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(March 2016)

The Struggle of Great Lent

By Elder Ephraim of Arizona (a transcribed homily).

At this time, we are entering the great spiritual arena of the blessed Great Lent. Holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction, repen-tance, and tears; it is time for a change in ourselves, for a new stage in our spiritual life. Like an affectionate mother caring for Her children, us Orthodox Christians, the Church has designated this time of Lent as dedicated to the struggle, in order to help Her children fight harder, so that they can purify themselves, and thus draw closer to God; it is the time that they undergo these trials so that they can be counted worthy of celebrating the great day of the radiant Resurrection.

Orthodox Christians, especially monks, have always paid particular attention to this spiritual arena and have thought of it as especially sacred because it is a period which focuses and contemplates upon both spiritual and bodily struggles. There is the struggle of fasting, the struggle of vigils, the struggle of purification and the struggle to fulfill one’s spiritual duties which are many more than at any other time of the year. There is a spiritual “defragmentation” and people pay greater attention to the voice of their conscience in order to correct what they have perhaps neglected and to improve spiritually.

The Church assists us with Her penitential hymns and services, as well as with a myriad of teachings. These serve so as to “oil” us up for the fight towards the purification of our souls.

We have the penitential evening divine liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. The Presanctified Liturgy is extremely beneficial. Its Cherubic Hymn is full of spirituality, contemplation, and angelic presence. That is why we should come to these liturgies during Great Lent with even greater compunction. We, who consume the Body and Blood of Christ, must be pure and clean, straight in both body and soul so that divine grace can have its effect. For this reason we must lead very careful lives. Both in our homes or cells and in church we must wet our face with tears so as to wash our souls and be worthy to take Holy Communion.

Of course, the devil often brings us various temptations and desires during these moments of compunction. This intensifies the struggle and it means that we cannot have both tears and concurrent evil thoughts. Evil thoughts and the sinful images that accompany them must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance. And when we have wicked thoughts or our soul is cold towards one of the brethren, let us not approach the God of true love, Who is so pure and beyond holy.

Throughout this period, at every service in Great Lent, we say the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, which is as follows: Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, inquisitiveness, lust for power or idle talk, but give rather the spirit of sobriety, humility, patience and love to me, your servant. Indeed, Lord King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for you are blessed to the ages of ages. Amen.

With these words, the saint wishes to make us understand very clearly, that, apart from our pursuit of various virtues we also need to address our self-censure and eliminate criticism of our brethren, for without true love for our fellow human beings there is no chance of making even the slightest progress towards our spiritual purification. If we do not pay vigilant attention towards our thoughts, our words and our heart, there is no benefit in fasting. Fasting is of benefit when it is combined with love for our neighbor and when we do not criticize others. When we do not criticize our fellows and instead criticize ourselves, then we are marked by love for others and love for our soul, concern for purification and the fulfillment of the great commandment, that of love of God and one’s neighbor. Love for God and our fellow brethren are the two great virtues which support the whole of our Lenten spiritual structure; if they are absent, then others cannot take form. For God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. (1 Jn 4:16).

Another area which demands that we push ourselves as hard as possible is prayer. We should continually pray in the name of Christ, without neglecting any opportunity and without any waste of time. During our personal vigil within our bedroom or cell, we should push ourselves to new limits, not letting sleep overcome us, and with neither any neglect nor any sign of idleness; we should willingly engage in deeds that enhance and support our spirituality. As soon as we wake up, prayer should command first place, accompanied with awareness of our Lenten prayer rule, our prayer-rope, spiritual study and the continuous contemplation of God. We need to attend Church services with great readiness and we shall thus reap the best possible results from our presence within the arena of spiritual struggle and purification.

Apart from this, fasting together with bodily exertion supports awareness of and the forgiveness of our sins. Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins. (Pss 24:18). When we labor while fasting, with kneeling, with prayers, with a true effort from our heart and mind, such godly exertion is holy and is richly rewarded by God because it makes people worthy of the crown of glory and honor. The demons fear the fast greatly, because it keeps them laying low: Howbeit this kind (of demon) goeth not out but by prayer and fasting., said the Lord. (Mt 17:21). This is why the holy fathers always began any godly task with a fast. They considered a fast to be very powerful and they (rightfully) believed that the Holy Spirit does not provide His protection to people when they are replete with food and their stomachs are full. And any Christian who desires purification has to start from this same foundation which is fasting, prayer and vigilance. When these three are combined, many people of God have acquired great stature.

