367: Invite Old Friends — and Meet New Friends — in new “Our Lent” Adventure

Today, we invite you to visit a ReadTheSpirit landing page that’s about to “go live” in 9 days as more than 1 billion Christians around the world reach Ash Wednesday and begin the season of prayer and spiritual preparation called Lent. (Orthodox Christians begin on March 2 — so roughly 2 billion Christians soon will be observing this season.)

Our Lent
    Whatever your faith, you’ll find it fascinating today to visit this Christian landing page — part of our ongoing series of interactive offerings for major seasons such as Passover and Ramadan.
    Our main goal at ReadTheSpirit is “spiritual connection” — helping people find meaningful spiritual resources through media such as books, film and online projects. Just as important, we want to help people find each other so you feel at home in a community of readers.

Today, with just a week or two before Lent begins, you can visit:
     1.) An overview of the “Our Lent” experience — so you can plan ahead for this adventure with us.
    2.) A special invitation written by popular author Phyllis Tickle to four spiritual practices that men and women can appreciate, whatever their religious tradition may be: fasting, praying at regular hours, prayerfully reading scripture and becoming a part of a community.
    3.) You can even visit our “What People Are Saying” page to see how other readers have experienced our Lenten offerings.

Want a friend to join you?
    Invite them to visit http://www.OurLent.info/

PLEASE, tell us what you think.

    Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal
reflections—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Facebook, Digg, Amazon, GoodReads and some of
the other social-networking sites as well, if you’re part of those

    This also is a good time to sign up for our Monday-morning ReadTheSpirit Planner by Emailit’s
free and you can cancel it any time you’d like to do so. The Planner
goes out each week to readers who want more of an “inside track” on
what we’re seeing on the horizon, plus it’s got a popular “holidays”
    (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

Interview with Philip Jenkins about the riches of “Lost Christianity”

Nestorian images from long ago
repare to be challenged beyond your comfort zone,” says one Amazon review of Philip Jenkins’ new “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — and How It Died.” The reviewer continues: “This is an astounding book.”
Half way through Jenkins’ latest book about the “lost” shape of global religion, I found myself heaping similar superlatives on it. I said to one good friend: “Listen, I don’t usually push books on you, but you’ve just got to read the latest by Philip Jenkins. It’ll completely re-frame what you think you know about the shape of Christianity — and the meaning of orthodoxy. Christianity has been a whole lot bigger than most of us assume.”
Lost History of Christianity Philip Jenkins
I found myself verbally pushing this book among friends until I finally bumped into church consultant Dr. Alfred Bamsey yesterday. He has been a guest here at ReadTheSpirit in the past. I know he loves to read. So, I started raving about Jenkins’ new book again — until Dr. Bamsey raised his palm to cut me off. “Already reading it,” he said. “Jenkins is amazing! How does this guy write so many surprising books about so many areas of religious life?”

In earlier ReadTheSpirit stories, I have recommended other Jenkins books, including: “The Next Christendom,” about the transformation of the faith in the Southern Hemisphere today; “God’s Continent,” in which he argues that Europe need not fear Muslim immigration; and “Dream Catchers,” about the complex interplay between Native American spirituality and mainstream American culture.
Each of his books holds surprises for readers, but none will be as stunning to general readers as this new tour of Christian realms most Americans never even imagine existed. The main illustration on the front cover of his book, which looks like a boat propeller, is actually the map of Christianity that existed for a thousand years with Jerusalem at the center — and the Western church relegated to a single blade in the upper left corner.
Contrary to the popular American impression that churches now are freshly evangelizing Africa and Asia, Jenkins points out that Christianity thrived there — sometimes more vigorously, more beautifully and at more sophisticated theological levels — than in the back waters of Europe during the so-called Dark Ages. Those once-vast, once-thriving Asian and African churches virtually died out before what we Westerners call the Reformation. But the truth of this map is that “The Church” once was far larger than most of us imagine — and the notion of orthodoxy we like to argue about so frequently once was far broader than the European church.

Philip Jenkins



DAVID: The startling revelation in this book for most readers is that Christianity is far, far larger than we ever realized. Our widespread assumption that Christianity spread from Jerusalem to Europe and Rome – then branched into Protestantism – with some exotic national churches left that call themselves Orthodox – is flat-out wrong. Our own Western story of Christianity turns out to be only one of the three petals in the blossom of Christianity. You point out in your book that a lot of other authors about Christianity don’t understand this key point. Why did we forget this history so completely?
PHILIP: One big problem is that people tend to think visually. They think in maps and they have an assumed model of what that map should look like. It’s a map of the expansion of Christianity and it is usually a map of Europe. Do you know the phrase: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes? Well that’s how it is with our common view of Christianity.
Another big problem is that we have this present-ist view of things. The way we see the world at present is all that matters. Why look at churches that didn’t succeed and survive until today? Many of the great churches of Africa and Asia died out centuries ago. But I’m pointing out that they lived for a long time, in some cases 1,000 years, and we need to learn from them. In the year 800, Christianity was at least as strong in Asia as it was in Europe.
DAVID: One important thing you do in your book is to quickly explain and then move past all of the complicated doctrinal questions between these Eastern and Southern branches of Christianity. These differences and the various church councils that produced them are important — but you argue in your book that there was far more that united all these churches as Christian than divided them, right?
PHILIP: Yes the distinctions between these branches are much smaller than we give them credit for, particularly with the Nestorians.
DAVID: Sometimes they’re portrayed as heretics and dismissed.
PHILIP: They appear to be much more orthodox than we have portrayed them.

DAVID: OK, before we go further, I need to ask you a question that has popped up in a number of recent books, including those by Deepak Chopra. You’ve written here about the long history of the church in Asia and you talk about the early missionaries who traveled from Jerusalem to build the church there. You don’t talk about Jesus’ life in the book, but tell us in this interview, if you will: What do you say about claims that Jesus himself traveled to India? Deepak Chopra says he likely visited India.
PHILIP: I cannot prove a negative. I cannot prove that Jesus never traveled. But there is absolutely no evidence from the ancient record that he went to India. It seems unlikely that he visited India, because if there had been even the slightest vague memory of an ancient tradition claiming that Jesus visited India — then the Christians living in India would not have claimed that Thomas founded their church. They would have claimed that Jesus founded it. And the tradition about Thomas as founder has distinct, well-known, long-running historical roots.
In the West, the idea that Jesus went to India has been around for more than 100 years, but it’s a recent idea compared with the history of these churches. I don’t want to call the idea nonsense, but there is no ancient evidence for it.

