April 30

Bodily discipline is essential in order to make the ground of the heart fit to receive the spiritual seeds and bear spiritual fruit. To abandon or neglect it is to render the ground unfit for sowing and bearing fruit. Excess in this direction and putting one’s trust in it is just as harmful, or even more so, than neglect of it. Neglect of bodily discipline makes men like animals who give free rein and scope to their bodily passions; but excess makes men like devils and fosters the tendency to pride and the recurrence of other passions of the soul.

Those who relinquish bodily discipline become subject to gluttony, lust and anger in its cruder forms. Those who practice immoderate bodily discipline, use it indiscreetly, or put all their trust in it, seeing in it their merit and worth in God’s sight, fall into vainglory, self-opinion, presumption, pride, hardness and obduracy, contempt of their neighbors, detraction and condemnation of others, rancor, resentment, hate, blasphemy, schism, heresy, self-deception, and diabolic delusion.

~Ignatius Brianchaninov

Paths (part 29)

Our simple materials delivery business expanded to be a landscaping company; over the course of my time in the community I learned to build decks, pour concrete, install masonry, lighting, irrigation, basically design and install everything related to new landscape construction. After a few years of this training MD had me take a contractor’s licensing course and in 1996 I became a licensed landscape contractor.

 

One of the first landscaping projects that we did together as a community was a new backyard landscaping project for a gentleman who contracted with us and then was called out of town for a few weeks. Before he left on his trip he paid us the total balance on the contract before we had even begun the work. The trust he exhibited in fully paying us a fairly substantial amount of money, and then leaving town impressed MD, and as a way of rewarding this man’s trust, we did the project for him and left his check uncashed under his front door; so that when he arrived home a few weeks later he found his new backyard landscape, fully installed, and also discovered that he didn’t have to pay a penny for it, we had done it for him for free.  Of course he tried to pay us the money but we refused, telling him that we wanted to do this for him because he had acted so honorably and trustingly and this is worthy of honor and love in return.

 

By early 1995 our spiritual training, which of course was the primary reason we were living in this community, was developing and taking new directions. I mentioned earlier how there were stages to this spiritual course throughout the four years I spent with MD and that initially we were focused on gaining mental and emotional strength and learning through simple scenarios how to watch our thoughts and motives and work to transform these to more loving and honorable ones. He had also explained that once we had a good grounding and foundation in this concept that eventually the scenarios would grow more difficult to allow us opportunity to make greater strides in overcoming our vices such as anger, lust, cowardice etc. One morning MD had all six of us come into the living room and stand in a line side-by-side. He asked us to extend our hands and then, using a small twig he stood before each of us one-by-one and struck our outstretched hand so that it stung. Inside I felt anger rise up in me. Next he told us not to get angry. I think everyone felt as I did that it was justified or that it was difficult not to feel violated and offended in some way by being struck without cause.  Next he had us, two at a time, kneel in front of the open fire in the fireplace, and then he struck our hand again. As a reaction I felt the same way: violated, offended and angry. He told me not to feel this way but I couldn’t change my reaction. Then suddenly he took my hand in his and thrust it over the flames. Just briefly, not enough to burn nor even to hurt, but it caught me off-guard and I pulled my hand back in surprise.

 

“You didn’t have any anger in that moment as your hand was over the fire, did you,” he questioned me.

 

I answered that I did not, but rather, I was suddenly and completely focused on removing my hand from the blaze and didn’t have any feeling of anger or offence, I was too preoccupied to feel these things. So then, you could overcome these feelings, under the proper conditions, therefore you weren’t right to say or to think that you couldn’t overcome feelings of anger or offence, because you could. And this is the truth, you have the power and ability, but you don’t choose to use that power, because you don’t want to. Most people don’t have the inner control to make a choice to love under difficult circumstance but they rather react to their environment and react to what happens to them. But this fire illustrates that given a different stimuli one can easily change, almost instantly if they choose to do so. The goal is to overcome stimuli so that one has the freedom and ability to make a choice to forgive, to love, regardless of the external circumstances that they find themselves under. To choose, not because their hand is held over the fire, so to speak, but because they want to.

