This month, we are learning to “Walk in the Light” with St. Athanasios the Great. St. Athanasios was the patriarch of the Church of Alexandria. He is most famous for championing the correct when the Church was battling the heresy of Arius. Arius taught that there was a time when the Father was but the Son was not, making Christ a creation of the Father. The true faith persevered and was proclaimed at the first Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Nicaea in 325 AD, which taught that Christ was “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not created, of one essence with the Father…”
Even after the council, Arius’ teachings lingered throughout the world and thus, we have one of the most famous pieces of Christian literature ever composed: “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasios. In this masterpiece, St. Athanasios writes in great detail about the purpose and function of the incarnation of the Son of God, while speaking in very plain language so that all the members of the Church can understand the true faith. Today, we will read pieces of this timeless treasure and discuss them together in order that we might more clearly understand Christ and His love for us.
Before we begin our discussion, let’s begin with 120 seconds of silence. It’s been a long day. Take this chance to come into the presence of God and his saints as a group. Sit still. Breathe slowly and deeply. Say the Jesus prayer.
Part I: The Creation & Fall of Humanity
St. Athanasios begins his work about the Incarnation of Christ by first speaking about the creation of all humanity.
“Perhaps you are wondering for what reason, having proposed to talk about the Incarnation of the Word, we are now expounding the origin of human beings. Yet this too is not distinct from the aim of our exposition. For speaking of the manifestation of the savior to us, it is necessary also to speak about the origin of human beings, in order that you might know that our own cause was the occasion of his descent and that our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings so that the Lord both came to us and appeared among human beings. On the Incarnation 4
He goes on to speak extensively about the different “theories” of creation that were floating around at his time. He lays down the foundation: God created all things out of nothing through His Word. He does all of this in order to remind the reader that Christ is able to save us, to “re-create” us, because He is, in fact, the same one who created us in the first place.
“As we give an account of this, it is first necessary to speak about the creation of the universe and its maker, God, so that one may with us worthily reflect that its re-creation was accomplished by the Word that created it in the beginning. For it will appear not at all contradictory if the Father works at salvation in the same one by whom he created it.” On the Incarnation 1
“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’” On the Incarnation 14
Here, we are presented with the most beautiful imagery. God yearned to restore us after our fall when He could have “started fresh” and just destroyed us for our lack of obedience to Him. St. Athanasios presents to us Christ as the one who loves us and comes to save us Himself. He does not send an angel, prophet, or saint to restore us, but rather, comes to us in our state of death and brings life into us once again Himself.
We love Him because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19
- What are your reactions to hearing the words of St. Athaniasus? What do you find most important? Discuss together.
- Christ comes to renew us because of His love for us. We might know this mentally but forget this spiritually. How does this impact how you see yourself, those around you, and the entire world?
- If you could make one change in light of this impact tomorrow, what would it be?
Part II: Christ our Salvation
St. Athanasios gets to the crux of the matter: Christ comes to restore us through His Incarnation. He spends a good majority of the book expanding on this since he argues that Christ doesn’t simply come to die quietly just to fulfill some obligatory death but rather, He does much more.
Christ, Emmanual, visits us. “For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God comes into our realm, although he was not formerly distant. For no part of creation is left void of him; while abiding with his own Father, he has filled all things in every place. But now he comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation” On the Incarnation 8
Christ, the Lamb, is slain for us, putting an end to the law’s judgment over us. “For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law lying against us and renewed for us the source of life, giving hope of the resurrection.” On the Incarnation 10
Christ, our teacher, reminds us once more of the Father. “For what profit would there be for those who were made, if they did not know their own Maker? Or how would they be rational, not knowing the Word of the Father, in whom they came to be? For they would not have differed at all from the irrational creatures if they had known nothing more than the terrestrial animals. And why would God have made those by whom he did not wish to be known?… So, lest this should happen, being good he bestowed on them of his own image, our Lord Jesus Christ, and made them according to his own image and according to the likeness, so that understanding through such grace the image, I mean the Word of the Father, they might be able to receive through him a notion of the Father, and knowing the Creator they might live the happy and truly blessed life.” On the Incarnation 11
Christ, our Savior, redeems us as He destroys death by His resurrection. “Indeed, with the common Savior of all dying for us, we, the faithful in Christ, no longer die by death as before according to the threat of the law, for such condemnation has ceased.” On the Incarnation 21
Christ, our King, protects us. “And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honor, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all. On the Incarnation 9
For St. Athanasios, the entire life of Christ—each and every detail—is purposeful and works to save and restore us.
- How does St. Athanasios’ understanding of Christ’s incarnation and work of salvation change how you understand Him?
- While many of us are quite intimidated when we hear “Church Fathers”, “Patristics”, “Theology”, etc, how has this exercise of reading all of these quotes been? Discuss.
- What stood out to you about these passages?
- What questions has this conversation raised for you?
- Is there anything you’re still wondering about?
“The Dying Prayer of St. Athanasios
Thou art Jesus, the Son of the Father, Yea, Amen.
Thou art He who commandeth the Cherubim and the Seraphim, Yea, Amen.
Thou hast existed with the Father in truth always, Yea. Amen.
Thou rulest the Angels, Yea, Amen.
Thou art the power of the Heavens, Yea, Amen.
Thou art the crown of the Martyrs, Yea, Amen.
Thou art the deep counsel of the Saints, Yea, Amen.
Thou art He in whom the deep counsel of the Father is hidden, Yea, Amen.
Thou art the mouth of the Prophets, Yea, Amen.
Thou art the tongue of the Angels, Yea, Amen.
Thou art Jesus my Life, Yea, Amen.
Thou art Jesus the object and boast of the world, Yea, Amen.
(A.W.T. Budge, Coptic Homilies in the Dialect of Upper Egypt, [The Dying Prayer of St. Athanasios, Archbishop of Alexandria, pp. 1012-1020])
Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas: According to this text, which is based on the personal witness of his Archdeacon, who stood by him at the moment of his departure from the present life, and was uttered shortly before he delivered his sanctified soul to the angels who came down to receive it, recalls the entire course of the divine economy for the salvation of mankind and concludes with a doxology to the Lord Jesus Christ. (Saint Athanasios: Original Research and New Perspectives, pg. 204)”
Copied from https://classicalchristianity.com/2011/10/15/the-dying-prayer-of-st-Athanasios/
Icon by Father Matthew Garrett
This month, we are learning to “walk in the Light” with Saint John of Damascus. Saint John had a true devotion to Christ and His Church as he defended the faith against the heresy of iconoclasm that was ever present during his time. Saint John shows us that there is a dimension to iconography that reveals the true light of our salvation—Jesus Christ. Today, we will use his writings to explore icons as “the window of heaven” through which the Light that springs from the Holy Trinity can be revealed.
Before our discussion begins, let’s have 120 seconds of silence.
Take this chance to come into the presence of God and His saints as a group. Sit still. Breathe slowly and deeply. Say the Jesus prayer.
Part I: Icons Communicate the Light of Christ
Saint John of Damascus penned some of the most vital arguments in favor of icon veneration through the lens of Christology, or our understanding of who Jesus Christ is. According to Saint John, our relationship to icons unfolds from the nature of Christ, who is both fully man and fully God in one Person. The Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate, taking on flesh and therefore making the invisible God visible. Thus, icons reveal to us the Incarnate Christ—in which both humanity and divinity are manifested without confusion, division, mixture, or change.
“I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by its union with him, it is changeless. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is brought to life by a logical and reasoning soul. I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me.”
Here we see Saint John conveying how the icon communicates the incarnation of Christ without leading us to worship created things. Icons are neither simply portraits nor are they idols meant to draw our attention away from the Creator, but rather, icons portray the unity of humanity with God in Christ.
- How would you summarize Saint John’s thoughts on the defense of icons, specifically looking at the difference between worship and veneration? Discuss with one another.
- Icons are unlike any painting of Picasso or Monet, as they call us to something deeper, something not of this world. How are icons a union between the visible and invisible worlds?
Part II: Icons Reveal the Goodness of Creation
Saint John adresses the fact that the origin of icons lay in the Incarnation of Christ, as this was a sign of perfect love for the purpose of salvation for the world. In each icon, the awesomeness of God becomes accessible to our very eyes, a true way to reveal the glory of God. Let us read the words of Saint John, as they so beautifully describe the icon as it transcends the detachment between the created world and the kingdom of God.
