55 Maxims of the Christian Life

svs 791.preview

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

DSC_0165-2.previewProtopresbyter Thomas Hopko [March 28, 1939–March 18, 2015], dean emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, was a noted Orthodox Christian priest, theologian, preacher, and speaker. Memory eternal!

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Keeping Lent in our Families

Prodigal Son (Brotherhood of St Pachomius, Mt Athos)

Prodigal Son (Contemporary Icon: St Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos)

Let’s be honest: how do we parents feel when we suddenly realize, while attending Liturgy, that the Gospel reading for the Sunday is the Prodigal Son, reminding us that Lent is around the corner? If you’re like me, you start doing a mental checklist of all the meat that needs to be used up in the next few weeks, and what upcoming events are going to conflict with the fast and services. When does Holy Week fall? And whose birthday is getting trumped by Lent? (Three of our children have birthdays in late February and early March!)

Perhaps some of these collected words of wisdom from other moms and dads will be encouraging.

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Most parents find it’s better to resist the temptation to read labels while shopping in the store, or to try to monitor what our older kids are choosing to eat when they aren’t at home. Let’s not set up standards of perfection that will end up succumbing to the practical realities of family life. The overall goal is that we and our children will cleanse our souls, simplify our lives, practice a greater degree of love and self sacrifice, and prepare for the Feast of Pascha. Our own father confessors can best guide us as to how to do this without ruining the atmosphere in our homes with Lenten grumpiness.

    When You Fast (SVS Press)

    When You Fast (SVS Press)

  • Do create a Lent-friendly kitchen. We can keep our pantries free of dairy-heavy snacks and Beef Jerky. Our food purchases can set an example and help us make good choices. But then, we also need to remember that our children are still children! I’ll never forget His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph’s exhortation when, at a women’s retreat, a mother asked him, “How do we handle the fast with our children?” “Your fasting should be more rigorous than your childrens’ fasting,” he said. He went on to explain that what we do while they are watching is more important than what we make them do. Also, as the cooks, we can help them along by finding tasty, albeit simple recipes that they enjoy. Try the book When You Fast: Recipes for Lenten Seasons by Catherine Mandell.
  • Do put thought into managing the family calendar. During Lent, life relentlessly marches on with baseball playoff games, school plays, family weddings and birthday celebrations, and western Easter gatherings. We have to decide at the beginning of each Lenten week what to do, and what to forgo. In this, there are two temptations: to try to attend each and every service and live as if nothing else is happening, or to resign ourselves to not participating at all. With the former, we get after our kids if they complain about fasting and church attendance. With the latter, we end up ignoring the holy season because of our kids’ resistance or our own laziness. As always, we need to strive for balance.
Children in the Church Today (SVS Press)

Children in the Church Today (SVS Press)

Sister Magdalen reminds us in Children in the Church Today, being a wise parent “sometimes involves letting go temporarily of secondary aspects in order to concentrate on central things (faith, love, freedom, truth). We know that ‘secondary’ things contribute to the essentials, and we try to live in a way that makes this manifest, and to explain it to our young people. However, we may have to wait patiently while our children go through the experience of sorting out the central meaning of life for themselves.” This good counsel extends to all of the Lenten disciplines. Let’s go forward into this journey with enthusiasm, knowing that in due season we will “reap, if we faint not.”

Practical suggestions for observing Lent: 

  • Attend an extra service each week, but be sensitive to the family schedule and the patience and endurance levels of each child.
  • Volunteer during Lent and Holy Week for special activities—prosphora baking, egg dyeing, decorating the temple.
  • Talk about it! After dinner, ask, why do we fast? Discuss the Sunday observance that’s upcoming.
  • Pick an alms project, the more hands-on the better–perhaps your parish offers Lenten outreach opportunities, or your family can collect money in a jar for the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).
  • Put up this creative fridge poster: “My Lenten Journey;” it suggests one simple way to keep Lent during each of the 40 days.
  • Read good books and listen to sacred music with your kids–try listening to Ancient Faith Radio, or ordering resources from SVS Press.
  • Get off screens and go outdoors! Turn off the TV. Unhook cable. Hide the X-box. Instead, take family nature walks or plant a garden.