In olden times, the Church’s fathers had a holy custom. On the eve of Lent, they would leave the monasteries and go deeper into the desert, where they lived in great asceticism until Lazarus Saturday, when they returned in order to celebrate Palm Sunday all together. Some would take a few of the basic essentials as far as food was concerned, others would eat only green plants, in order to struggle more fiercely in the desert. Thereafter they would spend all the days of Holy Week together in church, existing on just a piece of rusk and a few nuts per each day. We were also afforded the great blessing and the grace of knowing other, more extreme ascetic elders who spent not only Great Lent in such fasting and spiritual struggle but also their entire life!

Our departed elder, Elder Joseph the Cave-Dweller, kept an extremely strict fast during Great Lent. And, of course, he imposed such a fast upon us as well. From Monday to Friday, five days of the week, there was no real food to be consumed except a handful of flour, from which we made a batter with just water. That was it. A small flour batter plate every twenty-four hours. Concurrently, we worked hard, lifting loads on our back during the day and during the whole night we performed hundreds of prostrations and many hours of prayer, getting minimal rest. Such a struggle so that we be given the opportunity to purify the inner person, to make ourselves cleaner, more honorable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before God and thus be able to pray for the whole world. This is because the world at large, people everywhere, need the prayers of saints, particularly those of ascetic saints. St. Anthony the Great supported the whole world with his prayers.

Of course, we must keep the fast only as far as we are able, with discretion, as we are not all the same. Unless the good be done well, it is not good. In other words, unless good is done in a good way, method, time and amount, but instead is done without discretion, then it will do more harm than good. Fasting is certainly extremely necessary, it is good, but it is a means rather than an end to a goal. The means has an end and that is humility. This is why we need to arrange everything in accordance with the discretion of a spiritual father, someone illumined by the Holy Spirit. Your spiritual father will tell you how much to fast, how often to receive Holy Communion, where to strike at the enemy, what you should do here and what you must do there. And then, through the discretion of your spiritual father, you can put your spiritual house in order. We should not do more than is appropriate, we need moderation in all things, because immoderation cancels out any benefit. So fasting is holy, but it is a means. We should adjust it according to what our spiritual father says and what out psychosomatic powers allow and only as long as there is good will. Basil the Great says there is as much difference in resilience among people as there is between iron and grass.

St. Synklitiki fell ill towards the end of her life with a throat disease. Her blessed throat, which had always spoken the word of God, festered on the inside. Her mouth had saved countless people. The devil had asked permission to test her and God had granted it. The stench from her rotting flesh became so bad that the nuns had the greatest difficulty in seeing to her needs. They used the most pungent perfumes to try and bring her a little rest in her sickness. When her mouth and throat had been healthy, she had spoken and brought benefit to many, but when she fell ill, she was able to preach even more strongly. How could a silent and rotting mouth possibly preach? She noiselessly declared her great patience and endurance in God’s trial. She made a titanic effort to deal with the devil of impatience, of complaint, of the labor and toil of sickness. What reason then could she possibly have in following the need for fasting?

This is exactly why illness is regarded as involuntary asceticism. One person has cancer, another diabetes, and somebody else has various troublesome health problems. How will these people purify themselves? How will they see God’s light? Through patience and giving thanks to Him. These make up for the fast which, because of their illness, they are unable to keep, and, in fact, often struggle in their physical pain ten times harder than if they were fasting.

During this period, we really have to struggle to purify ourselves. From the ascetic tradition we have hermits who spent the whole of their lives in the desert, with labors, toil, fasts, tears, sleeping on the ground and deprivation of every other kind of pleasure. And all this effort, together with the struggle of the soul against all kinds of thoughts concerning the rebellions of the flesh, engendered sanctity. Thus, every Orthodox Christian or monk who wishes to experience purification has the right to labor and to, in turn, not be deprived of his equitable reward. Purity brings great boldness towards God, because He Himself is pure, the Mother of God is most pure and St. John the Theologian lived his life as a virgin, as did so many other saints. The whole beauty of the Church is founded on purity and spotlessness. When our heart is pure and beautiful it will exude fragrance and loveliness. But if people have filth in their hearts, filth is what they will expel. Let us struggle to cleanse the inside of our glass, our heart, so that we can it turn be pure and pleasing in God’s eyes.

