Friday, December 31, 2010

Last Thoughts on Peace for 2010

Ring around Supernova 1987A.
 Photo taken on 11/28/03 and found at The Hubble Site.
How the heck did it get to be New Year's Eve already?  Craziness, sheer craziness if you ask me.

I hope you enjoyed reading those two articles I posted on peace.  Yeah, they were long but well worth the time I think.  Peace is so hard to come by these days. We have grown so used to LOUDNESS and commotion that peace is almost extinct as a natural commodity.  Something that should be the rule has become the exception.  Occassionally I find myself startled by the quiet. And so startled that it is unnerving.  To quote Pink from her song "Sober":
The quiet scares me 'cause it screams the truth.
She's right.  And that's why we try to avoid the quiet (where peace resides) because we can't bear the truth.  But bearing the truth seems to be the only route to true peace.  Not bogus peace, but legitimate peace where the quiet is no longer unsettling but a place of rest, and ultimately freedom.  Remember, "you should know the truth, [for] the truth shall set you free." John 8:32.  

No matter what your personal circumstances may be or where you call home, may you find more peace in your soul, a genuine place of serenity from the tumultuous motion that is inherent while living on Earth.

143 and I'll see you guys in January for some fiery preaching from the 4th century.



Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas: A Mystery Unfolding

Icon of the Nativity of Christ by the hand of Constantine Youssis.  This icon can be purchased here from Come and See Icons.
We find ourselves today celebrating the third day of the Feast of the Nativity.  It is a fast free week for Orthodox Christians in America and the feasting continues until Saturday when we celebrate another day, The Lord's Circumcision.  And then, 5 days later, we find ourselves celebrating AGAIN when we remember the Lord's baptism in the Jordan.   Orthodox Christians fast and pray like no others, but then they also celebrate like no others. 

However, even as we are in this time of feasting, it is also a time for continued reflection on what has just occurred. And what has occurred is a mystery.  I'm not just talking about a virgin giving birth, or an angel greeting the shepherds, or three wise astronomers acting in faith by following a star to the sight of a newborn baby in a manger.  These are wonders for sure, but the greater mystery is this:  Why?  Why would God, who doesn't "need" anything from anyone, especially from his created beings, do such a thing?  Why does God, who has always been, enter into human history, and while remaining God, take on human flesh? Why does Jesus Christ, Emmanuel (which translated means God-With-Us), the Divine Logos, the long awaited Messiah prophesied of again and again and again in the Old Covenant, [Isaiah 7:14 is just one example] the only begotten son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, deign to be born in a cave, amongst animals and lay in their food trough? 

The answer:  The Mystery of Love. 

It is this mystery that Christ's mother pondered [it] in her heart. [Luke 2:19].  I must say again, as I have said in another post, that I cannot even begin to imagine what the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos as we call her in our Church, must have been pondering, wondering, hoping.   To know all these tremendous things about the child you just bore and that it is your responsibility to raise Him!  It is for good reason that the Orthodox Church in every generation of its 2000 years has called her blessed. [Luke 1:48] 

And so dear readers, while we are still celebrating in these days, let us not forget the mystery that now rapidly begins to unfold before us, the mystery of the Incarnation of God.   As I heard one Orthodox Christian priest once say,  an Incarnate God is truly the only acceptable God.  A God that takes on our humanity, lives among us, is a suffering servant and ultimately dies a humiliating death, is the only God that can possibly make sense.  Otherwise, God is an uncaring, seemingly capricious tyrant.  I agree.

    “ Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”


Friday, December 17, 2010

A Peace-filled Prayer

As a part of an Orthodox Christian's morning prayers, there is one prayer in particular that converses with God about gaining and maintaining personal peace throughout the day.  It is a favorite of mine and one that I try to recall during the course of the day.

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace.
Help me in all things to do Your holy will.
In every hour of the day, reveal Your will to me.
Bless my dealings with those who surround me.
Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day
  with peace of soul and firm conviction that Your will governs all.
In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings.
In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You.
Teach me to act firmly and wisely without embittering and embarrassing others.
Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all it shall brings.
Direct my will, teach me to pray, and You, Yourself, pray in me.


I especially love the two sentences in bold. It reminds me that every single person is known by God and that my reaction to this person is also known.  Lovely thing to contemplate, easy thing to forget.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Recipe For Discord

Christ brought love to the table. Let us do the same.  Icon by the hand of Nicholas Papas found at Come and See Icons.

