Published by Evagelos Sotiropoulos in the Huffington Post on 8/7/2013
In the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom celebrated in the Orthodox Church, the priest repeats the following prayer a number of times: Let us commit ourselves and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.
The ecclesiastical year, which begins on September 1st, has been divinely developed by the Church Fathers with feasts and fasts to aid our life in the God-Man Christ.
The longest and strictest fast, Great Lent, paves the way for Pascha (Easter), the Feast of Feasts. In addition to Lent, there are three other periods of prescribed fasting: that of the Apostles in June; the Dormition; and, that of Christmas in November-December.
The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is presently observing the Holy Dormition Fast; this period, which lasts two weeks from the 1st to the 14th of August, culminates on the 15th with the celebration of the Falling Asleep (Dormition) of the Mother of God (Gr. Theotokos).
Before this, though, on August 6th, Orthodoxy celebrates another one of the Twelve Great Feasts, that is, the Transfiguration (Metamorphosis) of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, and allows for a break in the fast through the consumption of fish.
The holiness of these two weeks gives fuel for the faithful to energize their spiritual struggle; this is one reason why the Dormition period is affectionately known as the Summer Pascha (το Πασχα του Καλοκαιριου, in Greek).
Let us then briefly examine the theological and spiritual significance of these two feasts through the homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who represents Christian theology at its most sublime.
Unlike some who deny the truth, St. Gregory demonstrates clearly that the Light of the Transfiguration is uncreated. “While pretending to concern themselves with the literal sense of the passage, they reject its godly meaning,” Palamas writes.
In Matthew’s Gospel (see 17:1-9; see also Luke 9:28-36), the Evangelist recounts the manifestation of Christ’s divinity through a display of His divine energy on Mount Tabor: “And He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (Mt 17:2).
This theophany was beheld by three of His disciples – Peter, James and John – as well as by Moses and Elijah. God the Father also spoke, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Mt 17:5), confirming Jesus’ divine sonship.
The attainment of this light is the ultimate goal of Orthodox Christians and can be achieved by dedicating “our whole life to Christ our God” as the Holy Chrysostom says.
“The divine light is given by measure and is received to a greater or lesser extent, being distributed, undividedly divided, according to the worthiness of the recipients,” declares St. Gregory, although this in no way should be confused with God’s essence, which is “absolutely indivisible and incomprehensible, and no other being can receive it, either to a greater or lesser extent.”
We have no better example, no better prototype, to lead us to Christ’s ineffable glory than His Mother, the Most Holy Lady and Ever-Virgin Mary, the Holy of Holies, whose Dormition we will soon celebrate.
St. Gregory writes:
She showed that her whole life, her behavior, her mind and her words, were utterly devoted to godly striving. As a result of this, her death, too, was life-giving and led to heavenly, immortal life, and its day of remembrance is a joyful holiday and worldwide festival… For at present she is the only one who has a place in heaven with her divinely glorified body in the company of her Son.
Orthodoxy venerates the Theotokos through its icons, hymns and feasts and prays for her intercessions to her Son and our God. A special honor in the liturgical life of the Church is given to the Axion Estin hymn:
It is truly right to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed, most pure, and Mother of our God. Higher in honor than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, who without corruption gave birth to God the Logos. Most truly Theotokos, you do we magnify.
Like Pascha, the Great Feasts of the Dormition Fast call us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). The Transfiguration shows us that we can experience the Kingdom of God here on earth, while the Dormition shows us that through our faith and good works and Christ’s love and mercy, we can attain immortal life; since, as St. Gregory Palamas describes: “Christ as God is for those who live by the Spirit and see with spiritual eyes what the sun is for those who live by their senses and see with natural vision.”
Spiritual life is noetic life, which is higher than all the desires and feelings of this world.
The main thing in spiritual life is to keep your heart at peace.
The Lord looks into the depth of the heart, its desires and aspirations.
We must remove earthly plans and desires from the heart, only then together with the Lord can we sincerely love our neighbor.
Communion with God is the normal spiritual state.
The first step to communion with God is to give ourselves up to God completely.
With God’s help we can do everything, everything, when we turn to the Lord with our hearts.
A soul which has given itself up to God’s will does not fear anything and is not troubled by anything. About everything that happens, it says: it is God’s will.
