Information on how to live the Orthodox way of life from the Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. This blog offers Articles and information about how to live an Orthodox Christian life. This includes prayer, fasting, repentance, holy communion and the other sacraments of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It has but few words, yet they embrace everything. From days of old, it has been known that the habit of this prayer can supplant all other prayers. And is there anyone zealous of salvation who is not familiar with this prayer? Great is the power of this prayer, according to the holy fathers. Yet, in fact, we see that not all who practice this prayer partake of its power; not all get to taste its fruits. Why is this? Because they want to appropriate what belongs to Gods gift and is the work of the grace of God. To begin to repeat this prayer in the morning, in the evening, while walking or lying down, at work or at leisure, is our doing: no special help from God is needed. Working at that, one can reach the point at which the tongue will repeat the prayer even without our being aware of it. A certain calming of thoughts may follow, as may a certain warming of the heart; but all this will be, as the monk Nikephoros remarks in the Philokalia, the doing and the fruit of our own efforts. To stop at this point would be the same as being satisfied with the ability of a parrot to pronounce certain words, even ones such as “Lord, have mercy.” The benefit of this will be that you will assume that you have something, while you have absolutely nothing. This happens to those who, while acquiring the habit of this prayer insofar as it is up to us, are not granted the awareness of its essence.
Not realizing that, they remain satisfied with the above-mentioned initial natural signs of its action, and stop seeking. But in one in whom this awareness awakens, the seeking does not stop. Rather, seeing that no matter how much he intensifies his following the advice of the elders, the fruits he expects do not appear, he discontinues any expectation of fruit from his own efforts, and puts all his hope in God. When this occurs, then grace is given the opportunity to act. Grace comes at its own moment and grafts the prayer to the heart. Then, as the elders say, everything will he the same on the outside, but not the same in Inner power.
What has been said about this prayer is applicable to any manifestation of spiritual life. Take an angry person, and suppose he is seized by a strong desire to eliminate his anger and acquire meekness. In books about asceticism there are directions on how to behave to achieve this. He learns all of it and begins to follow the instructions. How far can he get with his own efforts? No further than to silence his mouth when angry, with some taming of the anger itself, but to eliminate anger completely and install meekness in his heart — that far he will never get by himself. This happens only when grace appears and grafts meekness to the heart.
And thus it is with respect to everything. Whatever fruit of the spiritual life you seek, seek it with all your strength, but do not expect anything from your search and exertion. Pour out before God your affliction, without ascribing anything to yourself, and He shall bring it to pass (Ps 36:5). Pray: I desire, I am seeking, but quicken Thou me through Thy righteousness. The Lord has ordained that without Me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). And in spiritual life, this law is carried out precisely, without the slightest deviation from that which has been ordained.
Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 114-115
When Jesus tells us to love God with our whole heart, what does He mean? Theodore the Ascetic answers in this way:
Whatever a man loves, he desires at all costs to be near to continuously and uninterruptedly, and he turns himself away from everything that hinders him from being in contact and dwelling with the object of his love. It is clear therefore that he who loves God also desires always to be with Him and to converse with Him. This comes to pass in us through pure prayer. Accordingly, let us apply ourselves to prayer with all our power; for it enables us to become akin to God. Such a man was he who said: O God, my God, to You I rise early at dawn; my soul has thirsted for You (Ps 63:1). For the man who cries to God at dawn has withdrawn his intellect from every vice and clearly is wounded by divine love. (From Theodore the Ascetic, Spiritual Chapters 94, Philokalia 2:35.)
Truly loving God is all consuming. There is nothing more important. When we love God with our whole hear we long for the time of prayer. We never miss the opportunity to attend the Divine Liturgy to be in communion with Him to partake of Holy Communion. Prayer and Liturgy are the foundation of living an Orthodox way of life. Our love of God constantly draws us to seek to be close to Him. We will without hesitation make a sound prayer rule that we eagerly fulfill each day even if we are busy our tired. We arrange our work schedule so we can participate in the Divine Liturgies being offered in our community.
