Ash Wednesday-14th February

Let us turn in heart and mind, in will and expectancy, to God…

Let us recognise Love in every human being, above all in Jesus, revealing in flesh and blood, in word and deed, the heart of God…

Let our attention, our questions, our living, all be focused on the God whose love is utterly truthful, shimmeringly joyous, profoundly pain-transforming and life-enhancing; embracing all that would cause harm, never letting go, pressing gently and for as long as need be into all that refuses to respond, never ultimately excluding, banishing, or destroying that which is still being created. Amen.

With these deeply consoling words from Jim Cotter, and our gaze fixed on God, let us enter into the wide and spacious wilderness of Lent.

Thaney – 7th February

 

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A guest post from:               Mull Monastery of All Celtic Saints,   29 December 2017 ·

St Thaney became pregnant after being raped when she was very much still a child. She was so innocent in her youth that her abuser was able to make her believe that he was in fact a woman and that his act of violence was normal behaviour among women. When the pregnancy became visible, her family rejected the young mother and threw her from a cliff to die. By God’s care, Thaney survived the fall and she sailed in a coracle across the Firth of Forth to St Serf’s community in Culross, where she gave birth to a little boy, the future St Mungo (Kentigern).

In this icon, the saint is in her small coracle, her arms protecting the innocent new life she carries in her womb. Christ’s presence is not marked in any way, as a symbol of how abuse is actually experienced – when the world hits us with its hatred, we project its violence unto Christ, and that builds a wall between us and our only Source of Healing. The experience of abuse is like blinding darkness; there is no light in that death, no hope, no shimmer of life. Only later, looking back, we see that the God we hated was the very hand that kept us afloat and lead us back to life.

My grandmother used to say that God is like earth because, like earth, He has the ability to turn the most revolting things into beautiful flowers and nourishing fruit. Like earth, God receives our sinfulness and gives us in return His love and forgiveness. Like earth, God receives our deformed selves, butchered by the abuse of the world; like earth, he returns to us our true selves, healed and more beautiful than ever before. The same way in which we bury a rotten apple in the ground, and the earth gives us back a beautiful new apple tree.

The world buried in Him a young girl who had been raped and her child. Christ received them both and gave them back to that violent world as two wonderful saints, willing to sacrifice their lives for the salvation of the very world that had abused them. Today, St Thaney and St Mungo are among the most beloved Celtic Saints, and the holy protectors of the very places from where she was once rejected and pushed off a cliff to die.

There is so much out-of-this-world hope in the life of St Thaney. No other icon seems more appropriate for the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. May Christ grant us the strength and the love to bury in Him all that was dark, all that was evil this past year, and may we step forward in the new year with ease and light, without the burden of hatred, without the poison of holding on to any darkness.

Let us bury all that is evil in Christ, and let us trust Him to give us in return the fruits of His forgiveness and His love.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • All living with histories of abuse.
  • All who work towards healing in the lives of those who have been abused.
  • All who have been abusers.
  • All who work to rehabilitate abusers.
  • All children born in difficult circumstances, yet loved.
  • All who have been rejected by their families.

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord – 2nd Feb

I hope you enjoyed coffee with Sister Vassa as much as I did the other day. Her take on the Benedictus or Simeon’s Canticle is rather good and worth watching.

 

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • All who are approaching their death.
  • All who are going through times of transition.
  • All who are seeking blessings on their families.
  • Poets and Liturgists.
  • People who are aware of heaven and earth mingling and all who seek to share this mystery with others.

Nicetas of the Kiev caves – 31st January

A story of delusion and clarity…

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Sometimes it seems that the desire to be good, the desire to be close to God, is the very thing that leads us into times of trial. Nicetas was tonsured in the Kiev-Caves Lavra. Very early in his monastic life he secluded himself in a cave. The abbot Nikon refused to bless such an undertaking, saying:

“My son, at your age such a life will not benefit you. You would do much better to remain with the brethren. In labouring together with them you will surely gain your reward. You yourself saw how our brother Isaac was seduced by the demons in his seclusion and would have perished had he not been saved by the grace of God through the prayers of our holy fathers Anthony and Theodosius .”

“Never, my father,” replied Nicetas, “will I be deceived. I am resolved firmly to withstand the demonic temptations, and I shall pray to the man-loving God that He grant me the gift of working miracles as He did to the recluse Isaac who, to this day, continues to perform many miracles through his prayers .”

“Your desire exceeds your powers. Take heed, my son, that you do not fall on account of your high-mindedness. I would enjoin you rather to serve the brethren, and God will crown you for your obedience.” The abbot’s wise counsel could not tame Nicetas’s ambitious desire to be a recluse. The monastery’s elders, however, did not forsake the headstrong novice in his foolishness; they continued to keep an eye on him and to pray for him.

