By Stergios N. Sakkos
March is usually marked by the period of Lent. The Church opens before us the “stadium of virtues”. At the same time, it undertakes the role of an experienced trainer who is responsible for the athletes in the spiritual realm. Showing total respect towards our freedom, it announces the beginning of the “race”: “Enter those of you who are willing to fight!”
From the numerous spiritual “sports events”, available to us during Lent, I would like to underline two: abstinence and humility. Of course, they sound strange in our time which is dominated by self-indulgence and arrogance. Convenience, in a society of overconsumption, abolished ascetic life. The main purpose and vision in our life seems to be just enjoying ourselves. On the other hand, our selfishness abhors any sense of humility.
However, abstinence and humility or fasting and confession – as experienced in the Orthodox Church – are the two authentic acts of piety. Today, in our faith, everything has been simplified yet two things remain challenging: genuine fasting and sincere confession. The former has an impact on the body, not in order to exhaust or harm it but to renew it. The latter humbles the soul in order to recover its divine glory. It eradicates selfishness and arrogance which deviously dominate our life. When we participate voluntarily and with honesty in these two spiritual “events”, our life is marked by the sign of the Cross. It transforms us into authentic disciples, following the example of the crucified Lord, Jesus Christ.
It is true, of course, that both abstinence and humility demand the transcension of our ego. Without doubt, the entire life of the faithful is a way of transcendence. The believer overcomes his personal will in order to obey God’s will. Without neglecting the present life, the believer transcends it to embrace “eternity”, as the Church is called.
What is impressive though, is that whoever makes eternity his priority, makes the most of the present life as well. This is because our real interest lies in what God’s law prescribes. Especially concerning fasting and confession, I could wholeheartedly recommend it as what today’s people definitely need. At the time of Saint Vasilios, medicine admitted that fasting was the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. What is more, the wisdom of our Fathers attributed human harmony to humility and sincere confession. Nowadays, these benefits are obvious from the other side, too. Heart disease, strokes and so many other diseases as a result of self-indulgence, stress, anxiety and all sorts of addictions seem like an epidemic. This is a very serious issue that forces us to admit that if we were more restrained and ascetic, if we were more honest with ourselves and God, we would be healthier both physically and mentally.
Indeed, our Church has designed a life chart for its members, so they can benefit not only in eternity but in the present life as well. Fasting and confession help people improve themselves and be purified both as individuals and as members of a social group. Fasting, abstaining from certain types of food and from vices and desires, is described by St. Chrysostom as the “mother of well-being”. It helps our body detox offering physical strength. It purifies our soul by turning our mind to God and stimulates our love, since it is connected to almsgiving/charity. “Let’s fast in order to be charitable” is the slogan of the Church. Confession helps people to make peace with themselves, restores their relationship with other people and allows them to enjoy God’s friendship and love. St. Chrysostom urges us “not to feel ashamed to confess our sins, since confession is a powerful force”.
Especially, the period of Lent becomes a guide to the paths of ascetic life and humility. During Lent the Orthodox Church suggests a series of transcendental spiritual exercises, which are similar to that of a pole used by a pole-vaulting athlete, in order to win. Will we dare such a transcendence of our ego? Certainly, this is the only way that safely leads to the resurrection.