Some of the most well known Orthodox saints were courageously outspoken against abuses within the Church as well as abuses by Orthodox civil rulers or hierarchs. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) for example is sent into exile where he dies because of his criticisms of clergy as well as of the Empress. St. Maria of Paris (d. 1945) is a more contemporary saint who was troubled by what she saw in the Church of her day as the strict adherence to external ritualism while not having one’s heart changed by the Gospel. Her stinging criticisms of Russian Orthodox Church life were intended to awaken Church members to live their Christian lives and not reduce Orthodoxy to mindless ritualism. She refers to the example of Jesus Christ Himself who challenged the Pharisees of His day by declaring Himself to be Lord of the Sabbath, not a slave to Sabbath rules. St. Maria says:
“‘We can, of course, state that the Son of Man was Lord of the Sabbath, and that he violated the Sabbath precisely in the name of love. But where they do not violate it, where they cannot violate it, this is because there is no “in the name” nor is there love. Strict ritualism reveals itself here to be the slave of the Sabbath and not the way of the Son of Man…Instead of the Living God, instead of Christ crucified and risen, do we not have here a new idol, a new form of paganism, which is manifest in arguments over calendars, rubrics, rules, and prohibitions–a Sabbath which triumphs over the Son of Man?’
Likewise, [St. Maria Skobtsova] considers the ascetic mentality dominant in traditional monasticism, namely the conviction that everything one does is done out of obedience–to God, to the superior, to the monastic rule. The purpose for all of this is the salvation of one’s own soul, becoming “perfect even as your Father in heaven.” Once more, something is not right in such a vision, for
‘The whole world, its woes, its suffering, its labors on all levels–this is a kind of huge laboratory, a kind of experimental arena, where I can practice my obedience and humble my will. If obedience demands that I clean out stables, dig for potatoes, look after leprous persons, collect alms for the Church, or preach the teaching of Christ–I must do all these things with the same conscientious and attentive effort, with the same humility and the same dispassion, because all these things are tasks and exercises of my readiness to curb my will, a difficult and rocky road for the soul seeking salvation. I must constantly put virtues into practice and therefore I must perform acts of Christian love. But that love is itself a special form of obedience, for we are called and commanded to love–and we must love.’
But where is there any recognition of the other, the neighbor who is being fed, clothed, or visited? Rather than self-renouncing, self-giving love that embraces the other, this “strange and fearsome holiness” pursues all kinds of works of love because it is the rule, because God or the superior orders it, because it is necessary for the salvation of my soul.”
(Michael Plekon, The Teachings of Modern Christianity, p. 666).
We can live the Gospel by living a life of love – through acts of generous giving to others, to those in need, to our neighbors or to strangers, we can curb our own desires and serve others. We turn our self denial into the service of others. This is an ascetic act which everyone is capable of doing. We don’t need to leave the world in order to follow Christ. We can use Great Lent as a time to increase our service to others and thus deny ourselves.