In Psalm 63 (LX 62) David expresses his love by saying, My soul has thirsted for You; how often my flesh has longed for you, in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.
We can only imagine the level of thirst one must experience when in the middle of a desert where water is rare and often quite distant. This intense thirst one would experience there is just like the intensity of our desire to be in communication and in Communion with Him when we love Him with our whole heart. Our intense love is the same as the thirst one would have in a desert land, parched and impenetrable.
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith by Aimilianos of Simonopetra, p4
When I read the morning Psalms and get to the following verse from Psalm 103, my attention intensifies.
As for man, his days are like the grass; he blossoms like a flower of the field; For the wind passes over it, it is gone, and will no longer know it’s place.
I am attentive because it brings me face to face with my mortality. It reminds me of the numerous times I was blessed to visit Japan during their cherry blossom festival. The cherry flower is very beautiful and it lasts for only a short time. When in bloom the people there take time off from their busy lives to gatherer under the numerous cherry trees and celebrate life. It is understood that the cherry blossom is a symbol of our life. It is beautiful, delicate and lasts for a very short time, only to be blown away in the breeze to never be known again. It reminds me that we Christians do not just celebrate life thinking it’s ends with our physical death, but we have joy knowing that, unlike the cherry blossom, there is a life beyond this life. Our life does not end.
The next verse of the Psalm reads,
But the mercy of the Lord is from age to age unto them that fear Him, and His righteousness is upon the sons of sons.
David is writing this Psalm to lift us up to the reality of our eternal life. He transforms the previous verse into one of joy and hope.
Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra writes on these verses,
Though his life on earth is tragic, man will live. God’s hands shall lovingly take up the dust of earth, and the fleeting and the finite will be wedded to the eternal and the infinite. The life that ends in death will be given new life, and that which appeared to vanish forever shall reappear in eternity...And because God will never cease to exist, the human person will also exist ‘from age to age’, so closely bound together are divinity and humanity.
This daily reminder of the cherry blossom, it’s beautiful but brief life, always awakens my soul and is immediately nurtured with the reminder of the life to come as the Psalm is read. This life to come, I am sure, will be a glorious life even more beautiful than the cherry blossoms, united with the glory of God, Christ Himself, in His Eternal Kingdom.
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 287-289.
He knows what we are made of. He remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103.14)
Everything God has created comes from the elements we find in the physical world. They are cosmic, the result of star dust. Out of nothing, God has created everything. Humans were formed from the earth or dust. What is significant here is that God knows we are but dust. Because we are the pride of His creation, but yet only dust, He is most merciful. So how will He judge us?
Elder Aimilianos in his commentary says,
Will He judge me according to the mud and clay from which I have been formed? No. He will judge me according to His love, He will look upon us in the light of what we are made. He knows that, being vessels of clay, we are fragile, like the pitcher that breaks at the fountain and quickly returns to dust (cf. Ecc 12:1).
We must not forget the foundation of our mortal life, a form and life given to us by God. He is continually shaping us to become more perfect, like Christ. He will forget how He formed us for the purpose of perfecting us. Everything He does for us, every struggle we face, are done our of His love and hope of our perfection. Knowing where we have come from He is sympathetic and compassionate towards us.
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 285-286.
The path for a God pleasing life can be found in the first eight verses of Psalm 118.
The first three verses call us to blessedness. It involves a path, a way, that is according to God’s law.
Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.Blessed are they that search out His testimonies; with their whole heart shall they seek after Him.For they that work iniquity have not walked in His way.
Saint Ambrose says,
He who walks blamelessly in the law of the Lord never stops walking on this path. To avoid losing blamelessness, he does not deviate either to the right or the left; he does not look around, he does not stand still, as if waiting for something, but moves ahead, ‘forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before..., directing his way towards a known destination, ‘for the prize of high calling' (Phil 3:13,14).
