Tag Archive: repentance


Why Praise God?

Great are you, O Lord, and strongly to be praised: Great is your power, and your wisdom cannot be quantified. And man wants to praise you, though a tiny portion of your creation, and man is surrounded by his mortality, the witness to his sin, the witness that you resist the proud — yet man wants to praise you, though a tiny portion of your creation. You rouse us to delight in your praise; for you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

~ St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Why praise God? The Scriptures and hymns of the Church are full of praises of God. Yet the Church also affirms, to quote St. Athanasius, “God … stands in need of nothing, but is self-sufficient and self-contained, and … in Him all things have their being, and … He ministers to all rather than they to Him….”

So if God needs nothing, is self-sufficient, and ministers to us rather than we to him … why praise him? If he doesn’t need anything, he doesn’t need our praises. If he’s all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, certainly he knows how great he is. So why praise him?

Does God have a fragile ego, in need of constant affirmation? No. Is he incomplete or imperfect without us? No. What good is praise to God?

The answer: It sort of isn’t. We praise God not because God needs our praise but because we need to praise him. God is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. According to St. Severinus Boethius, “God is absolute happiness.” Praising God reorients our perspective to value most what matters most. It is metanoia, a “changing of the mind,” i.e., repentance.

Just saying words of praise, however, isn’t enough. 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.” It isn’t just our words, like some magical incantation, but “man’s mind and heart.” As St. Augustine points out, that seems a lot harder.

This would seem to make our desire to praise God a fool’s errand. Yet the secret grace to it all comes precisely when we realize this. We can only, with great struggle, turn to God and offer imperfect, inadequate, insufficient, and superfluous praise. Yet it is in the very act of truly doing so, truly reorienting our minds and hearts and seeing ourselves for what we really are compared to God, that he is there, at once terrifying, calming, cleansing, uplifting, and flooding our hearts with the very purity, joy, and rest for which we so dearly long.

God is great, but we are minuscule compared to him and literally nothing without him. Furthermore, we are mortal; he is Life itself. We are sinful; he is Goodness. We are dishonest; he is Truth. We envy and hate each other; he “is Love” (1 John 4:8).

“Come to me,” beckons Jesus, “all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

That is a call that must be answered every day. Lord, have mercy, that I would do so more often.

Sometimes it seems easier to get caught up in the tragedy and evil of a world under the shadow of death and sin, but that broad road is restless. It only seems easy, but it always ends up harder.

The narrow road, the path away from emptiness toward the fullness of life and meaning — that road always seems harder, harder to see, harder to accept, harder to travel. And yet, whenever we manage, however imperfectly, to do so, we find the terrible, transcendent God before us in Jesus Christ, “gentle and lowly in heart.” We find an easy burden, “rest for [our] souls.”

And that is why we praise him.

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. Continue reading

Fish Out of Water

Abba Antony said: “Fish die if they are long out of water. So monks who dally long outside their cell or with men of the world, lose their will to solitude. As a fish can only live in the sea, so we must run back to our cells. Perhaps, if we dallied outside, we might lose our inner guard.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 2.1

Abba Antony offers a wonderful analogy for those of us whose lives sometimes seem so full. Just as “[f]ish die if they are long out of water,” so “monks who dally long outside their cell or with men of the world, lose their will to solitude.” Now of course, as “men [and women] of the world,” we cannot and should not avoid human contact, but neither should we neglect solitude. The difference is one of degree, not of kind. None of us live in a monk’s cell, but all of us require an “inner guard” to keep our hearts from falling to temptation. Continue reading

To Love Much

The woman who had fallen into many sins, perceiving Your Divinity, O Lord, assumes the role of a myrrh-bearer; and lamenting, she brings the myrrh before your burial. “Woe to me!” she said; “For me, night is an ecstacy of excess, dark and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, You, Who gathers into clouds the water of the sea. Incline the groanings of my heart, You, Who in Your ineffable condescension, bowed down the Heavens.

“I will embrace and kiss Your sacred Feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head. Your Feet, at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear, when she heard Your footsteps while You were walking in Paradise in the twilight. O my Saviour and soul-Saver! Who can ever track down the multitude of my sins, and the depths of Your judgment? Do not disregard me Your servant, You, Whose mercy is boundless.”

~ Hymn of Kassiani, from the Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins

The hymn above is one of the finest in the Byzantine tradition. It is written by the nun Kassiani, a saint of the ninth century. On Holy Wednesday we commemorate the woman from the Gospel who comes to Christ and weeps at his feet. This hymn midrashicly takes up the woman’s perspective in a beautiful display of repentance. Continue reading

Souls like Feathers

400px-Feather2[Abba Isaac said:] There is a good comparison between the soul and a delicate little feather. If a feather has not been touched by [moisture], it is so light that the slightest breath of wind can puff it high into the air. But if even a little [moisture] has weighed it down, it cannot float, and falls straight to the ground. In the same way the mind, if not burdened by sin and the cares of daily life and evil passion, has a natural purity which lifts it from earth to heaven at the least breath of a meditation upon the invisible things of the spirit. The Lord’s command is sufficient warning—“Take heed that your hearts be not weighed down by drunkenness and the cares of this world” [Luke 21:34]. So if we want our prayers to reach the sky and beyond the sky, we must make sure that the mind is so unburdened by the weights of sin and passion as to be restored to its natural buoyancy. Then the prayer will rise to God.

~ Conferences of Cassian 9.4

This beautiful image from Abba Isaac is perhaps even more fitting when one remembers that ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin all used the same word for breath, wind, and spirit (within each language, not between them). An example can be seen in the words of Christ himself (originally recorded in Greek): “The wind [pneuma] blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit [pneuma]” (John 3:8). In this context, Christ is talking about being born again (or “from above”) by water and the Spirit, i.e. through baptism. Nevertheless, his insight in this verse relates to anyone who truly prays in purity of heart. As Abba Isaac says, “[I]f not burdened by sin and the cares of daily life and evil passion, [the mind] has a natural purity which lifts it from earth to heaven at the least breath of a meditation upon the invisible things of the spirit.” Continue reading