Metropolitan Jonah’s 2011 Pastoral Letter at the start of Great Lent

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Dearly Beloved in the Lord:

      The beginning of another Lenten season is upon us, and with it comes the opportunity for us to cast aside those things which have distanced us from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Like a wise mother, the Church provides this period of time as a means for us to prepare for receiving the joy of Pascha and Christ’s holy resurrection.

      This same joy and blessing was granted to us at our baptism, when the following prayer was read:

      “Grant that he (she) who is baptized therein may be transformed; that he may put away from himself the old man, which is corrupt through the lusts of the flesh, and that he may, in like manner, be a partaker of Your Resurrection; and having preserved the gift of Your Holy Spirit, and increased the measure of grace committed to him, he may receive the prize of his high calling, and be numbered with the firstborn whose names are written in heaven, in You, our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

       Our baptism in the waters of regeneration enabled us to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. Therefore, it is appropriate for us to use the upcoming season of Great Lent to return to those baptismal waters. For this transformation to take place, we must first have a desire for a change of heart. Do we want to turn aside from the passions of our flesh? Carnal thoughts or deeds, idle chatter, gossip, lying, selfish acts, greed, and gluttony are all things which separate us from Christ. Isn’t it time to stop these destructive habits? Simply put, we know our passions stand in our way of entering into the heavenly kingdom. Now is the time to cast them into oblivion. Instead of tearing each other down, let us build each other up, as the Gospel commands. Instead of slander and accusation, judgment and condemnation, let us encourage and love our neighbors.

      If we truly desire to return to God, then let us do so in a spirit of humility. Let God transform our minds and hearts through true repentance, the fruit of that humility. We live in a society which encourages us to have an opinion or comment worthy of posting or tweeting about everyone and everything, but as Orthodox Christians it is time for us to stop thinking we have all of the answers. Let us turn off the rhetoric and excuses while rejecting our arrogance and pride. Denial of self is not easy. Yet we can echo the example of our Savior, who silently, and with meekness and humility approached the cross. When we take up our cross and follow Him, He will make our burden light.

      When we have reacquired a sense of humility, it is possible to more clearly recognize our sins and repent of them. Admission of our sins through repentance will not only help us as individuals, but also as communities of Orthodox Christian throughout North America. The effects of a broken and contrite heart can have a great impact on every relationship in our lives. True repentance replaces discord with harmony, and frustration with love. Individually and collectively, our lives should and need to reflect the love found in Jesus Christ.

      Great Lent is an excellent time for us to rediscover the importance of loving one’s neighbors. If, as Orthodox Christians we are the Body of Christ, then we have a responsibility to ask forgiveness for our failings, while banishing our grudges and egos. It means sharing the love of Christ with those in need, whether they are in our parishes or on the street. Putting an extra ten dollars in the basket is an excellent start. Or try to actually tithe your income (10%) to the Church during Lent. Taking it one step further to make a connection with someone by providing them with a meal or charity can make Christ present in their lives and so fulfill the law of God.

      The joy and radiant light of Pascha will quickly be here, and it is imperative that we make use of the time available for us during Great Lent to work on our spiritual health. It is time for us to cast off the works of darkness, as the Apostle Paul says in his epistle to the Romans. The services, prayers, fasting, and acts of charity we do during Lent are merely tools to help us return to God. Be careful, my beloved ones, that these tools do not become stumbling blocks for us, or that we use them to cause others to sin.

      I believe it is possible for each of us to turn from our sins and draw closer to our God the Father by redirecting our lives through Christ. What a joy it will be if each of us begins taking those first steps in love on the narrow path leading back to God. Our collective journey through Great Lent will bring us closer together as a community of love, and as the baptismal prayer says, may we become partakers of the Resurrection. Let us keep a sober mind to properly prepare for that moment on Pascha when we boldly and confidently may proclaim: Christ is Risen!

      In the many ways while serving as your archpastor, if I have failed or wronged you, I humbly ask for your forgiveness. May the Lord forgive us all!

