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Daily Meditations

The Thirtieth Day of Great Lent. “. . . BUT BY PRAYER AND FASTING” (Part IV)

April 9th, 2019

Attending liturgical services, fasting, and even praying at regular intervals do not exhaust the lenten effort. Or rather, in order to be effective and meaningful, they need the support of our whole life. They need, in other terms, a “style of life” which would not be in contradiction with them, would not lead to a “split” existence.

In the past, in Orthodox countries, such support was given by society itself: it was that complex of customs, external changes, legislation, and public and private observances which is covered by the Russian word “byt” and which is partly rendered by the English word culture. During Lent, the whole society accepted a certain rhythm of life, certain rules, which kept reminding the individual members of that society of the lenten season. In Russia, for example, one could not forget Lent if only because of a special lenten church bell ringing; theaters were closed; and, in more ancient times, the courts suspended their activities. By themselves, all those externals were obviously unable to force man into repentance or toward a more active religious life. But they created a certain atmosphere—a kind of lenten climate—in which personal effort was made easier. Being weak, we need external reminders, symbols, signs.

Of course there is always the danger that these external symbols may become ends in themselves and instead of being mere reminder become in popular opinion the very content of Lent. This danger has already been mentioned above when we spoke of external customs and observances replacing genuine personal effort. Properly understood, however, these customs constitute that “belt” which connects the spiritual effort to the totality of life.

We are not living in an Orthodox society and no Lenten “climate” can therefore be created on a social level. Lent or no Lent, the world around us and of which we are an integral part does not change. Consequently, this requires from us a new effort of rethinking the necessary religious relationship between the “external” and “internal.” The spiritual tragedy of secularism is that it forces us into a real religious “schizophrenia”—dividing our life into two parts: the religious and the secular, which are less and less interdependent. Thus a spiritual effort is needed in order to transpose the traditional customs and reminders, the very means of our lenten effort. In a tentative and, of necessity, schematic way, one can consider this effort in terms first of home, and second, out of home existence.

In the Orthodox world view, the home and the family constitute the first and most important area of Christian life, of application of Christian principles to daily existence. It is certainly the home, the very style and spirit of family life, and not the school, not even the Church, that shapes our fundamental world view, that shapes in us that fundamental orientation of which we may not even be aware for a long time, but which ultimately will become a decisive factor. Dostoevsky’s “staretz” Zosima—in The Brothers Karamazov—says: “A man who from his childhood can remember good things is saved for his whole life.” It is very significant that he makes this remark after recalling his mother taking him to the Presanctified Liturgy, the beauty of the service, the unique lenten melody of “Let my prayer be set forth in Thy sight as incense . . .” The wonderful effort of religious education which is being made today in our church schools will mean very little unless it is rooted in the home and family life.

~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent