Sunday, March 11, 2018

Elder Ephraim of Arizona: "Carry your cross with patience and joy"

Jesus Christ taken from the Cross, mourned by the Theotokos, His Mother (source)
About the grief that torments you, I have told you many times that it is your cross which our Jesus has given to you so that you may become an imitator of Him and not be a stranger to His love. For whoever loves Him sincerely follows Him not only to Mount Tabor, where the glory of His divinity appeared (in other words, not only at the time of His visitation through His sweet grace and joy ), but follows Him also on the uphill climb to Golgotha and His Crucifixion (in other words, also in the absence of His grace and in sorrowful occurrences, which produce distress, pain, despair, perplexity, labor, and sweat).
Precisely then is the inner man tested and it is revealed what he is: counterfeit or true, skilled or unskilled, captain or sailor. Precisely then are our intentions tested, and he who is courageous and patient is rewarded internally by the visitation of God through the increase of grace. In this manner, the Christian is trained in the spiritual struggle until he reaches the end and finds rest.
Struggle philosophically; carry your cross with patience and joy until you bring it to the Place of the Skull, to the tomb, so that our Jesus may give you the resurrection! He who bears his cross for the love of Christ will be raised by the Lord on the last day. How long will our life be? The time of our death is unknown, whereas patience will be rewarded eternally. This cross of grief you are bearing has already given you very much, and how much more it will give you! And yet you do not see this, for God wisely hides it from you for your benefit.
Entreat God continuously to give you patience, and thank Him with knowledge; then you will be able to endure ioyfully, awaiting your salvation through these afflictions.
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Elder Symeon Kragiopoulos: "The Cross is glory for Christ."

Jesus Christ crucified (source)
Only God knows what every one of us should go through. And not only should we get prepared for it but also look forward to it with joy. Because this is our glory.
The cross is glory for Christ. Similarly, for the men of God any given suffering, any given injustice, any given pain for the love of God, is glory, too.
At the time when you are treated unfairly, you suffer. You may not be beaten up, but at the time when you are harmed, your soul is in pain. If you are beaten up physically, the pain you suffer may be a lot less than the heartache, the spiritual pain. Still, look forward to this injustice against you with joy and thank God because this is the way man’s soul is glorified...
Brethren, I want you to believe me. Some of us may have a “but” inside them; this is no good. You may have the worst of the things, be it hereditary or of a different cause. In the long run, it will be to your benefit, if you take things the right way.
If your complaint and tantrum get out of the way, if, these go, and I mean the very fact that you put the blame elsewhere, humility and salvation come.
Why do you put the blame of your condition on something else? Because you want to salvage your ego and you don’t even realize it.
Some people have been so utterly devastated in this life, that they believe they have no pride. Yet, precisely their stubbornness, their state of non-repentance, their complaint, their conviction that it’s somebody else’s fault, reveals a fierce ego, an ego without humility.
As soon as we become humble, as soon as we get rid of whatever grudges we may be bearing, as soon as we repent, salvation instantly comes. Man is saved. These words are true.
Holy Hesychasterion “The Nativity of Theotokos” Publications.
Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Monday, March 5, 2018

Elder Nikon of New Skete: "If Christ benefited from fasting, then I will fast too!"

Christ being tempted and overcoming the devil in the desert (source)

“When man practices asceticism, the devil often gets in over his head. 
Because he knows what a weapon the fasting is! What power the fasting has! 
That is why, during the fasting seasons, during the Great Lent, Dormition Fast and now in the Nativity Fast, which is an easy fast, the devil is getting crazy seeking to destroy our fast by determining us to argue with each other, determining us to judge, to look at what the others are doing to lose the reward we will receive from God for fasting. 
During the fasting seasons we should be more cautious, more vigilant, in a deeper state of awakening and more prayer. 
Let the fast be not only of our stomach
Let it be of our eyes also, for the  ears to fast from what they hear, and the  tongue to fast from what it says, to fast from everything! 
Let us fast, but know that because we will make the devil to suffer, he will attack us! 
Do not worry at all about this! He can not do anything! If he could, then he would! 
And if you hear a smart one telling you that Scripture says that it is not a sin what goes into the mouth, but what comes out of it, what he or she says, that it is important, as Christ says, and not what you put into your mouth. 
And they want to say, using the Christ’s words, that fasting is not necessary, because Christ Himself said that what comes out of your mouth, that will condemn you, not what you put into your mouth. 
If somebody tells you such a thing, tell him or her too: If Christ benefited from fasting, then  I will fast too! If I will perform more miracles than Christ, then I will immediately interrupt my fasting. Meanwhile, if He benefited from fasting, then I will benefit even more! 
Continue to fast! And let the smart ones in their cleverness!”
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (+1998)

Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (+1998) (source)

Note: This year marks 20 years from the repose of blessed Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, a great figure of Orthodox Athonite Monasticism of the 20th century and spiritual descendant of Elder Joseph the Hesychast. May we have his blessing and follow his life, example and teachings, and may he intercede for us to the Lord!
Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia was born in 1912 in Ambelochori, Thiva (Greece). His father was named Ioannis Papanikitas and his mother was Victoria. The Elder's worldly name was Evangelos. He completed high school, but the Grace of God closed off to Evangelos the worldly paths of waywardness.

