earthly kingdom because he made a wise request before the Great King. Elisseus asked for a twofold portion of grace of the Holy Spirit and his request was not refused. To ask for trifles from the King insults his dignity."

The greatest teacher of prayer is our Savior. Prayer accompanies all the important events of His earthly life. The Lord prayed, receiving baptism from John (Luke 3:21). He spent the whole night praying before He chose the Apostles (Luke 6:12). He prayed during the Transfiguration (Luke 22:41). He prayed on the Cross. The very last word before His death was a prayer (Luke 23:46).

Being impressed by the inspiring image of the praying Savior, one of His disciples turned to Him with the request: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). And in answer to this Jesus Christ gave the prayer, short in form, but rich in content, that wonderful, incomparable prayer which to this day unifies the whole Christian world, the "Our Father," the Lord's Prayer.

This prayer teaches us about what and in what order to pray. Having turned to God, "Our Father, Who art in Heaven" we acknowledge ourselves to be His children, and in relation to each other, brothers, and, therefore, we pray not only for ourselves but for all people. With the petition "Hallowed be Thy name," we ask that His name might be holy for all people, that everyone might glorify the name of God by their words and deeds. "Thy Kingdom come." The kingdom of God begins within the believer, when the grace of God, having filled him, cleanses and transfigures his inner world. Simultaneously, grace unites everyone, people and angels, into one great spiritual family called the Kingdom of God or the Church. For the good to be spread among people, one should ask: "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven;" that is, that everything in the world should be done according to the all-good, all-wise will of God, and that people should as diligently fulfill the will of God on the earth as the angels do it in heaven.

"Give us this day our daily bread;" give us today all that is necessary for our daily sustenance. What will happen to us tomorrow we don't know; we need only our "daily bread," i.e., every day that which is necessary to sustain our existence. "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." These words are explained by St. Luke who states them thus: "And forgive us our sins" (Luke 11:4) — our sins become our debts because in sinning we fail in our duty and become debtors before God and man. This petition with special emphasis admonishes us to forgive our neighbor for all offenses. Having refused to forgive others, we dare not ask God to forgive us our sins and say the words of the Lord's Prayer. "And lead us not into temptation" — a test of our moral powers by means of an inclination towards some sinful act. Here we ask God to protect us from falling into sin if such a test is necessary. "But deliver us from the evil one" — from every evil and the cause of evil, the devil. The prayer finishes with the assurance of fulfillment of our request, for to God belongs an eternal kingdom, power, and glory.

Thus the Lord's Prayer, unifying within itself all for which it is necessary to pray, teaches us to place in proper order all our personal desires and necessities. First we must ask for the highest good — for God's glory, for the spreading of good among people and the salvation of our souls, and only then we make requests for our daily needs. In relation to our requests "Let us not teach Him how He should help us," says St. John Chrysostom. "If we discuss our business with those who defend us before the judges, and leave the way of defense up to them, all the more should we act likewise in relation to God. He knows well enough what is beneficial to you." Besides this, we should completely deliver ourselves to the Lord's will: Thy will be done! An example of such a prayer has been left to us by the Savior Himself. In the garden of Gethsemane He prayed: "O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me," and immediately added: "Nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt" (Matt. 26:39).

When to pray? The apostle Paul teaches us: "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17). It is necessary to pray during those bright, exalted moments when the soul experiences a visitation from above and soars towards heaven and feels a need for prayer. It is necessary as well to pray at all other times assigned for prayer (in the mornings and evenings) even though we are not in the mood to pray. Otherwise, the ability to pray will be lost, just us an old iron key rusts when it is not used. For our soul to preserve a pious freshness, it is necessary to set as a goal to pray regularly, despite the fact that we might or might not be inclined to. Orthodox Christians pray daily in the morning, after awakening, and in the evening before going to bed. We should also pray at the beginning and the end of every important work. In this respect a prayer book is a necessary companion.

Besides private prayer at home, there is another form of communal prayer, performed in church. Concerning this prayer the Lord said: "Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20). Since apostolic times the most essential public prayer has been the Liturgy, performed in churches on Sundays, in which the believers with one heart praise God. The public worship carries with it a great spiritual power.

Prayer, like a farmer, plows the field of our heart and makes it capable of receiving heavenly blessings and bringing forth fruits of virtues and perfection. Prayer attracts into our hearts the grace of the Holy Spirit, thus strengthening our faith, hope, and love. It illuminates our minds, directs our will to do good, consoles the heart in sorrow and suffering, and, in general, gives us everything that serves our true welfare.

Prayer, according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers, is "the breath of the soul" and is a great blessing to us all. The ability to pray with due concentration and with the whole heart, or to have the gift of prayer, is one of the most precious spiritual gifts. The merciful God endows a person with this ability as a reward for his diligence in prayer.

OFFSITE: Prayer - The Breath of Soul - Original article, by Bishop Alexander (Mileant)