“The invisible things of God have been made visible through images since the creation of the world. We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, e.g. in order to talk about the holy and worshipful Trinity, we use the images of the sun and rays of light, a spring and a full river, the mind and speech and the spirit within us, or a rose tree, a sprouting flower, and a sweet fragrance.”
“I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is.”
Here, Saint John states that we are not to despise matter.” It is true that in the Orthodox Church, we venerate icons and hold them with dear reverence. We are careful with them at all times, and do not damage them in any way. Why is this? As Saint John emphasizes, icons are images of the light of Christ, and are to be treated with great care and honor. Just as we hold icons to be matter that is venerated, we must too hold our own brothers and sisters to this same standard of honor and care, as each one of us are icons of Christ. If we are to “honor all matter and venerate it” as Saint John voices, we must be ready to honor and venerate our neighbors with the very same carefulness. Imagine if we ran and kissed our neighbors the same way we run to kiss an icon of the Theotokos. We are all created by God as a reflection of His holiness, and thus, we should treat each with that very belief, running to hug and kiss one another as we run and kiss the very icon of Christ.
- Why is it very easy to love and venerate an icon but at times, so difficult to love our neighbors?
- Saint Paisios once said “The grass is an icon; this stone is an icon; and I can kiss it, venerate it, because it is filled with God’s grace.” In today’s day and age, we see trends of neo-paganism on the one hand and rejection of physical realities on the other. What do St. John and St. Paisios teach us in regards to how we should approach the material world? How is it different from approaches you see others take?
- We are constantly being called to be ready to defend our faith at all times. If asked, how would you defend the veneration of icons in the Church?
Icon by Father Matthew Garrett
This month, we are learning to “Walk in the Light” with St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Ignatius was the disciple of the disciples! His writings give us one of the earliest glimpses into the faith of the earliest Christians. St. Ignatius is known for his famous letters, sent to the communities he cared for, and written on the way to his martyrdom. As St. Ignatius shared with them to meet their needs, we can pull similar lessons from his writings which are just as relevant to us today in our walk as Orthodox Christians.
Before we begin our discussion, let’s begin with 120 seconds of silence. It’s been a long day.
Take this chance to come into the presence of God and his saints as a group. Sit still. Breathe slowly and deeply. Say the Jesus prayer.
Part I: Living by Dying
The most notable thing about the letters of St. Ignatius is that he’s writing them on his way to be martyred. As St. Paul before him, St. Ignatius is writing in chains (Philippians 1:12-13). One would think that he’d be writing to ask for their help, pleading with them to come to his aid. We find the exact opposite. Rather, he “implores the Christians at Rome not to interfere with his own coming martyrdom:”
“It is better for me to die in Christ Jesus than to be king over the ends of the earth. I seek him who died for our sake. I desire him who rose for us. The pains of birth are upon me. Suffer me, my brethren; hinder me not from living, do not wish me to die. Do not give to the world one who desires to belong to God, nor deceive him with material things. Suffer me to receive the pure light; when I shall have arrived there, I shall become a human being. Suffer me to follow the example of the passion of my God.” Epistle to the Romans
“Pains of birth are upon me…hinder me not from living…do not wish me to die.” St. Ignatius has turned everything upside down (Acts 17:6)! He sees his coming death as his way to be born. He begs that they don’t put a stop to his martyrdom lest he die from being kept from death! St. Ignatius, seeing things with heavenly clarity, describes to us a reality where laying down our life in Christ is the source of living and not a loss at all (Philippians 1:21).
- What are your reactions to hearing the words of St. Ignatius? Discuss together.
- The majority of us won’t have the opportunity to “die” in Christ in the same way as St. Ignatius, and yet, his clarity and wisdom seem to pour out beyond the bounds of martyrdom. How might we apply his lessons of life through death to our own lives?
- St. Ignatius mentions that when he has met his martyrdom, he shall then become a human being. Each of us would typically consider ourselves human beings—what’s the difference here? How might his understanding of a human being differ from ours?
Part II: Living As Lights
St. Ignatius sees that his journey to perfection lies in his martyrdom but for his flock, he does not lay the same heavy burden. Rather, he spends his letters encouraging them to walk in the light of Christ. He exhorts them to live lives of holiness so that they might experience the power and beauty of God. He also reminds them that the way they live their lives matters because they must shine the light of Christ on everyone they meet. He takes extra care to remind them that what we profess with our lips must be lived out through our actions and that our actions are a witness (martyria) to all those they come in contact with.
“Let your baptism be your armor; your faith, your helmet; your love, your spear; your patient endurance, your panoply.” Letter to Polycarp
“Pray without ceasing on behalf of other men. For there is hope of the repentance, that they may attain to God. See, then, that they be instructed by your works, if in no other way.” Letter to the Ephesians
“It is better for a man to be silent and be [a Christian], than to talk and not to be one. It is good to teach if he who speaks also acts.” Letter to the Ephesians
“Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips, and the world in your heart.” Letter to the Romans
- St. Ignatius emphasizes the importance of prayer and setting an example through our actions. How do these practices relate to his “Life Through Death” theme?
- If you could make one change tomorrow that would have a significant impact on your ability to “Live as a Light”, what would it be?
- St. Ignatius highlights the importance of silence which is a common theme in many of the writings of the saints. St. Arsenius, the Egyptian desert father is famous for saying, “Many times have I repented of having spoken, but never have I repented of having remained silent.” Have you ever been in a situation where it would have been much wiser to stay silent than to speak?
Conclude your meeting with this prayer of St. Ignatius of Antioch:
I am the wheat of God
and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts,
that I may be found the pure bread of God.
I long after the Lord,
the Son of the true God and Father, Jesus Christ.
Him I seek, who died for us and rose again.
I am eager to die for the sake of Christ.
My love has been crucified
and there is no fire in me that loves anything.
But there is living water springing up in me
and it says to me inwardly,
“Come to the Father”
Of all the teachings and sermons of the Church Fathers, by far the most recorded and preserved are those of St. John Chrysostom. With hundreds of sermons to read, you could easily spend a lifetime learning from St. John’s powerful rhetoric as well as his own example. What follows here is only a tiny window into the teachings of this great saint. We imagined what life advice St. John might have given to someone in college. We hope it provides some guidance for you and inspires you to want to read more of what St. John has to teach us.
Part I: Be bold in your faith even when it’s unpopular.
St. John famously died in exile because he was willing to preach against the corruption of Empress Eudoxia. In fact, St. John often spoke out against corruption in the imperial court, among the wealthy, and even within the Church. Consider what he has to say about Christian leaders falling short of their responsibility to sanctify the world around them:
I once used to deride secular rulers because they distributed honors, not on grounds of inherent merit, but of wealth or seniority or worldly rank. But when I heard that this stupidity had swaggered into our [the Church’s] own affairs, too, I no longer reckoned their action so strange. For why should we be surprised that worldly people, who love the praise of the mob and do everything for money, should make this mistake, when those who claim to have renounced all these desires are no better? On the Priesthood
St. John was not afraid to speak boldly about how we as Christians should live and how that example should actually impact how people around us live. He spoke out against injustice and himself was a bold defender of those who were mistreated, even when it was not popular among those in power.
For instance, St. John gave sanctuary to a man who had fallen out of favor with Empress Eudoxia only for that man to later be taken captive and executed. In response to such a shocking turn of events, St. John encouraged his congregation in a sermon with the following words:
But wherefore was I not dismayed? Because I do not fear any present terrors. For what is terrible? Death? Nay, this is not terrible: for we speedily reach the unruffled haven. Or spoliation of goods? “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart” (Job 1:21); or exile? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1); or false accusation? “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Mt. 5:12).
I saw the swords and I meditated on Heaven; I expected death, and I thought of the resurrection; I beheld the sufferings of this lower world, and I took account of the heavenly prizes; I observed the devices of the enemy, and I meditated on the heavenly crown: for the occasion of the contest was sufficient for encouragement and consolation. True! I was being forcibly dragged away, but I suffered no insult from the act; for there is only one real insult, namely sin: and should the whole world insult you, yet if you do not insult yourself, you are not insulted. The only real betrayal is the betrayal of the conscience: do not betray your own conscience, and no one can betray you. Homily 2 on Eutropius
St. John reminds his congregation—and us—that there is no reason to fear any persecution or rejection or threats to our life and livelihood because of our commitment to follow Christ. Instead, we can feel emboldened by our hope in Christ’s conquering of death, His defeat of the devil, and the promise of our share in His kingdom.
