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Acquiring the Virtues

Holy Dormition Monastery

Lectures from guest speakers at the monastery and others by Mother Gabriella, Abbess at Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, MI.

March 2008

Acquiring the Virtues

A Lenten lecture by Mother Gabriella at the Women's Retreat of St. Luke the Evangelist Orthodox Church (Palos Hills, IL), March 2008

March 22, 2008 Length: 1:05:07

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Mother Gabriella: We are following basically on the same idea, the same thought: talk a little bit about the virtues and acquiring virtues. Again, this is just a little bit of an outline, and each one of us can take some information from here, try to apply it to our life, and grow deeper into it, study more, and live it. Again, going back to the way God has created us and gave us these great abilities of this mind that we have, and we need to do something with it; otherwise it takes over.

In acquiring the virtues, it’s when we experience great joy, because we have… It’s made that way, to possess this inexhaustible treasure. To quote Fr. Roman again, he says that the mind is like a mill that grinds constantly, so we need to feed something to it; otherwise, the devil brings other things to the mind to grind, so to say. So we need to feed good thoughts to the mind to work on. To acquire in our souls this treasure of virtues which cannot be corrupted nor stolen nor lost is more valuable than any earthly riches. So we finished the other talk about what is really valuable and eternal in our lives.

St. Basil said:

All other possessions do not really belong to the one who has them or to the one who has acquired them, for they are exchanged back and forth like a game of dice.

That’s what he says.

Only virtue, among all of the possessions, cannot be taken away, but remains with us when we live and when we die.

So it’s a virtuous life that is our treasure, that stays with us. We can claim it; it is ours, and it takes us into eternity. This is what we have in eternal life, nothing else.

But, again, our fallen human nature tells us that we possess things that we don’t really possess. It’s exactly the opposite. We think that our house belongs to us and our cars and our furniture and our savings in the banks and everything, and we feel secure if we have those, all of those, right? They can disappear in a moment, or we disappear and we leave everything behind. Too many times, we don’t even leave them to someone that we desire to or wish to, somebody who will appreciate it. It can just remind us how fleeting our life is and nothing really belongs to us. We need to put things into perspective here.

Again, it’s important to acquire all the virtues, as we said, and keeping all the commandments: the same principle. St. John Chrysostom wrote:

We have five senses, and they are all necessary; so we need to have all virtues. If someone is prudent but uncharitable, or charitable but greedy, or if he avoids taking what belongs to others but does not give of his own—then everything is without purpose and in vain.

One virtue does not entitle us to stand with boldness before God. Just doing one thing is not enough. We need them all, in all their variety, all their magnitude. St. Mark the Ascetic commanded all of us, saying:

No one single virtue can open a physical door unless all of them follow as interrelated. Only by acquiring all the virtues, our soul will rejoice and the mind will be delighted by the spiritual gain because we will be imitating God, seeking to rise up to his likeness.

Again, St. Nicodemus says, “It is not enough to have the habit of virtue, but to practice them actively.” We may study, we may have the knowledge, we may be able to teach or preach others, but if we don’t practice them actively, it will not profit us. So he says, for example:

A charitable person does not find delight only when he has the habit of charity in his heart, but when he actually practices it. An artist or a craftsman does not experience delight unless he practices his skill or art. By practicing the virtue, acquire the habit which we often call as a second nature.

So the habit of virtues may be likened to the tree that has taken roots and has blossomed. The acts of virtue, though, that follow after the habit is established, are likened to the tree bearing fruit. So we have for example the parable of the fig tree that Christ has cut down, because it had roots and it had leaves, but no fruit. You remember how Christ rebuked the Pharisees and the teachers in the synagogue because they were full of words but no deeds, no fruit. So for us, in order to produce fruit with the knowledge, with the talents that we have, we need to practice them. And then, as it says, it becomes what we call a second nature.

A sin can become a second nature, and when that happens we think it’s a normal thing to do. It’s the same thing with practicing the virtues: we become that way; it becomes natural to us to live that way.

St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain suggests further three reasons why we must acquire all the virtues. So he says first of all:

All virtues are interrelated, one with another, like a golden interlocking necklace. And we all know how that is: if one is untied from the chain, all others become weakened.

The holy Father describes this as follows.

