Thursday, July 5, 2018

Saint Athanasios the Athonite

According to his biography, St Athanasios hailed from the east, from Trapezounta. After concluding his education- as a teacher of literature- while still very young he was touched by the Divine Grace. He forsaken the world and espoused monasticism under the guidance of his uncle (St Michael Maelinos).

It is said that when the young generals who later played a crucial role in the Byzantine Empire, Nikiforos and Leon, visited St Michael to confess, he guided them to the place where St Athanasios –then thirty years old- was staying and told them that he wanted to show them a ‘treasure’. After meeting and talking with Athanasios, the two men were truly amazed and concurred that indeed he was ‘a great treasure’. They were then commanded to ‘reveal all their thoughts to this very monk for ever’. Until the end of their lives, these two great men continued to have St Athanasios as their spiritual guide. Nikiforos was so keen to be with him that they promised each other to live together as monks for ever.

Nikiforos never managed to keep his part of the promise. Being a general was called to free Crete from the pirates. Then he became king against his will and was later murdered. However, he never stopped looking after the monastery of Great Lavra, established by St Athanasios.

St Athanasios came to Mount Athos from Bythinia. When he reached Karyes, which was the centre of monasticism at the time, he never revealed who he was, but pretended to be an illiterate peasant. His elder had tried several times to teach him to read to assist him with his spiritual regime. He, however, was pretending to be incapable of learning.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Orthodox Byzantine Music

Strictly speaking, Byzantine music is the medieval sacred chant of Christian Churches following the Orthodox rite. This tradition, encompassing the Greek-speaking world, developed in Byzantium from the establishment of its capital, Constantinople, in 330 until its fall in 1453. It is undeniably of composite origin, drawing on the artistic and technical productions of the classical age, on Jewish music, and inspired by the monophonic vocal music that evolved in the early Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus.

Byzantine chant manuscripts date from the ninth century, while lectionaries of biblical readings in Ekphonetic Notation (a primitive graphic system designed to indicate the manner of reciting lessons from Scripture) begin about a century earlier and continue in use until the twelfth or thirteenth century. Our knowledge of the older period is derived from Church service books Typika, patristic writings and medieval histories. Scattered examples of hymn texts from the early centuries of Greek Christianity still exist. Some of these employ the metrical schemes of classical Greek poetry; but the change of pronunciation had rendered those meters largely meaningless, and, except when classical forms were imitated, Byzantine hymns of the following centuries are prose-poetry, unrhymed verses of irregular length and accentual patterns. The common term for a short hymn of one stanza, or one of a series of stanzas, is troparion (this may carry the further connotation of a hymn interpolated between psalm verses). A famous example, whose existence is attested as early as the fourth century, is the Vesper hymn, Phos Hilaron, "Gladsome Light"; another, O Monogenes Yios, "Only Begotten Son," ascribed to Justinian I (527-565), figures in the introductory portion of the Divine Liturgy. Perhaps the earliest set of troparia of known authorship are those of the monk Auxentios (first half of the fifty century), attested in his biography but not preserved in any later Byzantine order of service.

Two concepts must be understood if we are to appreciate fully the function of music in Byzantine worship. The first, which retained currency in Greek theological and mystical speculation until the dissolution of the empire, was the belief in the angelic transmission of sacred chant: the assumption that the early Church united men in the prayer of the angelic choirs. This notion is certainly older than the Apocalypse account (Revelations 4:8-11), for the musical function of angels as conceived in the Old Testament is brought out dearly by Isaiah (6:1-4) and Ezekiel (3:12). Most significant in the fact, outlined in Exodus 25, that the pattern for the earthly worship of Israel was derived from heaven. The allusion is perpetuated in the writings of the early Fathers, such as Clement of Rome, Justin, Ignatius of Antioch Athenagoras of Athens and Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite. It receives acknowledgement later in the liturgical treatises of Nicolas Kavasilas and Symeon of Thessaloniki (Patrologia Graeca, CL, 368-492 and CLV, 536-699, respectively).

