Monday, January 31, 2011

Desire and Action in Spiritual Life

What do we need to do to have divine grace permeate our being, enlightening us, and leading us to a life according to the virtues?  How do we nurture the zeal within us to become worthy of God's grace? We need both to desire it and resolve to set out to achieve it.
Saint Theophan says,
Everyone wants to go to Heaven, but not everyone has the desire to labor towards this end. I am saying this because it is not enough merely to desire. You need to resolve firmly to achieve without fail that which you desire. You also need to resolve firmly to begin the process itself of labor towards this.
So, how do we move from desire to action. Our desire must have some deep personal meaning for us. We must see it as something extremely important and essential to our life. We have in our lives many desires, most of which remain unfilled because we lack the strength to act on them.
St. Theophan says,
In order for desire to be fulfilled, it is necessary to elevated to the level of firm intention or decision, and it is necessary for the heart to say within itself, “No matter what happens, I will obtain such-and-such a thing, or I will accomplish such-and-such a deed.”
 Once our desire is clear and important we must act. We must look at making changes in our way of life. We must reevaluate our priorities and begin to make new choices. Simply put, we must begin. This first step is probably the most difficult of all.
St. Theophan  says,
So that your desire does not fail to bloom, it is necessary to carry it from the beginning to the point of decision. This should not be a hasty decision, but careful, deliberate, firm, rational, and most importantly, an irrevocable decision. Then get down to work itself. First, everything must be accomplished and inwardly through personal reflection, along with prayer to God to bring reason and enlightenment to the mind with respect to the  extremely crucial matter at hand.
Examine what is really important in your life and then, with love, make the necessary changes based on the Traditions, Scripture and practices of the Church, to do the things that will lead you to your desred goal. 

See Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 137-140

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Expectations for Divine Judgment

Saint Theophan outlines the expectations given to us in Scripture for the Divine Judgment
1. Acknowledge the presence of the gift of grace within us.
2. Comprehend that the value of the grace for us is so great, that it is more precious than life itself, so that without it life is not even life.
3. Desire with all our strength to adapt this grace to ourselves, and to adapt ourselves to it, or, to put it another way, desire to imbue our entire nature with it, and become enlightened and sanctified.
4. Resolve to achieve this through the matter itself.
5. Carry this decision into reality, putting everything else aside, or, having removed one's heart from everything, give it over to the full action of divine grace.
When these five things are active in our lives he says that this will then begin our eternal rebirth and then if we continue to act with the same spirit continually in this inner rebirth of illumination will quickly grow.

Reference: Parable of the hidden treasure in the field (Matthew 13:44–46). The Spiritual Life, pp 134–135

Friday, January 28, 2011

Sobering words about Divine Judgment from St. Theophan

Here are some sobering words from Saint Theophan the Recluse,
At the Divine Judgment, those who have received grace and would not allow it to act within themselves will first of all have the gift of grace taken away, and then they will be plunged into hell. This was revealed by the Savior in the parable of the talent.
Parable of the Talent

Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem and because they thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately. Therefore He said: “A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business till I come.’ But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We will not have this man to reign over us.’ 
“And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading.  andThen came the first, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned ten minas.’ And he said to him, ‘Welldone, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Master, your mina has earned five minas.’ Likewise he said to him, ‘You also be over five cities.’ 
“Then another came, saying, ‘Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief. For I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ And he said to him, ‘Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’ 
“And he said to those who stood by, ‘Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.’ (But they said to him, ‘Master, he has ten minas.’) ‘For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. But bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.’” (Luke 19:11-27)
Saint Theophan says that we all received a talent at our baptism which is the grace of the Holy Spirit. It works within us as we grow but is in a ready state ready to act.  It will wait until we desire its full action and we seek it.

Good news:
The law is such already that man must himself begin to desire and to seek, and then grace will not desert him, as long as he continues to trust in it.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 133–134 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Building a Strong Spiritual Center Within

Developing our relationship with God is a life long effort. It begins with an awakening to the reality of God followed by our baptism where we receive the Holy Spirit. This grace which is within us acts like leaven in the making of bread. When we make bread we add leaven and then kneed it until it is mixed thoroughly throughout the entire mixture. It provides energy so the flower mixture will rise becoming filled with air. The same happens with grace that comes to us in our baptism. It permeates our entire being. It fills us with spirit so we can become like God. As long as we continue to perfect ourselves through a life of repentance, this grace remains active and continues to grow in strength, but when we don't nurture it it withdraws and become silent. We become like a fallen loaf of bread.

Throughout our life we are continually making choices. We choose either to follow the direction that grace leads us in, or, we instead, choose to follow our own thoughts and reasoning. St. Theophan  tells us that when we do live a grace-filled life our internal being will become "radiant like a star, beaming bright rays everywhere.”

