Theme: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
By Fr. Sergius Halvorsen
By Dr. Albert Rossi
By Mrs. Maria Reynolds-Weir
By Protodeacon Paul Nimchek
More information about our authors can be found here.
Theme: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving
By Fr. Sergius Halvorsen
By Dr. Albert Rossi
By Mrs. Maria Reynolds-Weir
By Protodeacon Paul Nimchek
More information about our authors can be found here.
By Father Sergius Halvorsen
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not “Lenten disciplines” per se. Rather, they are essential to our basic health and wellbeing: they are fundamental to the Christian life. Yes, it is true that during Lent we place a much greater emphasis on prayer, fasting and almsgiving, but this does not mean that Lent is the only time we pray, fast and give alms. There are many facets of life that receive seasonal attention. At Thanksgiving we pay a great deal of attention to cooking: the turkey, the trimmings and the grandma’s special pumpkin pie. In the spring we tend to focus on cleaning, especially if we are moving out of a dorm room. Yet, Thanksgiving and springtime are not the only seasons for cooking and cleaning. Cooking and cleaning are fundamental to our day-to-day life; they are fundamental to our basic health and wellbeing. The same holds true with prayer, fasting and almsgiving: they are fundamental to our basic health and wellbeing.
However, we face a great temptation to pigeonhole aspects of our Christian life. Our culture certainly supports this: “When I’m in church I’ll look and behave like a pious Christian. When I’m in the classroom I’ll look and behave like a diligent student. When I’m out on a Friday night with my friends I’ll look and behave like a cool attractive person.” Yet, Orthodox Christianity is the non-pigeonhole faith. Jesus teaches, the Church proclaims and we believe that following Jesus Christ is a “full-time, full-contact sport.” St. Paul uses sports imagery when speaking about his ministry. He says that he does not run aimlessly, nor does he “box as one beating the air.” Rather, he “pommels” his body and subdues it. (1 Cor 9:24-7) More importantly, St. Paul encourages us to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1) because our goal is a heavenly prize.
St. Paul points out that athletes exercise self-control in all things in order to be victorious (1Cor 9:25). If athletic discipline was obvious in St. Paul’s day, then it should be even more obvious in our culture with its preoccupation with professional sports. The athlete cannot pigeonhole his or her athletic life. One cannot eat junk food and sit on the couch throughout the off-season and expect to make the team. Similarly, Christ challenges us to follow Him three hundred sixty five days a year, which means that we lead a life of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Comparing the Christian life to an athletic contest (and many Christian writers have followed St. Paul’s lead on this) how are we to understand prayer, fasting and almsgiving?
Prayer is the beginning. If one does not pray, one cannot follow Christ. For the Christian athlete, prayer is cardio-vascular conditioning. Some sports require more, some less, but every sport requires endurance and a basic ability to function under intense physical demands. In the same way that cardio-vascular conditioning strengthens the physical heart prayer strengthens our spiritual hearts. To pray means that we enter into the life of corporate liturgical prayer; we take time every day to intentionally still our minds and listen to the Word of God; we meditate on the holy name of Jesus in quiet solitude so that the love of God can penetrate our cold, empty hearts. But the heart is only half of the cardio-vascular equation. Prayer also allows us to breathe the Holy Spirit of God. The Greek word for “spirit” is pneuma the same root we find in words like “pneumatic” which means “air powered.” Prayer allows us to receive the Holy Spirit of God, that energizing, life-giving presence of God that enabled the Apostles to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Prayer opens our hearts and minds to the love of God, and allows us to be filled with the grace which God abundantly pours out upon us.
Fasting is strength conditioning. In the last thirty years or so, weight training has been embraced as an essential part of all athletic training. From dancers, to linebackers, all athletes require muscular strength and conditioning in order to perform well. Fasting is very much like weight training, however, instead of strengthening our physical muscles it strengthens our will. Nobody likes to fast, and nobody likes to go to the weight room and lift weights. However, making that decision, exercising our will to keep the fast strengthens our ability to be decisive and firm in other areas of our life. We all need to eat in order to survive, so the desire to eat—to fill our stomachs when we are hungry—is a powerful and fundamental instinct. Because the desire to eat and be satisfied is such a powerful desire, voluntarily abstaining from food is profound expression of free will. Feeling hungry, or feeling that twinge of desire for double chocolate malted crunch ice cream, but then choosing to use our God-given free will to say, “not now” is incredibly powerful. In the large scope of life, whether or not you eat a bacon double cheeseburger during Lent is relatively meaningless. However, as you choose to avoid the food you love during Lent, or on any Wednesday or Friday, you exercise and strengthen your will to say “not now.” While the burger means virtually nothing, the knowledge and confidence that you can say “not now” is invaluable when we are faced with much larger decisions that have immense ramifications for our lives. Fasting, saying “not now” is not a rejection of food, or our bodies, or the material life. Rather it is a conscious decision to exercise our willpower for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.
