It's a question that I am asked often. There are many answers to this question: some complicated and lengthy, others less so.
Since this question usually comes from beginners, I have a simple answer that I have prepared with beginners in mind.
- Follow a Daily Routine
- Include a basic prayer rule in the routine (I recommend the Rule of St. Seraphim)
- Say the Prayer of the Optina Elders whenever you leave your home in the morning.
With this basic approach, you will begin to live in an Orthodox manner. When you have mastered this, see your parish priest or Spiritual Father and get more instructions.
By Fr Simeon B. Johnson, Juneau AK, 2011
Among the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska, each item of clothing, as well as its decoration, has an identifying power. It announces who you are and who your ancestors are to the people around you and to the spirit world. These things, called at.óow, have a claim on you, and you have obligations to them and to your community based on them.
The Cross, for us as Christians, makes these kinds of claims on us. It marks us as belonging to Christ, it sets us apart in our spiritual life, and proclaims proudly that we are “different” than the world around us. We take this thing, which in its own day was a representation of a horrible death, and proclaim to all our allegiance to the God-Man who died upon it.
- By his death he absolved our sins.
- By his death he marked us as His, as something to be passed over by the Evil One.
- By his death he descended to Hades to fill all things with himself and raise the dead.
Let us remember this cross daily. Let us remember its call to us, and our obligations to the Christ who has saved us from sin and delivered us from bondage to the Enemy. Let the cross mark us for who we are, both to one another and to the World.
Fr. Simeon B. Johnson
21 September 2014
“A hermit said, ‘Do not judge an adulterer if you are chaste or you will break the law of God as much as he does. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’ also said ‘Do not judge.’”
Commentary from Fr. Simeon:
One of the great flaws I see in American culture is the tendency to judge others. We judge our neighbor, we judge one another, we judge everyone and everything but ourselves.
This particular blurb is specifically about adultery, but it is important to remember that this saying applies to ALL sins, for when we judge we do two things:
- We usurp God’s authority and place ourselves above Him
- We accept spiritual responsibility for our brother’s sins and his soul.
Frankly, accepting responsibility for another’s soul should terrify each and every one of us. When we judge, condemn, and correct others (and in my experience, this “correction” is often un-pastoral, un-Christ like, and downright mean spirited), we accept responsibility before God for how our actions turn out.
If our actions turn out badly, it is not the person whom we judge that will suffer the wrath of God, but it is us who do the judging. This does not, however, mean that the Church’s teachings are open to individual interpretation. It means that their teaching and application is usually not our job.
To that end, my brothers and sisters, we have a relatively simple task. Know the teachings and Holy Traditions of the Orthodox Church, live up to them to the best of our ability, and don’t assume responsibility for someone else’s soul unless you have been granted that authority by the Mystery/Sacrament of the Priesthood.
Fr. Simeon B. Johnson
1 July 2015
How to prepare your home for the priest at Theophany
(.pdf of this text is available here)
A Note on the tradition:
During the days following the Feast of the Theophany (January 6) through the beginning of Lent (Sunday of Meat-Fare), it is customary for the Priest to visit and bless the homes of his parishioners.
Though some traditions place great importance on “Theophany water” or “Jordan Water” being used during house-blessings to “bring the blessings of Jordan” to our homes and places of work. This is one of the “Little T” traditions that deepens our understanding of the traditions and helps us make the liturgical life more deeply present in our life without being a universal Orthodox tradition. The Russian tradition that we have inherited in the OCA teaches that this is just water that has been blessed with the Great Blessing of the Waters service on Theophany. Another name for this water is simply “Holy Water.” We can bless water any time of the year that there is a need for it. In Moscow, for example, there is a huge vat of holy water that the faithful partake of regularly. On a regular basis, the vat is refilled with water when it becomes empty, and this new water is blessed. The water blessed in for instance, August is no more and no less “holy” than the water blessed on Theophany. Water is blessed using the “Great Blessing of the Waters” service two distinct times during Theophany: after Vespers on the Eve of Theophany and after the Divine Liturgy on Theophany. The blessings are identical, and the water is identical.
