"The time has come which is the beginning of spiritual struggles."
(Hymn of the Ainoi of the Cheese Fare Sunday)
Beloved brothers and children in the Lord,
It is with these words that the Sacred Hymnographer reminds us of our obligation to intensify our spiritual struggles for the benefit of our spiritual training and progress during this period of Holy and Great Lent which is about to begin.
Humanity realized from ancient times that good things can only be acquired through hard work. Likewise did the Holy Fathers realize that in order to savor divine love, within which everything good, both eternal and temporal coexists, the contempt of repose is considered necessary, as Abba Isaac the Syrian says characteristically. And on the one hand, the material goods and commodities are what we humans pursue and acquire through great trouble, which we are usually ready for and willing to undergo.
However, spiritual goods are offered to us by God, under the condition that first and foremost it is Him and His love that we seek in all honesty, and not the spiritual gifts themselves in a selfish manner for our own satisfaction, or our vainglory. The Lord Himself made it clear to us when He said that we ought t " ... seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matt. 6:33). He also assured us that the person, who offers to give up his or her life for the love of God, will be the one who will save his or her life. Namely, the person, who magnanimously aims at the love of God the Father and does not pursue faint-heartedly the material, or spiritual gifts of God without Him, will be in the end the person who will enjoy both the love of God for which he strives for, as well as all the material goods, for which he does not strive for.
For, my beloved children in the Lord, when we return to Him, our Father who is in heaven, who loves us and who desires only our blessedness, the giver and source of everything good, will give us everything good that we need, just like He did to the prodigal son when he returned to Him. The best robe, the fattened calf, the ring on our finger, the festive gathering, and most important of all, His paternal embrace. However, in order for us to return to His paternal embrace we must turn our backs to our sins, and most importantly to our selfishness, that is represented by the carobs that the pigs are eating, proving thus the honesty of our desire for the love of God through our voluntary and hard-working spiritual struggle.
The true nature of our spiritual struggle consists in aiming for the love of God as the object of our quest and desire; but at the same time also in aiming for the respective deprivation and abandonment of other lawful goods and desires so that our entire existence, soul and mind, can focus on our primary target. Therefore, fasting, which is one of the most important ascetic practices of Great Lent, does not express rejection of the blessed food, but on the contrary, voluntary deprivation of the repose that these foods offer to our body. The goal is two-folded: on the one hand for the soul to disengage from the exclusive interest in the "I", and on the other hand for the body to become obedient and well-trained to the governing mind, namely to become an organ and not the sovereign of the human person.
The goal of spiritual struggle is not the acquisition of virtues, or of any other strange abilities solemnly through human powers, as it is believed by those who belong to various humanistic circles. On the contrary, it is the expression of our desire to meet the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom everything is recapitulated, and through whom everything is derived. The Word of God, the Logos, preaches most clearly that without Him we cannot do anything, and the Hymnographer reminds us that unless the Lord constructs the house of virtues of the soul, we struggle in vain. Therefore, we Christians devote ourselves to the love of Christ, and we give up voluntarily many other kinds of love and devotion that are of secondary importance so that we will become worthy of His presence in the house of our souls. When this is achieved, with the grace and blessing of God, then peace, joy, and perfect love will have settled permanently in our very existence.
This is the very reason why spiritual struggle is practiced neither with depression, nor with ostentation, but with as much joy and secrecy, as possible. If there is the desire to show off, then the goal of the love of God is put aside and in its place enters self-contentedness; if there is depression and sorrow, the joy and the voluntary desire depart and the person who is fasting lives in a state of oppression and constraint, namely in a spiritual state that is not pleasing in the eyes of God.
The spiritual struggle should be practiced with joy and its main goal should be to introduce our heart into the love and joy of God, through which every sorrow and vindictiveness, and every complaint and protestation against our fellow men and women is expelled from us. In its place we will then have the unshakable and great peace of God that will radiate all around us.
May we all pass through the arena of Great Lent with spiritual struggles, so that we will be able to enjoy in all its fullness the joy of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose Grace and rich Mercy be with all of you.
Holy and Great Lent 2007
+ Bartholomew of Constantinople
Read the entire article on the Greek Orthodox Church of America website (new window will open).