Preoccupations and essays by Fr Jonathan Tobias.
"Really," said Gregory, superciliously, "the examples you choose --"
"I beg your pardon," said Syme grimly, "I forgot we had abolished all conventions."
"Before our very eyes, godless historiosophy is inevitably arriving at its total triumph and justification: the idea of the immanent, biological conquest of death by means of natural resurrection. This idea is supposed to plug up all the holes and to overcome the flaws in the theory of immanent progress [i.e., 'evolutionary progress with its immanent achievements of "petty-bourgeois" humanism] ... The idea of technological immortality is beginning to tempt the godless progressivists, who hope to use it to decisively overcome the religious worldview and to achieve the triumph of immanentism by assuring the possibility of definitively making oneself at home on the earth.
"The tendency of de-godded [humanistic resurrectionism] is to eliminate eschatology, to make superfluous and unnecessary the second coming of Christ and the final transfiguration of the world. Therefore the 'project' ... is transformed into the idea of the Tower of Babel, built by theomachic humankind without and against God. Technological resurrection is the supreme and final achievement of 'petty-bourgeois' progress, beyond which ... there is nothing to do. This is the kingdom of insurmountable emptiness and boredom, of mutual cannibalism on the ruins of sentimental love (one of Dostoevsky's nightmares). This is the barrel of the Danaïdes, an effort to deplete the inexhaustible, despair for the thinking mind and the feeling heart. This is the inner end of the antichrist whom Christ 'shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming' (2 Thessalonians 2.8). 'He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision' (Psalm 2.4). [This 'project'] is a touchstone for godless progress. It leads consciousness to the ultimate question about man himself: does he really exist, and what is he? If he is only an aggregate of atoms that fall apart only to be collected again, then man does not really exist. There is no one to resurrect and no one to do the resurrecting: there is only the ewige Wiederkehr [eternal return] nightmare of Ecclesiastes-Nietzsche. A series of illusions arises, in which repetition is taken to be identity, since the latter cannot be subjectless. Therefore, the de-godded 'project' is not the triumph but the total collapse of the theory of progress, an abyss of despair that opens up before man at the end of his path."
And here is the appended note:
"It would take the art of a Dostoevsky to show the whole depth of this collapse: A mother who, by the regulation of natural forces, gets back her raised son and, by the instinct of a mother's heart, sees in him a deceitful double, not a son but an automaton; a fiance who, instead of his beloved, embraces a robot and knows it is a robot. Mannequins can only mechanically reproduce but cannot creatively unite the past with the future, continuing one life. The character of the mechanical repetition that replaces identity is not altered by the fact that 'raised' robots are produced not only by a mechanical agglomeration of corporeal or corporealized particles of cosmic matter, but also by an addition of physiological elements, including spermatozoids; for in the living individual the body is only the substrate of the spirit that lives in it. The body is such only in relation to and in union with the spirit living in it, but outside of this union it is a robot. It is theoretically possible to fabricate an indefinite number, a crowd, of robots that repeat one another but that thereby recede farther and farther away from the original."
-- Fr Sergius Bulgakov, in "History," from The Bride of the Lamb, p346
"The times are late and get later, not by decades but by years and months. This tempo of change, which in the world of affairs and in the physical sciences makes schemes and data out-moded and irrelevant overnight, presents peculiar and phenomenal difficulties to the making of works, and almost insuperable difficulties to the making of certain kinds of works [i.e., art in general, and poetry especially]; as when, for one reason or another, the making of these works has been spread over a number of years. The reason is not far to seek. The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. But there is a time factor affecting these signs. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase [e.g., like the High Middle Ages]. These and kindred problems have presented themselves to me with a particular clarity and an increasing acuteness. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.
"In the late nineteen-twenties and early 'thirties among my most immediate friends there used to be discussed something that we christened 'The Break'. We did not discover the phenomenon so described; it had been evident in various ways to various people for perhaps a century; it is now, I supposed, apparent to most. Or at least now see that in the nineteenth century, Western Man moved across a rubicon which, if as unseen as the 38th Parallel, seems to have been as definitive as the Styx. That much is I think generally appreciated. But it was not the memory-effacing Lethe that was crossed; and consequently, although man has found much to his liking, advantage, and considerable wonderment, he has still retained ineradicable longings for, as it were, the farther shore. The men of the nineteenth century exemplify this at every turn; all the movements betray this if in all kinds of mutually contradictory ways. We are their inheritors, and in however metamorphosed a manner we share their basic dilemmas ...