We must seek and search out God’s testimonies, His law. We can begin intellectually and then follow by deed. However, we cannot remain satisfied with our own intellectual theories about God’s law and be satisfied with only our understandings. Experimentation like in science is necessary, advises Saint Theophan. He says,
Those who are satisfied with only this type (intellectual) of knowledge cannot be called blessed.
But there will come a time during intellectual studies that grace will raise a desire to put them into action. He says,
All the previously accumulated knowledge from God’s word will serve as ready material for the formation of the inner man...
Once we begin to experiment we must never waver making His word our law. He says those on the path to blessedness study God's law,
“feed themselves on it, and make it a law for themselves to do or to undertake only what has its testimony in the word of God.
Those who seek will become blessed. He further says,
The unswerving fulfillment of the commandments leads to purification of the heart. A pure heart opens to a mind a window into the spiritual life, and it observes there objects, just like the eye looks at things externally visible...
Begin by reading God’s word with the intent of following it.
These next two verses of the Psalm show the forces of zeal and grace will be aroused:
Thou hast enjoined Thy commandments, that we should keep them most diligently. Souls that my ways were directed to keep Thy statues.
Patriarch Anthimos says,
Such diligent observance, [as outlined in the previous verse], requires us to keep the commandments with all our effort and constant zeal, without grumbling or distraction. In this zeal we need to be careful that both our heart and mind are congruent with our actions. Our works must be genuine and not forced.
Saint Theophan says,
”Continuous, ardent zeal for the keeping of God’s commandments, beyond any doubt, is the work of God’s Grace.”
This grace will not help if we dot respond with our own efforts. Saint Theophan says,
“It is the union of freedom and grace that accomplish the task. We cannot rely only on our own will but be watchful for the help of God’s grace,"
The next three verses guide us in what is necessary for progress in the God pleasing life. The key elements are attention, diligence, and courage. The Psalm:
Then shall I not be ashamed, when I look on all thy commandments.I will confess Thee with uprightness of heart, when I have learned the judgments of Thy righteousness.I will keep Thy statues; do not utterly forsake me.
The Psalmist highlights that when we deviate from the path we have chosen, we have regret and shame that we have allowed ourselves to be misled. This points us to the critical need for attentiveness. Saint Theophan says,
One must watch what occurs inside, what has occurred, and what is expected.
Only with attention can mistakes be avoided. To live by the commandments as required by a God pleasing life, we need to be attentive to all the teachings and how we put them into action.
Saint Augustine says,
Whether you read, or bring God’s commandments to mind, you should, according to apostle James, look as into a mirror, to be not hearers only, but doers (Jas 1:22-23).
In addition to attention we need to acquire dilegence, the habit “of recognizing the judgements of God’s righteousness.” These are “God’s decisions and determination as to what ought to be done...” This habit is acquired gradually.
Saint Theophan says,
Being thus under the scrutiny of God’s eyes, we cannot act haphazardly, but should consider what in fact God does want from us, in this or that situation, and act accordingly. Strict attention to the circumstances of our own life, and reacting to them in a spirit of selfless devotion to God's will, at last gives us the habit of determining correctly God’s intentions for us.
We also need courage to be successful. Saint Theophan says,
“Without courage, one cannot begin such a life, as it is full of difficulties and surrounded by enemies of salvation.”
This courage comes from our hope in the Lord knowing that He will protect those who choose to walk this path. The Saint writes,
The enthusiastic courage of the beginner on the path of pleasing God can have no other meaning. He is not inspired by his own presumption, but by a strong trust in God and the conviction that he is already walking or will be walking in the right way, knowing these are God's ordinances which are right; that is the Lord's law, which is blameless; that this is the Lord’s testimony which is true (Psalm 18:8-9).
In simple form, the beginning of Psalm 118 shows us the general path for a God pleasing life and our salvation.
Reference: Psalm 118: A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 9-30.