Saint Theophan cautions us that if we do not continue to choose the path grace leads us down then grace will abandon us.  When we do follow it a powerful center forms in us.
He says,
If you, through your own choice and decision, do not choose grace, then it will abandon you completely, and leave you in the hands of your self-will... Inner regulation begins only when you choose the side of grace, and make the ways of life in the spirit of grace the inviolable rule of your life. From that moment, as the decision is forming inside you, a center will also form within you, a powerful center, which will begin more and more forcefully to draw you toward itself. In this center will be grace... Then the grace of God will begin to draw towards the center all the other forces of your nature, both intellectual and spiritual, and govern their entire action, retaining within them that which is good, and destroying that which is bad. This drawing of everything to one center and directing of all to one goal is the inner rebirth that you have so fervently desired.
This is the aim of Orthodox Spirituality to draw in and empower the grace of the Holy Spirit within us. Our aim is to become Holy through the work of grace working through all our members and in all of our actions. With our cooperation we can become as bright as a star as Saint Theophan suggests.

 Reference: The Spiritual Life; pp 128–132

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When Grace is Active

Those who are saved, that is, those who will enter the eternal Kingdom of God, are only those in whom grace dwells; not secretly, but openly, permeating our entire essence and becoming even outwardly visible, absorbing, as it were, our entire nature. – Saint Theophan the Recluse

So, what does it mean to have grace permeate our entire being?  Saint Theophan offers the following,
All those entering into contact with such a grace-filled person feel an unusual force present within him, which manifests itself in different ways. When such a person begins to speak about something spiritual, everything emanates from him as brightly as the midday sun, and his words go directly to the soul, authoritatively forming corresponding feelings and dispositions within. Even if he does not speak, he exudes a warmth which touches everything, and a certain force goes out, which stimulates moral energy and engenders readiness for every kind of spiritual action and exploit. 
For grace to permeate our entire being requires our total dedication to doing the will of God. We cannot be lukewarm in our commitment. This is the worst condition because we are complacent and God will surely reject us. St. John the Theologian reports to us the following,
I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. (Revelations 3:15–16)
St. Theophan says,
One must be fervent towards God and all that is Divine, but cold towards everything secular and worldly. If you are neither cold towards the secular, nor fervent towards the Divine, but are instead lukewarm and half-cold towards both one and the other, you will be cast out by God.
We must work to maintain our zeal so we will not be lukewarm in our relationship with God.

  Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 124–128

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is Zeal that Is Necessary for Salvation?

When the Holy Spirit is alive and active in our heart we have what is called Zeal.  We can think of the Apostles and how they were empowered by the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  They then were able to go out and spread the Good News even though it meant they put their life at risk. We we are awakened to the direct presence of God we find that our faith is strengthened and we too have a zeal that is hard to contain.  It is a new energy to do the will of God and to strive to be in His presence constantly.
Saint Theophan says,
Spiritual zeal is completely given over to pleasing God and the salvation of the soul. It is full of the fear (awe,respect) of God, and he continually keeps its attention on Him, taking care in every way not to allow anything in the thoughts, feelings, words, or deeds that is not pleasing to God, as directed by the conscience that he keeps as pure as a mirror.  It guards it's hart from any attachment to anything, except for God and Divine things, and by its hopes it moves into another world, having cut off all earthly cares. It does not shun that which is needed for temporal life, but everything related to the here and now is for it an attachment, and there is really only one important thing, pleasing God and salvation. 
The commitment that is required is total. We need the zeal the comes from the Holy Spirit to have the proper perseverance and diligence.

St. Paul says that we must present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world; but be you transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Romans 12:1–2)
Seek always the Holy Spirit. 

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 115-119 

Monday, January 24, 2011

How Spirit Works in Us for our Salvation

When we are Baptized and Chrismated in the Orthodox Faith we receive the seal of the Holy Spirit.  We are reborn and become a new person  We now have the force of God living within our heart.  How does this Sprit then act in us?

We are told that it remains active as long as we continue to be repentive, being honest about our shortcomings in our relationship with God, and continue to do our part to control our passions and give priority to the work of the soul.

The Holy Spirit works secretly within us.
Saint Theophan says,
Our spirit, set in motion, recollects within itself its natural Divine knowledge that God exists, maintains everything, and is the rewarder. The consciousness of this gives rise to a feeling of complete dependence on God, and enkindles the fear (awe, respect) of God. These and other things are stirred up by the conscience, that witness and judge of our affairs and feelings, among which is rarely to be found anything which God would look upon with kindness... The goodness of God makes it so that the true awakening of the spirit is brought about and accompanied by the Gospel. To the person who inwardly asks as a result of awakening of the spirit “Where shall I go? Where shall I run to?” The Gospel proclaims, “Why run anywhere? Come beneath the protection of the Cross and be saved. The Son of God, Who was incarnate, died on the Cross to cleanse our sins. Believe this, and you will receive remission of sins and encounter the grace of God.
The soul is nourished by the reading and contemplation of the Gospel. As we begin to internalize the lessons taught in the Gospel our spirit becomes alive. And from its action we begin to have spiritual zeal, a strong desire to be with God and to do his will.

Saint Theophan says, 
The Spirit, which, once it has heeded the good news of salvation and the Lord, undertakes with all its strength to do everything with good cheer and willingness, if only it may become a partaker of Gospel blessings. Such a disposition of our soul makes it ready for Divine communion, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, which has acted hitherto from the outside by arousing us, establishing itself within, not directly but through the means of a sacrament.     ....
The Divine Spirit arouses, the good news indicates where to begin. This is from God. But, having done this, God stops and waits for our consent.
The door of our heart has been opened in this way. We must also do our part. God wants us to love Him like He loves us. But to have true love it has to be a voluntary choice made on our part. So, God presents us with a choice, and only those of us who choose salvation, and follow His way, are saved.

