What exactly are we trying to accomplish during Great Lent? Is it simply to attend services and change our diet? Or are these a means to an end? If so, what is that end? 'Orthodoxy and the World' has posed these questions to several priests.
Fr. Joseph Skinner, priest of the Diocese of Sourozh, London.
Of course, these are not ends but means. As St Seraphim of Sarov taught, all the various practices of the Christian life are but means to the end of 'acquiring the Holy Spirit', which is nothing less than the transfiguration of our life, so that with St Paul we could say, 'it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal. 2, 20). Since we are indeed a long way below the spiritual level of St Paul and St Seraphim, we can express the aim of the Fast more specifically as preparation, perspective and purification.
We prepare ourselves for all the important events in our lives. Engaged couples typically spend six months preparing for their wedding, and the expectation of that joyous day forms the background to their lives during that time; provided they have not allowed the usual practical difficulties to overwhelm them. In a similar manner, during Lent we prepare ourselves to meet the Bridegroom. 'Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching.'
The practice of preparation and 'watching' should give us a better perspective on life. So much of the time we are caught up in the problems of everyday life, or absorbed with the past, or anxious or hopeful about the future. In the Creed we say that we 'look for the life of the age to come', but in practice we think and feel almost exclusively in the categories of 'this life'. The Fast as a journey toward Pascha reminds us that our life is to be understood as a journey whose destination is the 'never-ending day' of the Kingdom of God.
In order to attain our final destination we have to be purified of everything that is incompatible with God's Kingdom. This is accomplished by the grace of God but it does not happen automatically. We have to fight our sinful passions, and this fight is often long and hard. The Fast gives us the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Dedicating the money saved on food and entertainment to those in need helps us to overcome our selfishness. Fasting correctly practiced disposes us to prayer, and real prayer makes us receptive to the grace of God, through which alone we can overcome the passions and enter into the Kingdom of God, of which the joy of Pascha is a foretaste. Probably most of us will feel when we come to the end of the 'forty days that bring profit to our souls' that we did not fast very well; nevertheless, this will be far better for us than not having fasted at all.
Father Geoffrey Korz, priest of All Saints of North America Orthodox Church, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
WHAT'S THE POINT?
It is fair to say that for many people – including many Orthodox Christians – the fast of Great Lent has been reduced to a change in diet, and an extra service or two during Holy Week.
While some faithful will make more profitable use of the Fast, the outward acts, the re-enactment of childhood memories, dominate our religious landscape. In an increasingly rushed, fallen world, we seek the “bare minimum” required. It should not surprise us when, as a result of this approach, we get almost nothing out of the Fast of Lent.
When our Lord Jesus Christ fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, He did so in spiritual struggle against the devil and the passions. He did so not as nostalgia or to appear “good”. He fasted for the salvation of our souls.
In our spiritual weakness, there are legitimate reasons for taking it easy during the Fast: sickness, tiring travel, or pregnancy. Yet these do not apply for most of us: we are for the most part blessed to be living in satisfactory health outside of hospital. Few of us are pregnant (certainly less than half of us can ever be so). And even fewer among us must travel through the deserts or mountains in a given day.
If we find ourselves asking, “What is the point of the Fast?”, We should look at ourselves, rather than trying to assail the time-tested practice of 2000+ years of holy people. Rather, let us ask ourselves, “What is the point of our life?”.
If we “just need a break” – that is to say, entertainment – to console ourselves, the Fast makes no sense. If we have other “important” things that prevent us from praying or attending to God, the Fast makes no sense. And if our main goal in life is “to be happy” (i.e. To have pleasure), then there is no point at all to the Fast of Lent.
However, if the goal of our life is to be freed from our passions, addictions, and temper, the prayers and restricted living of the Fast makes sense. If we strive to love God more than we serve ourselves, the Fast makes sense.
And if we hope to see our true selves, in light of the words prayed in the Lenten services, it all – everything in the Christian life – makes perfect sense.
Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, rector of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russian church in Mulino, Oregon.
Of course, this question is as generic as it is important. In recent weeks, there has been a wave of opinions in Russian-language internet publications (including Pravoslavie i mir ) claiming that Great Lent should not be about food, that there is a higher purpose, that if you want to have oil, or fish, or milk--go right ahead, so long as you fulfil the spiritual obligations of Lent or at least do not quarrel with your neighbor... Unfortunately, these articles are often read by people who do not fast anyway, and now have a reason not to even try to fast. Fortunately, these "theologumena," even when coming from respected Moscovite priests, are not likely to affect those people who are really trying to fast and have experienced the profound spiritual benefits of fasting.
We cannot but agree with the statement that Great Lent is not about dieting. Indeed, the Church usually tells us what something is about right within its services. During the Lenten period, we have the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, that of the Prodigal Son, the Forgiveness Sunday, the Sunday of Orthodoxy and one of St. Gregory Palamas, the Veneration of the Cross, the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder and of St. Mary of Egypt, Palm Sunday--nowhere do we see a Raw-Vegetable Sunday or a Pickles-and-Bread Sunday. Dieting is certainly (at least, according to the Orthodox Church) not the point of Great Lent.
This, however, does not mean that the "dietary" part of Great Lent is not important. If we think of the dietary part as a tool--a hammer, for example--then we can clearly say that the point of building something is not so one can have a chance to use his hammer. The point of building is in a temple or a house or a shed, and in their final use. In the same way, dietary restrictions are merely a tool, a "hammer," but not the building. But try pounding nails in with your bare hands! Sure, some (very few) people can do this at a carnival, but most of us really need the hammer. In the same way, I am certain that some people can build the temple of the Holy Spirit in their soul without any "dieting," but most of us can really use this very effective tool... And the Fathers seem to agree.
I prefer to think of fasting as an exercise. Before winning a gold medal at the Olympics, an athlete does a lot of warm-ups, workouts, and--yes--proper eating--none of which is the goal in and of itself: it's the medal that the athlete wants. But without all of this training, he or she cannot hope to win anything at all! Sure, it is the heavenly crowns that we all want, but if we are but slaves to our bellies, if we cannot even make the first step and instead desperately keep looking for excuses to please our gut--oil in glass bottles is somehow "lenten," and lobster tails are "lenten," and who-knows-what-else is also "lenten"--can we truly hope to win anything other than a seat on a couch in front of the television set, watching others get the crowns as we munch on our chips and pop-corn?! Nothing in this comment is meant to diminish the role of reason, pastoral guidance, and plain common sense. But if you want that gold, you just have to get on those skis or skates and push youself...
To be continued...