Now, an athlete who can run for miles and has perfectly toned muscles has a great beginning, but that is not the end of the story. Go into any gym across the country, and you can find countless people who fit the bill of having great cardiovascular ability and strong muscles. What distinguishes a star athlete from a dedicated fitness buff is athletic skill. A baseball player can hit home runs; a football player can catch the ball and run through a field of defenders; a dancer can weightlessly glide across the floor and leap through the air. At the end of the day, an athlete actually plays the game, and for a Christian, almsgiving is “playing the game.” Christ commands us to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:39) Almsgiving is a concrete act of love for the neighbor. When we give alms we offer ourselves to those in need. This does not have to be exotic and dramatic, like giving your college savings to an African mission. It can be as simple as taking someone out to lunch. Even better, taking someone out to lunch who does not have much money and who does not have many friends. It could mean giving an hour of your time to visit an elderly shut-in. It could also mean volunteering as a mentor for a young person. It could also mean giving money to the poor. Almsgiving is the way that Christians do the will of God in concrete terms; showing mercy and compassion to real people who are in real need. Fundamentally, we do this because Christ did the same thing for us. He gave Himself for our salvation, and in following Christ we give ourselves for the service of others.
Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the “holy trinity” of the practical Christian life. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means that we pray, fast and give alms, not only during Lent, but all the time. And we do these things not out of our own power, or goodness, or righteousness. Far from it! If we tried to pray, fast and give alms on our own power, we would certainly fail. However, we pray, fast and give alms by the grace of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, as we follow Christ. Athletes only succeed if they train for endurance, strength and skill; athletic ability is the combination of all three. Likewise, the victorious Christian life includes prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Christians pray, fast and give alms in order to receive the prize that St. Paul speaks about: an imperishable crown (1 Cor 9:25). This imperishable crown is union with God, in Christ, and it is the source of true joy and happiness. For when we do the will of God, then we become truly human. In doing God’s will we discover our true calling, we discover our “best sport” and we find that as Christ works within us we can do better and be better than we ever imagined.
by Dr. Albert S. Rossi
“Silence.” Is that a French word, a Russian word, an Italian word? Sometimes the word “silence” seems like a foreign word to our experience. Especially on a college campus.
Once I drove my son back to college and helped him unpack the car. It was the beginning of the second semester and his roommate was not returning to school. My son asked me to stay overnight in the dorm with him, just to keep him company. I winced because I had a reservation at the local motel and enjoy my solitude. He persisted. I held my ground saying, “I’m allergic to sleeping in a college dorm room.” We went back and forth until I agreed to stay. What to say about my overnight? It was one of the most scattered, and sleepless, nights of my life. His friends all stopped by to say “Hi” and were quite cordial to me. We had some interesting conversations. But, and this is a big “but,” everyone had the stereo on loud, doors open and each stereo had different music blasting. Each room was a different concert hall. I don’t have an apt metaphor for the experience. “Nightmare” seems too mild. All I know is that I got very little, if any, sleep that night. The noise at night was relentless. I suppose I could have adapted but all I knew was that I wasn’t going to have a repeat performance. I would like to be generous and say that my experience was unusual, the first night on a new semester. Perhaps the rest of the semester the corridors are sleepy quiet, the noise level is near zero. Perhaps. Probably not.
There really are two worlds, the outer world and the inner world. Life on a college campus consists of a rather demanding, sometimes smooth and sometime chaotic outer world. The bridge to the inner world can be elusive. Often a bridge doesn’t seem to exist. Let’s start with the basics. Silence is the bridge between the outer world and the inner world. And, silence is a choice.
I will make the bold, if countercultural, assertion that silence is possible on a college campus. I will also make the bold assertion that without some silence there really can’t be a connection with the inner world. And, without a connection to our inner world we cannot have a stable, purpose-driven outer life. Why? Because meaning and purpose come from the inner world. Without a strong inner world, silence, we can be adrift in the multitude of forces pulling us for our attention. So, the first step towards having silence on a college campus is wanting it. Before I go after something I must want it.
Why would I want silence? Silence is our entrée, out access to God within us. Silence is our connection with our real self. With silence we have an identity. If we have a connection with God with have a connection with deep peace and joy. We have a connection with our “self.” Why? Well, because we are made in the image and likeness of God and if we are not connected with Him we are not connected to our selves. Hence, many people are experiencing an identity crises. They are hankering to find out who they are.