St. Theophan says,
Repent, desire salvation in the Lord, and acquire good cheer in it. These actions are calming; they occur inwardly and give contentment through their local manifestation. The final action––the willingness to do everything which is required––is the real active force in salvation, insofar as it depends on us; it is the source of saving activity and the life that is saved...  It is the unquenchable zeal for pleasing God and complete sincerity in fulfillment of the Divine will, in the presence of complete faith in the Lord and trust in salvation in Him Alone.... When there is no zeal, then there is nothing at all; he who is not zealous for salvation is a non--participant in salvation.
Take heed, "When there is no zeal, then there is nothing at all." If you have this zeal, then work hard to maintain it. 

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 110-115

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Why is Theosis important?

Most of us who see ourselves as serious Orthodox Christians are content with regular participation in the Divine Liturgy and the Sacraments.  Between services we tend to not think much about religious things.  Our life goes on with all the demands of raising a family and earning a living.  Then, we stop periodically, normally on a Sunday, to go to Church and pray and sometime partake of Holy Communion.  Some, will say a short prayer every morning or evening and others will even follow some of the fasting guidelines.  Unfortunately, many follow this practice in a routine manner.  As a result, we find that our life is not much different from others. It is filled with moments of anger and, mostly, we like those around us engage primarily in self-centered activities. We do not consider ourselves to be sinful, but, instead, good citizens, employees, bosses or parents just doing the best we know how. Our faith is at best lukewarm.

How often do we think about our relationship with God? How seriously do we work at deepening this relationship so it becomes like the kind the saints and apostles have with God––one that is intimate and continuous with our hearts filled with zeal and the fire of the Holy Spirit––A relationship that permeates all our actions?

We must remember that we are creatures that were made in the image of God and yet we have fallen away from a way of life that is lived in union with God.  This condition we inherit from our parents and they from their parents. Because of this we struggle in our lives to keep God as our primary focus.  Our main effort must become to restore the union that Adam enjoyed at the time of his creation. This reunion we must seek is what we call Theosis.

Saint Theophan says,
We have fallen away from God; what is required is to be reunited with Him. We have fallen away, doubting God's word; we must reestablish complete faith in this Word.  ...It is necessary to destroy that "I myself." ...authority must be restored to the Spirit.
Saint Theophan reminds that we cannot do this on our own.
It is especially impossible for us to hope to rectify this matter of utmost importance to us on our own, because we have not established the primary point, without which there is no starting anything else, namely, reunion with God, which can in no way be in our power.
 For the restoration of our spirit and its reunion with God, it is necessary that the that the Divine Spirit descend to it and revise it. In order to open the way to the dissent of the Divine Spirit, the Only-Begotten Son of God came to earth, was incarnated, suffered, died on the cross, was resurrected, and ascended into heaven.
When we have this Christian faith and embrace the lessons from the Gospel, and participate in the sacrament of baptism, we are reborn, revised, and re-united with God. This makes us believers and children of God through grace.  It is in this reunion, and then through our ongoing efforts to live in the Spirit according to the will of God, that we can find eternal life in Paradise. However, we must continually keep our focus on this effort and become full participants in the Traditions and Sacraments of the Church that Christ established and is His body on earth.  This is more than a routine task. It requires our continual attention and effort. 

Seek continuously the Holy Spirit.

Reference:  The Spiritual Life, pp a106-110

Friday, January 21, 2011

Nature of our inner disturbances

I was thinking the other day about how great an ice cream cone would taste––especially a dark chocolate one from the gelato place downtown.  The more I thought about this the more is wanted to go get one.  Finally, the urge was so great I made a special trip downtown to indulge myself. For about five minutes the pleasure was great!! Then, it was finished! In fact, since I had chosen a double dip cone, I was feeling a little heavy in the stomach and wishing I had only ordered a single dip.

This is how we are distracted in life.  We have one desire after another which when satisfied only leeds to a let down and then to another desire.  This is what causes such turmoil and busyness in our lives––these unending desires.

God has given us the ability to control these desires. If we can lift our minds above the level of desires we will find that we can observe them coming and going.  Then, we can be mindful and use our free will to make wise choices. When we have a life in God, our mind is uplifted to this higher level through the Sprit. We seek out the pleasure of God instead of pleasures in short lived earthly things.

Saint Theophan tells us,
When God abides in us, he gives our spirit the power to control the soul and body, and also everything that is outside of us. This was the original condition of man. God appeared to our forefathers and confirmed all of this by His Divine word, after ordering them to know Him alone, to serve Him alone, to walk in His will alone. So they would not get confused when considering how to carry out all of this, He gave them a small commandment: do not taste of the fruit of one of the trees which he called the tree of knowledge and of good and evil that is how our forefathers began to live and to rejoice in paradise.

