June 4, 2012

Running to Christ with Great Martyr George

When I was a kid, I never really liked being teased about my seemingly long Greek name.  As I grew older, I realized that I bear in my first and middle names, the remembrance of two great martyr gentlemen saints, Demetrios and George.  My first thought was, how do I dare live up to such greatness?  But then realizing that the tradition of Orthodox Christians to bear the names of the saints is in place for an essential purpose.  Our patron saints whose names we bear help us in our struggles to overcome our weaknesses, to be our role models who experienced a conscious and living faith in Christ, and who knew and loved Him so much that they suffered and died for Him.  In a previous post, I have spoken about my patron saint, Demetrios, but here, I’d like to focus a bit more on my other patron, George. So what does Saint George have to do with my original intention to reflect upon my running endeavors and life in general?  Here is a clue from the Life of Saint George found from this link:

They shod the saint in iron sandals with red-hot nails, [“Run, George, towards the object of our desire!” said the Saint, invoking the Lord’s help. And once again he presented himself, whole and radiant with grace, before the tyrant.] and then drove him back to the prison with whips. In the morning, when they led him back to the interrogation, cheerful and with healed feet, the emperor asked if he liked his shoes. The saint said that the sandals had been just his size. Then they beat him with ox thongs until pieces of his flesh came off and his blood soaked the ground, but the brave sufferer, strengthened by the power of God, remained unyielding. 

Oh snap! He's witty and sassy too!  This is one example among many various tortures that he endured, all for the sake of his love for Christ.  During both my marathon races in April of 2011 and March of 2012, I vividly remember praying to Saint George around the 20 mile mark—when my feet were in great pain, begging me to stop running.  It was freezing on race day in Charlottesville on April 9, 2011 and it was unseasonably hot and miserable on my second race day in Washington DC on March 17, 2012.  Saint George was my inspiration during the 26.2 mile runs because of his perseverance, patience, bravery, joy, and endurance through his tortures led him to his healing and ultimate perfection and union with Christ.  The other great motivation during these races was the constant thoughts and prayers for the orphans and people around the world who are suffering and dying, for whom I was running.  I thought to myself, this is really hard, I'm in pain, am I going to actually make it?  Then I said to myself, just keep running and finish this thing--those orphans suffer daily and do not know when it will end!  At least I knew that it was going to end once I cross the finish line, pour water on my head, eat lots of food, and sleep very well that night in my bed.  I kept running and praying, because I HAD to finish (with plenty of smiles), I made a promise and held myself accountable to the ones in need, to my friends, coaches, family, and especially to God.

For each race, I was dedicated to raising funds for important charities, the International Orthodox Christian Charities in 2011 and in 2012, for the orphanages in Ukraine that are homes to the children who suffer daily with their developmental, psychological, and spiritual struggles caused by the Chornobyl nuclear disaster that happened 26 years ago.  I want to officially express my immense gratitude to all the good and generous people who donated money to these funds in support of both my marathons in the last year in the name of helping those in great need.  As the Lord wills, any future long distance races that I undertake will have an underlying purpose of helping others--for me, it was not simply a way to set a new PR (personal record) and to feel good about being a marathon runner, but it was a way to engage in the practice of true love that has a sacrificial nature. 

And, speaking of LOVE, let us make a transition....
Yes, I'm coming out of left field somewhat, but please, indulge me, and see the connection of running, St. George and love... This awesome song from my running mix repeats (and repeats) the question of our age, "What is Love?"  Now, you are probably saying, 'really, DP, are you going to talk about this topic AGAIN?'  Yes, my friends, I am addressing this again, and I will address it again and again, unto  ages of ages.  Why?  Because at the end of the day, the purpose of this life is our union with God, our salvation--a goal that cannot be achieved without the continual presence of a living, dynamic, and sacrificial love immersed in our daily life.  I talk about the Saints constantly, not be annoying or church-lady-ish, but because they totally exemplify this kind of life that, in reality, we all desire to have--a life that will lead us to union with Christ.  This passed year in my parish's Church School, the youth learned about the life of a saint each week, and they really found these biographies fascinating and exciting.  Our goal as teachers was to help them also see a bit deeper into the lives of these people to determine how their lives, their works for the love of Christ have anything to do with us now in the present day.  Here is an excerpt of a peculiar miracle performed by Saint George, that usually is depicted in iconography of the saint:

In the saint's native city of Beirut were many idol-worshippers. Outside the city, near Mount Lebanon, was a large lake, inhabited by an enormous dragon-like serpent. Coming out of the lake, it devoured people, and there was nothing anyone could do, since the breath from its nostrils poisoned the very air. On the advice of the demons inhabiting the idols, the local ruler came to a decision. Each day the people would draw lots to feed their own children to the serpent, and he promised to sacrifice his only daughter when his turn came. That time did come, and the ruler dressed her in her finest attire, then sent her off to the lake. The girl wept bitterly, awaiting her death. Unexpectedly for her, St George rode up on his horse with spear in hand. The girl implored him not to leave her, lest she perish. The saint signed himself with the Sign of the Cross. He rushed at the serpent saying, "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." St George pierced the throat of the serpent with his spear and trampled it with his horse. Then he told the girl to bind the serpent with her sash, and lead it into the city like a dog on a leash. The people fled in terror, but the saint halted them with the words: "Don't be afraid, but trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and believe in Him, since it is He Who sent me to save you." Then the saint killed the serpent with a sword, and the people burned it outside the city. Twenty-five thousand men, not counting women and children, were then baptized. Later, a church was built and dedicated to the Most Holy Theotokos and the Great Martyr George.

Now, I know several scholarly types will jump at the chance now to debate about the reality of this story and likely conclude that it is simply a 'legend' or 'myth'.  Casting that aside, let us figure out what the meaning of this story is for us--why does the Church maintain this and countless other strange miracles in the Synaxarion?  To cause us to get into scholarly, hand-waving debates that end up in confusion and doubt?  Obviously not.  There is a deeper meaning to the "dragon".  See this amazing blog post by Deacon Michael Hyatt--who speaks about slaying one's dragons before breakfast--specifically, the dragon of Lethargy, who is large and has three heads.  He talks about physical (running!), spiritual (praying), and noetic/intellectual (reading) strategies to slay this dragon, as well as other, multi-headed dragons that plague all of us--such as fear, laziness, despondency, lust, anger, gluttony, and so on.  These are the dragons that Saint George and Saint Demetrios, among the multitudes of saints, defeated with the power of Christ--the One Whom they invited into their entire being, and Whom they truly loved.  Again, how can this relate to us?  In the account with the dragon above, Saint George saved a young maiden who was to be sacrificed by the command of her own pagan father--she asked him not to leave her alone because she would die.  And so, Saint George made the sign of the Cross upon himself and killed the dragon.  He did this for the salvation of the maiden and in the end, for the salvation of the more than 25,000 people who were baptized as a result of this.  To answer Haddaway's song--THIS is LOVE.  

Because I work with young people and hope to reach them with this blog, let us talk about relationships. For all of us, relationships with our fellow human beings and with God are the means to our salvation.  As a disclaimer here, I am hoping to simply share my few experiences and the golden advice I was given from some holy people in an effort to benefit us all for the good of our souls.  By no means am I an expert in this area of life, I don't have any real credentials, just a lot of love for you. I truly hope that these words could shelter and protect our youth (and even adults) from experiencing hurt when a particular relationship reaches its end.  I have experienced such pain, and let me tell you, it pains me even more when it happens to someone else--it is something I would not wish on anyone.  This also includes non-courting type of relations too--with family and friends.  And so, let me first share this amazing talk with you by a very awesome priest who I've been blessed to know, Father John Moses, who serves an Orthodox church here in Virginia, All Saints of North America. When you find yourself about to spend an hour or so on Facebook, play this talk and do some multi-tasking, you will be so happy and edified in the end... :)
I will not do justice by attempting a summary of the talk here, but I want to emphasize his mentioning of Saint George.  If you are a young woman who desires to marry, Father suggests that you look for someone who is very much like Saint George--namely, one who is willing to slay the dragons within himself and in the difficult situations of life, for you.  Recalling an earlier post on God-manliness, this is one way in which Orthodox men can truly be like Christ and the martyrs.  I believe that this concept is stressed more so for men here simply because of the role of Christ they are to undertake when they are married.  It is a great responsibility and understandably, may cause fear among men, resulting in our modern-day 'can't commit' phenomenon, especially when the world falsely says that in order to 'be happy' you have to find the perfect mate, who has no issues, who is perfect and will fulfill all your desires.  Christ embraced the Church as His bride--the Church is all of humanity from all of time--that's all of us.  Humanity has been in a fallen, flawed and imperfect state from the earliest time, shortly after the formation of our first parents, Adam and Eve.   It is quite obvious that Christ has overlooked our utter wretchedness so much that He died for us and continually asks us to come into union with Him.  He is THE  ultimate Bridegroom. 