DAVID: I think a good example to highlight from your book is Timothy. In about the year 780,  he became the patriarch, or catholicos, of the Church of the East from this Mesopotamian city of Seleucia. This guy was amazing: a deeply spiritual man, skilled in languages, a great historian, a professional colleague of Muslim and Jewish leaders. He had messengers who crossed the known world for him binging news, including news of the first find of some Dead Sea scrolls. He was wise enough to know what to do with these important scrolls. In fact, he knew more about the Bible than most of his Christian colleagues in Europe.
And yet, try to find much about this Timothy today? There’s nothing about him on Wikipedia — only an entry for a different bishop of the same name. The entry on Seleucia indicates that there’s nothing more to say after the year 410. It ends with this line: “This city eventually faded into obscurity and was swallowed by the desert sands, perhaps abandoned after the Tigris shifted its course.”
Tell us about this terrific Christian saint — this cosmopolitan model who worked closely with Muslims and was such a world-class scholar in a time and a place that most of us don’t even know existed.
PHILIP: I like Timothy so much because he was basically a global figure in an age when we don’t expect to find global figures. He left a very substantial correspondence so we know that he dealt with so many different parts of the world. To give you an idea of the importance of issues passing before him on any given day, my favorite line in his papers is this: Oh, I just appointed a metropolitan for the Turks and also for the Tibetans today.
That was just daily business for him. People would ask him about this spiritual practice or that one and they would want to know whether it was appropriate for Christians. Timothy would look around the world and would say: Well, the Indians don’t do this, but the Turks or someone else may do it. And he would make his decision based on this very global view of the church.
He was still in dialogue with Jews and it was Jews near Jericho from whom he learned that someone had tuned up the first cache of what today we call the Dead Sea scrolls. They found this group of jars and at that time Timothy was the right person to ask about them. He knew the questions to ask about such manuscripts. You’ve got to realize that this is an era when, in Europe, no one outside of Jews themselves would even know how to hold a scroll like this. A church leader in Europe wouldn’t know top from bottom on scrolls like these. But Timothy understood what was involved.

DAVID: Tell us about this amazing city where Timothy lived, before his death in 823?
PHILIP: It’s Seleucia, the one known as Seleucia-Ctesiphon today. Here’s the problem with the city’s name. Alexander the Great left his mark on the world and so did a couple of his generals and Seleucius was one of them. They all went crazy naming cities after themselves. There are Seleucias all over from Greece to Pakistan. Kandahar in Afghanistan was originally one of the hundreds of Alexandrias. There were lots of Seleucias mixed in, too. The most important was this city that was in the middle of what is modern Iraq. For a while, this was the largest city on the planet. It was also the capital of the Parthian empire, the other superpower of the day against Rome. It had a huge Jewish community, very cosmopolitan, and it had access to the Silk Road stretching into China. It was a great pivot of the world, a top intellectual center. It was a great eastern rival of Rome and Constantinople.
DAVID: But there’s very little record now.
PHILIP: The Church of the East had very good record keepers and scholars, but not much has survived. We know from what does survive of their records about thousands of books they had available to them, but those books no longer exist — just the references to them. A lot of the science they wrote up and translated into other languages wound up in the Arab world and a lot of what we think of as Muslim scholarship depended on the work that was done in these Christian centers in the East.

DAVID: I was surprised, as well, to learn that women held powerful roles in these “lost” churches. You say that there were women leaders of monastic orders as well as male leaders.
PHILIP: First of all, we’re talking about a very monastic kind of Christianity overall. We are more familiar in the West with the desert fathers, the early monastic leaders. But in Egypt, for example, there also were the desert mothers. There are great traditions of women saints. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about these women, but we do have some selected stories about some of these mothers who are the subjects of great stories. We know that some of them did spiritual guidance both for women and for men. It is absolutely clear that these women were very important in this Christian world.
DAVID: Reading your book, I found myself longing to go back and somehow visit these churches. They embodied what we sometimes refer to today as the “smells and bells” of the existing eastern Orthodox churches, but you write in your book that there was even a great deal more color and liturgical energy and beauty in some of these lost churches’ services.
PHILIP: In Africa and Asia, this was a very five-sense tradition. There isn’t a huge line separating them from what you would get in Orthodox churches. Some of their ideas did spread West. Most of the medieval musical traditions in Europe ultimately came out of Syria into Europe.
What’s interesting to me is that people today like to talk about going back and looking for a primitive kind of Christianity. People keep asking what the apostolic church would have looked like. Well, we had their heirs in the East and they did very well with this for many centuries — but we have forgotten this whole tradition.

DAVID: I keep thinking of a line that Rob Bell likes to use. We’ve had Rob featured in this Conversation format as well. And Rob talks a lot about the church in other countries and the need for Americans not to be blind as they reach out to the rest of humanity. Rob will say: We don’t go on missions to places like Africa to take God to the godless. We go to places like Africa to find the God who is already there.
PHILIP: I hadn’t heard that line before, but I will undoubtedly plagiarize it myself in the future. Yes, when you understand this history, you realize that many of these lands had thriving Christian traditions centuries old.
DAVID: At one point in your book, you flip the world on its head. Americans tend to think of the big weight of Christianity as pretty much residing on our shores now with some important global Christian centers in Rome and in Jerusalem. You write that there was an era when this huge African church looked at the world and assumed that the weight of Christianity really resided in Ethiopia and that the distant global center was Alexandria!
PHILIP: Oh yes, there are great African kingdoms and great African churches we have completely forgotten.
DAVID: You argue that many forces led to the death of these great churches in Africa and Asia. You say that around the late 13th and into the 14th Century, Muslim rulers began to change from their earlier hospitality to violently purging their lands of Christians. In Europe, Christians were doing this to religious minorities, too. And you make an interesting observation about this. You point out that this also is when major climate change was cooling down the earth, a sort of mini ice age. In the early 1300s, warm summers were no longer a sure thing in many of these regions. There was even a Great Famine that swept though Europe in the early 14th Century.

PHILIP: From the late 13th Century, you have this dramatic period of global cooling with equally dramatic implications. Trade roots are hard to maintain, growing seasons are shorter, cities tend to wither and die, people are exposed to hunger and disease. Thirty or 40 years before the black death, we have widespread stories of decline, cities dying, even cannibalism. And when bad things happen, people seem to assume that God is angry with us — and we have to figure out why — and we tend to figure out what particular minority is responsible for God being so angry.
In the Middle East and in China, it’s Christians who become the main scapegoats. Christianity is almost wiped out in China and central Asia and the Middle East. That’s the point at which the patriarchs of Babylon abandon Baghdad and take to the hills. They move to a monastery in northern Iraq.

