Remember God Always

Somebody asked Abba Antony (St. Antony the Great of Egypt), “What shall I do in order to please God?”

He replied, “Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guide-lines, you will be saved.”

+++

This small story from the lives of the Desert Fathers has always reminded me of the quote that Fr. Thomas Hopko offers as having been given him by his mother when he left for seminary: “Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church.”

The Christian life, it would seem, is not so much complex as difficult and the things that are difficult are themselves quite simple. St. Antony’s admonition to “follow the example of Holy Scripture” might seem to some to be asking the impossible – but he means nothing more than keeping its commandments. And those commandments are simple as well: love God, love neighbor, forgive everyone for everything (that’s my summary), do not lie, do not steal, and such things.

The difficulties that we encounter are a “living diagnosis” that something is wrong. When I lie, it is clear that something is wrong. The inside of me and the outside of me do not match – I have no integrity. Our lies are a refusal to live in the truth.

The failure to love is equally a diagnosis and evidence of the disordered condition of our lives. Christ’s teaching in Luke chapter six makes the point that the love and forgiveness that are asked of us are commandments to be like God:

But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (32-36).

And though a commandment to be “like God” can sound like the request for the impossible – we are never commandment to be like any other. We are created in God’s image and conformity to that image is our proper, natural condition. To live in the image of God is properly what it means to be truly and fully human.

And so our difficulty with all of this is evidence that something is wrong – something is disordered.

Without great analysis of the disease itself, St. Antony (and Fr. Tom’s mother), offer a straightforward remedy: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church.

The first admonition, “to remember God,” is to learn to live as a creature – to live as a contingent being (to get philosophical). I did not create myself and were I to live as though I did, it would be a lie. Such a lie is a disordered way of being. Remembering God is not unrelated to the maxim of Socrates: “Know yourself.” The forgetting of God is one of the illnesses of the heart that dominates our secular world. For it is not so much that our world says that “there is no God,” as it says, “God is not here.”

The practice of saying the ‘Jesus Prayer’ is one of the most common ways that the “constant remembrance of the name of God” is manifest in the Orthodox spiritual life. But at the heart of that prayer is simply the remembrance of God. In the words of an old friend who was a recovering alcoholic: “The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.” And we need to know that every minute of the day.

The last thoughts of St. Antony’s admonition and the last thought offered by Fr. Hopko’s mother are quite similar as well. To stay where you are and not move about in a hurry is the practice of the virtue of stability. The gather regular for prayer in Church with other believers is the foundation of spiritual stability in our daily lives. To gather regularly and faithfully requires that our life in Church be purged of many of our modern (and ancient) habits. We must learn not to judge (or before long attendance becomes either unbearable or practice for dwelling in hell). We must learn that we exist to give praise and thanks to God and not be entertained. Boredom is not the bane of our existence – it is our hatred of existence.

We have now passed the climax of a great feast. Life returns to normal. At least we should pray for life to return to normal, understanding that to remember God, to keep the commandments, and to be content with our lives as creations of the living God is the true meaning of normal.

Comments

  1. Margaret says

    Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen! I will be meditating on this for awhile. God is so good! Glory to God for All Things!

    I am also reminded of another quote I’ve seen credited to Socrates: Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

  2. Steve says

    We do not really own the last word on Jesus Christ. We are simply witnesses who must strip away the artificiality and the falsehoods to reveal the beautiful grain of God’s truth in the Life of Jesus, who comes to us as The Resurrection and in His Church.

  3. says

    Christ is born!

    I visited a Mission Station recently and the priest said to me, You know what I want? One or two families who come to church and say they have no plans or expectation to ever move away. That would be diamonds to me.

    It seems so odd today, to stay put.
    Fr Stephen could you say more about this, and I would love to see some more from the Fathers on this exact subject as I know it kept cropping up in my little bit of reading. And yet I think most of us contemporary folk dont take it very seriously or see it as seriously important.
    To just stay put.

    -Mark Basil

  4. Damaris says

    Dear Father Stephen —

    First, I second Basil’s request. I’d like to hear more about that myself.

    Second, I remember either a post or a series of comments dealing with being a soldier and being a Christian. It was in the last few months, perhaps late summer. I haven’t been able to find it. My daughter is in the Navy and has been thinking along these lines. I’d like to send her what I remember reading. The gist was that while it may be that we have to fight, it is always damaging, and we rely on God’s grace through repentence and confession to heal ourselves. I’m sorry to divert from this excellent thread. You may email me directly if it’s more appropriate. Thank you!

