Are we spending time on the wrong things in our spiritual lives? Do you want to get focused on the right things?
I have an intense almost paralyzing fear of flying. I have not always had this fear, and I am not sure when I developed it but sometimes, like now, just thinking about flying turns my hands moist and I start to shiver.
I understand that fear, like all of the emotions and passions, are irrational, but I just cannot help it. Some people fear spiders or heights, for me it is flying. I am uncomfortable with the entire process from the buying of the ticket to the boarding of the plane and as the process continues the more anxious I get.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a seminar on the psychological effects of working a fatal fire scene. The seminar was held at the Massachusetts Fire Academy, and I was in attendance in my role as a fire chaplain. As chaplain, it is my role to help the men and women of the fire service deal with the horrible things that they encounter in the course of their job, and there are many.
The presenter of the seminary is a fire investigator the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Fire Arms of the US Government. He shared stories of past fatal fires that he investigated and some of the tricks he has learned to deal with the horror of what he sees as part of his job. He mentioned that he can clearly see each and every event that he has ever investigated where there was a fatality and that the picture is stored in the Rolodex of his mind.
This got me thinking about my fear of flying and where this has come from. I have had some close calls in the air but nothing real serious, but I began to think about an event that I thought I had long dealt with.
After Hurricane Katrina had hit the United States, I was sent to New Orleans with the Orthodox Christian Charities as a first responder to work with folks on the immediate needs in the wake of devastation. Most of the work consisted of making sure the supplies that were on the way got to where they were needed most. I worked in an office with a telephone and white board and spoke with truckers and other relief workers in the field, but I was not in the field, until one night.
We had received word that there were thousands of people at the Louis Armstrong Airport in New Orleans; the government was denying this of course. It was next to impossible to get permission for anyone to enter New Orleans in those early days but somehow we were able to obtain permission. We rounded up a few school buses and set off from our base in Baton Rouge to assess the situation at the airport.
When we arrived, it was a scene from a war movie. People were living on some of the worst conditions that I had ever seen. Gate area had been turned into bathrooms, and the small was just unbelievable.
Our party entered the airport through the baggage claim area and a doctor ran up to me grabbed me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes with absolute horror on his face, and shouted “did I do the right thing?” Come to find out he had to make decisions about who was going to live and who was going to die because the few supplies they had were running out.
He took me to a former gate area that had been turned into a nursing home. This was called the “black ward” where they brought the people they did not expect to live. At this point, there were 65 people, lying on army cots; around the gate area (I can see this in my mind as clear as if I was right there as I write this.) The nurses and the doctor with the horrified look on his face were doing what they could for those in their care. I was informed that no minister of any kind had been there, and he asked me if I would pray for them.
When we were getting ready to leave Baton Rouge, I ran back to my room to grab the bag that had my stole and my anointing oil and I took it with me. I am not sure what reminded me to do that but at that moment I was glad I had it with me. I knelt down beside each person, said a short prayer for peace and to help them as they transitioned to the next phase of their life. I put my thumb in the small vessel that held the oil of anointing, and I made the sign of the cross on their forehead. At that moment, I did not care if they were Christian, Jew, Muslim, or non-believer. I did not care that my Church only allows me to anoint those of my own faith. For that moment, I was their minister, and I was going to do what needed to be done to bring them comfort.
As I made my way around the room praying and anointing each one, I noticed that the medical staff had stopped what they were doing and had bowed their heads. These people had become their family, and they were praying for them as I was. It came to my mind that not only was I bringing comfort to the people on the cots but I was bringing comfort to those whose care they were now in.
After my rounds of prayer, I spoke briefly to each one and prayed with them and thanked them for what they were doing. I assured the doctor that he had done what he needed to do and that God would understand. He asked me for absolution, and I placed my stole on his head and I read the prayer of absolution over him.
When I was sitting in a class all of these memories came flooding back to my mind, and I saw each face as if I was kneeling beside them again. The smell came back to me as if I was back in that place, and I thought maybe this is why I am afraid to fly!
