Preparatory Contemplation for the great fast of Holy Lent

What is the purpose of the Christian life?

Ask this question and you are sure to get a variety of answers, as varied as ‘Go to Church’, ‘Pray to God’, or ‘Do the commandments’ or even ‘Do good’.   Fasting, prayer, vigil and other spiritual disciplines are not the sum aim of the Christian life but the means to an end.

The true aim of the Christian life is this – the acquisition of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God.  This is the path of discipleship of Christ, to become ‘Christ-like’, which is why we venerate the holy martyrs first and foremost amongst the community of saints for their self sacrifice.  Fasting, prayer, almsgiving and good deeds done – for Christ’s sake – are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit.  Of course I am speaking to the Christian community who has undergone the light of illumination by entering into the sacramental mysteries, particularly Baptism and Chrismation.

Ephesians 4:25 ff

25 Therefore, putting away lying, “Let each one of you speak truth with his neighbour”, for we are members of one another. 26 “Be angry, and do not sin” do not let the sun go down on your wrath, 27 nor give place to the devil. 28 Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labour, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. 29 Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.’

The holy apostle Saint Paul in his letter to the Ephesians reminds us that our Christian virtue is our identity, and we must not corrupt ourselves because in doing so we grieve the Holy Spirit, by whom we were ‘sealed’.  I want to comment on the term – sealed.  Cain was marked on his forehead as a warning to the people of his murderous crime against the holy and righteous Abel.  Alternatively, Christians in the Orthodox Church are marked with cross during the sacrament of Chrismation, one of the eastern Churches actually refers to this as ‘sealing’ in their liturgical acclamations.  Unlike the mark of Cain, this sign is the sign of victory and blessing, the sign of the true messianic community.  This is the sealing of the Holy Spirit on a believers life, and yet it is evident that His grace can be grieved and even leave us should we chose to forsake His path, which is why we are taught in our daily prayers to pray for mercy, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’

All we do that is not done for the sake of Christ brings no reward in the future life or the grace of God in the present – even if it is an apparently good act.  We are reminded that the path to destruction is broad compared to the way of life…

Thank God then, that his love and mercy are infinite!  Recently, we celebrated the fast and feast of Jonah the holy prophet.  The people of Nineveh, upon hearing the prophetic warning of doom responded in a most unusual fashion – as a nation of gentiles, they repented, en masse, and covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes, including their livestock.  Of course, this is a sign to us that the message of repentance and the path to salvation would be opened up to all nations and peoples.  Did you ever hear of such repentance in all of Israel?

Perhaps, Israel came close in the time of the forerunner Saint John the Baptist.  He brought a message of condemnation for sin and invoked people to repentance, and indeed his fame as a holy man was known through all the land.  He baptised a nation, excepting the temple authorities, the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees who treated him with jealous contempt.  However, even they would not dare to bring accusation against him in the sight of the people, in whose hearts his authenticity as a prophet was true.  He taught people, to fear God…

It is common in society to portray the ancient Churches as promoting fear of God to maintain some kind of totalitarian rule over ignorant masses.  However, the fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom, because it leads to the pursuit of holiness in our life, which is the act of purifying ourselves in the majestic light of divinity – which ultimately is an experience of the love of God!

Back then to deeds, it is actually Christ our Lord Himself, who makes our deeds living!

Hebrews 6:1

‘…let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God…’

The inference here is that there are works which are dead, and those which are living.  Those committed for Christ’s sake are then those which are living.

In the Church Fathers there is a teaching that ‘There is a way which seems good at the beginning, but it ends at the bottom of hell!’  We may see this as a warning against making bad decisions and being trapped into thinking we are progressing spiritually in what seem good deeds.  This is the danger of those who would try to lead their own spiritual path without the wisdom of the Church.

Saint Anthony, the great instigator of monasticism taught in his letters the following.

We are influenced by three wills.  Firstly, God’s all perfect and all saving will.  Secondly, our own will, which if not destructive is neither, saving.  Finally, there is the Devil’s will which is completely destructive.  The third will prompts no good deeds, or for them to   be committed for vanity.”

It is vital then for the spiritual life that we follow the example of the Gospel and commit ourselves to live out the commandments of Christ.  There is a warning in one of the parables of the danger of forsaking this urge to practice good deeds for Christ.

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins awaiting the bridegroom is the perfect example from the mouth of Christ our Lord Himself.  Oil is symbolic and the means by which God’s grace and Spirit are transmitted in both the Old and New Testaments.  The acquisition of the Holy Spirit then is like the oil the foolish virgins lacked, and so they went out into the marketplace (the world) trying to find some and in doing so missed the coming of the bridegroom.  They are foolish then because they forgot the fruit of virtuous deeds.

On this point I want to share a point from Saint Isaac the Syrian.  Indeed, some modern commentators have contemplated whether Saint Isaac the Syrian was Enoch walking the earth again, bathing in the light of eternal glory due to the immense depth of his teaching.   Regardless, he is one of the most loved spiritual writers of all ages amongst a broad spectrum of apostolic Churches.

When we commit works with purity as their goal for the sake of Christ, we do not shake off or erase blameworthy deeds committed in the past, but they do take away the grief of the memory from our minds….The whole sum of deeds of mercy brings the soul into the unity of God.”

Clearly there is transformative power in following the directions of the Gospel.  I would like to encourage all of you to work at this and increase our time in prayer and reflection.

I want to share with you a spiritual practice I hope I can work at this lent – Reading the Holy Scriptures.  We should not read the Holy Bible as we read any other book.  It is sacred text, which reveals God to us – Emmanuel, the Logos.  It is not a text to be ’investigated’, as is common amongst many so called experts who approach it, but rather we are to put the text above our minds and read it (aloud) with careful, prayerful diligence, submitting ourselves to its meaning allowing God to inspire us through His word.

On the feast of the presentation of the Lord in the temple which has just passed, it is the Coptic Orthodox liturgical tradition after the reading of the Gospel for the priest to take the Gospels and after a procession around the altar, he stands at the royal doors, the entrance to the heykal – sanctuary  (a symbol of both the heavenly temple, a reminder of the elder Symeon holding the incarnate Christ), and the people come forward to take the blessing of the Gospels as a symbol of the incarnate Logos.  How blessed we are for the rites of the ancient Church!

Spiritual memorisation, through prayerful study, is a Divinely inspired spiritual practice which reveals deep truths from the Holy Scriptures, as opposed to the intellectual path of analytical investigation prevalent amongst protestants and other western groups.  Whilst historical study is useful, it is not the way to approach the books as the key to unlocking their secrets, which is essentially a form of Gnosticism.  The ancient monastic method of studying the Holy Bible prayerfully is the inspiration of the great theological contemplations of the early Alexandrian Fathers in particular; thus the mind is open to the text allowing the Holy Spirit to be our teacher.

 John 14:26

 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.

God gives us this understanding, a promise from Christ our Lord, and when we are truly inspired we don’t just remember a verse but there is an irresistible wisdom and spiritual power revealing the glory of the verse and the power of God within it.

This is the opposite of using the Holy Bible as a source of proof texts and verses, for the ‘Words I spoke to you are Spirit and life…’ JOHN 6:63

Revelation 19:10

“For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” and this is especially true of the sacred Gospels, for these books are spiritual, and cannot be fathomed by purely intellectual pursuits.  In fact, if you are living outside of it you cannot possibly understand them, which is why they belong at the heart of the Orthodox liturgy and worship.  Our understanding increases according to how much we follow and carry out its commandments.

Let us increase our spiritual and prayerful reading of Scripture this great fast of lent, and if you are attracted to anything in this contemplation it is because the teachings come from the fathers as our received tradition, without which we have nothing.

Glory be to the Holy Trinity…