With love in Christ,
As some of you know, I like swimming. There is something about the water that shuts out the rest of the world for me and allows me to recharge. For a few meters as I glide off each wall, the only sound in the world is that of water going by my ears. I like that near-silence, made precious by its fleeting nature.
The alarm, the coffee maker, the engine, road repair machinery, the ambulance driving by, the clickety-clack of the keyboard, radio, tv, birds, dogs… we are surrounded by sound. Sometimes the sounds have practical purposes: they wake us up, the remind us of things we need to do, they warn us to pay attention to something. Sometimes the sounds are restorative and bring and restfulness. And then there are the other sounds. They are ever-present and everywhere. They do not require our attention, so we can easily assume that they do not affect us.
Little by little, our brain adapts to its environment. Noises become normal for us; we expect to be surrounded by them. They become a habit formed without our choosing; one that leaves us uncomfortable in those few times when we find ourselves in a quiet place. We become addicted to the distraction that everyday noise brings. This is already a problem for our spiritual lives, because, while God is everywhere present and filling all things, for us to be attuned to his presence, we need to be able to hear a small, still voice, light breeze, or vibrant silence (cf. 3Kgds/1 Kings 19:12).There is a second problem associated with constant noise and distraction in our lives: they prevent us from paying attention to our thoughts. The lack of attention to our thoughts does not mean that we stop having them.We all know that at any given time, thoughts pass through our heads that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from silly to grandiose, from evil to holy. The desert fathers knew this well, too.
One brother came to Abba Pimen and said, "All sorts of distracting thoughts keep coming into my mind, and I'm in danger because of them." Then the elder pushed him out into the open air and said, "Open up your cloak and capture the wind in it!" But he objected, "I can't do it." So the elder said to him, "Exactly! And if you can't catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is just to say no to them."
There are two things to note here. The first is the wisdom of Abba Pimen and his advice (to which we will return shortly). The second is the brother who came seeking help: he comes knowing that there is a problem; to a certain extent even knowing what the problem is. These thoughts are distracting and sometimes beguiling. If we are not aware of them, they can lead us into danger. If we are distracted or fooled, we can easily say yes to a thought to which we should be saying no. And, as the Church teaches, assent to a sinful thought is the beginning of sin.
And here we come back to Abba Pimen. What he tells the brother is that a thought, on its own, is not the problem. Thoughts come and, as he says, we cannot help that. We may, as time goes on, if we are vigilant about our thoughts and nourish ourselves with holy materials, become less susceptible to sinful thoughts, but, in this life, they do not disappear entirely. So, what is left to us is the response to thoughts. Abba Pimen puts it very simply: our job is to say no to sinful thoughts.
Getting there, however, requires that we be aware of the kinds of thoughts we have. We need to be in the position of the brother, who knew he was facing an obstacle which hindered his spiritual life and was an obstacle to his knowing and encountering God. We begin by finding time away from the noise; time to become aware of our thoughts, to learn what kinds of sin we are susceptible to.
We also need time to feed holy nourishment to our souls, so that they are strengthened in what is good and learn to choose it. This is where the services of the Church can help by filling our ears with grace-filled words of Scripture and prayer, with poetic recollections of the lives of the saints and with meditations on the meanings of the feasts for our lives. The various prayers of the church, said attentively in our prayer corners, and scripture readings are also helpful. And, occasionally, it helps to have someone – perhaps not quite of the stature of Abba Pimen, who is a saint of our church – but someone who is traveling the same spiritual path and to whom we can go to receive counsel about the practical aspects of growing in vigilance over our thoughts.
As we come to November and December, it is a rich time of celebrating important saints and meditating on the great mystery of the incarnation and nativity of our Lord. Let us take the opportunities presented to us to nourish our souls with the grace of our services and do the necessary work that leads to vigilance over our thoughts. Directing our lives in this manner is a gift worthy of the infant lying in a manger. Let us offer it to Him as we draw near to worship Him and glorify Him.
With love in Christ,
Orthodoxy is a faith of preparation. In the ultimate sense, we live our lives as preparation for eternal life, but we also prepare for things on a smaller scale. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about preparation is Great Lent and Holy Week. We spend eight weeks preparing for the feast of feasts through fasting, added services, and a more rigorous prayer life. Similarly, though in a less intense manner, we spend time preparing for Christmas, Dormition, and the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.
Of a more regular nature is our preparation for receiving the Eucharist. This reception is the essential act that unites us with Christ and with one another: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” St. Basil the Great is explicit about the importance of this reception: “To communicate each day and to partake of the holy Body and Blood of Christ is good and beneficial; for He says quite plainly: ‘He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life.’ Who can doubt that to share continually in life is the same thing as having life abundantly? We ourselves communicate four times each week…and on other days if there is a commemoration of any saint” (Letter to a patrician lady Caesarea).
