St Nicholas Patron Saint of Beit Jala, Palestine

Stories from Beit Jala

St Nicholas in Beit Jala
This is a picture that was taken 2 years ago by a pilgrim at St. Nicholas church in Beit Jala, and that shows St. Nicholas in the picture. This picture was shared with me during my visit to the Holy Land in October 2018 by the son of the priest who takes care of the church. 

 

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Idolatry Leads to Anxiety, Father Philip LeMasters.

Ours is an age of anxiety. Many people are overcome with worry about matters large and small. Some certainly do need the help of physicians and psychological counselors in order to cope with their fears. The sickness of our souls remains, however, at the very heart of all our collective and personal brokenness. If our souls are not healthy, we will never find the peace that truly satisfies us as God’s children who bear His image and likeness.
The Lord spoke of the health of our souls in terms of vision: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” Christ taught that, if our spiritual vision is clear and focused, we will see ourselves and our problems in light of God’s kingdom. Then we will be able to serve our one true Master and gain strength for being at peace, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.
If our spiritual vision is clouded and unfocused, however, we will not have the strength to see our problems and challenges in light of the Kingdom. We will instead stumble in the darkness to the point that we make the passing things of this life our constant obsessions, which is a path only to greater worry, anxiety, and fear. For example, many people make money and possessions false gods for which they will sacrifice just about anything. Jesus Christ teaches that we are not to worry about our food, drink, and clothing. Instead, we are to trust that our Heavenly Father knows that we need these things. “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
This teaching does not condemn reasonable provision for a decent life for ourselves and our families. It does not deny that the necessities of life are God’s good blessings. Instead, it gives us a clear example of how spiritual blindness enslaves us to idolatry, which leads only to constant worry. Poverty, hunger, and famine are always possibilities in our world. Economic depression, natural disaster, war, crime, disease, and disability are obvious threats to having adequate food, clothing, and shelter. There is simply no way that we can protect ourselves completely from such dangers. If we make the physical necessities of life our gods, we cannot avoid being consumed by worry about them. That kind of idolatry inevitably fuels anxiety.
If the eyes of our souls are gaining clarity and focus, however, we will not blindly view life’s necessities as the highest good, and neither will we make the lack of them the greatest evil. Instead, we will be illumined with the light of Christ to the point that we will see even the worst circumstances of life in this world as opportunities to serve our one true Master. We will already participate in God’s reign as we learn to trust more fully that our Heavenly Father will provide what we need in this life and beyond.
When we struggle to see that God cares for us in the midst of our challenges, we must remember St. Paul’s example of using suffering and difficulty for growth in holiness: “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character, hope.” Not simply wishful thinking, Paul’s hope is grounded in “the love of God …poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who was given to us.” Christ died for the ungodly, including us, and has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts and souls to enlighten us with the glory of the Kingdom. In this context, our difficulties and needs are opportunities for gaining greater healing for our souls. We must use these tribulations to gain greater spiritual strength, clarity, and vision by growing in trust, humility, and patience.
When we are overcome with worry about any problem or threat in life, we must use our weakness as an opportunity to gain greater spiritual strength: as a reminder to guard our thoughts as we turn our attention from obsessing about what we cannot change to an earnest, humble plea for the Lord’s healing mercy. That is how we will open ourselves to greater participation in His life and, thus, find true peace.
Some lose the joy of life because of worry fueled by the love of money; others become miserable because of domination by anger, fear, lust, gluttony, self-righteousness, or other passions. These and all our other habitual sins are symptoms of our spiritual blindness, of our darkened souls which keep us from seeing ourselves, others, and the entire creation in the glorious light of the Kingdom. As long as we remain in the dark, we will never see anything clearly and easily stumble and fall.
Those who are sick do not need relief only for their symptoms; they require healing from the causes of their disease. They need therapy that goes to the heart of the matter. We will find that kind of healing in the spiritual life by: opening our souls to the light of Christ through daily prayer; reading the Bible and the lives and teachings of the Saints; and watching our minds and mouths to reject thoughts and words that are not pleasing to God. We will find it by fasting in order to humble ourselves before the Lord and gain strength in refusing to be enslaved to selfish desires. We will find it by taking confession on a regular basis as we embrace the mercy of the Lord through sincere repentance. We will find it by: forgiving those who have wronged us and asking forgiveness of those we have wronged; giving generously of our time, attention, and resources to those in need; and attending the Divine Liturgy regularly as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ as often as possible.
This way of life is for our healing; it is for our good. It is what is necessary for us to open our darkened souls to the brilliant light of Christ as we learn to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. It is how we may gain the clarity and strength to serve our one true Master as we come to place our problems, fears, and worries in the context of trust in a Lord Who has conquered even death itself for our salvation purely out of love for His sons and daughters.
Regardless of the form that darkness takes in our lives, we must not despair. Instead, we must use our weakness and pain as reminders to open ourselves to the light of Christ as best we can. Stumbling around with our eyes closed is a good way to become disoriented and hurt ourselves. All of us have probably learned from experience that nothing but brokenness, pain, and worry come from embracing spiritual blindness. Since God created us in His image and likeness, we will never find ultimate satisfaction by looking for fulfillment in the passing things of this world. Doing so will only make us miserable and weak.
Let us, then, open ourselves to the healing light of Christ, trusting that He will respond graciously to even our small, faltering steps to put our lives in the context of His Kingdom. That is the ultimate cure for our worries. If we trust primarily in ourselves and what we can get by using worldly things according to our own designs, we will inevitably be consumed by anxiety and fear. But if we gain the spiritual clarity to behold all things in the light of His glory, we will know peace from the depths of our souls. The One Who dwells in our hearts has conquered even death itself and made us participants in His eternal life. He delivers us from slavery to the fears that are rooted in our blindness. He makes it possible for us to experience already the joy of heaven even as we live and breathe in this world with all of its and our problems. As the Lord said, “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles Thekla Commemorated on September 24

See the source image

(Convent of St. Takla in Maaloula, Syria)

The Holy Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles Thekla was born in the city of Iconium. She was the daughter of rich and illustrious parents, and she was distinguished by extraordinary beauty. At eighteen years of age they betrothed her to an eminent youth. But after she heard the preaching of the holy Apostle Paul about the Savior, Saint Thekla with all her heart came to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and she steadfastly resolved not to enter into marriage, but rather to devote all her life to preaching the Gospel.

Saint Thekla’s mother was opposed to her daughter’s plans and insisted that she marry her betrothed. Saint Thekla’s fiancé also complained to the prefect of the city about the Apostle Paul, accusing him of turning his bride against him. The prefect locked up Saint Paul in prison.

During the night Saint Thekla secretly ran away from her house, and she bribed the prison guards, giving them all her gold ornaments, and so made her way into the prison to the prisoner. For three days she sat at the feet of the Apostle Paul, listening to his fatherly precepts. Thekla’s disappearance was discovered, and servants were sent out everywhere looking for her. Finally, they found her in the prison and brought her home by force.

At his trial Saint Paul was sentenced to banishment from the city. Again they urged Saint Thekla to consent to the marriage, but she would not change her mind. Neither the tears of her mother, nor her wrath, nor the threats of the prefect could separate Saint Thekla from her love for the Heavenly Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Her mother in a insane rage demanded from the judges a death sentence against her unyielding daughter, and Saint Thekla was sentenced to be burned. Without flinching, the holy martyr went into the fire and made the Sign of the Cross over herself. At this moment the Savior appeared to her, blessing her present deed, and inexpressible joy filled her holy soul.

The flames of the fire shot up high, but the martyr was surrounded by a light and the flames did not touch her. Thunder boomed, and a strong downpour of rain and hail extinguished the fire. The torturers scattered in fear. Saint Thekla, kept safe by the Lord, left the city and with the help of a certain Christian youth, searched for the Apostle Paul. The holy apostle and his companions, among whom was Saint Barnabas, were hidden in a cave not far from the city, praying fervently, that the Lord would strengthen Saint Thekla in her sufferings.

After this, Saint Thekla went with them preaching the Gospel in Antioch. In this city she was pursued by a certain dignitary named Alexander, who was captivated by her beauty. Saint Thekla refused his offer of marriage, and so she was condemned to death for being a Christian. Twice they set loose hungry wild animals upon her, but they would not touch the holy virgin. Instead, they lay down meekly and licked her feet.

