Monthly Archives: August 2009

For a very particular burden

[I]n speaking of the strictness of our Orthodox Church concerning the commemoration of Christians who believe incorrectly, we do not mean to say that our Holy Church commands us, her children, not to pray for them in any way at all. She only prohibits us to pray in a self-willed fashion, that is, praying as we wish and in whatever manner might come into our heads. Our Mother the Orthodox Church teaches us that everything we do, even prayer itself, should be done “properly and according to order” (1 Cor 14.40).

And we do pray in all our church services for all nations of diverse peoples and for the whole world, more often than not without our knowing and understanding this. We pray exactly as our Lord Jesus Christ taught His Apostles to pray in the prayer He taught them, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven!” This all-embracing petition gathers within itself all our needs and the needs of all our brothers, even though they be non-Orthodox. In it we entreat the All-good Lord even for the souls of the departed non-Orthodox Christians, that He may accomplish with them that which is pleasing to His holy will. For the Lord knows immeasurably better than we to whom to show mercy and what mercy to show.

And thus, Orthodox Christian, whoever you may be, layman or priest of God, if during some church service there comes upon you the zeal to pray for some Carl or Edward who is close to you, then during the Lord’s Prayer, sigh to the Lord on his behalf and say, “May Thy holy will be done in him, O Lord!” and limit yourself to this prayer. For thus you have been taught to pray by the Lord Himself. And believe that this prayer of your made in such a way will be a thousand times more pleasing to the Lord and more profitable to your soul than all your self-willed commemorations in church.

There was a case in the life of the Optina Elder Leonid (in the schema Lev) who reposed in 1841. The father of Paul Tambovtsev, one of his disciples, had an unfortunate and violent death—by suicide. The loving son was deeply grieved by this news and poured out his sorrow before the Elder.

“The unhappy end of my father is a diffucult cross for me, and I now am on a cross whose pains will go with me to the grave. Imagining to myself the terrible eternity of sinners, in which there is no repentance, I am tormented by the picture of the eternal torments which await my father, who died without repentance. Tell me, Father, how may I comfort myself in this present grief?”

The Elder replied, “Entrust both yourself and the lot of your father to the all-wise, omnipotent will of the Lord. Do not seek miracles of the Most High. Strive by humble-mindedness to strengthen yourself within the bounds of tempered sorrow. Pray to the Most-good Creator, thus fulfilling the duty of love and the obligation of a son.”

Question: “But in what manner can one pray for such people?”

Answer: “In the spirit of virtuous and wise men, pray thus: ‘Seek out, O Lord, the lost soul of my father; if it is possible, have mercy! Unsearchable are Thy judgments. Account not my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!’ Pray simply, without questioning, entrusting your heart to the right hand of the Most High. Of course, it was not the will of God that your father have so grievous an end, but now it is completely in the will of Him Who is able to cast both soul and body into the fiery furnace, of Him Who both humbles and exalts, puts to death and brings to life, leads down to Hades and leads up therefrom. And He is so compassionate, almighty, and filled with love that the good qualities of all those born of earth are nothing before His supreme goodness. Therefore you ought not to sorrow beyond measure. You say, ‘I love my father, and so I grieve inconsolably.’ That is right. But God loved and loves him incomparably more than you. And so, it remains for you to entrust the eternal lot of your father to the goodness and compassion of God, Who, if He is well-pleased to show mercy, then who can oppose Him?

This private prayer set forth here, for use at home or in one’s cell, and taught to his disciple for the Elder Leonid, who was experienced in the spiritual life, is able to serve for an Orthodox Christian as an example or model of prayer for some non-Orthodox person who is close to him. One can pray in the following manner, for example, “Have mercy, O Lord, if it is possible, on the soul of Thy servant (name), departed to eternal life in separation from Thy Holy Orthodox Church! Unsearchable are Thy judgments. Account not this my prayer as sin. But may Thy holy will be done!”

We do not know, and it has not been revealed to anyone, how much profit such a prayer brings the soul of the deceased non-Orthodox Christian. But experience has shown that it tempers the burning sorrow of the heart felt by the one praying for the soul of the person close to him, even though he died outside of Orthodoxy.

In conclusion, we shall say: Let not our hearts be troubled, and let us not frea the austerity of the rules of our Holy Orthodox Church! Rather, let us all the more “take courage; take courage, O ye people of God!” Let this not lead us to despair of our salvation. On the contrary, let it arouse our souls to contrite, humble repentance of our sins before the Lord, while the doors of His compassion are not yet shut upon us. For, according to the word of the Psalmist, “a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise” (Ps 50.17). And the more humble, the more self-abasing our prayer, the more hopeful and successful it will be.

Elder Joseph of Optina. From “May Orthodox Christians Pray for Non-Orthodox Christians, And If So, How May They Pray For Them?”, Appendix B in The Elder Joseph of Optina, translated from the Russian by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Brookline, Massachusetts), pages 288-289, 292-295.