  5. says

    Basil,
    I’ll put some effort into it. Oddly, it’s a subject that I’ve thought about for a very long time (actually since 1980 when I heard a lecture related to it). In the rule of St. Benedict (which is Orthodox – 6th century or so) – the four vows of his monastics are “poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability.” Many people know the first three but are unaware of the fourth. I work on something soon. By the way, I truly appreciate the quote from the mission station. The average American family moves once every five years.

  6. Yannis says

    Father Stephen wrote:
    “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful (32-36).

    And though a commandment to be “like God” can sound like the request for the impossible – we are never commandment to be like any other. We are created in God’s image and conformity to that image is our proper, natural condition. To live in the image of God is properly what it means to be truly and fully human.

    And so our difficulty with all of this is evidence that something is wrong – something is disordered.”

    One of the reasons the commandment to be “like God” sounds like asking the impossible is because Christ, unlike all the Moseses of the world that are essentially relativists, is an absolutist, and like all absolutists cuts straight through all the relative values and notions of good and evil that are established from instincts, social conventions as well as ego gratifications like love of wealth, power, men/women etc.

    However as True Christ’s saving words are, it is useful to note, that they are precisely said from the point of view of a man who is the equal of God and walks hand in hand with the absolute. The reality of these words is a world apart for all those that perceive the world relativistically (like most of us), and hence why the commandmend sounds like “asking the impossible”.

    There is also interwoven with the above, the crucial meaning of the word “love”; which i am sure it must be the “active love” Elder Zoshima – of the Brothers Karamazov – talks about; and he clearly says therein that it is a “cold and terrible thing” and “hard work and self control”. This is clearly a love beyond the love of social relationships, even those that we hold most dear like our parents, spouses and children, which Christ clearly and repeatedly rejects in the Scriptures.

    There is a grave danger for this passage to be interpreted by people like us, that are relativists, as asking us to show the “usual”, “sentimental”, “social type” of love to people that we are not otherwise inclined to give it. But this is dangerous and perhaps even foolish, and as a Zen master once said “even if you become selfless, do not be a fool”. In other words being able to love “actively” is a function of how much one has detached from his own ego, not how much he can attach it to people his discriminating abilities tell him to stay away from.

    Christ in the Scriptural passage quoted, clearly points out that love of the social kind is inferior to the “active” love, because its existence is based to its ergonomic effectiveness in various levels (financial, psychological etc), and this is true in most cases not only for employer/employee relationships but also for the most intimate ones like husband and wife and parents and children.

    However the “active” love must be based on a deep reckognising of others as equal and equally valuable in the eyes of God as ourselves.

    Christ himself loves in such a way, for his love knows not niceties; he openly rejects his very family members that (rightly) think he “gotten mad” he feels free to condemn the “fig trees” of the world that pose as if they are loaded with fruits but are not, he publicly ridicules and accuses the Phaerisses for turning piety into a social value and he overthrows violently good honest high street businesses from outside the Temple because according to him it “defiles” the place.

    He views the world through the eyes of the Father – the Absolute – and has left the relative behind.

    By gradually and systematically striving to do the same (through the means of prayer, introspection, carefreeness fasting and wholly participating in the sacraments) one is able to detach from his ego as much as it is possible for him/her in the conditions he is living and with the temperament he/she was given.

    Anything beyond this, in my opinion, either leads to idealisations and wishful thinking or dangerous situations. The former turn Scriptural Word into unpractical, untouchable, “not for us/sounding impossible” ideals; the latter spur people that are of a “low spiritual age” to try things that are of a “higher spiritual age” with the obvious result of them being dissapointed or even hurt by being exposed to the greed and malice of others with their defences down.

    If God wanted a world of saints he would have made it so, but he made one full of butchers and mercenaries; yet, they are all as Christ tells us, precious to Him in their very greed, pettiness and ungratefulness.

    The Japanese have a specific word: “wabisabi” – which basically means the beauty of all things impermanent, imperfect and incomplete.

    Being aware of this fact and treating others (and ouselves!) while “hating their sins” and not them personally is a step towards the right direction, in my humble opinion.

    It is also useful to remember that in the spiritual life – like in chess – process is valued more than results.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  7. Steve says

    Damaris —

    I’m not sure if you know of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (I hadn’t, until very recently).