A large part of the college experience is establishing a new and viable identity. During the college years we can grow up into that more mature young woman or young man we want to be. Or, we can also fritter away the time and finish college without much emotional development. I am slowly making the claim that identity and emotional growth pivot on silence since silence gains entry to our inner world, the sanctuary where God abides.
Making Silence Happen
If I start to see the value of silence and begin to want more silence where do I start? I start by asking Christ to lead me into more depth in my life, more silence. He can do for me what I can’t do for myself. Campus life hardly allows much silence. There don’t seem to be the “spaces” between activities to have any silence.
I can start small. I can decide to sit quietly somewhere safe and somewhere I’ll be alone. Perhaps a library carrel, or in my car, or on a park bench, or in a spot known only to me. Yes, the place to begin is to choose a place for silence.
Then, I can choose a discipline. I certainly can talk to my spiritual father about a sensible silence discipline during my college years. But, unless there is a proactive discipline, a clear desire and decision, silence simply will not happen in and of itself. Nope. Can’t happen.
I might be tempted to say, “There is no time to be silent. I barely have time to brush my teeth.” OK. Let’s look at these statements. For starters, I would say that if am “too busy to be silent” then I am simply “too busy.” The problem isn’t time. The problem is “busy,” my choices of what to do and not do.
Sanity, which is not different from sanctity, is a process of subtraction, not addition nor multiplication nor division. We begin by subtracting those things that block us from getting the goals we want. We eliminate the “unnecessary extras,” the mental and activity-clutter from our daily lives. Truth be told, there really is some activity-clutter in college life.. We need to focus and identify the unnecessary things we are doing to make room for silence.
I have been making a case that silence is desirable and necessary as part of the college experience. What can I expect if I decide to be more silent? In a word, I can expect trouble. Literally, all hell will try to block my efforts. Christ’s love and power is greater than “all hell.” And, we can be heroes, choosing the more difficult, but more courageous path, for the good of ourselves and others, and to the glory of God.
By Mrs. Maria Reynolds-Weir
If no man is an island, why does the Great Fast sometimes feel like we are on one? We get to week two or three and feel like curmudgeons stuck on an island in a sea of meat-feasting fish. Congratulations, you are invited to participate in “Survivor: Great Lent.” You will join a team of college and high school students, some professionals, a priest and a monastic on a sunny Greek Isle. This will be your most effective Great Lent ever: No KFC calling to you. No temptation to update your status or blog roll. Furthermore, you will represent the Faith. The cameras promise to ‘go therefore into millions of living rooms.’ Do not feel pressured, this is an act of your will.
Tucked into your invitation is a handy primer, Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent: A School of Repentance. First, the prize this season, a donation to the charity of your choice, but that is beside the point. Orthodox Christians do not fast for merit. The right disposition is not to add in a few good spiritual habits or serve in a soup kitchen, nor is it to sacrifice meat, dairy, or media thinking you get bonus points from God for living without.
Grab your basic necessities, but leave a bit of room in your duffel bag. In a few short minutes, the group will hop on the floatplane . What do you need to survive Lent? At home what would you ‘allow’ yourself at the mid-Fast when you are weary? You head into the green room to peruse the goodies offered by producers: prayer books, journals, pens, Bibles, figs, olives, and, cruelty of cruelties, the producers threw some bulk packs of dried jerky, vacuum packed tuna, condiment packets, including mayo, and some candy bars. Skip the meat and hold the processed mayo, but will anyone notice if you read the ingredients list on the chocolate bars? Battle of stomach versus nous, round one. You skip the chocolate and feel pretty good about yourself. Coming out you give your perky smile to the first diary cam.
“Whether I win for my charity or not, I think I will come out a winner. Oh, I know the producers will try to carve us up with some fake challenges, but this is not the usual Survivor, with the same goals and petty bickering. We support each other, like we do at home. As that little book by Fr. Schmemann, the one you gave us, said: “Not only individuals but the whole Church acquires a penitential spirit, and the beautiful Lenten services more than anything else help us to deepen our spiritual vision, to reconsider our life in the light of the Orthodox teaching about man.”
There is a priest and a monastic in the group, surely they packed all the basics for humble services on the island. There is no way this would be a true Great Lent edition without services. You sneak back into the green room to swap out some TP for an icon. Turns out it will be handy sooner, rather than later.
”Let them turn those cameras on us,” you say to the cameras as you hop the plane. They do. They follow you through the pitching of tents, the stubbing of toes, and the first challenge: building an iconstasis from scavenged materials and a compilation of icons.
