Tonight we are entering the holy and salvific Great Lent. In today’s Gospel reading Christ tells us to make sure that our fast is not hypocritical, not only for show. “But thou, when thou fastest, — He says, — anoint thy head and wash thy face” (Matt. 6:17), and do not be like hypocrites with falsely sad faces.
What does it mean to anoint one’s head? The head symbolizes the mind, as the Holy Fathers tell us. Thus, you should made sure that your thoughts are pure; guard yourself from evil, foul, and banal thoughts. And in like manner make sure that your words are not evil, or foul, or banal. Pay special attention to spiritual nourishment: look at how you will nourish your mind, what pages you will peruse, what programs you will watch.
About our words, just as about our thoughts, we will be reminded throughout the entire lent by the prayer: “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and a door of enclosure about my lips.” “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). Not only for every foul and rotten word, but also for “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of the judgment” (Matt. 12:36). An idle word is not primarily a meaningless or deceitful word, but also every truthful and genuine word which we make idle when we use sacred words in vain, as though they are of no consequence.
We live in a world where the major battle is against man, against the only verbal being — man. Everything is being done to make words meaningless. And not only to drown everything in a sea, in a veritable ocean of deceitful words which crash over us daily, but to mix sacred words with lying and profane words. And also to make sure that we ourselves participate in this. Woe is unto us if we give in to the enemy. It is for this reason that the fast is given to us, for us to remember what is most important, for us to anoint our heads — i.e. our minds and our words — with the oil of reason, goodness, faith, truth, and purity, so that both our words and our thoughts come vibrantly alive.
The Gospel words “anoint thy head” also apply to the inner man, to our hearts — in order that no envy, no hate, no malice, no enmity, no passion, nothing profane would issue from our hearts; in order that our coarsened, petrified, deadened souls, for keeping this lent and by the grace of God, would receive a fragrant, blessed anointment by the Holy Spirit when the Great Lent ends and we stand before the crucified and resurrected Christ.
And what does it mean to wash one’s face? The face, say the Holy Fathers, symbolizes the external man. What do we have on our face? We have eyes, in order to heed where we look, to heed where our glance wanders among this changeable world, shimmering with all the colors of sin, lying in evil and deceit. We must also obviously exclude all television programs during the Great Lent, in order not to resemble a person who abstains from meat throughout the entire fast and at the same time with his eyes devours all manner of filth, just like the prodigal son who sat at the same table with dirty and noisily chomping pigs — to partake of the demonic feast which the mass media offer us today.
We must guard our sight, as we must guard our hearing, protecting it from all that is unwholesome, all that takes us away from truth and purity: both the radio and dangerously idle conversations should be excluded from our hearing. Depending on circumstances, we should be as the deaf and the blind, says Apostle Paul.
Similarly our nose should abstain from smelling the odors of this world which wants to tempt us, always remembering that even fragrant but sinful odors can very soon turn into stench. We must guard our entire being, our whole body from all manner of sin: our hands, that they not slap either man or animal and abstain from touching all impurity; and our feet, that they not walk among the council of the ungodly. In truth, our entire body should become a temple for our soul, should become a temple of God, and not a den of thieves. This is why the Great Lent is given to us.
Today’s Gospel reading begins with the words: “If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). It is for this reason that the Lord and the Holy Church have established this day as Forgiveness Sunday. The Church warns us that when we come to ask forgiveness of the Lord, of the Mother of God, of all the saints, and of each other, we must come prepared, and we must be at peace with everyone. Just imagine that you would come to confession and would repent of sins for which you feel no penitence at all. It will be the same if you ask forgiveness of other people only externally, as a formality — such asking of forgiveness will only be to your judgment and condemnation. It is only by the grace of God and by our participation in this grace, which we can demonstrate by our entire 40-day labor of fasting, that we are able to acquire the gift of forgiveness.
No one can be forced to forgive, just as no one can be forced to love. And the Lord does not force us to forgive; He says — you do not have to forgive, you can do as you please, — because if He were to force us to forgive, then the forgiveness which we would grant to other people would not be our own forgiveness. It would not be ours, but God’s, and would not have any connection with us whatsoever. But only that which is done freely, willingly, consciously is of genuine value, when a person fully understands that he should forgive. The Lord only warns us that if we do not forgive, neither will He forgive us. And who will then forgive our sins, if God doesn’t forgive them? There is no being either in heaven or on earth who could forgive our sins. People will not forgive our sins, because we do not forgive others; God will not forgive our sins, because we do not forgive other people. So then where will we be, if we do not forgive others? The burden of our sins, both major and minor ones, which grow from day to day like mountains, will constantly increase, and when we pass into eternity they will continue to increase eternally and will eternally oppress us by their endless weight.