Faith bears fear of perdition. Fear of perdition bears abstinence from passion. Abstinence bears patience and tribulation. Patience bears hope in God. Hope bears indifference to worldly matters. Disregard for worldly things bears love for God which is the highest of all virtues. See how beautiful this is, how one leads to the other.

Now we don’t really have to check ourselves like that and say number one, number two, number three. This comes naturally when we do practice them. When we have faith in God, then we have the fear of God. With the fear of perdition, if we do wrong, right? That naturally comes. Then if we have that fear of perdition, a fear of God, and a fear of punishment in eternal life, then we practice abstinence, and we are freed from passions. Again, that comes naturally; it’s not something that you really have to check off the list or something. We’ll measure the days or the hours of how long you work it, one or the other—it’s not like that. It says one naturally leads to the other and becomes a way of life. You don’t even know it. We don’t even know it.

The second reason (he says) is that virtues are close to evils and related to them. Each virtue has two evils in opposition, the two extremes of excess. When one virtue is absent, the evil comes in and fills the gap.

Again, here we have the example of the Gospel, of the man who has cleaned his soul, his spiritual house, it says, and then he left it empty. And what happens? He says that seven devils came and took possession, because it’s ready and empty. So we cannot… There are many people who practice what we call virtues nowadays, because of abstinence, vegetarians, people who are very fit physically, and they think and practice all sorts of meditations, in touch with their body—all sorts of things that if you look at it, you think: this is a virtuous and very disciplined life. How can one make such effort in staying healthy and fit and focused and studying? But that means the house of the soul is empty if it’s not filled with God. So we have to be careful, and that we cannot do, because, as it says, it has two evils, from both sides: from the virtue we left before, and with it comes. Whatever is missing, then, the devil takes over. When we do what we do, our spiritual discipline, it has to be with God.

The third reason—this is very interesting.

When the mind is preoccupied with all the virtues, it does not have time to be preoccupied with evil. See how good that is? On the contrary, he who is preoccupied with evil has no time to consider the virtues.

One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius, puts it wisely, saying:

Both the virtues and the evil blind the mind. The virtues blind us from seeing evil, and the evils from seeing virtues.

This is commentary on the fourth chapter of The Ladder of St. John Climacus. I think if we stop and think of ourselves, we can say that we have experienced that ourselves. When we are preoccupied with good things, we don’t have time to be preoccupied with the evil. It does not have power. It cannot take over, because we’re busy. Our minds are already busy with good things, and the other way around. It’s kind of a blindness, either positive or negative.

St. Maximus the Confessor says:

All virtuous things have a beginning—there was a time when they were not—but virtue itself has no such beginning, for there was no time when it was not.

Because these are the attributes of God, and he is eternal, and there is not a time when God did not exist. But for ourselves, the practiced virtues start, because there is a beginning: “that we make a good beginning.” When we realize we need to change our lives and we make what we say, “a good beginning,” and many times we make good beginnings even more than one time, as we fall back and then we start again, which is a grace of God. That’s a great gift that God has given us, the gift of repentance. As St. John Chrysostom says, “No one would be saved without repentance, without the baptism of the tears of repentance. How good God is!”

Beside this, every virtue, but especially the fear of God, produces knowledge, prudence, and wisdom, making those who have this fear of God virtuous, prudent, knowledgeable, and wise. The knowledge of God produces so many of the other virtues: prudence and wisdom.

Let us see what the holy Scripture says about the benefits of the fear of God. David says, “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” As we read in Proverbs also, “The fear of God is instruction in wisdom.” In the Wisdom of Sirach, we read, “How great is he who has gained wisdom! But there is no one who is superior to him who fears the Lord. The fear of the Lord surpasses everything.” St. Gregory the Theologian tells us of a line of virtues which come from the fear of God.

He who truly has the fear of God in his heart, he it is who keeps the commandments of God. He it is who is purified, who is illumined, and he it is who has reached the love of God, which is the highest of all virtues.

This is why St. Isaac used to say, “The fear of God is the beginning of virtue,” because once we have acquired the fear of God, then we acquire a virtuous life. St. Isaac also said that we must acquire the virtues one by one in order to be helpful, because each virtue is the mother of the next one. Of course we know that our spiritual ascent has to be progressive, one by one, step by step.

If someone seeks to reach the love of God, which is the highest virtue and we all seem to aim for that, but we cannot just jump to the love of God, we need to acquire first the fear of God. He even says that we’d be greatly harmed if we tried to experience and have the love of God without practicing the other virtues first.

