Friday, April 18, 2008

40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

The last post, from my mother Colleen. She said she was "a little sad" to see it end, and I agree! I wish you all a blessed Holy Week and a most joyous Pascha.

My spiritual father once described the Church as a hospital where we come for the healing of our souls, and I have also discovered a similar theme as I’ve read words from the Church fathers and mothers. At any given time, any one of the members of Christ’s body may find himself in the role of either doctor or patient in this hospital, and therefore could be either a giver of help, or a recipient. So what’s the big deal with simply asking for help when you need it?

Giving help seems to be much easier for me than receiving it. It may be the Mom in me, who is used to making everything better. (That reason is more or less acceptable in my self-evaluation.) But a more likely motive is the one that has been weaving in and out of the previous forty maxims, preventing them from becoming established in my life, and glaring at me as I learn more about myself through my Lenten journey. When I decide not to seek help because it might alter my reputation as a competent individual, I know that pride is still actively at work in my decision-making process.

God has given us the Church because He knows our needs, and in ministering to one another we become vessels of His grace and mercy. During these forty days I have been humbled to find myself in need of the help and wisdom of others, and have been the recipient of the healing power of their prayers. And this very discussion of Forty Maxims has blessed me through your observations and words: I have felt convicted of sin, comforted in my pain, and blessed by the joy of your faith. You all have given me more help during this season of Great Lent than you will ever know.

God has given us the gift of fellow believers to advise, encourage, inspire, challenge, and bear witness to the Truth. May we in humility seek the help of our spiritual family as an extension of seeking help from our Lord Himself.

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.

Carla Harris from California has a few thoughts for us today:

It is amazing how fitting this maxim is for me. I have begun the process of launching a new business and have often come face-to-face with how far I fall short of the qualities, abilities, talents, knowledge, and wisdom I need to be a good businesswoman. I begin to wonder if I have made a huge mistake and should just give up.

In my Lenten readings, there has been one particular thing that struck me very deeply and which I have gone back to and thought about much. It is Fr. Schmemann’s discussion in his book Great Lent about the prayer of St. Ephrem that we encounter often in this season.

The part that struck me so sharply was what he said about sloth: It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down” rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.

If we become overly discouraged about ourselves, our faults and our sins, we can move into the place where we see everything in a negative light, where we give up on being transformed by the love and mercy and power of God. When I read this, it startled me and made me shudder. The thoughts of discouragement with myself that I conveniently put in the category of humility, were actually prideful and sinful and very dangerous to my soul. Wow. What a wake-up call.

There is also “other side of the coin” of this reaction which is to defend ourselves, getting angry with whomever might have pointed out our sins to us. (“How could they? Who do they think they are!?”) Again, a response of pride.

Recalling an earlier maxim, it is a temptation to believe that we must be extraordinary. Then when we realize we’re not, we react, either in discouragement or in indignance. If we embrace the maxim “Be an ordinary person, one of the human race,” we can begin to see ourselves as we truly are. And then, serenely enduring our faults and humbly confessing them to God, we receive His forgiveness and can live in the midst of His love and mercy that will transform our lives.

May God help us in this effort.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.

Happy Tax Day! I just love that today lined up with this maxim about death. Our God does indeed have a sense of humor.

Here is Debra:

Wow. This makes me think of the icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. We are constantly climbing the ladder toward Christ, but the devils are constantly trying to pull us off.

Our purpose in life is spiritual salvation -- to live with God forever. On this journey, we will suffer and be tempted. We are not to 'expect' anything except that we will be tempted in this life. But we know that God and Christ are there with us through all these temptations.

Below are various thoughts I gleaned from the talks of Father Michael Duhulich this past weekend at the Antiochian Women of the East Lenten retreat that I think pertain to this maxim.

God is not the author of evil. God is the cause of everything cood. Evil is the withdrawal of good. God wishes all good things, but He permits free choice.

Every step you take either takes you closer to God or further away from Him.

Depend on God. "My strength is made perfect in your weakness." Suffering brings opportunities to have courage. Courage is hope in God's victory. Courage is found in the cross of Christ. I can't do it myself; I need Christ to help me. The Lord is my helper. I will not fail. We do not suffer alone. God is with us. In His love he suffers with us. We are not alone.

In the world there is suffering. But God has overcome the world. God has the power to turn what He permits into what He wishes.

God can use suffering to humble us or to help us grow closer to Him. When we suffer we can either despair or go to God. God will guide us with His Grace. God still loves us even when we fail. His is a steadfast love.

Every day is a gift. Life is a gift. Our goal in life is to live forever with God. It's okay to ask WHY; just find an answer. Scriptures give answers. Saints give answers.

We are to love and to pray.

In summary for today's maxim:

We should not be surprised at the temptations that bombard us daily. We should expect them. But that does not mean we should give in to them. That does not mean we should let go of the ladder. God is with us and He can help us 'hang on' and not fall off. God is with us even if we do fall off. He will catch us and put us back on the ladder. I believe that the stronger our faith becomes, the harder the devil tries to pull us down with temptations. But God is stronger. He HAS overcome the world. He HAS conquered death.

May you have a blessed end to this Great Lent.

Pray for me.

Monday, April 14, 2008

36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.

A blessed Lent to all from Aster:

When I saw first the Maxim Emily gave me, I didn’t know what to write. We Africans really don’t know what hobbies are. But when we were growing up, girls had to learn what women should know, and boys had to learn what men should know. As a child, I loved landscape: trees, flowers and most of all watching the clouds. After school, we used to go and watch a nearby waterfall, where we saw little animals and plants that lived in the surrounding area.

I remember asking my neighbors for roots from their flower gardens; I used to plant them on my front porch and gave them a lot of care. Usually my flowers looked better than theirs, and they use to come and say, “What did you put in your flowers? They look more beautiful than ours!” So flowers became my “thing.” (This doesn’t mean I knew anything about them!)

Then I got older and left home, traveling to Europe and North America. There I saw beautiful manmade gardens. I started again with single potted plant, given to me by a friend; I started to take care of it, and then I couldn’t stop.

I think everyone has a hobby; it is an extra gift given by God. If you can dedicate time to a certain thing, and become good at it, and share it, it becomes a hobby.

Hobbies always bring us closer to someone and involve someone else. How? A friend of mine was told that she had cancer. I went to see her, and I gave her a tropical plant to take care of. A couple of years later, she wrote: “That flower gave me hope every day; I was eager to wake up and see if it would give one more flower today, and another one tomorrow.” Glory to God, she is still alive!

A hobby is anything that involves spending time with someone without planning or thinking; we do it because it is what we love to do, whether it is gardening, playing a sport or going to art shows. By sharing it with someone else, it also becomes an act of kindness, and it becomes part of our life.

The “Prayer Before Beginning a Task” (from our red prayer book) says “. . . so that it may be profitable to myself and others.” This reminds us that whatever we do affects someone else, too. For me, it something to do with gardening; when I am in the garden, any garden, I am with God. Even in the morning, looking at the trees, looking at people’s gardens as I do every morning on the way to work, it brightens up my day, and I praise God for all the beautiful things I see.

God is an amazing artist; He designed the first garden, and He put His first children, Adam and Eve, in it. (Genesis 2:7-8) I don’t know why, but we always visualize Heaven as a beautiful garden. When I work in the earth, I admire all of the beautiful, colorful things that come out of it, and I praise God: “This God, the God of my fathers, is so big, and I am so small. The God who created all of us and gave us everything, how wonderful, how wise, how patient, how amazing He is! I have no words in my sinful tongue to describe how kind He is to us.”

When we work in the garden, we learn humility, hope and patience. Humility – because there are such small beautiful creatures living on the earth, and that makes us understand that we too are very small in God’s eyes. Patience – because whatever we are working on in the garden, we are waiting for a harvest or result. Hope – because whatever we planted, if it didn’t come out well this time, we can try again next year.

In our Lord Jesus’ time of prayer before His Passion, He went to the Garden of Mount Olive, by Gethsemane. (Matthew 22:39) Many people imitate that when they need to walk alone with God. Whether in our own yard or a public park, a garden can be our escape from the world.

When I garden, then, only then, I find peace. I am so silent, as if I am listening to God. Sometimes I say the Jesus prayer, and sometimes I just smell the earth and the morning dew. I think my gift from God is gardening, and that is my healthy and wholesome hobby.

May our Lord plant His garden in our hearts. Amen.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.

Happy Sunday! Here is Monica:

This maxim elicits a flashback to the distant past when I used to wait for one or another of my three sons to tie his own shoes with tiny fingers or to come up with an answer to “What color is the elephant (or apple or car) in this picture?” – although it would have been expedient simply to resolve the situation myself. I realize, however, that I am involved in a similar task nowadays as I stand beside my frail, nonagenarian mother with arms outstretched to catch her in case she falls as she struggles doggedly to move from wheelchair to bed by her own power.

These situations are the unambiguous ones, in which it is easy to discern the best course of action -- or rather, inaction. In other cases a certain amount of agonizing occurs. If I offer money to a needy relative or friend, will this person develop a dependency on me and thus lose the motivation to discover his or her own survival strategies? Will our relationship be irrevocably altered? More importantly, will I diminish this person’s sense of dignity? Of course, these questions are echoed in the public arena by debates about charitable giving or tax-funded assistance. Sometimes the arguments in favor of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency can serve merely to disguise a lack of generosity, but sometimes they do not.

On the emotional level, it is natural -- especially for women, I think -- to feel an urge to “be there” for others who need a listening ear. We respond to another person’s pain with a reflexive impulse to do whatever it takes to alleviate that pain. But this kind of assistance, too, has the potential for transformation into a relationship that harms more than it helps, especially by tempting one or the other of the two participants to exert some form of control over the other, often in subtle ways.

In light of the pitfalls involved in helping another, it is a serious challenge to decide what to do. I think that each situation is unique and requires prayerful discernment. One guideline that persists in my mind is based on the blessed Augustine’s thoughts about friendship, which appear most explicitly in his book ON CHRISTIAN TEACHING. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) makes a distinction between “use” and “enjoyment”: that is, we are to “enjoy” God alone, because to enjoy anyone or anything else would amount to idolatry. Everything else that we experience should serve as something that we “use,” or that we offer to be used by another, in the journey toward complete communion with God.

Even friendship comes under this latter category. According to Augustine, a Christian friendship is a relationship that contributes to the spiritual progress of the partners. Two streams flow together in a common current channeled towards God. Attachment to another person for the satisfaction of one’s human desires for comfort or praise leads only to a dead end and therefore must be abandoned. In applying this thought to today’s maxim, I can resolve never to encourage another person to develop such a fruitless attachment to me, but instead to nurture a friendship that facilitates his or her growth in the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23), whether it feels comfortable or not.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

34. Be merciful with yourself and others.

From the lovely Melanie:

For me, this message is something that has been touched upon in other maxims. Creating a balance between two things. My mom, every since I can remember, has always told me about making sure I have a balance. Even though I am twenty-five years old, my mom is still giving me the same steady and true advice. "Just make sure you are balanced about it." Mom, I want to find a new job. . . Well, you can't spend every minute of every day working towards that; just make sure you have a balance of "fun time" and "trying to find a job time."

In yesterday's maxim, we read that we are to be strict with ourselves. We are to rely on a strict daily schedule. We are to accomplish all of our goals for the day and for each day thereafter. It is so hard for me to hear "Be strict with yourself," and then also hear, "Be merciful with yourself and others." Sometimes I feel that being merciful gives me an excuse to goof off, be lazy and procrastinate on the things that I want to do for my life, both spiritual and physical.

Now, I think I see what my mom was trying to really tell me. That it's not just keeping the balance for a while and then letting one thing rule your life. It is about being strict with your time (something I was never good at) so as to include all things that are necessary and important to you but all the while maintaining a balance in your life. If you are not able to accomplish that, then you should be merciful with yourself.

When Emily gave me this maxim, she knew, just as I knew, that this maxim really hits home for me. I think she and I were discussing my various frustrations: my dislike for my job and the difficulties of having a husband that is not Orthodox. I must be honest in saying that much of the time I feel like all the bad things that happen in my life are of my own doing, my own fault.

These two maxims do not cancel each other out. They work together to make each of us better examples of Christ's love. My being merciful with myself should not shadow the fact that I still need to be strict with myself. Just as my strictness should not overpower me so much that I fall out of faith or into the depths of despair to where I cannot see the mercy which Christ has bestowed upon us.

We are called to be merciful, but that mercy does not just end with ourselves. We are called to be merciful with others as well. How can we see when people need us to be merciful? Is it one set time or is it all the time? We are called to have mercy on all, just as we ask God to have mercy on us every time we attend church or pray to Him. Our job is to provide boundless mercy, because it is our endless outpouring of mercy that creates balance in this world that is cold, mean and cruel towards others.

Sisters, I ask that you pray for me as I try to not only be strict with myself, but to also be merciful with my mistakes and not to judge others but to be merciful towards all who are around me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

33. Be strict with yourself.

Dear Sisters,

This is my last post -- I have commenters lined up for the remaining week of the fast -- so I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for blessing me throughout this Lent with your thoughts, ideas and struggles.

This maxim is so difficult for me to live out. Our society constantly exhorts us to be easy on ourselves: have another cookie, go get your nails done, watch some TV and put your feet up. And I have to confess that often, I listen to that voice. My schedule is very flexible, and I'm a star procrastinator, so often I'll look back at the end of the day and think, "What did I *do* today?" Nothing! This is the result of being too easy on yourself: wasted time that you'll never get back.

The irony is that on days when I don't have time for messing around, like if we're preparing for dinner guests or I have a big project to work on for school, I end up feeling much more productive at the end of the day, and that productivity makes me happy -- even if I haven't "relaxed" at all. I can see why just about every monastic tradition relies on a strict daily schedule and constant labor -- even at something menial, like picking olives or scrubbing floors -- the work is good for your mind and your body, and it gives you a sense of your vocation and place in the world.

In Fr. Hopko's commentary on the Maxims, he includes another one about having a daily schedule of activities -- not leaving your schedule up to whim or caprice. As a piano teacher, I'm constantly exhorting my students to build practicing into their daily routine; once the schedule becomes expected, it will be easier and more rewarding to follow. It's the same with any activity: housework, exercise, or even prayer.

I'm sure tomorrow's poster will have something to say about this, but I can't help but notice that while that maxim mentions "others," this one emphatically doesn't. I guess it goes without saying that while we are called to hold ourselves to a strict standard, it's not fair to expect the same of others. We don't know what burdens they bear or what unseen standards they've already imposed on themselves.

Blessings for a fruitful conclusion to the Fast! Please pray for me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.

Jocelyn's thoughts today:

As with many of the maxims, we encounter a call to strike a delicate balance.

To me, the easier part of this maxim is to give advice only when asked. Just keep your mouth shut until someone asks you a question, I suppose. (Of course, when you're absolutely itching to speak up, this can prove difficult!) Like the other maxims, it encourages us to choose our words carefully and precisely, to speak only as necessary.

But giving when necessary is tougher when looking at the second half of the maxim. We have a duty to give advice! Can you believe that? This means that it's something we can fail at if we don't give advice. (Not to make y'all paranoid or anything.) Your knowledge, experience, and wisdom can be invaluable to someone; we must be on the alert for loving ways that we can be giving to others.

I know that for me, it's easier to look at the things that I have said and see where I was wrong to give advice or failed miserably at it. Seeing missed opportunities is a little harder. What's difficult for me is creating an attentive mind, looking for those opportunities where I could give advice (or help of some sort). It's not always obvious or easy, and many times I'm so wrapped up in my own needs that I don't even see the greater needs of others.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

31. "Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully."

A word from Stephanie:

What a hard thing to do – accept criticism, yet it is such a necessary experience for our growth. Without feedback from others, we humans tend to develop distorted ways of seeing ourselves and the world, and those distortions eventually lead to unhealthy behaviors (sins, missing our mark). We are pack animals by nature, and we were created to function within our society, not as fully independent beings but as an interdependent system bound in love. As one form of communication among elements within the Body of Christ, critical feedback from others is a source of blood flow that keeps us functioning in a healthy manner.

Scientists call this concept of interdependent systems “Field Theory” or “Systems Theory,” and reading more about it has led me to see how awesome is the balance (homeostasis) God has set in place in our universe! When one criticizes in love, and the other accepts it gracefully, there is no unnecessary tension or strife – the Body functions as it should. Criticism serves its function to set things back in order to the benefit of all, like the forces each of the stars and planets exerts on the others. If one organ in a body is sick, all the others suffer, and health is maintained only to the extent that each is willing to offer its feedback to the rest, keeping the blood flow steady and rich.

Testing criticism carefully is an important step and requires discernment. Sometimes criticism is valid from one person’s perspective but not another’s, and only God knows which perspective is right, yet the process still provides important information about the state of two individuals. It could be that someone criticizes another more from one’s own distorted lens than from reality. If we live within Christ at all times, we can regain our true state of humility, and discerning the important message of the communication becomes clearer. Either way, when criticized, we may consider it a blessing, as it provides us information either about how we might productively change ourselves, understand the needs of our brother, or both. Either way, it provides communication, the blood flow among the organs of the Body, and if we are functioning in a healthy manner, we will thrive on it.

A nun once told me that when we receive criticism, we should say, “God bless it!” I’m far from achieving the humility I need to gracefully accept criticism, and I know my lens of discernment is darkened, but I trust that with God’s blessings, I might at least perceive some small bit of understanding that I might begin to undertake the task of true healing. Please pray for me, and forgive me for all the times I have offered criticism without love and taken criticism without humility.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.

Good evening, sisters,

This is the second-to-last "empty" day, so I'll leave it to you to discuss this Maxim. I think it's so interesting the way they are connected -- this one reminds me of the one about comparing yourself to others, and the one about avoiding unnecessary attention. Once again, we are reminded to put our focus on God, not others, and certainly not on ourselves.

Monday, April 7, 2008

29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.

Greetings! No poster today, so you get to hear my thoughts . . .

The first part of this Maxim, "Don't defend," seems to evoke Christ's advice to "turn the other cheek." In a world where identity and individuality matter a great deal, it's difficult to heed that, especially in situations where you know you're right.

But . . . what is "right"? My teacher trainer once told us that if we had a disagreement with a student, we should always apologize, even if we knew we were right. If the student claimed we hadn't taught them something, even if we had, we should say, "I'm sorry, I must be mistaken." If they insisted they hadn't made a mistake, we should respond, "Oh, I'm sorry -- I didn't teach you the right way! It's my fault."

Some of us balked at this, spouting the usual defenses -- they wouldn't be held accountable for their own actions, they needed to learn responsibility -- but she just said, "Who cares? Your job is to teach them, and the best way to do that is to make them feel comfortable and good about themselves. Being right doesn't matter."

I have tried (tried, and failed, but I try still) to live this philosophy in all areas of my life. Pride is such an ugly, evil thing. In the end, if it's hurt or compromised in some way, truly, who cares? We will have saved another person from feeling hurt, embarrassed, or stupid. We will have done them good.

Regarding the second part, "justify yourself," I am again reminded of the Scriptures -- this time of the lawyer who questioned Christ. When Christ said that the second greatest commandment was to "love your neighbor as yourself," the man immediately responded, "And who is my neighbor?" The Scriptures say that the man said this "desiring to justify himself." He wanted to know exactly what he had to do, so that he could do that -- and not a bit more. In answer, of course, Christ gave him the parable of the Good Samaritan -- the ultimate example of sacrifice and love.

Sisters, what a perfect lesson this is for Lent. How much have we justified ourselves regarding small exceptions -- eating "allowed" foods but eating too much, or eating "prohibited" foods while making some excuse or another, or being public instead of secret about our fasting, as our Lord admonished us? Always, we seek to justify ourselves, instead of acknowledging our sinfulness and begging for Christ's mercy.

Pray for me, a sinner, as I pray for each of you.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

28. Don't try to convince anyone of anything.

Here is Susan with a wonderful meditation to close out our weekend:

When I first received this particular Maxim from Emily I thought, "Yes, this is a good one for me." When I am passionate about a topic, I definitely can become aggressive in conversation with those who disagree.

The second thing I thought of was a conversation I had with a Protestant co-worker who said that she had heard a story about Mother Teresa that made her respect her less. Now I have not verified this story, but as per my co-worker, Mother Teresa was caring for a Hindu woman. This woman wanted a husband and Mother Teresa introduced her to a Hindu Man whom she later married. My co-worker was concerned as to why Mother Teresa had not converted this woman to Christianity and why she hadn't introduced her to a Christian man. My response was that I felt it was better to try to convert someone by living a Christian life -- setting a good example, which in this case included treating this woman with respect for who she was. . .

In pondering this more, I realized that even the Orthodox organization IOCC helps people of all religious backgrounds who are experiencing difficulty around the world without overtly trying to convert them to Orthodox Christianity. From the IOCC website:

"Every day, IOCC helps people move from desperate circumstances to hope and economic self-sufficiency. In Russia, Romania, the Republic of Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, IOCC provides loans for small businesses, tractors and seeds for farmers, and empowering communities through capacity building with local organizations. In the Holy Land, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Ethiopia, IOCC provides job skills training and job creation, school building and repair, child nutrition programs, educational training, and HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention." I know that IOCC is also active in the areas of the US struck by Hurricane Katrina.

About a week ago I was out with a friend (another co-worker.) She was talking about some discussions she had with people of other faiths. One of her comments was that sometimes the conversations would get heated, but in the end they realized they were really talking about the same or similar things, just using different words.

This struck me as another reason to keep strong opinions to myself. Sometimes I am so passionate about what I am saying that I do not really listen to what the other person is saying. Maybe they have been saying the same thing or similar things, but using different words. . . and regardless, I have not been respecting them for who they are and what they think.

As Jesus said, "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35) In this Jesus is asking us to love as Christ has loved us, laying down His life not only for His friends, but even for His enemies. Many times I believe I treat people who do not agree with me on an issue or concept as my enemy. I need to learn to love them, respect them, listen to them.

In examining this maxim I gained a growing awareness that I should be more concerned with the state of my soul than with potential faults in others.

I am interested in reading your comments on this maxim, since in reading many of your posts, I have been humbled by the depth of your postings and comments.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

27. Don't judge anyone for anything.

Good morning! Here is Lauren:

I feel at a loss for words as I read this maxim. What can I say about a rule I violate all the time? Perhaps this is why we say the Prayer of St. Ephraim every day, pleading for God to allow us to see our own sins, and as a consequence, to not judge our brother. I think it's interesting that we first ask of God for spiritual insight into the state of our own soul before our neighbor even comes into the picture. Like the parable of the speck in your friend's eye and the log in your own, if we truly look in the mirror at ourselves, it will be impossible for us to comment on the lives of others. Not that I don't try, sadly; I am all too skilled at seeing the faults of others. When reading this, I'm also reminded of God's mysterious timing in life, and His personal interactions with each person. Only God and the person knows where they are spiritually, and it may not be the place you think it is. St. John Climacus describes a scene where he chastises a monk for very sinful behavior, but found out later that the monk had already had a heartfelt repentance for his deed. From the outside, the monk appeared to be a wretched sinner, but on the inside he was made new. I should remember this story more often, since not a day goes by that I'm not judging, commenting on, complaining about, being irritated at, or labeling those around me. And who knows God's plan for people and situations? Certainly not me. Whatever it is that causes us to want to judge another, we should remember that we are faced with this situation so that God can teach us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, and so that we can learn a little something new about ourselves and God in the process.

Friday, April 4, 2008

26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.

Good morning! A wonderful meditation from Jeanine:

I have not opened my personal/spiritual journal in quite a while, but I used to write almost every day. If I had been writing recently, maybe I would have said . . .

March 30, 2008 (Third Sunday in Lent – Veneration of the Cross)

Dear Papa,

I’ve been Orthodox almost a year now and I don’t know who I am anymore. It was much easier for me to be an evangelical Protestant. When I compare myself to the other women in my church, I feel like such a spiritual midget. I can’t answer questions about the Orthodox faith like them, I don’t know how to pray like them and I certainly can’t sing like them. I can’t cook meals during Lent and I don’t have a clue how to make a Pascha basket. Where am I? Why have You brought me here? Is this something I can really do? Maybe I should just go to church on Sundays and be satisfied with that. I don’t think Peter knows I cried myself to sleep last night …

April 2, 2008 (Tuesday)

Dear Papa,

An idiot driver just about side-swiped me today on the way to work! I can’t stand people who drive really slow and then wander over into another lane like they are taking a stroll in a meadow or something. How hard is it to pay attention?! Why can’t everyone do what I do?!

My boss needed a file today and we looked in the staff cabinets to find it. She FINALLY noticed the horrible state of the filing system and said, “Now I know why you are having a hard time finishing the filing project I gave you.” I’m SO glad she saw for herself the horrible state in which “you-know-who” left everything. It’s a disaster! I could never work like that. My boss is extremely pleased with the way I’ve re-done her own files. “You-know-who” had absolutely no organization skills. The team has noticed, too; some of them have made comments about how I always know where everything is and am really efficient and tidy. I have my performance review soon and am quite sure I’ll get a good rating.

April 4, 2008 (Friday)

Dear Papa,

I know that comparing myself to my Orthodox sisters led me to discouragement and despair last weekend. Don’t really want to go back there. I want to remember what my friend Bob the Tomato in VeggieTales says, “God made you special and He loves you very much.” That means that I have something special to offer to the community of faith that no one else has. Will You show me what it is? Will you help me to offer it?

I know that speaking harshly against a stranger is wrong because James 4:12 says, “Who are you to judge another?” I have no idea what the woman driving that SUV was thinking or feeling when she almost smashed into me. And comparing myself to “you-know-who” is total pride. St. Basil the Great said, “Never place yourself above anyone, not even great sinners.” I really have to get over myself (yes, and go to confession!).

But, Papa, is it ALWAYS wrong to compare myself to someone else? How will I improve if I don’t look at others as a sort of benchmark? I need to see how another sister worships and prays in order to learn. I need to see that I’m better at something in order to help someone else improve. Ah – “in order to learn.” “In order to help…” Motive. Humility. Love. When I have the proper attitude, comparison will lead to improvement, not to despair and not to pride.

When I compare myself to Christ with the proper attitude, I will be humbled and I will truly worship. Which is the whole point.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

25. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.

Good afternoon!. Here is the latest Maxim -- along with a promise that after today, you'll be hearing from some other people!

This Maxim is really like four different Maxims rolled into one, isn't it? Simple, but difficult.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

24. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.

Good afternoon, ladies -- here I am again.

What to say about this Maxim? It's pretty straightforward. Also, pretty difficult.

How do you remind yourself not to do these horribly tempting things?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.

Good evening, ladies!

It's just me again tonight. The wonderful (and scary) thing about this maxim is the exhortation to flee -- it's not just "stay away from carnal things," or "don't give in to carnal things," but "FLEE carnal things."

Fr. Hopko clarifies this in his commentary by saying "sexual things." Sexual temptation is probably one of the most powerful and frightening forces of Satan; its explosive, impulsive nature is one of the reasons it is so carefully restricted to a marriage relationship.

The image I have is of Joseph, leaving his coat in the hands of Potiphar's wife in his haste to get away from her. I don't think this was because he was disgusted by her; on the contrary, I think he was probably tempted to some degree, and rather than try to reason it out, he just fled the scene.

Once again, the emphasis here seems to be on our inability to control our passions and / or the circumstances of our lives. We can't hope to resist temptations this powerful. The moment we catch a glimpse of them, we need to turn and run the other way.

Monday, March 31, 2008

22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.

Hi, ladies. We have no poster today, and this weekend was pretty exhausting, so I'm going to leave this post wide open. I will share that this has been one of the most puzzling of the maxims for me. What do you think it means?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

21. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.

Good evening, ladies. Here is Carolyn, with some wonderful advice:

“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’. For whatever is more than this is from the evil one.” Matthew 5:37

“Set a watch O Lord before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” Psalm 140:3

Excerpt from Letters to a Beginner from Abbess Thaisia of Leushino

Letter 9: On idle talk and gossip.

Deeply rooted in people is the love of idle talk, i.e., empty, unnecessary conversations, and it has become a beloved pastime among them. It seems we don’t know and don’t believe that idle talk is a sin, and a serious sin, which gives birth to a multitude of other sins: quarrels, conflicts, gossip, slander, condemnation, calumny and the like. Indeed, all the various confusions which fill the human life to overflowing, all the disturbances of the inner quiet of the soul, have as their source this same idle talk, which has crept into all of everyday life, as though it were its indispensable property and requirement. If any sin or any passion knows how to clothe itself in an attractive form, it is precisely—idle talk.

It begins under the pretext of conversing, of discussing some business, but then we proceed imperceptibly to an altogether unnecessary, empty and sinful conversation. Like a deeply rooted infection, this sickness does not easily submit to healing. It has penetrated all layers of social and private life; It is active in people of every age and gender, every class and social position, and has not even spared monasteries.

In our words, which we regard so carelessly, so thoughtlessly, will be either your justification or condemnation, as our Lord Jesus Christ Himself says: “I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the Day of Judgment. By thy words thou shall be justified, and by thy words thou shall be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-7) If even one idle word will be subject to accounting in the day of judgment, then to what condemnation and punishment will we be subject, who talk idly continually and constantly, restrained neither by place nor time, nor by the presence of outsiders, who perhaps even against their will, we make participants in our empty conversations, and in such a manner draw them into sin? So by drawing them into sin we are subject to a double condemnation- both of idle talk and for being a cause of temptation, for woe, it is said, to that man by whom the offense cometh. (Matthew 18:7)

I think the world would be a much calmer place if this maxim was practiced by more people. Learning how to talk takes practice like everything else, if you want to get good at it. I work with someone that talks so much that I don’t have to talk, except to interrupt him and give him something to do. Then I hope that it will take a long time so that I get a little quiet. Otherwise I spend a lot of time by myself, so I don’t get a lot of practice. So, Coffee Hour would be quite a challenge for me, to know and stop before I “proceed imperceptibly to an altogether unnecessary, empty and sinful conversation." I find that when I talk too much, I am saying things that really don’t need to be said. Just because I can say it, doesn’t mean someone else really has to hear it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.

Happy midpoint, ladies! The following is from Megan:

Many of the maxims make us cringe because they contain concise little lessons that cut to the core of what we do not want to change about ourselves. This one, right in the middle, number twenty out of forty, reminds us not to engage in idle talk. Not to gossip, or even speak more than necessary. As women, we almost universally hate to hear this, and yet as Orthodox women we almost universally are working on it. It is not a surprising admonition; simply one that makes us put our heads down and sigh.

But a warning not to think about things more than necessary? Did that word think accidentally slip in there? Isn’t thinking like prayer or like love: the more the better?

I guess not.

Fr. Hopko could have easily prescribed that we worry no more than necessary, and certainly this maxim does allow for that interpretation. But the word think is purposely paired with talk, and we are certainly to take meaning from that. Just as we are not to engage in idle talk, whether it be gossip, lies, or simply unnecessary chatter, we are to refrain from idle thoughts. This would include the banishing of gossipy thoughts, where we indulge and flatter ourselves by thinking ill of others. It means an end to idle speculation, daydreaming, lustful thoughts, dwelling on worries and fears – the end to any thoughts other than what is necessary.

Wow. I don’t think I can do that. Thank goodness we have the Saints to help us out.

Friday, March 28, 2008

19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.

Hi, everyone! We are without an author today, so let me just share one thought:

I think this Maxim is very closely related to the one about silence. It is impossible to be "fully present" when you have four or five pots bubbling at once (literal or figurative.) I often have to remind myself to turn away from the computer when I'm having a conversation with someone, even a phone conversation; I might technically be listening, but I'm not really paying attention. And on the flip side of that, I will often ignore the phone if it rings while I'm doing something I need to concentrate on -- teaching a student, writing a note, or even making breakfast. I don't like electronic gadgets to run my life!

As women, it's very tempting to multi-task, because for the most part we can do it quite capably. But something will be lost in each task when we try to do them all at once; all that does is erode our ability to concentrate and water down our experiences. When you are fully present, you learn things you never expected to.

What are your thoughts about this?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

18. Listen when people talk to you.

Good morning! Here is Deborah:

When I told my husband this was the maxim I was to write about, he could only sit there and chuckle.

He no doubt had immediate recall of the 6 o'clock hour at our home, with me scurrying around to get dinner on the table, and he arrives, eager to unload news from the work front or just what's on his mind. At that point in the day, the way I do listening often gets downsized to detecting sound waves in the ear canal; and for him, talking then becomes merely an exercise in echo location. This maxim has encouraged me to devise strategies to remedy that situation, thankfully. I'm trying to greet him and give him a few minutes of fairly exclusive time immediately upon his arrival. If that doesn't happen, we're trying to take walks right before or right after dinner with the girls so that we get to converse at least a little bit. And then there's always after the girls are in bed to make more time to talk and listen to one another.

Why do I want to work on listening to my husband? Because I love him and want him to feel loved, respected, cherished as my friend and loving partner. So, can I listen to others in the "people" category with a similar desire for them? Everyone has a need to be heard, to express what's on their minds, in their hearts, from casual conversation to deep therapy. A couple things come to mind. One is the Psalmist in a humbled state: "Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplications. Hearken unto the voice of my cry, my King and my God..." The other is from Horton Hears a Who: "A person's a person, no matter how small," and the image of that big elephant ear dropping way down to hear what's up in that itty bitty city.

Listening is one of the most fundamental things I can do to embrace another person, to let them be who they are, and maybe at times to let them find out who they are becoming. As Bishop Kallistos Ware has put it, "Just as the three Divine Persons live in and for each other, so man -- being made in the Trinitarian image -- becomes a real person by seeing the world through others' eyes, by making others' joys and sorrows his own ... "

My wise godmother gave me a wonderful book to read during Lent -- Mother Gavrilia, The Ascetic of Love. The translator says, "Listening to people was one of [Mother Gavrilia's] special ministries. She often said that in our days, we scarcely know how to listen to the other, for we usually prefer to listen to ourselves, to our own talking, even after we ask a question!" She would sit and listen to others for hours, and when asked how she could do this without collapsing from fatigue, she would always say, "I do not exist." If she did not exist, she could become one with the other person and truly empathize with their situation, giving them hope and encouragement. Later in life Mother Gavrilia found a prior witness to this in a quote by St. Nilus: "He knows himself best, who believes himself as not existing."

Listening can require us to humble ourselves, focusing our undivided attention on the one speaking to us. We have to "lay aside all earthly cares" -- I might try visualizing a bulldozer removing all irrelevant thoughts to the far side of my brain – and provide true listening ears to the one who speaks to us. I guess this really is a good Lenten maxim, as listening can be seen as a way of almsgiving. Listening not only with our ears but also with our hearts can be an act of selfless devotion, sometimes even hard work in order to do it well.

Well, I can't wind this up without adding that we've been given a pretty wonderful example of good listening within the sacrament of confession. During this fasting season we're given the opportunity to unload those earthly cares and speak out about the sins that so easily beset us to our trusted spiritual father confessor who listens attentively, faithfully, facing the icon of Christ with us, offering up the prayer of forgiveness, and encouraging us to make real changes in our lives as we struggle against sin. Thanks be to God!

I'm sorry to all for whom I have been a poor listener. Pray for me, a sinner!

"Listen when people talk to you." Let us be attentive, indeed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.

From Emiliana:

Writing about not bringing unnecessary attention to oneself seems like a paradox; and even more of a paradox because I was trying to think how I could be witty and insightful. But God's mercy against my egoism is prevailing here and I only have several brief thoughts.

I wonder about the word "unnecessary" in the maxim. What is necessary attention, then? Can I die to my own ego enough to let Christ shine in all I do? That's the kind of attention that I want to gather up, not because I want anything for myself but because I want the love of Jesus, the will of Our Father and the light of the Holy Spirit to mark my trail in life. In my own weakness and pride I fall so short.

Dear Sisters, let us pray for one another, that we can prepare a path for God. That's all.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.

Hi, everyone! I know you've been hearing my thoughts off and on for weeks now, but today is really "my" day, so thank you for listening to me ramble yet again!

I think it's so interesting, the way God controls even the smallest details of our lives. When I was fiddling around with a random number generator online, trying to make it work for the numbers 1-40, the first one that came up was 16. I immediately thought, "Well, that's my number, I guess!" Then I thought, "No, that's silly. I'll do mine later." But I couldn't forget it, and even after I'd assigned a bunch of numbers, no one else had gotten 16. Then I wrote up a calendar and saw that number 16 fell on March 25 -- not only the feast of the Annunciation, the cathedral in Baltimore where I was married, but also the birthday of my god-daughter Ophelia, who turns four today. I had to laugh when I saw that. Okay! I get it, already!

This is one of my favorites on the whole list, because I love the poetic repetition of those four words; all similar, but all with slightly different connotations. To me, they are all aspects of humility, the chief virtue that frees us from the chief sin of pride. If you are simple, hidden, quiet and small, you don't have any room for grand ambitions or complicated schemes. I confess to enjoying both of those things much more than is healthy!

In Fr. Tom's commentary on his Maxims, he quotes the church Fathers: "If you want to be known by God, don’t be known by people." That's a pretty solemn thought. We all have dreams of being famous and celebrated in some way, but the reality is that those things come with a price. It's no coincidence that celebrities have problems with relationships, families, money and addictions. Being "known by people" is not good for the soul.

In closing, I want to quote a passage from C.S. Lewis, a writer who may not have been Orthodox, but was certainly orthodox, and now is most certainly Orthodox! (Credit Fr. Gregory with that wonderful distinction.)

"Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call 'humble' nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility; he will not be thinking about himself at all."

A blessed feast to you all!

Monday, March 24, 2008

15. Be cheerful.

Hi! Just a placeholder post until I hear from Heidi, who's going to give us her thoughts on this . . .

I have to let you know that she was the only one who requested a particular Maxim: when I sent out the initial e-mail, she responded right away to say she was interested, and at the very end, added, "Dibs on 'Be cheerful!'" I was glad to give it to her, considering that she is one of the most wonderfully cheerful people I know, and not just in an outward sense -- she is really full of the joy and peace of Christ, all the time!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

14. Be grateful.

Good afternoon! Here's a wonderful meditation from Janet:

I was taught at an early age, as you probably were, to say “thank you” when receiving candy, a gift, or a compliment. Being grateful is an important virtue. I believe that it’s an important element of remaining happy throughout life, and a vital aspect of having a strong relationship with God. Here are some reasons I have come to this conclusion.

In the Psalms we repeatedly see the simple yet profound truth that “It is good to give thanks to God.” (1) The Holy Scriptures remind us to “give thanks for all things to God in the name of Christ Jesus (2,) in everything give thanks (3,) and thank God without ceasing (4.) In the lives of Christ and the Saints we see countless examples of their gratitude to God for His blessings and for every circumstance. We sing thankful praise to God in the Divine Liturgy. In fact, “Eucharist” means giving thanks, and the Eucharist is a topic in itself.

How often do I thank God? Do I thank Him for all things, even when I don’t feel like it, even when things don’t go the way I want, or when someone disappoints me? Especially in these situations, I should be thankful: thankful that God has a better plan than the one I wanted, thankful that the disappointment is for my good, and thankful for the person who disappointed me. I see a direct correlation in my life between a grateful heart and a strong relationship with God. In contrast, when I complain or become discontent, I am not being grateful for the many ways God has provided for me with a loving family, a strong church home, and material needs. In other words, a thankful mindset is incompatible with sinful thoughts. I like to think that gratitude crowds out sinful tendencies. As a practical way of being thankful, my goal is to thank God throughout the day for His mercy, protection, and goodness, as well as for specific answers to prayer whenever they come to mind.

“Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endureth forever.” (5) This psalm which we often sing during Liturgy brings great joy to my mother and me when I sing this psalm to her. She, who taught me to be thankful as a child, can worship God with me as we praise Him for His great mercy!

1- Psalm 92:1
2- Ephesians 5:20
3- I Thessalonians 5:18
4- 2 Thessalonians 2:13
5- Psalm 118, Psalm 136

Saturday, March 22, 2008

13. Face reality.

Here is Calise from California, with some exciting news . . .

Hello Ladies! Let me first say it has been such a blessing to be able to connect with all of you through this discussion.

We miss you all terribly! Let me tell you all as well that I am pregnant with our 3rd & I have been sick as a dog! So please pray for us!

As I started to ponder this maxim the first thing that came to mind was Confession. I feel like preparing for my first confession was the first time I really stood back & faced the reality of what my life had been & there were a lot of things that I didn't like. Ever since then, confession has helped me to have more regular "reality checks".

Father Thomas Hopko says..."face reality, don't live in fantasy. There's a Russian saying, 'God is everywhere except in imagination & fantasy'; face the realities of your life."

I have of late been thinking about the consequences of living in a fantasy world. My father is an alcoholic. Alcoholics tend to form their own fantasy worlds where they are the victims. This helps them to live with their decisions & to justify their actions; otherwise, how do you live with yourself?

That scares the living daylights out of me; after having lived as part of his fantasy world for over 30 years, I am only now beginning to come to grips with the awful ramifications it has on the people around you. I don't want to be the victim. I want to fully engage in my own reality & that of others.

Facing reality doesn't only mean the bad stuff; it also means the good. We are called to be grateful for what God has given us & to be good stewards of our own realities!
I want to be a Christian, a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend, a neighbor & a human being who not only faces my own reality & is daily acknowledging the good and combatting the bad, but I want to encourage all of those people in my life who are a part of my reality.

It seems to me the only way to truly face our own realities is through God's employing all these previous maxims.

So I pray as we all read these blogs & continue this discussion that God would reveal the ugliness & beauty in our own realities & give us the strength & humility to face it all!

God bless all of you in this blessed season of Lent!

Friday, March 21, 2008

12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.

Let me encourage you all anew to please post your thoughts about these Maxims! It is such a blessing to hear from each of you.

I love this Maxim because it's so wise, so uncomplicated, and yet so terribly hard to implement. I've found numerous times throughout life that if I can just get started on something I've been putting off, it actually doesn't take long at all -- whether cleaning my house, writing a lesson plan or just reconnecting with a friend I haven't seen in a long time. In fact, it seems to apply that the more I'm dreading it, the less of a big deal it turns out to be; and even if it is a difficult thing, like a confrontation or asking forgiveness, it feels SO much better just to have it over with, all out in the open.

You know?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

11. Do your work, then forget it.

Hello, all!

I'm running short of ideas for these . . . and would like to save some of my thought energies for my actual post next week! So I will leave this open for discussion.

I love the simple, clear wisdom of this thought. For me, it's a reminder that no matter how much I love or loathe my job on any given day, it's only a job -- the important thing is my attitude while doing it, that I do it "as unto the Lord" and for the furtherance of my salvation.

What does it bring to mind for you?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

10. Be faithful in little things.

A meditation from Doanh:

Jesus admonishes us to be faithful in the little things. In the book of Luke, he says, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much." (Luke 16:10) Here, He is specifically talking about money as he goes on to say, "Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own? (Luke 16:11-12). Allow me to borrow the caption from the Orthodox Study Bible about this verse: The test as to whether God will bestow heavenly blessings (true riches) on a person is directly related to how that person spends his money. The money we consider our own is actually another man's, that is, belonging to God, or at least to the poor. The Fathers universally see a person's failure to give money to God's work as stealing.

So, in conclusion, money and everything we have (even our own selves) belong to God. Do not allow anything to master over you. Keep Christ the Master of your life and everything you do with what you have, your money, and yourself will fall under His good and perfect will for you. When God sees that you have been faithful over little, He will give you the "more" which is the true riches of heavenly blessings.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.

This morning's meditation is from Laura:

Oh, boy, now that's a doozie. Being honest with myself usually results in being overly critical or not critical enough, both of which are very prideful (and not very honest). I'm sure that I have yet to learn just how to truly be honest with myself.

Last Thursday evening, I had the honor of chanting the last installment of the Great Canon of St. Andrew for the first week of Lent. Early on in the service, I found myself leaning against the wall behind the chanter's stand, thinking to myself, "I feel sick." I ran through multiple explanations, trying to discern why I might suddenly feel so nasty. Perhaps it was the kids who sneezed on me at work. Could it be the combination of a spring-forward time change (always a hard one for me) and the first week of Lent and the denial it ensued? Was I tired from the seemingly-endless services that took place that first week?

Then, of course, the hard irony kicked me in the gut. Girl, you're standing here chanting the Great Canon and feeling sick. Could this have anything to do with sin? Well, duh! I really don't know how to confront the bad stuff that I produce or its consequences for myself and the rest of the world. And even when I do attempt to confront my own sin, I want to try and explain it and/or turn it around so that it's really good stuff or at least not that bad. This is a pretty nasty trick and a hard habit to break.

Of course I know that this is all a lie and a byproduct of my own weakness and lack of self discipline. Being honest with myself is hard. It takes energy, time (I often complain about having too little time, but how much do I waste?) and probably most importantly, prayer.

My dear sisters (and any brothers who may be lurking here) I do ask that you pray with me as I learn to look at myself and all my actions, sinful or not, and see them for what they really are. Lent certainly seems a good time to take on this endeavor. I will pray for all of you as well.


Monday, March 17, 2008

8. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.

Good evening! Apologies for posting so late . . .

We are again author-less today, so I thought I would post a wonderful excerpt from one of Tolstoy's short stories, which I've always loved, but is especially meaningful ever since Bishop Kallistos Ware referred to it in a homily he gave.

"Remember that there is only one important time and that is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at you side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life."

It's said so often that it sounds meaningless, but try to see it in a new light: every day is a gift, and even every part of every day, as this Maxim reminds us. Or, as Christ said: "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself."

Today the church commemorates St. Patrick, whose wonderful Breastplate Prayer speaks also of the importance of re-dedicating yourself to Christ with each new breath. A blessed feast to you all!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

7. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.

A Blessed Sunday of Orthodoxy to you all! I just had to share this note from the Emily files before moving on to the Maxim for the day:

Despite attending about a dozen Sunday of Orthodoxy services in my lifetime, I didn't understand the connection between "Orthodoxy Sunday" and the resolution of the iconoclastic controversy until hearing the Synaxarion reading this morning. "Orthodox" doesn't just refer to our denomination; it means "straight doctrine," or "correct teaching." So we are celebrating the triumph of correct teaching over heresy. Wow! I was even more teary-eyed than usual as we read: "This is the faith of the fathers; this is the faith of the Orthodox; this is the faith that established the universe." Something about all of those voices shouting those words in unison is so moving.

In Fr. Tom's podcast on his Maxims, he says that to refuse to be ordinary is to be prideful: "Don't ever say, 'I thank you, God, that I am not like other people!' Try to be as much like others as you can. Be ordinary." He also he quotes Chekhov, who wrote, "Everything outside the ordinary is from the devil."

This is especially hard living in a country and an age that values uniqueness and individuality above all else. To be "ordinary" here and now is to be completely useless. I remember the first time I watched "American Beauty," a heartbreakingly true portrait of life in our fallen world: one of the main characters, a beautiful but horribly insecure teenager, is reduced to tears when another character calls her "ordinary." Later, she is vindicated when another character reassures her, "You couldn't be ordinary if you tried."

Why are we so afraid of being ordinary?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

6. Cultivate communion with the saints.

Good morning! I have to share this quote with you before I turn the space over to Ina. It's from this podcast of Ancient Faith Radio, where Fr. Thomas speaks about his Maxims. (He lists 55, and a few are slightly altered, so perhaps we're using an earlier version.) At the beginning, he says this about Great Lent:

"The Lenten season is that time of the year when Christian believers try to be what they ought always to be, and to do what they ought always to do, but don't."

Good food for thought! And here is Shamassey Ina.

The ‘communion with the saints’ part of this maxim has come easier for me than the ‘cultivation’ part. Or at least communion has usually come first. Because of the great patience and mercy of God, He has taken the first steps in introducing me to saints by some unique situation every time. In the beginning of my Orthodox journey I felt sure that God knew that it would be unlikely that I would pursue the tradition of saints or even know what to ‘do’ with saints, unless He intervened. The whole concept was so foreign to me that I would never get it, if He did not walk me through the whole thing without my even knowing it.

Ironically, as I look back now, I am reminded that ‘saints’, in a way, were the tool God used to finally push me over the edge into Holy Orthodoxy. When Fr. Timothy stood in my kitchen and said that the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ were worshiping God in the heavens all the time and that we just stepped into that worship for a few minutes on Sunday morning at the Divine Liturgy, a light bulb went on in my heart. This image stunned me and seemed so correct and so amazing that I suddenly knew that all the liturgical trappings about which I was so suspicious didn’t matter…they were my own issue. If I wanted to get in on the heavenly worship with those that had finished the race I would just have to stop setting up my own standards for how things ‘ought’ to be and take God at face value where ever that would lead and whatever that would look like.

My first ‘communion’ with a saint was not even the patron saint that Fr. Timothy gave me. I didn’t really ‘meet’ them until recently. Some of you were present when I ‘met’ my first saint--St. Nina. I had been Orthodox about four years and knew absolutely nothing about her or ‘saints’, so she apparently knew it would take something unmistakable to get my attention. I was so confused by the loud rushing sound, the tears pouring from my eyes, and seeing that no one else seemed to be hearing it, that I just kept looking down so no one would notice. I might not have even mentioned it but Fr. Gregory was sitting right across from me during the reading of St. Nina’s story and he ‘noticed’ me and asked what happened. I described the sound but said I couldn’t really hear any of the story. Not until Fr. Gregory said that he felt that St. Nina had ‘chosen us’ in our search for a patron for our Sisterhood, did I really contemplate what had happened. When I went home and read her story I was even more stunned and felt my first connection to someone outside of our time. Since then I have felt tied to St. Nina and see her sending various people and blessings to us and often wondering why she chose us and why we are such wimpy followers of her and her leading. It seems like it’s not every day that a lady from the 4th century comes to Linthicum, Maryland. How can we take it lightly? How can we be worthy?…. Holy Saint Nina pray for us! I guess this part of ‘cultivation’ just comes naturally once we meet them.

The next saint I met was St. Paisius Velichovsky. Again, I had never heard of him but stood in his cell in Niamts Monastery in Romania and wondered why I was crying. In fact, I had visited that monastery a couple of years before and disliked it. (Increasingly, I am learning to distrust all my own opinions.) About 10 days later in a bookstore in a monastery in England I ‘happened’ to find the story of his life on a sale table. Reading that, quickly led to my discovering the connection of the long string of Paisius(es) that God had put into my path so I could meet this compiler of the Philokilia. When I got home I rushed to find the book given to me at my first monastery, by the first monk I had ever met. I recalled that at the time he had a name that I had never heard before-- Paisius!! And then inside that book I discovered that it was also signed by the author and that monk’s spiritual father, Elder Paisius of the Holy Mountain! I had been so fascinated by him when I read of him in the book Mountain of Silence but I never realized that God had already tried to ‘introduce him’ to me. Thus the slow witted Ina finally got the connection God had been trying to give me with these holy Paisius(es).

God is so patient. He has led me in similarly blind ways to Seraphim, Inna, Pinna & Rimma, etc. I find that in prayer I refer to them with their first names or earthly titles…like ‘Fr. Seraphim’ when I am asking for their intercessions for my various friends and family. This is probably wrong and presumptuous, but just what happens when I am talking to them. Thus, my ‘cultivation’ of these new friendships has come sort of naturally after God has created unusual ‘meetings’ of these Holy Men and Women. I naturally want to read about them and even read their own writing if available. I feel so close to them when I pray with them each day and when I ask their intercessions for my various friends and family in trials. When Margo first told me that my first monk, Paisius, was now on Mt. Athos, I felt a tinge of sorrow because I would likely never meet him again. Then, just as suddenly, God gave me a surge of peace and joy reminding me that actually I am very close to that monk because I am tied to him every day in prayer! Wow! Cultivation of friendships outside the bounds of time and space!!! Only God can do this. And saints have so much time on their hands to pray for us. Plus, in their time on earth they proved that they really know how to commune with God. Such Friends! Alleluia! God IS with us and all His Saints!

Friday, March 14, 2008

5. Practice silence, inner and outer.

Good morning! Here are Elaine's thoughts on silence.

What a topic for me -- me, the great talker -- assigned to speak about Practicing Silence! Guess God uses all sorts of means to teach us what we need to learn! Even having us be a teacher on the subject?!

It is a practice that I have known about and practiced and fallen away from lately -- even though I am single and my son is now gone. Even though I have lots of time to be silent.

Silent contemplation is easiest for me just before going to sleep -- But I suspect as Kh. Frederica mentioned, the middle of the night might be an excellent time since all is quiet around you --

To contemplate, I find a comfortable spot and close my eyes and say the Jesus Prayer repeatedly. This quiets my mind. When my mind wanders, as it always does, I bring it back by repeating the Jesus prayer. I have had some truly, spiritually, awesome experiences when I am able to allow myself to "rest in God's lap" without asking for anything or having any angst -- just being with Him.

One of my most amazing experiences was my trip to Saint Tikhon's monastery for a weekend retreat with the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. Having never been to a monastery before, I had no idea what to expect. I was very surprised at how many hours I had to spend in church services! (Bad thoughts!) So, I prayed for everyone I could think of, I looked at my watch! I prayed again! I looked at my watch, again. I counted the number of people in church! I prayed for everyone I knew and every thing I wanted again -- over and over again for hours! Then, as the secular world slipped farther and farther away, I realized that I was either going to have to leave (with the weekend only half over) or get into the swing by recognizing that looking at my watch served no purpose. I was not in control and I needed to let go and let someone else be in charge! I had to do the program!

After running out of prayers, I suddenly came to a place deep inside of me where I met God -- an overwhelming peace settled in. I went to a place that was joyful, peaceful and one that I didn't want to leave! I wanted to stay in the church longer! I believe I have glimpsed why the monastics choose that way of life!

I have since experienced wonderful times of peace that I actually refer to as "just being with God" Just "sitting in his lap" as his child! A very comforting place to be.

I have come to believe that one of Satan's tricks is to inundate us with noise -- To keep us distracted with televisions, radios, cell phones and even computers. This noise keeps us from hearing the small voice within. It prevents us from going "to be with God."

I also believe that we have (for lack of a better term) a trap door deep inside of each of us through which we enter to meet God and to experience the reality of the Universe -- We are conned into believing that God is outside of each of us -- But the scriptures tell us we must go inward to meet him. Since we look out into the world through our eyes, we think we find God outside of us. But I don't believe this is true. I believe we find him deep inside of us. I believe that only through quiet contemplation -- by stilling our mouths and our minds -- can we truly meet God. We have to go through our little trap door to get outside of ourselves and into the reality of the God and the universe --

It isn't hard, but it takes discipline to set aside the time and to continue our contemplation when our thoughts go in myriad directions -- I find myself feeling more alone in the noise than in silent contemplation -- I still talk a lot and always find temptations that draw me away, keep me from the glorious silent contemplation -- my contemplation where I am never alone.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

4. Read good books, a little at a time.

Update: see below for Carla's thoughts!

Greetings, again!

Today's poster is on the West Coast, a few hours behind us, so I'll open this thread up for discussion.

I see two very important things here: first, the charge is to read "good" books. What do you consider a good book? I think we would all agree that some of the best literature is not overtly Christian, so what's the criteria for you to pick up a book and read? For me, it's not especially well-defined, but I would say that I generally wait until several people I know and trust have recommended it. I have read (and watched) plenty of things that I wish I hadn't. I try to be more cautious now.

The second thing is the exhortation to read "a little at a time." I am really bad at this. I have been known to stay up all night or neglect any number of responsibilities because I am trying to finish a book -- and I think that no matter how "good" it is, it shouldn't come at the expense of our responsibilities!

Here are some thoughts from our sister Carla:

When I first read my maxim I had to laugh because I feel like that is what I do...with any reading. For reading happens when I go to bed and it usually is a little at a time, a few sentences...maybe a page or two and then I’m asleep! So I thought to myself – wow...I’m already following my maxim!

But, as I thought of this a little more I realize that I don’t usually understand and take everything in on the first read. For me, it takes some soaking in, like a good long bath. And perhaps that is what slow reading is for me – the washing over my mind and thoughts, again and again, as it wipes away the dust of the day.

My soul, too, needs the same care with say the words out loud, slowly...and then to stop and let the soaking begin. I’m wanting to do this and to do it more often. So, I’m going to make a small change in my daily routine during this Lent. To stop one hour earlier one evening and do some slow reading.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

3. Read the Scriptures regularly.

Hello, everyone!

Our poster for today just got back from a long trip and we haven't connected yet -- so I thought I'd just get the discussion going.

How often do you read the Scriptures? Do you have a "system," or do you just crack it open? (I'll let someone else tell the old joke . . . )

For any Mac people, there's a great Dashboard Widget here that will bring up the saints and readings of the day for you. I use that sometimes, but I have to admit, I'm not very good about remembering.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

2. Pray, fast, and do acts of mercy.

From Khouria Frederica:

These are the "big three" in the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus says, "when you pray...", "when you fast...", "when you give alms...", and so clearly expects that we will do these things. I am so grateful to be at home in Orthodoxy, where I don't have to figure out for myself what these instructions mean and to what extent they're to be done. I just join in the community.

You must pray, and not just when you are in church. The Didache (a Christian text written about the same time as the Gospels) says that you should say the Our Father three times a day. Do that, at least. I found that my spiritual life really took off when I began to observe several brief prayer times in the day, rather than just one "devotional time" alone.

And sometime long ago I heard it suggested that a good time to have that devotional time is in the middle of the night, when there are no distractions and you don't feel rushed. I have been getting up to pray since I was pregnant with Megan, over 31 years. It is wonderful. (I go back to bed again afterwards! When I was interviewed for a Christianity Today video and mentioned this, they had the idea that I got up at 3:00 am to pray and just *stayed up*).

I sprinkle the other elements of my prayer regimen around the day. At the midnight rising I say the midnight / morning prayers, the Nicene Creed, Psalm 50, and 100 Jesus Prayers. In the morning, I pray in our icon corner, and do my intercessory lists and read the synaxarion. At sunset 3 days a week I'm at vespers, and the other days I am trying to form the habit of Trisagion prayers and the church prayer list. At bedtime, I say the evening prayers and try to go to sleep while praying in depth for someone; I have a 300-knot prayer rope, and do 100 each for 3 different people, if I last that long without falling asleep. My spiritual father, Fr George Calciu, had told me to spend a half hour daily "thinking good things about someone" and I have never found a way to implement that; this is the latest attempt.

"Acts of mercy" includes the tithe (10% of gross income to the church), almsgiving (some other amount to charities and the poor), and in general showing kindness. Charity is the Latin word caritas, love; in Greek it's agape. Love is the test of whether your other spiritual disciplines are working. If your prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy are being done "right", you will find that you feel more love toward others.

"Fasting" is the one I feel like I still don't get. I can do it--as long as I know what the "rules" are, I can meet them. I don't cheat on the fast (but with my hypoglycemia the dietician said I should take some milk and yogurt daily, and I don't fast strictly when I travel). But I sure don't feel like I get any benefit from fasting. It's like any other chore--you do it, and then it's over. I have the impression that most other people get something from it--a sense of self-mastery or victory perhaps. For me, its just trudging along. So I sure can't teach anyone else about fasting, because I don't really understand it myself. But I trust the Church, which is wiser than I am, so I do it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.

A blessed Clean Monday to all!

For those who don't know, the first day of Lent is called Clean Monday, both because it's the day we clean out our kitchens to get rid of non-Lenten food, and because it follows the wonderfully cleansing Rite of Forgiveness on Sunday night. In Greece, they fly kites on Clean Monday, which I think is a perfect and fitting tradition.

Today's thoughts are from Zenaida.

I actually use this Maxim daily – in addition to number 30 – because they are the two I need the most. After reading them, I go on to add a third one in numerical order. I will comment on the second part: trust God in everything.

All of my life I have struggled with trusting God. It became easier when I turned 50 a decade ago. Until then, when I was anxious, I would say a huge prayer to the Trinity and visually place my anxiety in the Hands of God. Then I would visualize a big neon sign with the word “TRUST,” and finally I would let go. Whenever the anxiety returned to my thoughts, I would see in my mind that word “TRUST!”

As we look back over our lives, we can see how God has ALWAYS provided for us. Nonetheless, we continue to wonder with each new challenge, “Lord, will you help me *this* time?” Of course, He always does! And, so our trust in Him builds. However, even though I have grown tremendously in this area, I still pray this Maxim with intensity each morning and try to remember it whenever I need it throughout each day: trust GOD in EVERYTHING!

Being able to place ourselves (including all our cares for others) entirely in the Hands of God is so freeing!!! It allows us to devote all our energy to living our lives to the praise of His Glory.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008


Dear Sisters in Christ,

Welcome to this home of Lenten reflection and fellowship. It is my hope that it will strengthen all of us in the days ahead.

If you haven't already done so, please let me know that you'd like to participate, and I'll give you a date and a number. We all look forward to hearing your thoughts!

The Forty Maxims

  • 1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  • 2. Pray, fast and do acts of mercy.
  • 3. Read the Scriptures regularly.
  • 4. Read good books, a little at a time.
  • 5. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  • 6. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  • 7. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  • 8. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  • 9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.
  • 10. Be faithful in little things.
  • 11. Do your work, then forget it.
  • 12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  • 13. Face reality.
  • 14. Be grateful.
  • 15. Be cheerful.
  • 16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  • 17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.
  • 18. Listen when people talk to you.
  • 19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  • 20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  • 21. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  • 22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.
  • 23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.
  • 24. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  • 25. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  • 26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  • 27. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  • 28. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  • 29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  • 30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  • 31. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  • 32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  • 33. Be strict with yourself.
  • 34. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  • 35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.
  • 36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  • 37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  • 38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  • 39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  • 40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.