The following questions were posted on the Orthodox Women’s listserv, with a note to submit comments and thoughts to someone at “The Handmaiden.”
Are there characteristics which help to guide us in sensing holiness when we find it? Are there indications of its absence where we have been told it ought to be? Is this a question we need to answer in finding parishes to attend and priests to confess to?” I’ve heard of the magazine, but have never seen a copy nor read anything written in it. However, I thought I would submit my thoughts on the questions. Here is what I submitted.
In Orthodoxy we are taught to judge no one but ourselves and that Jesus Christ is the ultimate Judge of us all. While that is true, there is also the need for us to “discern” with God the Holy Spirit’s help, what is of Him and what is of evil. I do believe strongly that this is an appropriate question to ask in our heart when we are seeking a parish home. I also believe it is a question that is appropriate for life beyond the parish.
The characteristics we ought to use to guide us in sensing, or better put, discerning holiness is the fruit of the Spirit as listed in the book of Galatians, chapter 5, verses 22-24: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
In The Life of Antony, St. Athanasius wrote about what Holy Father Antony instructed monks to do when being faced with a demon. Blessed Antony said, “For if they see that we are fearful and terrified, they increase even more what is dreadful in the apparitions and threats, and the suffering south is punished with these. However, should they discover us rejoicing in the Lord, thinking about the good things to come, contemplating things that have to do with the Lord, reflecting that all things are in the hand of the Lord, and that a demon has no strength against a Christian, nor has he any authority over anyone – then seeing the should safeguarded by such thoughts, they are put to shame and turned away. If was for this reason that the enemy, seeing Job so defended, departed from him, but finding Judas unarmed with these, took him captive. [Emphasis mine.]
It is the emphasized part of the above passage that is what we should look for in a parish. We should also look for it in a potential friend, potential spouse, in ourselves. We can cultivate it in ourselves through prayer and contemplating God – even when washing the dishes!
When we look for a parish home and spiritual father, I believe we ought to look for a parish and priest that exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. Does the parish have regular services, and not just Liturgy? At the bare minimum there ought to be weekly Liturgy and Vespers. Is the priest welcoming every week? Is he available to chat? Look into his eyes when you greet him. They are the windows to the soul. When you visit a parish, listen to conversations around you for several weeks or a month. Are they rejoicing in what God has done? Or are they full of rancor about the parish priest or parish council president or the choir director? Do you see the parish council president and members at Liturgy and Vespers on a regular basis? Do their children participate in Sunday School? Does everyone stand in Liturgy in the Nave? Or do some stand in the Narthex chatting or counting the offering through out Liturgy?
By asking these questions, by carefully observing the people and by sincere prayer, I believe you will be blessed by God to “discern” the holiness of the parish, priest and people.
I am sure nothing will happen with them, but if anything does, I’ll let you know!