"When in the 'twenties we spoke of this Break it was always with reference to some manifestation of this dilemma vis-à-vis the arts -- and of religion also, but only in so far as religion has to do with signs, just have the arts.
"That is to say our Break had reference to something which was affecting the entire world of sacrament and sign. We were not however speculating on, or in any way questioning dogma concerning 'The Sacraments'. On the contrary, such dogma was taken by us for granted -- was indeed our point of departure. It was with the corollaries, the implications and the analogies of such dogma that we were concerned. Our speculations under this head were upon how increasingly isolated such dogma had become, owing to the turn civilization had taken, affecting signs in general and the whole connotation and concept of sign."
-- David Jones, in his preface to his great and mysterious work, Anathémata
These days, there is a lot of anxiety about the end of the world. It doesn't seem to matter whether you're a religious person or not.
Many Christians (outside the Orthodox Church) think about "the End" as a horrific time of the Rapture, Tribulation and the Battle of Armageddon. In an oddly related way, secular non-religious folk have their own brand of dreary "end times" eschatology. They’re convinced of equally horrific figures like over-population, the over-warming of the earth, the Yellowstone Caldera, asteroids hitting the earth, catastrophic viral epidemics, even the take-over of human civilization by artificial intelligence.
I am not exaggerating here, nor am I poking fun at either of these too-large groups of people. I think we are right to be concerned about some of these issues.
But we are not right to be so afraid. And no one has a right to be a fear-monger who whips up such fear, whether they are religious or scientific. People can learn to be better stewards of the earth with its flora and fauna without browbeating them with specters of environmental collapse. Too often, a lot of anxiety is stoked by breathless projections of over-population and demographic change — projections, I might add, that are often based on some pretty lousy handling of statistics. And these projections, in turn, are often used for political purposes, including legalized abortion and politically-expedient ethnic strife.
With regard to the bogeyman of “artificial intelligence,” we should keep in mind that there is an infinite difference between machine computation and human consciousness: even a super quantum computer like the IBM Q System One will never approach the consciousness of my West Highland terrier Wilbur, let alone any human being. We should also “follow the money”: behind every “artificial intelligence” and “big data” scheme is a bunch of programmers who are quite human, who are in the pay of a hidden away group of people who are making, out of big data, a lot of big (and wicked) money.
There is a significant increase, now, of cases of depression and acute anxiety — an increase that is due in large part to fear about the future and the end of the world (or our American way of life).
Likewise, too many Christians (maybe even some Orthodox) are frightened of the future, and have fallen into a soul-crushing dread of the Last Day (not to mention the terror of afterlife retribution).
But salvation — or rather, theosis — should be drawn by love, not driven by terror ... invited by the Shepherd, not bound by a taskmaster. I understand that such a proposition is usually dismissed as mere sentiment, and is associated with people who believe neither in Scripture or the Creed. That is not my case whatsoever.
I understand, too, that there have been several Fathers of Holy Tradition who have insisted that raising these terrifying eschatological specters in sermons (and ecclesial rhetoric in general) is necessary to encourage virtue among the faithful. Many fundamentalist preachers in the Protestant community hold the same opinion. This is a sort of "instrumentalization" of eschatology.
But I wonder about this. It is not clear to me that eschatological terror produces real virtue at all. It is more likely to produce despair, if not apostasy and atheism. It is not for nothing that Evdokimov suggested that one of the main causes of European atheism was the legacy of the Calvinist teaching of double-predestination, and a voluntaristic theology that had more in common with Islam than the Trinitarian theology of Holy Tradition.
So there are a few things we should keep in mind — considerations that are even more important than the “secular” fears above.
