Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cultivating the Heart

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT: The Eleventh Day

Someone said to the blessed Arsenius: "How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?" Abba Arsenius replied: "We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work." (Arsenius 5)

This anecdote comes from the desert spirituality of the earliest centuries of the monastic movement that actually developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, beginning in the late 3rd c. For my "lenten reading." I have chosen a marvelous book by Fr. Deacon John Chryssavgis (he spoke in our church last Lent if you recall), entitled In the Heart of the Desert - The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Fr. John's book is an in-depth analysis of how to understand these great ascetics as voices that speak to us from centuries past with a timeless and universal wisdom that is as meaningful today as then. The book is arranged topically, in which the various chapters explore a key desert theme such as the "treasure of the heart," "the struggle against demons," "silence and tear," etc. The anecdote above is taken from a chapter entitled, "Education and Formation." Fr. John begins by reminding us that the Desert Fathers and Mothers are not sources of "factual information," but rather of "spiritual formation." And there is a world of difference between the two! I believe that we need to take note, because in "the age of the computer," today's consumers and internet surfers are obsessively concerned with "factual information," but blindly indifferent to "spiritual formation." If we are not careful, we can "know everything" but "understand nothing," as Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say. It must be different for Christians who are intent upon (con)forming themselves to the image of Christ.

Fr. John makes the essential point, that "in general, the desert produced healers, not thinkers. It cultivated the heart, not letters. It sought to quench a thirst of the soul, and not merely a curiosity of the mind. The desert was a place of inner work and of personal experience." (p. 76) Placing "information" before "formation' is a trap/temptation brought out by the following story:

A brother came to Abba Theodore and began to converse with him about things he had never yet put into practice. So the old man said to him" "You have not yet found a ship nor put your cargo aboard it; yet before you have sailed, you have already arrived at the city! Do the work first; and then you will have the speed you are making now." (Theodore of Pherme 9, on p. 76)

A certain intellectual and experiential dichotomy that we have been making for centuries since the emergence of modernism, as exemplified by a Cartesian way of looking at the world, is that between the "mind" and the "heart." Although clearly distinct, when pressed too far we have the just-mentioned dichotomy that can lead to a certain "spiritual schizophrenia" undermining our very relationship with God. Fr. John has two wonderful paragraphs at the end of the chapter on "Education and Formation" that reveals the artificiality of that dichotomy and what it may cost us in terms of spiritual formation:

The Coptic monks of the desert knew only a single word and single struggle for designating both the mind and the heart. We tend to separate the mind from the heart. We like to fill the mind; yet forget the heart. Or else, we fill the heart with information that should fill the mind. Nevertheless, the two work differently: the mind learns; the heart knows. The mind is educated; the heart believes. The mind is intellectual, speculative; it reads and speaks. The heart is intuitive, mystical; it grows in silence. The two should be held together; and they should be brought together in the presence of God.

It is not that secular education was unacceptable to the desert elders. Indeed, many of them were lettered: Arsenius, Basil, Evagrius, and Cassian. It is simply that secular education always remains insufficient without an ascetic depth; it is unfulfilled without the spiritual content. The only degree that counted in the desert was the degree to which one was humbled, even effaced, in order to reveal the presence and grace of God. (p. 76-77)

We may be geographically remote from any desert environment; but what of the "desert" of our modern popular culture? In the "oasis' of the Church our thirst can indeed be quenched by the Fathers and Mothers of the desert who sought Christ before all else, and whose wisdom reveals the good fruit of that search.

Fr. Steven

Friday, February 19, 2010

Great Lent and Fasting in the Age of The Screen

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

GREAT LENT: The Fifth Day

"Enlighten me through prayers and fasting." (Forgiveness Vespers)

I would like to reformulate some thoughts in writing that I presented last Sunday in both the homily and the post-Liturgy discussion. Perhaps I can aim for a bit more precision and over-all coverage in the process.

Within the context of the beginning of Great Lent and our ascetical effort during this season, commonly called fasting, I raised the issue of not only fasting from certain foods and drink - the most basic aspect of asceticism because of our sheer dependence on food and drink - but also of "fasting" from the amount of time we spend daily before a variety of screens - television, computer, movie, cell phones, etc.

