This pastoral message is an excerpt from our January 2022 Echo.
"Give blood, receive the Spirit!" - A saying of the desert fathers.
Dear Sts. Constantine & Helen Family,
As I write this we are experiencing a second wave of Covid spikes, this time with the omicron variant. Although we were hoping things would be back to 'normal' this Christmas, we are instead having to remain vigilant for the sake of those most vulnerable around us. In other words, we are being called to asceticism. Asceticism is a voluntary acceptance of toil and pain. The month of January presents to us the celebration of many Saints whom we call ascetic saints. Just about every day in January we are remembering (in order to venerate and emulate) at least one ascetical Saint of the Church: St. Seraphim of Sarov (1/2), St. John the Baptist (1/7), St. Anthony the Great (1/17), St. Makarios of Egypt (1/19), St. Etihymios the Great (1/20), St. Maximos the Confessor (1/21), St. Xenia of St. Petersburg (1/24), and so many more. Almost all of them lived out their life in Christ as monastics. Yet, asceticism is not just for monks and nuns, it is a part of the spiritual life of every faithful Christian. Our Wednesday night book study is currently reading the book, Ascetics in the World. It is full of the stories of faithful Christians who lived holy and ascetical lives in the world in our own times. Their stories show us that it is possible to live in the 'world' to this day with all of the daily concerns, temptations and distractions that we all face and still prioritize "the one thing needful", our relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ.
What then is asceticism? It is a commandment of God: "be ye holy as I am holy". It is spiritual exercise. It is prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy. It is loving the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, all our strength, and all our souls and our neighbor as He has loved us. Asceticism is denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following the Lord. Asceticism is what the Lord referred to when He said, "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force" (Math. 11:12) The violence the Lord is referring to here is the struggle against sin that we wage as soldiers of Christ. The batile ground for this struggle is the human heart. Our weapons are obedience, self-reproach, humility, charity, tears of repentance, and sighs from our depths.
After our Lord's baptism Holy Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness and there he spent forty days in prayer, fasting, and watchfulness. Toward the end of His ascetical struggle, the Devil came to Him and tempted Him with love of pleasure (Φιληδονία), love of glory (Φιλοδοξία), and love of self (φιλαυτία). Jesus' victory over these temptations revealed to us the way we too must travel, if we are, in Him, to be victorious over the Devil in this life. That way is asceticism. Understood correctly, asceticism does not mean that we cannot have pleasure or that having a "good time" is wrong. God created us to enjoy life and to take pleasure in everything, especially in Him. Jesus describes Heaven itself as a banquet where we will continuously be feasting. Yet, because of the Fall, our relationship with the world around us has become distorted. Giving in to our wayward selfish desires may temporarily bring us physical or emotional pleasure,but that pleasure is fleeting and then we discover that we are more fully under the power of that particular desire. Asceticism restores creation to its rightiul purpose, to be a means of communion with God. For example, God gave us the desire to eat. Asceticism helps us to know what,when and how much to eat.God gives us physical desire. Asceticism directs us to enjoy this gift and blessing from God in the context of marriage. Asceticism opens our hearts to love God more than any other love so that we will not make an idol of anything or anyone in this life. Asceticism unlocks the prison of the fallen and demonic spirits that tyrannize us and restores the passions to their God intended purposes and expressions. Asceticism gives us freedom in Christ and pours out upon us spiritual gifts. Let us all do what we can to ascetically open our hearts and minds to love God and our neighbor this month and we will have turned this endemic pandemic into the desert where we, with Christ, are victorious over the evil one. We can do this, with His Grace. We just need to want Him enough. A blessed feast of Epiphany to everyone!
Χριστός βαπτίζεται! Στον Ιορδάνη!
Rev. Fr. Theodore Petrides