Christ’s Naked Word

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St. Cuthbert, an early Celtic Saint, used to pray standing in the sea. When he stepped out, the sea otters would dry his feet with their fur.

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“The more I examine myself, the more I see that a life devoted to constructing and organizing, a life which produces positive results and which succeeds, is not my vocation, even though, out of obedience, I could work in this direction and even obtain certain results. What attracts me is a vocation of loss–a life which would give itself freely without any apparent positive result, for the result would be known to God alone; in brief, to lose oneself in order to find oneself.” (Father Lev Gillet, Letter of 9 March 1928, in Contacts, 49, no. 180, 1997, p. 309.)
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“The one thing that sets the Saints apart from the rest of us is their struggle to remain entirely obedient to Christ. There is no bargaining in their mind, no negotiating Christ’s teaching, no diluting His words to the point where they lose the strength to open for us the path of salvation.

Most of us receive the word of God with caution, and we immediately start turning it on all sides until we reach a compromise that works for us. Most of us fear the word of God. All we truly want is something that looks like His word enough to make us feel good about ourselves, enough to make us have the appearance of Christians, but not to the extent that we could lose control over our lives.

One can go through life either in obedience to Christ or in obedience to one’s own will. The challenges and choices of this world are simple and clear if we obey Christ’s word – we need to love, we need to forgive, we need to help. Ultimately, we need to allow the world to crucify us for His name and become true followers of the Crucified One. These are His words, and this is the way of the Saints.

Things only seem complicated when our brain gets in the way. Things only seen unclear when we begin negotiating Christ’s word, looking for a human version of it which does not lead to the Cross. Unfortunately, we always succeed. Unfortunately, we have the frightening ability to reduce Christ’s teaching to something that excludes the Cross. The danger, though, is that without the Cross there can be no Resurrection either.

The Saints are not like that. The Saints do not build an idol of their earthly lives. They have no vision of a perfect life here, no vision of a perfect self in this world. They remain faithful to Christ and His word, and allow nothing of this world to come between them and their God.

Look at St Cuthbert. Look at his faith, the faith of a young man who spent his nights into the cold waters of the North Sea, so he may control his mind and his body in prayer. Look at his obedience to his true calling – a hermit at heart, he left everything behind to be obedient to Christ. A man alone on his island, but carrying the world and its Creator in his heart.

Through his prayers, may we also be given the faith to obey Christ’s naked word, not our own tamed version of it.” (Fr. Seraphim Aldea, Mull Monastery Blog)

 

 

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Musings from a Bright Week Pilgrimage (I)

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Gerondas Theoklitos, Monastery of St. Arsenios the Cappadocian

 

Paschal Holy Dances in Attica, Aegina and Euboia

Everybody in our mixed company on the bus was exhausted even before starting out! Doctors, reeling after long shifts, having barely slept for more than 3-4 hours in 3-4 days in a row; parents struggling with noisy, boisterous,excited young children; senior high-school and university students in distress, studying for their final exams … on the bus! … while all were desperately trying to get some sleep… But the most exhausted of us all was our accompanying priest, Hieromonk Synesios, St. Arsenios Monastery, after a rigorous monastic Great Lent and Holy Week, on top of all his other duties. St Arsenios himself, as in all past pilgrimages, was at the front seat of the bus. His relics were reverently carried by all pilgrims at every stop of our pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was brief but packed and hectic, so let me simply offer a few Paschal, mostly ‘leaping/ dancing” vignettes which made the greatest impression to me.

 

But let me start with the beginning.This Bright [1]Week pilgrimage was appropriately the brightest I have ever participated in! It felt like the fulfilment of St. John’s of Damascus Mystical Pascha captured in his Paschal Canon! To be sure, any trip to Greece in springtime straight from a foggy, misty, rainy England is bound to feel full of light! Especially if to Athens and the islands!

 

Still, the Light which nearly blinded all of us during this Bright Week pilgrimage must have contained a tiny ray of Christ’s Light [2]! A palpable, tangible Transfiguration Light dancing in all pilgrims’ eyes, on the bus and in all the monasteries we visited. The atmosphere felt so light as if were all to collectively Ascend to Heavens. The sheer exuberance of “Christ is Risen” chanted 99 times every single day during Resurrection Day and All Bright Week made our hearts leap with joy! And our Lord’s greeting “Rejoice!” in all the 11 Resurrectional Matins (Eothina) Gospels reverberated in our hearts. And as we were soon to find out, we were about to meet lots of literally dancing and leaping holy men and women.