Saint George was very Christ-like, and through his bravery, he endured humiliations, he confronted evil and destroyed it, and even mocked it.  He was keenly aware that the evil things he encountered were ALL the things needed for his salvation  In a similar way, guys, you are encouraged to be like Saint George!  If you want your salvation, do not look for perfection of beauty and pedigree in women, because only God is perfect.  It is the imperfections, the dragons, if you will, that may be the kind of things that are needed to challenge you to fight a life-long spiritual battle for the salvation of your soul, and that of your wife and children.  Also, note the joy of Saint George during his martyrdom--in the same way, see the joy in life's difficulties as well as in the easy and happy times.  God does not want us to be miserable and sad, He desires that we 'have life, and have it abundantly' (John 10:10).  This joy only comes from inside of us, from Christ, who we invite into our heart, because that is where His Kingdom is, within us (Luke 17:21).  And, not to totally target men, I think a good parallel to a dragon-slaying saint for women would be Saint Marina, who literally beat up the devil--read her story here.

May we all slay the dragons that attempt to enslave us and desire to hinder our salvation.  I will leave you with two songs from one of my favorite bands, the Avett Brothers, who I get to see in concert this summer!  

The entire set of lyrics of this one are one big awesome relevant quote. :)

Best quote from this song, January Wedding:  "True love is not the kind of thing you should turn down / Don't ever turn it down."

April 4, 2012

Let the Children Come to Him

2012 Youth Workers' Conference Reflections
The Agony of Christ in the
Garden of Gethsemane

During the last few days of January during an unseasonably warm winter in what I call the American Holy Land—Western Pennsylvania, a group of about 60 Orthodox Christian youth workers gathered at the Antiochian Village from all over North America, spanning almost every Orthodox jurisdiction. The presence of three Orthodox hierarchs gave us extra grace and encouragement—Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, Metropolitan Alexios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, and Bishop Irineu of the Orthodox Church in America, who are the members of the Committee for Youth of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops. They each stated that the goal of the Assembly and the Committee for Youth is unity of the Orthodox faithful and unity of the Orthodox youth. It was a true image of the Orthodox Christian Church in America and a true witness to the reality of our unity in Christ, a granting of His prayer to His Father in John 17:21 in the Garden of Gethsemane, that we all “may be one.”

 Father Bogdan Bucur’s keynote addresses focused on sharing both a living and generous faith with our youth. These sessions, as well as every workshop that was conducted by many talented and God-loving speakers, all served to train us as youth workers for all levels of ministry from Orthodox camp programs, youth ministry, Christian education, and Orthodox Christian Fellowship college ministry.
Prophet Moses
Father Bogdan beautifully demonstrated a most perfect pedagogical method of teaching—the use of the Scriptures. He taught us in this way by a detailed study of Exodus, where Moses introduces the people of Israel to God—emphasizing that this is the work of youth ministry. Those of us called to youth ministry are to introduce young people to God, much like Moses did with the people. He spoke about how this process involves a gradual description of who God is by the use of the Scriptures. He encouraged us to not present God as a concept, but as a dynamic, living reality with Whom we have a continual loving relationship. The living God and a living faith in Him is transformative, and not a simple pietism, tradition, moralism, or belief out of fear. When these things are separated from faith in a living God, and then shared in this way with our young people, they will reject it. He encouraged us to show our youth the challenging path of pursuing and loving the Living God, who transforms us, and whose work we do in complete humility and in the utmost sincerity. We are also to show them that our vertical relationship with God is directly connected to the horizontal relationships we have with others. We are to teach young people by our example that all human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore, we are to show them a generous faith where we show unconditional love and mercy to our fellow human beings.
Among such great spiritual training, here is a list of additional jewels of wisdom for youth ministers I gained from this wonderful conference:
  • To listen to our youth and to encourage them to listen to the Word of God. 
  •  To present them with Christ by the exampleof living a true, honest and chaste life ourselves, showing them that we put Christ first.  
  • To invite them into an encounter with Christ through our ministry programs, but especially through reaching out to them and offering a personal relationship with us. To remind them of the power of repentance when we fall short, but also to show them the great joy of having Christ in our lives and to be hopeful for even greater things to come in both this life and the next. (From Father Philip Rogers’ talk ‘Come and See.’)

