Why a Spiritual Father is a Good Idea

The spiritual father is supposed to be a standard part of our Orthodox life, but in North America there are vast numbers of Orthodox who don’t work with a spiritual father.  I was reminded of this when listening to a podcast this morning about a new offering from Holy Trinity Publications.  The person being interviewed recommended that before anyone reads the book then sets off on some new ascetically undertaking, they should consult their spiritual father.  In the US, in particular,  many parishes rarely offer confession, and many parishioners rarely seek it out.  This is in keeping with the American tendency toward self-help, which is often just thinly veiled egotism.  The advantage of working with a spiritual father is that they both have experience in the spiritual life, which means they likely know more about it than you do, and they can often see through some of the false assumptions you as an individual may be operating under.

I had a recent circumstance which very much goes to the issue of getting an expert guide.  I’m an avid wheelchair tennis player (if not a particularly good one), and recently participated in a tournament in Arizona.  My wrist had been a little bit sore going into the weekend, then became increasingly “cranky” in the midst of a Saturday full of matches.  I approached the trainer, who has been fixing people’s physical ills for many years, and asked him to work on my wrist.  His response?  “Let me work on your shoulder first.”  I looked at him a bit odd, as my shoulder felt fine.  I mean, really fine.  So, I restated my desire for him to work on my wrist.  He repeated that he wanted to work on my shoulder first, so I acquiesced.  As he worked on my shoulder and the incredible tightness began to release, a tightness that I hadn’t noticed at all, he explained that my reduced range of motion in my shoulder was putting an excessive load on my wrist.  He finished with my shoulder, worked on some forearm tightness, then taped my wrist.  As I was leaving to go play my next match, he simply said, “yeah, it was just your wrist.”

We do the same with our spiritual life.  We don’t notice things that are seriously wrong, and focus on symptoms instead.  Unfortunately, it is often the case that without fixing the bigger issues, the symptoms will never really go away.

Children’s Liturgy

On my morning commute, I frequently listen to offerings from Ancient Faith Radio.  I try to always start with The Path, so I get the daily readings, then I might listen to something else, like the latest from Ancient Faith Today.  This morning, I opted to listen to a podcast I hadn’t heard of before (I’ve since returned to attempt to locate it, as I wasn’t originally going to link to it, then changed my mind and I can’t seem to find it).  Of note is that the podcast is by a lay person with no apparent theological training (or ordination reflecting preparation to teach).  The particular episode had a title that sounded a bit protestant, so I was already prepared to some degree for what was coming.  I still haven’t finished listening to the episode, but something was mentioned that almost caused me to drive off the road.  The host mentioned that, at his parish, for 9 months out of the year they have a children’s liturgy, which separates the children from the parents until they graduate from high school.  There are two major flaws with this practice, that render it completely problematic.

The first major flaw is that the very groups which first developed this concept, the seeker sensitive evangelical Churches of the 60’s and 70’s, are now beginning to eschew this very practice, as they realize that the practice, while well intentioned, has been contributing to the increasingly low attendance number among later and later generations of Americans.  Read here, here, and here, for instance.  When digging around for articles about Children’s Church, one of the voices against came from the Roman Catholic world.  It wasn’t that they hadn’t done it and were opposed to begin with, but rather that they had done it and then realized that it was a bad idea.

This reflects one of the fundamental flaws of the Ecumenical movement, in my opinion, which perhaps I’ll explore in greater depth elsewhere.  One of the points of Ecumenical dialogue is the sharing of ideas with one another.  This was one of those situations.  We look to what the rapidly growing evangelical churches are doing, and then adopt some of their practices.  Rome was notorious for that, with guitar masses, and all manner of mega-church adaptations that are, realistically, the result of the deeply flawed theology of protestantism.  It is sad to now see Orthodox traveling that same path.  It’s bad enough to put up with organs in church on Sunday morning, but at some point (if it hasn’t happened already) I expect an Orthodox parish somewhere will have a guitar player on the Solea, strumming the cherubic hymn during the Great Entrance.  Now we see that at least one Orthodox parish has adopted the failed Children’s Church idea, I’m sure the guitars won’t be far behind.

The second major flaw with Children’s Church is that reflects a deeply flawed, perhaps even heretical, understanding of Orthodox notions about worship and community.  Prior to the 20th Century, it was generally unheard of for any average church, of whatever denomination, to have more than one service/liturgy on Sunday (I’m not referring to having Matins then Liturgy or Morning Prayer then Eucharist, or whatever other denominations may do along those lines, but rather having two Eucharist services or two Masses, or two Sunday Worship services for the non-liturgical churches).  For the protestants, this was largely just a left over traditional behavior that probably hadn’t been given much thought.  For Catholics and Orthodox, it reflected a deeper understanding of the nature of liturgy.  During the 20th century, Protestant churches began to offer  multiple services on Sunday.  This was to provide a convenient time for people to attend Church.  Over the years this led to everything from a Saturday evening service, to several Sunday morning and Sunday evening service.  Given that Protestant theology of worship has generally entirely abandoned the thinking of the early church, there was no apparent reason to not do this.

Orthodoxy, on the other hand understands that Sunday morning liturgy is, in fact, meant for the whole community.  In fact, it is rather an exceptional situation where a church has more than one liturgy in a day, and that requires two priests (as one can server only one liturgy in a day) and two antimensions (the cloth upon which the gifts are consecrated).  An antimension is given to the parish by the Bishop, which points to the fact that serving more than one liturgy on a Sunday would require the Bishop’s blessing.  I hope, in this case, that the Bishop will bring an end to the practice in this parish.

It is hard for me to imagine what value is derived from training children that they aren’t part of the community, that somehow they need to be separated from the rest of the community.  Regardless of how noble the motivations were behind starting the practice, that is precisely what is being done.

Music and Orthodoxy

I was thinking of blogging on the exact subject of this post, but fortunately a priest already did that for me.  I hope to meet him someday, as this is spot on.

Music and Orthodoxy

by Father Michael Varlamos

Music is one of the most powerful forces known to man. It communicates in ways beyond our comprehension. The Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church recognized this and were very selective in what type of music was appropriate for our worship. The same can be said for our iconography, church architecture, rubrics of our worship service, vestments, etc. In the Orthodox Church, music was used to emphasize the meaning of the words of the hymn. It was not supposed to sound similar to secular music. Hymns were written and composed to be prayed to a simple melody that can either be done by a single individual or by a one hundred-voice choir. The words of the hymn were always more important than the music. The music was there to add color, support and amplify the meaning of the text. The Church music was meant to penetrate the depth of our heart and there to “prick it,” that is, to wound it into repentance, contrition, and humility, which is the only way to bring us to pray.

That is why our holy Orthodox Church for almost 2,000 years used the type of music known today as Byzantine chant. It is a music that may not always be appealing to our “secular ear,” but is the music of simplicity, purity and prayer. It is, in the opinion of the saints of our Church, “the music of the human soul,” “the music of prayer,” and the “sound of Orthodoxy.” It is the music used in all Orthodox spiritual centers—monasteries, convents, shrines, the Greek Patriarchates, etc.—throughout the world.

From the beginning of the 19th Century and through the 20th Century, history shows us that human beings were becoming more secular and materialistic. In the world of art, music, and even architecture, there was an emphasis on external beauty and less so on the inner, spiritual nature of things in general. In painting, canvasses became huge and depicted emotional and realistic events. Eventually, art effected bold colors and abstract figures. Music became loud, filled with emotion and complexity. Even church music in our Archdiocese was affected by this Romantic trend. We tried to copy what other denominations were doing. More emphasis was placed on the music and the text began to disappear into the background.

