Monday, September 15, 2014

You are responsible for everything. - Dostoevsky

Last year I read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky and one of the lines in it has stuck with me ever since: "There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all."

I was reminded of it once again today, when a friend of mine was telling me about a lot of bad decisions she's made. It saddened me to hear it, but when I prayed for her after, I realized that perhaps God intended this as a wake up call for me. Perhaps my sinful thoughts are worse than her sinful deeds. Perhaps I am adding to the spiritual pollution we all breathe in every moment much more than her and all the people in her past combined.

Then I thought of a practical way of implementing this radical but real worldview Dostoevsky paints for us. What if every time I sin, I cause another to sin? Perhaps too often I focus on trying to convince myself that it is bad for me and bad for my relationship with God, and forget that my sin doesn't even have to be about me. We are all choking and gasping for breath in this dark grey air of pollution, and the moment I have a breath to spare, I use it on sin, and add once more to the pollution.

I think Dostoevsky would agree.  Every time I sin, whether in deed or in thought or in lack of deed or lack of thought, I cause another to sin.
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Some more quotes from The Brothers Karamazov:

Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his wife's death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands to Heaven: "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace," but others say he wept without restraint like a little child, so much so that people were sorry for him, in spite of the repulsion he inspired. It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

It is true, perhaps, that this instrument which had stood the test of a thousand years for the moral regeneration of a man from slavery to freedom and to moral perfectibility may be a two-edged weapon and it may lead some not to humility and complete self-control but to the most Satanic pride, that is, to bondage and not to freedom. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself. The man who lies to himself can be more easily offended than anyone. You know it is sometimes very pleasant to take offence, isn't it? A man may know that nobody has insulted him, but that he has invented the insult for himself, has lied and exaggerated to make it picturesque, has caught at a word and made a mountain out of a molehill- he knows that himself, yet he will be the first to take offence, and will revel in his resentment till he feels great pleasure in it, and so pass to genuine vindictiveness. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can redeem the whole world by it, and expiate not only your own sins but the sins of others.

for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.

And secondly, the stupider one is, the closer one is to reality. The stupider one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence wriggles and hides itself. Intelligence is a knave, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.

Choosing “bread,” Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find some one to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find some one to worship.

God is not in strength but in truth.

Remember, too, every day, and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, “Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee to-day.” For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not! And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you.

Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us! At some thoughts one stands perplexed, especially at the sight of men's sin, and wonders whether one should use force or humble love. Always decide to use humble love. If you resolve on that once for all, you may subdue the whole world. Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.

“There are moments when people love crime,” said Alyosha thoughtfully.
“Yes, yes! You have uttered my thought; they love crime, every one loves crime, they love it always, not at some ‘moments.’ You know, it's as though people have made an agreement to lie about it and have lied about it ever since. They all declare that they hate evil, but secretly they all love it.”


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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

First Day of School Joy

Today is the first day of the fall semester.  The day got off to a seemingly bad start for me, but I've come to realize that it is not the case that life is difficult and devoid of joy, but rather that the joy is right in front of me but my self pity keeps me from seeing it.  When I let go of trying to use my mind to rationalize things and let God show me the answers, a sea of clarity floods my mind.  So I decided to start this day with joy rather than my first world problems.  If the joys in life were self evident, life would be boring.  I'm thankful God forces us to dig deeper and look beyond the small inconveniences.  The grander picture is so much more beautiful and astounding that way.

I slept horribly last night, but I am thankful that I have a bed to sleep on, and that I don't have any morning classes.  I'm thankful I have the opportunity to sleep at night, rather than having to work a late night shift to support myself or my family.  I'm thankful I slept horribly for no particular reason, rather than having some horrible thing to be worried about, like a relative in critical condition in the hospital, or having to be on call 24 hours to take care of someone, or myself being hurt in the hospital, or someone breaking into my apartment, or being frazzled from someone trying to mug or rape me on my walk home last night, or having a recent heartbreak or death in my life causing me numerous sleepless nights.

I got up at 6:30am to go to the gym, and the gym opened a half an hour late.  Me and 20 other people's schedules and plans for the day were derailed because some guy didn't wake up early enough for his job.  But I am thankful that I have a gym to go to, that I have health that permits me to do the exercises that I do, that I have such a good outlet and healthy way to start the day, and that it was actually a pleasant reminder that I'm not the only one in the world who screws up and inconveniences people.