 

Several days after this lesson MD gathered us again in his room and explained that we were entering a new phase of training, and that it would get physically very demanding in the future. He wanted us to be aware of this and if we preferred to leave and not continue further with the course, that it was okay, and we could end our training. However, if we wanted to stay and continue, he wanted each of us to sign a contract of understanding that the course we were entering into had risks of physical injury, potentially serious. He handed each of us the contract to look over and again gave us opportunity to opt out if we wished. Everyone wanted to stay and so one at a time each member signed their copy of the contract. Because of the gravity of the agreement he had this meeting and the signing of the contracts videotaped. I was the last to sign and when I sat at the table he took my contract off the table and told me I didn’t have to sign it, that it wouldn’t be needed for me. I was surprised but also felt that somehow I had passed a test in some way, and of course I fell into pride, which is one of my most difficult challenges.

 

It was reiterated again at this meeting that though members of the community signed the contract it was understood, that in the midst of a difficult scenario, one might decide they couldn’t do it anymore and choose to leave; if this was the case the only rule, you might say, was to let others know you are leaving and don’t just run away. The reason being that making a conscious decision to leave, a decision taken rationally and not in haste, is better than just suddenly reacting and leaving as a result of a lack of control over yourself. And it was kinder to the other members of the community who have developed deep connections with one another, to honor those connections by saying goodbye rather than just vanishing without a word.

 

It was quite a while after this meeting and the signing of the contracts before I was a participant in anything particularly difficult. Others had had some intense scenarios prior to me, but I only heard about these, and not in very much detail, since I was away much of the time doing landscaping work in Oakland and Berkeley, and only returned home to Santa Cruz for the weekends and occasional weeks here and there.

 

One afternoon I was driving up the coast on Highway 1 with MD in the passenger seat and K in the backseat. We had music playing, a CD by a contemporary female musician with a beautiful voice. I was mainly focusing on the road but my mind was wandering as well and I was enjoying her voice. Suddenly MD said to me, “stop being lustful.” My initial reaction was that I wasn’t being lustful, certainly not in any overt of graphic way or anything that I would even call sexual. But on further reflection I had to admit that the beauty of her voice did have me thinking with desire and some longing. “Stop it” he said again. Now you must remember again that our goal was not a basic worldly standard of conduct, but was to achieve something better, more pure, and this meant not to allow ourselves excuse or justification for inner states of mind that most people would accept as normal and not think twice about. MD changed his voice and it became very menacing, “I’m warning you, stop attacking her.” He said it this way because, in a sense, any vice, even one that we keep inside our mind or heart, is an attack against another person. I tried to divert my attention to the ocean on my left and distract myself from her singing, but now I was completely immersed in these thoughts and I couldn’t shake them. “That’s it, stop attacking her” he raised his voice and suddenly I was struck very hard across the right cheek.

 

For a brief moment I lost control of the car and swerved across the center line. The highway was straight, and no cars were approaching, so there was little danger of an accident. I corrected the car back into our lane as I felt more blows into my cheek and the side of my head. I focused very intently on the lane ahead and kept the car in the lane, as the blows landed and obscured my vision. Within a few moments MD stopped hitting me and the scenario ended. There had been a car following us and I wondered what they must have been thinking as they saw the passenger in the car ahead of them get up out of his seat and attack the driver; that must have been a strange sight to see and probably scary, especially when the car temporarily lost control and swerved across the highway and then back again. As I continued to drive I reflected on the situation. Apart from the issue at hand, that being my lustful thoughts and trying to overcome them to become more honorable as a man, I was proud of my ability, for the most part, to stay focused and in control of myself and of the vehicle in the midst of a new, unexpected and physically challenging circumstance. I also liked the stakes, and the seriousness of the effort needed to overcome them. As a young man, I wanted something that I could believe in, that required a sacrifice, that tested my courage and strength and that had honor, purity, and virtue as the goal.

 

I wanted to hear beauty, to see beauty, but not to have thoughts of possessing it; rather to simply enjoy it innocently and in gentleness. I hadn’t done very well in this scenario, I hadn’t been successful in overcoming my lustful thoughts, but I had learned to endure, to persevere, and to try hard, and this was something that hopefully I could build upon and grow more effective in the future. I fell this time, but was determined to get back up again and continue fighting.

