Monday, March 3, 2014

Archpastoral Letter for Great Lent 2014

 To the faithful of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church:

Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today, we enter the great spiritual arena of Great Lent. The season of holy and Great Lent is a time of compunction; a time for repentance and for tears; for making a change in ourselves; and for beginning our life anew, free from passions and from sin, with a renewed spirit and desire to enter more fully into the life of Jesus Christ.

As a concerned and loving mother, the Church gives us this time of Great Lent in order that we may purify our lives, draw closer to God, and be counted worthy of celebrating the great day of Christ’s glorious and radiant Resurrection.

Great Lent is an especially sacred time because it envisions both great spiritual and physical struggles. These include the struggle of fasting, the struggle of longer and more frequent services and vigil’s, the struggle of perfection, and the struggle of self-examination. To help us in our Lenten struggles, the Church assists us and encourages us with penitential hymns and services, as well as with spiritual teachings and ascetical works, to prepare us for the fight for the purification of our souls.

Great Lent is an opportunity for us to wash our faces with tears so as to cleanse our souls and become worthy participants in and benefactors of the Resurrection of Christ. This holy season which we have now begun in earnest should not be treated merely as mechanical practice. That is to say, it should not be something we simply “observe” every year as part of the Church’s liturgical year. No, in order to truly benefit from Great Lent, we must immerse ourselves in all that this holy season has to offer us.

Great Lent requires a lot of work and effort. It requires a great deal of attention on our part and requires a participation that is serious and committed. It is not a time or an exercise that we can take for granted. The period of the next forty days is an opportunity to relive ourselves of so much of the burden of sin we have collected over the previous year. The more we focus on cleansing our bodies both spiritually and physically during these next forty days, the better we will feel and the closer we will become with God.

Yes, Great Lent requires a lot of work and effort. It requires that we be alert and wise. There is no question that the devil works overtime during Great Lent. He will do whatever he can to make our Lenten journey as difficult and dangerous as possible. He tries to leave us wanting in compunction and conversion. He tries very hard to lead us into every kind of soul-destroying temptation and as many occasions of sin as possible. Satan rejoices when we fall but he rejoices even more when we set out on our Lenten journey and stumble and fall along the way. He is fully aware of our weakness and brokenness and does whatever he can do to exploit them and use them to his advantage. Even though we try our best to keep the fact and change our sinful ways, Satan is always there to gut-punch us and knock the wind out of our sails, which means that we often fall back into our sinful ways. Bad thoughts; giving in to worldly and sexual passions, desires and obsessions; and indifference to the spirit and purpose of this holy season must be rejected as soon as they make their appearance.

Holy Mother Church knows just how difficult it is for us to live holy and righteous lives. She knows of the many temptations we face every day in a world which seduces us with promises and images of wealth, unconstrained self-gratification, and the false happiness. For this reason, the Church makes available to us every spiritual weapon possible that will enable to fight, with great intensity, the attempts of the devil to distract us from achieving our stated goal, which is perfect communion with Christ. The weapons of which I speak are those of prayer, fasting, ascesis, and the doing of charitable works.

Last evening, at Vespers, we said for the first time a prayer which we will say several times a day over the next forty days. Of course, I am talking about the beautiful prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust of power and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of soberness, humility, patience and love to Your servant. Grant, O Lord and King, that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brothers and sisters, for blessed are You unto the ages of ages. Amen.” What a beautiful prayer! The constant praying of this prayer every day keeps us focused and reminds us clearly of what the spirit and purpose of Great Lent is. The season of metanoia, that mighty change of heart, mind and spirit brought about by the Spirit of God. With the beautiful words of this prayer, St. Ephraim wishes us to understand very clearly that without compunction and repentance, without true metanoia, and without true love for and forgiveness of our fellow human beings, there is no chance of even making the slightest progress towards spiritual growth and purification.

Prayer centers us. It brings us into the world of the divine and invites the Holy Spirit to enter into our lives so that the work of metanoia can begin and be completed. As soon as we wake up, praying should be the first thing we do. After that comes the practice of our spiritual rule: using our prayer rope or rosary; reading, studying and contemplating God’s Word in Holy Scripture; and observing the fast. We should go to church with great readiness and anticipation, attending divine services if they are available and our work schedule permits. At the minimum, we should at least visit a church at some point during each day and spend some time in prayer before the Lord Himself. It is also good for us to remember the poor in some way every day. A random act of kindness or charity, done sincerely from the heart, makes Christ visible in tangible ways and brings His love and compassion to those most in need.

Together with prayer and works of charity, we must add fasting. Fasting helps purify and strengthen our bodies both spiritually and physically. “Behold my humility and my efforts and forgive me all my sins.” When we labor with the fast, with kneeling and prostrations, with fervent and unceasing prayers, with serious determination of heart and mind, our efforts will be blessed and rewarded by God, and we will receive a crown of glory and honor.

If we don’t pay attention to our thoughts, our words, and our heart, then there is absolutely no benefit at all to observing Great Lent. The season becomes nothing more than an entry on the Church’s liturgical calendar, one which we pass through year after year without any real thought or concern. We may give it a passing glance but we don’t take the time to stop and really discover the riches the season really offers us.

Satan and his demons fear this holy season of Great Lent and its attendant practices of increased prayer and worship, of fasting, ascetical works and almsgiving because it weakens their power and lays them low. “This kind of demon will not depart except by prayer and fasting”, said the Lord (Matthew 12:21). This is why the holy fathers and mothers of the Church always began any Godly task with prayer and a fast. They considered prayer and fasting to be very powerful tools in bringing about good and positive results from their labors.

Any Christian who truly desires to attain holiness and righteousness can only attain their goal by prayer, fasting, works of charity and vigilance. When these four elements are combined, then people will be filled with the grace of God and become worthy and shining examples of virtue to their fellow human beings.

In olden times, men and women monastics had a holy and venerable custom. On the eve of Great Lent, they would leave their monasteries and go deeper into seclusion, sometimes even into the desert or into caves high in the mountains, where they lived in great asceticism until Lazarus Saturday, when they returned to celebrate Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Pascha as a community. Some would take a few of the basic essentials as far as food was concerned; others would eat only of the green plants they found in the desert or on the mountainsides. When they returned to their monasteries, they would spend all of Holy Week together in church, in constant, even unceasing prayer and worship.

Our own Archbishop Gennadios, of blessed memory, was known to keep a very strict fast during Great Lent. From Monday to Friday, it has been told that he ate only a small dish of nuts and fruit with a glass of water once every twenty-four hours. He also spent many hours a day praying and doing prostrations. When he visited people during Great Lent and had the occasion to stay with them for one or more days, he could be heard praying throughout the night. Archbishop Timotheos, the bishop who ordained me a priest and presided at my episcopal consecration, also kept a very strict fast. He too only ate once a day and spent many hours in prayer. I remember visiting him one year during Great Lent. I was staying at a hotel in Athens but had to meet him very early in the morning at his chancery office, where he also maintained his living quarters, because we were going on a pilgrimage that day to visit some monasteries. When I arrived, I found the Archbishop in the chancery chapel praying and doing prostrations. I watched intently as his small frame dropped to the ground effortlessly but with great piety and zeal. It was clearly evident by watching him that every prostration was an act of love, a gift given to God in supplication for forgiveness of sins and failings committed. Needless to say, I was not only inspired but embarrassed; inspired by the Archbishop’s humility and zeal, and embarrassed by my own laziness and lack of spiritual depth. The acts of asceticism practiced by both Archbishops Gennadios and Timotheos were done in order to purify the inner person; to make it clean, more honorable in the eyes of God, in order to acquire boldness before Him so that the prayers they offer on behalf of the people and the world will be heard and answered.

It is good for us to observe Great Lent as faithfully as possible, to keep the fast, but we should do so only insofar as we are able. “Unless the good be done well, it is not good.” In other words, unless we use discretion when we do good, we may end up doing more harm than good. For example, fasting is extremely necessary and good for our souls and bodies, but it is a means rather than an end; and that end is purification and change of behavior; a growth in holiness and purity. If we do not apply discretion to our fasting, for example, by understanding our medical or physical limitations, we may cause ourselves more harm both physically and spiritually. So we must make sure that our good is done well and reasonably, then, and only then, will our efforts be pleasing to God and be beneficial to us.

During the next forty days of Great Lent, we must strive with all sincerity and humility of heart and mind to purify our souls and bodies with the fountains of sanctification the Church offers us. Purity brings great boldness before God, because He Himself is pure. The whole beauty of the Church is founded on purity and spotlessness. When our heart is pure and beautiful it will exude a pleasing fragrance and loveliness. But if people have ugliness and filth in their hearts, that’s what they will expel. Let us struggle to cleanse our glass, our heart, so that we will be pure and pleasing in God’s eyes.

Over the course of the next forty days, let us work very hard, let us fight as hard as we can, and the rewards will be very great. Nobody finds grace unless they make the effort. If a farmer doesn’t tend his crops, he will not see any harvest. When our Lenten journey is accompanied, reinforced and supported by prayer, fasting, church attendance, good works (especially almsgiving), study, vigilance, confession and Holy Communion, then the preparation of the soul for participation in Holy Week will be complete. Then will we experience the holy and sacred Passion of Christ more intensely and clearly, because our hearts will be softened, our sins will be washed away, and the heavy burdens we carry because of our sins will be lifted from our shoulders. Then, we will be able to look in the empty Tomb and experience the Resurrection of the Lord in a forceful and life-changing way.

As we begin our Lenten journey together, I prostrate myself before each of you and ask your forgiveness for all the times and ways in which I have hurt, wounded, offended and failed you. My sins and inadequacies are many and great and because of them I ask your fervent prayers and intercessions on my behalf to Christ, our great God and King, who is most merciful and compassionate.

With deepest love and affection for you all, I remain His and your unworthy servant,

+Archbishop Stephen