An Invitation to Return
by Fr Joseph Allen
There He goes again — God. He does this all the time! God is inviting us again. He always invites us to return. He does that in various ways throughout the year. And we, like the Prodigal Son, can respond — or not! That’s our free choice. One thing is clear: when we were created in the image of God, we were given with it “free will.” And free will means that we have a choice. We can say “yes;” we can say “no.” But as the Gospel teaches us, like that Prodigal, we are really invited to say a “yes,” to “turn around” and return to our Father. That’s the heart of the Mystery of Repentance — to “turn around.” He wants that, and if we are the slightest bit sane, we should want that also!
Yes, God is indeed inviting us again, except that during Great Lent, we are sent this very “intense” invitation, one which focuses on the three critical practices in the Christian life: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Through these three the invitation is sent out that we might enter into what the Fathers called enosis, union with God. We also call this union “common union,” Communion. If we do aim for this common union with God we do need all three, and if any one is inadequate, our struggle in general will also be inadequate.
Many of us are surprised to hear that these three are so inextricably linked. Some think all we have to do is be “good” people who help others. That is good, of course. Others think it doesn’t matter if I hate my neighbor, just so I go to Church. And going to Church is good. Still others think, I don’t have to go to Church; all I have to do is fast, and fasting is good. But the Fathers never isolated these three; they belong together and make up The Way (a very early term of referring to the Christian life — The Way!) toward union with God: prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
That means we really have to understand them, each of them. In today’s language and context, when the Church speaks of “prayer,” She means prayer in the Eucharistic Liturgy — in Church, and prayer in our personal life, “in our closet.” When the Church speaks of “almsgiving,” She means charity to both the person next to us and to the various philanthropic causes She has taken up. When the Church speaks of “fasting,” She usually means “abstaining” from both foods and wrong actions (fasting relative to food, in the pure sense, means no food at all!).
But we Orthodox are good at “reduction,” that is, we like to reduce things to the barest point, and this is one of the reasons that we lose the sense of the integrated and global scope of these three practices. For example, look at how we think of fasting. We wrongly reduce it to food alone. Yet, St. John Chrysostom (345-407 AD) exhorts us that, “The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone, but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body” (The Lenten Triodion, p. 17). He then goes on to explain this meaning: “The eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice” (Ibid, p. 17). St. Clement of Alexandria, (150-215 AD) in his Selection From The Prophets adds, “Fasting is abstention from foods according to the meaning of the word, but the food does not make us either more just or unjust.” Isodore (c 360 AD), a great teacher of the Church, in his Epistle 403, is even more exacting: Fasting in respect to food is no benefit at all for those who fail to fast with all their senses. For whosoever is successfully waging his battle must be temperate in all the other things.
These Fathers — and there are many others — are not telling us that our abstaining (fasting) from food is unimportant; fasting in our food intake is most important. What they are saying, however, is that food is not the only fasting aspect, and indeed, that fasting itself is not the only practice of our Christian struggle toward God. Knowing the organic relationship between the human mind (and they do not mean only the brain, thus the use of the word “nous”) and the body (what they call the “soma”), the spirit and the flesh, they encourage us to practice at both these levels, i.e., the physical and spiritual. Thus all three are important: prayer, almsgiving, fasting. They are so because, in the practice of all three, the physical and spiritual are at once enacted.
What, then, can speak of these three practices together? Is there a central source of both the physical and spiritual struggle? I would propose it to be the tongue, and the power of the tongue. But this is not my idea: St. Basil the Great said, in fact, “The most common and multifaceted sins is the one enacted by the tongue!” Sounds like he was on to something there. The tongue is physical, the tongue is spiritual. The tongue, relative to our three aforementioned practices, participates in the fast of food, in prayer and in charity towards others. Or it doesn’t; it can be evil. (Remember what we said about free will?) No wonder that Psalm 141 says: “Set a watch, O Lord, about my mouth and a door about my lips.” No wonder St. Ephraim’s prayer, prayed often during the Great Fast, begs God “to free His servant from the sin of idle talk.”
It’s not really difficult to understand. Just think of the ways we can describe the sins of the tongue: divisive tongue, gossiping tongue, judgmental tongue, lying tongue, meddling tongue, sarcastic tongue, murmuring tongue, etc. It is no wonder that the tongue has been labeled the “most dangerous source of the human body.” Both the Old Testament and New Testament agree that “the tongue holds within its power life and death.”
And so, since God is inviting us once again toward a deeper relationship, a deeper common union with Him during this Lenten season, should we indeed agree to say “yes,” our Orthodox Faith reminds us of the true nature of those three practices: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. And the true nature is not in dividing them into separate categories, but in seeing their organic relationship, both to each other and to our physical and spiritual life. The tongue, if we are serious, will remind us of these deeper levels of the Orthodox Christian struggle to which we are invited.
Considering all this, don’t be surprised to hear me say: “There He goes again — God. He does this all the time! Inviting us to return, always inviting us to return!”
Courtesy of the
April 2006 issue of The Word magazine.