Fr John Parker is the pastor of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt Pleasant, South Carolina, and the Chair of the Department of Evangelization of the Orthodox Church in America. He graduated the College of William and Mary (1993) with a major in Spanish and a minor in German. He earned his MDiv at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. After being received into the Orthodox Church, he earned an MTh at St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, where is also currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program. He has been a frequent writer for Charleston, SC's Post and Courier. He and Matushka Jeanette celebrated 20 years of marriage in April 2014, and have two sons nearing High School graduation.
I have a sweet and dear parishioner who comes from an Old Rite background. She was describing to me the Great Canon of St Andrew of Crete–that beautiful hymned dialogue between the self and the soul—as it is served in the Old Believer parish where she is from.
“Father, we do 1,000 prostrations the first night. It is so beautiful!”
She described the service as much longer than we serve—our tradition is to serve a quarter of the Canon each night for four nights, inside the service of Great Compline. I wonder if there they serve the whole Canon each night—the service is 4 hours long, and they do a prostration at every sticheron—every versicle.
With a most-remarkable joy—even a giggle of joy, I’d say, she described also her love of the 4-hour services.
A Journey of Prayer
“In the first hour, you are still thinking about the world. In the second hour, you start to enter prayer. In the third hour, you finally are at church. And in the fourth hour, it is like your soul forgets your body. It is wonderful!”
She then went on to describe Lent as a “vacation of the soul from the body”. What she meant by that statement is not some dichotomous idea that “spirit” is good and “matter (body)” is bad—but rather that when one puts the serious effort into the Great Fast—the prayers, the fasting, the almsgiving, the spiritual and practical reorientation of life towards Christ—then one really tames the body and practically forgets about it, and begins to find reunion with God.
At a certain point, hunger pangs depart in a strange way, and one doesn’t really think too much about eating. One gains a new, revived energy and less sleep is needed than when the body is weighted down by rich and plenteous foods. I’d add that actual (eyeball) vision is clearer, crisper. And one can think more carefully about what is about to come out of the mouth. These are real spiritual gifts that come with taking Lent seriously.
For some, Great Lent is virtually ignored. A little extra effort in the first week, maybe, and in the last week, but in the middle, life goes on. Still watching movies and engaged in the distractions of the world.
For these, Great Lent is a burden. Added “rules”. “Longer services”. “More church.” To treat Lent in a minimalistic fashion, it seems to me, is actually the hardest thing to do. It is kind of like taking a few tablets of antibiotic, but not the whole course. One sees some improvement, but eventually remains sick, and is susceptible to relapse.
Or perhaps it is like going to the gym or working out. If one is not accustomed to this, using the arm or leg muscles one never uses results in terrible aches and pains for a few days—occasionally one can hardly walk or sit! Then, it being too much, one waits a week or two to let that pain subside, and begins again, to experience a virtual repeat.
Finding the Gifts of the Spirit
Taking Lent seriously is like working through that first day or two of pain, and then finding that one “gets in shape” and that pain goes away, not really to return again. Then, the spiritual workout—like that of the gym—becomes something to look forward to, and eventually something we cannot live without—it is restoring our soul!
We’ve come to the end of the second week of Lent. Four full weeks are still ahead of us; then Great and Holy Week. The blessings of a renewed spiritual life are far too rich and bountiful to squander this amazing seasonal gift. Give your soul a vacation from the world, at the Church!
Inspired by the first words of Tito Colliander’s great book, The Way of the Ascetics: “My soul, my soul arise!”
If you wish to save your soul and win eternal life, arise from your lethargy, make the sign of the Cross and say, In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Faith comes not through pondering but through action. Not words and speculation but experience teaches us what God is. To let in fresh air, we have to open a window; to get tanned we must go out into the sunshine.
Achieving faith is no different. We never reach a goal by just sitting in comfort and waiting, say the Holy Fathers. Let the Prodigal Son be our example. He arose and came (Luke 15:20).
However weighed down and entangled in earthly fetters you may be, it can never be too late. Not without reason is it written that Abraham was 75 when he set forth, and the labourer who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same wages as the one who comes in the first (Colliander, page 1).