Volume 5: Number 2

March 23, 2014

Wonder

Volume 5: Number 2

Our Lenten Journey

Lessons in Love by Rebekah Moll

A New Approach to Fasting? by Dcn Jason Ketz

Learning from the Prodigal…and his brother by Richard Ajalat

The Plea for Repentance by Michael Soroka

More information about the authors can be found here.


The Plea for Repentance

March 23, 2014

The Plea for Repentance

Michael Soroka

A few years ago, right at the beginning of Great Lent, a very dear friend opened up to me about his struggle with fasting. This is what he said.

“My entire life, the Church has been telling me what to do. When the Fast comes, there is always a sense of foreboding and gloom. All I hear is the Church saying, ‘Eat these foods, don’t eat these foods. Strip yourselves of creaturely comforts.’ Never have I felt an uplifting sense of hope or consolation, just responsibility. ‘This is what you must do. Take up this burden.’ The result has always been a sense of guilt, because the Church didn’t give me any other options. You either did all that was commanded of you, or it didn’t count.

fasting“What has the Church even given me in return for all this obedience? I have only ever done the best that I could, but the Church keeps demanding more.”

There were so many things about this conversation that troubled me. On the one hand, I wanted to take the side of the Church and say, “But that’s an oversimplification! The Church doesn’t always demand fasting, it calls us to celebrate the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection through its feasts. It recognizes all of our individual failings, and calls us to purify our bodies and minds so that we can more fully participate in our redemption that Christ has won for us.”

Well, okay, maybe I wasn’t about to say all that. I was caught up in the moment, taken off balance. I didn’t know what to say. I started by saying a dumbed-down version of that, and then stopped. I realized that all the fancy arguments and point-by-point rebuttals in the world would accomplish nothing in the end. Ultimately, the change in perspective had to come from my friend. He was the only one capable of changing his own mind. All I could do was point the way and lovingly suggest a change in perspective.

I don’t think my overly defensive impulse is all that uncommon. Too often, it seems the natural response of those of us actively involved in Church life is to become defensive, even combative, and deny that an opinion like my friend’s is valid.

But when we do this, we are very likely alienating our friends and fooling ourselves. After all, they are describing how they feel, and to dismiss their emotions is to dismiss their own struggles. Any discussion about fasting in the Church needs to acknowledge the fact that many people share my friend’s opinion, whether consciously or sub-consciously. We need to first ask ourselves, “Why do people keep drawing this conclusion?”

eden

I believe it’s because much of the time we only selectively listen to the Lenten services, or worse, we remember how these services can make us feel (there’s that word again, all these “feelings”!), and not what they actually say. And, in all honesty, I’ve had similar resentment of Lent and for fasting in general. These thoughts usually come in a grumpy haze as I sense the beginning of Lent starting to encroach on my personal “style.” My interior monologue on the subject:

—Uggh. Here comes the fast, with all its rules and regulations, with all the extra services. And it’s so penitential! Alright, I know I’m a lazy wretch, I know I’m a slave to sin, can we just get on with it already??

Take just one example of how easy it is to selectively tune in during Lent, and how our minds can play tricks on us when we just don’t want to take Lent seriously. Here is part of a stichera from Forgiveness Vespers:

When I think of my works,
deserving every punishment,
I despair of myself, O Lord.
For see I have despised
Thy precious commandments
and wasted my life as the Prodigal.

Christ revealed in the breaking of Bread

­—See? Look at all this negativity! All it’s telling me is that I’m an awful, worthless person.

We should never underestimate our mind’s ability to mis-remember, especially when it involves something that we don’t want to do. Here is that same stichera in its entirety:

When I think of my works,
deserving every punishment,
I despair of myself, O Lord.
For see I have despised
Thy precious commandments
and wasted my life as the Prodigal.
Therefore I entreat Thee:
cleanse me in the waters of repentance,
and through prayer and fasting
make me shine with light,
for Thou alone art merciful;
abhor me not, O Benefactor of all, supreme in love.