    Here’s the link, if you haven’t: http://incommunion.org/

    May I point your daughter to the superb lectures given by Met. KALLISTOS Ware at the Orthodox Peace Fellowship retreat in Vézelay, in April 1999.

    -Steve

  8. Damaris says

    Steve —

    Thank you! I will check that out. I wasn’t familiar with the organization or the lectures.

  9. Jacob says

    I’m interested to read your further comments on stability. In addition to the stability of “not moving away” from a particular place, there is also the stability of just being present where you are. It is hard to “Remember God. Say your prayers. Go to Church” when we are so busy entertaining ourselves. Vacations, music, movies, sports, TV, etc (for ourselves and activities for our kids too) are the major focus of American life outside of work. We can’t sit still. As Postman said we’re “amusing ourselves to death” or as Fr. Meletios Webber says, we want “to be anywhere but here, any time but now.” (my paraphrase). We don’t want the hard work of the Christian life. I’ve been amazed by the numbers of my peers who will put in months of training to run a marathon. Hours of hard work, sweat, and pain each day. But few are willing to stand and pray even an hour a day (I include myself here). The Christian life is harder than marathon training!

  10. Yannis says

    Jacob wrote:
    “I’ve been amazed by the numbers of my peers who will put in months of training to run a marathon. Hours of hard work, sweat, and pain each day. But few are willing to stand and pray even an hour a day (I include myself here). The Christian life is harder than marathon training!”

    Actually there are parallels between spiritual training and any other training and many disciplines converge in that they force one to confront him/herself and overcome him/herself. This is one area where western spirituality, to a certain extent Orthodoxy included, has split the everyday life and its activities and spiritual training as of late. However it used to be otherwise in the early days of Christianity hence the saying “Laborare est orare” (=work is prayer).

    In the far east this split never found fertile ground and all daily activities, including ones that seem “anti-religious” by definition such as martial arts, were approached spiritualy.

    The word spirit is etymologically rooted in the latin verb spiro=to breathe. In other words binding moves and patterns with breathing and breath control in every day activities is the key into turning them from mundane, meaningless tasks into something that shapes the inside – and by the way making the Prayer of the Heart “active” is no different.

    Marathon training in particular can be very well a good part of spiritual training, since “losing one self” in the act of running and becoming one with a natural breathing period is very much akin to prayer.

    So can be almost anything else, if approached correcly.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  11. Yannis says

    Apologies to all for the above ID pattern i was given, i have just managed to mispell my email address :)

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  12. Major Tom Pleadies says

    “If God wanted a world of saints he would have made it so…” – Yannis

    But surely He did….we created a world “full of butchers and mercenaries” through the Fall.

  13. Yannis says

    Hello Major Tom Pleadies,

    What i meant by this is that God allowed men the right to be butchers and mercenaries by gracing them with free will. However this being his intention must be part of his plan.

    It is also useful to remember that many of the rules of the world are set in opposition to God’s commandmends – without food, running water and care human beings are unable to consider higher ethical values and “love each other as oneself” – all this becomes then little more than bourgois preaching. Men that lack love and care torture anyone willing to give it to them almost consciously as if this is the only means for them to feel better and for their wounds to be healed.

    Of course the present state of the world and its rules are metaphysically explained in the Christian tradition as a result of the fall, and yet good and beauty have meaning in the world precisely because of evil and uggliness being realities or as the Tao states more explicitly by things being realised by their opposites.

    In that light, the fall seems absolutely necessary to me for man, as if it was meant to happen – the created not being as perfect as the Creator. It is only through the knowledge of good and evil ie the presence of dualism and discrimination that Theosis ie transcending good and evil, gain and loss, life and death, can be a reality for man in this world.

    I very much personally doubt that God would be omnipotent and omniscient had he not anticipated the fall of man or if he is “binded” somehow by it, hence the world of the fall is, in my view, His and not ours, since we “cannot turn a single heir of our heads white”, as Christ rightly says.

    For me the fall too is part of the Divine wisdom and i bow to it because otherwise the world as we know it would be little more than a mechanical cosmic puppet show and thus unable of real good and real beauty.

    The world, the mystery of its existence and its ability to absorb evil without “blinking an eye” are to me a mirror image for the One in which it rests.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  14. Major Tom Pleiades says

    “For me the fall too is part of the Divine wisdom” – Yannis

    Does that include the satanic fall?

