Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Fast is Not the Desert

Russian icon of the calendar of the saints.In the very center is the Resurrection of Christ surrounded by scenes from Holy Week and the feasts of the Paschal cycle. Around them are twelve groupings of saints: one for each month of the calendar year. In the border are icons of the Theotokos (Mother of God), each of which has a feast day during the liturgical year.

The Byzantine Churches prepare for the feast of the Dormition of the Holy Theotokos with a two-week fast and time of increased prayer. What I have been taught is to pray the Paraclisis everyday during that time, a long prayer of supplication to the Mother of God for "consolation of the living." The fast is timed well; we are between Great Lent and Nativity Fast; for those of us using the Gregorian Calendar, we had a formidably long Apostles Fast this year too. The Dormition Fast we take seriously in our family as the two-week opportunity that it is to increase our prayer and fasting, supplicate for our needs and those of our loved ones, and orient our lives anew in the direction of God and how He is glorified in His saints. Blessed in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His faithful, as we sing during the Divine Liturgy.

Now that we are outside a more intense fasting period, I find myself somewhat antsy because of the intensity of the prayer that occurred during the Dormition Fast. I have to keep reminding myself that it is done; it is normal for that time period to be more intense spiritually; and now we must get back to the daily rule, the more "ordinary" prayer life, in western speak, that happens when we are not in the midst of one of the four fasts. These can be the much more challenging times than the more intense fasting periods, since they require more endurance and have less built-in "momentum," so to speak. I liken it to my current dismay that, as much as I view it as a necessary step to nix Candy Crush Saga from my life, I had been reading a chapter of the Gospel prior to every game and made rapid progress through the Sacred Scriptures; now, the game is gone, and so is my reading habit. I'm trying to convince myself that it will be just as effective if I read before having time on Facebook, but I'm a little less motivated now. Every part of me seems to resist building these good habits; I have to trick myself by incorporating the good habit into the bad. But eventually I must grow up and just choose to do it, simply because it's good. It's important. It cultivates my relationship with the Lord. There is no reason not to, other than my own fallen flesh and its sloth. Ahh, help, Lord.

Do you have a prayer rule? It is a structure and commitment to a schedule of prayer everyday. I almost always pray the Rosary when I am driving into work (otherwise, it is at home in front of the holy icons). At one time, I disliked praying while driving; it is not the most reverent environment, and obviously one is necessarily preoccupied with driving on some level (hopefully). Yet, compared to letting my thoughts wander all over the road, it is an excellent use of time. Many times I am grateful for the habit that has been formed at this point to simply get out my Rosary while on the street leading from my house to the main road. I made this solid commitment once after spending the entire drive to work yelling and fuming about a stress that had ensued in my family. My anger consumed me, and I expressed it physically--I'm sure if anyone were to see me, the impression would have alternated between scary and comical. My tantrum came replete with hitting the steering wheel and yelling lots of profanity.

Then, wouldn't you know--because God is awesome this way--a coworker DID see me. I practically died of embarrassment to learn that a coworker had, at one point, been driving side by side with me. He mentioned that I looked like I was in a pretty bad mood. I praise God for this because it reminds me of the Holy Mystery of Penance, or the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (depending on your terminology). Confession. To be convinced of one's sins is fairly easy much of the time when done in private. But to have them out in the open, owning them out loud, with another human being, brings the healing grace of God and the conquers Satan. In this case, I felt very convicted that my behavior was inexcusable. It had only been okay when I thought I was getting away with it "alone" (although God is always watching). When I learned I had been observed, I felt ashamed, not because I didn't have some justifiable anger, but because I had sinned in my expression of it, and I had not in any way witnessed to Christ as I always pray to do with my coworkers. How much damage gets done to the Christian cause when we are busy acting like jerks and maniacs?

At this point, I determined that never again would I spend a car ride like that. I pull out my Rosary even when I don't want to, because I have learned that, after a few moments of beginning the prayers, my desire shifts into what is truly good for me, and I no longer want to get out of it. Who knows when I'm going to turn into a wild maniac again? Frankly, I'd rather not.

On another note, I used to have reticence about praying the Rosary with my family. The kids were often next to impossible to wrangle into one section of the house, let alone pray with through all the mysteries--at least, with any semblance of contemplation. I went to this one woman I knew, a powerful example to me of faith and prayer, and asked her if we might be justified in shortening our Rosary to one decade when things were really challenging with the kids.

I wholly expected her to say "yes." I wanted her to say yes. But she looked at me in a matter-of-fact way and said, "No. Pray the whole thing. Even when it's hard." I wonder if she knows how much that one simple response, which may have been tough to say (we all want to say the more comfortable thing), managed to change my whole perspective and alter our family's prayer life so dramatically and permanently? I think about what she said all the time.

Grace happens when we ramp up the effort and raise the bar higher, because that normalizes the behavior we wish to have. Maybe that's part of the genius behind Great Lent and the other fasts. Let us pray for God to bless our efforts. God, fasten us to You! Increase our hunger and desire for You. Teach us to pray.

Paraclisis during the Dormition Fast


priest's wife said...


Anonymous said...

Beautiful pictures, beautiful post.

Your reflection here is very poignant for me, since Fr Barrand was a great friend of ours and we deeply appreciate the Byzantine Divine Liturgy. However, after much prayer and contemplation last summer, my husband and I had to confess to one another that we are incurably Roman, and stay Western. :-).

I do appreciate learning about your fasts, though, because I think they are timely and truly focused on leading the soul ever closer to Our Lord. The notion of the great green length of "Ordinary Time" has always confounded me.

Thank you for your contributions to the Church in Alaska and beyond!

Theresa Bird

Mindy Goorchenko said...

Hi Theresa!
Thank you for visiting my blog and for sharing your thoughts.

I admit, I got very excited when I saw you all at the Divine Liturgy a couple weeks ago. :-) I am glad to know that you have spent time getting acquainted with the eastern traditions; they are beautiful and edifying.

As you know, I remain a faithful closet Roman in some ways (smile)'s hard to argue with daily Mass and the beautiful presence of the Dominicans here in Anchorage. But likewise, after discernment, it was clear that we belong in the tradition of Alex's heritage. I hope we will continue to have points of intersection and times of fellowship.