We cannot expect the grace of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without keeping the commandments. If we find that we want the experience in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit without keeping the commandments, we will not. We should not expect spiritual visions, should not expect any purity of senses also, if we don’t practice the commandments. That’s the way to get to a virtuous life. St. John Chrysostom also wrote:

If we want to enjoy spiritual delight, we must before all others avoid evil and seek after virtue. There’s no other way to partake of this delight, even if we rise to the royal throne.

There’s nothing else that will bring joy in our daily life except virtue. This is why St. Paul says, “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”: the famous verse of Galatians 5:22. Many times I try to see if I remember them all. There are different translations of the Bible, so it depends which one you read, so I get them all confused. So you can say that I’m probably in first grade when it comes to reciting the Scripture. [Laughter]

St. Peter of Damascus gives us the order in which one must acquire the virtues when placed in orderly fashion. These virtues become the spiritual house of our soul, and I’ll read you a passage here from his book. See how beautifully he describes—gives us a very clear illustration of how we build up our spiritual life and our virtuous life. He says:

Just as a physical house, in order to be built, needs firm ground, a foundation, stones, mortar, walls, roof, and a builder, also the spiritual house needs these very same elements. Instead of firm ground for the construction of the spiritual house, one needs to have perfect patience in every temptation that may come our way, either from men, from demons, or from corrupt nature, as St. Basil said. Instead of a foundation, we need steadfast and undoubting faith. By this, I mean not only the faith which we believe in the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Son of God, but the inner faith by which we believe that everything that God has said is true, both the promises of good things and the warnings of sufferings, as St. Symeon the New Theologian says.

Instead of stones, the spiritual house needs the many virtues (about which we spoke above). Instead of mortar, we need humility. (So it is humility that binds everything together.) As the mortar binds the various stones together, so also humility binds and holds together in harmony all the virtues. Instead of the four walls, the spiritual house needs the four cardinal virtues, that is: prudence, which determines what must be done and what must be avoided; courage is needed to harden the heart only against the devil and sin…

How many times do we think we need courage in our spiritual life? We need courage to do good. You know it takes a lot of courage, to overcome weaknesses and temptations to do good. I personally think that’s one of the things we kind of forget about.

Finally, justice is needed to offer each part of our soul what properly belongs to it, as St. Maximus said. If you want to be just, give to each part of you what rightly belongs to it, that is, to the body and to the soul.

This again is very important.

Give to the intellectual aspect of the soul reading, spiritual contemplation, and prayer. To the emotional aspect of the soul, give spiritual love to combat hatred. For the desirous aspect of the soul, provide prudence and self-control. For the body, provide food, clothing, and shelter, but only the essentials.

The roof of this spiritual house is the perfect love of God and neighbor, the end and the head of all virtues.

So we cover everything, we seal everything with the fear of God and this is the roof of it that protects everything else. How beautiful this is! What a beautiful illustration of how we build our spiritual house. Note that he says in how we need to address every aspect of our human being. The intellectual need is there, the spiritual need is there, and the physical needs are there: they are all there. It’s a matter of how much attention we pay to each one, how we satisfy each aspect of our life.

St. Nicodemus again encourages us with examples from the holy Scripture to seek to have meekness and humility as inseparable companions when we seek and do charitable work and in our all of our works, as we said before, that the disposition of our heart, how important that is in what we do, the attitude of our heart behind everything that we do, how important that is. So he says that meekness and humility should accompany everything that we do. How? Meekness and goodness.

There’s a title that our Lord Jesus Christ has. He says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly at heart.” St. Paul instructed Timothy to aim for gentleness and to correct his opponents with gentleness. So those who are teachers and in leading positions have to be very careful to instruct and teach with humility and gentleness. Sirach also instructed: “My son, perform your tasks in meekness. Even if you are made the master of the feast, do not exalt yourself.” When people exalt and praise us, it says do not allow [yourself] to become prideful.

Be among your brothers and sisters as one of them. Be among your younger brothers and sisters, your subordinates, as one of them. Especially where we are in church and celebrating the holy mysteries, we are urged to stand with reverence, complete calm, peaceful, untroubled in body and spirit, in words or movements, because we are standing before the Prince of peace himself. How important that is, that we have to control ourselves, it says, and stand in church in the love of God.

