A Continuous Lent

The life of a monk ought to be a continuous Lent. Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of Lent to keep its manner of life most pure and to wash away in this holy season the negligence of other times. This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge in evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 1:6). In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

Everyone should, however, make known to the abbot what he intends to do, since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot’s approval.

The Rule of St. Benedict, ch. 49 (tr. by Timothy Fry, OSB)

Ever since I discovered the Rule, this passage is one which has stuck with me. I come back to it every year. And every one of the past fourteen years, I fall so far short. This year is no exception.

Outwardly, I have conformed to the exhortation from our holy Father Benedict. I have taken on and have abstained. I have sought the blessing of my spiritual father. But from the euphoria of the handful of weeks leading up to Great Lent, to the first half of Lent’s first week, the ensuing days have revealed my soul to be dry as dust. All my “rapturous ramblings”? Who’m I kidding?

Yes, it’s incredibly easy to read a lot. It’s nothing to recall words and concepts. It’s a small matter to weave these things together into something that appears wise and solemn, even if only to oneself. But it fools no one–well, except oneself, perhaps. My smoke and mirrors illusion was working fairly well. Everything outwardly seemed on such a happy trajectory, academically, personally. But before I could very long enjoy that, the great Lenten squeezing of the soul came on. And I produced nothing. My prayers are rote, often only half-attended to. My fasting has been all but non-existent since the first week of Lent. I have now missed Liturgy three Sundays, travel and illness notwithstanding. Contrary to St. Ephrem’s prayer, I have held on to a spirit of despondency.

Has this all been little but external? Will any of it ever touch my own soul? Whatever happened to this great “stitching together of mind and life” that I so touted during the first week of Great Lent?

Ah, Benedict, father of monks, I’m not sure I could take life as a continuous Lent. Pray for me, holy father, a sinner.


Frederica Mathewes-Green on Relevance

From an interview, the rest of which can be read here:

Even two old boomers like my husband and myself knew ten years ago that we didn’t want to join any church that prioritized being relevant. The Gospel is already relevant, because it’s timeless; hitching it to time-bound fashion only trivializes it. I think this insight is the wave of the future, ironically; I think that we will increasingly see it become fashionable to disdain passing fashion, a situation that makes Orthodox heads spin. For example, a friend recently told me that her Southern Baptist church has established a Celtic service, complete with chant, candles, and incense (at least until those with allergies complained). She said that boomers mostly go to the 9:30 “contemporary” service, where they can have all those middle-aged things like rock music and humor and skits. “But the older people wanted an earlier service, and the young people, of course, wanted something more traditional.” Those words keep echoing in my mind: “The young people, of course, wanted something more traditional.” If the church of the future wants to be up-to-the-minute, hip, and relevant, it had better look into tradition.

Marian Signals: A Protestant Encounters the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

The weekend of 11-13 October 2002 was my most recent, and almost certainly my last, retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. I first retreated at the monastery in July 1997, and have always been drawn to it as a place of prayer. My few retreats there have largely been unremarkable; definitely no Damascus road experiences. But this past autumn was different. I went wanting only to be open to what God had to show me, and not with an agenda, whether of vocational questions or prayer requests, or what have you. My first twenty-four hours plus were rather of a character as my other visits, but on Saturday late afternoon, I decided I would hunt up a version of the Akathist Hymn to Mary and pray it after Vespers during the meditation hour.

The Akathist Hymn is an ancient hymn (sixth century) written by St. Romanos, a noted Church hymnographer and poet. It is prayed while standing (thus “akathist” from the Greek, or literally “not-sitting”), usually before an icon of the Theotokos. Said prayerfully, the hymn may take the better part of a half hour to pray. So, no icon being handy, I prayed before the statue of Mary in a side chapel to the monastery church.

