Philokalia Ministries
Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-four Part I

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-four Part I

November 30, 2020

What a wonderful discussion and a wonderful group of people!  This one hour makes Wednesday the best day of the week and something that deeply nourishes and gives joy to the soul.

St. Theophan offers Anastasia an exceptional and clear vision of how to prepare oneself for confession. He lays out for her simply how to examine her acts and the circumstances in which they were carried out, her interior disposition, and her general approach to life as a whole. In the few short paragraphs we read and discussed this evening, we began to understand the primacy of conscience in the examination of one’s life. St. Theophan describes it as the “unsleeping guard”.  It lets nothing slip by and lets us justify nothing that is sinful. However, conscience is not infallible. Either age, confusion, or ignorance can distort its vision vision and allow things to go unnoticed about our lives and how they can be touched by sin. The Word of God must become the mirror for us in which we examine ourselves and through which we correct ourselves in light of the Commandments. Beyond this we must look to see if we carry out those commandments fully or if there are subtle ways that we commit sins against charity, against purity of heart, etc. Has our conscience been formed by the world or by the things of God or have we given up responsibility for the formation of that conscience altogether and live faux obedience?


Text of chat during the group:

00:32:29 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: Govenie (pronounced go-vye-knee-eh) is the practice of intense fasting and prayer ranging from one day to a week prior to receiving communion, often for one of the four feasts culminating a fasting period.  it included not only fasting, but also attending Divine Services, reading prayers (including canons, akathists, etc.), doing prostrations and engaging in other spiritual activities, instead of going to work.  For a brief overview of govenie, see Saint Theophan the Recluse, The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation, trans. Seraphim Rose and the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996), 269–73. See also Nadieszda Kizenko, “Sacramental Confession in Modern Russia and Ukraine,” in State Secularism and Lived Religion in Soviet Russia and Ukraine, ed. Catherine Wanner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 190–217.

00:34:03 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky:

00:53:08 Eric Williams: Didn't the author of The Cloud of Unknowing warn very strongly against speaking too openly about personal spiritual experiences?

01:16:32 Eric Williams: You have an intimidating visage. ;)

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-four Part IV and Homily 75 Part I

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-four Part IV and Homily 75 Part I

November 24, 2020

Isaac certainly presents us with solid food. We’ve come to the end of homily 74. Isaac begins to describe for us the image of a heart that is truly dead to the world and how it perceives the mode of life of the new man. In other words, a life free from the ego and from the drive of the passions takes on the New Adam and begins to share in the fullness of the life of resurrection.  One begin to contemplate the revelation of the Divine. In this sense of the desert Fathers become for us a mirror; in it we see whether or not we have died to the things of this world and our attachments to the world and perceive the true beauty of the life that is held before us. If we stop for a moment and think about spending the day in silence, we see that our heart and our thoughts flit about as moths  around a light. We are easily distracted.

In homily 75, Isaac lays out before us a practice of prayer that may be unfamiliar to most - keeping vigil in prayer during the night. Isaac begins by offering us a prayer to be said at the beginning of such a time. We are to call out to God to shelter us from our common enemy, to free us from the distractions of our passions in order that we might enter into the sacred Liturgy with strength and clarity.  Filled with grace, one sheds tears that purify the mind and the heart and allow us to love with tranquility and with the true freedom of chastity. One begins the liturgy without turmoil and filled with joy.

Issac speaks of the freedom that exists even within the prescribed practices. One might stand praying the psalms and yet the Spirit might lift the individual into a deep silence where time passes swiftly. It is then that one must give way to the guidance of the Spirit to be led in accord with the will of God and drawn swiftly to His Heart as He desires.

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-three Part II

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-three Part II

November 19, 2020

We continued our reading of St. Theophan’s discussion with the young Anastasia about to Govenie; the entrance into the holy season of Lent - when men and women would often take off an entire week of work so as to enter into their spiritual disciplines with zeal and focus.

Tonight, he began by asking her “how does one pray at home after having returned from church?” It is necessary, he tells her, to prolong the attitude and spirit of prayer. One must not be given over to distractions but immediately enter into solitude in one’s room where one can continue to read prayers, pray for one’s own most vital needs to God, as well as making physical prostrations to humble oneself before Him.

Essentially St. Theophan is telling Anastasia not to take her mind off of God at all. Even when she becomes physically tired she should take up some physical handicraft so that her mind does not drift into daydreaming. She is to read devotional books by herself or with others. She is to avoid idle conversation so as not to become dissipated. She is to remind the body that it is the source of the need for repentance. Thus, she is to discipline herself in regards to food and sleep. Anastasia must accustom herself to and find the right measure of discipline in order that she may maintain this zeal throughout the entire course of the Lenten season.


