We are in the fifth week of the Great Lent, and the faithful in our churches are preparing to read the full Repentant Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete. Together, we will pray to God for His forgiveness and an end to our separation from Him. We will repent with a contrite heart and with great hope, for God is with us.
There are many ways to bring ourselves to a repentant mood. Reading is one of them. How should we choose our readings to benefit us spiritually, and to support us in our fasting?
Perhaps the best place to start is this poignant reminder from Saint Basil the Great. He tells us to find blessing not in things that are good for us in this life only but to look beyond it to eternity. The Holy Scripture teaches us about our eternal life in God, and so do the Holy Fathers. In these writings, we find essential spiritual guidance, nourishing experience and positive role models.
But we are also warned that the divine words of these writings may be beyond our understanding because of our immaturity. We need to prepare ourselves by exploring human wisdom, such as literature, arts and sciences. The biblical Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action (Acts 7:22). Likewise, the Prophet Daniel was instructed in the culture and arts of the Chaldeans and Babylonians before he studied the sacred teachings (Daniel 1:3-5). To cite Saint Basil the Great, human wisdom gives us the shadows and mirrors with which to perceive God’s truth. We practise using them, and we reap the rewards in our real spiritual battles.
A literary work can become our genuine 'mirror' on spiritual life. For example, the autobiographical novel “Summer of the Lord” by the Russian author Ivan Shmelev shows us how church feasts, offices and sacraments fit into the fabric of his family’s everyday life and help the hero to overcome the tragic loss of his father and find meaning to his life. Yet, even if your chosen book does not talk about religion, it can still inspire us with great examples of selflessness, love, goodness and righteousness. In his short story “The fate of a man”, the Nobel prize winner Mikhail Sholokhov narrates the life of a person whose sorrows are akin to those of the Righteous Job. A soldier in World War 2, he is wounded, captured by the Nazis and lives through the horrors of a concentration camp. He loses his wife, two daughters and his only son. Even his house is destroyed in a bombing raid. Yet he is not broken by his sorrows. He adopts a little boy who had lost his father and mother. He tells him that he is his father and gives him the chance of a new life.
However, the Holy Fathers also admonish us that not all wisdom is to be believed. Just as men drink poison with their honey, we may contaminate our soul without knowing it if we are not careful in choices. Even in secular literature, we are reminded of this danger as we read about Odysseus stopping his ears and fleeing from the songs of the sirens. So how can we guard ourselves against it?
Perhaps we should begin by examining our motives for choosing one book over another. Our motives must be good if our readings encourage us to reflect and reach out for timeless values, such as love, life, charity or kindness. Our choice is probably correct when we find in our readings the examples of goodness and virtue that we would like to emulate. By contrast, we are likely wrong if we are only reading for amusement, or the book stokes up within ourselves our lowly passions - such as pride, desire, avarice or anger.
As Apostle Paul implores us in his Epistle to the Romans (12: 2), “be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”. Examine your motives, find out about the book and make your choice. May your reading during the Great Lent enlighten you, advance your knowledge of God and enrich you towards heaven.
By Yan Malov
PS: Yan Malov is completing the final year of his studies for a first degree in theology at the Institute of Theology of the Belarusian State University.
This homily, written in 2008, is published in blessed memory of the recently departed Metropolitan Filaret, the Patriarchal Exarch Emeritus of All Belarus. A tireless advocate of Orthodoxy, he argues that God is the same forever.
Christian denominations, including many Western Orthodox Churches, prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Savior Jesus Christ (Christmas) on the 25th of December. However, in Belarus Christmas is celebrated on 7th January.