Monthly Archives: March 2015

Two Chroniclers of Holy Lives

0311sophroniusOn March 11 the Church celebrates the memories of two saints who collected and recorded accounts of the lives of holy people.

They lived in different times and places, but shared the conviction that Christians always need examples of courageous faith.

Saint Sophronius of Jerusalem was born in Damascus in about 560. He became a monk and entered the Monastery of Saint Theodosius, where he was befriended by the hieromonk John Moschus, and became John’s disciple. The two traveled together through monasteries in several countries, gathering inspiring stories of the monks and elders they met. Their collection has come down to us as a book called “The Spiritual Meadow.”

In the prologue, which he dedicates to Sophronius, Saint John Moschus describes a meadow full of flowers of various colors, each with their own beauty. Similarly, he writes, holy men serve God in different ways, but all are equally pleasing to Him. Like meadow flowers, the men he writes about are different, but their varied examples all can lead others to lives of holy service. He continues: “Just as a bee seeks out only what is useful and true, so I have described the lives of the holy fathers that souls may be enlightened.”

Saint Sophronius himself was a prolific writer. His work includes 950 troparia and stikhera, many odes, a life of Saint John the Almsgiver, and the Prayer for the Great Blessing of Water at Theophany. He is also the author of the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt. This is the only saint’s life that is a requisite part of an Orthodox worship service; it is read during the fifth week of Great Lent.

Saint Sophronius saw heresies divide the Church, and was forced as Patriarch to surrender the city of Jerusalem to Saracen, or Muslim, conquerors. But his personal example and his writings about other exemplary people continue to be “useful and true.”

Cordoba, Spain in the 850’s was also a time and place in which Christians lived under Muslim rule. Saint Eulogius of Cordoba, the second chronicler commemorated on this day, was born sometime before 819, and raised in a devout Christian family. He was sad to see some Christians getting comfortable with their second-class citizenship and becoming increasingly assimilated. Then there were others who fearfully concealed or even abandoned their faith in order to “get along” in the dominant culture.

Troparion – Tone 5

Patriarch Sophronius, you were glorious in the splendor of sobriety, and through
the radiance of your wordsyou revealed ineffable enlightenment from heaven.
For by your life you attained wisdom and now you confirm the Church as an illustrious
hierarch and intercessor for us with the Lord.

Saint Eulogius wanted to inspire his fellow Christians to be braver and more faithful. He collected and wrote stories of Cordoban Christians who refused to deny or hide their faith and were martyred. Among them were priests, government officials, monks and nuns, soldiers, and other believing men and women. Saint Eulogius himself was beheaded when the authorities discovered that he was hiding Christians.

A reading for this day is Proverbs 9: 11, in which God promises the wise that He will add years to their lives. Saints Sophronius and Eulogius knew that those promised years would be granted in a world beyond this one, where peace overcomes the strife they wrote about in their accounts of holy people.

This and many other Christian Education resources are available at http://dce.oca.org

Saint Gregory Palamas

​All human beings have a desire for union with God. In some Asian religions, union with God means the dissolution of the human person into God. As the saying has it “The dewdrop (the soul) falls into the shining sea (God).” But in Christianity we say that we never “merge” with God, we have a personal relationship with God. However, In Orthodox Christianity, we hear about the process of theosis (divinization), which means becoming God. We also hear the saying “God became a human being that human beings might become God.” So it seems we have a paradox here – we never dissolve into God, yet we genuinely undergo the process of divinization. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? We do so by studying the saint of the day, Gregory Palamas.
​St. Gregory was born in 1296 in Constantinople. He was educated at the imperial court with the idea that he would become a court official. However, he felt the call to become a monk. He left behind his life at court and become a monk on Mount Athos, where he learned the practice and theology of the Jesus Prayer (i.e., Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). Later on St. Gregory became archbishop of Thessalonica in 1347 and died in 1359, and was canonized soon after his death. His contribution to the theology of divination is as follows.
​The monks on Mt. Athos claimed to have an experience of God himself in prayer. They said the light they sometimes saw as an uncreated light, the light of God Himself. In other words, in prayer they genuinely had an experience of God. However, an Italo-Greek name Barlaam said that human beings can never have such direct contact with God, that they were deluding themselves. The Athonite monk asked St. Gregory Palamas to defend them. He wrote a book “The Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts” (those who practice the Jesus Prayer). In the book he explained and defended the ancient Eastern Orthodox teaching on essence and energy in God. The idea is that we can never know the essence of God as God is Himself. However, we can know God and can participate in Him through His energies. The energies of God are God himself acting beyond the divine essence, but still God. Or to put it another way, God’s energies are his uncreated, divine grace. So we truly participate and are united to God through his energies, but we never “dissolve” into the divine essence. It is important to remember that St. Gregory did not invent the energy-essence concept. It was there in early Eastern tradition. St. Gregory rather organized and defended the teaching which was declared as Orthodox doctrine by several synods of the church in Constantinople.
​So the essence-energies distinction shows us how we can never “merge or dissolve” into God, but as human persons we can be united to the tri-personal God by participation in the divine energy.