Such is the mystery of forgiving the sins of others. Therefore, let us learn throughout the entire fast not to respond to offense with offense, to insult with insult, to malice with malice, to sin with sin. The Holy Fathers encourage us to use our reason. If a drunkard is lolling in the dirt, they say, what will you do when you see this drunkard? Will you lie down next to him in the dirt, or will you try to pull him out of the dirt? Every sin is dirt, and every passion is like drunkenness in a man. Thus, if you see that this man’s soul is lolling around in the dirt of sin, you must try to abstain from sin yourself, in order to help this person, to pull him out of the dirt and cleanse him. Then the Lord, seeing your efforts, will pull you out of the dirt of sin in which all of us are mired up to our ears, and will place your purified being among the celestial angels and among all the saints by the gift of this forgiveness.
This is the kind of Lent we are now entering. A Lent which truly brings salvation. A Lent which frees man’s soul from all destructive hypocrisy. A Lent which was bequeathed to us by the Lord Himself. A Lent in which He participates Himself, and went through Himself in advance, in order to grant us the power to conquer the devil who tempts us with all kinds of passions, and grant us the victory of a new life in the Resurrection. Amen.
THE GREAT CANON OF ST. ANDREW OF CRETE
(First week of Great Lent)
St. Andrew of Crete originally came from Damascus and was born in the mid-7th century. At the age of 14, in accordance with the wishes of his pious parents, St. Andrew went to Jerusalem to serve God, and became a member of the patriarchal clergy. His outstanding talents attracted the attention of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who provided him with a superior theological education, which St. Andrew later put to brilliant use in his works.
In A.D. 680 St. Andrew took part in the 6th Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, and through his learnedness and his knowledge of church dogmas became well-known both to the council fathers and to the Emperor himself. St. Andrew worked hard at fighting heretics, both at the council and in his bishopric on the island of Crete after he was consecrated bishop of Crete. During his tenure there he wrote many canons to the saints and glorified the Holy Virgin. But he attained everlasting glory in composing the Great Canon, which is read in parts during the first four days of the first week of Lent, and in its entirety in the fifth week. St. Andrew of Crete is commemorated on July 4th (by the old calendar).
The canon of St. Andrew is called great not only because of its volume (it consists of 266 verses, whereas regular canons usually contain 30), but also because of its inner content. It affects the soul in such a way that this canon is also called “penitential” or “remorseful.” In it St. Andrew collected all the events of the Old and the New Testaments, from the fall of Adam to the death of Christ the Saviour on the cross, and expressed them in a manner of deep and heartfelt grief. The Great Canon is an extraordinary example of spiritual poetry. In it St. Andrew masterfully applies each event to the soul’s sinful state, and from each event he extracts a powerful impulse towards repentance and moral improvement. The moving poetry of the Great Canon can soften even the most hardened soul and predispose it towards goodness. At the end of the canon St. Andrew appeals to God on behalf of each Christian soul: “Grant me, O Lord, ever a penitent heart and spiritual meekness, that I may offer them as a propitious sacrifice to Thee, sole Saviour”; “My Judge! When Thou comest with the angels to judge the world, then look upon me with Thy kind eyes. Have mercy upon me, Jesus, and save me.”
The content of the Great Canon responds to all the needs of a Christian soul. Whoever seeks knowledge of God will find it in the theological teaching of St. Andrew, who uses Old Testament events to explain the New Testament, and confirms the teaching of the New Testament with historical images from the Old Testament. Clergymen turn to this canon to study the characteristics of man’s fallen and restored nature, which reveals itself in various good and evil actions, and they also learn to understand the heart, from which man brings out good or evil, depending on his disposition. Finally, every Christian sees in the canon a vast spiritual painting which depicts all his sinful actions and impels him to cry out: “Have mercy upon me, O God, for I have sinned before Thee; cleanse me Thyself!”
THE SUNDAY OF THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY
This past week, dear brethren, we have embarked upon the spiritual endeavor of the Great Lent, and now today — on the first Sunday of Lent — we celebrate a special event: the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
What does the triumph of Orthodoxy mean? On a historical plane this celebration was initiated during the reign of the Greek Empress Theodora in A.D. 842 to commemorate the overcoming of the heresy of iconoclasm and the restoration of icon worship. But even earlier there was the following historical moment: in A.D. 303 the Roman Emperor Diocletian began a most cruel and terrifying persecution of Christians. He issued an edict to destroy all the Bibles in the world and to kill all Christians. The persecution of Christians was so merciless that a year later the iniquitous persecutors decided that they had already accomplished their objective and had erased Christianity from the face of the earth. Diocletian even erected an obelisk with the following inscription: “The name of Christian has been destroyed forever!”
At that time Christians were drowning in blood, burning in bonfires, tortured, suffering, dying, — and Diocletian’s boast had all the appearance of reality. But who came after Diocletian? Emperor Constantine the Great, who called himself a Christian and who established Christianity as the official state religion. He removed pagan symbols from the standards of the Roman army and the soldiers’ shields, and ordered them to be replaced with the symbol of Christianity — the Lord’s Cross. What a miraculous transformation took place in that year of A.D. 312 — just nine years after Diocletian erected his famous obelisk of stupidity!
