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. :)

January 13, 2010

Let Us Build Temples of the Holy Spirit

I visited many holy temples in Greece on my recent trip, and it goes without saying that they were awesome. And there is absolutely NO doubt about it that in each of them, the Holy Spirit dwelt therein--I can attest to this from the abundant grace I experienced during my visit. But, the kinds of temples I'd like to talk about in this post are a bit different... Recently, Father Anthony Perkins conducted an interview with me on his awesome podcast, OrthoAnalytika, which everyone should subscribe for free via iTunes for excellent homilies on the Orthodox Faith, and other really cool stuff he likes to talk about. He asked me specific questions on how young people today can preserve chastity in preparation for marriage. I hope that the information I shared in it will help others, but in this post, I'd like to extend and clarify some of my answers. Please see my previous blog posts on the subject of marriage as well. These thoughts and writings are purely taken from knowledge given to me from our Church, as well as the lives of saints who lived in the past, and some who live today. Also, check out this list of links with a wealth of resources on Orthodox Christian marriage. Saint Paul asks the Corinthians in his first letter, chapter 6:19, "do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?" This is an admonition for good stewardship. Just like we are called to be good stewards of the Earth by living green, then perhaps we can be good stewards of our own bodies by living a chaste life in Christ. Just as a Church is consecrated to serve ONE purpose, to worship and commune with God through the Eucharist, in the same way, we are called to consecrate our bodies to God, to keep them holy, so that we may achieve union with God. According to several homilies I've heard from Archbishop Athanasios of Lemesol in Cyprus, who has spoken extensively to crowds of young people in the last two decades about marriage, I have learned that preserving chastity is not simply 'the right thing to do' that will add to the 'list' of good things that make us good Christians on paper. We engage in the ascetic struggle to remain chaste simply because we love God. And, since He gave us our bodies, we must treasure them as holy. Our sexuality is at the core of our being, and so, if we give our entire being (body, heart, soul) to another person outside of the blessed community of marriage, then we are essentially losing ourselves, and the hurt that results is quite devastating. I believe that myriads of young people today are walking around with this hurt, and sadly, they are not able to love wholly and purely if they do not seek spiritual healing. In the blessed marriage state, the two spouses become one flesh, meaning that their bodies respectively belong to one another, and so, physical relations within marriage serve to continually unite the two people in the context of Christ--this happens in a mystical way, through the grace of the Holy Spirit which comes only through the sacrament of marriage. And so, instead of losing yourself to someone who you don't belong to, why not preserve yourself whole, for union with your future spouse, who will be your eternal partner in Christ? Many young people experience such severe pain when they elect to become 'one' with each new person with whom they enter into a relationship. Sexual relations are not limited to the physical, biological union, but include emotional and spiritual union as well. It is devastating for people to continually form such unions and to repeatedly break them because they lose themselves in the process. Of course, we cannot exclude repentance and a return to purity, which is possible through continual confession and a truly repentant heart that strives to come closer to God. It is not too late to regain purity by living a life in Christ. If one desires to follow the path of marriage as a means to their salvation, it is vital to find a person who desires to follow and to love Christ in the same way. When Father Anthony asked me about the types of traits to look for in a potential spouse, I mentioned that the person should love God and love other people--this can be seen by their actions. I also want to add here the words of Saint Peter, in his First Epistle, chapter 3, verse 4, directed to women's adornment: "...rather, let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God." We must not look to outward beauty and even outward displays of 'spirituality' that make a person appealing to the eye, but we must get to know the person on a deeper and inward level as a human being, not as an object that will fulfill our unhealthy physical, emotional, and supposedly spiritual desires. Another idea I had given to a good friend of mine was to follow the examples of countless holy saints. For a young woman, it may be helpful to look at the traits of a gentleman saint, like Saint Demetrios for example. :) He lived a life in chastity dedicated to loving Christ, he loved children, he was patient and courageous during his imprisonment and martyrdom, and he shared his love for Christ with others by teaching them in truth and in love. Below is a picture of the Crypt Museum located beneath his Basilica in Thessaloniki. When I visited that day, there were children visiting also, and they were listening to his story right next to the spot of his martyrdom (see the vigil lamp in the columns). Yes, I'm raising the bar here... BUT, before we place such lofty expectations upon others, we must first strive to have these virtues OURSELVES, and to work daily in the sacramental and ascetical life in order to acquire them. By cultivating our relationship with Christ, we learn to be more like Him and His saints. I truly believe that if we focus on this relationship first, then if God wills, He will provide us with the right person with the saintly traits, at the right time, for the path of marriage. I also mentioned that during my visit in Greece, I had the chance to spend time with different types of family environments--with my hosts, two sets of newly-weds; with a family of two God-loving and hard-working parents and 3 great children, as well as with a community of 40 nuns at the monastery in Panorama, outside of Thessaloniki. In essence, we are not saved alone, but within a community. There are two clear paths toward salvation--marriage and monasticism, and the one we choose depends on personal calling with guidance from our parents and spiritual fathers. For those who live on neither path, there are ways for them to be involved in a community setting as well.The key to our salvation is to be able to love our neighbor, whether that person is our spouse, our abbot, the children we teach in Church school, the hungry in the soup kitchens, our elderly family members, or the person we pass on the street who needs a smile. Marriage as a path to holiness offers us the golden opportunity to practice our love for Christ through the practical and daily love we show to our spouse and children. The same holds true for the monastery and the parish. The biggest disservice we can do to our souls is to cling to ourselves alone and avoid the community which will lead us to salvation. May God enlighten us and guide us in our own paths toward salvation. And with that, don't forget to read Saint John Chrysostom. See this link and this one too!