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Principles of Healing for the Passion of Lust from the Early Church (200 A.D. to 850 A.D.)

St. John Climacus: Description of Lust

A victim of sensuality who had overcome his weakness told me once that within people of this kind there flourishes a yearning for bodies, a shameless, and terrible spirit that asserts itself at the very heart’s core. Sheer physical pain burns so fiercely in the heart that it is like being scorched by an open fire. The sufferer finds that because of this he has no fear of God, he spurns the thought of punishment, turns away from prayer, and the sight of a corpse moves him no more than if it were a stone. He is like someone out of his mind, in a daze and he is perpetually drunk with desire for man or beast. And if a limit were not placed on the activities of this demon, no one would be saved, no one who is made of clay mingled with blood and foul moisture.[1]  

An important point: People did recover! Many today act as if they have to struggle with lust until they die. While it may be appropriate to fight the passion of lust to the end from an attitude of humility, people throughout the centuries recovered from lust and lived a life of purity.  It was expected that if you lived the life of a Christian, who put away lust from your life.  The attitude that it is a lifelong battle and that “God is forgiving” often becomes a license to continue in this sin.  But the Apostle Paul states:

“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9) 

This verse is quoted extensively by the church fathers. Most references to lust include these words “will not inherit the kingdom of God” and “be not deceived.”     

Sexual sin is different from all others in that it is a sin against one’ own body. 

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Abortion as a Form of Genocide by Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi Monastery, Mt. Athos

We live in a time when people are becoming increasingly vindictive. Their morals are deteriorating and their minds are darkened. The absurdity that people are experiencing today is obvious and undeniable. We’re living in a time prophesied by Anthony the Great when people who are mad appear to be rational and those who are rational are deemed mad. It may be claimed that in older times, too, there was rampant sinfulness, but we ought to note that there was never this offensive legitimation and widespread social acceptance of sin. In our time, abortions, adultery and homosexuality have all been made legal, though this would have been inconceivable until the middle of the 20th century. It’s a cause of astonishment, if nothing else, that today sin is projected not simply as legitimate, but as an ideal way of life.

Today the family is undergoing a great crisis throughout the world. The eternal enemy of mankind knows very well that if he strikes at the core of society, which is the family, he’ll achieve his goal. He’s created conditions such that young people avoid or delay getting married, and naturally with no thought to what should go without saying -- chastity and a life in Christ. They don’t have a Church wedding, which is the only valid and blessed marriage in the sight of God. They have a civil wedding or that modern, demonic agreement to live together, by which even homosexuals can marry. And even in existing families, he’s created temptations out of nothing, so that divorce presents itself very easily as the ideal solution! The statistics from dioceses in the Church of Greece indicate that in any year there are more divorces than weddings.

So when people today are faced with an unwanted pregnancy, they think that an abortion’s perfectly natural. It’s been accepted under the term ‘artificial termination of pregnancy’. As if it’s so easy, like pressing a switch and turning off the electricity. The people who have abortions have no sense that they’re committing a crime, a great sin, which is what murder is. From the moment of conception, that is when the egg’s fertilized, we have an embryo which is also a person, a psycho-somatic entity which grows for nine months in its mother’s womb until it sees the light of life at its birth. At no point in the progress of the embryo in its mother’s womb, even in the first twelve weeks, can we cut off its life. If we do, it’s murder.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Use of Incense in the Church

In the Orthodox Church, we burn incense in a metal vessel that hangs on three chains and has a sliding cover to regulate the burning of charcoal.  The whole apparatus is called a censer or thurible.  On the chains are twelve small bells, signifying the Disciples.

We put grains of incense on burning charcoal in the censer with a prayer, “We offer thee incense, O Christ our God, for an odour of spiritual fragrance.  Receive it upon your heavenly altar and send down upon us, in return, the gift of your Holy Spirit.”  Incense is a mix of spices and gums that we burn during services to produce fragrant smoke.