DAVID: Hmmm. So what you’re describing is: Global crises on the order of climate change begin to reshape the world and things become lethal for many people, especially singled-out minorities. Sounds pretty contemporary.
PHILIP: Well, exactly. I did a New Republic piece earlier this year and I wrote about the effects of global warming on religious interaction. You see this in fights for water supplies already. In Darfur, which is a Muslim vs. Muslim contest, you see this kind of conflict over water playing out and this could easily press more widely. This could move into Egypt where you still have 8 or 10 percent Coptic Christians. It could move into Sudan and Nigeria as the boundary of the desert shifts. That’s where the combat in religion will shift. You have displaced populations. Where will they go?

DAVID: So are you hopeful or are you worried about the future we face?
PHILIP: In terms of Christianity we certainly live in the greatest time of expansion probably in Christian history. I would argue that the geographical-cultural shift of Christianity in the last century is as important a fact in the whole history of Christianity as the Reformation was. The global changes are huge. By 2050, one third of the population of the U.S. will have Latino or Asian roots and overwhelmingly most of those will be Christians and that’s true of Asians as well as Latinos. Last year, there were more Catholic baptisms in the Philippines than in France, Spain and Poland combined.
I think this is an enormously important time for Christianity and I’m generally very optimistic about our ability to cope with religious conflict. Religious conflict will continue but I don’t necessarily see it as something that is irreconcilable if we understand what is happening and the dangers that we face.

PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think.

Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal
reflections—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Facebook, Digg, Amazon, GoodReads and some of
the other social-networking sites as well, if you’re part of those
  (Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)

124: My Journey to Orthodoxy, a Letter from a Man Who Traveled West to East

    Here at ReadTheSpirit, we often welcome visiting writers to tell their spiritual stories.
    Poets, pastors, management consultants, comic book artists, counselors and educators, among others, have told their stories here.
    Today, David Adrian, a public relations consultant, writes about his personal odyssey from Western to Eastern Christianity. In all of our stories, we ask writers to share their memoirs honestly — not to provoke heated debate over the writers’ viewpoints, but so that all of us can understand more about the fascinating complexity of our global religious community.
    Today’s story is illustrated with sample images from an important landmark this spring in the Orthodox Church in the West: a first-ever, English-language “Orthodox Study Bible.” If you click on the images, you’ll find a review of the new Bible, which already is available for pre-order through Amazon.
    We’re including news about this Bible, because David Adrian tells us that this Bible (which he received before its public release through a church agency) has become a powerful resource in his own daily devotions. So, in sharing his story, we wanted to share this resource with you. ALSO, at the end of the story, we’ll give you links to David’s favorite Orthodox source for audio, an online Orthodox network. So, don’t miss that note at the end of this piece!

    Here is the story of a personal spiritual journey that David Adrian simply titled:


y journey to Orthodox Christianity began when I was baptized as an infant at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saginaw, Michigan in 1944 and ended when I was chrismated (confirmed) at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Detroit in 2005, a journey of less than 100 miles as the crow flies but one of more than 60 years as time flies.
    Spiritually, they were tortuous years.

    My late father and mother, Clarence and Elsie, children of French, Polish and Italian immigrants, were married at Sacred Heart, my father’s family church, during World War II. He was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces, and I was born on January 15, 1944 while he was flying combat missions in Europe. He survived the war physically unscathed but spiritually wounded.
    We attended Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart for a while after my father returned from the war, perhaps out of deference to his pious mother, perhaps because he loved singing in the choir. One of my most vivid memories of that time –- and a foreshadowing of my future life as a Christian –- is standing next to him in the choir loft. But, by the time I entered kindergarten, we had ceased attending church altogether, except for weddings and funeral of relatives.
    Neither my father nor my mother ever explained exactly how or why he had lost his faith and become an agonistic. He simply cited the lack of empirical evidence of the existence of God, the irreconcilable claims of the world’s great religions, the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, and the corporal punishment he had suffered at the hands of the nuns in parochial school. I was raised as an agnostic, and until my conversion to Christianity in my late twenties, I considered myself one.
    Indeed, I went my father one better and become an outright atheist.

    I experienced a similar political transformation during those years. My parents were New Deal Democrats, and I became a liberal Democrat, too, only to go them one better by becoming an outright Marxist. Of course, neither Marxism nor atheism was popular among my peers in Bridgeport, Michigan, the little village where I grew up during the Eisenhower years. But I was by nature anti-authoritarian and argumentative, and therefore relished the role of rebel with a cause.
    There was a brief interlude during my junior year at Saginaw High School (Bridgeport didn’t have a high school then) when I flirted with Catholicism again. Why I did so, I cannot recall. Perhaps I was beginning to realize, however unconsciously, that atheism and Marxism were intellectual, moral — and spiritual dead ends.

    Perhaps it was a matter of aesthetics.  I had also adopted my parents’ love for classical music, including choral music and opera, which led to an appreciation of Catholic liturgical music including, in those days before Vatican II, Gregorian chant. I also loved to draw and paint, and had begun studying art. Soon I was confronted by the great religious paintings of the Old Masters in the coffee table art books that I devoured in the public library. Both music and art aroused a spiritual hunger, as well as a realization that I knew very little about Christianity.
    A Catholic schoolmate in whom I confided encouraged me to attend his church, Holy Family, a large, prominent one in Saginaw. I did so one Sunday morning, walking the five miles between my home and the church because I was unwilling to ask my father if I could borrow the family car for the purpose. Despite having received no preparation nor having gone to confession, I accompanied my friend to the altar rail and received Holy Communion. When the parish priest found out, he ordered me to complete an adult catechism class before receiving the sacrament again.
    Before I could complete the class, however, I was involved in serious automobile accident. My parents, my sisters, Martha and Sarah, my maternal grandmother, Agatha, and I were driving to California on summer vacation when our car collided with a jacked-knifed 18-wheeler near Chicago.
    Everyone involved in the accident, including the truck driver and his son, was taken to St. Mary Hospital in Blue Island, Illinois. The driver and I were the only ones who escaped serious injury. The son, a youngster who had been riding with him in violation of safety regulations, was fatally injured. I watched him die in the emergency room, accompanied by his father and mother and a Catholic priest who administered the last rites.
    I was kept at the hospital overnight for observation before being released to relatives who lived in the Chicago area. During the night, one of the nurses, a Catholic nun, encouraged me to pray, handing me a prayer card with an icon of the Virgin Mary. I refused — but I can’t recall why. Nor did I resume the catechism class when I returned home, retreating instead to my familiar atheism.