But these are just historical events. And what does the triumph of Orthodoxy mean in our days, when the persecution of true Christians — true Orthodox Christians — proceeds in a manner no less cruel and merciless than in Diocletian’s times, albeit not always so openly, but more often in cunning ways? We should ponder this more attentively.
First of all, when we are asked: what is our religion? — we promptly reply that we are Orthodox Christians. But what do we exactly mean by that? We must always remember that Orthodoxy is not simply a religion on paper, a box to be checked or a name to be written on a dotted line, — but it is a way of life. When we come to be baptized, we are asked very important questions: first — do we reject Satan? and second — do we unite ourselves with Christ? The answer to both these questions must be affirmative, otherwise the priest cannot continue with the sacrament of baptism. Therefore, we must always especially remember that we — Orthodox Christians — have become united with Christ. This means that we must live fully in accordance with the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
And we must always remember that Orthodoxy differs greatly from all other religions. Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists and others — all seem to be Christians, and yet they have fallen away from the truth of Christ’s Church, while Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, etc. do not recognize the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, at all. But we should not judge them, for they will be judged by Christ Himself.
In His Gospel the Lord said to His apostles: go forth and preach My Gospel to all, and baptize people in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and whoever accepts My baptism shall be saved, while those who reject it shall perish.
And so all of us here have embraced the sacrament of baptism, dear brethren, and it means that we have accepted all the commandments of our Saviour: it means that we will love one another and our enemies, we will keep all the fasts, we will remain in constant prayer to the Lord, and thus we will fulfill the law of Christ. And that is what the Triumph of Orthodoxy means. For almost two thousand years Orthodoxy triumphs in that people become baptized and unite with Christ, live by Christ’s commandments, instill the Orthodox faith into their lives and — most importantly — make Orthodoxy their way of life.
Let us be among such people, dear brethren! Let us live with Christ, in accordance with His commandments; let us make use of this precious time of the Great Lent to purify ourselves in order to unite with Christ, and in this way we, too, will take part in the Triumph of Orthodoxy, we, too, will add our small share to this triumph. And then not only over the Church of Christ, but even over ourselves the gates of hell will never be able to prevail. Amen.
ANNUNCIATION OF THE HOLY THEOTOKOS
The time came for the appearance of Christ the Saviour in the world. There were no more princes of Judah left, and the throne of David was occupied by Herod, an Idumean. The decades foretold by Daniel, which indicated the exact time when Christ was to be born, had come to pass. The promise of a Saviour was guarded not only among the chosen people, but the pagans also eagerly awaited the arrival of a great messenger from heaven. This was like the early dawn, when the sun had not yet risen, but its glimmering was already dispersing the darkness.
The glorious event of the Annunciation, as described by the holy Evangelist Luke, mentions only its high points. It is very unlikely that the holy Archangel Gabriel appeared and said only the few words reported to us by St. Luke. The Evangelist mentions the most important points, as the entire Gospel generally speaks only of the most important things, because it is said there that if one were to write down all that the Lord Jesus Christ said and did, the whole world could not contain such a vast number of books.
However, the tradition of the Holy Church, together with the writings of the Holy Fathers, have provided us with some additional details of this great event.
In the Holy Land, in the city of Nazareth, there is a certain well to which the Holy Virgin used to go when She was still a young maiden, to draw water as was customary in those times. It is here, at this well, that She once heard a voice saying: “Thou shalt give birth to My Son.” She alone heard this voice. Who said those words? Obviously they were spoken by the One Whose Son was to be born from Her, i.e. by God the Father Himself. And although the words were for Her alone, whenever creation hears the voice of its Creator and Master, it trembles. And thus Her virginal and pure soul began to tremble. In trembling and fear She returned home, and in order to somehow calm Her soul She engaged in Her favorite pastime — the reading of the Holy Scriptures. However, when She opened the book and began to read, She came upon the passage in Prophet Isaiah which speaks of the Saviour being born of a Virgin. But so profound was Her divine and fragrant modesty, that despite the words She had heard at the well She never thought of applying this prophecy to Herself, but after having read of the Saviour’s birth from a Virgin She thought very simply: “How happy I would be to be even the lowest servant of this Most-blessed Virgin!” And at this point the Archangel Gabriel appeared before Her, and She heard his words: “Hail, Thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with Thee: blessed art Thou among women!” We know from Her life that the appearance of an angel was nothing new for Her. Angels had appeared to Her many times before while She was living at the temple, but the words which She heard this time disconcerted Her. She started pondering what such a greeting could mean. And She hears the Archangel continue speaking to Her: “Fear not, Mary, for Thou has found favor with God. Thou shalt bring forth a Son, and shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and of His kingdom there shall be no end.”