- What makes you feel confident to live boldly as a Christian? What makes you shy away from living boldly?
- In what ways might you be called to speak out against injustice?
- What impact is your way of living having on those around you?
- What do you think St. John means when he says “there is only one real insult, namely sin”?
Part II: Don’t let piety or worldly pleasure take the place of real love and virtue.
If St. John’s first piece of advice to college students might have been to live your faith boldly, his second piece of advice might have been to clarify what it means to “live your faith”. St. John is rather precise and prolific in his moral teachings. He isn’t a fan of either pompous and empty piety or of worldly excess and indulgence. We all often find ourselves torn between these two temptations and can forget what actually being people of love and virtue is like.
In terms of “pietism” or overemphasizing external acts of faith that miss the most important virtues, St. John often reminds us that love requires sacrifice, especially sacrifice of our own comfort and desires. Here are some brief passages from three sermons where St. John corrects his people on this topic:
Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Homily 50 on Matthew
You honor this altar indeed because it receives Christ’s body. But the poor man, who is himself the body of Christ, you treat with scorn, and when perishing, neglect. You can see this altar lying around everywhere, both in streets and in marketplaces, and you can sacrifice upon it every hour; for on this, too, is sacrifice performed. And as the priest stands invoking the Spirit, so do you too invoke the Spirit, not by speech, but by deeds. Homily 20 on 2 Corinthians
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said: “By what kind of works?” If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honor, do not envy him! If you see a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances or to busy themselves with strange beauties. […] Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speaking and calumnies. “You shall not receive a false report,” it says.
Let the mouth, too, fast from disgraceful speeches and railing. For what does it profit if we abstain from birds and fishes and yet bite and devour our brethren? The evil speaker eats the flesh of his brother, and bites the body of his neighbor. Because of this Paul utters the fearful saying, “If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you be not consumed by one of another.” You have not fixed your teeth in the flesh, but you have fixed the slander in the soul and inflicted the wound of evil suspicion; you have harmed, in a thousand ways, yourself and him and many others, for in slandering a neighbor you have made him who listens to the slander worse; for should he be a wicked man, he becomes more careless when he finds a partner in his wickedness; and should he be a just man, he is lifted to arrogance, and puffed up; being led on by the sin of others to imagine great things concerning himself. Homily 3 on the Statues
Throughout his sermons, St. John is careful not to discard one practice for another; just as Christ tells the Pharisees, “you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23). St. John does not want his people to stop adorning churches or venerating the Eucharist or fasting during Lent, but he does want them to remember that we shouldn’t do these things at the expense of our brothers and sisters.
On the other hand, St. John is not at all interested in making excuses for the vices of his community. He expects Christians to live modestly and soberly. He encourages us to develop virtues that honor God and protect us from the temptations of worldly living. One striking example comes in a sermon where St. John addresses the raucous partying that happened at weddings in his day:
Marriage is an image of the presence of Christ, and will you get drunk at a wedding? Tell me, if you saw a portrait of the emperor, would you insult it? By no means. Many are indifferent to what goes on at wedding celebrations, but great evil is the result. Looseness and disorder prevail. Paul says, “Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity; let no evil talk come out of your mouths.” What, I ask you, goes on at weddings? All of this, and more, for evil talk has become an art, and those who excel in it are applauded! Sins have become an art! We pursue them not by chance, but with studied earnestness, and finally the devil assumes control of his own troops. When drunkenness arrives, chastity departs. Where there is filthy talk, the devil is always eager to make his own contribution. Do you celebrate Christ’s mystery with entertainment like this, by inviting the devil?
I am sure now that I have offended you. You mock me when I rebuke you, and say I am too austere. This is only another proof of your perverted manner of life. Don’t you remember St Paul’s words: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God”? Or the Psalmist’s, when he said, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice in him with trembling”? But your behavior is dishonorable and blasphemous, totally without restraint. Is it not possible for pleasure and temperance to coexist? Are you fond of music? I would prefer that you love silence best of all, but if you must have songs, choose edifying ones, not satanic ones. Instead of dancing girls, invite the choir of angels to your wedding. “But how can we see them?” you ask. If you drive away the other things, Christ Himself will come to your wedding, and where Christ goes, the angels’ choir follows. If you ask Him, He will work for you an even greater miracle than He worked in Cana: that is, He will transform the water of your unstable passions into the wine of spiritual unity, but remember: if He should come and find the musicians and the crowd making a tumult, He will expel them all before working His wonders. What is more disgusting than these pomps of the devil? There is so much noise that nothing can be heard. When any words are audible, they are meaningless, shameful, and disgusting. There is nothing more pleasurable than virtue, nothing sweeter than orderliness, nothing more honorable than dignity. Homily 12 on Colossians
It’s incredible how a description of a fourth century party doesn’t sound too far off from what goes on at a party today! He even makes note of how indulging in one vice can easily lead us to bad judgements about other temptations. St. John encourages us to celebrate life’s goodness with sober, simple pleasures and gratitude to God for His goodness. He desires that all of our daily decisions, big and small, are rooted in love for God and neighbor.
- What connections did you make between the different passages from St. John Chrysostom’s sermons on virtue?
- What did you find most important about St. John’s instructions on steering clear of pietism?
- How would you apply St. John’s advice for wedding parties to college life?
- If you could make one change in your life to develop real love and virtue, what would it be?
Part III: Be humble and take your responsibilities seriously.
It can be easy when we’re striving to be bold in our faith and truly virtuous to start to believe that we are superior to those around us. And it is certainly a temptation to want to take credit for the good that we do, to post about our best life on social media, or to desire accolades for our accomplishments. Yet again, St. John warns us of another trap in living a Christian life:
Why are earth and ashes proud? Are you high-minded, O man? Why? Tell me, what is the gain? Why are you high-minded against those of your own kind? Do you not share the same nature, the same life? Have you not received the same honor from God? But are you wise? You ought therefore to be thankful, not puffed up. Haughtiness is the first act of ingratitude, for it denies the gift of grace. He that is puffed up, is puffed up as if he had excelled by his own strength, and he who thinks he has thus excelled is ungrateful toward Him who bestowed that honor. Have you any good? Be thankful to Him who gave it. Homily 5 on Philippians
If we start to forget that it is God who has created us and given us the grace to do well and to grow in virtue, we’ll quickly find ourselves puffed up by pride. St. John suggests gratitude as a means of combating pridefulness. Another way to promote humility in our hearts is to focus on fulfilling the responsibilities which have been placed before us with our best effort without concern for our own acclaim. This does not mean our humble efforts are worthless, however. In fact, St. John shows us that our actions and relationships matter deeply. Take, for example, what he says about how a good marriage can have a ripple effect out into the community:
The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord?” Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends, and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both of families and states, are thus produced. When it is otherwise, however, everything is thrown into confusion and turned upside-down. Homily 20 on Ephesians
Or take how he points out that having even a little influence or position of authority can change how significant your virtues and vices impact those around you:
The sins of ordinary men are committed in the dark, so to speak, and ruin only those who commit them. But when a man becomes famous and is known to many, his misdeeds inflict a common injury on all. They make backsliders even more supine in their efforts for what is good, and drive to despair those who want to improve. Apart from this, the offenses of the insignificant, even if made public, harm no one seriously. But those who are set upon the pinnacle of this honor not only catch every eye; more than that, however trifling their offenses, these little things seem great to others, since everyone measures sin, not by the size of the offense, but by the standing of the sinner. On the Priesthood
St. John sees far-reaching implications for how we approach the responsibilities God has given us. It’s not just that we will be affected positively if we fulfill our duties faithfully or negatively if we neglect them—the societies and systems of which we are a part and all of those individuals we might influence can and will also be impacted. Among all that God has made, humans alone share in responsibility for the temporal and eternal care of the world:
For earth’s inhabitants, having their life in this world, have been entrusted with the stewardship of heavenly things, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. On the Priesthood
A steward is the one charged by the King to care for His dominion with the same love and care that He Himself would show. St. John is reminding us that our King has entrusted us even with the things that last beyond this life and that we should fulfill this vocation with awe and seriousness.
- What is the connection between being humble and taking our responsibilities seriously?
- What social and cultural forces make humility difficult?
- What does the seriousness with which St. John discusses marriage, parenting, and the priesthood teach you about your own responsibilities as a student?
- With what has God entrusted you? What does good stewardship of that gift look like?