If so, your conscience will immediacy demand that your whole being abide by all of God's commandments, whether large or small. If not, you will not feel this obligation or desire and pick only those commandments that you agree with or find easy to live by. The challenge is have His commandments in your heart and not be some outward set of standards.
“In my heart have I hid Thy sayings that I might not sin against thee.” Psalm 118:11
Psalmist David is saying that the commandments are not some kind of exterior force compelling him, but that this force is inside him. He had taken them to his heart and loves them. Therefore he can only think of actions according to his heart and do them.
Saint Theophan says,
When commandments are in the heart, they are fulfilled with diligence, and in the most beautiful and attractive way.
The reality is for most of us we have not yet made this full commitment to live a God pleasing life.
Saint Theophan says further,
The commandments say: be humble, meek; love truth; be pure, peaceful, patient, etc; yet the heart is sometimes proud and vain, at other times angry and hateful; at other occasions it becomes passionate and filled with desires; at other times it squabbles and grumbles, and so on....
As long as this is our condition we cannot say the commandments are hidden in our heart and it indicates that we have not committed to a God pleasing life.
What should we do in this case? Saint Theophan offers the following advice:
At first one should act in spite of the heart, only at the insistence of the conscience, through the strength of a reasonable will supported by God’s Grace, bending oneself, so to speak, to the task of the commandments, as a heated rod is bent into the shape that is needed... The more efforts and experience gained in fulfilling the commitments, the more they enter into the heart, until they all find themselves a dwelling place there.
Saint Theophan says we need God’s grace, but with only our efforts and good deeds, grace will not help us change the nature of our heart. He says it will leave it as it is “with all its passionate tastes and attractions, even though a person may have been baptized and partakes of other Sacraments.”
The law of spiritual life dictates that what a person does not struggle for will not be given by God's grace, although with his own efforts alone he will not succeed in anything.
Like it says in the Psalm, it is only when the commandments are hidden in the heart, filling its contents, that the heart and conscience will work together so one can live a God pleasing life.
Reference: Psalm 118: A commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 36-39
“He will not be angry unto the end, neither will He be wrathful forever” (Psalm 103:9)
What would it mean if God never got angry with us? What does it imply if we never get angry with our children? Doesn’t this mean that there is no love? Don’t we feel a bit angry at time when those we love disappoint us in their behavior? Shouldn’t we be angry at evil? Surly there are time when it’s necessary to rebuke or correct those we love.
Elder Aimilianos says in his commentary on this passage,
A God who never got angry would be a God without love; He would be like an unfeeling father who merely tolerates or ignores his children long enough until they’re grown up and gone.
But, we must remember that God is also merciful if we make and effort to correct our errant ways. He wants us to be perfected in His image and likeness.
The Elder comments,
But even When God grows angry, He will not be angry unto the end. He will not make sinful man drink the cup of His wrath to the dregs. Instead He will deal with us with great delicacy and sensitivity. As soon as He sees even the smallest little improvement in the soul; the slightest turn in the direction of the light, His anger will immediately dissipate. God’s punishment is never commensurate with the crime; it is not measured out by the standards of an impersonal law, or by demands of abstract justice; it extends only so far as is needed for correction.
We must remember that whatever God let’s happen to us is for our good.
He has not required us according to our transgressions, neither has He dealt with us according to our sins. (Psalm 103:10)
Elder Aimilianos writes,
Whatever God has done to us, or permitted to happen to us, was not according to the measure of out transgressions, but according to the measure of His love, and this is something that should fill us with joy.
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp282-283.
“He fulfills your desire with good things; your youth will be renewed as the eagles” (Psalm 103)
Elder Aimilianos comment on this passage writes, “notice It doesn’t say “He fulfills your desires” but says “your desire.”
So what is the significance of this being a singular desire. Our desires are the result of our passions, the many distractions we face in this worldly life. But what we seek is is His kingdom not our desires of our pleasure seeking life through earthly things.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Lk 12:31)
So our desire, singular, should only be our desire for God.