Now my steps from Protestant aversion to Mary to praying the Akathist hymn were not made swiftly. And indeed, given my bent, went unsurprisingly first through the arena of theology. I had become convinced of the necessity of calling Mary the Mother of God on the basis of the Scriptural and patristic understanding of the Incarnation. I also had become convinced of the communion of the saints, and thus of the legitimacy of asking the intercessions of those who now live in the presence of God beyond this mortal life. So it wasn’t a quick leap from mariolatry polemics to the akathist.

But understanding undergirded with theology notwithstanding, I wasn’t the most comfortable first-time pray-er. I plowed through, nonetheless, knowing that theology isn’t a matter of my comfort. Another conviction I had come to was the necessity of submitting my intellect and will to the Incarnate God through his Body the Church. The Akathist Hymn had been blessed by centuries of use in the Church. Who was I, a lone individual with all my presuppositions and prejudices, to set aside 1500 years of faithful teaching and practice? Indeed, for that matter, request for Marian prayers date from the earliest days of the Church. So I prayed.

Lo and behold, the next day, after the noon office and lunch, I returned to another chapel–this one with an icon of the flight to Egypt–and poured out my heart in extemporaneous requests for the intercessions of the Virgin. An overnight “convert”? Perhaps.

In the ensuing weeks, I grew to daily ask the intercessions of the Birthgiver of God, particularly on behalf of my wife, Anna. While I’ll not go into any of those details, suffice it to say, the growing evidence of our Lady’s effectiveness as intercessor began to mount. The first instance was in the conception of our child. This is not to say that I prayed specifically for Anna to get pregnant. (A couple of our friends know the humbling account of that human blunder! Though what a blessed result!) Rather, the conception of our child was the answer to related prayers that I had been praying; something confirmed by my spiritual father. After asking Mary’s intercsssions in November and December for my mother’s employment, I got word that Mom had gotten a job.

Of course, this is not magic. Some of the things for which I’ve asked Mary to pray have not come to pass in the way I had hoped and for which I had prayed myself.

More to the point, it’s a tricky thing for humans to claim divine activity in the realm of human events. Some discussion in the blog world has been going on about this very thing with regard to the war. There is ever a need for humility in discerning within human events the hand of God. That he is active, we ought have no doubt. In what way he is active is another matter.

Still, to a heart formed and shaped by the struggle of this Christian unseen warfare, there comes something of a fallible certainty about these things. For example, take yesterday. It was the feast of the Annunciation. I had intended to pray the rosary at some point during the day, in addition to my observance of the feast in my normal routine of prayer. But I didn’t. I had intended to pray the Akathist Hymn before bed last night. I had even set my prayerbook on my icon shelf as a reminder. But I didn’t pray the Akathist. However, what did happen, is that my wife brought home the book that I had ordered: The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God. In it is a translation of the Akathist Hymn. Hmmmm. Receiving a book about the Theotokos on her feast day. Intending to pray the Akathist, and later being given a translation of it in the book. Was this a signal of something?

Now, to a merely rational mind, it would seem reasonable to assume, that just because I ordered it last Thursday and it came yesterday, and that yesterday happened to be a Marian feast, was merely a contingent coincidence of events. Had I ordered it on any other Thursday, assuming appropriate stock levels and similar shipping effeciencies, it would have come on the following Tuesday. To which the spiritually rational mind says, “But it didn’t happen that way.”

It’s something of a proverb to assert, “With prayer there are no coincidences.” I don’t know if I’d press that proverb too literally. But I guess it’s like anything else: if one has the eyes to see, the trail markers are a clear demarcation of the path ahead. To anyone else, though, it is the coincidental meanderings through mountain trails.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee, O Virgin Theotokos:
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb
For thou hast born the Savior of our souls

Blessed Seraphim Rose

It’s later than you think! Hasten therefore to do the work of God.

I’ve been reading, this past six months, in between homework and papers, the 1000-page biography of Fr. Seraphim (ne Eugene) Rose, Not of This World, a convert to Orthodoxy (in 1962), who became a monk, co-founding the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood (whose publishing ministry can be found here). (Note: The biography, in its first edition, is marred by some of the jurisdictional politics that was all too rife in the 70s and 80s. A critique of the first edition, by a close friend of Fr. Seraphim, can be found here. A second edition, Fr. Seraphim Rose, is in process now, and is expected to be published soon.) Fr. Seraphim died in 1982, in his late forties.

I’m impressed by two things about Fr. Seraphim. First, his humility. A brilliant linguist and Sinologist, he turned away from a career in academia (for which he was clearly suited) to go “further up and further in” to the faith and life of the Orthodox Church. This meant for him, in time, monasticism and the priesthood. In this vocation, his strong mind was used for God, and by no means wasted. He both wrote articles in and translated works from Chinese, Greek, Latin, French, Russian, and other languages, both in their modern and more ancient forms. He read and criticized important philosophical and theological works. He was nonetheless deeply engaged in the culture of modern U. S. society, and offered deep reflections and criticisms of important movements. He was among the first to warn of the impending dangers of Jonestown, and of what has come to be known as the New Age movement. But his humility was also evident in his refusal to take part in the ecclesial controversies of his day. He sought the deeper and more genuine expression of Orthodoxy and the Church, and not the shallow, soul-destroying allegiances of church politics.

I am also impressed by his urgent desire to go ever deeper into the faith and life of the Church. Not content to read about the vibrant life of monasticism, he forged ahead, with the blessing of his spiritual father, St. John Maximovitch, founding a monastery and eventually being received into the monastic life. He knew what it was to suffer, and how suffering could play a role in the redemption of one’s soul. May I capture even the smallest portion of such a spirit! (Goodness knows, I couldn’t take the whole thing!)

May his memory be eternal.

Why the Anti-War Movement Did Not Achieve Its End

Although it is too soon to provide an in-depth analysis of the failure of the anti-war movement to achieve its end of preventing the war in Iraq, it seems that some preliminary remarks may be made. It should be noted from the outset that I have not referred to the worldwide protest movement as a pacifist movement. The reasons for this will be made clear in a moment, but it should be clear from this that I do not understand the anti-war protests to be the same as pacifist protests against the war. (And this will give a hint as to what I take to be the tenor of the failure.) It should also be clear that my criticisms are of the anti-war movement, and not of pacifism itself. Again, the reason will be made clear momentarily.

It seems to me that the anti-war movement not only failed to achieve its end of preventing war in Iraq, it also failed in persuading public opinion in the United States. Even prior to the war’s commencement, a strong majority, roughly two-thirds, of the American public, according to the polls, supported President Bush and the planned military conflict in Iraq. Not surprisingly, that support has grown to almost three-fourths of the American public now that the war has begun, though this need not be an indication of agreement with the war so much as support for the troops, a quintessential American trait.

Why was the anti-war movement so evidently a failure? The media clearly and regularly presented the anti-war protests at home and abroad. Estimates of protestors in the millions worldwide were declared as growing evidence of public sentiment in opposition to war. Well-known celebrities lent their public personae and financial resources to the movement and its publicity. The protestors had the organization, especially in the all-important venue of grassroots movements, the airwaves, the money, strong political backing. Why did the movement fail? It seems to me there are two important reasons.

1. The lack of a cohesive message.

It is ironic that with such a vast amount of organization, publicity, platform, political backing, and money, that the largest failure of the anti-war movement was that of establishing a consistent and cohesive message. For reasons which are not clear to me, the protestors took what I believe could have been a persuasive pacificst platform, and bifurcated their message along the lines of anti-Americanism and anti-Bushism.

Clearly, anti-Americanism is not going to play well among a majority of the U. S. population, however well it may have worked around the world. Cries of “Empire” fell largely on deaf ears, as an American public gave little to no heed to allegations of American hegemony. Americans largely believed the administration’s message that our country was not out to annex Iraq for our own purposes. The clear and evil atrocities perpetrated by the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein called for redress, even if many Americans were uneasy about America leading the way in that calling to account. For many Americans, however much they may have been persuaded, or not, of terrorist ties to Iraq, they viewed Iraq as a security issue, even if not the most important one, and the U. N. as too weak to enforce its own mandates. There was little but conspiracy theories presented as evidence of Amerian “Empire.” The anti-war movement clearly did not persuade the American public on this matter.