Humility and forbearance will bring to our hearts not only joy but a source of joy: humility and forbearance. If we don’t take pride and consider ourselves above others, we find joy. And if we admit, as St. Basil wrote, that each one of us is not capable by himself to find what is necessary, God has provided us with counselors, which are the hierarchs and the priests of the Church. Here he brings us about, how we can get advice and counsel in building our spiritual house.

God has left the apostles who passed the grace of the Holy Spirit on to their disciples, on [through] the apostolic succession that we have in our hierarchy in the Church. How important that is. Our priests, our hierarchs, they’re not dictators; they’re not rulers: they’re our spiritual fathers, our counselors, our advisors. We should look at them that way. We should consider them that way, not administrators of the parish or, you know, it says the employee, or whatever. We should look at them as ones that have the grace of God, through the sacrament of holy confession, to bind and unbind, to give us spiritual counsel. I know it’s hard sometimes, because we see them as human beings, as weak human beings also as we are. They are struggling; they are working out their salvation as we are. In Christ’s eyes, we’re all his spiritual children, equal in his eyes.

Again, we can gain the source of joy through patience, by not returning evil for evil—how important that is—by not taking revenge on those who grieved us or mistreated us in any way. Prophet Isaiah wrote in his tome [and] condemned the rulers of Jerusalem for seeking revenge, because we have a commandments to love them and to do good to them. Love your enemies and pray for them, for those who persecute you. If we cultivate these virtues and acquire them with joy and gladness, then we’ll be boundless and inexpressible. We’ll have boundless joy, only if we do that.

The source of spiritual joy, as we mentioned before, is the word of God, contained in the holy Scripture. There is sweetness and grace in the words of the holy Scripture. As we read the words of the holy Scripture, they will attract us as a magnet. They will touch our hearts. St. John Chrysostom said the reading of the holy Scripture is the opening of heaven and the mouths of the prophets are the mouths of God. Even those who have prophesied instead of God are the mouth of God. As we talk about God, as we talk of the things of God, then we are God’s mouth.

In the New Testament, we find many simple words which in truth possess such remarkable grace. In other teachings, God spoke to us through his servants, but in the Gospel he spoke to us personally. So we have the epistles written by the apostles, and we have the gospels that are Christ’s direct teaching. St. Basil the Great says it is important for us to be convinced and to believe from within that all the words of the Scripture are in agreement with each other, certain and true, as it is written in Psalm 119: The sum of thy word is truth (Psalm 119:160). And in Psalm 19 again: The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous all together (Psalm 19:9). And: The works of his hands are faithful and just. All his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever (Psalm 111:7-8).

Here we’re encouraged to read the Scriptures and how to read it: with an open heart and an open mind, and believing that they’re all true; they’re all of God, and they’re all necessary for us. This is again an encouragement that we should look at everything as a whole, not just part of it, not only what is convenient, not only what fits us, but everything all together. In reading the psalms, which should be part of our daily practice, especially as Orthodox Christians, we find and we identify ourselves with every aspect of our life in reading the psalms.

How [do] we read the psalms at home? We just read it as we can. Just start from the beginning. Depending on how much time you have, put the mark where you stop and pick up the next time. It’s beautiful. There are, of course, other instructions for other people how to read the psalms—by kathisma, or read it with the Church—but that’s different, and if anyone can practice that, it’s all well and beautiful. For most of the people, it’s a matter of reading it. Make it part of your daily reading. The book of psalms is the prayerbook of Jesus Christ. This is how he prayed: with the psalms. He quotes the psalms so many times. We have the great example there of our experience of our life in God. We find all the answers there.

In reading the Scripture, St. Basil again instructs us to read the Scripture for our benefit and for those entrusted in our care. So we’ll find there the remedy for all our ailments. When we have a need, we go to the Scripture. When we have a physical need, when we have a spiritual need, we go to the Scripture for the answers. St. Basil advises us that even when we have visitors in our homes—these are instructions for families and for homes—he says when we have visitors in our homes, we should avoid worldly discussions and stories and vain talk, and we should talk about the Scriptures. If the person does not want to learn, he will know what your purpose is; he will know what your faith is; he will know what is practiced in your home. So he will respect that or will never bother you again. That is in so many ways of saying you choose your friends also.

Again, have the courage to let your friends know who you are, what kind of life you live, what you do in your home, because, yes, we can have people with great disturbance. You treat them with love; you offer them hospitality. That’s a very important Christian virtue, charity and hospitality, very important; you do it with love, no matter what, but as I said, in the end, if it’s [someone] that comes to your house just to cause havoc and disturbance, then if you know what the rule of your house is, they won’t feel comfortable if they will not abide by it. You have to be, yes, careful, because in gatherings… You see, we’re not the only ones, 21st century; the holy Fathers write in the third and fourth century when people get together, there is a temptation of gossip and vain talk and all of those things. It’s very important that we discipline our tongue.

There is great joy in contemplating the beauty of God’s creation. This is very important and especially for people who live in the cities and again for our young generation today, since the life is such that there is everything that you can do sitting at the desk or at the computer. You get in your vehicle, get to the next building, get in your office, sit at the desk, and stare at the computer. You get in the car and come home, and sit in front of the TV or the computer again. We miss so much, then we wonder what’s wrong.

Contemplating God’s creation, where—don’t forget: we mentioned in the beginning man is the master of creation. Everything else that God has created is for our enjoyment—and we don’t pay any attention, or destroy it. We wonder what’s wrong: this is what is wrong. Even more than that, we are co-workers with God, creators with him. He works through us. He creates through us. With the talents that he has given us, with the gifts that he has given us, we are his co-workers; we are his hands. It says about the monastics that even if they don’t have to produce anything to provide for themselves, they will still create; they will still do something. I know of many things of what we would call of art, especially from the old monasteries of Mount Athos that were done in several years—embroideries of epitaphion, of vestments, carvings of crosses and icons—that somebody took almost an entire life to do it. It didn’t matter how long it will take; it was done to the glory of God. Those items, they tell us of their life, of their way of life, of their faith, and what it meant to them.

We live in a society that everything has to be done quickly, instantly. If it takes too long, you don’t do it. If it doesn’t get done by pushing a few buttons, it’s too long, it’s not worthwhile, don’t waste your time. You see how different from what God has intended us to be and how he has intended for us to live—how differently we live? We are surrounded by this encouragement to live that way. But the eternal purpose of God is to create, providing for us, providing for the visible creation, for the invisible creation. With one single glance, the mind can see heaven, the stars, the elements, the animals, the human beings; the mind has this quality of seeing at one glance so many things. All of these God has created from nothing and brought them into being by a single word. As we read in Genesis, “As he commanded, and they were created.”

We have the example of the courage Mother Solomone of the Seven Maccabean brothers. When she was encouraging her last son to face martyrdom, like the other six, she said to him:

My son, I beseech you to look at the heavens and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them of things that existed. Thus also mankind came into being.

So when we contemplate on these things, we are filled with wonder and rejoice with gladness, as David says in the psalms, “I praise thee, for thou art fearful and wonderful. Wonderful are thy works, O Lord; in wisdom hast thou made them all these things.” We chant this psalm every evening at vespers. We are moved to say with the words of the Acts of the Apostles, “In him we live and move and have our beings.” Or even more appropriately, as we read in Romans 11:35, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.”

With what perfection and wisdom has God created this great and wondrous world. And he did not inscribe his name on it, as we inscribe our names on pieces of art and works that we do. And yet, everybody knows who created them. The whole world proclaims with silent voices through the divine wisdom and power that it reflects for those rational beings who see it, who observe God’s creation. This is why David could say, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

But God did inscribe his love in our hearts, that is, within us: the ability to love, to praise, to bless, to marvel at God’s work. We have it inscribed in our hearts. Man is not alone in glorifying and magnifying the creator, but there [are] thousands upon thousands and millions upon millions of created spiritual and physical, rational and irrational beings that are done through the powers and energies of perfection. Everything declares God’s glory.

But man is above all of God’s creation, and he gathers unto himself all creatures, as we said, that are subject to man, and form this harmonious choir. When man is in harmony with God, then the whole of creation becomes in harmony. So man has to be the first to glorify God, and then moves the rest of the creation to glorify God. This is why David again says, “Let everything that breathes or has breath praise the Lord, mountains and hills, animals and birds, trees, seas, and rivers.” Man glorifying God brings into one single choir the whole creation to bless and to praise God.

