Friday, April 10, 2009

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

A stirring conclusion to this collection of meditations, from Allison in DC. Many thanks to all of you who have posted, commented, read and absorbed these words!

When I learned that this last Maxim had fallen to me, I had to smile at the appropriateness of the match. (Not an uncommon occurrence, as I’ve noticed from previous posts!) Having recently emerged from the most intense experience of my life – a complicated labor, c-section and the incredible gift of my baby girl – I was still keenly aware of what it feels like to need help, and to need it desperately. In a society that grasps clutchingly at youth, that veritably worships vigor, mobility, and – above all – independence, finding oneself suddenly and absolutely dependent on others can be like a slap of cold water in the face. It was for me.

That experience taught me many, many things, but the one most pertinent to this Maxim is that the Lord tenderly cares for His children, and He desires us to tenderly care for one another. When we ask for help, both from our gracious God and from those around us, we should do so without fear or shame. This begs two questions: Why do we fear? Why do we feel shame? In meditating on my own journey, I believe that fear is the result of lack of trust, trust being the basis of any loving relationship: “Perfect love drives out fear.” If I perfectly and completely trust the one whom I have called to my aid, I will not fear abandonment. At the same time, complete trust often doesn’t manifest until we have come to the “end of our rope”, so to speak. It is when we finally realize that, “No, I can’t do this on my own. In fact, I can’t do this at all.”

And shame – in this context – is the offspring of that many-headed monster, pride. Why should I feel shame when relying on someone to help me walk, bathe, get out of bed? Because my pride is shouting that I should be able to do this on my own. I shouldn’t need help. Help is for the weak.

But the consistent message of the Gospel is the audacious blessedness of the weak and lowly. Jesus points to a little child and tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these. He is the Good Shepherd, and in the icon on my shelf, He has a fragile, snowy lamb draped over His shoulders, its spindly legs grasped gently in His nail-scarred hands. We are the lamb.

A lamb doesn’t fear, because he knows that his only hope is in the Shepherd. A lamb has no shameA lamb has no shame, because humility, not pride, reigns within.

At the same time, we are to imitate the Shepherd, and help carry our fellow believers. During the season of my recovery, I felt a special kinship with the elderly and infirm. For a few brief weeks, I tasted what for many is a daily reality. The Lord convicted me of my breezy indifference to others’ suffering, and I now strive to show much more compassion and deference to those whom our society has marginalized. May God help me.

May He help each of us, as we close our Lenten journey and enter into the joy of His Holy Pascha.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.

From Colleen in Baltimore:

The story goes that a monk was once asked, "What do you do all day at the monastery?" He replied, "We fall, and we get up. We fall, and we get up." His simple description of ascetic struggle gives great insight into monastic life, and really, to all of us who would follow Christ.

As I approach the end of the Great Fast, I must fight discouragement over my numerous falls. I was so sure I could maintain a certain level of spiritual discipline, but daily was reminded of how futile my efforts are without complete submission to Christ. Humbled and grateful for the healing that the Church offers us through the sacrament of Confession, I have to try very hard not to dwell on what I said in the presence of my priest, but rather what was forgiven. Everything.

My prayer book contains a prayer to the Theotokos that helps me to pray the words that I am constantly thinking: "No matter how often I repent, I appear a liar before God, and repent with trembling. Can God shake me and I do those same things again an hour later?...You know...that I abhor my evil deeds and love the Law of my God with all my mind. But, most pure Lady, I do not know how I can love what I abhor and turn away from what is good..." This, I think, is why the word "immediately" is part of this maxim; I should not allow myself to be crushed by the fall; I should instead, with God’s help, get up at once.

I must not succumb to the paralysis of despondency over my sin, for it will always be with me, as long as I am on this earth. Only one day remains of the spiritual retreat that is Lent: but there is still time to get up!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

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

From Carla in Southern California:

When I learned that I'd been assigned this maxim, I shuddered. "Oh, no," I thought, "what terrible temptations are going to come to me during Lent?!"

As I pondered this, I realized that I am already being fiercely tempted every day of my life...

It's just that I don't see it most of the time. I walk through life thinking that I am a pretty nice person, a "good Christian" who tries very hard to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason. Something is wrong here. If I am not recognizing the temptations, I easily fall prey to them. Just the mere recognition of these temptations each day is helpful in overcoming them--not so that I can "do the right thing", but so I can draw near to God and humbly cry out to Him to help me.

The real problem is that I am making all of this effort pretty much "on my own" apart from the true humility of realizing that I cannot "be good" and "do the right thing" on my own, without the mercy and grace of God working in me. In fact, if I am not abiding in Him and if He is not abiding in me, I cannot bear any good fruit whatsoever. It's all sour fruit, or rotten fruit, not worth the effort to even harvest.

I am being tempted fiercely every day...to be prideful, self-righteous, selfish, lazy, depressed, judging, unkind, greedy and idolatrous (yes, I desire things of this world and personal satisfaction more than God). As I pray the St Ephriam Prayer each day during Lent, I am identifying with all of the things he asks God to take away. I consider the fact that I can finally see this as progress, and it feels good to my soul. I always knew somewhere deep inside that all the outward veneer of "goodness" was not the truth, and it is satisfying to be able to finally see a glimpse of "the real me" so that I can avail myself of confession, forgiveness, and transformation by the love and mercy of Christ.

Another way in which I am continually being fiercely tempted every day is to fill my heart and mind (nous) with clutter and all manner of thoughts--ranging from great ideas, things to do, to worries over this and that and the other thing...and yes, unfortunately, judgments, proud thoughts, and covetous thoughts.

I'm thankful that this Maxim came to me. I have spent most of my life unaware that this has been such a lifetime habit. I let all manner of things crowd out the presence of God, thankfulness and worship. Even as I was praying this morning, I realized how quickly these thoughts come to me -- before I can even say one Jesus prayer the thoughts come barging in...even before I finish one small prayer the thoughts interrupt my concentration. What I realized this morning is that this temptation is incessant and continual, not just in my prayer time, but throughout the day and even in my sleep!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if instead of the cares of this world and prideful and judging thoughts, our hearts and minds were continually filled with thanksgiving, praise and the simple quiet presence of Christ? What if that kind of prayer "interrupted" my other thoughts, overtaking them? I 'm sure I will not be able to attain to this in my lifetime, but that is what I desire. I feel tempted now to say to myself, "Okay, Carla, you can do this. Just try real hard." But that would be just giving in to the temptation to trust in myself -- I already have figured out that that is a fruitless effort. So, I cast myself on my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, asking for His help and mercy. Pray for me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.

From Colleen in Baltimore:

The first time I read through these 40 Maxims, I found myself smiling when I got to this one. Nearly all of the others contained very specific spiritual guidance, but this one at first seemed a little out of place. How could an activity, pursued primarily for one's own pleasure and fulfillment, be on equal footing with "practice silence, inner and outer" or "cultivate communion with the saints"? What was this doing on the list?

Monastics, I understand, are encouraged to have something to do with their hands even when they are in "recreation." Handwork serves as a way to focus both one's eyes and one's thoughts, deflecting those that are detrimental and helping to create an atmosphere conducive to prayer. A friend of mine who spent many years in a convent reminded me of a quote which she often heard there: "Idle hands are the devil's handiwork." But it seems that a wholesome hobby offers more than simply preventing bad behavior by occupying our minds.