Virginia Nieuwsma grew up in the Philippines with her missionary parents, and later graduated from evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois. Since 1981, she has worked in Christian media, both as an editor and writer, as well as a spokesperson for pro life organizations. Twenty two years ago she discovered Orthodoxy, and subsequently she edited Conciliar Press’ book, Our Heart’s True Home, and served as journal editor to The Handmaiden as well as Conciliar’s acquisitions editor. Virginia has also been editing Orthodox websites in recent years, including the St. Vladimir’s Seminary website.

This reflection is used with the kind permission of Virginia Nieuwsma and the Antiochian Archdiocese.

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The Life of Fr. Matthew Baker Is a Triumph of Orthodoxy

Fr Matthew Baker holding the holy body of our Lord on the day of his ordination

Fr. Matthew Baker at his ordination

The life of Fr. Matthew Baker is a triumph of Orthodoxy.

It is easy to doubt God’s Providence in taking away a young priest, newly installed in his first parish, a husband, and a father of seven (his youngest, Alexis, so recently taken from his mother and father in stillbirth).

It is tempting to question God’s Providence in taking from the Church one of the most brilliant theological minds of the twenty-first century at a time when the Church is very much in need of sound and sober, yet penetrating, teaching, in both the academic and the pastoral spheres.

It is, for me personally, difficult to see the hand of God’s Providence in taking from me my best and most intimate friend, the man who taught me what true friendship means by pouring himself out year after year after year in boundless dedication to every aspect of my spiritual well-being and human flourishing.

Fr Matthew with his children

Fr. Matthew with his children

Yes, in all of this we are reminded – harshly – that God’s Providence is a mystery that cannot be grasped by the minds of men.

And yet: Fr. Matthew was taken from this life on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. And because of this seemingly small detail, there can be no doubt, no question, no difficulty in perceiving that God is at work here, that His Church will triumph still, that His Truth will prevail over all falsehood, darkness, distortion and exaggeration – all those evils against which Fr. Matthew fought, exhaustively, ruthlessly, and bluntly. And when Truth is triumphant, love is victorious. For Fr. Matthew love and truth were inseparable, distinguishable only in thought. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” When truth triumphs over falsehood, there love triumphs over coldness, mercy over suffering, and light over shadow. There life triumphs over death. Orthodoxy has triumphed! And this means, as Father Matthew would teach us, that Christ – the whole Christ, the totus Christus, Head and Body, the Savior and his Bride, holy Church – Christ has triumphed. He is triumphant over death, since He is the firstborn of the dead and the author of life. And in Him, the presbyter Matthew also is triumphant.

On each of the last two days of his earthly life, Christ’s faithful presbyter Matthew offered the Holy Liturgy, preached the Word of God and communed of the precious and and all-holy Body and Blood of Christ. He spent the last week of his life – the first week of Lent – in fasting and prayer, in the reading of Scripture, and in ministry and care to his new parishioners. Fr. Matthew grew an immense amount in the last year, but also in the last month, since becoming a parish priest, and even just in the last week, in which he entered into new depths of his priestly ministry. The Lord was truly preparing his servant for this moment of exodus on yesterday’s feast of triumph.

I am honored to say that Fr. Matthew spent the last evening of his life on the telephone with me, and while now I wish that some aspects of that conversation had been different, I am heartened to think that, among other things, we spoke of how the dead in Christ, while awaiting the resurrection and the final consummation of all things, are granted even now to partake of the light of Paradise.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me: “Write: Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” (Rev. 14:13)

Now Fr. Matthew rests from his many intense labors, and we who have been his friends and colleagues, who have known his vision, must continue in his labor, trusting that his works have indeed followed him into Paradise, but that they remain here with us as well, here in this vale of sorrow, and so here, we must work as ardently as he did for the Triumph of Truth over its many modern day enemies, for the Triumph of Christ. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

Fr. Matthew, in Christ, is now seeing the triumph of Orthodoxy much sooner than he expected, this triumph for which he labored single-mindedly. He beholds the triumph of Christ and the triumph of His holy and spotless Bride, the Catholic and Apostolic Church whom he loved and served so ardently. Christ is risen! Let us be of good cheer, for Christ has overcome the world!

