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Orthodox Perspectives

Sacred Reading - Father Paul Burholt

Chris Lewis

Dear Brothers and Sisters, dear friends in Christ,

Now that Lent is coming, I wish to speak with you about sacred reading, sometimes known as “spiritual reading.”  I will begin by looking at the value and importance of sacred reading—why we need to do it.  Then we will look at what we should read, in other words, what is the reading material for sacred reading.  Finally we will think about how we should read when we do sacred reading, for sacred reading is a sacred activity in itself.   I hope that thinking about these things together will help us grow in love for one another and for the Lord, that we may be able to hear His voice as we read.


First, what is the value and importance of sacred reading?  On a very basic level, when we do sacred reading we are putting good and pious thoughts into our mind.  This is something we always need to be doing, but it is especially important during the Great Fast, when we fast not only from foods but also from our reliance on media and entertainments.  With our phones and computers, we are at risk to fill our God-given minds with vast amounts of useless information!  Is this not true?  Worse still, much of this information forms our mind and thinking in a way that is worldly in the bad sense of the term, feeding what the Holy Apostle Paul calls the “carnal mind,” which is at enmity with God and unable to be subject to His ways (Romans 8:7).  We also know from experience that filling our minds with endless trivia leads to a feeling of personal emptiness and futility.

Sacred reading, on the other hand, is a powerful way of acquiring the “mind of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:16). When we do sacred reading we enter into, and make our own, the culture of the Holy Spirit in the Church.  In this sense, sacred reading is a kind of “discipline,” or learning process.  As we read and take in the things of God, we begin to grow in love and in zeal to feel His Presence.  Instead of being stuck in the endless repetitive cycle of our own thoughts, which sometimes accuse and sometimes excuse us (Romans 2,15), we begin to break free and open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the “Giver of Life.”


Let us next look at what we should read.  What is the “reading material,” so to speak, of sacred reading? The place of honor is held by Sacred Scripture.  These are the writings of the Old and New Testament which have been revealed in the Church as divinely inspired.  As Saint Athanasios the Great tells us (De Incarnatione 56), these writings were spoken and written by God through human beings who thus are “theologians,” that is, who speak the words of God Himself.  The writers of Sacred Scripture—the Holy Apostles and Evangelists, the Holy God-Seer Moses, the Holy Prophets and other sacred writers—are the real theologians, who speak divine things to us.

And this is not all.  On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Apostles spoke of the wonders of God to the crowds, so that those who heard were “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:1-37). This prophetic utterance, or theology, continues in the Church down the centuries to our own times though the mouths and writings of those whohave been purified and illumined like the Apostles, and who from their sharing in the Kingdom and Beauty of God are able to illumine others.  Recognized in the Church as truly holy, these men and women illumine us by their words and writings.  All of this constitutes the “treasures of Orthodox Theology” that we hear of on the Feast of the Holy Theophany.  All of this is our patrimony as Orthodox Christians.  Thus the reading material of sacred reading is above all the Sacred Scriptures, but it also includes the many writings of holy people, of different ages and walks of life, and the descriptions of their lives and spiritual struggles which have been passed down in the Church.  By our reading we are encouraged in our own lives and struggles!  We receive instruction which is of a special order: more than human wisdom, it is the distillation, so to speak, of the Holy Spirit operating in “those made perfect in Faith” (cf. the Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom).  For this reason, these writings are called Spiritual and our reading of them is Spiritual Reading.

One of the greatest examples of such writings is The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John Climacus.  This book has been read especially during Lent by devout Orthodox of many walks of life since it was written fourteen centuries ago.

In the Ladder, as in all spiritual writings, there will be much that we do not understand.  This is actually a good thing!  What we can understand and grasp is simply what we are already familiar with, what we are comfortable with.  In order to begin to understand the things of God, however, we have to have an affinity with them.  Thus when we engage in sacred reading, we are in the process of growing beyond our limited capacity—our carnal mind.  It is natural, therefore, that we will encounter things that at first seem strange and do not make obvious sense.  This is a great opportunity for a conversation with our priest, which would be personal and relevant, enabling us to be edified, built up, as we seek together the ways of God.  A priest by his training and reading--and according to his greater or lesser measure of spiritual experience--is able at least to help remove some of our misunderstandings, and thus allow us to listen and be open to what the Lord has to say.  We can also seek advice and counsel from our priest about what we might most usefully read during Lent, given where we are in our life in Christ and our daily responsibilities.


Finally, how should we read when we are doing sacred reading?  It is clear that the way we do sacred reading is going to be different from ordinary reading, since we want to hear the Lord speaking to us as we read.  Like the Holy Prophet Samuel, we cry out from our heart, “Speak, Lord, Thy servant is listening!” (1 Samuel 3:10)   Here we are not reading in order to have read, just so we can say, “I’ve done it! Finished!”  Nor are we reading in order to get information, data or ideas which we can then use as a means to some other end, maybe to get a degree or to win an argument.  Far less are we are reading out of idle curiosity, as can happen when people are surfing the Internet.  Rather, we are earnestly seeking our salvation.  We are applying to ourselves what we are reading.  We read with compunction, our hearts being pierced as was the case with those who heard the Holy Apostles on the day of Pentecost.  We are seeking God.  We are reading as if the Lord Himself were personally speaking to us, which is in fact the case!  We want to hear what He has to say in us (Psalm 84:8).  We want to feed on the divine words and to be nourished by them.

This mode of sacred reading has at times been called rumination.  It is a kind of chewing the cud, in which we extract the divine nourishment present for us.  A small passage may be enough.  Such reading is devout and deeply reverent.  It does not remain on the surface but penetrates to the marrow.  As we read, we are communing with and meeting the Lord Himself present in Sacred Scripture and in the writings and lives of His holy ones, which are fragrant with the Grace of the Holy Spirit.

Such reading is meant to lead us to personal change and repentance, which in turn lead us back to a more profound reading, in an unending spiral movement toward God.  Listen again to what Saint Athanasios says:

“But in addition to study and true knowledge of the Scriptures are needed a good life and pure soul, and virtue in Christ, so that the mind, journeying in this path, may be able to obtain and apprehend what it desires, in so far as human nature is able to learn about God the Word.  For without a pure mind and a life modelled on the saints, no one can apprehend the words of the saints…he who wishes to grasp the thought of the theologians must first cleanse and wash his soul by his conduct, and approach the saints in imitation of their deeds, so that being included in their company by the manner of his life, he may understand those things which have been revealed to them by God” (De Incarnatione 57: 1-16).

In this way we in some measure can begin to enter into the experience of the holy writers as we read their words.  This, dear friends, is the goal of sacred reading.  I hope that by pondering these things together we may be stirred to give  more time to sacred reading during the Great Fast and, like the Most Holy Theotokos, hear the Word of God and preserve it in our heart (Luke 2:19 and 51).  

Father Paul Burholt

Mission of St. Basil the Great, Marietta, GA

Zacchaeus Sunday (February 14, 2016)

Keeping A Good Pascha


Lent was in many ways an image, or icon, of the present life; Holy Pascha, however, is an icon of the Age to Come. During the forty days of the Great Fast, we engaged in fierce spiritual warfare. The long weekday services, the somber Liturgy of Pre-sanctified Gifts, and the Great Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete took us into the place of holy mourning. We stirred ourselves from the sleep and laziness in which we were spending our life. Our eyes were then raised to the Bridal Chamber open before us. In tears—perhaps only half a teardrop!—we entered the narrow way of repentance, breaking our compromises with sin. In our fasting we changed our life, clearing aside, as far as we could, not merely our normal foods but even more whatever was holding us back from Christ.

And now we have Paschal Time. Do we not somehow miss the zeal of Great Lent, its clarity, its companionship in which we served and struggled together? What does this feeling mean? It was clear, although not easy, how we were to observe the Forty Day Fast. But how are we meant to pass these precious and bright Fifty Days of Pascha, when our fasts are easier and the sorrowful prostrations of Lent are out of place?