The Providence of God preserved the holy martyr unharmed through all her torments. Finally, they tied her to two oxen and began to chase her with red-hot rods, but the strong cords broke asunder like cobwebs, and the oxen ran off, leaving Saint Thekla unharmed. The people began shouting, “Great is the God of the Christians!” The prefect himself became terrified, realizing that the holy martyr was being kept safe by the Almighty God, Whom she served. He then gave orders to set free the servant of God Thekla.

With the blessing of the Apostle Paul, Saint Thekla then settled in a desolate region of Isaurian Seleucia and dwelt there for many years, constantly preaching the Word of God and healing the sick through her prayer. Saint Thekla converted many pagans to Christ, and the Church appropriately names her as “Equal- to-the-Apostles.” Even a pagan priest, trying to assault her purity and punished for his impudence, was brought by her to holy Baptism. More than once the Enemy of the race of man tried to destroy Saint Thekla through people blinded by sin, but the power of God always preserved this faithful servant of Christ.

When Saint Thekla was already a ninety-year-old woman, pagan sorcerers became incensed at her for treating the sick for free. They were unable to comprehend that the saint was healing the sick by the power of the grace of Christ, and they presumed that the virgin-goddess Artemis was her special helper. Envious of Saint Thekla, they sent their followers to defile her. When they came near her, Saint Thekla cried out for help to Christ the Savior, and a rock split open and hid the holy virgin, the bride of Christ. Thus did Saint Thekla offer up her holy soul to the Lord.

The holy Church glorifies the Protomartyr Thekla as “ the glory of women and guide for the suffering, opening up the way through every torment.” From of old many churches were dedicated to her, one of which was built at Constantinople by the holy Equal of the Apostles Constantine (May 21). The Protomartyr Thekla, a prayerful intercessor for ascetics, is also invoked during the tonsure of women into monasticism.

 

Blessed Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary. Shared by Kh. Dannie Moore.

Commemorated on September 8
The Nativity of Our Most Holy Virgin Mary is celebrated by the Church as a day of universal joy. Within the context of the Old and the New Testaments, the Most Blessed Virgin Mary was born on this radiant day, having been chosen before the ages by Divine Providence to bring about the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. She is revealed as the Mother of the Savior of the World, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
She was born in the city of Galilee, Nazareth. Her parents were Joachim of the tribe of the Prophet-King David, and Anna from the tribe of the First Priest Aaron. The couple was without child, since Anna was barren. Having reached old age, Joachim and Anna had strong faith that everything was possible with God. Joachim and Anna vowed to dedicate the child which the Lord might give them to the service of God in the Temple. Childlessness was considered as a Divine punishment for sin, and Joachim and Anna had to endure abuse from their own countrymen. On one of the feast days at the Temple, the elderly Joachim brought his sacrifice to offer to God, but the High Priest would not accept it, considering him to be unworthy since he was childless.
In deep grief, Joachim went into the wilderness, and there he prayed with tears to the Lord for a child. Anna wept bitterly when she learned what had happened at the Temple. Never once did she complain against the Lord, but rather she prayed to ask God’s mercy on her family. The Lord fulfilled her petitions when the pious couple had attained extreme old age and prepared themselves by virtuous life for a sublime calling to be the parents of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the future Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Archangel Gabriel brought Joachim and Anna the joyous message that their prayers were heard by God, and of them would be born a most blessed daughter, Mary, through Whom would come the Salvation of all the World. The Most Holy Virgin Mary surpassed in purity and virtue not only all mankind, but also the angels. She was manifest as the living Temple of God, so the Church sings in its festal hymns: “the East Gate… bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of our souls” (2nd Stikhera on “Lord, I Have Cried”, Tone 6).
The Nativity of the Theotokos marks the change when the great promises of God for salvation from slavery to the devil were about to be fulfilled. This event brought to earth the grace of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of Truth, piety, virtue and everlasting life. The Theotokos is revealed to all of us by grace as a merciful Intercessor and Mother, to Whom we have recourse with filial devotion.

Troparion (Tone 4) –
Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from You, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse,
He bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.
Kontakion (Tone 4) –
By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!

Taken from Antiochian Archdiocese Website

Quotes From Church Fathers

Saint Andrew of Crete (c.660-740) comments, “This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth.” He then goes on to write: “Let both the barren and mothers dance for joy; make bold and leap up in gladness, O ye childless: for the barren and childless woman brings forth the Theotokos, who is to deliver Eve from her pains in travail and Adam from the curse.” (Gen. 3:16-19)
Saint Andrew of Crete chants, “Anna, the barren and sterile, was not childless before God: for she was foreordained from many generations to become the mother of the pure Virgin, from whom the Maker of all creation sprang forth in the form of a servant”.

