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.

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.