Note the logical progression of the point that the Church is making. We have done wrong, we have sinned; to believe otherwise is to delude ourselves. Therefore, cleanse me, give me repentance, and help me return to Christ by fasting and prayer. The Church does ask us to acknowledge our own fallenness, but not so that we can get depressed and down on ourselves, but so that we may return to the merciful Savior, who is “supreme in love.”

It is Christ’s love for us that is the highest and only “motive” that the Church has for bringing us the Great Fast every year. Christ does not devise devious guilt trips to trick us into participating in Lent. That is a trick of our minds. Or, to be more accurate, it is a trick of the devil.

plate

The other great fantasy that our minds conjure up, and that my friend expressed so well, is that we sometimes think the Church demands obedience from us. The Church begs, implores us to take up the fast, but it never demands. Here are just a few more snippets of Lenten hymnography:

Let us set out with joy upon the season of the fast   (Sunday Forgiveness Vespers)
Come, O ye people, and today let us accept the grace of the fast as a gift from God   (Canon from Monday of the 1st Week),
O Word of God, Thou hast given us the time of the fast, that we may turn again and live…   (Vespers from Monday of the 5th Week).

These are not demands, they are pleas, they are loving entreaties, that we might “turn from our sin and live” (see Ezekiel 18.23). Or, as the Church so wisely adapts Scripture, “that we might turn again and live…” We are in a continual process of falling and getting up again, of sinning and being forgiven by Christ.

cracked-earth1

By making the free choice to enter again into the Great Fast, we acknowledge our own enslavement, our own addiction, to the passing things of this life—food, money, gossip—which in turn explains the Church’s unending call for our repentance through fasting and prayer.

Fasting isn’t fun, it isn’t easy. I have no doubt that I will continue to have times when I think, just like my friend, that the Church demands too much of us. But in those moments, I have to keep on reminding myself that the Church brings us Lent not to oppress us or to make demands on us; that is the tempting delusion of our minds. She brings us Lent so that we may break through that cycle of sin and cross over from the wilderness of our estrangement from God to the fulfillment of the promise of Christ’s resurrection.


Learning From the Prodigal…and his Brother

March 23, 2014

Learning from the Prodigal…and his brother

Subdeacon Richard Mity Ajalat


When we are entering Great Lent, what do we think of?  This year I thought of the parable of the prodigal son and how the son came home to his father and the father accepted him back completely.  

We know the story of the prodigal son. The youngest son comes to the father and says, “I want my inheritance and I want it now.”  The father divides up his estate and gives his younger son his share of the inheritance.  The young son leaves and squanders the money on partying with his “friends”, and lavish and sinful living.  Soon his money has disappeared, his friends have left him, and he is alone, broke, and broken.  He is homeless, scrounging for food.  He is hungry and homesick and just wants to get back to his father.  He travels to his father’s house, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant.

prodigalAs the youngest son draws near to the house, the father sees him in the distance and runs to him with his arms wide open. The son tries to talk and explain but the father is so joyous that he kills the fatted calf and has a big party to celebrate and welcome his son home.  This illustrates the perfect love, the agape love, that our Father has for us.   In this parable, Christ is illustrating God’s love for us (as well as God’s forgiveness).

Later that evening, the oldest brother comes home and asks a servant what is going on.  He becomes so angry that he will not even enter the house, so his father comes out to talk to him.  The father says, “What is wrong?  Your brother was dead, and now he is alive.   We rejoice that he has come home to us.”  The older son says, “But he abandoned us and spent all your money, and now you throw him a party?”  The father cuts him off saying, “All that I have is yours, and you have been faithful and helpful to me, but we rejoice that your brother has come back.”  The older son, in contrast to the father, cannot achieve perfect love.  He wants to blame and scold his brother, and make him pay for his foolishness.

Our Church calls this the parable of the Prodigal Son, but really, Christ wants us to be like both sons.  We should be like the younger son in that we realize our mistakes and desire to be forgiven.  No matter how bad our sins, we will not be rejected but will be joyously welcomed back with open arms.   We should also be like the older son when he was obedient and faithful and dedicated to his father’s work.  Both sons make serious mistakes, but both also exhibit admirable behaviors. And both sons are unconditionally forgiven their offenses and loved by their father.