In Thiva, where his family moved to, Evangelos came to know his later Elders, Ephraim and Nikephoros.

The life of Evangelos was monastic. He struggled spiritually with the Jesus prayer, with prostrations, with fasting, but especially with obedience.
Elder Ephraim as a layman (source)
His mother was made worthy to receive from St. Ephraim the Syrian the knowledge that it was his desire that his son become a monk and that Evangelos would keep the monastic life.

On September 14th 1933, Evangelos left the world and came to the desert of the Holy Mountain at Katounakia, to the hesychasterion of St. Ephraim the Syrian, and made his prostration to the synodeia of the Elders Ephraim and Nikephoros. After the trial period, he was tonsured a monk of the small schema with the name Longinos. In 1935 he became a great schema monk from his Elder Nikephoros and received the name Ephraim. The next year he was ordained a Priest.
Elder Ephraim of Katounakia with his Elders (source)
Papa Ephraim was made worthy to know the great rector of the hesychastic life, the discerning and foreseeing  and holy Elder Joseph the Hesychast (1898-1959), and became united with him spiritually together with the blessing of his Elder Nikephoros. Elder Joseph, over time, taught him the un-deluded spiritual life from the famous hesychasts, monk Kallinikos and Hieromonk Daniel. Later, Papa Ephraim taught us the persistent search for the spiritual life and finding an un-deluded and simple spiritual guide, who would be an act of the proper Orthodox faith. The un-deluded spiritual father sees the demonic traps and with corresponding medicine leads the spiritual children to Paradise.
Blessed Papa Ephraim distinguished true from sick obedience when he counseled a monk of a cenobium to show obedience to his Elder not like an animal, but from love and zeal for God.

The holy Elder Joseph the Hesychast gave a program of the hesychastic life to Papa Ephraim, in order to cultivate the prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me", to keep watch over his senses and to lead him towards purification of the heart and divine illumination.

Papa Ephraim, with the blessing of Elder Joseph, was nourished by the "Philokalia of the Holy Neptics", and received the counsels of the Neptic Fathers regarding his struggle. He did not read psychiatric books, nor cultural books on the spiritual life that people keep in the living rooms, nor did he have the fear that he would be included in the circle of "fundamentalism" by worldly people.
Elder Ephraim of Katounakia before a picture of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, his great spiritual guide (source)
In 1973, Hieromonk Nikephoros, his Elder reposed. After 1980 the Elder had gathered a synodeia around him and kept the commandment of Elder Joseph to keep a synodeia after the death of Papa Nikephoros. Later,  Papa Ephraim reached purification and became that very Elder. Papa Ephraim fought the great enemy of the spiritual life, kenodoxia (vainglory). His sacrifices were for Christ, and not to seek the praise from men.

The Divine Liturgy for Papa Ephraim was astounding and experiential event. He secretly related to a Hieromonk spiritual friend of his that from the first Divine Liturgy that he celebrated, he saw sensibly the Grace of God transform the divine Gifts. Of course, after the sanctification of the Precious Gifts, he saw Christ Himself on the Holy Paten, and it was impossible for him to hold back his tears, when he broke apart the Body of Christ. His tears watered the antimension, and to the right and left he saw Angels serving with him.
Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (source)
However, Papa Ephraim never sought "liturgical renewal", and in fact, he asked those in cenobiums in the outside world who were at outside diakonemas to not abandon the Psalter.

Papa Ephraim was adorned with the gift of discernment, and saw the spiritual state of every cleric or monk and granted the corresponding medicine for their progress in the spiritual life.

The Grace of God had granted Papa Ephraim the gift of foreknowledge, and because of this, he saw situations that would occur beforehand (such as the earthquake of 1977 in Thessaloniki), and also many times he had called lay people, even from their childhood years, by the name that they would later receive in their monastic tonsure. For example, a student sent a general letter to the blessed Elder without details, and he received a response from Papa Ephraim which related details of his spiritual state and the situation of his village without the student having told him anything beforehand.