I have a multitude of "theoretical" hobbies, things that I would be doing if I could find more time in my life. Music and gardening have found a permanent place in my heart, though, so I began to think about these two, and how they related to this maxim. I realize that they provide balance in my life, often pulling me out of the mire of despair and self-pity. Gardening gets me outside, rejuvenating me with physical labor and the stirrings of Creation. Vigen Guroian describes this in Inheriting Paradise, a touching collection of meditations on gardening; his thinking is that "gardening is nearer to godliness than theology." We battle weeds and diseases, we feed and nurture the growing plants, and we hope in the seeds that we plant, seeing parallels to our path to salvation in nearly every task. And music, both in its text and melody, offers me a voice when I cannot express myself, and something to practice and perfect, as there will always be room for improvement. These are also valuable insights into my spiritual growth.

But this past week I had a small revelation about what draws me to these two interests, and why they are significant spiritually. One of my piano students had just begun her lesson, playing Chopin's Raindrop Prelude, which we had been working on for months. But that day it was different. Her hands moved gracefully along the keys and the sound was exquisite...I quietly walked over and propped the grand piano's lid all the way open to hear every treble note. For the first time in more than twenty years of teaching I was moved to tears. And it occurred to me that the things that we love (music is both vocation and hobby for me...) allow us to see the God-given beauty in His creation. That day, hearing that piece was a direct gift from God, and I instinctively recognized it as such. So too are the shoots poking up under the leaves that I raked yesterday and the Lenten Rose that is blooming, right on time. Whatever our wholesome hobby may be, it is the one that restores balance to our lives, gives us a chance to create something, stirs in us an appreciation of the God-given beauty around us, and sometimes, causes us to weep with joy.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

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

From Debbie in San Francisco:

This is also a canon of "How Not to Be Codependent," and I certainly do not follow this well at all. Thank you, Father, for making sure this particular maxim was assigned to me. Grrrr. I'm learning, a bit at a time, sometimes so slowly it seems.

As I struggle with this maxim, I learn why it is that I am so reluctant to let go of doing other people's work for them. Some of the ugly reasons that I find, as I unravel this are:

- I think I can do a better job than them
- I guess this means I don't really respect their individuality and free choice
- If they don't do it the way I would want it, it might end up as a problem for me.
- I get some sense of superiority by accomplishing it
- They have come to expect or rely on me doing something they can do themselves
- I don't want to disappoint them by refusing
- I don't want to experience their displeasure when I've refused
- I'm dreadfully afraid that if I don't exist to come to the rescue or to be needed by another I'll have no other solid reason to be. Who would I be?

What makes me think that I can take care of my own responsibilities as well as another's? I can barely keep myself going in the right direction. In fact, what has Lent illuminated so clearly about my inability?

Sometimes I think it's hard to draw the line between our own responsibility and another's free choice. But God can give us wisdom in this area.

As I've asked God to show me his truth in this area, I've noticed a few things:

- We all learn by practice. Parents know this. We would never want to deprive our child of the opportunity of falling down as they learn to walk. But why do we so quickly step in when they cry out for help at 11 PM on their school project that's due the next day? Why do we so quickly offer advice on how to choose roommates, friends, or an apartment, even when they haven't asked? All of us need the opportunity to hit obstacles. We can trust God to love that person as much as he loves us, and be there for them in their difficulty, as he has been for us. Do we really think we can do a better job than God?
- I must avail myself of His offer to cast my anxieties and fears upon Him. I can trust Him to love those that I feel inclined to take undue responsibility for.
- I can use the time and energy to listen to God and follow the path that He's putting in front of me. This is my responsibility to Him.

What are some of your thoughts?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

33. Be strict with yourself.

From Laura in Baltimore:

Last night, I had the blessing of standing (and standing, and standing...) and chanting the The Canon of St. Andrew. It is not an easy task, but strangely enough, one that I look forward to. Our dear priest, Father Gregory, refers to this service as “boot camp.” I can only agree with him.

What amazes me is that every time I participate in this service, certain verses seem to jump off the page and almost scream, “that’s you, Laura.” What’s really shameful is that sometimes it’s the same verse I remember screaming at me in years past. I think I must not grow much from year to year if this keep happening.

I try, as an Orthodox Christian, to stick to the rules, say my prayers, observe the fasts, etc. But I have to admit, it’s also easy to look for the loopholes. I think, “one little peek won’t matter,” or “one little bit of cheese doesn’t really matter, does it?” or even, “My whole life is supposed to be a prayer, so I don’t need to stand in front of the icons for another 15 minutes and pray.” It’s quite shameful. And the thing is, one little whatever might not matter in the long run, it’s the series of “one littles” that make the difference. Think how the Colorado river carved the Grand Canyon, one little drop at a time.

My own “little” sins and all the ways I’m not strict with myself seem to come into sharp focus during Lent and services such as the Great Canon. It’s easy to get discouraged, and often I do, thinking, I’ll never heal from all the damage I have caused and continue to cause myself and those around me through my sins. But I know that discouragement does not come from God, for chastisement and discouragement are two different things. And, like the monk who “falls and gets up” over and over, so should I, God willing, with a little more spiritual moxie.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

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

From Kassiani Michele in Alabama:

I don't like this maxim very much. You can guess why......because I stink at it. I have an opinion about everything. This isn't always a good thing. I think some issues that go along with this maxim are being a good listener and keeping your mouth shut. HA!

I love to help people. I am always ready to jump on board and solve the problem but sometimes that isn't what is needed. Sometimes a listening ear is all that is needed. If asked for advice, think before you speak. It is ok not to have an answer. It is ok to say "Let's pray together about it" and then do it right then and there. I love that about one of my special friends. She will stop and pray in Wal-Mart!

How about when you see a friend in sin? Love is going to them and gently confronting them. There are times that are appropriate for this kind of action. I have been on both sides and I find that it isn't easy being on either side. But, praise be to God for a friend that will seek me out and love me enough to help me.

We are almost at the end of this journey we call Great Lent and I can say this has been a difficult Lent for me and my family. I thank God for revealing my sin and healing my soul. I pray you all have a blessed Pascha!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

31. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.

From Marjaana in New York:

Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.

Isn’t it funny how, every time we receive criticism we get all defensive and are able to point out to all kinds of extenuating circumstances: “I was too busy”, “I didn’t sleep well the night before”, “I wasn’t feeling well”, “I had too much on my plate”, “What do you expect, I’m no saint” . . . Yet, when someone else makes a mistake or wrongs us in some way, they are stupid, lazy, incompetent or just bad, horrible people.

I am so guilty of the above, but funnily enough, I had taken this as one of the areas of focus as part of my Lenten journey this year.

If we are to take seriously the great commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”, shouldn’t we try to reverse that and try to take responsibility for our failings and transgressions despite the circumstances and give others the benefit of the doubt and look for ─ with a gentle heart ─ for their extenuating circumstances.

Tough? Yes! Nearly impossible at times? Yes! But, from the Orthodox perspective, aren’t we all supposed to be saints-in-training!

Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.

So what about the times when criticism is clearly not justified. We’ve all been there, I’m sure, the recipients of criticism as part of the blame game, a suitable outlet for someone else’s insecurity, fear, anger, bad mood or ─ sinful as we all are ─ their clear unadulterated desire to hurt you (arising from one of the above).

That’s why testing criticism carefully is important. I bet nine times out of ten we will find that while we may not be guilty this time, we may have gotten away with something earlier, many times, so there’s no point in being huffy.

If after careful consideration we realize that the criticism is truly not justified, the challenge is just to let it go and try to look at the person with compassion and think about how much pain they must be in, in order to behave this way. Is being vindicated really so important that you will risk escalating the situation putting the whole relationship in jeopardy?

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? Once again the prayer of St. Ephraim comes to our aid: “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed are Thou, unto the ages of ages.”

And of course, in the final analysis, it is God to whom we are accountable, and accountable under his laws and as representatives of his Kingdom and his love rather than the Law of Man. So sometimes even when criticism is justifiable in worldly terms, the commandment of loving God with all thy heart and soul and loving thy neighbor as thyself trumps it. After all, wasn’t Jesus criticized for healing on a Sabbath. On the day of judgment, it will be on the degree of love and compassion for each other, our role as peacemakers that we will be judged on. So at times, that VERY IMPORTANT deadline just has to go whizzing by.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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

From Jocelyn in Baltimore:

The more I think about this maxim, the more I realize that defining myself based on people is, for me, a matter of spending all day long comparing myself to others. I'm better than so-and-so, more talented than so-and-so, less patient than so-and-so, more well off than so-and-so... and on and on the list it goes. Comparing myself to people can inflate my head when my judgments make me overconfident and prideful, and also devastate my ego when I judge myself lesser or disadvantaged.

But the key, truly, is pride. I'm prideful in myself if I spend my time comparing myself to others; I have a pride that I will somehow measure up.

No one can measure up to God, however, which is why it's not as satisfying to the ego to define yourself by God. But if you surround and bind yourself by God, you are free from the roller coaster of that pride will give you. You will be free to know who you truly are, as well. It may be ugly and painful, but true knowledge of yourself, rather than using others as a measuring stick, will ultimately create in you a more attractive personal beauty than anything.

Monday, March 30, 2009

29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.

From Mimi in Seattle:

When I read this maxim, my first thought was a quote from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers* “The same Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius' goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul saying, 'We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.' (1Tim.6.7) 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.' (Job 1.21).

While I consider that we shouldn’t be attached to our possessions, and to let them own us, I realized upon later reflection this maxim is warning us against justifying ourselves. We always want to tell the story, as if somehow we miss the mark less if we have a good reason. When the pit of my stomach reminds me that I have done something wrong, it is easy for me to fall into this trap. Justification leads to rationalization.

I am pretty sure that my defense at the Dread Judgment Seat of Christ does NOT start with “so-and-so did it first” or the even more judgmental “well, they did THIS”. When I pick up my sin and examine it, the measuring stick isn’t what others have done, but what I have done. I recently read that St. Isaac the Syrian said, “A man who is truly humble is not troubled when he is wronged at he says nothing to justify himself against the injustice but accepts slander as truth.” This maxim reminds us that our actions aren’t for how other people see us, but how we are seen by God. When we learn to stop justifying ourselves we learn to accept responsibility.

I have far to go on applying this maxim to my life.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

27. Don’t judge anyone for anything.

From Shamessy (Deaconessa) Ina in Baltimore:

Today marks the 28th day of March and the 28th year of blessed marriage to my dear deacon. For those who have been blessed to seek salvation within the martyrdom of holy matrimony, you will likely see why God’s providential lot fell to me today to do the assigned reflection since it is on ‘Judgment.’ For marriage is a God-inspired setting for providing opportunities to work on this stubborn, self-willed passion. Judgment is all about ‘Me’ being ‘Judge’. Judge of most anything and everything. And who knows better than ‘Me’ how things should be done in ‘My’ world. Pity those who must live so closely with ‘Me’. How many times in these last 28 years have I started a sentence to my husband with an annoyed or outraged tone and the words, “Why did you . . . ?” Fill in the blank with any irritating behavior or failure on his part to act.

Just the other day when my beloved was exhausted from his non-stop travel schedule for work, and was packing for yet another trip, I, (self-crowned queen of men’s fashion) asked him, “Why are you wearing that shirt?!” He retorted that he liked the shirt and it was comfortable. Only when it was too late did I think about how my judgment of his clothing choice served to kick him when he was down. I felt ashamed when I happened to look in the closet some time after he left and saw that the ‘offending shirt’ had been unpacked. Who had died and made me the judge . . . ? I was the ‘worm’ from Proverbs 12:4: “As a worm in a tree, so an evildoing wife destroys her husband.” It is slow and almost imperceptible but those tiny judgments eat away most assuredly. I have tears as I type this as I think of all the times such a simple verbal exchange has not only eaten away at my beloved but has aided in my own destruction by strengthening my passions. Dorotheos of Gaza says “Because we become careless about our own faults . . . we lose the power to correct ourselves and we are always at work on our neighbor.”

If I enter a room and wonder why they painted it that color . . . I judge the person who painted it. If I think “doesn’t that lady see that her skirt does not fit her anymore?” I judge her. If I am annoyed with how slow my checker is in the grocery store, I judge him. When I think, ‘I like the way we sing that song at my church better,’ I judge again. I, who am imperfect in a thousand ways, find myself judging every move made by the rest of the world. With every judgment I exalt myself and further darken the clouds of passion which are blocking my communion with my Most Beloved Lover of Mankind. If I am to have any hope of that blessed union I must actively seek God’s help in breaking the habit of judging in all the small ways, as well as the large. May we become so dispassionate that we do not even notice those things that once seemed to annoy. May we learn to cut off those judgmental thoughts when they start and not chew on them like such delicious cud. May we become blind to our neighbors faults, just like the holy elder who was blind to the woman’s nakedness.

Friday, March 27, 2009

26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.

From Kim in Baltimore:

I tend to be a very private person and rarely open myself up to others. Even something like participating in this blog is a step out for me. Then, to top it off, I get this maxim! I had to do a lot of thinking and praying to figure out where to go with this. I’m sure it was providential!

My first thoughts involved how we compare ourselves in a prideful way – like the publican and the Pharisee. I think many of us are able to relate to this story in one way or another. Whenever we judge others we are saying we are better than they are. Unfortunately, I am all too good at making these comparisons.

I also compare myself to others in a different way, though. I feel the need to fit into what is acceptable, what is considered appropriate, what is viewed as normal. I don’t want to be caught being different or not meeting the expectations of others. I don’t want to stand out from the crowd.

This can be a real problem as a Christian. The definition of “normal” or “acceptable” is decided by a society which doesn’t necessarily have the same values and beliefs that Orthodox Christians have. Things such as praying before a meal or crossing yourself in public make you stand out. In this day and age, these are not “normal”. Everyday is a struggle to realize that I do not have to fit into society’s mold. Instead, I need to keep my eyes on God and live the life that would be pleasing to Him rather than to others. I need to truly make my prayer, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner” and look to God alone as my measuring stick.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

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

From Missy in DC:

I was intrigued by this maxim when Emily sent it to me. I wondered how often I start out with good intentions to do something, only to end up seeking approval or worse, wanting someone to feel sorry for me because I feel I have been so put upon. Why is that? In our instant gratification culture we wonder what the “polls” say about us. We fish for compliments. We tell our tale of woe to any and all who will listen. But even as we hear what we are hoping for, a compliment or a “poor you”, it never satisfies.

Consider the poor widow in the Gospels of Luke and Mark. When she makes her offering, Jesus knows she is giving all; out of her poverty. Most importantly, she made her offering without expecting pity or praise. We need to remember “Your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (Matthew 6:4) God sees all, knows our hearts and through His love we realize that nothing we do is in vain, even when we feel slighted or put upon.

The other side of this of course is that we should express our gratitude (praise) and compassion (pity) openly to those around us whenever possible. Expressing gratitude and compassion for others, especially those who are not expecting it, is satisfying. We have an opportunity to express something that may comfort or uplift someone exactly when they needed to hear it, without asking.

So maybe what we really need to seek is those opportunities to give rather than receive gratitude (praise) or compassion (pity). And when we find ourselves looking for those moments, better we should create them for someone else, in effect giving “out of our poverty” and being blessed in the process.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

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

A blessed feast to all! This comes from Christine in Alaska:

When I read which Maxim was mine, I chuckled. Irony, it seems, always wins. I am a huge whiner. I usually like to label my complaining nicely. I’m “venting” or “just airing some problems.” But it’s whining and complaining, all the same. So I thought on this for a few days. What does a whiner -— of whom I am first -— have to say about complaining, grumbling, or murmuring?

I read somewhere that if all the people in the entire world put their problems in a huge pile, we would all take back our original ones. Boy, isn’t that the case! My problems, as a middle-class American, are pretty minor. In the grand scheme of life in general, they really aren’t even a blip on the radar. So why do I insist on expounding on them? It seems that every time I complain about something, that tiny incident -— whatever it may be -— is magnified. And if I complain about it to five people (as I usually do) then it is magnified five times. All of a sudden, I have made a mountain out of that little molehill.

In further retrospection, I realized something. My complaints are really blessings. Take today, for example. My strong-willed daughter is in the midst of her terrible twos. I could grumble about that until the cows come home, and still have breath left over. But instead, I am going to choose to see the many gifts in this situation. Thank you God, for the blessing of her throwing a fit on the floor. That means that we have a floor, and a roof over it. Instead of calling my husband at work to complain about her sassing, I will instead thank God that I have a husband to call. Instead of grumbling that she swiped too many cookies when I wasn’t looking, I will be grateful that she is fed. And when I want to murmur over my pile of dirty laundry, I will instead offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the beautiful little girl who created it.

Truly, I believe this is one of the struggles of the Christian life: to see the grace and blessings of God in all things, however troublesome or mundane. And when I sit and think about it, the even more extraordinary truth is that I am alive and able to complain. I am loved and cared for by God “who so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” As we draw nearer and nearer to Golgotha, where that Only-Begotten Son died for me and my sins, my heart trembles that I have the audacity to complain when such a price was paid for me! Thank God for forgiveness. Thank God for the Cross. Thank God for the Resurrection!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.

From Khouria Frederica in Baltimore:

If "carnal" means "inappropriately sexual," then this maxim may well have more significance for men than it does for women. Although sexual temptation can be strong for women, if it's truly tempting is is likely to be mixed with *emotional* elements too, such as flattery, romance, and excitement. I remember a New Yorker cartoon that showed a man on a street corner leaning in a car window to talk to the woman driving. He was saying, "Sure, I'll listen to you, baby. I'll listen to you all night long." The caption was "Male Prostitute." So for most women (not St. Mary of Egypt, apparently) a temptation that is empty of anything except the physical / carnal is generally less attractive to women, and might seem unappealing, crude, maybe even repellent.

One thing we can derive from this Maxim is compassion for men, for whom these temptations can seem utterly overwhelming. I remember reading an interview with Dustin Hoffman in which he said that reaching middle age was a relief because the sexual temptations were not so overwhelming as they used to be; he said it used to be like "waking up chained to a maniac." I don't know if women (on average) have *any* temptation that could be described in such terms. People joke about women craving chocolate or new shoes, but it's not like being chained to a maniac. So that would be the first thing to gain from this Maxim -- a respectful sympathy for the guys, and gratitude to God that our temptations lie in other directions.

The element of "flee at first appearance" is beneficial for anyone, with any temptation, though. It is very discouraging to keep falling again and again to the same sin, whatever its nature might be. Resisting it successfully becomes a matter of resisting it *right away*, at the first moment it appears, because a familiar sin gains power instantly, like a tornado. Overall, this Maxim reminds us to be humble and skeptical about our own ability to resist temptation. It is better to reject sin while the temptation is still small than to allow it to blow up like a tornado and sweep us away. As St. Paul said, "Let him who thinks he stands beware lest he fall."

Monday, March 23, 2009

22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.

From Zenaida in Baltimore:

All of these are good in themselves. Imagination can lead to creativity. Fantasy – through story -- can lead to a child’s learning of virtues. Analysis can lead to understanding and insight. Nonetheless, each of these – as with anything that God has given us – can lead us away from Him when we misuse it.

Flee imagination that leads to anxiety, envy, resentment, anger. Flee fantasy that leads to a distorted sense of reality. Flee analysis that goes round-and-round without resolution. All of these take us away from God. They fill our minds, hearts, souls, and spirits with sinfulness, confusion, and perplexity. Instead, pray the Jesus Prayer. Thus you will be given the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and “a thousand souls will be saved around you” – including your own.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009

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

From Kathy in Baltimore:

This is quite ironic that I somehow got this one. Emily says she had nothing to do with it! So, here it goes.

Maybe, I received it because I thought I was getting better with all my yakking about nothing and God doesn't want me to get to settled in that comfort zone. After all, it may seem a ways to me, but He knows how little I've actually come - and how far I've yet to go! There is always room for improvement. That is what I'm constantly telling my kids - once you've mastered something, move on. Don't stop; keep going. Endure to the end! I also try to model this for them, but come short often!

In Father Gregory's homily Sunday, he said something along the lines of this: As we get older and have hardships and experience, we come to the recognition / understanding that we need God's love and wisdom. I would agree; I don't know how I would manage life without God, and the older I get, the more I see His love towards me and all of us.

Elder Porphyrios, author of Wounded by Love, says that prayer is what you should do first for your children - not talk, manipulate or force - you should pray for people. That's truly loving them. But kids need to live it, feel it and experience it for themselves - otherwise it's not deeply rooted. The same goes for adults who are questioning God or struggling. I went to have coffee with some moms from my boys' school, and two of them said they were upset with God because of their parents' deaths. They know I am Orthodox, but I said nothing. (I know, it's hard to believe that I chose silence - yikes!) I don't think they were looking for answers; they just wanted to throw that out there. Or maybe they were, but one of them had to go home, so I didn't want to start something that heavy and not have time to discuss it. Perhaps, I should have said "God knows you and your pain and will help you through it if you turn it over to Him. And this is not the end of the story; our life here is temporary!" But I think sometimes saying nothing at first builds trust - or at least good listening skills, which are a rare commodity these days. (I'm up there with the best of them.)

Sooooo, the bottom line is to think and talk no more than necessary. To accomplish that, I have found that starting out with prayer transforms hearts, and then there is no need for words at all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

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

From Aster in Maryland:

The first thing that came to mind when I read my maxim was “Three Questions,” one of the stories by Leo Tolstoy. I am sure everyone knows it.

To be awake is very difficult. It is the weakest part of my life, especially when I want to pray and to be with God without interference. This is my struggle. In my daily prayer or reading, I keep redoing the whole thing again. Some days I literally fight with myself, and I think, how can I make my mind to be still and say to God what I want say? If I can’t hear myself praying, how can God pay attention to me?

I think it is important to choose our prayer time. People tell me the best time to pray is at 3:00 PM. I did try it. I couldn’t keep it up. I read about the monks in the wilderness who practiced stopping their breathing, just to stop the outer noise of life from entering to their inner lives. Sometimes I try that hopelessly. I think our compassionate God reaches to help us when we really try.

I remember that in Gethsemane, the Lord said, “Sit here while I pray,” to Peter, James, and John. He came back and found them sleeping, and He said to them, “Could you not watch one hour? . . . The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mark 14:32-38)” Sometimes even when I’m talking to someone, while that person is talking to me, my mind is thinking something else. Then I read “Three Questions,” which told me I should always be awake and attentive.

Be Attentive: it means to give care, to offer help, to be devoted and to be thoughtful. It means, “Love one another.” In our modern world, time is money, and having money is very important; family and friends are not so important. But we have to have time to see them, to write them, to ask them if they need anything. This thing called “time” stole our love for each other. Since God Himself is Love, we are created out of Love. God gave us Himself, and gave us the new commandment through his apostles, saying: “Love one another; as I have loved you. (John 13:34)” Attentiveness is love, one of the greatest gifts anyone can have.

What makes us to be fully present where we are, is attention to our family, friends and community. I believe everyone can be awake and converse with God, but attentiveness is a blessing, a sacrifice. It is giving or sharing to another person without thinking twice. We should be awake, attentive, and fully present, where we are and with whom we are, because we are needed at that moment in that place.

May we all have a blessed Lent.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

18. Listen when people talk to you.

From Kate in California:

Most people say I am a good listener. I know and naturally practice the skills involved in active listening. I maintain eye contact, I nod, I ask clarifying questions, I nod some more, my facial expressions vary appropriately, and I insert "uh huh"s and "I understand"s at regular intervals. But sometimes I think I am too good at this kind of listening. While I make a sincere effort to "be a good listener" and I certainly succeed at giving the appearance of listening well, there are certain moments when I become aware that something more foundational is missing. My spirit is not still and my heart is not open. I'm trying too hard. It's too much about me.

One online article on active listening says "You should also try to respond to the speaker in a way that will both encourage him or her to continue speaking, so that you can get the information if [sic] you need." This placed alongside Wikipedia's entry ("[Active listening] focuses attention on the speaker") alerted me to part of my problem. Too often my listening is about me. It's about getting information. It's about making myself feel useful and needed. It's about reinforcing other's positive opinions of me.

I'm grateful that I've started to be able to discern when my listening is an act of striving. Now my prayer can be that I would "cease striving" in this area of my life, so that I might truly listen when people talk to me--all people--not least of whom are the three Persons of the Trinity. How wonderful would it be if prayer itself became this kind of open, other-centered listening! I think of the passage my husband and I were trying to memorize in February: "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:9). The kind of listening that Fr. Hopko is talking about has this sincere love at its core. A love that desires to know the other and to do them good through an act of humble receptivity.

The other day my dear friend Carla drew my attention to a story that I've been told several times. That day I heard it for the first time. It became a new picture of love and intimacy for me. Here it is: A few years ago, I saw Dan Rather interview Mother Theresa. He asked her, “When you pray, what do you say?” Mother Theresa responded, “I don’t say anything, I listen.” Dan Rather, not satisfied with her answer, asked, “Well, then when you pray, what does God say?” Mother Theresa smiled and responded, “He doesn’t say anything either, he listens.”

Oh, to be there--quietly sitting in the presence of God--listening. Who knows what I would hear? I can only imagine how beautiful the sound of God listening is!

Afterthoughts: I'm curious to know how others hear the words "listen" and "hear." How are they related in your mind? To me, listening seems active and external, while hearing seems to be an interior experience that has to do not only with the ears but with the heart and mind's interpretation. Hearing is akin to understanding. I've heard people accused of not listening, and I've also heard people accused of listening, but not hearing or vice versa. How do they differ in your mind? I think of the oft-repeated command in Scripture "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear." According to my perfunctory google search, this sentence occurs "seven times in the Greek Scriptures, and only from the lips of the Lord Jesus."

I eagerly await your comments... with a humble, open spirit and in sisterly love--by the grace of God. Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.

From Jeanine in Virginia:

I love attention! I enjoy being noticed and applauded and recognized. I get a kind of high from being the life of the party. I can see that praise is a subtle snare that easily entraps my soul and I struggle with it constantly. I know that holding my tongue is the better choice even when given a golden opportunity to draw attention away from another person by making a cute comment. Of course, knowing is not the same as doing and, unfortunately, I am not that successful at holding my tongue (nor at being cute, actually).

Shortly after my husband and I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, for school, I drew some unnecessary attention to myself at work one day. I answered my boss’s phone for her and found myself in a conversation with the president of our company. A few hours later my boss took me aside for a moment. During my short talk with the president, I had, apparently, used the typical American guttural grunt which usually indicates affirmation or assent: “uh huh.” This sound was not received well by my listener, so I was asked to replace it with something else . . . quickly. I learned to use a more polite sounding, “Certainly” or “Yes” and so was able to better blend in to my environment.

”When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a reminder to blend in to my surroundings. It is not encouragement to submerge my personality or deny my individuality. It is NOT telling me to BECOME a Roman (when I lived in Canada, I developed some Canadian speech patterns, but I was still ol’ American me). However, it IS reminding me to remove small, unimportant things from my life that could be barriers to relationships. Actions that cause others to notice ME are distractions – when people are looking at me, they can’t see Christ in me.

Neither prideful grasping for attention to feed my ego nor refusing to accommodate for the benefit of others will help me demonstrate Christ’s life to those around me. At the end of my life, I would rather be able to say with Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.

From Jocelyn in Baltimore:

Frankly, this is the exact opposite of what I aim to be. To an extent, attention and accolades are necessary for what I do; if I don't work hard at making my work readily visible and continue to get more clients, I won't be able to make a living.

However, my ambitions and motives aren't always pure; more often than not, I just want to hoard the attention and use it as a way to feed my ego and feel good about myself.

And that's what this maxim means to me: examining my motives, and making sure that I'm not thinking of myself more highly than I ought. If I'm not trying to be simple, hidden, quiet, and small, you can be sure that I'm trying to puff myself up with self-importance.

And boy, I love being important. This maxim aims at my pride, which can be a tricksy thing. I can think that I'm just trying to further my business, or get more clients, but deep down I might be hankering for another ego fix.

Lord, please grant me true humility.

Monday, March 16, 2009

15. Be cheerful.

From Emily in Baltimore:

As the Lenten fast nears the halfway point, I think this is a good reminder for all of us -- I know I needed to hear it!

Our Lord commands us to fast cheerfully: "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18.)

But. But. How can I smile when I'm SO tired of hummus and vegetable soup?!

It's difficult to be cheerful, but it's such a blessing to others when you make the extra effort. Every time you interact with another human being, you have the choice between encouraging her by your cheerful attitude, or causing her to stumble by complaining. If I have to say something negative, I try to make sure it's to a close, trusted friend or family member, and that there's a good reason for saying it (I'm concerned about a situation and seeking their advice, for example.) With everyone else, I try to be cheerful -- not overly effusive, which would be insincere, but calm and sympathetic and positive regardless of the situation.

Our dear Khouria Frederica is fond of a quote from a 1st-century Jewish mystic, Philo: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." How true. I harbor the hope that, through ministering to others in a very small way (a smile or a word of encouragement) I may be helping them to gather the strength they need to minister to others around them -- and maybe even to me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

14. Be grateful.

From Lauren in Baltimore (who is currently in Denver, celebrating her mother's birthday and chrismation -- on the same day! Many years!)

The Lord gives us an infinite number of blessings every day, from our very existence as we awaken from sleep, to the food we eat and the families we love. So often, though, I am blind to most of these blessings, wandering through my life in spiritual oblivion. I focus on things that I can't have: that car, that athleticism, that ability to be a morning person. As I was contemplating this maxim, "be grateful", I felt very ungrateful. Sure, I thank God for many things in my life, but I suspect that if I was truly grateful for even one blessing God has given me, I would never again complain about anything.

God hears our prayers, and always answers them, even though we don't always see how He works things out in our lives. How often do we pray and thank God for things? I'm more of a "foul-weather fan". When the going gets rough, I turn to God, but when things are nice, I forget that He even exists.

I hope that during this time of Great Lent, I learn to appreciate all that God has given me, both big and small, commonplace and extraordinary, easy or difficult. One thing is certain, I am very grateful to God that He answered my prayers, and led my mother to the Orthodox Church. Her reception into the Church, on the same day as her birthday, reminds me that every day is a new beginning, a rebirth and a time to begin life again in wonder of all of God's gifts to us.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

13. Face reality.

From Charissa in New York:

There seems to be two ways to think of this brief idea of facing reality: the big picture and the little.

First, the big picture is obvious. We must face the reality that we are human beings not made for this world, but the world to come. And in this obvious reality lies the question of how to deal with the daily world we encounter. What can we do of it? The reality is that we are going to die relatively soon, if not today, then sometime in the future. We can not control this, nor forestall it more than God permits; however, we may with some effort have the opportunity to perceive our life clearly, if but for moments here and there.

Most often it is difficult for me to believe that everything does matter. I sometimes think that all I do is cook food, take people places and clean dishes (I don’t even do the majority of the dishes.), but really, if done well, this daily work may be enough.

Beyond my religious life, I have to always remind myself that sitting and reading to my kids, volunteering, taking care of the house and yard, going to the beach (yes, providing for them some beauty and fun!) is important and the reality that I face each moment. I am so quick to yell, criticize and judge them and my whole family, all the time knowing that the words that fly from my lips may be my last to them. But do I really believe, that it will be the last word? No, I don’t. I envision each evening with a morning to come and an evening to follow.

Death surely is the reality that we must face, but how to walk through this world and be able to manage these thoughts? With my children and all those around me, I have to put the reality of our short time together aside and see that the present moment is the one that is important. This single breath that I take with them together is sublime, and is all that I really have. Each moment in time is real and has meaning as much meaning as any other great moment there possibly can be. I try to remind myself to slow down and not participate in the hysteria of success that drives this world. And I try to slow down in prayer.

Recently I have been saying “The Canon for the Sick” for a loved one. In the 8th Ode the Theotokion reads:

Deliver us, we beseech thee, O Mother of God, from the sorrows which surround us, from adversities and afflictions, from all sorts of infirmities, from poison and sorcery, from demonic delusion, the incantations of evil men and from sudden death.

Every time I say this stanza I feel that it has been directly written for me, as if someone knew that I would be reading it often and that I would need to read this line out-loud to myself frequently. How did he know? How did someone know that I would be so filled with fantasy about my life so much so that while pondering my brother’s illness, I would still not truly believe, I too, will die relatively soon, even if in another 10, 25, or 60 years?

I am easily derailed in prayer and willingly focus on things that never materialize. Choosing to focus on the non-reality around me, from the unspoken words of things that I think people may feel, to the worry of things that haven’t happened, to the endless stories through entertainment I eagerly seek and let flow into my eyes and ears are all ways of not facing reality. The ultimate reality is that we are going to die and we need to live with Christ in our hearts living each moment as the gift it is. The subterfuge that I put upon myself absorbs and takes away the simple moments of life. Instead perceiving the subtle beauty of each situation, a tremendous amount of mental energy is wasted. It would be better to exert it in prayer, physical work, or even in something that is a joy for my children and husband. I pray that I remember this, today and tomorrow.

Friday, March 13, 2009

12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.

From Janet in Baltimore:

Ironically, explaining this maxim is difficult for me. Although I’ve pondered its meaning since it was assigned to me, I have procrastinated writing about it, with the excuse that I lacked insights on what to say.

What is the wisdom in this maxim? Often, the most difficult things are the most important things to do and shouldn’t be put off. In this case, writing about this maxim is one of the most important things I can do today!

Delay can make a difficult task even harder and can make a problem worse by piling up the issues. Delay prolongs the dread of what I know I need to do. For example, the apology that I need to make becomes more awkward the longer I wait, and ignoring it magnifies the pain for me and for the person I’ve hurt.

I need to prioritize what seems difficult, before my energy and time are spent (whether it’s this writing or daily prayers or a 5-mile run). The result is a better outcome than waiting till I’m too tired, stressed, or rushed to finish things later in the day.

Facing challenges without hesitation demonstrates our faith in God to provide strength. We have the examples of Christ and the Holy Fathers’ lives to inspire us to deal with issues right away. As we tackle right away the painful or difficult chores with God’s help, we can experience the joy of witnessing His power to surmount life’s trials!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

11. Do your work, then forget it.

From Zenaida in Baltimore:

All of us have ‘work’ to do – from the infant who struggles to grow into a toddler to the elderly person who struggles to end earthly life with grace. The work known as “labor” is given by God to humankind as a result of the Fall. It is partly through our work that we struggle to live our lives in repentance and holiness as we journey toward our eternal life. So, “work” is important. We are called to offer it to God. And, it can be a powerful means of intercession.

However, once it is done, it is important that we forget it. We are to think no more about it. The main reason for this is that we are called continually to live in the PRESENT MOMENT. We are not to dwell on the past. In regard to work, we are not to carry it with us after it is accomplished. We are not to ‘bring it home’ to our mind, heart, soul, or spirit. We are not to worry about it or be proud of it. “We are unprofitable servants.” We have simply done that which it is our duty to do.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

10. Be faithful in little things.

From Melanie in Baltimore:

Dear friends,

I wanted to share with you all my list of five little things that I can do to strengthen my faith.

1. Wear my prayer rope to work daily.
2. Say a quick prayer before eating when out with friends.
3. Smile at everyone (at least once) on days when I am especially sad or unhappy.
4. Take a few minutes of quiet time out of the day to reflect on the good things that happened.
5. Once a week, find a way to be a good example of the Orthodox Church to someone.

They're little things that I can be doing during the week. It's so easy to be faithful in big ways. Saying a prayer when we are able to safely climb out of our car after an accident. Thanking God for a much needed raise during economic hardship. These things are large, almost game-changing events in our lives. But what about those small things? Is it too much to ask to be faithful in small ways as well as large ways? Can't these small things also change our lives?

Two weeks ago I had a student ask me about my prayer rope that I have been wearing every day for the past six months. It gave me an opportunity to share. I told him that it was a gift from the priest at our church and that he had brought it back from Greece. I also told him that the monk that made the prayer rope requested that the person wearing it would pray for his mother, Dorothy. It's the same name as my mother-in-law and her mom before her. I told him that I wore it so that when I'm typing, eating lunch, teaching at the board or rolling up my sleeves, I have a reminder of the type of person I'm supposed to be.

Let it be known that it is hard to be faithful in these little things. It is easy to ask for God's help when we are facing the big things that we know that we can't handle ourselves. Some days, I feel embarrassed to wear my prayer rope or worry about what others think. But, in being able to conquer these little things, I find the strength to conquer the larger things. I find the strength because, by being faithful in the little things, I remind myself that God is in control.

