Christianity is a religion of desire. At first glance, this statement may seem counterintuitive and contradictory. After all, Christians are told to deny themselves, to take up their cross and follow Christ (Mt 16:24). Several prayers, especially in the Divine Liturgy, also seem to downplay desire. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, prior to the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays for the revering of the Lord’s commandments so that, “having trampled down all carnal desires,” the Christian may do that which is pleasing to God. Similarly, the the prayer during the Cherubic Hymn, the priest prays that “No one bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to approach, draw near, or minister to You, the King of Glory.” Church history is filled with numerous examples of ascetics and saints who renounced their desires, whether that includes St. Benedict throwing himself into the thorn bush to chasten his sexual desire, or Eudocia the Samaritan (whom the Orthodox Church commemorated on Forgiveness Sunday) who abandoned her earthly riches and physical beauty to the disdain of her former lovers. Countless entries within the Church’s illustrious hagiography follow a similar trajectory: a person with worldly fame and material pleasures experiences a conversion, and then sells her belongings, and embraces a life of poverty and self-denial. It would then seem that “desire” has an awfully negative place within Christian discourse. In other words, if you desire something, it is probably bad and sinful, and the way to holiness is thus avoiding what we desire and instead pursue those things we do not like.Continue reading
During Lent, lay, clergy and monastic alike partake in fasting, and unlike other fasting periods, such as the nativity fast prior to Christmas, many modern Orthodox Christian laity do still partake in the Lenten fast, at least to some degree and for some extent of time. As the laity partake in this tradition, they ought to consider that for monks and nuns who engage in the practice of fasting throughout the year, fasting is not simply a matter of abstaining from food but is a spiritual exercise that is part and parcel of the quest to be Good and become more Divine-like. Despite the fact that not all persons are suited to monastic life, there are indeed lessons that laity can learn from the deeply psychological and moral dimensions of the monastic understanding of fasting as a spiritual practice.
Some of the most theologically developed discussions of fasting are to be found within the Philokalia, meaning “Lover of Goodness.” Within the four volumes of the Philokalia, we find a robust philosophy of fasting in which the psyche as well as the body must be involved in the spiritual pursuit of the good. Within these classic texts of Orthodox Christian spirituality, the idea that cultivating a state of psycho-spiritual “watchfulness,” “wakefulness,” or “mindfulness” (called nepsis) is foundational for the cultivation of arete, or virtue. Within the Philokalia, nepsis is described as vigilantly guarding one’s heart and mind from evil, or vicious, thoughts such as: anger, jealousy, rage, despair, gluttony, greed, egoism and lust. It is the practice of nepsis that helps enable one to transform these pathoi, or pathological thoughts, into more reasonable desires and place them in the service of attaining the higher-order desire for the good. Continue reading
When we think of fasting in the Orthodox Church today, our mind almost immediately goes to certain rules relating to what we can and cannot eat. Moreover, this practice is especially associated with Great and Holy Lent. And so, when it comes to this “forty-day” fast, there are some who will almost exclusively focus all their attention on familiarizing themselves with all of the Church’s prescriptions regarding when they need to abstain from particular foods. Then, there are some who might go to great lengths, meticulously checking all ingredients of certain food items in supermarkets for example, in order to ensure that there are no traces of foods which they know are not permitted during fasting periods, also rejoicing with delight when they happen to find substitutes to their favorite food. What necessarily results from such an understanding of fasting, amongst its practitioners, is a belief that if they have been “successful” in this effort, they are then prepared to receive the risen Lord on Easter night.
A question which justifiably arises, however, is whether this in fact is what fasting is all about. Continue reading
On the day of our Lord’s Transfiguration, whose feast day is celebrated on August 6th, Jesus took with him three disciples, Peter, John and James (Mt 17:1-9; Mk 9:2-8; Lk 9:28-36). They are at the ‘high’ mountain, which is often a place of revelation in the Bible, and at this mountain Jesus is transfigured. St. Matthew tells us, “He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.” St. Luke narrates that the “appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening.” St. Mark says, “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.”
The story, in short, teaches us about what the Church has affirmed for centuries: the divinity of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the God-man, truly God and truly human. As Rowans Williams so eloquently puts it, “Jesus’ human life is shot through with God’s life, he is carried on the tide of God’s eternal life, and borne towards us on that tide, bringing with him all the fullness of the creator” (The Dwelling of the Light, 6).
The other thing that we learn from the story of Jesus’s transfiguration concerns us, our humanity. The story of the Transfiguration teaches us what we are called to be, the reason for our creation. Continue Reading…