February 23, 2016

The Tightrope of the Triodion

By Protopresbyter Fr. Thomas Vamvinis

The period of the Triodion is a tightrope between excess and lack, sociability and inwardness, independence and obedience. With the hymns of the Triodion and the words of the Fathers, the Holy Church stigmatizes over-eating without measure, but also draws attention to the excess of fasting, possibly related to pride. She does not want to simply exhaust the body, but to transform the passions and make the mind dominant over anger and desire. This is why she turns the mind within, urging silence and prayer, as well as merciful giving. She inspires obedience to the will of God and in Christ to the whole creation, because this is the freedom of love.

The development of the inner life and interpersonal relationships, as well as obedience, under the conditions set by the Fathers of the Church, and independence from everything that is not God, are together not found in opposition. Indeed, the criterion of the authenticity of the inner life is healthy interpersonal relationships, and the test of healthy interpersonal relations is the peace of the powers of our soul, which is associated with the "illumination of the noetic eyes of our heart", humility "in our thoughts", and freedom from the captivity of thoughts, to use the wording of a prayer we read after Divine Communion. Also, true obedience to the institutions and canons of the Church, which are constituted by the Holy Spirit, is the coordination of our existence with the freedom of being children of God. Nevertheless, in the community of the faithful there are present autonomous movements and changes, which destroy the catholicity of the ecclesiastical way of life. Thus, inwardness coincides with inaction or with indolence, and is underestimated and replaced with social activities. Conversely, mission and social action are considered inferior to the hesychastic life and interpreted as an expression of a counterfeit spiritual situation. Moreover, obedience is perceived as discipline and freedom is experienced with promiscuity.

These autonomous movements are consequences of a change in ethos and faith, in the liturgical and ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox Church faith is connected with worship, which presupposes the ascetic life and obedience to the hierarchical structure of the ecclesiastical body. The hierarchical ranks in the Church are those that teach the life in Christ to God's people. Thus, sociability and inwardness, obedience and freedom in the life and teachings of our Church are not mutually exclusive, nor confused, but one presupposes the other. It is a fact that some do not exclude one or another, but confuse, for example, the "internal" with the "external". That is, they call the internal life a distraction to external works, resulting in freedom required of the nous from everything created in the journey to its unceasing prayer, seeking it through finite and material works, which are enslaved to the laws of corruption and the provisions of the State. They forget that Christ became incarnate voluntarily, subject not only to the Heavenly Father, but also to the laws of corruptibility and the tax laws of the State.

Eventually, the ecclesiastical man is not simply one who is removed from the world, nor the one who chooses to act in the world. It is not one who transforms by technical means the surroundings, or who denies the technical means and modern electronic amenities, but one that transforms with the energy of the grace of God their heart and experiences the whole of creation as God's temple. It is he who makes himself a living temple, with free and sincere obedience to the Church, and helps others through our life and conduct, to make them also temples of God who are sanctified.

In this great work of making ourselves and creation ecclesiastical, we have as an effective help the period of the Triodion. Central to this is to fast from food, but its meaning is not confined to it. It is displayed in our way of life. Specifically it teaches us how people should live when they seek God before the common resurrection. This is why we are called to fight the good fight of the fast, that we may enter into the arena of the virtues - Great Lent - not only with the "sword" of fasting which "cuts away evil from the heart", but with all the weapons of faith, such as prayer and almsgiving. Fasting from food will even be seen to be inadequate, if it is not accompanied with much struggle against the passions, as one introductory hymn to the fast says:

"You abstain from meat, O my soul, and do not cleanse yourself of the passions; in vain do you rejoice in not eating; if the fast does not serve for your amendment, it will be false and despised by God, and you will only be likened to the evil spirits who abstain from food altogether." (Matins, Wednesday of Cheesefare Week)

Besides, the content of the Orthodox ecclesiastical fast has great depth and width. Saint John of Sinai, in his book The Ladder, which is commonly read in Orthodox monasteries during Great Lent, gives a comprehensive definition of fasting, showing its depth and width. Saint John writes:

"Fasting is the coercion of nature and the cutting out of everything that delights the palate, the prevention of lust, the uprooting of bad thoughts, deliverance from dreams, purity of prayer, the light of the soul, the guarding of the mind, deliverance from blindness, the door of compunction, humble sighing, glad contrition, a lull in chatter, a means to silence, a guard of obedience, lightening of sleep, health of body, agent of dispassion, remission of sins, the gate of Paradise and its delight."

Within these brief and concise words of Saint John of Sinai, we find the whole meaning of Orthodox fasting. I will not analyze the passage, but only point out that it is violence against fallen human nature. Asceticism subordinates the body to the nous, which is liberated from wicked thoughts and prays purely. This internal dimension of fasting is associated with contrition, the humble sigh of repentance and contrition of heart, which is not immersed in frustration and sadness, but introduces the joy of hope, that sins will be forgiven and the door to paradise will be opened. And something important in interpersonal relationships: Fasting is "a lull in chatter, a means to silence, a guard of obedience."

The Church is nourished not with words - especially troubled or secular words - but is nourished by the words of the Word. All around us people - and ourselves - want a few words, but that will come out of the silence of the heart, which obeys in all its depth the peacemaking will of God.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasis, "Ἡ σχοινοβασία τοῦ Τριωδίου", February 1999. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.