Lenten Pastoral Advice

by Archpriest Andrei Tkachev, rector of the Church of the Resurrection, Moscow

Not all believers, however many they may be, can fast exactly the same way — because of their differences in age, health, lifestyle, and degree of participation in Church life. And each generation imposes its characteristic stamp upon the spiritual life, transforming the same spiritual labor, not into a repetition of what was before, but into something completely unique and special.

Wherein lies the modern particularities of our Lenten struggle?

The first thing that jumps out at you is the time that the usual person spends on travel today. To get to work, and after work to get to church, and then to return home, you can’t just cross the street or go a few hundred feet, but you have to go on a long and familiar journey. It’s a grueling routine with city transportation, it’s a daily drain on strength and money. In the best case, it’s an hour to work, an hour from work to church, and an hour from the service home. Altogether, its three hours of this difficult and specific “work,” draining your remaining physical and mental strength.

Meanwhile, the Church guidelines don’t take such traveling into account. They’re based on a monastery, where from your cell to the place of your obedience is no distance at all, and from the place of your obedience to the church is a five-minute walk. From here, there’s the possibility to have several hours to gather strength for the long prayer labor in church. Rural life also assumes the proximity of house, church, and place of work. Here’s the field, here’s home, and now the sound of a nearby bell, calling to church. Also, the common life of a monastery assumes that, returning from the service, you will find food ready on the table – the most basic food due to Lent, but ready all the same. But the secular struggler, most often a woman, on arriving home, has to get to the stove and feed the household. As you can see, her struggle doubles, and even triples.

We cannot radically change the conditions of life, but we can change our attitude towards them. Here sensitivity and compassion are needed from spiritual fathers for “the little parishioner” who is fighting for his life, is exhausted from his messy life, and is trying to serve God. He doesn’t read everything, doesn’t make it through everything, doesn’t hear everything. And of what he does hear and read, he doesn’t understand everything. We need patience and condescension. Increased demands and the judgmental glare of an expert instructing the ignorant are unacceptable. We must understand that the enemy of morning prayer is the rush, and the enemy of evening prayer is fatigue. So, perhaps you have to learn the prayers and psalms by heart to pray from memory, leaning against the window in the metro car. We mustn’t rebuke someone for this kind of prayer, but rather, we should encourage and comfort him.

One more necessary comment about the eras with their peculiarities — it’s the shift of accent from food to information. The man of previous eras was healthier and hardier than our contemporaries. An empty stomach was necessary for him for the decrease of his biological activity. It was necessary to truly weaken himself, in order to restrain his wild passions. But modern man is, more often than not, sickly and utterly weak. He doesn’t suffer from an excess of physical strength and he’s not moving mountains. On the contrary, he wakes up tired and barely moves his feet throughout the day. On the other hand, he is overfed, stuffed with information pouring into his eyes and ears like tropical rain, which has made many like patients of a mental hospital, who nevertheless sleep at home for some reason.

To turn off the television and not turn it on at least for the first week, the week of the Cross, and Holy Week would be much more useful than to check food labels: whether there’s dried milk, or something else non-fasting in there. Music, gossip and idle chatter, TV shows, “hanging out” on your favorite sites — these things are more dangerous than a glass of milk, and require a stricter, or even more merciless attitude towards yourself.

Of course, I’m not saying you should go on an “information fast” and continue to eat whatever you want. Bodily restraint, as the fathers have said, is truly “the mother of all good things.” You have to dry out the belly and give alms, you have to practice reading the Holy Scriptures and bowing. But we have to understand the peculiarities of the world in which we live, and not try, as St. Philaret of Moscow said, to turn our city into the Egyptian desert, and the nineteenth century into the fifth. And St. Philaret’s contemporary, no less miraculous in life and in thought, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov), would repeat as a commandment the words: “Understand the times.”

An unsober, unreasoning attitude towards life breeds mistakes with every step and discredits the very possibility of leading a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Tim. 2:2).

Thus, we mustn’t use the same measuring stick with everyone, but work it out with each person as an “isolated case.” It’s impossible to take into account the real commotion of cities, with their distances, and traveling, and fatigue. And we must remember that fasting and prayer are the mental work of the inner man, and that means, the enemy of this labor is an excess of information to an even greater degree than an excess of calories.

The rest is a matter of experience, for only the walking traveller masters the road, and not the one studying the map.