The church service for this feast has retained the touching tradition that the Archangel’s words were more detailed, and that seeing Her agitation the holy Archangel Gabriel said to the Virgin: “Why dost Thou fear me, Why dost Thou tremble before me, O Mistress, before Whom I myself tremble… I myself stand before Thee in pious awe!”
The Most-holy Virgin believed the Archangel’s words and therefore did not demand any signs from him, as had the high priest Zacharias when he was told of the forthcoming birth of his son (St. John the Baptist). But Her invariable love of chastity encourages Her to ask the Archangel: “How shall this be, seeing that I know not a man?”
In order to understand this question correctly, one must know that Mary had previously given the promise to remain virginal all Her life, for if She were not bound by such a promise, and was engaged to a man, what reason would She have to question the possibility of bearing a son? But when the Archangel said to Her: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon Thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow Thee,” She understood that this would be a supernatural birth, and quieting down, She said those wondrous words which St. Philaret of Moscow called “glad tidings from earth to heaven”!
The feast of the Annunciation combines two concepts which are incompatible in earthly terms: glad tidings from heaven to earth and reciprocal glad tidings from earth to heaven through the Holy Virgin’s humility. She replied: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto Me according to thy word,” i.e. I am the Lord’s handmaiden, and a handmaiden does not question the Master’s actions, but only submits to His will and follows it.
Humility, total obedience, and complete loyalty to God’s will — such was required in order to achieve total salvation of fallen mankind.
Let this be a lesson to all of us for all time: the humility of the Most-holy Virgin, which at first impeded Her acceptance of the tidings that She would become the Mother of God, and Her obedience to God, which led Her to aver that She was the Lord’s handmaiden and would accept all that would happen to Her in accordance with the tidings of the heavenly messenger. Amen.
THE LADDER OF VIRTUES
Fourth week of the Great Lent
In the preceding weeks of the Great Lent, dear brethren, the Church revealed to us the various aspects of Orthodoxy which we must incorporate into our lives, in order for the Triumph of Orthodoxy to be not only a historical fact, but a fact of our everyday life. On the second Sunday of Lent the Church instructed us in prayer, particularly inner prayer. The third Sunday of Lent was dedicated to the bearing of one’s cross.
And today we are taught yet another important part of our faith, of our path to salvation — and that is the acquisition of virtues. And, as always, the Church presents to us the best teacher on the subject — St. John of the Ladder, whose writings give us an insight into this area of spiritual wisdom.
However, as we attempt to gain knowledge on the subject of virtues, we must first of all clarify two important points: first — the fact that aside from genuine virtues there are also false virtues, and secondly — the cases in which virtues do not lead us to salvation.
Saint Ignaty Bryanchaninov clearly tells us that worldly virtues do not bring salvation. But how can we determine whether a given virtue is genuine and leads to salvation? The answer is simple: in each virtue we try to attain, we must, as the Scripture tells us, crucify our old nature with its passions and lusts; i.e. we must always limit ourselves in something, we must give up something, we must struggle against something. If we do not do so, then the virtue remains only theoretical and does not bring us any practical benefit. Let us look at a simple example: love for one’s neighbor. If we love only those whom we like and who love us in return, then — as the Lord Himself said — we will receive no benefit from such a love, because pagans do likewise. But we must do more, we must do that which, from the world’s point of view, is unnatural — we must love our enemies; only then will our love for our neighbors truly constitute a virtue.
The same is true of charity. There are so many people who are engaged in charitable works, who do good deeds… but how? For example, charity balls are organized to obtain funds for the needy. For those who attend these balls, who eat, drink, and make merry — where is the virtue in that? But to restrain oneself from buying something one terribly wants in order to give money to the poor or to a church, or to give up some badly-needed rest in order to visit the sick or comfort the suffering — that is genuine charity, that is genuine virtue.
In the same manner, even genuine virtues do not always lead us to salvation if, while engaging in them, we do not give up something. For example, for a vegetarian to keep the fast does not represent a spiritual hardship, while an extravagant spender is not truly charitable. Virtues are genuine and lead us to salvation only when they are linked with spiritual endeavors and when they are interrelated.
At this point we approach the teaching of St. John of the Ladder. St. John presents virtues to us in the form of a ladder, by ascending which we reach the Heavenly Realm. Virtues are like steps, so that the acquisition of one virtue leads us to another, and that one to yet another, etc. Thus spiritual life is constant motion, constant improvement. Having acquired, by the grace of God, a certain virtue, we cannot rest on our laurels, because that is the same as becoming stuck on one step — we will not move anywhere. Similarly, if we suddenly lose a previously acquired virtue — the entire ladder will fall down.
This is how St. John of the Ladder shows us an example of how virtues are interrelated, and how one cannot bring benefit without the other: he says — “the chief of all virtues is prayer, and their foundation is fasting. If we should sow the seeds of prayer without having attenuated our bodies through fasting, then instead of truth we will bear the fruits of sin. By the same token, if the body is attenuated through fasting, but the soul is not cultivated with prayer, spiritual reading and humbleness, then fasting becomes the parent of a multitude of passions: pride, vanity, contempt, and others.”
Even in the hustle and bustle of our modern life, dear brethren, we can step onto the ladder of virtues and ascend it. Fasting is accessible to all of us, perhaps not always in terms of food, but certainly in terms of spiritual abstinence, while in regard to prayer we have already mentioned how universally available is the Jesus prayer, even for those who are terribly busy with worldly affairs. And you can see how wonderfully everything falls into place: if we push out of our mind the usual jumble of thoughts that prevails there and replace it with the Jesus prayer, then we will attain our first usage of prayer, and when the mind is filled with prayer, it will no longer have place for evil thoughts or condemnation of others, and we will thus acquire the virtue of non-judgment, and at this point the fruits of inner prayer will appear — we will begin to see our own failings, our own sins, which will help us to acquire the virtues of repentance and humility. And in this manner, very gradually, by applying effort and demonstrating earnestness on our part, and by earning in return the action of God’s grace, we will go higher and higher up the wondrous ladder of virtues, straight into the Kingdom of God. Amen.
Homily for Palm Sunday
Our Lord Jesus Christ often went to Jerusalem, but never did He enter it with such glory as after the resurrection of Lazarus, which is commemorated prior to His passion. Until this time He specifically shunned all honors and firmly forbad His disciples to spread the word among the people that He was the long-awaited Christ the Messiah, king of Israel; now, however, He lovingly accepts royal honors from the people and triumphantly enters into Jerusalem.
Why did He not shun the honors this time, but for greater ceremony allowed Himself to be mounted upon an ass? According to the holy Church Fathers, it is because the time had come to reveal openly and publicly that He was the genuine promised Messiah, so that when the Jews rejected Him, they would not be able to justify themselves on the grounds that He had not revealed Himself to them as Christ, son of David.
Why did He mount an ass which had not yet been ridden by anyone, i.e. was untamed? This is because in the East the ass was a symbol of peace, and kings rode on them in times of peace. And the fact that it was untamed signified that Christ will rule not only over the Old Testament people, but also over people not yet enlightened by belief in the One True God.
Thus, with His triumphant entry into the holy city of Jerusalem, the Lord Jesus Christ terminated His public service to the chosen people and intimated His rule over all people. The preaching of the humble Christ ended, and the reign of Christ the King began.
At vespers for Lazarus Saturday we heard a touching canticle: “Having accomplished the 40 days beneficial to our soul, let us ask to witness also the holy week of Thy Passion, O Lover of mankind…,” i.e. the Great Lent, which symbolized Christ’s teaching of salvation through repentance, is now over, and His preaching of the Heavenly Kingdom, whose loss we commemorated on Cheesefare Sunday, — likewise. During the Great Lent we repented, we ascended a spiritual ladder, seeing before us examples of great sinners (St. Mary of Egypt) and great saints (St. John of the Ladder, St. Gregory Palamas). And now we have finished the labor of the holy 40 days and are faced with the path of “the holy week of Thy Passion.”
The entire life of an Orthodox Christian believer, at the center of which stands the Church, is full of symbols and images. The ecclesiastical year begins with the creation of the world and ends with the image of the Heavenly Kingdom, i.e. the Eternal Pascha. The daily services, ending with the Divine Liturgy, symbolize in miniature the same as the entire ecclesiastical year. Each separate service contains elements of the Old and the New Testaments. For example: the proskomedia represents the Nativity of Christ; the compline represents Christ’s coming at midnight, i.e. the Last Judgment; the Great Entrance at the Liturgy represents Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, etc. Thus both the Great Lent and the Lord’s entry, which we now commemorate, follow a strict chronological sequence.
And what lesson does this teach us?
Just as the majority of the chosen people, by refusing to accept Christ as the Messiah, became God’s adversaries, so we, too, can find ourselves in the same category, if our spiritual life at the end of the Great Lent remains the same as it was before. And, as though demonstrating the consequence of opposing God, we move into Passion Week, which commemorates how Christ was killed by the God-opposing people, who thus became not only God-opposing, but God-murdering.
As though averting us from this danger, on Palm Sunday the Church gives us palms, or in our tradition — pussy willows. Our festive palms serve as an expression of our faith in Christ. However, we should remember that the palms which we now take into our hands will soon dry up. We should bear in mind the source of their freshness: each branch lives on the nourishment it receives from the root, and if it is torn away from the root — it withers. This well-known circumstance in the world of nature is an image of our soul and its life. The root of our spiritual life is our faith in Christ, the Son of God. This faith should be alive and active, and not like the one possessed by the formerly chosen and later God-murdering people of Israel. Even they had some kind of faith when they shouted: “Hosanna to the son of David!”; however, only four days later they cried: “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Even the devil has faith, but no deeds to go along with it!
Thus, if faith has motivated us to hold these palms in our hands, then let us also show the fruits of spirituality in our lives. In seeking and receiving the absolution of sins in the sacrament of confession, let us not hold anger against those who offend us, but let us endure it all. Let us ponder all that took place in the garden of Gethsemane, in Jerusalem, on Golgotha. Let us keep the branches of our spiritual life flowering and fruitful.
“Value virtue and do not be concerned with happiness, — says St. Isidore of Pella, a Church Father. — Happiness quickly vanishes, while virtue is an immortal treasure.”
May the Lord help us all spend Passion week without squandering the spiritual treasures that we have amassed during the 40 days of Lent, and may we reach with great spiritual joy the great feast of Christ’s Resurrection. Amen.
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On April 12th(March 30th by the old calendar) the Church commemorates St. John of the Ladder.
St. John of the Ladder is called thus in honor of his major spiritual writing, “The Ladder of Paradise,” and is venerated by the Church as a great ascetic. There is very little information on St. John’s origins. According to tradition he was born circa A.D. 525, and leaving the world at the age of 16, he entered the Sinai monastery, where the elder Martirius became his spiritual father. Four years later St. John became a monk. The elder Strategius, who was present at the tonsure, prophecied that John would be a great luminary of the Church.
For 19 years John toiled at his obedience. After the death of the elder Martirius, the saint went away into the desert near Mount Sinai, where he spent 40 years in the spiritual labors of silence, fasting, and prayer. Word of St. John’s holiness spread far and wide, and many who were seeking salvation came to join him. Later he was summoned by the Sinaite monastics, who chose him as their abbot at the age of 75. For four years St. John served as abbot of the Sinai monastery, and then once again returned to a life of solitude until his very end.
It was during his rule over the monastery that St. John wrote his famous “Ladder of Paradise.” This book provided instruction on monastic life, which St. John envisaged as a path of continuous ascent to heaven along a ladder of spiritual improvement, which required a person to engage in difficult self-renunciation and intense spiritual labor. The “Ladder” presupposes, firstly, the cleansing of spiritual impurities and the uprooting of vices and passions, and secondly, the reconstruction of God’s image in man.
The content of the “Ladder” is accordingly divided into two sections: the first speaks of vices that are contrary to Christian life, and the second reveals the concept of moral and religious virtues. Many pillars of spiritual life consider the “Ladder” to be the best book of spiritual guidance. The “Ladder” was especially venerated in Russia.
Excerpts from St. John’s “Ladder”
- A Christian is one who imitates Christ as much as possible in word, deed, and thought, and who believes in the Holy Trinity correctly and purely.
- Adam, as long as he retained his childlike innocence, did not see his nakedness; blessed is natural innocence, but more glorious is the reward for innocence that is acquired through much sweat and labor, for it is the source of the greatest humility and meekness.
- Illness is sometimes sent to us for the cleansing of sins and sometimes to temper our vanity.
- The Lord sojourns in the hearts of the meek, while a rebellious soul is the seat of the devil.
- Earnest prayer eliminates even despair.
- May the entire fabric of your prayer consist of few words, for both the publican and the prodigal son attracted God’s mercy by their brief words.
- If you lean continuously on the staff of prayer, you will not stumble, but even if this should happen — you will not fall completely.
- Ill thoughts that are not confessed to one’s spiritual father turn into deeds.
- When embarking upon spiritual life, we must remember that among demons there are those who even “interpret” the Holy Scriptures for us; they do this usually in the hearts of the vain, especially among learned (educated) people, and by gradually seducing them, they finally bring them to a state of heresy and blasphemy.
- Knowing that your neighbor reproached you in your absence or presence, show your love by praising him.
- He shows humility who does not lessen his love for others when reproached by them, and not he who engages in self-reproach.
- We have not been invited into this world to attend a wedding feast, but to weep over ourselves...
- Chastity is the comprehensive name for all virtues.
- Purity and chastity are the desirable abode of Christ and heaven on earth for the soul.
- An unbridled tongue can in a short while waste the fruit of many labors.
- By earnestly offering Christ the labors of your youth, in old age you will rejoice in the wealth of dispassion, for that which is amassed in youth nourishes and comforts in the fatigue of old age.
SIGNS FROM HEAVEN
An Orthodox Christian understanding of unidentified flying objects (UFOs)
The post-World War II decades that have witnessed the astonishing increase of Eastern religious cults and influence in the West have also seen the beginning and spread of a parallel phenomenon which, although at first sight seems totally unrelated to religion, on closer examination turns out to be just as much a sign of the “post-Christian” age and the “new religious consciousness” as the Eastern cults. This phenomenon is that of the “unidentified flying objects” which have supposedly been seen in almost every part of the world since the first “flying saucer” was spotted in 1947.