Adam and Eve were deceived and led to believe that by the forbidden fruit, they would taste something that was so good they could not resist the temptation. They even thought they would become  like Gods. they then defied God and try to avoid him the result is they were separated from  Him.  It was for this simple reason that they were removed from paradise and faced a life of suffering and death.  So we can see that when man takes on upon himself to seek self-centered pleasures he finds himself at a distance from God.

 St. Theophan says, 
God is everywhere and maintains everything, but He enters into free creatures only when they surrender themselves to Him. When they are self–absorbed, He does not violate their self-rule; He continues to keep and maintain them, but he does not enter inside them.
It is important to remember that our attention is so easily distracted from what is most important.  We can easily forget God and fall away from actions that lead us closer to Him.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp101-104

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Finding Inner Peace

How to gain peace in our lives?  There is one thing above that is essential and that the satisfaction of our spiritual needs.  When we know our purpose and seek the Holy Spirit, when it comes it comforts us and beings peace to all the other aspects of our being.

Saint Theophan says they are "the one thing needful."
When spiritual needs are met, they teach a person to harmonize with those needs the satisfaction of other needs, so that neither the needs of the intellect or the needs of the body interfere with the spirit for life, but, instead, aid it. Then within a person is established complete harmony of all motions and revelations of his life. There is a harmony of thoughts, feelings, desires, undertakings, relationships, pleasures. And this is Paradise! Contrary to this, when the spirit is not satisfied, and this one thing needful is forgotten, that each of these other needs runs off in a different direction, each one demands fulfillment of its own needs, and their muddle and cry, like noise at a bazaar, deafen the poor person, and he runs around like a madman trying to satisfy them. But he never has peace, because when one need is being satisfied, the others are not...
So, if you are feeling a disorder in your life, it is time to pay attention to the spiritual dimension of your life.  Examine you attention to the basics: Daily prayer, the Jesus Prayer, reading of Scripture, attending worship services and with proper preparation participation in the sacraments, spiritual fellowship, and helping others.

Orthodox Way of Life - Ten Points

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 95-96 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What is a God-Pleasing LIfe?

It all begins with faith. As the Scripture says, "Faith without works is dead."  Our faith brings grace which in turn strengthens faith. This faith then leads us to live a virtuous life, doing what God has commanded us to do.  The challenge for living a God-pleasing life is to do what God commands out of faith with attention to the moment. 

Saint Theophan says,
Thus each step, each word, even each movement and glance, everything may direct one to walk in God's will and, consequently, to move each moment towards the ultimate goal.
Our life when doing God's will is one were everything we do is done with an awareness of God.  It involves a heightened consciousness filled with attention to the moment.  It is not about fixing all the wrongs of the world, but living the commandments to their fulness in each little thing we do.  When we do this we make our part of the world and those we influence directly a little better.

Saint Theophan says,
 If each one of us did what was possible to do for whoever was standing right in front of our eyes, instead of goggling at the community of mankind, that all people, in aggregate, would at each moment be doing that which is needed by those in need, and, by satisfying their needs would establish the welfare of all mankind, which is made up of haves and have-nots, the weak and the strong. But those who keep thoughts of the welfare of all mankind inattentively let slip by that which is in front of their eyes. Because they do not have the opportunity perform a general work, and they let slip by the opportunity to perform a particular work, they accomplish nothing towards the main purpose of life.
And what is the purpose of life?  It is to prepare for the life after death in God's kingdom.

Saint Theophan says,
All troubles come from mental outlook that is too broad. It is better to humbly cast your eyes down toward your feet, and to figure out which step to take where. This is the truest path.
Orthodox Way of Life

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 91-94 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Why A Chinese Buddhist Became an Orthodox Athonite Monk

By Fr. Libyos

On my last trip to Mount Athos I visited the Monastery of Simonopetra. It is a majestic monastery and the sky was fully blue. There I met a graceful novice monk from China. In truth, he surprised me by his presence. An Orthodox rason on a Chinese man? I was moved somewhat. I had never seen this before up close, only in pictures of missions. An inheritor of a great cultural tradition and for him to embrace Christianity? My friends and I got curious to ask him about this.

"Brother, how did you, a Chinese man, embrace Orthodox Christian monasticism coming from such a great cultural tradition? Were you a Buddhist?"

"Yes, of course, I was a Buddhist."

"What won you over to Christianity?"

"Divine companionship!"

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, yes, Father, hahahahaha!", he laughed, since with every three words the Chinese seem to laugh at two. "In Buddhism, my Father, you are very very much alone. There is no God. Your entire struggle is with yourself. You are alone with yourself, with your ego. You are totally alone in this path. Great loneliness Father. But here you have an assistant, a companion and a fellow-traveler in God. You are not alone. You have someone who loves you, who cares about you. He cares even if you don't understand Him. You speak with Him. You tell Him how you feel, what you would have hoped for - there is a relationship. You are not alone in the difficult struggles of life and spiritual perfection.

I realized things in those days. A severe cold bound me to bed. No doctor could find anything wrong with me. The clinical picture was clear, at least the doctors couldn't see anything. The pain was unbearable and there was absolutely no pain killer that could stop it. I changed three different pain killers and still the pain was not alleviated.

At this time I got the news that the brother of my father, whose name I bear, had an advanced form of cancer in the vocal cords and larynx. He had a largyngectomy. It was the result of chronic alcohol consumption and smoking. Generally he lived a bad life, without any quality.

Then I felt something a former Buddhist and now a Christian monk on Mount Athos told me, that you need to have a God you can talk to; to perceive and to feel someone besides yourself Who hears you.

I don't know if it's wrong or right. I only know it is a deep need of man. This is evidenced by life itself. Even these Buddhists, who are from a non-theistic religion, created various deities. Even in dream language and worlds. But they have a need to refer to someone, to something, someone beyond and outside themselves, even if it's dreamy. Besides, reality and truth is something very relevant and will always remain so. It is an enigma, a mystery."

At this I remembered the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian, who had a sensitive and melancholic nature, when he said: "When you are not well, or not feeling so, speak. Speak even if it is to the wind."

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

Monday, January 17, 2011

The truth of Buddhism

An excellent article from the blog Pious Fabrications by David Withun

I want to begin this post with a bit of a confession. As a teenager, I was, as many American teenagers are, very interested by Eastern religions. The picture of reality, of humanity, and of the divine that religious systems like Hinduism, Taosim, and Buddhism presented seemed to offer a much more agreeable alternative to what seemed the spiritual dryness of the West. As they were commonly presented, these Eastern religions encompassed great mystical traditions, lacked the judgmental tyrant-in-the-sky view of God stereotypical of American "Christianity," and were much more amiable to modern science. While Christianity was the home of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other related religions were about a deeper view of the nature of the world and of mankind, about peace and gentle spirituality. That is the viewpoint commonly propounded by apologists of Eastern religions for Western audiences, and that is the viewpoint I held to until I started to look deeper and found the Holy Orthodox Church and the wealth of spiritual heritage that it carries with it.

The point of this post is not to try to refute these common assumptions about either Eastern religions (which, however, are not quite what idealizing Western converts would like to think) or about Christianity (though I've done other posts on some of those topics and I think such an understanding of Christianity refutes itself with any knowledge about the Apostolic Faith and the Orthodox Church). I only mention these common misunderstandings of Christianity and Eastern religions to give a little background information for this post and why I am writing it.

Amongst the Eastern religions, it was especially Buddhism which attracted me. The Buddha himself was, for me, a very impressive figure in many ways: his determination and nirvana-or-nuthin' attitude in his search for spiritual truth, his all-embracing compassion for the world, his systematic, scientific worldview and guidance for spiritual attainment -- all of this was moving and fascinating to me. And it still is. Here's an even bigger confession: I still think that the Buddha was right. That's right, I'm a Christian and I still believe that Buddhism is correct in its view of the world and of man. In fact, becoming a Christian brought me to appreciate the depth and truth of Buddhism even more than I had as a teenage spiritual dabbler. I'll explain.

Buddhism is unlike other religions in many ways; perhaps one of the most obvious and noticeable of these differences is that Buddhism, unlike nearly all other religions, has no "creation story." Instead of a story about the creation of the world, of man, and of how the world and man got to be the way they are, Buddhism tells the story of the Buddha himself, of this particular man and his realization of the world as it is.

As the story goes, the Buddha was raised intentionally sheltered by his father, a king. The Buddha was kept by his father from seeing any decay, death, illness, or ugliness; he was instead surrounded with the young, the beautiful, and the pleasurable. On several successive trips outside of the palace, however, the Buddha came across four sights that shocked him and changed his life forever: a sick person, an elderly person, a dead person, and a Hindu ascetic. As he encountered each sight, the Buddha turned to his trusted friend with him and asked what they were. His friends replies shook the Buddha's world: "that person is ill, all people suffer from disease;" "that person is old, all people will someday grow old;" "that person is dead, all people will someday die;" and finally "that person is an ascetic, he is searching for the way beyond sickness, old age, and death."

This story of the Buddha is not only the story of one man who lived 2500 years ago. It is probably not even historically accurate. It is, however, not intended to be. The Buddha's story is the story of every person who grows up and looks at the world around him. Children are generally unaware of what we might called the "hard facts of life." For them, everything is play and the play seems like it will never end. But as they grow up, they begin to see that life is not all fun and games. They see their grandmother sick and they see that they too can and will get sick; they see that their grandmother is old and frail and, eventually, they realize that they too will one day be that way; and, finally, their grandmother passes away and they see this thing called "death" and, eventually, they realize that they too will one day die. These realizations might not come in great "sights" and profound realizations as they did with the Buddha, but these are realizations that every human being has as they grow up.

The creation story of Christianity, in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis, provides much the same effect and could act just as easily as an allegory for what we all experience while coming of age. Adam and Eve, the first humans, having lived thus far in innocence and simplicity, eat of the tree of the "knowledge of good and evil." As a result, they are expelled from Paradise; suffering, decay, pain, and toil enter their world. Eve, the woman, is told that she will have children only with much pain and that her husband will have authority over her; she has become an adult woman. Adam, the man, is told that he will only be able to provide food for himself and his family with never-ending and hard labor; he has become an adult man. The final and profoundest curse pronounced against them is death: "you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).