For one thing, the Rapture Theory is a recent invention (from the mid-1800’s) from the Revivalist segment of the Protestant movement. It should go without saying that this teaching about a “Rapture” is at best heterodox, and at worst is heretical, if not pagan. We Orthodox should never worry about being “left behind,” simply because there is no such thing as a “Rapture.”
You read that right. When Jesus returns at the Second Coming, that will be the Last Day, the Great Judgment, the General Resurrection, and the Universal Transfiguration of Creation by the Holy Spirit all at once. These events will not be separated into separate chronological events.
This is what is meant by our affirmation of faith in the Nicene Creed: “… and His Kingdom shall have no end.” This statement was added at the Second Ecumenical Council, just for the purpose of overcoming the tendency to impose a chronological sequence on the events of the Parousia.
Thus, there will be no separation, no discrete chronological intervals, no gaps.
For another thing, the book of Revelations (or better, The Apocalypse of St John the Theologian) is a special kind of biblical literature that we call “apocalyptic.” This means that very often, there is no simple, “plain reading” of the text. This is true for all biblical passages that talk about the End Times and the afterlife, including Jesus’ description of the End Times in Matthew 24.4-36 (and its parallels in Mark 13.3-37 and Luke 21.8-36), and Jesus’ description of the afterlife in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) and His answer to the Sadducees about marriage in heaven (Matthew 22.29-30).
If the End Times (and “life after death") are discussed in the Bible (and the Fathers), then great care has to be taken in trying to understand these passages. The Apocalypse of St John in particular requires a thorough knowledge of not only the Old Testament apocalyptic of Daniel and Ezekiel, but also similar texts in the Maccabees and Esdras, and even the non-canonical texts of Jubilees and Enoch. There are many difficult symbols that have to be interpreted with much prayer and deep wisdom and hard scholarly work. Simple "what does that mean to you?" neighborhood Bible studies and Sunday Schools can and do take disastrous turns when venturing into the mysterious space of Revelation.
And there’s one more important thing. The Orthodox Church has no single dogmatic, mandatory doctrinal statement about the End Times, other than “… and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, and His Kingdom shall have no end.” There have been, indeed, a lot of Patristic teaching about the End Times that goes into more detail than that — but these specific interpretations are not at the level of Orthodox dogma.
But the End Times passages in the Fathers and in the Bible describe clearly that, to be sure, there is a constant struggle with the spirit of the Antichrist in this here and now. We live in the interval between Pentecost and the Last Day. At times, the work of this evil power will seem overwhelming. Some times, we struggle with the Antichrist in our own familiar communities, even in our own consciousness. Many times, there has been persecution inflicted from the outside, resulting in unimaginable suffering and martyrdom. There has never been a “Rapture,” because the Body of Christ is called to suffer with humanity and the world, not to cravenly escape from its travail.
But there has always been the constant spiritual Presence of Jesus Christ — the gift of Pentecost.
Through it all, the Holy Tradition of Orthodoxy witnesses and celebrates the even greater power of the Body of Christ. Christ is reigning at the Right Hand of God the Father, and even now the Father is delivering the Kingdom — realizing the glory of Christ through the Holy Spirit — to His Son: “Sit and My Right Hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool” (St Peter in Acts 2.34-35, quoting Psalm 109.1 LXX).
The New Jerusalem is even now descending (Revelation 21.2), and the Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4.17 and about four other places). It is our part, as the Church, to cooperate with God in receiving the actual landing of the beautiful city — a “landing” that will be accomplished at the Last Day.
If a person is overcome by dread, and becomes despairing of the End Times — whether they are Christian or secular — then they have not been thinking about the Last Day in an Orthodox healthy way. The Last Day fills us with hope: if there is no hope, then we must have been tuning into the wrong station (or looking at sanctimonious-but-dreadful web sites).
"There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear." St John wrote this in his first epistle (4.18). The early Christian community knew this well. When they thought about the end of the world, their attitude sharply differed from the modernist one of panic and dread.
They knew, beyond any doubt, that the Last Day would be the return of Jesus Christ to the world in glory. Unlike his first coming in Bethlehem, this second coming would be obvious to everyone. The entire world would recognize him at once as the loving God, clearly beautiful as the powerful but merciful Prince of Peace.
At that moment, the entire universe will be bathed in glory, and in the fullness of divine love.
To be sure, there will be those whose entire life is built on violence and hatred, and their experience of this Last Day glory will be appalling. According to Orthodox doctrine, this horrible allergic reaction against Divine Love is exactly what hell is. Obviously, the devil is the worst, most insane, case of this sort of existential “anaphylactic shock.”
But to those who live for love, who breathe in peace, who give their lives away in mercy and service, who wait upon beauty and goodness, who seek to be deified in the Body of Christ -- then for these, the Last Day when Jesus comes back to this earth will be a day of unbounded joy.
These early Christians looked upon the Last Day with hope. They had a motto: "Marana Tha!" Which means (from the Aramaic), "Come quickly, Lord!" They wanted to see, in their own lifetime, the Lord who calls us all his “friends" (John 15.15). Not enemies or slaves of fate and objects of deterministic manipulation, born only to sorrow, not lashed by fear.
The end of the world is really all about the return of the Friend, the infinite Lover of humanity. It is something to be hoped for, and lived for in breathless anticipation.
One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from Holy Tradition is the practice of reading the Psalms every week.
The Psalms are divided into 20 divisions, and we read 2 divisions (ie “kathismata”) in the morning and 1 (“kathisma”) in the evening.
I’ve done this for a number of years. The Psalms have continually taken on deeper meanings, and have become formative to my worldview, my thought processes and my emotions (when I’m more amenable to the Spirit, which I must say, isn’t always).
I will also say that the Psalms have probably saved my life on occasion. I do not think this is an exaggeration.
Yes, I’m proselytizing, but proselytizing for this Psalmic practice that becomes an outlook, even affecting one’s lifestyle.
Much of Psalmody is clear, open even to a plain reading. Some Psalmody is far more mysterious, to the point where a plain reading is either unclear or even depressing. The Psalms of Imprecation are a good example of this, and we can no longer be guided by a simple interpretation (ie that would suggest cursing or taking revenge upon human enemies)
At all points, though, the Lamb and the Bride (ie the Church in her full, mystical reality) are saying, “Come, join with us.”
I’m thinking of starting, in the near or not so near future, a website on the Psalter, with some suggested translation for personal reading and helpful interpretation.
Until then, I have a few preliminary notes on the Psalms that your welcome to. Send me a comment on this page or email me if you’re interested.
But in any case, delve into this prayerbook of Jesus.
Sometimes, the need to respond to the calls of authentic Orthodoxy (especially in ecclesiology and evangelism) need to occur whether membership and finances demand it or not. Even if an Orthodox parish is numbered in the hundreds instead of the tens, and the balance sheet is seven or eight figures instead of three or four. God gives the increase, but in the fallen world, decrease is the norm.
For the moment, I'll say that evangelism and outreach, if motivated by survival (from watching falling statistics), will probably not work, and will certainly be morally wrong.
When I mentioned "Balkanization" in the last post, I was referring specifically to the alienation between American Orthodox jurisdictions/communities that has happened as a consequence of disagreements between our mother churches in the old country.
I think that language and ethnic custom are secondary concerns. I certainly do not subscribe to the notion that there is anything particularly holy about two or three or four old languages. That sort of thinking is suspiciously like the agenda of Cyril and Methodius' Franko-Roman persecutors, who insisted that church speech should only be done in Latin, Greek or Hebrew (the 3 languages inscribed above Jesus on the Cross). Cyril and Methodius were committed to the evangel, which demands the vernacular. Their commitment, by the way, did not extinguish their own language: they frequently used Greek words to fill in the gaps where the Slavic language had no meaningful term (e.g., "axios," "epitrachelion).
I am not proposing any sort of accommodation to hyper-modernity (which was suggested by other commenters, sometimes in creepy oracular diction). My main point was that I am asking for a "hierarchy" of affiliation, that we American Orthodox people would see ourselves as 1) first, the Body of Christ; then 2) as the Orthodox Church; then 3) as the American community of the Orthodox Church; and then, and only then, 4) an ethnic sub-category of the American Orthodox community.
I understand that this makes various hierarchical commitments complicated. I will say this in black and white: it is melancholic and deeply disturbing when hierarchical directions are handed down that restrain ordained clergy from praying with each other or canonical Orthodox communities from worshiping with each other. When American clergy are seen and heard launching into invective about who is persecuting who in Eastern Europe and which Patriarchate is at fault, then that dread warning comes into play — the one about making children stumble. and the blind leading the blind.
Rest assured (I say this particularly to my ACROD friends), I will continue to sing "O kto kto" on December 6 (now that I'm new calendar). I will sing "Christos Voskrese" joyfully, and sing "Plotiju" in tears, every year. I long for a better unity in our Orthodox community— but a unity that cherishes difference in heritage, in location, in each community. The demand for uniformity is not Orthodox, not spiritual, not humane or even human.
Every sermon, every Scripture reading, every "I believe" will be in definitively modern English, completely accessible to the person on the street, as understandable as I, the celebrant, can possibly make it.
After all, did not the Apostle Paul say this? "If you in a tongue utter speech that is not intelligible,, how will any one know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning; but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church" (1 Corinthians 14.9-12).
You cannot be a foreigner. Just as the Apostolic Church had to, in synergy with the Holy Spirit, come to a point where Christians did not have to become Jewish first, so we must get to a similar point where we never demand that to become Orthodox, Americans should first become Russian or Greek.
The only true meaning of American Orthodoxy is theosis, the divine-humanity in this country, for the people who live here now in whatever tongue they speak.
Theosis, here in America. In a unified though variegated society coast-to-coast that cares for the poor and desperate and enters every day into the Eighth.
It is time now that Orthodoxy should become more American and less identified with the old country.
We should be more affiliated with each other in this culture (no matter how shallow we think it is, or negative) than any other culture (e.g., Greek or Russian, Arab or anything else across the pond). The only other language (besides modern English) that we should be speaking/singing in church should be Spanish.
I love my adopted Rusyn culture and serving in our Carpathian version of Church Slavonic. But I'll drop that in a flash if it becomes an obstacle to any American communicability.
We should be more American and neighborly and civic-minded, even -- if it comes down to it -- at the expense of our old world cultural identity. Cultural identity may not be, and probably is never, a virtue.
We should be more theologically-minded than perspicacious about the Rudder canons, the separating and divisive boundaries, the supercilious rubrical differentials.
It is a horrible, melancholy thing that in American Orthodoxy, the canons have become cannons.
We should be more prayerful, more attuned to the realities of the one Heavenly Liturgy than to the fastidious and prettiest performance of liturgy.
We should be known by love, by the fruits of the Spirit, by true prophecy and wisdom. That is why real Orthodoxy (and Christianity in general) was given as a gift to the world in the first place.
It is not just for us, not an escape hatch, and certainly not a floating cloud from where we can watch the earth-bound suffer their us-less fate.
Because there is no "them." "They" belong to "we."
And we live in this place. It's time that Cyril and Methodius should finally arrive in America. Obviously, they have not made it here yet.
This post might raise the hackles of the algorithm gods of FB, but here goes.
We should all be aware that social media (especially this one) is driven by profit, regardless of virtue.
It is highly profitable that we get sorted into various and different groups. People (or faceless nameless corporate entities) are making heaps of money from this forced balkanization.
There is more to this separation and tearing apart of community than just FB responding to my tastes or your peculiar interests. There are many, many algorithms in Zuckerburg's water-cooled data farms that drive us into these little opinion ghettos.
They drive us into groups that are defined more by what we are against, or what we dislike and by unease, anxiety and even paranoia. These negative attractions far outweigh any positive appeals.
These is easily seen in the uptick of racist hate groups. Unfortunately, this phenomenon has become something of an easy distraction, functioning as a simple dismissal along the lines of "Well, I certainly am not like that" or "We don't act like IS jihadists or Aryan Nation White Nationalists."
The difficulty is worse than that. The toxin has hit much, much closer to home.
Look at our Christian community in general, and Orthodoxy in particular. We are split now between Constantinople and Moscow. I have former correspondents now who no longer communicate with me simply because I am a priest associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. We are fragmented between those who are neo-patristic/neo-palamitic and those who are sophiological, or more given to systematic theology and philosophical methodology. We like to troll each other for perceived errors and post patristic quotes that are posed as rebuttals. We identify ourselves as guardians of the true faith and willingly engage in ad hominem artillery fire, which is entertaining for fellow group members and startling to anyone looking for the peace of the Body of Christ.
Indeed, a lot of this is our own personal, individual fault. That is always the case.
But frankly, it is not ALL our fault. Facebook (and other platforms) are making money off of our mud wrestling. Nothing is more satisfying to some vested interests than watching an Orthodox priest hurling self-righteous invective at various objects, whether they are straw men, theologians who simply don't care, or other clergy who will climb into the mud pit with them, while the drunks in the bar pass money to the oddsmaker.
The internet is truly a dangerous, toxic place. I agree with Neal Stephenson's characterization of it (in his newest novel, The Fall) as "The Miasma."
But you would think Christian FB-ers would be less miasmic.
Here's my plea. Let us all -- whether you are Constantinopolitan or Muscovite, OCA or Ukrainian, capitalist Christian or socialist Christian -- put down our cyber guns.
Let us stop performing circus acts for Zuckerburg's Big Top.
After all, the real enemy is none of us. And the real enemy can't be shot at.
Today, you might see a friend or a neighbor walking around with an odd smudge on their forehead. If you look closely, the smudge is drawn in the shape of a Cross. And then it will occur to you that today is Ash Wednesday.
The person bearing that sign of an ashen Cross had gone to church earlier. There, they had probably listened to a reading of Psalm 51. At the end of the service, they went forward, and the priest or minister marked their forehead with ash. Traditionally, the ashes were produced by burning some palms from last year’s Palm Sunday.
In the old days, the priest used to say "Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris" (that is, ”Remember, man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”). Nowadays, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” is more likely, or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
For Western Christians, this is the beginning of Lent. Today is exactly 46 days before Easter Sunday on April 21st.
For Eastern Orthodox Christians (like me), Lent begins next Sunday evening on March 10th: and Easter is a week later, on April 28th. We Orthodox do not do the imposition of ashes. Rather, the whole first week of Lent is given to a more demanding fast, and the beautiful, haunting (and poignant) Canon of St Andrew of Crete. In the Canon, we are called to experience, first hand, the spiritual crises and turning points of one Biblical character after another.
In any case, our Lent is about the same time and duration. And for Christians of the West and the East, Lent is a season of repentance, and a call to stronger belief and works of love.
For a lot of folk, some favorite food or luxury is given up until Easter as a sort of symbolic sacrifice. I have a friend who gives up Pepsi every Lent: this, I thought, was quirky, as I’m used to people giving up chocolate, the lottery or beer. But she explained: “I drink Pepsi every day. I don’t need it, but I really like it. I give it up for Lent, because it helps me remember what was given up for me.”
She hit the nail squarely on the head. Lent is just for that: remembrance, in the deepest meaning of the term.
I grew up in a revivalist church, and I mean that literally. Fifty years ago, I went to one-week or two-week-long revivals every Spring and every Fall. Each evening service started at 7 pm and ended up at 9 or thereafter. There would be special music every night (my favorites were the blue grass gospel bands), and the preaching would last for about an hour (at least, that’s how I saw it).
The aim of all these services was indeed to revive, to deepen one’s faith, to strengthen one’s commitment. This was the goal of revivals, church camp, youth rallies, missionary conventions, Billy Graham Crusades — I went to all these things.
Obviously, I don’t attend the revivalist church of my youth anymore, but some things haven’t changed, like the whole idea of “revival.”
Lent is Revival — seven whole weeks of it. If you think about it this way, it doesn’t seem so odd or exotic.
In the Orthodox tradition that I’m part of, much emphasis in Lent is put upon fasting, prayer, generosity, and work for love. The fasting probably gets more focus than it should. The entire aim of fasting is a lot simpler and more positive than is usually thought. Fasting has nothing to do with self-punishment. It has everything to do with trying to eat (and consume in general) more simply, and retreating (as best as one can) from the clamor of a frenetic, conflicted world. Many people have found that following, at least for a short few weeks, a clean and — dare I say it — meatless diet has an amazing effect on clarity of thought and management of emotion: especially if one fasts from the constant feed of the digital world.