Peace and joy are the greatest riches in this world and in the world to come.
Love is the strongest weapon that exists; there is no power or weapon which can fight love: it overcomes them all.
Love, joy and peace are Divine gifts, Divine characteristics. In themselves love, peace and joy work miracles, but joined together they can fulfill all the commandments.
The mind, the will and the heart are at one among the enlightened, but among the unenlightened they are most often divided and many human misfortunes result from this.
The pure heart will see God but the impure will feel shame to eternity.
The Lord looks into our hearts and when we turn to Him from the heart, He immediately consoles us.
As well as keeping peace in your heart, practice standing before the Lord. This means constantly keeping in mind the fact that the Lord is looking at us.
There is no such thing as an unforgivable sin except for an unrepented for sin.
The sign that a sin has been forgiven is if the sin is repeated and there is still peace in the soul.
The thoughts that we give ourselves up to define our life.
We must learn to control our thoughts so that we can order them.
We must give ourselves up to good thoughts and desires for our benefit and then we, our families and others will experience harmony, for, wherever we may be, we will give out quiet and peaceful thoughts, which are full of good.
Even the slightest thought that is not founded on love destroys peace.
He who accepts an evil suggestion accepts the enemy into his body. The spirits are invisible, we give them bodies so they become visible.
Our thoughts not only cause wars and earthquakes, but also the pollution of the environment. This is surpassed by spiritual pollution, which is much more dangerous.
Work hard to have good thoughts and goodwill towards friends and enemies and you will see what good fruit you and everyone around you will receive.
Cease to think evil of your superiors or colleagues at work, change your evil thoughts to good ones and you will see how the behavior of your one-time ‘enemies’ will change.
When you get up in the morning, do not leave the house without praying and in the evening thank God for the wonderful day.
Just as even a tiny speck of dust which has got into your eye can stop you seeing, so also a small care about some irrelevant matter can stop you praying.
If we pray inattentively, then we are not praying in spirit and in truth.
Everyone must use the Jesus Prayer. ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’.
To pray is to draw energy from the Source of life.
Attention is required for prayer. It must precede prayer so that we know what we are seeking, what we are praying for.
Humility is the perfection of Christian life.
Humility is a Divine characteristic. Where there is humility, whether in the family or in society, it always spreads Divine peace and joy.
He who sets an example to others through his way of life is humble. Example is the best proof of the truth.
He who is humble is utterly content with what God has given him and he is happy at heart. Such people feel sorry for those who do not want or do not know how to amend their lives.
The humble do not get angry, they do not wish others ill and do not do evil, even to those who cause them evil.
The humble look on everyone as higher than themselves.
Chastity is attained through fasting, prayer and especially obedience.
Fasting is required to humble the body, for when the body is humble, the soul is humble.
Those who are humble and meek in soul are pleasing to God. They do not get angry when they are insulted, they are full of goodness and peace.
Here on earth we frequently experience many misfortunes and hardships, but all of these are because we have not humbled ourselves.
If someone is very demanding, then he is tormented by this.
He who thinks that he knows everything is disobedient and no one can guide the disobedient.
The disobedient do not rejoice in the Kingdom of God, because they always want to do their own will, not God’s will.
When we are completely humble, then everything around us is humble.
Only the meek and humble enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
We cannot be saved without struggling against the devil. We must endure many sorrows in our heart before the soul can free itself.
Anger is vanquished by renouncing our desires and our own will.
If we can stop making ourselves into judges over others and thinking that we are worthy, then there will be no anger.
If someone says or does something that is not to our liking and, failing to examine whether he is right or not, we feel offended, then we are in the grip of pride.
Jealousy destroys our inner peace and quiet of soul.
Sometimes the Lord reveals to us in our thoughts the answers to various questions and mysteries, but sometimes He is silent, so that we might turn to others for advice and so become humble.
We can find something edifying in everybody’s life. Even the worst thief has something good in him.
Life here on earth is unceasing physical and spiritual warfare.
Man is only a tool in the hands of the Lord.
It is better to sing than to read. Sing. People say that he who sings does not think ill.
Divine life cannot bear selfishness.
