Monthly Archives: February 2012

Five misconceptions about the fast

Lately I’ve been in discussion with some people about the purpose of Lent. It can be a sort of springtime New Years Resolutions Revisited. Probably that’s part of the reason I get anxious during the several-weeks run-up to the fast that we have in the Orthodox Church: Experience has shown me how unresolved and weak I am, and I can only imagine certain failure.

But so many homilies and Scriptures and hymns have comforted me in the last few days, I really do feel that joy they speak of as we set out on our journey. And yes, blog posts and e-mail greetings on the subject have been greatly encouraging. It seems that lenten grace is like all grace, in that you can’t get it ahead of time; it’s God with us in the moment. Even a balanced perspective on the meaning of Lent is only an intellectual understanding until I implement it and participate in it.

Prayer and almsgiving are just as important during Lent, but in this post I’m sticking to the fasting aspect. And as an example of helpful reading, I offer a truncated outline of a few points from a longer article, “The True Nature of Fasting,” by Bishop Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary. The passage is part of the Lenten Triodion in the section “The Meaning of the Great Fast.” I commend the whole to your reading; it seems to me the most thorough and well-articulated statement on the subject, and I’ve found it worthwhile reading every year. (Italics are in the original.)

1) The Lenten fast is not intended only for monks and nuns, but is enjoined on the whole Christian people….By virtue of their Baptism, all Christians – whether married or under monastic vows – are Cross-bearers, following the same spiritual path.

2) It should not be misconstrued in a Pelagian sense.Whatever we achieve in the Lenten fast is to be regarded as a free gift of grace from God.

3) Our fasting should not be self-willed but obedient. When we fast, we should not try to invent special rules for ourselves, but we should follow as faithfully as possible the accepted pattern set before us by Holy Tradition.

4) Lent is a time not of gloom but of joyfulness….It is true that fasting brings us to repentance and to grief for sin, but this penitent grief, in the vivid phrase of St. John Climacus, is a ‘joy-creating sorrow.’….Lent signifies not winter but spring, not darkness but light, not death but renewed vitality

5) Our Lenten abstinence does not imply a rejection of God’s creation….When we fast, this is not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make an our eating spiritual, sacramental and eucharistic – no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver.

Springtime in the Soul

Dogwood In Yosemite Park

If you are stopping by here during Lent, you probably won’t find anything new. I put some links in the sidebar to things I’ve written before and that bear re-reading, so I humbly declare. I will be reading other blogs and thinking about your comments, so I hope that you will feel free to send along a note, even on the oldest posts, which are often about timeless subjects after all. Or an e-mail — my address is on my profile page.

About those security words that Blogger wants us commenters to decipher: I squint and guess at them, and half the time get them wrong once or twice while I am trying to comment on someone’s blog — so just in case any of my readers feels the same deterring effect here, I have removed that part of the commenting process on my blog. I always put comments through the filter of my visual approval anyway, so unless something terrible happens I’ll continue to use only that means to keep ugly things off these pages.

In Latin and other Romance languages the word for lent has something to do with 40 days, but Wikipedia tells us that “in the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the vernacular instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted. This word initially simply meant spring (as in the German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen.”

Of course, on the southern half of our globe, it’s Autumn during Lent, but even there, the repentance that is the central theme of Lent can be, as Metropolitan Kallistos says, “an opening flower.” Springtime in our souls!

The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life!
Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness,
lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility,
patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King!
Grant me to see my own errors
 and not to judge my brother;
For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.

What was I thinking…

In Ephesians 5 we are told to redeem the time: See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.”

That admonition comes to mind as I read this poem, published just last year in the New Yorker. It’s by W.S. Merwin, whom I mentioned previously here and here in regard to his book The Folding Cliffs, which captivated me and gave me for the first time an interest in visiting Hawaii. By the way, my husband and I will be doing just that next month to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, which is one reason I don’t think I will be blogging much until after Easter/Pascha.

But back to the poem — it seems to me it speaks of how we can only make up for lost time by being attentive to the gifts that are coming to us right now, attentive to the presence of God. He is giving Himself in the present moment, and He has given us the lenten season to help us tune into that Reality, to come back to it and to Him.


For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song

–W.S. Merwin

Tears poem

I want to say something to go along with this poem, because I love it so much, though it probably stands better alone. I suspect that most of my crying is for selfish reasons, but the thoughts here make me hope that once in a great while my tears might be an expression of true humanity, or at least have a humanizing effect. We can make our tears a gift to God, when we come before Him with them; He already knows all about the chaos in our souls, if that’s their origin. 

Some church fathers say that tears for whatever reason cleanse the heart. One pastor said it’s because when you are crying it’s impossible to be double-minded. I’ll be mulling over that idea for a long time. But troubling and puzzling as they are, I will thank God for the gift of tears.


Tears leave no mark on the soil
or pavement; certainly not in sand
or in any known rain forest;
never a mark on stone.
One would think that no one in Persepolis
or Ur ever wept.

You would assume that, like Alice,
we would all be swimming, buffeted
in a tide of tears.
But they disappear. Their heat goes.
Yet the globe is salt
with that savor.

The animals want no part in this.
The hare both screams and weeps
at her death, one poet says.
The stag, at death, rolls round drops
down his muzzle; but he is in
Shakespeare’s forest.

These cases are mythically rare.
No, it is the human being who persistently
weeps; in some countries openly, in others, not.
Children who, even when frightened, weep most hopefully;
women, licensed weepers.
Men, in secret, or childishly; or nobly.

Could tears not make a sea of their mass?
It could be salt and wild enough;
it could rouse storms and sink ships,
erode, erode its shores:
tears of rage, of love, of torture,
of loss. Of loss.

Must we see the future
in order to weep? Or the past?
Is that why the animals
refuse to shed tears?
But what of the present, the tears of the present?
The awful relief, like breath

after strangling? The generosity
of the verb “to shed”?
They are a classless possession
yet are not found in the museum
of even our greatest city.
Sometimes what was human, turns
into an animal, dry-eyed.

              ~ Josephine Jacobsen

(thanks to Maria)