January 11, 2010

The Port City of Patras, Family, and Blessed Going-Away Presents

While in Athens, I had the chance to visit with some of my family members in the city of Patras, the town in which my father was born and raised. My great aunt took me on a walking tour of the city, where I saw the regular hang-outs my dad would frequent as a young boy, as well as the cathedral of Saint Andrew the Apostle. This church was simply amazing, as you can see in the picture. I venerated the relics of the Apostle and the X-shaped cross on which he was crucified. Again, I felt very blessed to have had the chance to be in the presence of another one of Christ's glorious saints and apostles. The smaller, older church pictured with an X-shaped cross on the outside is the older Church of Saint Andrew, and incidentally, is the SAME church in which my parents were married, back in 1971, it was quite special for me to see it. There was also a well of holy water located to the right of the old church, which is said to have been established by the Apostle Andrew himself before his martyrdom in this city. Later that week is when I returned to Thessaloniki to spend the remainder of my stay in Greece. Writing this post about two months later makes me wonder just why I didn't stay longer! Taking the plane from Athens to Thessaloniki on a clear day, allows one to see Mount Athos on its southwest side! My camera was packed away, but I found a picture of something similar to my view online (left). What a blessing it was to just see it from the sky! On November 7, another blessing was bestowed on us--being able to attend the consecration of a new Church! This Church is dedicated to the Holy Trinity, at the men's monastery in Panorama. Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki, as well as another Metropolitan, Seraphim of Kythiron and Antikythiron, were presiding. The consecration of an Orthodox Christian Church is quite similar to the Baptism and Chrismation of a new person into the faith. The following saints' relics were placed into the altar table during the service and sealed: One of the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, The 5 new martyrs of Samothrace (Greece), Saint George of Cyprus, and Saint Magdarius. This is the second Church consecration I attended in 2009, the first was at my parish in Charlottesville, VA, Saint Nicholas. I am definitely undeserving of the amount of grace I experienced at these services this past year, but God gives us such gifts in abundance out of His infinite love for us. I can never be thankful enough. Being able to participate in the entire service by just being there, by processing with the people around the new Church of the Holy Trinity, and by entering into the kingdom during the Divine Liturgy was one of the best going-away presents that Greece gave to me. The week following the Consecration, I stayed at the women's monastery dedicated to the Nativity of the Theotokos, which is right next door! It is customary to perform Divine Liturgy in a newly-consecrated Church each day for 7 days, and so, there was a vigil service each night of my stay. Again, countless blessings given to me, the most unworthy and neglectful one. My stay at the monastery was very good for me, it was a time of rest, healing, and gaining of much spiritual strength. The nuns were so loving and so very lively and hospitable, they would treat me to coffee often so that we could just talk. I learned about how this community of monastics live in the love of Christ. It was interesting to me each sister's story about how she came to become a monastic had one common theme: they had a strong desire to live in this way, to serve Christ by giving of themselves totally and completely to Him. In the photo above, you can see one of the many labors of love for Christ (διακωνήματα) that the sisters do--the restoration and preservation of holy icons and other holy items from not only decades, but centuries past. Here, in their workshop, an icon of Saint George from around the 13th century was cleaned and the colors are once again vibrant. Other types of work include the regular cooking and cleaning rotations for all 40 of them, as well as: an iconography studio (they wrote the icons for the newly consecrated Holy Trinity Church, see above), a well-kept garden (I had tomatoes in November!), a sewing workshop where the make vestments for priests and church items (the Altar table cloths), a publishing office where they transcribe homilies of their Elder, Father Symeon, into books (lots of them!), and also a craft workshop where they make various gift items such as children's sketchbooks and decorative items for weddings and baptisms. And did I mention that they are located in Panorama, a town outside of Thessaloniki where one can watch views of the waterfront of Thessaloniki or Mount Olympus from the window as she sews or works in the flower gardens. This also gave me some enlightenment about the calling to marriage and family life as well. For those of us who are living in the world, the monasteries offer a witness to living a true and concrete life in Christ. The lives of monastics are centered on the daily cycle of prayer services because their primary duty is prayer, even during their manual labors and meal times. They pray for us, and so their work and activities are more concentrated around the prayer schedule of the Church. This is the same standard that we are called to follow while living in the world. Saint John Chrysostom says that the only difference between a monk and married man is that the married man has a wife. I left the monastery feeling strengthened for continuing my spiritual journey in the world, as well as having several new friends who I know are constantly remembering me and my loved ones in prayer. My last weekend in Thessaloniki was a treat because my hosts were a family with 3 great children, and amazing, God-loving parents. It was really nice to compare the life of an Orthodox family in the world with that of the monastery. I truly saw no huge differences because the goal of both communities is salvation and union with Christ. It's just simply that the monastics do not marry and do not have children. And yes, there are some other minor differences, but not in essence. With this host family, I got to spend time with the kids, we played games, watched movies, and laughed a lot. I'm quite thankful to God for giving me this opportunity to experience my ancestral homeland, which is a rich treasure-chest of grace and love, manifested in the people who live there now and those holy ones who lived here in the past.