Human credulity and superstition — which are no less present today than at any time in human history — have caused this phenomenon to be connected to some degree with the “crackpot fringe” of the cult world; but there has also been a sufficiently serious and responsible interest in it to produce several government investigations and a number of books by reputable scientists. These investigations have come to no positive result in identifying the objects as physical reality. However, the newest hypotheses made by several scientific investigators in order to explain the phenomena actually seem to come closer to a satisfactory explanation than other theories that have been proposed in the past; but at the same time, these newest hypotheses bring one to the “edge of reality” (as one of the new scientific books on them is called), to the boundaries of psychic and spiritual reality which these investigators are not equipped to handle. The richness of Scriptural and Patristic knowledge of precisely this latter reality places the Orthodox Christian observer in a uniquely advantageous position from which to evaluate these new hypotheses and the UFO phenomena in general.
The Orthodox Christian observer, however, is less interested in the phenomena themselves than he is in the mentality associated with them: how are people commonly interpreting UFOs, and why? Among the first to approach the UFO question in this manner, in a serious study, was the renowned Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung. In his book of 1959, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, he approached the phenomena as primarily something psychological and religious in meaning; and although he himself did not attempt to identify them as “objective reality,” he nonetheless did grasp the realm of human knowledge to which they actually belong. Today’s investigators, while starting from the “objective” and not the psychological side of the question, have also found it necessary to put forth “psychic” hypotheses to explain the phenomena.
In approaching the religious and psychological side of UFO phenomena, it is important for us, first of all, to understand the background in terms of which “flying saucers” have generally been interpreted (by those who believe in their existence) from the time of their first appearance in the 1940’s. What were men prepared to see in the sky? The answer to this question may be found in a brief look at the literature of popular science fiction.
The Spirit of Science Fiction
Historians of science fiction usually trace the origins of this literary form back to the early 19th century. Some prefer to see its beginning in the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, which combined a persuasive realism in style with a subject matter always tinged with the “mysterious” and the occult. Others see the first science fiction writer in Poe’s English contemporary, Mary Shelley (wife of the famous poet); her Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, combines fantastical science with occultism in a way characteristic of many science-fiction stories since then.
The typical science-fiction story, however, was to come with the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to our own days. From a largely second-rate form of literature in the American periodical “pulps” of the 1930s and ‘40s, science fiction has come of age and become a respectable international literary form in recent decades. In addition, a number of extremely popular motion pictures have shown how much the spirit of science fiction has captivated the popular imagination. The cheaper and more sensational science-fiction movies of the 1950s have given way in the last decade or so to fashionable “idea” movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not to mention one of the most popular and long-lived American television series, “Star Trek.”
The spirit of science fiction is derived from an underlying philosophy or ideology, more often implied than expressed in so many words, which is shared by virtually all those who create in science-fiction forms. This philosophy may be summed up in the following main points:
Religion, in the traditional sense, is absent, or else present in a very incidental or artificial way. The literary form itself is obviously a product of the post-Christian age (evident already in the stories of Poe and Shelley). The science-fiction universe is a totally secular one, although often with “mystical” overtones of an occult or Eastern kind. God, if mentioned at all, is a vague and impersonal power, not a personal being (for example, the “Force” of Star Wars, a cosmic energy that has its evil as well as good side). The increasing fascination of contemporary man with science-fiction themes is a direct reflection of the loss of traditional religious values.
The center of the science-fiction universe (in place of the absent God) is man — not usually man as he is now, but man as he will “become” in the future, in accordance with the modern mythology of evolution. Although the heroes of science-fiction stories are usually recognizable humans, the story interest often centers on their encounters with various kinds of “supermen” from “highly-evolved” races of the future (or sometimes, the past), or from distant galaxies. The idea of the possibility of “highly-evolved” intelligent life on other planets has become so much a part of the contemporary mentality that even respectablescientific (and semi-scientific) speculations assume it as a matter of course. Thus, one popular series of books (Erich von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods?, Gods from Outer Space) finds supposed evidence of the presence of “extraterrestrial” beings or “gods” in ancient history, who are supposedly responsible for the sudden appearance of intelligence in man, difficult to account for by the usual evolutionary theory. Serious scientists in Russia have speculated that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was due to a nuclear explosion, that “extraterrestrial” beings visited earth centuries ago, that Jesus Christ may have been a “cosmonaut,” and that today we may be on the threshold of a “second coming” of intelligent beings from outer space.
Equally serious scientists in the West think the existence of “extraterrestrial intelligences” likely enough that for at least 18 years they have been trying to establish contact with them by means of radio telescopes, and currently there are at least six searches being conducted by astronomers around the world for intelligent radio signals from space. Contemporary Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians — who have become accustomed to follow wherever science seems to be leading — speculate in turn in the new realm of “exotheology” (the “theology of outer space”) concerning what nature the extraterrestrial races might have. It can hardly be denied that the myth behind science fiction has a powerful fascination even among many learned men of our day.