With President Bush remaining at significant favorable polling numbers in the U. S., it struck me as ineffective that the anti-war protestors would focus their public arguments on attacking the President. Attributions of lust for oil as motivating the President to war with Iraq were met with about as much seriousness as were the cries of “Empire.” With Iraqi oil production forming about five percent of U. S. imports, and with all the attendant losses associated with a military operation, the American public intuitively knew that this was not about oil. By and large, the American public accepted that what Bush claimed as his motives (disarmament of Iraq and the achieving of U. S. policy for the removal of Saddam Hussein from power set before Bush came to office), and gave little to no credence to the “oil motivation” attributed to him for starting this war.

It is my conviction that had the anti-war movement stuck to its pacifist critique of war that their message would have been both more cohesive and more persuasive. Instead, the protests were seen by the public at large as more about America and/or President Bush than they were about arguments in favor of peace.

2. The elitism of moral outrage.

This second failure is perhaps the most intuitively felt and therefore the most pervasive of reactions against the anti-war movement. The moral highroad and moral superiority are not the same thing. I personally witnessed a local protestor face the camera of one of the local news programs and say, once the war had started, “Do you feel good about yourself now, America?” The disgust on his face and in his tone was only too obvious. But instead of communicating a disgust at the war, this protestor communicated his disgust for America at large. Clearly he appeared to feel himself to be morally superior to roughly sixty-percent (now somewhere near mid-seventy percent) of the U. S. population.

Few Americans, ingrained as is our concept of absolute equality in the popular consciousness (however little it may be realized in actual fact), react positively to this sense of moral superiority. The anti-war protestors took on a strident and loveless tone that relegated all their opposition to the status of ethical Neanderthalism. Is it any wonder the American public wrote these protestors off. Jerry Falwell anyone?

American memories are not very long, as can be witnessed in every election cycle. But it seemed that there was just enough remembrance of the relative silence of the anti-war movement in the face of President Clinton’s military action against Kosovo (unpopular worldwide, without U. N. backing, and with a smaller international coalition), and more particularly of his unilateral and opportunistic bombing of Iraq during his Monica Lewisky scandal, to give the lie to the supposition that the anti-war protestors were operating from some higher moral ground. And especially when these protesters took their apparent moral elitism and, instead of the dignity of civil disobedience, resorted to little more than the hooliganism of stopping traffic and disrupting pro-war rallies . . . well, they appeared less morally exemplary as strident and hypocritical.

It’s sad, really, that the pacifist movement got coopted by the anti-war, anti-America, anti-Bush protests. Perhaps the pacifists hoped that strength of numbers would bolster their message in a milieu that seemed to them hell-bent on military conflict, death and destruction. But in the end, numerical augmentation proved to be little more than pragmatic dilution. Ultimately, when it was far too late, not even the moral authority of the Pope could turn the protests to the significant pacifist debate.

It does not appear likely, with Michael Moore’s sophomoric propagandistic rant on the Oscar platform, that the ant-war movement will learn from the significant contributions pacifist argument could have made to this debate. But if the pacifists want to exert the significant influence that they have throughout the history of our nation, they will have to distance themselves from self-righteousness, anti-Americanism, and partisn politics. It is my hope that they will. I may have been one who could have been persuaded by their cause. At least I was open to it. And that’s saying something, coming from this just war proponent.

The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and the Seamlessness of Orthodox Faith and Life

This has been a most incredible week for this Orthodox wannabe. Last night I worshipped at my first Pre-Sanctified Liturgy (and a description here.), and experienced the depth of God’s presence, indeed of Heaven, such as I’ve never known.