“Dear Diary,” you say into the webcam on the glorious beach the next morning. “We have all we need: an antimension, a Bible, the Canon and Triodon, and a priest in his cassock. We have this week’s challenge. Along with the usual Great Canon this evening, we must follow the daily cycle of Clean Week services. We are supposed to slow down during Lent, be more attentive. The brakes are full-screeching halt and the dew is on the grass.”
After Orthros there is Hours, a small meal of vegetables, boiled only. Mother Maria, the monastic present, tells you this is called xerophagy. By Four PM, the Canon of St. Andrew begins. You feel a bit light-headed after all the prostrations, but what a work out. You find your mind wandering. “Wonder if my arms look buff when I prostrate before the cameras?” You chastise yourself. “Pay attention to the true purpose of prostrations, dear self, ‘through them the body participates in the effort of ‘breaking down’ our pride and self-satisfaction.’”
“Dear Diary,” you say into the cam after Divine Liturgy on Sunday, “the new challenge is Nocturns.” Clonk clonk goes the semitron at midnight. That wasn’t so bad, you think, of the candles penetrating the dark. It is easy on this first night to feel warm and fuzzy in the flickering. In following nights, you sway almost asleep, awakened by the grumbling of your gut.
Soon you are waking at the crack of dawn. You take long walks and on the Sunday of the Exaltation of the Cross. A pretty bird, somewhat meaty, challenges you on the path. Yum, you think I am finding live birds delicious just in time for carrying the Cross with my weak muscles. You look at you shrinking biceps.
“Dear Diary, I will never make it. What is that the Apostle James writes, ‘Each of you is tempted when he is dragged away by his own desires and enticed? I thought of snapping the neck of a pretty little bird today. My muscles feel so weak, just in time for the Sundays of the spiritual giants.”
After every service, the priest says a few words. By Vespers on the Sunday of St. John Climacus, you suspect that it is not weariness in his voice, but giddiness. He reads from the Great Lent booklet. “Remember that the Church wants us to see the Fast in terms of meeting a maximum. ‘Everyone must find his maximum, weigh his conscience and find in it his ‘pattern of fasting,’ say Fr. Schmemann’.”
Why does he bring this up now, to justify maximizing by adding all these services?
“The Church prescribes much for our healing- The Psalter twice over in the week and the daily menologion. We will begin these this week.” You have never prayed so much in your life. Except for finals week, you have never been so sleep deprived. Sleep is all you think.
“Dear Diary,” you begin after Vespers on the Sunday of St. John Climacus, “I think I need to mention I will never climb past the first rung of the Ladder of Divine Ascent.” It seems like an obvious truth. Who can do this? Still, it is humble to admit it, and that is a spiritual bonus. It shows spiritual growth that you can say it aloud. You want the worldwide audience to have a realistic understanding of being a Christian, right? Also, I haven’t lost my temper with any person.” Technically this is true, but what have you thought, you accuse yourself.
Not only is there more reading, but less bread this week. The supply is short and the group decides to save the wheat for koliva on Memorial Saturdays, as a treat. “Powdered sugar or Jordan almonds would be nice,” you say into the diary cam. “I think I saw some berries and I’m glad I read that article on scavenger eating.” As soon as possible you trot out. The lack of food, the increased prayer life, all that silence is squeezing in on you. At the beach, you toss off your t-shirt and dive underwater. Up from the water, Mother Maria is on the sand. You feel a bit guilty, dressed in so little while she is in her robes, worn at the knees. Why is it so impossible to get a minute alone? Suddenly you feel guilty. The only way you can do Great Lent is alone, isn’t it, you think to yourself. No more diary cams. You get the sense you should head off the other side of that stream and hang out over there, before you tear down someone’s tent.
It is the priest who comes to find you. “Do you need to talk,” he calls out? He might as well be yelling “Adam, where are you?” He must have seen your t-shirt, bright orange, in the sea of lush greenery. Time for some Confession you think. He guides you home, to the diptych of Christ and the Theotokos. He seems to push down a bit harder on your crown during the prayers of Absolution. When you face him, he says, “Christ says that a narrow path leads to the kingdom of God and we must make our life as narrow as possible. I’m quoting, of course. But do not be surprised if this is harder than you thought. Also, prepare yourself: we will be home for Holy Week, but this week, each team member will miss a daily meal to read while the rest of us eat.” You look right up into the face of Christ. Suddenly you connect all the dots. The story of Christ, calling a lost Adam in the garden. All of Genesis and the history of the beginning of Salvation, the prophecies of Isaiah, pointing towards the Incarnate Christ coming to save His beloved people, the Proverbs- Wisdom, a woman like the Mother of God, calling out to those in darkness, to those in the streets, in sin, in deserts of their own making.
