Catechetical Letter


January 25, 2005

St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Auxentius, St. Moses

Let us seek to discover the things of heaven through the sweat of our efforts, rather than by mere talk, for at the hour of death it is deeds, not words, that must be displayed.

· St. John Climacus


Unless a man sets himself at utterly at nought, he cannot speak of the majesty of God.

· St. Diadochos of Photiki


Even if we should have mounted to the very pinnacle of virtue, let us consider ourselves last of all. · St John Chrysostom


Humility is constant forgetfulness of one's achievements.

· St. John Climacus


He who has once placed his hope in God no longer is concerned over himself.

· St. Paisius Velichkovsky


The Law, in its imperfection says: 'Attend to yourself' (Deut. 4:9). The Lord, in His perfection, tells us to correct our brother, saying, 'If your brother sins against you, etc.' (Matt. 18:15). If your reproof, or rather your reminder, can be pure and humble, then do as the Lord commanded, particularly in the case of those who will accept it. But if your progress has not reached this far, at least do what the Law says.

· St. John Climacus


The single-phrased Jesus Prayer bridles unruly thought. · St. Ilias the Presbyter


In spite of all [Tsarina Alexandra’s] efforts, she never succeeded in being merely amiable and acquiring the art which consists of flitting gracefully but superficially over all manner of subjects. The fact is that the Tsarina was nothing if not sincere. Every word from her lips was the true expression of her real feelings, Finding herself misunderstood, she quickly drew back into her shell. Her natural pride was wounded. She appeared less and less at the ceremonies and receptions she regarded as an intolerable nuisance. She adopted a habit of distant reserve which was taken for haughtiness and contempt. But those who came in contact with her in moments of distress knew what a sensitive spirit, what a longing for affection, was concealed behind that apparent coldness. She had accepted her new religion with entire sincerity, and found it a great source of comfort in hours of trouble and anguish; but above all, it was the affection of her family which nourished her love, and she was never really happy except when she was with them. 

– Pierre Gilliard Thirteen Years at the Russian Court


“The LORD bless thee and keep thee. The LORD make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The LORD lift up the light of his countenance upon thee and grant thee peace” (Numbers 6).   



If you should think of me in my unworthiness, offer my name in prayer. – the unworthy


The Ascetic Character of Holy Scripture


As you have heard me say to you, now and then, Orthodox ‘spirituality’ is not of a theoretical type, but is in the entire tradition of the Fathers rooted in practice, whether in the silent prayers of the Hesychasts or in the charitable labours of St. Basil. And the source and character of our piety in practice is ascetic. The hours we pray are monastic hours. The Jesus Prayer, simplest, seemingly, of all prayers, learned at the very beginning and by young children, is a monastic prayer with a deep ascetic practice behind it, though we are instructed not to add to it any ascetic feats without the clear direction of a spiritual director. One looks at the Orthodox keeping of time, celebrating the seasons by following the path of Our Lord’s life, venerating daily the various heroes who have gone before on that journey, and alternately feasting or fasting, and the ascetic character of our whole worship is unmistakable. When we receive Holy Confession, we confess the same kinds of passions struggled against by monks. When we receive Holy Communion, we strive, as they do, to see God. There is no disparity between their lives and ours; we are all seeking the same thing, celibate or married, monastic or in the world. In fact, the monks are the light of laymen, as angels are the light of monks.


Likewise, we have discussed, as we would expect, the ascetic character of Holy Scripture. Israel fasted in preparation for God’s activity, put on sackcloth and ashes in repentance, and even engaged in abstinence in preparation for jihad. These were not merely legal pieties, though the law too was given to help man overcome the passions. In the same way, an instruction to fast was first given to Adam in the perfection of Eden, that he might not acquire the passions, and the breaking of that fast slew the world. Christ is our prime example, born of a virgin, Himself a virgin, fasting in the wilderness, feasting with his disciples, keeping the holy days and long watches or hours, and purifications by which He purified our nature and all creation. The Apostles, likewise, followed in this way, and the Fathers after them, and we do as well, following after our Bishop, a celibate and prototype of ascetics. The Holy Scriptures read like a manual for ascetic training, teaching us to fast from the passions, war with death in our flesh, restrain the body’s appetites, and acquire the spirit of humility. The writings of the desert Fathers retain an unmistakable continuity with those of the Holy Apostles, whether instructing us on preferring others in love, or on overcoming temptation, or on seeing God and theosis. In the Scriptures, it is the same Christ in all, whether in our diversity of vocations we live in the world or the desert. He remains the ultimate example of ascetic piety. I tell you these things now, in the hope that the enemy will never be able to lure you from the path, and likewise if I stumble and am lost, you may remind and strengthen me, and we will continue on together.


Celtic Prayers


I’ve spoken to you occasionally concerning the need for prayer at all times and in all activities, whether preparing supper or traveling or preparing for any work. This tradition is visible in the many prayers for such occasions in the prayer books for laymen, in the Russian Book of Needs, and in the various priestly blessings for everything from traveling to blessing a house. As an example, I have referred to the pieties of the Celts, Orthodox before the centurions came to convert or martyr them by the sword. Whether from pious customs of the Russians, the Serbs, the Greeks, or those of any pious people, we stand to learn much that can transform the inner man by transforming his outward veneration.

These devotions should never be lightly dismissed as merely ‘ethnic’ or conservative (a political notion) or ‘peasant’ practices, though indeed we can learn likewise from many pious ethnics, conservatives, and peasants, even in all our assumed Western education and cultured refinement. If we cannot, then how shall we learn from a Tax Collector, a Fisherman, a Samaritan, indeed a Carpenter and a Jew?

Nor must we allow ourselves to accord a totality to our own local attitudes or national culture here in the West, falling into the very pitfall we might presume upon our brethren of other lands, among whom are countless Saints and churches as flowers of diverse spiritual meadows. If we have assumed that ours is a more or less generic environment, that may be more from a poverty of piety than from a particularly Western brand of it, and we would be arrogant in the extreme if we casually shunned the habits those who planted and led us as spiritual parents -- who do, it must be observed, hail from other places and also other times. If I flee from pieties because they smack of particular nationalities, then I have truly fallen prey to the heresy of phyletism.

The question is never whether piety is presumably “Russian” or “Serbian” or what have you, but whether or not I give the fullest possible expression of reverence, of veneration, of worship, and what I can learn in humility from others. Any time I adopt for myself a rule, or am assigned one by my spiritual director, it will have originated in the practice of actual persons, who have a history, an ethnicity, a nationality. Piety which is disconnected from the human race on the one hand and individual human persons on the other, which is merely a theoretical contemplation, cannot be Orthodox piety. If we cannot say “following the tradition of the holy fathers…” on the one hand, or “as I have learned from those who led me” on the other, then we must question whether the object of piety is indeed the personal God-man, Jesus Christ, who entered history as a very specific person, the Seed of David. If we must invent a national piety from scratch, we will be far from Christ.

I’m suggesting we ask ourselves, of the venerable pieties of all Orthodox, sanctified by the practice of Saints, what we may learn and how we may find a home for them in our lives. In what form can we integrate their wisdom as praxis? Look on the ancient prayers in this letter without fear that they are from a ‘foreign’ culture, but ask what men of all cultures may teach us concerning our common journey, our one reason for being, our universal and shared goal, if we have understood anything of the faith – I mean our union with God. In all things, it has been my impression that all the fathers, all the saints, and all of orthodoxy has but one teaching and one purpose, our union with God. We know no other point or end of our knowledge. For this we strive to overcome the passions and to see God.

In particular, we find in the Celts a constant prayer. In one sense, not one particular prayer but a constant praying in and for all matters, even the mundane. In another sense, it is always one particular prayer, in that the Holy Trinity, and Christ in particular is that prayer.  Christ beside me. Christ before me. Christ behind me. Christ within me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ to the right of me. Christ to the left of me. Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising. Christ in heart of all who know me. Christ on tongue of all who meet me. Christ in eye of all who see me. Christ in ear of all who hear me (Breastplate of St. Patrick).

Prayer at Smooring The Fire


I smoor (smother) the fire this night
As the Son of Mary would smoor it;
The compassing of God be on the fire,
The compassing of God on all the household.


Be God's compassing about ourselves,
Be God's compassing about us all,
Be God's compassing upon the flock,
Be God's compassing upon the hearth.


Who keeps watch this night?
Who but the Christ of the poor,
The bright and gentle Brigit of the kine,

The bright and gentle Mary of the ringlets.

Whole be house and herd,
Whole be son and daughter,
Whole be wife and man,
Whole be household all.



-- "Little Book of Celtic Prayer " by A Duncan.

Prayer at the Guarding of Flocks

May Mary the mild keep the sheep,
May Bride the calm keep the sheep,
May Columba keep the sheep,
May Maolruba keep the sheep,
May Carmac keep the sheep,
From the fox and the wolf.

May Oran keep the kine (cattle),
May Modan keep the kine,
May Donnan keep the kine,
May Moluag keep the kine,
May Maolruan keep the kine,
On soft land and hard land.

May the Spirit of peace preserve the flocks,
May the Son of Mary Virgin preserve the flocks,
May the God of glory preserve the flocks,
May the Three preserve the flocks,
From wounding and from death-loss,
       From wounding and from death-loss.


-- Carmina Gaedalica



A Brief Summary of the Economy


I was asked, recently, to summarize what is meant by the Economy. It is not possible for me to give it even a full outline, here or anywhere else, and certainly not to explore all its implications here. But I will attempt to speak of it with as much brevity as truth and substance may permit. I will try to do it some modicum of justice.


God is unknowable. Man can neither reach Him nor speak of Him. His divine Essence cannot be compared to any essence, has no analogy, and cannot be contained in created human concepts. Man can know God only in a dim way by revelation – the revealing of God’s uncreated Energies by the divine Persons. The unfolding of the divine economy, God’s activity toward his creation, has culminated in a total and all-encompassing event, a personal event, a Person, to make possible true knowledge through true communion. We speak of Christ, who is God incarnate. God has become man, so that man might genuinely know God in the only way possible, in that man and God become one, while remaining at the once utterly distinct. Christ, the God-man, one person who is two natures, God and man, makes possible union with God, having accomplished and become the union of the two natures for all. He summed up in His own person all of man and all of God, all of nature and the divine, all creation and the Creator, deifying all things. Now, in Christ, union of man and God is possible for each individual person, and so knowledge of the unknowable God – never knowledge of God’s essence, but personal knowledge and full knowledge, available only in communion with Him. Through theosis (deification) in Christ, man and indeed all creation is restored to God the Creator. This requires for each person, participation at that personal level, a synergy of God and man. The fullness of union is not possible without the will of each person. If the inviolate will of each person were overcome, the image of God in him would be destroyed. But now, the union of each person’s will with God’s will, the union of his flesh with that of the Incarnate God, makes possible the fullness of union of each person, while preserving both God and man -- not the swallowing up of an individual in God, but perfect union and distinction. In this way, man may know God without being destroyed, may be consumed without being lost or indistinct. So salvation – this theosis – was accomplished first by the initial work of God toward man, and is accomplished now by the joint work of man and God in uniting individual persons to Christ. It is not ‘personal salvation’, such that God is a god in general, subject to whatever fancies the individual mind may invent, nor is it a ‘salvation in general’, such that individual activity is irrelevant. It is salvation through union and distinction, the beyond-transcendent God and mortal man made immortal by grace.