The Pre-Sanctified Liturgy developed early. It is referred to in Church canons in the seventh century as already being an ancient practice. St. Gregory the Great, of Rome, is the one who revised (? I’m not sure) the Liturgy. The nature of the Liturgy is such that Eucharist cannot be celebrated during a time of ascetical fasting. Jesus said that while the Bridegroom is with them (his Apostles) they do not need to fast. Thus ascetical fasting, taking place over an extended period of time and Eucharist do not go together. (The fasting done prior to Eucharist is of a different nature.) But very early on, the practice of Wednesday and Friday Eucharist developed during the Lenten cycle. So, essentially, the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy is a Vespers service with the service of Communion added on. The Body and Blood have been consecrated on the previous Sunday, so no epiclesis is said, and the clergy partake of the elements in silence.

This being the first week of Lent, the fasting rigors, the extra services, and one’s own Lenten disciplines (under guidance of one’s spiritual father) are, well, frankly, invigorating and exhausting all at once. But in this first week, this “mini-boot camp” for the rest of Lent, the whole-cloth nature of the Orthodox Fath and life is made clear.

The fasting begins, and we now see for what it is the great lie that we can depend on anything or anyone other than God for our life. Our bodies are cleansed through fasting. Our hearts and souls are cleansed through the act of forgiveness with our parish brothers and sisters, our friends and our family. At the close of the first day, we sing the Great Canon and are not only instructed in the act of repentance, but actually do it. And lest we become forgetful of it, the Canon is repeated three more nights.

By Wednesday evening, the battle against the flesh (carried by the body) and against mind and spirit is fully joined. We wrestle and struggle with the old man. Our flesh incites our body to rebel by breaking the fast. Our thoughts attempt to lead our will to self-reliance and away from dependence on God and the prayers of the saints and our brothers and sisters in faith. It’s only the third day and we are battered and bruised.

So I drug my weary, impatient, irritable self to the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. The Psalms of Ascent were a blur to me. I couldn’t focus on them. However, all the “Lord, have mercy” petitions were much more heartfelt, let me tell you. Then there’s the prayer of St Ephrem, at whose three petitions full prostrations are made. I’m doing my best to focus and to pray, then a bell is rung and the Divine Gifts are brought to the altar. Suddenly, my attention is more focused. We prostrate ourselves. There are more prayers.

And then it happens.

“Now the Powers of heaven with us invisibly do worship. For, behold, the King of glory doth enter. Behold, the mystical sacrifice all accomplished is escorted in. Let us with faith and longing draw near that we may become partakers of life eternal. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.” Fr. Patrick sings of the invisible hosts praising God with us now. He sings of the King and Lord who is coming into our midst. And again. And again. And then, in solemn, silent procession, we all with foreheads on the the floor, the gifts are brought into the midst of the congregation and back through the royal doors to the altar.

Never in my life have I felt the connection to Heaven and to the Trinity as at that moment. I came as empty and as whooped-on as I’ve ever come to a service. And there, in a rickety old church building on Newport in Chicago, earth and heaven were joined as one, and God was mysteriously present with his people. Praying with us was my patron, St. Benedict, St. Gregory of Rome, St Symeon the New Theologian, and all the other saints whose feast day was yesterday. And not only them but all the saints, all who have gone before us, the great cloud of witnesses. Indeed, God himself deigned to come down to our mixed-up planet and to bestow his divine presence on the holy Gifts.

No wonder Russia became Orthodox. The envoys of Vladimir were right. I knew in my head they were. But now my entire being knows it.

After Liturgy, as prescribed by the Church, we ate a small meal (according to fasting guidelines). It helped. A lot. As did the relaxed conversations afterwards. “So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.” (1 Kings 19:8).

God have mercy on me a sinner.

Alexander Schmemann: On Confession and Repentance

. . . [T]he very word sin–in the biblical and Christian tradition–has a depth, a density which “modern” man is simply unable to comprehend and which makes his confession of sins something very different from true Christian repentance. The culture in which we live and which shapes our world view excludes in fact the concept of sin. For if sin is, first of all, man’s fall from an incredibly high altitude, the rejection by man of his “high calling,” what can all this mean within a culture which ignores and denies that “high altitude” and that “calling,” and defines man not from “above” but from “below”–a culture which even when it does not openly deny God is in fact materialistic from the top to the bottom, which thinks of man’s life only in terms of material goods and ignores his trascendental vocation? Sin here is thought of primarily as a natural “weakness” due usually to a “maladjustment” which has in turn social roots and, therefore, can be eliminated by a better social and economic organization. For this reason even when he confesses his sins, the “modern” man no longer repents; depending upon his understanding of religion, he either formally enumerates formal transgressions of formal rules, or shares his “problems” with the confessor–expecting from religion some therapeutic treatment which will make him happy again and well-adjusted. In neither case do we have repentance as the shock of man who, seeing in himself the “image of the ineffable glory,” realizes that he has defiled, betrayed, and rejected it in his life; repentance as regret coming from the ultimate depth of man’s consciousness; as the desire to return; a surrender to God’s love and mercy.

[Great Lent, p. 65]

The Lenten Act: Repentance and the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

Today is the feast day of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem. St. Sophronios is known for many thngs, but two which concern me today are his revision of the Phos Hilaron, composed by St. Basil the Great, and his composition of the Life of St. Mary of Egypt. I’m not sure when, but his Life of St. Mary has for centuries been associated with the Great Canon of St. Andrew. On Thursday during the fifth week of Lent the Canon is sung, and the Life of St. Mary is read in two parts.

The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is also sung in the Church on the first four nights of Lent. St. Andrew composed his Canon sometime in the early part of the eighth century, probably after 710. In total, it consists of 250 stanzas, each with the refrain, sung in beautiful and haunting minor key “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.” Last night was my first singing of the Canon. The first stanza runs: “Where shall I begin to lament the deeds of my wretched life? What first fruit shall I offer, O Christ, for my present lamentation? But in Thy compassion grant me release from my falls.” Then the refrain: “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me.” At which we bowed and crossed ourselves.

The genius of Orthodox Lent is revealed in the first two days. On Sunday, after Vespers, the dietary restrictions of the Fast are in place. That morning after Liturgy, for example, was the last time to consume eggs and dairy products. Needless to say, many dishes contained these items. (Something of an Orthodox Mardi Gras?) Then every worshipper present at Forgiveness Vespers cleanses their soul by asking and giving forgiveness. On Pure Monday (yesterday) the Church proclaims an absolute fast, although subject to priestly oikonomia if a parishioner is unable or it would be unwise for them to fast completely. Humbled by our knowledge of our sins, and from the freely given grace of our brothers’ and sisters’ forgiveness, wearied by fasting, we come to the Great Canon knowing and understanding, as Fr. Schmemann notes, that we have been living a lie of self-sufficiency. We begin to get an ever-greater inkling that God is our hope, our life, our all. We are ready, prepared physically and spiritually, now, to begin that Lenten askesis, that athletic wrestling with our soul called repentance, metanoia.

And I had a lot of which to repent. I didn’t count last night, but in the text in front of me now, there is opportunity to sing “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me” more than 70 times–with three “Lord, have mercy” sung after the sixth ode. When asked why it’s necessary to say “Lord have mercy” forty times (as some liturgies call for), Frederica Mathewes-Green has quipped, “Because we don’t mean it till the thirty-seventh time.” She’s right. I’m not sure even after more than 70 “Have mercy on me, O God; have mercy on me” I really meant it. But I do know that the last time I sung it, I meant it more than the first time. Small drops of water, after all, do wear away stone. And right now my heart is stone.

Thank you, God, for this season of Lent. May it be profitable for my soul, and may I serve You and Your Kingdom ever more diligently from having been through this journey to Pascha.

Forgiveness Sunday Vespers and the Vesperal Litany: Or, How, Despite My Planning, Great Lent, Still Snuck Up on Me

So a dash to Evanston and a visit to our cats–er, I mean, to the Young’s who now own our cats–to see, as Anna puts its, that our kitties are adjusting well to their new home. A quick stop on the way back home to get a pregnant woman a one-pound-bag of peanut M & M’s (as if I hadn’t gotten her Dunkin’ Donuts earlier!), and then I was rushing off to the service for Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday.

Don’t get me wrong. I was prepared. I’d already discussed my Lenten disciplines with Fr. Patrick and gotten his blessing. Anna and I had talked about them, and she was fine with them. I scheduled in my calendar for the extra services this week. For Pete’s sake, I’d even purchased and read the first several pages of Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent. I mean, come on, now. I was prepared.

Or so I thought.

I’d been to a few Vespers services, so I had some inkling of what I would expect, but of course, I’d never done the “forgiveness thing” at the end. So I was curious and a bit apprehensive. Would I clink eyeglasses, or bonk noses? I’d never kissed a grown man before, even on the cheek, or at least not since I was a kid, so all those adolescent “don’t want to look unmanly” sweatinesses had to be laughed away. But despite the combination of familiarity and curiousity, I was in tune with the service. I was ready.

Or so I thought.

We were into the Vesperal Litany, when I felt a change deep in my gut. “Lord have mercy” had just changed tone. No upward lilt, even if in a minor key. This was Byzantine, minor key, with downward glide. It was almost like a physical blow. I wanted to sit down. Then another “Lord have mercy.” And another. We were half-way down the page when I noticed the rubric at the top: Lent begins during the Litany. Lent had begun, and I had missed it.

What now? I’d planned on having a small meal of fruit after Vespers, to prepare for the rigors of the first week. Should I eat it now, or not? I had poured a sherry tumbler of Ouzo, but had left it unfinished. Do I just dump it out? Why didn’t anyone tell me Lent began during the Litany? I mean, I knew it was this evening, but . . .

By the time the prostrations came, I was well-humbled. God would be in charge of this Lent. Not me. “O Lord and Master of my life. Take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust for power, and vain talking.” Prostration, forehead to floor. “But give to me, Thy servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.” Prostration. “Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not judge my brother. For blessed art Thou, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Prostration.

And so came the asking for and giving of forgiveness. Fr Patrick made a low bow to Eva’s young boy. “Forgive me,” he said. “God forgives,” was the response. And so it went, each alternately asking for or giving forgiveness. I spent the first half of the time, giving forgiveness to the congregation of worshippers. We were barely minutes into it, and already there were tears. I was unmoved. Well, at least until it came time for me to look the sister to my right in the eyes, to bow and to say, “Forgive me.” My eyes stayed dry. But not my heart.

Why should I ask the forgiveness of what were, really, little more than strangers to me, some of whose names I didn’t even know? It began to dawn on me that my sins may not have been so much ones of commission as ones of omission. Why didn’t I know their names? Why did I withhold Christian love and joy behind my introverted persona? What would it have hurt to have gone up to a total stranger and ask, “How are you doing? How may I pray for you?” Ah, see, it would have hurt my pride. See. There it was. I had sinned against these my brothers and sisters. And no, not just from withholding of Christian love. No, truth be known, I had judged them. That school teacher who’d made some harsh comments about an Orthodox bishop. Yes, it was me; I was the one that judged him as immature, and impatient. That young high school boy, the one I nicknamed in my own mind, “the loudmouth.” Yep. That one stings. This young man, after all, is not merely a creation of God, but a member of God’s Kingdom. He is one of the least of these. I began to keep a wary eye out for millstones.

I don’t know how long Forgiveness Vespers has been around. The quizzical shrugs (“Why is that important?”) seem to indicate centuries. That may well be. But it’s clear to me now the spiritual genius for starting Lent this way. We need it. Great Lent is hard enough without carting all this baggage around. And anyway, we’ll end where we begin: with the great mercy of God.