 

Morning Holy Liturgy at the Holy Monastery of Saint Dionysios of Mount Olympus (3) on Bright Tuesday

 

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That was another discovery of that week: how many Paschal verses indeed contain this image of “leaping”:

 

THE PASCHAL CANON

 

Ode 4.

David, the forefather of our divine Lord, leapt and dancedbefore the symbolical Ark of the Covenant.

 

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“When they who were held by the chains of hell beheld Thy boundless compassion, O Christ, they hastened to the Light with joyful feet, exalting the eternal Pascha.

 

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We celebrate the death of death, the destruction of hell, the beginning of eternal life. And leaping for joy, we celebrate the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.

 

THE PASCHAL STICHERA IN TONE FIVE

Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and leap for joy, in that thou beholdest Christ the King like a bridegroom come forth from the grave.

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Everybody in our mixed company on the bus was exhausted even before starting out! Doctors, reeling after long shifts, having barely slept for more than 3-4 hours in 3-4 days in a row; parents struggling with noisy, boisterous,excited young children; senior high-school and university students in distress, studying for their final exams … on the bus! … while all were desperately trying to get some sleep… But the most exhausted of us all was our accompanying priest, Hieromonk Synesios, St. Arsenios Monastery, after a rigorous monastic Great Lent and Holy Week, on top of all his other duties. St Arsenios himself, as in all past pilgrimages, was at the front seat of the bus. His relics were reverently carried by all pilgrims at every stop of our pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was brief but packed and hectic, so let me simply offer a few Paschal, mostly “leaping/ dancing” vignettes which made the greatest impression to me:

 

To Be Continued …

 

Footnotes

 [1] Bright week begins with the Sunday of Pascha, and comes to a close on Bright Saturday, at Vespers. One may actually argue that Bright week comes to a close before the ninth hour (which precedes vespers), since the royal doors and deacons’ doors, which have been wide open all week, are closed. This is a sad and significant moment. Just like our forefathers Adam and Eve, we cannot remain in paradise in this life, because of our sins. Ours is a life of struggle against our passions, which hold us back from full realization of paradise in this life.
‘How many days are in Bright week?’ There are TWO correct answers! According to the sun’s rising and setting, Bright week is seven days, (Sunday through Saturday) but to the church, liturgically, it is one day – the “eighth day”.

[2]Cf. Lev Gillet’s notes on the theme of light in the Byzantine liturgical year: ‘Come, take light from the Light that has no evening, and glorify Christ, risen from the dead.’ On the Sunday Pascha, the celebrant stands at the royal doors of the iconostasion and holds a lighted candle in his hand. “Once more, the eastern Church represents the Christian mystery in terms of the mystery of light; this Light, whose birth was marked by the star of Bethlehem, has been shining among us with growing intensity; the darkness of Golgotha could not extinguish it. Now it reappears among us, and all the candles which the congregation hold in their hands, and that they now light, proclaim its triumph. In this way, the deeply spiritual meaning of Easter is indicated. The physical Resurrection of Jesus would be without value to us if the divine light did not shine at the same time among us, within us. We cannot worthily celebrate the Resurrection of Christ if, in our soul, the light brought by the Saviour has not completely overcome the darkness of our sins.”[The Uncreated Light] on Easter night triumphs over the darkness; at Pentecost it reaches its full zenith. Pentecost is the ‘midday flame’. (The Year of Grace of the Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church, p177, p215 respectively)

[3]: For information and a documentary in Greek about our first stop, the beautiful Holy Patriarchal and Stavropegic Monastery of Saint Dionysios of Olympus, go herehere and here.

Choice

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“Freedom, A Choice”,  a painting by Anila Ayilliath

 

Choice (*)

 

-Lord, let me come and join you in that land which beckons me, in those fields that I love.

-No, it is in this town that you must meet me.

-Lord, I long for the sun and the wilde flowers over there.

-I only have this black sky and these thorns to give you.

-But Lord, there is only noise and smoke here.

-There is something else as well; there is sin.

