Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Sorrow and Affliction in the Christian life

By St. Dimitry of Rostov

"Observe a physician of the body, what does he do with the sick? Sometimes he prescribes bitter medicine; sometimes he must burn and cut malady away, he uses therapy to reveal the root cause of the pain. All this is done, of course, for healing and not for sickness, for life and not for death. The sick person may complain and groan, not wanting to receive bitter medicine, but when he becomes healthy he is very thankful to the physician. And so, the Lord, the Physician of our souls, seeing our putrid sinful wounds offers the needed method of healing. He burns away through misfortunes, He cuts away with unexpected grief, He gives us to drink tears of affliction; all this is done only for our healing, so as to bring us to life and restoration, as David said, “The Lord chastened me strictly, but He has not given me over to death” (Ps. 117:18).1 In the time of chastisement He is more good, rather than fierce, more compassionate, rather than angry; even though He pours wine on our wounds and cruel sorrows, it is never without oil;2 we are struck, but not without compassion, we pass through embitterment, but not without mercy and comfort.3

It is very necessary for us to be chastened, without which it is impossible to be healed of our spiritual festers. We must receive chastisement not with sorrow or grumbling but with thankfulness, with patience, and great courage of soul.4 Truly, in the midst of sorrows our human nature is inclined to grumble, complain, and break down in exhaustion; but, O lover Christ, do not break down, do not become faint of soul, take courage and your heart will be strengthened. Pray this prayer of St. John Chrysostom, “Lord, give unto me courage of soul!” O Christian with thankfulness speak in this way, “Blessed is God, for I know that I endure less than I deserve.” Remember your many shortcomings; do not refuse to endure the treatment, because after enduring you will bless God Who has healed you. “Blessed is the man who endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to them that love Him” (James 1:12), says the apostle. Do not be like an impatient person when some unpleasant thing happens, not in line with the wishes of his heart, he jumps on everyone with grumbling; such a one thinks everyone is guilty but him. You must never weaken; nail yourself to the cross of patience and courage.

Speak in this manner, “I'm ready to bear trials, only give me the strength.” Listen to what the apostle says, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man, but God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). God allows sorrows for those He loves, according to what they can bear; He gives patience in the midst of sorrows to those who hope on Him. And so, cast your sadness upon the Lord, trust in Him, and He will protect your soul. Every persecution, embitterment, offense, abasement – all these are normal and bring salvation for the one who loves God. Our Mighty God soon turns weeping and crying into comfort and rejoicing. When a child is in the midst of learning he may be sorrowful and perplexed, but when he has completed it he is very joyful. Patiently endure and be expecting God's mercy early, later and at every hour. Listen to the words of the apostle, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations” (James 1:2).

So, in what should you rejoice? Rejoice in the fact that these things are bringing you benefit. Take for instance flax, until it undergoes the threshing process, until it is beaten and broken down with the scutching blade, it remains unfit for making rope or fabric; so it is with a soul that has not been ground, if it has not been softened by tribulations it cannot come to a knowledge of its own unworthiness. Gold and silver must be refined so as to be purged of impurities, likewise the soul is refined by everything that God allows; it comes to a knowledge of itself and its weakness, it learns humility and in this way is brought into the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only “through much tribulation that we enter into the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22); heavenly crowns are given to those who endure evil in temptations. Who is the one worthy of eternal glory? Is it not the one who suffers though affliction, according to the apostle's words, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). Endure then, O lover of God, that you may be called a beloved son of God. And when sadness and sorrow visit you, never doubt that you are one of God's beloved children.

Also, keep in mind that it is not always because of sin that evil circumstances befall us. Many righteous ones, for the benefit of their souls and for the testing of their faith and righteousness patiently endured much evil. Call to mind Job and Tobit the righteous God-pleasers. Who among the saints lived their life without sorrows, grief and sufferings? They sinned very little, but endured much. They were persecuted, treated with dishonor, and tortured, and still they rejoiced in the Lord; but you, O Christian, faint of soul, when you encounter a little misfortune become perplexed and sorrowful beyond reason. Truly, you do not desire to be turned away alone from the host of God's chosen ones, because you refused to endure those things that came upon you? Remember there is no unending pain, no sorrow that does not pass, therefore, have undoubting hope that in the end the strong Lord will turn your passing sadness into eternal joy."

