By Metropolitan Seraphim of Kastoria
The philanthropy of God makes us worthy once again this year to go through the blessed period of the Triodion and with His grace and infinite mercy we will enter in a few days the Holy and Great Lent.
Let me once again remind you, as well as myself, of a counterproposal of the Church in the contemporary world and in the consumer society. And this is asceticism.
It has been called the mother of sanctification, a bridle against those things which bring spiritual death, a discipline towards all the members of the body, as well as the elimination of the vile taste of the tree [the Tree of Knowledge], according to the expression of Saint Gregory the Theologian.1
Full of admiration this sacred father writes:
"Come then, dedicate yourselves and, casting off your old nature live now in newness of life, subjugating everything that gives rise to death, disciplining your whole person, spewing forth as abomination every vile morsel of the tree, yet remembering your old ways for the sole purpose of avoiding them. The fruit that brought me death was lovely to look at and good to eat, but let us turn away from outward allure and direct our gaze to our inner selves. Do not let a desire for beauty get the better of you and make you a slave to your eyes - if possible, not even to the point of a furtive glance - but recall Eve, that exquisitely sweet but poisonous temptation. How can a man consigned to perdition by her who is his own find easy salvation in another? Do not glaze your gullet by swilling everything within reach: a delicacy initially appealing once consumed repels. Has your sense of smell unmanned you? Seek to avoid fragrant odors. Your sense of touch enervated you? Renounce things soft and dainty. Your ear done you tricks? Close the door to clever and deceptive words. Seek to open your mouth for the word of God that you may draw in the Spirit, not suck in death. Whenever something forbidden beckons you, remember what you were and how you came to be lost. If you deviate in some small way from right reason try to regain your senses before you pass completely beyond the pale and are hurled down to death; and replace the old man with the new and turn to celebrate the dedication of your soul.
Let the serpent be the soul object of your wrath: it was he that caused your fall. Let your every aspiration be devoted to God, not to any sly, insidious end. Let reason preside over all and let not your better part be dragged down by the worse. Hate not your brother, and this without expectation of gain; it was for his sake that Christ died and became your brother, although he is your Lord God. Envy not the righteous, you who yourself have been the victim of envy and been seduced into surrendering to it and for this reason laid low. Be not ashamed to cry, you who endured suffering worthy of many tears and subsequently received mercy. Brush not aside the pauper, you who have received the wealth of divinity; but if not - for even this is asking much of the insatiably greedy - at least grown not rich at his expense. Despise not the stranger; it was for his sake that Christ, whose sojourners and strangers we all are, became a stranger on earth; otherwise you will be estranged from paradise as before. Share your food, your clothing, your shelter with the needy, you who have more than these than you need and wallow in them. Be not enamored of wealth unless it benefits the poor. Forgive; you who have been forgiven. Show pity; it has been shown to you. Secure kindness for yourself by showing it to others while there is time. Let your entire way of life, all your existence, be a dedication for you."2
Saint John Chrysostom expresses the same perspective:
"Loose yourself from your slavery first, and then receive, that you may receive no longer as a slave, but as a master. Despise riches, and you shall be rich. Despise glory, and you shall be glorious. Despise the avenging yourself on your enemies, and then shall you attain it. Despise repose, and then you shall receive it that in receiving you may receive not as a prisoner, nor as a slave, but as a freeman. For as in the case of little children, when the child eagerly desires childish playthings, we hide them from him with much care, as a ball, for instance, and such like things, that he may not be hindered from necessary things; but when he thinks little of them, and no longer longs for them, we give them fearlessly, knowing that henceforth no harm can come to him from them, the desire no longer having strength enough to draw him away from things necessary; so God also, when He sees that we no longer eagerly desire the things of this world, thenceforward permits us to use them. For we possess them as freemen and men, not as children."3
With asceticism we will attain spiritual freedom and, in addition, we will live with the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. The exhortation of the God-bearing fathers is now timely for all of us and especially for the pastors of the Church: "Give blood, receive the Spirit," which means to struggle in the struggle of asceticism to enjoy the rich grace of God.
Yet how can we speak of asceticism if we despise it? Or how can we speak of gentleness or the spirits of avarice, sloth, vain curiosity, love of power and talkativeness, according to the most beautiful prayer of Saint Ephraim, if we do not comply with the wise teachings of the Church and do not deal with the healing of our wounds and passions?
It is time, therefore, that we deal seriously and consistently with asceticism, to offer it and teach it to our blessed people in order to prepare them for Holy and Great Lent, that they might enjoy the vision of God on the night of the Resurrection.
"Anyone who looks upwards and blends the flesh to the spirit, has Christ as a friendly guide in life," says Saint Gregory the Theologian. "Whoever gives all their land, their tongue, their ears, and even their mind and strength to the life to come... and brings to their warehouses much higher things than the earthly..., they shall see with their eyes the Kingdom of God and will become spirit.... This is the end of mortal life. To this the humiliation of Christ's Passion raises us."4
1. Oration 44, "On New Sunday".
3. Homily 25, On Hebrews.
4. Poem 45, "Lamentation on the Passions of his Soul".
Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.