-Lord, I would so like to see again the blue water that you knew!

-Here, hearts are sick and souls are dying in darkness.

Lord, I could perhaps stay if you entered into my heart, if you took my hand. But when I see these streets […] my whole being revolts and escapes in thought over there. Must I therefore still stay here, with my sadness and my loneliness?

-My child, is it so difficult to decide? And to walk where I walk?”

(“Sunday Letters”, Lev Gillet, ‘A Monk of the Eastern Church’ by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, p23)

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* Dedicated to my spiritual father 

This dedication, initially made on 10/6/2017, holds true of course, only yesterday, when I re-discovered these letters last night, I thought every single iota of these verses was written for me! Piercing my heart … Each time, returning here is becoming increasingly difficult … 

Choice (I)

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“Lord, let me come and join you in that land which beckons me, in those fields that I love.”

“No, it is in this town that you must meet me.”

“Lord, I long for the sun and the wilde flowers over there.”

“I only have this black sky and these thorns to give you.”

“But Lord, there is only noise and smoke here.”

“There is something else as well; there is sin.”

“Lord, I would so like to see again the blue water that you knew!”

“Here, hearts are sick and souls are dying in darkness.”

“Lord, I could perhaps stay if you entered into my heart, if you took my hand. But when I see these streets […] my whole being revolts and escapes in thought over there. Must I therefore still stay here, with my sadness and my solitude?”

“My child, is it so difficult to decide? And to walk where I walk?”

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Lev Gillet, “Sunday Letters”, ‘Lev Gillet, A Monk of the Eastern Church’ by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, p231

* Specially dedicated to my spiritual father

Embracing the Burning Coal

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Lev Gillet’s Reflections on the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, the famous Byzantine ‘waltz’, Ormylia Women’s Monastery choir, Byzantine icons and hymns with lyrics

Symeon receiving Our Lord is of course an Icon in the true sense of the word of how we too receive Christ 

* The Russian icon above emphasizes the meeting aspect. Pay attention to the way Jesus and Simeon are so face to face.

Lyrics for the famous Orthodox ‘waltz’, the Megalynarion, the “Magnification”; also called Velichaniye in Church Slavonic), the special Byzantine hymn for Panagia and the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple by Ormylia convent.

What glorious Hope, what tenderness amidst weariness, old age, frailty and shadows, what consolation especially when ‘dealing’ with end of life care, as I currently am, what a wonderful ending to our life, should we accept Lord’s offered Love! Rejoicing with Symeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God and say: “Let me depart in peace, for my eyes have seen Your compassion and Your holy Salvation.”

-That which is fulfilled in you is beyond the understanding both of Angels and of mortals, O pure Virgin Mother.

-Symeon the Elder embraces in his arms the Maker of the Law and Master of all.

-The Creator, wishing to save Adam, took up his dwelling in your virgin womb.

-The whole race of mortals calls you blessed, pure Virgin, and glorifies you with faith as Mother of God.

[Come and see Christ, the Master of all, whom Symeon carries today in the temple.]

-You look upon the earth and make it tremble how then can I, aged and weary, hold you in my arms?

-Mary, you are the mystic tongs who conceived in your womb Christ, the burning coal.

[Symeon had lived for many years when he saw Christ, and cried aloud to him, ‘Now I seek my release.’]

[O God, who are before all things, of your own will you became man, and are carried in the temple as a child of forty days.]

-Symeon the priest received the Master of all, come down from heaven.

– Make bright my soul and the Light of my senses, that I may see you in purity, and I will proclaim that you are God.

– Pure Virgin Mother, why do you bring into the temple a new-born babe and commit him to Symeon’s hands?

From you, the Creator, I now seek release, for I have seen you, O Christ, my salvation and my light.

‘In the shadow and letter of the Law, Let us the faithful discern a figure. ‘Every male child that opens the womb shall be holy to God.’ Therefore the firstborn Word, Son of a Father who has no beginning, the firstborn child of a Mother who had not known man, we magnify.’ [Irmos]

Him whom the Ministers at the Liturgy on High entreat with trembling, here below Symeon now takes in his arms.

