Personal Lent

Come ye children, hearken unto me, I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

What man is there that desireth life, who loveth to see good days?

Keep thy tongue from evil, and thy lips from speaking deceit.

Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.  (Ps XXXIII: 11-14)

Proverbs teaches that "Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom," and it is certainly wise to desire rich life, filled with "good days." As Orthodox Christians, however, the search for a life filled with good days begins from the perspective that each person is created for immortality, while the body may repose, Christ has demolished the kingdom of Death, so that the soul lives unto the ages of ages. The aim of this life therefore is to seek restoration of the soul to its condition before God made for us "coats of skin and clothed" us (Gen. 3:21).

The "flesh" – the material world – is in no way evil, for it is the gift of God for our protection and for use in the work of redemption. However, it is neither all there is nor is it the end of the days to be filled with the experience of good, hence we are commanded, through the prophetic voice of the Psalmist, to follow a different strategy – to renounce evil, to do good, and to not merely seek peace but to chase after that elusive prey as a leopard after an antelope.

To "turn away from evil" is to reject the siren call of idolatry and the practice of all forms trickery (guile or "sorcery" in Scriptural language).  As explained in the Sessional Hymn for the Sunday of Forgiveness in the Lenten Triodion:

Adam was cast out from the delight of Paradise: bitter was his eating, when in uncontrolled desire he broke the commandment of the Master, and he was condemned to work the earth from which he had himself been taken, and to eat his bread in toil and sweat. Therefore, let us love abstinence, that we may not weep as he did outside Paradise, but may enter through the gate. The season of the virtues now has come and the Judge is at the door. Let us not hold back with darkened face, but let us keep the Fast, offering tears, contrition, and almsgiving; and let us cry: Our sins are more in number than the sand of the sea; but, Deliverer of all, forgive each one of us, that we may receive an incorruptible crown. Unworthy though we be, O Theotokos, may we never keep silent nor cease to praise thy power. For if we had not the protection of thy prayers, who would have delivered us from such great dangers? Who would have preserved us in freedom to this present hour? May we never forsake thee, O Lady, for thou doest always save thy servants from every kind of ill.

To materialist modern ears, accustomed as they are to hearing only about what is perceptible by the senses and by feelings, these words may sound somewhat ominous. This sense of ominousness is not helped by an unguided reading of the great introductory classic of Orthodox spiritual and monastic life, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, by St. John Climacus, with it's very firsts step being labeled "On Renunciation of the World," "On Detachment" and "On Exile or Pilgrimage." Such words smack not merely of the dower philosophy of Stoicism or a gloomy world of Puritanism, but of a very disreputable sort of "asceticism."

As Archbishop Averky (Taushev) writes in his classic treaties, The Struggle of Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society (Holy Trinity Publications, 2014):

"Asceticism" in modern secular society is normally perceived as being something extraordinarily gloomy, almost sinister, forever removed from "normal" human life. Many understand asceticism to be a kind of fanatical monstrosity or self-torture, akin to walking barefoot over burning coals or hanging oneself up by one's ribs... Such a distorted and prejudiced attitude towards the notion of asceticism in modern society demonstrates how far modern Christians have departed from a correct understanding of evangelical doctrine, how far they have "grown worldly," and how alien their understanding has become to the authentic spiritual life to which our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, called not certain select, exceptional persons, but all Christians in general." (p. ix-x)

As the Church enters into Lent as a preparation for receiving the uncreated resurrectional light of Pascha, so the individual Orthodox Christian is challenged to enter into a life of exchanging self-centered or self-indulgent material pursuits for the work of acquiring authentic virtues, decorating the person with the optimistic cheer of kindness, hope, and philanthropic activity, especially in the face of personal struggles and the many adversities discovered a broken world.

To this point, St. Paul famously writes in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and know all mysteries and have all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but I do not have love, I am nothing. If I give out all my goods to feed the poor, and give my body so that I will burn but do not have love, it profits me nothing. Love is patient and is kind; love does not envy. Love does not brag, it is not proud, it does not behave inappropriately, it is not self-oriented.
[Love] does not take offence and does not keep track of evil, it does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. [Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. We know [only] in part, and we prophesy [only] in part; but when that which is complete comes, then that which is incomplete will be done away with. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become full-grown, I have put away childish things. Now indeed, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know [only] in part, but then, I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. But now, faith, hope, and love remain: these three, and the greatest of these is love.

The search of peace, of emerging from the nihilistic wilderness of a materialist existence toward healing of soul – and of body – is to become spiritually mature and ripe with virtue, not to no end, but to the end of participation in Love, the love that flows from a life abandoned to God:

Brethren, I am not writing a new commandment to you. This is an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. This old commandment is the word which you have heard from the beginning. Yet in another way, it is a new commandment that I write to you; it is true in Him and in you because the darkness is passing on its way and the true light already shines! Anyone who claims to be in the light and hates his brother is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves his brother remains in the light, and there is no occasion of stumbling in such a person. But the one hating his brother is in the darkness and lives in the darkness; such a person does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. 


Beloved, let us be loving one another, because love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. This is how God’s love was revealed in us: that God sent His uniquely-begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love: not that we loved God, but that He Himself loved us and sent His Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also should love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we be loving one another, God remains in us, and His love has reached completion in us. By this, we know that we remain in God and He in us, because He has given us [a share] of his Spirit. We have seen and bear witness that the Father has sent the Son, the Savior of the world.

(1 John 2:7-17; 4:7-14)