Once, some clerics who did not know each other met on the road to Katounakia, and when they reached Papa Ephraim, the blessed holy Elder began to berate one of the clerics, saying that he was not a priest but a mason, who took off his raso, in order to spy on the Holy Mountain. The mason acknowledged his plan.

Papa Ephraim lived experiences which only Orthodox Christians could experience, far away from papist or protestant delusions.

Once, an Abbot, two theologians and a student asked Papa Ephraim to describe the fragrance of holy relics.

The Elder bent his head to the side of his heart and prayed. The place was filled with fragrance and Papa Ephraim told them that because he could not explain it, he entreated God to respond to those he was speaking with.

Papa Ephraim sensed sins as stench. Once, a bishop through a third party asked the blessed holy Elder about ecumenism. The Elder prayed for God to inform him, and then he sensed a stench with a sour, salty and bitter taste, which filled him with dismay.

The Depository of the blessed Papa Ephraim on the unity of the Orthodox was clear: "Schism occurs easily, but unity with difficulty."

So, how much do the words of a modern-day God-bearing Father resonate today?
Elder Ephraim of Katounakia (center), depicted with Elder Joseph of Vatopedi (right) and Elder Ephraim of Arizona (left)-- all spiritual children of Elder Joseph the Hesychast (source)
Papa Ephraim was highlighted by the Grace of God as a practical guide in the pastoral care of marriage and family, because he helped many young people to embrace marriage without forcing them, and because of this, his letters which have survived comprise a spiritual depository of "parental education", without psychological or philosophical theories for struggling spiritual families.

In 1996 Papa Ephraim suffered a stroke and remained paralyzed. He did not complain at all but glorified God.
Elder Ephraim with his synodeia later in life (source)
He leaves us his holy paradigm on how to face afflictions.

On February 14 / 27th 1998 Papa Ephraim of Katounakia and Mount Athos delivered his holy soul to the hands of his Creator, Whom he served from his youth.

It was said of a very old man who lived in the 19th century, that he was asked what was the most astonishing moment of his life. He responded that when he was small, he saw and heard St. Kosmas Aitolos.

And our generation was made worthy to know the fragrant flowers of Athonite Monasticism, St. Paisios and Papa Ephraim of Katounakia, who call us to follow their life's example.
Elders Ephraim of Katounakia and Aimilianos of Simonopetra (source)
The Relationship between Elders Ephraim of Katounakia and Aimilianos of Simonopetra
Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra was two years younger than Papa Ephraim, but the Most-holy Theotokos had judged that that hieromonk was in a state to understand the experiences of that venerable Athonite monk, as Papa Ephraim later related:

"Our hearts became one, and met like two flames rising up to heaven!"

At his first impression, Papa Ephraim misunderstood the later Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra. He saw him dressed well, appeared with clothes well-ironed, amorphous, like a little prince, and he said within him:
"Yeah sure, a priest like the others came to talk about prayer! With ironed raso and shirt! Come on, I'll give him a loukoumi so he'll leave!"

Elder Aimilianos, as he was good natured, pleasant and radiant, out of reverence took off his skoufo (hat), and sat respectfully in front of Elder Ephraim. "I am an Abbot in Meteora", he said. He appeared to come with longing to speak with Papa Ephraim on noetic prayer, the monastic life, and its fruits, in general.

"At Meteora you have a lot of people" replied the Elder, perhaps still having some doubt regarding that unexpected visitor. "You should come to the Holy Mountain",  he preferred to say.

Something, however, warned Papa Ephraim within him that he somehow misjudged the young Abbot from Meteora, who, after all, had worked hard, together with two others, to come meet with him.

"Maybe I am being unjust to the man?" He said within himself. He went to bring him a loukoumi for a treat, while within he was pressured and had very serious doubt. "Why don't I get information" in order to be sure. His "Information" [from God], was for the Elder a way and path of life.
Elders Ephraim of Katounakia and Aimilianos of Simonopetra (source)
Papa Ephraim went into his chapel, to the icon of Panagia in order to get "information" on Fr. Aimilianos, the "selfish muse fire outside, the amorphous one from Meteora".

Papa Ephraim made two, then three prostrations, and said straightaway with honor to the Theotokos: "My Panagia, should I speak with him, or will I waste my words?"

Then, the Blessed Elder Ephraim of Katounakia heard the Most-holy Theotokos herself reply from within Her Icon:

"You have found a second Elder Joseph [the Hesychast]. Speak with him!!" She said.

Papa Ephraim arose, sweating and astonished! "O! I'm crying within myself!!" He said with astonishment. He ran outside, took Fr. Aimilianos and led him into the chapel. They talked for hours between them, and from then on, they were never separated.

