Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
As a parish, we have gone from strength to strength this Great Lent at least in relation to the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. In the past, we have often started out well, but the lenten "law" of attrition seemed to wear us down and by the last Presanctified Liturgy only a weary, and noticeably-reduced, remnant bravely appeared by the last week of Lent - the Week of Palms. Not so this year! With almost seventy worshippers, it was by far our largest group of the year. And before the evening was over yesterday, we shared yet another wonderful lenten meal together (I am going to miss the tasty hummus!) with lively fellowship in the church hall, further enlivened by the presence of many children. For all of this we thank God first and foremost.
Yet, it was also a time of sober reflection or, if you like, a kind of "taking stock" of how Great Lent and our lenten effort has affected our hearts. Following "Lord, I Call Upon Thee," we chanted the following hymn:
I am rich in passions,
I am wrapped in the false robe of hypocrisy.
Lacking self-restraint I delight in self-indulgence.
I show a boundless lack of love.
I see my mind cast down before the gates of repentance,
starved of true goodness and sick with inattention.
This sticheron does not mention "breaking the fast" by eating some dairy products or - God forbid! - some meat during Great Lent. Other hymns and prayers of course exhort us to continue with perseverance in the ascetical fast. But the point of this frightening catalogue of moral and interior failings is to protect us from self-righteousness or a superficial complacency falsely grounded in our adherence to the more external aspects of the Fast. It is also meant to be applied in the form of "self-examination." Following the teachings of Christ, the best of our sacred hymns want us to explore whether or not our external actions are consistent with our internal being. We want our outward piety to reflect and manifest an interior process of purifying the heart. Otherwise, we may have to confess that we are acting like a "jerk." I am sure that that word sounds more than a little jarring in the context of this lenten meditation! That is not exactly a word that you will hear in our liturgical prayers and hymns, or for that matter, coming from me. Neither will you find it in the Scriptures. What we will hear are words such as "fool," "hypocrite," "sinner," and so on. However, we may just hear "jerk" in our daily lives - or use it ourselves about someone else - and since I came across a definition of the word that sounds as if it could have been written by a saint in defining the more biblical words mentioned above, I wanted to use it for its effect.
Some years ago a certain Sidney Harris, columnist for the Chicago Daily News, wrote that a jerk is "totally incapable of looking into the mirror of his own soul and shuddering at what he sees there." Almost like an aphorism from one of the Desert Fathers! Therefore, if any of the words in the above hymn are actually true about us, and we fail to recognize this truth due to our blindness, obtuseness or self-defensiveness; then in addition to being called a "hypocrite" we will have to bear the further burden of being a genuine "jerk" - at least according to Sidney Harris' definition. Since most of us would find that rather intolerable, the best solution would be to take a careful and searching look into the mirror of our soul and "shudder" at what we see there if, indeed, it is less than pretty. Then we can stand and knock "before the gates of repentance" and begin the process of healing, as the Lord will certainly open those gates on our behalf. This is why, paradoxical as it may sound, it is good to see one's own sins! That, in turn, is not meant to depress us - for God does not seek to depress us - but rather to activate us as demonstrated by the prodigal son who "arose and came to his father." (LK. 15:20) Truly, it is a "joy-creating sorrow," for only then can we begin to turn to God begging for forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with Him and our neighbor. We can only be free from the passions if we first recognize their presence withn us.
The remainder of the hymn I began with us is a humble plea to resemble one of the most humble - and pathetic - figures in the New Testament:
But make me like Lazarus, who was poor in sin,
lest I receive no answer when I pray,
no finger dipped in water to relieve my burning tongue;
and make me dwell in Abraham's bosom in Your love for mankind.
To be "poor in sin" as was Lazarus, is to be freed from sin to a great extent. Or, perhaps, to be dispassionate as the saints exhort us to strive for. No doubt it is a hard and demanding battle that requires honesty, vigilance and repentance on our part. That sure beats being a "jerk!"