At this time we’re entering the great spiritual arena of the blessed Great Lent. Holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction, for repentance, for tears, for a change in ourselves, for a new stage in the spiritual life. Like an affectionate mother caring for her children, us Christians, the Church has designated this time of Lent as dedicated to the struggle, in order to help its children fight harder, to purify themselves, draw closer to God and to counted worthy of celebrating the great day of the radiant Resurrection.
Christians, especially monks, have always paid particular attention to this spiritual arena and have thought it especially sacred, because it’s a period which envisages both spiritual and bodily struggles. There’s 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 other times of the year. There’s a spiritual “defragmentation” and people pay greater attention to the voice of their conscience in order to correct what they’ve maybe neglected and to improve spiritually.
The Church assists us but with penitential hymns and services, as well as with teachings, to oil us up for the fight for the purification of our souls.
We have the penitential evening Divine Liturgies of the Presanctified Gifts. The Presanctified is extremely beneficial. It’s Cherubic Hymn is full of spirituality, contemplation, angelic presence. That’s 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 so pure and clean, so straight in body and soul for divine grace to have its effect. For this reason we must lead very careful lives. Both n our cells and in church we must wet our face with tears so as to wash our souls and be worthy to take communion. Of course, the devil often makes us wanting in compunction, me more than anyone. Which means we can’t have tears and we often have bad thoughts. Bad 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’s not approach the God of lover, Who is so pure and holy.
Throughout this period, at every service in Great Lent, we say the prayer of Saint Efraim the Syrian, whish 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 other virtues we need to take special care with the last case, that of self-censure and of criticism of our bothers and that without love for our fellow human beings there’s no chance of making even the slightest progress towards our spiritual purification. If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, our words and our heart, there’s no benefit in fasting. Fasting is of benefit when it’s combines with love for our neighbour and when we don’t criticize others. When we don’t criticize our fellows and instead criticize ourselves, then we’re 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 neighbour. Love for God and for our fellows are the two great virtues which support the whole of the spiritual structure, because if they are absent, they others cannot take form. “God is love and those who live in God in love have God living in them, too” (I. Jn. 4, 16).
Another issue which demands that we push ourselves as hard as possible is prayer We should pray in the name of Christ, without neglecting any opportunity and without any waste of time. In the personal vigil in our cell, we should push ourselves, shouldn’t let sleep overcome us, nor neglect nor idleness; we should engage willingly I spiritual matters. As soon as we wake up, prayer should take first place then our rule, our prayer-rope, study and the contemplation of God. We should go to church with great readiness and so get the best results from our presence in the arena.
Apart from this, fasting together with bodily exertion helps as regards the forgiveness of sins. “Behold my humility and my efforts and forgive all my sins”. When we labour with the fast, with kneeling, with prayers, with an effort from our heart and mind, this Godly exertion is holy and is richly rewarded by God, because it make people worthy of the crown of glory and honour. The demons fear the fast greatly, because it lays them low. “This kind [of demon] will not depart other than with prayer and fasting”, said the Lord (Math. 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 that the Holy Spirit does nor overshadow people when they’re replete with food and their stomachs are full. And any Christian who desires purification has to start from this foundation which is fasting, prayer and vigilance. When these three are combined, then people have acquired great stature.
In olden times, the 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 on Great Week together in church, existing on a piece of fried rusk and a few nuts a day. We were given the blessing and the grace of knowing ascetic people who spent not only Great Lent in fasting and spiritual struggle.
Our departed elder, Elder Iosif the Cave-Dweller (he used to live in caves, which is where I met him), kept a very strict fast during Great Lent. And, of course, he imposed it on us, too. From Monday to Friday, five days of the week there was no food, except a handful of flour, from which we made a batter with just water. That was it. A little plate every twenty-four hours. And, at the same time, hard work lifting loads on our back during the day and the whole night hundreds of prostrations and hours of prayer. And all of this in order to purify the inner person, to make it cleaner, more honourable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before God and be able to pray for the whole world. Because the world, people everywhere, needs the prayers of the saints, particularly those of ascetics. Saint Anthony the Great supported the whole world with his prayers.
By Elder Ephraim of Arizona, a living legend, a priest-monk for almost 60 years, who has served as an elder for more than 50 years. He was a disciple of Elder Joseph the Hesychast of Mount Athos and lived in monastic obedience to him for 12 years until his Elder’s repose in 1959. He is the spiritual guide of several monasteries on Mount Athos and Greece, and has founded several (20 and going!) monasteries in the United States. He resides in Arizona at St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery.
For those who cannot understand Greek, please do not despair 😃, as there is a translator in English, and Greek and English sessions alternate throughout the video.
[To Be Continued]