Papa Ephraim continuously said of that man planted by God at Meteora: "I found my departed Elder, another Elder Joseph, the golden-tonged and honorable Elder Aimilianos!"

Elsewhere, he said of Elder Aimilianos: "He, my child, is fragrance."
The Blessed Skull of Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, bearing the shape of the Cross and the golden color of the Holy Relics of the Saints (source)
Selected quotes from Elder Ephraim of Katounakia
Everyone has a cross to carry. Why? Since the leader of our faith endured the cross, we will also endure it. On one hand, the cross is sweet and light, but, on the other, it can also be bitter and heavy. It depends on our will. If you bear Christ’s cross with love then it will be very light; like a sponge or a cork. But if you have a negative attitude, it becomes heavy; too heavy to lift.
Taken from the book: Elder Ephraim of Katounakia
Prayer is a struggle. It strengthens the fight of the faithful against the devil but it is itself also a painful and bloody struggle. All our effort is to concentrate our nous on the words of the "Jesus Prayer."
We should make our nous deaf and mute to any other thought, either good or bad, that evil brings us. We should not listen to the thoughts that come from outside or answer them. We need to despise them completely and not converse with them. Thus we should seek in every way the complete muteness of our nous because only with this action can we keep our soul in calmness so that the Jesus Prayer can act effectively.
It is known that the thoughts are led from the mind into the heart and disturb it. The troubled mind also troubles the heart. Just as the wind raises the waves of the sea, so the wind of thoughts raises waves in the soul. Attentiveness is necessary for prayer. That is why the Fathers talk about prayer in combination with watchfulness. Watchfulness keeps the nous in constant alertness and readiness and prayer brings the divine grace...
The Holy Fathers teach that even if man is not always under the dominion of the demons he is, however, under their influence and persistent hostility. They continually turn around the soul and try, by all means, to make the faithful sin, either through the senses (when the object is near) or through the imagination (when the person or object is far away) or through the movements of the flesh. For the whole of man, who consists of soul and body, receives the influence of Satan and gets captured by him.
The hostile tactics of the evil, however, are more apparent during prayer. Those who fight in this inner struggle see evil making war against them furiously at every step. They see the devil clearly using all means to distract their nous from God. They see all the cunning devices of the evil demon, who hates the good and kills man.
According to St. Mark the Ascetic: "When the devil sees that the nous is praying in the heart, then he incurs great and malicious temptations". He hates men exceedingly, and his hatred increases when he sees that they tend to become angels through prayer, and occupy the place the demons had before their fall. St. Gregory of Nyssa describes this malicious envy of the devil, caused by the theosis of man: "The demons are consumed by envy and jealousy when men are ready to acquire kinship with God, whereas they (the demons) have fallen from their relationship with the good"...
Imagination is the most cunning weapon of Satan; imagining the past and imagining the future; imagining good works, imagining bad ones. Various thoughts come and preoccupy the nous, so that it ceases to meditate on the name of Jesus. He tries to make man not to show interest in God and express his love. Primarily he coaxes him to call to mind the various faults he has committed in his former and recent life.
The Holy Fathers say that the war is usually as fierce as the passions were before. For every pleasure he must pay the proportionate pain. There is a close connection between pleasure and pain in the ascetic life of the Fathers. Pleasure brought about both the Fall and pain; and it is precisely this pain which restores man to his original state and cures him. Thus, man suffers a lot. He pays for each thought and evil pleasure the proportionate amount of suffering, so that an equilibrium may be restored.
Events that happened many years ago which he felt pleasure for, being forgotten in the meantime, appear now in all their intensity and range. He may even reach the point of disgust and despair.
Blasphemous thoughts come upon the athlete of prayer...incredulity about the great matters of faith, like the divinity of Christ and the purity of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Saints, etc. Many times these thoughts are expressed and verbalized during prayer, without the wrestler of this struggle knowing it or wanting it...
Blasphemous thoughts must be opposed with contempt. Only in this way do they disappear. Blasphemous thoughts are inspired by the devil they are not ours. Here we can affirm that the Lord's word has validity: "You cannot serve God and mammon", (Matt. 6:24) that is, the nous cannot do two things simultaneously. It cannot be enchanted by the sweetest nectar of the Jesus prayer on the one hand and on the other hand, while it is praying, doubt the power of prayer or dogmatic truths. The latter is the attack of the devil. Contempt then is needed and if the blasphemous thought continually attacks us, it needs confession to the spiritual father. Then it disappears immediately. Moreover, the same happens with persistent thoughts. A thought that persists, especially during prayer, needs to be confessed. Thus the devil who hides under it immediately disappears, like the snake when we lift up the stone...
The athlete of prayer must not let himself be shaken. He must oppose imagination with the continuous invocation of the name of Jesus, and he must be concentrated within the words of the Jesus prayer. He must stand bravely in the conciseness of the Jesus prayer. He must not think of anything during prayer, either of wrong or even good works...
Many times the devil, he continued, appears and talks to the athlete of prayer. He challenges him and tries to open a dialogue with him. Sometimes he blames the athlete, sometimes he praises him, sometimes he scoffs at him, sometimes he interprets certain acts wrongly. The inexperienced in this spiritual contest start talking with the devil and answer his questions and his assaults. However, this is an error, especially for the beginners, because the inexperienced in these situations are defeated even if it seems that the devil was put to flight by their replies. Confusion and fear remain. And later, when they recall this scene and all that was said, they will be shaken and troubled. The Fathers recommend that those who do not have the experience and the necessary strength should not answer. They must be indifferent to the devil and despise him. They must do the same in the war against their thoughts. Thus contempt against the devil and perseverance in the Jesus prayer are needed... 
The best prayer is the one you say with your own words. Reading a prayer is not enough. For example, before receiving Holy Communion we read the Service of Preparation for Holy Communion, ‘From lips tainted and defiled, from heart unclean and loathsome…’, sometimes without even understanding the words. You yourself should pray with your own words. Then you will understand what you are saying to God. This prayer has great power; great power indeed!
Elder Ephraim placed great importance on the Mystery of Confession
and on obedience to the confessor, even for laymen.
Particularly we remember that he told us, '' For whoever kneels even just once
under the stole of the priest, divine Providence will arrange things in such
a way that Christ will finally gain him. ''
Obedience is Life - Elder Ephraim  of Katounakia

