BlackIncense wrote us a very nice little note asking us to come back and post something. We haven't abandoned our blog--although after several years of posting our attitude has necessarily changed. We will be posting as we can over the next while. One of the problems is always ‘saying something new’. There's no point to saying the same thing over and over again, even though dedicated readers might enjoy it, just as we might enjoy hearing a piece of music again and again.
Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Today we had the first Orthros of Great Lent—in the monastic typikon, the services of Great Lent are anticipated on Wednesday and Friday of Cheese-fare Week. While we were attending the service we encountered the difficulty that we always encounter with the services of Great Lent: how to characterize the services’ atmosphere.
The services of Great Lent are characterized by a sobriety and restraint. Properly executed, the Orthodox Services of Great Lent are not lugubrious, doleful, mournful or given to weeping or other emotional exaggeration. Emotional exaggeration is not the way of the monk.
In their greatest expression, during Holy Week, the sobriety and restraint of the services of Great Lent bloom into great and very deep ecclesiastical poetry. In the Greek tradition at least, this poetry is accompanied by some of the greatest ecclesiastical music, music which gives the cantor the means to express the depth of our own love for Christ. As great as Bach, say, is, the music of the Orthodox Church moves in another dimension—a spiritual dimension of peace and sobriety which raises our minds (nous) to Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit, not through the play of the musical composition on our raw emotions. This is not to say that Bach was not a believing Christian.
It is through being raised to Christ by the Holy Spirit in our spirits and not in our emotions that we relive the Passion of Christ during Holy Week.
In common with all the services of the Orthodox Church, the services of Holy Week are a spiritual re-enactment. In Holy Week, the services are a re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. Through our spiritual participation in this re-enactment we enter more deeply and more fully into the spiritual relationship with Christ that was conferred on us by our reception of the Holy Spirit in Baptism so as to participate more fully in Our Saviour’s life of the Resurrection.
Hence, the whole of Great Lent is a purification from our passions through a sober attention to the word of God in the services. Our goal is that through this purification we might be joined more closely to Christ, first in his Passion in all its gravity and then in his Resurrection. This is repentance: sober attention, purification and an effort to change, so that we may live in fullness the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in the love of Our Saviour to us for our salvation and eternal joy: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and the Son whom you have sent, Jesus Christ.”
After a certain age, the memory of death becomes a companion for life. It is impossible to tell a young man going off to the wars about the memory of death. It is impossible to explain to a young bride the vanity of life. After a certain age, however, the man, now a veteran of many wars, knows that one day he will die. The woman, by now the mother of a number of children, knows that she is growing old.
At that time the memory of death comes into play. It is not the same as repentance. However, once a person has recognized that the greater part of his life is behind him, then unless he blocks that recognition by giving himself over to his passions, in some cases also alcohol and drugs (some legal perhaps, some illegal), repentance is a natural consequence of the memory of death.
Of course, if you have a chronic illness, then the words are written on the wall with much greater clarity.
And if one day the doctor says to you, “I’m sorry …” then it’s a matter of calling the priest.
The memory of death is not morbid. It is a spiritual charism that allows the person the moral certainty that there is ‘no exit’ to his life: only the grave is the final resting place of the tired tabernacle.
The memory of death is not depression: it is the serene realization that we are destined first for the dread judgement seat of Christ and then for eternal life according to our works. In the face of such a prospect the sincere Christian will realize that the only thing is to cultivate repentance.
The memory of death is not anti-Christian: it is the Christian united to God who realizes that like the hair on his head his days are numbered, that as the Psalmist puts it his days are as the ‘herb of the field’.
But it is only after a certain age that God grants this realization to the monk or to the layman.
Best wishes for Great Lent