Troparion — Tone 8
O light of Orthodoxy, teacher of the Church, its confirmation, / O ideal of monks and invincible champion of theologians, / O wonder-working Gregory, glory of Thessalonica and preacher of grace, / always intercede before the Lord that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion — Tone 4
Now is the time for action! / Judgment is at the doors! / So let us rise and fast, / offering alms with tears of compunction and crying: / “Our sins are more in number than the sands of the sea; / but forgive us, O Master of All, / so that we may receive the incorruptible crowns.”

Fr. John

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

Although icons had been used in churches, in the early 8th century AD, the eastern Roman Emperor began a campaign against icons. The emperor ordered his soldiers to remove icons from churches, monasteries, public places and so on. No one is entirely sure why the emperor ordered this. Some think it was because of the Old Testament commandment forbidding the worship of graven images. In any case, many Christians suffered because of their defense of icons.
In 787 AD the Empress Irene, who was ruling in place of her young son, called a council of bishops to defend icons. Many bishops gathered and the veneration of icons was declared to be not only permissible, but even necessary. This council, known as the second council of Nicea, is considered the seventh ecumenical council. However, later emperors renewed the campaign against icons. It was not until 843 AD, when the empress Theodora ordered the restoration of icons that the iconoclasm, or the campaign against icons, ended. This was on the first Sunday of Lent that year and since then the first Sunday of Lent commemorates this event. This is known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
The Fathers of the church taught that we venerate icons, not worship them. Worship is due only to God, when we venerate an icon, we are not venerating wood and paint, but rather the person or persons depicted on the icon. We can do this because Jesus Christ became a genuine human being.
The essence of Christianity is that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, became a human being order to save humanity. As human beings we are not imprisoned in bodies, as some Greek philosophers taught, but we are unities of body, mind and spirit.
Therefore, the whole human person participates in the process of salvation and this includes the veneration of icons. And so icons are not simply religious pictures which can be used or not used according to taste, but rather they make the essential dogmatic point that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, and came to save the whole person. This is what the church proclaims on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
Troparion — Tone 2
We venerate Thy most pure image, O Good One, / and ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ God. / Of Thine own will Thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh / to deliver Thy creatures from bondage to the enemy. / Therefore with thanksgiving we cry aloud to Thee: / Thou hast filled all with joy, O our Savior, / by coming to save the world.
Kontakion — Tone 8
No one could describe the Word of the Father; / but when He took flesh from you, O
Theotokos, He accepted to be described, / and restored the fallen image to its former
beauty. / We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

Fr. John

Do the Little Things

0301David-WalesOn March 1st the Orthodox Church commemorates Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. He was born in about 487, on the southwestern coast of the country.

His birth is traditionally believed to be the result of rape. His mother Nonita, who is also honored by the Church, was the daughter of a local chieftain, and often in the company of nobles and princes. One prince found her irresistibly attractive, and forcibly seduced her. She is said to have given birth to David in a raging storm, perhaps reflecting the violent nature of his conception.

David was raised in the Welsh Church, and educated by clergy. His teachers were urgently aware of the need to take Christianity to the farther reaches of Wales and England. They recognized David’s outstanding ability to speak with eloquence about the faith, and to engage the minds and hearts of people listening to him. This was why, in later years, he would be a convincing opponent of the Pelagian heresy. But as a student he was already seen as an excellent candidate to do missionary work, a ministry he undertook soon after his formal education was completed.

Saint David’s missionary travels ranged over Wales, western England, and Brittany. He founded several monasteries in southern Wales. They were noted for the extreme austerity of their practices, modeled on David’s understanding of the life of the early desert monastics.

A description of the monks’ daily lives was recorded by an eleventh-century writer named Rhygyvarch (spelled in various ways), who based his life of David on “many old manuscripts” in the saint’s monastery at Menevia. It is the only extensive record of David’s life that we have. Rhygyvarch writes that after a full day of work plowing and planting, done without the aid of oxen or any animals, the monks stood in chapel for several hours of prayer, ending with chanted Psalms: “When the chanting of the Psalms is done…they worship on bended knees until the stars are seen in heaven bringing the day to a close. The father [David] alone, after having gone out, pours forth a prayer in secret to God for the state of the Church.”

The monks’ meals were simple, and accompanied only by water:

“Not dishes of various tastes lie before them or too dainty provisions, but having fed on bread and herbs seasoned with salt, they may assuage ardent thirst with a temperate sort of drink. On that occasion they provide for the sick and those advanced in age, and even those wearied with a long journey, some refreshments of a more appealing sort, for one must not weigh out to all in equal measure.”

David’s last words to the monks gathered around his deathbed included these: “Do the little things.” These words are a reminder of the words of Christ Himself, read two Sundays ago. Jesus’ surprised listeners asked Him when they seen Him in need or distress, and ministered to Him. He answered, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25: 40).

This and many other Christian Education resources are available at http://dce.oca.org