Conclude your meeting with this prayer of St. John Chrysostom:
O Lord, deprive me not of Your heavenly blessings;
O Lord, deliver me from eternal torment;
O Lord, if I have sinned in my mind or thought, in word deed, forgive me.
O Lord, deliver me from every ignorance and heedlessness, from pettiness of the soul and stony hardness of heart;
O Lord, deliver me from every temptation;
O Lord, enlighten my heart darkened by evil desires;
O Lord, I, being a human being, have sinned; do You, being God, forgive me in Your
lovingkindness, for You know the weakness of my soul.
O Lord, send down Your grace to help me, that I may glorify Your holy Name;
O Lord Jesus Christ, inscribe me, Your servant, in the Book of Life, and grant me a blessed end; O Lord my God, even if I have done nothing good in Your sight, yet grant me, according to Your grace, that I may make a start in doing good.
O Lord, sprinkle on my heart the dew of Your grace;
O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me, Your sinful servant, cold of heart and impure, in Your Kingdom.
O Lord, receive me in repentance;
O Lord, leave me not;
O Lord, save me from temptation;
O Lord, grant me pure thoughts;
O Lord, grant me tears of repentance, remembrance of death, and the sense of peace;
O Lord, grant me mindfulness to confess my sins;
O Lord, grant me humility, charity, and obedience;
O Lord, grant me tolerance, magnanimity, and gentleness;
O Lord, implant in me the root of all blessings: the fear of You in my heart;
O Lord, vouchsafe that I may love You with all my heart and soul, and that I may obey in all things Your will;
O Lord, shield me from evil persons and devils and passions and all other lawless matters;
O Lord, Who knows Your creation and that which You have willed for it; may Your will also be fulfilled in me, a sinner, for You are blessed forevermore.
This discussion is made up of five parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
Part I: Framing the Discussion
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. It is the center of our rhythm of worship. It is the motivation for our ethical progression. It is the resolution of the struggles and evils in the world. It is what forms saints and reforms sinners. It is what allows us to know Who God is and what He wills for our lives.
The Resurrection is transformative in every sense of life. This is certainly something that all Christians understand in one form or another. But when asked about the Resurrection of Jesus, how often would we say that it is transformative in every sense of death?
In what ways does the Resurrection transform life?
What are some ways that the Resurrection transforms death and dying?
Part II: Early Christians and the Dead & Dying
Certainly, many of us recognize that the Resurrection changes the way that we ought to view death. We can point to the martyrs who were willing to die for Christ because they were no longer afraid of death thanks to His Resurrection. We can explain that because of the Resurrection we know that death is not the end of life — that there is more life to come and that we should not live as if this is our only opportunity to enjoy the world. We know that the Resurrection teaches us that life after death is heavenly and worthy of greater investment than this life — that sacrifice and suffering is not in vain when done for God and neighbor.
Yet how many of us would also say that the Resurrection affects our treatment of someone who is already dead or in the process of dying? How much does our treatment of the dead differ from people who do not share our faith?
In the first few centuries after Jesus’ Resurrection, the early Christians’ treatment of the dead and dying was one of the things that made them stand out among the Jewish community and the rest of the Roman Empire. Under the Old Covenant, interaction with a corpse ritually defiled a person because it meant that they had come into physical contact with death, which is the opposite of the gift of life which is offered to us through a relationship with God (Numbers 19:13). Similarly, in the pagan Graeco-Roman culture of the time, corpses were seen as things that polluted a society and needed to be disposed of outside of the city or simply burned to ashes (cremated). While Romans did view a formal funerary process as a way to honor a person, they typically reserved such processes for family members and wealthy members of society. The corpses of criminals, slaves, and the like were denied any ceremonial treatment. Finally, when it came to people who were sick and in the process of dying, the instinctual reaction in Roman society was to distance oneself from the dying person. For example, in times of plague, sick bodies would often be removed from homes and left to die on the streets in order to prevent them from infecting others in the household.
Yet despite being surrounded by all of the approaches to the dead and dying listed above, the first Christians established a radically different tradition. Instead of distancing themselves from dead bodies for fear of defilement, Christians intentionally worshiped in catacombs (underground tombs) and even went out of their way to risk their lives to collect the bodies of martyrs for veneration and for placement in altars used for the Eucharist. Likewise, Christians had the utmost respect and care for those who were in the process of dying. A paschal message by Bishop Dionysios of Alexandria preserved from the third century explains that during a recent pandemic Christians risked their lives to care for the sick and dying, “attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ.” Proper burial was no longer just for close family members or important members of society. Instead, all people and even dead strangers on the street were treated with honor and care.
All in all, the first Christians were not only unafraid of death and dying, but found the treatment of the dead and dying to be such an important part of the Christian life that some ignorant Roman citizens even thought Christian communities were simply burial societies.
Why do you think that treatment of the dead and dying was so important to early Christians that they were willing to risk their lives to do it?
How do we reconcile the practices of the early Christians regarding the dead with Jesus’ saying to “Let the dead bury the dead” (Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60)?
Part III: The Bodily Resurrection
The early Christian practice of caring for the dead and dying was rooted in two fundamental teachings of the Christian faith: the Resurrection and the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. If we pay attention to what the Scriptures tell us about Jesus’ Resurrection and the one to come for all human beings, we will notice very quickly that the Christian Resurrection is not just a spiritual reality. Just as Jesus was resurrected in a body (as we see in Thomas’ touching Jesus’ wounds or Jesus’ eating of fish after He Resurrected), so too will we be Resurrected in a body, says St. Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:35-52).
The earliest Christians took the bodily Resurrection seriously, as they did the fact that every human being is made in the image of God. Because of this pair of teachings, they treated every dying person with profound love and care. And, just as importantly, they treated every corpse with profound love and care, knowing that it would one day be transformed in the Resurrection. For early Christians, a person’s body was not a mere cage for their soul but a part of who we are and who we will be in the Kingdom of Heaven.
For centuries, Christians preserved this mentality. When a person died, the body was kept in his or her family’s home, and members of the Church would come and keep watch mournfully for the next few days. Women would care for the body until the funeral, preparing it for burial as the myrrhbearers and Joseph of Arimathea did for Christ, and men would dig the grave or carry and lower the body into the tomb. After a person’s body had been buried for many years, his or her bones would be exhumed and kept in an ossuary. To this day, an Orthodox Christian funeral requires the presence of a body, and, save for certain exceptions, the body is always laid out openly and visibly in the middle of the Church for the service.
Finally, Christians throughout history refused to cremate their dead brethren because of the Resurrection. In fact, in certain times of persecution, one of the acts of disrespect that persecutors would engage in against Christians would be to burn the bodies of martyrs because (in both the East and the West) the act of returning a person’s body to the earth from which it came (Gen 3:19) was such an important practice for the Church.
What is the connection between the Resurrection and care for the dead and dying?
Why would Christians throughout history take care of a corpse when it would ultimately decompose and when God has the power to “raise up children for Abraham out of stones” (Matthew 3:9)?
Is the early Christian perspective of the dead and dying one that we preserve today? If not, what are the practices of our society that run counter to that perspective?
Part IV: The Fall From a Traditional Christian Ethos
In the past few centuries, western society has moved away from these Christian values to the point where many of us Christians passively participate in a very unChristian culture surrounding the dead and dying. In the Middle Ages, crises like the Black Plague caused people to begin to fear corpses again, and the practice of burning dead bodies soon rose to prominence in the West. Over time, bodies that were buried were no longer done so in direct contact with the earth but through coffins. Then, beginning in the 17th century, the first undertakers appeared in Europe, which distanced family members and others in the community from the burial process.
Eventually, dealing with the dead became a business. Cemeteries were no longer public plots of land but private grounds that people had to pay to be buried in. Likewise, funeral homes are run by private companies that seek to sell customers expensive burial packages that could range from $4,000-$40,000 for a casket, a cemetery plot, burial services, and a plot marker, which is approximately eight to ten times more than thirty years ago and still does not include the cost of florists and other funeral arrangements. In 2016, one of the largest funeral corporations in the world reported a revenue of over $3.031 billion.
Unfortunately, many Christians are the source of some of that corporate revenue for a few reasons. First, we fall victim to the temptation of materialism. Just as fashions and worldly comforts cause us to spend inordinate amounts of money for manufactured but meaningless material pleasures, advertisements about coffins and services that prioritize “durability, beauty, and craftsmanship” as well as custom engravings and more draw us to spend even more money on our own or others posthumous surroundings.
Next, and more importantly, funeral directors not only try to sell us on these expensive material goods, but, according to Deacon Mark Barna and his wife Elizabeth, who have written a book on the topic, funeral directors also lie about the laws surrounding corpse and burial processes. While many funeral directors tell customers that it is legally required to use a licensed funeral director to bury a person or transport a body across state lines or on an airline, none of this is true, and there are very few requirements regarding burials on a state level as well.
One of the greatest lies about burying the dead accepted by many Christians today is that embalming is legally required either for burial or for an open casket because the body cannot be preserved otherwise and because it is unsanitary to be near a dead body. This is simply untrue. There is no health danger that comes from being near or touching a dead body except in the case of open wounds, and embalming only preserves a body for three to four days, which is no better than simply freezing the body.
Still, the lies told by funeral directors, paired with a fear of the reality of death that makes us want to see the person “as they were,” causes many Christians to consent to embalming. The result is an extremely violent process that includes sewing the eyes and mouth shut with materials similar to barbed wire and pumping blood out of the body with tubes and replacing it with red liquid to give the flesh a “lifelike” appearance. Modern embalming also entails puncturing the organs so that they can be sucked out and washed into the sewer and plugging bodily orifices with plastic screw-like devices. In the end, it may make our dead loved-one look more like their living selves, but the reality is that they are even less of a human being than they were after their soul left their body.
Meanwhile, the alternative process offered by commercial burial practices is just as disturbing. In the process of cremation, a person’s body is placed in a furnace lit to 1,400 to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, with burners pointing directly at it like a blowtorch. After up to four hours of heating, the person’s bones, which cannot be burned, are crushed in a high-speed blender and added to the ashes, which are often accidentally mixed with those of other corpses in the crematory. Cremation is often advocated for because of environmental concerns, but the fossil fuels and high levels of dioxins and trace minerals that are released by the burning of a human body end up polluting the environment just as much as the alternative. Similarly, the CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration strongly recommend that embalmers take measures to protect themselves against the over 260 potentially deadly chemicals they use during the embalming process.
All in all, the treatment of the dead and dying today is far from the care that early Christians offered the sacred bodies of their dead brothers and sisters. As many modern commentators say, we treat the body like an “it” rather than a “them,” and this does not even take into account the modern practice of separating the sick and elderly from mainstream society through nursing and retirement homes. Regardless of what facts of life we are considering, when it comes to interacting with the dead and dying, the Resurrection plays no role in the decisions of most people in our culture.
Before reading the section above, what did you think went into the mainstream practices of treating the dead? What from this section surprised you?
In their book, Deacon Mark and Diakonissa Elizabeth also discuss how cremation treats the body like waste while embalming turns it into an idol. Why do you think they make this claim?
What are some of the practices surrounding our treatment of the elderly, sick, and dying that also reflects an approach of treating people like an “it” rather than a “them”?
Part V: Returning to the Resurrection
It seems as if the time has come when once again we as Christians have to take an approach to treating the dead and dying that is radically different from the world around us. But what does that different approach look like? And how do we pursue it today?
Unfortunately, there is not enough space in this brief discussion to cover everything that a traditional Christian burial process looks like. However, Deacon Mark and Diakonissa Elizabeth’s book A Christian Ending: A handbook for burial in the ancient Christian tradition is a fantastic resource to turn to on the details of ensuring a burial honors the Lord and the promised Resurrection. Aside from more information on the process of death and burial and the Church’s theology surrounding the topic, the book also encourages Christians today to research federal and local burial laws (now conveniently located online) and search for a burial place at a nearby monastery or Orthodox parish cemetery. Above all, however, the book offers suggestions and resources for preparing for the inevitable death of those closest to us and ourselves.
One of the best ways to prepare for those deaths is to speak to our priest and familiarize ourselves with the traditions of an Orthodox Christian funeral, such as the tradition of burying a person on the third day of their death. Similarly, we should learn about pre-death practices like requesting a priest to read the prayer of the departing of the soul over a dying person and offering a dying person the Eucharist, as well as post-death practices like anointing and praying over a loved-one’s body throughout the time between their death and burial. With the hope of the Resurrection, we should also seek to learn about the traditions for praying for a person after their burial, such conducting memorial services on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after a person’s falling asleep, visiting a person’s grave on the anniversary of their death, and remembering them in our personal prayers and the communal prayers of the Church.
After familiarizing ourselves with these practices, we can take the time to share our own funeral and burial preferences with our loved ones to ensure that our corpses are treated in a way that is mindful of the Resurrection to come. Again, the book A Christian Ending has fantastic resources for preparing for our own funeral. Paradoxically, the saints teach that it is when we take the time to consider the way that we hope to be treated when we die that we develop a greater appreciation for life and strive to seek its fullness alongside the Lord in His Heavenly Kingdom.
Have you ever considered what your funeral and burial will look like? What are some arrangements you want made for your funeral? What do you wish to learn more about?
Returning to the approach of early Christians and the way that they risked their lives for the sake of some of their practices surrounding the dead, what are some things we may have to risk to practice that same tradition today?
Share a situation where you were reminded of the reality of death and were moved to live in deeper repentance and with a fuller appreciation of life?
The title of this discussion is, “Let the Living Bury the Living.” How does this title describe the information discussed above and the Christian approach to the dead and dying in light of the Resurrection?
This discussion is made up of three parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a portion each week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
O Lord, You who steadied the hand of Peter as he began to sink on the stormy sea, if you are with me, no one is against me. Grant to me the shield of faith and the mighty armor of the Holy Spirit to protect me and guide me to do Your will. The future I put into Your hands, O Lord, and I follow You to a life in Christ. Amen.
Part I: Why Worry?
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Have you ever caught yourself hurrying to the point of worrying? Worry can creep into our lives when we rush to fulfill ideals that are not in accordance with God’s will or when we rush toward things which God does not want us to concern ourselves with yet. While God gave us the drive to accomplish His work, we often misuse it because we’ve created false impressions of what is needful.
There are many worldly cares that we face in life. We worry about our grades, worry about our image, worry about what must be done tomorrow. This is all a distraction from prayerfully completing our God’s work in peace.
- What does this passage from Matthew make you think and feel? Are there parts of you that resist its message or find it too difficult to live day to day?
- Many of us end up hurrying because we procrastinate, pridefully expecting too much of our own (late-night) abilities. What can we practically do to budget time every day fto accomplish our work at an even and healthy pace?
- How can we do our work in light of this Scripture which reminds us that all is in God’s hands?
- Worry is destroyed by thankfulness for the present. What are you thankful for today? Consider especially the smallest things, like the petals on the lilies and the worms for the birds.
Part II: Why Hurry?
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers. And he saith unto them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.
And the Lord appeared unto Abraham in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, And said, “My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant.” And they said, “So do, as thou hast said.” And Abraham hurried into the tent unto Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.”
Hurry is a double-edged sword for the Christian. On one hand, we may hurry as a result of our fallenness and self-reliance, ending up in worry. On the other hand, hurrying to repentance is needed for the Christian life. As we dedicate our lives to acquiring the Godly mindset, we must reorient our own worldview through the lens of the Scriptures that God Himself breathed out. Matthew tells us that the disciples left their nets straightway when they heard the call of repentance. And in Genesis we hear that Abraham instructed Sarah to make cakes quickly when God’s messengers appear at their door. Hurry has its place when we are quick to repent, quick to serve God, and quick to respond to His presence.
- Jesus asked his disciples to drop everything to hurry and follow Him. What’s a small way we can do this today?
- What can we do to hurry to be present to God instead of dragging our feet to prayer?
- Abraham dropped everything instantly to offer hospitality to the Lord. Service to neighbor can be a service to God. How can we serve God by hurrying to aid our neighbor?
Part III: Refocusing Our Energy
“For our good, for our happiness at least let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will.”
St. Herman of Alaska
“Brothers: it is later than you think. Hasten, therefore, to do the work of God.”
Fr. Seraphim Rose
“I saw your anxiety. But don’t be sad, my child. Don’t worry so much. Even though you have fallen again, get up again. You have been called to a heavenly road. It is not surprising for someone running to stumble. It just takes patience and repentance at every moment.”
St. Joseph the Hesychast
The saints tell us to hasten to do the will of God and at the same time to let go of our anxieties. Thus, all of our hurry must come from the right posture of the heart. When we hasten to do God’s will, we leave behind all needless cares. When we hurry in a worldly way, we neglect the one thing needful.
- When we hasten to do God’s will, it is so different from our daily rushing around. Can you think of a time when hurry has caused you to stumble, do a job incorrectly, or caused you to worry too much?
- What about the opposite? How has hurrying to follow God and obey his commandments relieved you from anxiety, helped you manage a difficult situation, or given you clarity to move forward?
This discussion is based on an article published by Dr. Albert Rossi and Julia Wickes in 2009 in the OCA’s Theology of Lay Ministries Volume III. The reflection sections are taken directly from the article, while the discussion questions are original to this content.
This discussion is made up of several parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
Part I: Whose time is it?
The first thing to say, from an Orthodox perspective, is that there is no such thing as time management. We don’t manage time. Time manages us if we allow the Lord to have a place in our schedule.
Christ is everything, including the giver and owner of our time. He is the Way we format our schedule, the Truth about the meaning of time, and the flow of Life that moves us through time.
C. S. Lewis makes a profound point about time. He says that we usually regard time as our own. We start our day with the curious assumption that we are the lawful possessors of an upcoming twenty-four hours. With that hazardous assumption we then plot a matrix for our day, filling in time slots with tasks or restful moments. We might hope that we are managing our time in a way that will somehow please God. But when we begin with the assumption that time is ours, inconveniences and unexpected interruptions become intrusions into “my time.”
By contrast, we can begin with the assertion that time is not our own. Time belongs to the Lord and He has a plan for time that He desires us to accept for our own peace and joy.
How does recognizing that time is not your own change the way you view your day-to-day activities and goals?
Dr. Rossi says that we don’t manage time but time manages us. Why do you think the Lord gave us time as a way of managing our lives? Is it bad to view Christ as someone who wants to “manage” us?
Part II: Adjusting our expectations
Those who are trying to use their time to do the Lord’s will must begin every day, and every moment, with Jesus Christ. One question might be, “Lord, what do you want me to do, now?” But an even better question is, “Lord, what do you want to do through me now?” This takes the emphasis from the ego and places it on the Lord.
If we believe that God has a plan for each moment, we can then be sensitive to each moment as it unfolds in unexpected ways. When we receive each moment as from the Lord we will begin to experience our time on earth as a series of small deaths and resurrections.
Every loss is a gift that God gives us so that He can give us more. It might be saying goodbye to high school or college days, a move from the old neighborhood, the loss of a job, the loss of physical or mental health. We might lose loved ones through separation or death. In degrees, the reactive thought might be, “This is the beginning of the end.” A more truthful thought would be, “This is the beginning of the beginning.” Death is the beginning of a new relationship with Christ, a fresh beginning of an entirely new life. Each loss and little death is a new beginning towards our ultimate beginning—heaven.
As we adjust our expectations, time takes on a new meaning.
What are some expectations that you can change regarding your use of time if your goal changes from what you want to do to what God wants to do through you?
What might be a good way of trying to discern what God might be trying to do through you in the various aspects of your life?
Part III: Sacrament of the present moment
Simple awareness of the presence of God is the power within the present moment. The present moment—now—is the only place where God is. He discloses Himself through the reality of the present moment. Nowhere else. This is a mystery we can participate in by simply trying to be aware of His presence.
Awareness, conscious contact with God, is the key.
Why do Dr. Rossi and Julia say that the present moment “is the only place where God is”?
What are some moments in which it is difficult to remember God’s presence?
What are some tools the Church offers that you find useful for remembering God’s presence in moments that are not explicitly directed to him (i.e. mundane tasks and parts of your day)?
Part IV: The Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret
An Orthodox morning prayer by Metropolitan Philaret says: “In unforeseen events let us not forget that all are sent by Thee.” Here it is helpful to refine exactly what is meant by the idea that God sends all moments. God did not send terrorists to fly planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. Rather, God allowed terrorists to fly those planes. What, then, is implied by the all in Metropolitan Philaret’s prayer? An Orthodox perspective would say that events outside ourselves are subject to God’s allowing will, and moreover are beyond our understanding. However, by faith we believe and confess that God sends all of the events that pertain to us. All events in our day, even those that we anticipate in a human way, can legitimately be described as “unforeseen,” because they bear a divine potential which is not revealed to us in advance. But even “unforeseen events,” in the most mundane sense of the term—the unforeseen phone call or the inconvenient request—can take on a new meaning, simply because our time is not our own.
Our freedom consists in embracing all that happens to us, exhaustion and all, as a blessing in divine disguise.
What is the connection that Dr. Rossi and Julia make between recognizing that time is not our own and coming to terms with tragic and evil events that take place in the world?
Compare a properly oriented use of our freedom in a moment of tragedy or evil to an improperly oriented use of our freedom in that moment.
Think of one of those moments in your own life in which you fell into the improperly oriented use of freedom. Why do you think you fell into that use of freedom rather than the properly oriented use?
Part V: Making the most of time
There is a paradox inherent in the Orthodox approach to time. We do not “manage” our time yet we must be prudent and skillful in the way we use our time. We must plan without being a slave of our plans. So, we are back to basics. We need to allow the Lord to flow through us all the time, as best we can. Sometimes we must use the present moment to plan for tomorrow and the long-term future. But, again, it is the Lord doing the planning through us. When we finish the planning we can’t obsess about it or allow the plans to become larger than life. We must be stable in the present moment and flexible enough to change plans as the Lord directs, at a moment’s notice. One saint said she wanted to be a ball on a table top in the hands of the Lord, allowing Him to move her anyway He chose, for His pleasure.
The truth is that we have all the time we need, and abundantly more, to do all that the Lord has us on the planet to do. He gives us our tasks and ministry, and resources with sufficient time. “And my God will supply your every need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19)
We, however, often have other ideas. Enter stress and dissatisfaction. We make our own stress, in large part.
Why do Dr. Rossi and Julia say that “we make our own stress”?
If a high school student preparing for college asked you for advice on how to be prudent and skillful in the way they use their time without being a slave to their plans, what advise would you give them?
How can that advise apply to your post-college plans, including where you’ll live, what type of job you’ll have, and your relationships with others?
Part VI: Ready for virtually anything
We can only be ready for virtually anything if we know what else we have to do and choose to not do. Then we can do or not do what appears in the moment, based on a deep intuition of what the Lord is calling for now. All too often we walk through life responding to the “latest and loudest” voice clamoring for our attention.
David Allen in his interesting book, Ready for Anything, emphasizes a few key points. We need to have some system where we have written down everything we need to do. These are called projects, anything that requires more than one step to accomplish. We also need a list of next action steps, those things that can be accomplished in one action. These next actions can be grouped into categories that make life better organized. We might group together all the next actions which require a computer, or the phone, or when talking with my boss. Then, when we are at the phone or have a slice of free time, we will know what calls we might or might not make on the spot. All this helps us think less about what we need to do.
The brain is a fine instrument for creative thought but a poor container to remember all the outstanding commitments and projects that are ours. When projects and next actions are written down, and backed up, in some trusted system, we can allow the system to remember for us. For computer users, an external hard drive can serve as a trusted backup system. For those who prefer pen and paper (and this number is growing), a copy should be made of all that is written down. A backup is necessary because we must feel free from the possibility that we wrote down everything we need to do and that list got misplaced, or thrown out with the trash, or mauled by a well-meaning pet.
The idea is to free our mind from worry about commitments we have made with ourselves and others. Then we can use our brain for other things. If we try to keep our commitments in our head, like a computer with too much in the memory, the entire system slows down.
We need to take copious notes and be willing to process and organize these notes at least weekly so we have more freedom in the way we use our time.
To be free in the Lord requires that we are as free as we can be from internal baggage and preoccupation. David Allen calls this “Mind like water,” that is, a mind ready to receive the next pebble thrown in and naturally allow the ripples to move out.
What tools/resources do you use to organize your tasks and projects?
If you don’t use a tool or resource to help manage your projects, what has your experience of “managing time” been like?
Part VI: Push Pause
To let the Lord work through us means that we give him space, and, of course, time. All too often we act reactively. Our responses often take the form of a stimulus-response reaction. Too many times we want to say, “Yes” to all the requests that come our way, and they all may have great merit. But then, one can get so overloaded and overburdened. However, it is not always easy to discern to what we should say “yes” or “no.” It does require growing closer to the Lord, to hear His voice and His direction. Often, we do not go in the direction to which He has pointed. However, we take comfort in the knowledge that He is the Great “GPS”. He is always ready to “recalculate” and reroute us.
One handy suggestion is to push pause as often as we can. We can pause between the stimulus and our response, thereby gaining perspective. The pause itself is usually sufficient to break the reactivity cycle. We can become aware of something else going on besides the unconscious reaction. This is a fine opportunity to try to remember that we are in the holy presence of God.
A way to gain more conscious contact with God is to gently and quietly say, “Jesus.” His holy Name is an expression of belief, adoration, expectation of salvation and unity with Him and all the members of His body. His name is sacred and is a power He asked us to use. “Hitherto you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23) We need to know that when we use His Name we are acknowledging that we are his disciples. We pause and say His Name, as an act of obedience and surrender of the present moment. We can match this with an awareness of our breathing, centering us more inside our body.
We can simply say the one word, “Jesus,” to transfigure what is in front of us, or in our minds. The name Jesus can be a filter through which our thoughts, words and deeds have to pass to be freed from their impurities. Needless to say, this is severe spiritual warfare. It requires a forgetfulness of the self, a dying to the negative thoughts the ego wants to indulge.
Explain why the name “Jesus” may be such a powerful tool for “pressing pause” between a stimulus and our response.
What are some ways that you’ve been able to give the Lord space so that he can communicate guidance to you in your life?
Part VI: Conclusion
Time manages us because the Lord lives within the time He gives us. So, it is He, through the reality we call measured time, who manages, leads, nourishes and strengthens us. We don’t live life. Life lives us.
Time is our friend, not our burden to endure. We need only remember that we are in the holy presence of God. We can pause and say the Name of Jesus, thereby bringing us into His very life within us. While on earth we have an opportunity to “sanctify time.”
As a college student, would you agree that “time is your friend”?
Based on everything you’ve discussed up to this point, what opportunities do you have in your daily life to “sanctify time”?
Part I: The Feelings Are Real
“Despondency is the impossibility to see anything good or positive. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it, he is absolutely unable to see the light and desire it.” Fr. Alexander Schmemann
“Great is the tyranny of despondency, and much courage do we need so as to stand manfully against the feeling, and after gathering from it what is useful, to let the superfluous go.” St. John Chrysostom
Part of our human experience in this fallen world is to suffer periods of sadness, hopelessness, overwhelming fear, loneliness, grief, and distress. Few escape the grips of what the saints often call despondency. They teach us that it can be brought on by a variety of life’s circumstances: facing the death of a loved one, illness, injury, loss of status or relationships, pessimism, attempting to find fulfillment in fleeting pleasures, seeing the sorrows and struggles of others, even realizing one’s own sinfulness—all these might cause bouts of despondency.
While nothing about our fallen experience is normal in the sense that it is not what we were made for, despondency is normal in the sense that we are all likely to experience it to varying degrees throughout our lives. While it is often said that joy is the sign of Christian life, joy should not be mistaken for simple happiness or outward cheerfulness nor should we feel obliged to put on a pretense of joy to prove our faithfulness. Joy is an inward gift of the Holy Spirit which is freely and mysteriously given to us and cannot be generated by any power of our own. Therefore, we must learn instead what to do when despondency invades our lives to make space for joy to arrive.
- What do you think the relationship between joy and despondency is?
- To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, how do you experience despondency? Are there things that trigger it in your life?
- Why do you think it is that we sometimes feel pressure to hide our negative feelings?
Part II: Crying Out
As we mentioned before, despondency is a real experience felt by most human beings. Many throughout history have expressed this experience in the form of poetry, giving voice to their grief. Putting despondency into verse is one way of acknowledging the feelings and crying out for help.
Select one or more of the provided poems to read. You can either let each group member choose a poem or two to reflect on individually or split your group into pairs or smaller groups and give each pair/small group a different poem to read. Repeats are allowed.
- What struck you about the poem(s) you read and how they expressed despondency?
- Was there anything in particular that resonated with your own experience?
Part III: Surrendering to God
“In times of any sorrow, illness, poverty, need, disagreements, and any difficulty, it is better to spend less time in ruminating and talking to ourselves, and more often to turn to Christ our God and to his most pure Mother in prayer, even if it is only a brief one. Through that, the spirit of bitter despondency will be driven away, and the heart will be filled with joy and with hope in God.” St. Antony (Putilov) of Optina
One notable aspect of many of the poems above is how the author both grieves and surrenders their grief to God. We need not attempt to “fix” our sadness but we can open ourselves up, raw and wounded as we might be, to the healing love of God and His saints in prayer. This prayer might be said in words, like the poetry of those we read earlier, or it might be offered as silence or weeping. We might simply repeat, “Lord, Lord.” Sometimes, we may find that we need help even to pray, and we can ask our friends and spiritual elders to pray for what we are not ready to pray for ourselves.
- Who in your life, among both the saints and your family, friends, and mentors, can you turn to for prayers when you find yourself caught in a period of despondency?
- How will you approach feelings of despondency when they arise in your life?
Use the blank “Crying Out” document to write your own poems or letters expressing whatever grief, worry, or fears you may currently be experiencing. For the coming week, read your poem or letter as part of your daily prayer rule as a way to surrender your despondency to God.
Conclude your meeting with this prayer for despondency from Fr. Arseny:
O my beloved Queen, my hope, O Mother of God, protector of orphans and protector of those who are hurt, the savior of those who perish and the consolation of all those who are in distress, you see my misery, you see my sorrow and my loneliness. Help me, I am powerless, give me strength. You know what I suffer, you know my grief — lend me your hand because who else can be my hope but you, my protector and my intercessor before God? I have sinned before you and before all people. Be my Mother, my consoler, my helper. Protect me and save me, chase grief away from me, chase my lowness of heart and my despondency. Help me, O Mother of my God!
This discussion is made up of four parts, with each part containing a reflection and a set of discussion questions. Either with your OCF chapter, a friend or two, or just on your own, read each reflection and discuss the questions related to it. You can choose to break the discussion into multiple sessions, tackling a part or two a week, or you can do the whole thing in one sitting.
Part I: Framing the Discussion
Most of us – whether Christian or not – think it’s natural to thank God or to simply be grateful when we experience something positive. In fact, in our world today, saying “Thank God,” has become a common way of expressing gratitude for a positive outcome in our lives, even by atheists.
However, when it comes to the more difficult moments in our life – the uncomfortable and confusing ones – we often become angry, upset, or depressed. We feel as if some sort of injustice is going on. We question why something is happening to us. We wonder what we could change to make that bad thing go away. And we definitely do not thank God.
- Why is it more difficult to be grateful in times of struggle and suffering than in positive times?
- What might our underlying worldview be when we react to struggle and suffering as something that we should despise rather than be grateful for? What thoughts might be causing that reaction to take place?
Part II: Reframing the Discussion
You probably touched on this in answering the questions above, but most people don’t see struggles and sufferings as things to be grateful for because we don’t view them as good things. Indeed, why would you give thanks for anything that isn’t good?
Furthermore, we don’t give thanks to God for these things because we don’t believe they are from God. Most of us know that God is loving, compassionate, patient, and merciful. It doesn’t make sense then how things that are so uncomfortable, so hard to endure, and, so often, so clearly heartbreaking and painful, can be from God. After all, St. James tells us in his universal epistle, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). St. James doesn’t say that bad things are from above, just good ones. So why thank God for things that aren’t from Him?
Despite both of these very logical forms of reasoning, however, we as Christians know that we are supposed to be grateful for everything in life, both what we would call good and what we would call bad.
In his epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul says, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5: 17-18). Similarly, perhaps one of the most famous lines in the history of the Church are St. John Chrysostom’s final words, “glory to God for all things,” which he uttered after being persecuted and walked to his death as an old man.
The Tradition of the Church is clear, we should give thanks and praise to God for everything that we encounter in life.
- So how do we reconcile the two competing ideas in the section above? Is it possible to say that the bad things in life are not worth thanking God for because they are not good things and only good things come from God while also saying that we should thank God for everything in life?
- If we have to reframe our thinking here, what needs to change?
Part III: A Difficult Truth
You may have arrived at this realization on your own, but there are a pair of possibilities worth considering:
- That struggles and sufferings are not actually bad.
- That struggles and sufferings are from God, too.
If we think that it doesn’t make sense for evil things to exist in the world when the world is created by a loving and compassionate God, then we have a choice: we can either decide that God does not exist, or we can decide that evil does not exist.
In today’s world, most people probably choose the former. After all, it’s easier to decide that there’s no God in the face of struggle and suffering because it means that we can create our own meaning in life. We don’t have to live up to someone else’s standards, and we don’t have to endure that struggle and suffering if we don’t want to.
But the reality is that we do have to endure struggle and suffering even when we don’t want to. Even if we are the most selfish people in the world and do everything to look out for ourselves and avoid any difficulties in life, we are bound to be affected by some disease, natural disaster, unlucky outcome, or, simply, death.
So it can’t be that God doesn’t exist, but that evil doesn’t exist.
Of course, this is what the Fathers of the Church teach. They say that evil is not a thing, but actually the absence of a thing. It is the absence of good. And that absence is only felt and made real when our lives do not aim at the ultimate good: God.
- Take a moment to consider the gravity of the section above. How does it feel to be presented with the idea that evil doesn’t exist?
- If we have experienced great pain or suffering in our lives, it might be difficult to believe that evil does not exist. How would you as a Christian support the argument that evil does not exist?
Part IV: Finding the Reason for Gratitude
In truth, the section above is not explicitly Christian. Philosophers and great thinkers of other religions can and have arrived at the same conclusions about God and evil independently of any Christian theological foundation. However, there would still be something unsettling and empty about the section above if our discussion were to stop there, if we didn’t have the revelation of God to add to that philosophical reasoning.
In the Church, we recognize that God has not only created the world but that, out of his abundant goodness and love, He has also revealed Himself to the world and shown us the reason for the reality of struggles and sufferings which, though not evil, can still feel difficult and unnecessary.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus and his disciples pass a man who was blind from birth, the disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” and Jesus answers them, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work” (John 9:1-5).
In the context of Genesis, the meaning of this passage becomes clear. After we humans chose not to direct ourselves towards God, after we chose to forsake His work of bringing order to the world by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we started to drift away from God. We no longer participated in His glory and we stopped radiating His light. However, instead of giving up on us and allowing us to drift into evil (into the dark nothingness of the night) by becoming completely separate from Him, God instead granted us more light and more day. He gave us opportunities to transform our fallen experience into good by granting us struggles and suffering.
It is when we struggle or suffer that we are motivated to choose to put our trust in God and receive His power and grace once again. It is when others struggle or suffer that we can choose to share God’s powerful grace and love with the world by tending to the suffering of others.
And Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection shows us that that suffering is not in vain. In resurrecting and promising us that same resurrection, Christ shows us that our struggle and suffering can lead us back to a place where there is no struggle or suffering, especially when we choose to participate in that suffering like He did: by engaging in it on behalf of others.
- In light of this final section, why should we be grateful to God for all things?
- How did acknowledging the need for gratitude in life help you change your perspective on struggle and suffering?
- How does a new perspective on struggle and suffering help you be more grateful?
The Eternal vs The Temporal
As Orthodox Christians, we’re used to the idea of the “eternal.” Our prayers repeat over and over, “now and ever and unto the ages of ages!” This idea of something being stable, being infinite, being timeless can sometimes feel foreign in our fast-fashion, short-attention-span, Prime-delivery everyday world. What’s even more difficult than living at the intersection of these two worlds is the task of inviting others into the awareness of the eternal so that we may share with them the beauty of God and His Church.
Do you feel a tension between the norms of society and the awareness of eternity that our faith presents to us?
Where do you find you “live” between these two worlds? Are you mostly in one? One foot in each? In a different world depending on the day of the week, season of the year, etc?
Is it possible that these two worlds could compliment one another rather than be at odds with each other? What could that look like in our everyday lives?
The Eternal & The Temporal
Believe it or not, both the eternal and the temporal worlds were given to us by God. We live in the temporal, there’s not much we can change about that. Through the Christian life, we are reintroduced to the eternal: to God, to eternal life, to the heavenly realm, to the saints, to the sacraments. We are called to live lives that work to intersect both worlds at all times. In our spiritual walk, our purpose is to live at the very meeting place of the eternal and the temporal. Making every temporal moment and infinite one by bringing Christ’s presence into it.
Have you had a time/season in your life where you found the eternal sanctifying your temporal time? What was that like?
Do you struggle to live at the intersection of these two worlds? Would you rather hop into one for a time and then hop into the other at a different time? Why do you think that is?
Making the Eternal Accessible for Others
If we are to bring the eternal things of God into our everyday, temporal lives, not only will our lives be changed, but also the lives of everyone around us. Since God made us to live at the intersection of the eternal and temporal, everyone around us has a natural longing to experience the eternal things of God. This doesn’t mean we need to be preaching at our friends at all times. Living a life that is filled and sanctified with the eternal will offer a look at what a life-giving existence looks like to all those who are around us. And believe it or not, most of our friends would be receptive and interested in an invitation from you if they already see that your life is different from everyone else’s around them.
How can we live in such a way that makes the eternal present for those around us?
What hinders us from inviting friends into the eternal? (Prayer before eating, attending the Divine services, praying before exams, etc.)
How can we invite others to participate in the eternal?
What does it mean to build habits that are truly Christ-centered? It means to invite Christ into our everyday lives, no matter how mundane. It means for us to call upon the Holy Spirit so that we grow in our awareness of His presence. A Christ-centered habit is a habit that allows us to recognize God’s activity in the world. St. Gregory the Theologian says simply, “We must remember God more often than we draw breath.”
It’s easy to go about our day with the sense that we are isolated from God. How and when are you most aware of His presence?
Do you ever feel as if God is not present? What situations elicit that experience for you? What do you do?
What do you think of St. Gregory’s lofty challenge to remember God more often than we breathe? What can you do to actively become more aware of God in your day-to-day life?
Habits that draw us near
There are many ways we can clear our hearts to become more aware of Christ in our lives, and all of them take time, guidance, and repentance. Here is one suggestion we’d love for you to consider:
Sanctify your day with tiny prayers. Sometimes we’re prone to overcomplicate praying. Try instead when you open a book to study to say, “Lord, bless my understanding that I may give glory to You.” Or pray, “Lord have mercy on…” when you get a text message from that person. Or, if you find yourself on a solitary walk across campus, pray the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner) in rhythm with your footsteps.
What other tasks throughout your day could you turn into opportunities to be in conversation with Jesus? What time of day or activity do you think might be most transformed in your life if you were to pray during it?
A reflection from St. Patrick
In the Breastplate of St. Patrick, a morning prayer attributed to the patron of Ireland, St. Patrick makes a conscious effort to acknowledge the presence of God, the angels, and the saints in the world in which he goes about his daily tasks. Pray the following excerpt from the Breastplate. Take your time, and recite each line slowly.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
What stands out to you in this prayer? What will you take into your life this week from St. Patrick’s attitude about the presence of Christ?
We live in a reality where we are caught between the eternal and the temporal. We live
lives within the temporal: we mark the years, seasons, and feasts, and yet, we look to
the eternal “and the life of the age to come.”
At times, because we live in this tension, we lose sight of the blessings that come with
each “type” of time. We may also miss out on how the two types of time compliment
one another within the Christian life.
Living in the now
Time flies without us noticing! What practices do you use to mark chronological time
passing? How have you found this practice to be beneficial?
Describe a period in your life where you wish you had been more more aware of time
We must be intentional about living in the present moment. How can we use the
beginning of this new school year to more intentionally live in the present and treat our
time as a sacred gift?
Living in light of eternity
God offers us windows into the eternal; glimpses at the coming age through the work
and prayers of the Church. How do we prepare for the eternal? What practices have you
found helpful to make the most of these “eternal” events.
Who among us doesn’t get distracted with the temporal when we’re supposed to be
focused on the eternal? Physically we’re in liturgy, but our mind is with our assignments,
our to-dos, our problems, our plans. Why is this the case? How can we combat this?
Time meets the eternal
Christ comes to meet each one of us at the intersection of the temporal and the eternal.
As temporal beings, we are transported during the Divine Liturgy to the eternal Liturgy
partaken of by all the saints. Sadly, once we walk out of Liturgy, we tend to leave this
behind and return to our “normal lives.”
Why is that? What has been your experience in the past?
What can we each do to change that? How can we live more of our lives at the meeting
point between the temporal and the eternal?
Why is this meeting point important? Will this make any real difference in our lives?