Elder Aimilianos says,
He transforms you into a person of a single-minded desire, a person whose only desire is for God. And it is because you desire God and seek Him that He offers you all the good things of this life and the life to come.
What we should seek is only God, then we will be blessed with a good life. We must not think that God will satisfy our desires, but that we will be rewarded when we have a singular desire for a union with God. He must the the primary focus of our love. When we feel separated from Him we must seek His companionship. Otherwise we may be misled by the many desires that arise from the numerous temptations of the worldly life.
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, p 274
“The Lord is compassionate and merciful, long suffering and rich in mercy.” (Psalm 103)
Commentary by Elder Aimilianos
“God’s <<compassion>> is exercised on behalf of human beings who are made of earth and are forever in danger of lapsing into non-existence.”
“God is also <<merciful>> to us because we forget that we are created from the earth; we forget that we are created from earth; we forget that we are nothing, and act as if we were god’s, or make a god out of our ego and our selfish desires. To such a creature, one can only be patient and show mercy.”
God is <<long-suffering>>, He exercises patience with us, because we are ignorant and rebellious; because we stubbornly resist Him. We are not interested in God because our attention is occupied with the fantasy life of our ego, our self-will, and our foolish plans.”
God is <<rich in mercy>>, because human sinfulness is as deep and as wide as the ocean. Mercy is God’s response to actual transgression, to sinful actions, and not simply to things within the soul.”
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 280-281
The moment we accept death, true life can begin. (Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra)
In his commentary on Psalm 88, Elder Aimilianos is addressing suffering and all our tribulations of earthly life. His message is that there is only one way to be freed of this struggle: not by rejecting these sufferings or difficulties but in joyfully accepting them.
Elder Aimilianos writes,
The secret to his freedom does not lie in the rejection of his suffering, but in his joyful acceptance of them. He will be truly free only when he lets go of wanting to be free of his sufferings, for all freedom and all life depend on our being in right relation to God. When he accepts his death; when he allows himself to hear the sound of his footsteps descending into the grave, he will find that death no longer has a hold on him, for now he is with God. The darkness will vanish and he will see only light.
This freedom from or fear of suffering and death requires that we make a choice to voluntarily sacrifice ourselves to God, just like Christ voluntarily sacrificed Himself on the Cross.
The Elder says,
“if he accepts to become an instrument of God’s will, he will emerge triumphant; but otherwise he will fail.”
When we are focused on our difficulties and suffering we become very self centered and find ourselves distant from God. We become our own god and there is no room for another.
The Elder says,
“If “l” exist God cannot exist, for there cannot be two gods, and so it is either God or the self. When someone sees only his own suffering, God cannot answer him, for it is precisely the mistaken, negative attitude toward suffering that constitutes the separation between him and God. But if “I” cease to exist, if my relation to my suffering changes, then I can be united to God. This union depends on the denial of my self, so that God can come into my life.”
This freedom comes only through a transformation that is the result of our growing love of God and our willingness to confront the many self-centered passions one is burdened with. In accepting or rejecting our suffering, we are accepting or rejecting God Himself.
“I must learn to accept suffering with joy, to find joy within my suffering, to realize that even in my moments of glory, I am nothing but “dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27), a pelican in the wilderness (Ps 102:6), lost in a desert land, seeking shelter in a landscape of ruins. I must realize my sinfulness, my nakedness, my alienation from God; I must realize I am like a sparrow alone o a house top (Ps 102:7), not because I have some psychological problem, but because I have been separated from God.”
We need to accept our condition, and desire to be freed from fear of death and suffering and commit ourselves to the spiritual struggle found in the Orthodox way of life. We need to seek for the Holy Spirit to lift us up, to purify our heart, and lead us to union with God.
The Elder concludes his commentary,
“In this cry, this calling out, there exists the hope that I will hear the sound of His footsteps, and these will overtake my own and lead me to salvation.”
Ref: Psalms and the Life of Faith, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, pp 104-109