If you feel inclined, I would ask that you share five little things that you can do to strengthen your faith, in the hopes that others will feel encouraged and lifted up in prayer.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.

From Debbie in San Francisco:

This should be easy. I support honesty. I really hate it when people aren't honest with me, especially when they tell me a partial truth, the part that supports their angle.

So, what's to learn from this maxim? I think I am honest, more or less.

But this saying kept tapping on the back wall of my mind, from the time that I first considered it. I want to be honest, I really do. But how do I know if I am being honest with myself? Scripture tells us, "The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)

If you're not being honest with yourself, you may not realize it, because you live in self-perpetuated denial. It's a vicious cycle, until the lie that you tell yourself trips up on reality in such a way that you can no longer ignore it. As we allow our hearts to be examined, we must start by acknowledging our blindness and beg God to shine his light on the dishonesties in our hearts. For myself, that's where I'll start.

As I've been asking God to show me how to be honest with myself, I've become more and more uncomfortable with a recurring area of failure, or blindness. I realize that I can't fix it up myself, because I don't have the wisdom to see what's going wrong. So, I've decided to use this area to continually submit to God, to ask for his truth and mercy. I pray that He will show me His path through what feels like a quandary, during this Lent.

I think that being honest with yourself is kind of like realizing that you must start with where you are and not jump over it. It may sound easy, but it can very uncomfortable.

Monday, March 9, 2009

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

This is one of the empty spots, so I thought I would re-post what I did last year. This is 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.

"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."

Saturday, March 7, 2009

6. Cultivate communion with the saints.

From Kristina in Houston:

On the day that I found out what my maxim for this project would be, a very special package arrived. In it were two small hand-written icons, exquisitely done by the sisters at St. Elizabeth in California. They are of St. Andrew and St. Emilia, and join another beautiful icon of St. Brendan. These icons are particularly special because they are the patron saints of our three little godchildren, two blonde boys and their baby sister. Their parents kindly had them made for us. They are the only hand-written icons in our prayer area, and their gold backgrounds glow brightly, drawing the eye. The icons almost seem alive, reminding me to pray for these small children.

A decade ago, I would have had very mixed feelings about receiving such a package. It is fair to say that the role of saints, and of the Theotokos in particular, were one of the stumbling blocks for us as my future husband and I considered Orthodoxy.

Now, I take more and more comfort from the icons of saints in my church as well as in my home. When I visit modern, non-Orthodox churches, I find myself saddened by the empty walls and multi-purpose facilities, yearning for the beauty, truth, and sense of heaven that are reflected all around me through Orthodox imagery. The saints who are pictured in our churches feel a bit like anchors to me, telling us that our faith has been lived by real people for two millennia, showing us images of those who died for Christ, reminding us that we are part of a much bigger story. The saints also reflect back Christ himself to us, and help us see the way in which he wants to transform our lives to reflect him as well.

Hebrews 12:1 - 2 makes so much sense to me now: Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finish of our faith…

By considering these witnesses (saints) that have gone on before us, we can gain strength and courage to complete our own race. May they intercede on our behalf!

Friday, March 6, 2009

5. Practice silence, inner and outer.

From Kassiane Michele in Alabama:

Just a little background, so you will better understand my post: my husband and I read and studied about the Orthodox Church for several years. On February 9, 2008, we were baptized and chrismated along with our 2 sons into the Holy Orthodox Church. I came in kicking and screaming, as Frederica says so many women do. I was just fine in my comfortable Presbyterian (PCA) church. But guess who wasn't? Yes, my husband Silouan Troy. Here we go into a new journey!

As an American "type A" personality AND a new convert to Orthodoxy, this subject seems daunting to me. However, I was pleasantly surprised when Emily gave this Maxim to me because it is exactly what has been on my soul lately. I had an interesting conversation with my priest this past Sunday. Without me saying too much, he kept saying to me over and over in a most loving, quiet way, "Kassiane, be still. Be patient. Be calm." I thought about it as he would continue to say this throughout our conversation and I thought, "I am calm. Why is he saying this to me?" I now realize that my outer being is showing what is on the inside and that is a very anxious person. I am an impatient person. I want God to fix me right now! I stress over it. Take those awful passions and just crush them without me having to do a thing. Of course we know this isn't how it works. The frustrating part is that I know that every time I work hard on fighting those passions, these are the time that I feel like giving up and I lose my inner stillness. But this isn't how it should work.

Today I experienced how it should work. This morning when I arose from bed thoughts began to attack me. Things like worry over my sons and their passions, thoughts like "Why is Silouan still in bed, he said he was getting up early to read "Ladder of Divine Ascent", humpf." The incredible part was that every time a thought came God gave me a thought to attack it right behind it. I thought about it a lot today and pride tried to come in and tell me I did it all alone, but the truth is, I have been doing these past 2 weeks what I should do every day of my life and that is taking every thought captive, bathing myself in Scripture and books by the Church Fathers, and praying all day long.

I lose my focus. Thoughts are my enemy because the true enemy puts them there and I don't even realize it. This may seem simple to many of you who have been Orthodox for a long time, but the truth is, I have been in church all my life, and this is the first time in my 40 years that I am beginning to understand how to have a relationship with my Creator. I have a long way to go, but I must start somewhere, and that is with my thoughts. I find that my mind is where I lose my inner stillness.

Have you heard Metropolitan Jonah's talk on "Don't Resent, Don't React, Keep Inner Stillness"? I highly recommend it and pray it will help you as much as it did me. You can find it here.

I pray you have a blessed Great Lent. Last year was my first Pascha, and I had no idea what I was doing with all those extra services, prayers and fasting! But this year, I am starting to grasp why we do what we do. Pray for me, a sinner.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

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

From Mary Beth in Alaska:

Read good books . . .

What an appropriate maxim for this season of my life! I have always enjoyed reading and, as a teacher, have always propounded on its virtues to tired parents both at school and in my own family. Lists of “good books” were my favorite handouts as I tried to get students and parents to consider eating the meat of literature as opposed to the milk – or dessert. Then along came a child…

At the last meeting that I attended of our women’s reading group here in Wasilla, I had to admit that I had not really been reading anything that was morally uplifting or taught me more about our Lord or Orthodoxy or even people in general. I had been reading things that let me escape, that allowed my brain to rest. I did not want to think or ponder or have to read a paragraph over again. Having to admit this was an embarrassment. But, after all, it isn’t what you read, it is how you read – isn’t it?

According to Fr. Thomas Hopko, that is not necessarily true. Just as our physical diet needs a balance of nutrition, so our minds and spirits need nutrition as well. What we read, whether it be Scripture, lives of the saints, poetry or fiction, feeds us with one thing or another. It is either nourishing or not.

It is so easy to become a junk-food junkie in the reading realm when one is tired or over-burdened. Reading can become a wonderful escape. Many books are like chocolate or chips, so easy to fall into eating too much, too quickly. We fill up on the junk and leave little room in our schedule or our minds and spirits for the meat and vegetables that we need. We NEED the “good books” to keep us growing and strong for the spiritual battles we face each day.

. . . a little at a time.


Although what we read is important, how we read is as well. How easy it is to skim through a section thinking that we have heard it all before, to look for the tidbits that we find delight in, but may not be the most nourishing for our souls.

My husband and I recently read Surprised by Christ, by Father James Bernstein. Bob said that he found himself reading certain sections three or four times, because he wanted to totally understand what was being taught. Why was this understanding so important? Because he wanted to be able to share it with others, to discuss it, to allow its nourishment to extend beyond himself.

Sometimes, we may fall into the habit of seeing the goal of reading a book as getting to the end. But just like with reading the Scriptures, a Good book is one in which the details need time to germinate. It has to be pondered little by little. I struggle at this time of my life to do this. It means putting all the other things invading my thoughts aside in order to really understand what an author is saying. Perhaps, the time in our lives when reading in this manner is the most difficult is also the time when we need it the most.

“Which is the real possessor of a book – the man who has its original and every following edition, and shows, to many an admiring and envying visitor, now this, now that, in binding characteristic, with possessor pride . . . or the man who cherishes one little, hollowed back, coverless, untitled bethumbed copy, which he takes with him in his solitary walks and broods over in his silent chamber, always finding in it some beauty or excellence or aid he had not found before – which is to him in truth as a live companion?”
George MacDonald

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

3. Read the Scriptures regularly.

From Emily in Baltimore:

I actually laughed, though a little ruefully, when I read my number! Last year my spiritual father directed me to read the Psalms every day. I have tried; my father gave me a copy of this lovely Psalm book, which is a joy to read because of the beautiful illuminations accompanying the text (most drawn from the Book of Kells and other Celtic artwork.)

Another thing that's helped me is this online copy of the Psalter. I took the text and formatted it so that each kathisma fits on the front and back of one page, and I keep them all by my bed so that I'll remember to read one each evening. (If anyone is interested, I'd be glad to send you a copy!) But I am the type of person who is much better at making plans than keeping them. It's been very difficult to stick with this resolution!

But, of course, in the end . . . we just have to do it. So I'm trying, again. I'm reading one kathisma every night; the Psalter is divided into twenty kathismas, so at this rate I will have read the entire thing twice by the end of Lent! I'm sure I will fall back many more times, but I pray God will grant me the strength to get up and go back to the path He has set out for me.

I was raised Protestant, where there is a real emphasis on reading Scripture. I think it's one of the best things about Protestantism, the way they teach their children to memorize Scripture; unfortunately, most Catholics and Orthodox I know don't have nearly as solid a knowledge. Of course, within Orthodoxy, Scriptures are embedded in the words of the prayers and services; many times, reading along in the Bible, I am struck by a phrase I recognize from a church hymn, which I've sung many times without ever realizing it was from Scripture. Still, I think that reading and memorizing Scripture is one of the best things we can do to strengthen our faith. So many times, when I've been lost or despairing, passages I've memorized return to me as a great blessing. Sometimes they make me laugh (my mother loves to quote Proverbs 30:17 when I'm giving her a hard time) and more often, they make me weep. But always, always, they remind me of Christ's great love, and the necessity of returning that love to Him with all of my heart.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

2. Pray, fast and do acts of mercy.

From Calise in Los Angeles:

Hello Ladies! I am so glad we’re doing this again!

I have loved listening to some of Father Thomas Hopko’s Podcasts. Jonathan & I were even able to see him speak this year. Anyway, he has a podcast about his 55 maxims (he splits them up a little differently), and I love what he has to say about all of them. Some are more self-explanatory than others, but here is the link to the podcast if anyone is interested.

His wisdom is my jumping-off point.

Prayer:


I am still very much working on my discipline in this area! But Father Hopko has some wonderful things to say on the subject. His thoughts have helped me to focus my energy on the simple things in prayer. My priest encourages me to have attainable goals with my rule of prayer, so I don’t get too easily discouraged.

•Pray as God inspires you to pray.

•Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline.

•Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day.

•Have a short prayer that you say whenever your mind is not occupied with other things, in order to have remembrance of God in one’s life & heart throughout the day . . . ”Lord have mercy”, the Jesus prayer etc.

•Prostrate, kneel down, use your body during one’s prayers. Saint Ephraim said, “if your body is not praying, you’re not really praying.” Prayer is not just an activity of the mind and heart; it’s an activity of the whole person.

•Practice Silence, inner & outer silence. Turn everything off, spend a few minutes a day to open one’s self up to God, watch the thoughts that come, and turn them over to God.

Fasting:

Father Hopko simply says Eat foods that are good for you and eat them in moderation. Take care of your body and don’t over-eat. He also says to fast as the Church prescribes and to fast in private!

Food in general has always been a struggle for me, and fasting is no exception. I mean, who likes to deprive themselves of things? But I have found that when I am deprived of the foods I love for a while, I enjoy them even more when I have them again. It does build our spiritual character to take part in the weekly & the great fasts! So even if we don’t fully understand it or appreciate it (we may even loathe it sometimes), I think it’s encouraging to know that God uses all the disciplines of the Church to strengthen us!

Do acts of Mercy:

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but one thing that Fr. Hopko said is to “do acts of mercy in secret! Just do some good things that no one knows about!”

I think sometimes we do good things for others to feel good about ourselves, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can turn out to be more about us than them. And he stresses the importance of doing them in secret just for the sake of the good thing.

We as C,hristians are all called to take care of the homeless, hungry, naked, sick, elderly etc. But how many of us are actually doing this on a daily basis in our lives?

Lent is a good time to begin to reach out in a more effective way to the needy people around us.

I pray blessings & send our love to all of you and your families in this season of great Lent!

Monday, March 2, 2009

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

From Debra in Baltimore:

Please pray for me.

I'll talk about the second phrase first. Trust God in everything. I feel blessed that I can truly say that I see how God has worked in my life through the years. Because of this I can trust God in almost every part of my life. In the 31 years of my marriage, we've moved 8 times and we've always found jobs, housing and church in a short period of time. We've seen God open doors and close doors to lead us where I believe He has wanted us to go.

In this time of uncertain financial stress in the world, I pray for wisdom to make the right choices in my daily life concerning jobs and money. I choose to trust that God will provide for my family.

I was taught many years ago one way to 'see' how God works in my life. Write down prayers in a notebook. Then at a later time, say a year later, go back and see how God answered those prayers. I haven't done this in recent years, but it can be a tangible reminder of how God is faithful and this helped me to trust God more.

Once we can trust God, we want to be 'with Christ.' At the moment, I see this to mean being in the will of Christ, being where He wants me to be, thinking of Christ off and on all day. Praying short prayers at all times of the day. Saying the Jesus prayer silently all day long as I go about my work or in the car. I am not 'always with Christ.' I know this is a goal to strive for.

I pray that during this Great Lenten season, that all of us reading and commenting on these 40 maxims will be able to say that we are 'always with Christ and trust God in everything.' Let us pray for each other even if we don't know each other personally.

May God grant us a blessed time of preparation for Pascha during this season.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Welcome back!

Welcome back, sisters in Christ! I look forward to another Lenten season of fellowship and encouragement with you all.

I honestly wasn't planning on doing this again, but my grandmother (who, as a member of the Friends church, is about as far from Eastern Orthodoxy as one can get!) recently came across the blog and asked me for a copy of them. I took that as a sign that this little site was not finished -- and when I sent an inquiring e-mail out and got several dozen responses in half a day's time, as well as the hearty blessing of my spiritual father, I felt sure this was the Lord leading me!

If you're interested in participating in this group by posting about one of the Maxims, comment on this post and I'll send you a number. There are still plenty left! We'd love to hear from you.

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.