An Irishman moved into a tiny hamlet in County Kerry, walked into the pub and promptly ordered three beers. The bartender raised his eyebrows, but served the man three beers, which he drank quietly at a table, alone.
The next evening the man again ordered and drank three beers at a time. Soon the entire town was whispering about the Man Who Orders Three Beers. Finally, a week later, the bartender broached the subject on behalf of the town. “I don’t mean to be prying but folks around here are wonderin why your always order three beers and drink them alone?”.
“Tis a wee bit odd I would be supposin” the man replied. “You see, I have two brothers, and one went to America and the other went to Australia. We promised each other that we would always order two extra beers, whenever we would partake, as a way of keeping up the family bond.”
The bartender and the whole town were pleased with his answer and with the reverence for family and soon the Man Who Orders Three Beers became a local celebrity and source of pride to the hamlet.
Then one day the man came in and ordered only two beers. The bartender served them with a heavy heart. This continued for the rest of the evening … ordering only two beers. Word flew around the hamlet quickly. Prayers were offered for the soul of one of the brothers.
The next day, the bartender said to the man, “folks around here, me first of all, want to offer our condolences to you for the death of your brother, you know – only two beers.”
The man pondered for a moment then replied, ” You’ll be happy to hear that my two brothers are alive and well. It’s just that I, meself, have decided to give up drinking for Lent.”
Although this post was sparked by reading my priest’s, Father Patrick Reardon’s The Trial of Job and by a conversation with fellow parishioner and dear friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes, one should not think that the failures and infelicities of my thoughts here are in any way generated by these two men. Rather, they have served as catalysts to coalesce some of the thoughts I have had on these matters.
When it comes to human suffering, there’s no use beginning at the beginning, because no suffering comes to us in this way. It always catches us in media res, right smack dab in the middle of doing other things. Because this is so, then, I will forego both the elucidation of causes (sin, freedom, the devil and so forth) as well as the justification of God in the face of human suffering (whether the weak form of defense or the strong form of a justificatory theodicy). I can say that I myself have heard often of late the resolute determination, “I will not discuss theodicy with a philosopher.”
There is, it must be understood, a good reason for this. It is simply this: reason is not only wholly inadequate to the task of the understanding necessary for this topic, it is not reason which must be satisfied.
I do not mean to indicate that Christians are not obligated to take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, or to give a ready defense to those who ask. If we are reason-endowed creatures, our reason must be equal to the challenge given us by those who would know how it is that a God omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent can co-exist in a world in which manifest evil acts are accomplished, and humans made in the image of such a God suffer evil. There will be debate as to how best this is to be done, as well criticism of which answers achieve the best and most complete ends. Yet we cannot shut off from this question of human suffering all the powers which human reason can bring to bear on this question.
But, even so, reason is wholly inadequate to this task. It is inadequate for two reasons: both God and the human person are utterly opaque to human reason. Reason can no more get at God–unless God reveal himself–than it can make two contradictory things true (or false for that matter) at the same time. Nor can the human person be subsumed to reason’s extent. The human person is always mysterious. Which is why marriage in a fallen world is even possible. The God with whom we have to do is not the god of the philosophers (and therefore cannot be reduced to the scope of a rational problem), because he is indeed, a person (or, if it’s preferable, a tri-unity of persons).
And since all human suffering is suffering in the concrete, which is to say, all human suffering is personal suffering, reason will always fail to rightly analyze and resolve human suffering. At best it can perhaps shed light on the limits, perhaps reveal the outlines and contours of the problem, but it will never get at it in total because the reality is far greater than reason’s potential.
Since human suffering is not a rational problem but a personal one, then while one ought not shun reason, one would do well to seek elsewhere than reason for satisfaction. I am not talking here fideism, which is just another form of rationalism, but, rather of philosophia, a way of living. That is to say, one must put reason in its place: within the heart. And one can do so only by askesis.
At the risk of repeating others far more experienced in the true philosophia, far more wise and mature than me, I can only say that the book of Job gives us a glimpse of how to begin. On a superficial read, one would think that Job was doing just fine till the philosophical discussions with his “comforters” began and once such dialogue had been given up. But whether this conclusion is justified, we may still take note, it seems to me, that the book begins and ends with worship, sacrifice and intercession. That is to say, in the face of suffering, Job did well and rightly the one thing needful. His life prior to tragedy was one of worship and sacrificial intercession for those he loved. With the horrors of his children’s death and his own disease upon him, he entrusted himself to God and worshipped. And in the end, having gained the audience he’d long sought with God, it was after he’d worshipped and sacrificially interceded for his woeful comforters that he was restored.
We have here, then, a paradigm: there is not so much a set of rational answers we must employ against our doubts and fears in the face of suffering (we must note that God did not address a single one of Job’s questions, but pressed the righteous husband and father with questions of his own), but rather an askesis, a way of life, which is the only thing suitable within which to face suffering. Such an askesis is not directly satisfying to the heart, and less so to the mind, but it is the only means by which we can find true satisfaction: the presence of God himself. Within the heart. If we have done with reason what we should always do, and place it within the heart, then it is there that the presence of God will fill reason not with the answers it seeks but with the One in whom reason’s silence is met with infinite fullness.
I have stated these things in somewhat formal terms. But perhaps I may be permitted a few more personal comments. This question of personal suffering has confronted me at key points in my life–key perhaps precisely because of the aspect of personal suffering. Certain of my family and friends may remember that as a senior in Bible college I was given the opportunity to preach on just this very thing: human suffering as seen through the prism of Job. In nearly twenty years, the questions have not changed, nor have the conclusions. I must also admit, that my understanding of this question has not grown one iota. But if I may be permitted to say so, I have learned one very practical thing. The discipline of prayer, of intercession for others, is perhaps not the only askesis personal suffering calls forth, but it is the only thing by which one may endure such suffering. Because it is the only place in which one may be granted by grace the long-desired audience with God, in whom even silence saves.
[Note: This post is from previous years, and I have reposted it each season. I may make this the last time I do so, since it could tend to give the false impression and tend to focus attention on the external “sensationalist” (no other church in the West does this sort of mindset) details, and fail to put the focus on where it belongs: how the discipline of the body better enables the soul and mind to pray and to worship Christ and to love and to serve one’s neighbor in humility. In other words, it’s not about food and hunger.]
The traditional Orthodox Lenten fast is a rigorous one:
The Lenten Fast
Great Lent is the longest and strictest fasting season of the year.
Week before Lent (“Cheesefare Week”): Meat and other animal products are prohibited, but eggs and dairy products are permitted, even on Wednesday and Friday.
First Week of Lent: Only two full meals are eaten during the first five days, on Wednesday and Friday after the Presanctified Liturgy. Nothing is eaten from Monday morning until Wednesday evening, the longest time without food in the Church year. (Few laymen keep these rules in their fullness). For the Wednesday and Friday meals, as for all weekdays in Lent, meat and animal products, fish, dairy products, wine and oil are avoided. On Saturday of the first week, the usual rule for Lenten Saturdays begins (see below).
Weekdays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: The strict fasting rule is kept every day: avoidance of meat, meat products, fish, eggs, dairy, wine and oil.
Saturdays and Sundays in the Second through Sixth Weeks: Wine and oil are permitted; otherwise the strict fasting rule is kept.
Holy Week: The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat on this day. After St. Basil’s Liturgy on Holy Saturday, a little wine and fruit may be taken for sustenance. The fast is sometimes broken on Saturday night after Resurrection Matins, or, at the latest, after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Wine and oil are permitted on several feast days if they fall on a weekday during Lent. Consult your parish calendar. On Annunciation and Palm Sunday, fish is also permitted.
But such rules are always to be practiced under the guidance and counsel of one’s priest or spiritual father, and with an eye toward not damanging one’s health. In fact, the fast is not primarily about food:
The rules given here are of course only one part, the most external part, of a true fast, which will include increased prayer and other spiritual disciplines, and may include resolutions to set aside other aspects of our day-to-day life (such as caffeine or television), or to take up practices such as visiting the sick.
Obviously, many Orthodox do not keep the traditional rule. If you adopt it, beware of pride, and pay no attention to anyone’s fast but your own. As one monastic put it, we must “keep our eyes on our own plates.”
Do not substitute the notion of “deciding what to give up for Lent” for the rule that the Church has given us. First, keep the Church’s fasting rule as well as you are able, then decide on additional disciplines, in consultation with your priest.
We are always advised to fast according to our strength, and you may find from experience that you need to modify the fasting rule to fit your own strength and situation. But do not assume beforehand that the rule is too difficult for you. The Lord is our strength, and can uphold us in marvelous and unforseen ways.
Those who attempt to keep the Church’s traditional fast will find that, though the temptations to pride and legalism are real, the spiritual benefits are great. A return to more diligent fasting could play a large part in the spiritual renewal of our Orthodox churches.
The following are audio recordings (with visuals and English subtitles) of Elder Paisios giving a talk in his cell before his repose.
[H/T: Orthodox Wisdom]
Man! What a game. I think it has to be the absolute best Super Bowl I’ve ever seen. Better even than last year’s game. Warner was amazing, coming back from a thirteen-point deficit to go ahead by three: in the fourth quarter! Two minutes thirty-seven seconds is a lot of time in pro football, but my heart rate was pretty elevated at that point. So . . . how ’bout Big Ben, huh? What a man. Commanding the field for two minutes to take it down and take back the game.
Oh, yeah. I love my Pittsburgh Steelers!