In the Orthodox Church the Nativity Fast, known in the West as Advent, begins on November 15. Modeled after Great Lent, this is a 40-day fast in preparation for Christmas, the feast of our Lord’s birth. But there is another theme to this season as well. We not only prepare to celebrate the feast of Christ’s first coming into the word. We also use this time to reflect on our readiness to meet him at his second coming.
Today is the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist (see Mark 6:14-30). This holy day is a day of strict fasting in the Orthodox Church, as we remember the death of an innocent and holy man at the hands of a weak leader governed by his ego and insatiable appetites.
Another wonderful quote from Abba Poemen of the Egyptian desert.
Christian spirituality is not bout hating the body, it’s about reigning in unbridled appetites.
The Christian spiritual tradition outlines three disciplines necessary for inner healing and growth: prayer, fasting, and acts of charity (which can be broadly defined as acts engaged solely for the sake of another).
When we look at the lives of the saints, their stories of intense prayer, strict fasting, and absolute selflessness can make the average believer feel quite discouraged. You might not realize it but, if you’re worried that you’re not doing enough in your walk with God, you’ve got half the battle won. None of the saints believed they were doing enough. The worse thing we can do in our spiritual life is convince ourselves that, “I have arrived.” There’s always more that we can do.
As they say, “the struggle is real,” and the above quote from the desert father Abba Poemen offers good perspective and much hope. When people come to me for advice on the spiritual disciplines, I offer this rule of thumb:
- figure out what you realistically can do, and
- put in a sincere effort to just do what you can.
If you can realistically take an hour for your daily devotions, do that and may God bless you. If you can realistically only find five minutes a day for prayer, make sure you’re taking those five minutes every day and may God bless you. The quantity is not as important as the sincerity of the effort.
Furthermore, don’t forget that things change over the course of one’s life. When you can do more, do more, when you can’t, do whatever you can with a sincere heart, to the Lord’s glory.
Rather than focusing on what you think you “should” be doing in your spiritual life, focus on what you can do, and put every ounce of effort into making a habit of getting that done. This is the work pleasing to God.
Everything we have in the life of the Church is part of God’s divine prescription for our healing that allows us to come into communion with Christ and to grow in our faith. In Part Four of the Four Pillars Retreat Series, we look at how daily spiritual practices ground and nourish our faith.
You can find full audio recordings of the “Four Pillars” retreat sessions on the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church web site. You’ll also find a link to Metropolitan Tikhon’s book, “Of What Life Do We Speak?” and its Study Guide.
“Just as there are ‘better angels of our nature,’ there are also ‘lesser angels’ of our nature. We have the capacity for compassion, but we also have the capacity for indifference. We have the capacity for forgiveness and for resentment. We can build bridges and we can burn them, we can heal and and we can hurt. We have to very intentionally choose the path of compassion and forgiveness and healing, and of all those things carried in that phrase ‘the better angels of our nature.'”
A thought as we begin the Third Week of Great Lent.
Today, Week Two of Great Lent begins. It’s never too late to start the journey, or to get back on the track if you’ve derailed.