The future “evolved” beings in science fiction literature are invariably seen as having “outgrown” the limitations of present-day humanity, in particular the limitation of personality. Like the “God” of science fiction, man also has become strangely impersonal. In Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, the new race of humans has the appearance of children but devoid of personality; they are about to be guided into yet higher evolutionary transformations, on the way to becoming absorbed in the impersonal “Overmind.” In general the literature of science fiction — in direct contrast to Christianity, but exactly in accordance with some schools of Eastern thought — sees evolutionary advancement and spirituality in terms of increased impersonality.
The future world and humanity are seen by science fiction ostensibly in terms of projections from present-day scientific discoveries; in actuality, however, these projections correspond quite remarkably to the everyday reality of occult and overtly demonic experience throughout the ages. Among the characteristics of the “highly-evolved” creatures of the future are: communication by mental telepathy, ability to fly, materialize, and dematerialize, transform the appearances of things or create illusionary scenes and creatures by “pure thought,” travel at speeds far beyond any modern technology, to take possession of bodies of earthmen; and the expounding of a “spiritual” philosophy which is beyond all religions and holds promise of a state where advanced intelligences will no longer be dependent on matter. All these are the standard practices and claims of sorcerers and demons. A recent history of science fiction notes that “a persistent aspect of the vision of science fiction is the desire to transcend normal experience…through the presentation of characters and events that transgress the conditions of space and time as we know them.” The scripts of “Star Trek” and other science-fiction stories, with their futuristic scientific devices, read in parts like excerpts from the lives of ancient Orthodox Saints, where the actions of sorcerers are described at a time when sorcery was still a strong part of pagan life. Science fiction in general is usually not very scientific at all, and not really very futuristic either; if anything, it is a retreat to the mystical origins of modern science — the science before the age of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment which was much closer to occultism. The same history of science fiction remarks that “the roots of science fiction, like the roots of science itself, are in magic and mythology.” Present-day research and experiments in parapsychology point also to a future connection of science with occultism — a development with which science-fiction literature is in full harmony.
Science fiction in Russia (where it is just as popular as in the West, although its development has been a little different) has exactly the same themes as Western science fiction. In general, metaphysical themes in Russian science fiction (which labors under the watchful eye of materialist censors) come from the influence of Western writers or from direct Hindu influence, as in the case of the writer Ivan Yefremov. The reader of Russian science fiction, according to one critic, “emerges with a vague ability to distinguish the critical demarcation between science and magic, between scientist and sorcerer, between future and fantasy.” Science fiction in both East and West, says the same writer, like other aspects of contemporary culture, “all confirm the fact that the higher stage of humanism is occultism.”
- Almost by its very nature as futuristic, science fiction tends to be Utopian; few novels or stories actually describe a future perfect society, but most of them deal with the evolution of today’s society into something higher, or the encounter with an advanced civilization on another planet, with the hope or capability of overcoming today’s problems and mankind’s limitations in general. The “advanced beings” of outer space are often endowed with saviour-like qualities, and the landings of spacecraft on earth often herald apocalyptic events — usually the arrival of benevolent beings to guide men in their “evolutionary advancement.”
In a word, the science-fiction literature of the 20th century is itself a clear sign of the loss of Christian values and the Christian interpretation of the world; it has become a powerful vehicle for the dissemination of a non-Christian philosophy of life and history, largely under open or concealed occult and Eastern influence; and in a crucial time of crisis and transition in human civilization it has been a prime force in creating the hope for and actual expectation of “visitors from outer space” who will solve mankind’s problems and conduct man to a new “cosmic” age of its history. While appearing to be scientific and non-religious, science-fiction literature is in actuality a leading propagator (in a secular form) of the “new religious consciousness” which is sweeping mankind as Christianity retreats.
All of this is a necessary background for discussing the actual manifestations of unidentified flying objects, which strangely correspond to the pseudo-religious expectations which have been aroused in post-Christian man.
(To be continued)
(From the book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future)
THE GREAT LENT
Slowly and softly the bells are ringing,
Slowly the faithful are coming to pray.
Inside the church we hear mournful singing —
Tis the Great Canon of Andrew of Crete.
The prodigal son’s lamentful entreaties,
The publican’s heartfelt and pitiful sigh —
All can be heard in the evening’s chanting,
In the dark twilight of the altar on high.
The elderly priest standing humbly among us,
Holding the ancient book in his hands,
Ardently prays with sadness and sorrow,
Intercedes before God for all our sins.
Somewhere outside, just beneath the windows,
Droplets of thawing snow fall from the roof,
The true high voice of a young soprano
Rings in the choir like a beautiful flute.
Who is it there, who in weary prayer,
Weeps over sinfully wasted days?
Whose sighs are those and fervent entreaties
That are slowly extinguished in the sun’s setting rays?
Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy! –
The sorrowful harmonies rise to the sky…
The faithful are ceaselessly praying and praying…
The flames of the candles are burning high…
– V. Utrenev
– Translated by Natalia Sheniloff