Icon of the Blessed Elder Ephraim of Katounakia, though he has yet to be officially canonized by the Patriarchate (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Elder Ephraim of Arizona on Great Lent

Jesus Christ, "Extreme Humility" (source)
At this time we’re entering the great spiritual arena of the blessed Great Lent. Holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction, for repentance, for tears, for a change in ourselves, for a new stage in the spiritual life. Like an affectionate mother caring for her children, us Christians, the Church has designated this time of Lent as dedicated to the struggle, in order to help its children fight harder, to purify themselves, draw closer to God and to be counted worthy of celebrating the great day of the radiant Resurrection.

Christians, especially monks, have always paid particular attention to this spiritual arena and have thought it especially sacred, because it’s a period which envisages both spiritual and bodily struggles. There’s the struggle of fasting, the struggle of vigils, the struggle of purification and the struggle to fulfill one’s spiritual duties which are many more than at other times of the year. There’s a spiritual “defragmentation” and people pay greater attention to the voice of their conscience in order to correct what they’ve maybe neglected and to improve spiritually.
The Church assists us but with penitential hymns and services, as well as with teachings, to oil us up for the fight for the purification of our souls.
We have the penitential evening Divine Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. The Presanctified is extremely beneficial. It’s Cherubic Hymn is full of spirituality, contemplation, angelic presence. That’s why we should come to these liturgies during Great Lent with even greater compunction. We who consume the Body and Blood of Christ must be so pure and clean, so straight in body and soul for divine grace to have its effect. For this reason we must lead very careful lives. Both in our cells and in church we must wet our face with tears so as to wash our souls and be worthy to take communion. Of course, the devil often makes us wanting in compunction, me more than anyone. Which means we can’t have tears and we often have bad thoughts. Bad thoughts and the sinful images that accompany them must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance. And when we have wicked thoughts or our soul is cold towards one of the brethren, let’s not approach the God of love, Who is so pure and holy.
Throughout this period, at every service in Great Lent, we say the prayer of Saint Efraim the Syrian, which is as follows: “Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, lust for power or idle talk, but give rather the spirit of sobriety, humility, patience and love to me, your servant. Indeed, Lord King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen”.
With these words, the saint wishes to make us understand very clearly, that, apart from other virtues we need to take special care with the last case, that of self-censure and of criticism of our bothers and that without love for our fellow human beings there’s no chance of making even the slightest progress towards our spiritual purification. If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, our words and our heart, there’s no benefit in fasting. Fasting is of benefit when it’s combines with love for our neighbour and when we don’t criticize others. When we don’t criticize our fellows and instead criticize ourselves, then we’re marked by love for others and love for our soul, concern for purification and the fulfillment of the great commandment, that of love of God and one’s neighbour. Love for God and for our fellows  are the two great virtues which support the whole of the spiritual structure, because if they are absent, they others cannot take form. “God is love and those who live in God in love have God living in them, too” (I. Jn. 4, 16).
Another issue which demands that we push ourselves as hard as possible is prayer We should pray in the name of Christ, without neglecting any opportunity and without any waste of time. In the personal vigil in our cell, we should push ourselves, shouldn’t let sleep overcome us, nor neglect nor idleness; we should engage willingly I spiritual matters. As soon as we wake up, prayer should take first place then our rule, our prayer-rope, study and the contemplation of God. We should go to church with great readiness and so get the best results from our presence in the arena.
Apart from this, fasting together with bodily exertion helps as regards the forgiveness of sins. “Behold my humility and my efforts and forgive all my sins”. When we labour with the fast, with kneeling, with prayers, with an effort from our heart and mind, this Godly exertion is holy and is richly rewarded by God, because it make people worthy of the crown of glory and honour. The demons fear the fast greatly, because it lays them low. “This kind [of demon] will not depart other than with prayer and fasting”, said the Lord (Math. 17, 21). This is why the holy fathers always began any Godly task with a fast. They considered a fast to be very powerful and that the Holy Spirit does nor overshadow people when they’re replete with food and their stomachs are full. And any Christian who desires purification has to start from this foundation which is fasting, prayer and vigilance. When these three are combined, then people have acquired great stature.