      With my prayers for a holy season of Great Lent,

       With love in Christ,

      +Jonah

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Thoughts on the grace of God in our lives and the transforming power of His love

How this suffering world would be transformed if we could more freely acknowledge to each other the real presence of God in our lives! Think of how society would be transformed if more of us could understand and connect with each other on this deep spiritual level! These moments, which so deeply transform and illumine us, are little theophanies, moments of revelation of divine love and whisperings of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

These manifestations of our Savior’s love for us touch the very soul and warm the heart of the man or woman open to receiving them. It is these moments which serve to convert and orient one’s soul towards her Creator, which can and should inspire us to seek after God with all our being.

How transformational and glorious these manifestations of divine love and grace are in the lives of those who discern them! If men and women felt free to acknowledge to their fellows this abundant grace of God and manifestations of His love in their lives, the whole world would realize how much more united in His love it actually is. They would see how, in the words of St. John of Damascus (675-749), “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. The Lord who has created all existence, who has painted this icon of His children whom He has fashioned in His image, works with human soul in tapestries of grace and love, His Spirit like a fire warming the noetic hearts of the faithful.

If only more people in the Church felt that they could share their experiences of divine grace, which can come upon any person at any time when they have opened themselves to receiving it! This grace, always a miracle when it visits a person by the power of the Holy Spirit, is bestowed on the heart and soul of someone who seeks after God daily and at all times, who discerns Him as that which is “everywhere present and fillest all things”. Those who have discerned this grace know what it is to live and believe the words of Blessed Augustine (354-430) even if he or she has never heard them: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance.”

Such a person who truly loves Him and discerns His presence in their life constantly remembers the Lord’s chief command, both to those of the Old and New Covenant, to the blood of the House of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to the new Israel of the New Dispensation, that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our might (Matthew 22:37-40). The person who remembers the Lord’s commandments, truly endeavoring to love God with all their being, is on the path to that mystical union with His divine energies and love which shines in the faces of the saints. Such a person is immersed in the lifelong process of theosis: the miraculous and mysterious awakening and transformation of the noetic inner heart and soul of man in union with God’s loving grace through which he or she is divinized.

“God became man so that man might become God”, wrote St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (296-373) in his treatise On the Incarnation. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), who died almost a century before St. Athanasius’ birth, wrote similarly, “In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” This teaching is a universal witness of the early Church, present in all the writings of the earliest Fathers who knew the apostles of Christ or who were trained by their disciples and their disciples’ disciples, and so on.

How can man become God when he is so clearly imperfect? St John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”), St Isaac the Syrian, St Silouan the Athonite, Elder Cleopa (Illie) and so many other holy men and women write of the process of salvation and divinization- for man can only be divinized to the degree that he allows himself to be completely opened to the saving and transformative loving grace of God- as a ladder of gradual, lifelong spiritual ascent. Elder Cleopa (+1998) offers beautifully clear instruction on the ladder of ascent in prayer and spiritual introspection and communion with God here.

The ladders of spiritual growth and increasing discernment through prayer, fasting, repentance and love for God are mutually interconnected to the point of pursuing the same end, reaching for the same transformation in and through and by Christ. First comes the recognition and aversion to sin as anything which separates us from God’s grace and love of the other. Then comes the ceasing of sin and the promptings of repentance, turning away from sinful mindsets and actions, and turning anew to the love of God, With this increasing discernment comes the ability to pray with the lips and the mouth and gradually, the mind; that is, to remember how to pray and what one wants to pray, and to increasingly understand the significance and meaning of what one prayers. Still, this is not the highest level of prayer, which the saints call “prayer of the heart”, the deepest level of communion with God when one’s mental comprehension of what one prays, one’s psyche, descends into the nous, the spiritual eye or the inner heart of one’s soul. Without a lifelong cultivation of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17) and repentance, we may mount the ladder rungs again and again, but never truly begin to ascend in prayer.

We cannot become God by our very essence, which is created, no more than a child can ever become identical in essence to its parent, but we are gradually transformed as our noetic heart and soul open more to the energy and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Man can thus mysteriously and miraculously  become united to His Creator by the most intimate adoption of sonship. Insofar as man, a created being endowed by God with an immortal spirit, can be united to Him through immersion and participation in His illuminative grace and love, he can be transformed and made divine.

Realizing our life in Christ

We are called to love every person as a child of God made in His very image

If anyone professes that man is created in the very image of God, for men are all “children of the Most High” (Psalm 81:6 LXX), then it follows logically that the essential purpose of man’s life here, his very being, is to unceasingly worship His Creator through all his actions, by his words, and in his very demeanor, countenance and spirit.

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If anyone truly and sincerely claims this divine inheritance, through which we are called to “be perfect even as [our] Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), summoned to be “imitators of God as beloved children” (Ephesians 5:1), and exhorted to become “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), then he or she would naturally seek to conform the entirety of their life, the whole of their inner heart and the depths of their noetic mind, to glorify and praise God in all ways and at every moment.

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Even the etymology of the word by which we have been known to the world since the first days after Christ ascended to heaven, ‘Christians’, from the Greek Χριστιανών, means ‘little anointed ones’. How then can a Christian, a little Christ, thus truly be a disciple of the Lord, much less aspire to mystical union with Him through participation in the divine energies, if he or she does not live, show and even breathe Christ in all they do, from the depths of their being? How can we be Christians, how can our lives be a “Christ-like fragrance rising up to God” (2 Corinthians 2:15 NLT) if we do not truly love all those around us?

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The simple answer is the logical one. If the very essence of the Christian life is to worship and glorify the boundless and ineffable grace, mercy and majesty of God, if the core calling for all humanity is to worship Christ the Savior by loving and honoring His image present in each of His children – even the lowliest or ugliest or rudest person – then any person who does not understand this simplest of the Lord’s commandments (John 13:34, Matthew 22:37-40, Deuteronomy 6:5) cannot, in truth, be numbered among His anointed ones (Matthew 25:34-46).

Our highest calling as Christians is to do as St Paul wrote to the Ephesians in Asia Minor, walking “in love, as Christ also has loved us, and has given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling fragrance.” (Ephesians 5:1-2, KJV). Among all those who lovingly honor Christ’s commandments, we know that the Lord “abideth in him, and he in Him. And in this we know that He abideth in us, by the Spirit which He hath given us.” (1 John 3:24, Douay-Rheims version).

Certainly, the idea of conforming one’s actions, one’s approach to living and thinking, and even the eye of one’s noetic heart to live chiefly to glorify God runs completely contrary to what “the world” values today, especially in its prevailing secular outlooks of modernism and relativism, which challenge and question the very concept and existence of objective Truth.

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This is why the true heart of the Christian Gospel appears as foolishness to those who live and think and have their being in and of the world, outside of a yearning for God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Indeed, St. John the Theologian, beloved apostle of the Lord, reminds us that our love, if truly selfless, is something the world not only often fails to understand, but indeed, because it is selfless, is something the world often despises:

“Wonder not, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death.” (1 John 3:13-14, Douay-Rheims version).

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Yet if we truly hold to the faith we have received (Jude 1:3, 1 Corinthians 15:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Corinthians 11:2), living out the essential message of the Holy Scriptures and the universal witness of the ancient and holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church, if we rest assured in the vast reservoir of wisdom handed down through centuries of martyrs, confessors, evangelists, teachers and pastors of the revealed Truth, how natural and joyous it is to be a Christian, to take upon ourselves the mantle of Christ crucified for love of the world, even a love it does not want or understand!

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20, KJV)

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What a fathomless blessing it is to participate in the divine energies, the very manifestations and grace of God active in the world, indeed, in all who are open to it, through the invisible power and action of the Holy Spirit. It is by our participation in the energies of God that we are motivated, strengthened, and beckoned forth to show the world that we are truly little Christs by our selfless and genuine love for all His children. This love, fired by faith, is the spring, the catalyst in our souls, for our transformation in Christ, our divinization:

“A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.” (John 13:34-35, Douay-Rheims version).

For just as we remember St. Paul’s admonition that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26), so too do we recall that works done without a loving spirit of real devotion to the other lack the spirit and grace of God. For any works lacking in love is are not true examples of loving kindness by which we truly desire to serve, selflessly, as little Christs unto our brothers and sisters:

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20, King James Version).

Mother Teresa with baby