For those of old there was a pair of doves and two young pigeons In their place the godly Elder and Anna the sober prophetess, ministering to the One born from a Virgin and only offspring of the Father as he enters the temple, magnify him. [Irmos]

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

In nature Unity, but in Persons Trinity, watch over your servants who put their faith in you.

‘You have granted me, O Christ, the joy of your salvation’, cried Symeon, ‘Take your servant, wearied by the shadow, as a new initiate and preacher of grace, as with praise he magnifies you.’ [Irmos]

Both now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amin.

Mother of God, hope of all Christians, protect, watch over, guard all those who put their hope in you.

Reverently holy Anna, sober and aged, openly confessed the Master, announcing him clearly in the temple. While as she proclaimed the Mother of God to all those present, she magnified her. [Irmos]

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In accordance with the law of Moses, forty days after the birth of a male child, its mother had to present it in the tabernacle and to offer as a sacrifice either a lamb or a pair of doves or pigeons for purification ‘from the issue of her blood’. The presentation of a first-born creatures, whether animal or human, were considered to belong to God. Mary and Joseph obeyed this precept of the law. They brought Jesus to the Temple where he was blessed by the aged Simeon, and recognized as Saviour by the prophetess Anna, It is this event which we celebrate at the feast of February 2nd.

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“Let us also go to meet Christ and let us receive him … Adorn thy bridal chamber … and welcome Christ the King; salute Mary, the heavenly gate.” These texts from the feast of the Presentation can also be applied to our souls. Each soul ought to be a Temple of God, to which Mary brings Jesus. And each one of us should, like Symeon, take the child in his arms and say to the Father: “My eyes have seen thy salvation.” The prayer of Symeon, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” does not simply mean that someone who has seen Jesus and has held in his arms can now leave this life and die in peace: it also means for us, having seen and touched the Saviour, we are released from the hold that sin has on us, and, in peace, can leave the realm of evil. (The Year of Grace of the Lord by A Monk of the Eastern Church)

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For 43 DIFFERENT ICONS, FRESCOES AND PAINTINGS: THE MEETING OF OUR LORD, go to http://catalogueofstelisabethconvent.blogspot.com.by/2016/02/icons-frescoes-and-paintings-meeting-of.html

Thin Places, Where Heaven Reveals Its Violence

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Christ Pantocrator 6th St. Catherine’s Monastery Mount Sinai Egypt 

Two weeks of no posting … Please forgive me for this ‘break’ but things have been so hectic here, with my father seriously ill, in hospital. Taking the wrong medication can cause serious side effects and even result in death, especially if the patient is 86 years old! Thanks be to God, the doctors saved my father’s life the very last minute! It was such a heart-rending experience watching him collapse …

This whole experience, as was to be expected, shook us deeply and intensified our prayer life. We were literally (and figuratively) all the time on our knees before Him.This is why I have decided to resume my posts with Father Seraphim Aldea‘s,  Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, and Lev Gillet‘s reflections on Meeting the Living God, Entering Into a  Relationship With Him in Prayer.

These meditations strangely match a recent experience of mine with an Icon of the Saviour I was offered as a blessing. What an icon! I cannot even begin to stare at His Eyes! As if the icon ‘itself’ ought to be “tamed” … Just staring at this ‘Icon’ feels like a Meeting face to face with Him, a moment of Judgment for me … to be either saved or condemned …

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“People are right, Iona truly is ‘a thin place’, a great Celtic expression, describing special places where Heaven and earth are drawn together. What I didn’t know before I came for this week (and perhaps, what many of us do not feel) is how dreadfully frightening Heaven is. Perhaps frightening is not the right word: awe-some, full of awe, entirely alien to us and frightening because of its alien nature – these are all weak descriptions, but they are as good as I’m able to make.

Iona is a thin place, but through the thin veil one can see a frightening revelation. It is precisely because these are thin places that they are frightening, too. What we see through them, what we see through their transparence is the real Face of God: not a tame God, a domesticated God; not a God taken to pieces and rebuilt to fit our sinfulness and weakness; not a God shaped against our emotions and cheap piety; not a God of human traditions and cult; not a God of political correctness or incorrectness – but the LIVING God. The Being beyond being, the Uncreated Creator of everything that is, the untouchable One, indescribable by any of our created words, philosophies and concepts. The frightening God, the crushing God, the God Who utters His voice and the earth melts; the God Who commands: Be still, and know that I am God.