I left the gym in a fabulous mood.  I smiled the whole walk back home and smiled at everyone I passed.  I like having a random huge smile on my face, because then people wonder what I'm thinking about.  It startled most of them, but it was such a joy looking these people in the eyes and having them smile back, acknowledging and appreciating one another's existence rather than passing each other by as quickly as possible and pretending we don't realize there is another human being next to us with a life and mind and soul and desires and hopes and feelings just like ourselves.

I got ready for the day, and as I was making breakfast, I spilled coconut oil all over my favorite dress.  I'm thankful I have the opportunity to make a healthy breakfast, that I have the luxury of coconut oil, and that I have a cute favorite dress, that the weather permits me to wear this dress, that I have running water readily available with which I could clean and hopefully salvage my dress, that I'm a female philosophy major and therefore the majority of my classmates and professors are male who will check me out and appreciate how good I look and drool over the fact that there is a rare female specimen in their philosophy classes.  I'm also thankful that I get to fantasize about the look of awe that will appear in their faces when I say something intelligent in class.

I started frying eggs, and realized neither of my roommates nor I brought a spatula.  But one of my roommates had this flat wooden spoon thing and I was able to improvise.  I'm thankful that this was an opportunity to appreciate the small things in life.  I've never longed for spatulas before the way I did this morning.  My point of view on spatulas has been permanently altered.  Frying eggs is from now on a sublime experience.  I'm also thankful I got to improvise.

I then started frying bacon and the fire alarm went off.  I started fanning it like a maniac, but that wasn't working.  Then I saw that it actually has a silence button.  I'm thankful that I have a fire alarm to protect me, that this one has a silence button, that I have a sturdy chair to put right under it in case of future similar circumstances that will no doubt occur, and that I got to show some people in my apartment complex that yeah I'm that a boss, waking up early and making breakfast and getting to set off the fire alarm while you're probably still sleeping.

Now my breakfast is sitting cold, since I decided to write this blog post before touching it.  I'm thankful that I'm a pro at making delicious breakfast sandwiches, that I have food to eat, and that I have a blog to write on, and that I have some people willing to read the entirety of my ridiculous thoughts.  (Subscribe on the right to get an email when I post, once ever 1-2 weeks.  If you do, you will forever be engraved in my heart.)

I wonder what other inconveniences and hidden joys the rest of the day has to offer.  Maybe one of my classmates will have horrible BO.  Glory to God for all things!  Have a wonderfully joyful day everyone!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Why Stretching is Important: A Spiritual Analogy

If you know me, you know I love lifting, you know that it is an art to me, and that I read anything and everything that will help me understand the science of lifting.  I lift every day, and I dedicate more than 15 minutes of my routine to stretching.  No matter what muscle group I am working that day, I stretch every single muscle every day for at least a minute each.

Why is stretching a muscle important for strengthening the muscle?  The simplest way to explain it is that when you are lifting something heavy, you are contracting the muscle.  The muscle needs to be able to contract well and completely, and the more "stretched out" the muscle is, the more completely and efficiently it will contract.  If your muscle is not stretched out to begin with, it will have "less space" to contract, and therefore will not be strong enough to lift something heavy.

Although stretching is integral to strength training, it must be done gradually.  If normally you are not flexible and then suddenly you try to stretch far beyond your range of motion, you will probably pull a muscle.  To become more flexible, and consequently to get stronger, requires persistent stretching.  I stretch everyday, and it is still not a pleasant experience, but I am also always getting more flexible and always getting stronger.

It is the same with the spiritual life.  Besides the ways we actively try to increase our spiritual strength, there are our many circumstances and predispositions which we did not choose.  I frequently wonder at the things God has given me to endure, whether externally or internally caused.  As I get older, He stretches me further and further, and it does not get any easier.  But I know that I am getting stronger because of it.

