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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
The Orthodox Life
By Fr. Demetrios Carellas (a homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy).
From the standpoints of scientific, technological, and medical achievements, our nation has witnessed many extraordinary advancements over the past 50 years: space travel, cell phones, credit cards, the internet, discovery of cures for a variety of diseases, organ transplants and laser surgery are a few of these man-created wonders available to us. And at the rate technology has progressed in the last 5 years, we can expect even more such human wonders.
Unfortunately, other than superficially, all of these so-called benefits to mankind have had very little impact on improving our relations with one another. On the contrary, things have become much worse over the past 50 years—especially in the United States, where love of God is being overtaken by love of pleasure, love of convenience, and love of materialism.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are living in a society in which the prince of this world—the evil one—has been able to establish a new religion; and its spread—throughout both the soul of our nation in general, and the souls of the individual citizens in particular—has reached epidemic proportions. I am referring to the new form of paganism known as secular humanism. Furthermore, this neo-paganism is far more dangerous than its prototype of false human and animal-like gods. The items which Satan would have us worship today are such things as: our jobs; our worldly knowledge; our bodies and their apparel; our possessions; major sporting events; our leisure time; hedonism; other people, even our own egos. And when we center our lives upon one or more of these worldly objects, we take our focus off the “one thing needful,” which is to worship God in spirit and in truth.
The politically correct, secular humanistic mindset is continuously replacing principles and truth with compromises and falsehood. Thus, we find ourselves living within: a society which hastens to establish strict laws to protect the polar bear or the manta ray, but turns an indifferent ear to the silent screams of several thousand innocent babies being slaughtered in hospitals and abortion chambers everyday; a society in which the darkness of sin is now honored as light; a society which is perpetually in search of new ways to pamper and rejuvenate the human body, which is destined for burial and foul-smelling decomposition, but has no concern for the immortal human soul; a society with plenty of external form, but greatly lacking in internal essence.
Since you and I find ourselves daily within this very anti-Orthodox, anti-Christian environment, we may often lose sight of the new life given to us when we emerged from our common Mother’s womb, the Baptismal Font. Perhaps we often become so involved with the cares of this temporary life, that we lose awareness of the priceless treasure of God’s heavenly Kingdom, which is hidden within our hearts. Our souls need healing from the wounds of the demons’ darts, so that we can return to living that reborn life “of water and the Spirit.” By doing this, we are returning to Him, Who, for our sakes: took upon our flesh, being born in a cave and placed in a manger of straw amongst animals; had no place to lay His head; was falsely accused, beaten, spat upon, crowned with thorns, given vinegar to drink and pierced with a spear. O my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, how infinite is His love for us! With His outstretched arms upon the Tree of Life, He personally seeks to embrace each one of us, calling us into communion with Him, having shed His precious Blood to wash away our sins and grant us the grace to spend eternity with Him in Paradise!
The key, however, both to the healing of our souls and the return to our new life, can be found only within the Bride of Christ, Our Holy Orthodox Church. As our common Mother, She continually invites us to nourish our souls and bodies with the pure milk of Her Christ-centered life, a life whose core is both Mystical and ascetical. Such a life, while it is in direct opposition to this secular humanistic culture, is nevertheless its only hope for cure. But in order for the Mystical-ascetical life of Holy Orthodoxy to heal our nation, it must first heal each of us. In other words, you and I must become daily practitioners of the Orthodox way of life, so that our Lord Jesus, through His Church, can mold us into living vessels of His Mystical grace.
Thanks be to God for our Church Fathers, who—through the guidance of the Holy Spirit—have provided us with this glorious 40-day period of fasting, to help us return: from an outward existence centered on worldly cares, to an inward life centered on Christ. Otherwise, how could we begin to experience the true essence of our Lord’s awesome Passion and glorious Resurrection? Unfortunately, many, if not most, of us do not put our hearts into this sacred period that is provided for the healing of our souls. This year’s journey officially begins with the Forgiveness Sunday Vespers; and I wonder if even 10% of our Orthodox faithful in America will be present in their respective churches to hear the words of this Spirit-filled hymn: Let us set out with JOY upon the season of the Fast, and prepare ourselves for spiritual combat. Let us purify our soul and cleanse our flesh; and as we abstain from food, let us abstain also from every passion. Rejoicing in the virtues of the Spirit, may we persevere with love; and so be counted worthy to see the solemn Passion of Christ our God, and - with great spiritual gladness - to behold His Holy Pascha.