Forgive me if these words are uncouth. Let us also mourn – for death is real, and Fr. Matthew’s death is a horrific tragedy – but let us not mourn “as those who have no hope.” In our friend and brother, the presbyter Matthew, our dear and merciful Savior has given us much cause for hope.

He lived most of his life near the city of Providence, Rhode Island, and throughout their thirteen years of marriage, Fr. Matthew and Presbytera Katherine trusted fully that God would provide as they opened their hearts to the abundant gift of life, raising six children without ever having a steady income during Fr. Matthew’s many years of study. Now we have no doubt that God will indeed continue to provide for Fr. Matthew’s widow and children, as indeed God has provided so much for all of us through friendship with Fr. Matthew and Presbytera Katherine.

Fr Matthew and his family at his parish

Fr. Matthew and his family at his parish

This reflection was written by Fr. Herman (Majkrzak), Lecturer in Liturgical Music at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

You may donate to help Presbytera Katherine and her six children as part of your Lenten giving here.

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“Thou hast led us to these holy days”

Tonight we hear this prayer for the first time this year at the Presanctified Liturgy:

Prayer before the Ambo

Bishop on an ambo (Elevation of the Precious Cross, Menologion of Basil II c. 1000 A.D.)

Bishop on an ambo – Elevation of the Precious Cross (Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000 A.D.)

O Almighty Master, who in wisdom hast fashioned all creation; who, through thine ineffable providence and great goodness, hast led us to these all-revered days for purification of souls and bodies, for restraint of passions, and for hope of the Resurrection; who, during the forty days, didst put into the hands of thy servitor Moses the tables in letters divinely inscribed: grant unto us also, O Good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the Fast, to preserve the Faith undivided, to crush the heads of invisible serpents, to be shown to be conquerors of sins and, without condemnation, also to attain to and to worship the holy Resurrection. For blessed and glorified is thine all-honorable and majestic name; of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Moses receiving and giving the Law (Illuminated Psalter, Vatopedi MS 761, 1087-88 A.D.)

Moses receiving and giving the Law (Illuminated Psalter, Vatopedi MS 761, 1087-88 A.D.)

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Adam’s Lament

Creation of Adam (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

Creation of Adam (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

Adam, father of all mankind, in paradise knew the sweetness of the love of God; and so when for his sin he was driven forth from the garden of Eden, and was widowed of the love of God, he suffered grievously and lamented with a mighty moan. And the whole desert rang with his lamentations. His soul was racked as he thought: “I have grieved my beloved Lord.” He sorrowed less after paradise and the beauty thereof – he sorrowed that he was bereft of the love of God, which insatiably, at every instant, draws the soul to Him.

In the same way the soul which has known God through the Holy Spirit but has afterwards lost grace experiences the torment that Adam suffered. There is an aching and a deep regret in the soul that has grieved the beloved Lord.

Adam pined on earth, and wept bitterly, and the earth was not pleasing to him. He was heartsick for God, and this was his cry:

“My soul wearies for the Lord,

and I seek Him in tears.

How should I not seek Him?

When I was with him my soul was glad and at rest,

and the enemy could not come nigh me.

But now the spirit of evil has gained power over me,

harassing and oppressing my soul,

so that I weary for the Lord even unto death,

and my spirit strains to God,

and there is nought on earth can make me glad.

Nor can my soul take comfort in any thing,

but longs once more to see the Lord,

that her hunger may be appeased.

I cannot forget Him for a single moment,

and my soul languishes after Him,

and from the multitude of my afflictions I lift up my voice and cry:

‘Have mercy upon me, O God. Have mercy on Thy fallen creature.‘”

Expulsion from Paradise (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

Thus did Adam lament, and tears streamed down his face on to his beard, on to the ground beneath his feet, and the whole desert heard the sound of his moaning. The beasts and the birds were hushed in grief; while Adam wept because peace and love were lost to all men on account of his sin.

Adam knew great grief when he was banished from paradise, but when he saw his son Abel slain by Cain his brother, Adam’s grief was even heavier. His soul was heavy, and he lamented and thought:

Cain and Abel (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

Cain and Abel (Monreale Cathedral, 12th c.)

“Peoples and nations will descend from me, and multiply, and suffering will be their lot, and they will live in enmity and seek to slay one another.”