(to be continued)

~FS

Paths (part 28)

(*It has been a while since I’ve added to this story, for anyone interested in earlier parts they can be found in the archive on my blog at prayerfullife.blog)

 

I never understood why we moved from place to place or the reason for the timing of our moves. As part of my decision to surrender control over my life however, was the understanding that these decisions and the reasons for them weren’t my concern. In all honesty, not knowing, and the surprise this brought, added to the excitement and the sense of adventure, and this I enjoyed very much. It was very liberating to relinquish control over these prosaic and mundane concerns and to focus instead on my inner spiritual life and on meeting whatever the immediate challenge each day, and each moment, presented.

 

It was difficult to find a good place to set up our camp in and around Tucson itself; we tried a few places off quiet roads, on the borders of the dry riverbeds ubiquitous in the area, but in most cases it ended up we were camped on someone’s land and were asked to leave. So we took our caravan far up into the Saguaro National Park and found a quiet, secluded place some five to ten miles up a dirt road east of town. From this place M. and I traveled into town to find work at a local employment agency during the day and then returned up the mountain in the evening. We found work demolishing a local high school which was surprisingly enjoyable. Aside from the crude humor of most of our co-workers and the vulgar way which they talked to each other, the work itself was satisfying. At the end of a hard day of physical labor, the long winding drive up the mountain, with the sweet and musky smell from the creosote shrubs filling the air, was mesmerizing and invigorating at the same time.

 

We didn’t stay long in Tucson, not more than a few weeks, but we were there during the full moon and I will never forget the quality of light from that moon as we camped amidst the saguaro. Perhaps it was the complete and utter silence of the place, the lack of any other stimuli to compete for the attention of our senses, but in this one place, during this one time, the moonlight was like nothing I had ever experienced or have ever experienced again since. It cast a numinous aura around everything in our midst and transformed our faces so that we looked different in some way, and the light was palpable, as if it had weight and substance and it filled the spaces around us and joined us together. It was a strange light, though still moonlight, and it caused our surroundings to also appear strange, making me feel as if we had been transported to another world, though still on earth.

 

By late February 1994 we left the Saguaro National Park, made our way back to California, and up the coast to Santa Cruz. This was the first time as a community that we spent much time living in an urban environment and it required more effort and care to accomplish the basic tasks of life without causing too much strain on our neighbors. At night MD and K would drive off to sleep in the vehicles in various nearby neighborhoods after they dropped us men off in the park, near the old lighthouse, to find sleeping places under the trees or in the shrubs, whatever hidden and out of the way, or mostly hidden places that we could find. Prior to this nightly routine, many of us showered at the outdoor showers in the park which were mainly used by local surfers. There wasn’t a very easy way to do this surreptitiously because the showers were directly off the sidewalk, directly adjacent to the main road leading to the lighthouse and into the center of town. We took turns showering while others of us held up a large sheet as a makeshift shower curtain to offer a semblance of privacy.

 

It was a challenge to find privacy in this environment since the park was so heavily used by tourists and locals, and was flanked by houses, but typically we set up our sleeping bags after dark under the shelter of a large twisted cypress tree or in a grouping of gnarled old pines off the main trails and were left to ourselves for the most part. Every morning we awoke to the joyous sound of sea lions barking in the distance as the sun began to cast its red and golden light through the eucalyptus trees, and filtered down to us sleeping on the dry earth below. Though we were good about coming and going under the cover of darkness, within a few weeks the neighbors in the surrounding homes did begin to take notice of us, and we realized we were going to need an alternative living arrangement fairly soon as early morning police patrols began to disturb our rest.

