Orthodox Survival Course, #61 - Returning to Ourselves, Session 2

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And when he came to himself…he arose, and came to his father – Luke 15:17, 20

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Returning to Ourselves, Session 2

As you will recall from our last talk, we have begun a series of talks on the false ideas, the delusions, which have been placed into all of our minds from childhood by the great propaganda machine, the Great Stereopticon as Richard Weaver calls it. We all have breathed in some or most or all of these false beliefs and attitudes all our lives, unless we are blessed to be among the few that have been lived in monastic seclusion or a pre-modern village most of our lives. The image Fr. Seraphim Rose uses is that the very atmosphere, the air we breathe, is pestilential. We become spiritually and mentally infected simply by breathing in these deadly delusions that form contemporary man’s normal mental atmosphere. We need to recognize and understand what these delusions are, cast them out of ourselves, and beg the Lord to enlighten our darkness – to cleanse our hearts and minds, so that we, like the Prodigal Son, can return to ourselves. Only God can do this for us, only grace! We can’t do it for ourselves. This is the only way we can recognize the delusion that we are in and escape into the light of truth.

We do not know precisely what is going to happen in the months and years ahead. The various so-called national governments – which are in fact not national, because they are dedicated to the destruction of national sovereignty, having become by long and careful design organs of global, not national, governance, nor are they even governments in the traditional sense, but rather an administrative interface, a managerial structure that private oligarchic interests use to enforce their program – are announcing various plans to advance the agenda of trans-humanism, which we discussed in our last talk. It is hard to know in advance what precisely they plan to do to us and when they plan to do it, and we should not spend too much time trying to figure that out, which robs us of spiritual focus and energy and does not get us anywhere. But we can work on ourselves and be prepared spiritually to respond when we are confronted with the demand to violate our conscience or be punished. The more that our minds and hearts are purified, the more clearly we will see what we need to do and the more likely it will be that we shall have the moral will to do it when the time comes.

The Catalogue of Errors, continued – Worldliness, an Ensemble of Delusions

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. – I John 2: 15

Let us admit a fundamental problem, that we have the spirit of worldliness, and it is this spirit, this love of the world, that has made us so weak and so ready to compromise our Orthodox conscience in order “just to get along.” Worldliness in its essence is the unconscious conviction that this world is all there is. We all inherit this conviction at our conception and birth, in the depths of our hearts, because of the Ancestral Sin. When our first parents accepted the lie of the serpent, that they would be gods, they lost authentic spiritual insight and became trapped in carnality, the grossness of fallen nature, which is naturally akin to the corruptible things of this world and alien to the things of heaven. The undeserved and free grace of Our Lord’s Death and Resurrection, given to us at Baptism, frees us from the cycle of death and corruption, but we have to cooperate with this grace by a life that does not serve death and corruption, by an otherworldly life. The entire program for life that Our Lord gives us in His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters five through seven), in the supreme example of His own life on earth and His death for our sake, and in the countless examples of the Lives of the Saints, is explicitly a program for an otherworldly life. There is no other way to fulfill the Great Commandments to love God and our neighbor, and to be saved.

We Orthodox all know this, and we are used to hearing sermons and reading books telling us to say our prayers, do spiritual reading, fasting, and so forth. But, let’s admit it, sometimes the sermons and the readings become like religious Muzak, – “dentist office music” – a little soundtrack going on in the background of life that is rather pleasant and consoling to a religious person, but does not really change anything about how we live. In the foreground, meanwhile, is the constant, loud, and insistent great brassy noise of the World, which has grown exponentially louder in our lifetime, and which threatens to dominate our minds and feelings completely. Orthodoxy becomes not the whole of our life, but the “religious component” of our life, a subjectively and selectively employed method for psychological comfort, engaged in when we feel like it and then shelved when we go on to the real business of our life, which is loving and serving the World. If we really thought like Orthodox Christians, then spiritual things, the spiritual world, would be more, not less, real than this world. When you see things this way, all of the Church’s practices – the prayers, the fasting, the strict way of life described in the Lives of Saints and the holy canons, the long services, etc. – make complete sense. But if this world is more real to you than the next world, then the Church’s practices appear as a burden and an intrusion into your life, relegated to a little compartment of “required things” that you just do as minimally as possible, so that you can get back to the so-called real world of earthly concerns.

This love of the world, worldliness, can be understood at root as one thing, that is, the unconscious conviction deep in the heart that this world is all there is, and it can also be understood in its manifestations as more than one thing: a disharmonious ensemble of various delusions and passions. Man has always suffered from these delusions and passions, but today our situation has become acute: we are in the midst of a great apostasy, the love of the many has indeed grown cold, and we are choking on the poison gas of the spirit of the world. It is tempting to panic, throw up our hands, and give up, but we don’t need to do that. We still have the power, given by God, to realize which of these delusions we are subject to, return to ourselves like the Prodigal Son, and change the priorities we have control over in order to lead a more otherworldly, truly Orthodox life.

A young man from our community here in Michigan recently went to St. John Maximovich Monastery in New York to be tonsured sub-deacon by Metropolitan Demetrius. When he returned, he told me, “At the monastery, I realized that this was not extraordinary Orthodox life; it was just the life that we should all be leading.” The daily round of the divine services, frequent and prepared reception of Holy Communion, continuous prayer in the name of Jesus, sacred study, and an orderly round of obedient labor to care for one’s brothers, – this is Christian life, plain and simple. This program for life is the antidote to the poison of the devil, the idea that “this world is all there is.” We visit monasteries and experience this, and we try to bring this spirit into our parishes and homes, but the world and worldly thinking quickly attack us and threaten to overwhelm us at every turn. We must fight back.

What are some of the errors, the delusions that comprise this ensemble of worldly thinking? Let’s describe some of them and also offer practical ideas to combat their control over our life. Here is a list of a few of these errors and the corrections to the errors. It is a partial list, but it certainly gives us enough to work on for now. All of these errors are interrelated, of course. They reinforce each other, but the good news is that as we fight one error, that weakens the hold on us of the other errors as well! All of the passions are interrelated, as are all the virtues.

1. The error: The illusion of immortality and the forgetfulness of death. The correction: Memento mori! – the remembrance of death.

2. The error: Idolatry of the body. The correction: Love for the salvation of the soul energized in the life of the mind and of the spirit, with godly and prudent care for the body.

3. The error: The glorification of youth. The correction: The love of wisdom, seeking spiritual sobriety and maturity.

4. The error: “Big is better” – the reign of quantity over quality. The answer: “Small is beautiful!” – quality over quantity.

5. The error: Life is all about guaranteed peace and security. The answer: This life is a dangerous but beautiful adventure, and we are in the hands of God.

6. The error: Our electronic addictions cannot be overcome. The answer: They can and must be overcome if we are to be saved. With God all things are possible.

7. The error: Egalitarianism and enforced uniformity. The answer: Divinely established hierarchy which fosters a delightful variety with unity.

Today let’s start with error #1:

The illusion of immortality and the forgetfulness of death

I’d like to tell you about something from my childhood which bears on this. Most of us who have converted to Orthodoxy from a heretical confession still recall many incidents and influences in our pre-Orthodox lives in which the Lord worked through the people and the life that we knew then in order to lead us to the Church. This was certainly true in my life, starting from my earliest memories. Very early in my life, the atmosphere in my French Catholic grandparents’ home impressed me very deeply with the reality of the next world. The sacred images on the walls, the crucifix, the little holy water font at the door of their bedroom, my grandparents’ quiet and serious bearing, seeing them kneel in prayer before going to bed at night, and spending hours wandering in the old-fashioned European-style Catholic cemetery directly behind their home: All of this conveyed very powerfully to me that death was real, just as real and just as imminent as going to bed that very night, and that there was life after death, and there was God’s judgment, and heaven and hell, and that we should to be very afraid to sin and must be very sorry for and truly hate our sins, for we could die any moment and be separated from God forever by our un-repented sins. Simultaneously, however, these thoughts were not at all gloomy to me, but rather they became extremely sweet to my little mind, and from that time I knew that God loves me and has a place for me in His heavenly home, and therefore the thought of this life being very short and death being real was a happy thought. It was the thought of death that made me realize that God is worthy of all love for His own sake, which, really, is the most consoling thought one could have. This persistent conviction, which lasted throughout my childhood and sustained me during the turbulent years of adolescence and early adulthood, made my conversion to Orthodoxy, that most thoroughly otherworldly Faith of all faiths, seem quite natural.

Of course, all this kind of thinking opposes the trend of today, which is to live for this world only and pretend that death is not real by not thinking about what really happens at death. The sin of lightmindedness, reinforced by constant distraction,is a real “pandemic” today, even among Orthodox people. Even after we see someone die and we go to the funeral home and see the dead body, one hears no serious talk, no awareness of God’s judgment, heaven, and hell, but only a forced and superficial, cheerful foolishness: “He is in a better place now,” “He is not suffering now,” “He was a good person,” and so forth. Then the next moment they go on to talk about the weather or politics or tomorrow’s football game, and the next day they try to forget all about death and funerals, and they go about their business.

How do they know he is in a better place? How do they know he is not suffering? Do they not know that there is only One Who is good, and that is God alone? Do they not realize that what is called for at this moment is the most earnest prayer, with tears, for the salvation of a fellow sinner like ourselves, and that his death should inspire us to give up our worldly ways and return to spiritual sobriety? This kind of talk and this attitude to death is astonishingly unserious for Christian people. But sadly, this is the kind of worldly talk a priest today often hears when he conducts funerals among supposedly Orthodox people, so deeply have they imbibed the spirit of this world.

What has brought about this obliviousness to the reality of death? First of all, there is the ignorance or forgetfulness of the most fundamental teachings of the Church: the critical need to cleanse the soul before death through Confession, the deeply desired worthy reception of Holy Communion, the Prayers at the Parting of the Soul, the encounter of the soul with demons as it leaves the body, the Particular Judgment, the Final Judgment, and, finally, eternal happiness or eternal damnation. These things cannot be taught too often, too vividly, too plainly, or too forcefully, given the distraction and light-mindedness of the typical person today. (A now reposed pious Greek grandfather of a friend of mine used to have a saying: “All problems start from the amvon,” i.e., spiritual and ecclesiastical problems can be traced to what we priests are preaching and emphasizing – or what we are not teaching! – in our sermons and teachings.) Good old fashioned talk about the Last Things – Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell – has never been more needed than today!

This labor of the Church to bring these matters to the forefront of our minds is an age-old struggle, of course: We resist these salutary thoughts because we inherit from our First Parents the lying thought that they accepted into the heart from the serpent: “You will be gods.” Along with this thought is the illusion of immortality, that we are the source of our own existence, and that somehow, if we are just clever enough, we will avoid dying. Of course, we know theoretically that this is not true, but we still struggle with this lying thought, because of our fallen nature. And today the advances in medical science and in technological control over nature reinforce this lying thought with the delusive promise that “science” will solve the problem of sickness and death, that we really don’t need to die. The “scientistic” establishment even encourages propaganda that there is such a thing as a medical cure for aging and death: sure, we all know this is crazy, but it still appeals to the worldly spirit we all struggle with. St. John Chrysostom, in one of his homilies, says that worldly people always call death an “unexpected calamity.” If this was true in the fourth century, when infant and childhood mortality was very high, and one could die any time from a simple infection or an accident, and yet the illusion of immortality was still so strong that it blinded the people at that time, how much more true is it today, when, because of the idolatrous religion of “scientism” that we talked about in our last class, people think that “science” can solve everything!

The correction to this error is the Church’s age-old teaching: Memento mori! Remember death! The Holy Fathers teach us that we should draw in the remembrance of death with every breath, and that if we remembered death constantly, we would never sin. There are practical ways to make the remembrance of death a habit of mind, for example:

The nightly reading of Small Compline, and especially, at the end, the slow and attentive reading of the long prayer to the Theotokos, which speaks specifically of the demonic warfare at the hour of death, the day of judgment, and the final outcome of eternal torment or the reward of sharing the glory of Christ. Prayers before sleep, in general, naturally have the theme of preparation for death, of which our nightly sleep should be a constant image and reminder. The prayer books in the Greek Church tend to have the Small Compline, while the prayer books from the Russian and other Churches often have instead a series of prayers before sleep which frequently recur to the thought of death and God’s judgment. The important thing is not which ones we do, but that we say these prayers nightly and with attention, and always go to sleep with the uppermost thought in our minds not being those of the temporal cares of the day, but of the hour of death and our eternal destiny.

The night prayers should always be preceded or followed by the nightly examination of conscience. Remember, each day could be our last! Now, in the evening, we realize that the Lord has allowed yet another day in the short span of this life for our repentance. How have we used that day? We examine our thoughts, words, and deeds of the day, repent sincerely for our sins, thank God for the good He has enabled us to do, and go to bed for our nightly sleep – from which we may or may not awake in this world – with a light heart and a pure conscience.

The study of the Funeral Service at home and attentively listening to it when we attend a funeral. These amazing texts perfectly combine sorrow over sin and fear of God’s judgment with godly, joyful hope in the salvation of the soul and the final resurrection unto eternal life. The spirit of the funeral service is the uniquely Christian, uniquely Orthodox spirit of compunction, of the Paschal “Bright Sorrow” that ineffably intertwines a grace-filled conviction for our sins with the unconquerable hope in God’s mercy through the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. Today when everyone can own the service books or print services from the Internet, there is no reason why every household cannot have the text of the Funeral Service, which can be read aloud quietly, in order to impress on the mind the teaching of the Church regarding death and eternal life, and to arouse in the heart feelings of compunction, sorrow for sin, and hope in eternal life.

Reading the traditional Orthodox literature on death and the future life: The Lives of the Saints in the Synaxaria, Prologues, and similar literature, convey the otherworldly spirit of the Church’s teaching on the future life on nearly every page, especially through the witness of the martyrs both in their words spoken prior to death and their behavior in the face of death, and in the experiences and revelations of the monastic saints who encountered angels and demons face to face, and who had reliable, un-deluded visions of the experiences of the dying and the reposed, both those within and outside the Church, and both the blessed and the damned. A beloved collection of spiritual sayings and accounts, the Evergetinos, for example, contains accounts like this, drawn from the Fourth Dialogue of St. Gregory the Dialogist and similar patristic texts. If we acquire the mind of the saints, we will think about death and the passage from this life frequently, and this will greatly cleanse our consciences and give us power in the struggle against sin.

Care for the gravely sick and dying: At one time, not long ago, very few people gave the care for their dying family members over to “professionals.” It was done at home. This was especially beneficial to children, who through love of their grandparents were drawn naturally to their deathbeds and could witness a repentant Christian death at an early age. Ideally, care for dying relatives should be done in the home as much as possible, and, moreover, pastors should encourage the practice of the faithful assisting their fellow parishioners in this as well. In addition, we must strive to recover the soul-saving and humanly normal practice of care for bodies of those who have reposed and not rely so much on funeral homes: this is more available, more practical, and more legal than many are led to think, and it would be a great blessing if someone in our Church would research these matters and make information available to the faithful on how to do this. If every parish had a sisterhood of Holy Myrrhbearers whose specific mission was to assist families in caring directly for the bodies of the newly reposed faithful, this would be a tremendous thing for all of us.

Prayer for the Reposed: Here is a link to a short article I wrote awhile ago on how we commemorate the faithful departed – https://saint-irene.com/dead Zealous and frequent prayer for the reposed, alms in their memory, and above all the offering of the Bloodless Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy greatly help the reposed, and it helps us as well. Who knows, when we die, if there will be someone after us who will remember us and offer the Mystical Sacrifice, kollyva, and other prayers and offerings on our behalf? Let us hasten now to do for our beloved departed – and also especially those who have no one to pray for them! – what we would want done for us! “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.”

Gratitude for illness and even for death itself – Most of us are not serious ascetics. We avail ourselves of unnecessary comforts and generally do not punish our bodies as we should to bring them into subjection to the soul. We are inattentive and do not repent thoroughly of our sins. We have unhealed passions. But the merciful Lord gives us a way to make up for this: illness, and, yes, death itself! Especially if we fall gravely ill and realize that we are at the door of death, let us thank God fervently that we can suffer and be cleansed of our unhealed passions and un-repented sins!

Let us pray daily, as we do morning and evening at Matins, the Divine Liturgy, and Vespers, for a “Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless, and peaceful, and a good defense before the Dread Judgment seat of Christ.” Let us recall that we should pray not to die suddenly, but rather to have the grace of a period of conscious preparation on our deathbed, assisted by the prayers of the priests and faithful, and the reception of the Holy Mysteries. Let us resolve, and ask the Lord for the grace to carry out our resolve, not to allow ourselves to be drugged into unconsciousness as we die, and not to be surrounded by television and noise, but rather to struggle in prayerful concentration right up to the moment of death.

Nothing impure or sinful can enter into the presence of God, “For our God is a consuming fire,” burning up every sinful thought and inclination that remains in the soul after death. Let us thank God with tears that these impurities can be burned up here and not there, here by temporal illness, including and especially the final trial of death, and not there by eternal punishment! Death itself, after all, was God’s mercy to man, so that man would not live forever in demonic immortality, which is the unending tormented existence of Satan and his angels, but so that by the blessed sentence of death man would be brought to repentance and hope in the Savior, Who by His death conquered death and transformed it from a final destruction into the gateway to eternal life!

Life is short, death is certain, judgment is eternal. Let us live so as to be prepared to welcome death as the passage to eternal life! These holy practices from the Church’s inexhaustible treasure house of graces and blessings will most certainly help us attain the blessed remembrance of death, which will free us from the burden of anxiety over doing everything possible (or impossible!) to extend our corruptible and doomed biological existence – an anxiety that is so grievous to us and so unbecoming for the believing Christian soul! This blessed remembrance of death will inspire us never to sin and will lead us unerringly to a prepared-for and holy Christian death and passage to eternal life!

I began this talk on the remembrance of death with memories of my childhood, and I’d like to close with one of my favorite accounts from the Fourth Dialogue of St. Gregory, the holy death of a holy child. As throughout the Dialogues, the great pope is speaking to his deacon Peter and recounting the testimony of fellow clerics and monks, as well as pious Roman citizens, about recent holy people they have known personally or who were well-known in their communities.

“I will also include the story [the abbot] Probus told me about his little sister Musa. One night the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God, appeared to her and showed her other little girls of her own age dressed in white. Though Musa was eager to be with them she dared not join their ranks. Noticing this, the Blessed Virgin asked her whether she wished to be with them in her court. Naturally, the little girl said she did. Whereupon, our Blessed Lady commanded her not to do anything silly, as foolish little girls often do; instead, she was to keep from laughing and joking, and to remember at all times that in thirty days she would be one of the little girls in white.

“After the vision the girl’s character was completely changed. She took herself in hand and with great strictness avoided every kind of girlish foolishness. Her astounded parents asked her for an explanation of this sudden change. She told them that the Blessed Virgin had given her special instruction and had set the day on which she was to join her companions in heaven. After the twenty-fifth day she fell sick with a fever. On the thirtieth, as the hour of her death drew near, she saw the Blessed Virgin coming to her with the same train of girls. Our Blessed Lady called to her, and little Musa reverently lowered her eyes as she answered with a clear voice, ‘I am coming, my noble Lady, I am coming to you.’ With these words, she gave up her soul. Leaving her virginal body here below, she set out to live with the holy virgins in heaven.” – “The Fathers of the Church” series (CUA), Volume 39, St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, pp.

“With the saints, give rest O Christ to Thy servants, where there is neither sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting!”

Amen.

Lagniappe – In New Orleans, we have this old word “lagniappe,” which means a little extra something, a bonus, that a grocer would slip into the housewife’s sack to say “thank you” for being a good customer, perhaps an extra pound of rice or some sweets for the children. I should like to continue offering a little “lagniappe” at the end of these talks, something historical or cultural that relates to our Orthodox worldview, perhaps a hymn or a song or a story. Today, in honor of our beloved departed Christians, I would like to offer you an ancient Western chant from the first millennium, the famous In paradisum, an antiphon that is chanted as the body of the deceased is taken in procession from the church to be carried out for burial. (Once Mozart said that he would trade all that he had ever written to have been the composer of this brief antiphon!). Here is a link, so that you can hear it chanted more professionally, but I’ll sing it for you now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7F-N-Yd8dE In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.
“May the angels lead thee into paradise; may the martyrs receive thee at thy coming, and lead thee into the holy city Jerusalem. May the choirs of angels receive thee and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may thou have everlasting rest.”

Amen.