Monday, July 31, 2017

The Dormition Fast: Commitment vs. Convenience

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

August 1 is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that culminates with the celebration of the Great Feast of the Dormition on August 15.

 As we contemplate our own destiny in that of the Theotokos, it is theologically and spiritually appropriate that this is the culminating major Feast Day of the liturgical year. The preparatory fast is very well-placed, falling as it does at the midpoint of summer.

Coming after the relatively slow and  "silent" month of July, liturgically speaking, the ascetical effort that we are called to embrace can potentially lift us up out of any spiritual torpor that may be afflicting us. This is especially true if the summer heat has taken its toll on us both physically and spiritually.  Spiritual vigilance can replace the apathy and indifference that may be clinging to us at this time of year. As we honor the "translation" of the Mother of God into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God, we simultaneously experience the much-needed spiritual renewal of our being through the time-honored and life-affirming practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting (Matt 6:1-18).

Yet, every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice.  In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.”  

We can choose convenience because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly in-convenient.  It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self denial, and an overall concerted effort.  It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance.  To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance.

And perhaps we need to admit that as middle-class Americans we are impatient with inconvenience, since just about every aspect of our lives today is meant to amplify convenience as a "mode of existence" that we need to embrace "religiously." We may think and feel that we are entitled to live by the "philosophy" of convenience!

So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church.  I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of furthering our growth in the life “in Christ.”  It may rather mean a missed opportunity.

Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.”  To be committed means to care - the spiritual antidote to the passion of acedia which literally means "not caring."

Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful.  It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ.” And this we have as a gift within the life of the Church.

That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes.  I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes.  (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes).  It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.

My observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree.  We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals and admittedly there are times when that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present way of life. Yet, the Church as  "second choice" can easily harden into an automatic and unchallenged principle. It is hard to prevail in the never-ending “battle of the calendars!”  The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church.  In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment.  Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us.

But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired.  That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives.  In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding – to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today!

I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience.  

We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy.  With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls.  We can lift up our “drooping hands” and strengthen our "weak knees" (Heb 12:12) in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving.  

The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death—or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Dormition Fast is our spiritually vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration.  “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!”  (2 Corinthians 6:2).

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