But how do we do this? How can we learn from this parable, embody the good qualities of each, without also exhibiting each son’s bad habits?  I think that’s too much to hope for. More likely, we will experience the good and bad behavior of each son, and simply need to recognize it and correct our behavior as quickly as possible. Lent is a time for increased focus on God, but to focus on God we must also be more aware of ourselves and our behavior.

This winter, I was at camp at the Antiochian village with a group of teens.  During his sermon at Liturgy, the Right Reverend Bishop Thomas started out talking about how he cleans his glasses.   It got me thinking that glasses are an excellent metaphor for our lives! We are like glasses. We need to be cleaned and washed often.  And it’s worth remembering that glasses are transparent; and serve only to help a person see something else. Our lives should also be transparent, and we need to live our lives so that people can see through us to Christ.

We need to turn back to Christ like the younger son and then try to keep clean like the older son had done.  

During this Lent, I would encourage us all to try to realize our mistakes and turn back to our Father like the younger son. But also to be obedient, like the older son was.  But unlike the brothers, we must never forget that Christ has perfect love for us and is always willing to forgive us, and lead us back to our Father in heaven.

 


A New Approach to Fasting?

March 23, 2014

A New Approach to Fasting?

lost opportunities from our unfocused approach to Lent

Dn Jason Ketz

Lent is once again upon us. Now is the season for renewed dedication in our prayer life, our almsgiving, and our fasting. So how are we to approach the fast? How are we to change our diets, and then let our ensuing hunger change us, shape us, lead us toward Christ?  The Lenten fast is an authentic Christian experience, and one which deserves renewed focus. All too often, the fast is presented to the faithful in a surprisingly disjointed manner. And this organizational confusion is a source of frustration for many Orthodox Christians who sincerely desire to fast for Lent; to learn to hunger for God.  Where does this confusion come from? And how can we approach the fast so that it is less confusing, less intimidating, detached from emotions of guilt, failure, and depression, and instead becomes more inviting, more practice-able, and ultimately more likely to provide an opportunity for us to hear the Gospel, to understand the miracle of our salvation?

schmemannFr Alexander Schmemann wrote in his monograph Great Lent, “we must return to the real fast. Let it be limited and humble but consistent and serious. Let us honestly face our spiritual and physical capacity and act accordingly…”[1] Schmemann’s approach is echoed by the majority of clergy I’ve met, and certainly has great value.  His vision is not that we each define fasting in our own terms, but that our fasting be practiced under the pastoral care and guidance of a spiritual leader (Priest or otherwise).  This is the tried and true historical model of ascetism: fasting under the guidance of another. Would that it were so in my own life!  If Schmemann’s proposal were practically possible for us, there would be little else to say on the subject. Unfortunately, most of us do not have a strong enough relationship with a parish leader (priest or otherwise) for that person to be able to guide us in a fast. We don’t maintain frequent contact, and we likely don’t have such introspective, reflective conversations with these people, for them to guide us in our fast.  So while Schmemann’s idea has immediate appeal and is highly likely to succeed when attempted, far too few of us will ever attempt it.

A second option for fasting guidance arises – the one with which we are all likely familiar: Published guidance on fasting. This amounts to a do-it-yourself approach to the Lenten Fast. Read it in a book (or on a blog, or watch a clip on YouTube), and give it a try.  It is unsurprising that this method of fasting is so prevalent amongst the faithful. The traditional fasting rule is readily available and widely disseminated, from desk calendars and wall calendars with fast days in pink, to prefaces in cookbooks and service books, to meditations in weekly messengers outlining the fasting practice: no meat, no diary, no fish, wine and oil restricted on most days, etc.  The question is: do we know what we’re doing when we take this old fasting plan, and either go at it 100%, or unilaterally decide to pare it down to something personally manageable?  Either approach seems a bit cavalier, and we need to be aware of what the fasting rule strives to accomplish.

