Archpastoral Letter on Great Lent 2009
Prot. N. 189-March 1, 2009
"When Jesus heard that, He said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.'"
Matthew 9: 12
To the Very Reverend Protopresbyters, Very Reverend and Reverend Fathers, Monastics, and the pious faithful of our God-saved Diocese,
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Fathers and faithful,
As we began our journey into the Triodion a few weeks ago, we were reminded once again of the lessons that several parables had to teach us, especially the two parables of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Prodigal Son; these messages are repeated in the hymns of the Church during the third and the fourth weeks of the Great Fast. Another parable was at one time also used as an introduction to the Great Fast, but it fell into disuse as a pre-Lenten theme; it is, however, still used in the hymns of the fifth week of Lent, and that is the Parable of the Good Samaritan. This Gospel parable is also used in the Mystery of Holy Unction, individually, and on the evening of Great and Holy Wednesday. We see in it the need for healing, physically, but even more importantly, spiritually. The Good Samaritan pours oil and wine onto the wounds of the unfortunate victim and loving cares for him at his own expense. In this we see an image of our loving God.
In a beautiful spiritual book First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew, which I recommend for Lenten reading, Frederica Mathewes-Green succinctly outlines the Orthodox teaching on salvation and the need for healing in this way: "In western theology, the word 'salvation' immediately raises an image of the crucified Christ. His death on the Cross reunited us with God the Father, paying Him the debt for our sins. Christians of St. Andrew's world would have seen things from a slightly different angle. For them, salvation is being restored to the image and likeness of God. It means God dwelling within us and filling us with His presence." A few paragraphs later, she says, "It's sometimes said that we live in a 'therapeutic' culture, which means that people are led to cultivate feelings of self-pity and to seek out comfort. Early Christian spirituality was therapeutic, too, but to a very different effect. Here the idea is that sin is a kind of sickness. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they broke the connection they had with the only source of Light and Life. They began to die. The result is that every human is born with a spiritual 'broken gene,' so to speak, which will inevitably dispose them to sin as well... The goal of life in Christ is to be healed."
These extensive quotes outline the position of our Holy Orthodox Faith to this very day. In another spiritually-edifying book Gifts of the Desert, "Father Maximos" (now a bishop of the Church) instructs his spiritual children about the mindset of the holy monastic and desert fathers. He says: "The Ekklesia" (the Church) was created for purely therapeutic purposes, for healing the split between us and God..." The Ekklesia (the Church) takes fallen, sick, and confused human beings, who suffer from all sorts of destructive passions and sins, and with its very tangible therapeutic methods helps them to attain real health.'
If, then, we view the Church as a "spiritual hospital," nowhere do we see this practiced more obviously and intensely than during the period of the Great Fast. We might view this sacred season as an intense period of "hospitalization" to which we run for healing.
There are obvious analogies that we can observe between the healing of bodily ailments and that of spiritual illnesses.
The first that we will consider is the subject of food. We know, of course, that in order to return to good health and to maintain a healthy body, we may have to eliminate certain foods from our diet, such as fats, sugar, salt, alcohol and so on. These items are poison to our bodies; they make us sick.
In a spiritual sense, we call our type of dieting FASTING; we forgo animal products and other foods which weigh us down, steal us away from prayer, meditation, and Scripture reading, and place emphasis on the wrong part of our nature. FASTING allows the spirit to soar freely to the heights of holiness, which is the epitome of good health.
While still focusing on the subject of food, we are aware that when we eliminate certain foods that are harmful to us, we must replace these with healthful foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lower fat products and the like. Sometimes, we also need to take certain prescribed medicines. By ingesting all of these, we help our bodies to heal, prevent the onslaught and progression of diseases, build up immunity, and promote growth.
While we are fasting to strengthen our souls, we also need to consume the best food that the Lord offers to us, and that is the "FOOD OF IMMORTALITY," the Holy Eucharist, the precious Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. This awesome Mystery is sacred Medicine for us. The more often we receive Holy Communion, the more developed and stronger our spiritual lives become, the more we build up immunity toward sin, and the more God-like we grow.
NEXT, our physical doctors always tell us that we need to exercise these corporeal bodies of ours and discipline ourselves in therapeutic sessions.
Our spiritual directors also teach us the necessity of spiritual exercise, especially at this time of year: to kneel more often in prayer, to bow abundantly, especially with full prostrations, before the Almighty Physician of souls and bodies. This discipline, while performed by the body, has a profound effect on our souls.
FINALLY, our bodies are sometimes so ill and diseased that SURGERY is necessary to remove some cancer or other malignancy or defect. This may be the best or only way to accomplish healing.
In the spiritual hospital, the Church, the GREAT PHYSICIAN excises SIN through the Mystery of Penance, Holy Confession. This merciful procedure removes the infection that has plagued our souls.
There is still one more observation that applies to both areas of our life: PROCRASTINATION. So often we put off going to the doctor until it is too late! God forbid that people who call themselves Christian should adhere to the same hazardous practice in their spiritual lives. St. Paul tells us emphatically: "Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation." (II Corinthians 6:2)
Let us not put it off one more day! Resolve to make this the best Lenten experience that you have ever had. Create a new maxim for yourself:
A HEALTHY MIND, IN A HEALTHY BODY, GUIDED BY A HEALTHY SOUL!!!
With my prayers for you and your families that you experience a meaningful, uplifting, and spiritually beneficial Great Fast, I remain
Most sincerely yours in Christ,
This Archpastoral letter is to be read in every Parish of the Diocese in lieu of the sermon on Sunday March 1, 2009