Whenever I feel down and depressed, in a rut, like there is no way out of my problems, I always think about Job, and sometimes I go and read his story.  His story gives me hope, because God stretched him far beyond anyone.  He stretched him farther than He has stretched me and ever will stretch me, and He only stretched him so far because He knew he could handle it.  He took away everything Job had for no apparent reason.  Job knew it was not punishment for his sin, he could not possibly understand why, and the despair killed him, but he still chose not to lose sight of God.  He endured the stretch, and for that reason, when he once again contracted, God let him come back twice as strong.

It is simply the way the human body works.  We need to be stretched in order to get stronger.

A website all about stretching, with better explanations: http://www.stretchify.com/

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Thursday, August 7, 2014

Losing Sight of our Creature-hood by Monica Rizkalla

I suck at most things in life, but the one thing I can always pride myself with is picking magnificent friends.  I decided to share some of the genius of my friends on this blog.  Here is a guest post by the lovely Monica Rizkalla who blogs at seek-know-love.tumblr.com.
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All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts
-Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene VII)

Whether he knew it or not while writing, Shakespeare imparted to us one of the wisest themes of life in his excerpted poem above. Not only is life temporal—the world is a stage—but its inhabitants are mere ‘players’, or actors (and actresses).

On this stage, people take on many roles; one man may be a brother, father, friend, uncle, nephew, doctor or teacher. There is no one role that sets the entire stage, but the roles are simultaneously at work: “one man in his time plays many parts.”

On a more practical level, looking at the jobs of actors/actresses will give us a better idea of Shakespeare’s wisdom. A full-time actor is trained to assume a role and fulfill its duties; the gentlest and kindest of people may be hired to portray a tyrannical, ruthless dictator (Hitler, for example). And so, for 8-10 hours everyday, our kind actor must follow the protocol and do what a typical Hitler would do (besides actually killing an entire population). But after the allotted work time, our actor goes home and is himself again. He has taken off his role as one takes off a jacket; it was never a part of him, but merely something he did. Although our actor gained a lot of skills from playing such a role and thus, could not remove himself completely, he was never transformed into the dictator he was hired to portray.

A human being has many roles. My mother, for example, is simultaneously a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, doctor, servant, aunt, niece, child of God and much more.  Yet these roles never define her and they should never define us.

A couple of days ago a question was raised during our church’s annual camping trip about why it is that God deprives us of good things sometimes. We all pray for our jobs, careers, relationships, etc. Why is it that were sometimes left with nothing—no second option, no third option, just nothing.

Pondering this, I’ve come to realize that God’s silence has a very sublime purpose. It helps us refocus on the purpose of life and where we fit in.

First and foremost, we are God’s creation. We are, very literally, made up of him. He is our breath and our life. And so, very literally, we are nothing without him.

After being his creation, we are the many roles that social and communal life grant us. We can be mothers, fathers, friends, siblings, teachers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, students, etc. But these are all roles. Before you were a professional, you were a creation of God. Before you were a friend, you were a creation of God. From the dawn of conception, you were a creation of God. Being a creation of God is not a role; rather, it is the core of our identity because it is the only thing that does not depend on human achievement. A mother without kids is no longer a mother; a wife without a husband is not a wife; a friend without friends is not a friend; a doctor without a degree is not a doctor. However, a person with nothing and no one is still and always will be a creation of God, fashioned after Him. Everything and everyone else are mere accessories to this great reality.

If everything in life is an accessory, then not having a job right now or not being granted the good things you asked for is, likewise, an insignificant detail to this great and sublime reality.

Life is never that simple for us because our reality is distorted. For us, being a creation of God is the accessory and everything else is the bulk of who we are and why we’re here. And in this distorted reality, we are subject to the whimsical nature of circumstances, the fickle kindness and imperfect love of others, and the potentially all-consuming darkness of this world. Plunged in this imperfect world and allowing the circumstances of our lives to determine our happiness and purpose, it becomes very easy to slowly ease into a perpetual state of depression, anxiety, unhappiness and despair. As Henry David Thoreau once observed in his memoir Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

And so when we stand before God with an earthly request, it is important that we understand ourselves as mere creatures of His. In the sequence of events that characterizes the creation account in genesis, God creates man in His image and likeness, breathes life into Him, and then puts him in the Garden of Eden so that he would till the garden. Putting him in the garden was the last step.