    “I very much personally doubt that God would be omnipotent and omniscient had he not anticipated the fall of man” -Yannis

    Surely, He ‘permitted’ the Fall – although He did anticipate the Fall by being slain before the creation of the world (cf. Revelation 13:8).

  15. Yannis says

    Major Tom Pleiades wrote:
    “Does that include the satanic fall?”

    For me yes. Saint Isaac of Syria in fact denies the existence of the devil and of hell as entities among others, so Orthodoxy – like in so many other points is not unanimously clear on the matter.

    However, before we are carried away to what Father Stephen may call “The Geography of the Fall/God”, and lose focus of what the point was, i meant initially that much of the wickedness of the world is simply part of God’s intention and plan and comes as a result of men being granted free will.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  16. says

    Yannis,
    I am not aware of St. Isaac denying the existence of the devil and hell. He has a different take on their possible reconciliation, but only offers this as a guarded possibility. But in my reading of him, he does not deny their existence.

  17. says

    St Isaac is difficult to read.
    I recommend anyone interested in understanding Abba Isaac’s rich teachings on the love of God (rooted in his experience), to see the summaries generously offered by Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev.

    On Gehenna and the love of God Apb Hilarion explains thus:
    First, in speaking about the absence of any middle realm between Gehenna and the Kingdom of heaven, Isaac does not deny the reality of the separation of the sheep from the goats, and he even explicitly refers to it. But his attention is directed far beyond this separation, for he does not regard it as final and irreversible. The Last Judgment is a reality which Isaac recommends one to ponder over every day. However, his main point is that the present life is a time when the separation actually takes place, and the Last Judgment will only reveal that spiritual state which was reached by a person during his life. Thus, the Parable should not be understood as a dogmatic statement concerning the final destiny of the righteous and sinners, but as a prophetic warning against not having and manifesting love for one’s fellow humans during one’s earthly life.

    Secondly, Isaac warns that the torment of Gehenna is terrible and unbearable, even though it is limited in time. Gehenna is a reality that is in no way denied by Isaac. But he understands it in the context of the Gospel’s message about God’s unspeakable love and boundless mercy. For Isaac, God is primarily a householder making those who worked only one hour equal to those who have borne the burden of the whole day.[21] A place in the Kingdom of heaven is given to a person not on the basis of his worthiness or unworthiness, but rather on the basis of God’s mercy and love towards humankind. The Kingdom of heaven is not a reward, and Gehenna is not a requital: both are gifts of the merciful God ‘Who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’.[22]

    The whole essay is very much worth reading:
    http://en.hilarion.orthodoxia.org/6_6_10

    Christ is born!
    -Mark Basil

  18. Yannis says

    I apologise Father Stephen if i misguided and thank you for correcting me; i was referring to:

    “”Satan” is a name denoting the deviation of the human will from truth; it is not the designation of a natural being.”
    Hom. 26, B 189

    and

    “…those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love… is given to all. But the power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a scourge of joy for those who have observed its duties.”
    St Isaac the Syrian Homily 28 (English Numbering)

    Under the light of those quotes, hell and the last judgement denote the closeness or distancing of man physically and metaphysically from God and not his distance or closeness to the devil, or so i thought.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  19. Michael Bauman says

    Christ is Born!

    Yannis, I would take issue with you that the wickedness of the world is part of God’s intention. Certainly He forsaw the consequences of sin made possible by our free will, but His intention is for none to do evil and for all to be saved.

    Admitedly, it takes a few 2X4’s in the head to wake me up from time to time, but that is not the same thing as attributing evil to God’s intent. Fortunately, His grace is transformative — able to turn even the evil I do into a salvific tool. That is genuine economia.

    The Christian Gospel, IMO, is that the voluntary kenotic suffering of God is an offer of ineffable love that allows the ontological distance between God and we creatures to be bridged. When we don’t submit to His love, the gap widens. Therefore it is the hardness of our hearts, the unwillingness to repent that becomes the only unforgiveable sin.

    Father, please correct me if I am mistaken.

  20. says

    Yannis

    Excellent quotes. There are other quotes that would give him a slightly more traditional reading. But the second quote is certainly classic Isaac. He does not deny hell but sees it as our own rebellion rather than a place in it’s own right.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  21. Carolina says

    I wrote the words, Remember God Always on my screen protector. Now every time I come back to the computer, I remember to greet God.