In the first place we must take care not to leave off our zeal. Lent was a time of preparation for Pascha, so that we could pass with our Savior through His life-giving death to His glorious resurrection, to a whole new life, that is, entering into the uncreated life and energies of the Kingdom of God. Having been purified with much effort and difficulty, we can now go forward unimpeded into this new life. We have put off the old man and put on Christ. It would be crazy if, with the arrival of Pascha, we slipped backward into our old ways—whether to past sins, or simply into a worldly life and the oblivion which goes with it. Remember that our Lenten warfare was against the demons, the influence of the world and our own selfish passions, not against foods and other good things of creation that God has given us.

Our spiritual warfare continues during these weeks of Pascha, but it takes on a triumphant tone. Having been purified, we are able to partake of the good things of creation with thanksgiving. We are to use this world innocently, like Adam and Eve in Paradise. Thus we are to experience things, foods, our family, friends and all mankind in their true beauty—rather than as means to getting our own needs met. This means we are to have a profound reverence for all, treating everything and everyone as holy icons of Christ, perceiving Christ and encountering Him in them. This is the challenge of Holy Pascha, that having been purified we treat this world as already transformed, already in the future Resurrection. Do we not have a taste of this reality in the Orthodox services? When we stand in prayer in the holy temple, do we not experience people and material things differently, as they truly are, in their sacredness, so that we feel awe and reverence before them?

On the day of Pascha we experience the Resurrection as far as we are able. Our present task during these Fifty Days is to abide in this joy, to hold on to this beauty, in spite of whatever would snatch it from us. Only then can we embrace each other joyfully, calling brothers even those who hate us and forgiving all in the Resurrection.

-Father Paul Burholt

Copyright © 2014 Fr. Paul Burholt

On Going to Confession


Over the past few weeks several people have asked me questions about Confession. I hope the following reflections on this important part of Orthodox life will help us all.

Confession is the opening of our heart to Christ, and in Christ to our spiritual father. When we make our confession we are really coming to Our Lord Himself, whom the priest represents, for Jesus told His Apostles: Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Confession is joyful, because we know that we are being loved and healed by God.

We know that in our priest we have a spiritual father who loves us, and who guides us and protects us by his earnest prayer. All this is brought out by the fact that we make our confession standing in front of the icon of Christ--and our priest stands with us. He witnesses our confession to Christ our God and, like Christ, he shares our burden. We are not alone.

It is good to confess about once a month. In some places Orthodox people confess before every Holy Communion. If we go too long without confession, we find we do not know what to confess! Why is this? It is because our hearts become insensitive. We become complacent. We lose the attitude of repentance, which is essential for the life of a Christian. Repentance does not mean just feeling bad about ourselves, but rather changing our mind, or our heart, and this is only possible to the extent that we open ourselves to Christ and experience His Kingdom. This is why our confession is a sacred Mystery.

We tell our sins. It is like going to the physician and saying, "This is where I hurt." So we do not conceal anything or excuse ourselves. The Church is a kind of hospital, a House of Healing. Everyone in the Church is being healed, and Christ Himself is the Physician. It is vital that we come to this House of Healing! We cannot heal ourselves, yet Christ will not heal us without us. He does not force His healing on us. Instead, He invites us, asks us: Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden...

What are sins? They are the ways in which we have departed from God. They can be things we have done or not done, things we have said or failed to say. They can be our hidden thoughts and motives. We have just pleased ourselves, catering only to our own needs and passions: anger, laziness, resentment, pride, and the rest. And the worst state is to be unconscious of all this! We become aware of our sins not so much through looking at ourselves, but rather through communing with God. People who do not pray may feel disappointed in themselves, but they do not see their sins in their true light. That is why we prepare for our confession first through direct prayer to Our Lord, if possible standing before the icons and reading the Sacred Scriptures. When we do this, we experience ourselves in a new way. Then we are able to look at our lives and see things differently--how we react to people and their problems, how we are oblivious of God much of the time, how we treat those closest to us... Our hearts are pierced! Sometimes people do not quite know what things to confess. They feel a little confused about specifics, and therefore they avoid confession. I think having the following outline can help us get beyond these hesitations:

In each Confession, we need to tell, first of all, anything that seems especially serious and is troubling our conscience. These things are obvious and we should just say them, in simplicity, without trying to analyze them. If our priest feels some clarification would help us, he will say a few words, or ask some questions. And we can always request this.

