Let’s set the scene: we had just finished breakfast after fully enjoying the treat that are the breakfast potatoes of the St. Iakovos Retreat Center. We settle down in in our seats, and we are suddenly attending a gospel concert starring none other than the wonderful Fr. Barnabas Powell. Fr Powell began to sing loudly in front of the whole conference, and to play along I exclaimed a loud and faithful, “TESTIFY,” which was followed by uproarious laughter. Let this conference begin I thought to myself.
Fr. Barnabas concludes his song and after the students’ excited applause he turns to us and in a serious and focused tone, says:
“If you do not know the identity of Jesus Christ, you will never know who you truly are.”
What followed was the stunned silence of a room of people doubting the knowledge of their own identity and the identity of Jesus Christ. This statement set the tone and topic for the conference, “Who do you say that I am?” from the Gospel of Matthew.
As a group, we collectively gathered our scuba gear knowing fully well that at this conference we were diving DEEP into our identity and the identity of Christ. You may ask, what do we mean when we say God, and what is the identity of Jesus Christ? We as Orthodox understand God as the uncreated Being, the Creator of all, who reveals Himself as three persons in the Holy Trinity in full and complete communion, as inseparable as the fire of three candles sharing a flame.
Thankfully, Christ tells us who He is, He just flat out tells us so there is no ambiguity:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Therefore, we know that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Now what does this have to do with our own identity? In order for us to fully know ourselves and fully comprehend our identity, we have to begin to understand that Christ is the truth of life, its purpose, and its instiller of purpose concurrently. Christ is our nexus and the face, the icon by which we can know God, who lived and breathed on earth as we do, the infinity who became finite for us.
But why should we even care about knowing Christ and knowing ourselves? It’s because we’re diseased–sorry guys but it had to be said. We live in a fallen world and a fallen state, and the difference between knowing God and not knowing Him is the difference between wholeness and emptiness. Every time we are longing for home, we are hungry, we are thirsty, we cause pain, and feel pain we understand this emptiness and feel our tangible distance from God.
How do we begin to know God? Fr. Jannakos helped us answer that question. He taught us that we begin to know Him by imitating Him, by learning to tame the passions and working to attain the virtues of the Holy Spirit.
My spiritual father described the taming of the passions to me in the most beautiful way I have ever heard it, and I want to share it with you:
“Imagine the passions as an untamed fire, it grows, it spreads, and it causes destruction in everything it grows through. It is so big, it is unignorable and wild. Our job is to take those passions and tame them and (pointing to the light in the kandyli) turn them into the tame and beautiful flame of the candle that gives us warmth and light.”
This is the way of the Orthodox, becoming LIKE Christ in His perfect and sinless self. But how can we take this lofty theology and bring it down to the nitty gritty of the everyday life of a college student? To that, we turn to the expertise of Mother Gabriella, the abbess of Holy Dormition Monastery in Michigan.
Mother Gabriella, amidst her talk on the things she has learned as an abbess, and as an immigrant to the United States from Romania. She taught me how to incorporate small lessons in discipline and asceticism into my daily life. Some of her pro tips:
Wake up exactly when your alarm clock sounds.
Get to church earlier (1/2 way during matins). It shows respect and devotion to God.
Take a few moments every day to be quiet.
Clean up and put your things where they belong.
Control your diet.
Ultimately, these tips can help you with the discipline needed to resist temptation. The most important thing in struggle is to never struggle alone–struggle with God because alone you cannot do it. Lastly, the piece of advice that can be applied to be a better human being is to just let things go. Forgive people. You never know what they are going through on the inside. Anger is the punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake. Let. It. Go.
College Conference Midwest 2019 was a blast. I got to meet a group of new people, and really get to know what they are thinking about and going through on college campuses. I got to catch up with old friends and have new adventures. College Conference is the place where you can learn and be strengthened in your faith and learn how to better yourself spiritually.
This last conference, Fr. Jonathan Bannon was able to bring an array of relics and I was able to physically meet a new slew of saints at this conference. So not only did I make more friends but spiritual ones as well.
I urge you all to continue participating if you have and encourage those who haven’t just come and try it. Let your guard down, open your mind, and learn at College Conference.
I don’t normally open with such an extensive quote, but today’s reflection really rests on the words of Fr. Seraphim below. So bear with me, and if you read nothing that follows, read this entire quote:
The Holy Fathers teach us that the one who forgives always wins. Whatever the occasion may be, if you forgive, you immediately cleanse your soul and become fit for paradise. If you have forgiven those who plotted to murder you, you have become equal to the martyrs. If you have forgiven an insult, you have gained peace and won the Kingdom of Heaven. If you have generously overlooked the rumors and slanders against you, you have dulled the sting of your foe. If you have returned a good for evil, you have shamed your enemy. If you have swallowed a sarcastic insult to your honor, you have become worthy of heavenly honors. If, being of higher rank in life, you have asked the pardon of a lesser man, you have not only NOT disgraced yourself, but you have furthered your spiritual maturity. If you are not to blame but ask the offender to forgive you, you have thus helped his soul to be delivered from the hell of hatred and have covered many of your own sins, too. If you have abased your pride, you have exalted your humility. –Archimandrite Seraphim Aleksiev, The Meaning of Suffering and Strife and Reconciliation
What an impossible task! To forgive all our offenders for everything. To overlook wounds that cut us to the core. To ask for forgiveness when we have done no wrong.
Simply contemplating this sort of radical forgiveness is painful. Our inner pride resists with every fiber of its being. It rebels crying out with pain, “I don’t want to forgive. I have been wronged. I am justified. I can endure no more. It is impossible. Is there nothing to be done? Is there no recourse for those who seek to be righteous, to do what is good?” One’s heart breaks under the crucifying pain of being asked to forgive such wounds and insults.
And that is where the light enters.
It is precisely in a broken and contrite heart that Christ can dwell. It is only under the crushing pressure of our own resistance to goodness that we can be released from the bonds of our own sins. It is only when we realize that it is, in fact, impossible for us to forgive our enemies simply by the power of our own will that we can cry out earnestly, “Thy will be done.” It is only with a spirit of repentance and forgiveness that we are freed from the chains which bind us to our own ego and instead find ourselves clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment.
To forgive those who criticize and insult us is a form of crucifying our passions. It becomes very apparent how much we cling to our own reputation and our own power and not to God when we try to forgive and find such extreme resistance in our hearts, when we hear a voice that tries to convince us that we do not need to forgive because we are right, we deserve an apology, and if we yield, it will only make us look worse.
Of course, here we see the real problem. The real problem is not that we have been insulted but that we have become self-righteous, have succumbed to vanity, or have idolized ourselves and forgotten God altogether. Of these things, we must repent. We must lay down our resistance at the foot of the Cross, contemplating that our God willingly ascended the Cross though He did not deserve it. He was spat upon, mocked, stripped naked, and reviled, and yet not once did He retaliate, but instead forgave and prayed for those who scorned Him. It may feel like a crucifixion for us to turn towards radical forgiveness, but in doing so, we will join ourselves to the crucifixion–and ultimately resurrection–of our Lord.
For that, we can be thankful.
St. Nikolai Velimirovich realized that it was our enemies, our detractors and critics, whom we have to thank for revealing to us our ego and forcing us to flee to God. He has left us an incredible prayer of thanksgiving for our enemies (you can read the full text here) which reminds us that the ultimate goal of life is to rid ourselves of our own sins and cleave unto God.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world. They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself. They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance. … Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Thy garment.
From the years of my youth, many passions combat me, but you who are my Savior, assist me and save me. –from the First Antiphon of the Anavathmoi of the Fourth Mode
As the hymn declares, many temptations arise in the soul in one’s youth. There is a certain awakening of passion that was unknown in childhood that comes to life as we approach adulthood. In this vulnerable time, the demons seek to ensnare us by allowing the body to snatch control from the soul so that the natural order intended by God is turned topsy-turvy: instead of the body being led by the soul, the soul becomes a captive to the desires of the body. Another time I’ll write more about this. Today, in continuing with our patron saint theme, I’d like to introduce you to a few saints (among many) who in particular intercede on our behalf when we are attacked by an onslaught of lustful desires.
Before I get started, I’d like to make two little notes on this particular temptation: beware of its pervasiveness on the one hand–plenty of research has shown how pornography, for example, changes the chemical make up of your brain in a similar manner to a drug addiction; and do not despair if it is a difficult struggle for you: you are not alone–many fathers of the church (here’s just one example) attest to the difficulty of overcoming lust, its ability to creep up on you even when you think you have it under control, and the ease with which we are able to fall prey to this temptation even if we have acquired other virtues.
So here are some fellow warriors to help with the battle. All of these saints struggled with lust, especially in their youth, and all of them in turning to Christ, overcame that passion. I’ve included their own prayers for help that I hope you can integrate into your own prayer life as you prayerfully struggle with sexual desire and ask for the intercessions of these saints.
St. Mary of Egypt (April 1) is perhaps one of the most revered and beloved models of repentance in the Orthodox Church. By the end of her life, she was perhaps the greatest spiritual pillar of her time. But her story begins with a young girl interested primarily in parties, socializing, and seducing–a young girl who lost her virginity at twelve and spent the next 17 years pursuing sexual partners to satisfy her lust. When she is eventually drawn to repentance by the Theotokos, she prayed,
O Lady Virgin, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word! I know that I am unworthy to look upon your icon. I rightly inspire hatred and disgust before your purity, but I know also that God became Man in order to call sinners to repentance. Help me, O All-Pure One. Let me enter the church. Allow me to behold the Wood upon which the Lord was crucified in the flesh, shedding His Blood for the redemption of sinners, and also for me. Be my witness before Your Son that I will never defile my body again with the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Cross of your Son, I will renounce the world, and go wherever you lead me.
Many people know and love the story of the bandit who became an Abba of the desert. St. Moses (August 28) was the leader of a band of murderers and robbers who rampaged through Egypt in the early fifth century. When he was turned to repentance by St. Isidore, he struggled for many years with the lingering passions from his former life, especially lustful and violent thoughts. In his struggle, he became incredibly humble, never deigning to judge a brother for his struggle knowing the pervasiveness of his own sinful desires and the destructive consequences they had in his past. There is no particular prayer of St. Moses that I could find, but take courage in this story from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
On one occasion Abba Moses of Patara was engaged in a war against fornication, and he could not endure being in his cell, and he went and informed Abba Isidore of it; and the old man entreated him to return to his cell, but he would not agree. And having said, “Father I cannot bear it,” the old man took him up to the roof of his cell and said unto him, “Look to the west,” and when he looked he saw multitudes of devils with troubled and terrified aspects and they showed themselves in the forms of phantoms with fighting attitudes. Abba Isidore said to him, “Look to the east,” and when he looked he saw innumerable holy angels standing there, and they were in a state of great glory.
Then Abba Isidore said unto him, “Behold those who are in the west are those who are fighting with the holy ones; and those whom you have seen in the east are those who are sent by God to the help of the saints, for those who are with us are many.” And having seen these, Abba Moses took courage and returned to his cell without fear.
St. Justina (October 2) was an amazing woman of fortitude. She was a convert to Christianity as a teenager and brought her parents to belief in Christ as well. She dedicated herself to Christ, refusing a marriage proposal from a suitor. When, through the power of the sorcerer Cyprian, Justina was tempted by multiple demons (during her prayers, nonetheless) to lustfully desire the suitor she had just rejected, she offered up this prayer,
O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, lo, mine enemies have risen up against me and have prepared a snare for my feet! My soul is brought low, but I have remembered Thy name in the night and am made glad. When they compassed me round about, I have fled unto Thee, hoping that mine adversary might not rejoice over me, for Thou knowest, O Lord my God, that I am Thy handmaiden. For Thee have I kept the purity of my body, and to Thee have I entrusted my soul; wherefore, preserve Thou Thy lamb, O good Shepherd. Do not permit the beast which seeketh to devour me to consume me, and grant me to prevail over the evil desires of my flesh.
From the time of his youth, St. John (September 28) was tormented by sexual desires. No ascetical feat seemed to be a match for the passion that raged in him. Even when he became a recluse, still he struggled greatly with lust, and the devil did his best to shake St. John’s determination to overcome this passion–so much so that he sent a serpent to terrify him and frighten him into forsaking his seclusion. On Pascha night, in the midst of these torments and his own temptations, St. John cried out to Christ,
O Lord my God and my Savior! Why have You forsaken me? Have mercy upon me, only Lover of Mankind; deliver me from my foul iniquity, so that I am not trapped in the snares of the Evil one. Deliver me from the mouth of my enemy: send down a flash of lightning and drive it away.