Archive for March 10th, 2008

Today marks my first Lent as an Orthodox Christian. I am already finding the experience qualitatively different than any of the previous five Lents which I’ve traversed as I made my way into the Orthodox Church. It is, in all ways except for the bodily, far more difficult than anything I’ve ever undertaken. I am made so keenly aware of the spiritual nature, indeed the spiritual warfare, of this time by all the Orthodox trappings. Whereas before these things have been up in my head, they are, this year, in my experience.

I am given to believe that the devil is on a short leash, but he still seeks whom he may devour, and I tremble at the thought that we, in our freedom, may choose such a destruction, decentered and disoriented by the phantasies and delusions to which we cling in our sinfulness. Not the least of which delusions are those which minimize our own sins. An unintentional wounding, given by mere words. Surely there is no large catastrophe to which to attach to that! And yet, I nonetheless was mindful of what I had done as my godfather and I bowed before one another giving and receiving forgiveness. Faces wet with grief, we embraced and our fellowship was restored.

If there is anything Orthodox Lent teaches it is that all these Lenten disciplines are done together. We have a common rule for all (adjusted by pastoral economy as needed), common prayers and worship, a common duration. Old or new calendars, it doesn’t matter. This or that jurisdiction. It doesn’t matter. All Orthodox all around the world join together in this askesis, this contest.

The purpose of Lent, as given us by the Church, is for the initiation of the catechumens into Christ by Holy Baptism. We fast and pray for the conversion of others. This calls me out of my own spiritual myopia. Lent becomes not about my personal observances and denials of self, my personal repentance, my personal reconciliation with my loved ones, fellow Christians and God. All of these things are inescapable, good and holy–but rather I am called to move out of myself and into union with those undertaking the journey of preparation for life and union with God. There are great and grave spiritual dangers which lie within and without. And I am called, in obedience, to assist in the battle for souls and the preservation of lives; which assistance is my prayer, fasting and giving of alms.

For me this year, this contest, this battle, is suddenly fraught with deep seriousness, even, to some extent, fear. Although we have been building up to this for weeks, I feel as though thrown headlong into the fray. This struggle is pervasive: within me, within my home, within our families, within the parish. Everywhere I see this wrestling. There is no space where there is no conflict, not even in the recesses of my heart. I look about at the vast expanse and deep-rootedness of the battle and I find myself wrestling with despair. How can such evil be overcome? How do any of us turn in repentance to embrace the loving Father? How are any of us drawn out of our delusions into the truth which cuts us free, painful as is that severance?

I do not have a clue. I do know that this is only for a season. I do know that it will not be two months from now when we will celebrate the destruction of death by Christ’s bright and glorious Resurrection. How does a dead body rise from death? How does God unite himself to man? How great is the love of God for us? I cannot tell. How can words embrace such things?

It seems as though with every day that I continue on in my journey as an Orthodox Christian, I find myself knowing less and less. The things I thought I knew are so pale and incomplete when placed in the center of the reality they claim to approximate, that I wonder if there is much use in holding on to them. God is love. The Tripersonal God is love. God the Father is love. Jesus, God the Son, is love. God the Holy Spirit is love. The Holy Trinity loves my wife, my daughters, my parents and siblings, my in-laws. Even, more mystery, even me.

The rest is inscrutable. Why is it that I am called to just this time, just this day, just this city, just this parish, to do that which I am called to do: to pray for the conversion of others? Why is it, that I am given just these pains and consolations at just this time? Why is it that I have been called to these things, and to this struggle? I do not know. I wonder whether I will ever know. I do not even know whether the pains and sufferings will be recompensed with deliverance and joy. I do not know whether the consolations will bring about further union with God, or whether I will squander them. But here I am, at this time, in this place of struggle and desolation and loss, and joy. And I must believe that God is love. And I must pray for the conversion of others.

As, I trust, someone is also doing for me.


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Your Forgiveness

For all those whom I’ve caused offense, pain, or scandal, forgive me, a sinner.

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On this, the first day of the Great and Holy Fast, I want to call again to my own attention, an article I noted a couple of years ago, from the archives of Touchstone magazine. Author Adam A. J. DeVille’s Life in the Fast Lane is full of very good and important reminders. I certainly need to heed the following exhortations:

For Christians, the most important lesson about fasting is presented in blunt terms: Christ warns us in the Gospels that fasting is not to make us gloomy! It is not a bitter, excruciating ordeal: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites. . . . But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father” (Matt. 6:16–17).

Already the note is sounded: Fasting, while a form of self-denial, is nonetheless a cause of our joy, and it is this joy, rather than the fast, that we should manifest to the world. . . .


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Pure Monday

Let us joyfully begin the all-hallowed season of abstinence; and let us shine wih the bright radiance of the holy commandments of Christ our God, with the brightness of love and the splendor of prayer, with the purity of holiness and the strength of good courage. So, clothed in raiment of light, let us hasten to the Holy Resurrection on the third day, that shines upon the world with the glory of eterna life . . . (Lenten Triodion, Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

How shall I now lament my fall? Where shall I begin the work of my salvation? I have lived as the Prodigal: O compassionate Lord, in the ways that are Your own, do You save me. Be hold, the appointed time; behold, all the doors through which the passions enter, and look up towards the Lord. (II Cor. 6:2). Storm-tossed by the tempest of sin, I am dragged down into the depths of despair; but I flee to the wide sea of Your mercy. Save me, O Lord. I alone have become a slave to sin; I alone have opened the door to the passions, O Word are are ready to forgive. But in Your tender mercy turn back and save me . . . (Lenten Triodion, Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

Come, O you people, and today let us accept the Grace of the Fast as a gift from God and as a time for repentence, in which we may find mercy with the Savior. The time for combat is at hand and has begun already; let all of us set forth eagerly upon the course of the Fast, offering our virtues as gifts to the Lord. (Lenten Triodion, Matins for Monday of the First Week of Lent)

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