Feria Quinta infra Hebdomadam II in Quadragesima

A priest—an Eastern Orthodox priest—once told me that the devil rides us extra hard during Lent. It is an observation I have repeated many times, probably because it is the most accurate thing any cleric has ever told me. All of my Orthodox Lents save one were difficult personally and professionally. That was enough to ensure I reaped very little spiritually during the 40 Days plus Holy Week. Then came Holy Saturday, the Book of Jonah, a long nap on the couch, and, finally, the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. If my spirit didn’t lighten at that moment, it did shortly thereafter amid cries of Christ is risen! (English, Greek, Slavonic, etc.) and the chanting of “The Angel Cried.” Each year I would think to myself how wonderful it would be if, by next Lent, I might be that man from the homily who labored from the ninth or sixth hours rather than the eleventh. It never quite happened that way. I may have started out at the first hour, but it was inevitable that I’d go AWOL for a time before the gate was shut. And then one Lent, some four years ago, I went missing and never came back. The gate—the eastern gate that looks particularly wide and inviting compared to all the other eastern gates—was shut, never to be opened to me again.

Had I chosen to abandon the labor altogether, this would be a much different entry on a much different blog. But as more than a few people know, I found a different gate through which to enter into the joy of the Lord. I had circled about it for many years, testing the handle every now and again to ensure it wasn’t locked before quickly dashing off lest anyone notice me. It was, in retrospect, a terrible way to try and live out the Christian faith, constantly wondering where I should be at any given moment. Maybe that is why Lent 2011 was especially hard, for I could no long accept fully the place I called home for seven years any more than I could sit comfortably in a pew without worrying if I was consummating a great betrayal of everything I once professed to believe. If that sounds overly dramatic, that’s because it is—and thankfully I realized as much before losing myself to the sort of endless fretting that can, without warning, give way to despair.

To think of parting Orthodoxy for Catholicism as a “great betrayal” is to buy into a certain triumphalistic narrative which, unfortunately, is played up to a ghastly degree during the first two Sundays of the Great Byzantine Fast. For too many, the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy becomes little more than a triumph for Orthodoxy over and against the Catholics with their disordered attachment to bleeding statues and chubby Renaissance cherubs. Then comes the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, a second ostensible triumph for Orthodoxy against the “errors of the Latins.” Never mind, of course, the degree to which Palamas leaned on Latin Fathers, particularly St. Augustine, or the fact that the good bishop of Thessalonica never set out to be the Greek version of St. Thomas Aquinas. That was a role he was saddled with centuries after his repose by the likes of Lossky and Romanides. East/West relations, to say nothing of their sympathetic mutual theological understanding, have not been better off for it. If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West and weep.

Not that there is anything wrong with the Byzantine Rite’s liturgical schema for Lent, or so I opined a few days ago. Placed in soberer hands, the Sundays of the Triumph of Orthodoxy and St. Gregory Palamas are beautiful commemorations of the East’s rich spiritual-theological patrimony. It is the genius of the Catholic mind to take a broad view of the legitimate diversity which should flourish in the Church even if historical practice has not quite lived up to that ideal. Indeed, there are still Catholics who are suspicious of this ideal, fearing—irrationally—that anything which is not distinctly “Roman” is presumptively defective. These heirs of a cloudier period in ecclesiastical history have plenty of counterparts in Eastern Orthodoxy, the sort which take “Byzantine” in its worse sense as the final measuring stick of goodness and truth. May they drive each other mad with absurd accusations and uncharitable caricatures, and leave the rest of us be.

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23 comments

  1. Am I wrong to say you left Orthodoxy because Lent is too hard?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been considering going back to Rome myself, but I question my motives. They all concern Rome being easier (it’s my ethnicity, it’s my father’s side of the family, more parishes, convenient drive-through McSacrament) and nothing to do with truth, small or big T.

    Last year I kind of ducked out of Lent because I was busy partying. I did go to church, a Roman one, but only because of inertia. I went for many, many months of no confession and no Eucharist because for all my scandalous ways, profaning the Body in my body was one line I was not willing to cross.

    I’m doing Lent again this year, but I already broke the fast on Clean Monday Night out of anger and spite. I kept the fast better this week, but broke it again out of anger, spite and despair.

    What am I getting at? I’m not saying East is better than West. Maybe I’m saying that I need to battle against my sinful nature.

    1. Yes, I left Orthodoxy because you guys are like the Navy SEALS and all I can handle is McHale’s Navy.

      If I had to give you the shortest answer possible, it would be this: Questions like that are exactly why I left Orthodoxy.

      1. As a neophyte, could I just say that I seriously doubt that the Lenten fast is supposed to be achievable? The fast is so rigorous and demanding that we are almost guaranteed to fail; and failure can only work in us patience and humility and a craving of the Sacraments. Moreover the vegan diet is not so difficult as the mortification of one’s own sordid passions and addictions. And charity…you could keep the fast to the last drop of milk but if you lack charity (as I do), then fasting is vain and probably works iniquity.

        1. Failure can also work in us despair and an attitude of what-the-hell.

          Ascesis is essential to the spiritual life, but it’s not the heart and soul of Christianity. I bet there are Buddhist monks who put Orthodox fasters to shame. The point is not: Are you tough enough for the most rigorous ascetical program? The point is: Lord have mercy.

    1. I am assuming this comment is directed to me and that it is serious.

      No, I didn’t. My pride was/is in the way. There is this lingering fear that if I do things God’s way I would have to occupy a lower station in life/not have all the cool things I want or do good things for trashy people who don’t deserve it.

  2. “Yes, I left Orthodoxy because you guys are like the Navy SEALS and all I can handle is McHale’s Navy.

    If I had to give you the shortest answer possible, it would be this: Questions like that are exactly why I left Orthodoxy.”

    If I could give the shortest reason possible, I would say answers like this are exactly the reason I don’t feel like it makes a huge impact on one’s behavior one way or another which of the three big, real historical Churches (Rome, Byzantium, or the Orientals) one joins.

  3. It’s a shame clergy are primarily responsible for catechesis. We should catechize newbies the way we do kids raised in the church, which primarily boils down to be quiet, stand up, watch what I do. The ‘problem with converts’ is usually problems from taking to seriously what some cradle priest or monastic told them. Go to church, pray some at home, don’t be an asshole and calm the hell down are pretty good pieces of advice on the spiritual life. A good measure of how successful you are is how you treat homeless people, how well you tip, and whether you drive too expensive a car and live in too expensive a house. Drinking a little helps, too, as does regular sex with one’s spouse and doing the sorts of lame things one does with one’s children.

      1. I would say “calm the hell down” would also apply, both before and after.

        Somewhere I read that before when tempting us to sin the devil tells us it’s no big deal, and afterwards he tells us there is no hope for us. Both are lies.

        1. Heh. I can sort of understand that.

          Last year, I was trying to balance being a Catholic Christian, an Orthodox Christian and a secular hedonist. It wasn’t pretty.

  4. I’m thinking one of the best things one can do for Lent is to stop being an asshole to one’s family and friends. If one can go 40 days without thinking ill or speaking ill of anyone else then eat all the steaks you want. Give your neighbor a break and like mentioned above tip well and remember the homeless, widows and orphans.

    1. I agree 100%, but do you know how hard that is? One Lent I gave up gossip. I gossiped more than ever. I just felt guiltier about it. LOL.

      But then, in the immortal words of Katrina Fernandez, I suck at Lent. So, take it from whence it comes.

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