The purpose of our creation is not to merely till the land—mere robots without souls or spirits could have done the job a million times better than we do. Our purpose is, first and foremost, to be creations of God—to become united with Him the way a creator and a creation should be. Tilling the land is just something done in between; so whether or not there is land to till does not matter.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BOOK REVIEW AND FREE EBOOK! The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus

As I promised long ago, I would include book reviews and book giveaways on this blog.  The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus is very much a worthy book to be the first one featured.  I read The Ladder during Great Lent, and it was an excellent aid in spiritual growth and understanding during the greatest spiritual season. This book is basically a cross between Unseen Warfare and Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Some people might be intimidated to read the book, thinking that one can only pick it up when seriously endeavoring to study and ascend each step at a time.  I do not think that is necessary.  What I found is that reading The Ladder gave me a little foresight in what the spiritual journey ahead looks like; it is always good to look at a map to know where one is going.

The first 8 steps were especially helpful in understanding the monastic life.  Anyone who is wondering whether monasticism is the right path for them should read at least the first 8 steps.

Steps 14, 16, and 19, which are on fasting, money, and worship in church respectively, are especially relevant for the lay believer.  Particularly interesting is that St. John in the chapter on fasting writes about indulging in food during the Holy 50 Days.

Step 4 on obedience to a monastic spiritual father and step 26 on discernment of thoughts are the longest chapters in the book.

Step 18 on hypocrisy was particularly salient for me.  It is a very helpful chapter in reflecting on one's dishonest spiritual thoughts.

Here is a link to a pdf of the book: http://www.prudencetrue.com/images/TheLadderofDivineAscent.pdf

PLEASE SHARE!
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A good book speaks for itself, so below are a few passages.  The entire book is amazing and deserves several re-reads:

Step 3 – On exile or pilgrimage
Run from places of sin as from the plague. For when fruit is not present, we have no frequent desire to eat it.
Step 4 – On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
At the gate of your heart place strict and unsleeping guards. Control your wandering mind in your distracted body. Amidst the actions and movements of your limbs, practise mental quiet (hesychia). And, most paradoxical of all, in the midst of commotion be unmoved in soul. Curb your tongue which rages to leap into arguments. 
it is better to struggle with thoughts than with conceit. 
Constantly wrestle with your thought, and whenever it wanders call it back to you. God does not require from those still under obedience prayer completely free of distractions. Do not despond when your thoughts are filched, but remain calm, and unceasingly recall your mind. Unbroken recollection is proper only to an angel. 
And I think the reason why Lot was justified was because, though living among such people, he never seems to have condemned them. 
A servant of the Lord is he who in body stands before men, but in mind knocks at heaven with prayer. 
It is impossible for those who learn a craft whole-heartedly not to make daily advance in it. But some know their progress, while others by divine providence are ignorant of it. A good banker never fails in the evening to reckon the day’s profit or loss. But he cannot know this clearly unless he enters it every hour in his notebook. For the hourly account brings to light the daily account. 
He who is running towards dispassion and God regards as a great loss any day in which he is not reviled. Just as trees swayed by the winds drive their roots deeply into the earth, so those who live in obedience get strong and unshakable souls.
Step 5 – On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison
Repentance is the renewal of baptism. Repentance is a contract with God for a second life. A penitent is a buyer of humility. Repentance is constant distrust of bodily comfort. Repentance is self condemning reflection, and carefree self-care. Repentance is the daughter of hope and the renunciation of despair. A penitent is an undisgraced convict. Repentance is reconciliation with the Lord by the practice of good deeds contrary to the sins. Repentance is purification of conscience. Repentance is the voluntary endurance of all afflictions. A penitent is the inflicter of his own punishments. Repentance is a mighty persecution of the stomach, and a striking of the soul into vigorous awareness.
Let us kill it as it has killed us.
Nothing equals or excels God’s mercies. Therefore he who despairs is committing suicide. A sign of true repentance is the acknowledgement that we deserve all the troubles, visible and invisible, that come to us, and even greater ones. Moses, after seeing God in the bush, returned again to Egypt, that is to darkness and to the brick-making of Pharaoh, symbolical of the spiritual pharaoh. But he went back again to the bush, and not only to the bush but also up the mountain. Whoever has known contemplation will never despair of himself. Job became a beggar, but he became twice as rich again.
Step 6 – On remembrance of death
Not every desire for death is good. Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility. And some, who do not want to repent, invoke death out of despair. And some, out of self-esteem consider themselves dispassionate, and for a while have no fear of death. And some (if such can now be found) through the action of the Holy Spirit long for their departure.
There are many activities for an active mind. I mean, meditation on the love of God, on the remembrance of God, on the remembrance of the Kingdom, on the remembrance of the zeal of the holy martyrs, on the remembrance of God Himself present, according to him who said, ‘I saw the Lord before me,’ on remembrance of the holy and spiritual powers, on remembrance of one’s departure, judgment, punishment and sentence. We began with the sublime, but have ended with things that never fail.
Step 7 – On mourning which causes joy
Repentance is the cheerful deprival of every bodily comfort.
He who sometimes mourns and sometimes indulges in luxury and laughter is like one who stones the dog of sensuality with bread. In appearance he is driving it away, but in fact he is encouraging it to be constantly with him.
He who in his heart is proud of his tears, and secretly condemns those who do not weep, is like a man who asks the king for a weapon against his enemy, and then commits suicide with it.
When our soul leaves this world we shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians or contemplatives. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.
Step 8 – On freedom from anger and on meekness         
If you want, or rather intend, to take a splinter out of another person, then do not hack at it with a stick instead of a lancet for you will only drive it deeper. And this is a stick—rude speech and rough gestures. And this is a lancet—tempered instruction and patient reprimand. ‘Reprove,’ says the Apostle, ‘rebuke, exhort,’ but he did not say ‘beat’. And if even this is required, do it rarely, and not with your own hand (i.e. use the agency of another).
Step 10 – On slander or calumny
Fire and water are incompatible; and so is judging others in one who wants to repent. If you see someone falling into sin at the very moment of his death, even then do not judge him, because the Divine judgment is hidden from men. Some have fallen openly into great sins, but they have done greater good deeds in secret; so their critics were tricked, getting smoke instead of the sun.
A good grape-picker, who eats the ripe grapes, will not start gathering unripe ones. A charitable and sensible mind takes careful note of whatever virtues it sees in anyone. But a fool looks for faults and defects.
Step 14 – On the clamorous, yet wicked master – the stomach
Do not be deceived: you will not be delivered from Pharaoh, and you will not see the heavenly Passover, unless you continually eat bitter herbs and unleavened bread. And bitter herbs—this is the coercion and pain of fasting; and unleavened bread—this is a mind that is not puffed up. Let this be knit to your breathing, the word of him who says: ‘But I, when demons troubled me, put on sackcloth, and humbled my soul with fasting, and my prayer stuck to the bosom of my soul.’