Alexander Schmemann: On Fasting

It is important, therefore, to discern the uniquely Christian content of fasting. It is first of all revealed to us in the interdependence between two events which we find in the Bible: one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other ar the beginning of the New Testament. The first event is the “breaking of the fast” by Adam in Paradise. He ate of the forbidden fruit. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. Christ, the New Adam–and this is the second event–begins by fasting. Adam was tempted and he succumbed to temptation; Christ was tempted and He overcame that temptation. The results of Adam’s failure are expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruits of Christ’s victory are the destruction of death and our return to Paradise. . . .

In the Orthodox teaching, sin is not only the transgression of a rule leading to punishment; it is always a mutilation of life given to us by God. It is for this reason that the story of the original sin is presented to us as an act of eating. For food is means of life; it is that which keeps us alive. But here lies the whole question: what does it mean to be alive and what does “life” mean? For us today this term has a primarily biological meaning: life is precisely that which entirely depends on food, and more generally, on the physical world. But for the Holy Scripture and for Christian Tradition, this life “by bread alone” is identified with death because it is mortal life, because death is a principle always at work in it. God, we are told, “created no death.” He is the Giver of Life. How then did life become mortal? Why is death and death alone the only absolute condition of that which exists? The Church answers: because man rejected life as it was offered and given to him by God and preferred a life depending not on God alone but on “bread alone.” Not only did he disobey God for which he was punished; he changed the very relationship between himself and the world. . . .

Christ is the New Adam. He comes to repair the damage inflicted on life by Adam, to restore man to true life, and thus He also begins with fasting. “When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He became hungry” (Matt. 4:2). Hunger is that state in which we realize our dependence on something else–when we urgently and essentially need food–showing thus that we have no life in ourselves. It is that limit beyond which I either die from starvation or, having satisfied my body, have again the impression of being alive. It is, in other words, the time when we face the ultimate question: on what does my life depend? . . .

What then is fasting for us Christians? It is our entrance and participation in that experience of Christ Himself by which He liberates us from the total dependence on food, matter, and the world. By no means is our liberation a full one. Living still in the fallen world, in the world of the Old Adam, being part of it, we still depend on food. But just as our death–through which we still must pass–has become by virtue of Christ’s Death a passage into life, the food we eat and the life it sustains can be life in God and for God. . . .

All this means that deeply understood, fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature. It not a theoretical but truly a practical challenge to the great Liar who managed to convince us that we depend on bread alone and built all human knowledge, science and existence on that lie. Fasting is a denunciation of that lie and also the proof that it is a lie. It is highly significant that it was while fasting that Christ met Satan and that He said later that Satan cannot be covercome “but by fasting and prayer.” Fasting is the real fight against the Devil because it is the challenge to that one all-embracing law which makes him the “Prince of this world.” . . .

Ultimately to fast means only one thing: to be hungry–to go to the limit of that human condition which depends entirely on food and, being hungry, to discover that this dependency is not the whole truth about man, that hunger itself is first of all a spiritual state and that it is in its last reality hunger for God. In the early Church, fasting alway meant total abstinence, a state of hunger, pushing the body to the extreme. It is here, however, that we discover also that fasting as a physical effort is totally meaningless without its spiritual counterpart: “. . . by fasting and prayer.” This means that without the corresponding spiritual effort, without feeding ourselves with Divine Reality, without discovering our total dependence on God and God alone, physical fasting would indeed be suicide. If Christ Himself was tempted while fasting, we have not a single chance of avoiding that temptation. Physical fasting, essential as it is, is not only meaningliness, it is truly dangerous if it is disconnected from the spiritual effort–from prayer and concentration on God. . . .

It is for this reason that we need first of all a spiritual preparation for the effort of fasting. It consists in asking God for help and also in making our fast God-centered. We should fast for God’s sake.

[Great Lent, pp. 93, 94, 95, 96, 97.]