This raises the issue of "Orthodoxy and technology," a fascinating issue and one that should generate a good deal of theological/spiritual reflection when we think for a moment of our overwhelming dependency in the contemporary world on technology. We may be able to live without technology, but we would hardly be able to function without it. However, my goal is much more modest, as I will explain momentarily.

Without entering into a philosophical/theological discussion about technology, we can at least state that Orthodoxy is in no way anti-technological. Although some Orthodox bishops, priests, and monastics may awaken visions of the Amish, there is no real similarity in worldview when it comes to technology. You may just contact any one of those Orthodox persons through their computers and cell phones - but not the Amish! Or you would be impressed by the websites and over-all computer sophistication of both Orthodox seminaries and monasteries.

The Church has never moved to suppress technology or, for that matter, any progress in all of the sciences. This is a crucial aspect of our human capacity to think and create, setting us apart from the rest of the animal world. Yet, one more issue unavoidably related to this is that of the abuse of technology, when it is severed from any clear moral and ethical restraint. Our thinkers and theologians are struggling to keep up with the exponential and seemingly daily moral/ethical challenges that arises out of the obsessive desire to keep pushing forward the frontier of technological progress.

Avoiding these "heavier" issues in this reflection, I would just like to address the more modest issue of our fasting during Great Lent. Or, of expanding our understanding of fasting to now include the time spent before our various screens as already mentioned above. It is, after all, Great Lent. Some modest changes in lifestyle, or the environments that we create in our homes is an important factor in the over-all lenten effort.

With the ubiquitous screen, the questions arise: Outside of our professional obligations and responsibilities, just how attracted, attached, obsessed or, as extreme as this may sound, "addicted" are we to them? How much of that precious commodity of time do we spend in front of screens that could at best be described as distraction, amusement, entertainment, "killing time," etc.? Can we break through the cycles of surfing, shopping, game-playing, facebooking and blogging that devour huge amounts of our time? And can we show some restraint for the sake of relationships and more serious pursuits which I hope would attract us during Great Lent especially?

To formulate the challenge before us, I would like to turn to an essay written by one of our parish teens, Emily Farison. Emily recently wrote an essay entitled "Less is More." The opening paragraph shows that we are of the same mind in formulating the issues before us:

In the modern world, nearly every direction one turns, surrounding people appear preoccupied by their own little worlds or music, video games, social networking, or the internet. They appear oblivious to anyone or anything, save the technologies that hold their undivided attention. Nearly gone are the days where families would gather together to read, create, play, or converse with each other. The turn of the century bears witness to a rapid-paced world which observes a degeneration in communication and relationships among individuals. Though many remain unaware, this shift brings with it startling changes, affecting present and future generations alike. (p. 1)

Well-stated and to the point! And something to think about in a season of restraint and re-prioritizing. Emily mentions reading, playing, creating and conversing. Are our families and friendships suffering deficiencies in those time-honored activities that are based on mental agility, socializing skills and the deepening or loving relationships? Is it dinner and then off to the screen? Have we mastered the "art of distraction?"

If so, can we possibly be surprised if we find it difficult to pray effectively - that is with some concentration and focus? There is a possible alternative approach: Superfluous time spent before the screen, can now be redirected and spent renewing those activities that are either intellectually stimulating (a good book or creative project), or conducive to personal interaction (game playing); or, on a deeper level, "face-to-face" communion (conversing)? Emily writes further:

Because people do not communicate in person, words and meanings can get misconstrued all too easily. One cannot observe facial expressions or hear tones of voice through the internet, both of which allow the listener to garner a well-rounded impression of what the speaker intends to express ... Nothing compares to quality time given to a person, where one really listens and focuses on getting to know his friends. Human beings are so complex that one cannot get to know anyone very deeply in a diminutive span of time. (p. 9)

Can you imagine a facebook entry that states: "In observing Great Lent, this site will be inactive until April 4, the day I celebrate the Resurrection of Christ?!"