Memories are a powerful thing and memories that have not been dealt with can, and will, affect us in the future. I thought I had dealt with them, and maybe I had, but they are still with me. In one way I am glad I carry those memories with me and I am glad I remember those faces, faces of people that had been left to die by those who were only thinking of themselves and were now in the care of people that would see to their needs.
Where do I go from here? Well not to the airport I can tell you that! Just writing about my experience helps me to find peace with it. I hope I never forget that experience, I hope those faces stay with me for the rest of my life, and I thank God that I was able to bring them some measure of comfort in their last hours or days.
The 5th Sunday of Great Lent is set aside to commemorate St. Mary of Egypt. Born in the 4th century this day is to remind us of the great power of reconciliation in our lives.
At a young age, St. Mary left her home and traveled to Alexandria where she lived a life as a prostitute. St. Mary decided to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land not so much to visit holy sites but to ply her trade along the route. Upon arriving in the Holy Land, she attempted to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross. Her way was barred by some force that she did not know.
She saw an icon of the Theotokos on the wall and stood before it and prayed. She had come to the realization that she was a sinner in need of the mercy of God. When she finished praying, she was able to enter the Church where she venerated the relics of the true cross. While in the Church she heard, a voice telling her to cross over the Jordan River where she would find peace.
On the way, she stopped at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist and received absolution and communion. She entered the desert and lived and ascetic life for many years. There is much more to the story, but the recognition of her need for the mercy of God is the key to the story.
The season of Great Lent is designed for us, all of us, to come to this realization that our lives need to change. If we are to be authentic followers of Jesus Christ, then our lives have to change, and this is what Mary discovered. Turning over of one’s life to Christ is an important part of the journey, in fact, the journey cannot begin until we do this.
The life of St. Mary is put here on this 5th Sunday of Lent to remind us of this important fact, and it is now up to us to take the next step. As we continue the journey of Great Lent, and the start of Holy Week, let us come to the same realization that Mary did, that our lives need to change, and rededicate our lives to Christ and to follow His way.
I am a fan of New England Churches. Perhaps it is the architecture or the quaintness of a time gone by but each time I drive through a town, and see a steeple, I stop and check out the church. I think I will make posting photos of these churches a new feature here on the blog.
Recently I drove through the Town of Petersham Massachusetts and came across these two Churches that used to be one. Back in the day each New England town had a meetinghouse in the center of the town. For the most part, of course depending on where you were from, it was a Congregational Church. Then there was the split between the Congregational and the Unitarian and thus was born another Church. I do not think that either of these are the original buildings but they stand on the original sites.
Let’s see what my next journey finds.
We have now passed the halfway point of Great Lent and our focus is turned toward faith, or should I say the lack of faith. The middle of anything can be a very difficult place to be, there is just as much behind us as there is before us. I am not a marathon runner, but I can imagine that the half way mark is the hardest part. Do you stop or keep going? Lent is the same, but like the marathon, if we hang in there the reward is great.
The Scripture passage chosen for this past Sunday came from the Gospel of St. Mark and tells the story of a father who brings his son to Jesus for healing from a demon that he has had for many years. The man describes the situation and Jesus and tells Him that he brought his son to the disciples, but they could not make him well. Jesus then replies, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” Jesus then asks that the boy be brought to him.
A conversation takes place between Jesus and the boy’s father about his condition and how long he has been this way. Jesus tells the man, “If you believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” The man replies, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”
The entirety of our spiritual life begins, and ends, with faith. Each step we take along the path requires faith, sometimes it takes more faith than other times, but faith is necessary. But we also struggle with our faith, and I believe that if we are not struggling then we are not doing it right. The struggle is all part of the spiritual walk.
One of the most meaningful scenes of Scripture for me is Jesus in the Garden prior to His arrest. Scripture tells us that He prayed so hard that drops of blood formed on his forehead. He prayed to God that another way be found for what was about to happen. Jesus was fully aware what was going to happen to him, and His human part was afraid. I think we sometimes forget that Jesus was human and divine, and He has the same feelings that we have.