Music was becoming more complex and intricate. It tried to affect us emotionally, and we confused this with spirituality. There seemed to be an emphasis on “feelings” in the music that was being written by our Greek Orthodox composers—that certain feelings and emotions were trying to be evoked, almost with no regard to the text, or even oblivious to it. In America, more and more people did not understand the original Greek anyway, so it seems that attempts were made to bury it in complex melodies with four and six part harmonies. It didn’t really matter what the words of the prayer or hymn meant, as long as it sounded beautiful! The music became more important than the prayer itself!

This new type of music dominated the Greek Orthodox churches in our country during the 20th century and, for the time being, continues to do so. Efforts are being made throughout the country to rediscover the ancient music of the Greek Orthodox Church—the music that was supposed to go with our hymns and prayers. More and more parishes are beginning to recognize why the Fathers of our Church selected this music instead of what we have had in the last 50 to 75 years. I’m pleased that our parish is one of these churches.

This music is not intended merely for singing, whether in the loft or from the pew, but it is to be prayed. To truly pray, we must live and approach this music the way our saints did: in a state of repentance. To repent means to change our ways, to initiate a new beginning to our relationship with God. It is living a life of faith, love, humility and obedience. It is placing our souls in the hands of our spiritual fathers who strive to guide us by the teachings of Jesus Christ and His saints.

Look at the Divine Liturgy in a different way: as a dialogue with God. Don’t only worship with your ears (that is, by the sound of music); listen carefully to the text. Internalize and strive to understand the meaning of what is being chanted or intoned. Learn to speak to God within your hearts. He is there in the depth of our being. Converse with Him in meaningful words there, first. Then raise your voice in praise and supplication.

Some people say that they do not find this Byzantine music uplifting, perhaps because it is not as emotional as the music we have become used to. Please understand that before we can be truly uplifted, we must first humble ourselves from the depth of our hearts and initiate our prayer and worship there with: humility, simplicity, purity and peacefulness. Then our uplifting is not a feeling or an emotion, but a truly spiritual experience: it is nothing less than standing before God.

This is what the Fathers of our Church taught and this is why they did not choose the emotional, complex music which, as we know from Plato, did exist in ancient times, and would be analagous to the complex harmonies of today’s church music in America; but rather they selected the simple spiritual music we know as Byzantine chant. And this is what more and more churches are discovering. As more people, Greeks and converts, are coming to appreciate the faith and traditions of Orthodoxy, many are seeing the connection between this traditional music and our iconography, spirituality and life as Orthodox Christians.

I pray on a daily basis that all our people, choir members and not, will come to see my preference for Byzantine chant not as me implementing my opinion and personal tastes on others. Quite the opposite! My personal tastes in music are quite broad, from classical to jazz to rock. But within liturgical services, I only wish to bring others closer to God in the way our Greek Orthodox Church has for almost two millennia. This matter has more to do with the salvation of our souls than it does with music. Again, I pray that people see the changes I advocate in this way and this way only. We should pray, fast, repent, live as Christ taught us with meekness and humility, read the Bible daily, be obedient to the Tradition of our Church, come to Confession for forgiveness and guidance, and praise God not only with our voices, but with our thoughts and deeds as well.

 

Source

Liturgy, Music, and Hesychia

Liturgy, Music, and Hesychia

In the course of the debate between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam on what the Orthodox approach to prayer and spiritual growth should rightly be, St. Gregory responded to the notion that Barlaam had put forth that we must focus our mind outside of ourselves in order to find God:

For if, as the Psalmist says, “all the glory of the king’s daughter is within”, why do we search for it without?  And if, according to the Apostle, “God has given His Spirit to cry in our hearts, Abba, Father,” how is it we too do not pray with the Spirit in our hearts?  If, as the Lord of the prophets and the apostles teaches, “the Kingdom of God is within us”, does it not follow that a man will be excluded from the Kingdom if he devotes his energies to making his mind go out from within himself? (The Hesychast method of prayer and the transformation of the body, from the Triads)

The services of the church provide a forum for us to participate in worship with our fellow Christian.  At the same time, it can be argued that the services of the Church serve as a training ground for us to seek out God within us.  How is that accomplished?  One mechanism is that all of the senses are actively engaged and focused on spiritual matters, in order to help us avoid getting distracted by wordly thoughts.  We have the icons, incense, prayer ropes and candles to hold in our hands, the taste of the holy gifts, and the music.  All of the senses are engaged to help us avoid worldly distractions.  At the same time, the engagement isn’t intended for us to focus on all those elements.  Instead, it is meant to free our nous to “descend into our hearts” as the Fathers say.  For it is there that we can find God.  One priest I know of said the following with regard to worship, “We will get more out of the services if we pray rather than merely attend them.  Allow the hymns to enter your heart, and make their words your own.”

When we look at music, we know that the style of music can have a great affect on our moods and attitudes.  Certain songs raise your energy level, while others can darken your mood.  Some can cause you to enter deep into thought, while others can lead you to move about with little thought.  It is therefore important to pay attention to the style of the music used in Worship.  It is not merely the words, but the ability of the music itself to alter your approach to the words that is important.  Traditionally, the Church has treated its hymns in the same way it has treated its theology.  One does not simply make up a new hymn just as one does not simply make up a new doctrine – hymns reflect established doctrine and go through a very slow process before they are accepted.  Similarly, although people may write new settings for hymns, they follow rules regarding the musical structure and format.  One major reason for this is precisely that the stylistic elements of the tune can impact your reaction to the words that are being sung with it.  As my chant teacher told us recently, some hymns are available in all 8 modes, so that we me reflect on the words of those hymns in different ways as we experience them through these different melodies.

So, although worship is corporate, because we are corporate beings, it is also personal, as it is the means to enter into closer communion with God.

From an anecdotal perspective, I must relate my experience of Holy Week this year.  We had a monk, Fr. Maximos, visiting with us for the week.  Currently a professor at Holy Cross School of Theology, he is also a monk from Simonopetra Monastery on Mt. Athos.  You can “meet” him in this 60 Minutes special on Mt. Athos.  For that week we had Fr. Maximos and our Protopsaltis, Dr. Alexander Khalil leading chanting.  The services were longer, in general, than they had been in the past, because we were not doing some of the reduction of the services that had happened in years past.  I chanted the entire week through these longer services.  Yet, at the end of the week, while physically tired, I was spiritually refreshed in a way that I had never been during our previous Holy Weeks.  It was more reminiscent of my sensation after a weekend at one of monasteries.  Reflecting back on the week, I think the beauty of the chant, and participating in it, brought me into a much more meditative space.  I feel that, at least for brief pieces of time, my mind had moved to at least the edge of the kingdom.  I think it was coming just that close to God was so spiritually refreshing.

 

 

Halloween – a Counterpoint

Just like the annual Christmas discussion, we are at the time for the annual Orthodox Halloween discussion. I wrote this in response to a friend who sent me this link. I wasn’t going to turn this into a blog entry, until I saw this video from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese youth ministry.

I find John Sanidopolous’ arguments on Halloween a bit lacking. He admits here, and elsewhere, that he is a big fan of horror movies and Halloween, and it feels to me like he has focused particular effort on defending this holiday to justify this love of a genre that is arguably not very edifying.  Whether or not it is appropriate for him to love this genre is a matter for him and his spiritual father as such is well above my pay grade. If you’re interested, he has some links on his page discussing the horror genre, and suggesting that it is a good one for Christians. I’ll leave that for a future discussion.

It may be true that the pagan history of Halloween is merely fiction developed by 19th century Celtic scholars, as he has proposed recently, but that is largely irrelevant.  I find that looking at the fruit of this particular celebration to be a much more useful measure of the degree that Christians should participate.  Especially Orthodox Christians, as this is not our feast day.  When I was an Anglican, we endeavored to keep  All Saints and All Hallows’ Eve as the religious observation they are supposed to be.

So what, in my opinion, is the fruit of Halloween in this country?  Well, we need only look at what movies show on TV, and are promoted at the iTunes Store, and on Netflix.  All rather gruesome horror movies, about demonic possession of children, murder, virgin sacrifices, and the like.  A look at the costumes that are popular among adults as well as some that have been created for just this year are telling.  They range from hyper sexual to downright horrific.  The worst examples of the latter that I’ve seen this year are a group of people dressed as the dead crew of the downed Asiana flight, and one of a woman eating the baby that had been ripped from her womb, for the former, just google Miley Cyrus and Nikki Minaj and Halloween.  Adult Halloween parties have become somewhat notorious for over indulgence.

What I find, however, very interesting is a couple of anecdotes.  One is from last night, when a friend noted that the neighbors houses were scaring the little ones too much, and that is was sad to see.  The other one is from several years ago when our eldest was still in elementary school.  It was the day after the annual haunted house at his school.  A mom was chatting with her friend about her preschooler who had become separated from the family in the haunted house and was found terrified, sitting on the floor in the middle of the haunted house crying.  That was sad enough.  What was equally sad was that the mom was laughing about it.

I will admit that I used to buy into the Samhain myth as well, but I seem to recall that we had developed an opposition to the holiday due to the sorts of things that seem to go with the holiday, and only later did the myth provide some sort of support for our view. However, regardless of the origin of us not participating, we haven’t done Halloween really for almost 20 years, I have found that over the years of not celebrating the day, I seem to be more shocked by what goes on around it, and much less interested in participating.  Maybe it’s just me.

All this is strictly my opinion, of course.  What people do or don’t do with regard to this day is entirely up to them.  Certainly, one can participate in the activities around the day without participating in the more dubious aspects.  We have even come to at least permit the kids to dress up for school.  We also hand out candy to the kids that come by, as that feels like we are at least showing some hospitality.  Some would argue that we shouldn’t even do that, some would argue that I’m being ridiculous for being concerned at all.

I write this simply to provide a counterpoint to John S.  Although I find a lot of his material very good, I disagree with his logic on this one.  He seems to argue that the only reason that Halloween is considered bad is because it is supposedly rooted in Samhain, a pagan holiday.  Samhain doesn’t exist, or at least Halloween has nothing to do with it, so therefore it is okay to participate.  I think there are stronger arguments against participation than the one he consistently brings up year after year.  In fact, it has become a bit of a straw man.  While I have read things by Orthodox bishops using the roots of Halloween as a reason to avoid it, I suspect they were looking for a more concrete reason to avoid participating in a day they already sensed was not very edifying, and latched onto the puritanical hatred of holidays that has apparently fed the Samhain myth (similar to the anti-Christmas sentiment).

Conveniently, we’re Orthodox, and there is not a lot of hard and fast. So, for John and others that participate (presumably with their spiritual father’s blessing), more power to you. However, I will disagree with their saying that it is absolutely okay to participate in Halloween, just as they would disagree with my saying you absolutely should not participate. I think that their is enough going on around the holiday to warrant a conversation with one’s spiritual father.

Special Treatment

In the few years I have been Orthodox, I have seen, mostly through stories told, how God seems to provide special treatment for certain individuals at the time of their repose. I don’t pretend to understand why, but the people involved are always special in some way.

Today I was privileged to witness one of these events. A beloved member of our parish, whose children (in particular her son-in-law) have been dedicated tireless workers in our parish, reposed. She was expected to pass away several months ago and miraculously recovered after receiving the mysteries from one of our priests. She had always been one of the few people to show up for Sunday morning Orthros, and after her recovery, she returned. The Orthros service is a very important service, containing a significant amount of teaching, but it is sorely under-attended. As one of the chanters who too frequently finds himself chanting to a church empty of anyone among the living (of course I know that the angels and saints are present), I really appreciate those few who do show up.

The Orthros service begins with the recitation of the “six psalms”, that is Psalms 3, 37, 62, 87, 102, and 142 in the Orthodox numbering. This morning, our priest, who had been planning on visiting this parishioner (who lives across the parking lot in the apartments owned by the parish) after Liturgy, had to leave suddenly to be with her as her time of passing had apparently arrived. He left to anoint her before her departure. What was particularly appropriate is that these psalms are read every Sunday because they are the psalms that are to be read over us at the last judgement. This parishioner reposed at some point during the divine services, with the whole community in prayer. There is no more appropriate time for one to depart this life, and I thank God that I was able to participate in some small way in the departure of this beloved member of our community to be with our Lord.

The Great and Fearful Judgement Seat

This Sunday past provides for an interesting challenge for priests. It has two different names, seemingly focused on two different and unrelated things. The first is meat fare, or the last day we can eat meat until Pascha. The second is the Sunday of the last Judgement. Clever homilists see the connection between the two, as our new pastor did this last weekend. I’m not going to reiterate that sermon, especially as he utilized visuals that I can’t reproduce so well within this blog. As I sit here, near the beginning of Great Lent, thoughts of the last judgement come to mind. I suspect that is why the Church established the Sunday of the Last Judgement – as we enter into our preparations for the annual commemoration of the Resurrection, we should be considering what will happen when it is our turn.

It is common in our culture to spend the end of the calendar year reflecting on the preceding year. However, in the midst of feasting, and with feasting in front of us for a while, I find it difficult to focus on proper reflection. I think that the beginning of the Lenten Triodion is a much superior time. The tenor of the services for the next six weeks will be very penitential, followed by the bridegroom services of Holy Week, which will force us to consider whether we are ready for the Bridegroom, the Great Judge, to come.

As I look over the past year, I am amazed at the opportunities that presented themselves, and how I managed to pass up on most of them. These opportunities, of course, were both positive and negative. On the positive side, we had a truly phenomenal interim pastor, who offered a great number of services and classes. Although I tried to avail myself of as many of the services as possible, I certainly did not expend enough effort to just be in his presence and hear what he had to say. Even with the services, I do not believe I really made the effort to be prayerful. If anything, over the last year, I have spent less time in prayer than I should have. While it is always the case that one should spend more time in prayer, when challenging times arrive it is even more important to do so.

With the fast upon us, of course, I must also look at my progress in overcoming the passions. After a broken leg at the end of 2010, and with plenty of time off after the layoffs at work, I had a perfect opportunity to focus time and energy on managing my diet, losing weight, and exercising. Unfortunately, I did none of these. As a result, I am on a protracted recovery from stress fractures that are keeping me off of my trike for probably 3 months. What foolishness!

So now the annual great opportunity is upon us (I think that should be my new name for Lent.). I pray that I utilize this time to get focused on the right priorities.

Smells and Bells

A friend was recently discussing a man who had a spiritual experience which resulted in his becoming Orthodox. She said she was still waiting for her children to have such an experience. She has very fine children – all of whom are Orthodox – but in her opinion, they have not all really embraced their Orthodoxy. That may be true, but my point in relating this is that I have similar concerns about my children, and many of us have a similar question about the youth at our parish and throughout the Church.

Typically the response to this concern is to immediately start developing programs that will keep the kids affiliated with the Church. Not necessarily make them deepen their Orthodoxy, but that is a different topic. The quest is to try to make the bells go off for them – to generate the spiritual experience. I do think that their is value in this, especially with children whose parents are functionally not Orthodox ( the ones who drop the children off for Sunday school on their way to Starbucks). However, for those whose parents strive to lead an Orthodox life, I think perhaps we need to be more concerned with smells rather than bells.

Fr. Josiah Trenham in one of his talks on the Divine Liturgy, told the story of an Elder to whom a certain priest wanted to speak. The Elder refused to speak to the priest because “he smelled.”. The smell was not a physical smell, but the stench of some grave sin. At that point nobody knew about the sin, but the Elder clearly perceived it. Ultimately, the priest was defrocked. Of course, there are many other similar stories throughout the history of the Church. Similarly, there are numerous stories about these who are more spiritually developed perceiving holiness, the presence of angels, and the like. Young children, interestingly, seem to have the same ability to perceive reality. It is only over time that this capability seems to wane.

I suspect that it is this ability, or the residual ability in older children, that stands at the heart of the challenge to develop children into strong Christians. If their parents, as well as other adults involved in their formation, do not carry the sweet smell of a righteous life, but rather carry, perhaps not the stench of some grave sin, but even so much as the bad smell of a life lived too enthralled to the passions, or perhaps just a bit too hypocritically.

So, while there is much to be said for developing strong programs for our youth, the first place we need to look is to ourselves. Perhaps the person in need of a spiritual experience is us, not our children.

 

Discerning the Will of God

Recently, especially since the layoffs at work, I’ve been more concerned than usual about discerning God’s will. That in itself is problematic – I should have been more concerned about God’s will long before that, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. What I’m concerned with is how do we know what God’s will is for any given situation? Most people I know who consider themselves Christian, and who take this seriously, are concerned about the same.

Typically, the standard response is pray, and God will reveal his will to you. That is sound advice. Decisions taken without thought to prayer are likely misguided. Orthodox elders will tell you the same. An Abbess at a skete in northern California related the need for prayer in a talk she gave on this subject. However, that really only addresses the asking of God. How is it that I am supposed to hear Him? Mother Dorothea continues and shares the wisdom of various Orthodox saints and elders on that topic.

Before getting to that, though, I think it worth pondering a couple of stories in Scripture that relate to hearing and speaking with God. These stories provide the backdrop, really, to the counsel we hear from the spiritual giants of Christianity. The first is the famous story of Elijah and the “still small voice”. While God is powerful and creates the winds, and causes the earthquakes, etc., He is not in those. Rather, He comes in a still, small, voice. How, then, can we hear God when our lives are filled with noise, and activity, and even more importantly, the maelstrom that is our passions. Blown this way and that by our desires and our will, how can we stand still long enough to even be aware of God? Mother Xenia cites St. Pimen the Great who said that our will is like a wall of brass that stands between us and God. She then quotes, at length, St. Silouan as to the need for great humility to submit our will to God. So, not only can we not hear God, it may be as much that we truly don’t want to. For to do so, requires humility.

The second story is that of Moses bringing the Israelites before God in the wilderness. In order for them to even come near to God (and at that not very near), they must prepare. Moses is required to sanctify them. They must wash their clothes, and abstain from women. They must purify themselves. In the New Testament, we see the Apostles fasting and praying prior to great undertakings, just like the Israelites.

Mother Xenia says the following: “Arguing and judging come from pride, and pride immediately cuts us off from remembrance of and communion with God. St. Silouan said, ‘A cloud blows over and hides the sun, making everything dark. In the same way, one prideful thought causes the soul to lose grace, and she is left in darkness. But, equally, a single impulse of humility—and grace returns. This I have experienced and proved in myself.’” The Church has always taught that the ascetical practices of prayer, and fasting help us to learn humility and to not allow pride and our desires to rule our lives. The purpose, then, of these practices is to allow us to draw nearer to God. It is only then that we can hear that still, small voice.

The Church has also directed us to seek the counsel of a spiritual father, someone who has spent much time growing closer to God. The reason for that is all of what is stated above. These individuals have humbled themselves (one has to go find a spiritual father, they don’t advertise, that’s why St. Theophan was known as the recluse), and by that humility, they allow themselves to hear that still, small voice. Thankfully such people exist, to help keep us from the delusion of our pride.

This is a great wake up call for me.