blogfeaturefastingIn short, the fast is designed to produce hunger. And hunger is a powerful, dark experience. It is a visceral, primal, physical reaction. Hunger is body knowledge; corporal knowledge. Not altogether different from pain, the physical component of hunger is primary, while the emotional and mental components are only a secondary aspect.   But in a fast, the hunger produced is a controlled hunger. Rather than the ‘eat-my-leather-bootlaces” hunger of a starving shipwrecked sailor, a fasting person’s hunger is mediated by occasional limited meals, allowing us to work with our experience of hunger, rather than be crushed by it.  The aim of the Christian fast is to allow that hunger to transform our daily experience. In a successful fast, we can experience how God’s strength is made perfect through weakness (2 Cor 12:9). In a successful, God-pleasing fast, where our body is hungry but not starved, we can transform our hunger for food into a hunger for God, and thereby be transformed ourselves by the fast.

There is no question at all that we desire to fast for God; that we desire our fast to succeed, however we may choose to identify this success. But when fixed written guidelines are presented alongside a recurring statement by leaders that our ascetic efforts should be individually tailored (or that we should “do the best we can”), this entirely undermines the clear, concise standardization that a written rule strives to present, and allows sensible pastoral advice that our fast be guided to be confused with the post-modern mantra, that any experience can be “whatever I want it to be.”

Many priests I know are aware of the difficulties involved in taking any active role in supervising parishioners’ asceticism, and even more have an awareness of the futility of simply handing out the traditional fasting rule without comment. So it happens that more years than not, I have heard priests offer their own modified plan, either during a homily, at coffee hour, informally in parishioner conversations or in adult or child religious education classes. Although their plans are often more practical and more relevant, they do little to address matters of accountability in one’s own discipline, and also do little to explain the relevance or solemnity of the monastic rule which they are modifying for our use. So our familiar pattern arises: every year in March, most Orthodox Christians I have met walk into Lent with a modified fasting plan, while little is said by Church leadership in defense of the published guidance, lip service is paid to the significance of the fast, but then left to the individual, while there is little evidence that people’s fasts are being supervised to the extent that monastic fasts have historically been overseen.

What a strange set of ideas we have brewing in the cauldron of the local parish! A crowd of do-it-yourselfers reads the final product of centuries of supervised, tailored fasting, and perceives it as a do-it-yourself instruction for somebody else. It is no wonder that each year people ask in all earnestness whether the inherited, traditional fast has any relevance in our lives, and whether it should be modified!

breadTo be sure, fasting is not a fixed, ecumenical practice. Historically, fasting practices have been tailored to communities. To that end, I feel  it appropriate to ask of our leaders some small adjustments to the Lenten fast. Adjustments like clarification on the wine and oil restrictions, refinement of the seafood allowances in recognition that crab and lobster are now delicacies. Perhaps the fast should incorporate new world foods and modern terminology (like ‘calories’). Even modern food science might be a welcome challenge: rather than being permitted one pound of bread at 1,700 carbo-loaded calories, would we be better off eating, say, 1,200 calories[2] of squash, corn and leafy greens?  This is a legitimate question; both diets would produce a different experience of hunger.  Furthermore, in our modern era, the fast needs to expand beyond the dinner table, to incorporate practical guidance on entertainment, electronics, social media, and perhaps some other amenities we have grown used to. Our inherited rule for the Lenten Fast should by no means be vacated. But it should be focused for today’s faithful.

But reform of a document does not give the document any more inherent value.  Anybody who has ever written standard work procedures or read a sports playbook knows this. The document must be received and practiced. So what is our vision?  Assuming that we, as a Church, are interested in doing anything more organized and deliberate than our current approach, what is it we are hoping to accomplish through the Lenten Fast?  Are we hoping to create a DIY Lenten Fast, easily read and followed by Christians who take the practice seriously? Are we hoping to return to the closer oversight of days past, where the local priest is actively and continuously involved in a parishioner’s personal spiritual development?