Beyond any such obvious matters, it is good to mention in confession one or two specifics from the following three areas of our life.

The first is our family life, or life at home. For example, if we are children we will want to confess our shortcomings in how we treat our siblings, honor and obey our parents, and handle the "unfair" things of everyday family life. Married persons should always mention in confession aspects of how they behave toward their spouse. If we are monastics, we will look at how we deal with the shortcomings of the others and with the trials of community life, and how we love and trust our Elder. If we are single persons, we do well to examine our attention to, or neglect of, those closest to us, our immediate circle, our relatives, and our old friends.

The second area to examine for confession is our wider life. This includes the people and situations which we encounter during the day, for example at work. Everyone who comes into our life, however briefly, is in the image of God. He or she also has much suffering. That is certain! And we know that no meetings are just chance: somehow God has given us to them in order to show them love. It is easy to forget this. Our work, too, is a service. For the Christian, work is a service ultimately of Christ, since He is our Lord. Our work is "what we do": it expresses who we are. This is obvious in the case of professional work, but it is really true also of ordinary tasks and of work which the world may despise as menial. Much of the day of a monastic is spent doing manual work and attending to everyday needs. What does that tell us about our own everyday life?

The third area is our more direct relationship with God. The priority here should be our zeal for attending the services in church. When we are absent, is it for reasons worthy of blessing? On such occasions, do we feel deprived? In church, do we pay attention and make the effort to take part in the service with reverence and awe? The same questions apply to our observance of the fasts, our morning and evening prayer rule, and our taking time for devout reading of the Scriptures and of other writings of the Orthodox Church.

It is one thing to regret our sins inwardly, but when we confess them to our spiritual father we are repudiating them. We are taking a stand against them. By the act of telling our sins, we are reversing the act of committing them--as far as is in our power. Our sins are usually hidden things, which lurk inside us. But if we tell them, we are casting them out, spitting out the poison which we have ingested into our system. When we confess our sin, we are saying: This is no longer what I want to be!

We should be ashamed to sin, but sometimes we are ashamed to confess our sin. This is how the demons trick us! If we are serious about our repentance, if we truly hate our sins, we will ignore the false shame that would stop us confessing them.

After we have confessed, our priest may speak to us. The purpose of his fatherly guidance is to help our repentance. He may ask some questions or give some advice. He may be able to see why we fall into certain sins and instruct us how to prevent this happening in the future. Sometimes he will give us a rule of prayers or of things we need to do or avoid. In this way the priest is a physician prescribing the treatments we need for our healing to be permanent.

Finally, we bow or kneel and the priest reads over us the prayer of absolution, covering us with his epitrachelion and laying his hand on our head. This is a very beautiful action! We are experiencing the healing love and reconciliation of our Savior. Absolution means being set free or loosed from our sins. When we sin, we enter into a certain contract with the sin--or rather with the demon who is tempting us. This relationship can come back to haunt us and it can cause us many problems throughout our life, and most of all at our death. Above all this is true of the sins which are not limited to isolated events but also imply a lifestyle. It is vital that we utterly reject such contracts by our confession. Our spiritual father's prayer of absolution is for God to set us free. The absolution does not undo what we did in the sense of putting the clock back, but we are loosed from our sin and from its power over us.

In Orthodoxy we see repentance as continuous. It is not a stage which one passes through and then leaves behind. It does not cease with our confession but, rather, with confession it is able to grow in depth and purity. Strange as it may seem, we repent more fully the further we are from our sin. For repentance is the heart's yearning for God, and the closer we draw to him the more total will be our desire.

-Father Paul Burholt

Copyright © 2015 Fr. Paul Burholt

The Prayer Rule


Glory to Jesus Christ!

When Orthodox Christians speak of the prayer rule, we are referring to prayers that we say, as best we can, at certain times each day, especially evening and morning.