What about the screen of the cell phone? This is a wonderful tool for communication, that has even been "life-saving" as we all know of some such stories. You may have to be a modern-day Luddite to argue against the positive use of the cell phone. The important call, the encouraging call, the "where-in-the-world is my child?" call, even the "emergency" call, are not what needs to occupy us at the moment.

But here also other questions arise: Beyond all of that, has the cell phone become an extension of our very being? Does it seem to be permanently glued to our ears and/or attached to our hands? Are we lost without it? Do we call and chat in order to ... call and chat? (What happened to the spiritual gift of silence?) After all, just a few years ago, we did live without cell phones.

There are styles, colors, sizes, and an endless array of features that turn the cell phone into either a status symbol or a toy - primarily for adults, of course. (Though, at what age now are children equipped with their own cell phone?). Texting and twittering are producing a certain type of "illiteracy" that is making a wince-creating wreck of the English language, as in: "I luv u." Grammar, spelling, and compound sentences are treated as intrusive. The menus are astonishing for their complexity. The internet is now on your cell phone! And it is also a ready-made camera: Quick! There's little Johnny going to the bathroom ...

Is it possible or even meaningful to show any restraint when living in an age of the screen? If not, then we may be facing the following downward trajectory that can quickly spiral out of control: Attractions become attachments; attachments become obsessions; and obsessions become addictions. Or, as the holy Fathers teach, we become the playthings of our "passions." We are no longer in control, but under control of our impulses.

As asceticism is not puritanism, so restraint is not repression. All of our ascetical lenten efforts are ultimately directed to our freedom and liberation - to some degree at least - from the myriad dependencies that occupy our bodies and souls. To fast from meat but then to sit in front of the computer for hours surfing, shopping, game-playing, facebooking and blogging somehow points to a disconnect with the over-all goal of Great Lent as a "school of repentance," or "journey toward Pascha."

Professionally and vocationally, we may be living in the age of the screen. I know that I am. I enjoy and try and make something positive of a "cyberspace ministry," in fact. The irony of writing this meditation on the computer and then launching it out into cyberspace so you will have one more thing to read, is not lost on me.

But the challenge remains to retain a degree of freedom from the technological web that can bind us so tightly. Redirecting a lot of our energy - and time! - to prayer, almsgiving and fasting; the reading of the Scriptures and the lenten liturgical services of the Church, can create in us the joy of liberation from those very bonds.

Fr. Steven


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Whole Person in Lenten Worship: Prostrations and Bows

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The Third Day

"Let us cleanse our soul and cleanse our flesh!" (Forgiveness Vespers)

It is at Great Lent more than any other season of the year, that we come to fully understand the holistic approach toward human nature found in the Church. The human person is a psychosomatic unity of soul (psyche) and body (soma). And both soul and body are fully integrated into our worship experience. If and when we neglect the body or consider it of little significance in worship (or at any other time), then we are already falling into some form of dualism, foreign to the ethos of the Church. Properly understood, however, the basic principle is that the "outer" expresses the "inner." The body expresses the inward activity of the soul.

During Great Lent, we are directed to make either "prostrations" or "bows." Archbishop Kallistos Ware defines the distinction between the two in the following manner:

(1) By 'prostration' is meant a great metanoia (Gk.) or 'poklon (Slav.) to the ground.' Here the worshipper prostrates the whole body, throwing the weight forward onto the two hands, touching the ground with the forehead.
(2) By 'bow' is meant a small metanoia. Here the worshipper bows from the waist, touching the ground with the fingers of the right hand.
Normally, a prostration or bow is preceded by the making of the Sign of the Cross. Prostrations are prescribed only at the weekday offices in Lent, that is, from the second half of Vespers on Sunday evening until Vespers on Friday inclusive. At Friday Vespers there are prostrations during the Liturgy of the Presanctified, but fewer prostrations when Vespers are said without the Presanctified Liturgy. (Lenten Triodion, p. 69)

Such prostrations or bows are clearly outward acts of humble reverence before God and/or outward signs of repentance. Standing back up again, is a sign of being raised up with Christ. In all due respect, I believe that many forms of contemporary Protestant worship, in which the body does not seem (at all) to be integrated into worship, reflect the dualism mentioned above, because the whole person is not involved. Sitting in a pew and looking at a screen, reflects the passivity of the theatre or auditorium.

