Archive for June, 2011

On the Shoulders of Giants

June 27, 2011

Orthodoxy has no “cult of the saints.” We don’t “put them on a pedestal” and treat them like some kind of spiritual anomaly, or super hero. If the saints are some special class of being, then we feel justified to believe that we can never be anything like them. On the contrary, we know that the saints were sinful men and women just like the rest of us. Yet, they were friends of God, and their love moved them to gain the Holy Spirit and to be transformed into the image of Christ. Therefore, we see what is possible for all of us. Also, we know as the Bible says that “the prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Therefore, we can ask the saints to pray for us just as we can ask any member of our local congregation to pray for us.


The saints are important to the Orthodox for another reason. Isaac Newton said that we can see farther than the previous generation, only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. You and I can see far indeed if we stand on the shoulders of the saints. On the Sunday of the Saints of Russia, we find new shoulders to stand upon. The new martyrs and confessors of Russia are our contemporaries. They lived in the modern world with all of its appeal and demands, materialism, and hedonism. Even so, they confessed Christ and millions gave witness to the point of their physical death.


With the fall of the Soviet Union, the files of the former KGB were opened. The story there is a grim one. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have been able to begin the process of listing these men and women so that they can be glorified. Sadly, many of them just disappeared with no record of what happened to them. Even more, the numbers are so great that the work will outlast the lifetime of the committee members. Hitler was a horror, but compared to Stalin and those who followed him, Hitler was a choir boy. The Holocaust did not end with the defeat of Germany.


Perhaps this very fact makes us feel some distance from these new martyrs. After all, living in America with our guaranteed freedoms and mighty military forces, such a death would never be a possibility for us. We know that there are faithful men and women being martyred for the Faith even as we read this blog, but we are secure that such a thing will not come near to us.


Though we may not be called to join the ranks of the martyrs, we can join the ranks of the confessors. A confessor is someone who survived persecution without denying Christ. You may object that you have never been persecuted for the Faith. Really? Was there ever a moment when you failed to cross yourself because you thought that someone would make fun of you? Was there ever a moment when you knew that you should stop the gossip or refuse to join, but you stayed and listened and laughed because you don’t want to be shunned or marked as a religious nut? These kinds of things are subtle, but it is persecution none the less.


To be a confessor is to be a friend of God. St. Paul spoke about this friendship when he said that it is “written on the heart.” What is written on the heart can never be denied.Denying the Lord would be like denying a beloved spouse. If I can deny my wife, then in fact, while I may have affection or even fondness for her, but she is not written on my heart.


I am sure that we do not mean to deny Christ, but something prevents us from giving witness to Him. This something is shame or fear. We don’t fear physical death in these compromising situations, but we fear being ostracized or shunned. We fear being alone. We fear what our confession will do to our business contacts. We fear that we will be labeled as a fanatic or even as a Pharisee and no one will want to have coffee with us. Maybe, it’s even simpler than that. Maybe we are afraid if our religion spills out of its Sunday slot into our weekday life, things might get tough. Well, life is tough enough already and we’ve seen those religious fanatics with their hyper-piety and arrogance.


(By the way, what is the difference between a fan and a fanatic? A fan roots for Duke Basketball, and a fanatic roots for UNC!)


We are worldly people and by that I don’t mean that we are committing major sins. I mean that the pace, cares, joys, entertainments, and concerns of life have consumed us. We are slaves to the attitudes and expectations of our peers. It is the subtle modern spirit of anti-Christ. I think the devil has learned that outright physical persecution only makes the Church stronger. After all, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. So, he has taken another line of attack. Faith is compromised by slow attrition – a little compromise here, a little there- until it is so weak it disturbs no one.King David said it so well when he spoke of how the Lord built a thick and powerful hedge around his vineyard (we are his vineyard). This hedge keeps out the big animals (I’m glad to say that in many confessions, the “big” sins have disappeared), but it is the little foxes who slip in underneath the hedge, and eat away at the vines, little by little, until the garden is devastated (sadly, so many in confession are devastated and laid to waste even though they know that compared to past, many of the big sins have passed away”.


Take the time to make friends with the New Martyrs and Confessors of the present age. They know how to fight this modern and subtle spirit of anti-Christ, and they know how to become the friends of God in the face of it. Seek their intercessory prayers and assistance. We stand can stand on the shoulders of the giants of Russia- the New Martyrs and Confessors- and we will see farther and with greater clarity.


Holy Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, pray to God for us.


June 15, 2011


I have to remember that I’m almost 60 years old. I just forget (but isn’t that a sign of aging –forgetfulness? They say the mind is the second thing to go and I can’t remember the first!) So, I’m up on a ladder like I’m 20 years old, sawing away at a tree branch that had fallen on the roof of a utility shed. It seemed like such a small branch. Yet, when I finally cut through it, the branch, by slamming into my face, demonstrated that it was bigger than I thought.

So here I sit in bed looking like my wife won the fight and I wonder why such things happen (besides my stupidity). Really, God is good and all powerful, yet He allows these things to happen. Why didn’t he let the branch fall in another direction thus preventing injury to his good, faithful, and humble servant? After all, I’m a priest and I was trying to do a good thing and I’ve made so many sacrifices, etc. and etc.

Well, conviction comes from many sources and this time it came via android. I came across a quote from the website Mystagogy, a blog written by J. Sanidopoulos. The note came from St. John, Metropolitan of Tobolsk. Let me insert some thoughts as I read it.

“Thankfulness during grief distinguishes the good from the evil and clearly shows who is who.”

Oh no, I think I know what’s coming

“Bells, prior to being lifted to their height, are tested by blows from a hammer and when they give out an unpleasant sound they are discarded.”

A nice analogy, but I’m beginning to feel like a dumb bell

“Such is the will of God: He does not lift His chosen ones to the heights prior to testing them with frequent crosses and grief in order to see the fulfillment of their endurance and what kind of and how pleasant a sound they emit.”

No cross –no crown, eh? I’m reconsidering the sounds I emitted after the branch knocked me down.

“At one time God tested His great “bell” Job. The hand of God touched him. Would you like to know the tool He used? The hammer of the world, that is, the devil. But what sound did this “bell” emit? “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). What a pleasant sound! But Job was still further subjected to beating. He came under the power of the devil, and his whole body was struck down; from head to toe pus and worms covered him, and he sat in his discharge. Do you hear what blows he received? But now hear what his voice gave forth: “Shall we not receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Oh, what a strong voice! Oh, what a sweet sound…..This is the indication of a good man, a man grateful to God.”

Ok, so the branch thing wasn’t that bad, but still was I wrong to complain?

“And here is the sign of an ungrateful man: if some misfortune comes upon him, he complains, laments, opposes, grieves excessively, praises his own deeds and proves his innocence (St. Antioch, Discussion 117).”

So, my gratitude is demonstrated by how I react to the hammer of misfortune? Lord, have mercy! Yet, it seems to me that the good folks get the hammer more than the bad folks. No?

“Thus the good and the evil are being frequented by misfortune without distinction, but by this affliction itself, one is being separated from the other by the all-wise providence of God.”

Yes, I seem to remember Jesus saying that the storms of life beat against all houses. The only difference is what the houses are built upon – the foundation.

“The good, when any misfortune befalls them, offer their thanks to God Who deigns to punish them; but the arrogant, sensual and money-loving blaspheme and grumble at God saying, “O God, what evil did we do that we are suffering so?”

Grumbling! Thanks a lot, St. John. Yet, I know you are right. The hammer falls upon all of us, yet not for spite, but to hear the sound that rings out when the hammer strikes.

Call me ding-a-ling!


June 9, 2011


I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You’re just about to fall asleep when suddenly you hear the tiniest of sounds go by your ear. You know immediately that a mosquito has targeted you for lunch. So, you cut on the light, but no matter how much you look around, you just can’t see it. So you cut off the light, and in just a little while you hear the buzzing again. You cut the light on, but nothing. So you cut the light off and try to ignore it. You know that sometime during the night, you’ll be donating blood.

It’s the same in spiritual life. You’re trying your best to be positive, to have some sense of spiritual progress, and then the mosquitoes start buzzing in your brain. Sometimes it seems that they have sucked all of the blood from your spiritual life. These spiritual mosquitoes are called logismoi. Logismoi are random thoughts that just seem to pop into your head without invitation. You know these thoughts (here’s a short list) – gluttony, fornication, avarice, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vainglory and pride. Those are big mosquitoes and there are small ones too – the football game, the last TV show, unfinished work, deadlines, etc.

No matter how often we resolve to start again, or to pray with greater concentration, the logismoi are relentless. Each sting, no matter how small, begins to put in us the belief that we are faithless and without piety, lost and worthless, and our hope for holiness futile.