Step 15 – On incorruptible purity and chastity to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
Let no one thoroughly trained in purity attribute its attainment to himself. For it is impossible for anyone to conquer his own nature. When nature is defeated, it should be recognized that this is due to the presence of Him who is above nature. For beyond all dispute, the weaker gives way to the stronger.
Who has conquered his body? He who has crushed his heart. And who has crushed his heart? He who has denied himself. For how can he not be crushed who has died to his own will?
Step 16 – On love of money or avarice
The beginning of love of money is the pretext of almsgiving, and the end of it is hatred of the poor. So long as he is collecting he is charitable, but when the money is in hand he tightens his hold.
Step 18 – On insensiblity, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
He who has lost sensibility is a brainless philosopher, a self-condemned commentator, a selfcontradictory windbag, a blind man who teaches others to see. He talks about healing a wound, and does not stop irritating it. He complains of sickness, and does not stop eating what is harmful. He prays against it, and immediately goes and does it. And when he has done it, he is angry with himself; and the wretched man is not ashamed of his own words. ‘I am doing wrong,’ he cries, and eagerly continues to do so. His mouth prays against his passion, and his body struggles for it. He philosophises about death, but he behaves as if he were immortal. He groans over the separation of soul and body, but drowses along as if he were eternal. He talks of temperance and self-control, but he lives for gluttony. He reads about the judgment and begins to smile. He reads about vainglory, and is vainglorious while actually reading. He repeats what he has learnt about vigil, and drops asleep on the spot. He praises prayer, but runs from it as from the plague. He blesses obedience, but he is the first to disobey. He praises detachment, but he is not ashamed to be spiteful and to fight for a rag. When angered he gets bitter, and he is angered again at his bitterness; and he does not feel that after one defeat he is suffering another. Having overeaten he repents, and a little later again gives way to it. He blesses silence, and praises it with a spate of words. He teaches meekness, and during the actual teaching frequently gets angry. Having woken from passion he sighs, and shaking his head, he again yields to passion. He condemns laughter, and lectures on mourning with a smile on his face. Before others he blames himself for being vainglorious, and in blaming himself is only angling for glory for himself. He looks people in the face with passion, and talks about chastity. While frequenting the world, he praises the solitary life, without realizing that he shames himself. He extols almsgivers, and reviles beggars. All the time he is his own accuser, and he does not want to come to his senses—I will not say cannot.
Step 19 – On sleep, prayer, and psalm-singing in chapel
In singing with many it is impossible to pray with the wordless prayer of the spirit. But your mind should be engaged in contemplation of the words being chanted or read, or you should say some definite prayer while you are waiting for the alternate verse to be chanted.
Step 22 – On the many forms of vainglory
 It is not he who depreciates himself who shows humility (for who will not put up with himself?) but he who maintains the same love for the very man who reproaches him.
The spirit of despair rejoices at the sight of increasing vice, and the spirit of vainglory at the sight of increasing virtue. The door of the first is a multitude of wounds, and the door of the second is a wealth of labours.
Step 24 – On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
In meek hearts the Lord finds rest, but a turbulent soul is a seat of the devil.
A quiet soul makes room for words of wisdom, for the Lord will guide the meek in judgment, rather, in discretion.
Step 25 - On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling.
The foul fiend whispered praise into the heart of an ascetic who was striving for blessed humility, but by divine inspiration he contrived to conquer the guile of the spirits by a pious ruse. He rose and wrote on the wall of his cell the names of the highest virtues in order, that is: perfect love, angelic humility, pure prayer, inviolable chastity and others like these. And so when thoughts of vainglory began to praise him, he said to them: ‘Let us go and be judged.’ Then, going to the wall, he read the names and cried to himself: ‘When you possess all these, then you will know how far you still are from God!’ 
If the pride of some of the angels made them demons, no doubt humility can make angels out of demons. So those who have fallen may take courage!
Step 26 - On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
Those who have been humbled by their passions may take courage. For even if they fall into every pit and are trapped in all the snares and suffer all maladies, yet after their restoration to health they become physicians, beacons, lamps, and pilots for all, teaching us the habits of every disease and from their own personal experience able to prevent their neighbours from falling.
Vice or passion is not originally planted in nature, for God is not the Creator of passions. But there are in us many natural virtues from Him, among which are certainly the following: mercy, for even the pagans are compassionate; love, for even dumb animals often weep at the loss of one another; faith, for we all give birth to it of ourselves; hope, for we lend, and sail, and sow, hoping for the best. So if, as has been shown, love is a natural virtue in us, and is the bond and fulfilment of the law, then it follows that the virtues are not far from nature. And those who plead their inability to practise them ought to be ashamed.
All creatures have received from the Creator their order of being and their beginning, and some their end too. But the end of virtue is infinite. For the Psalmist says: I have seen the end of all perfection, but Thy commandment is exceedingly broad and boundless. If some good ascetics pass from the strength of action to the strength of contemplation, and if love never ceases, and if the Lord will guard the coming in of your fear and the going out of your love, then from this it follows that there is actually no limit to love. We shall never cease to advance in it, either in the present or in the future life, continually adding light to light. And however strange what I have said may seem to many, nevertheless it shall be said. According to the testimonies we have given, I would say, blessed Father, even the spiritual beings (i.e. the angels) do not lack progress; on the contrary, they ever add glory to glory, and knowledge to knowledge.
God is not the cause or the creator of evil, and those who say that certain passions are natural to the soul have been deceived not knowing that we have turned the constituent qualities of nature into passions. For instance, nature gives us the seed for childbearing, but we have perverted this into fornication. Nature provides us with the means of showing anger against the serpent but we have used this against our neighbour. Nature inspires us with zeal to make us compete for the virtues, but we compete in evil. It is natural for the soul to desire glory, but the glory on high. It is natural to be overbearing, but against the demons. Joy is also natural to us, but a joy on account of the Lord and the welfare of our neighbour. Nature has also given us resentment, but to be used against the enemies of the soul. We have received a desire for pleasure, but not for profligacy.
Let us constantly guard against admitting even the mere thought that we have attained to any good whatsoever; and let us keep on looking carefully to see whether this is one of our characteristics. If it is, then we shall know that we have utterly failed.
As a snake cannot strip itself of its old skin unless it crawls into a tight hole, neither can we shed our old prejudices, our oldness of soul and the garment of the old man unless we go by the strait and narrow way of fasting and dishonour.
As steel is attracted to the magnet even without meaning to be, for it is drawn by an inexplicable force of nature, so he who has contracted sinful habits is tyrannized by them.
As fire does not give birth to snow, so those who seek honour here will not enjoy it there (in heaven).
As by nature we cannot live without food, so up to the very moment of our death we cannot, even for a second, give way to negligence. 
As a blind man cannot see to walk, so a lazy man can neither see good nor do it.      
Step 27 - On holy solitude of body and soul.
Solitude of the body is the knowledge and reduction to order of the habits and feelings. And solitude of soul is the knowledge of one’s thoughts and an inviolable mind.
A friend of solitude is a courageous and unrelenting power of thought which keeps constant vigil at the doors of the heart and kills or repels the thoughts that come. He who is solitary in the depth of his heart will understand this last remark; but he who is still a child is unaware and ignorant of it.
Step 28 - On holy and blessed prayer, mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer.
Try to lift up, or rather, to shut off your thought within the words of your prayer, and if in its infant state it wearies and falls, lift it up again. Instability is natural to the mind, but God is powerful to establish everything. If you persevere indefatigably in this labour, He who sets the bounds to the sea of the mind will visit you too, and during your prayer will say to the waves: Thus far shalt thou come and no further. Spirit cannot be bound; but where the Creator of the spirit is, everything obeys.
Soiled prayer is one thing, its disappearance is another, robbery another, and defection another. Prayer is soiled when we stand before God and picture to ourselves irrelevant and inopportune thoughts. Prayer is lost when we are captured by useless cares. Prayer is stolen from us when our thoughts wander before we realize it. Prayer is spoilt by any kind of attack or interruption that comes to us at the time of prayer.
Rise from love of the world and love of pleasure, lay aside cares, strip your mind, renounce your body; because prayer is nothing other than estrangement from the world, visible and invisible. For what have I in heaven? Nothing. And what have I desired on earth beside Thee? Nothing, but to cling continually to Thee in prayer without distraction. To some, wealth is pleasant, to others, glory, to others, possessions, but my wish is to cling to God, and to put the hope of my dispassion in Him. 
Though the judge did not fear God, yet because a soul, widowed from Him through sin and a fall, troubles Him, He will avenge her of her adversary, the body, and of the spirits who make war upon her. Our good Redeemer attracts to His love those who are charitable by the quick satisfaction of their petitions. But He makes thoughtless souls remain in prayer before Him for a long time, in hunger and thirst for their petition; for an ill-conditioned cur when once it gets its bread makes off with it and leaves the giver.
Have all courage, and you will have God for your teacher in prayer. Just as it is impossible to learn to see by word of mouth because seeing depends on one’s own natural sight, so it is impossible to realize the beauty of prayer from the teaching of others. Prayer has a Teacher all its own—God---who teaches man knowledge, and grants the prayer of him who prays, and blesses the years of the just. Amen.
Step 29 - Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection.
The firmament has the stars for its beauty, and dispassion has the virtues for its adornments; for by dispassion I mean no other than the interior heaven of the mind, which regards the tricks of the demons as mere toys.
If it is the height of despondency, while living in complete peace, not to acquire patience, then it is the height of patience to think of oneself even in affliction as being at rest.
Step 30 - Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues.
And now, finally, after all that we have said, there remain these three that bind and secure the union of all, faith, hope, love; and the greatest of these is love, for God Himself is so called. The first can make and create all things; the divine mercy surrounds the second and makes it immune to disappointment; the third does not fall, does not stop in its course and allows no respite to him who is wounded by its blessed rapture.
He who says that he loves the Lord but is angry with his brother is like a man who dreams that he is running.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