We have instances from Church history of many people “in the world” (not monastics, that is), who pleased God and became great. Abba Paphnutius of Thebes, an ascetic of great gifts (and disciple of St. Antony the Great), once prayed to God:

— God, who have You placed me with? With whom do I share the same measure of virtue?

And he heard a voice, saying to him:

— Down in Alexandria there is a poor man, a cobbler, down in a basement. You have the same amount of virtue as he does.

He responded:

— But I have been a hermit in the desert from childhood and I am equal in virtue with a lay person, a married man?

God responded:

— Yes, you are equal to him.

Next day, the saint picked up his bag, put in some dry rusks, and set off for Alexandria. He went down into the city, found the layman and said to him:

— What do you do here, friend?

The layman responded:

— What should I do, father? I am a sinner, the worst person in the world.

— Can we talk?

— Certainly.

— What is the virtue that you’re working on acquiring?

— Virtue, me? I live “in the world” and am completely mixed up. Now you, you have got virtues.

— No, you are doing something.

— I am not doing anything.

— God showed me, so you cannot tell me lies. I prayed and He told me that we share the same measure of virtue. There must be something about you.

— Sorry, Father. If what I do can be considered something, I’ll tell you. I married, and from the moment I put on the crown, I said to my wife: “If you love me, we’ll live apart, like brother and sister and work for the sanctification of our souls. Do you agree?” She responded “I agree.” And since then we have lived in purity and virginity.

In the desert, Blessed Paphnutius tried to cleanse himself through the ascetic life, and restraint, in which he was greatly assisted by the condition of his way of life. The other man lived “in the world,” with a wife, with all the challenges of secular life and, with God’s help, he had reached the stature of a saint. And his struggle was greater than that of the hermit. Proof that he was indeed great in the eyes of God.

After that, something else happened which has to do with this cobbler. One day a Christian went to the Blessed Paphnutius and said:

— Father, I quarreled with a priest and I do not know how he reacted, whether he cursed me or swore at me, but he is now departed this life and we were not reconciled. What do I do now?

— There is nothing I can do in this case, but there is a holy man to whom I shall send you to and he will help you. Go down to Alexandria, to a basement where there is this cobbler. Tell him I sent you, mention the problem and he will help.

The Christian said to himself: “For goodness’ sake. A hermit cannot help and a layman can?” Nevertheless, out of obedience to the hermit, he did as he was told. The cobbler told him to wait until night fell and then took him to a church in the city. After again telling him to wait, the cobbler went up to the large door made the sign of the cross and it opened. The inside of the church was bathed in light and there was heavenly music. The cobbler told the man:

— Go in there and look at the choirs on the left and right. You’ll see the priest there.

The man went in, saw the priest in the left choir and knelt down and received his forgiveness…

Do you see what a true ascetic effort can achieve? What the soul’s true and honest struggle can do? What did that layman do to purify his soul? When he told the girl he had married that they should live like brother and sister, was that an end to it? No, they fasted and kept vigil together, they made prostrations and read the Gospel. They read Patristic books, went to church, confessed, took Holy Communion, chased away evil thoughts and struggled assiduously. And that is how they became saints “in the world.”

So here is proof that even “in the world,” when Christians take on the struggle with good will, the grace of God does not exclude anyone. But we all make excuses for ourselves and say that because we are “in the world,” we cannot. Desires and passions get the best of us. What do we need to do? Fight in the body and in the soul. In other words, control our thoughts. Thoughts come, sinful fantasies, images, faces, idols and scenes. We must get rid of them immediately with Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. When the mind is careful not to accept all of that and has the divine weapon ready to use, the name of Christ, then every enemy of our soul is slain, whether it be the devil, sordid fantasies or repulsive thoughts. Then, if we guard our soul, mind and heart in this manner, our inner self will remain clean and pure.

Let us struggle now, and the rewards shall be great. Nobody finds grace unless they make the effort. If a farmer does not tend his crops, he will not see any yield. When our fast is accompanied, reinforced and flanked by prayer, study, vigilance, church attendance, Confession, Communion, good works—especially almsgiving—then the beauty of the preparation of the soul for the reception of Holy Week is complete. Then we shall truly experience the Holy and Sacred Passion of Christ more intensely, because our heart will soften, it will alter and it will realize how great God’s love for mankind is. Then, within us, we shall experience very forcibly the Holy Resurrection, we shall celebrate it in a way befitting to God and we shall celebrate Holy Pascha together with the angels. Amen.