Day of the Holy Spirt, May 11/24 2010
It was a pleasure to see such a good turn-out for our Festal Pentecost Vigil. With a full choir, our deacon Fr. Nicholas serving the entire vigil, and a significant portion of our community praying together, we were truly able to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in a fitting way. This sort of effort brings great profit to the soul. I could feel this, and I hope that you could too.
God willing, we will have another festive vigil in a few weeks (the exact date is not yet scheduled). We hope to have Fr Nicholas serve an entire vigil monthly. The other weeks, we will of course serve vigil as we always have, but I will serve it alone, or possibly Fr Nicholas will serve Vespers with me, then be the choir for matins. It is my fervent desire that we gain the zeal to have festive vigils every weekend. This takes an investment of time from more than just the clergy. The dividends are enormous for our community. With God's help, we will start with monthly "Festive" vigils, as we are able to have enough people to "pull it off".
Today, the Day of the Holy Spirt, we await news on the occupancy date in our new temple. All is ready, except for a dispute with the city about the type of perimeter fence we must put up. They are requiring a very expensive concrete fence, which is tens of thousands of dollars above our means; we are asking to put in a living fence, with "Nellie R Stevens" hollies, which will be more or less a bit over our means and much more attractive. The savings will be over $30,000. We submitted paperwork to the city today, and if they are cooperative, go before the planning and zoning commission June 8th to plead our case. We could be planting June 9th, and in the next weekend, or we could be delayed by many months, with a new and empty temple, and two mortgages, and no fence, and a demoralized community. We have over 12 letters from neighbors which state that they want a living fence, and pictures and a bunch of other stuff - but without God's blessing upon our endeavors, we have nothing.
How can we gain God's blessing for our endeavors?
There is a simple, and yet difficult answer. We pray and live the Christian life. Since we are a community of Christians, gathered around our temple, we must emphasize our corporate prayer.
Archpriest David Moser recently published a homily on Pentecost which included a Homily by St. Theophan the Recluse, entitled: "God gave us a Church. We need to make use of it as we should". Please read it with care. I was thinking thoughts which were similar during our vigil with so many present.
May God grant that when we get into our new temple, we will be deserving of the blessing by utilizing it for prayer. If we do this, we will surely use it well for other important things - teaching, outreach to the community, Red Cross blood drives, etc - but as St Theophan says, if we do not use the church for prayer first and foremost, we cannot expect our labors to have a blessing.
So, your labors and cares in the construction of another needed church are complete. Thanks be to God for such a gift! I say a gift because, even though you had quite a bit of work, what could you have done if it had not been for God! In rendering help in unexpected troubles as well as in everything else, haven't you felt His imminent helping hand? Openly proclaiming the gift, what shall we give the Lord, our Benefactor, in return? Let us give what is due to His intent, by using the gift, namely:
1. The church was not built to be an external, empty witness of good order, but to be always filled with those for whom it is designated. And this places on you the obligation to be present in this church for all services established by the rule [typicon]. Having taken vows to labor for God in prayer and ascetic labors, you, of course, do not intend to indulge your laziness in this regard. Don't be tempted by any of the attractive pretexts common to workers like yourselves, In the first place, don't allow the urge to miss this or that Divine Service tempt you because of a need to complete necessary work. Remember that any work cannot be successful if God's blessing is not upon it, and that blessing must be called down from Heaven. By which means? And where? Through prayer in church. When the blessing has been sought, one hour takes the place of a whole day's labor; but without the blessing everything falls apart and gets mixed up, and the day goes to waste. I think you have already had a lot of experience with this. Do not incriminate yourselves.