This is a great thing, as St. Maximus the Confessor writes about the holy liturgy. He writes about the liturgy, the cosmic liturgy. This is what it is really referring to here.

When we celebrate the holy liturgy on the altar, as the Church, then we celebrate the liturgy in our hearts, each one of us, as we bring the altar of our being, as the heart, we bring it and celebrate the liturgy—and with us, the whole creation.

So when we are in church, praying and celebrating the mysteries, we need to remember that we are not just a handful of people in one physical building. As everything we touch by our prayer, by our sacrifice, we touch everything that is around us in the whole creation. It’s so beautiful to think of that, as we receive the holy sacraments, and walk out, because when the sacraments are imparted, the priest says, it is given to us, and through us to all the people, and through us that we receive, to all of those that we touch with our lives. How wonderful and powerful this is. Let’s not forget, as we celebrate or as we come out and are caught up by other distractions and forget that we bear Christ within us, and have really that ability to change things around us. That’s our purpose: to transfigure and to change the whole creation.

The holy Father tells us also that we should not even try to contemplate the reason of creation if we are still passionate, because we will not be able to see the spiritual reason hidden in the shapes and beauty of physical nature. Then we formulate our own reasons, our own understanding. So you have to be careful in that as we contemplate—again, we need to contemplate—God’s creation, God’s work, as he is the Creator.

Our life is a dynamic process, a continual growth, which we call salvation. We know that salvation has come through the cross. We sing that every Sunday at matins. The Church offers us the means for salvation. We have our personal, daily purification that we work on, and as a community and as the body of Christ, the mystical body of Christ, together, during the four lenten periods of the year that we all, all of us, must be of one mind and one heart: in keeping the fast together, in practicing the virtues together, in doing good works together. And as I said before, this is not only a privilege; it is an obligation also.

Here we have our personal life as we go home, in our little churches at home, that we practice our Christian life. But as the community, we come together as a Church, that we abide by the rule of the Church, so we are united. One of the Orthodox theologians says that even in our private prayers we are not alone. It’s not an individual prayer, even in our private home, in our private rooms; we are still united with the rest of the Church, with everyone. And especially he gives us the example, as we say, “Our Father…” We don’t say, “My Father”; we say, “Our Father,” and this is the prayer that Jesus has given to us.

“Our Father,” which means at that very moment when you are kneeling before your icon, there are other people in other places that do the same thing, and this is a wonderful thing to know and to be aware of, that we are never really alone in our spiritual struggle, even in the secret of our rooms. God is present everywhere, the same God that works together. He sends us his help and his grace through other people, through the people in the community, in our families. This is how we work out our salvation. It is through a little bit of suffering, by carrying out our crosses that God has given to all of us. That’s the way to salvation. Thank you.

I will open to some questions. If you’re embarrassed or more shy about asking the question, you can write it out.

Q1: You had stated that “share your faith in God.” How do you share your faith in God to impact those who don’t believe or who are unsure that they believe?

Mother Gabriella: We are encouraged to preach and teach the word of God, in season and out of season. That means every opportunity. Now, that can be by teaching, by our words, explaining, suggesting to other people to read the Scripture, and especially to read maybe the spiritual books or interpretation of the holy Scripture. That’s one way. That is done, of course, when it’s appropriate, when one is willing to open, to receive that. Most powerful and in any circumstances, when we don’t even know the people around us, maybe it’s by our way of life. It’s really our interaction with other people that should tell others who we are, or what is special or different about us as Christians: the way we make our decisions, the way we treat different situations, the way we treat other people. This is how we can preach and teach at any time.

Q2: Mother Gabriella, first, thank you for being here. It is always a joy just to have you in our midst. In the morning session, you talked about… you made reference to how God doesn’t desire our punishment or our death. He created us out of love, and everything is good. In the afternoon we talked about the fear of God. Sometimes I have difficulty understanding the fear of God. God is love, and he gives us such… he has an unconditional love for us, and his loving-kindness towards us, that is how we exist and are able to do what we can do. I certainly understand that we can’t raise our eyes too high and what have you. But maybe this is simplistic: what is there to be afraid of when our God is unconditional love?

