An amazing thing: Christians are preparing for Great Lent – the time of repentance, the time of forgiveness and peacemaking. And suddenly the main song of these days contains such words: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”. What cruelty! You see, we should interpret these words in a spiritual sense. We Christians are supposed to be a new Israel. We’re enslaved. Our Jerusalem is not that one standing in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea. Our Jerusalem is our heart. Because Jerusalem literally means “the holy city”. The holy city is where God lives. Does he live in some stone building? No. The Apostle Paul says that “God dwelleth not in temples made with hands”. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” – writes the Apostle Paul. A man’s heart is a temple. It’s the place where God should be king. There, inside, the Kingdom of Heaven is to exist! But we turn it down in our everyday life; in our private life we repudiate it. Why? Because a true citizen of a kingdom is a man who obeys his Sovereign. If we say to our Emperor: “You know, your majesty, let’s have a deal. So from 8:00 to 8:15, I obey you. But after 8:20, I’m planning to go out to the city, so, you know, don’t bother me. I’ll be back in the evening, read the evening prayer – so from 10 to 10.20 I’m your citizen again, but the rest of the time is mine. Your edicts do not matter much to me”.
What would an Emperor do with such a citizen?
Well, least likely he’d encourage him. However that is the way we treat God. We say to Him: “You know what, we serve you from here to there. After that we forget about prayers…during the day we do not remember about you. We forget about your commandments and live according to the rules of this world. Everybody lies – so do we. Everybody scoffs – so do we. Nobody cares about someone else’s trouble – neither do we. And in the evening we come back home and say: “Oh, yes, I’m a Christian. So today, after supper, I’m going to read something out of the Psalms or whatnot”. But actually the Gospel warns us: “One is a slave of what he serves”. It takes great daring to call oneself a slave of God. Don’t we lie saying it? Are we slaves of God or slaves of something else? Slaves of sin? What breaks into our lives, enslaving us?
We’ve established a republic within our hearts. Everyone of us is a “walking” parliament, a State Duma. And an endless debate takes place in our souls. My mind, for example (or let’s say not my mind, but my personal will) – is a speaker of this parliament, a chairman of the State Duma, who mounts on a stage and says: “Well, the fifth microphone has a say now, and now your group, please. Now what would you say on it?”
I’ve got plenty of groups in my parliament. Let’s say, an evening comes. And one of the groups, for example, my mind, says: “Ok, it’s time to read a book”. The heart group notices very gingerly: “And maybe…why books?…may be we should pray a little? Do you still remember the road to church?” There’s another group – the group of the stomach, which shouts out: “You must eat! To hell with those books and prayers!” There are many more groups. Each has specific problems. There are many, but I’m one, alone. In every moment I’m able to perform only one action. So the speaker, my personal will, decides: “Ok, let’s conclude a treaty with this group. Let it be as you wish! This evening, mister Mauser, you have a word”. I decide so hoping that a group, this cunning group whose wish is fulfilled, will leave me alone for a couple of hours and I’ll be able to fill this time with things I want. So these debates last forever within my soul. Everybody is looking for a consensus. Sometimes it can be found but most of the time not. But the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be found there. The dictates of the conscience are lacking. There’s something completely different instead.
And so that is why the Church reminds us shortly before Great Lent: “We’re enslaved!” Let’s face the truth. We’re not good Christians. We don’t remember much about Christ during a year…we’ve lost the joy of Pascha! That miraculous feeling of being truly not slaves any more, but sons and daughters! We’ve managed to loose that Pascha feeling of participation in the sacrament of Christ…Well, let us look back and think: where are we? It comes out we’ve arrived in Babylon already. We’re enslaved by our sins and our passions. But what should we start with to excite a rebellion? With realizing we can’t go on like that any more. We can’t live like that anymore. And so a person should rouse himself and say: “Where am I?”
Saint Seraphim of Sarov advised in such cases: “You need to ask yourself more frequently: Lord, what will I feel in my dying day?” What will I feel in my dying day?… What if everything would end up for me at my present state? How would I face God?
That’s the way a person understands his wrong state, his enslavement. That means he should fight for his lost freedom. For the freedom to be a Christian, for the freedom to live in good conscience. And at that moment the advice is given to help him gain that freedom: dash thy little ones! The little ones of Babylon symbolize a sin. A sin has enslaved you, at first by putting nasty thoughts into your head, then by developing them into strong, mature passions. So unless this small nasty thought hasn’t grown up into a huge passion, catch it and smash it against the stone. And what is this stone? It’s the stone of faith – Jesus Christ. Praying to Christ, you smash all sinful thoughts. As soon as you feel that a thief and a robber invaded the space of your soul – cry out! Cry out to Christ: “Lord, have mercy upon me!” In doing so, you won’t let a sin enslave you and will be able to get rid of it.
So as the days of preparation for Great Lent pass by, here comes Pancake week. Pancake week is an incredible time. On the one hand they say it’s a festival of pagan origin, Old Slavonic. Maybe, maybe…But, you know, there’s one specific feature, lacking in modern society but characteristic yet for traditional Russia of the last century and still existing in the Orthodox Church – it’s an ability to manage time. You see, time is a space that a man lives in.
Let’s say a person arrives in a new house. As you arrive in a new house, you should inspire it; warm it with your own breath. Even if old furniture was left there, you’ll manage another way to leave your specific owner’s mark in this house. If you move to a new office at work or just to a new office table – the same thing happens. You feel quite uncomfortable until you change something. At least bring a new ash-tray to feel better! A man needs to humanize his surroundings, to make them more domestic, and to leave his mark on everything.
The same thing about time. It’s not about the time when planets move, stars pass by etc. Time is the time of a person. A person should live in his own time, not in the cosmic one. People developed a calendar to make their mark in time. So that every day had its own name, its own face to distinguish one from another. So we call them: Saint George’s day, Saint Nicholas’s day, Holy Week etc. Every day stands out for something in the Church. They are not like the ones in Soviet calendars of the 1930s anymore – “the 6th day of 10 days” – a total lack of humanity. Everything was turned into a bare mechanism. Nicknames instead of names. Numbers, prisoner’s numbers instead of names.
So a traditional society was able to humanize time and to create contrast. Working days and holy days. There are weekdays – time to work. There’s “the sabbath day” or Sunday – a day of festival, which reminds a man he’s not just a worker, not a slave of his piece of land, his summer cottage or a piece of woodland; he’s someone else in addition to it. He should face God everyday. A soul rouses and a man realizes he’s not just a citizen of some district princedom. He’s a son of God, and he’s a citizen of the Universe. And this ability we are talking about – the ability to manage time in contrast – has disappeared today. A modern man distinguishes days being guided by a TV-program: “O, is it today they put on “Field of miracles” or tomorrow?” Don’t we build our days like this: “This was before the BBC news and what’s next on the screen?”
So the Church calendar is, in one sense, humane, because it’s based on contrasts. Pancake Week. Multiplicity of colors! Even a rage of flesh, in one sense. Pancake Week is a time of festivals. In the Roman Catholic world, in Latin America, the word “festival” originates from the word “meat”. That’s logical as people usually eat meat in the few days before the 40 days of abstention, before Great Lent. Do you know any journalist who has ever mentioned this? Who has ever told that a festival is followed by Great Lent? I’ve never heard our TV-workers telling about it. It’s strange: they tell stories about people committing sins. And not a word about people who repent. Maybe it’s just more difficult to get on camera.
And so. We’ve got Pancake Week. Good. We’ve had some fun. After that Great Lent begins, suddenly, without a pause. Completely different feelings, different experiences. And after that – the joy of Pascha comes. It may seem: here’s a joy of Pancake Week and there – a joy of Pascha. These two are so different…A joy of the flesh, a joy of the stomach – Pancake week’s joy, and the very bright, spiritual joy of Pascha.
And now I’ll tell you something. I’ll confess one more reason for which I love Orthodoxy. It’s not only for this that I love it, but it’s one particular reason among many. I’d call it soberness of mind. The outstanding soberness of mind. You know, Orthodoxy represents a giant world, which absorbs many different things. There’s an incredible mystique: Orthodoxy has no limits, no “ceiling” – I mean an obstacle for going up. Remember the Gospel’s words: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”? The Orthodox Church interprets these words absolutely literally! And Orthodox theology speaks of the sacrament of a human’s perfection. They say a man can see a light from his inner world with his own eyes, he can be enlightened by God’s light.
Catholics are afraid of it. They say: “It’s impossible! A creature cannot develop to be able to unite with God”. And the Orthodox say: “It is possible! The experience of our holy fathers proves it!” In other words there’s no upper bound.
But calling to the great, Orthodoxy at the same time remains able to gratefully notice the small. Quite often we see some religious sects proclaiming: “Let’s come to God!” But it comes out that for this cause they suggest that we destroy everything smaller than God: “Reject your parents, give up your family, leave your wife, forget about your children – and rush to a monastery! To a monastery! To a monastery!” Remember “Aum Senrike”, “Center of Godmother” and so on. There are plenty of such sects! Orthodoxy tells us about a superhuman world, but it is also able to value human kindness and understand the compexity of man.
Why did I start telling you about that? Do you know what the first establishment of Great Lent is? The point is…there’s a book called the “Typikon”. This book contains the divine service charter of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a fact, everyday there’s a holy day in the Orthodox Church. Moreover, every day of the week symbolizes something. Every day of the week makes us closer or farther from Pascha and so on. So how should we serve? It comes out to be a genuine art – to organize a service in a way to combine all of these colors, nuances, calendars and cycles. And this “Typikon” is quite a weighty book, which describes the order of the Church service. This book is intended for the priests and the Choir, primarily for the chanter. And, after all, this book has a monastic origin. In other words, it tells about the regulations of life in a monastery for the year.
I must point out that there is a slight difficulty in the life of the Russian Orthodox Church. The difficulty consists in the fact that we have only the Rule of monastic life while there is practically no legal Rule of parish life. And this results in certain difficulties.
For example, in the 12th century, Byzantine theologians were discussing whether laymen should keep the fast as long as monks did. Volsamo, the popular expert in Byzantine law, says: “Only monks keep the fast 40 days before Christmas. Laymen keep the fast during the 7 days before Christmas”. You see, these practical problems exist. Here the “Typikon” describes the life of a monastery. Now imagine that we open the “Typikon” on the page “Monday of the first week of Lent”. We open it and first we read there: “The budilshik (a man, who rattles with a wooden clapper and wakes the community) rattles one hour later than usual for the sake of the evening consolation of monks”. I’ll explain. In terms of the “Typikon”, the word “consolation” means “wine distribution”. On a holy day, it is written that “this evening during a meal there was a consolation for monks”. Let’s say, a bottle of wine is put out on the table.
So the day before fasting took place and, naturally, all that was of the ferial meal had to be eaten before the beginning of the fast, so there was a joyful meal, with wine, and the brethren went to bed later than usual after a good feast. That’s why on the first day of the Great Fast of Lent monks wake up an hour later. People should have a good night rest to prevent them from falling asleep in church during a service. It’s a very fair establishment, particularly as a rule. When a man lives in such a “church” rhythm, he understands precisely the meaning of this very rule or phrase.
And after that begins the Lenten service. An amazing Canon is read – the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete: the Canon, which has numerous facets of comprehension. Only a skilled theologian – a person who exhaustively, almost by heart, knows the Bible – can be able to understand it in all its profundity. It’s such a motet, very large and profound – that’s the reason it’s called “the Great Canon”. If you read it all at one time, it would take more than three hours…
As you might imagine most of the people standing in our churches, with all due respect, can not pretend to be true experts in the Bible. But nevertheless (and that is a miracle of the Church sacrament) this Canon is loved by our parishioners – it really does affect your soul, it moves you, really wins your heart.
It guides one’s heart, because with the atmosphere in church these days, during these evenings of Lent, the very sounding of these sacred words itself changes something in one’s soul.
Today it’s clear for us that life doesn’t come down to what our mind can conceive – that there really are some depths of subconsciousness.
So if a person permanently hears nasty words, this would have a certain effect on his soul.
A grain of sand can leave a small scratch on glass. A trace of each grain is almost unnoticeable, but sooner or later the glass goes muddy – those grains make it lose its transparency.
And so if nasty words have an effect on people, so do good, pure words.
And at least for this reason, even if you don’t fully understand the Church Slavonic language (and today many of us don’t, especially those who have only begun their life in church), anyway you should make yourself come to church to stand there and just listen.
Because a man is more than just his mind. When the mind doesn’t fully understand the meaning of words, the heart does.
And the most important thing: the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete isn’t just an enumeration of facts – somebody did this, somebody did that – but after each episode goes a prayer, understandable to anyone: “Lord, have mercy upon us!” “God, have mercy upon me!”
Even a person who doesn’t know Church Slavonic is able to understand it. For these words – “God, have mercy upon me” – contain the very essence of Orthodoxy.
These words, this prayer is untranslatable into other languages. People have tried already. There’s a great many Orthodox parishes, which have been set up in Germany, England, France, America, Australia – a great number of countries. Our Liturgy there is translated into local languages. And suddenly it comes out that there is no word in these languages to translate our «pomilui». So it is translated as “God, have pity!”, or – in French – “God, have compassion upon us!’. “God, have mercy” would be it for the English…
In Russian, it can only be translated in one way -“God, we beg your pardon”, for mercy is a foreign word for the English, it has a French origin…
Why is that? As you can possibly remember (especially those of you, who have heard Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Roman Catholic or even Lutheran psalms), the Catholic mass is celebrated in Latin, but there’s one prayer that is sung in Greek. “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison” – it is in Greek, not in Latin. That came to be so because people realized that this Greek prayer – “Kyrie eleison” – cannot be translated into Latin. Why not?
For instance, the root of Russian “pomilui” – milost – is consonant to (or may even be descended from) the word “balm”. Likewise it is in Greek – eleison – elei – oil.
The thing is that – as we comprehend it in Orthodoxy – we seek for a cure from God – not for amnesty, not for a notice informing us that the heavenly administration is no longer angry with us for our sins and has torn our sentence into pieces – none of this, but for the cure.
I’ve wounded my soul with my sin. Let’s imagine that a mother, going out of the house, says to her little son – “Don’t you play with scissors!” Well, the child is naturally curious, and, as a matter of course, just as his mother crosses the threshold, he grabs the scissors. Playing with them, he cuts his finger. His mother comes back home. On the one hand, she’s angry with her naughty child, who finally disobeyed her and cut himself. But what does the baby need from his mother? Does he wait for her to say: “All right, so be it. I see that you are crying and feeling sorry, so I will not make you stand in the corner ” – and let the wound bleed?
So man is in the same situation. Yes, we do disobey God’s commandment, but through this disobedience we disfigure our own souls. We are of course glad to hear that God says – All right, I forgive you – but the soul still remains hurt. That’s why in the Orthodox interpretation we ask God not for a juridical forgiveness, but for Him to touch the very heart of our heart – to heal it.
The thing is that the elei (balm) is an ancient medicine. More than that – the balm is the first medicine that a man meets in his life. The newborn baby is anointed with balm. It is the balm which protects him from infection, softens his skin.
Therefore praying with these words – Kyrie eleison – we express what our heart deeply desires – “the balm of God’s grace”, for Him to enter our heart and heal our soul, disfigured by passions.
Translated from Russian by Larissa Kiyashko and Dr.Christopher Brav