“This is the final Sunday, isn’t it? Of St. Mary of Egypt and Father Zosimas? Tell me that story again, Father.” He smiles.
“Oh, that’s what you’ll be skipping meals to read this week,” he replies.
Schmemann, Alexander, Rev. Great Lent: A School of Repentance- It’s Meaning for Orthodox Christians. Dept. of Religious Education Orthodox Church in America. NY, NY 1970. Amazon Kindle Edition.
by Protodeacon Paul Nimchek
In his recent Lenten message Metropolitan Jonah writes, “Fasting, vigil, silence and prayer, denial of self and generosity to others: these are the labors by which we are invited and commanded to regain our true, paradisal home.” As we consider these labors, “generosity to others” stands out as one that best exemplifies Christ’s command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Yes, our prayers for others are extremely important and are very powerful intercessions to God, but “generosity to others” or alms-giving is truly an outward expression of love for others. As we hear from the First Epistle of John, Whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (I John 3:17)
None of us can honestly say that we are unaware of people in need. Suffering and the lack of basic essentials to live (food, clothing, and shelter) are all too pervasive in our society and certainly throughout the entire world. Those in need often hit even closer to home for many of us among our families and friends.
What is our response to those in such need? Do we seek to find those in need in order to help them? Spiritual alms-giving is a sacrificial, committed act of love. There is no excuse that we are unaware of those in need. Even if we feel that we do not know of any one specific person or family in need, we only have to consider organizations like the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), Project Mexico, or any of our local Food Pantries, Soup Kitchens, or Homeless Shelters. These worthy charities and many others like them provide widespread support to so many in need. If our alms-giving cannot be a monetary one, we might consider donating clothing and/or food to local charities. In fact volunteering our time and efforts can be as valuable as a monetary donation to such local charities. Alms-giving is an expression of spiritual action in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Are we sacrificial in our giving or do we only give from our excess? Are we giving to receive praise from others? Consider the Gospel writing, “… when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites … that they may be praised by men … But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
We must make every effort to make our alms-giving a gift from God, free from any boastfulness or self-pride. We also should give with a humble spirit like the poor widow in Mark’s Gospel, not just from our excess but rather as a true sacrificial gift from our hearts. ” … Truly, I say to you this poor widow has put more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed from their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12: 43-44)
His Grace, the Right-Reverend Nikon, Bishop of Boston, New England, and the Albanian Archdiocese, wrote in his 2011 Lenten message, “The Lenten season is now upon us, and with it comes a great opportunity to engage in a life-changing spiritual retreat of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. … Reaching out to our brothers and sisters in concrete acts of mercy through alms-giving we spread the love of Christ in the world.”
Let us pray that God will enable each and every one of us to open our hearts to this “great opportunity” and respond to Christ’s command to “love one another as I have loved you”. (John 15:12) We pray that we might be found worthy and be inspired to grow in wisdom and truth, so that we might also grow in service to the world around us; comforting those who are afflicted, aiding those in need, and welcoming those who would be saved into the ark of salvation which is the Holy Church.
Rev. Sergius Halvorsen PhD. is Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is the associate pastor at Christ the Savior Church in Southbury, CT and lives in Middletown,CT with his wife and three children. He enjoys singing, reading historical fiction and watching his children perform on stage and on the baseball field. He is currently writing a book on preaching.
Dr. Albert S. Rossi is an Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. He is a retired professor of psychology and a practicing clinical psychologist in New York State. He is the father of two grown children and an active member of the community of Three Hierarchs Chapel at the Seminary.
Maria Reynolds-Weir is a priest’s wife, high school teacher and free-lance writer. She had contributed to The Handmaiden and Revolution Magazine Online. She writes for her own blogs and keeps busy raising two wonder-filled youths in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where she attends at St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church.
Protodeacon Paul Nimchek was ordained a deacon in 1980 and assigned to Saints Cyril and Methodius Church in Terryville, CT, his home parish. He served as the New England Diocesan treasurer for 20 years (1986 – 2006). He is currently a member of the New England Diocesan Council and the administrator of ONE Stewards (Orthodox New England Stewards). ONE Stewards is an annual program in the diocese to raise monies in support of Youth Programs, Missions, Seminarian Scholarships, and Charitable Outreach. He resides with his wife, Patricia, and in Torrington, CT were he also teaches math at a local college.