Text of chat during the group:

00:45:05 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: re: pg. 141: in the Russian practice of the Byzantine Rite, the "All-Night Vigil" is a technical term, translating the Old Church Slavonic term Vsenochnoye, and referring to Vespers and Matins being served together as one long about four hours liturgical worship service, mostly on Saturday evenings or the eve of a Feast.  If one does not go to church to "hear" it one would pray it in one's home, provided you had the books and could read Old Church Slavonic.  And so St. Theophan says that Matins is "heard" in the evening.  In the USA, among Ukrainians and Greeks (Melkite Catholics as well as Greek Orthodox and Antiochene Orthodox) and Ruthenian Catholics, I think as well, Matins (if it is served) would occur in the morning, while Vespers would occur on the previous evening.

00:45:06 Scott: The group I knew turned in at around 8, i think?.  So it's 8-2:30 sleep (6.5 hours?)?

00:45:39 Scott: (My comment is about some Romans, not Fr's comment)

00:58:02 Eric Ash: My understanding is before the widespread use of electric lightbulbs many people's natural sleep cycles included sleeping a bit earlier and waking for an hour to two in the middle of the night. Sometimes it was referred to as second sleep

01:02:42 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: St Theophan is well known for describing the third and highest degree of prayer as "the mind resting in the heart" and so his advice on pg. 141 that "one must read a little, but each item that is read must be brought to conscious feeling by devoting lengthy attention to it" is a more common way of stating the same principle

01:23:04 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: Govenie as used on pg. 142 can also be translated as a "retreat", esp. as it refers to the use of govenie in the first week of the Great Fast (Lent)


The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-four Part III

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-four Part III

November 17, 2020

Tonight we lingered long over a mere four paragraphs from homily 74. Their beauty and their depth allowed no other option.

Isaac began by speaking to us of  the beauty as well as the fragility of chastity. This virtue, which gives us the capacity to love freely, is to be treasured and protected; for it can be lost even in old age when one might think it has become deeply rooted. Isaac’s vision of life is one of repentance; of continuously turning the mind in the heart to God and letting go of all obstacles that would prevent us from experiencing the deepest intimacy with him.

The path to that intimacy, Isaac tells us, is the Cross. This is the door through which we enter into the heavenly Mysteries. When we experience the affliction of the cross we also experience the consolation of the vision of God‘s love and presence. We never suffer in isolation.  The cross both reveals the love of God to us but also transforms us and draws us into the depth of that Love.

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-two Part II and Letter Thirty-three Part I

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-two Part II and Letter Thirty-three Part I

November 12, 2020

This evening we continued to discuss the path of a virtuous life. Saint Theophan begins to instruct the young Anastasia and us about how we are to prepare ourselves to receive the Holy Eucharist: the period of time set aside for fasting, the confession of our sins, and the reception of holy communion. It becomes very clear that Saint Theophan is speaking about something that shapes the whole of our life. We are not to fast haphazardly, allowing our thoughts to stray or to linger in daydreams. Our attention is to be kept upon God especially when we are in Church. To let the thoughts stray is to lose sight of Who it is that we stand before. We must always remember that we come before God Our fear and love of Him should shape our actions. We are to do all in our power to warm our hearts with devotion. When necessary we must force ourselves to do everything that we can to make ourselves ready.

In letter 33 he begins to speak to Anastasia about her conduct at home. When she returns from church it is not to dive back into distractions. Rather, she is to rush to her room, the place of solitude and silence and linger in the communion of love that she has just entered. Overwhelmed with the great Mystery in which God has privileged us to participate, we can only cry out “Lord have mercy.”



Text of chat during the group:

00:12:32 Margie: Greetings

00:18:58 Fr. David:

00:23:01 Mark Cummings:

00:25:29 Eric Williams: I think it's Old Church Slavonic and pronounced approximately go-vyeh-nyee-eh.

00:35:02 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: This Old Church Slavonic word govenie is still used today in modern Ukrainian as hoveennia-говіння.  Russian uses it without any changes to the spelling but they pronounce in Russian as govyenyeeeh.  It is integral to a petition in the Great Litany or Ektenia of Peace used in the Divine Liturgy of St John  Chrysostom as well as services like Matins and Vespers.  "For this holy church and for all who enter it with faith, reverence (blaho-hoveennia) and fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.  So blaho means good, suggesting that it is possible to have bad or improper hoveennia as well as good.  It is trying to capture a unified attitude of spirit, soul (feelings-willing, thoughts, desires), and body.  Of course sin disintegrates where the incensive, appetitive and intellective powers of the soul as well as the proper relationship of body, soul and spirit are disordered.  And so this attitude is really about an entire holistic as well as holy lifestyle rather just a singular feeling or thought or desire.    