When the logismoi land, they seem to be true, but in fact they are only partially true. This gives them the hook that catches us. There is enough truth to make us believe them. A personal example: I break something and the logismoi bites, “You always screw up”. Now I’ve just screwed up, so there is some truth to the thought. Yet, if the thought comes often enough (I do mess up a lot), I believe them.  A hole begins to develop in my soul. I conclude that I am in fact a screw-up and I can never do anything right. Therefore, I am worthless. From this conclusion, depression and dejection will follow. The logismoi are somewhat Orthodox because they constantly repeat their litany. Paci…Paci – Again and again!

Jesus said, “Thy word is truth. Sanctify them with your truth.” The greatest shield against logismoi is God’s truth. No matter what our random thoughts try to say to us, only God tells us who we are and what we are, and his word is true. The devil does not define us, other people do not define us, family does not define us. Most of all, we cannot define ourselves. We are slaves to the Lord Jesus, bought by his Blood. Only He can tell us who we are. A slave cannot judge another slave, and a slave cannot judge himself. Only the Master judges him. The Master may convict us, but he will never condemn us. He will sanctify us because His word will help to purify our souls. His word is the mirror into which we should look to see ourselves. All other mirrors are distorted.

It is vital that we get this truth, otherwise we constantly fall before the logismoi. Now, understand, as the Fathers teach, that for 99.9 percent of us, the logismoi, random thoughts, will be with us until the day we die. God does not disdain us because of this. It is not sin that the logismoi buzz about our minds. Yet, is there anything else we can do?

A brother asked one of the elders, “What shall I do? My thoughts are always turned to lust without allowing me an hour’s respite, and my soul is tormented by it.” He said to him, “Every time the demons suggest these thoughts to you, do not argue with them. For the activity of demons always is to suggest, and suggestions are not sins, for they cannot compel. But it rests with you to welcome them, or not to welcome them. Do you know what the Midianites did? They adorned their daughters and presented them to the Israelites. They did not compel anyone, but those who consented, sinned with them, while the others were enraged and put them to death. It is the same with thoughts.” The brother answered the old man, “What shall I do, then, for I am weak and passion overcomes me?” He said to him, “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.'”

There are some things we must learn from this story. First, we must become aware –“Watch your thoughts.” Be aware that thoughts by nature are random, and any thought can come, but they cannot compel us to do anything. Even more, we must not be shocked, since we are fallen people, at the nature of the thoughts. Some will be minor, some will be scandalous, and some even blasphemous.

Second, you are not condemned by the experience of random thoughts – suggestions and thoughts are not sins. The Lord of the mosquitoes would have us feel condemned just because the mosquitoes are flying around. Condemnation will only provide the breeding ground for more mosquitoes.

Finally, as the Fathers say, 99.99 percent of us will never be free of logismoi. It is a rare saint who attends hesychasm, or internal stillness. This may be due in part to the fact that most of us don’t take prayer and meditation very seriously or we allow the busyness of life to move prayer the the edges of our daily life.

Even if it is true that the logismoi will be with us always, we must fight, but we need to fight well. Here is the most remarkable recommendation about how to fight – we combat our obsessive thoughts by ignoring them. Ignoring them? At least this means that we draw no conclusions from what we think. This may seem a bit naïve since random thoughts are so relentless.

Ignoring them would not be enough if that is all that we did. Listen again: “Watch your thoughts, and every time they begin to say something to you, do not answer them but rise and pray; kneel down, saying, ‘Son of God, have mercy on me.'” Repentance? This is the way to fight the mosquitoes? Yes, it is because when we turn our backs to them we must turn to Jesus Christ to ask for his mercy. We must do both, or we will not fight well.

This is how St. Mary did it fighting against “the beasts.”  This is how anyone can use repentance and the Jesus Prayer to become as mentally and spiritually healthy as possible. Please, don’t misunderstand me. There is genuine mental illness, so sometimes medicine and therapy is necessary. Yet we have a powerful tool to add to our therapy, a weapons in this mental and spiritual war. Imagine if you went to therapy, and the Doctor said, I recommend repentance! It would be shocking no?

I can dream of a life free of the logismoi. Yet even as I wrote this, a bunch landed on my brain and wanted blood. I ignored them and ask for mercy. So, may the Lord help you to fight, and to fight well. The mosquitoes are buzzing. Ignore them for they speak no truth, and turn to the Lord for mercy.