There perhaps a middle ground between unique and generic, which might be the most tenable option for us, which may even let our fasting reach new heights as a primary feature of our Lenten experience.  This middle ground can be seen between the pitfalls of each familiar approach. We don’t have the resources to make a parish priest so intimately involved in every parishioner’s lives, in order to tailor and supervise fasting and prayer practices. And although preset fasting practices have all the advantages of being clear, there is no intrinsic accountability in a do-it-yourself document. Perhaps there is an opportunity to use each other for support, in order to improve our experience with the fast.

group

Alcoholics go to routine meetings when they choose to stop drinking. Friends who join gyms or exercise programs are much more successful at adjusting to a routine. Why should we expect fasting to be a different experience. Not only are we breaking bad dietary habits, but we’re also experiencing hunger, which runs entirely contrary to our biological instincts. It stands to reason that things may go better with support, and I think that this can be done without being hypocritical in our fast (cf Matt 6:16-18) and without falling victim to fasting with no higher goal in mind. Admittedly, this idea of fasting and supporting each other’s ascetic efforts in small groups or communities is not as beneficial as receiving individual training from an experienced elder (who wouldn’t take a personal fitness trainer over 8 Minute Abs ?!), but we have to work within our reality, and this is a practical option for many more of us.  Fasting as a community would have the added advantage of allowing more people to pursue stricter fasting regimens more earnestly. The alternative to tailoring a fasting plan to an individual is to train an individual to work up to a certain standard, so long as the standard is within reach.  And I firmly believe it is not the letter of the fasting rule that is the primary challenge – it is our personal encounter with hunger which requires support, in order for it to be tolerable, sustained and transformative. Finally, and perhaps most important, approaching the fast as a community would allow us to understand that our salvation is not an individual endeavor.

Such a communal approach to asceticism would add an experimental edge to our fasting. No doubt, traditionalists are cringing at the prospect. A healthy wariness of change is always wise in matters of faith. On the other hand, Christian asceticism has always had an experimental streak about it, from the first fathers to venture out to the desert, to the hesychasts who first prayed while seated. So, again presuming the fast is still being carried out with due reverence and proper focus, and still within the fold of the parish’s spiritual directorship, we may find ourselves in good company with such a novel approach.

Why advocate such a change in the first place? I can say only this: in all the conversations I have had with Orthodox Christians regarding fasting, my experience is that people are overwhelmingly dismissive of the published guidance, yet eager to fast and interested in (often desperate for) clear, concise direction.  Nobody is afraid to be hungry. But people are unclear how to convert hunger for food into hunger for Christ. And 21st century Americans are entirely unfamiliar with hunger to recognize what the human body and mind are capable of.  Our society is a society of consumers, and our appetite is insatiable. What would happen if we were able to turn this hunger to God, and then to periodically amplify and augment it through our seasonal fasts?  Surely this is the fast that the prophet Joel calls to be sanctified.[3] This is the fast that will give way to loosing the chains of injustice.[4]  Surely, this will be an acceptable spiritual sacrifice unto God.[5]


[1] Schmemann, Great Lent, (Yonkers: SVS Press: 1969), 99.

[2] 1,700 calories is not supposed to be a reduction in caloric intake for many of us, according to dieticians. So if we’re eating, for instance, a pound of bread a day, we have not actually reduced our food intake, but merely our protein, vitamin and mineral intake.  Is this the intent of the fast?  I suspect not.

[3] Joel 1:14

[4] Cf Isaiah 58:6

[5] 1 Peter 2:5


Lessons in Love

March 23, 2014

Lessons in Love

Rebekah Moll

The first thing that comes to my mind when asked to write about lent is fastingUnfortunately, growing up, fasting had negative connotations to me because it was usually accompanied by immense guilt whenever I failed or frustrations when I couldn’t eat meat on certain occasions. Thus, the period of lent was a sort of dark cloud.   I no longer think of fasting in this negative way, but wasn’t sure why until I started to write this article.  Outside of the church life, growing up in the schools I remember classmates discussing “giving something up” for Lent. The funny thing was, I don’t remember anyone explaining the “why” part other than the common explanations, “to prepare for Pascha” or “to help us focus on God”.  While both of these answers are true, I now realize that the true reason is love. I experienced much more meaningful fasts when I also attended Lenten services more frequently, because it is within the unity of the church that the lenten focus of love comes alive and in that mindset, guilt is replaced by joy.