Philip Brings Nathaniel to Christ (Gospel of John 1:45)

  • In our work we are to have a good knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and to be prepared to answer their questions about them as honestly as possible.
  • To encourage the youth, their families and ourselves to minimize the ‘useless sounds’ of the world and to replace them with the sounds of holiness, as Bishop Thomas said.
  • To provide opportunities for them to connect with the Orthodox community either in the parish, in summer camp programs, and when they go to college, so that they may experience the same love as that of the community of the Holy Trinity, on a regular and continual basis.
  • For both lay and clergy leaders working with the OCF college ministry, the mission is to keep college students connected to their Orthodox faith. The ways by which we could do this were discussed in sessions with executive director of OCF, Jennifer Nahas. This included encouraging and guiding students to:
    • Organize programs that will help them cultivate an Orthodox spiritual life both on campus and in the local parish.
    • Form strong bonds of fellowship with other students and people in the parish, and to perform service to others in the name of Christ.
    • Also, for high school students, there should be efforts to encourage parents and parish priests to prioritize the criteria for college selection—the presence of an Orthodox parish and an OCF chapter at the college of choice. 

I am so very grateful to my parish of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville, Virginia for supporting my attendance at this gathering of youth workers. I was greatly blessed in being in the company of so many fellow Orthodox Christians who struggle to love Christ daily in their lives and who generously share themselves with our young people to inspire them to tend to their salvation.

Icon of the Inexhaustible Chalice

It is always an experience of a taste of Paradise when I spend time at the Village, and it was especially true this time. At this conference, we not only worked together to gain more wisdom and enlightenment to share our faith in our youth work, but also, we had the opportunity to come together in worship and in fellowship, enjoying being in the presence of each other and our Lord Jesus Christ, who unites us always, regardless of the physical distances between us.

For information on Orthodox Camp programs and future Youth Workers' Conferences, go here.

December 9, 2011

A Call for [God-] Manliness

St. George and Martyrdom Scenes

I recently had a moment of etymological enlightenment about the word “virtue.” Double checking the Online Etymology Dictionary, I learned that the Latin origin of the word translates to “moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth (vir- is man).” The Oxford English Dictionary says that virtue is "the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being." Not leaving out my ethnic heritage’s two-cents, the equivalent Greek word for manliness or valor is “ανδρεία” (andria). The first virtuous people who come to mind are many Saints who attested to their faith by living a life of virtue in their thoughts, words, and deeds. As a result, they invited the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in them and in their bodies and performed miracles. Both men and women displayed manly valor and bravery during suffering and martyrdom—they literally imitated Christ to the end.

Saint Katherine
Great Martyr
Since we Orthodox Christians are of the mind to live out our theology rather than to simply discuss it in an arm chair (or just write about it in a blog for fun), I am officially putting out a call for a REVOLUTION to DO something—to bring back this manliness in ourselves, in our Church, and in our culture. Further, this should be a type of God-Manliness, following the example of Christ. The goal of this revolution is to begin a transformation of human fallen nature into that which is more Christ-like.

So let us begin by focusing on an aspect of our lives that seems to concern most Orthodox young people. It is a matter that directly relates to our salvation—that of relationship, specifically that of the marriage relationship, which literally brings us together into a special and holy community...

