Thursday, March 25, 2021

Spiritual Reading During Great Lent

During Great Lent it is the practice of Orthodox Christians to less often engage with secular entertainment. In our days we can count the news media as entertainment, at least broadly, and although we do probably need to have an idea of what is happening in our state, country, and world, it seems like 15-30 minutes per day of consuming the news media is more than enough for us - even outside the fast. Certainly during the fast we wouldn’t want to regularly exceed that moderate limit as a rule. But if we turn off the television and YouTube, what do we do with ourselves?! Of course it is understood that we should be making a concerted effort to be more often at the Divine Services during Great Lent, but even if we attend every Great Lenten service we still have a lot of time left over!

That last little fact, that we spend SO MUCH time engaging in media and entertainment, is probably a good spiritual data point for us. That really is not in line with the life of Christians who came before us, and as Orthodox Christians it is important that we follow the time-tested path to the Heavenly Kingdom that our fathers have trod. So maybe this Great Lent is the beginning of something good for us all? That is, to spend less time locked into media. If we are going to do this, though, we have to find something to do with ourselves! Below are a few suggestions that we might all consider for the great fast – and beyond.

First – silence is a very good teacher. It is good for us to hear the birds outside our window at the time of year. Second – God’s creation is a good teacher. It is good for us to go for a walk, pray, and observe the beauty that the Lord has given us in which to work out our salvation. Third – hungry people are still hungry. Matthew 25 is an action-oriented challenge. Of course – we need to pray for the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless. But we also need to take action. With all the extra time on our hands now that we have untangled ourselves from the nets of the media, let us consider doing the Lord’s work more often. Fourth – read more. Much more. Read the scripture. Read spiritual books. Read other things too, of course, but read things in support of Christian values. It makes no sense to turn off the trash on our screens only to open a trashy book. Especially during Great Lent: get started on a spiritual book. And then try to make it your habit to be working on one or two spiritual books all the time. Every day we should read the Gospel reading appointed for that day. We can find that on the calendar that the parish sends to our home annually, on our home page, in Sunday Reading (page 2 – every issue), and other places too. During Great Lent the Gospel is not appointed to be read during the Divine Services except on the weekends. It is good for us to the Old Testament readings of the day. This helps us to follow the cadence of the Church – and little things like this can help strengthen our faith.

I’m reading “The Sunflower” by St. John of Tobolsk now. Actually, he translated and Orthodoxized (this is a new word that I am copyrighting here and now) the book. Just like St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain did with “Unseen Warfare”. These books were authored outside the Church, but these Orthodox saints saw redeeming qualities in them and edited them to be theologically correct. “The Sunflower” has a subtitle: “Confirming the Will of Man to the Will of God”. It seems to me that this is a big part of our Great Lenten struggle. Probably because this is a big part of our human struggle: to conform our will to God’s will. But that is a hard struggle. Because we are proud. And if we are honest, we are very happy to do God’s will – as long as that conforms to our will. But our task is not to conform God’s will to ours – it is to conform our will to God’s. 

St. John of Tobolsk

We have little peace in our lives. And most of that lack of peace comes from the fact that we live upside down lives. If you went around walking on your hands all day with your feet in the air you would have little peace in your worldly life. We aren’t designed to have all the blood in our heads all the time. And we’d look a bit odd too. But we live spiritual lives upside down all day long every day: because we try to get God’s will to conform to our will. And that is why we have little spiritual peace. A book like “The Sunflower” helps to challenge us to stop living upside down. It helps point out where we could do better. It gives practical tips about how we can start, and how we can excel.

We have this book in our library – you can borrow it. You can buy this book in our kiosk. We buy it from Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY. You can buy it there too if that is more convenient. In Russian the book is called “Илиотропион”. You can find that:

Here – Full Text

Here – Audio

It is free on Kindle and $3 on Apple Books. If you are reading this in Russia the cost is 250 rubles. It was recently republished by Sretensky Monastery Press.

Spiritual reading is key to our Great Lenten struggle. A book like “The Sunflower” can help a lot – and it seems geared especially to Great Lent. I recommend it highly. But if it doesn’t “hit the spot” do not fear. There are many other things that you can read to edify yourself spiritually. Please ask me or Fr. Joseph about this. We would both be happy to discuss spiritual reading with you and provide recommendations.

Asking Your Prayers,

Fr. Gregory