UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH IN AMERICA
Offices of the Metropolitan Prime Bishop
LENTEN ARCHPASTORAL LETTER
To Our beloved Brothers in the Episcopate,
PEACE, THE DEEPEST FRATERNAL LOVE AND APOSTOLIC BENEDICTION!
When he prophesied more than 2,600 years ago, the prophet Isaiah laid before his contemporaries the fact that fasting was more than giving up food; God, he wrote, desires that we free those bound, share our food, shelter the oppressed and homeless, clothe the naked and live out our obligations to others (Isaiah 58:6-7). Writing later, Zechariah stressed the expectation that for the House of Judah, the times of fasting were to be “seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful feasts, and that primary attention should be given to love, truth and peace (Zechariah 8:18-19). The idea is simple: in a reverse action, enriching the lives of others improves our lives because we are all part of the same human race.
Giving up or reducing material pleasures such as food or entertainment can result in greater freedom and a richer life by showing us what we do not need. The spiritual fathers throughout the centuries cautioned us that when hungry we eat, when tired we sleep, but in our contemporary societies we do the reverse: we eat even when we aren't hungry, and we too often sleep in our forgetting about the multitude of people, of children, who are starving. Our voraciousness consumes plants, animals, land, trees and, especially, other people's freedom at a rate matched only by the waste we discard. During Lent, our goal should be to limit our use of good yet unessential things in order to be liberated from our own appetites. The invitation to fast is an invitation to freedom.
There is no denying that we are physically dependent on certain essentials, such as food and water, so it may seem a cruel irony that we cannot be fully free from all needs. But Lent is a Christian season, and Christ came to free us not from physical bondage, but from the bondage of sin. Christians believe in a physical transformation at the end of time, but the work of spiritual liberation has already begun, and we have only to join the Resistance.
As spiritual beings, our desire to overconsume makes no sense. To ravage and foul our world (both personally and globally) is to deny our belief that the life of the spirit is more enduring and of more value. The more we immerse ourselves in the material world, the more it obscures the spiritual, and the more we forget who and what we are: made in the "image and likeness" of God. At the same time, judicious use of our personal and natural resources can be an expression of this identity, just as an artist uses his sense of proportion and restraint in communicating meaning in sculpture, painting, dance or music.
We are advised by Isaiah and the Fathers of the Church to abstain from injustice and sin. This, my beloved brothers and sisters, is a call to spiritual freedom. It is so easy to fall into unhealthy patterns of thought: racism, “I versus them,” pessimism, anger or pride. Fasting from these is more difﬁcult, but in these areas we have the greatest potential for victory in this life, for total liberation is possible. Justice, magnaminity, joy, kindness, humility and love are gifts to us from God, but we have to desire and embrace them, and this cannot be done with hearts filled with hatred and pride.
There is enough injustice, discrimination, hatred and personal evil in the world, and it should be the goal of each of us to cleanse our innermost selves of these evils and to create more just and loving communities. Then, my brothers and sisters, with love in our hearts, we can fulfill the mandate of the Church which rang out in song last Saturday as we served Vespers for the Sunday of the Last Judgment:
Since we know the Lord’s commandments,
Prayer and fasting devoid of these acts of love toward the poor in our society are simply incomplete. The Christian cannot embrace true repentance and, consequently stand before the empty tomb at Pascha unless he embraces the suffering Christ Whom we find enfleshed in the less fortunate and those scorned by our society.
If we grow discouraged on the course of our Lenten journey, we must always be mindful that through all of this, God is with us. Often, it may seem as though He may not offer comfort in the immediate moment, but He promises no trial beyond our ability to bear our burdens, and He will not give us stones when we ask Him for bread (Matthew 7:7-11). He offers us no truth we cannot accept if we become as children. Recall that when Jesus had ﬁnally driven-off the devil, angels came to wait on him. When, through Jesus Christ, we have rejected illusion and self-deception, we can be sure of continued graces from God. These are not the rewards of virtue but those gifts which are available only to real people.
The most fundamental problem of the spiritual life is the acceptance of our hidden and dark self with which we tend to identify all the evil that is in us and which inevitably separates us from our Lord. We must learn by discernment to separate the evil growth of our actions from the good ground of the soul. During our Lenten journey, we must cultivate that ground so that a new life can grow up from it within us, beyond our knowledge and beyond our conscious control. The sacred attitude is, then, one of reverence, awe and silence before the mystery that begins to take place within us when we become aware of our innermost self. In silence, hope, expectation, and unknowing, the man of faith abandons himself to the divine will and to our Savior who knows, loves, gives, liberates and transforms both us and the world in which we live.
While Lent is a time of fasting, abstinence, almsgiving and prayer for more than a billion people in the world, these practices are not always examined and their full value is easily missed. This is especially true for fasting and abstinence, seen as something we do for God, but liberating for us.
Another view of these sacriﬁces is that we trade something good for a greater good, and gain freedom through the effort. In fact, fasting and abstinence can help us ﬁnd material and spiritual freedom, and if you grow weary and discouraged during this holy season of preparation, take into account the words of Evagrios the Solitary in the Philokalia: “If you are disheartened, pray, as the Apostle says (cf. James 5:13). Pray with fear, trembling, effort, with inner watchfulness and vigilance.”
During Lent, we use abstinence from meat and acts of penance as metaphors. In a very small way, they model the rejection of illusions about what we need, who we are, whom we are obligated to serve, and who God is. In this life, we try to make some progress in discarding our "disordered attachments." At death, we will no longer have a choice. We cannot enter Heaven burdened with a thousand foolish attachments, nor can we be forgiven unless we have forgiven the perpetrators of even the most evil acts against us. As our bodies lie rotting, there will be no more illusions about the worth of attractiveness. As others claim our possessions, they will ﬁnally have their proper value to us. When we stand in judgment before God, we will have no illusions about our sanctity or goodness. All will be laid bare, and there will be no more hypocrisy, lies, injustice or illusions. It is far better to begin discarding our foolish attachments in this life, and Lent is a good time to begin this work. The best time to start, however, is always now, in silence, taking as our guide the words of our Lord:
“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust
“That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are
Finally, on this Sunday of Forgiveness, I kneel before each of you and ask your forgiveness for any acts and/or omissions of mine which may have hurt you, and I pray that you find it in each of your hearts to forgive any and all who may have sinned against you.
Given at Solus Christi Skete of the Monks of New Manjava, Milwaukee, WI, this 1st day of March, 2009, in the fifth year of Our Episcopate and the fourth year of our election as Metropolitan Prime Bishop.
Metropolitan Prime Bishop