“Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet only through them lies the way to real true freedom. I cut off my superfluous and unnecessary desires, I subdue my proud and wanton will and chastise it with obedience, and with God’s help I attain freedom of spirit and with it spiritual joy.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Our old unsightly mini-van is dead again this morning. What I thought I’d do today I cannot do. This too is part of fasting: refraining from gorging on, stopping my ears and covering my eyes with frustration. Thy Will Be Done, Thy Will Be Done, Thy Will Be Done, even in the smallest of matters.
Spiritual attentiveness is very difficult for me, as is surrendering my time and self-centered will. But I know deep beneath the chaos of earthly concerns, lusts and ambitions lies a heavenly, unshakeable, oasis of calm for those willing, in faith, to work hard with the help of the Church at pursuing it. Stillness is required – as is lots and lots and lots of constant prayer. Then there’s loving and serving others of course, until it hurts – infringing on my best laid plans, my finances, my hardened pride and ego.
Oh, but I’m not strong enough! I can’t imagine enduring that much fasting, stillness, praying, serving, self-denial, for even another hour, much less forty days. Thinking ahead, and trying to will upon myself discipline I simply do not possess, is not an option.
I am proceeding this frigid Tuesday but one minute at a time, fully aware of my desperate need for continuous aid, forgiveness and direction from Christ. It’s scary to let go of my perceived semblance of control, and yet also mysteriously, paradoxically, freeing.
LordhavemercyLordhavemercyLordhavemercyLordhavemercy, before I open my mouth, begin a new task, feed a negative thought, and upon tasting either joy or disappointment.
Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim
O Lord and Master of my life,
Grant not unto me a spirit of idleness,
of lust for power,
and of vain speaking.
But bestow upon me, Thy servant,
the spirit of chastity,
and of love.
Yea, O Lord and King,
grant that I may perceive
my own transgressions,
and judge not my brother,
for blessed art Thou
unto ages of ages.
The best way to keep children home is to make the home atmosphere pleasant–and let the air out of the tires.
- Dorothy Parker
This guy right here? We used to cry on my bed together. He’d sob because he wasn’t allowed to interrupt me thirty times a minute while I was talking on the phone, eat Oreos for breakfast, stay up till midnight. I’d weep because, at the time, I had three children under five and felt like a totally inept mother. It’s hard to be the oldest kid, what with your parents agonizing over every perfectly natural stage you inevitably go through as a child. I expect too much. I expect too little. I’m still learning to choose my battles – it’s something I pray through every day.
I received an e-mail a couple of weeks ago containing important information regarding his upcoming promotion to High School. They told me it would go by fast, those nostalgic grandmas who’d empathetically watch me struggling to contain four teeny-tinies at the grocery store, the library, at church. I didn’t believe them. Because those hours at home changing diapers, nursing babies, never sleeping, felt endless, and the outings endless too and so fraught with potential, embarrassing, hazards.
But now look, here is it fifteen minutes later and the days they bleed one into the next. And this guy right here? He defiantly disobeys my pleadings to slow it down with the shooting up taller than me and starting to talk like a man. I get wistful sometimes, like right now as I look at these photos. He’s really grown on me, my first born.
I know I’ll miss all of this when our house becomes quiet: the chaos, our loaded schedule, the frequent laughing, crying, apologizing, forgiving. I’m such a flawed, flawed mom trusting that unconditional love truly covers a multitude of parental missteps. I adore my sons and daughters, my husband, and this crazy beautiful life we’ve built with joy, sweat and tears over the last decade and a half.
I am grateful.
We deprive ourselves in order to have more to give to others. And if I as an individual am able through my own self-deprivation to help the life of another human being, imagine what a whole community, a whole nation, even the whole world could do if it observed such a fast!
- Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou from Meditations for Great Lent
It’s not ideal, by any means, to participate in Great Lent half-heartedly. Far more harm than good comes from fasting without preparing, without quieting down and pondering on the “why” behind this communal ascetical effort. I know this because I’ve done this: refrained from food without filling up on prayer, scripture, Church services, almsgiving and silence only to rob myself of joy, peace and humility.
The Church leads us into Great Lent gradually via a series of four preparatory Sundays, each designed to correct our thoughts and gird our spirits with eternal Truths so easily forgotten in the pursuit of worldly ambitions. First there was the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, next came The Sunday of the Prodigal Son. This past weekend was the Sunday of the Last Judgment and it is this particular Gospel reading I’m reflecting on this morning:
The Lord said, “When the Son of man comes in his glory and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It is very tempting, for me anyway, as with fasting itself, to reduce this parable to a checklist for earning God’s mercy:
Clothe the Naked
Visit those Imprisoned
Thereby diminishing my acts of service into mere impetuses for either pride or despair, or even worse a litmus test for how “good” or “bad” I am doing in comparison to those around me. I need the Church to help me rise above legalism, as a means for trying to make sense of that which is purposefully unfathomable, that I might meekly, and fully, embrace the Mystery of love and death-to-self as Heaven itself – as THE means to Life.
God is truth and light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The ‘books’ will be opened. What are these ‘books’? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice in seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.
So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation – and there really is – it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell.
- Saint Symeon the New Theologian
What am I to do with this parable? How am I to approach this Fast? What is the answer to everything?
LOVE. Unconditional Love, minus the loopholes and self-serving side benefits. Love, because Christ loves us. Love, because through Love souls are enlightened, death is vanquished, fear demolished and hope ignited.
St Silouan Orthodox Church in Walla, Walla, Washington posted this to its website about the Sunday of the Last Judgement:
When Christ comes to judge us, what will be the criterion of His judgment? The parable of the Last Judgment answers: love. Not a mere humanitarian concern for abstract justice and the anonymous “poor,” but concrete and personal love for the human person — the specific persons that we encounter face-to-face each day in our lives.
Come now, let us journey on towards Christ’s Resurrection together, always supporting one another in serving the family members, neighbors, co-workers, enemies, strangers and friends right in front of us!
So here’s how I understood things as a kid:
My heart was black with sin, until the Savior came in.
His precious blood, I know,
Has washed me white as snow.
And in God’s Word, I’m told, I’ll walk the streets of gold.
To grow in Christ each day, I read my Bible and pray.
- The Wordless Book
I liked my salvation plan succinct, neat and tidy, guaranteed. As a child, it was comforting to know I’d taken the necessary step for procuring eternal life: asking Jesus into my heart. And I carried this comfort with me into early adulthood.
But somewhere along the line I outgrew that definable comfort. What had once felt reassuring began to bind and constrict my awe of God, and His image in my neighbor. I’d become overly familiar with what I now view as a Mystery. Having the right answers humbled me far less than marveling at the Unknowable.
Before converting to Orthodox Christianity, I’d assumed …well, I’d assumed a whole bunch of things, about God – what He smiled on, frowned on – and myself; I was pretty good for the most part, and fully saved most importantly.
And what about after my conversion? Oh goodness gracious, how do I begin to describe it? I guess it’s like that “finish line” I’d crossed decades earlier, having been washed “white as snow,” was transformed into a starting point for the most demanding, endless, enlightening, amazing journey – one I’m now daily struggling through with fear and trembling, and, paradoxically, great joy.
“And so, as Orthodox Christians, we are being saved. The decision to accept him as our Savior is an important first step, but it is only the beginning of a long, and yes, difficult journey. Salvation is choosing to follow Christ, not once, but every minute of every day. Yet the rewards of a faithful lifelong struggle within the Church of Jesus Christ—the divine hospital—are quite literally infinite.”
– From the Saint George Antiochian Church website.
Salvation, for Orthodox Christians, is a process involving minute-to-minute repentance, renewal, and dying to self that Christ might more fully live in us and act through us. The ultimate goal being not so much avoiding hell as tasting of the Kingdom of Heaven via a sacrificial and unconditional love for others.
This is a different message than the one I received as a little girl – less rhymy and systematic. I was saved, I am being saved, I will, by the compassionate grace of God, be saved. There is little “confidence” to be found on this particular path but lots of gratitude, meekness, growth and countless opportunities for transcending earthly pettiness and cares.
All that to say, I am delighted to have discovered a tool for helping present to my own sons and daughters, in such a gentle way, these Truths I now hold and continuously live and die for. One of my favorite children’s book authors, Jane G. Meyer, has just had published by Conciliar Press a literary work of quiet profoundness called The Hidden Garden: a story of the heart. In it, she compares the heart with a dried up garden brought back to fruitfulness by devoted toil and the patient love of Christ.
The Hidden Garden, exquisitely illustrated by Masha Lobastov, depicts the toil involved in clearing out, planting and watering that once dead garden as both rigorous and ongoing. And even now he helps me pull the weeds – over and over again – over and over again. For weeds are always with us, writes Meyer. And yet it’s that toil that brings forth life, life abundant, and love and beauty:
Now that I tend my garden everyday, so many good things end up growing there. Prayer, forgiveness, peace and love are the fragrances that dance in the air above the climbing roses.
And how do we tend the garden of our hearts? Meyer proposes the following:
Pray to him daily-
All the day long if you can.
Love your friends, your neighbors, your family – and those who don’t love you.
Want little. Ask only for what you need. Don’t be jealous of the things your friends and others have.
Do good things.
Help those who ask of you.
Spread joy wherever you go.
Oh, how precious is that?! Those are exactly the heavenly goals I long for my kids to embrace, unsullied by a lust for material possessions, and self-centered preoccupations that can only leave them empty and unsatisfied.
Those are exactly the heavenly goals I long for myself to embrace as well, but forget to embrace all the time, thus the weeding and pruning and watering – the praying, the fasting, the confessing of sins, and putting others needs ahead of my own – to help me remember what is incomparably fulfilling about salvation (yours, mine – ours) being everything – the only thing that matters.
Click HERE to order Jane’s new book, “The Hidden Garden.”