Saint Germanos (c.635-733), Patriarch of Constantinople chants, “As foretold by the angel, today hast thou come forth, O Virgin, the all-holy offspring of righteous Joachim and Anna…thou dost destroy the curse and givest blessing in its place.”

The Kingdom of Heaven (Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes)

Today’s Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (22:2-14)
The Lord spoke this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Understand. Parables are never to be taken literally. That is why the Lord begins this one saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Parables are by nature metaphorical.
This parable is a difficult one to parse. It has deep layers of meaning as all parables do. They are meant to make us think more deeply by directing us to focus on the inner landscape of our lives and that is something most of us seldom do. This parable about the kingdom is surprising because it is filled with turmoil. We expect parables about heaven to be peaceful, don’t we? But not so this one and it makes sense. Where is the kingdom then in this parable? Let’s look at this question for a few minutes.
Jesus pointedly tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is within. And what do we usually find when we first look within? Chaos! In a work ascribed to St. Simeon the New Theologian entitled “Three Types of Prayer” his readers are instructed not to become discouraged when they turn their awareness inside and find chaos! He encourages them to keep at it and watch as chaos gives way to open space.
When we look within we find a condition like Jesus describes in this parable. There are parts of us like the moody king, parts of us like the ungracious guests, parts of us that are avaricious and murderous, parts that are forgotten like the second group of guests from the “highways and hedges” and then parts that are like the man in the end who finds himself cast into “outer darkness” because he wore the wrong clothes.
And yet, in the midst of all this chaos the beating heart of the parable is the image of the Great Feast. The representative of God in this parable is not the king, it is the Heavenly Banquet, a symbol of the Eucharist and the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, of communion and deification. The parable has a sacramental theme. It is like a finger pointing at the moon.
And, as it is, the beating heart of every human being is the kingdom of heaven. It is our reason for being, our energy, our purpose, recognized or unrecognized. When the light of Christ shines upon the interior darkness and compassion is brought to bear upon all our disparate parts, then the Banquet Table at the center reveals its presence and we discover that we have always been invited, we have always welcomed to come to the Feast. We have simply refused to attend.
There is another important aspect of this parable I would like to point out. It is the all-inclusiveness of the kingdom. The king throws open the doors of the banquet and invites both the good and the bad to come just like God who makes the sun to shine on the good and bad alike. He makes no distinction. He simply wants his banquet table to be full. And when we turn within we must bring this spirit of inclusion with us. All the parts we find must be made welcome for all of them are in need of the food of heaven.
God is always merciful. He sees into the depths of everything by means of his infinite compassion, he sees into the heart of us. He knows who He has made us to be, and what we have made of ourselves and those are often two very different things and this takes us to the last, and most unsettling part of the parable. Why, after this, does he cast out the man who is wearing an inappropriate garment?
We often choose to wear garments that do not fit us. We put on attitudes and behavior that hide our inner beauty and are not natural to us. What ensues is an interior war St. Paul speaks of in Romans as we end up doing what we do not want to do and in opposition to the truth of who we are. In this way we cast ourselves into “outer darkness,” a darkness of our own making. Ask yourselves. If we take from our inner darkness and project it onto the world around us, what harvest can we expect to receive, but more darkness?
And yet all that is false cannot last, nothing that is untrue is eternal. The darkness cannot extinguish the light, in fact, the darkness makes the light even more obvious. “Outer darkness” has a shelf-life. Love always wins. To love, to do good, to be compassionate, these are our natural garments. Our unhappiness stems from the fact that we often think and act in opposition to love. It is for us to become follower of Jesus and friends of Love.
The Lord sees through our disguises. He knows us because he made us. His face is most truly our face and ours is his. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote St. Irenaeus long before Maslow and contemporary psychologies of self-actualization. Both were right! It is interesting to me that the message of Irenaeus and the Gospel, though not attributed to either, can be found at supermarket checkout stands all over the world in one form or another. There is a thirst that only this truth can quench.

