There and Almost There

Today I am more aware of my fellow Lenten mountain climbers than ever. In fact there is a huge troupe ahead of me. They are called the westerners, and they have already reached the top. We are both celebrating Christ's victory, but while me and my group are happy about Palm Sunday, His very good day on earth, they are at the very top already. For them the scary death was a cave they already walked through. I see them resting and joyous while we are bracing for the hardest holiest part of the climb.

This has never been a race and we all know it. I am very happy for them, I love to see them in their celebration. Today, I feel like an earthly echo of a heavenly scene. They are lucky. Being at the top they can scan the whole valley beneath them, this beautiful natural world and the delights of being human.

Worth Repeating - Two Easters One Christ
Originally Published Friday, March 21, 2008 at 07:55AM

Today in normal time Western Christendom focuses on the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ in passion plays and church services of many styles because it is Good Friday, while for the East houses of worship are dark and parking lots empty. This Sunday the difference will be a little more dramatic. Joyous children of the West, whose mothers are dawning Easter bonnets and whose baskets brim with chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and sugary peeps will celebrate the end of the long sacrificial Lent while in the East the most devout will be grateful for a little olive oil and a sip of wine.

The rest of the world looks on shaking their heads and wondering what the scandal was that caused the marriage of the West and East to fail. Then they shrug their shoulders and go back to hot dogs and a ball game.

And yet no one seems to think twice that while it’s daytime in Dayton, they are sleeping in Slovakia and yet there is only one sun. Geography shows us how it is possible to be far apart and yet similar. The truth is that there is only one Son of God: Jesus Christ, and one day: Friday upon which He was nailed to the Cross, and one day on which He showed the world that it didn’t really kill Him. For West and East alike, that is every Friday and every Sunday.

For those who only commemorate Good Friday once a year and Easter once a year there is a big difference between Western and the Eastern Christendom. These precious folks may not be aware of Church-time. They think we aren’t celebrating together, but they are wrong because we are celebrating together. While the one sister is celebrating quietly the other sister is all showy adorned with baubles and bells. While the sun shines in Slovakia, sleeping Susie in Dayton dreams. They are living in the same moments of time, and so is Christendom.

Calendars, our two ways of calculating when we want to be loud, have not separated us as much as some think. The most wonderful part of it all happens when we cross the street to cry louder with our sister on her Good Friday and rejoice raising that glass of wine on Sunday giggling about the holy supernatural phenomenon that happens when the Son rises in the West first. Both good sisters know that it is not ever really normal time in Christendom anyway.


Mountain hikers know that it is around the middle of the mountain where the mind and heart receive a jolt of perspective. We feel more in the present than ever. We are more aware of our surroundings, and less conscious of the world below. We are determined to push through the huffing and puffing, the exhaustion and sweat to reach the top. We won't be doing this much longer, so let's get the most out of every step.

Lenten mountain hikers set the bonds of physical pleasure aside by strict fasting ultimately to receive a heightened awareness of Christ's achievement and joy of the resurrection.

Are we masochists? No; we are Christs voluntarily suffering in order to participate in our small way with Christ's passion Who through His own voluntary suffering achieved the reunion of humanity with our Creator, and ultimately the annihilation of death.

More than in suffering the enmity of humans, and their gross injustice during His arrest, trial and crucifixion, Christ lead the way to humanity's Grand Reunion with God by demonstrating to us a trusting and prayerful life. Union with God takes prayer.

While our bodies physically climb this rugged mountain, our minds and hearts are freed up to leap to the summit by speaking and listening to our God in whose image and likeness we were formed. Made to be like God, let's actively seek the union that He initiated with a Lenten life of continual prayer as Jesus Christ showed us.

Our friends, the Saints, on prayer:

Saint Peter of Damaskos- Spiritual prayer is a discipline that is offered by the intellect and free from all thoughts. During such prayer the intellect is concentrated within the words spoken, and expressly contrite, it abased itself before God, asking only that His will may be done in all its pursuits and conceptions. It does not pay attention to any thought, shape, color, light, fire, or anything at all of the kind; but, conscious that it is watched by God and communing with Him alone, it is free from firm, color and shape.

Let us pray for those whom we have distressed and those who distress us, or who will distress us, because we don't want to harbor the least trace of rancor, and because we fear that on account of our own weakness we will not be able to endure with forbearance when the time comes or to pray for those who mistreat us, as the Lord commands. (Luke 6:28)

We also pray to be directed by God and to become what He wishes us to be; and to be united with others, so that through their prayers we may receive mercy, all the while regarding them as superior to ourselves.

When we make specific requests in our prayers, this is not so as to inform God, for He already knows our hearts; we make them so that we may be brought to contrition. We also do it because we desire to remain longer in His presence, attentively addressing more words to Him, giving thanks to Him, acknowledging the many blessings we receive from Him, for as long as we can, as Saint John Chrysostom says of the Prophet David. For to repeat the same or similar things again and again is not to talk garrulously or haphazardly, since it is done out of longing and so that the words of Divine Scripture should be imprinted in the intellect of whoever is reading or praying.

You do not praise a pot on the grounds that it has made itself; you praise its maker. And when it is broken, you blame whoever broke it, not its maker.

Saint John Climacus - Step 28 (of 30) Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. It's effect is to hold the world together. It is an expiation of sin, a bridge across temptation, a bulwark against affliction. It wipes out conflict, is the work of angels, and is the nourishment of all bodiless beings. Prayer is future gladness, action without end, wellspring of virtues, source of grace, hidden progress, food of the soul, enlightenment of the mind, an axe against despair, hope demonstrated, sorrow done away with. It is a mirror of progress, a demonstration of success, evidence of one's condition, the future revealed, a sign of glory. For the man who prays it is the court, the judgment hall, the tribunal of the Lord.

Heartfelt thanksgiving should have first place in our book of prayer. Next should be confession and genuine contrition of soul. After that should come our request to the universal King. This method is best, as one of the brothers was told by an angel of the Lord.

You cannot learn to see just because someone tells you to do so. For that, you require your own natural power of sight. In the same way, you cannot discover from teaching others the beauty of prayer. Prayer has its own teacher in God, who 'teaches man knowledge' (Psalm 93:10). He grants the prayer of him who prays, and He blesses the years of the just.

Third Sunday, Elevation of the Cross - Saint Basil

After grabbing onto Saint Anthony's hand last week, a most divine force plummeted me up and away from a gaggle of demons. Although I begged for such help, I didn't expect to receive it. I feel as if a malignancy was removed from my soul. I also feel numb, as if recovering from anesthesia. A sense of peace and calm has accompanied me the last few miles of our hike up Lenten Mountain. I am humbled and grateful, very grateful.

Have you noticed a fog coming in and going out? It's comforting to know that you are with me, that we are all hiking together. I can almost hear your footsteps behind and in front of me. It's also good to see the trail from thousands of feet before us.

I wonder where will we meet the next Saint? Oh Look! Down there, a glowing piece of paper! Perhaps on it is written a message for us. I reach down and brush away some old leaves and pick it up. The glowing paper reads.

Saint Basil's letter to Saint Gregory of Nazianzus at the beginning of Basil's retirement to Pontus in about 358. Basil constantly endeavored to induce Gregory to join him in his monastic life.

"I recognized your letter, just as men recognize the children of their friends by the parent's likeness appearing in them. For when you say that the nature of our surroundings would not greatly tend to implant in your soul a desire to live with us until you should learn something of our habits and mode of life, it is truly characteristic of your mind and worthy of your soul, which counts all things of this earth as nothing compared with the promised bliss which is in store for us.

But I am ashamed to write what I myself do day and night in this out of the way place. For I have indeed left my life in the city, as giving rise to countless evils, but I have not yet been able to leave myself behind. On the contrary, I am like those who go to sea, and because they have no experience in sailing are very distressed and sea sick, and complain of the size of the boat as causing the violent tossing; and then when they leave the ship and take to the dinghy or the cock-boat, they continue to be seasick and distressed wherever they are; for their nausea and bile go with them when they change. We carry our indwelling disorders about with us, and so we are nowhere free from the same sort of disturbances. Consequently we have derived no great benefit from our present solitude. What we ought to do, however, and what would have enabled us to keep close to the footsteps of Him who pointed the way to salvation (for He says, "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me") is this.

We must try to keep the mind in tranquility. For just as the eye which constantly shifts its gaze, now turning to the right or to the left, now incessantly peering up and down, cannot see distinctly what lies before it, but the sight must be fixed firmly on the object in view if one would make his vision of it clear, so too man's mind when distracted by his countless worldly cares cannot focus itself distinctly on the truth. Nay, he who is not yet yoked in the bonds of matrimony is greatly disturbed by violent desires, rebellious impulses, and morbid lusts; while he who is already bound in wedlock is seized by yet another tumult of cares; if childless, by a longing for children, if possessing children, by solitude for their nurture, by keeping watch over his wife, by the management of his household, the protection of his servants' rights, losses on contracts, quarrels with neighbors, contests in the law courts, risks of business, or the labours of the farm. Every day brings with it some particular cloud to darken the soul; and night takes over the cares of the day; deluding the mind with the same cares in fantasy.

There is but one escape from all this -- separation from the world altogether. But withdrawal from the world does not mean bodily removal from it, but rather the severance of the soul from sympathy with the body, and the giving up city, home, personal possessions, love of friends, property, means of subsistence, business, social relations, and knowledge derived from human teaching; and it also means the readiness to receive in ones heart the impressions engendered there by divine instruction. And making the heart ready for this means the unlearning of the teachings which already possess it, derived from bad habits. For it is no more possible to write in wax without first smoothing away the letters previously written thereon, than it is to apply the soul with divine teachings without first removing its preconceptions derived from habit. Now to this end solitude gives us the greatest help, since it calms our passions, and gives reason leisure to sever them completely from the soul. For just as animals are easily subdued by caresses; so desire, anger, fear and grief, the venomous evils which beset the soul, if they are lulled to sleep by solitude and are not exasperated by constant irritations, are more easily subdued by the influence of reason. Therefore let the place of retirement be such as ours, so separated from the intercourse of men that the continuity of our religious discipline may not be interrupted by any external distraction.

The discipline of piety nourishes the soul with divine thoughts. What then is more blessed than to imitate on earth the anthem of Angels' choirs; to hasten to prayer at the very break of day, and to worship our Creator with hymns and songs; then, when the sun shines brightly and we turn to our tasks, prayer attending us wherever we go, to season our labours with sacred song as food with salt? For that state of the soul in which there is joy and no sorrow is a boon bestowed by the consolation of hymns. ..."

Looks like we found the fragrant basil growing that pointed out to us where the Cross had been. I think Basil is telling us to seek and grab on to this unusual peace I have sensed. Let this journey be focused on its summit. Thank you Basil. You have given us momentum to reach the next plateau.

Devils, Demons, and Defiance

This is the end of our second week. I am being reminded of how the devil usually jabs me harder during Lent than at other times. I don't know if that is really true, but I know that I am being besieged heavily these days. If I had nothing to do but to sit quietly in my log cabin and stoke the wood stove between cups of tea and chapters full of holy words, and if day after day I could break from my reading to stroll through the snowy woods to pray, I'm sure that I could fly up to Pascha like a carefree angel. Then, at the moment that Salome announces that He is risen, I would sing 'Hallelujah' in perfect harmony with the crowd while holding my brightly burning candle in my wax-dripped hand joining its glow with my own.

Instead, conflicts, like bowling balls are careening towards me to knock me down and out. Bruised, I manage to get back up, again and again, brush off the dust of disappointment and remember that it's Lent. So I look around for the outstretched fingers of a saint to grab onto.

Last night I obeyed the fast* to the letter, and did not even use oil in my dinner. It made me feel good to deny myself that embellishment to my vegetables. Experience has taught me that self control will make me feel lighter and stronger by Easter. Every day of success climbs, and every day of rationalizing the rules away sits still.

Last night too I read my bookclub book, Lost City of Z, about Percy Harrison Fawcett who explored and mapped the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century. I was in awe of what he was willing to endure against the devastating obstacles of heat, the dense jungle, innumerable vicious pests and disease. Compared to Fawcett's Amazonian exploits our Lenten climb seems risk-free.

Or is that an illusion? Forces that are out to destroy us would rather destroy our souls instead of our bodies. Each body dies one way or another, but only the most demon defiant souls will be given death-resistant bodies in kingdom come. Lenten disciplines help us strengthen our souls to combat deadly evil.

Time will whisk each and every one of us to Easter whether we climb the mountain or lounge around the beach. Oh! but the view of the resurrection is so much better from the top of the mountain of Lent.

Enough musing; I must try harder to climb. Where are those fingers I spotted stretched to grab my hand? There they are, I said to myself stretching as far as I could to meet them. "Come closer, I can't reach you." I cried desperate for help. "Closer!" Oh my! Who are you?" I asked.

" Anthony of the desert." He replied softly.

"Oh, help me Saint Anthony," I cried. "I need to get away from these maddening bowling balls!"

Then he replied,

** "Know this: that the demons have not been created like what we mean when we call them by that name; for God made nothing evil, but they have been made good. Having fallen, however, from the heavenly wisdom, since then they have been grovelling on earth. On the one hand they deceived the Greeks with their displays, while out of envy of us Christians they move all things in their desire to hinder us from entry into the heavens; in order that we should not ascend up there from whence they fell.

Thus there is need of much prayer and discipline, that when a man has received through the Spirit the gift of discerning spirits, he may have power to recognize their characteristics: which of them are less and which are more evil; of what nature is the special pursuit of each, and how each of them is overthrown and cast out. For their villanies and plots are many. The blessed Apostle and his followers knew such things when they said, (in Corinthians 2:11) and we from the temptations we have suffered at their hands, ought to correct one another under them. Wherefore I, having had proof of them, speak as to children.

Wherefore, children, let us holdfast our discipline, and let us not be careless. For in it the Lord is our fellow worker, as it is written, to all that choose the good, God works with them for good.

Let the desire of possession take hold of no one, for what gain is it to acquire things which we cannot take with us?

Why not rather get those things which we can take away with us -- to whit, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality. If we possess these, we shall find them of themselves preparing for us a welcome there in the land of the meek hearted."

"Thank you Saint Anthony." I replied, "I understand. You defy demons with your discerning eye and counter them with goodness, not giving them too much attention, but rather storing up your treasures in heaven. I'll try." Then it occurred to me that with such good advice, I might be able to jump up to the next plateaux and avoid those bowling balls at the same time. Brilliant idea!

Orthodox Christian fast is to abstain from anything that has blood. This rule forbids eating any dairy, fish or meat products for every day of Lent, including the weekends. Shellfish such as shrimp, clams, muscles, are acceptable. Olive oil and wine are also forbidden during the week, but according to the current Orthodox calendar are acceptable on Saturday and Sunday. Fish is allowed on March 25th: the Feast of the Annunciation, and on Palm Sunday.
* Life of Saint Anthony of Egypt by Saint Athanasius

The Climbing Party

This year let's call our friends, the Saints, to help us climb this rugged mountain of Lent whose pinnacle is the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. No matter how uncomfortable the trek before us may be, let's be determined to leave the chaos of the earth behind and draw as near as possible to the peaceful kingdom of God.

Ordinarily we Christians live on two planes; one is holy and the other profane. The secular layer with all of its demands to satisfy the body and ego with food, shelter, and power is rife with conflict and death. The secular world demands our full attention and usually gets it. The holy plane is the quiet and demure kingdom of God which resides in our hearts, in sacred books, (which are the depositories of holy minds,) in churches, and on mountaintops!

God likes mountaintops for the open and clean space up there. Heat rises. Vapor rises. People climb. Mountaintops are in the world but not of it, as we aspire to be. So, let's start climbing. The words of the saints will be our lanterns, ropes, and the arms that grab our own to lift us to the next plateau. Who is the first Saint to give us a leg up?

Saint John Climacus author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent

Saint John lived in the Sinai desert, at the foot of Moses' Mount that rises to nearly 7,500 feet. As the Abbot of The Monastery of Saint Katherine in the Sinai, his wisdom and guidance were so valuable that towards the end of his life, his peer, John, abbot of a nearby monastery Raithu requested that he write this book to guide future monks. While his book has inspired monasteries full of monks and clergy for centuries, lay people also benefit from this famous mountain climber's wisdom.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent gives us thirty steps to reach our mountaintop. To read this book during Lent, is to take the climb with the master Abba.

Before we begin, look up.

Step 1 - Renunciation of Life.
Step 2 - On Detachment
Step 3 - On Exile
Step 4 - On Obedience
Step 5 - On Penitence
Step 6 - On Remembrance of Death
Step 7 - On Mourning
Step 8 - On Placidity and Meekness
Step 9 - On Malice
Step 10 - On Slander
Step 11 - On Talkativeness and Silence
Step 12 - On Falsehood
Step 13 - On Despondency
Step 14 - On Gluttony
Step 15 - On Chastity
Step 16 - On Avarice
Step 17 - On Poverty
Step 18 - On Insensitivity
Step 19 - On Sleep. Prayer, and the Singing in Church of Psalms
Step 20 - On Alertness
Step 21 - On Unmanly Fears
Step 22 - On Vainglory
Step 23 - On Pride
Step 24 - On Meekness, Simplicity, Guilessness, and Wickedness
Step 25 - On Humility
Step 26 - On Discernment
Step 27 - On Stillness
Step 28 - On Prayer
Step 29 - On Dispassion
Step 30 - On Faith, Hope, and Love

To think that we have already reached Step 30 is to believe the illusion that the first few feet up is the top of the mountain. Men and women who have actually reached Step 30 can walk on water and raise the dead.

Your thought for the second week of our hike from Abba John is, "It is detestable and dangerous for a wrestler to be slack at the start of a contest, thereby giving proof of his impending defeat to everyone. Let us have a firm beginning to our religious life (read:climb), for this will help us if a certain slackness comes later. A bold and eager soul will be spurred on by the memory of its first zeal and new wings can thus be obtained.

When the soul betrays itself, when that initial happy warmth grows cold, the reasons for such a loss ought to be carefully sought and, once found, ought to be combatted with all possible zeal, for the initial fervor has to turn back through the same gate through which it has slipped away. The man who leaves the world because of fear is like burning incense, which begins with fragrance and ends in smoke. The man who leaves the world in hopes of a reward is like the millstone that always turns around on the same axis. But the man who leaves the world for love of God has taken fire from the start, and like fire set to fuel, it soon created a conflagration.

We should love the Lord as we do our friends. Many a time I have seen people bring grief to God, without being bothered about it, and I have seen these very same people resort to every device, plan, pressure, plea from themselves and their friends, and every gift, simply to restore an old relationship upset by some minor grievance.

At the beginning of our religious life, (read: climb) we cultivate the virtues, and we do so with toil and difficulty. Progressing a little, we then lose our sense of grief or retain very little of it. But when our mortal intelligence turns to zeal and is mastered by it, then we work with full joy, determination, desire, and a holy flame."

We will go back to our Master Climber from time to time, but you are better off reading the whole mountain...I mean book.

Preface to Lent

This year I feel as if I am climbing into Lent. I am scaling a bare rocky mountain with heavy boots over muddy feet. I am desperate for the clean thin air at the top. I hope to find a cave along the way where I can rest in darkness and wait for the Holy Spirit to visit me with His wisdom. Please Lord, I beg you to remove these boots and purify my polluted soul.

Forty days Noah and his family sat in the ark waiting for God to cleanse the world with rain and death. Will Lent be that way for me? Will prayer and fasting clean my muddy feet?

For forty years the people of God journeyed away from their life of slavery to reach the promise land. During that journey they confronted hunger and fear, miracles and apostasy. Most of them died along the way because their lack of faith and humility disqualified them from receiving God's gift of freedom. Will I make it to freedom of sin and my own death, or will my failure cause me to perish along the way?

Lord, help me climb to the top of Sinai and Tabor too. I want to hear your instructions, and rest in your light, away from the chaos and faithlessness of the world below. My dangling foot is searching Your hand. I need a boost. My slippery hands are clinging to this rock. 'Evangeline, "Don't look down."