A wonderful example of this holistic approach toward worship occurs during the Great Canon of St. Andrew, chanted on the first four evenings of Great Lent. According to the liturgical rubrics, before each troparion of the Canon, we are directed to make the sign of the Cross and bow three times, as we sing the compunctionate refrain "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!" In current usage, as Archbishop Ware explains, that is now limited to one bow (we will thank God for that!). The 'bow' is the outward sign of the troparion penetrating our soul and leading us to a spirit of repentance as we acknowledge our sinfulness before God. (Of course, if we do not believe that the troparia are "speaking" to us in any way, then the bow becomes a mere formality or legalism). A certain rhythm develops as the service takes us deeper into the depths of repentance expressed in the Canon. Our outward activity can also help bring a straying mind back into focus on the service. It can get to be a bit tiring, but liturgy means the work of the People of God.

This "liturgical piety" is meant for everyone who is healthy, able and well. It is not meant to make us "suffer" by further harming a bad back, knee, etc. Then, of course, we adjust accordingly. But it is not meant to be a "pious performance" by the priest alone together with a few other "pious parishioners." As a basic liturgical principle, the priest is not an exception, but an example for the gathered faithful.

Later in the Compline portion of the service, we offer the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim up to God with its accompanying prostrations and bows. This prayer is effective in our homes during Great Lent also, by bringing the spirit of Lent and its call to repentance into our domestic lives. Thus, a certain atmosphere is created.

The Third Part of the Great Canon of St. Andrew is scheduled for this evening at 7:00 p.m.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Still Time to Order and Read Great Lent Classics

Dear Parish Faithful,

I just noticed on our parish website, that our webservant has posted a link to the classic essay by Archbishop Kallistos Ware, entitled, "The Meaning of the Great Fast: The True Nature of Fasting." This is an incredibly rich essay (if you recall, I sent out a summary of it last week as prepared by Sister Vicki), and should be on the 'must read" list of all serious Orthodox Christians. As I suggested on Sunday, printing it out and then reading it slowly will most probably be a much more effective way of approaching this essay, and absorbing and retaining its many insights. Here is a remarkable piece of theological/spiritual writing - with many practical points - that should not be neglected. If you are searching for some good lenten reading - here it is!

I was asked at the post-Liturgy discussion on Sunday recommend some other reading for Great Lent. There are three other "classics" that readily come to mind:

GREAT LENT by Fr. Alexander Schmemann (described by Arch. Kallistos as the best introduction to Lent in English).
Order # GREA220 $15.00

THE LENTEN SPRING by Fr. Thomas Hopko (forty three-pages essays that cover many aspects of Great Lent).
Order # LENT130 $16.00

THE PASSION OF CHRIST by Veselin Kesich (excellent introduction concerning the events leading up to Holy Week and the Cross).
Order #PASS125 $12.00

If you have not read these books, I would also place them on your "must read" list.

Other excellent books include:

FIRST FRUITS OF PRAYER: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew by Frederica Mathewes-Green.
Order #FIRS115 $14.95

GREAT WEEK AND PASCHA IN THE GREEK ORTHODOX CHURCH (An excellent study of the order and theological meaning of the various services of Holy Week, including all of the traditional practices that characterize the week. Extremely inspiring).
Order #GREA300 $12.00

ORTHODOX LENT, HOLY WEEK AND EASTER by Hugh Wybrew (A non-Orthodox writer's very sympathetic look at the Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha).
Order# OZLE550 $12.00

The links, order numbers and prices are taken from the Light-n-Life Publishing Co. (952-925-3888). They are very prompt with deliveries. Great Lent just began, so there is plenty of time to supplement our prayer, fasting and almsgiving with some good insightful reading!

