Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The New and the Old

There has always been an attitude that has plagued me at the completion of Great Lent and throughout the Paschal Season. Growing up in a Roman Catholic household my mother made sure that we didn't just "give something up" for Lent, but that we examine ourselves and make a change in our lives that we wanted to be permanent. In my case I always struggled with wasting time and was typically lacking in obedience. I would determine through Lent that I would give up the little distractions that kept me from doing the things my parents asked of me. I would give up television, limit my time playing music, focus more readily on my farm chores, etc., etc., etc. I have also always been a big fan of food, so I would limit my portions and any snack times.

This was all well and good, but what happened after Lent? In the joy of the Resurrection I would relax the good things I had been focusing on during the fast. Gradually I would slip back into my old habits and it wasn't long before my parents were disciplining me for my lack of obedience, or exhorting me to stop wasting time and get my chores done.

I noticed as well that I wasn't the only one with this problem. Folks who had given up soda or coffee delved back into their habits with renewed gusto. I watched with sadness as others who had more serious habits and addictions returned to those habits as if to an old friend. What is the point of fasting, I asked myself, if after the fast we simply return to those things that were keeping us from Christ?

Sometimes God gives answers immediately; at other times the answers come after a great deal of time. These questions bothered me throughout my childhood and during my early teens. I practically forgot about them during my high-school years. But today, as I was reading St. Theophon the Recluse's letters to a young lay woman in the book The Spiritual Life and how to be Attuned to It, the saint addressed those very questions.

He had been encouraging her in her ascetical practices and inner examinations all through the fast. Never have I read more beautiful, practical, and sound advice. It seems providential that I should pick up and read this book in the midst of the Fast and immediately following. After giving her a couple of rules to employ while working towards inner peace, he then proceeded to give her two precautions.

In the first precaution he simply warns her not to think that she has already arrived at her spiritual destination just because she has succeeded in doing something good. Throughout our spiritual life we may hit milestones, receive some consolation, find that a fault within us has been destroyed after long struggle, experience long times of inner peace, etc. Never during any of this ought we to think that we have reached our goal in the spiritual life. St. Theophan tells us that it is only after years of struggle that we reach this goal. I would add that we never fully reach our goal in this life because this life prepares us for the ultimate goal in the life to come.

The second warning he gives, however, is not to relax one's inner attentiveness after one has completed a period of fasting and intense inner struggle. He says the two most likely times that we relax our interior efforts are during the Paschal Season and springtime. We decide to give ourselves a little break. After all, it is the time of Resurrection. I worked hard and struggled hard throughout Great Lent, I deserve a little break, right? Be careful, the saint warns us. If we relax our watchfulness then it is likely that whatever demon we struggled with throughout the fast will return with some friends to plague us all the more.

But, this is supposed to be a time of joy. Are not Pascha and springtime moments of grace and new life in our year (whether we're speaking of the secular year or the liturgical year)? Are we not to be rejoicing in the new life that Christ as given us? Of course! We must thank God for His gift of new life, and rejoice in that new life. But the whole point of Great Lent is to put to death the old man, the old life, in order that we might rejoice in the new! How can we rejoice in the new life if, after the Fast, we simply return to the old? Ought we not to guard the new life with all the more intensity so as to avoid a relapse into our old ways? In the Resurrection we have been given the freedom of the Sons of God. We have been given freedom from the slavery of sin. Great Lent reveals to us in a very real way just how enslaved we are. Our struggle against our various habits and vices reveal to us how attached we become to our sins. But when we come to the victory of Christ crucified and resurrected, do we really rejoice in that victory (and in our victory in and with Him) by returning to the "old man?"

So I suppose St. Theophan's advice to us today is, rejoice in the Feast of Feasts and Festival of Festivals. Rejoice in the new life of Pascha and springtime. Thank God for the great gifts He has given us. But thank God by keeping on the mind of Christ, by continuing to become more and more the man born anew in Christ, not by indulging the old man.

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