Mary of Egypt a Saint for all of us

MaryEgyptTShirtFlyer

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.

New England Churches

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.

The Orthodox Congregational Church of Petersham Massachusetts

The Orthodox Congregational Church of Petersham Massachusetts

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Petersham Massachusetts

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Petersham Massachusetts

Let’s see what my next journey finds.

O Faithless Generation

demonic-boy-1

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.

Podcast: Behold Thy Cross

cropped-ShepherdOfSouls-e1420463200532.jpg

In this episode Fr. Peter explains that if we are to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, then we must take up our cross and follow him.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Journey Begins With A Yes

ANNUNCIA

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!

10 Tips for Stress Control

stress-awareness1

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.

  1. Diet ~ If we have a poor diet, and poor eating habits our performance will be compromised and we will lose stamina and our tolerance for stress will be reduced. Limiting the amount of caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars, fats and excessive salt will go a long way to change all of this.
  2. Exercise ~ This will increase muscle strength and lung capacity, but exercise will also lower blood pressure and cholesterol and will improve sleep. All of these will help reduce the amount of stress and how we deal with stress in our lives.  The better physical shape we are in, the better we will be able to handle the stressors in our lives.
  3. Smoking ~ Stop! Nicotine intensifies a stress reaction. Nicotine depletes vitamins C and E and makes our bodies more vulnerable to stress-related diseases.  Chewing tobacco would also be included in this category.
  4. Positive Metal Attitude ~ We have within us, the power to overcome stress and to manage our reaction to stress. Being flexible and not taking life too seriously, find humor in difficult situations, positive thinking, not jumping to conclusions, admitting mistakes and learning from them, think first and act second.  All of these will help us to remain positive, and when stress happens, and it will, the effects will be less.
  5. Spirituality ~ People with a belief in a power beyond themselves cope with higher levels of stress for longer periods of time. Prayer and meditation, call it what you want, but that quiet time that centers us is an effective tool in stress control.
  6. Relaxation ~ Relaxation is the deliberate, purposeful quieting of the mind and the body. Chemicals are produced in our bodies when we relax that neutralize stress chemicals. Deep breathing is one way to relax.

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.

  1. Satisfying Self-Expression ~ Read a book, get a hobby, write, paint, woodworking, the idea is to find another channel for the energy that we store inside us that can intensify stress in our lives.
  2. Have a Life Beyond the Job ~ The job is not your life and your life is not the job. There is a big world out there filled with family and friends.  Leave the job behind when it is quitting time and, using number 7 above, find an outlet for the energy.  Spend time doing something else and get your mind off the job.  Keeping a balance between your home life and your work life, be attentive to how family members feel, two-way communication is important.
  3. Limited Self-Disclosure ~ Talking with people helps. Studies have shown that people who talk more about issues have an easier time dealing with the issues when they arise again in our lives and reduce the amount of stress related to those issues.  Communication lowers tension, reduces feelings of being unique and improves our thinking and decision-making.  Communication helps us to feel “normal.”
  4. Look out for False Stress Cures ~ Alcohol and other “recreational drugs, avoidance of circumstances, people and places that remind you of a bad experience. Denial of the situation, excessive joking when someone is unhappy, arrogance, and emotionally freezing.  All of these are false cures that only bury the problem and will continue to cause stress in our lives.

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.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

climicus

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.

Memory Eternal Fr. Thomas Hopko

Fr. Thomas Hopko

Fr. Thomas Hopko

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:

MEMORY ETERNAL!

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.

MEMORY ETERNAL!

Child, Your Sins Are Forgiven

healing

As we continue our journey through Great Lent the scripture for the week, taken from the Gospel of St. Mark, remind us of faith and how we need to have faith in our lives.  The story is about a man who is paralyzed, and his friends bring him to see Jesus in a most unusual way.

Jesus has entered the fishing village of Capernaum and had gone to a friend’s house.  Word had spread that He was there, and so many people came and filled the house and spilled out into the street to hear Him speak.  The crowd was so dense that people were having a hard time moving around.  It was into this crowd that the paralyzed man was brought.

His friends could not get him through so they decided to go up on the roof and gain access to Jesus in this way.  The house would have had a flat roof that was used by the residents as a place to sit in evening when the temperatures cooled off so there would have been outside access.  The roof may have been covered in grass that would have helped to keep the house cool in the hot Palestinian sun.

The men carried their friend, laying on his bed, up to the roof and dug a hole between the rafters and lowered their friend down to Jesus.  I can only imagine the commotion this must have stirred not only with those inside the house but the homeowner himself.  Imagine someone breaking a hole in your roof!

Scripture tells us that Jesus was moved by the faith of the man’s friends.  Their faith that drove them to do this, to get their friend to Jesus not matter what the cost.  He was so moved by their faith that He tells the man that his sins are forgiven.  Not the faith of the man himself but the faith of his friends is what Jesus is telling him.  They did not let something like, not being able to get there, stop them from doing what they felt they had too.  The faith, and drive to help their friend, was so great that there was no obstacle would stop them.

This was an immense task that must have taken some planning.  When they left the house did they bring shovels and rope with them or did they have to return to get the items necessary to remove the roof?  Face with the challenge they put their heads together to come up with a solution to the problem, and that was to get their friend the help he needed.

It has been said “it takes a village” and this is true in our spiritual life.  It is no secret that I do not believe in “I’m spiritual but not religious” nonsense that the world wants us to believe.  Okay, maybe you have an issue with organized religion, fine, but we cannot do this alone we need the loving support of a community to help us through, and if necessary, break open the roof for us.

How many times have we turned back because we thought the challenge was too great?  Perhaps we are paralyzed with the fear of judgment we might face doing to our lack of faith or our perceived sinfulness. Perhaps we do not feel that God could love us because we are sinners, and our sins are so great that God would never be able to forgive us.  Are you paralyzed with doubt and despair?  Find some friend who would be willing to remove the roof to help you.

There is no sin that is so large that God will not forgive.  What I hope the world understands is that God loves everyone, I know it sounds simple, but it true, God truly loves each one of us for who we are and where we are.  The problem is we don’t believe that.

We need to take that first step and return to Him.  We need to take that first step and reach out our hand to Him and take His outstretched hand in ours and ask Him to show us the way.  There is no better time than right now to do that, and if you need someone to break open the roof for you, give me a call and I will do it!

Podcast: America’s Spiritual Founding Father

cropped-ShepherdOfSouls-e1420463200532.jpg

Fr. Peter looks at a little bit of colonial religious history with Professor Thomas Kidd.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.