My Thoughts on the Apostle's Fast

Many people who read this might not be fasting and might think I'm judging them.  Well, yes, I'm judging you, but it's because I love you.

Fasting the Apostle's fast sucks, but in many ways I think it is the most real fast.  It sucks because it is always in the summer when all you want to do is eat ice cream and barbecue.  Us Americans can't even celebrate Independence Day properly because we can never have hot dogs and burgers and funnel cakes and whatever else.  It is also after a gluttonous Holy 50 Days when we have completely destroyed our self control and forgotten all the spiritual fruits we reaped during Lent and have to start from square one.  But this is the real test of our faith, isn't it?  To abstain from our desires when it is the hardest to abstain, when the culture around us is tempting us the most not to abstain.

And really, what is the point of the Apostle's fast?  Jesus is already gone, are we doing it for the Holy Spirit or for the apostles?  Or are we doing it in the name of "mission" for the future of our church, which is an even more abstract concept?  In all cases, it is ephemeral.  Every other fast is directly related to Christ, even St. Mary's fast is more related to Christ than the Apostle's fast.  This is also a real test of our faith, when we are supposed to fast or do things for others.  It is easy to do things when we are doing it directly for God, but it is harder to do them when we are indirectly doing it for God.  And that is the bulk of our life.  Remembering that we are dealing with annoying coworkers/family members/friends and working so hard and trying our best, all for God.

Maybe during the Holy 50 Days we have to pace ourselves and prepare ourselves for the Apostle's fast, rather than blowing it off and creating our own Holy(?) 100 Days.

If you are feeling guilty for not fasting, good.  But it is never too late to start fasting.  Do not despair.  There is one more week left of the Apostle's fast, and you should fast it.  You will be glad you did it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

If you're Oriental Orthodox in the Northeast....

MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO COME TO THE SCOOCH CONFERENCE ON SATURDAY AUGUST 16, 2014!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Register here: http://www.scooch.org/2014/05/3r-annual-scooch-youth-conference/

SCOOCH is a relatively new one day conference which I attended for the first time last year, and it is BY FAR my favorite conference ever!

Even though we can attend the church services, partake of every sacrament, marry with no problem, connect with godly friends of the same faith, and so much more from our six sister Oriental Orthodox churches, how many of us actually even know other Oriental Orthodox Christians?

Do you know whether a sister church could be near where you live?

Do you even know who their bishops are?

Do you have any idea what their languages even sound like?

Let alone in hymn?

Let alone in an entire service?

Do you know how their practices differ?

How their vestments differ?

Do you even know what other Oriental Orthodox Christians look like?

Let alone how deep and similar yet different their experience of Christ and Orthodoxy is?

Have you ever had a life-size chance to look outside your own Coptic bubble and realize that Orthodoxy is much greater and realer and fuller and widespread and lovable than you ever actually imagined?

Chances are, your answer to the majority of the above questions is a guilty no.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  It can be an easy ecstatic YES!  if you come to the SCOOCH conference.

SCOOCH stands for Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches.  You will get to see a bishop from each of our sister churches, as well as many many congregants.  For the first time, Coptic people won't drown out everyone else.  You'll be able to learn about each of the other churches, play Orthodox Jeopardy, and ask the bishops anything you would like.  Let's show them some Coptic lovin' and come out to meet them and see how awesome they are!

Last year we got into small groups and really got to have intimate conversation with each other, and my my, are Armenians, Ethiopians, Syrians, Indians and Eritreans awesome!!  It is so awesome that I decided it needed a blog post and not just a million google+ and twitter shares and texts that are all repeatedly ignored.

Yes, it unfortunately conflicts with the Spiritual Festivities competition in Philly, but if you're not serving there, come! (It was the only day we could get all seven bishops in one place at the same time, a rare event to witness in and of itself!)

You will see me there.  Register at: http://www.scooch.org/2014/05/3r-annual-scooch-youth-conference/

Who else is coming?