Fr. Steven


Monday, February 15, 2010

The First Day: A Good Beginning

Dear Parish Faithful,

GREAT LENT: The First Day

"Let us begin the fast with joy!" (Forgiveness Vespers)

Lent means "springtime" - though that may not sound very convincing today. But since it is still winter and will be for more than another month, we can appreciate one of the hazards of such an early Lent. Be that as it may, I hope and pray that this beginning of Great Lent finds everyone prepared and ready for the lenten journey towards Pascha. A "good beginning," based on a sense of commitment - sustained by the grace of God - has a much better prospect for a "good ending" when our journey culminates with Holy Week and the Resurrection of our Lord.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, February 13, 2010

On the 'Fear of God'

Dear Parish Faithful,

I found the following passage in the current issue known as "The Sword." It was written by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo:

"When we speak of 'fear of God' some people would understand this as a kind of terror and trembling fear of someone that they consider to be almost malicious and vindictive. However, this is not what is meant by the word. We should understand this as a reverent awe. In HEB. 5:7, we read that God heard His Son's prayer 'because of His reverent devoutness (evlavias).' In Old English, translators have rendered this word as 'fear.' This is because the word fear carried that meaning also. The fear of God is an all-encompassing awe at the great mystery that is God and His love for mankind. We 'fear' him in the same way that a child who loves his parent, also fears that loving parent.

"When a child does something that he knows is wrong, his trepidation is not only that he or she will be found out and chastised, but also the fear of hurting the feelings of the parent. Our fear of God should be more like a child lost from his parent in a large shopping mall. The child is fearful of the separation, fearful of being lost from the parent, and in trepidation that the parent will be upset that he got lost.

"When, however, the parent finds the lost child, so far from being angry, the parent is in tears with joy that the child has been found. If the parent scolds the child, it is clear that the scolding is being done with great love and a sense of relief that the child has been found. All these things really describe what is meant by the 'fear of God'.

"In the scroll on the icon of St. Antony the Great, it quotes the saint as saying, 'I used to fear God, but now I love Him.' This is because we fear the unknown, but the more we know God, the more any fear turns to love. Then, the only fear that we have is the fear of alienation, of finding ourselves lost in this world without our heavenly Father, and knowing that if we become lost, it is our own fault. Such fear is based on love, not on terror."

Another, very short anonymous post in "The Sword" said the following about the 'fear of God:'

"The correct fear of God should not be the fear of some kind of power in the sky. But if you believe in God, you have to love God, too. You just can't say I believe. So my fear of God is that I don't want to embarrass myself in front of someone I love and believe in. That kind of fear is not punishment from some power in the sky."

Some good reflections as we enter the lenten season. We respond to love with love when we look to God and our relationship with God. Every "directive" we receive in the Church is based on God's love for us, communicated to us so that we can become His children capable, in time, to say the words of St. John the Theologian as our own: "There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts our fear." (I JN. 4:18)

Fr. Steven

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Take Lent Seriously: Make a Good Beginning

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent will begin on Monday, February 15. Actually, from the liturgical perspective, it will begin once we serve what is popularly known as "Forgiveness Vespers" on Sunday following the Liturgy. At this service we change the colors of the analoy and holy table cloths, begin using the distinctive lenten chant for the first time, and together prostrate ourselves before God to the petitions of the Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim. But these outward signs - important as they may be - are insignificant when compared to the inward need for mutual forgiveness, concretely expressed in the "rite of forgiveness" that takes us into the very heart of Great Lent. To exchange a kiss of peace and offer and receive forgiveness to and from each other is to extend the forgiveness of God in Christ throughout our community. Receiving and accepting the forgiveness of God, we share that same gracious experience with each other as brothers and sisters united in Christ. Every Great Lent we actualize the saving forgiveness of God when we make present the redemptive death of Christ as well as His glorious Resurrection. But, again, as we experience the "vertical" dimension of forgiveness as it comes down to us; we simultaneously experience the "horizontal" dimension of forgiveness when we extend it to each other. And when the vertical and horizontal meet, a cross is formed. We must crucify our egos, self-defensiveness, and self-righteousness when "face-to-face" with the "other."

Hopefully, you will plan your day so that it will include the Forgiveness Vespers that inaugurates Great Lent. If you have never participated in this service before, please give it serious consideration.