As long as we pay attention to the negative sides of various people we meet, we will not find peace and repentance. As long as we keep in ourselves the thought of offense, caused to us by enemies, friends, family and neighbors, we will not find peace and quiet and we will live in a hellish state.
When you find a soul akin to your own, stay with it, for it is a great joy to make friends with those who think alike.
Today all civilization is directed towards distracting the attention of people, especially of the young, from themselves, from the self, from looking inside, into the heart.
Unbelievers are busied with philosophy, reflection and achievements, but all of this is short-term consolation and melancholy and solitude soon attack once more.
Evil is the abuse of good on the part of rational beings who have fallen into base philosophizing and create chaos in themselves and around them with their thoughts and desires.
The world is ever more sunk into sin and evil and confuses love and passion, yet love and passion have nothing in common. Love is God and passion is what comes from evil spirits.
We scorn our politicians who are in power, yet they are our children. We were the ones who were wrong before them, for we set them living examples which they could only equal.
There are no atheists! They do not exist. Even the enemy believes and trembles, only he does not do good.
50 years of Communism have caused us far more evil than 500 years of the Turkish yoke. Communism removed people from God.
We suffer because our thoughts and desires are evil. We are ourselves the cause of our sufferings, for there is no repentance among our people. There is repentance neither among believers, nor among unbelievers.
Magic is performed where there is no prayer or strong hope in God.
Only love and goodness save both people and the whole world. Nothing is ever obtained through violence. Force merely provokes rejection and hatred.
All the knowledge which has been revealed to men through science is a gift of God to people and proclaims the presence of God in this world.
There is no knowledge revealed by human science which has been given by God to our detriment, everything has been given exclusively for our benefit.
Grace is Divine strength which is active everywhere, but especially in the souls of those who seek the source of life, who seek God.
We cannot keep inner peace if our conscience reproaches us for something. First of all we must make peace with our conscience.
It is better if we condemn ourselves than if the Lord condemns us. If we condemn ourselves, then He knows that we have repented and no longer wish to sin.
Repentance means changing our lives, abandoning the old man with all his evil habits and turning to God and the truth, so that we can be peaceful, still, good and meek.
If your parents are atheists and you are a believer, do not reproach or taunt them with your faith but pray for them and be good to them.
We must learn to divest ourselves of our burdens so that we can turn to God immediately and confide our cares and our neighbors’ cares in Him.
We must help people to know their faith.
We must not preach from our heads but from our hearts. Only what is said from the heart can reach another heart.
It is much better to learn from life than from words.
It is dangerous to be strict with others.
Those who are strict with others can only reach a certain level in spiritual life. They remain at the stage of physical asceticism.
As is our relationship to our neighbor, so is our relationship to God.
Our neighbor is he who seeks our help.
We must have the same relationship with everyone. We must not separate people into those we like and those we dislike.
As long as we pay attention to the negative sides of those we meet, we will not find peace or quiet.
Everything done for the sake of God and not for the sake of glory is good.
He who works badly cannot expect good pay.
Only he who is with God and is informed about his salvation is rich.
The fear of God is not the instinctive animal fear of this world. That is a hellish quality. We live in a constant state of fear: what will happen tomorrow, in the future? The fear of God is similar to that when you love someone from your heart and you are careful not to offend him or annoy him with your whole being, not only through your thoughts and actions, but through your thoughts too.
There is not a single being who is perfect. We can only be perfect with God; without Him it is impossible.
Care for the soul is more precious than the gifts of this world.
A family which is pleasing to God must be filled with love, nobility, meekness, humility, piety and prayerfulness.
If a parent hits a child in anger, nothing will be achieved by it.
If there is a family where nearly everyone is content but one is not and begins to think that he has been treated unjustly and the others have behaved badly towards him, then everyone will start to be discontent, but they will not know why.
No one who enters into a marriage without a blessing or who has been forced into marriage will find peace and their love will be useless to them.
When a child is born he cries because he does not know what sins await him. But when someone dies, he is happy because he enters into eternal life. Then everyone around him cries because they have to stay here.
There is no need to be sad for the dead, it is better to pray to the Lord, asking Him to grant them the dwelling places promised by the Gospel. Sadness destroys everything. It destroys the peace which they have received from the Lord.
To be sad for your departed relatives is not Christian. This is the lot of those who do not know God. We should rather pray to the Lord to forgive them their sins and do good deeds in their memory.