Mother Gabriella: One of the simple ways that the holy Fathers explain what the fear of God is, or how we understand it, is: think of our relationship with the beloved. That puts us in a state of mind, of soul, that we do not want to offend or to hurt—that type of fear. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt someone by my action or my way of being. That is the fear of God, because he is the Beloved of our soul, the Bridegroom of our soul and of our heart. So if we have that type of understanding of our relationship of God, we do not want to hurt. So that’s a type of fear that we have. Of course, the type of fear that we have, of having an accident or of being eaten by animals or falling from the building—that’s a different type of fear. That is a gift from God that we have that also, to know to avoid dangers. All of our instincts are put in us for a good reason, if we use them rightly. That’s probably the simplest way of explaining that, and I hope that helps.

Q3: Could you speak a little bit more about loving-kindness? Is that a good translation of that concept? You spoke of concern of young people committing suicide, and I think that that concept has something that speaks to that. I also think another concept that speaks to… or another thing that we certainly live with as Orthodox is the sense of wonder, of awe of all that God has done for us. If one is truly in that, then there is the joy and there is the sense of creation. That’s kind of going aside, but my other sense is that we speak of “all-merciful,” but to me “loving-kindness” has something more that goes on there, but I’d like to hear your observations about that word.

Mother Gabriella: I would say loving-kindness, first of all, would be kindness done, again, in the name of Christ. Like we have said about the other things that we would do, not for any other reason except for God, not that we would get something—a reward, something back—but only because of the love of God. That becomes a loving-kindness. If we love one another, then we do kindness to one another. That’s a result of having love for one another, that we are kind to one another. So we practice that.

Now, I would say that loving-kindness doesn’t necessarily mean that you are just accepting the person or the way of life. Loving-kindness be tough, also. You want to bring someone to God, if you want to correct someone, if you see someone in danger, lovingly, kindly, you want to bring the person around and about. Sometimes you have to be firm. So it doesn’t necessarily mean very, very loving, without correcting or without pointing out what is wrong, without directing someone to God, just accepting the way someone is. So it’s the type of kindness that is done in the love of God.

Q4: I’m reading from my notes, so hopefully I can have a good question for you, but I wrote down: Realize God’s bad is ultimately good for us, and somehow tragedies and sadnesses and misfortunes, when a person is with God, will accept. We have situations of deaths, primarily, where they are believers as well, and in their hearts they accept. How can we speak to someone who does not have God in their hearts, and looks at tragedies as simply tragedies? And how can we relate how God is helping us and has helped us? Maybe a word or something might bring God to them, through their tragedies—primarily non-believers or people that we do not share faith with.

Mother Gabriella: First of all, if we notice and we know of people in our lives that experience that, the first thing is to have the willingness and the love for them to address the situation, to speak. Of course, first you would say, you would speak about your experience in God. They can relate to that very quickly, because they know you. Then you can go further and give them the information of others who have lived before us. Encourage them to read and to know the lives of saints and of other people who have lived before us and experienced that. Maybe you want to start that way, not to bring them directly into the holy Scripture and a life of prayer when they don’t have the experience and the understanding. But by seeing and giving them other examples, your personal experience of life and God, then invite them to church so they see how you pray, just to be there, because being in church with a praying community and the presence of the holy sacraments, they will experience this sacredness and the wonder of God, the presence of God with his people who believe.

Then encourage them to pray. Again, I think the psalms are very good, because we can identify. Then you can go on to teaching how we understand the holy Scripture. So the interpretation of the holy Scriptures helps [more] than many times someone says, “Read the Scripture,” because not being instructed, informed, they could misinterpret. Even for monastics and for beginners, the Fathers encourage that novices would read the writings of the holy Fathers before they start reading the Scripture on a regular basis on their own. So when we read the Scriptures, we know how to understand them. So I think that would be kind of a few hints of how we would approach someone like that.

But for us who believe, yes, even if it is hard when we are tempted, when God allows things to happen to us, it is hard. It is supposed to be hard, yes. We have the assurance that we know what it means. St. Paul says, “I would rather be with the Lord.” Can you imagine? This is what we strive for, to really have that desire, to be with God. The death of the body is something that happens along the way, whenever God deems worthy of taking us from here, as we have done our work and are ready to be with him to give us eternal life. The thought of the end of life and eternal life, it should be something that we look forward to, that we desire, that we are impatiently awaiting, to finally be released from the body and from the cares of the world and from the burdens, yes.