It was not long before the recluse’s cave became filled with a sweet fragrance and he heard a voice joining his in prayer. He reasoned to himself: If this were not an angel, he would not be praying with me, nor would I sense the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. The undiscerning recluse began to pray still more fervently: “Lord,” he cried out, “appear to me that I might see Thee face to face!” The voice answered: “I shall send you an angel. Follow his will in everything you do.”

Presently a demon appeared in the guise of an angel. First he told the novice to stop praying, that he himself would pray and that the recluse was to occupy himself with reading the Old Testament, and the Old Testament alone. The unfortunate novice was obedient to the demon: he stopped praying, falsely reassured by the constant presence of the “angel” praying at his side. The Old Testament he learned by heart.

The demon began telling Nicetas all that was going on in the world, and on this basis the recluse began to prophesy. Laymen would come to his cave to listen to him. The monastery elders, however, noticed that the recluse never cited the New Testament, only the Old, and they understood that he had fallen into a state of spiritual deception. They broke into the cave, chased out the demon by their prayers, and dragged the recluse from his place of seclusion.

No sooner was Nicetas parted from the demon than he forgot all he had learned of the Old Testament; he was convinced that he had never read it. Indeed, it appeared that he had even forgotten how to read, and when he came round he had to be taught all over again, like a child.

Nicetas understood his error and wept bitterly in repentance. He began to struggle on the true path of humility and obedience. And the Lord, seeing his fervour, forgave him, in token of which He made Nicetas a shepherd of His flock. Elevated in 1096 to the episcopal throne of Great Novgorod, Nikita was granted grace to work miracles. The Lord thereby assured the faithful that their archpastor had been fully cleansed of his delusion and that his labours of repentance had found favour with God. Once, for example, during a severe drought, God answered his prayer for rain; another time, a fire in the city was extinguished by his prayers. For 13 years St. Nicetas skillfully guided his flock before leaving this world on January 30, 1108 to enter into eternal and blessed repose with the saints.

(Based on a translation from 1000 Years of Russian Sanctity compiled by Nun Taisia; Jordanville, 1983.)

INTERCEDING
On this day lift before God:
  • All blessed with the desire to seek God.
  • All tempted to run before they can walk.
  • All who try so hard they become deluded.
  • Those who hear voices and see visions that do not guide them to the good.
  • All who faithfully pray for and support deluded people.
  • Those gifted with breaking delusions in healthy ways.

Xenia of Petersburg, fool-for-Christ.

xeniaIt is easy to forget that our ways are not God’s ways, that there is usually a stark difference between what is popular and what is holy. God has given us some pretty unusual people to make that point clear through the example of their own lives.  They are known in the Orthodox Church as “Fools for Christ” who acted and spoke in ways that made them appear crazy in the eyes of many and went against the grain of their societies.  Through their unique witness, they called their neighbours to the life of a Kingdom not of this world.

If that seems strange, remember how St. Paul said that the cross of Christ is foolishness according to conventional human ways of thinking. (1 Cor. 1:18)  Recall how absurd it seemed to the Jews and the Gentiles to claim that the Son of God was born of a Virgin Mother, died on a cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended into heaven.  We often forget that even the most basic teachings of our faith seemed at first like nonsense to most people.

Today we commemorate Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ, who in the early 18th century in Russia became a widow when her husband, a military officer, died suddenly.  A young widow with no children, she gave away all her possessions to the poor and vanished from society for several years, devoting herself to spiritual struggle in monastic settings. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she took up the life of a homeless wanderer, wearing her late husband’s military uniform and answering only to his name Andrew.  She prayed alone at night in open fields, endured the extreme cold with inadequate clothing, lived among beggars, and suffered abuse from many for appearing insane. She secretly carried heavy stones at night to help with the building of a church and gave the alms she received to the poor.  But she embraced her struggles with patience, abandoning pride in all its forms and praying for the soul of her departed husband. In Xenia’s humility, God gave her great gifts of prayer and prophecy, and she foretold future events such as the death of a Russian empress.

During her lifetime, some recognized her holiness and sought out her blessing and guidance. After Xenia’s own death at age 71, her grave became a source of miracles with many people taking dirt, and even pieces of a stone slab, from it as a blessing.  (If it seems odd that a grave could be a source of blessing, recall how the bones of prophet Elisha brought a dead man back to life in 2 Kings 13:21.) St. Xenia is a well-known and much-loved saint whose prayers are sought especially for employment, housing, or finding a spouse.

Across the centuries, the Lord has raised up such unusual saints in order to shock us out of our complacency, in order to remind us that there is far more to becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2. Peter 1:14) than leading a conventionally respectable life.

Christ surely does not call us all to the rare ministry of a Fool for Christ like St. Xenia, but we may all learn from her example that the humility of embracing our constant need for mercy is at the heart of faithfulness to a Lord Whose Kingdom is not of this world.   There must be something of the holy fool in us all, if our eyes are to be opened to a truth that the world does not yet see.  So let us not be afraid to live accordingly and to be out of step with the conventional wisdom, for that is how we will follow Jesus through the folly of the cross to the glory of the empty tomb. For Christ’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and He is its salvation.