100.Here on earth there is nothing that can give us inner peace. For neither riches, nor glory, nor honor, nor position, nor family, nor neighbors can give us unshakeable inner peace. There is only one giver of life, peace and joy – God.
(Shared with permission from OrthodoxEngland.org.uk)
Jesus said, “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not been seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
When people think of the word “Lent”, the word “fasting” is one of the first things that comes to mind. The cornerstone of Lent is not fasting, but repentance and growing in our faith. Fasting is a tool that is used to assist in spiritual growth. Fasting is also mis-characterized as a form of deprivation, rather than a spiritual discipline. And because fasting is so misunderstood, it is many times done incorrectly.
In the Orthodox world, we use the word “passions” to describe tendencies that each person has that lead us to sin. Each of us has a “passion” for anger, lust, power, greed, ego, etc. We do not get through life without wrestling with each of these, sometimes on a daily basis. The most basic “passion” is hunger. While we can go a day without a lustful thought or an angry thought, we can’t go more than a few hours without a hungry thought. So, if we can tame our passion for eating, we can hopefully tame our other passions. If we can discipline ourselves to go without certain kinds of food, we can hopefully discipline ourselves so that we can go without certain kinds of behavior that are spiritually destructive. Thus, fasting is not about giving up something only to get it back. Fasting is about getting control of our passions, maintaining control over them, and ultimately giving control of ourselves to God.
It is the Orthodox Tradition to fast from food products that contain blood. So, we fast from meat, fish, dairy products, oil and wine. (Oil and wine, up until the last couple of centuries, were stored in skins of animals. This is why we can eat grapes and olives but can’t have wine or olive oil. If the fasting “rules” were ever to be reviewed and updated, the prohibition on oil and wine would have to be examined.) We can eat shell-fish because they do not contain blood. Christ shed His blood for us, so we do not consume any “blood” or “animal” products. And it is the Tradition of the church to fast for the entirety of Great Lent and Holy Week. The week after the Publican and the Pharisee is fast free, as is the week after Pascha and Pentecost (and Christmas). The week before Great Lent, we are only required to fast from meat, not dairy products. And outside of Lent, it is Tradition to fast every Wednesday (in honor of the betrayal of Christ) and Friday (in honor of His Crucifixion). There is a forty day fast that precedes the Feast of the Nativity (November 15-December 24), a fourteen day fast that precedes the Feast of the Dormition (August 1-14), and the Holy Apostles Fast (which begins the day after All Saints Day and lasts through June 28.
If you’ve never fasted before, I would not recommend doing a strict fast. Try fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent (and then throughout the year), then next year try fasting Wednesdays and Fridays plus all of the first week of Lent and all of Holy Week. And then work up from that.
Below is a guide of some levels of fasting:
Level one—Fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week
Level two—Fast from meat and fish on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week
Level three—Fast from meat the entirety of Lent and Holy Week
Level four—Fast from meat and fish the entirety of Lent and Holy Week
Level five—-Level four and eliminate dairy products during Holy Week
Level six—Level four and eliminate dairy products on Wednesdays and Fridays and during Holy Week.
Level seven—Level four plus eliminate dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week
Level eight—Level seven plus eliminate oil and wine during Holy Week
Level nine—The strict fast—no meat, fish, dairy products, wine or oil during the entirety of Great Lent
**Fish is allowed on March 25 (Annunciation), Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday; oil and wine are allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, except for Holy Saturday.
After a few years at one level, challenge yourself to go up a level.
More important, however, than fasting from food, is fasting from the behaviors that are spiritually destructive. We need to fast from things that get us in trouble—perhaps the television, alcohol, inappropriate materials on the computer and in movies, foul language, etc. Fasting also does not mean “looking” deprived, complaining about what you can’t eat, or making a show of your fasting. In fact, if you are fasting and you are invited to someone’s home for dinner and they serve meat, eat the meat, don’t make a big deal out of your fasting. Also, do not pass judgment on others who are not fasting to the degree you are. Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 14:3-4: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own Master that he stands or falls.” For as Christ tells us, our fasting is seen by our “Father who is in secret,” and He will reward us for our efforts.
