Palm Sunday

Today is Palm (in Russia – Pussy Willow) Sunday.  People come to church with small bunches of pussy willows in their hands.  Everyone is in a festive mood.  Only one week, filled with wondrous divine services, is left until Pascha.

It would be nice to go back in time in order to draw a small lesson about the meaning of these pussy willows that everyone finds so cute.  This feast, according to the church ustav (rubrics) is called The entry of the Lord into Jerusalem.  Almost two thousand years ago, the Lord, in His humility, came to Jerusalem; to be exact:  He rode in on a donkey.  The day before His coming to Jerusalem, He worked a great miracle:  He raised His friend Lazarus, who was dead four days and already began to decompose and stink in the tomb, from the dead.  The news of such a great and until that time unheard of miracle spread quickly and reached Jerusalem.  For that reason, the people in great multitudes gathered at the entrance to the city in order to look upon this great Wonderworker, the Lord, Who raises from the dead.

The roads in those days were unpaved and, in the hot and dry climate of the Holy Land, very dusty.  That was the very reason why the people put their garments and wide palm branches on the road, making a sort of a carpet, so that when the Saviour were to come there would not be any dust in the air and it would be possible to see Him.  Palms do not grow in Russia, that is the reason why from ancient times there this feast among the people is referred to not as Palm (as it is in the warm countries), but rather as the Pussy Willow Sunday.

The action of the people offers us the following lesson:  the Lord often passes by us, very close to us, but we do not see Him.  In order to see the Lord noetically, we must undertake some labour, offer at least a small sacrifice to God.  People put their garments and palm branches on the road.  Both things are obtained with labour; even if they were to be bought with money, because that has to be earned first as well.  Similarly, in the spiritual life our labours according to our strength: prayer, fasting, and helping our neighbor cover the dust of the passions and cares of the daily life, giving us the possibility to see the Lord spiritually.

Alas, often we wish that others should labour instead of us:  let the father (the priest) pray in the altar, let the candle burn before the icon.  As for ourselves, we do not want to work and that is why we do not receive the grace of God and His consolation.

Standing in the church of God, holding pussy willows (palms) in our hands, let us remember how the people met the Lord during His entry into Jerusalem.  Let us cover the dusty road of earthy trials and sorrows with the possible labours unto the glory of God, with the keeping of His commandments.  Then we will see that this road, on the way to the death on the Cross, was travelled by the King of Glory Himself:  by the Lord Jesus Christ.  Having seen Him, we also will not be afraid of following Him and go to our cross.  Walking after Him, seeing His sufferings, His patience and absence of murmuring, we sinners also will be consoled, for how can one complain about our small trials, when looking upon the passion of the Lord, the passion that He endured for us and for our sake.

Consolation in grief

Undoubtedly, everyone in his lifetime was visited by the Lord with grief.  Illness, loss, betrayal, slander, persecution, and other sorrows are familiar to many.  As a rule, rarely is anyone glad to be visited by sorrow.  Rarely does anyone ask God for sorrow.  In most cases people are afraid of sorrows and do not wish to experience them.  Hence, the question rises:  “How should one purport himself in sorrow?  How should one behave when sorrow, like an unexpected guest, pays a visit?”

Being a parish priest, I often see that people in sorrow come to church; occasionally, for the first time in a long while; occasionally, for the first time in their life.  Everyone goes through his grief in his own way:  someone comes to himself and is sobered from the intoxication of the daily worldly life; someone quietly slips down into the pit of faint-heartedness and murmuring against one’s fate (as it is ordered by God); someone is angered, hardens one’s heart and murmurs not only agaist his fate, but also against God.  Often, people in comparably similar circumstances behave themselves quite differently.  It is obvious:  the way in which everyone goes through his sorrow in many ways depends upon himself and upon his spiritual state.