00:35:46 Eric Williams: Thank you, Fr Ivan! I knew you'd come through with correct pronunciation. :)

00:40:38 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: The verb form in Ukrainian is hoveety-говіти.  This is trying to capture the way in which one participates in worship services as an extension or being interwoven or integrated with the way one lives.  It makes sense that the way you "are", or "is" in front of God doesn't change because you walk into or out of a church building.  Existence is integrated.  This is why some church fathers speak of the liturgy after the liturgy.  If one's mode of living is good hoveennia, this permeates all your time, in all places, whether in church or not. But of course the eucharist is the source of this mode of living.

00:42:27 Eric Williams: If you build it (public vespers and other hours), they will come. The Oratory proved that with expanded hours for confession.

00:46:33 Eric Ash: The Cherubikon is sung markedly slower as well which also really helps to slow the mind down and remind us to refocus our often distracted minds towards prayer

00:52:40 Mark Cummings: I feel like when I daydream during mass and prayer, I am not allowing myself to go to as great of depth in my relationship with Jesus. My overall spiritual experience is lacking.

00:54:15 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: Eric Ash. yes... thank you for pointing this out.  it's not just because the priest is doing or saying something in secret and we need to drag out the singing to fill the space.  Believe it or not, I've actually heard some people try to explain the Cherubikon in this way.  One does not easily lay aside earthborn cares or replace them with heavenborn ones in order that the King of all may be accepted wholeheartedly.  The body and soul are unruly even in the midst of a good spirit.  And so the majestic and slow singing is meant to help the easily distracted soul (thoughts feelings desires willpower) and unruly body (ever seeking entertainment of self rather than worship of the "Other") submit to the spirit and restore the integrity needed for holistic and healthy worship.  The passions are real and because of them we can so easily miss the Lord Who is ever bending over backwards to be present to us.

00:54:23 Eric Williams: I'm highly distractible, but the Jesus Prayer is great for bringing my attention back.

00:55:57 Mark Cummings: Is adoration still happening or is it disallowed with COVID restrictions?

00:58:03 The Pittsburgh Oratory: It is still happening.

00:58:39 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: The Jesus Prayer for me as well helps to focus and pay attention.  On the outside it looks as if I'm disrespectful, doing something else, when someone is giving a talk or liturgizing, but in reality, the Jesus Prayer hones and guides my listening skills.  Again this is about listening with heart not just mind or ears.

00:59:14 Eric Williams: Pews really make prostrations difficult. :(

01:00:04 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: Kneeling in the East is a sign of alienation from God and the desire to repent because of it.

01:02:13 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: In the East adoration is expressed either by prostrating to the ground with head touching the ground or by standing straight and head erect, almost like at attention in the military,  acknowledging that through his resurrection Jesus has trampled our death by his death and we can now stand restored to life.  

01:02:33 Eric Williams: Nothing reminds me of the countless angels and saints at liturgy with me like walls covered in wonderful icons!

01:20:21 Fr. John (Ivan) Chirovsky: it would appear that govenie in Russia in St Theophan's time also has another meaning.  Sort of like the way people say Kleenex when they want to say tissue paper. In St. Theophan’s time it was a widespread custom in Russia for people to spend the first week of Great Lent preparing to receive Holy Communion on Saturday. This preparation, in Russian was called govenie, and it involved fasting, attending Divine Services, reading prayers (including canons, akathists, etc.), doing prostrations and engaging in other spiritual activities, instead of going to work.  On the Friday of the first week of Lent, people would go to confession. Thus, when St. Theophan mentions the “six days of spiritual creation,” he refers to these first six days of Lent which were a preparation for Holy Communion on St. Theodore’s Saturday.

01:22:57 Mark Cummings: It is my dream to live across the street from church!

01:24:30 The Pittsburgh Oratory: Here is that link again for anyone who joined after Fr. David posted it:

01:24:37 Katharine Memole: I’ve lived places with church on the public square. when there are feast days people walk out of church snd then celebrate with food, games, fireworks right in the square. it’s hard when the onus of making feast days and liturgical seasons part of daily life is completely on individual families instead of communal.

01:24:54 Mark Cummings: Father - Is there any chance that you can stay on for a couple of minutes after the podcast to discuss your icons?

01:25:47 Eric Williams: Amen, Katharine! It's super HARD.

01:25:52 Margie: Thank you and goodnight.

