The Kingdom of Heaven, where racial discrimination has no place (Saint Nephon)



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I was always intrigued by the topic of whether people from the colored races had the same prospects of pleasing God as did the people of the white race, because I had never heard of any negro for example, who had become renowned for his spiritual labours and sainthood. Could it be - I had thought to myself - that the colour of one';s skin played some kind of role in matters of the soul? Could it be that God had shown some kind of disavowal in their case? But then, why would He disavow them?

So, once when I had visited the tiny cell of the blessed Nephon, it occurred to me to ask him about this matter. The righteous elder reassured me that God had called innumerable negro souls into His Kingdom, since they too are His creations, as they are the descendants of Shem and Ham -; the sons of Noah. (see Genesis, 10:6-31) In fact - he stressed - quite a few of them had shone brightly because of their virtues and their miracles. And to prove the truth of his statement, the elder proceeded to narrate 2-3 such cases.

";In olden times," he said, "the territory of Panephos (a significant city of Lower Egypt, not too far from the sea; in its place today lies the city of Menzaleh), was plagued by a plunderer - a heavily-built, savage man that was fearsome to behold and ruthless in his ways. His roaring cries alone could easily curdle the blood of his unsuspecting victim -; even the bravest kind ....

One night, however, he had an extremely frightening dream: it was as though he had suddenly found himself in the middle of an endless plain ....on looking around him, he noticed a fiery river spewing towards him with a loud rumbling noise, devouring everything in its path -; even the stones and the soil beneath it ...;. With small, hesitant steps, the robber edged towards that river to get a better look ...;But as soon as he reached its banks, four blazing spirits flew out of the fiery mass, grabbed him by the hair and tugged at him, in an attempt to drag him into the river ...; As they struggled to pull him in, one of the sprits said to him: You wretch! If you had become a monk, we wouldn't be dragging you into this place!'

He woke up in a sweat. He recalled that awesome sight with horror and giddiness. No matter how hard he tried to explain the dream, it seemed hopeless. His next thought was: "I think I will go and find an anachorite, (=a holy recluse that lives alone in the desert) and tell him of my dream. Monks usually know about such things perhaps one of them will reveal the meaning of the fiery river that I saw in my dream."

As soon as he uttered those words in his mind, he threw down the ";tools of his robbing trade"; and headed straight for the road leading to Panephos. After a while, he discerned a tiny anachorite cell in the distance. He hurried in that direction. No sooner had he knocked on the door, than it was opened immediately by an elderly man -; it was almost as though he was expected there!

"Welcome! Welcome, young man! And may I ask what brought you to this part of the land? Were you perhaps upset by that fiery river and the four evil spirits that were dragging you by the hair, trying to pull you into the fire? What a horrible threat that river was, my child, wasn't it? Did you see how it even devoured the stones that it passed over?....Well, if you truly do wish to escape those flames, there is a way: You should repent sincerely for all the robberies and the lawlessness that you have engaged in all your life, and become a monk. That way, you will surely be saved, because that river has been prepared exclusively for the unrepentant sinners ..."

The elder had barely finished saying those words, when the robber threw himself at his feet, and began to cry like a little child ...

"Show me some mercy, precious father! The darkness in my soul is far deeper than the darkness of my complexion", he cried out, between sobs. "Show this wretch your mercy, and do with me as God instructs you!"

Indeed, not long after, that saintly elder tonsured the robber and made him a monk. After staying with him for a period of time and teaching him the appropriate order of monastic living, the elder left his cell to the new monk and departed for the innermost part of the desert, to continue with his ascetic living, amongst the wild beasts.

Well, that very same negro robber, with his own spiritual labours, reached such heights of virtue that during his moments of prayer, he would appear to glow all over, so intensely, like a brightly flickering flame or a radiant pillar of light ...; Innumerable demons would swarm upon him, but he, with his prayers, would burn them and destroy them altogether. God had also given him such a gift of wisdom that he had even written numerous spiritual teachings, and had also frequently sent many letters of counsel to the fathers of the scete and many other people as well ...

Finally, when he passed away, his precious relic exuded so much fragrant myrrh that -;according to the narrations of the people of that land- it had healed many sick and demon-possessed people ...

******

There was also another poor and old negro, who lived in a city called Ysia. He used to wander about aimlessly, here and there, silently muttering words that nobody could understand. Because of this, many people had believed he was not in his right mind.

There came a time when a severe drought had fallen on the land ...;.The animals were dying of thirst, the scorched earth had cracked open and the crops had all dried up ...;. The clergy and the faithful, with their bishop at the lead, made continuous entreaties and night-vigils with prayers for this plague to stop, but they were of no avail.

One night, the bishop saw in his dream an angel, who said to him: "This is what God commands you: Take your priests and go, first thing in the morning, and wait at the southern gate of the city; the first man that you see entering the city, approach him, stop him, and ask him to pray to the Lord to send you rain."

Indeed, at the break of dawn the very next day, right after Matins. The Bishop took his ministers and went to the southern gate, just like the angel had instructed him. They didn';t have to wait for very long; shortly afterwards, a old negro man appeared, who seemed to be walking towards the city gate. He was extremely old, and was carrying on his hunched back a bundle of wood.

The bishop stopped him, and helped him to set down the bundle of wood.

"Old man", begged the bishop, "please pray to God so that He might show His mercy and send rain, both for us and for this earth!"

Without any objection whatsoever, the old negro immediately raised his thin, bony arms towards the heavens and prayed.

In a matter of minutes, to everyone';s amazement, lightning and thunder began to manifest out of nowhere! Heavy black clouds started to gather rapidly, the sky darkened, and a torrential rain began to pour down from the sky. But oh, what a rainfall that was! A proper deluge! Houses began to be flooded and the surrounding fields soon resembled an expanse of sea!

The bishop was now forced to beseech the old man to pray again, for the rain to stop. The old man humbly and obediently raised up his arms once again to the heavens ....and the downpour ceased immediately!

Amazed at this double miracle, the bishop then persistently asked the old stranger to reveal his life story and to tell them what his spiritual labours were, that had endowed him with such a closeness to God.

But the old man bashfully refused to reply to the bishop.

"Your eminence, as you can see, I am nothing more than an old, negro nobody ...; Why are you bothering to look for virtues in me?"; he replied, without raising his head.

"In the name of the Lord of the heavens and the earth!"; the bishop cried out imperatively. "You must reveal the whole truth, so that the name of our Lord may be praised accordingly!"

"Forgive me, your eminence! You see, I haven';t done anything worth mentioning. The only thing that I have strived to keep since the day that I was baptized a Christian, was to never eat my bread without deserving it, and to never become a burden to anyone. So, every day I go into the hills and collect a bundle of wood, I load it on my back and go down to the city to sell it. From the money I get, I only keep two small coins -; just enough for the day';s meal. The rest of the money I give to poor people like me. Whenever the weather is bad and I can';t go up to the hills, I fast until the weather improves and then I go back up there again to bring my load of wood to the city, to sell it and provide for myself and my other poor townsfolk ....

With these words, the elderly negro respectfully bade the bishop and the other clergymen farewell, hoisted the bundle of wood onto his back once again, and walked into the city to sell it ...;.

*****

To further reassure me that the benevolent Lord had called multitudes of colored people to His Kingdom, the blessed Nephon told me of one more case, which he himself had witnessed:

It was during the time that the benign, Christ-revering Constantine was still king, when the elder had gone to visit one of the northern monastic communes on the coast. He found himself in the company of brothers who happened to be discussing the salvation of the soul. During the conversation, the topic of races and colored people came up. Everyone there had admitted that very many such souls had pleased God. One of the brothers named Harisethes had said the following:

";I assure you, my brothers, that I was fortunate enough to meet one such person -; a negro -; who was a major ascetic figure.";

Seeing how the brothers were eager to learn more about this person, Harisethes continued with his narration:

";I was working for a period of time in our monastery';s vineyard ( that was my predefined ministry at the time ). One day, I noticed a negro, a stranger, sitting underneath a large vine. I didn';t know who he was -; I had never seen him before. He had a flask of water in front of him to quench his thirst, and a handful of wild herbs was his meal. The sight of this man really impressed me. I didn';t disturb him, nor did I send him away. He stayed there, in the same spot, for a whole month. He remained absolutely silent, throughout the whole day, and throughout the night he would chant and pray incessantly. During all this time, he never emptied out the water in his flask, nor did he add any fresh water to it ...;. The water gradually became foul and stank, yet, despite my pleas, he did not let me change the water, nor did he accept to be given some bread to eat ...;.On unbearably hot days, he would go down to the shore, sit on a rock and roast himself under the blazing sun all day long ...; And if anyone approached him to see how he was doing, he would pretend to be demented. Yes, yes,'; he would say, I know you have come to kill me! But God up there is watching you!'; and he would point upwards, at the sky ...;.";.

With these examples that the blessed Nephon gave me, I was truly reassured that the Kingdom of Heaven is open to every soul, regardless of race or colour, since they too are God';s children.

"Just as the vineyard produces both white and colored grapes", the blessed elder said, to finish his story, ";thus God has created people of all colors -; black, red, yellow, white ...;according to where they live. After all, the earth itself is also multiform."

On saying these words, the servant of God withdrew into his cell to pray.



THE LIFE OF SAINT NEKTARIOS

THE LIFE OF SAINT NEKTARIOS

Saint Nektarios of Aegina, is the most widely known of Greek Orthodox Saints of the last two centuries.

altHe was born in October 1st, 1846 in Selybria in Eastern Thrace (now in Turkey). He was one of seven children of Dimosthenis and Mpalou Kefalas and at Holy Baptism was given the name Anastasios. His parents were pious Christians and they brought him up according to the teaching of the Church. Having completed elementary school in his home-town, at the age of 14 he left his family to seek work and education in Constantinople (Istanbul).

There he worked as a shop assistant in a tobacconist's shop and was able to earn a meagre living. He read as much as he could the Holy Scriptures and Writings of the Holy Fathers, and made a collection of wise sayings, which he used to write on the paper used to wrap his customers' goods. Later he worked as a teacher of the lower grades in the orphanage of the All-Holy Sepulchre. In 1866, at the age of 20, he went to the island of Chios, where he was appointed a teacher at a village named Lithi.

After seven years he entered the famous monastery of Nea Moni, and at the age of 30, having completed three years as novice under the care of the venerable Elder Pachomios, he was tonsured as a monk and given the name Lazaros. A year later, in 1877, he was ordained a deacon and received the name Nektarios. Elder Pachomios convinced him he should complete his high school studies in Athens, which was made possible through the financial support of a wealthy local benefactor, Mr Horemis.

After graduation he went to Alexandria to serve Patriarch Sophronios. The Patriarch insisted that Nektarios should complete his theological studies and sent him back to Athens. He graduated from the School of Theology in 1885. Upon return to Alexandria he was ordained priest in Cairo in 1886. His great service to the Church, his prolific writings and teachings, his energy and zeal, led to Father Nektarios' being ordained as Metropolitan of Pentapolis in Egypt, at a relatively young age.
As a Metropolitan he was greatly admired and loved by his flock for his virtue and purity of life. But this great admiration by the people aroused the envy of certain priests, who did not want to see him elevated as Patriarch. They made accusations about him to the old Patriarch and succeeded in having the blessed Nektarios removed from office in 1890, in a manner clearly improper in the Church of Christ.

He returned to Greece without trial or any explanation. He arrived in a very bad financial situation, and was refused any position because he was not a Greek citizen. Finally he was assigned to Evia. In 1894 the blessed Nektarios became Director of the Rizarios Ecclesiastical School in Athens, where he was to remain for 15 years. His own example, as priest and man, was the most important lesson for his students. These years were also productive for the writing of many of his books.

By 1900 his health became weak from all his pastoral and scholarly work. In 1904 he founded a monastery for women in Aegina, the Holy Trinity Convent, which flourished under his guidance. In March 1908 he resigned his position at the Rizarios and withdrew to the monastery. He lived the rest of his life as a true monk and ascetic. His holy and pious life shone forth like a guiding light to all near him. Through his prayers many people were healed.

In September 1920 he went into a hospital in Athens. He was placed in a ward reserved for the poor and unwanted. At 10.30 in the evening of November 8th, in terrible pain but in peace and at prayer, he gave up his spirit to God, at the age of 74. After his repose his Holy Body emitted a beautiful fragrance and many came to venerate his Holy relics. He was buried in his monastery in the place he had chosen, under a tree. For various reasons his tomb was opened a number of times after his burial. For 20 years his body was found intact and emitted a wonderful and heavenly fragrance.

Many people had regarded him as a Saint in his lifetime, because of his purity of life, his virtues, the theological nature of his publications, true to the tradition of the Church, his gift of foreknowledge and the miracles he performed. This recognition of him as a Saint spread rapidly after his repose. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople proclaimed him a Saint on April 20, 1961. His memory is celebrated on November 9th.