Translated from Russian by Fr. Zechariah Lynch

1My own direct translation of the text, so as to stay more consistent with St. Dimitry's words. Ps. 118:24, MT
2Cf. Lk. 10:25ff. In ancient times wine was used as a disinfectant for wounds, the alcohol would cause a burning sensation. Oil was applied to sooth and coat the wound and help enhance natural healing properties.
“Heal, O Savior, the corruption of my debased soul, O only Physician. Apply the compress to me, and the oil and wine – works of repentance, compunction and tears.” Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, First Wednesday of Great Lent, Song 8.
3“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5-6, Prov. 3:11-12)

4 Великодушие literally “greatness of soul”    

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Globalism is like a huge mill that grinds everything

“We must speak with children about the dangers of temptation. Toward the end of the 1950's a new epoch dawned in Europe, and two misfortunes came quickly upon us: the post-christian era and globalism, along with the erosion of faith and the crumbling of morality.

Now that I have reached old age I have begun to understand that in this time the last attack of the devil has begun, and it is directed against the treasures of the Orthodox faith and Christian life.

Globalism is like a huge mill that grinds everything; the result is an unrecognizable mixture in which no one will retain his personhood, and self-knowledge is lost. Now everything will be easy, everything will be allowed – total freedom, for the Church has stood as a hindrance and barrier (to these things).

Fr. Gregory of Mt. Athos

Translated from Russian. Athonite Elders, Moscow, 2011.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Do We Really Want Christ in Christmas?

Keep Christ in Christmas,” around town I have already seen a few billboards pleading the case. And it seems nice and noble, because what Christ loving Christian wants Christmas to degenerate into simply a commercialized day in the midst of the vague and generic heading of “Happy Holidays”? Yet, is it even possible to take Christ out of Christmas and would It still remain Christmas? And does the “secular” world really have the power to de-Christify (I just made that word up) Christmas? Or does this mysterious vanishing of Christ from Christmas have a more sinister origin? Indeed, I would argue, it does. It originates with Christians (I use this word in a general manner). Christ Jesus was long ago removed from the figurative American manger on Christmas morning by well meaning Christians. Unwittingly they replaced Him with, presents, meals, family, friends, and so on. For Christians, too many times now, Christmas morning is not about going to church and worshiping the God-Man, but about earthly goodies.

Do we really want Christ in Christmas? If Christ was the true center for us then maybe all our festivities (good when centered on Christ but worthless without Him) would have to take a secondary role. And do we really want that? As I pondered this mysterious vanishing of Christ from Christmas, I thought maybe I am wrong, and maybe there are plenty of Christian groups gathering on Christmas morning to worship God. Thus, I began making calls to various, mostly Protestant, churches in town inquiring about their Christmas time services. Almost no one had a service on Christmas day (although one church has a service on Christmas day in the evening, one of the Presbyterian churches will have a 11:30pm service Christmas eve. The Roman churches mostly have midnight services, which is a commendable practice, and some on Christmas morning. Yet I focused on Non-denomination, Evangelical Protestant churches, mainly because America has been typically a “Protestant” Nation). When I inquired as to a service on Christmas morning I was greeted mostly by a stunned silent pause, and an audibly baffled and confused “no” was the answer (I could almost hear the thought “don't you have presents to open?”). After a number of calls I simply gave up. Almost no Protestant church (at least in my town, as far as I can tell) is going to gather and worship God on Christmas morning. And who is taking Christ out of Christmas? The “world”?

Now I would conjecture that this trend, which is symptomatic of the overall greater trend of churchlessness that many who claim Christ subscribe to, and has its roots in the very prominent view of “individual relationship” with Jesus that most in the modern Protestant world adhere to (I purposely did not say “personal”). According to the very strong “me & Jesus” mentality, which dominates modern thought, why would I (me, myself) need to gather with others on Christmas? I can worship Jesus “in my heart” at home just as well, and open presents for that matter! And of course, Christ understands and condones (so the thought goes), because He always does (most of all when it agrees with my fancy). But if Christ is truly “in the heart”, then one would have a deep desire to gather and worship Him within the community of His Church, at least this has been the Christian practice for 2,000 years. A person will give preeminence to that which is the true treasure of the heart. As Someone once said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also." And yes this treasure costs us something.