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-four Part II

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-four Part II

November 10, 2020

Exceptional! This one word alone describes the essence of the section of homily 74 that we read this evening. Isaac begins to show us the subtle ways that our thoughts lead us astray. We often cannot recognize sin as it manifests itself and its many forms. Nor can we recognize the action of God and how He seeks to help us escape it and to escape our own pride. We are stiffnecked and we would rather look anywhere else than into our own hearts to understand the reason why we suffer so.  Isaac shows us how easily we shift the focus on to others and seek to blame them for our state. However, Isaac tells us it is God who holds out in hope, waiting to see if the afflictions that we bear and the cross that manifest itself in our lives will humble us and set us free.  If we would but humble ourselves and allow tears to well up from our heart then God would cast our transgressions into oblivion and raise us up to gaze upon His loving countenance.

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-one Part II and Letter Thirty-two Part I

Letters of Spiritual Direction to a Young Soul - Letter Thirty-one Part II and Letter Thirty-two Part I

November 5, 2020

Tonight we picked up halfway through letter 31. Saint Theophan begins to lay out more clearly how Anastasia is to give herself over to her yearning for God and to foster it. Above all she must to embrace life prayer. She is to focus on allowing her heart to grow warm in her love and devotion for God. If she is unable to do this by using the prayer books, in an unrestrained way, she is to use her own words and keep them simple. She is to express her basic need for God, thanksgiving for his gifts, and ask for his protection. No more is needed at the moment.  She should prepare herself for  the time set aside for prayer as well as for the Divine Liturgy by reading the prayers ahead of time and meditating upon them. In this way their meaning will stir up even greater devotion within her heart. She is to memorize prayers to the best of her ability so that they come to her at the moment of need. Likewise, she is to focus on remembering God at every moment while also remembering death. Such a thought will lead her to be careful and to abstain from everything that could possibly poison her life. Pride is to be shunned and she is to make this her primary lesson. Learn this above all, he tells her.

In letter 32 Theophan continues to speak with her about the specifics of the path to a virtuous life. He sets before her the fundamental discipline and asceticism of the fasting periods within the church. He wants her to understand all that is necessary to prepare herself for a worthy reception of the holy Eucharist. She must fast, seclude herself, read and study, repent with all of her heart and with sincere contrition and the desire never to sin again. The Divine Mysteries of Christ are at the heart of our life and Theophan would see her well prepared to receive them.


00:18:44 The Pittsburgh Oratory:

00:19:08 Margie: self mastery

00:40:09 Eric Williams: I grew up in that kind of awkwardly motionless Protestant environment. I call those folks the Frozen Chosen. ;) (I can't take credit for that name, though.)

00:56:39 Margie: If you want JOY then you need to put Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last.

01:19:42 Eric Williams: If I correctly understand the Church Slavonic guide I found, "govenie" sounds like "goh-vyeh-nyi-eh". I'm sure Fr. Ivan would do a far better job. ;)

A Special Message from Philokalia Ministries

A Special Message from Philokalia Ministries

November 4, 2020

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The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-three and Homily Seventy-four Part I

The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian - Homily Seventy-three and Homily Seventy-four Part I

November 3, 2020

Once again we are presented with a beauty untold; that is, until recently when it has become accessible to us in the writings of St. Isaac.

We started this evening with Homily 73. Isaac, in a very brief and focused manner, speaks to us about the reason for embracing the exile of the desert. In doing so, one avoids close proximity to those things that could be a source of temptation and sin.  Even being around worldly things can arouse the turbulence of warfare against a soul and allow her to voluntarily be led away into captivity even though no warfare has assaulted her from without. In other words, by living in a world that has become comfortable with sin we can find ourselves with dulled  consciences. We may no longer live with a heightened sense of vigilance but give the evil one the advantage of seeing every manner of drawing us away from God. The poverty of the desert, the exile from the things of this world, extricated the monks from transgressions; it freed them from the passions. In a sense, it gave them the ability to run without impediment, to gird their loins and to seek the Lord without hesitation and without condition or limit.

Moving on to homily 74, Isaac gives us a more studied approach of how we deal with hidden thoughts and the actions and behaviors that can help us. We must begin with the study of the afterlife. We must acknowledge the fact that our life in this world is very brief. Having done so we find within ourselves courage and freedom from fear, every danger, and our impending death; for death we know only brings us closer to God. Such a vision of life helps us to patiently endure afflictions. Of course there is always the temptation put before us to return to our fears, to place ourselves once more in the shackles that once bound us. Cowardice can overcome our minds and we can begin to focus upon the body and its health. We become prey to the fear of losing all that the world can offer us. As always, Isaac’s writing is penetrating and it holds up an image of the desire for God that we might not recognize in ourselves.  To read Isaac is to be humbled.

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