 

By the spring, several of us had taken jobs so that we were able collectively to rent a nice large home in the mountains about 10 miles north of town. It was at this time that W joined us. She had been part of the community from the beginning, in spirit, but hadn’t been able to live or travel with us until this time. She and K had their own rooms in the house, along with MD, while the four of us men converted the large garage to simple living quarters. We found large carpet remnants and rolled these out over the concrete floor and purchased rolls of plastic which we stapled to the exposed rafters and to the rim joists around the perimeter of all the walls so as to help keep the warmth inside the garage. We then strung wire across the center of the garage, from side wall to side wall, midway along each of the side walls, bisecting the garage lengthwise, and hung white sheets from these in order to divide the space in half. From this wire we then strung additional wires spaced every 6 feet or so running from the middle wire to the garage doors. After hanging white sheets from these wires we had created a series of about 5 or 6 small bedrooms roughly 6′ x 12′ each. From the middle wire to the back wall we left this side of the garage open, and placed a small table and a couple chairs, so that this became our common area. There was a small room built into the back corner of the garage and J moved his things into here since he still had quite a lot of personal possessions and needed a place to put them.

 

Soon after moving here, we began canvassing the local colleges and universities along with natural food stores, as we had done in the previous locations we had lived, in order to let people know we were there and that MD was giving classes in spirituality. We used the living room in the main house for these classes and over the subsequent year or two there was a regular flow of people coming to meet individually or in groups to learn from him.

 

For those of us living with him and not just visiting, our training continued much as it had been up to this point, with lessons both spiritual and practical. As a child and youth I hadn’t learned many practical life skills so I enjoyed these types of lessons in addition to the spiritual ones; learning things such as how to fell trees, which we did in various areas on the large property, how to chop wood, which we did daily, to feed the fire which we used exclusively to heat the main house, and how to run a simple business which he had me begin at this time. He had found enormous piles of chipped wood mulch in a nearby lot and we began advertising this material in the local newspaper. To fulfill the order I would get up at about 3:30 in the morning and drive the Suburban and trailer to the lot and load the trailer with about 19 yards of material, tarp it off and deliver it to our customer. It was exhilarating to breathe in the strong camphor and menthol smells of the composting eucalyptus chips as I manually shoveled or picked the chips from the pile into our trailer. It seemed impossible to me that I could fill our trailer alone this way as quickly as I did, but somehow I managed to fill the entire 4’x8’x16′ trailer above the rim and tarp it off in little over two hours. I worked feverishly and loved it. Some days I was able to deliver and unload my first delivery by 8 or 9 in the morning, and return and load the trailer for a second delivery and have that also completed before lunch time.

 

In order to keep balance between our physical and our spiritual tasks MD instituted what we called “inner” and “outer” days. On “outer” days we did our work such as I just described, and on “inner” days we stayed at home and read scripture, or prayed, or went on daytrips together as a community. As much as I enjoyed the physical work, I preferred the “inner” days since that fit more with my natural proclivities and habits. If it were up to me I would have only done “inner” days, but thankfully it wasn’t up to me and instead, I was able to learn a great deal over the years about work, business, and how the world operates. These lessons enabled me to run my own business after I left the community and gave me life skills that have benefited me throughout my adult life.

(to be continued)

April 28

As the new-born child is the image of the full-grown man, so the soul is in a certain sense the image of God who created it. The child, on growing up, begins gradually to recognize its father, and when it reaches maturity, they dispose things mutually and equally, father with son and son with father, and the father’s wealth is disclosed to the son. Something similar should have happened to the soul. Before the fall, the soul was to have progressed and so to have attained full manhood (Ephesians 4:13). But through the fall it was plunged into a sea of forgetfulness, into an abyss of delusion, and dwelt within the gates of hell. As if separated from God by a great distance, it could not draw near to its Creator and recognize Him properly.

But first through the prophets God called it back, and drew it to knowledge of Himself. Finally, through His own advent on earth, He dispelled the forgetfulness, the delusion; then, breaking through the gates of hell, He entered the deluded soul, giving Himself to it as a model. By means of this model the soul can grow to maturity and attain the perfection of the Spirit. It is therefore for our sakes that the Logos of God is by divine permission tempted by the devil, and then endures vilifications, mockeries, beatings at the hands of savage men, and finally death on the cross, showing us, as we said, what attitude we must take up towards those who vilify and mock us and bring us to our death.

