Category: Fasting


Holy Week and Pascha 2017

According to Jim Forest,

No matter what season of the year it was, [St. Seraphim of Sarov] greeted visitors with the paschal salutation, “Christ is risen!” As another paschal gesture, he always wore a white robe.

Truly he is risen!

Pascha came early to my little family this year. That’s not a reference to the Eastern Church calendar either; by some liturgical accident East and West had the same date this year.

No, I say Pascha came early because our second son Aidan was born right at the start of Lent. Continue reading

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The Beauty of Lent

In honor of the start of Western Lent on this Ash Wednesday (Orthodox Lent doesn’t start until March), I wrote a short reflection for Ethika Politika.

In ancient Egypt there lived an abbess named Sarah. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers reports of her that “for sixty years she lived on the bank of a river, and never looked down to see the water.”

As someone who loves all the sights of this world that God created good and beautiful (Genesis 1), it took me a long time to have some inkling why ancient Christians would find this story admirable. Did Sarah not appreciate the goodness of creation? Did she have an unhealthy, negative assessment of the material world?

We don’t know the answer. There is no more to the story. But I’ve come to see that there is another way of understanding it that gets at the heart of Lent.

Read more here.

Three Lenten Theses

An old man said: “Ask God to give you heartfelt grief and humility…. Control your tongue and belly, and drink no wine.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 1.22

This old man says a bit more (in particular about lust, judging, and arguments), but I want to focus on the connection between fasting and grief in particular. In fact, grief is the most common—though not the only—occasion for fasting mentioned in the Bible. In particular, I have three, Lenten theses. Continue reading

Laying Down One’s Life

[Abba Poemen] also said: “There is nothing greater in love than that a man should lay down his life for his neighbour. When a man hears a complaining word and struggles against himself, and does not himself begin to complain; when a man bears an injury with patience, and does not look for revenge; that is when a man lays down his life for his neighbour.”

Abba Poemen here comments on the words of Christ:

This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. (John 15:12-14)

What I like about this saying is that it helps to highlight what ought to be obvious. That is, I think when I read this in the past I thought of Christ’s death on the cross, where he literally lays down his life for his friends. And that is true, fundamental even. But Jesus is saying more than that. This is about more than sacrifice and martyrdom. Or, as Abba Poemen points out, it is about a different kind of martyrdom: love. Continue reading

Hope on Easter Eve

Sometimes stories from the desert fathers are too long to reflect on here, but I still want to share them. There is a lot to like about this story. It also reflects some of the more severe austerity of monastics, but there is enough here, I think, for readers to apply to their own contexts. I especially like the characterization of despair (and, by implication, hope). I also like the brief comment about “the venerable fathers, many of whom had overcome the devil though they lived in towns”—which somewhat contradicts the sort of spiritual elitism some impute to the fathers. This old man, at least, knew that salvation was available even to those who live in the world, even if the path there is harder to find and slower to travel. Continue reading

Abba Evagrius said: “A wandering mind is strengthened by reading, and prayer. Passion is dampened down by hunger and work and solitude. Anger is repressed by psalmody, and long-suffering, and mercy. But all these should be at the proper times and in due measure. If they are used at the wrong times and to excess, they are useful for a short time. But what is only useful for a short time, is harmful in the long run.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 10.20

When one reads early Christian responses to Jewish practices like Kosher diet or Sabbath observance or circumcision, especially that of St. Paul, perhaps, one can get the impression that he contradicts himself. At some points, he says that so long as someone does these things with a good conscience, it is pleasing to God. At other times, he talks about how none of these things have any spiritual profit. I think this saying from Abba Evagrius gives us some insight into what that early Christian perspective really was about: prudence. Continue reading

Audio: What is Fasting?

I recently had the honor to be a guest on a radio show, prompted by my recent post on fasting. If you’d like to give it a listen, you can find it here. Thanks again to John and Kathy for having me on the program.

What is Fasting?

Abba John the Short said: “If a king wants to take a city whose citizens are hostile, he first captures the food and water of the inhabitants of the city, and when they are starving subdues them. So it is with gluttony. If a man is earnest in fasting and hunger, the enemies which trouble his soul will grow weak.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4.19

Evagrios calls gluttony one of three “frontline demons.” Here Abba John the Short uses military imagery as well, except he highlights the proper countermeasure that we ought to take against this frontline enemy: fasting. Continue reading

An Introduction to Prayer

Q. What is Prayer?

A. The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words. 

~ Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, Longer Catechism, 390

The following is the text of a talk I will be giving tomorrow night after the presanctified liturgy at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, our home parish:

According to Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, prayer is “[t]he lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words” (Longer Catechism, 390). What I like about this definition is that it is succinct but comprehensive: “The lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.” It highlights the internal and external nature of prayer, spiritual and spoken. In addition, it further brings together the mind and the heart, not neglecting any aspect of our being, whether thoughts, feelings, senses, or intuition. What I would like to do briefly tonight is to carefully examine this definition, in each of its parts, with the goal of coming to a greater understanding of prayer itself. Continue reading

The second degree of humility is, if anyone, not wedded to his own will, finds no pleasure in the compassing of his desires; but fulfils with his practice the word of our Lord: “I came not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” The Scripture also says: “Pleasure hath its penalty, but need winneth a crown.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Having introduced the logic of humility and then the first step—the fear of God—we now come to the second step: self-denial through spiritual practice. Continue reading