Tag Archives: Prayer

Homily: Let Us Wait On God

Sunday, July 30, 2017: 8th Sunday of Matthew; Silas, Silvan, Crescens, Epenetus and Andronicus the Apostles of the 70, Julitta of Caesaria

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

Think about this for a moment.

How serious must the situation in Corinth have been that the Apostle Paul was grateful to God for not baptizing people? Paul’s comment in this morning’s epistle is reminiscent of what Jesus says about Judas:

The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matthew 26:24, NKJV).

Better, Jesus says, that Judas had never been born than that he betray the Son of God. Likewise, better say St Paul, that he never baptize someone–that he never exercised his apostolic ministry–than that the sacrament becomes the excuse for division in the Church.

Compare this to what we see in the Gospel.

There are gathered around Jesus “ five thousand men, besides women and children,” all of them tired, all of them hungry. And yet, while it was clear that there wasn’t nearly enough food to feed all of them–”only five loaves here and two fish”–everyone sit quietly on the grass and wait patiently to have their meal.

The difference between these two scenes could not be more stark. In Corinth, the faithful–clergy as well as laity–take their eyes off Jesus while the “great throng” in the Gospel doesn’t.

In Corinth, the faithful are divided against each other because they have lost sight of Jesus Christ while the “great throng” are able to lay aside the concerns of the body because they treasure in their hearts the Word of God.

What should especially concern us, however, is the way in which for the Corinthians the things of God become the cause of their estrangement from Christ and each other,

How does this happen? How do I become so separated from Christ that like the Christians in Corinth even the sacraments become, if I may dare put it this way, the occasion of my fall?

St Augustine (Sermon CIII) says “But you, St Martha, if I may say so, are blessed for your good service, and for your labors you seek the reward of peace.” The bishop of Hippo goes on to say that while Martha’s work in caring for Jesus was “admittedly a holy one” it was not something that would last.

Rather, he asks her to consider whether “when you come to the heavenly homeland will you find a traveler to welcome, someone hungry to feed, or thirsty to whom you may give drink, someone ill whom you could visit, or quarreling whom you could reconcile, or dead whom you could bury?”

However important, and even essential, are the things we do in this life we need to remember that “there will be none of these tasks” in the Kingdom of God. Rather like what Martha we “will find there is what Mary chose.” In the Kingdom of God “we shall not feed others, we ourselves shall be fed” by Jesus Christ the Word of God.

And so Augustine concludes “what Mary chose in this life will be realized there in all its fullness.”

And just after Jesus fed the multitude the disciples gather the leftovers, in her life Mary gathered the “fragments from that rich banquet, the Word of God. Do you wish to know what we will have there? The Lord himself tells us when he says of his servants, ‘Amen, I say to you, he will make them recline and passing he will serve them.’”

No matter how wonderful the grace we are given in this life, it is still only a foretaste of what is to come. What God gives us in this life, He gives to inspire in us a holy hunger and desire to eat and drink with Him in His Kingdom.

Listen to what Jesus tells His disciples when He catches them squabbling over who is the greatest among them:

…he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Luke 22:26-30, NKJV)

Even that which is best in this life is only an invitation to the Kingdom. When we forget this we can turn even the things of God into weapons.

And we use these weapons not simply against others but ourselves. Who among us hasn’t been made to feel ashamed by someone’s appeal to the Gospel or the tradition of the Church?

And who among us has not tried to shame another in the same way?

And who among us, having been hurt in this way or having hurt another in this way hasn’t experienced a deep wound?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us imitate the “great throng, and wait patiently for Jesus to act in our lives.

Let us imitate Mary and set at Jesus’ feet listening to Him so that, unlike Martha, we not become anxious and distracted by our many cares but instead comforted and strengthened by what God says to us (see Luke 10:38-42).

And let us finally, imitate the Most Holy Theotokos who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (see Luke 2:19).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Prayer and Falling in Love with Jesus

Psychology and the other social sciences can be a great help for those who serve young people. For example, while we might think that parents don’t have much influence in their children’s decision to remain active in the Church, all the available evidence suggests otherwise. As they grow older, children model their religious life, as they do the other areas of their lives, based on their parents’ example.

Another misconception that psychological research has helped us clear away is the idea that teenagers aren’t interested in religion and even rebel against it. In fact, most teenagers (even those who don’t participate in organized religion) have a positive view of religion. Far from rejecting religion in general (or Christianity), they see it as a good thing even if it isn’t exactly their thing.

Helpful though the research is, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce youth ministry and the spiritual formation of young people to merely a psychological process. As a social scientist, I know about kids in general but as a priest (or youth minister) my vocation is to get to know this unique kid.  And while there are many, non-religious benefits to active participation in church (what psychologists call prosocial behaviors or outcomes), the purpose of youth ministry is to introduce young people to Jesus Christ and to help them grow in that relationship within the context of the Orthodox Church.

St Seraphim of Sarov says that Prayer, fasting, vigil and every Christian work, however good it is in itself, does not constitute the goal of our Christian life, but serves as a means for its attainment. The real goal of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The real threat to the spiritual health of young people (and to the family, the parish, the diocese, and the Church) comes when we confuse the means of the Christian life with the goal of the Christian life. When this happens we end up telling kids to pursue conformity, not holiness. We end up, however unintentionally, telling kids being an Orthodox Christian is about fitting in and getting along rather than communion with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we confuse means and ends, we end up fostering pride and vainglory, not humility and charity.

So how to avoid this?

Well, it begins by remembering what I said a moment ago. Our task is to introduce young people to Jesus Christ. Or maybe better, God has called us to help young people fall in love with Christ.

So where to begin? With teaching young people to pray (here).

We have as Orthodox Christians a rich tradition of personal and liturgical prayer. Often though that tradition is unknown to the majority of adults and so most young people. For most of us (including young people), “prayer” only means attending Liturgy on Sunday. And even then, only about 30% of us are in Liturgy on a weekly basis.

As for personal prayer, I think most of us think personal prayer means reading out of a prayer book. While there’s nothing wrong with using prayer books, they formal prayers they contain are meant to teach us how to pray. For a Christian to only use a prayer book to pray to God is like a husband who only quotes poetry to his wife instead of actually talking to her about what’s on his heart and mind.

In the next few conversations, we’ll talk about how to teach and inspire young people to pray personally and liturgically so that, they too, can fall in love with Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Privacy, Silence and Prayer

As we saw in an earlier post, a spirit of inner stillness requires something from me. Simply put, I need to begin. But what, concretely, do I need to do?

To grow in alife of inner stillness I need to cultivate three basic spiritual disciplines that are both foundational to life in Christ and human flourishing more generally. The absence, indeed the general cultural indifference and hostility to them, makes beginning the spiritual life difficult.

While the life of inner stillness has always been hard, the lack of appreciation for key human values means that even Orthodox Christians are likely to misunderstand the spiritual life. This is why so many of us equate life if Christ with moralism (whether conservative or progressive) or social activity (sometimes philanthropic, sometimes liturgical).

Without inner stillness and the disciplines that support it, my life becomes superficial. I am at the mercy of ever-changing fashions and desires—my own as much as those of the people around me. So what are the disciples we need to foster? There are three:

  1. Privacy
  2. Silence
  3. Prayer

And we mustn’t forget that, important as they are, these are all in the service of something far greater: Love.

Stillness requires prayer and prayer requires silence, but silence requires privacy. So we begin by cultivating a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God. And with solitude comes a sense of atonement a state of “at one”-ment or of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions, can be hard. When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. Very quickly though they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbor’s—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated

And so Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.”

Because I am always tempted to remember and ruminate on past sins (again, mine or my neighbor’s) in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “he sinner, much less the only sinner. I am a sinner; I am a sinner surrounded by sinners and all of whom are forgiven by the mercy of God.

