The Beginning of Lent
Tonight at the Vespers of Forgiveness, Lent will begin. It is a time of cleansing. It is our yearly pilgrimage of returning to the Lord. It is also a time of joy: a joyful feast. We all remember what the prophet Zachariah used to say: It is a joyful feast for the Lord; let us sanctify the fast.
Therefore let us try to imagine the joy for each of us and for all of us collectively as a community. Let us imagine the joy of being freed from that which enslaves us to darkness. We shall be free from the spirit of sloth. We shall be free from despondency. We shall be free from idle talk. We shall be free finally from our lust for power. These are the words of the prayer of Saint Ephraim which is said at every service during the Lenten period. I urge you to say this prayer at least once a day. This prayer is a blessing which was given to us. Saying it with the words inscribed on the walls of the chamber of our heart will help us in our struggle. And it will bring joy. There is a great grace in that prayer.
However, I can hear the voices of many of us: “My heart remains cold, lukewarm. I cannot pray.” But, how could we pray and burn with a longing for God, if we still indulge in slothfulness, laziness and sloppiness? Everything we do must be done with our whole heart. Completely giving ourselves to what we are doing and not halfway, half-heartedly. And when we have finished something, then we must put our tools aside — like a useless servant, without considering what has been done: it is up to God — and start something else in the same way. Let us do it with our whole heart. If we decide to start acting that way, then we should not wait for great and heroic deeds; they may never happen in our lives and, anyway, they would for sure lead us to pride. The small things of daily life are most important; it is a safe ground: washing dishes, scrubbing the kitchen floor, baking prosphora, singing in the choir. And doing these tasks regularly; putting our whole heart in doing them. The remedy to the spirit of sloth is patience, steadfastness. Going on, apparently like some sort of mechanics, but in reality with constant compunction of heart.
Nonetheless, I can still hear the voices of many of us: “My heart remains cold, lukewarm. I cannot pray.” How could we pray and burn with a longing for God if we indulge in despondency. In other words, if we feel sorry for ourselves. We do that very often, because “despite what we may say” it is pleasant to feel sorry for oneself. We must turn away from our own concern and look at our brothers and sisters who are in need. Here is an example: “Today I don’t feel like going to Church”; or: “Today I don’t feel like going to choir practice.” When we are in such a state, let us have a thought for those Christians throughout the world who are persecuted for their faith, who cannot attend Church or must hide in basements, in hidden and secret places to worship. They risk their lives when they attend a liturgy. As for us who are free to worship, we are sometimes reluctant to do it. Last week, somebody in this assembly said something very truthful: “We have to be thankful for what we have.” This is a word of wisdom. Let us keep it in our hearts and repeat it when we are ready to pamper ourselves. The remedy to the spirit of despondency and feeling sorry for oneself is Love.
Still I can hear the voices of many of us: “My heart remains cold, lukewarm. I cannot pray.” And again I will tell you: How could we pray? How could we feel the burning, the longing for God if we indulge in idle talk? We must free ourselves from idle talk. Our mouth is both our best friend and our worst enemy, as it is stressed everywhere in the Old testament and in the Epistle of Saint James. From the mouth come forth praise and worship. From the mouth come forth also cursing and blasphemy. Let us take an example. How can we be witness of the Lord Jesus Christ if after the liturgy, after we have sung praises with our mouths, we go downstairs for coffee and then indulge in idle talks? Then we have opinions on everything; strong opinions. The meekness and piety we have showed during the liturgy disappears. We do not listen to the other, because we are too busy trying to win an argument. We have worldly talks about completely idle things. We laugh immoderately — while all the Fathers say that laughing loudly kills prayer. We can even hear much bashing of other communities: this terrible bashing which kills prayer because it shows that respect of others has vanished. We refuse to anyone who is different the right to be different. In other words, we lack in love, tenderness and compassion. This is why we cannot pray. The remedy is humility and meekness. I invite you to read and meditate the recent newsletter on humility, published by the monks a couple weeks ago.
Despite all this, I can hear the voices of many of us: “My heart remains cold, lukewarm. I cannot pray.” Again, how could we pray and long for God when we indulge constantly in lust for power? This is the fourth passion underlined by Saint Ephraim. Lust for power is pride. We know very well to what it leads: it leads to war or wars. What happens in the world right now is the best example. Our communities, monasteries as well as parishes, are also places where lust for power flourishes. Where does it go? It leads to the destruction of the community, be it a parish or a monastery. When lust for power engenders suspicion, then Satan has almost won the battle. The remedy, our weapon of peace, is chastity of mind and spirit. We have to seek purity of heart.
So we are in a time of joy. Not excitement and thrills; it is a peaceful joy. Not the joy of the false prophets of Baal, but the deep and peaceful joy of Elias when he discovered the Lord’s presence in a light wind. If we do not see that the Lenten struggle is real, and is a source of joy because we are invited to change and become what we really are in truth; if we see it as a penance, then we still are under the influence of the Godless world. We have not met Christ yet. I wish to all of us to meet Him during this pilgrimage. It is the struggle of light and life against the spirit of darkness that enslaves us. Let us struggle as a community, helping each other and relying on each other.
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