All who reside in the household should make every effort to be present for the Blessing. In anticipation of the arrival of the Priest to the house, the lampada (or candle) in the family’s icon corner should be prepared. If there is no icon corner, a small table should be placed on the eastern wall of the main room of the dwelling; the table, covered with a white cloth, set with one or more icons standing upright, a candle in a candle stand, and a small bowl, along with a clearly printed list of the Baptismal names of the members of the household should also be placed in the icon corner (or on the table). Here in Calhan, the priest can also pray for our barns and livestock at this time, so it’s a good idea to give him a list of the animals you raise.
Upon the arrival of the Priest, he is to be greeted by all of the family members, each of whom asks the Priest’s blessing and reverences his right hand. Then a family member lights the lampada (or candle) and turns off all televisions, radios, etc. in the home. Lights should be turned on in all the rooms of the house that are to be blessed. Then the entire family gathers with the Priest before the icon corner (or table) to begin the Theophany House Blessing.
The priest will bless all rooms of the house except the bathrooms, so you should open all doors. The head of the household, if he/she is able will carry a candle and “lead” the priest throughout the house. In homes with children, it is always good for the little ones to carry a candle or a small cross and join this “procession.”
 In some traditions, the family also has a hand censer. If this is the case your hand-censer and incense should be prepared.
 In some traditions, the family places several sprigs of evergreen or basil bound together with a ribbon or twine on the table as well. In the Russian tradition, however, the priest brings everything he needs.
 If you have a hand censer, light the incense at this time, but do not put incense on the charcoal. The Priest will do this just before he starts the service.
In our Orthodox Christian tradition it is customary to color eggs red, and only red, at pascha.
According to tradition, Mary Magdalene, whose family was quite wealthy, traveled to Rome after the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. There, she was granted an audience with Tiberius Caeser, where she was to protest that Pontius Pilate, in conjunction with the priests Annas and Caiaphas, had conspired and executed an innocent man, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
It was customary at this time to present a gift to the emperor when granted an audience. Mary chose to present a simple egg, a symbol of the resurrection, and the message “Christ is risen!” to the emperor. Of course, the emperor was incredulous. He looked at Mary and said, “How could anyone ever rise from the dead? It is as impossible as that white egg to turn red.” While Tiberius was speaking these words, the egg in the hand of Mary Magdalene began changing color until it finally became bright red.
In remembrance of this miracle, Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Pascha, greeting one another with the words, “Christ is risen!” and replying “Indeed He is is risen!”
Unfortunately, in theeh modern world, people have often presented me with pastoral problems surrounding the red egg. Usually, the modern dyes do not produce a red egg, but a pink one, and the colors on the modern dyes is unstable. The unstable color, combined with little hands and white dresses, creates a unique laundry problem for mothers as they try to get the pink stains out of the white dresses.
The solution I have discovered to this is to use traditional onion skin dye. It's a unique recipe, as one uses yellow Spanish onions to color hard boiled eggs red. The end result is a bright, vivid, red with a stable color that doesn't end up all over little fingers and dresses.
Over the course of the years, I have slightly adapted a recipe from Nancy Gaifyllia that I find works incredibly well and isn't too much trouble.
The recipe is found at http://greekfood.about.com/od/greekcookingtips/ht/redeggs.htm
My adaptation can be found here.