The First Week of Lent is very unique and it affords the possibility of a good beginning to the entire lenten journey of forty days. There is nothing quite like the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, chanted on the first four evenings of the first week. With a knowledge and use of the Bible that would make an evangelical preacher envious, St. Andrew expresses the human need for repentance in an overwhelming manner, weaving together various biblical figures - both good and bad - in order for us to understand that we belong to that same history as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. A quiet and darkened church will allow us to gather our thoughts together and concentrate on God and the salvation of our souls. How liberatating: to be in church free from cell-phones and calling, chatting, texting, twittering! To stand before the icons in reverence and not before a computer screen in an empty-minded search for more distraction! All of that superfluous talk, those meaningless messages and that "junk" filling our minds and hearts from our waking hours until bed, can be "laid aside" so that we can call to mind who and what we really are - human beings made in the image and likeness of God - and not superficial consumers. Even if you are relatively free from that madness, the Great Canon will lead you upward toward God through the realization that at times we are moving downward and away from God.

The Canon is served on four consecutive evenings. If you are not free one night, then perhaps another may be open. If you have never participated in this service, please give it serous consideration.

As Fr. Alexander Schmemann use to say: Take Lent seriously.

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Great Fast, The Whole Person, The Total Effort

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, in anticipation of Great Lent's beginning next Monday, I sent out a basic outline of the "fasting rules" that serve as directives or guidelines for that upcoming season. This was accompanied by what I hope was some sound pastoral commentary - brief though it was - that gave a bit of context to those guidelines. Today, I would like to go a good deal further in that direction. I have attached what amounts to be a very helpful summary of a brilliant article by Archbishop Kallistos Ware, entitled "The Meaning of the Great Fast." This article serves as a wonderful introduction to Archbishop Ware's translation of The Triodion, the liturgical book that provides the hymnography for Great Lent and Holy Week. In fact, this article has become something of a "classic" since it first appeared in 1978. It is a very holistic approach to the inner and outer meaning of Great Lent.

Be that as it may, some years ago, Sister Vicki Bellas came up with an excellent one-page "bullet-point" type summary that still manages to reflect the over-all spirit of Archbishop Ware's main insights into the "meaning" of Great Lent. The fasting effort is deepened and expanded so that our return to God in repentance is kept sight of as the true purpose of Great Lent; and not just a legalistic adherence to the "law" of the Great Fast. The demons fast and they tremble before God! The whole person, as created in the image and likeness of God, is engaged in a total effort that embraces the material and the spiritual - the body and the soul. Sister Vicki's careful summary conveys that essential quality of Great Lent as observed within the Orthodox Church.

Please read this carefully as a necessary supplement to yesterday's material.

Fr. Steven

Webservant's Note: The complete text of Archbishop Kallistos article, The Meaning of the Great Fast: The True Nature of Fasting, may be found here.

Monday, February 8, 2010

'When You Fast' ~ Preparing for Great Lent

Dear Parish Faithful,

Great Lent will begin in one more week on Monday, February 15. Since yesterday was Meatfare Sunday, some fasting has already begun for those who observe that designation. (This is meant to "ease" us into the fuller fasting discipline following Cheesefare Sunday).

I get my fair share of questions each year about the precise nature of the prescribed fasting for Great Lent. I also assume that there is a certain amount of confusion over this, because we pick things up from other church traditions that do not quite fit into our own Orthodox Tradition.

Preparing for next Monday, I wanted to pass on the fasting guidelines of the Church. I found a very clear article about this entitled, "Our Fasting During Great Lent," by Fr. John Hopko. It is attached to a book published by SVS Press: When You Fast - Recipes for Lenten Seasons. Fr. John's article is to the point, and it also has some sound pastoral considerations added, so I will simply pass on the relevant paragraph or two for your reading and reference:


"We should begin by reminding ourselves of the basics of the Church's traditional discipline of fasting. During Great Lent, the strictest levels of fasting are prescribed, with certain exceptions allowed for weekends and feast days. The traditional norm, as developed and followed over many centuries in the Orthodox Church, is that we would abstain from the following items (listed here in order, beginning with those items that are eliminated first and then on down to those items that may be permissible at some times):

