The Nativity Fast: Why Humility is Essential

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Orthodox asceticism always presents us with a serious challenge to our tendency to oversimplify religion.  On the one hand, it seems to argue for nothing except absolute obedience to rules as THE way to follow Christ.  On the other hand, it reveals that strict obedience not only is a vacuity but is spiritually dangerous for it deceives us about its purpose.  As we continue on the spiritual sojourn of the Nativity Fast, we can think about the purpose of fasting and self-denial.

The same amma also said “it is neither spiritual discipline nor vigil nor diverse toil  that saves us if there be not genuine humble-mindedness. For there was a solitary driving off demons and he used to examine them:

‘What makes you come out? Is it fasting?’

They would say: ‘We neither eat nor drink.’ ‘

Vigil?’ he would say –

and they: ‘We do not sleep.’ ‘

Withdrawal from the world?’

And they would say: ‘We exist in the deserts.’

‘What then makes you come out?’

and they would say: ‘Nothing conquerors us other than humble-mindedness.’ Do you see that humble mindedness is victorious against demons?” (Amma Theodora, Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 129)

St Mary of Egypt

The spiritual victory over the demons does not occur in the desert, or in monasteries but in the humble of heart.   As the demons honestly (!) answer – just like monks, they don’t eat, they don’t sleep, and they don’t live in luxurious cities with every cosmopolitan amenity [so those who think the city is the playground for demons might be surprised to learn the demons don’t live in the cities but in the deserts!].  It isn’t strict ascetical practice which defeats demons, but humility.

If asceticism simply means being obedient to rules of self-denial, then monks are simply behaving like demons.  The real warfare for monks as for all Christians is to nurture and develop humility – a humble heart.   For the demons neither have humility nor can they abide in the humble heart for that humble heart is the abode of God!

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

Lent, especially Christmas Lent, cannot be reduced to keeping strict rules of food fasting.  For its goal is to prepare the humble heart in which the Lord Jesus can come and abide.  What cleanses our heart is humility, which is the goal not only of Lent and asceticism but of the sacrament of confession as well.

“Every genuine  confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”   (St. Maximos the Confessor THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)

To Know God, Be Self-Aware

“Authentic asceticism used practices that deepened self-awareness. The desert ascetic understood that growth in self-awareness was a necessary and valued component of the spiritual journey. Self-awareness was pursued through ascetical practices in order to become more deeply united with God and closer to heaven.

St Mary of Egypt

As the ammas [the desert mothers] taught, inner hesitancy and resistance to meet God in honesty, silence, and solitude are related to our resistance to come to know ourselves in our frailties. An honest encounter with God challenges our capacity for intimacy. We may come to discover that we fear our passion for God. We may want to run from our sense of emptiness. Self-awareness calls us to face our hurt and anger. Above all else, self-awareness reveals our idols – those self-serving, false images of God that deny who God actually is.

…Apatheia is purity of heart. The ammas teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the single-minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and additions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism.”

(Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers, p. 24 & 26)

The Marriage Crown

Before the final blessing of the marriage, the priest prays that God will “take up their crowns.” This image is an encouragement for married couples to live in holiness and follow the ways of the martyrs and married saints to salvation. Salvation is a gift that is tried by many obstacles and temptations; yet, it is expressed as joyful life in the presence of God in his kingdom. This joy is not as fleeting or simple as temporary “happiness.” Rather, it contains within itself the fruits of labor and assists in the development of the unquenchable desire to serve the other in accordance with one’s natural inclination as a communal being.

Then secondly, the glory and the honor is that of the martyr’s crown. For the way to the kingdom is the martyria–bearing witness to Christ. And this means crucifixion and suffering. A marriage which does not constantly crucify its own selfishness and self-sufficiency, which does not “die to itself” that it may point beyond itself, is not a Christian marriage. The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of “adjustment” or “mental cruelty.” It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God. (Schmemann, For the Life of the World)

Crowns become the reward for and sign of carrying the cross. Before marriage a specific cross is given to the individual, but now a new cross is given to the two united as one. This new cross requires cohesive work with the other in a way that is unique to the individual and is bearable only in services to Christ, through the spouse, by the Holy Spirit and in concordance with the Father. In this sacrificial love, martyrdom is made manifest. Again, in the words of Fr. Schmemann,

In a Christian marriage, in fact, three are married; and the united loyalty of the two toward the third, who is God, keeps the two in an active unity with each other as well as with God. Yet it is the presence of God which is the death of the marriage as something only “natural.” It is the cross of Christ that brings the self-sufficiency of nature to its end. But “by the cross joy [and not ‘happiness’!] entered the whole world.” Its presence is thus the real joy of marriage. It is the joyful certitude that the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken “until death parts,” but until death unites us completely.

(Bp. John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 57-58)

Christian Asceticism

The tradition of our Fathers and the authority of Scripture teaches us that there are three kinds of renouncements which each of us must work to carry out with all his strength. The first is to reject all the pleasures and all the riches of this world. This second is to renounce ourselves, our vices, our wicked habits, and all the unruly affections of the spirit and of the flesh; and the third is to withdraw our heart from all things present and visible and apply it only to the eternal and invisible. God teaches us to make these three renounements all at once by what He said to Abraham first of all. “Go out!” he told him, “from your country, from your kindred, from the house of your father; that is, leave the goods of this world and all the riches of the earth. Go out from your ordinary life and from the wicked and vicious inclinations which, attaching themselves to us by our birth and the corruption of flesh and blood, are as it were naturalized and become one thing with ourselves. Go out from the house of your father, that is, lose the memory of all the things of this world and of everything that presents itself to your eyes…”

We shall then arrive at this third renouncement when our spirit, no longer weighed down by the contagion of this animal and earthly body, but purified from the affections of the earth, is raised to heaven by continual meditation on divine things, and is so taken up with the contemplation of the eternal truth that it forgets that it is still enclosed in fragile flesh and, ravished in God, it will find itself so absorbed in His presence that it has no longer ears to hear or eyes to see and it cannot even be struck by the greatest and most perceptible objects.” 

(St. John Cassian, in Louis Bouyer’s The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, p. 327)

Fasting: To Cleanse the Heart

“I beg and entreat that each one of you reckon up in his conscience the results of his fasting. If he discovers that he has gained much, let him reckon it to his hard work; but if he has gained nothing, let him use the remaining time to gain goods through diligent fasting. As long as the festival lasts, let us not leave before we have exerted ourselves and acquired great gain, so we will not leave with empty hands. In this way we shall not forsake the reward of fasting, since we have endured the toil of fasting. For it is possible to endure even the toil of fasting and not receive the reward of fasting. How? When we abstain from food but do not abstain from sins; when we do not eat meat but devour the homes of the poor; when we do not get drunk from wine but become intoxicated by wicked desire; when we continue without food for the entire day but pass all of it a wonton spectacles. Recognize that we can endure the toil of fasting but not receive the recompense of fasting, when we attend the theaters of lawlessness.

What does the divine law say? “You have heard that God said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery!’ But I say to you that everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you seen an adulterer perform? Have you seen a sin fulfilled? And worse yet, the adulterer who is not convicted and condemned by a human court for his adultery is held accountable by the divine tribunal, whose retributions are eternal. Everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Fasting eradicates not only the disease but also the root of the disease, and the root of adultery is wonton desire. For this reason, Scripture punishes not only the adultery but also the desire, the mother of adultery.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 70 & 73)

Meatfare: Fasting is Communal

“Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my ‘god.’

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.”

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 21-22)

HE Must Increase, Not I

“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (St. John the Forerunner speaking about Jesus, John 3:30)

“You say that you have no success. Indeed, there will be no success so long as you are full of self-indulgence and self-pity. These two things show at once that what is uppermost in your heart is “I” and not the Lord. It is the sin of self-love, living within us, that gives birth to all our sinfulness, making the whole man a sinner from head to food, so long as we allow it to dwell in the soul. And when the whole man is a sinner, how can grace come to him? It will not come, just as a bee will not come where there is smoke.

There are two elements in the decision to work for the Lord: First a man must deny himself, and secondly he must follow Christ (Mark 8:34). The first demands a complete stamping out of egoism or self-love, and consequently a refusal to allow any self-indulgence or self-pity–whether in great matters or small.”  (St. Theophan the Recluse, Heavenly Wisdom from God-illuminated Teachers on Conquering Depression, pp. 55-56)

Keeping Lent Strictly

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.

Walking the Lenten Path

The hymns from the Lenten Triodion do give us some ideas about how the Church in tradition understands the reasons for fasting and its purpose in the spiritual life.  So we find the hymn below, from the Praises in Matins of Cheesefare Sunday things for us to consider as we make our way through the Great Fast.

ADAM WAS DRIVEN OUT OF PARADISE FOR EATING FOOD IN DISOBEDIENCE BUT MOSES WHO CLEANSED THE EYES OF HIS SOUL BY FASTING WAS GRANTED THE VISION OF GOD.

It is commonly understood in Orthodoxy that Adam was given only one commandment in Paradise – abstain from eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  It was a fasting rule, and the only commandment in the Garden of Eden.  Eve and Adam disobeyed that fast which led to human mortality, a life of separation from God.  Sometimes in Orthodox hymns it seems as if it was the particular act – eating the forbidden fruit – which is as significant as the fact that it was an act of disobedience.   Fasting from food reminds us that eating got Adam and humanity into trouble with God.  Fasting is our effort to show God that we really do want to undo that original act of disobedience and all of its consequences.  Our fasting cannot save us, but it is our way of showing God we recognize how such sin cuts us off from the Holy Trinity.

Orthodox hymns note how frequently humans are willing to choose the wrong for the sake of food.  The hymns also note how frequently fasting in the Scriptures are associated with individuals experiencing a revelation from God.   So Moses saw God face to face, in Orthodox thinking it was fasting and the resulting purity of heart which made this possible for him.

IF WE THEN LONG TO DWELL IN PARADISE, LET US ABSTAIN FROM ALL UNNECESSARY FOOD; IF WE DESIRE TO SEE GOD, LET US, LIKE MOSES, FAST FOR FORTY DAYS.

double-cheeseburgerThe hymn gets to the heart of fasting – it is to eliminate unnecessary food.  Fasting never forbids us to eat what is necessary for life.  Strict practitioners of fasting can push the limits to discover what is really needed, but fasting is not meant to make us sick.  Rather it acknowledges that eating is what made us humans sick to begin with!  In some ways for us modern Americans, fasting is a call back to sanity in terms of eating – eat the quantity necessary to sustain life.  Our huge portions of food are not necessary, and often are harmful to our health.  We can show God we really do want to return to Paradise – and we can do it by abstaining from over eating in this world.  We remind ourselves that it was such eating which got us expelled from Paradise.

The hymn takes the theme to the next step – Moses fasted for 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments, so too we can fast like him (for forty days, not necessarily how he kept the fast).  Perhaps God will bless us with a clear vision of the Holy Trinity.

LET US PERSEVERE WITH SINCERITY IN PRAYER AND INTERCESSION; LET US STILL THE PASSIONS OF THE SOUL;
LET US STILL THE REBELLIOUS INSTINCTS OF THE FLESH.

The important things to do during Lent – prayer for others, self control over our own passions and desires.  It is not foods themselves which are so important.  It is learning to control our desires and wants, so that we can serve God rather than ourselves.

LET US SET OUT WITH A LIGHT STEP ON THE PATH TO HEAVEN, WHERE THE CHOIRS OF ANGELS WITH NEVER SILENT VOICES SING THE PRAISES OF THE UNDIVIDED TRINITY!  THERE WE SHALL BEHOLD THE GREAT BEAUTY OF THE MASTER!

The return to Paradise is the path forward to God’s Kingdom of Heaven.  It is a joyous journey and so we should find Lent, the beginning of our sojourn to be joyous.  The restored life of God’s redeemed people means we will reside with the angels and join them in worshiping the Holy Trinity.  We will be given the beatific vision – seeing Christ our Lord and Savior.

SON OF GOD, AND GIVER OF LIFE: WE SET OUR HOPE IN YOU!
COUNT US WORTHY THERE OF A PLACE WITH THE ANGELIC HOSTS, AT THE INTERCESSIONS OF THE MOTHER WHO BORE YOU, O CHRIST, AND OF THE APOSTLES, MARTYRS AND ALL THE SAINTS!

It is Jesus Christ who will give a place in heaven to His redeemed people.  We hope to be able to join His Mother, the angels and all the saints, whose prayers have guided us as well as interceded for us before the Lord.

 

 

Obedience to God’s Will

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

As we begin Great Lent, we know the goal of any self denial, fasting, asceticism is to allow ourselves to set aside our own will so that we can come to recognize and do the will of God.   It is not so much that fasting is doing the will of God, but in practicing control over our own desires, we can come to realize there is in the universe another will essential to our existence – the will of God. We can actually know the will of God and do it.   But that happens only when we dial down the volume of our own verbose will so that we can become aware of God’s will, and then pursue it.

“But is the human ego (or self) something other than the human soul? In fact, the ego is nothing other than the soul. Here, two states are possible. First, the soul might be totally subject to God, and the human ego would then not be independent, that is it would not have an existence independent of God – the ego’s will would then be God’s will and its desire his desire. In this case, the human ego would be well prepared for perpetual existence with God and in God. It would be dead to itself and alive to God.

Or, the soul might not be subject to God, choosing freely to be independent of his will, following its own passions and desires. In this case the human ego would be alive to itself and dead to God. It becomes a being independent of him, but in fact it cannot exist except in evil, based on materialistic delusion. This independence from God, this existence in sin, is only transient. So the ego that is dependent of God becomes a perishable ego.

However, departure of the ego from God’s will is only induced by the deception of the devil, like the deception of the serpent to Eve in paradise: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3).

Is there any means, then, by which we can mortify the human ego to itself that it may live to God? Yes. But the only means is total submission to the will of God…

Take heed then and open your ears: Either count yourself as nothing in word and deed and make up your mind to surrender yourself to God with all your might–and you will then gladly be released from your ego by the grace of God; or, you will be delivered to discipline until you are set free from our ego in spite of yourself. So if you wish to opt for the easier way, take that of voluntary submission. Count yourself from now on as nothing, and follow the path of grace wherever the Spirit may wish to lead you.

Know for certain that submission to God and total surrender to his will and divine plan are a free gift of grace. It thus demands, besides prayer and supplication, a trusting faith to receive this gift. This should be coupled with a longing springing from one’s heart that God may not deliver us to discipline for our folly, nor abandon us to our own wisdom. For this reason, we should have an extremely resolute will to renounce our own self at all times, and in all works. This should not be done ostentatiously before people but within our conscience. Blessed is the man who can discover his own weakness and ignorance and confess them before God to the last day of his life.

(Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, pp. 122-123)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:24)