The creation stories of Buddhism and of Christianity are very different in time, place, and setting, but the message is the same: now that we've grown up, we have to face facts: we're going to get sick, we're going to get old, and we're going to die. And yet in each of these creation stories there is also a ray of hope that shines through. In the Buddhist story, the Buddha sees the ascetic, the one who is looking for a way beyond illness, old age, and death. In the Christian story, God says to the serpent, the one who had brought all of this upon Adam and Eve by tempting them to eat of the tree, that he "will put enmity between your seed and her Seed. He shall bruise your head, and you shall be on guard for His heel" (Genesis 3:15). God has promised a Seed to Eve, One to come who will crush the serpent, undoing what he has done and saving humanity from illness, old age, and death.

The respective foundational stories of Buddhism and Christianity continue, each retelling events that are very different from the other and which nonetheless seem to each point to the same truth. If there is one uniting element in the stories of the Christian Old Testament, one particular facet that can be found in each of them, it is that man constantly reaches for the divine and yet falls short every time. Each of even the prophets and other great and holy men of the Old Testament eventually stumbles; each of them is eventually shown to be a sinner. The overarching theme of the various Old Testament stories, which span a period of thousands of years, is man's inability to bridge the gap between man and God.

The moral of the continuation of the Buddha's story is nearly the same. After witnessing the four sights, the Buddha departs from his pampered life in his father's palace and retreats to the forest to take up the life of a Hindu ascetic, seeking an escape from illness, old age, and death. During this time, he studies under various revered gurus and masters nearly ever ascetic practice available to him. He achieves profound mystical states. And yet he is satisfied with none of this. He still suffers, he is still bound to grow sick, to grow old, and to die. He reaches a breaking point. He has nearly starved himself to death and tortured his body in various other ways; the Buddhist texts record that he had become so emaciated from his extreme asceticism that he could touch his spine by poking his stomach. Finally, he sits down under a tree, swears that he will not move from that spot until he either dies or achieves enlightenment (the state of moving beyond suffering), and he meditates.

As the name "Buddha" ("enlightened/awakened one") indicates, he did indeed achieve his goal; he reached enlightenment and experienced nirvana, the state of cessation of suffering. Having achieved this goal, he went off to teach others how to achieve it as well. His first sermon, given to a group of fellow ascetics who had been his friends, lays out the profound truths that the Buddha had realized, truths which also form the foundation of the Christian life.

These foundational teachings of the Buddha are called the "Four Noble Truths" and the "Eightfold Path." The first of the Noble Truths is that suffering is implicit in all aspects of life; even the greatest joy will eventually fade because everything on earth is temporal. According to the Buddha:
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of pain: birth is painful; old age is painful; sickness is painful; death is painful; sorrow, lamentation, dejection, and despair are painful. Contact with unpleasant things is painful; not getting what one wishes is painful. In short the five groups of grasping are painful.
This, as we have already seen, is similarly the starting point of Christianity. Turning again to the third chapter of Genesis, we find nearly the same content in God's words to Adam and Eve after their fall (Genesis 3:16-19):
To the woman He said: "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it': "Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
After establishing this fundamental and foundational truth, both Buddhism and Christianity then look for the source of this suffering and both find it in the same place. The Buddha's second Noble Truth is that this suffering is caused by, in Pali, "tanha." The literal meaning of the word is "thirst" but most English translations translate it as "desire." Desire, however, is not nearly a strong enough word to convey the Buddha's full meaning; a better word might be "craving." The equivalent word used by the Christian fathers and ascetics is, in Greek, "pathos," which is translated into English as the "passions." Both tanha and pathos refer to the cravings and emotions that overwhelm the souls of human beings.

The Buddha listed three forms of tanha:
1. Craving for pleasure
2. Craving for existence
3. Craving for non-existence
The early monastic saints of Christianity similarly compiled a list of the passions, eight in number:
1. Gluttony
2. Lust
3. Covetousness
4. Anger
5. Dejection
6. Despondency
7. Vainglory
8. Pride
As we can see, although the content of the lists is expressed differently yet again the message is the same. These pathos/tanhas are the underlying reason for human suffering.

The Buddha's third Noble Truth is that there is a way that leads beyond suffering, beyond illness, old age, and death. With this again Christianity is in agreement. It is with the Buddha's fourth Noble Truth that Christianity and Buddhism finally find disagreement, or so it seems. Rather, I think that the Buddha's fourth Noble Truth, in which he lays out the means by which suffering can be overcome, is not incorrect but incomplete. The Buddha's fourth Noble Truth is that the way to overcome the passions and end suffering is the Eightfold Path:

1.Right view
2. Right intention
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right livelihood
6. Right effort
7. Right mindfulness
8. Right concentration
In all of this, the Buddha was correct. Following these precepts can lead to nirvana, the state of cessation of craving and so of suffering. But it cannot lead one beyond illness, old age, and death in themselves. The Buddha himself, in fact, died at 80 years old from a sickness resulting from eating a portion of spoiled pork; in other words, he got old, he got sick, and he died. But, almost 500 years after the Buddha's lifetime something remarkable happened, a key and essential ingredient was added, which the Buddha, because of his time and place, was unaware of: God became man. He was born, crucified, died, and resurrected -- freeing us all from illness, from old age, and, ultimately, from death. We must continue to struggle with our passions, our craving, our tanha, but there is a new dynamic: the grace of God.