    The real turning point in my spiritual life came about seven years later when I was in the U.S. Army. I had enlisted in January 1966 after spending three aimless years in college and, following the example of an older cousin whom I admired, became a medical corpsman. Unbeknownst to me until recently, I was even assigned to his old unit, the 888th Medical Company, a field-ambulance company stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the summer of 1966.
    In October of the following year, the anti-Vietnam War movement staged its first big action, the so-called March on the Pentagon. Because the 888th was a mobile medical unit, we were assigned to support other Army and Marine Corps units defending the building. The medical officer in charge assigned me and a corpsman from the Pentagon staff to offer relief to antiwar protesters overcome by tear gas as they stormed the barricades.
    From Friday night, October 20 to the wee hours of Sunday morning, October 22, the two of us circumnavigated the grounds of the huge building in a civilian-style ambulance with jerry cans of water, flushing the eyes and skin of afflicted protesters. Many of them cursed us for being soldiers, but no one refused our aid. Because of our status as medics and our freedom of movement, we could observe the conflict and talk with participants on both sides of the lines. And because the 888th was bivouacked in a bus tunnel under the Pentagon, I spent the entire weekend on site and missed little of the action.
    I was shocked therefore to read subsequent accounts in my then favorite newspapers –- New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun –- that bore little resemblance to events I had just witnessed first hand. Realizing that I needed a different take on current affairs, I turned to the National Review, the magazine founded and edited by the late William F. Buckley, Jr. Reading it was a revelation, soon leading me on to Buckley’s book “Man and God at Yale,” Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution,” Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” and other conservative tomes.
    In addition to conservative thinkers, the National Review introduced me to religious intellectuals, eventually inspiring me to read, among other things, the King James Bible from cover to cover. In January 1970, a year after I was discharged from the Army, my wife and I were married in her family’s church, First Congregational in Saginaw.

    My conversion to Christianity was not yet complete, however, and I was still searching for a church home. After considerably more study, I narrowed my choices to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. All administered the same Sacraments (Mysteries in the Orthodox Church), including Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation (Chrismation in the Orthodox Church), Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick or Unction.
    It seemed to me that the Eucharist should be the central element of worship, and all of them were liturgical churches. All claimed to have maintained the apostolic succession. All recognized the authority of the first seven Ecumenical Councils and the Nicene Creed as the essential statement of the faith.
    I rejected Roman Catholicism, because of its power structure and the doctrine of the infallibility of the papacy. That left Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. My first choice –- even then -– was Orthodoxy because it seemed to me to be a direct successor to the ancient Church.
    My wife and I were then living in metropolitan Detroit where there was a wealth of Orthodox churches –- but I never found one that conducted services in English. And, about that time, I received a warm welcome at a local Episcopal church.
    As I became more and more active in an Episcopal church, I became a leader in my congregation and even volunteered in the local ecumenical community. I studied church history, liturgy and New Testament Greek at the diocesan school of theology, and I attended an ecumenical Cursillo weekend at a local Catholic seminary. Meanwhile, my wife, Rae-lynne, and I had four children, all of whom were duly baptized and confirmed at All Saints, and active in the youth group, children’s choir and other parish activities.
    But it felt to me as though my new church was changing radically –- and was moving away from me. There were changes in ordination standards, a new prayer book that suddenly required us to accept new liturgies –- then, rising debates over the church’s core theology within the ranks of the denomination itself.
    What finally sent me out the church door was the election in 2003 of V. Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two living with a male partner, as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire -– “the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom,” as CBS News reported at the time. I promptly quit the Episcopal Church and did not darken a church door for more than a year, content to read Scripture and pray at home.

    I knew that I must find a new church home, however, and was finally prompted to do so by the marriage of our younger son, Michael. He had just graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and his fiancée, Katrina, from the University of Michigan. They were high school sweethearts.  Katrina’s mother is from Greece and their family’s church is St. George Greek Orthodox in Bloomfield Hills. Michael and Katrina were married there on June 20, 2004.
    It was the first church service I had attended in nearly a year.
    After the wedding, I began serious church shopping. I knew two things: I wanted to become Orthodox, and I wanted to find a suitable parish with a good choir. A music critic for one of the Detroit daily newspapers suggested I contact George Raptis, a prominent Greek Orthodox church musician. I called him and visited him one Sunday in August at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Troy, where he had put together an ad hoc choir because most regular choristers were on vacation.
    I had planned to listen to the choir rehearse and then attend the Divine Liturgy with the congregation, but George invited me to sing.  I protested that I had never sung an Orthodox service and didn’t know Greek well enough to sing it, but he insisted. Fortunately, the Greek text of the music was accompanied by a phonetic transliteration, but it was nevertheless the most intense sight reading experience of my life, one that I was to repeat as I visited other Orthodox churches that fall and sang with their choirs.
    I contacted other Orthodox musicians through PSALM, a national pan-Orthodox musical society based in California, and was advised to visit Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Detroit. They especially recommended the choir director, Victoria Kopistiansky. I was told the same thing by my future Chrismation sponsor, Dean Calvert, a prominent Orthodox layman and a member of the board of St. Andrew House -– Center for Orthodox Christian Studies in Detroit.

    I had gone to St. Andrew House in September 2004 to hear a talk by Frederica Mathewes-Green, the well-known Orthodox writer and lecturer whose book about her own conversion from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, “Facing East,” I also read in my spiritual journey. I introduced myself to her, and she introduced to me to Dean, who was emceeing the event. He became my confidant and mentor.
    I visited Holy Trinity in October, introduced myself to Matushka Vickie and her husband the priest, Father Lev, and began singing in the choir on my next visit. Father Lev became my spiritual father and catechist. After several weeks of preparation, I was chrismated at Holy Trinity on April 3, 2005, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross, one of the five Sundays of the Great Fast of Lent.
  It was perhaps the most intensely spiritual day of my life.
    Holy Trinity was founded by Russian immigrants in 1915. It’s current building, erected in 1953-55, is a beautiful temple, full of dark icons, candles and incense.
    That’s all part of Orthodoxy’s appeal –- its appeal to the five senses, as well as the intellect. One sees the icons, the candles, the vestments of the clergy and the acolytes; one smells the incense; one hears the entire liturgy being sung or chanted by the clergy and the choir; one does physical prostrations when one prays.

