A Pastoral Letter for the Great and Holy Lent, 2022.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and Christ Jesus our Lord.” (1Cor 1:3)
One of the greatest challenges we face in our spiritual life is apathy, what the Greek spiritual writers called acedia-ἀκηδία, a word which contains within itself the idea of negligence. In the West, this was often translated as sloth or laziness and listed amongst the seven deadly sins. Some have equated it with boredom; and in this it is well matched with the French word ennui.
Whatever our translation or with whatever English words we pair it, apathy (ἀκηδία) is a danger to our spiritual growth. If someone says, “Here we are at the beginning of another Great and Holy Lent” and our immediate reaction is “Good grief! It seems as if we have only just gotten over the last one!” then maybe we need a spiritual checkup.
When we consider the Christian life, I very much appreciate the metaphor of journey. Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia (1934-present) recounts the story of a religious solitary who never left the hermitage being asked “What do you do all day?” to which came the reply “I am on a journey”. That is the fundamental vocation to which each one of us is called. We are called to undertake a journey.
Even the life of our Lord is presented in the Holy Gospels in terms of journey, especially the years of his public ministry. Perhaps the most incisive description of the last part of that journey is from St Luke who says of Jesus, “He set his face towards Jerusalem”. (Lk 9:51)
The liturgical year is itself a journey delineated by a cycle of recurring feasts and fasts, and the seemingly inexhaustible daily lists of saints and events; and at the heart of which is the Feast of Feasts, Easter, the holy and glorious Pascha. Of the several fasts and various penitential days, both weekly and occasional, throughout the year, we should note that only one period is called “Great” and “Holy”. That of course is the 40 days of preparation for Pascha, as well as the days of the Great and Holy Week.
As we begin the Lenten Fast, that journey which brings us to Glorious Pascha, we know in our own hearts that the greatest obstacle to a truly fruitful Lent is spiritual apathy, a weariness that arises from a dry familiarity. If we are to benefit from the penitential season, we must first adopt an optimistic and constructive attitude; we should approach the concept of fasting with a renewed awareness of the positive rather than what some might see as the negative.
The first step in renewing, or if necessary, regaining our sense of a positive Lent is to understand that we do not fast or limit our food, or abstain from certain foods altogether, because these are somehow “not right”. We fast and abstain because the things we limit or avoid are “good”.
Through the centuries the patterns of fasting, “the rules” as some might call them, have developed to make it easier to undertake and to maintain a productive period of spiritual discipline. Thus, at the very outset it is good to keep in mind that whatever level of observance we practise, it is to gain mastery of ourselves. Lent is not a competition to see if we can adopt a more severe fast than that kept by others. We must be sensible and take into account our state in life.
Here we do well to take notice of our Lord’s words about how we present ourselves when fasting. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites…” (Mt 6:16-18) Our Lord also reminds us that there are some forms of evil that can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. (Mark 9:29)
However, we must also be honest with ourselves. In the matter of fasting, we do well to keep in mind the ancient Roman saying, “Nemo judex in causa sua - a man should never be judge in his own case”, and the same can be said to the ladies! The discipline in giving up sugar in our coffee during Lent is possibly challenged by the meat kebab we had at dinner. The guidelines which the Church places before us during the penitential season are there to make the fast practicable and able to be observed.
I would suggest again this year that contemporary society also provides us with many opportunities to exercise restraint, and to follow a discipline which can only enhance the traditional dietary restrictions. We should consider limiting our use of the electronic paraphernalia which so often dominate our lives - electronic games, social media, mobile phones, the various forms of computer devices, movies, television, radio, and so forth. The contemporary additions to the traditional fast are limited only by our lack of imagination.
Amidst all these loud noises, the fasting disciplines offer a time of prayer, where a certain quiet and a peace of heart and mind are discovered. We cannot speak to God against the “white noise” that is the constant distraction we endure. “The Fast is a good period of time in which to bring God into every problem; a period of time in which the contrite heart calls out, and in which God listens.” (HH Pope Shenouda III, 1923-2012)
Fasting and self-control are so intrinsically linked that St Gregory Palamas can say, “Fasting and self-control are a double wall of defence and those who live within them enjoy great peace.” (In the Time of Fasting and Prayer, Homily 9)
Having reminded ourselves of the importance of fasting and self-control we should keep in mind the many opportunities the Church provides for extra liturgical prayer. During Lent the Liturgy of the Presanctified is the normal eucharistic service for most weekdays; on Fridays, we celebrate the Salutations to the Theotokos (Akathistos); most weeknights there is the celebration of the Night Prayer, Great Compline.
Our liturgical calendar distributed by the Eparchy provides the references for the daily and Sunday scripture readings. I would suggest that Great Lent is an especially fruitful time to prepare for the Sunday Liturgy by reading the selections, the pericopes, appointed for that day, especially the Holy Gospels.
Great Lent should also be a time when we take special note of the needs of others. Our fasting and prayer will be lacking if they are not accompanied by charitable works or almsgiving. How much should we set aside for charity? Again that is a matter for honest discernment. “There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are unequal…. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will, but also with the gift of peace.” (Pope St Leo the Great, 400 - 461)
The agencies of the Catholic Church in Australia and New Zealand provide us with several trustworthy opportunities for charitable donations. Furthermore, as Melkite Catholics we should keep in mind especially the fundraising that will take place in our parishes. Each year during Lent our Melkite Community in various ways has been able to collect sums of money to assist the needy both in Australia and overseas, especially in the Middle East. “If you cannot see Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice on the Altar.” (St John Chrysostom, c.347-407)
And for a charitable gift, how much should I give? We can start by calculating how much I earn per hour. Is an hour’s worth of my income too much to offer the Lord for my brothers and sisters who have little or may be even nothing? We could also consider giving the cost of a meal.
The important thing to keep always in mind is that a charitable donation should be significant for us. We should not be concerned with what others give or are able to give. It is necessary for us to be honest before the Lord, the Searcher of hearts. Remember the rich man gave much to the Temple treasury; a poor widow gave but two coins, the equivalent of a few cents; he was rewarded with the passing praise of others, she secured her place in Heaven.
For the Christian, it should never be gloomy or depressing to consider our own repose in the Lord. On more than one occasion, Jesus likens the last things to a wedding feast. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who made a wedding feast for his son.” (Mt 22:2) In this and other places in the Gospel, the theme is readiness - we must be prepared and our wedding garments ready for the call.
If we wish to approach the Great Lent with the honesty that will make it truly worthwhile, we could well consider the possibility that perhaps this could be my last Lent before I am called to give an account of myself.
For the Byzantine Churches, Lent is indeed a time of joyful preparation for the Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, which is the promise of our own resurrection at the Last Day. In these blessed days, we are called to become ever more conscious of the mercy of God, knowing that he asks only of us that we repent.
I mentioned at the outset, the spiritual malaise of acedia-ἀκηδία, “being sick-and-tired of it all.” These last two pandemic years have been undoubtedly the cause of much weariness. However, keep in mind that the People of the Exodus journeyed for forty years often with the same doubts, fears, and questions. We have but to place all before the Lord, return to our churches, intensify our prayers, look out for each other, and then we will be able to say with Mother Juliana of Norwich (1343-1416), “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Dear Sisters and Brothers, it is my heartfelt prayer for each of you that this Great and Holy Lent will be a time of much spiritual renewal. Let us set out together on this Lenten journey with great joy.
Blessed Lent, Καλή Νηστεία, صوم مبارك
With every prayerful best wish, and with my paternal blessing,
Your fellow pilgrim,
Robert Rabbat, DD
From our Eparchy in Greenacre, New South Wales
28 February 2022.