23 April 2016 - Lazarus Saturday
Do You Want to be Healed:
Unction, Sickness, and Sin
“Do you want to be healed?” (Jn. 5.6 - RSV) We hear these words from Christ to the man at the pool of Bethsaida every year on the forth Sunday after Pascha. The Church has seen fit to place these words before us every year in the period of the Pentecostarion to remind us of a deeper meaning to healing than simply Christ’s command of “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” (Jn. 5.8 – RSV). We can get intimations of this simply by looking at older translations of the New Testament into English, and, of course, the Greek. The King James Version of the Bible says “Wilt thou be made whole?” This is a much more literal translation of the Greek than the RSV and captures a subtle nuance that indicated that this is not merely a physical healing, for the Greek word ὑγιὴς (i-gees), according to Strong’s, means “healthy, i.e. well (in body); figuratively, true (in doctrine) -- sound, whole.” So we see clearly from this brief section alone that this passage implies physical health, doctrinal soundness and spiritual transformation, which is also the Orthodox view of healing and, consequently, salvation.
In our current practice in North America, Holy Unction has evolved as a liturgical service of seven Gospels and served by seven priests; though if there are less than seven priests, the service can still be done. In the Byzantine tradition, the services of Holy Wednesday evening are dominated by the office of holy Unction, and people believe that if they have not received Unction along with their confession, they are not ready to receive communion on Holy Pascha. In the Russian tradition, this has not been as central of a service and, in the Great Book of Needs; Unction is envisioned to be a stand-alone service performed either at the church or at the bedside of a severely ill person. The Russian tradition finds Wednesday evening dominated by Christ washing the feet of the Disciples before the Supper. However, in many churches in the Orthodox Church in America, Unction is fast becoming the tradition, and the Matins of Holy Thursday is falling out of use in places. With Unction replacing the Matins service, we, as people of the Russian tradition, need to explore how the Unction service came to be, and what unction is meant to accomplish.
In the ancient church, Unction was not simply viewed as a stand-alone Mystery, but was also tied to the Mystery of Mysteries, Holy Communion. The best information we have is from an 11th century Priest’s Service Book from the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. This particular book shows us that what we consider a lengthy service of Unction on Holy Wednesday is actually a very abbreviated service. Today, we read only seven Gospels and have seven anointings at a full Unction service. In the ancient euchologion, the service calls for seven priests and is done over the course of seven days. Each of the remaining readings was done as part of a Divine Liturgy, and the anointing is closely tied with the reception of Communion by both the sick person and those close to them.
This connection to Communion brings us back to our opening paragraph and Christ’s question to the Paralytic, “Do you wish to be made whole?” Communion, Unction, Confession, and all of the general praxis, or practices, of the Orthodox Church are not just some magical liturgical voodoo where if we do X, Y, Z, then God will do A, B, C for us. They are all part of a larger process of reintegrating our scattered nature, purifying us from sin, and making us whole and complete human beings again. We all exist in a state of sin; we all suffer the consequences of Adam and Eve’s Fall, even if we do not inherit their sin. In essence, in addition to having a mortal body that is bound to break down and “return to the dust” from whence it was created, our spiritual state is fragmented as well. To use traditional language and echo the translators of Metropolitan Hierotheos’ Vlachos’ books, our nous is darkened and fragmented. There is, unfortunately, no good English rendition for the word nous, and many of the more recent translations coming out of Greece are simply refusing to translate the word. The definition provided for νόυς (nous) in Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain, the first of Met. Hierotheos’ works to appear in English and one which set the tone for later translations is as follows:
Nous (νόυς): The word has various uses in Patristic teaching. It indicates either the soul or the heart or even the energy of the soul. Yet, the nous is mainly the eye of the soul; the purest part of the soul; the highest attention. It is also called noetic energy and it is not identified with reason (logiki – λογικι).
Since the highest attention and energy of the soul is fragmented and scattered, part of the process of learning to become whole and being spiritually healed involves physical purification and healing of our damaged nature. It is this internal healing that is of utmost importance to us in the Mystery of Unction.
