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.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Spiritual Labour of Non-Condemnation

The venerable Maxim the Confessor says: “Should we not tremble, hearing how God the Father, without judging anyone Himself, ‘hath committed all judgment unto the Son’ (John 5:22)? And the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, says to us: ‘Judge not, and ye shall not be judged’ (Luke 6:37). Similarly, Apostle Paul says: ‘Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes’ (1 Cor. 4:5), and again: ‘for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself’ (Rom. 2:1). I tell you, it is so: for men, having ceased to weep over their own sins, have taken the judgment out of the hands of the Son, and judge and condemn each other as though they themselves were sinless! Truly this frightens the heavens and makes the earth tremble.”

Centuries pass, yet men still stand before this unassailable wall of condemnation and are unable to overcome it. Adam, justifying himself in paradise before God, condemned Eve; Cain, having condemned his brother Abel in his heart, killed him; the sin of condemnation led the Jews to kill the Messiah; and we, modern Cainites and Pharisees, are pushed by condemnation to a daily spiritual execution of our brothers.

Judgment tortures the doers of it themselves, takes away their peace of mind, forces them to continuously monitor the actions of those around them, and poisons their souls with the bitter poison of suspicion.

An elder once said: “It is easy to step unto the path of salvation: you must only firmly decide that from this moment you will no longer judge anyone.” We can understand these words with our mind, but how do we actually accomplish them? For this, we must understand why we judge others. The reason lies in our false self-evaluation: he judges others, who feels that he has a right to judge, who places himself higher than others, who sees himself blameless of the sins of which he accuses others. Whoever is not aware of his own spiritual corruption, will never cease to judge others.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

An Orthodox Position on Harry Potter

The Brotherhood of St. Poimen has recently received various letters and e-mails asking us to comment on the Harry Potter issue. For our readers who do not already know, Harry Potter is the fictional character created by J. K. Rowling for the Harry Potter series of books and films, designed primarily for children. Harry Potter's story is that of a youth raised in a school for sorcery who learns witchcraft with surprising speed and aptitude. He is portrayed as a so-called "good" witch (or warlock). Numerous articles have been written in favor or against the books in both purely literary and religious circles. Some Orthodox Christians have also taken part in these discussions from both sides of the fence. Some questions facing Orthodox Christians are the following:

       1. Should anyone, especially an Orthodox Christian, read this series of books? 
       2. Is there such a thing as a "good witch" and is that relevant to the merit of a fictional story?
       3. What is the proper Orthodox attitude toward these books?

It is the latter question which answers all of the former. The Harry Potter books are classed not simply as fiction but as fantasy literature. They use detailed imagery to produce an unreal picture in the imagination of the brain. The imagination has such a strong influence over mankind that we are warned by numerous Fathers of the Church to reject the images of dreams and scorn fantasies of the imagination in favor of what the Philokalic Fathers call "pure intellections," that is, abstract thinking free of images

St. Hesychios of Jerusalem writes in the first volume of the Philokalia, "When there are no fantasies or mental images in the heart, the intellect is established in its true nature, ready to contemplate whatever is full of delight, spiritual, and close to God " (On Watchfulness and Holiness, #93). Here St. Hesychios is reflecting the patristic teaching that man, prior to his fall, had no use for imagination or fantasy. Imagination as we know it is a product of the fall.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Holy and Great Tuesday: Hymn of Kassiani the Nun


The woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer and makes ready the myrrh of mourning, before Thy entombment. Woe to me! saith she, for my night is an ecstasy of excess, gloomy and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, O Thou Who dost gather into clouds the water of the sea; in Thine ineffable condescension, deign to bend down Thyself to me and to the lamentations of my heart, O Thou Who didst spread out the Heavens. I will fervently embrace Thy sacred feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head, Thy feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day. O my Savior and soul-Saver Who can trace out the multitude of my sins, and the abysses of Thy judgment? Do not disregard me Thy servant, O Thou Whose mercy is boundless.


Kassiani is one of the first composers whose scores are both extant and able to be interpreted by modern scholars and musicians. Approximately fifty of her hymns are extant and twenty-three are included in the Orthodox Church liturgical books. The exact number is difficult to assess, as many hymns are ascribed to different authors in different manuscripts and are often identified as anonymous. In addition, some 789 of her non-liturgical verses survive. Many are epigrams or aphorisms called "gnomic verse." An example: "I hate the rich man moaning as if he were poor."

She was born between 805 and 810 AD in Constantinople into an wealthy family and grew to be exceptionally beautiful and intelligent. Three Byzantine chroniclers, Symeon Metarphrastes, George the Monk (a.k.a. George the Sinner) and Leto the Grammarian, claim that she was a participant in the "bride show" organized for the young bachelor Theophilos the Iconoclast by his stepmother, the Empress Dowager Euphrosyne. Smitten by Kassia's beauty, the young emperor approached her and said: "Through a woman [came forth] the baser [things]," referring to the sin and suffering coming as a result of Eve's transgression. Kassiani (Kassia) promptly responded by saying: "And through a woman [came forth] the better [things]," referring to the hope of salvation resulting from the Incarnation of Christ through the Theotokos (Mother of God). According to tradition, the dialogue was:

"-Εκ γυναικός τα χείρω." " -Και εκ γυναικός τά κρείτω."

His pride wounded by Kassiani's terse rebuttal, Theophilos rejected her and chose Theodora as his wife.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos

The feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary is a feast of the Lord and of the Mother of God (Theotokos). It is a feast of the Lord because Christ who was conceived in the womb of the Theotokos. It is a feast of the Theotokos because it refers to the person who aided in the conception and Incarnation of the Word of God, that is, the All-Holy Virgin Mary.

Mary (the Theotokos) has great value and an important position in the Church, precisely because she was the person whom all generations awaited, and she gave human nature to the Word of God. Thus the person of the Theotokos is associated closely with the Person of Christ. Furthermore, the value of the Virgin Mary is not only due to her virtues, but also mainly to the fruit of her womb. For this reason, Theotokology is very closely associated with Christology. When we speak of Christ we cannot ignore her who gave Him flesh. And when we speak of the Virgin Mary, we simultaneously refer to Christ, because from Him she draws Grace and value. This shows clearly in the service of the Salutations, in which the Theotokos is hymned, but always in combination with the fact that she is the mother of Christ: "Rejoice, for you are the throne of the king. Rejoice for you bear Him Who bears all things".

This connection of Christology and Theotokology shows in the lives of the Saints as well. A characteristic mark of the Saints, who are the real members of the Body of Christ, is that they love the Virgin Mary. It is impossible for there to be a Saint who does not love her.

The Annunciation of the Theotokos is the beginning of all feasts of the Lord. In the dismissal hymn of the feast we chant: "Today is the beginning of our salvation and the revelation of the mystery from the ages..." The content of the feast refers to the Archangel Gabriel’s (the angel associated with all events having to do with the Incarnation of Christ) visit to the Virgin Mary (with God's command) informing her that the time of the Incarnation of the Word of God had arrived, and that she would become His mother (see Luke 1:26-56).

The word "annunciation" is comprised of two words, good and message, and denotes the good notification, the good announcement. This refers to the information that was given through the Archangel that the Word of God would be incarnated for man's salvation. Essentially this is the fulfilment of God's promise, given after the fall of Adam and Eve (see Gen. 3:15), which is called the proto-evangelion (i.e., the first gospel). For this reason the information of the Incarnation of the Word of God is the greatest notification in history.

According to St. Maximos the Confessor, the gospel of God is the intercession of God and the comforting of men through His incarnate Son. Simultaneously it is the reconciliation of men with the Father, Who gives the unborn theosis as a reward to those who obey Christ. Theosis is called unborn because it is not born but rather is revealed to those who are worthy. Consequently, the theosis that is offered through the incarnate Christ is not a birth, but a revelation of the enhypostatic illumination to those who are worthy of this revelation.