Buddhism, then, is not incorrect, it is incomplete. The Buddha was a remarkable man and he attained to the greatest measure of understanding of the world, of humanity, and of the unique human predicament of any of the ancient philosophers and wise man. This is a truly astounding achievement on his part, given that he was entirely cut off even from the revelation of God given to Israel in the Old Testament. It is no wonder that even the early Christian Church Fathers gave recognition to the holiness of the Buddha; just as were many of the Greek philosophers and the prophets of Israel, the Buddha can undoubtedly be counted amongst those who were "Christians before Christ." Jesus Christ, however, is the completion of the great dilemma that the Buddha attempted to resolve; ultimately, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Buddhism.
"Every individual instinctively strives for happiness. This desire has been implanted in our nature by the Creator Himself, and therefore it is not sinful. But it is important to understand that in this temporary life it is impossible to find full happiness, because that comes from God and cannot be attained without Him. Only He, who is the ultimate Good and the source of all good, can quench our thirst for happiness." - St. Innocent of Alaska,Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven

Saturday, January 15, 2011

What is Our Purpose?

What is the purpose of our life?  There is only one way to answer this important question.   We know that there is life beyond death so our purpose has to be about this future life.  We need to have conviction that our activities here on earth are only a means to this other life.  We need to make sure we are using these means to guide us toward this purpose.  We should look towards heaven in every action we take in this life to make sure it is a step towards it.

So what does this mean we should do?  Does this mean we need to do something great?

Here is how Saint Theophan answers this,
It is a great error to think that you must undertake important and great labors, whether for heaven, or, as the progressives think, in order to make one's contribution to humanity. That is not necessary at all. It is necessary only to do everything in accordance with the Lord's commandments. Just exactly what is to be done? Nothing in particular, just that which presents itself to each one according to the circumstances of his life, and which is demanded by the individual events which each of us meets.
Is someone seeking help? Help them. Has someone offended you? Forgive him. Have you offended somebody? Rush to ask forgiveness and make peace. Did somebody praise you? Don't be proud. Did somebody scold you? Do not be angry. Is it time to pray? Pray. Is it time to work? Work. Etc., etc., etc. If, after all of this has been explained, you set about to act in this way in every instance so that your works will be pleasing to God, having carried them out according to the commandments without any deviation, then all the problems of your life will be solved completely and satisfactorily. The purpose is the blessed life beyond the grave; the means are the works according to the commandments, the execution of which is required by each instance of life. 
This is worthy of some reflection. We tend to make life more complicated than it needs to be. Remember our purpose and the commandments. With simplicity we are called to do our best to meet them each step we take. No more and no less.

More on an Orthodox Way of Life

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 87-89

Friday, January 14, 2011

How Do Saints Hear Our Prayers

Have you ever wondered about how the saints can hear our prayers.  This is a question that Saint Theophan tries to answer for us using the analogy of a telegraph line,

He writes,
When true prayer–that is, sincere prayer–moves in the soul, then that prayer, by means of the action of the element upon it, flies it has if on a beam of light to the Saints, and tells him what we want and what we are praying about. There is no gap between the time we make our prayer and when it is heard; the only necessity is that it comes from our heart. It is our telegraph line to Heaven. The very same prayers, which are not from our heart, but which come only from our head and tongue, do not produce a ray which rises to heaven, and they are not audible there. Those are not even prayers, but only prayer-like modes.
Prayers need to be sincere and said with feeling and not just read as if reading an email. Only those that are sincere are heard according to Saint Theophan.  As proof he suggests you notice how you feel after you have prayed fervently.  If it was sincere you will feel a calming and an inner assurance that you will be able to cope with what is troubling you.  This is the response that comes like the speed of light to a sincere prayer.

Saint Theophan says,
Prayer comes to someone who labors at it, but it will not come to anyone who does not work at it. We see that the Holy Fathers labored a great deal at prayer, and by these very labors kindled within themselves a prayerful spirit.
Our thoughts in prayer must reflect a humbleness. Ask always, "if It be you will." Ask always for forgiveness of your failing to act as God has intended. And, always give thanks for all God does give you, knowing that even in times of difficulty He is providing you what you need for you spiritual growth.  Keep in mind that your aim is to become one with Him in His Kingdom and that all things of this world are only temporary and means for our becoming one with God.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 84-86

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Covering of the Soul

Saint Theophan has an interesting article on the covering of the soul.  He begins his disucssion with the following story.
And during the life of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ, there was a hieromonk who was a faster, a solitary and a man of prayer. Everyone honored him, that is, they held him in reverence. But when St. Andrew met him, he saw that he was arrayed in some sort of dark fog, and then around his neck was a curled a snake with the inscription “snake of avarice.” Such was the soul that he had! However, no one could see it. The enlightened spiritual eyes of St. Andrew saw. But the eyes of the heavenly inhabitants are even more enlightened. Thus while we think that no one sees what we are, we are seen by a countless number of eyes.
We may see ourselves in a certain way but what do we look like to spiritual eyes? The sould has a covering which gives a presence that can be seen wby those with spiritual eyes.