  22. Lizzy L says

    God’s mercy and love are so immense that he can make saints even of butchers and mercenaries — indeed, he can even make saints of us.

  23. says

    Father,

    Happy New Year! I say this not as the world, but rather, as one who is increasingly enjoying and benefitting from being an Orthodox catechumen.

    Your title, “Remember God Always” reminds me of the verse that says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
    – Colossians 3:17

    Therefore, everything that we do can give glory to God, even what we may consider to be the most mundane things of this life, such as doing the laundry or washing the dishes or grocery shopping. Everything that we do can be touched by God if we relinquish ourselves in the doing and allow Him to do it through us! As St. Paul said, “For it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”

    May we renew ourselves this day to allowing Him to work within us and through us to the glory of God the Father.

    Christ be with you, Father and all who are blessed to read this blog.

  24. Yannis says

    Happy new Year everyone.

    Personally wether evil is part of God’s intention or not is a question that seems to have a clear, even obvious answer at first sight:

    God is good but man and the world of the fall are not.

    There are a few problems with such a view imo, namely that many of the “characteristics” that Christianity itself attributes to God are denied through it; these are “omniscient”, “omnipotent” and “omnipresent”. I happen to believe in these very deeply, as deeply as believe in Him, and because of this i also believe that sin, evil and the enemy/accuser himself are part of God’s plan, unknowingly but knowingly, because they are part of His world.

    Now don’t get me wrong, i do not mean this as atheists do that make a case of evil in the world for “ridiculing” the “concept” of God, his mercy and even question His existence.

    I rather mean it, as attributing all to Him, not fatalistically, but fundamentally, and seeing Him as the axis around which things revolve, rather than believing in an everlasting hell which the enemy can set up independently of Him or rather than attributing to Him preferentially only what i relativistically like and accept – the “good” – while distancing Him from what i relativistically dislike and fight against – the “bad”.

    Thank you all for your posts, i think however that i have unconsciously monopolised the posting antilogue maybe beyond good measure, but nontheless i would like to thank Father Stephen and all who read the comments section for making possible and taking part in this very interesting discussion.

    These are no doubt very difficult questions and as someone i respect have written “I don’t believe in simple answers to complex questions”.

    May God grace us all with the answers we seek in the time and manner of His choosing.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  25. says

    Yannis,
    The gift of true freedom to His creatures certainly introduces an element that the classical treatment of “omnipotent” can fail to admit. St. Basil the Great has a small treatise on “How God Is Not the Author of Evil” that does a good job with this. The various “theologies” that use God’s sovereignty as their main and primary point of organization eventually run into heresies from an Orthodox perspective. It just seems to be the wrong place to start. I hold dearly St. Paul’s characterization of the Cross as the “power of God.” If the Cross is the definition of God’s power given to us – then I think we have to re-read what we mean when we say “omnipotent.” I know that the “God of the Philosophers” cannot be reconciled with the God made known to us in Christ.

  26. Steve says

    Mark Basil,

    Thank you so much for the link to Archbishop Hilarion’s essay on Universal Salvation.

    Very appropriate choice of wording! It is always because the Lord is generous that we may approach the Eternal Throne and participate in the Life of God, etc., in the here and now.

    Met. KALLISTOS Ware tells us, in his lecture on The Eucharistic Sacrifice, Who offers What to Whom that it is precisely because Christ is in our midst in total actuality and immediacy that this is the “time for the Lord to act”.

    Here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUS0XZu5n88

    Christ’s Nativity is the Winter Pascha!

    -Steve

  27. Yannis says

    Thank you for the word of wisdom and the reading suggestion Father Stephen, i’ll seek it out.

    I was reading today “The Orthodox Way” in which Bishop Kallistos says that the split of our world came about by the apostasia of the angels and afterwards of man and that this is not counted as God’s plan from an orthodox perspective, so everyone in this comment thread past Major Tom that vouched for evil not being part of God’s creation is on the safe side and me on thin ice :)

    I think that it may have been to a certain extent a type of pride that drove me to defend my wording “(God made) a world full of butchers a mercenaries”.

    Not that that my arguments lack in scholastic rigor; but that from the purely spiritual point of view, and as for everyone else imo, what i post/say reflects more about me than about what i write about.

    Best Regards

    Yannis