    Then, of course, there’s the spiritual discipline: personal daily prayers; confession and fasting before Holy Communion; four periods of rigorous fasting during the liturgical year, especially the Great Fast of Lent before Pascha (Easter); the Divine Liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom that can last for hours during which worshippers spend most of their time standing or kneeling.
    Orthodoxy has been called the Marine Corps of Christianity.
    I could intellectualize about all these elements of the faith before converting to Orthodoxy, but only through direct experience –- worship and the sacraments of Chrismation, Confession and Eucharist -– could I begin to understand and appreciate them.
    For my Chrismation, Rae-lynne and our two daughters, Elizabeth and Catherine; Elizabeth’s husband, Mark; Dean and his wife, their two children, and his mother and father were in the congregation for the service. As I took my vows, I listening with such concentration to Father Lev’s questions and my own responses that entire experience approached the surreal. I then received Holy Communion for the first time.

    I was officially Orthodox.

    That’s my journey to Orthodoxy. Someday, I may write a book-length memoir of this journey. If so, I would retitle it: “My Journey Into Orthodox,” because it is a spiritual journey that continues day by day –  and shall not end until I fall asleep in the Lord.

(Thus ends David Adrian’s story of his spiritual journey.)

Want to “Listen In” on his Orthodox World?

    David Adrian strongly recommends Ancient Faith Radio, a 24-hour Internet audio network, especially developed for Orthodox men and women here in the West.
    Following his advice, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I sampled Ancient Faith’s many offerings and — he’s right. It’s a great resource in exploring this religious realm, especially if you zero in on the best parts of the many Ancient Faith offerings.

    Personally, I was drawn to audio Podcasts by Frederica Mathewes-Green (shown at right), one of the most influential new-Orthodox writers working in the U.S. today. Her pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Sojourners. Her journey into Orthodoxy, eloquently described in her books and essays, has paved the way for many others to follow.

    I also know that readers love stories about saints!
    Many Web sites now offer a “Saint of the Day,” mainly Catholic-related sites — but this Orthodox version offers insights from the Eastern church that most Americans have never encountered. Some saints are shared by East and West, but — even in those many instances — the Eastern versions of the saints’ significance offer us new spiritual insights.

    That’s all in addition to the main Ancient Faith Webcast that’s available 24 hours a day. Check it out!
    While Orthodoxy stretches all around the globe, today — in the United States, many people involved in promoting the church comprise a pretty close-knit community. For example, Ancient Faith is part of Conciliar Media Ministries. Conciliar, in turn, is under the auspices of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America — and another part of Conciliar’s work has been the production of the new “Orthodox Study Bible,” which the Thomas Nelson publishing house now is distributing.

    Want to know more about David Adrian’s professional life? With most of our spiritual memoirs, we include a link to the author’s home page. So, click on his name — and you’ll jump to his site.

    WANT TO READ MORE about Great Lent?
    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 4 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
    With all of our ReadTheSpirit stories, we ask our readers: Please, tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading:


123: A Prophetic Voice Arises in the East


    Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known in some parts of the world as “the Green Patriarch” for his outspoken activism on behalf of the environment, steps onto the world stage in a new way next week for Great Lent 2008. His eloquent voice is embodied in his first-ever book for a global audience, “Encountering The Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today.” The book hits bookstores on Tuesday, but you can click on the book cover below and jump to our review of it (where you could pre-order the book from Amazon, if you wish).

    BUT, first, let me tell you why you should care about this spiritual milestone, whether you’re a member of an Orthodox church -– or not.
    Having traveled in eastern Europe myself in 1990, as a journalist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers chronicling the tumbling of former Communist regimes, I understand that this is, indeed, a rare moment in world history.
    Now, nearly a decade into the 21st Century, Orthodox leaders and congregations finally have had a good chance to develop their ministries without fear of imprisonment or, even worse -– physical violence and death. In several areas of Eastern Europe in 1990, I had a chance to meet Christian leaders emerging, scarred but hopeful, after years of imprisonment and, in some cases, after extended periods of torture. This journey of restoration continues to this day in many Eastern European countries — and the nature of that restoration as it continues to unfold is important to all of us as global citizens these days.
    Bartholomew himself was not imprisoned -– but he understands that, even though nearly two decades have passed since revolutions swept across many Orthodox nations — we still are in this critically important rebuilding phase.

    In his new book, he writes that throughout much of “the 20th Century, the greater majority of Orthodox Christians throughout the world lived behind what was then known as the Iron Curtain. Many millions of these, together with many thousands of others elsewhere, experienced several decades of either persecution verging on martyrdom or else precarious toleration. Several millions encountered –- and some continue to encounter –- a religious intolerance that limited and even isolated them as minorities through social and economic pressures.”

    That’s why a rising voice from the Orthodox world in Great Lent 2008 is such a gift to the rest of Christendom.
    Especially in the United States, we’ve long been polarized in many ways within our Christian communities: sometimes due to divisions between Protestants and Catholics, or between evangelicals and progressive Christians, or between groups staring at each other across other theological chasms. We tend to forget that there is a voice of spiritual wisdom from the East with its own distinctive approaches to the Christian faith.
    That’s what I like best about Bartholomew’s new book.
    It embodies a prophetic voice for our times that will resonate in new ways in the West, if we give Bartholomew a chance to be “heard.”

    Now, a word of warning is in order: There is a whole lot of background information that the patriarch’s editors have chosen to lay before us as a kind of crash course in Orthodoxy 101, embodied in a roughly 70-page prelude that appears in this book before Bartholomew’s voice finally is able to reach its full eloquence. I suppose this was a wise choice, given that many American Christians, according to annual polls, cannot name the four gospels in the New Testament -– let alone describe the distinctions of the Christian world. So, a lengthy “Foreward,” then a “Biographical Note” about Bartholomew, then Bartholomew’s own summary of “Historical Perspectives” are perhaps all helpful orientations for readers.

    But, the true power of this book lies deeper between these covers. It lies in the way that Bartholomew knits together his Christian faith, his Orthodox tradition, his concern for the environment, his cautionary teachings about globalization –- and even his interfaith hospitality toward Jewish and Muslim communities.
    All of this, he tells us (once he really gets rolling in this book), are deeply rooted in the Orthodox understanding of our lives as part of a global community created by God. We are not alone –- nor are we alone with God as an isolated pair in the cosmos, as some spiritual seekers try to tell us today. In truth, he argues, we are part of a vast Creation, each responsible for the community that God calls us to form within that Creation.
    My summary of his teachings here may sound fairly abstract. If so, it’s because I’m summarizing more than 100 pages of Bartholomew’s book in a few sentences.