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Light for the Soul

Continual reflection on the Scriptures is light for the soul, because they imprint on the intellect recollections helpful for guarding against the passions and for continuance with God through love and the purity of prayer; further, it makes straight before us the path of peace trodden by the footsteps of the saints. Do not, however, set your hopes upon the notations of the verses when in your prayers or hourly reading they are not attended by great alertness and constant contrition. Accept without fail words spoken from experience, even if the speaker is unlearned; for the treasuries of great kings of the earth do not despise the addition of a beggar’s obol, and by brooks great rivers are filled and their flow is mighty.

St Isaac the Syrian. From Homily Fifty-Four.

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The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon these brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

William Butler Yeats, 1919

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On the Wicked Servant

Homily of Saint John Chrysostom on Matthew 28.23-35

1. For the attainments of this virtue (contempt of anger) time is not a necessity; labour is not a necessity; money is not needed. To will alone suffices, and then all that relates to this virtue will prosper. And in meditating on the authority of God Who ordains and commands us to practise this virtue, we shall receive sufficient instruction and counsel concerning it: for what we are about to say to you is not our teaching; we but lead you all into the Presence of the Lawgiver. Follow me therefore and give ear to His divine laws.

Where then does He speak of anger and of the remembrance of injuries? Often; here and elsewhere, but especially in this parable, which He spoke to His Disciples, beginning in this way: Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened to a man king who would take an account of his servants. And, when he had begun to take the account, one was brought to him that owed him ten thousand talents. And, as he had not wherewith to pay it, his lord commanded that he should be sold, and his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. But that servant falling down besought him, saying: Have patience with me and I will pay thee all. And the lord of that servant, being moved with pity, let him go and forgave him the debt. But, when that servant was gone out, he found one of his fellow servants that owed him an hundred pence; and laying hold of him, he throttled him, saying: Pay what thou owest, And his fellow servant, falling down, besought him, saying: Have patience with me and I will pay thee all. And he would not; but went and cast him into prison till he paid the debt. Now his fellow servants, seeing what was done, were very much grieved; and they came and told their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him and said to him: Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all the debt, because thou besoughtest me; shouldst not thou then have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had compassion on thee? And his lord, being angry, delivered him to the torturers until he paid the debt. So also shall my heavenly Father do to you, if you forgive not every one his brother from your hearts.

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Out of Paradise

I was in wonder as I crossed the borders of Paradise
at how well-being, as though a companion,
     turned round and remained behind.
And when I reached the shore of earth,
     the mother of thorns,
I encountered all kinds of pain and suffering.
I learned how, compared to Paradise,
     our abode is but a dungeon;
yet the prisoners within it weep when they leave it!

I was amazed at how even infants weep
     as they leave the womb —
weeping because they come out from darkness into light
and from suffocation they issue forth into this world!
Likewise death, too, is for the world
a symbol of birth,
     and yet people weep because they are born
out of this world, the mother of suffering,
     into the Garden of splendors.

Have pity on me, O Lord of Paradise,
and if it is not possible for me to enter Your Paradise,
grant that I may graze outside, by its enclosure:
within, let there be spread the table for the diligent,
but may the fruits within its enclosure
     drop outside like the crumbs
for sinners, so that, through Your grace, they may live!

St Ephrem the Syrian. from the Hymns on Paradise, 5:13-15. From Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, by Sebastian Brock and George Kiraz (Brigham Young University Press, 2006).

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From Poimandres

Holy is God, the father of all;
Holy is God, whose counsel is done by his own powers;
Holy is God, who wishes to be known and is known
     by his own people;
Holy are you, who by the word have constituted all
     things that are;
Holy are you, from whom all nature was born as image;
Holy are you, of whom nature has not made a like figure;
Holy are you, who are stronger than every power;
Holy are you, who surpasses every excellence;
Holy are you, mightier than praises.

Poimandres I.31. From Hermetica (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Translated by Brian Copenhaver.

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If there were dreams to sell,
     What would you buy?
Some cost a passing bell;
     Some a light sigh,
That shakes from Life’s fresh crown
Only a rose-leaf down.
If there were dreams to sell,
Merry and sad to tell,
And the carrier rang that bell,
     What would you buy?

A cottage lone and still,
     With bowers nigh,
Shadowy, my woes to still,
     Until I die.
Such pearls from Life’s fresh crown
Fain would I shake me down.
Were dreams to have at will,
This would best heal my ill,
     This would I buy.

But there were dreams to sell
     Ill didst thou buy;
Life is a dream, they tell,
     Waking, to die.
Dreaming a dream to prize,
Is wishing ghosts to rise;
And if I had the spell
To call the buried well,
     Which one would I?

If there are ghosts to raise,
     What shall I call,
Out of hell’s murky haze,
     Heaven’s blue pall?
Raise my loved long-lost boy,
To lead me to his joy.—
There are no ghosts to raise;
Out of death lead no ways;
     Vain is the call.

Know’st thou not ghosts to sue,
     No love thou hast.
Else lie, as I will do,
     And breathe thy last.
So out of Life’s fresh crown
Fall like a rose-leaf down.
Thus are the ghosts to woo;
Thus are all dreams made true,
     Ever to last!

Thomas Lovell Beddoes, sometime 1829-1844

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