11 Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, 12 having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 11,12 NKJV)
As we draw near the end of the Apostles Fast I have wondered again about “having (my) conduct honourable among the Gentiles”. This fast is neither the longest or strongest fasts we have in the Orthodox Church yet I still find myself grappling with it; I would say more than most. Perhaps it is the proximity to Pentecost and it is hard to drag yourself aware from the attitude of feasting after Pascha, or perhaps it has to do with the amount of travel I have done around this time for the last few years.
There is certainly a general weakness in “western” cultures with regards to faith and accountability. You see it in all the “do-it-yourself” spirituality that has replaced religion, and in how many people regard themselves as nominal church-goers. Personally, when I came to Orthodoxy, I was warned by many people not to become one of those “fanatical converts” even by people I would consider quite pious. It is obvious also in the Orthodox approach to evangelism in the western countries (stereotypical mega-generalisation, but this one is a topic for another day).
In my business travels I find myself consistently embarrassed by the commitment of other faiths to their practices. Not in a radical fashion mind you, but a very sober “this is what I believe and I must do it” approach.
Back to fasting as the example. In my work travels I meet and work with many people of backgrounds that fast continuously (whether they be complete vegans, vegetarians or in the case of Muslims & Jews just the abstinence from pork) and there is never any thought in their minds of slipping from their position. Even without travel, Australia being a landing spot for a myriad of cultures, it is not uncommon to have lunch with a handful of people with religious dietary requirements and for us not to think anything of it.
Yet when it comes to us Orthodox in western countries (myself included) fasting seems to be a real chore. While I am not going to go into a detailed discussion on why we fast (I am not qualified at all to speak on this kindly refer to your collection of works of the Church Fathers on your home bookshelf or via http://www.google.com) but it is certainly not to punish ourselves. It is to master our self-will and control our passions; as St Isaac the Syrian says “As long as man’s mouth is sealed by fasting his mind will meditate on the repentance of his soul.”
In a culture based on a philosophy of instant gratification, and an insistence on categorising every second desire as a “right” we need this therapy more than ever; but it goes wildly against what we are all surrounded by. Why can we not see the benefit of the spiritual discipline and training.
The same goes with prayer. I have been in countries where the moslem workers leave the office periods at a time to complete their daily prayers. How many of us would think of taking the time to do such a thing, or even make sure we leave the office in time to make a mid-week vigil on a large feast.
I tried a simple experiment a few weeks back, putting some of the basic prayers from the hours into my calendar as appointments from Monday through to Friday. This is probably a few ten minute slots per day during the week to set aside regular time to just communicate with God. I started off OK, by the end of the first week the beeping of my phone to remind me became an annoyance. a few days later this turned to an embarrassment as even with planning and forethought I could not pull this simple obedience off.
After reading a number of books on the Jesus Prayer over the couple of weeks (as mentioned here) I am going to change my experiment into a different ritual – picking one time a day, outside any other prayers or services, to focus on time saying the prayer. I am sure that the same struggles will ensue but I am looking at this more than an experiment to prove I am a sinful human, but as part of that search for stillness.
As Orthodox Christians wrapped up in the cosy western lunacy, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and understand the need for obedience to God and the control of our fallen human passions. We have been given the Ark of Salvation by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the fullness of truth handed down to the Apostles, yet we are shown falling short by the gentiles around us.
“If you do not want evil thoughts to be active within you, accept humiliation of soul and affliction of the flesh; and this not just on particular occasions, but always, everywhere and in all things.” St Mark the Ascetic