    Within the scope of his book, he moves chapter by chapter from very basic, tangible elements of daily life to the larger connections we must make in God’s world. For example, there’s a beautiful little passage in the book about his childhood home on the small island of Imvros off the coast of Turkey. He writes about how his mother arranged icons in one small corner of a room to connect their home spiritually with the larger sacred community.
    But, as he writes about where this basic upbringing and traditional faith have taken him in his life’s pilgrimage, he reaches farther and farther in making his connections. For example, he writes about the growing awareness around the world that we must protect the environment from irreversible damage.
    And, there’s so much more that we must do, he writes prophetically. Here’s a sample of his eloquence from later in the book:

    “We have to admit that while we have become more sensitive to environmental issues, we continue to ignore some fundamental issues of human welfare. This, however, amounts to an unbearable contradiction. In reality, extending our concern toward created nature implies and necessitates a change also in our attitudes and practices toward our fellow human beings. The world is a gift from God, and it is offered to us for the purpose of sharing. It does not exist for us to appropriate selfishly, but rather to preserve humbly. The way that we relate to God in heaven cannot be separated either from the way we treat other human beings or from our treatment of the natural environment on earth. To disconnect the two would amount to nothing less than hypocrisy. Whoever can discern this simple truth will no longer be surprised that the Christian God chose to be born in a manger.”

    To that, I must say: Wow! Amen!

    That’s prophetic weaving of major theological themes in a way that even the casual reader will get the full impact of Bartholomew’s argument. We can disagree with him –- or we might offer counter arguments on individual points –- but we are dealing here with a Christian visionary who sees a vast mosaic of meaning in the life all around us. That mosaic is not complete until we glimpse the links between the tiniest flower in a field to a bird in flight –- to the poor person on the other side of town -– or a needy family on the other side of the world –- to the people sitting around our dinner table each night.
    One might say it’s rather like Jesus’ own vision of these lessons, which we’ve been pondering on another area of the ReadTheSpirit Web site, called Our Lent, in recent weeks.

    I’m glad that Bartholomew and Doubleday have chosen to mark Great Lent 2008 with the release of this terrific new book. Many are preaching similar messages these days.
    But, I think millions may be able to hear this message more clearly –- coming, as it does next week in “Encountering the Mystery,” from someone with the global authority of a Bartholomew, speaking from a 2,000-year-old tradition that, only now, is getting solidly onto its feet again.

    AS AN EXTRA TODAY, you may want to visit the English-language version of the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s Web site. Specifically, considering some of the themes mentioned today, you may want to read some of Bartholomew’s annual messages on the environment. Of course, this is only a small part of his public teaching on this issue, but it’s a nice sampling of his talks. At the left side of that page, you’ll also find links to other intriguing resources from his headquarters.
    NOTE: The final photo with today’s story (below) is from the Patriarchate Web site, capturing a visit in 2005 when Bartholomew returned to tour the tiny island where he was born.
    WANT TO READ MORE about Great Lent?
    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 4 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
    With all of our ReadTheSpirit stories, we ask our readers: Please, tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

122: Celebrating Orthodox Icons in Lent

t. Irene (shown above) is among the iconic images that Orthodox writer Father Gabriel Jay Rochelle tells us about today in this special week devoted to the start of Great Lent for Orthodox Christians.
    Remember that you also can join our ongoing reflection at Our Lent, a special page devoted entirely to this Christian season.
    WANT TO READ MORE about Orthodox Great Lent?
    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 3 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

 Within this week’s series, you’ll find a number of important cultural bridges. For example, the icon at right, below, depicts St. John of Damascus — a brave and eloquent
defender of icons against harsh criticism in the 8th Century. His writings were
so important that he became a highly respected figure in both the
Western and Eastern churches. More than 100 years ago, he was declared
a Doctor of the Church by the Vatican, a title of great honor in the
Roman Catholic Church.

    Father Gabriel, who wrote today’s story and also wrote Part 2 of our series, is developing the Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Today, he tells us about the significance of icons and the celebration, coming up this Sunday, of Orthodox traditions related to these beautiful images.
    He calls today’s piece:


     We call the little pictures we click on our computer screens “icons.”  We call Hollywood and TV celebrities “icons.” You’ve seen controversial news coverage in recent years concerning celebrities’ images — from Janet Jackson to Mel Gibson. These stars are cultural “icons.”
    The word icon originally meant “image” — and we are adrift in a sea of images. Many of these images represent nothing important, so they are negative rather than positive because they are void of meaning.

    But there is another meaning of icon.
    Icons are the two-dimensional pictures in all Orthodox and some other churches.
    As Orthodox, we point out to visitors that these icons do not contradict the commandment against graven images. First of all, we do not depict God “who dwells in unapproachable Light.” And, we do not make idols of these images — but we honor the reality of what they depict, which St John of Damascus (675-749) called the “prototype.”

    Here’s the relationship, according to St. John of Damascus: An icon is to a person as the written word is to the Gospel. We do not worship the image but we venerate the saint, whom God glorified. No one confuses the image with the reality.
    Since Christ, “the image of the invisible God,” came in the flesh, he may be depicted in an icon. We also depict the saints in whom Christ is manifest, especially Mary the Theotokos or “God-bearer,” and we depict scenes from their lives.
    Icons light up the Holy; they are buoys and markers on the sea of faith.

    In the 8th Century, conflict arose between iconoclasts, who smashed icons that the faithful held sacred, and iconodules, who saw in and through icons a revelation of divine love.
    To the eye of faith, the icon is a window through which we see God and through which God sees us, addresses us and calls us. The iconodules won the day, although it took almost two centuries to end the controversy. The Council of Ephesus in 787 resolved the issue, but it took until 842 to end the controversy.
    Orthodox Christians annually observe this victory, called The Triumph of Orthodoxy, on the First Sunday in Great Lent.

    This is a wonderful observance. When we stand and pray before icons, we gather with the saints in the Body of Christ. Father Michael Westerberg of New Haven Connecticut puts it this way: “In church, I am surrounded by my friends.”
    What a way to see it! Here is St Nina and St Seraphim — there is St Irene (pictured above) and St Athanasius. They lived and died for the faith. They enhance our lives and lead us into the fullness of faith.
    Over against icons stand those negative images that bombard us through a variety of media. Sacred icons show us, silently, the holiness found in the humble pursuit of God’s Way of peace, justice, and love.

     One last secret of the icons is this: They are signs of who we are, because you and I are made “in the image and likeness of God.” Hence the icons show us people just like us who, forgiven and restored by Christ and full of the Spirit, demonstrated that image and likeness in a clear and refreshing way.
    St Irenaeus long ago said that the highest image of God is a human being, fully revealed.
    This is the goal the icons express for all of us.

(THUS ENDS Father Gabriel’s story.)

SEND an Icon E-Card — or LISTEN to Orthodox hymns!
     We’ve been offering BONUSES each day to provide a better window into the Orthodox world.
    Yesterday, in Part 2 of this series, we provided a link to some traditional Orthodox recipes by a Coptic Christian writer — all appropriate dishes to enjoy during the no-meat, no-dairy fast of Great Lent.
    TODAY, we’ve got a link to Iconograms, an E-Card Service of the Department of Internet Ministries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of  America.
     Visitors to Icononograms can begin customizing their messages by selecting an icon from a database made up of hundreds of holy images. Each Iconogram E-Card functions both as a greeting card and a teaching tool. Along with a personalized message, each card provides an Orthodox description of a saint or feast related to the icon. The message also includes a suggestion of an appropriate hymn for the feast.
    The icon shown at right is suggested for Orthodox Sunday cards — or you can choose another image from the database.

     The Greek Orthodox site also offers other online resources, including audio clips you can play to hear many hymns for Great Lent. NOTE: The Hymns page starts with the final days of Great Lent, at the top — but you will find hymns associated with Orthodox Sunday lower on the page. Just scroll down to see all the offerings.

    Plus, the Archdiocesan site offers The Ark, a 24-hour Internet radio stream of Orthodox music and meditations.

    With all of our ReadTheSpirit stories, we ask our readers: Please, tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading:


121: Fasting and “Joyful Sorrow” of Great Lent

n Orthodox Christian writer shares with us, today, how Fasting and the spiritual disciplines of Great Lent contrast with so much of our contemporary culture, producing a Joyful Sorrow that prepares us for renewal.

    But what exactly is involved in the Orthodox fast of Great Lent? These Orthodox traditions are tougher than almost any other Christian custom of fasting. So, I asked Father Gabriel Jay Rochelle, who wrote today’s piece, to explain a little more about his church’s customs.
    Currently, Father Gabriel is developing the Orthodox Mission in Las Cruces, New Mexico, but he’s also got a strong background in interfaith dialogue, because he served earlier with the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College. He was happy to tell us more about Orthodox customs:

    “With occasional exceptions, the Lenten fast is basically a vegan diet: no meat, no dairy, no wine — nor alcoholic beverages of any kind.  We do not consider shellfish ‘meat,’ so people do indulge in shrimp and clams during Lent. We work our way into the fast by saying farewell to meat two weeks before the First Sunday of Lent, then farewell to cheese (and dairy in general) one week before the First Sunday.”

    This is a remarkable spiritual commitment in our era of nearly constant consumption, so we hope you’ll be inspired by today’s meditation by Father Gabriel, which he headlined simply:


    I was in a store the other day and, after making my purchase, the young woman at the counter said the perfunctory: “Have a nice day.”
    I replied that I was having a wonderful day. Yet here I am, in the midst of Orthodox Lent!
    We Orthodox maintain more ascetic discipline than other churches. The Lenten fast is tough: no meat or dairy. No one pries into your eating habits, however, to make sure you keep the fast.  The aim is not abstention but athleticism. This is training for the soul, carried out through the body.

    St John Chrysostom (4th Century) warned against hypocritical fasting: “It is possible for one who fasts not to be rewarded for his fasting. How? When indeed we abstain from foods, but do not abstain from iniquities; when we do not eat meat, but gnaw to pieces the homes of the poor; when we do not become drunkards with wine, but we become drunkards with evil pleasures; when we abstain all the day, but all the night we spend in unchaste shows. What benefit is abstention from foods, when on the one hand you deprive your body of a selected food, but on the other offer yourself unlawful food?”

    Orthodoxy is an ascetical church. Askesis is the Greek word for training, say, to win a race.  St Paul used the image in I Corinthians 9.
    Marie Henein, a Coptic (Egyptian) Christian, reminds us that the church asks some form of fasting on two hundred days out of the year.
     Two hundred! 
     We also keep the Lenten disciplines of prayer and charity. Additional worship services give the faithful opportunity to pray, to examine our lives in light of the Gospel, and to receive sustenance for training.  We look outward with intent; we offer extra gifts of work and money to special charities.
     This contrasts to the ease with which many people approach religion, in two ways.  First, much American religion is do-it-yourself, a blend of interests and values, many of them self-determined and self-centered as well. This shallow approach ends if you realize that you are making up not only the way but also the truth. Orthodoxy sings, “We have seen the True Light… We have found the True Faith…”
    How refreshing is this attitude, when we see so much pandering in the name of religion.

    Secondly, Lenten discipline goes against the grain of that motto: “Have a nice day.” I may be joyful, but not because the road is easier. I don’t have nice days.
    Lent is “joyful sorrow.”
    The sorrow comes because my sin makes my road rocky, dangerous, and steep. The joy comes because God paved a new Way to love us in and through Christ, and our first step is repentance.
    Orthodox learn the meaning of repentance through the daily Lenten prayer of St Ephrem (a 4th-Century saint pictured in the icon at left):

    “O Lord and Master of my life, do not give to me the spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
    “But give to me, Your servant, the spirit of purity, humility, patience, and love.
    “O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages.


    Faith has more to do with being than with thinking. Many people approach faith as an intellectual exercise. Orthodox exercise is different: We train body and soul in order to reach the prize, transformation in Christ.
    By training the body to let go of evil passions, we hope to release the godly passion of love toward others, the created order, and God who is “the lover of mankind.”  We are in a period of intense exercise, so we say: “Have a good Lent.”

(THUS ENDS Father Gabriel’s story.)

    WANT TO READ MORE about Orthodox Great Lent?

    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 2 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

    As an ADDED BONUS today, we’ve got a link to visit Marie Henein, who is mentioned above, who has contributed to an online resource for vegetarians by offering some great recipes that reflect her Orthodox background. This web page includes recipes for Stuffed Grape Leaves, Lemon and Dill Potato Salad — and Fool Medemmas, made with Fava Beans.
    All avoid the foods that Orthodox families give up for Great Lent and yet: Mmmm-mmmm, they’re tasty.
    Plus — in her Web page of recipes — Marie gives us a little taste of her family’s Orthodox culture as well.
    She writes: “My family is Christian — Coptic Orthodox to be exact. This
was one of the earliest forms of Christianity … Many of the
following recipes have been passed down from generation to

    With all of our ReadTheSpirit stories, we ask our readers: Please, tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading:


120: Welcoming Orthodox to Great Lent!

oday, millions of Orthodox Christians around the world begin Great Lent and, this week, we welcome the start of this season with a series of stories by Orthodox writers sharing the special customs and culture of this season. To learn more about the Lenten season, we also invite our readers to sample our ongoing series, Our Lent.

    WANT TO READ MORE about Orthodox Great Lent?

    We are setting aside this special week, here at ReadTheSpirit, to celebrate
Orthodox writers. This is Part 1 in this series. If you missed the earlier pieces, you can read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

    Today’s story is by Father John Parker. (He is pictured below along with images from his recently completed church.) Father Parker is a writer and the priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, near Charleston. Today, he tells us how the start of Great Lent differs from the Western customs of Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday …

    Revelers. Drunken stupors. Fuzzy memories. Gratuitous nudity. Dangerous liaisons.
    This is Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”), at least as it is celebrated in the streets of places such as New Orleans, Rio and other major cities around the world.
    What is the purpose of such a day? According to one New Orleans Mardi Gras Web site: “Human nature being what it is, people are inclined to go on a bender immediately before a period of deprivation, prayer, and fasting. Hence: Fat Tuesday.
    In the Western Christian church, Mardi Gras is the day before Ash Wednesday. Remnants of the true nature of Fat Tuesday still are visible in many churches as Lent begins. More often called “Shrove Tuesday” (from “to shrive,” to hear the confession of and to absolve a penitent of sins), this is the day on which folks empty out their cabinets of fats – meat, cheese, butter, etc. – items from which Christians traditionally have fasted during the 40 days prior to Pascha (Easter).

    Orthodox Christians enter Great Lent differently, still following the most ancient pattern of prayer and fasting. Rather than a single day of pantry-emptying, the Orthodox first abandon meat on “Meatfare” Sunday, and then dairy, wine and olive oil on the following, so-called “Cheesefare,” Sunday, allowing for a gradual entrance into what we call the Great Fast. In the Orthodox tradition, this fast is kept daily during all 40 days, with a few festal exceptions. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving, along with confession of our sins, remain the central focuses of Lent, as we prepare for the most glorious Christian feast of the year: Pascha, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

    The Great Fast, as the Orthodox also call it, begins not with parties, suppers or benders, but with one of the most moving services in all of Christianity. In the evening of Cheesefare Sunday, the church serves Forgiveness Vespers. At the tail end of this sung service of evening prayers, every individual in the parish, beginning with the priest, asks of and offers forgiveness to every other individual present. During this solemn and often deeply emotional portion of the service, the choir sings the bright, joyous hymns of Pascha, a foreshadowing of the glory to come.
    Still, it is easy to see, from a popular cultural perspective, why many, even Christians, see Lent as “deprivation” or some sort of dark period marked in ancient days by hair shirts, and even today by intentional discomfort, sadness, guilt and gloom. The switch from having what we want on a moment’s notice all the time to living merely with what we need, and in measured portions, comes as a shock to our bodies, wills and lifestyles.

    But Great Lent is the opposite of doom and guilt.
    It is our return from exile. It is the joy of forgiveness, which is our release from true guilt in repentance. It is our return from what has become a regular life of loose or riotous living in a far-off land, as it is described in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. If New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras has any relation to the Christian Shrove Tuesday and the ensuing fast of Great Lent, it is this: It is a prime-time, public, regular and celebrated example of the way we live our day-to-day life: drunk, stuffed, self-interested, careless and promiscuous.
    From a Christian perspective, this is true actually as much as figuratively, if statistics are even remotely accurate with respect to alcoholism, obesity, divorce, crime and the like. Sadly and embarrassingly, the Christian statistics are the same as — or worse than — the secular culture in many of these areas.

    So following the example of our Lord
, who entered the wilderness to pray and fast and to face the devil, we, too, do the same for 40 days. Our task is twofold: first, to see who we have become when left to our own devices: sinners who have distorted God’s creation, beginning with ourselves; and second, to become who we are called to be by the grace of God: merciful saints as we see in Matthew 5:48 and Luke 6:36.
    We fast from certain foods and drinks because by our sin, we abuse these in gluttony and drunkenness, not because food and drink are inherently bad. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom went so far as to say that the food in our pantry (paraphrased) is to our damnation since it belongs to the poor and hungry who have no daily food. Our fasting is not for God, like some cosmic payoff scheme (“I’ve been bad, so I’ll be good for sometime; please don’t punish me!”). Rather, it is for us to see that food and drink are merely fuel that keeps our bodies running so that we can live godly lives in the short time we have on this Earth. Along with our fasting, we put on moderation and sharing.

    We fast from entertainment in order to see the world as it truly is, not how Hollywood portrays it. How horribly are our eyes tainted by television and movies! In our daily lives, we have come to accept murder and violence as forms of diversion. Gross language, perversion, adultery, lying, betrayal and lust are seen as normal and normative. By abstaining from watching shows and movies that flaunt such behavior while at the same time engaging ourselves in real life with real people, we can see more clearly how such living is actually vacant and damaging to all involved, not to mention far from the life Jesus Christ demonstrated for us. Along with our fasting, we put on mercy and compassion.
    During the Great Fast, married couples are challenged to fast, by mutual consent, from nuptial relations following 1 Corinthians 7:5ff. (It is assumed that this is the daily practice at all times for all Christians who are not married.) Once again, this is not because sex is bad — au contraire! But even in marriage, we fall into the sin of treating one another as objects, and such an “agreement for a season” is to re-establish our godly love for one another. Along with our fasting, we put on abstinence and self-control.

    Great Lent is a return to spiritual, emotional and physiological training. It is an intense time reorienting ourselves to the life God has established for us.
    One significant facet to this season of prayer, fasting and almsgiving is lifted right out of the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
    This is not a call to generic social justice or a longing for some unattainable better society; rather, it is a Christian imperative to stop thinking about ourselves alone and to start loving our neighbors, especially those who are in need.

    But to begin to love our neighbor requires us to know that he or she exists. Lent is a time for us to venture out of our living rooms and comfort zones, to move away from the television, to suspend the mail-order DVDs and endless, mindless video games in order to worship God, live life and serve others by giving those in need what we have in spades.
    All of this effort we call Lent is beautifully summarized in a fourth-century prayer still prayed daily during Lent in the Orthodox churches. The prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian reads: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother. For blessed art thou unto ages of ages. Amen.”

    God help us all so to live, beginning afresh today.

    With all of our ReadTheSpirit stories, we ask our readers: Please, tell us what you think. Email me ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading: