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The Intense Asceticism of Russian Lent May Be Exactly What We Need Right Now

We see this a lot with younger seekers, especially males. They respond to a form of Christianity that asks them to do something more than sit quietly and think, or adjust their emotions.

My Orthodox Christian daughter, circa 2013, prostrating before the Holy Cross

If you’re an observant Orthodox Christian, chances are your lower body aches today. That’s because Sunday night was Forgiveness Vespers, the service that begins Lent. From the Orthodox Church in America:

Then, after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!” [and] after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people, Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a “good deed” required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says: “In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!  For you abstain from food, but from passions you are not purified.  If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.”

I’m not sure that all Orthodox congregations observe Forgiveness Vespers as we do in ours — an OCA parish — but it really is a physical workout. First, it began with our pastor following the example of the late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, who started Forgiveness Vespers by confessing his sins against the congregation in the previous year. (It’s not a sacramental confession, but rather an acknowledgement of his own failings.) This is not standard, but it’s something that ++Dmitri did, and our priest, ++Dmitri’s spiritual son, has taken up. Then, each of us ritually asks the other members of the congregation, personally, for forgiveness — and offers forgiveness to the others.

When I say “personally,” I mean that we do it face to face. You say something like, “Forgive me, brother,” and the other person says the same thing. Then you both say, “God forgives, and I forgive.” Then both do a full, head-to-floor prostration to each other, to signal humility. Then rise, move down the line, and do it again. We had about thirty people in church yesterday, so that was quite a bit of prostration. Not everybody did it — folks with bad backs did not. Still, most of us did. This morning, my legs hurt so much that it was a chore to get out of bed. I’ve coined a word to describe the Monday-morning, aches-and-pains condition of faithful Orthodox, after Forgiveness Vespers: prostralgia. 

You really do feel it in your body, which is how it’s supposed to be. In Tom Holland’s wonderful history Dominion, I learned of a saying carved into the Abbey of Saint-Denis, in Paris. It’s a saying of Abbot Suger, who oversaw the construction of the first Gothic church: “The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material.” This, too, is what Lent is about: to subject our bodies to ascetic rigors for the sake of sharpening minds grown dull to the reality of God.

We have been attracting more and more young people to our services. Yesterday after the morning liturgy, I introduced myself to a new young couple, and asked them what brought them as visitors to the Orthodox Church. The man said that he was raised non-denominational, and has been practicing the faith in a non-denominational church, but “you just get to the point where you ask, ‘Is this all there is?'” This is a common thing among Orthodox inquirers, especially young men. They’re bored or at least unfulfilled by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in their own churches. I don’t know which church this young man attends, but my guess is that it’s pretty conservative in its theology and moral teaching. But that’s not enough for him. Somehow, he wants more.

He doesn’t realize it yet, but he longs for prostralgia. We see this a lot with younger seekers, especially males. They respond to a form of Christianity that asks them to do something more than sit quietly and think, or adjust their emotions. Mind you, Orthodox Christianity is not merely ascetic exercises. If you want to get sore muscles, go to the gym. If you want to change your diet, you don’t need church for that. As the passage above from the OCA website points out, fasting (and prostrations) are not ends in themselves; they are only spiritually effective if they are experienced by the worshiper as a way to God. It’s interesting, though, how the rigors of the Lenten fast have a way of sharpening a dull mind.

Tonight begins the prayers of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the four-night penitential service that involves a lot of prostrations. Here’s an explanation of what the Canon is about. It’s a dialogue between the eighth-century saint and his soul:

The Great Canon was written by a holy man to teach himself the right way to live. We cannot benefit from it unless we make it a priority to stand in prayer, in the church, and listen to it, with a great desire and expectation for God’s grace to teach us and heal us. Our theology is first and foremost – experienced and prayed, and not only “studied”.

Here is the entire Great Canon, broken down into what the choir (and the congregation) chant in prayer each of the four nights. Here, for example, is Ode Two, that will be sung tonight:

Attend O heaven and I will speak,I will sing of Christ,Who from the Virgin took flesh to dwell with us.Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Listen, O heaven, and I will speak. O earth, hear the cry of one returning to God and singing His praises.

Look down on me in Your mercy, O compassionate God and Saviour, and accept my fervent confession.

More than all have I sinned; I alone have sinned against You, O God my Saviour, but have compassion on me, Your creature.

Through love of pleasure has my form become deformed and the beauty of my inward being has been ruined.

O compassionate One, as You saved Peter when he was about to sink, so reach out now to me, for a storm of evil surges around me.

O Saviour, I have defiled the garment of my flesh and polluted that which You fashioned within me according to Your own image and likeness.

With passions have I darkened the beauty of my soul and permitted my whole inward being to become mire.

I like naked, having torn up the garment which my Creator fashioned for me in the beginning.

I am ashamed, for the serpent deceived me and my garment is in tatters.

O compassionate One, like the prostitute who anointed Your feet so now do I offer You tears. Have mercy on me, O Saviour.

I like naked and ashamed, for the beauty of the tree, which I saw in the middle of the garden, deceived me.

The demons have cut deep wounds of passion into my back; their lawlessness has made it like a plowed field.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

O God of all, I sing of You as One yet Three in Person, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

O Most holy Theotokos, Virgin alone praised everywhere, pray fervently that we may be saved.

Here is the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, said many times in the Orthodox Church during Lent. Each recitation of it requires three full body prostrations from those capable of doing them:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, 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 transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

This what it means to pray with your whole body, not just with your mind, or your mouth. It is not easy! But after you’ve done it, you can’t imagine not doing it. If you’re curious, find a local Orthodox parish, and go to services one night this week, for the chanting of the Canon which, as I’ve indicated, dates back to the eighth century. It’s an experience of the Christian faith that is really alien to modern America, in the best way.

UPDATE: From my friend the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green:

I wanted to ask if you would be able to add a note to that post pointing to my book about the Canon, First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew. I divided it up into 40 readings, and each day there’s a commentary that supplies all the Scriptures St Andrew folds into his prayer, a look at what he’s getting at, and then some questions for the day or a meditation. What’s new this year is the audiobook, which has just been released. 


You also might want to remind readers of the Great Canon when it comes back again in the 5th week of Lent. It’s when we do the whole thing as one long prayer. Long, and physically demanding. It is so totally what young men are looking for. I think everybody does it on Thursday of the 5th week, which would be April 2.

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