  • meat and meat products (must be restricted)
  • milk and egg products (often referred to as "dairy." These items are perhaps permissible for some, for example, young children)
  • fish (permissible on certain feast during Great Lent)
  • olive oil (permissible on weekends and certain feasts during Great Lent)
  • wine (this means all alcoholic beverages; they are permissible on weekends, and certain feast days during great Lent

"So then, generally speaking, during Great Lent we are to make do with the following types of food:

  • shellfish (shrimp, clams, etc.)
  • vegetables
  • vegetable products
  • fruit, grains (bread, pasta, rice, etc.) nuts, etc.
  • nonalcoholic, dairy-free beverages

"Having laid out the traditional guidelines for fasting, certain points must be made in reference to them. First of all, each of us must make an honest, prayerful assessment of how well we can maintain the fasting discipline. If we are unable - due to age, illness, or some other weakness - to follow the traditional order of fasting completely, we must then make a decision about what we are going to do. Being overly scrupulous in this regard will not save us but neither will any rationalizing away of the need to fast. Each and every person, usually together with the other members of his or her family and, if necessary in consultation with his or her parish priest, needs to make an honest and prayerful decision about how he or she is going to keep the fast." (When You Fast - Recipes for Lenten Seasons; Afterword, pp. 247-248)

A clear and pastorally-balance approach in my estimation. Please give this your prayerful consideration, as Fr. John writes. (The book from which this article is taken, by the way, is filled with hundred of lenten recipes, from "main dishes" to "cookies and desserts(!)" Again, it is available from SVS Press.

As to the fasting, there is no doubt that it is both a disciplined and a healthier way of eating and drinking. We are always hearing of the latest "program" to guide our nation's eating habits in a healthier direction, especially in our school systems. Obesity among our children is far too high. We know that the first foods to be eliminated for health reasons are always red meat and sugar-laden sweets - cakes, doughnuts, ice cream, etc. These concerned educators, social planners, and dietitians need look no further than the Orthodox Church's century-old practice of fasting - linked to the virtues of discipline, obedience and asceticism!

As Fr. John noted, it is sound advice to speak with your parish priest about these issues and how they may be integrated into family life. Please contact me if you so desire.

Fr. Steven

Webservant's Note: Our special page — GREAT LENT ~ Resources for the Journey — features several cookbooks for Lenten seasons, as well as suggested reading, recordings, icons, and more to aid your Lenten effort. We also offer numerous online articles on our parish website's Great Lent section.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A 'Subversive' Parable - The Prodigal Son, Pt 1

Dear Parish Faithful,

Through familiarity, we can lose sight of the "subversive" nature of Christ's parables. By this, I am referring to the fact that Christ will challenge, implicitly criticize, and generally turn upside down, the social conventions, cultural assumptions, and religious pieties of His fellow Jews in first century Palestine. When this happens, we can then "domesticate" the parables, conform them to our own conventional pieties, and thus remove their sting which is precisely to awaken us to a new way of looking at God and our relationship with God and neighbor. Then, with the best of intentions, we can manipulate the parables in order to validate our existing relationships with God and neighbor; miss the challenge to never grow complacent in these relationships; and fail to repent of our sinful inclinations that wreck havoc on the very relationships we claim will effect our salvation. In hearing any given parable we can comfortably remain certain that we are only reinforcing an already-existing understanding of the parable's meaning: "Ah, yes, I know precisely what this parable means. After all, I've heard it so many times." Thus, we place ourselves in a "safety zone" that is far removed from the enormous challenge to actually do something that will shake us out of our soul-numbing complacency.

I believe that this is true of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (LK. 16:15-32). Having "heard" it last Sunday, perhaps we have already filed it away in our memory banks, safely hidden there until we mentally double-click and dislodge it next year three Sundays before Great Lent begins yet again! No wonder then, that repeatedly, and with a sense of urgency and real concern, Jesus would declare: "He who has ears to ear, let him hear!"

