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.


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.


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.

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.