And his sorrow stretched wide as the sea, and only the soul that has come to know the Lord and the magnitude of His love for us can understand.

I, too, have lost grace and call with Adam: “Be merciful unto me, O Lord! Bestow on me the spirit of humility and love.

This text is based on the texts by St. Silouan the Athonite. It has been translated into more than twenty languages. This particular translation, by Rosemary Edmonds, is used in the famous “Adam’s Lament” of Arvo Pärt and was performed as part of St. Vladimir’s Seminary Arvo Pärt Project concert at Carnegie Hall. Emphases added.

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When You Fast: A Reflection Before Great Lent

Rabulla Gospel Illumination (586 A.D.)

Rabulla Gospel Illumination (586 A.D.)

What appears to happen in the Passion of Christ and what actually happens are not at all the same. What appears to happen is not that extraordinary. The Romans crucified a Jewish man in order to keep public order. During their long rule over Judea, the Romans had killed many Jews, making the death of Jesus one among these many. But, only in appearance. The reality was very different. The Paschal homily attributed to St. John Chrysostom emphasizes this difference between appearance and reality. Chrysostom describes Christ’s encounter with Hades as follows:

Chora Church, Constantinople (c. 1320 A.D.)

Chora Church (Constantinople, c. 1320 A.D.)

Hades…was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions… It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. Fooled by what appeared to be just another corpse, Hades was overthrown by an encounter with the Almighty God, as the Passion and Resurrection of Christ shook the foundations of the universe in the final acts of a cosmic drama. As we enter the Lenten season, we are reminded that we have a role in this universal, cosmic drama. Let’s reflect on the proper nature of our role by using the language of appearance and reality. For, it is easy to confuse our role, or to play the wrong role by focusing on our appearance rather than our reality. When Jesus chastises his opponents, he often calls them hypocrites for practicing their piety in public, and for drawing attention to themselves as they pray.

Publican and the Pharisee (Ravenna, 6th c. A.D.)

Publican and the Pharisee (Ravenna, 6th c. A.D.)

The word hypocrite, of course, is the Greek word for “actor.” They are trying to “act” pious and “act” charitable. Their focus is on their appearance in public. Jesus urges them instead “to go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). Now, these things are not included in the Gospels so that we can ridicule the Pharisees whom Jesus criticizes. Indeed, they are written, not because we are unlike the Pharisees, but because we have the unfortunate potential to be just like them. The very things that are designed to make us more humble, the very acts of repentance and self-denial that are supposed to make us more open to God and more loving to one another can be used to make us more self-satisfied and more self-centered. But this is to focus on the appearance of holiness, and not its reality.

A wonderful little book called the Way of the Ascetics provides an important image for reflecting on real holiness. For, we may be inclined to think that, if we want to be humble, we must try to appear humble. We might, for instance, wear especially humble clothes or constantly adopt humble postures. But, this, too, can be a way of drawing attention to ourselves. The Way of the Ascetics has a lovely passage about real humility, however, emphasizing that the truly humble person doesn’t stand out as being more humble than others, and, indeed, doesn’t stand out at all. You may not even notice him because the goal of humility is precisely not to stand out. Real holiness has a way of making a person appear relatively normal, just like everyone else. As with the Passion of Christ, of course, this appearance of being usual and everyday is only on the surface.

St Mary of Egypt (Detail from a Russian icon, circa 19th c. A.D.)

St. Mary of Egypt
(Detail from a Russian icon, circa 19th c. A.D.)

A very helpful step in focusing on the inner drama of holiness is to avoid comparing ourselves with others, and the Church reminds us of this fact in various ways. On the 5th Sunday of Lent, for instance, we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt. She lived alone in the desert until she met St. Zosimas, who tells her story.

St Mary receiving communion from St Zosimus  (detail from the same icon)

St. Zosimus communing St. Mary
(Detail from the same icon)

We wouldn’t know anything about St. Mary, however, if St. Zosimas had not encountered her in the desert. And St. Zosimas would not have been in the desert if his monastery had not observed the Lenten fast in a particular way. To keep the monks of his monastery from competing with one another, the monks retreated individually into the desert, in order to observe the fast separately. Their drama was internal and their only audience was God. This is a helpful model to imitate. A certain silence should accompany our fasting. While it will be helpful to encourage one another and support one another over the next forty days, it is also easy for this need for support to become something else. It’s easy to find ways to drop hints of our fasting regimen into casual conversations. We might even rationalize a good reason for doing so. But this is to risk making the fast into one more opportunity to put ourselves in the limelight and at center stage, and to undermine the real work of fasting, prayer and repentance that lie within the inner heart of Lent.

St Anthony the Great (St Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos) His scroll reads: "I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on... [earth and I said with a sigh: 'Who can pass these by?' and I heard a voice saying to me: 'Humble-mindedness.'"] Alphabetical Sayings, Saying 7

St. Anthony the Great
(St. Pachomius Brotherhood, Mt Athos)
His scroll reads: “I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on… [earth and I said with a sigh: ‘Who can pass these by?’ and I heard a voice saying to me: ‘Humble-mindedness.'”]
Alphabetical Sayings (PPS trans.), Saying 7

The great ascetics of the early Church always navigated between the appearance and the reality of holiness. We are regularly told in the stories of the Desert Fathers that the monks of the Egyptian desert would hide their ascetical practices from visitors. They don’t make their guests fast with them, but prefer to show hospitality to whomever comes to see them. They feed them well and make them comfortable. The visitors, of course, are always surprised and suppose that these renowned monks are not really all that strenuous in their spiritual exercises. We are always told in the stories, however, what really happens, and how the ascetic only allows himself to appear unimpressive, because his greater concern is the care and comfort of his guests. Here we see the opposite of the hypocrites whom Christ admonishes. The appearance is allowed to be unspectacular, while the reality of generosity and holiness is profound. Let us, then, observe the fast in reality and not only in appearance, following these models of piety and especially the model of our Lord, whose strength was shown in weakness and whose apparent defeat in death led in reality to the victory of the Resurrection. “For, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5).

George Parsenios, M.A. Duke University, M.Div. Holy Cross School of Theology, M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. Yale University, Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor of New Testament at St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Used with the kind permission of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Department of Outreach and Evangelism.

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“The Beginning of the Way of Life” — Read Scripture and Be Patient

As we prepare to enter Great Lent, Synaxis will post a series of passages from the writings of the Church fathers. We begin with St Isaac of Syria.

St Isaac the Syrian  (by Photios Kontoglou)

St Isaac the Syrian
(by Photios Kontoglou)

The beginning of the way of life (Ps 16:11) consists in applying the mind to the words of God and in exercising patience. For the draught which comes from the words of God helps toward the perfection which is in the latter. Likewise, indeed, the increase of growth in the fulfillment of patience gives place to a greater need for the words of God. And the help which is from both of them quickly brings about the elevation of the whole edifice.

…When the impulses of the soul plunge into the pleasure which comes from the wisdom stored in the words of Scripture, vigorously drawing understanding from it, a person will leave his body behind. Such a one will forget the world and all that is in it and will cancel from the soul all the memories which stir up images of the material world. Often the soul in wonder desists in its reflection from the use of habitual thoughts which come naturally to it, in the presence of the novelties which come to it from the sea of the Scriptures’ mysteries.

"Don’t simply dive into them. Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind." - St John Chrysostom

“Don’t simply dive into the scriptures. Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind.” – St John Chrysostom

Even if the mind is floating in its upper waters, not being able to make its impulses probe the whole depth of the sea to discern all the treasures which are in its depths, still meditation is able with its desire to bind firmly the thoughts of the mind with thoughts of wonder, hindering them from thinking and running after the natural body, as a man clothed in God has said (cf. Gal 3:27).

—St Isaac of Syria, First Discourse (§ 3, 17-18)

An introduction to St Isaac's writings

An introduction to St Isaac’s writings

You can read more of St Isaac’s teachings in On Ascetical Life, available in SVS Press’s Popular Patristics Series.

The Popular Patristics series is comprised of more than 40 volumes. The series aims to provide readable and accurate translations of a broad range of early Christian literature to a wide audience–from students of Christian history and theology to lay Christians reading for spiritual benefit. Recognized Patristic scholars provide short but comprehensive and clear introductory essays according to their specializations for each volume. 

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