 Saint Basil the Great says, 
“The body is ours; besides this body, will we have, beginning with our clothing, is that which surrounds us. But what are we? We are soul (with the spirit)."
Saint Theophan tells us,
When the conscience is pure, the fear of God fills the soul and keeps it inviolable. Then the Lord Himself, Who is everywhere and fills all things, visits that soul, and it becomes a white and shines like a small star. 
Our spiritual efforts must be directed within, to purify our conscience and to seek the Holy Spirit which will bring us spiritual light.  This brings a bright presence, a covering that is more powerful than our clothing, that can be seen with spiritual eyes. This is the covering of our soul.

May your soul shine brightly.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 81 - 84

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Spiritual Life

Based on how spirit has penetrated the function of the soul, there are different kinds of lives we can choose.  We can choose one that is intellectual and physical--one that ignores the spirit, gives priority to intellectual pursuits based on the physical world, as an example. This life has its own world view, behaviors and relationships.  This would be quite different than a life which was spiritual--intellectual. This life is quite different because the spiritual dominates the physical.

Saint Theophan says,
When the spiritual reigns supreme in someone, then although this is his exclusive character and attitude, he does not err.  This is because, in the first place, spirituality is the norm of human life, and so as a result, being spiritual, he is a real person, whereas the intellectual or carnal man is not a real person. Secondly, no matter how spiritual someone is, he cannot help but give the intellectual and kernel their rightful place; he maintains just a little of them, insubordination to the spirit.
According to natural purpose, man must live in the spirit, subordinate everything to the spirit, be penetrated by the spirit in all that is of the soul, and even more so in all that is physical–and beyond these, and in the outward things, to, that is, family and social life...
This is the challenge we face in our spiritual growth and development. We must learn how to integrate spirit, to lift ourselves up to where spirit has the top priority in our way of life. This requires much effort. This is why Christ came and established his Church with its sacraments and all its traditions and ascetic practices. When we surrender ourselves to the Christ and His Church and to her teachings, we grow, allowing spirit to live within us and to take top priority. We can then lead what would be called a spiritual and virtuous life.

Reference: The Spiritual Life by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp71-76

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How Spirit Works in Our Soul

According to Saint Theophan, the soul includes an intellectual, an active and a sensual aspect. In a human being the presence of Spirit uplifts each of these parts above the animal soul.

The spirit brings to this aspect a striving for the ideal.  We are continuously making observations and gaining new experiences which we strive to make sense out of all this data. We make assumptions which make up what we call a wold view allowing us to act.  But with Spirit, we strive even higher and seek the significance of each thing as part of the whole of creation.  We want to know the purpose of life and our part in creation. With this we find meaning in our lives.

Saint Theophan says,
This yearning is universal to everyone. Even those who do not place any value on any kind of knowledge other than that from experience, without noticing it are unable to refrain from idealizing against their will. They reject ideas with their tongues, but build them in actual fact. They accept conjectures, which are the lowest class of knowledge, but without which we could not have a single domain of knowledge....  The spirit which is ever present within us as a significant force, itself contemplating God as Creator and Providence, also draws the soul into that invisible and boundless realm.
It is our spiritual challenge to accept this higher kind of knowledge brought to us through spirit. Too often we reject it because our worldly mind says its not practical or not congruent with societal norms. 

 The spirit in the active part is what brings us the desire for and production of unselfish deeds or virtues. 
 St. Theophan says,
The standard of the holy, virtuous and righteous life is inscribed in the conscience once it has received information about such a life through its binding with the spirit, the soul is drawn by its invisible beauty and majesty, and it decides to introduce it into the domain of its deeds and into its own life, transforming even this according to its requirements. 
While we have these yearnings we do not always act on them.

Spirit brings to the sensual part of the soul a yearning for love for the beautiful.  From this comes our joy and admiration for the beauty of a flower, the beauty we find in works of art music and poetry.

St. Theophan says,
The spirit, which knows God, naturally, comprehends divine beauty and seeks to delight in it alone. The spirit cannot definitely prove what divine beauty is, but, by carrying within itself the design of it, it definitely proves what it is not, expressing this evidence by the fact that it is not satisfied by anything which is  created...  Having received information about divine beauty through its binding with the spirit, the soul too follows in its steps, and, comprehending Divine beauty by means of its own mental image, it leaps with joy because within its realm it is presented with reflection of that Divine beauty (delights), then itself devises and manufacturers things in which it hopes to reflect it as it is presented to it  (artists and actors)... The soul seeks not only what is beautiful, being guided by the spirit, but also the expression of the beautiful in beautiful forms of the invisible world, to where the spirit by its action beckons.
Here we see that Saint Theophan has given us a road map to understanding the nature of a healthy soul that is fully integrated with Spirit. Out spiritual challenge to to pay attention to the spirit that lives within our soul and connects us the God allowing us to have joy in His creation and to act in a virtuous manner according to His commandments.  Out fallen condition is nothing more than a separation from Spirit.

Reference: The Spiritual Life by Saint Theophan the Recluse pp 66-71