There is another interesting way to understand the “outer darkness.” Not as punishment; rather as initiation. Entering into the “divine darkness” is a classic image in Orthodox spiritual writing. It represents the entry into a knowledge of God that can only come through “unknowing,” by casting off the garments of thoughts, imagery, concepts, and even theology with which our minds attempt to understand God. Entering the “divine darkness” is the way of direct, unmediated experience of the Unapproachable God.

In this parable putting on the appropriate garment can be interpreted as taking a step into deeper communion with God. St. Paul speaks about all his righteousness being as “filthy rags.” So, we must change our inappropriate garments, the rags of our small and limited understandings, and replace them with “robes of light” that are woven from direct experience of God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
We could go on, but that is enough for now, I think. Parables are inexhaustible resources of living water. Some food for thought if nothing else.

HOLY MARTYRS ADRIAN AND NATALIE, Blessed Feast Day to all who are named Adrian or Natalie!

HOLY MARTYRS ADRIAN AND NATALIE

In the fourth century, the pagan Roman Emperor Maximian cruelly persecuted those who believed in Christ. He came together with his soldiers to the city of Nicomedia in Asia Minor. There it was reported that in a certain cave Christians were hiding, and that they sang and prayed the whole night to their God. Immediately Maximian sent his soldiers to seize these Christians. The soldiers did as they were commanded and the Christians were beaten and brought in iron chains to the place of judgment. One of the chiefs of the judgment place, a young man by the name of Adrian, seeing how patiently and how willingly the Christians suffered for their faith, asked what reward they expected to receive from their God for such tortures. The holy martyrs replied: “It is written in Scripture that eye hath not seen, nor hath ear heard, nor hath it entered the heart of man those things which God hath prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9). Hearing these words, Adrian declared that he too wished to be a Christian and was willing to die together with them for Christ. For this he was also thrown into prison.

When Adrian’ s young wife Natalie was told of her husband’s conversion to Christ and of his imprisonment, instead of being sad, she greatly rejoiced for she was secretly a Christian herself and she knew the joy which now filled her husband’s heart. She ran to the prison and, falling down at the feet of her husband, she kissed his chains and said, “Blessed are you, my Adrian; you have found such a treasure.” When Adrian was brought before the Emperor and threatened with torture if he did not worship the pagan gods, his godly-minded wife Natalie and the other martyrs encouraged him saying: “Having been found worthy to carry your own cross and to follow Christ, take care that you do not turn back and lose your eternal reward.”

Adrian had always faithfully served his earthly king, but now he was to serve the King of Heaven. He courageously endured the tortures and was returned to the prison. There Natalie, together with other pious women, would come and help the prisoners, cleaning and bandaging their wounded bodies. When the cruel Emperor found out about this, he forbade them to visit the prison. But the blessed Natalie had such love for the sufferers that she cut her hair and put on men’s clothing. In this disguise she was able to enter the prison.

Day after day the holy martyrs endured such cruel and severe tortures that they were barely alive. The Emperor became angry that even under such tortures they would not deny their God. Finally he ordered for them a violent death. Their arms and legs were cut off and their bodies were thrown into a fire to be burned so that none of the Christians might gather their precious remains. But just at that moment, there burst forth thunder and lightning and a powerful rain which put out the fire. Natalie, together with other Christians took the bodies of the holy martyrs from the fire and rejoiced to see that God had preserved them from harm. A faithful Christian man and his wife then took the holy relics to Constantinople where they could be safely kept until the death of the impious Emperor.

After a certain time, a pagan nobleman desired to marry Natalie who was still young and beautiful. She cried and begged God to save her from this union with an unbeliever. Having prayed fervently, St. Natalie fell from exhaustion and sorrow into a light sleep during which the holy martyrs appeared to her in a vision and said, “Peace be unto you. God has not forgotten your labors. We shall pray that you will come to us soon. Get on a ship and go to the place where our bodies are and the Lord will make Himself known to you.”

Following their directions, the blessed Natalie reached Constantinople and going to the church where the bodies of the holy martyrs lay, she fell down before them and prayed. She was so tired from the journey that she fell asleep and saw in a dream her husband St. Adrian, who said to her, “Come my beloved, and enjoy the reward of your labors.” Very soon after this St. Natalie died peacefully in her sleep. Although she did not shed her own blood, she is numbered among the martyrs for having co-suffered with them, serving and encouraging them in their heroic struggles for the sake of Christ.