We do not know when incense was introduced into church services.  It is quite likely that we used it from the beginning of Christian worship since its use was common in Jewish worship in the Temple at Jerusalem.  This is a supposition, however, because the early witnesses are silent about its use.  We only find it recommended from about the 4th century on.

The burning incense symbolizes prayer. “Let my prayer come before thee as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. . . .“ (Psalm 141: 2 – used during Vespers as the whole church is censed).  In Old Testament times, the people would pray before the Holy of Holies while the priest within made the sacrifice. “And the whole multitude of people were praying outside at the hour of incense.” (Luke 1: 10)  Symbolically, the incense represents prayer ascending to God.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Monastic Tonsure

It is generally accepted that monasticism began in Egypt towards the end of the Third Century, though its origins may have been older. Indeed, some form of monasticism may have existed almost from the birth of the Church. As the word monastic implies (in Greek monos alone), the Monk was one who went into the desert to live alone with God. (Such were also called hermits (or anchorites), which means solitaries.) The first recorded hermitic Orthodox Christian literature was St. Paul of Thebes ( 341) who lived over sixty years in a cave in the Egyptian desert. 

But the greatest of these hermits, often called the Father of Monasticism, was St. Anthony the Great ( 356). Yet, even in the life of this father of monasticism, the desert solitude was gradually modified by the appearance of disciples. These men wished to pursue the monastic life under the guidance of one who was already experienced. A soldier marching into battle would much rather be commanded by an experienced officer than an inexperienced one, no matter how educated the latter may be. Nor, if he himself is inexperienced, would he wish to enter the battle alone. Thus, after struggling many years as a solitary, St. Anthony gathered to himself a community of Monks who lived in separate huts, each working out his own salvation in his own particular way, but under Anthony's supervision, guided by his great experience in spiritual life.

Anthony knew, however, the difficulties of the solitary life and he strongly approved of the establishment of the coenobitic or common life, as it was perfected by another Egyptian father, St. Pachomius the Great (348). In his coenobitic communities the Monks all lived together in one place, everything being held in common (there being no private property), and the individual Monk was under the strict supervision of a spiritual elder (or starets in this case Pachomius himself). There were still solitaries inhabiting the surrounding desert, and sometimes the elder would himself choose to live more frequently in the desert than in the more populated central community.

Eventually the central community became the norm of monasticism and the solitary life the exception. Whenever we see examples of solitary monastic life in later Saint's lives, we see it entered into almost exclusively by those who had already acquired considerable experience in communal monastic life. Even as great an ascetic as Saint Seraphim of Sarov pleaded for a long time before he was given permission to withdraw into the forest outside of his monastery in order to pursue the solitary life. Thus, in time, the communal, coenobitic form became the preferred form of Orthodox monasticism and thus, the overwhelming majority of Orthodox monastic communities in the world today are coenobitic communities.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae: Guarding the Mind, Knocking on the Door of the Heart

To guard the mind requires that we know Christ's presence in our heart.  Once we know this presence, we can bring our innocent thoughts to Christ.  But first, our heart needs to be opened.  Until it is open, Fr. Dimitru Staniloae says that we must knock at its door, with thoughts sacrificed to Christ, with the hope that we will gain the awareness of His presence and by this our heart will be opened.

He also says that we don't have a full feeling of His presence at first. We will experience gradual progress in this. We must be persistent and have patience.

The whole notion of guarding the mind is dependent on us being able to bring our thoughts to the door of the heart.  Therefore it is also called watching of the heart.

Standing watch at the door of the heart, the mind does nothing but keep itself from going astray, because the heart is, after all, nothing but the depths of the mind.

Think about how often our minds go astray. How often by our immersion in our ego needs we ignore this place of the heart.  The mind never stops and our actions seemingly spinout of the control of our highest values. We need to be ever vigilant.

Saint Mark the Ascetic says,
The mind must keep vigil over the heart and guard it with all watchfulness, trying to penetrate into its innermost and undisturbed chamber, where there are no winds of evil thoughts... to be vigilant over the heart and go ever deeper into it and to approach God alone, without becoming disgusted with the toils of attention and persistence.