We know from experience that if we were to pray only on Sundays, when we gather for the Divine Liturgy in church, we would find it hard to be part of what is happening. The Service would seem somehow exterior to us. Prayer would seem very difficult, perhaps even something abnormal. In fact, God is present at all times and in every place. Why, then, would we not speak with Him? The holy Apostle Paul teaches that we can and should pray at all times (1 Thess. 5:17), whatever we are doing, doing it for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10: 31). We do not have to wait for a special time! On the other hand, Holy Scripture shows us that evening and morning are times especially suitable for prayer. Psalm 141 speaks of the offering of incense and prayer at sunset. Psalm 118 speaks of praising God seven times a day (v.164). We even read of prayer at midnight (v.62) and the various watches of the night (Ps. 63:6). And in the New Testament, we read of the hours of Prayer being observed by the Apostles in the Temple (Acts 3:1; 10:9&30). It would seem, then, that we can distinguish prayer which accompanies the many and various things we do during the course of the day, and prayer as our main, or sole, activity and which we make at certain fixed times, especially evening and morning. It is this second kind which we are referring to when we speak of the prayer rule.

Let us look at this practice of the prayer rule and try to understand what it means. I think it is good to do this because we can easily get out of the way of keeping our rule. Sometimes circumstances make our rule impossible; but we can also get lazy and fall into bad habits. When, for whatever reason, our daily prayer has become the exception rather than the rule, then we know something is wrong! I would like to address some of the issues involved as best I can.

The first thing we have to realize is that Christian life is nothing less than active communing with the living God. This should not surprise us, for the Holy Apostle Paul tells us that Christ has broken down the wall of separation and has brought us into the Holy Place, within the veil (Heb. 10:19-22,): He has given us “access” to God. Christian prayer, then, is making use of that access. When we pray, we are accessing that “boldness” and ease of speech with Christ which Adam enjoyed in Paradise and which has been restored to us in the Church. When we pray we are spending time with the One who loves and cares for us.

Evening and the morning are, so to speak, the hinges on which the day—and therefore our life—turns, for each day is a kind of microcosm of our life. By reciting certain prayers at these special times of evening and morning we are commending “each other and our whole life to Christ our God.” What does it say about us if we pass a whole day without prayer, in oblivion?

As far as possible we need to recite our rule whether we feel like it or not, simply because “it is time to serve the Lord” (Ps 118: 126). The word rule, or “canon,” means exactly that! It implies a constancy, a blessed objectivity, in which we return to a place of sanity from the changes and pressures of our life. By observing the times of prayer, we emerge—sometimes with great effort!-- from being dominated by our moods. If we allow ourselves to become hostages to how we are feeling and thinking, praying only when we feel so inclined, we will end up neglecting the things of God. Experience shows this! Or if we do not neglect them entirely, we will tend to distort them, reducing them to our own proportions, to our own image and likeness, instead of being ourselves changed and shaped by them. When, however, we struggle to overcome our resistance and engage with the words of the psalms and other prayers, and strive to enter into them, then we are liberated from the dull repetition of our thoughts and moods. We move beyond our isolated self and, to the degree that we commune with God, we find ourselves in union with other members of the Church in this world and the next, and they with us.

What words do we use in our prayer rule? Our rule should consist mainly of words given us by the God-inspired writers of Sacred Scripture and by other holy people down the centuries, whose writings have been found to be expressions of the Holy Spirit active within them and which are available to us in Orthodox prayer books. When we use these words, making them our own, we are opening our hearts to the action of the Holy Spirit Who inspired them—and Who is thereby inspiring them in us! In this way, we are praying with and in the Holy Spirit.

Such holy words have a sacred power. They are like portals or icons, through which we are able to enter and taste of the things of God. By taking them on our lips and into our heart, it becomes possible for us to know God from our own experience, and the life of His Church and of His Kingdom.