In all seriousness, there are some major problems we are facing in our post-modern, twisted and over-sexualized times. It pains me to see our youth engaging in pre-marital sexual behaviors that are hurting them physically and spiritually. Here is a previous post of my own that suggests that preserving one’s sexual purity is to be done in the name of and love for God, not simply for following rules and moral obligations. A very well-written and astute observation on how necessary it is for young people to preserve their sexual purity is to be found here at the Holy Protection Hummus and Pizza Parlor blog. The author (Mike A.) makes the profound point that maintaining one’s purity by practicing abstinence is a witness to Christ. He also makes a call for our Church youth ministries to more directly address this concern and to help our young people get thorough the temptations of the world.

Saint Demetrios
Patron of Youth

It is not totally the fault of our beloved youth for engaging in promiscuity. This happens when temptations posed by the evil one are victorious over young people who are not guarded by the full armor of Christ. Now, is it not the responsibility of parents, youth directors, and the Church to equip them with that armor? Here is where my cohorts and I, the so-called “young adults” can begin the revolution by being examples to the teens and college kids.

Shout out to the 25 to 40-something crowd, LISTEN UP... We ourselves are actually prone to a more subtle and not outwardly immoral problem like promiscuity and fornication, but instead, we are experiencing a rapid loss of valor, courage, manliness, if you will, among men and women alike, in our relationships...leading almost always to a lack thereof... Perhaps our youth need to see an improvement in us, their "hip" young adult role models. If they saw our bravery and especially our JOY when we decide to enter into the arena of marriage with our focus on Christ, then maybe they too would guard their hearts and bodies in preparation for their turn to come....a nice thought, isn't it?

Recently among my acquaintances, I have known of several independent stories of relationships that had / still have solid potential for Christ-centered marriages because both parties are seeking to live a life in Christ. However, they either have failed or never began in the first place--usually, because one party ran away out of fear. My question is why? Why are we so afraid of entering into matrimony, a path on which two people work together to get one another to Paradise? The short answer is succumbing to the wiles of the evil one because of our weaknesses.  Of course it is a challenging journey that takes much work, but laboring to love our neighbors (the equally yoked spouse and children) in the name of Christ, makes us more like Him, more God-manly. Instead of desiring this supreme form of love (agape), we choose a life of singularity that has the dangerously high probability that we will fall to the loweset form of love, that which is self-centered pride. Read this short story of Dostevsky's, Notes from the Underground, the main character is one who finds himself caught between choosing these two roads, and sorry to give it away a bit, but the end shows his unhappy decision...
“Saints Timothy and Maura” Henryk Siemiradzki

Saints Timothy and Maura,
Married Saints and Martyrs for Christ
I will refrain from gender-bashing, because everyone has inherited the fallen nature of our first parents—such as the passivity and cowardice of Adam and the disobedience and rebellion of Eve. Let us instead be rebellious against this fallen nature which is so well-promoted by our modern secular world whose air we breathe and life we share. Saint Paul gives us instructions for this holy rebellion by defining the roles of a husband and wife in the Epistle to the Ephesians 5:20-33, which is read during the Orthodox Marriage sacrament.

I particularly love the beginning of the passage (v.20-21): giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. This is a call to thanksgiving to God in all things (both joys and sorrows of life), and a call to humility. If these things are mentioned first, they must be important coaching pointers to get us pumped and ready to go...

Saints Joachim and Anna,
Iconof the Conception of the Theotokos

The rest of the passage explains HOW each person is to rebel against the fallen nature of the respective genders. Men are called to be like Christ--to die (kill the ego), as Christ did for His Church. Women are called to be respectful and obedient (more ego killing), as the Church is to Christ. In theory, this sounds nice and we intellectually know it is for our salvation. But it is definitely scary to face our fallenness and most assuredly difficult to transform it continually for a lifetime. It's no wonder that we run for the hills if this reality hits us when we are not ready to face ourselves and to realize that we must change. Wait, CHANGE? Is that an Orthodox word?? It is when it is translated from metanoia (repentance)...

So, let us begin the revolution! The sacrament of Confession is the best weapon for all of us to begin to get familiar with or to re-familiarize ourselves with it—especially if it is done regularly, with a priest who knows us well, with whom we are completely open, removing the trash of sin from the soul. This regular cleansing regimen will allow room in our hearts for Christ to dwell therein.

