St Mary of Egypt, it is said, received Holy Communion
exactly once after she fled to the desert to repent: on the day of her death.
17 years of life in the wilderness were spent deprived of Body and Blood of
Christ in the eucharist. This was not normal practice at the time for nuns,
monks, and ascetics. Early monastic rules required even anchorites—those living
in caves or huts apart from the monastic community—to come together with the
others for Sunday liturgy to commune with God and unite with their fellow
monastics in the Cup of the Lord. Yet St Mary was nourished only, as she told
the elder Zosimas, by “the word of God which is alive and active.”
The spread of COVID-19 has forced Orthodox leaders to make difficult decisions about how and whether to hold church services. Some have advised that most people simply stay home from Sunday liturgy for the foreseeable future, especially the older and immune-compromised, as well as those who are sick. For most, this will mean obligatory fasting from Holy Communion.
On his recent visit to Mt. Athos in October, 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew announced the imminent inclusion of five Athonite elders among the saints: Ieronymos of Simonopetra, Daniel of Katounakia, Joseph the Hesychast, Ephraim of Katounakia, and Sophrony of Essex.
There is a phrase in the Sayings of Abba Macarius with which I can identify. When asked to address a word of salvation, Macarius replied: “I have not yet become a monk myself, but I have seen monks.” While I feel singularly unsuited to write about saints, I can say that I have been privileged to meet saints who shaped my mind and ministry: Fr. Sophrony of Essex, Fr. Paisios of Athos, Fr. Porphyrios of Athens, as well as Fr. Iakovos of Euboea and Fr. Ephraim of Katounakia. My most treasured gift is a small cross containing the relics of contemporary saints: Nektarios of Pentapolis, Arsenios of Cappadocia, Silouan the Athonite, Joseph the Hesychast, and Amphilochios of Patmos.
There is no doubt that the acclamation and proclamation of a new saint is a refreshing gesture of consolation for the church, an affectionate expression of solidarity in people’s daily affliction. But can a gift—whether an act of grace by God or an act of generosity by the church—ever be manipulated or misused? Continue reading →
In May 2018, I graduated with my Master of Divinity, and immediately following the graduation ceremony, I boarded a plane to Rome, where I intended to undergo the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Although I had attended a renowned Jesuit university with one of the largest Jesuit communities in the United States, I chose to go to Rome to do the Exercises because the retreat director was an “orthodox” Jesuit, one who was not afraid to speak “the truth” and one who despised the way “liberals” had destroyed the Society of Jesus. As a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic with an overabundance of zeal and vocational angst, I seized the opportunity to make a retreat under this particular Jesuit, leaving the local Jesuits— who helped me grow as a person and a scholar—far behind.
During Lent, lay, clergy and monastic alike partake in fasting, and unlike other fasting periods, such as the nativity fast prior to Christmas, many modern Orthodox Christian laity do still partake in the Lenten fast, at least to some degree and for some extent of time. As the laity partake in this tradition, they ought to consider that for monks and nuns who engage in the practice of fasting throughout the year, fasting is not simply a matter of abstaining from food but is a spiritual exercise that is part and parcel of the quest to be Good and become more Divine-like. Despite the fact that not all persons are suited to monastic life, there are indeed lessons that laity can learn from the deeply psychological and moral dimensions of the monastic understanding of fasting as a spiritual practice.
Some of the most theologically developed discussions of fasting are to be found within the Philokalia, meaning “Lover of Goodness.” Within the four volumes of the Philokalia, we find a robust philosophy of fasting in which the psyche as well as the body must be involved in the spiritual pursuit of the good. Within these classic texts of Orthodox Christian spirituality, the idea that cultivating a state of psycho-spiritual “watchfulness,” “wakefulness,” or “mindfulness” (called nepsis) is foundational for the cultivation of arete, or virtue. Within the Philokalia, nepsis is described as vigilantly guarding one’s heart and mind from evil, or vicious, thoughts such as: anger, jealousy, rage, despair, gluttony, greed, egoism and lust. It is the practice of nepsis that helps enable one to transform these pathoi, or pathological thoughts, into more reasonable desires and place them in the service of attaining the higher-order desire for the good. Continue reading →