How big should our rule be? A simple rule of thumb would be: as much as we can reasonably expect to keep up on a regular basis. It should not be too much, so that we could only do it when we were at our best. This is especially true in the case of family prayers. It is best to start with little and see how we go. Especially in the beginning, it is important to check in with our priest or spiritual father who can guide us wisely. A good place to begin is what are called the Trisagion Prayers: they can be found in any Orthodox prayer book. In time, we get used to doing this as our rule and may feel drawn to take on a little more. Psalm 50 and the Creed, or Symbol of Faith, are “favorites,” so to speak. Orthodox prayer books contain collections of evening and morning prayers. At first, we might want to read just some of these prayers and then gradually increase the amount, according to our circumstances and how we feel drawn by the Holy Spirit. Some people like to read Small Compline in the evening. It is also good to read as part of our rule the Bible passages readings which are being read in church on that day. Another good practice is prayerfully to recite the names of all the people who are close to us, whom God has brought into our life, and of the people who have asked us to pray for them, and, not least, of those who do us wrong, thereby remembering them all in prayer. So you can see how easily your daily prayer rule can get quite big! But big or small, we need to be invested in our prayer rule, believing that it is time well spent.

Even if our rule is small, we will soon see that, if it is to actually happen on a regular basis, we need to schedule time for it! In so doing, we are treating our prayer the way we treat anything that is important in our life and that we take seriously. Meals and exercise are examples of things that need to be scheduled because otherwise they can get neglected to our detriment. Our daily prayers do in fact nourish us like a good meal. They are also in many ways like exercise, so that our prayer routine can be seen as a work-out, keeping us “in shape” in the true sense.

It often happens that people get into difficulties because they just cannot maintain their prayer rule. This usually means that their rule needs to be smaller. Every priest comes across this in his work with souls, and perhaps we have all made that mistake. The temptation then may be to give up entirely! This is why it is always good to work with our spiritual father and have guidance, especially at the beginning, when we lack experience. If we find we have become overloaded, the best course is simply to make our rule smaller, making it practicable on a regular basis, and continue from there.

If for whatever reason we have not done our rule, we need just to take it up again at the next evening or morning, focusing on that, rather than on what we have not done. In general, we should be stricter, both in the observing of our rule and in its size, when we are on our own and are at risk of being alone with our thoughts. When we are with others, especially family, it may not always be good to do our rule if we need to attend to our spouse or children, whose dear faces we can see.

A further question is the way in which we do our prayer rule. I would like to set out a few basics only. Let us look first at time and place.

We have already spoken of evening and morning as important times for prayer. We know from the Bible that the first day began at evening. With the opening psalm of Vespers (Ps. 103), we understand that our evening prayer is a placing of ourselves in the beginning of the world, a re-aligning of ourselves with the original creation, and thus with our true home in God. As regards the morning (Ps.118:147), the way we start our day on rising very much sets the tone of all that what follows. The first moments of consciousness should be a first-fruits offering of our day, a thanksgiving for our being, an acknowledgment that all is gift and not our own by right.

It helps if we can have a regular place where we read our rule. Ideally, this would be our icon corner where we can venerate the icons and where we keep our prayer books and Bible. Maybe we will also have holy water there, which we can drink before breakfast. If possible we should recite our rule standing attentively in front of the holy icons. Our first step is to light the lamp—and then simply begin! On the other hand, there can be times when the pressures of work and family life are such that we do our rule on the run, going to work, as best we can. Buying a CD of evening and morning prayers to play in the car may be a wise investment! Likewise, using the same prayers every day enables us eventually to be able to say them “by heart.”

When reciting the words of the prayers, I recommend just attending to the phrase that we are reading, rather than be thinking of the next phrase, or of the prayers we have yet to say. In this way we will not be treating our rule as a chore, something to be gotten through, doing it in order to have done it. As far as is in our power, we should recite the holy words with our lips, bringing them up from our heart, or, if you will, putting our heart into them, and doing this with attention, love and compunction. This is the reason why the Trisagion Prayers begin with the prayer to the Holy Spirit, asking God to purify and cleanse us sinners.

We need to think of the words of the psalms and prayers as having a kind of sacred power in themselves. These words are like portals or icons, through which we are able to enter and taste of the things of God. By taking them on our lips and into our heart, we can begin to know God from our own experience, and the life of His Church and of His Kingdom.

Father Paul.
October 23/10, 2014