In the book “The Spiritual Meadow”, Saint John Moschos offers the following, beautiful example of how what is sorrow for one person could be happiness for another.  Once, Saint John and his friend, Saint Sophronios, the future Patriarch of Jerusalem, came to a church somewhere in Palestine.  There they beheld a very strange sight:  a very beautiful, young woman with loud wailing and sighing was praying before the icons and asking something of God.  Surprised, they called her servant girl and asked her what the matter was.  The servant girl explained that her mistress recently became a widow.  Being left alone, she wanted to remain faithful to her departed husband until her death bed, but was sorely tempted because a certain young soldier began seeking her attention.  On account of all this, she came to the church and began asking God to send her a grave illness in order that, being sick in bed, she would not have an opportunity to fall into sin.  When Saints John and Sophronios returned to the same church in a week, they did not see the yong widow, but only her servant girl.  Having asked her about the state of her mistress, in wonder, they received the following reply:  “God heard her prayer.  She is in bed and with her whole heart is thankful to God for the illness that He sent her.”

Here is a wonderful example when a person askes God for sorrow for the humbling of one’s flesh and a victory in the struggle against a temptation.  However, we rarely have such courage and determination in the struggle with the passions and therefore, the Lord, as the loving Father and wise Physician, of His own accord sends us the necessary sorrows, without which we could have perished spiritually.  Alas, we have almost forgotten that punishment has as its purpose the correction unto good, and not a meaningless infliction of pain.

Does that mean that all of us should ask God for sorrows?  Not at all.  Hardly there are those among us, who have matured spiritually to such a  state.  The Holy Fathers teach us to walk the Royal Path and not to sway into extremes.  The safest way is the way of humility.  One should not ask the Lord for sorrows out of humility because no one knows whether he will be able to bear that which he asks.  At the same time, one should not be faint-hearted and should not murmur when sorrows visit us of their own accord.  One should ask God for help and patience, and if it is expedient for our soul, for the deliverance from besetting grief.  The best balm for the soul in time of sorrow are the words:  Glory be to God for all things!

It seems that my thought is coming to a close, but someone might say:  “And what about the consolation?  Where is the consolation in grief?”  As strange as it may seem, the sorrow itself often is the source of consolation.  As a bitter medicine, unpleasant and filled with pain in the beginning, it heals and purifies the soul of a believer.  Together with healing and cleansing a person is visited by a profound peace.  And where there is peace, as the Holy Fathers say, there is God.

On thoughts

Even as a speck of dust, so is the improper thought in the heart of man.

Often, we do not consider the thoughts and ideas that attract us.  We do not reason regarding their propriety, wholesomeness, and usefulness.  Accepting the enemy’s suggestions indiscriminately, we suffer harm; often little, but at times great harm, maleficent or altogether deadly for the soul.  The picking of mushrooms could serve as a good example in this case.

Certainly, everybody knows that one has to pick mushrooms very carefully in order not to get poisoned while eating them.  There are obviously poisonous mushrooms:  toadstool, fairy-mushroom; there are also much more dangerous mushrooms:  the false ones.  They look very much like the edible ones, but in reality are poisonous.  The experienced pickers examine all the mushrooms very carefully before placing them in the basket.  If there is a slightest shadow of doubt as to whether a mushroom is edible or not, they throw it out.

In order to avoid pernicious harm to the soul, one must act much in the same way with all thoughts, desires, and ideas.  All thoughts that are from God, ones that are pure, penitential in nature, humble, and filled with love toward God and one’s neighbor, should be accepted and placed in the basket of the heart.  All thoughts from the enemy, those that are proud, cruel, self-centered, self-loving, evil, malicious, and others like unto them, must be thrown out.

The eyes are washed with pure water or a medical solution.  In the same way, the heart must be cleansed by prayer and protected from the dirt of improper thoughts, in order for it always to be able to see the Lord and His light clearly, in order for it to be a temple worthy for the dwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Appendicitis

There lived a boy.  Each summer, much like other children of his age, he spent at his grandmother’s place.  He spent entire days playing with friends, running through the streets, riding a bike, playing soccer, playing hide and seek, playing war; he came home only to eat, to grab some candy to take outside, and toward evening, to sleep.

A few days in a row his right side was hurting.  The pain was getting worse slowly and finally got so bad that, when he woke up one morning, he was moving from the bed to the couch and back from the couch to the bed to get some relief.  The pain didn’t go away and when his grandmother came home for lunch, he barely ate a tip of the spoon’s worth of mashed potatos and begged to go back to bed.

– Is it your appendix?  – asked the grandmother.  – I don’t know.  – It hurts terribly.  – The boy was looking at his grandmother while she approached the phone.  – Should I call an ambulance?  – No…  – Can a person die from an appendicitis?  – Yes, if it ruptures.  – Then, call an ambulance.  The fear of death outweighed the fear of the examination by a doctor.

The ambulance was quick.  The male nurse felt the boy’s stomach and said that he should be examined by a surgeon.  With tears the grandmother sent the boy to the hospital and went to ask to leave early from work in order to follow her grandson.  At the hospital, after a short examination, the surgeon said:  “Immediately into surgery”.

The grandmother’s call saved the boys life.  His appendix started rupturing shortly before the surgery.  Later on, the doctor said that the next day would have been too late.

Epilogue

There are moments in life when it is critical to ask for help in time.  One may have an “appendicitis” in one’s soul, an “appendicitis” that has to be properly cleaned, or entirely removed, in order to avoid spiritual death.

Unrepented sins contaminate the soul, make it dark, unhappy, restless, deprived of inner peace.  Remembering of wrongs, envy, anger, avarice, lust, moral downfalls, lies, laziness, pride, self-love, self-will, and other sins and passions poison the heart, make it hard, cold, cruel, unable to love.

The one, who has experienced a serious illness, values good health above money and worldly goods.  Let us, therefore, before all else take proper care for the well-being of our soul.  Let us cleanse our hearts with sincere repentance.  Let us forgive our offenders and enemies.  Let us abandon excessive anxiety about the coming day.  Then, we will come to know how invaluable the spiritual health is.

On humility

God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.  (James 4:6)
 

Every othodox christian knows that humility is one the chief virtues.  Without humility, no other virtue will be of benefit.  Quite on the contrary, virtue without humility is harmful to an ascetic.  Self-opinion and pride darken the reason and bring one to perdition.

However, it is very sad that for many humility is an unfamiliar term considered to mean a certain modesty, quiet character, and alas, at times even weakness.  Therefore, many attempt to fulfill the commandments of God, attempt to live according to the Holy Gospel without this blessed helper and soon experience the waning of strength, despondency, anxiety, sadness, despair of attaining the goal of christian life:  the kingdom of heaven and the eternal union with God.

In order to evaluate the meaning of the word humility properly, one must consider the fact that it stems from the greek word irine, which means peace.  It is quite possible that the word serenity, serene, is related to what we call humility.  Thus, we can understand that there is no humility in confusion.  The holy fathers say that where there is peace, there is God.  In one of the priest’s exclamations during the divine services God is referred to as the King of peace.  The holy apostle Paul teaches that the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, humility is none other than the state of being in peace, in a peaceful and leveled state of the soul.  It is only in this state that the soul is filled with the light of God, with His grace, and it is only in this state that it actively experiences the communion with God.

Thus, humility is the firm foundation upon which the house of all the virtues is built.  Christian life is inconceivable without humility.

What are the impediments to the acquiring of humility?  Attachment to transitory world.  Here, for better clarity, we could juxtapose humility with worldliness, where in the first case, humility is union with God, and in the other, worldliness is the collection of all the passions.  Humility is love toward God.  Worldliness is love and lust toward the transitory world and all that belongs to it.  Therefore, pride, love of honor, vainglory, avarice, envy, lust and other passions are an impediment in the acquiring of humility and, with it, of the grace of God.

St. Seraphim of Sarov said that the goal of the christian life is the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Consequently, it can be said that the goal of the christian life is the acquisition of humility, of God`s peace in one`s soul.

Humility is the renunciation of the world.

Humility is the purity of heart.

Humility is the complete submission to the will of God.

Humility is the gratitude toward God for all things.

Humility is the pure prayer of the heart.

Humility is the foretaste of the kingdom of God already in this life.

Humility is the true union with God.