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The Desert, The War

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So, Lent. It started tonight for Orthodox Christians, with Forgiveness Vespers, in which each of us in the congregation asks each other member, one on one, for forgiveness, then offers it to them. I remember what an impression my first Forgiveness Vespers made on me, at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas. Archbishop Dmitri, who was then quite old and frail (he has since passed away), would prostrate himself in front of each of his congregation and ask forgiveness — even the little children. It’s a powerful rite.

Orthodox Lent is hard. It is about fasting — abstaining from meat, dairy, and oil is standard, though each person may work out their own fasting regimen with their pastor. Fasting is supposed to be medicine for the soul, not a rule to be followed for its own sake. It is also about praying more, both in additional church services, and privately. It is about giving alms. It is about mourning over your sins, and repenting of them.

In sum, Lent is about making holy war on yourself and all the passions within you that separate you from God. By no means is it hyperbolic to call it spiritual warfare. In my case, fasting is the hardest thing, because gluttony is my greatest sin. But if I prefer my daily bread over the Holy Spirit, what kind of Christian am I? In Lent, we must face ourselves without illusion, and overcome all that separates us from God. Dying to self is not easy, but there is no other way to unity with God than to remove all that separates us from His love. We cannot do that except by His grace, but we must practice self-denial to open ourselves to the transformative power of divine grace. We say no to ourselves so that we may more easily say yes to God.

I was thinking tonight at Vespers that our priest, as he spoke to us, was like a commander preparing his troops for battle. The stuff was about to get real. This kind of thing frightens some people about Orthodoxy, but me, I love it.  The struggle is hard, but its the good kind of pain. Here is how the gaunt Forese, in Dante’s Purgatorio, explained his and his fellow penitent gluttons’ condition:

“From the eternal counsel

a power falls onto the tree and on the water

there behind us. By it am I made so thin.

 

“All these people who weep while they are singing

followed their appetites beyond all measure,

and here regain, in thirst and hunger, holiness.

 

“The fragrance coming from the fruit

and from the water sprinkled on green boughs

kindles our craving to eat and drink,

 

‘and not once only, circling in this space,

is our pain renewed.

I speak of pain but should say solace,

 

‘for the same desire leads us to the trees

that led Christ to utter Eli [2] with such bliss

when with the blood from His own veins He made us free.”

Lent is not a payback for our sins, or an attempt to win merit. That would be futile. Rather, Lent is a time of mourning, of repentance, of disciplining our tendencies toward sin. Here is how Sufis see what they call the “inner jihad” [3]— the holy war against the self:

For a person to be at peace, he needs to go beyond his pre-occupations with the ego-driven self and move towards the virtues. He needs to transform his ego-personality which is the hub of all his conflicts and negative attributes and shed his associated jealousy, selfishness, greed, anger, lust etc by transcending to a higher level, where the demanding ego is no longer the dominating force. This is the meaning of the internal jihad, and this process is by no means an easy one, but indeed a necessary one.

It is reported that during the early formation of Islam, when the army of Islam returned from a huge battle with the enemy, the Prophet of Islam, peace and blessing be upon him, said:
You have returned from a smaller jihad (battle), and now it is incumbent upon you to perform your greater jihad.”
When the astonished people asked what could be a greater jihad than the one they had returned from, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:
The battle with ones nafs (ego-personality).”

Lent is a long trek across the desert of the self, fighting with every step. If done right, though, the victories bring cleansing joy, as Forese said. I wish all of you who are entering into battle a good struggle, and the joy of victory.

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27 Comments To "The Desert, The War"

#1 Comment By Darth Thulhu On March 3, 2014 @ 12:32 am

Very thoughtful quotation on how Lent, like Ramadan, is an exercise in the Greater Jihad (the inner one) over the Lesser Jihads (the external ones).

This year, Orthodox Lent and the Bahá’í Fast start very close to one another, so I bid you best wishes as a fellow pilgrim. Yesterday was the first day of the Bahá’í religious month of fasting, the first of 19 days of Ramadan-style “no food, no drink, no nothin'” fasting from each sunrise to each sunset, ending at the Bahá’í/Persian New Year at the Spring Equinox. (I occasionally joke that the Bahá’í Fast is like a concentrated Lent: same rough time frame, shorter duration, but more extreme denial each day.)

May you truly seek Divine forgiveness and love in this holy time, and may you truly receive them. God bless.

#2 Comment By LorenzoCanuck On March 3, 2014 @ 12:51 am

The Catholic Lent/Holy Week happens to fall on the same days this year!

I pray that together we will discover the truth of God’s grace, and become perfect as the Father.

#3 Comment By Turmarion On March 3, 2014 @ 1:06 am

I second Darth Thulhu. May all here who observer Lent or some similar practice have a good and fruitful Lent of spiritual growth; may we all sincerely wage inner jihad on those parts of our personalities where it’s needed; may we be open to the wisdom of the Lenten desert; may we be more open to honestly seeing our own faults and failures and be renewed in attempting to overcome them, with God’s help; may we be kinder and more forgiving of others and more willing to seek forgiveness of our failings from them; and may we come out at the other end at least a little better and a little closer to God at the end.

A good Lent to all, and a blessed holy Easter/Pascha to all at the end of it!

#4 Comment By charles cosimano On March 3, 2014 @ 1:14 am

How does one respond to something so profound yet so alien?

You way is not my way. Your journey is not my journey. Your goal is not my goal.

Yet, may your way be clear. May your journey be fruitful. May you attain the goal that you seek.

#5 Comment By mohammad On March 3, 2014 @ 1:20 am

wish you all the blessings these days can bring for you.

#6 Comment By Chris On March 3, 2014 @ 1:24 am

“In my case, fasting is the hardest thing, because gluttony is my greatest sin. But if I prefer my daily bread over the Holy Spirit, what kind of Christian am I?”

Ahem. Between your chronic mono and the general problems you have with a high carb diet you need to ut your health first. I would like to suggest that you *seriously* consider a heavily modified fast this year or perhaps even forgoing a Lenten fast altogether. I am an insulin dependent diabetic who takes three shots of insulin a day. I never keep the Orthodox fast because otherwise my blood sugar would skyrocket. The full Orthodox Lenten fast might kill me or put me in a coma. No spiritual practice is worth damaging you physical health.

#7 Comment By IndianaMike On March 3, 2014 @ 7:07 am

Having used the metaphor of desert and war to describe Lent, how would you also describe it as a time of receiving and experiencing God’s grace? I ask that with an assumption I believe you would share that the two are not mutually exclusive.

[NFR: In the Judeo-Christian tradition, going out to the desert represents a time of trial and purgation that is rewarded, at the end, with an inrushing of divine grace. Think of Jesus in the desert for 40 days. Or think of the Jews wandering in the desert for a generation, being purged of the memories of Egypt before they could enter into the Promised Land. — RD]

#8 Comment By Bernie On March 3, 2014 @ 9:12 am

Charles,

I sincerely want to commend you for your kind thought. It was said with honesty and integrity.

#9 Comment By Pat On March 3, 2014 @ 9:20 am

Our lent will start on Wednesday. My waistline would benefit from a fast, but I think my soul will benefit more from giving up specific topics on the internet and banishing certain search strings from my google box.

Here’s to a holy season for all of us!

#10 Comment By Caroline Nina in DC On March 3, 2014 @ 9:28 am

A beautiful post that gets right to the heart of it. I love love love the fact that so many regular posters, from so many different backgrounds, have come together to encourage one another.

My son has challenged me to give this blog up for Lent…I’m not sure I can!

Praying for you all. Please forgive me, Rod; may God forgive us all.

#11 Comment By Meli Makarona On March 3, 2014 @ 9:47 am

A blessed and edifying Great Lent to you and your readers, Rod!

#12 Comment By surly On March 3, 2014 @ 9:48 am

I have until tomorrow night, but we have been preparing for Lent for a couple of weeks now at church. I even went so far as to joke with our pastor about “Lent–it’s the most wonderful time of the year!” I do love the Lenten rituals and the feeling of being cleansed, without the overwhelming commercialism of the season leading up to Christmas.

#13 Comment By JonF On March 3, 2014 @ 10:59 am

Charles, you are getting soft in your old age 🙂

Rod, let me second Chris’ advice. Asceticism ought not be indulged to the pointing of injuring one’s health. We want to keep you around, and feisty, for a long time!

#14 Comment By Luc Lalongé On March 3, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

Merci Rod pour ton article.

Un bon, grand et saint Carême à toi et à toute ta famille et à ta communauté orthodoxe.

-Amour en XC
Luc
Montréal, Canada

#15 Comment By Renee On March 3, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

So glad you wrote about the lesser and greater jihad. It was many years ago, in the context of the greater jihad, that I first heard the term, and this is the primary way I’ll always see it, as inner struggle, spiritual warfare. Interestingly, the two articles on fasting that I find most helpful are one on bright sadness by the Orthodox priest Schmemman and one by the Sufi, Hossein Nasr. Maybe not so surprising.

#16 Comment By calreader On March 3, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

I have often thought of Great Lent as war, as well, although not merely holy war upon my own passions and sins, but also a season of really devastating attacks and temptations on Christians. Starting the very first week of Lent, I have seen Orthodox Christians beset by sudden and tragic family deaths, diagnoses of horrible fatal illnesses, unjust accusations of crimes, unexpectedly lost jobs, and so on.

On a broader level, President Clinton’s bombing of Serbia started during Lent in the 1990s is another quite literal example of this warfare as well.

In the face of these kinds of cares and temptations, the strict fasting becomes far less painful, because there is so much other, greater suffering.

Every Lent is different; every Lent is blessed.

#17 Comment By Thursday On March 3, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

Didn’t know where to put this, but some very [4] from Pastor Doug Wilson. Jesus, or really anyone who speaks with authority in the Bible, obviously doesn’t conform to those who would reduce Christianity to being really really polite. It just doesn’t fit the Jesus own words, or the Bible generally. So, how are we to make distinctions. When are we to speak comfortably and when do we thunder like prophets. Well, here’s what Wilson says:

So what am I doing then? Consider the difference here:

“When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10-11).

“Such is the way of an adulterous woman; She eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness” (Prov. 30:20).

There is no difference in the one sin (adultery), but a huge difference in the other — which is contrition v. the sin of high-handed arrogance in the second example. The grace of God teaches us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Those who are enslaved by the chains of vice should receive nothing but sympathy and grace from Christians. Nothing but.

But there is a category of sin that is scripturally outside this “no fly zone.” This would be the cluster of sins that can be grouped as pride, arrogance, malice, spite, insolence, blasphemy, haughtiness, and hearts that are fat like grease. Those who rattle their chains, declaring them to be wings, with which they will soar far above our tired old ethical categories, need to be treated like the wizened old Pharisees they are.

#18 Comment By Turmarion On March 3, 2014 @ 7:53 pm

Regarding the “wise” Doug Wilson:

[5]

[6]

[7]

[8]

[9]

#19 Comment By Thursday On March 3, 2014 @ 10:44 pm

Ah, Turmarion, taking time out from implying that I’m a genocidal Nazi, to provide link to some slanderous commentary on Doug Wilson. Truly you are definition of charity and goodwill.

If anyone wants to read what Wilson actually said on race they can buy this extremely cheap (99 cent) [10] which lays out his view in detail.

Or you can read [11].

#20 Comment By Thursday On March 3, 2014 @ 11:37 pm

You do also know that Wilson’s book on slavery was blurbed by [12]

You are right that Wilson should have handled the case of the pedophile Stephen Sitler better. Even if he was not a member or regular attender at Wilson’s church, Wilson should still have notified the congregation earlier that one of their families had been boarding a pedophile. I also would not have approved of Sitler marrying later! That was dumb at best.

#21 Comment By Thursday On March 3, 2014 @ 11:39 pm

Nonetheless, Wilson’s bad judgment in other cases does not negate the fact that his blog post is correct in how to behave towards certain types of sinners. They are wise words, even if Wilson is not always wise.

#22 Comment By Thursday On March 3, 2014 @ 11:41 pm

Much of the other stuff is slander.

#23 Comment By Turmarion On March 4, 2014 @ 12:29 am

What can I say–my charity and goodwill can only aspire to those lofty levels which Wilson shows to those with whom he disagrees. More things for me to repent of during Lent.

#24 Comment By Chris 1 On March 4, 2014 @ 12:53 am

A blessed journey, Rod.

#25 Comment By Noël Joy Plourde On March 4, 2014 @ 12:55 am

Yes. Yes. Yes. And it is the best time of the year for us Orthodox Christians. Tonight at the Great Canon, praying the prayer of St. Ephraim, I’m reminded: “Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed are thou unto the ages of ages. Amen!” This is my greatest sin. It’s so much easier to worry about fasting from food than it is to fast from sin of judgment, isn’t it? For me, losing one’s ego is about loving more. Loving one’s enemy, loving those it is hardest to love becuase of our own judgments and transgressions..this is really difficult! This is how the Last Judgment plays out, right?
Wishing you a joyous fast and journey to Pascha!

#26 Comment By John M. On March 4, 2014 @ 10:12 am

I love Lent. All the meat goes on sale.

#27 Comment By Turmarion On March 4, 2014 @ 11:41 am

I second you heartily, Noël. This is something I intend to work intensively on during this Lent. After, as well.