On Nativity morning, the day when the birth of the Incarnate God-Man is celebrated (and just in case you missed that, it is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is both fully God and fully man; together with the whole mystery of God Himself entering into the human arena in such a physical manner) it has become common and, indeed, even the expected practice of many Christians to just stay at home. Again who is, as it were, removing Christ from Christmas?

But that's what services on Christmas Eve are for, right?

A service on Christmas is just bothersome (I can't sit around in my PJ's). Why would we go to church on Christmas morning when we can ooh and awe over baby Jesus the night before? When it comes down to it service on Nativity morning interferes with the other (seemingly) important things we have to do, like presents and food. And we do not want that! And then we wonder why the world does not take Christmas seriously, and why it is so eager to exclude Christ from the feast!? He becomes a nice guest to  whom we give a corner seat and occasionally turn and say, “Cheers Jesus!” The world is simply secularizing common “Christian” (American) practice. The jolly old guy who gives out stuff is more important than the Son of God made the son of man. 

Now, this may seem harsh, and indeed it may well be. But as Christians, and most of all Orthodox Christians, why would we want to be in any other place but God's Temple on the incredibly awesome day of the Nativity? As the sun rises on the “Today” of Christ's birth, and the very air seems to tremble with the mystery, and that which was veiled even to the eyes of angels is revealed on earth, “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One … for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child!” Yet, we cannot hear the mysterious silence because we insist on giving preeminence to a din of our own creation. If we cannot hear the mystery how then do we expect the world to? If we have not prepared our hearts to receive the Lord on the day of His birth according to the flesh, how will they then contain the grace of God? If we are not willing to make that effort to come and fall down before the Eternal One, Only Begotten of the Father, now begotten in time by the Most-Pure Virgin, then how can we expect the world to even care? Should we be surprised that many are eager to keep Christ out of Christmas? 

Christmas loses its meaning devoid of worship. Presents, meals, and even family become hollow shells of nicety when the marrow of worship on Christmas day is removed. The seemingly simple action of ignoring worship on Christmas preaches a very clear message - these other things mean more to us; thus the world has taken hold of that message and has run with it. Christmas is about things, Christmas is about food, Christmas is about get-togethers. Christ? Well, those who claim to follow Him don't want the journey to honor Him to interfere with these things, so why would we? Christ? Those who claim to be His followers were the first ones to replaced Him with all these things. If His own do not really want worship of Him to disrupt Christmas festivities, then why should we?

Granted, thankfully, this practice of staying at home has no origins whatsoever in the Orthodox Christian Faith, but it sure can influence those of us who are among the “faithful.” And we must actively resist its falseness. There is only one place for us as Orthodox Christians on Christmas morning and that is greeting Our Incarnate Lord of Glory, falling down with the hosts of heavenly ranks, and chanting “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Nothing else matters. Corruption is overthrown, death is crumbling, sin is dethroned, Christ is born, glorify Him! The Sun of Righteousness has risen, The Orient from on high has dawned, glorify Him!

Thus this mysterious tragedy of Christ being removed from Christmas is not an exterior happening. It cannot be fixed by public manger scenes (as nice as they are), nor billboards and bumper stickers. These are simply external band-aids on an internal malady.

Would we see “Christ in Christmas?” Then we must begin by removing the world and materialism from the manger of our own hearts, and there enshrine Christ. Thus on Christmas morning, wake up and come to the Temple of God, the Church, and there offer a gift of sacrifice and praise for the unfathomable mercy He has performed on our behalf; then go and enjoy presents, meals, family, and friends. Then these things will be filled with Christ Jesus our Lord because they will be spinning on the axis of worship, the worship of God Incarnate. Then everything will truly matter, and everything will shine with the light of Christ.

When you are asked: "what do you do on Christmas morning?" Tell them, I go and worship Jesus Christ God Incarnate, what else is there?