Many, crowding to the fast, pollute themselves in the thoughts of their hearts, sometimes by doing evil against their brethren, sometimes by daring to defraud. And, to mention nothing else, there are many who exalt themselves above their neighbours, thereby causing great mischief. For the boast of fasting did no good to the Pharisee, although he fasted twice in the week1, only because he exalted himself against the publican. In the same manner the Word blamed the children of Israel on account of such a fast as this, exhorting them by Isaiah the Prophet and saying, ‘This is not the fast and the day I have chosen, that a man should humble his soul; not even if thou shouldest bow down thy neck like a hook, and shouldest strew sackcloth and ashes under thee; neither thus shall ye call the fast acceptable2.’ That we may be able to show what kind of persons we should be when we fast, and of what character the fast should be, listen again to God commanding Moses, and saying, as it is written in Leviticus, ‘And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, In the tenth day of this seventh month, there shall be a day of atonement; a convocation, and a holy day shall it be to you;and ye shall humble your souls, and offer whole burnt-offerings unto the Lord3.’ And afterwards, that the law might be defined on this point, He proceeds to say: ‘Every soul that shall not humble itself, shall be cut off from the people4.’
Thomas à Kempis wrote in his reflections, “Why do you look for rest, when you were born for labor?” His question reflects a profound truth about human nature and about what gives human beings peace. Namely, work brings satisfaction and consolation in human life, not “entertainment” and “taking it easy.” After all, Adam was told to tend the garden. God created the world and made man in the image of God, who therefore co-creates with God in the world. Laboring is part of human nature.
Faith in Christ has existed on earth for almost 2,000 years now, and is in no way overcome. Hundreds of thousands of people have joyously borne terrible torments out of love for Christ, for faith in Him. And if in present times there have appeared men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith (II Tim. 3:8) and stood against the Faith and the Church of Christ, all their efforts are in vain: the Lord said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against [His Church] (Matt. 6:18). Let us look at ourselves. Is there among us firm faith and love for Christ? Do we not stifle it with our passions, laziness, doubts? Ah, friends, without faith in the Lord Christ there is no salvation! We must by all means kindle in ourselves the spirit of faith, that is, stimulate it, feed it with prayer, the Word of God, patience, sincere remembrance of the Saviour Who suffered for us. All of this can be done every day.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us of the rich young ruler who earnestly desired eternal life and asked Christ how he could inherit this desire. Christ first gives him some basic commandments of the law to see if the man had kept these. He replied that he had kept them all from his youth. Christ, knowing the young man’s heart and loving him tells him: Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow Me. And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.
The people of Appalachia, with whom we at the monastery share a home in West Virginia, are a people who have been Protestant for many generations past. Though they aren’t Orthodox, and though many of their ancestors in America may never have been exposed to the Orthodox Church, they are people who, in their own way, hold a deep faith in God and have preserved many traditions that hearken back to ages past.
In 1939, the American writer, James Thurber, wrote a short story entitled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.1 The narrative deals with an aging Walter Mitty on a trip into town with his overbearing wife. Walter is inept at many things; he is an absent-minded driver, he can’t handle simple mechanical tasks, and he forgets things easily. While he goes through a day of ordinary jobs and errands, he escapes into a series of romantic fantasies, each spurred on by some mundane reality.
Today is the 5th Sunday of Great Lent, when we commemorate our holy mother, St. Mary of Egypt. Before speaking about her, let me begin with something a little different that will illustrate the difference between Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman that we heard about in today’s Gospel.