In olden times, the fathers had a holy custom. On the eve of Lent, they would leave the monasteries and go deeper into the desert, where they lived in great asceticism until Lazarus Saturday, when they returned in order to celebrate Palm Sunday all together. Some would take a few of the basic essentials as far as food was concerned, others would eat only green plants, in order to struggle more fiercely in the desert. Thereafter they would spend all the days on Great Week together in church, existing on a piece of dried rusk and a few nuts a day. We were given the blessing and the grace of knowing ascetic people who spent not only Great Lent in fasting and spiritual struggle.
Our departed elder, Elder Iosif the Cave-Dweller (he used to live in caves, which is where I met him), kept a very strict fast during Great Lent. And, of course, he imposed it on us, too. From Monday to Friday, five days of the week there was no food, except a handful of flour, from which we made a batter with just water. That was it. A little plate every twenty-four hours. And, at the same time, hard work lifting loads on our back during the day and the whole night hundreds of prostrations and hours of prayer. And all of this in order to purify the inner person, to make it cleaner, more honourable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before God and be able to pray for the whole world. Because the world, people everywhere, needs the prayers of the saints, particularly those of ascetics. Saint Anthony the Great supported the whole world with his prayers.
 Of course, we must keep the fast only as far as we’re able, with discretion, because we’re not all the same. “Unless the good be done well, it is not good”. In other words, unless good is done in a good way, method, time and amount, but instead is done without discretion, then it’ll do more harm than good. Fasting is certainly extremely necessary, it’s good, but it’s a means rather than an end The means has an end and that is humility. This is why we need to arrange everything in accordance with the discretion of a spiritual father, someone illumined by the Holy Spirit. Your spiritual father will tell you  how much to fast, how often to receive communion, where to strike at the enemy, what you should do here and what there. And then, through the discretion of your spiritual father, you can put your house in order. We shouldn’t do more than is appropriate, we need moderation in all things, because immoderation cancels out any benefit. So fasting is holy, but it’s a means. We should adjust it according to what our spiritual father says and what out psychosomatic powers allow. As long as there’s good will. Basil the Great says there’s as much difference in resilience between people as there is between iron and grass.
Saint Synklitiki fell ill towards the end of her life with a throat disease. Her blessed throat, which had always spoken the word of God, festered on the inside. Her mouth had saved countless people. The devil had asked permission to test her and God had granted it. The stench from her rotting flesh became so bad that the nuns had the greatest difficulty in seeing to her needs. They used the most pungent perfumes to try and bring her a little respite in her sickness. When her mouth had been healthy, it had spoken and brought benefit to many, but when she fell ill, she was able to preach even more strongly. How could a silent and rotting mouth preach? She noiselessly declared her great patience and endurance in God’s trial. She made a titanic effort to deal with the devil of impatience, of complaint, of the labour and toil of sickness. What did she need with fasting? This is why illness is regarded as involuntary asceticism. One person has cancer, another diabetes, somebody else has lots of troublesome health problems. How will these people purify themselves? How will they see God’s light?
Through patience and giving thanks to Him. These make up for the fast which, because of their illness, they’re unable to keep, and, in fact, often struggle ten times harder than if they were fasting.
During this period, we really have to struggle to purify ourselves. From the ascetic tradition we have hermits who spent the whole of their lives in the desert, with labours, toil, fasts, tears, sleeping on the ground and deprivation of every other kind of pleasure. And all this effort, together with the struggle of the soul against all kinds of thoughts concerning the rebellions of the flesh, engendered sanctity.
So every Christian who’s a monk and wants to experience purification has the right to labour and not be deprived of his reward. Purity brings great boldness towards God, because He Himself is pure, the Mother of God is most pure and Saint John the Theologian lived his life as a virgin, as did so many other saints. The whole beauty of the Church is founded on purity and spotlessness. When our heart is pure and beautiful it will exude fragrance and loveliness. But if people have filth in their hearts, that’s what they’ll expel. Let’s struggle to cleanse the inside of our glass, our heart, so that we’ll be pure and pleasing in God’s eyes.

We have instances from Church history of many people “in the world” (not monastics, that is), who pleased God and became great. Abba Paphnuti [from Ancient Egyptian = “man of God”], an ascetic of great gifts, once prayed to God and said: “God, who have You placed me with. With whom do I share the same measure of virtue?”. And he heard a voice, saying to him: “Down in Alexandria there’s a poor man, a cobbler, down in a basement. You have the same amount of virtue as he does”. “But I’ve been a hermit in the desert from childhood and I’m equal in virtue with a lay person, a married man?”. “Yes, you’re equal to him”. The next day, the saint picked up his staff and his bag, put in some dry rusks and set off for Alexandria. He went down into the city, found the layman and said to him: “What do you do here, friend?”. “What should I do, father? I’m a sinner, the worst person in the world”. “Can we talk?”. “Certainly”. “What’s the virtue that you’re working on acquiring?”. “Virtue, me? I live ‘in the world’ and am completely mixed up. Now you, you’ve got virtues”. “No, you’re doing something”. “I’m not doing anything”. “God showed me, so you can’t tell me lies. I prayed and He told me that we share the same measure of virtue. There must be something about you”. “Sorry, Father. If what I do can be considered something, I’ll tell you. I married, and from the moment I put on the crown, I said to my wife: ‘If you love me, we’ll live apart, like brother and sister and work for the sanctification of our souls. Do you agree’. ‘I agree’. And since then we’ve lived in purity and virginity”.*
[*Note: This marital chastity described is similar to that experienced by other saints, for example, St. John of Kronstadt. St. Paphnoutios is not at all implying that sex and childbearing in marriage are evil or impure. But all married Christians are called to some degree of self-control and purity, (as is prayed for in every wedding service) according to their strength, according to their mutual consent and the guidance of their spiritual fathers, not all to a life of virginity.]
In the desert, Blessed Paphnuti tried to cleanse himself through the ascetic life, and restraint, in which he was greatly assisted by the condition of his way of life. The other man lived “in the world”, with a wife, with all the challenges of secular life and, with God’s help had reached the stature of a saint. And his struggle was greater than that of the hermit. Proof that he was great in the eyes of God.
After that, something else happened which has to do with this cobbler. One day a Christian went to the Blessed Paphnuti and said:
“Father, I quarrelled with a priest and I don’t know how he reacted, whether he cursed me or swore at me, but he’s now departed this life and we weren’t reconciled. What do I do now?”.
“There’s nothing I can do in this case, but there’s a holy man who I’ll send you to and he’ll help. Go down to Alexandria, to a basement where there’s this cobbler. Tell him I sent you, mention the problem and he’ll help”.
The Christian said to himself: “For goodness’ sake. A hermit can’t help and a layman can?”. Nevertheless, out of obedience to the hermit, he did as he was told. The cobbler told him to wait until night fell and then took him to a church in the city. After again telling him to wait, the cobbler went up to the large door made the sign of the cross and it opened. The inside of the church was bathed in light and there was heavenly music. The cobbler told the man:
“Go in there and look at the choirs on the left and right. You’ll see the priest there”.
The man went in, saw the priest in the left choir and received his forgiveness.
You see what ascetic effort can achieve? What the soul’s struggle can do? What did that layman do to purify his soul. When he told the girl he’d married  that they should live like brother and sister, was that an end to it? No, they fasted and kept vigil together, they made prostrations and read the Gospel. They read Patristic books, went to church, confessed, took communion, chased  away evil thoughts and struggled assiduously. And that’s how they became saints “in the world”.
So here is proof that even “in the world”, when Christians take on the struggle with good will, the Grace of God does not exclude anyone. But we make excuse for ourselves and say that because we’re “in the world”, we can’t. Desire gets the better of us. What do we need to do? Fight in the body and in the soul. In other words, control our thoughts. Thoughts come, sinful fantasies, images, faces, idols and scenes. We must get rid of them immediately with “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me”. When the mind is careful not to accept all of that and has the divine weapon, the Name of Christ, then every enemy of our soul is slain, whether it be the devil, sordid fantasies or repulsive thoughts. Then, if we guard our soul, mind and heart in this way, our inner self will remain clean and pure.
Let’s struggle really hard now, and the rewards will be very great. Nobody finds grace unless they make the effort. If a farmer doesn’t tend his crops, he won’t see any yield. When our fast is accompanied, reinforced and flanked by prayer, study, vigilance, church attendance, confession, Holy Communion, good works- especially almsgiving- then the beauty of the preparation of the soul for the reception of Great Week is complete. Then we’ll experience the Holy and Sacred Passion of Christ  more intensely, because our heart will soften, it’ll alter and it’ll realize how great God’s love for humankind is. Then, within us, we’ll experience very forcibly the Holy Resurrection, we’ll celebrate it in a way befitting to God and we’ll celebrate Holy Easter together with the angels. Amen.
Brethren, may we all have a blessed and spiritually-profitable Lent, and be made worthy of partaking in Christ's Passion and Resurrection! Please forgive me, and may God forgive us all!
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Elder Sophrony of Essex on the Love and Pain of the Theotokos