And so, love is right there at the very beginning of the Jesus Prayer and of our journey to inner stillness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Silence. We all have all known someone who speaks so quickly as to be incomprehensible. There are no gaps between the person’s words and so we can’t understand what’s being said. The philosopher Max Picard noticed this and drew from this experience the insight that silence isn’t the absence of speech. It is rather the gaps between words that make speech meaningful.

Or take another example, this one from history.

Like other written works at the time, the first copies of the New Testament were written in a style called “scriptura continua.” This is “a style of writing without spaces or other marks between the words or sentences.” In addition, all the words are written in all upper-case or capital letters. As you might imagine, reading these early copies of the New Testament was a chore.

So like gaps between words in a book, silence is essential for understanding.

In the spiritual life silence isn’t so much the absence of noise but the absence of fear. Fear is noisy. 

The Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian tell us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NKJV). As an aside, understanding what Apostle’s words mean in my own life is why I need a spiritual director.

The perfect love that drives our fear is not my love for God but His love for me. The great risk of the spiritual life—delusion—is imagining that my love, if not greater that God’s, is in some way equal or comparable to His when it it isn’t.

God’s love is the source from which all good things flow in silence. The fathers of the Church tell “us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence” (Verbum Domini n. 21).” St Augustine says that “When the Word of God increases, the words of men fail” (cf. Sermon 288; 5: PL 38, 1307; Sermon 120,2: PL 38,677).

Or as we hear in the Akathist, we can only stand “mute as fish before” the mystery of God’s love for us (Stanza 17).

But, as I said a moment ago, silence isn’t negative but fruitful. Silence is what helps us understand that we are loved by God. For example at the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday, we sing

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand; for the King of kings and Lord of lords comes forth, to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful.

In silence, as Fr John Breck, the “warnings of judgment are transformed into a ringing promise of salvation, as the Lord offers Himself as eucharist ‘for the life of the world.'”

Prayer. And so as privacy is transformed into solitude, and solitude gives birth to silence, silence leads us to prayer and we become able to hear God.

“Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that I don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly. I do struggle against sin—though not as much as I should—and I am treated unfairly—though not as much as I imagine.

We need to remember the words of St Porphryios:

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

This means that sin—my own or my neighbor’s—doesn’t have the last word. No, the last word is the first word and that word is LOVE.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Love is the Goal

What Spiritual Formation Isn’t

Looking back at what we seen about spiritual formation (here) and my life as a member of the Church (here), it should be clear that spiritual formation isn’t same as my prayer life (here). Yes, I should pray—and pray daily. I should read Scripture daily since “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ, as St Jerome reminds us. Likewise, it is important that I receive Holy Communion often and with proper preparation. “Unless you eat My Body and drink My Blood, you will have no life within you” (see John 6:53) but I must examine myself first since “he who eat and drinks unworthily condemns himself” (see 1 Corinthians 11:29). This is why it is so important that I go to confession; “confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Finally, a sound spiritual life requires that I take part in the other liturgical services of the Church and “not neglect the assembly” of the saints (see Hebrews 10:25).

Service to others—especially the poor—is also essential. “[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). After dismissing faith without works as the faith of demons (v. 19) the Apostle James says that works perfect our faith (v.22). But just like I can confuse spiritual formation with prayer, I can likewise simply as a kind of “baptized” professional education. Clergy, lay ministers and those who are professionally engaged in the care of others are especially prone to this. Like Martha we become “worried about many things” forgetting that “there is only one thing that is needful” (see Lk 10:38-42).

Prayer and philanthropy are the fruits of a consonant Christian formation. The more I become who I am in Christ, the more I will spontaneously reach out beyond myself to God in prayer, and my neighbor in charity. And because what I do is prompted by the Holy Spirit there will be a flexibility, a peacefulness and a gentleness to my prayer and to the assistance I offer to others. This will be especially the case when the situation is grave and I feel pushed beyond my limits.