Thoughts and Deception(Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov)


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Those who want to pray with a cleansed mind (nous) must not concern themselves with the latest news from the newspapers, or read books that are irrelevant to our spiritual life - especially those books that arouse the passions - and they must not strive to learn out of curiosity whatever pertains to the lives of others. All these things bring foreign thoughts to mind, and when a person attempts to elucidate them, they confound his mind even more.

When the soul is taught love by God, then it will feel sorrow for all of Mankind, all of Creation, and will pray that everyone might repent and receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. But, should the soul lose this grace, love will abandon it (because without the grace of God, it is impossible to love one';s enemy) and that is when wicked thoughts will issue from the heart, as the Lord had said (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21-22).

Without the humility of Christ, Man';s nous (mind) will not be cleansed and his soul will never feel reposed in God, but will always be agitated by various thoughts that will hinder his "theory" (sighting) of God. Ah, the humility according to Christ! Those who have tried it, rush towards God, insatiably, day and night!

Ah, but what a weakling I am! I have been writing for just a short while, and yet I have quickly become tired, and my body yearns to rest. But even the Lord Himself, when He was on earth "in His flesh", was familiar with human frailty. He, the Merciful One, would also feel weary after His journeys on foot, and He had also slept on board a boat during the tempest; and, after the disciples had roused Him from His sleep, He commanded the sea and the wind to become still, and a great calm followed. So it is with our soul, whenever we call upon the most Holy Name of the Lord: a great calm follows.

Allow us, o Lord, to glorify You, until our dying breath ...;..

One can fall into deception, either out of inexperience, or out of pride. And if it is out of inexperience, the Lord heals the deceived one very quickly; however, if it is on account of pride, then the soul will be struggling for a very long time, until it has learnt humility and will then be healed by the Lord.

We fall into a deception, when we consider ourselves more prudent and experienced than the others - even our own spiritual father. This is what I myself had thought -in my inexperience- and this was the reason that I suffered. And I thank the Lord from my heart, because in this way, He humbled me and admonished me, and did not revoke His mercy from me. Now it occurs to me that without confessing to our spiritual father, it will not be possible to avoid deception, because it was to the spiritual father that God gave the gift of "binding and unbinding".

If you sense light inside you or around you, do not believe in it unless you also have a deep solemnity within you for God and a love for your fellow man. However, do not be afraid; only humble yourself, and that light will disappear.

Should you see a certain vision or dream, do not trust it, for if it was from God, the Lord Himself will inform you about it. A soul that has not tasted of the Holy Spirit cannot discern where the vision comes from. The enemy will give the soul a "sweet sensation" combined with vainglory, and it is from this, that deception will have become evident.

The Fathers say that when a vision is a hostile one, the soul feels confusion or fear; but this will happen only to the humble soul that considers itself unworthy of a vision. The vainglorious person however, may not feel either fear or confusion, because he is desirous of visions and regards himself as worthy of them, which is why the enemy can easily deceive him.

Celestial things are recognized through the Holy Spirit and terrestrial things through one';s physical state. Whosoever attempts to know God through the physical mind is deceived, because God can only be known via the Holy Spirit.

If you see demons with your mind, then humble yourself and try not to look, and run as fast as you can to your spiritual Geron (Elder), to whom you have surrendered yourself. Tell him everything, and the Lord will then show His mercy on you and you will be rescued from that deception. But if you believe that you know more about spiritual matters than your spiritual father and you cease to tell him whatever is happening to you, then, because of this act of pride, inevitably, a certain trial will "befall" you, in order to restore your prudence.

Fight your enemies with humility.

When you see another mind struggling with your mind, then humble yourself and the struggle will cease.

I
If you happen to see demons, do not be afraid, but humble yourself and the demons will disappear. But if fear does overcome you, you will not avoid suffering some harm. Be brave. Remember that the Lord can see you, if you have hinged your hopes on Him.

But, for the soul to acquire respite from the demons, it must humble itself and say: "I am worse than all the others; I am more wretched than every beast and every wild animal"...

Just as people enter a house and leave it, so do thoughts come from demons and they can leave, provided we do not hold on to them. If your thought says: "steal" and you obey, you are in this way giving the demon power over you. If your thought says: "eat as much as you want, until you are full", and you do eat excessively, then again the demon will hold power over you. Thus, if the thought of every passion conquers you, you will end up a dwelling-place of demons. However, if you commence with the appropriate repentance, then the demons will begin to quake and be forced to leave."


The difference between Atheism and Agnosticism


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Most of these people characterize themselves as "godless". But, only few of them have comprehended the significance of this expression, or the logical contradictions that are prerequisites of its acceptance.

Who exactly should be called "godless"? The person who BELIEVES THAT GOD DOES NOT EXIST. But, this phrasing alone makes it obvious that atheism presupposes a faith in the non-existence of God. This is not a play on words here. When we analyze the subject further down, it will become obvious that it is exactly as we said above.

Many atheists claim: "I don't believe in God, because I have no evidence of this." But when you ask them: "What evidence do you have of the opposite?" they can only present their hypotheses, without a shred of actual evidence. Thus, their atheist position is not the result of any evidence, but simply their CHOICE between two, improvable aspects: the existence and the non-existence of God.

On realizing this impasse, and in their attempt to avoid this logical contradiction, some of them say: "I am not rejecting the existence of God; I simply don't have a piece of evidence that will make me believe in God".

These people are consistent in what thy say. The only thing is, THEY ARE NOT CALLED ATHEISTS; THEY ARE CALLED AGNOSTICS. An Atheist is the one who rejects the existence of God. An Agnostic is the one who is open to the possibility of God existing, but has not yet been convinced of it. So, in this series of topics, we shall be dealing with the Atheists, and not the Agnostics, who are more logical.

And I am referring to the true Agnostics; the ones who can recognize the above difference. Because there are also those who claim to be open to the possibility of God's existence, but declare themselves to be "atheists", thus indicating that they have basically taken a stance, hence their claim of being open to the possibility of God's existence is only a cover-up, to conceal their contradiction. But they are easily detected, by their open hatred towards anything that has to do with God. The fact alone that they claim to be open to the possibility of God's existence, shows that: either they are not true atheists, but are suffering from a total confusion of meanings, or, they are actually atheists, who are trying to conceal their fanaticism behind the cover of agnosticism.

It is therefore important -in any conversation with atheists- to clarify exactly what they mean, and what their affiliation is to Agnosticism.

So, from the moment someone says: "I am an atheist", he is actually declaring his faith in an unproven statement that: "God doesn't exist".

And it is so improvable, as is the acknowledgement that "God exists". Hence, atheism is not aligned with rationalism and logic. It is simply one more religion.

The negative notion of God

But, there is another contradiction in the logic of atheism:

Even though -at first glance- atheism appears to reject every notion of God, deep down, it is inconceivable for someone to reject something, unless they have related it to something. We reject something, when we have somehow related it to something else. Hence, a notion of God must pre-exist in our mind, which want to reject.

It is impossible for one to escape from the question of God, regardless whether he is a Christian, or a follower of another religion, or even a denier of every notion of God. That person first must sort out in his mind, exactly what it is that he is rejecting, before proceeding to reject it.

So, when an atheist says: "I reject the notion of God", it is consistent to ask him: "How do you perceive the notion of God?" because he has A CERTAIN NOTION in mind that he is rejecting. If we ask him more analytically, we usually hear him speak of a specific "type" of god, whom he understands as "God".

Comprehending the "type" of god he has in mind is very important for Christians, and especially for Orthodox Christians, because in Orthodox theology, even the minutest detail regarding God is of great importance, which can change everything. In doing this, we will realize that usually (if not always), an atheist has an entirely mistaken notion of "what is a god", or, "what" or "who" is God.

If the atheist is simply prejudiced -as is the majority of atheists- we perceive that he has entirely fallacious notions of all of the above; that he will speak of monster-gods, which not even we Christians accept. In the few atheists who reject God on true philosophical and consistent grounds, we perceive a rejection of the non-existent gods of both Western and Eastern religions. These people NEVER reject the God of Orthodoxy. The only ones opposed to the God of Orthodoxy, are those who have an utter ignorance of philosophy as well as a multitude of prejudices and obsessions. The latter usually repeat the words of atheist philosophers in parrot-fashion, without having the faintest idea of what those words mean, so that they could understand they are not turning against the Christian God, but the god of the Westerners.

But on these arguments and prejudices we shall go into more detail, in a separate article