Q5: I would like to apologize because I came a little bit late—here were some circumstances—but my question is going to be a little bit different [from] many of you. I would like to share something and then ask Mother Gabriella to explain to us this closely. There is a monastery that’s very old in Serbia. The monastery doesn’t have a land. Most monasteries live off of the work. They do a lot of things, they provide a lot of things for themselves, so basically they don’t go out and buy anything. But this particular monastery has been under a female monastic, and for many, many years, back in the old times when people didn’t offer the money, they would bring probably chickens or pigs or something; they would bring some kind of life there. So until the morning, everything everything would die. So they would find out. They said the monastery would live off of the prayer. It doesn’t need anything else, so don’t bring anything. The monastery will survive.

So I would like to ask you, Mother Gabriella, how could you explain to us, for us now, earthly, we have to have money for everything, that we don’t pray enough at all, we wake up in the morning and I would like to say like bugs, we fly, we don’t kneel a little bit in the morning or even at night, especially the younger we are, the worse we are. I would like to ask you, how could you explain to us how this monastery, how it works and how that related to our understanding of this happening? Thank you.

Mother Gabriella: If God has allowed something like that to be, and obviously people have witnessed around how God provides for his chosen one, that’s his promise. Seek first the kingdom of heaven; everything else will be given to you. So God always remains true to his word. He also said, “He who doesn’t work doesn’t eat,” right? That we are co-workers, that we are to work to create, to produce, for our own living. That’s God’s command. If God allows a situation that are out of the normal, so to say, most of the time he is to prove a point. Maybe that particular community there was to teach the people around and all those who come to know of it to trust God, period; to trust God fully. As you said, what an example for you, for us nowadays or in this city or in this country, that we need to have plans and we know where the next check comes and we make plans and all of that. We forget to trust God. So situations like that, that are out of the ordinary, are to prove a point, to teach us a lesson. They are a constant reminder: trust God. We have to trust him fully and completely, not just part of it.

Again, bringing Fr. Roman in here with us, he says: We trust God until he touches our bank account. [Laughter] Where we say: God, I trust you and allow you to interfere in my life—but up to the checkbook. So we always are a little hesitant. It seems like we want just a little bit of control in our lives. Again, that instinct of control, it’s good; it’s put there in us for a reason, but to control our lives from evil, from destruction, from bad influences, not to keep God somewhere, at some distance from us. Be it this example or other, when we see there is definitely a message, a strong message for us, for the others who come in contact with it, a constant good reminder. It’s God’s mercy and his love for us that allows things like that to happen.

Q6: We talked about doing things in our community, good works and such, and I know work in the church or volunteering or whatever we can do in our community, we want our motives to be pure and to be for the Lord. How can we examine our motives so we can keep it about God? Sometimes it crosses over from going to do something that we want to be pure by maybe doing it in secret—sometimes it can’t be that way; it’s among people—but to keep our motives pure, and something that can maybe help us examine, if it doesn’t become about the Lord; it becomes about exalting ourselves. How can we keep ourselves in check with that?

Mother Gabriella: That is a constant battle, for everybody, every day, every single moment of the day in everything we do, really. Sometimes we handle that better than others. But don’t forget that the devil never sleeps, so it will never really leave us for good. So even when you have gained some control, some say, you become a little more focus-oriented, peaceful in what you are doing. You never know how the devil is going to strike and disturb you. There’s not one particular fix for this. It’s always a struggle.

But of course, as we start doing anything, we need to prepare. Many times, we forget to prepare for our prayer time, for our worship in church, and the attitude that we do God’s work with. We know that we need to prepare for school, that we need to prepare for a job, we need to prepare for exams, and we do very well on that. When it comes to our spiritual life, many times we forget to prepare. By that, I mean, when we start out, think: What am I doing? What for? We don’t need a lot of time or energy to do that. It’s a matter of discipline, spiritual discipline. When we start out doing something, don’t just remember: “Oh, it’s time to go to church!” rush out the door, and you’re late or forgot to do or didn’t have time to finish something else, and go in that state of mind and spirit. No, when it’s time to go to church, you think, “What am I doing at church or in church?” So take that time, from the time you step out the door, at least to the time you get to the church door. Check your thoughts, check your attitude, check your emotions, ask God for help, become at peace when you enter and you do God’s work and the grace of God is there. It’s a matter of discipline, yes, but it’s a constant struggle. Don’t forget that.


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