How can I be so bold as to assume only a tiny percentage of Orthodox Christians will hear these words during that Sunday evening? Because it is safe to conclude that the great majority who will attend are souls that know—within their hearts—they need forgiveness. And since very few Orthodox Christians regularly confess their sins before their spiritual father (how many even have a spiritual father?!), why would they take time to attend a Forgiveness Sunday Vespers?
Judging by the terrible state of the world today, we could indeed be nearing the Second Coming of Christ. Therefore, I think we all need a “wake-up” call, before it is too late. This one sentence from the teachings of an Athonite Elder of blessed memory, Elder Paisios, is a good start: Today we continue to call ourselves Orthodox Christians, but we do not live Orthodox lives. What does it mean to live an Orthodox life? In simple terms, we must become—in our thoughts, words, and actions—the Gospel of Jesus Christ! And the Mystical-ascetical life of our Faith leads us to our personal incarnation of this Divine Revelation of God, which was: preached by the Holy Apostles; confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils; explained and handed down, through Apostolic Succession, by our God-bearing Church Fathers; and kept pure and unadulterated by the blood of our holy Martyrs.
I will share with you, ever so briefly, two items that are required of us, if we are to truly experience the Orthodox life:obedience and truth. St. John of the Ladder tells us that obedience is the tomb of the will, and the resurrection of humility. The Great Fast can serve as an excellent teacher of obedience for us. During this time, the Church calls upon us to fast from meat, dairy products and fish for 40 days and all of Holy Week. Everyone here in this church, from age 12 to senior citizen, who does not have a health problem that requires certain foods in their diets, can (and should) do this. In addition, it is certainly within our power—our will—to practice some of the other forms of fasting necessary during this time: limiting significantly the time we spend watching TV, the DVD, listening to secular music, playing video games or being on the internet; choosing not to go to movies, dances and other social events; struggling to place more control on our passionate desires, such as lust, anger, envy, and disrespect towards others, especially loved ones. The hours of extra time that we will have each week could then be devoted to feeding our souls through more prayer, worship, and reading from the Bible, the lives of the Saints and the writings of the Church Fathers. I entreat all of us to do these things, even though we may have no desire for this at the present time in our life. As St. Theophan the Recluse reminds us: You have termed unwilling obedience [to be] “mechanical obedience.” In actual fact, the only kind of obedience that effectively shapes our character is obedience performed against our own will and our own ideas. If you do something because that is the way your heart is inclined, where is the obedience? You are merely following your own will and your own tastes… But in true obedience, you obey without seeing the reason for what you are told to do; and in spite of your own reluctance.
So let us start at this very moment to observe all of the different fasts in which our Church calls for us to participate during the days of our journey to Holy Week and Pascha; and thus we will begin to entomb our wills, so that our humble Lord Jesus’ presence can be resurrected within us. Although it will be difficult to say “no” to our desires, the benefits gained will be both glorious and eternal. Perhaps the following example will help us to understand this. If I were a prisoner in one of Russia’s concentration camps during Stalin’s era, then I would have to eat the disgusting food served there. At first, my system would continuously vomit the fowl-smelling, bug-infested food. In time, however, my system would adjust to eating this disgusting hash, so that my body would not starve to death. If, after several years of this diet, I gain my freedom and immediately try to down a big steak with all the trimmings and a fabulous dessert, my body would rebel and vomit the good food; but soon, by trying to eat small and less heavy quantities of good food, my system would return to normal. In like manner, our souls were created to feast on the good foods of: worshipping Christ, prayer, reading His Gospel and other spiritual books, and trying to practice the virtues in the trenches of our daily lives. If, however, we choose to feed it primarily with worldly activities and the carnal passions, then it, like our bodies in a concentration camp, adjusts to “eating” such things as: hours of TV or internet, reading secular novels, gossiping, being envious or judgmental of others, fulfilling lustful desires, and having angry outbursts towards our spouses, our parents, our children. By forcing ourselves to abstain from eating meat, dairy products and fish—by forcing ourselves to: turn off the TV and computer, so that we can read the Paraklesis to Panaghia or the Small Compline; put down the secular magazines and novels, so that we can read God’s Word and the lives of the Saints; stop gossiping and limit our idle chatter, so that we can say the Jesus Prayer more often—then: our soul will begin to re-discover its true appetite; we will begin to lose our excessive desires for the things of this world; and we will yearn instead to feast on the spiritual foods that fill our hearts with joy, the joy, our Lord tells us, that no one can take away!