Thus we become as though deaf and dumb before them, not opening our mouth, so that clearly perceiving the subtlety and energy of evil, and as though nailed to the cross, we may call loudly to Him who can deliver us from death (Hebrews 5:7) and cleanse us from our secret faults (Psalm 19:12); for ‘if they do not have dominion over me, then I shall be faultless’ (Psalm 19:13). When we are faultless we find Him ‘who has brought all things into subjection’ (Psalm 8:6), and we reign and enjoy repose with Christ. Overpowered through the fall by material and unclean thoughts, the soul became as though witless. As a result, no small effort is needed for it to rise out of materiality and to grasp the subtlety of evil, so that it can commingle with unoriginate Intellect.

~St Makarios of Egypt (paraphrased by St Symeon Metaphrastis)

April 27

He who follows the spiritual path must pay great attention to discrimination, since the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and to scrutinize and understand the various tricks through which the devil by means of plausible fantasies leads most people astray, keeps us safe and helps us in every way….

For the devil cannot bring about love either for God or for one’s neighbor, or gentleness, or humility, or joy, or peace, or equilibrium in one’s thoughts, or hatred of the world, or spiritual repose, or desire for celestial things; nor can he quell the passions and sensual pleasure. These things are clearly the workings of grace. For the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace and so on (Galatians 5:22), while the devil is most apt and powerful in promoting vanity and haughtiness.

You know from its effect whether the intellectual light shining in your soul is from God or from Satan.

~St Makarios of Egypt (paraphrased by St Symeon Metaphrastis)

The Holy Imposition

“I am satisfied with myself,”

I heard him say.

“Of course I could be better,

but in general I’m okay.”

 

“Eternal life? It can’t be known.

Since nobody can prove it.

I’ll live this life right here and now,

before it’s time to lose it.”

 

She goes to church religiously,

each Sunday in the morning.

She often finds it boring,

though sometimes she stays ’til three.

 

Yet after church she hurries home,

not a moment to be squandered.

All her worries to be pondered,

fears, anxieties free to roam.

 

Minds filled with doubts and vanity,

like little ones tucked in at night,

we comfort and we hold so tight,

divorced from peace and sanity.

 

Entertained into a stupor,

wandering lives lived aimlessly,

rushed from one place to another,

running headlong into the sea.

 

Yet for those with courage of acceptance,

there’s a life of transformation,

founded on Christ’s Incarnation,

built with faith, hope and repentance.

 

There’s a Holy Imposition,

for all with worldly ambition;

there’s a heavenly infusion,

to cure malaise and our confusion.

 

We’re the sick and we’re the dying,

without Him there is no healing,

there’s only hiding and or crying,

human tricks to numb the feeling.

 

Loving God alone with all our heart,

loving enemy and brother,

sacrificing all which keep us apart,

seeking God above all other.

 

Patience and humility,

joy and simplicity,

honesty and purity,

praise and thanksgiving!

 

Peace and sanity,

silence and sanctity,

stillness and divinity,

grant us Holy Living!

 

Give us Holy Life!

 

~FS

April 25

…our Lord has commanded us to practice constant prayerful watchfulness over ourselves…”Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation,” said the Lord to His disciples. “And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:37)

St Hesychius of Jerusalem defines vigilance (watchfulness) thus: “Sobriety or vigilance is the way to every virtue and commandment of God”…vigilance comes from the most careful and constant study of the Gospel commandments, and consequently of the whole of sacred Scripture. Vigilance strives unremittingly to abide by all the Gospel commandments in one’s actions, words, thoughts, and feelings….it unceasingly cries to God for help with the most vigorous prayer….

“It gives the person who practices it a sure knowledge of the incomprehensible God, so far as He can be comprehended, and a solution to divine and hidden mysteries….it is really purity of heart, which, on account of its greatness and value, or to speak more accurately, on account of our listlessness (acedia), is now very rare among [us].”

“Vigilance is constant silence of the heart, free from all thoughts, always unremittingly and constantly calling upon Christ Jesus, Son of God and God, breathing Him alone, courageously fighting with Him against the enemies, confessing to Him Who alone has power to forgive sins….vigilance is a firm control of the mind…”

~Ignatius Brianchaninov