Secondly. don't be tempted to yield to the artificially attractive idea of staying in your cell (or at home) while the others are going to church, out of the wish to pray with a little more fervency in solitude. Aren't there other times for solitary prayer than the hours set aside for common prayer? If so, then pray alone at those times. You must always go to the common service established by the rule. Here, in assembly, prayer is warmer and more fervent, and always more fruitful. Where two or three are gathered in My name, says the Lord, there am I in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20), and where there is God, there is every spiritual good. What a pity that some people deprive themselves of this treasure! Doesn't it happen that some who stay in their cells not only miss the common prayer but also don't manage to pray at home, and in this way do two wrongs - break the rule and harm themselves as well? Therefore, isn't it better to set yourself a rule once and for all, never to yield to such a thought?
Thirdly, don't be tempted to indulge yourself in not coming to church at the beginning of the service or leaving before it is over. Remember, each service is a complete unit and it can provide its full benefit only in its entirety. Just as food is tasty only when it is fully seasoned, so the service can completely satisfy the spiritual taste only when it is heard in full. Thus, he who misses the beginning or does not remain until the end is laboring, but he deprives himself of the fruit of his labor? or, he creates with one hand and destroys with the other. So, having built, decorated and consecrated this church, go to it without fail, rejecting all false pretexts-and this is of primary importance.
2. Further, one must go to church not inattentively, but as one should. It is always possible that one may go to church not in a way worthy of praise but rather of condemnation, i.e., by going and not receiving any spiritual benefit. Everything in this regard can be converted by the following rules: at the first stroke of the bell, you must drop any work, and prepare your soul for prayer in church, reciting the prayer "Virgin Mother of God, rejoice!" or "Heavenly King," "Our Father," or some other such prayer. Approaching the church, you must leave every care and worry about your affairs at the threshold in order to enter with a serene mind. Entering the church, you must put on reverence like a garment, remembering to Whom we are coming and to Whom we intend to address our prayers. Having taken your place in church (best of all, the same place each time), you should gather your thoughts and mentally stand before the face of the omnipresent God, offering Him reverent worship in body and spirit, with a contrite heart and in humble reverence. After this, you must follow, without wandering thoughts, everything that is going on what is being sung and read in the church all the way to the end of the service. That is all! In this way, we won't be bored in church, looking here and there and starting conversations, and we won't be wishing that the service be over soon. Instead, passing from one prayerful feeling to another and from one reverent thought to the next, we will be like those in a fragrant garden, moving from one group of flowers to another. Consequently, spiritual warmth, which is the fruit of attentive prayer, will fill our hearts with ineffable sweetness, which won't allow us to notice the physical hardship of standing and will make every service short. On the other hand, one who is inattentive to what is taking place in church, who dreams of empty things and activities, doesn't help those matters but wastes the time of prayer. He upsets himself and deprives himself of the fruit of prayer, which is, so to speak, ready to be put into his hand. May the Lord deliver you from this sin!
3. Using church services as we should, we will gain, little by little, the main thing for which these visible churches are given to us - that is, continuous mental prayer to God in our heart, which makes of our heart a temple of God not built by human hands. The commandment to pray has been given us by the holy Apostles; all the holy ascetics have striven after it. We will be ashamed if, having established this external church, we don't take care to establish the internal Church for which the external church actually exists. What is the use of having a tool and not knowing how to use it to do that for which it is made? The one who comes to all the services without fail and listens to them as he should can easily attain this priceless spiritual good. ... He doesn't have to add much to this labor of uninterrupted attendance at church; but he must take care to preserve unextinguished the warmth of heart which is ignited in church through preservation of attention, by which his soul is blessed in church. And for this, he must enjoy [sitting alone in his cell (except for necessary work)], frequent worship of God [before the icons], [sometimes] reading the Word of God and patristic writings, and, most importantly, acquiring the habit of continuously repeating the short but powerful prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me" Through these labors, the soul will be sanctified more and more with the blessed presence of God, which raises the mind to God and lifts the heart with delightful sighing; this, really, is uninterrupted prayer.
I wish you most of all this gift of God as a reward for your labor. Having established and decorated this dwelling place of God, be yourselves established within it, the spiritual temple, to offer sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (I Peter 2:4-5). Amen.
Priest Seraphim Holland 2010. St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas
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