I would like to focus here on this preparation for the Eucharist. There are several components that work together to prepare us to receive the holy Body and precious Blood of our Lord. There is a daily component: the remembrance that God is “a fire consuming the unworthy,” as we affirm in the last part of our pre-communion prayers. And each of us knows that, as St. Chrysostom says earlier in the pre-communion prayers that ”I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that You should enter under the roof of my soul.” So each day we ask God that, by His Grace, He transform our lives and make us worthy to receive His most precious and life-giving gifts.A second component of our preparation consists of the pre-communion prayers mentioned above. In order to discern the Body and Blood of Christ and to be prepared to receive them, we have these preparatory prayers, which have come to us from some of the great saints of the Church – John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Symeon the New Theologian, John of Damascus, and Symeon the Translator (Metaphrastes). In one of the prayers from Compline, we ask that God “correct our thoughts [and] purify our minds.” This is the role of the pre-communion prayers: to correct our thoughts and purify our minds so that we can see with our mind’s eye the magnitude and intensity of what is set before us in the holy Eucharist. Depending on your prayer book, the number of pre-communion prayers may vary and a canon may or may not be included. Personally, I like my Romanian prayer book, which includes twelve prayers – a nice, Biblically-sound number – but the number of prayers is not as important as the attention and faithfulness with which we pray them.
A third component of our preparation is the Liturgy itself. Here, we hear the epistle and Gospel for the day. The Savior told his disciples that “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15:3). We, too, are cleansed – and thus prepared to receive the awesome mysteries of His Body and Blood – by the word He speaks to us at the Divine Liturgy through the epistle and Gospel. And, of course, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we be given our daily bread – that which is necessary for life – and the ultimate food necessary for life in Christ is His Body and Blood.
The three components above happen for each and every Liturgy. The fourth component does not usually happen with the same frequency, but it should nevertheless happen regularly, being of no less importance: the sacrament of confession. It is in this sacrament that we are cleansed in a personal manner of the stain of our sin, removing those things which darken our souls, so that we may more fully perceive the Body and Blood of Christ and receive Them for illumination and salvation.
All of the above are essential and indispensable elements of the spiritual life. There are also a couple of preparatory elements in which not everyone participates: the preparation of the gifts by those who offer them and the preparation by the celebrant priest or bishop.
I was reminded at blessing of the grapes at Transfiguration that the grapes, too, were blessed in part to become wine to be offered back, for the Holy Eucharist. These days, however, we think mostly of the prosforo. The prosforo is a blessed offering of our time and talent, a portion of which is to become the Body of Christ. Yet, I think it is something to consider for most of us. The thought of something that I have made becoming the Body of Christ is awe-inspiring. I do not know how much of what I do is sanctified, but there is this one thing that I can do and which will become the holiest of all things. And for me, there is something else in the baking of the prosforo: I often think of the saints for whose feast the prosfora I make will be used. These saints inspire me; they show me what life can become when we dare to allow Christ to transform it; they pray for me. Baking and offering a prosforo for their feastday Liturgy is but a small token of my gratitude for what they have done.
Finally, an element of preparation that is most often happens “behind the scenes” is the Proskomede. This is the service of the preparation of the gifts, which takes place either before or during Orthros. Here, the celebrant lifts pieces out of the prosforo – the Lamb inscribed with IC XC NI KA (Jesus Christ conquers), pieces for the Theotokos and the saints, a piece for the bishop, and pieces while praying for the living and the departed. These pieces, offered on behalf of the faithful, will be placed in the cup containing the Body and Blood of Christ towards the end of the Liturgy.
The holy fathers of the Church speak often of vigilance as being a necessary element of the spiritual life. Let us, therefore be vigilant in our preparation for the reception of the holy Body and precious Blood of our Savior and let us be vigilant that we prepare to receive the holy gifts as often as possible.
With love in the risen Christ,
Now that we have started to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior in the flesh, as always, we look forward. On January 6, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist, where the Holy Trinity was revealed: Theophany, or Epiphany. The Orthodox Church traditionally associates this Great Feast with the great blessing of waters, an echo of Christ's sanctification of the living water of the Jordan. Our Theophany services include the Royal Hours on Monday, January 5, at 9:00 a.m.; Vesperal Liturgy (of St. Basil) with the great blessing of the waters (inside) on Monday, January 5, at 5:30 p.m.; Orthros, Divine Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom), and the great blessing of the waters (inside) on Tuesday, January 6, starting at 9:00 a.m. Come early to read psalms!