To be in a thin place like Iona is frightening because of the Frightening Being Who suddenly becomes visible and Whom you must now face. I’ve learnt that to face God is frightening, because every meeting with God is a moment of total exposure and Judgement: exposure and judgement of ourselves, of our carefully assembled idols and our horrid manipulations of the Divine realities. God is an alien Being to us, because we have turned ourselves in alien beings to Him. Thin places are dangerous places; approach them with fear, as you approach the Face of God. You are in a moment of Judgement.”

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Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh adds to a similar vein: “a Meeting face to face with God is always a moment of Judgment for us. We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned. I do not mean this in major terms of eternal damnation or eternal salvation already given and received, but it is always a critical moment, a crisis. ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘judgment.’ To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment in our lives, and thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting. Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity.”

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Turn to me,
In your good favor, all praise-worthy Theotokos;

Yet, Lev Gillet adds a different dimension, encouraging if I may add, to this discussion: “What does this manifestation [the solemn manifestation of Christ in His baptism in the Jordan] consist of? It is made up of two aspects. On the one hand, there is the aspect of humility represented by the baptism to which our Lord submits: on the other hand, there is the aspect of glory represented by the human witness that the Precursor bears to Jesus, and, on an infinitely higher plane, the divine witness which the Father and the Spirit bear to the Son. We shall look at these aspects more closely. But first of all, let us bear this in mind: every manifestation of Jesus Christ, both in history and in the inner life of each man, is simultaneously a manifestation of humility and of glory.Whoever tries to separate these two aspects of Christ commits an error which falsifies the whole of spiritual life. I cannot approach the glorified Christ without, at the same time, approaching the humiliated Christ, nor the humiliated Christ without approaching the glorified Christ. If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing Him whom Augustine delighted to call Christus humilis, and, in the same upsurge, worshipping Him who is also God, King, and Conqueror.

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13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29:13 (KJV)

 

  • Thin Places: “Thin Places,” comes from a Celtic Christian concept. The Celts believed that physical locations existed in which God’s presence was more accessible than elsewhere, places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment, “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks God. For such a ‘thin place’ for me visit my blog post on the Holy and Life-Giving Cross Orthodox parish at Lancaster.

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation on Epiphany

Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost

Or Meditation on Light(s), Baptism(s) and Conversions in our inner life

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Epiphany is not only the feast of the waters. Ancient Greek tradition calls it ‘the feast of lights’. This feast brings us, not only the grace of purification, but also the grace of illumination (in fact baptism itself was formerly called ‘illumination’). The light of Christ at Christmas was but a star in the dark night; at Epiphany it appears to us as the rising sun; it will grow and, after the eclipse of Holy Friday, burst forth yet more splendid, on the morning of Easter; and finally, at Pentecost, it will reach its full zenith. It is not only the divine light, manifested objectively in the person of Jesus Christ and in the pentecostal flame that we are concerned with; it is also the inner light, for, without absolute faithfulness to this, spiritual life wold be nothing but illusion and falsehood.

God, who had sent the Precursor to baptise with water, had said to him: “Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptiseth with the Holy Ghost”. The baptism by water is but one aspect of total baptism. Jesus himself says to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”. The baptism of the Spirit is superior to the baptism by water. It constitutes an objective gift and a different inner experience. …

 

One could say that Epiphany — the first public manifestation of Jesus to men — corresponds in our inner life to the ‘first conversion‘ (or ‘purification’). This must be understood as the first conscious meeting of the human soul with its Saviour, the moment when we accept Jesus as Master and as friend, and at which we take the decision to follow him. Easter (both the death and the resurrection of the Lord) corresponds to a ‘second conversion‘ (or ‘illumination‘) in which, confronted with the mystery of the cross, we discover what kind of death and what kind of new life this implies, and we consecrate ourselves more more deeply to Jesus Christ, through a radical change in ourselves. Pentecost is the time of the ‘third conversion‘ (or ‘union‘), which is the baptism and fire of the Spirit, the entry into a life of transforming union with God. It is not given to every Christian to follow this itinerary. Nonetheless, these are the stages which the liturgical year sets out for our endeavour.

 

By a Monk of the Eastern Church

The Year of Grace of the Lord