Together with obedience, it is imperative that we also have truth, the one, infallible Truth that is expressed in the dogma, teachings, worship, and everyday life of our Holy Orthodox Church. In today’s politically correct society, there seems to be an aversion for any kind of truth, especially the Divine Truth that is present within our Faith. How many times have we heard people say, even Orthodox Christians, such things as: “We all worship the same God”? What a demonic statement! The Word of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, took our flesh upon Himself to bring us God’s Truth and to die on the Cross so that His precious Blood could wash away our sins. How then can those religions that deny He is the True God—that deny that God is both One in essence and Three in persons—be worshipping the same God? Furthermore, the Church is One, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of our Holy Orthodox Faith. Is Christ divided? Of course not! Then why are there over 22,000 protestant denominations and new ones are being created everyday? Since they broke away from the Church 1,000 years ago, why has the Roman Catholic Church added such heretical teachings as Papal infallibility, Purgatory, and the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary. Let me express this in another way. If you believe, for example, that the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary gave birth to other children, then your christ cannot be the True Christ; or if you accept that one Bishop can singularly make infallible teachings that must be believed in order to be saved, then your christ cannot be the True Christ.
During the Great Fast, let us carefully examine our current relationship to this revealed Truth of God that resides in our Church. Have our words or actions ever compromised, diluted, even denied this Truth? Then we need to go confess these sins to our spiritual father, so that we can be forgiven and healed from the grave wounds such actions place within our souls. In Orthodox countries, such as Greece, Russia and Serbia, the blood of millions of martyrs saturates the ground, filling the very land and air with Orthodox DNA. These men, women and children chose horrible tortures and physical death, rather than denial of their Faith; and now they are part of that “great cloud of witnesses” that are interceding for us, who continue to struggle down the narrow path, so that we can be with them in God’s heavenly Kingdom. Perhaps we are on the threshold of the era of martyrdom in our own country. How many of us are ready to add Orthodox DNA to the air we breath and the land upon which we dwell, by shedding our blood for God’s Truth? We can begin to prepare ourselves for such a sacred honor—if God so wills it upon us—by starting tonight to avoid saying or doing anything that would compromise or deny the One True Faith that we received as a gift, when we emerged from the “womb of the Church.”
Before we conclude, I feel it necessary to make some clarifications. By making the above statements, I am in no way implying that only Orthodox Christians can be saved. I am saying, however, that salvation can only be granted through God’s One True Church. Furthermore, I readily concede that most people in the various other religions and Christian formations are better people than I am. However, they cannot have the True Faith until they rebuke their various heresies and embrace the One True Church through Baptism and Chrismation.
My brethren, I beg your forgiveness for anything that this wretched sinner and unworthy priest may have said that has caused you offense. The sad reality is that, while I often proclaim the true patristic teachings of our Holy Faith, such teachings are given in combination with my hypocrisy and shallowness of belief. Therefore, my sinfulness may cause them not to reach your precious souls in their true form. Entreat our Lord to forgive me for this, and to allow His word to reach you in spite of me. All I know is that it is time for all of us Orthodox Christians, clergy and laity, to both resist and rebuke the worldly sights and cacophony that seek to lead us away from obedience to—and confession of—God’s Truth, as it has been handed down to us through Holy Tradition.
Remember in the mythological story of Ulysses how he commanded his crew to tie him firmly to the mast of the ship, so that he would not succumb to the alluring calls of the Sirens, and thus guide himself and his crew to destruction? Unlike Ulysses, we are living souls; and the Sirens that we face are very real. Each day we are confronted by their soul-destroying sounds of secular humanism, and the false claims that all faiths worship the same God, that no Church is the unique source of God’s revealed Truth. Through these demonic Sirens, the evil one seeks to entice us to imitate Esau and sell our birthright of Paradise for the “porridge” of worldly pleasures and spiritual falsehoods.
Let us not become despondent, my brethren. Help is at hand! Let us entreat our Lord Jesus to give each of us the grace never to leave His one Ship, our Holy Orthodox Faith, as we continue our journey on the fetid sea of this temporal life. That Divine grace is guaranteed, provided we daily struggle to become more obedient to His Church and more tenacious in confessing—through our words and actions—the Truth that He has given to Her. Let us also, through the prayers, worship services, and Spirit-filled teachings of the Holy Church Fathers, seek to be bound firmly to the ‘Mast’ of this Holy Ship, which is none other than the very Cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In this way, we will remain firmly within the Heavenly “Ark” of Holy Orthodoxy; which will take us together into the Divine Harbor of God’s limitless love, because we will no longer be simply called Orthodox Christians, but we will be living theOrthodox Life!
Grant this, O Lord!