And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how or what you re to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say (Luke 12:11-12).

Prayer and philanthropy are not just the fruit of a proper formation. They an essential part of my spiritual formation; they help me come to understand better who I am in Christ. Prayer and works of service also shape my character, they reveal hidden facets of my personality and challenge me to be the person God calls me to be. Maybe my favorite examples of this are two parts of the Divine Liturgy that we’ll look at this in my next post on formation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

When Prayer Is the Problem

Try as I might, there are times when prayer seems to lead me further away from love; sometimes it seems that prayer is the problem.

Let me suggest that this happens when I confuse spiritual formation with the life of prayer. This misconception is as common among Christians in liturgical traditions as it is non-liturgical Christians. But we need to remember that while a life of personal and communal prayer is essential to our spiritual lives, spiritual formation itself is concerned with helping a person or a community discover and incarnate their identity in Christ. Put slightly differently, formation is about vocation and not strictly speaking about devotion.

One of the most important parts of my day is the time I spend with the Psalter and reflecting on Scripture. My life of personal prayer is nourished by the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion and my participation in the other sacraments of the Church. Vespers and Matins (communal evening and morning prayer) are also important parts of my prayer life.

Just as communal prayer sustains my personal prayer, the personal prayers also helps shape my experience of communal prayer. Personal (in the sense of private) prayer fosters in me an awareness of the depth, beauty and wisdom of the Church’s liturgical tradition. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how personal and communal prayer—like grace and freedom—are the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

The formal, liturgical prayer of the Church purifies my personal prayer. As I reflect on the vision of the human person embodied in the Church’s hymnography, I am better able to distinguish what in my prayer life is of lasting significance. This in turn helps me understand what in my prayer is merely transitory. Maybe most importantly, the Church’s liturgical tradition helps me see what in my prayer life is immature and even sinful.

Without liturgical prayer, my personal prayer lacks a firm foundation in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11, 2 Timothy 2:19). At the same time, I can’t depend on liturgy to carry the whole weight. When I neglect personal prayer, liturgy becomes merely a religious performance (or worse). In the Cherubic Hymn, we say that we “mystically represent the cherubim”; like the angels, the Church gathers around the Throne of the Lamb that was slain and offers Him worship and praise (Revelation 5 and Colossians 1). This is what we mean when we say that the Church’s formal worship is sacramental.

Sacramental worship isn’t magic it is prophetic, because it is a revelation (mysterion or “revelation”; see Ephesians 5: 32) here and now of who we will be in the Kingdom of God. Together with ascetical struggle, daily prayer is how I bring the whole of my life into greater conformity with the life of Heaven, with who I will one day be in Christ. Personal prayer helps me take captive not only “every thought” but my whole life for Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:5). Personal prayer is about becoming the person I claim to be in liturgical prayer.

All of this is lost on me without a sound spiritual formation. If I have no sense of who I am in Christ or if I don’t strive to be the person God has created me to be, then prayer—personal or liturgical—will never be more for me than a rote exercise. The tragedy of merely routine prayer (private or liturgical) is I come to prefer the words I say to who I am. Over time this leads me away from God, my neighbor and myself; I become rigid, lonely and angry. Consonant spiritual formation is part of how we avoid this situation.

And more importantly, spiritual formation lays the foundation I need to correct it when prayer becomes the problem.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Remembrance of God

Sunday, July 26, 2015: The Holy Righteous Martyr Paraskeva of Rome & Eighth Sunday of Matthew

Hieromartyrs Hermolaus, Hermippus, and Hermocrates of Nicomedia; Venerable Gerontios, first settler of St. Anne skete on Athos; Moses the Hungarian; Sabbas III, archbishop of Serbia; Priest Jacob Netsvetov, enlightener of the peoples of Alaska

St Ignatius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

EPISTLE: Galatians 3:23-4:5
GOSPEL: Matthew 14:14-22

Sometimes God will ask me to do something and, like the disciples in this morning’s Gospel, I say I can’t. This happens because I forget that God doesn’t ask anything from us without first preparing us. From all eternity, God has lead not only the whole human family but each of us to respond to Him in love.