There’s lot of prayer in Lent, as one might expect. There are more services in church. Traditionally, private devotions at home are expanded. Some of my friends read through the entire book of Psalms every week in Lent. Others take long walks, or spend an hour in complete silence, every Lenten day. Anyone can join in on this: there are many, many Lenten resources from various religious traditions — Protestant (including mainline, evangelical and charismatic); Episcopalian; Roman Catholic; and, of course, Eastern Orthodox.
Generosity (or almsgiving) really ought to get more attention (and observance) than fasting. Generosity takes the form of giving money to good causes and to people in need (this sort of personal and direct charity is the most important). But it can also take the form of giving time and self to the lonely, the friendless, the isolated. Generosity of self means peacemaking, forgiveness, patience and forbearance, having the courage to make things right. Charity is done anonymously: after all, “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6.3). Probably shouldn’t take pictures or expect thank you notes.
Work for the sake of love. A wizened old long-bearded monk once told me, in his dapper English accent, “If Christianity doesn’t produce love, then whatever it was wasn’t Christianity in the first place.” The whole idea of Lent is rather pragmatic: fasting, attending church, being generous — these actions are worthwhile only if they are means to an end (i.e., greater love for God and others).
In fact, it shouldn’t even be obvious if you and I are fasting: Someone Famous once let on that when one is fasting, one should go around looking normal. One should not broadcast their religiosity to the world by looking as though they’d been sucking lemons all their life.
I don’t look upon Lent as a heavy, brooding time. For my part, Lent is undetachable from Spring. Things get green again. The sun is warmer, the sky is brighter. Flowers strew their crimsons and azures, their golden white through the gardens.
The season of Lent is like when the night is breaking and almost done: the entire landscape (both within and without) is getting ready for the rising of the sun.
On Monday mornings, one of the appointed Psalms is Psalm 36 (37 in the non-LXX numbering). This Psalm has a list of imperatives (i.e., commands) that are especially meaningful in an increasingly alienated, violent culture:
"Hope in the Lord and give grace generously, dwell in His land, and you will be tended by its richness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart. Reveal your way to the Lord, set your hope only in Him, and He shall bring your hope to pass" (36.3-5)
"Submit to the Lord, plead with Him alone for your needs, never envy the one who prospers in his self-made way, never envy the one who appears successful in wicked schemes. Cease from all anger and forsake wrath, let not envy lead to evil deeds" (36.7-8)
"Depart from evil and do good, dwell forevermore in the [transfigured] earth, the inheritance of the meek" (36.27)
"Wait on the Lord, endure patiently His way [through this wilderness], and He will exalt you to inherit the earth; and you shall see all the demonic works utterly destroyed [eventually in the Parousia]" (36.34)
"Preserve innocence, witness and confirm uprightness, for such is what remains for the peaceful" (36.37)
Obviously, this is a paraphrase. It is my own and thus has no authority.
But these imperatives seem to me a more authoritative rubric for this Lent. Fasting (and other ascetic works) is valuable and rewarding, to be sure -- only insofar as it aids in love, and prayer, and the accomplishment of these greater commands.
Presently, it appears that human society is breaking apart like melting arctic ice.
Leadership structures have become increasingly partisan and tribalistic. And some of this is at least partly true in the church itself (at least in its institutional contours).
"Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples," the Prophet Isaiah said for times like these. "I will wait for Lord, Who is [now] hiding His face from the house of Jacob [could that be us? even us Orthodox?], but I will still hope in Him. Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord Sabaoth, Who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, 'Consult the mediums and the wizards who chirp and mutter,' should not a people consult their God instead? Should they consult the dead [i.e., dead, secularized minds and authorities] on behalf of the living? To the teaching and the testimony!" (Isaiah 8.16-20a)
We've too long put too much trust in mortal princes (whose incompetence in the true economy is becoming increasingly more apparent). Now we are forced by time and history to put our trust in God alone.
So now it's high time we hie to the teaching and testimony. It's wisdom and the theology of the Logos that our people need, not to mention the poignant need of our own souls.