This great parable is about repentance, the loving and compassionate nature of God, and the fearful consequences of an unforgiving and resentful heart. With an impressive economy of expression, Jesus fully delineates three unforgettable characters - the prodigal son, the father, and the older brother - who stand out in their individuality and who embody the three "themes" of the parable outlined above. On the one hand, I believe that the parable is very culturally and religiously specific, as the three characters would be easily identifiable to those who initially heard Jesus deliver it. The same would be true of the setting and the circumstances of the events that unfold the drama of the parable: the younger son asking for his inheritance, the subsequent wasting of that inheritance, and his near-starvation level employment feeding swine in the fields. The details of the banquet, with the fattened calf, the robe and ring, together with dancing and music all have a recognizable verisimilitude about them. Through the parables of Christ we have a very realistic view of first-century Palestinian Jewish life.

What I believe to be "subversive" in this parable is that the expectations of conventional piety are not met with the unfolding of the drama and the presentation of the characters. Rather, those expectations are turned on their head. Yet, oddly enough, given the common title of this parable which concentrates on the "prodigal son," perhaps this is less true of him than of the father and the older brother. True and deep repentance was very much a part of first-century Judaism. Scraping the proverbial "bottom of the barrel," the younger son turned his inward gaze toward home and his father. And "when he came to himself" (16:17), he realized that he must throw himself on the mercy of his father, though clearly entertaining the possibility that he would not receive it, and even accepting that as fair. Yet, to his great credit, he was not paralyzed by the fear of justifiable rejection, but acted upon his inner conversion and need for repentance: "And he arose and came to his father." (16:20) And to his further credit, not a word of self-defensiveness is heard from him. Repentant, he does not act with even an instinctive desire to protect himself from the anticipated reproaches of his father. With a "broken and contrite heart," he has nothing left to protect.

With the figure of the father - clearly an image of God - Jesus undermines our expectations of justice and the human need for proving oneself "right," especially after a great offense that can wound our sense of dignity and fairness. Clearly, we share this same very human need today, and as much as we - as countless Christians throughout the centuries - are irresistibly drawn to this magnificent figure and his boundless capacity to forgive any and all offenses; need first to soberly assess our own possible/probable reaction if found in that situation. And that can be summed up in the irresistible urge to finally have the opportunity to say to a profligate child who has hurt us so terribly : "I could have told you so!" And that is just a starter. Our psychological need for "revenge" is capable of bringing to the surface an endlessly dreary set of "variations on a theme," many of which we may have already used ourselves in much milder cases of real and perceived betrayals by our children. Were the initial hearers of the parable expecting from Jesus some such expression of a justice satisfied by delivering these types of reproaches? Were they expecting demands from the father, or "conditions" by and under which the son could take up residence again in his father's house, but now carefully monitored so as avoid a further squandering of the family's wealth? Must reparation follow every act of repentance? I doubt that they would have been terribly surprised if they heard any of these "natural reactions," even in the knowledge of the parable's "happy ending." We depend upon the image of God given to us by Christ in this parable for our own salvation, but that is meant to probe our own hearts for their capacity to forgive.

To return to an earlier expression, perhaps Jesus is most subversive in how he portrays the older brother. Here is a man who appears to be the very image of filial devotion, mature responsibility, and the stability of purpose that would bring consolation and confidence to his father when the proper time for handing over an inheritance emerged. The older brother never showed signs of youthful rebellion and the adventurous spirit that brought the younger brother to ruin: "I never disobeyed your command." (16:29) The reproaches and even resentment of the older brother could not but have struck his contemporaries as fully justified. He has not been properly recognized. Surely the older brother is being treated unfairly! All of that unacknowledged service: "you never gave me a kid, that I might merry with my friends." (16:29) His resentment is choking him, for he cannot refer to his brother other than "this son of yours," when reproaching his father. Jesus was really pushing a point, in order to make a point. Perhaps this was to expose the interior life of the older brother. Christ is concerned about the condition of the human heart, and not only right behavior. Or rather, they need to be harmonized. An inability to forgive undermines that harmony of the interior and exterior. It appears that the older brother's devotion was devoid of joy and thanksgiving. For the father told him in the end: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." (16:31) I would argue that as long as we must admit that we would react as the older brother of the parable, then we have yet to fully assimilate this great parable and what Jesus is teaching us about our relationship with God and our neighbor.

To be continued ...

Fr. Steven