February 2010


St. Nicholai Velimirovich

“Gluttony makes a man gloomy and fearful, but fasting makes him joyful and courageous. And, as gluttony calls forth greater and greater gluttony, so fasting stimulates greater and greater endurance. When a man realizes the grace that comes through fasting, he desires to fast more and more. And the graces that come through fasting are countless….”

– St. Nicholai of Zicha

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Kontakion 51

On Adam and Eve


“Devote yourself, my soul, to repentance,

be united to Christ by thought, Crying out with groans,

‘Grant me pardon for my evil deeds,

That I may receive forgiveness and eternal life’.

1

Let us await the blessed hope through works and faith

As many of us as observe the teachings of the Lord and Saviour.

That is why we honour and love the achievement of fasting

That is honoured by Angels,

By keeping it Prophets, though earthly beings,

Became partners of the heavenly choirs.

Christ was not ashamed to accomplish this;

for he fasted willingly;

Through this he underwrote for us eternal life.”

St. Romanos the Melodist

by Fr. John Dresko

Great Lent is now upon us. It is a time for what Fr. Alexander Schmemann (of blessed memory) called “bright sadness.”

It is a time, above all, for reflection and movement back to God.

Sin, in literal translation, means “missing the mark.” Not being where we should be. Where we should be, but are not, is in communion with God. So, for practical purposes, sin is separation from God. And, by definition, separation from God is death–because life can only exist where God is present.

Great Lent is the time when we try to reverse the effects of sin in our lives. We are, since sin came into the world with the very first person created by God, “consumers,” filling ourselves with everything. Food, possessions, material wealth, sexual adventures, various and sundry substances (not just drugs, but alcohol, etc.) all become simply “ways” to satisfy our urges. During Great Lent, we fast in order to restore the proper understanding and balance between our desires and the basic necessities that God provides for our nurture. Food is denied not because it is bad, but because we only need a little. Food is restored to its proper place.

Prayer, both personal and corporate, is also important during the lenten season. Hunger that grows with our fast should be transformed by prayer into a hunger not for food, but for God Himself, who is the Bread of Life and the Fountain of Holiness. Fasting without prayer is like the man who had the unclean spirit and cleaned it out, but left his heart empty, so seven spirits even MORE unclean than the first possessed him.

But the most personal and difficult aspect of our effort is the journey to the Sacrament of Confession. Confession of our sins is basic and necessary. But Confession in Orthodox Tradition has always been face-to-face — a hard journey!

Many people outside our faith wonder why we simply do not confess our sins in private “to God.” The answer is very simple — God already “knows” about our sins. Confession is a gift from God that allows us to not only confess our sins, but to receive the assurance of God’s forgiveness and the spiritual guidance that we need to help us overcome these sins.

Confession is a three-step process. First, we must recognize our sins. As we get “holier,” we see better and better how truly awful our life is, how truly estranged we are from God. Second, we must truly be sorry for the sins, and one of the true tests of our sorrow is the ability to confess those sins to another human being. We can be so prideful that we refuse to confess our sins because we are worried about what someone else might think about us. Finally, once our pride is defeated and the sin confessed, we must try to repent, overcome the sin and live a truly sinless life. Of course, the effort is in the struggle, since we cannot actually avoid acts of sin.

But why should we confess to the priest?

Sin is, as we have said, separation.

First of all, sin separates us from God. Sin keeps us from being who God intends us to be. The communion with God that was given on the first day of creation is fractured by sin, and eternal life can only be granted when that fracture is healed. Confession to the priest overcomes and heals this because the priest is the sacramental presence of Christ in the Church. When someone confesses to the priest, he is confessing to God Himself, thereby healing the fracture which has occurred when someone sins. Our proper and intended relationship with God is restored when we confess to the priest.

Sin separates us from the Church. When we raise the consecrated bread of the paten just before Communion, the priest says “Holy things for the holy.” No one is “sinless” when they receive the Holy Gifts, but when we progress beyond the “daily sins” or accumulate so many of them that our soul is burdened, we must confess them to restore our relationship with the Church. Our communion with the Church is fractured by sin, and healing can only take place when we bring our sin to the Head of the Church — who is Christ. The priest is the sacramental presence of Christ in the Church, and to restore unity with the Church, we confess to him.

Sin separates us from each other. Nowhere is the lack of communion between us and God that happens because of sin shown better than in how estranged we are from each other. Sin destroys my relationship with the “other,” and Christ Himself says that we can only know and love God when we know and love each other. So many of our sins are selfish, denying not ourselves, but the other. We must confess our sins and repent of them to restore our relationship with the “other.”

In the early Church that was very simply done — you stood up in the midst of the church community and confessed your sin, thereby healing that relationship with others.

When problems with that system arose, the priest began to stand in the place of the community.

So we also confess our sins to the priest because he is a man, created and fallible just like everyone else — standing in the place of everyone else.

When these three “healings” take place — between me and God, between me and the Church, between me and everyone else — then true healing begins, with the long struggle to overcome our sins and

“be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.”

Orthodox New England, March 1995

A priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Fr. John first published this excellent little article in March 1995. The original post can be found here. Hat tip to the Preachers Institute.

Just to completely switch gears for a second, here is a yummy recipe in these Lenten times. I once had an absolutely lovely Tofu Salad from Whole Foods in Colorado Springs, and this is my best attempt at replicating it. Enjoy!

Curry Tofu Salad

Serving Size: 4

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages Tofu, extra firm, diced
  • 4 tbsp. Olive oil
  • 1 large Red bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. Ginger powder
  • 1 tbsp. Curry powder
  • 1/2 tbsp. Soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp. Agave Nectar
  • 1/4 tsp. Salt
  • 1/2 cup Vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 tbsp. Lime juice, fresh
  • 1 bunch Green onions
  • 1/2 cup Raisins
  • 1 package Almonds, slivers, honey roasted

Directions:

  1. In a large saucepan over med to med-high heat, saute tofu until browned and firmed. Set aside to cool, draining on a paper towel. Saute bell peppers for 5 minutes.
  2. In a separate bowl, add curry powder, ginger, soy sauce, Agave Nectar and salt to vegan mayonnaise.
  3. Mix everything in a bowl, and add raisins, shaved almonds, green onions, and lime juice at end. Stir.

“If anyone, while keeping fast, adds something to it by his own will, or if he fasts seeking men’s praise or some gain from it, such a fast is abomination in the eyes of God. And so it is in all things. Every good action, which is done not merely from the love of God, but is mingled with one’s own will, is unclean and unpleasing to God.”

– St. Barsanuphius and St. John, Directions in Spiritual Work, the Philokalia.

“There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry. If you hope for mercy, show mercy. If you look for kindness, show kindness. If you want to receive, give. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery.

Let this be the pattern for all men when they practice mercy: show mercy to others in the same way, with the same generosity, with the same promptness, as you want others to show mercy to you.

Therefore, let prayer, mercy and fasting be one single plea to God on our behalf, one speech in our defence, a threefold united prayer in our favor.

Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting. There is nothing more pleasing that we can offer to God, as the psalmist said in prophecy: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God does not despise a bruised and humbled heart.

Offer your soul to God, make him an oblation of your fasting, so that your soul may be a pure offering, a holy sacrifice, a living victim, remaining your own and at the same time made over to God. Whoever fails to give this to God will not be excused, for if you are to give him yourself you are never without the means of giving.

To make these acceptable, mercy must be added. Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”

Peter Chrysologus (c. 380-450) was bishop in Ravenna, and councilor of St. Leo the Great. He is considered a saint by Roman Catholics since 1729, but not (as far as I know) in the Orthodox Church.

From the spiritual diary of St. John of Kronstadt, “My Life in Christ.”

Saint John of Kronstadt (1829-1908)

“O All-merciful Lord!

Grant me the divine gift of holy prayer, flowing from the depth of my heart.

Gather together the dispersed thoughts of my mind, that it may always strive towards its Creator and Saviour.

Destroy the burning arrows of the evil one, which tear me away from Thee.

Quench the flame of the passionate thoughts that devour me during prayer.

Cover me with the grace of Thy Most-holy Spirit, that to the very end of my sinful life I may love Thee alone with all my heart, all my soul and mind, and all my strength, and in the hour when my soul takes leave of my mortal body, O Sweetest Jesus, take into Thy hands my spirit when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.

Amen.”

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