The Pre-Lenten Sunday lessons remind us of this love in various ways.  Zacchaeus teaches us to desire our Lord with our hearts; the Publican and the Pharisee demonstrate the importance of love by not judging; the Prodigal Son is a model for us to love unconditionally as our Lord loves us; and finally the Last Judgment emphasizes that to be saved, we should love and care for others selflessly with a heart so loving that it doesn’t even recognize its willingness to love. Hopefully, through these lessons we may learn to open our hearts and fill it with this love so all of our Lenten choices are directed towards loving God and others.

I find this love comes alive within me most by making more efforts to participate in the life of the church during the Lenten season because I believe it is through the unity that happens in church life that love is able to grow.  This unity is a sort of mystery.  We sometimes feel it outside of the church between our family members or those we hold most dearly.  It is a taste of a divine connection that calls us to love each other and our Lord with one mind and one heart.  Attending church is the first step to feeling that unity with others, which brings a natural sense of peace.  Something mysterious begins to happen when attending services during Lent.  We are no longer alone whether failing or succeeding with fasting; we are working together to achieve a oneness of faith.  The increase of gatherings accompanies a mysterious joy.

In my own experience this unity especially grows within our Minneapolis community as we have MEOCCA Vespers every Sunday evening during Lent, hosted each Sunday by a different parish.  Each parish also prepares a Lenten meal so we may participate in the fast together.  Suddenly there is even more unity, enriching us in love and bringing us joy in the fast as we prepare for Christ’s Holy Pascha.

love_poem

Lent is not a time to focus solely on guilt, but on opening the heart to love. I hope that this Lent I will remember the lessons of love within the church community and fast with joy to prepare the heart by making more of an effort to experience the unity we are called to be a part of. It requires effort.  It requires us to enter into the church.  It requires us to participate in church life.  It requires us to celebrate with each other and to help each other prepare for the day we celebrate the Lord reuniting us with His love by opening the gates of paradise through the sacrifice of His Son.


Volume 5: Number 2 Authors and Contributors

March 23, 2014

Michael Soroka, originally from Ohio, is a graduate of St Vladimir’s Seminary in NY, holding a Master of Divinity and a Master of Theology. A Husband and father, Michael is now employed by the Seminary’s Bookstore. 

Deacon Jason Ketz lives with his wife and three children in the suburbs of Minneapolis, MN, and is a deacon at Saint Mary’s (OCA) Cathedral in Minneapolis. He is a graduate of Arizona State University and Saint Vladimir’s Seminary and is a bio-medical engineer at a medical device company. He is the editor of this blog. 
Richard Ajalat has a Bachelor’s degree from St Mary’s College in California and a Master of Divinity from St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Born in Lebanon during the war, he grew up in Los Angeles, CA, attending St Nicholas Antiochian Cathedral there. Richard is an ordained Subdeacon and the Youth Director at the Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St Mary in Livonia, MI.
Rebekah Moll is a parishioner at St. Mary’s Cathedral (OCA) in Minneapolis, MN and is a high school English teacher. She has a Masters in Education from the University of Minnesota. She is married and the proud mother of a one year old daughter.
 

Volume 5: Number 1

February 2, 2014

Wonder

Volume 5: Number 1

Why am I still here?

Four Orthodox Christians explore the foundations of their faith

Because God is with us, and loves us
Priest John Vitko

Because I was invited
Priest Benjamin Tucci

Because of my parents’ love
Ms Susan Lickwar Lukianov

Because of Forgiveness and Joy
Ms Catherine Golitzin

More information about our authors can be found here.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 266 other followers