Our physical healing is not guaranteed simply by calling for the priest and having him come perform some magic rite and smear some oil on our heads, etc. This is taking a voodoo-like approach to our Holy Mysteries and to our salvation. Our Orthodox faith, however, is not about voodoo, and it is not about “getting your passport punched” so you will be admitted into the Kingdom, which is already here and within each of us (Luke 17:21). A monk I know once stood with me in the beautiful little chapel of his monastery and pointed all around at the décor, telling me “Simeon, look at all this: the icons, the candili gently flickering, the beautiful chanting during the services, and even the services themselves. Then realize that the greatest saints didn’t need any of it. They had already purified themselves and stood in the presence of God. They left all of this to us to help us along the path to God.” The services of the Church, including Unction, are about purifying ourselves internally and reintegrating a fragmented nous so that we can realize the Kingdom within ourselves, and get our sin out of the way of the Kingdom acting within our hearts, and our community as a whole. The external power of the services is that they help us focus our scattered thoughts, and help us, in the words of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, “come to ourselves” (Lk. 15:17) and rise up and go to the Father (Lk. 15:20). This coming to ourselves, and making the effort to return to the Father is the key to salvation, and this is what the church gives us in all of Her Mysteries and practices. If we simply wait for Unction, or any other Sacrament, to work like magic, it would seem that we’re putting ourselves at great risk on Judgment Day.
Unction, in essence, is about the healing of soul and body through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is about reintegrating our fragmented nous through confronting our own faults and reintegrating our nous through the practice of silence. Of course, it’s not an easy process. Each one of us, including myself, is spiritually sick and borderline delusional. We like to look only at the good in ourselves and become complacent with believing that we are sinless and spiritually healthy because we go to church on Sundays and we don’t steal, murder, or commit adultery. But are we really healthy? We complain at the length of services if they go more than an hour or so, we fight each other over petty things like whether we hang metal or wooden doors on the front of the church. We are also averse, or so it would seem, to spending time with God in silence. With the average American watching 35 hours of television a week and the incessant marketing of technological gadgets like I-pods designed to allow us to never have to do anything in silence, it would seem that we, as a culture, are averse to silence.
Yet if we simply wait until we are sick enough to need to “call the priest” for Unction and view this Mystery as some magic spiritual cure that gets our passport into the Kingdom punched, we have missed the point. The service, as beautiful and helpful as it is, is not a magic spiritual cure-all for us. We need to start to integrate the meaning behind the Unction service into our daily lives, to purify our nous and acquire what St. Seraphim of Sarov calls “the spirit of peace” before we need Unction. If we have done this, we will be well on our path to salvation. To that end, let us prepare for Unction, as we should to receive communion at Pascha. If we are to be anointed on Holy Wednesday, we should follow the Lenten fast and attend as many of the Lenten Presanctified Liturgies and Holy Week services as possible. Most importantly, we should confess before Unction. They work together, and in some places, you will not be anointed “for the Remission of sins, and the healing of soul and body” if you do not attend Confession before the Unction service begins. So, let us prepare ourselves, let us repent and “rise up and return to the Father” as is fitting, then let us come to Unction prepared and embrace it as part of our spiritual practice.
Priest Simeon B. Johnson
Monday, April 06, 2015
Passion Week – Great and Holy Monday
 The Pentecostarion is similar to the Lenten Triodion, except that instead of containing the variable portions of our services leading up to Pascha, it contains the variable portions of the services from Pascha through the Sunday after Pentecost, or the Sunday of All Saints.
 Θέλειςὑγιὴςγενέσθαι? Thelis igis genesthai? Desire you (singular) to become whole?
 James Strong. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. (Abingdon Press, 1890), Greek citation # 5199.
 Primarily followed by Greeks and Antiochians.
 In the Matins of Holy Thursday, traditionally celebrated on Wednesday Evening.
 Also known as an euchologion.
 Cioslin 213
 Met. Hierotheos Vlachos. A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain: A Discussion with a Hermit on the Jesus Prayer, Second Edition. Trans. Effie Mavromichali. (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1995), 190.