 

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • The people of St Petersburg.
  • Widows.
  • All who wander.
  • All who seek to lose the identity they were born with.
  • All who help others despite their own struggles.
  • All who give generously, seeking no praise.
  • All who make us uncomfortable.
  • All who make us think.

Athanasius of Alexandria – 18th January

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In 313 the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which changed Christianity from a persecuted to an officially favoured religion. About six years later, Arius of Alexandria began to teach concerning the Word of God (John 1:1) that

“God begat him, and before he was begotten, he did not exist.”

Athanasius was at that time a newly ordained deacon, secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a member of his household. His reply to Arius was that the begetting, or uttering, of the Word by the Father is an eternal relation between Them, and not a temporal event. Arius was condemned by the bishops of Egypt (with the exceptions of Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmorica), and went to Nicomedia, from which he wrote letters to bishops throughout the world, stating his position.

The Emperor Constantine undertook to resolve the dispute by calling a council of bishops from all over the Christian world. This council met in Nicea, just across the straits from what is now Istanbul, in the year 325, and consisted of 317 bishops. Athanasius accompanied his bishop to the council, and became recognized as a chief spokesman for the view that the Son was fully God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

The party of Athanasius was overwhelmingly in the majority. (The western, or Latin, half of the Empire was very sparsely represented, but it was solidly Athanasian, so that if its bishops had attended in force, the vote would have been still more lopsided.) It remained to formulate a creedal statement to express the consensus. The initial effort was to find a formula from Holy Scripture that would express the full deity of the Son, equally with the Father. However, the Arians cheerfully agreed to all such formulations, having interpreted them already to fit their own views. Finally, the Greek word “homo-ousios” (meaning “of the same substance, or nature, or essence”) was introduced, chiefly because it was one word that could not be understood to mean what the Arians meant. Some of the bishops present, although in complete disagreement with Arius, were reluctant to use a term not found in the Scriptures, but eventually saw that the alternative was a creed that both sides would sign, each understanding it in its own way, and that the Church could not afford to leave the question of whether the Son is truly God (the Arians said “a god”) undecided. So the result was that the Council adopted a creed which is a shorter version of what we now call the Nicene Creed, declaring the Son to be “of one substance with the Father.” At the end, there were only two holdouts, the aforesaid Secundus and Theonas.

No sooner was the council over than its consensus began to fall apart. Constantine had expected that the result would be unity, but found that the Arians would not accept the decision, and that many of the orthodox bishops were prepared to look for a wording a little softer than that of Nicea, something that sounded orthodox, but that the Arians would accept. All sorts of compromise formulas were worked out, with all shades of variation from the formula of Nicea.

In 328, Alexander died, and Athanasius succeeded him as bishop of Alexandria. He refused to participate in these negotiations, suspecting that once the orthodox party showed a willingness to make reaching an agreement their highest priority, they would end up giving away the store. He defended the full deity of Christ against emperors, magistrates, bishops, and theologians. For this, he was regarded as a trouble-maker by Constantine and his successors, and was banished from Alexandria a total of five times by various emperors. Eventually, Christians who believed in the Deity of Christ came to see that once they were prepared to abandon the Nicene formulation, they were on a slippery slope that led to regarding the Logos as simply a high-ranking angel. The more they experimented with other formulations, the clearer it became that only the Nicene formulation would preserve the Christian faith in any meaningful sense, and so they re-affirmed the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a final triumph that Athanasius did not live to see.

It was a final triumph as far as councils of bishops were concerned, but the situation was complicated by the fact that after Constantine there were several Arian emperors (not counting the Emperor Julian, who was a pagan, but correctly saw that the most effective way to fight Christianity was to throw all his weight on the side of the Arians). Under one of them Arian missionaries were sent to convert the Goths, who became the backbone of the Roman Army (then composed chiefly of foreign mercenaries) with the result that for many years Arianism was considered the mark of a good Army man. The conversion of Clovis, King of the Franks, in 496, to orthodox Christianity either gave the Athanasian party the military power to crush Arianism or denied the Arian Goths the military supremacy that would have enabled them to crush Athanasian Christianity, depending on your point of view.

 

Quotations from the writings of Athanasius:

We were made “in the likeness of God.” But in course of time
That image has become obscured, like a face on a very old
portrait, dimmed with dust and dirt.

When a portrait is spoiled, the only way to renew it is for the Subject to come back to the studio and sit for the artist all over again. That is why Christ came–to make it possible for the divine image in man to be recreated. We were made in God’s likeness; we are remade in the likeness of his Son.

INTERCEDING

On this day lift before God:

  • Those who recognise the likeness of God in others.
  • Those willing to take a stand to defend what they believe to be right.
  • All who are careful and diligent in their work.
  • All who are careful about their use of language.
  • Those torn between the desire to get along and a the desire to be clear.
  • Deacons.