Again, Lent is not a season of deprivation, nor should we “give up” something only to get it back once Lent is over. Lent is about repentance, and making small and permanent changes to bring us closer to the Lord, changes that will last long after Lent is over. This is the purpose of the Lenten journey. Fasting is an aid to help us in this.
The time has come–the start of our spiritual contests, the victory over demons, the full armor of self-control, the angels’ dignity, the confidence before God. Thereby did Moses become conversant with the Creator, and heard the invisible voice. Lord, through fasting make us worthy to worship Your Passion and Holy Resurrection, as You love humanity. (Doxastikon of Orthros, Cheesefare Sunday, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Give some thought to your fasting plan for Lent today!
+Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Tampa, FL
|“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)|
|Many times when I ask people why do they go to church, the answer is “I go to church to pray.” That’s a good answer. We should pray when we are in church. Sadly, for some people, this is the ONLY place where they are praying. And this is not what God intended.
Take your relationship with your parents, or spouse, or children, or siblings. What kind of a relationship will you have if you only speak to them occasionally. In my home, there is my wife and son. If I only spoke to them once a week, we would certainly have a very dysfunctional home. The home is functional and our relationship strong because we communicate. In a family, you have to communicate more than once a week. You should communicate daily, even throughout the day. Sometimes communication consists of a short message, and other times it’s a long conversation. But communication is frequent-that’s how one keeps a relationship strong, whether with God or with another person. You have to pray outside the context of Sunday worship.
So, where then should prayer occur? There is a tradition in the Orthodox world of having a prayer corner at home. Some people will take one wall, or one corner of a room and place many icons there. A small table might hold a Bible or prayer book. The prayer corner becomes a place of retreat, where one can go and pray. A recent movie called “War Room” was about the same concept. A woman took a closet in her house and that became her “war room,” the room where she fought all of her problems in prayer. There were no icons but the concept was the same, a sacred space in which to pray. In Orthodox circles, we call this place the “Kat’ oikon ekklesia,” the “Church of the Home.”
In my office at church, I have icons on one wall, like a little chapel, and many times when I pray in my office, especially with other people, we go to that wall of the office to pray. Why? Can we just pray from the conference table? Certainly we can. But having a prayer corner reminds us, first and foremost, that we are not alone in our prayers. When we pray, the angels and the saints are praying with us. They are interceding to God for us. The prayer corner is a powerful reminder that we are not alone in our lives, alone in our struggles. The prayer corner can also help us focus-the icons give us holy images on which to focus our thoughts. I find that praying in front of an icon, whether in the altar or at home or in the office helps to minimize distractions.
Having said that, the prayer corner should not be a hindrance to prayer. And the prayer corner most certainly does not pray by itself. There are many people who have beautiful prayer corners but never stand in them, and never pray.
The most important thing you need to know about prayer is simply that YOU NEED TO PRAY. Icons and prayer corners are nice things, but you need to pray, having icons are tools that helps you pray, but they don’t pray in place of you. Make sure that you pray.
Some people wear prayer ropes-these are the black bracelets with 33 knots on them (representing the 33 years of Christ’s earthly ministry) and people use them to say the Jesus Prayer, offering the prayer many times and moving your finger up one knot each time. Prayer ropes, like prayer corners, are helpful tools in prayer. But just wearing a prayer rope does not make you prayerful. And not wearing one is not a hindrance to prayer either.
One caveat about having a prayer corner or wearing a prayer rope is that our behavior must be in line with the presence of these things. While we shouldn’t waive a fist in anger any time, doing so while wearing a prayer rope around your wrist is problematic, because it identifies you as an angry Christian. When you have a prayer corner in your house, be careful what you are doing in the room where you have the icons. Do those activities line up with the presence of holy images in the corner?
The positive thing about having a prayer corner or wearing a prayer rope is that it is a visual reminder to be more careful in your practice of Christianity.
Prayer corners or prayer ropes are not necessary requirements to pray. You can pray in a car, while walking, or on a couch. PRAY!
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You have given me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer. O men, how long shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? But know that the Lord has set apart the godly for Himself; the Lord hears when I call to Him. Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and put your trust in the Lord. There are many who say “O that we might see some good! Lift up the light of Your countenance upon us, o Lord!” You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for You, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4
Have a blessed day!
+Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis, St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church, Tampa, FL