We will joyfully join for an outdoor blessing of the waters in Coralville at the IRP Dam Pedestrian Bridge (near Iowa River Power Restaurant, 501 1st Avenue, Coralville) with the parishes of St. George and St. Raphael on Saturday, January 10, at 4:00 p.m., followed by pan-Orthodox Vespers at St. Raphael at 5:00 p.m., with a fellowship meal to follow.
Our parish is blessed to have St. John the Baptist as our patron, and therefore our altar feast is his synaxis on January 7. On the day following a great festal event, we celebrate the saint or saints who was involved in that event as a synaxis, which is why we celebrate St. John on a day which is not his conception (September 23), birth (June 24), death (August 29), or even the finding of his blessed head (February 24 and May 25) or the translation of his relics (October 12). Close on the heels of the celebrations for Theophany, we will celebrate Great Vespers on Tuesday, January 6, at 6:00 p.m., with Orthros and Liturgy on Wednesday, January 7, starting at 9:00 a.m. Come early to read psalms!
The water blessed at the services of Theophany is traditionally used to bless homes of the faithful. An email has been sent to everyone on the parish listserv with the house blessing schedule and instructions; those who do not respond to the email and who are both local and on our mailing list will receive the schedule and instructions by mail. The beginning of Lent is the traditional end to "house-blessing season," and this year it will come early (Monday, February 23), so please make arrangements as soon as possible. Since the water from the Theophany great blessing of the waters is used, the home blessing service will only take about 5 minutes! If you would like your home (or car or business) blessed, please contact Fr. Peter to make arrangements. His joy is to assist God in consecrating all of creation.
The Holy Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles Thecla was born in the city of Iconium. She was the daughter of rich and illustrious parents, and she was distinguished by extraordinary beauty. At eighteen years of age they betrothed her to an eminent youth. But after she heard the preaching of the holy Apostle Paul about the Savior, St. Thecla with all her heart came to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and she steadfastly resolved not to enter into marriage, but rather to devote all her life to preaching the Gospel.
St. Thecla’s mother was opposed to her daughter’s plans and insisted that she marry her betrothed. St. Thecla’s fiancé also complained to the prefect of the city about the Apostle Paul, accusing him of turning his bride against him. The prefect locked up St Paul in prison.
During the night St. Thecla secretly ran away from her house, and she bribed the prison guards, giving them all her gold ornaments, and so made her way into the prison to the prisoner. For three days she sat at the feet of the Apostle Paul, listening to his fatherly precepts. Thecla’s disappearance was discovered, and servants were sent out everywhere looking for her. Finally, they found her in the prison and brought her home by force.
When she continued to refuse marriage, St. Thecla was sentenced to be burned. Without flinching, the holy martyr went into the fire and made the Sign of the Cross over herself. At this moment the Savior appeared to her, blessing her present deed, and inexpressible joy filled her holy soul.
A strong downpour of rain and hail extinguished the fire. The torturers scattered in fear. St. Thecla, kept safe by the Lord, searched and found St. Paul, who was nearby with St. Barnabas and others, praying for her. St. Thecla went with them preaching the Gospel in Antioch. There, she was pursued by a certain dignitary named Alexander, who was captivated by her beauty. St. Thecla refused his offer of marriage, and so she was condemned to death for being a Christian. Twice they set loose hungry wild animals upon her, but they would not touch the holy virgin. Instead, they lay down meekly and licked her feet.
The Providence of God preserved the holy martyr unharmed through all her torments. Finally, they tied her to two oxen and began to chase her with red-hot rods, but the strong cords broke asunder like cobwebs, and the oxen ran off, leaving St. Thecla unharmed. The people began shouting, “Great is the God of the Christians!” The prefect himself became terrified, realizing that the holy martyr was being kept safe by the Almighty God, Whom she served and gave orders to set free the servant of God Thecla.
With the blessing of the Apostle Paul, St. Thecla then settled in a desolate region of Isaurian Seleucia and dwelt there for many years, constantly preaching the Word of God and healing the sick through her prayer. St. Thecla converted many pagans to Christ, and the Church appropriately names her as “Equal- to-the-Apostles.”
When St. Thecla was already a ninety-year-old woman, pagan sorcerers became incensed at her for treating the sick for free. They were unable to comprehend that the saint was healing the sick by the power of the grace of Christ, and they presumed that the virgin-goddess Artemis was her special helper. Envious of St. Thecla, they sent their followers to defile her. When they came near her, St. Thecla cried out for help to Christ the Savior, and a rock split open and hid the holy virgin. Thus did St. Thecla offer up her holy soul to the Lord.
The holy Church glorifies the Protomartyr Thecla as “the glory of women and guide for the suffering, opening up the way through every torment.” From of old many churches were dedicated to her. The Protomartyr Thecla, a prayerful intercessor for ascetics, is also invoked during the tonsure of women into monasticism.
(adapted from oca.org)
On Wednesday, September 24, the area clergy will gather at St. George to concelebrate Orthros and Divine Liturgy for the feast of St. Thecla.
With love in Christ,
I was asked a few weeks ago whether we could have services honoring St. Sophia and her daughters – Faith, Hope, and Love, whose feast is on September 17. The children are martyr saints, which is quite sobering when we realize that, at the time of their martyrdom, Faith was twelve, Hope was ten, and Love was nine. If that were not enough, the children were tortured and martyred by order of emperor Hadrian in front of their mother. St. Sophia was then given the bodies of her children to bury, which she did with reverence. The story of these saints gives us at least two points on which to ponder.
The first is the example of the children. They remained steadfast in their faith despite their young ages and the tortures they suffered. Their strength came from Christ; they were strengthened by the One Whom they were raised to love and honor before anyone and anything else. Their faith asks of us: do we strive to love and honor God as they did? Do we strive to raise our children to love and honor God as these young martyrs did?
The second is the example of the mother, who taught her children to seek first the kingdom of heaven and encouraged them to remain strong in their faith during their tortures. As parents, we all want what is best for our children. We strive to provide for them, to make sure they have a good education, a good job. With all that, do we make sure to teach them to seek first the kingdom of heaven? The choice that Faith, Hope, and Love had to make was the ultimate one. But there are many choices that our children have to make that have a bearing on their spiritual life. If there is a choice between going to a great college where the nearest Orthodox church is an hour away and a good one where the church is ten minutes away, do we tell them that it is okay to sacrifice academic prestige for the ability to stay close to and remain active in church? If they have a choice between a well-paying job that leaves them with no spare time and one that pays less but gives them time for church, do they know that we think the latter is a better choice for their souls?
May these great saints of our Church intercede for us and guide us, that we may join them in the kingdom of heaven.
With love in Christ,
The Feast of the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
(adapted from goarch.org)
The feast is celebrated on September 8 each year and commemorates the birth of the Mother of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The birth and early life of the Virgin Mary is not recorded in the Gospels or other books of the New Testament, however this information can be found in a work dating from the second century known as the Proto-evangelion of James.
According to the story found in this book, Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna, were childless for many years. They remained faithful to God, but their prayers for a child were unanswered. One day, when Joachim came to the temple to make an offering, he was turned away by the High Priest who chastised him for his lack of children. To hide his shame, Joachim retreated to the hill country to live among the shepherds and their flocks.
As Joachim was praying, his wife Anna was praying at the same time at their house in Jerusalem. An angel appeared to both of them and announced that Anna would have a child whose name would be known throughout the world. Anna promised to offer her child as a gift to the Lord. Joachim returned home, and in due time Anna bore a daughter, Mary.
The icon of the Nativity of the Thetokos presents to us the central figures of Saints Joachim and Anna, Mary's parents, and the Mother of our Lord as an infant. Saint Anna is in the middle of the icon with her right hand extended toward her daughter. Likewise, Saint Joachim, Mary's father, is gazing upon the young child with his right hand extended toward her. Anna is surrounded by attendants who have assisted with the birth.
The icon directs attention to Mary as the central figure in this feast. It also acknowledges the joy that was felt by Joachim and Anna as new parents with a child received through a promise from God. The liturgical texts of the feast acknowledge this joy and confirm the special role of Mary as the Mother of the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. In this event, another step is made in sacred history in preparation for the entrance of Christ into the world.
The icon and the feast also acknowledge a transition from barrenness to life. This was but another foreshadowing of what would be offered through Christ, the transformation from death to eternal life.
With love in Christ,
Today, we are blessing a set of new liturgical items. Let us be attentive to the words of the prayers, that we may be filled with the sense awe and mystery as we stand before God in the services of our Church.
O Almighty Master, Lord our God: having given to Moses, Your servant, the law, ordinances, and rituals, You commanded that vessels of gold and silver be made and sanctified in the sanctuary built to the glory of Your most-holy Name, for the bringing-forth of various sacrifices to You, our true God (as these were the shadow and image of our present true bloodless Sacrifice). Do You Yourself now also, O Lord the Lover of mankind, bless this paten, chalice, star and spoon and sanctify them by the power, action and grace of Your all-holy and life-giving Spirit, that on them may be brought forth unto You the true, bloodless and reasonable Sacrifice, the most holy Body of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Your Son Who, for us and for the sake of our salvation offered Himself once unto You, His God and Father, as an acceptable Sacrifice on the Altar of the Cross. For unto You, together with Him and Your most-holy, good and life-giving Spirit is due all glory, honor and worship now and ever and to the ages of ages.
O Lord our God, Who have heaven as a throne and the earth for a footstool, even though the whole universe is not able to contain You, nor are the minds of angels or men able to comprehend the magnificence of Your glory or worthily to speak of You: For the sake of merciful compassion and love for mankind, ineffably You condescended to be contained in the Virgin’s womb and become a man, while remaining true god. In order to cleave mankind to Yourself, under the visible guise of bread and wine, You have Your own Body and Blood as food for the faithful. As You are God, You are everywhere and fill all things, yet as God and man, You are in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and on earth desiring truly to be present in the most-holy Mysteries of Your Body and Blood. Therefore, I now humbly beseech You: Do You look down mercifully on our prayer and on this vessel which was made to Your glory, and send down upon it Your heavenly blessing; bless, purify and sanctify it, that it may be a worthy receptacle, a new tomb and storehouse for the holy and Life-giving mysteries of Your most-holy Body and precious Blood. For You are our sanctification, and unto You do we send up glory, together with Your Father Who has no beginning, and Your most-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages.
O Lord God Almighty, God of our Fathers, Who have said through Your chosen vessel, the apostle Paul, that all Your creation is good and that nothing is rejected which through Your divine Word and prayer is sanctified: Mercifully look down upon these vessels which Your servants have provided for the glory of Your most-holy Name and to the service of Your holy altar and, with Your heavenly blessing and the prayer of us, Your unworthy servants and servers, mercifully bless and sanctify them and manifest them to be worthy for the service of Your holy altar, bestowing upon them Your heavenly grace, and grant them remission of sins and make them partakers of Your Kingdom. For You are the God of mercy and compassion and love for mankind, and unto You we send up glory, together with Your most-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages.
O Lord our God, look down now on the prayer of me, your unworthy servant, and send down the riches of Your blessings on these vessels and sanctify them by Your Holy Spirit through the sprinkling of this holy water.
With love in Christ,
On August 29, the Church commemorates the beheading of St. John the Baptist. The remembrance is kept as a strict fast day. This is not simply because we recall St. John’s death; if that were the case, every martyr’s feast would be a strict fast. Rather, it is a reminder of the circumstances in which that death occurred: in the midst of unrestrained partying. As we remember the mindlessness of King Herod, we become mindful of our attitude, of the things we eat and drink, of the things we use for our entertainment. There is a pious custom in some places that nothing is eaten off a plate that day, since the head of St. John was presented to Herod on a platter.
The entire day is a day of mindfulness. But, while August 29 has a number of tangible things that help our mindfulness, I think we can very well say that our church life is designed to cultivate mindfulness. The various times of prayer during the day (e.g., upon waking, before and after meals, before work, before sleep), the sacrament of confession and the accompanying searching of our conscience (or, on a smaller scale, the daily evaluation of the day that passed before we go to sleep), the acts of good that we do because of our identity as Christians, the guarding of our thoughts and words – all these things are there to make us mindful how we live our lives and, most importantly, of God’s presence which can sanctify everyone and everything.
Whether or not we are able to attend the services for the Beheading of the Forerunner, may we be mindful on that day and every day.
With love in Christ,
When the Theotokos fell asleep in the Lord, the disciples were miraculously gathered together at her side. The story goes that they listened to her as she talked about her Son and were together in prayer as the time of her departure from this life drew near. This gathering was not against the apostles’ will. On the contrary, the one apostle who was not present, St. Thomas, was upset at being absent from such an important and emotional event. In his sorrow, he asked to go to the grave of the Theotokos and have it opened for him so that he might venerate the body within which the Lord had been encompassed. To his surprise the body was gone.
The gathering of the apostles tells us on one hand the important role the Theotokos continued to play in the early Church and on the other the depth of the connection of love between the Theotokos and the apostles. I think their devotion to the Theotokos is a two-fold example for us. First, our devotion to the Mother of God should be as fervent and we should ask for her help, as she is quick to hear and ready to entreat her Son on our behalf. Second, the spiritual connection between the Theotokos and the apostles was stronger than any other bond the apostles had in their lives. Their common dedication to serving God and becoming as He is had created such a connection. I pray that our dedication to the journey of the kingdom may create such bonds among us, as well.With love in Christ,