The sure way to become more like Christ, to become more God-manly, is to get to know Him better and to invite Him into our lives, into our hearts and minds. This happens through daily reading of the Scriptures, regular participation in the sacramental life of the Church, seeking the help of a spiritual father, and talking to Christ unceasingly through prayer. Focusing on our personal relationship with Christ first will armor us with virtue and manliness so that we are prepared to enter into the intimate community of marriage. A loving relationship founded on Christ, regardless of all temptations and challenging situations that scare us away, is one that will never die. It is a golden opportunity where one can truly follow the two simple commandments of loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor.

Are you now game for joining the revolution? Let's do it team!  Please share your strategies!

October 17, 2011

Saint Catherine's Vision

For this post, I'd like to take the opportunity to offer a quick book review on volume 1 of the Encountering Women of Faith  series, written by Saint Catherine's Vision, a group of Orthodox women who are educated scholars and seminary graduates.  By their individual lives and this collective work, these admirable women elegantly demonstrate good stewardship and thanksgiving of the educational gifts and talents with which God has graced them.  

In Enountering Women of Faith, Volume 1, we are given the stories of eight female saints revered by the Orthodox Christian Church in a beautifully intimate style reflecting each saint's personal impact and influence on the respective author:  Susana the Righteous and Susana of Palestine, Elizabeth the New Martyr, Melania the Younger, Deaconess Olympias, Xenia of Petersburg, Mary Magdalene, and Catherine the Great.  Each account is not only personal, but it highlights virtues and ministries that are relevant to women today and can be practically applied in a manner that truly glorifies God.  Such examples include philanthropy, voluntary kenosis, sacrificial love within marriage, maternal love for children, unwavering witness of faith in Jesus Christ at times of great stress, education in the context of growth in Christ, and roles in service to the Church, among other gems found deep within the texts.  I personally enjoyed this work because it made these female saints alive for meOf course, the stories presented the strengths and accomplishments of these saints by the work of the grace of God in them, but also, their human weaknesses were seen--this is what made them more real and more human to me.  Often, we tend to focus on the victories and the final perfection of our Saints and less on their daily martyrdoms of battling their own weaknesses and passions, which comprise the majority of their human lives.  We see here that these saints were truly real women who dealt with tragic circumstances throughout their lives, and with whom both men and women can identify.  And thankfully, we see in their examples that in their patience, they won their souls, as our Lord has admonished us all to do likewise (Luke 21:19). 

I highly recommend this book for learning more about these saints and applying their examples to our own daily lives.  Each chapter also has focus questions at the end that are wonderful for a discussion and study about the lives of these saints with teenagers and college students, as well as in parish groups.  For further information, the stories are also well-cited with original references.  I am waiting for my copy of the second volume to arrive, and will post another review soon.  Also be on the look out for volumes 3 and 4 in the future!  Please see the website of Saint Catherine's Vision for more information.

August 5, 2011

Revolutionary Writing Updates

Please forgive the extreme "quiet" of this blog in the last few months....the author has been busy trying to enact what is usually put in writing here, with God's grace of course.

Here are two recent articles I have written.  Please check out these superb blogsites, managed and authored by pious young Orthodox people who daily invite Christ into their lives.  Thank God for the good things we can do with technology.

(Wonder, the official blog of the Department of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries of the Orthodox Church in America)

(Holy Protection Hummus and Pizza Parlor, by some really awsome chefs!)

Another post will be coming soon to continue the Quiet Revolution....  :) 

January 12, 2011

Glory to God for ALL Things

Since September, God has returned me to my beloved state of Virginia for a new job, to the town where I spent my graduate school years at UVA. The autumn season in this area has always been my favorite one, with the crisp blue skies, changing colors of the trees, and a sense of anticipation. Interesting how there is so much beauty amidst so much death...these leaves are dying. But they die for a higher cause--to conserve the trees' energy during the winter in anticipation for new life to bloom in the coming spring. God speaks wisdom to us through the beauty and elegance of His Creation....
During the autumn season, I had the blessing to go on a hike at Crabtree Falls with a group of lovely young women, good friends of mine from the Orthodox Christian Fellowship from the Mid-Atlantic Region. The schedule included the hike upwards to the top of the waterfalls, followed by lunch and chanting an Akathist Hymn entitled "Glory to God for All Things". This beautiful service of glory, thanksgiving and praise to God was composed by a priest just before his death in a prison camp in Russia in 1940. In it, you sense the priest's courage and total hope in God during his darkest hour of imminent death, and you cannot help but be inspired. Before our hike, our group was to meet at the campgrounds at 11 am. Arriving promptly at our destination, my car's group learned that our friends coming from both the North and the Southwest were going to be late. But, we didn't realize just how late they would come. Thankfully, they managed to arrive even after some potentially life-threatening obstacles in their way--one group nearly missing a head-on collision on one of the mountain roads. During the waiting period, my heart was pounding in worry because our cell phones had lost signal and there was no way to contact our friends. We decided to simply pray until they arrived. They finally made it, thanks be to God, and we went on a most wonderful, fun-filled, and spiritually nourishing outdoor adventure. It was yet another experience for me where I learned that upon embarking on an endeavor that is sure to benefit one's soul, there will be obstacles and even attacks from the evil one at an attempt to thwart growth in Christ. But resisting these attacks and achieving victory is quite possible by hoping in Him.
This phenomenon is cited repeatedly in the Scriptures: "My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials. Be sincere of heart and steadfast, undisturbed in time of adversity. Cling to him, forsake him not; thus will your future be great. Accept whatever befalls you, in crushing misfortune be patient; For in fire is gold tested, and worthy men in the crucible of humiliation. Trust God and he will help you; make straight your ways and hope in him." ~Wisdom of Sirach 2 This passage instructs us on HOW to act in the face of challenging situations in life. In the midst of suffering, we are to cling to God, to always hope that He will take care of us and that later, we will experience something better, just like the trees enduring the winter to experience the new life coming in the spring. As there is beauty of the autumn leaves, there is beauty in gold that has been purified by fire, and likewise, beauty in the faces and bodies of the Saints who suffered for Christ (see the beauty in the icons of Saint Marina and Saint George). Our modern culture tells us that misfortunes and difficult situations are to be avoided and that there is no benefit in them. Even Christians are tempted to walk away from situations that pose a challenge to them, rationalizing that "it is not the will of God for me to do this, it is too hard and too scary."
Below is a motivating quote from a very beloved and great prophet, Isaiah:
"Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint." ~Isaiah 40
This past year has presented me with the blessed opportunity to experience some difficult and painful trials that have allowed me to come just a bit closer to our Lord. The emotional upsets gave me much sadness, and I have definitely felt like a tired and weary youth, as Isaiah says. But, at the same time, by experiencing a bit of suffering, we are getting a taste of Christ's suffering, and that of His Saints. After all, if we dare to go by the name of "Christian", how can we not expect to experience what Christ Himself experienced? This way of life is a sacred one and we cannot take it lightly. The challenges and sufferings are permitted so that we may use them in making wise decisions for courses of action that will lead us closer to God. In my own recent trials, I felt like I was asked to choose between Christ's way or another way. Christ's way is clearly harder, but the only one that will help our souls. And as Isaiah says at the end of the quote, if we hope in the Lord, our strength will be renewed and we will soar like the eagles and run without growing faint! What a great coach this prophet is!

I also came across the following appropriate and encouraging saying by Saint Theodora of Alexandria (January 12, 5th Century): "Just as trees require winter and snow in order to bear fruit, so trials and temptations are needed for our life."
As winter is still among us now, with snow still on the ground, let us remember that spring is around the corner. In anticipation of the renewal of nature in the season of spring, let us continue to maintain patience, peace, and strong hope during our trials until we experience the sweet joy of the soon-to-come Feast of feasts, the Resurrection, in both this life and in eternity!

August 26, 2010

A Great "Kardio" Workout

“The present life is a wrestling school, a gymnasium, a battle, a smelting furnace, and a dyer’s house of virtue” – St John Chrysostom Saint John has such a great way of putting things...no wonder they call him the Golden-Mouthed one. Being an exercise junkie myself, I cannot help but continually make the comparison between physical exercise of the body with the spiritual exercise of the soul. Of course, because the body and soul are united, the comparison cannot exclude the fact that both affect each other. We are called to love God "with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength." (Mark 12:30) This undoubtedly means that we must love our Lord with our entire being, both body AND soul, as indicated by all four words. Speaking of exercise, I love running and spinning. Not spinning wool, but spinning as in indoor cycling, a form of group exercise you can find at any respectable YMCA or local gym. Although it has been a regular part of my exercise routine for the last 5 years, it is now officially the cross-training portion of my training plan to run a full marathon in the spring (with the Lord's help of course!) I cannot help but enter into the theological parallel to this goal for the rest of this post. I find it so inspirational and helpful to be challenged to do better at every spin class or outdoor run. The spin class instructors encourage the participants to challenge themselves by turning the resistance knob to a load that is heavier than what they've previously had, to explore a more difficult level, even though they may not think they can bear it. This always reminds me of life, in the sense that we are constantly being pushed to carry a heavier load, according to the difficult circumstances in which we may find ourselves, often unexpectedly and quite reluctantly. The difference in spin class is that you have the 'option' to NOT turn up the resistance knob, keeping the load at a more bearable level. In dealing with the trials of life, however, we cannot choose the difficult circumstance that places a burden on our soul. But we DO have the choice in how we approach this new challenge level. We could just 'get off the bike' and simply give up because we fear the challenge of carrying a potentially heavy burden; OR, we can courageously follow Christ's loving and encouraging coaching words from the Gospel of Saint Matthew 11:28-30--"Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and My burden is light." One of the quotes in my YMCA's spin room is the following: "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever." (interestingly, it was said by Lance Armstrong) This can be applied to how we should approach our difficulties in life, perhaps in a more Godly way. The pain of this life's challenges is only temporary, and if we quit our struggle against sin, which is to despair and lose our hope in God because of our trials, then that will last forever, for eternity. The purpose of physical exercise is to improve our bodily health so that we live longer in this life. But, the purpose of living a life in Christ is to eventually enter into union with Him. The Orthodox Church provides a 'work out schedule' for us by teaching us how to live a sacramental and ascetical life, one that cleanses our heart and improves the health of our soul. Ascesis is another awesome Greek word (ἀσκησης) that literally means 'emptying'; but in common use, it means 'exercise', or 'labor'. A great example of this is seen in the Mystery of marriage, where the couple is crowned as victors, in anticipation of their eternal crowns as rewards for their ascetic labor of sacrificial love for each other throughout their life together in this world. One of the hymns during the Orthodox marriage service reminds us of the Holy Martyrs, who we should look to as our role models, the true professional athletes for Christ. They engaged not only in physical labors, but battled until death with great endurance that was built up through their love for Christ in their daily practice and 'work out sessions' that included prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and witness to the true faith. They too have received their 'crowns of glory', similar to the winners in the sporting events of the Olympics. Saint Paul also tells us about this analogy when he speaks in I Corinthians 9:25, "and everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown." Examples of such saints are shown below (the Holy 40 Virgin Martyrs, celebrated on September 1 and the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, celebrated on March 9) Let us not forget some scientific principles of bodily exercise, which also can be seen as parallels to the Christian life. The all-or-none law states that a muscle will contract completely, or not at all, depending on whether the stimulus reaches the proper threshold. We cannot perform our ascetic labors reluctantly or without attention, but with love, joy, and peace, because Christ is our stimulus, who motivates us to put in 100% of our effort. Our bodies need proper nourishment and nutrition during our exercise training in order to grow and perform better. The same is true when we receive the nourishment of our faith from the Church through her sacraments, through unceasing prayer, through reading and hearing the words of Christ through the Scriptures and the Fathers. The famous professional athletes are good stewards of their bodies and employ much discipline to training for their sport. As Christ's athletes in training in the gymnasium of life, we should also be good stewards of both our souls and our bodies, and also be disciplined and focused in our spiritual life. Let us follow Saint Paul, one of the best coaches to have in Christ, when he advises Saint Timothy to follow his lead: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (II Tim 4:7) Now let's hope I get to finally say this after finishing a certain 26.2 mile race...prayers are greatly welcome during these next few months of training. :)