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Lazarus Saturday: Come and See

By Your word, O Word of God, Lazarus now leaps out of death, having returned to this life. Therefore the peoples honor You with their branches, O Mighty One; for You shall destroy Hades utterly by Your own death.

By means of Lazarus has Christ already plundered you, O death. Where is your victory, O Hades? For the lament of Bethany is handed over now to you. Let us all wave against it our branches of victory.

~ Exaposteilaria, Saturday of St. Lazarus. Tone 3

Today is Lazarus Saturday, when we commemorate, just before Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Pascha (Easter), the resurrection of St. Lazarus from the dead by Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John reports that this drew so much attention to Jesus that it served as a major impetus for those who opposed him to plot his death: “Then, from that day on, they plotted to put him to death” (John 11:53). But death, as the story of the raising of Lazarus shows us, was not something Jesus intended to avoid. View full article »

Notes: Florensky on Asceticism

[W]orldly literature has never understood the spirit of Christian asceticism, and … this literature has called Christian asceticism superficial and unjustifiable. When worldly writers write about spiritual exercises, their words are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, pitifully meager. But this is partly because of the lack of skill of their ecclesiastical opponents and partly because it is impossible to speak about ascetic experience outside of the experience itself.

~ Pavel Florensky, “Letter 9: Creation,” The Pillar and Ground of the Truth

In the midst of researching for a conference paper to be presented this summer, I came across some wonderful reflections on asceticism by Pavel Florensky, the Russian Orthodox priest, philosopher, mathematician, et al., who was martyred for his faith by the Soviets in 1937. The following are some of his reflections on asceticism from his work, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: View full article »

An Introduction to Prayer

Q. What is Prayer?

A. The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words. 

~ Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, Longer Catechism, 390

The following is the text of a talk I will be giving tomorrow night after the presanctified liturgy at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our home parish:

According to Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, prayer is “[t]he lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words” (Longer Catechism, 390). What I like about this definition is that it is succinct but comprehensive: “The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.” It highlights the internal and external nature of prayer, spiritual and spoken. In addition, it further brings together the mind and the heart, not neglecting any aspect of our being, whether thoughts, feelings, senses, or intuition. What I would like to do briefly tonight is to carefully examine this definition, in each of its parts, with the goal of coming to a greater understanding of prayer itself. View full article »

A Soul on Fire

[L]et us acquire the pure and guileless tears that come with the remembrance that we must die. There is nothing false in these, no sop to self-esteem. Rather do they purify us, lead us on in love of God, wash away our sins and drain away our passions.

~ St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 7

Given the morbid nature of the practice, it is refreshing to see St. John Climacus connect tears and sadness with meditation on one’s mortality. To assert that we ought not grieve for death, pace the Stoics, would be inhuman indeed.

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Face to Face

Said Abba Elias: “I fear three things: the first, the time just before my soul goes out from my body: the second, the time just before I meet God face to face: the third, the time just before he pronounces his sentence upon me.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.4

For a long, but relevant, read with regards to the subject at hand, see Richard John Neuhaus’s “Born Toward Dying,” which I just read today with the thought of death especially on my mind. View full article »

The Top of the Ladder: Love

After he has climbed all these degrees of humility, the monk will quickly arrive at the top, the charity that is perfect and casts out all fear. And then, the virtues which first he practised with anxiety, shall begin to be easy for him, almost natural, being grown habitual. He will no more be afraid of hell, but will advance by the love of Christ, by good habits, and by taking pleasure in goodness. Our Lord, by the Holy Spirit, will deign to show this in the servant who has been cleansed from sin.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Here we see the end for which humility strives, what makes it all worthwhile: charity, the highest form of love. St. Benedict here demonstrates how fully humility encapsulates so many themes of the fathers, reminding us that true love is hard work but well worth the effort. View full article »

The Ladder of Humility: Step 12

The twelfth degree of humility is, when the monk’s inward humility appears outwardly in his comportment. And wherever he be, in the divine office, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on a journey, in the fields wherever he is sitting, walking or standing, he is to look down with bowed head conscious of his guilt, imagining himself ready to be called to give account at the dread judgement: repeating in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with eyes downcast: “Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to lift up my eyes to heaven”; and with the prophet “I am bowed down and humbled on every side.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Is there a way to separate humility from low self-esteem? On the one hand, the fathers are not a fan of self-esteem in the first place. Evagrios even refers to it as a demon. So perhaps not. And perhaps we are overly positive about the idea in our time in the first place. On the other hand, if low self-esteem means a defeatist mentality, the answer is definitely yes: they can be separated and are, in fact, distinct. View full article »

The Ladder of Humility: Step 11

The eleventh degree of humility is, when a monk discourses with moderation and composure, mixing humility with gravity; speaking few words, but home, and to the purpose; not raising the voice. “The wise man is known because he speaks little.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

This step of the ladder immediately reminds me of a saying from the Tao Te Ching:

He who knows does not speak;
He who speaks does not know.

Indeed, across cultures the saying is true: “The wise man is known because he speaks little.” While it may disturb some that I would immediately think of a text from another religion, it is worth noting that St. Benedict here is quoting the Sentences of Sextus, a compilation of Christianized Pythagorean proverbs. As St. Justin put it, “whatever has been well said by anyone belongs to us”—for in the Logos, whose humility we are seeking to imitate through St. Benedict’s ladder, is “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). View full article »

The Ladder of Humility: Step 10

The tenth degree of humility is, not easily to lay hold on occasions of laughing. For it is written: “He who laughs loud is a fool.” [Ecclesiasticus 21:20]

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

At what point do I just declare myself totally unqualified to comment on St. Benedict’s ladder of humility? This step, about something so simple—laughter—is extremely difficult in our time or, at least, for me. The average person, even people in poverty, in the United States enjoys entertainment once the luxury of royalty alone. Every day we are met with hundreds of invitations to “easily lay hold on occasions of laughing.” What are we to do? Is our culture so depraved? Or, on the other hand, is this step of the ladder now passé? Neither. View full article »

The Ladder of Humility: Step 9

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk controls his tongue and keeps silence till a question be asked. For the Scripture teaches that “in much talk you will not avoid sinning”; and “the talkative man shall live out his life haphazardly.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

“In much talk you will not avoid sinning.” This reminds me of Adam Smith’s take on justice. As it was told to me, to Smith justice is the only duty a man can perform by not doing anything. That is, to him, justice amounts to “do no harm,” and doing nothing harms no one. Personally, I would take a broader understanding of justice—and perhaps he does as well, I’m no expert in his ethics. But it does call to mind a true corollary: say nothing and you will be much less likely to sin with your tongue. View full article »

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