This is the point the Apostle Paul is making in his epistle. Human history is the record of human achievement and failure. Much less is it a random series of events. No, at is core human history is the record of God’s overtures to the human heart. Yes there are many instances of failure—my own chief among them—but more importantly still, it the record of God’s offer of forgiveness again and again the face of my sinfulness. Like Adam, I hide from God; like Abraham, I doubt God’s promise; like Moses, my obedience is imperfect; like Israel my fidelity is often found lacking especially in moments of crisis.

And yet for all this, God remains faithful.

Try as I might to limit His fidelity—to deny that He extends forgiveness to this person or that—He remains faithful to the Jew as well as the Greek, to women and to men, to the powerless as much as the powerful. God doesn’t forgive me, He forgive us all, working even on the Sabbath to free us from our self-imposed slavery to sin and death. And of course, He remains faithful to me, calling me, wooing and inviting me to become more fully myself by becoming more fully like His Son.

But, like I said, I look at the work that God asks me to do and I say I can’t, I don’t have the material resources, the personal ability or the social status needed; I always have my reasons for saying no. This happens because I’m all too prone to forget what He has done not just for me but for you, and you and every person who has—or will—walk the earth.

This forgetfulness afflicts the disciples in this morning’s Gospel. They have already forgotten the miracles that they’ve seen. They will even forget that Jesus feed the 5,000 when, in just a little while, Jesus again tells them to feed the 4,000 (see Matthew 15:32-16:10).

Most all though this, this forgetfulness is my affliction.

This why I need the rhythm of feasts and fast that make up the liturgical cycle of the Church. Essential those these are, I also need to habit of daily prayer and the reading of Scripture. Without both the communal and the personal, my spiritual life is unbalanced. On the one hand, without the guidance and structure of the liturgy, personal prayer and study of Scripture becomes eccentric as they more and more come to be dominated by my own otherwise legitimate concerns. On the other hand, without personal prayer and reflection on the Scriptures, liturgy becomes, at best, merely a performance. A religious motivated and theologically sound performance to be sure but still one that remains external to my heart.

Finding this balance, this rhythm between the personal and communal is always a challenge because we are always changing. We are none of us quite the same person we were yesterday, even as we will be a little different tomorrow.

This is not, as the saying goes, a bug in the system but a feature. Change is inherent I being a creature. St Gregory of Nyssa says that it is only through constant, often almost imperceptible, change that we can become like the God Who never changes. For us as creatures, the saints says, perfection is this: To change and change frequently.

This isn’t change for its own sake but rather reflects our vocation to become more and more like Christ. If I forget that this process is guided by the grace of God and that I am striving to acquire the Holy Spirit to become more like Christ, the constant changes that are part of life will overwhelm me. Rather than being a graced invitation to become more like Christ, I will see change—even good changes—as a threat, as just one more thing that unsettles my life.

And I will see the requests that God makes of me not as an opportunity to grow in love but something else altogether different. A revelation not of who I can become but of my failure, my inadequacies, my worthlessness. Forgetful of God and His love, the Christian life becomes a series of pointless trials and the Gospel merely one more oppressive ideology not better, and in some ways much worse, than any other.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, both the Epistle and the Gospel remind us that God stands with us to support and sustain us in all that He asks us to do. We need to be mindful of His Presence. We also need to resolve with the help of His grace to change and change frequently in obedience to His call for our lives. Such changes are not an abandonment in what is essential—of the “faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. (Commonitory ch. II, §6; NPNF Series II Vol. XI p. 132). It is rather a matter of first laying aside my own sinfulness and sinfulness dispositions. Then, building on this, I must also lay aside “earthly things” in pursuit of “heavenly gifts; for temporal, eternal; for corruptible, incorruptible” according to the measure of God’s grace for my life.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory