Take my hand, I am dying….

Loose translation of Bishop Grigorije’s ponderings on the phenomena of death (here):

The departure of our loved ones and friends these recent months have once more intensified my thoughts about the phenomenon of death, which has always been understood and experienced in different ways. Recently death has seemingly come knocking on the door of the entire world giving me the impression that views that have relativized death are, in one way or another, fading away. For instance, the views of those who favor the so-called secularist view of the world and who see death as an unfortunate phenomenon, which should be mitigated in all ways and which should be accepted as a momentary obstacle to the further development and progress of society. Then there are the views of those who are very religious and have an understanding of death that varies depending on which religion they belong to and what that religion teaches them. They most often experience death as a transition from this to that life, moving from one, often bad, to a better place.

Amidst all of this, what would the Christian view of death be? Jesus Christ was the first Christian. How did He battle with it and how did He, in the end, defeat death? Namely, Christ, “clothed” Himself in the human flesh (nature), first agreed to be humiliated and mocked, and not only that – he went to death voluntarily, thus He experienced and went through suffering, fear and uncertainty, which goes hand in hand with death. This voluntary suffering of Christ was preceded by a striking event described in the pages of the New Testament, when Christ comes to the grave of his dead friend, Lazarus, and weeps bitterly, just as we would weep over the graves of our deceased. One of Lazarus’ sisters says to Christ, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” And then Christ called Lazarus by name, and Lazarus arose. It is the moment in which immortality – embodied in Christ – touched mortality, was embodied in Lazarus. This event was one of the immediate reasons for the high priests to start a final showdown with the one who called Lazarus from the dead and brought him back to life, who would then crucify Him on the cross.

What is that perhaps confuses and amazes us the most in this unforgettable event of Christ’s suffering and resurrection, which turned the course of world history? For me, it has always been that terrible moment when Jesus, dying, cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me!?” This sentence is confusing because it was uttered by Christ, who died voluntarily. It should also not be forgotten that before his voluntary suffering He prayed to His father: “If possible, let this cup pass from Me “. This drama reveals much to us, but on this occasion the most important thing is to look at the fact that Christ really and truly dies on the cross and that, just like ordinary mortal, He felt loneliness, fear and uncertainty in the hours before His death. At the hour of His death He identifies himself with us and undergoes the agony inherent in every man at the hour of dying. He who had never experienced loneliness until that moment cried out to the Father from the cross not to leave him alone. So, if loneliness and fear did not pass from Christ in the last hours of His life how can we deal with loneliness and fear in similar moments?

Let us examine what the New Testament reveals to us in connection with this event. After Jesus’ death – which resulted in those closest to Him to flee from the crucified One expect for a few, mostly women – the burial was performed by a distinguished judge, practically alone. I would like this to serve as some consolation to all those who buried their deceased these past months modestly, with just their closest family, because here we see that Jesus Himself was buried in that same way. That event took place on Good Friday. And then comes Holy Saturday and something even more important and comforting, it seems to me, as an announcement of Christ’s final victory over death. On Holy Saturday Christ will go through death, coming to life, because He is in eternal communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Christ defeated death by his death, because “it was not possible for him (death) to hold him” (Acts 2:24).

Thus Christ goes through death and with His experience of it – by coming in contact with it – He confirms to us that death is solitude and the departure from God, and then He descends to Hades, to the earth, among the dead, all the way to Adam and Eve and all those buried in the earth until then, and revives them – resurrects them. By descending to Hades, Christ plunges his love into human loneliness, annuls it and brings it out of the darkness of death into the glory of life. Without His descent into the night of death there could never be hope and our anticipation of the day of the resurrection. A mortal man would remain mortal forever.

Of course, the phenomenon of death could be viewed and pondered from many different angles, but as I watched my loved ones leave, and in recalling the description of Christ’s own hour of death in Scriptures, I realized that when it comes to death itself, I am most preoccupied with this idea of loneliness, which has come to the fore especially during this past year. Perhaps because it seems to me that the loneliness of the dying, the loneliness that befalls them at the hour of death, is as heavy as death itself. Loneliness is the taste or prelude to death. How many patients who died these past months had no one beside them who could touch them and take their hand? “Hold my hands, for I am falling into the abyss,” my father told my mother the night before he passed away, frightened and lonely at the hour of his death. On the other hand, even when we are here, in addition to the dying, their loneliness and our helplessness before death are immeasurable, and we, being mortal beings ourselves, cannot completely comfort or alleviate them. Loneliness at the hour of dying, fear and uncertainty, that is, death itself, can be overcome and banished only by one who is Himself immortal, one who has already conquered death. Christ.

Death therefore is among us and we can ignore it, deny it or think about it from the angle that implies us confronting it as the last and greatest enemy, as the Apostle Paul called it, and that is precisely through our presence for we crush and drive away the loneliness and fear from each other both during life and at the hour of death. Death is the court and the hour of our searching and that observation that someone made is perhaps true that the only thing which will remain is that which survives the search of death.  We will all need to pass through the gates of death but it is comforting to know that Christ, by going through death, made His resurrection become ours as well.

A Serb Without the Liturgy

Found this cute story online in Serbian (here). Hence, the moral of the story was that the donkey is a Serb who goes without liturgy:

One day a donkey came home filled with joy, happy and proud. His mother asked him why is he so happy, what happened?!? “Mommy, they gave me to some Jesus, and when we entered Jerusalem, a multitude of people cried out: Hosanna, Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, glory to God in the heavens! They covered the road with their clothes and palm branches in front of me.”

His mother said: “Go back to that city, but this time alone.”

So, the next day the donkey went to the city alone and came back home very sad. “Mom, this can’t be! No one noticed me, and when they did they practically kicked me out!”

His mother looked at him and said: “Son, remember is, without Christ you are nothing but a donkey”.

Virtues Require the Holy Mysteries

Taken from the Australian Diocesan website:

“The Bishop [Siluan], in his homily, pointed to the significance of these Sundays of Great Lent which prepare us for the great upcoming events. The voice of the Church during these Lenten days is the voice of St. John the Baptist, the prophetic voice for us to be sober-minded and vigilant as Christians. Often we are unaware that we are in bondage and under the siege of the passions. Observing the fast it opens our spiritual eyes to see the slavery we are in. When you sin, you become a slave to sin. Even a small sin is something that by nature is not in accordance with the calling of one’s being and path in this life. When we wish to free ourselves only then do we see our bondage, just how much sin has taken over us. However, through the grace of God we have an opportunity to repent in this life. The example of Mary of Egypt, shows us that whatever the sin and however grave it is, the Lord is always waiting to knock on the door of our hearts, waiting for us to move towards Him, to return to His embrace, to repent and take communion. As Fr. Justin says, the virtues require the Holy Mysteries and the Holy Mysteries require virtues. Therefore, a life entirely in the virtues and entirely in the mysteries. If we repent the Lord will forgive. In fact, the Lord is always moving towards us for our salvation.

Sentenced to life in Christ

Andrei’s Story: Life in Prison, But Life In Christ

Andrei was 21-years-old when he left the Ukraine to start a new life in America. Instead, he got involved in drugs, committed murder, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

It took Andrei some time to adjust to life in a maximum-security prison with its violence and restrictive conditions. He felt shame and guilt for his crime and had the added burden of being a foreigner in a foreign land.

Ten years ago, a friend recommended that he contact Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry. OCPM sent Andrei books, an Orthodox Study Bible, pamphlets and icons. He completed OCPM’s catechism correspondence course and regularly wrote to the ministry, which responded personally to his letters. “Without exaggeration, that changed my life,” says Andrei. “I developed a much better understanding of our faith, discovered the beautiful depth of patristic writings, felt the profoundly warm sense of peace when I read St. Isaac the Syrian.”

Andrei is now 50-years-old. He will never leave prison but he says he is confident that he can still live a life of peace. “Through the patient and compassionate presence of OCPM in my life, I feel the presence of the Church and the light of the Lord that shines even on this sinner, into this dark depth,” says Andrei. “Every day, as I get up before 4:00 a.m. to pray, I have a long list of reasons to thank the Almighty Lord. OCPM is high on that list,” he says. 

As we commemorate Holy Week and the Passion of Our Lord, let us remember the repentant thief who hung on the cross next to Christ. That convicted criminal was the first person to enter Paradise. The Lord was only waiting for his sincere repentance and heartfelt cry to not be forgotten.

Today, there are 2.3 million incarcerated men and women in the United States, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Scores of these prisoners are ready to repent for their crimes. And they must find a way to reconcile lengthy or even life-long prison sentences.

Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry proclaims Christ to men and women who are incarcerated, many of whom are being introduced to the Orthodox Church for the first time. For Orthodox Christians whose lives have been upended by their crimes and prison sentence, OCPM helps them to return to the Faith, offering forgiveness and reconciliation. As a result, families are reunited, marriages are healed, and thousands of incarcerated men and women have a new sense of peace and restored order in their lives. 

OCPM serves the spiritual needs of the incarcerated through a variety of ways. We correspond with thousands of prisoners and provide them with books, Bibles, pamphlets and icons. We catechize them in the Orthodox faith through special correspondence courses. We train Orthodox priests and laypersons to personally visit and counsel them in prison. And we lobby correctional facilities around the country to recognize the Orthodox faith so that Orthodox prisoners can receive the sacraments.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, our Lord sets out clearly the conditions for inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven. We satisfy the hungry and thirsty. We take in the stranger. We clothe the naked. And we visit the sick and those who are in prison.

We may find it easy to perform most of these commandments, but when was the last time you entered a correctional facility to visit a prisoner? 

Thousands of men and women are languishing in the battlefield that is prison. Many have experienced the limits of what non-Orthodox ministries offer. They suspect there is more but they don’t know where to find it.

OCPM visits and meets prisoners where they are, with the fullness that is the Orthodox faith. Every year, we process thousands of letters from prisoners and personally respond to each one by speaking to their particular situation. We maintain relationships with prisoners across multiple prison transfers and we assist them in finding an Orthodox parish upon their release.

Prisoners like Andrei are no less part of the Resurrection of Christ because they are in prison. OCPM helps prisoners, no matter their sentence, to be connected with the healing power of the Orthodox Church.

Please find out more about how you and your parish can have a vital ministry to incarcerated men and women by visiting www.theocpm.org.

It is better to pray than to judge

Taken from Ora Et Labora (here)

Some people say: “Batiushka, no matter how much I pray, I have thoughts, and more thoughts…” Here again we can find an example from the Elder Ambrose: “A man goes to the market with his pots. He needs to get to the middle, where there are more people and business will be better. There is fuss and bustle all around him but, snag by snag, he arrived at his destination. In the same way we need to gradually progress in prayer, and you’ll make it to the Heavenly Kingdom.” You see how simply the Elder Ambrose was able to explain everything! Bear in mind that he was a learned man; he translated The Ladder by St John Climacus from Greek. Yet he had a child’s heart and left wonderful instructions, writen down for us so we would benefit from them.

Simplicity is given for not judging sinners. If you see a certain brother full of wine or in other sins, then pray: “Lord, help this brother to get himself out of this swampy quagmire; strengthen him.” Only don’t judge anyone, or you’ll fall into even greater sin. Don’t expect anything extraordinary. As the Fathers say: “If you see a young novice quickly ascending into heaven, pull him down to earth.” First one needs to learn to live in peace and harmony with everyone, and then one can think of the Kingdom of God. Here we are, we don’t like this thing, and we don’t like the other – but who are we? In one and the same family there are good children and bad ones. One is a joy, the other is a sorrow. The same is true in our Christian family: everyone has his own difficulties. It’s better to pray, and not judge. It’s like what’s related in a story: a certain brother in a monastery was always reading something written on a charter. The brothers went to the abbot: “This brother is a sorcerer.” The abbot called him to himself and asked: “What are you doing?” “Every time I fear falling into sin I read what’s written on my charter: ‘Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking guile, and judge not thy neighbor.’” You see how dangerous it is to judge!