Christ crucified, in extreme humility, beside His Most-holy Mother, the Theotokos (source)
Our Panagia was pained much more than all other women, much more than all other mothers in the world, because no one else was struck, to no one else was done evil like that which was done to Her, the greatest evil of the whole world. They crucified Her Son.

And seeing Him upon the Cross, She was pained so much in her heart...Because of this She can understand every painful existence, and She suffers together with every human who is pained, because She exactly knows what "pain" means. When the soul is seized by the love of God, then, O, how gracious, beloved and joyous is everything! Love, however, goes together with sorrow, and the deeper the love is, even greater is the sorrow.

The Theotokos never sinned, not even in thought, and She never lost grace, and even She had such great sorrows. When she stood beside the Cross, then Her sorrow was impassable like the ocean, and the pains of Her soul were incomparably greater than the pain of Adam after the expulsion from Paradise, because Her love was incomparably greater than the love of Adam in Paradise.

And though She survived it, She survived only with divine power, with the strength of the Lord, because His will was for the Theotokos to later see the Resurrection, and later, after His Ascension, that She might remain the consolation and joy of the Apostles and of the new Christian people. We do not reach the fullness of the love of the Theotokos, and because of this we cannot fully conceive of the depth of Her sorrow.

Her love was perfect. She loved her Son and God incomparably, but She also loved the people with great love. And what did She sense, then, when they whom She herself loved so greatly and whom She so greatly pained for their salvation, when She saw them crucifying her beloved Son?

This we cannot conceive of, because our love for God and man is small. However, the love of Panagia was incomparable and inconceivable, thus incomparable also was her pain, which remains inconceivable to us.

The Theotokos did not relate in the Scriptures Her thoughts, nor her love for Her Son and God, nor the sorrows of Her soul at the hour of the Crucifixion, because even then they couldn't conceive of it. Her love for God was stronger and more fervent than the love of the Cherubim and Seraphim, and all the powers of the Angels and Archangels were amazed with Her.

Icon of Blessed Elder Sophrony of Essex (+1993), though he has not yet been officially canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!

Elder Symeon Kragiopoulos on Cheesefare Sunday

Icon depicting the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise (source)
Great Lent is a forty-day period for us to return to God. Due to our sins, we find ourselves outside of paradise. Realizing this fact we seek forgiveness of our sins. If God forgives us, He will put us in paradise. For this reason, the Gospel reading for today’s divine liturgy highlights the first thing needed: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses,” (Matt. 6, 14-15). Run and do whatever you want. Strive according to your desire. But if you do not look after this very first thing, do not expect your sins to be forgiven. And if your sins are not forgiven, you will not enter into paradise. However much we seek forgiveness from God, that much more must we too forgive others.
And, now for the second point. It is impossible to conceive of Great Lent without fasting, as this fasting is a law of God and a law of the Church. During this period, our Lord, and our Church, want us to fast from material foods, but also from our passions, and from our weaknesses.
The third point that we, during this period, must pay attention to for our return to be true is: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth … lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” (Matt. 6, 19). When you do almsgiving, when you love, forgive others, think of others, think of heavenly things, of spiritual goods, and of all the things the Lord has promised us –not the earthly things down here–then you gain treasure there. Your heart, then, is there in heaven.
If your heart truly desires Christ, it will go towards heaven. From that perspective, we can take stock. Since our hearts do not go towards God  –as if difficulties come to us, and like clockwork there are roadblocks– this means that we love other things more deeply than we love our Christ. This is in accordance with that which the Lords says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, ” (Matt. 6, 21).
Holy Hesychasterion “The Nativity of Theotokos” Publications.
Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
Beautiful icon depicting Christ as the Good Samaritan (source)
Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us! Amen!