Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Great Wager between Believers and Unbelievers

By Photios Kontoglou, from his book Mystical Flowers, Athens, 1977

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On Pascha Monday night, after midnight and before going to sleep, I went out into the little garden behind my house. The sky was dark and covered with stars. It was as if I was seeing it for the first time. A distant psalmody appeared to be descending from it. My lips murmured, very softly: “Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship the footstool of His feet.” A holy man once told me that during these hours the heavens are opened. The air exhaled a fragrance of the flowers and herbs I had planted. “Heaven and earth are filled with the glory of the Lord,” I said.
I could have easily remained there alone until daybreak. I felt as if without a body and without any bond to the earth. Fearing, however, that my absence would disturb those within the house, I returned and lay down.
Sleep had not completely overtaken and I truly do not know whether I was awake or asleep, when suddenly a strange man rose up before me. He was as pale as a dead man. His eyes were wide open and he looked at me in terror. His face was like a mask, like a mummy’s. His glistening, dark yellow skin was stretched tight over his head, displaying the cavities of a dead person’s head. He did not look real – as if he was part of a painting. In one of his hands, he held some kind of a bizarre object which I could not make out; the other hand was clutching his breast as if he were suffering.
This creature filled me with great terror. I looked at him and he looked at me without speaking, as if he were waiting for me to recognize him, strange as he was. And a voice said to me: “It is so-and-so!” And I recognized him immediately. Then he opened his mouth and sighed. His voice came from far away; it came up as if from a deep well.
He was in great agony, and I felt pity for him. His hands, his feet, his eyes -- everything showed that he was suffering. In my despair, I was thinking of helping him, but he gave me a sign with his hand to stop. He began to groan in such a way that I froze. Then he said to me: “I have not come; I have been sent. I shake without stop; I am dizzy. Pray God to have pity on me. I want to die but I cannot. Alas! Everything you told me before is true. Do you remember how, several days before my death, you came to see me and spoke about religion? There were two other friends with me, unbelievers like myself. You spoke, and they mocked. When you left, they said: ‘What a pity! He is intelligent and he believes the stupid things old women believe!’”
“Another time, and other times too, I told you: ‘Dear Photios, save up money, or else you will die a pauper. Look at my riches, and I want more of them.’ You told me then: ‘Have you signed a pact with death, that you can live as many years as you want and enjoy a happy old age?’”
“And I replied: ‘You will see to what an age I will live. Now I am 75; 1 will live past a hundred. My children are free from any needs or wants. My son earns a lot of money, and I have married my daughter to a rich Ethiopian. My wife and I have more money than we need. I am not like you who listen to what the priests say: “A Christian ending to our life ...” and the rest. What have you to gain from a Christian ending? Better a full pocket and no worries ... Give alms? Why did your so merciful God create paupers? Why should I feed them? And they ask you, in order to go to Paradise, to feed idlers! Do you want to talk about Paradise? You know that I am the son of a priest and that I know well all these tricks. That those who have no brains believe them is well enough, but you who have a mind have gone astray. If you continue to live as you are doing, you will die before me, and you will be responsible for those you have led astray. As a physician I tell you and affirm that I will live a hundred and ten years ...’”
After saying all this, he turned this way and that as if he were on a grill. I heard his groans: “Ah! Ouch! Oh! Oh!” He was silent for a moment, and then continued: “This is what I said, and in a few days I was dead! I was dead, and I lost the wager! I was the confused one and now the horror was upon me! Lost, I descended into the abyss. What suffering I have had up to now, what agony! Everything you told me was true. You, dear Photios, have won the wager!”
“When I was in the world where you are now, I was an intellectual, I was a physician. I had learned how to speak and to be listened to, to mock religion, to discuss whatever falls under the senses. And now I see that everything I called stories, myths, paper lanterns, well, I now know that it is all true. The agony which I am experiencing now, and this is the truth I live in, it is like a worm that never sleeps; this is the gnashing of teeth.”
After having spoken thus, he disappeared. I still heard his groans, which gradually faded away. Sleep had begun to take over me, when I felt an icy hand touch me. I opened my eyes and saw him again before me. This time he was even more horrible and smaller in body. He had become like a nursing infant, with a large old man’s head which he was shaking.
“In a short time the day will break, and those who have sent me will come to seek me!”
“Who are they?” I asked.
He spoke some confused words which I could not make out. Then he added: “Over there, where I am, there are also many who mocked you and your faith. Now they all understand that their spiritual darts have not gone beyond the cemetery. There are both those who have done good to you, as well as all those who have slandered you. The more you forgive them, the more they detest you. Man is evil. Instead of feeling rejoice, kindness makes him bitter because it makes him feel his defeat. The state of these latter people is worse than mine. They cannot leave their dark prison to come and find you as I have done. They are severely tormented, lashed by the whip of God’s love, as one of the Saints has said [St. Isaac the Syrian]. The world is something else entirely from what we see! Our intellect shows it to us in reverse. Now we understand that our intellect was only stupid, our conversations were spiteful meanness, our joys were lies and illusions.”
“You, who bear God in your hearts, Whose word is Truth, the only Truth, you have all won the great wager between believers and unbelievers. This wager I have lost. I tremble, I sigh, and I find no rest. In truth, there is no repentance in hell. Woe to those who walk as I did when I was on earth. Our flesh was drunk, and we mocked those who believed in God and eternal life; almost everyone applauded us. They treated you as mad, as imbeciles. And the more you accept our mockeries, the more our rage increases.”
“Now I see how much the conduct of evil men grieved you. How could you bear with such patience the poisoned darts which came from our lips and which called you all hypocrites, mockers of God, and deceivers of the people. If these evil men who are still on earth would see where I am, if only they were in my place, they would tremble for everything they are doing. I would like to appear to them and tell them to change their path, but I do not have the permission to do so, just as the rich man did not have it when he begged Abraham to send Lazarus the pauper. Lazarus was not sent, so that those who sinned may be punished and those who went on the ways of God might be worthy of salvation.”
“He that is unrighteous, let him do unrighteousness yet more; and he that is filthy, let him he made filthy yet more. And he that is righteous, let him do righteousness yet more; and he that is holy, let him be made holy yet more” (Rev. 22:11).”
With these words he disappeared.

St. John Chrysostom-“On Fasting”

Fasting is a medicine. But medicine, as beneficial as it is, becomes useless because of the inexperience of the user. He has to know the appropriate time that the medicine should be taken and the right amount of medicine and the condition of the body which is to take it, the weather conditions and the season of the year and the appropriate diet of the sick and many other things. If any of these things are overlooked, the medicine will do more harm than good. So, if one who is going to heal the body needs so much accuracy, when we care for the soul and are concerned about healing it from bad thoughts, it is necessary to examine and observe everything with every possible detail.
Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins. Therefore, whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast. Are you fasting? Show me your fast with your works. Which works? If you see someone who is poor, show him mercy. If you see an enemy, reconcile with him. If you see a friend who is becoming successful, do not be jealous of him! If you see a beautiful woman on the street, pass her by.
In other words, not only should the mouth fast, but the eyes and the legs and the arms and all the other parts of the body should fast as well. Let the hands fast, remaining clean from stealing and greediness. Let the legs fast, avoiding roads which lead to sinful sights. Let the eyes fast by not fixing themselves on beautiful faces and by not observing the beauty of others. You are not eating meat, are you? You should not eat debauchery with your eyes as well. Let your hearing also fast. The fast of hearing is not to accept bad talk against others and sly defamations.
Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: “If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves.”
You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrusted bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading disfame, causing unestimatable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.
If you cannot go without eating all day because of an ailment of the body, beloved one, no logical man will be able to criticize you for that. Besides, we have a Lord who is meek and loving (philanthropic) and who does not ask for anything beyond our power. Because he neither requires the abstinence from foods, neither that the fast take place for the simple sake of fasting, neither is its aim that we remain with empty stomachs, but that we fast to offer our entire selves to the dedication of spiritual things, having distanced ourselves from secular things. If we regulated our life with a sober mind and directed all of our interest toward spiritual things, and if we ate as much as we needed to satisfy our necessary needs and offered our entire lives to good works, we would not have any need of the help rendered by the fast. But because human nature is indifferent and gives itself over mostly to comforts and gratifications, for this reason the philanthropic Lord, like a loving and caring father, devised the therapy of the fast for us, so that our gratifications would be completely stopped and that our worldly cares be transferred to spiritual works. So, if there are some who have gathered here and who are hindered by somatic ailments and cannot remain without food, I advise them to nullify the somatic ailment and not to deprive themselves from this spiritual teaching, but to care for it even more.
For there exist, there really exist, ways which are even more important than abstinence from food which can open the gates which lead to God with boldness. He, therefore, who eats and cannot fast, let him display richer almsgiving, let him pray more, let him have a more intense desire to hear divine words. In this, our somatic illness is not a hindrance. Let him become reconciled with his enemies, let him distance from his soul every resentment. If he wants to accomplish these things, then he has done the true fast, which is what the Lord asks of us more than anything else. It is for this reason that he asks us to abstain from food, in order to place the flesh in subjection to the fulfillment of his commandments, whereby curbing its impetuousness. But if we are not about to offer to ourselves the help rendered by the fast because of bodily illness and at the same time display greater indifference, we will see ourselves in an unusual exaggerated way. For if the fast does not help us when all the aforementioned accomplishments are missing so much is the case when we display greater indifference because we cannot even use the medicine of fasting. Since you have learned these things from us, I pardon you, those who can, fast and you yourselves increase your acuteness and praiseworthy desire as much as possible.
To the brothers, though, who cannot fast because of bodily illness, encourage them not to abandon this spiritual word, teaching them and passing on to them all the things we say here, showing them that he who eats and drinks with moderation is not unworthy to hear these things but he who is indifferent and slack. You should tell them the bold and daring saying that “he who eats for the glory of the Lord eats and he who does not eat for the glory of the Lord does not eat and pleases God.” For he who fasts pleases God because he has the strength to endure the fatigue of the fast and he that eats also pleases God because nothing of this sort can harm the salvation of his soul, as long as he does not want it to. Because our philanthropic God showed us so many ways by which we can, if we desire, take part in God’s power that it is impossible to mention them all.
We have said enough about those who are missing, being that we want to eliminate them from the excuse of shame. For they should not be ashamed because food does not bring on shame but the act of some wrongdoing. Sin is a great shame. If we commit it not only should we feel ashamed but we should cover ourselves exactly the same way those who are wounded do. Even then we should not forsake ourselves but rush to confession and thanksgiving. We have such a Lord who asks nothing of us but to confess our sins, after the commitment of a sin which was due to our indifference, and to stop at that point and not to fall into the same one again. If we eat with moderation we should never be ashamed, because the Creator gave us such a body which cannot be supported in any other way except by receiving food. Let us only stop excessive food because that attributes a great deal to the health and well-being of the body.
Let us therefore in every way cast off every destructive madness so that we may gain the goods which have been promised to us in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 By St. John Chrysostom, extracted from his homilies “On Fasting”

How the Jesus Prayer DIffers from the Hindu Mantra

One of the greatest spiritual gifts that Elder Paisios gave me was his guidance along the mystical path of the Jesus Prayer. This started at the beginning of our acquaintance and continued until his repose twelve years later. The Jesus Prayer consists of the repetition of the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."' The Jesus Prayer is not recited as a Mantra, but as a prayer to the Person of Christ.

Prayer, as I learned, is a relationship between two persons, God and man, who move towards each other. Thus, the swiftness or slowness with which a person advances in prayer depends on both the human and divine wills. Neither the freedom of God in His sovereignty nor the freedom of man in his free choice are ever violated. For his part, man offers his good intention, his labors, and his desire to draw near to God. God, in turn, offers His grace...

When yogis claim that the Jesus Prayer resembles their own mantras, they are in fact trying to fit the Jesus Prayer into their own Procrustean bed. Of course, there are similarities, but there are also enormous differences-both a table and a horse have four legs, but to conclude that they are consequently the same would be an error of the crudest sort. But this is just the kind of error the yogis make when they claim that the Jesus Prayer is a kind of mantra. A brief examination of the essential differences between the Jesus Prayer and a mantra should provide those with an open mind the wherewithal to draw the proper conclusions.

First, consider how the Orthodox tradition understands the meaning of the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." The word "Lord" is the name for God most frequently encountered in the Old Testament in the oft-repeated formula "Thus saith the Lord ..." or in the commandments: I am the Lord thy God. When Orthodox Christians call Jesus Christ, "Lord," they are confessing that He is the God of the Old Testament Who spoke to the patriarchs-Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Word is the Person who gave the law to Moses. In other words, the One who spoke to the prophets was none other than the second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who later took flesh and was united with human nature in the Person of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, when we say "Lord Jesus Christ"-with faith, with all our heart's strength-we come under the influence of the Holy Spirit, as Saint Paul says: No man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).

Having recognized the existence of the true personal God outside and beyond his own self, from this God a Christian asks "mercy." The elder once told me, "Mercy contains all things. Love, forgiveness, healing, restoration, and repentance all fit within the word 'mercy."' It is the mercy of God that brings about repentance, purification from the passions, the illumination of the nous, and, in the end, theosis. From my journey I have learned that salvation comes from the mercy of Christ, the unique Savior of mankind, rather than from my intelligence, my prideful endeavors, or the techniques of yoga. Salvation and theosis are so very precious that it is impossible for anyone to make any effort or do any ascetic labor that would be equivalent to even the smallest fraction of their value.

Indeed, from my conversations with other fathers who were laborers in the Jesus Prayer and from my own experience, I know full well that prayer is a gift from God. Nothing is accomplished by human labor alone, for Christ said, Without Me ye can do nothing (John 15:5), and as the Apostle James bears witness, Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights (James 1:17) Even as God granted us existence, in the same way He gradually grants us to know Him and be united with Him through prayer, leading us ultimately to life eternal.
 Now, consider how the yogis view a mantra. First of all, there are many mantras, and each refers to one of the many gods of the Hindu pantheon such as Krishna, Rama, Vishnu, or the goddess Kali. There is not one standard explanation given by yogis for the mantras; rather, their explanations are tailored to the receptivity of each listener. For beginners who are not disposed to worship idols, yogis give a pseudo-scientific, mechanistic explanation: they claim that the benefit accrued by repeating the mantra is due to certain frequencies produced by its pronunciation, which cause spiritual vibrations that activate spiritual centers within man. (However, the existence of such centers in man can only be taken on faith-if someone willingly chooses to believe such a claim.) For those who are inclined towards psychological interpretations, the yogis present the repetition of a mantra as a type of auto-suggestion that enables the practitioner to program his inner world according to positive models. When addressing those who have become more involved with Hinduism and now believe in many gods, the yogis claim that the worshipper receives the blessing of whatever god is being invoked.

What constitutes the infinite distance separating the Christian Jesus Prayer from the Hindu mantra, however, is that which lurks behind the name of the god being invoked in a mantra and invited into the soul. Through the mouth of the Holy Prophet David, God declares, All the gods of the nations are demons (1 Psalm 95:5)––In other words, behind the names Krishna, Rama, or Shiva are demons lying In wait. Once they are invoked by the use of the mantra, the door is open for the devil to begin his theatrical productions, using sounds, images, dreams, and the imagination in general in order to drag the practitioner deeper into deception.

Another significant difference between the Christian Jesus Prayer and the Hindu mantra is the diametrically opposed viewpoints of the two faiths regarding techniques and the human subject. I recall a conversation I had with Niranjan after he had given me permission to begin to practice some supposedly powerful yoga techniques. I said to him, "It's fine practicing the techniques, but what happens to the human passions of greed, lust for power, vainglory, and selfishness? Aren't we concerned about them?" "They disappear," he replied, "through the practice of the techniques." "Do they just disappear like that, on their own?" I asked. "Yes, they disappear automatically, while you are practicing the techniques."

What an astonishing assertion: physical exercises can wipe out the inclinations that a person's soul acquired in life through conscious choices. But, in reality, man, as a self-determining and free moral agent, can change the conscious aspect of his personality and his moral sense only by the use of his own free will to make conscious decisions in real-life situations. Any external means to automatically induce such a change in a person's consciousness without his consent circumvent man's free will, obliterate his volition, and destroy his freedom, reducing man to a spineless puppet manipulated by a marionettist's strings. Hinduism's relentless insistence on properly performed techniques with automatic results degrades man by depriving him of his most precious quality: the self-governing free will. It restricts the boundless human spirit within a framework of mechanical methods and reflexes.

Orthodox Christian Faith, on the contrary, recognizes and honors the gift of human freedom as a divine trait. This recognition and approach help man to be actualized as a free being. Precisely on account of the human freedom to choose, man's often- unpredictable responses can't be limited to the mechanical reflexes of a closed system, but can innovatively turn in any spiritual direction that he, as a free subject, wills. This is why Orthodoxy is not adamant about techniques and methods. In freedom and with respect, Orthodoxy seeks the human heart, encouraging the individual to do what is good for the sake of the good, and pointing out the appropriate moral stance of the soul before God, which an individual can then freely choose to embrace.

Genuine spiritual development entails a deepening familiarity with God and with one's own self, acquired through moral choices that a person freely makes in the depths of his heart. Spiritual progress is a product of man's way of relating to himself, to his fellow man, and to God by the good use of his innate moral freedom. This is why Christ calls out, If any man wills to come after Me, let him freely deny himself (Matt 16:24)––that is, without being deceived, without being psychologically compelled, and without being forced, all of which are inappropriate to the spiritual nobility of Christian life.

Father Porphyrios had a small parrot that he taught to pray in order to illustrate the absurdity of some Christians' empty repetition of the words of prayer, as well as the ridiculousness of the opinion commonly presented in Eastern religions that someone can make moral advances by physical exercises or breathing techniques. Every so often, the parrot would mechanically say, "Lord, have mercy." The elder would respond, “Look, the parrot can say the prayer, but does that mean that it is praying? Can prayer exist without the conscious and free participation of the person who prays?"

The Gurus, Young Man, and Elder Paisios by Dionysios Farasiotis, St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2008, pp 276-285

How to Recognize Vainglory- Elder Paisios

Often in our spiritual practice we find ourselves struggling. We try and try but the effort seems so hard. What is the problem? Why do we often feel anxious that our efforts do not yield the results we seek? Why does God seem distant and unreachable even when we try so hard?

Elder Paisios gives us some insight into this common problem.

He says,
We need to be careful in our spiritual life. When spiritual people are affected by vainglory, they feel very little satisfaction, and they are left with a sense of emptiness in their heart. There is no fulfillment, no rejoicing of the heart, and as their vanity increases, the emptiness inside makes them suffer even more. Where there is anxiety and despair, there is a demonic spiritual life. You should not feel anxiety over anything at all. Anxiety comes from the devil. Wherever you see anxiety, you must know that the devil has been at work. The devil will not go against the current. If there is a predisposition, he will push in that direction in order to cause us trouble and deceive us.
When in the course of our spiritual struggle we feel anxiety we must know that we are not moving within the realm of God...
In other words, one should not strive with an unhealthy fastidiousness... Christ is full of love, kindness and consolation and He never stifles, but gives abundant oxygen and divine consolation.
So what do we do to avoid this condition. We must be kind to ourselves and accept that we are prone to make mistakes, to be tired. We need to have humility and set aside our self-proclaimed righteousness depending on our own efforts.

Elder Paisios advises us to live the spiritual life not in our minds, but in our hearts. He says,
Never do a job without putting your trust in God with great humility, because otherwise you will agonize and you will tire your mind and soul. It is a lack of faith that hides behind anxiety, but pride can cause anxiety also.
If you cannot complete your required prayer rule, don't force yourself through your own efforts. Relax and turn to God. If it is because you are too tired to complete it, ask God's forgiveness and get some sleep. Then the next day arrange your schedule so that you will not be in this same condition again. Entrust everything to God and God will guide you.

The Elder tells us to keep the mind always close to God. This applies to all situations where you are having difficulty in completing your task. Trust in God and seek His help.

When we try through our own efforts and feel anxiety, this is the sign of vainglory.


Γέροντας Νίκων είναι από τους γέροντες που λέει τα πράγματα ως έχουν. Τον παρακολουθούσαμε αρκετό καιρό και μας άρεσε ο λόγος του διότι εκτός από απλός, ήταν και φοβερά ευθείς. Έτσι λοιπόν αποφασίσαμε να πραγματοποιήσουμε τούτη την συνέντευξη. Με απλότητα, αλλά και με το αστείρευτο χιούμορ του μας υποδέχτηκε και μας έκανε να νιώσουμε πολύ άνετα εξαρχής. Του θέσαμε πολλά ερωτήματα.... Από το πως γίνεται κάποιος μοναχός μέχρι και για τον Γέροντα "Παστίτσιο". Αυτό που θα διαπιστώσετε παρακολουθώντας την συνέντευξη, είναι ότι ο Γέροντας δίνει πολύ έμφαση στο ποιος είναι ο πραγματικός εχθρός στην κρίση που βιώνουμε. Την απάντηση δεν θα σας την πούμε -- θα είναι άδικο κιόλας- αλλά θα σας αφήσουμε να την βρείτε εσείς. Θέλαμε να καλύψει και το κοινό των αναγνωστών μας που είναι άθεοι ή που έχουν άλλα πιστεύω και έτσι θέσαμε ερωτήματα όπως: Γιατί ο θεός δεν βοηθάει τους άπιστους; Είναι απαραίτητη προϋπόθεση να πιστεύεις για να σε βοηθήσει; Αν είναι ενάρετος άνθρωπος με καλή προαίρεση δεν γίνεται να έχεις την εύνοια του θεού;
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