A sure fire way to disturb your peace, and those you around this holiday season, is to cook up a big vat of resentments and bring them to the table. And don't fret if you don't have any really large ones.   Just toss a few small ones in a bowl, get the whisk out and start beating them into a frenzy. That works too.  They can be old, they can be new. There are no expiration dates on resentments.  It's like they are soaked in succulent formaldehyde.  De-lish!

Unfortunately what is tasty is not always nutritious.

O resentments!  I hate you!  I wish you would just go away! I don't let you though and that's the biggest part of the problem.  It's like reaching for that second brownie.  I know I shouldn't have it, but ohhhh, it's just so yummy! I grab it, eat it and then I'm totally bummed because, well, that was 10 grams of fat I really didn't need.  Remember the expression "A moment on the lips, forever on the hips!" Resentment could be "Once allowed in the heart, forever does discord impart!"

Yes, that is a Desert Deliberations original. You heard it here first.

The below link is a brillant article written by the Metropolitan Jonah, the head of the Orthodox Church in America, on resentments and inner peace.  The article is very readable, makes acute observations and gives  tangible, employable advice.

Do Not React, Do Not Resent, Keep Inner Stillness

Here's a brief preview:
One of the things which is so difficult to come to terms with is the reality that when we bear anger and resentment and bitterness in our hearts, we erect barriers to God’s grace
within ourselves. It’s not that God stops giving us His grace. It’s that we say, “No. I don’t want it.” What is His grace? It is His love, His mercy, His compassion, His activity in our lives. The holy Fathers tell us that each and every human person who has ever been born on this earth bears the image of God undistorted within themselves. In our Tradition there is no such thing as fallen nature. There are fallen persons, but not fallen nature. The implication of this truth is that we have no excuses for our sins. We are responsible for our sins, for the choices we make. We are responsible for our actions, and our reactions. “The devil made me do it” is no excuse, because the devil has no more power over us than we give him. This is hard to accept, because it is really convenient to blame the devil. It is also really convenient to blame the other person, or our past. But, it is also a lie. Our choices are our own.

On an even deeper level, this spiritual principle – do not react – teaches us that we need to learn to not react to thoughts. One of the fundamental aspects of this is inner watchfulness. This might seem like a daunting task, considering how many thoughts we have. However, our watchfulness does not need to be focused on our thoughts. Our watchfulness needs to be focused on God. We need to maintain the conscious awareness of God’s presence. If we can maintain the conscious awareness of His presence, our thoughts will have no power over us. We can, to paraphrase St. Benedict, dash our thoughts against the presence of God. This is a very ancient patristic teaching. We focus our attention on the remembrance of God. If we can do that, we will begin to control our troubling thoughts. Our reactions are about our thoughts. After all, if someone says something nasty to us, how are we reacting? We react first through our thinking, our thoughts. Perhaps we’re habitually accustomed to just lashing out after taking offense with some kind of nasty response of our own. But keeping watch over our minds so that we maintain that living communion with God leaves no room for distracting thoughts. It leaves plenty of room if we decide we need to think something through intentionally in the presence of God. But as soon as we engage in something hateful, we close God out. And the converse is true – as long as we maintain our connection to God, we won’t be capable of engaging in something hateful. We won’t react.
A very good read, epecially during a time in which we will soon be reunited with family members and friends.  Let's not present a platter of resentments as our contribution at this year's holiday meal.  For sure, no one will ask for the recipe.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Conversation About Peace

Saint Seraphim feeding a bear outside of his hermitage (from lithograph The Way to Sarov, 1903) source:  Wikipedia

My apologies for the last post.  It was choppy and not well written.  I said what I wanted to say, but it still seems somewhat disjointed and overly wordy.  This post promises to be infinitesimally better because the crux of it is not written by me. Again, my apologies.

So, where were we?  Ah yes...acquiring peace.  And I mean real peace, not say-one-thing-but-really-feel-another bogus peace.  It is a peace that must be spiritually sown, grown and matured in the heart and not the head where we can and often deceive ourselves.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition, the source of this peace is none other than the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity.  When one has the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, peace grows.  As the Aposte Paul, the eloquent and beautiful soul that he is, says in his letter to the Galatians 5:22-25 :
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Knowing this, the larger question that remains is: How does one then acquire the Holy Spirit in order to grow these fruits, like peace? You are not wrong by answering with the above verse "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit." Okay, but then, how is one to walk? TELL ME HOW TO DO IT!

Not to leave you in suspense any longer, I present to you this:  

A Wonderful Revelation to the World

The above links you to the famous conversation between St. Seraphim of Sarov, a monk, and the layperson (layperson is a regular person like you and me) Nicholai Motovilov.  I don't have the time, nor quite frankly, the talent to write about St.Seraphim other than to say that he was a beacon of light and of love. He is well-beloved by Orthodox Christians, and well-known among most traditional Christians and some "New Age" circles.  I highly recommend the biography written by Valentine Zander published by SVS Press, as well as some of his writings (which include the famous conversation from the link above) from theThe Little Russian Philokalia: Volume 1, St. Seraphim published by St. Herman Press.

I often thought to myself that outside of the Bible, if I could only have one spiritual book, it would be the one containing this simple conversation.  All you need to know about living and, more importantly, growing in the spiritual life is contained in this talk between an elderly sweet monk and this simple layperson.  No big words, no difficult theological concepts, none of that.  The only word you may need to know is "batiushka" which is a very endearing way of calling one "father".

After a quick google, I found a really well written (and short) biography of St. Seraphim written by Fr. James Coles on his blog last year.  You would do well in reading that post too found here.  Read what Fr. James wrote before you read the famous conversation link I posted above.  It will give you a much better idea of who St. Seraphim is.

And so dear reader, I leave you today with this from the "Wonderful Revelation":

“My joy, I beg you, acquire the Spirit of Peace. That means to bring oneself to such a state that our spirit will not be disturbed by anything. For one must go through many sorrows to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the way all righteous men were saved and inherited the Heavenly Kingdom….”

It's a lovely reflection as we drawer ever closer to Christmas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

No World Peace? It's probably my fault.

Okay I've written and rewritten this post quite a few times, so hopefully I've got it right.  Here I go.

Anyone who tells you that world peace is attainable in this life is, in my opinion, delusional.  Now I'm not saying that wanting world peace isn't a noble desire, but if we do a quick check of world history, there never has been a time in which this existed.  Wars, famine, heinous rulers have always been a part of the historical landscape.  Even in the Bible we find this from practically day one.

The famous first couple, Adam and Eve, after being banished from Paradise have two sons, Cain and Abel. And, before you know it, over the course of just a few verses, one kills the other. End of story, so much for world peace.  Here's the whole passage if you are interested Genesis 4:1-15.  

Hmmm, I just re-read that passage and something just jumped out at me which really better explains what I want to say (God beat me to the punch! Go figure.).  This is God talking to Cain right before he kills Abel.

4 Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the LORD respected Abel and his offering, 5 but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
6 So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”
So God right off the bat says, and I'm paraphrasing, "Hey, don't be mad. I saw your intentions, and they weren't good. Sin lies at the door of your heart and it wants to come in and rule you.  Don't let it."  Unfortunately, Cain didn't apply these words to himself, has a chat with his brother where his jealousy culminates and results in fratricide.  It is this very inability to manage our sinful inclinations that keeps us from achieving world peace, and it was there from the start.

Now I really didn't intend on this post being a bummer by calling everyone a sinner, but I think the point I'm trying to get to is that is we really want world peace, it has to start with ourselves first.   And honestly, it is so much more than "accepting" other people's lifestyles/religions/political views and not acting violently against them.  For while we may say one thing in public, oftentimes in our hearts, it is quite another story.

Using myself as an embarrassing example, I recently heard that someone who I don't particularly care for (I have judged their past actions as mean and uncaring) had something really terrific happen to them.  Outwardly I said "Oh, that's fabulous!" but inwardly I wasn't happy for them, and in fact, I was angry and jealous of their good fortune.  Ouch! Sounds like I have some resentment issues.  Remember this about love from St. Paul's famous 1 Corithians 13?:
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; 5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; 6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Yep, I pretty much did the exact opposite of all the things listed here. Conclusion:  I did not react in love and where there is no love, there is no peace. 
So, it seems to me that to have peace there is much more to it than not having wars or conflicts, it's an actual change where your first reaction to someone else's good fortune is genuine happiness without a hint of envy. Or in a negative situation, it is when someone slaps you on the cheek,  you don't hit back physically, or verbally or, most importantly, IN YOUR HEART.   Resentments can run very deep and will disturb your peace. 

So then, what is the answer?  How do we banish resentments and curtail the madness which adds to the existing chaos of the world and acquire genuine loving peace?   Well, as you can well imagine, I don't personally have the answers, see said example above.  However, I know some people who do.  Details to follow shortly.