This passage is comforting to me in many ways. Here is Jesus, the Son of God, and He was struggling with His faith, even if it was for just a moment in time, but He struggled with what was coming next. He knew what he had to do; He knew what his destiny was, but He still had questions. But the end of that story needs to be the same for us, not my will but God’s will. This is not easy.
The disciples that the man brought his son too lacked faith. Maybe they lacked faith in their ability to do what was being asked of them, or maybe they lacked faith in healing, in general. Whatever it was they lacked it, and that prevented them doing what needed to be done.
How much faith do we really have? Do we truly trust in God, as we are supposed too, for everything?
Trust is not an easy concept to wrap our heads around especially trust in God. We always want to be in control of all aspects of our lives, and it is difficult to let go and let God as the old saying goes. But trust, like forgiveness, is essential to the spiritual life and trust is what helps us to develop faith.
If the disciples had faith and trust, they would have been able to bring relief to the boy and his father and who knows what else. I believe that Jesus was speaking more to His disciples than to the Man when He asked about the faithless generation. In the end, the man showed great faith in bringing his son to Jesus to be made well, and that is the same faith that we need to have. We cannot wait until times get so bad that we have nothing else, we need to have that faith now!
As we continue, the journey of Great Lent lets us work on faith, the faith that will give us the ability to do more than we can ever hope for or imagine.
I have been writing about spirituality for many years now. I have written about the need for us to forgive others and ourselves. I have written on the necessity of confession and Scripture reading. I have written on spiritual reading and Eucharist but what I have not written about is that none of that will happen unless we answer yes to God’s call on our lives to become authentic followers of His.
Today we celebrate the great feast of the Annunciation. This is the day that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and asked her, notice I said asked and not told, asked her to become the vessel that would deliver the Son of God to earth. I am stressing the asking part to point out that God does not force us to do anything. He wishes us to follow Him, and even provided for that with His prophets and His only Son as a guide, but the decision is ours to make.
Traditionally the Church believes that Mary was a young woman in her teens. She had spent her life in the temple, given to God by her parents shortly after her birth and was prepared for this from her birth. One could even say that this was the reason she was born. The Angel Gabriel came to Mary and told her of God’s plan. The Angel told her that she would conceive, and she would bear a son and she was to call Him Jesus.
Hearing this she asked only one question, and that was how this can be since she had no husband. The Angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her and that the child would be the Son of God.
Now I am not sure about you but I think I would have a million questions about all of this, and as Scripture reveals, Joseph, her betrothed, had many questions. But Mary was different. As I mentioned, she had been prepared by her parents and God for this very moment. Mary looked at the Angel and said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
I always like to ask the question, what if Mary had said no? I know it can be a silly questions but put yourself in her place. A young woman, in a society that has little or no value for women, and suddenly she is “with child.” She is engaged to a man, and unlike society today, they do not live together nor have they had sexual relations. How is she going to explain this to her parents and others? These would all be questions that I would expect to be asked if this were a 21st century story.
But so great was the trust that Mary has in God that she did not question what was being asked of her. This child, with no formal education, agreed to do what being asked of her simply because God asked her too. That is the essence of the spiritual life, the yes to God.
This feat is less about the fact that the Angel came to Mary and she conceived and in nine months will give birth, no, what this feast is about is the yes of a simple first century girl to God that started her on the journey of a lifetime.
Many years ago, the contemporary Christian artist Steven Curtis Chapman wrote a song called The Great Adventure. The first line of the song is “saddle up your horses for this is the great adventure.” He was writing about the spiritual life and our yes. A journey of a million miles begins with that first step but before we can even take that first step we have to agree to take the journey in the first place.
On this Feast of the Annunciation say yes to God and follow Him on the Great Adventure!
As people, we are under more and more stress each and every day and that stress is not good for us. Stress can, and will, affect us physically and spiritually as well as emotionally so knowing how to deal with stress is the key to health.
Here are ten tips for dealing with stress in our lives.
Start with three very deep breaths, inhale through the nose, hold it for five seconds and breathe out through the mouth. Pause for 5-10 seconds between each breath. Take three more deep breaths, but slightly smaller than the previous ones utilizing the same procedure, in through the nose out through the mouth. Finish with three normal, but full breaths.
The best, and most successful way of dealing with stress is to deal with it when it happens. Proper preparation will go a long way in helping when stress arises, and it will, but when it does deal with it.
By Fr. Nicholas Apostola
This is the fourth Sunday of Great Lent. We remember our father among the saints, John of Sinai who wrote the great spiritual work, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. We also continue to read from the Gospel of St. Mark. This week we hear the story of the healing of the epileptic boy (Mark 9:17-29). We read St. Matthew’s telling of the same miracle (Matthew 17:14-21) earlier in the cycle. (You may read those comments on the web site under: “This Week’s News,” August 17.) Here I would like to focus on two specific passages that I believe pertain directly to our struggle through Lent on our journey toward the Lord’s Pascha.
The miracle retold in this passage involves an epileptic boy whose father, while loving the boy deeply, is of rather limited faith. Hearing of Jesus, he brings the boy to the disciples to be healed. But they, lacking sufficient faith, were unable to help the boy. Finally, the boy is brought to Jesus himself. The Lord questions the faith of the father, and the father famously declares, “I believe; help my unbelief” (v. 24).
The three Synoptic Evangelists all accurately record that this miracle occurs after the Lord’s Transfiguration as he is going toward Jerusalem and his Crucifixion. Therefore, there are things that he says to both the boy’s father and to the disciples that reveal much about how Jesus himself understands the upcoming events.
When the boy’s father comes up to Jesus pleading with him to heal him, Jesus, speaking not only to the father but to the whole crowd, says: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” And then, having compassion on the boy, he says, “Bring him to me” (v. 19).
We can see how the lack of faith of both the “people” and even the disciples has tried and wearied the Lord. Moreover, from our vantage point, we can see that He clearly foresees his upcoming crucifixion and death and, in a sense, embraces it. He understands that he has taught and shown them all that they can absorb. If they do not understand now, they never will. This is an important, if somewhat painful, observation. When trying to teach someone a life-changing lesson we often think that the more we explain it, the easier it will be for them to understand. The truth is, as we see here, the lesson must be absorbed and internalized by the listener. There is very little that the teacher can do to facilitate that vital process. The Lord is telling all those within hearing distance that he has done and spoken all that he can. The rest is up to them.
The second verse I’d like to highlight is also very poignant for us during this Lenten period. When asked by the disciples why they could not cast out the spirit, the Lord says to them that “this kind can come out only through prayer and fasting” (v. 29). The Lord is giving us an insight into the nature of the spiritual struggle before us, and the tools we’ll need.
The Lord gave the disciples the power to cast out demons and heal sicknesses, but they had never really been put to the test. While I am sure they noticed that the Lord would withdraw into the desert for long periods of time to pray and fast, I am also sure they did not fully comprehend the necessity of this for the spiritual life.
When we take up the Christian life we enter into the “arena.” This is a spiritual spectacle that involves the Evil One and his allies. We often speak of the “demons of Lent” that attack us more ferociously as we take up the ascetic mantle more seriously during this time of year as we prepare ourselves to partake of the Light of the Lord’s Resurrection. We see in this Gospel account how even the disciples themselves were unaware of how much struggle and sacrifice it would take to do battle with the forces of darkness. We have the advantage of reading about it and being forewarned. However, this does not lessen the vehemence of the struggle.
Our comfort lies is this. Our Lord has taken up this struggle before us and for us. He tells us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 17:28-30) This is the Lord’s true promise and a lesson for us. Let us pray for the wisdom to not only to receive it, but also to understand it.
This is a very sad day for the Church. The Servant of God, the Protopresbyter Thomas has fallen asleep. I met Fr. Tom many years ago, long before I was Orthodox, and he has been a great inspiration to me through his many books and his podcasts on Ancient Faith Radio. May his memory be eternal!
Posted from the family website:
Fr. Thomas reposed peacefully today, March 18, shortly after 3 pm.
The last of his five children, who had not been able to visit him at the hospice until today, arrived this morning. She told him that she came, and now he could go. And, by the mercy of God, he reposed after spending much of the day with her.
No funeral plans yet. They will be posted as soon as they are available.