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The Fifteenth Instruction. On the holy forty days of Lent

In the Law it is writ­ten that God com­mand­ed the sons of Israel to give a tenth part of all they had acquired dur­ing each year, and there­by bring a bless­ing upon all their deeds. With this in mind, the Holy Apos­tles estab­lished and com­mit­ted to us as a help and bene­fac­tion for our souls some­thing yet greater and more exalted–that we should set apart a tenth por­tion of the very days of our lives and devote them to God. There­by might we also receive a bless­ing for all our deeds, and year­ly cleanse the sins we have com­mit­ted over the course of the whole year. Thus dis­cern­ing, they have sanc­ti­fied for us out of the 365 days of the year these sev­en weeks of Holy Great Lent. So they set apart these sev­en weeks; but lat­er the Fathers deemed it wise to add yet anoth­er week: first of all, so that those wish­ing to ini­ti­ate them­selves in the asce­sis of the fast over the course of this week might accus­tom them­selves to it and pre­pare them­selves for it; and sec­ond­ly, in order to ren­der hon­or to the num­ber of days of the Great Fast which our Lord Jesus Christ fast­ed. For after sub­tract­ing Sat­ur­days and Sun­days from the eight weeks we have forty days; the fast on Great Sat­ur­day is par­tic­u­lar­ly hon­ored, because it is most sacred, and the only Sat­ur­days through­out the year on which a fast it kept. Sev­en weeks minus Sat­ur­days and Sun­days make thir­ty-five days, then to this is added the fast of Holy and Great Sat­ur­day and half of the Bright and Light-bear­ing night; thus we have thir­ty-six and a half days, which equals exact­ly a tenth part of the 365 days of the year. For the tenth part of three hun­dred is thir­ty, the tenth part of six­ty is six, and a tenth part of five is one-half (of the Bright Day). So, as we have said, there are thir­ty-six and a half days–the tenth por­tion of the whole year which, as I have said, the Holy Apos­tles have sanc­ti­fied for us for repen­tance and the cleans­ing of the sins of the whole year.

So blessed, O brethren, is he who pre­serves him­self well in these holy days as he should. For though it might hap­pen that being human we sin out of infir­mi­ty or neg­li­gence, still God has giv­en these holy days in order that, striv­ing with heed­ful­ness and humil­i­ty of wis­dom, we take care for our­selves and repent for all of our sins, and we will be cleansed of the sins we com­mit­ted dur­ing the whole year. Then our souls will be deliv­ered from their weight, and we will arrive at the Holy Day of the Res­ur­rec­tion cleansed, receive Com­mu­nion of the Holy Mys­ter­ies uncon­demned, hav­ing become new through the repen­tance of the Holy Fast. In spir­i­tu­al rejoic­ing, with God’s help, we will cel­e­brate the entire Holy Pen­te­cost season–for the Pen­te­cost sea­son, as the Holy Fathers say, is the repose and res­ur­rec­tion of the soul. This is sig­ni­fied by our not kneel­ing dur­ing whole Holy Pen­te­cost season.

Thus he who desires dur­ing these days of Lent to be cleansed of the sins he has com­mit­ted over the course of the whole year should first of all refrain from eat­ing much food, for the lack of lim­i­ta­tion in food, as the Fathers say, gives birth to every evil in man. Then he should also take care not to vio­late the fast with­out great need, not to seek tasty foods, nor weigh him­self down with excess food or drink. For there are two kinds of glut­tony. The first kind is when a man seeks pleas­ant foods, and does not always wish to eat much, but desires some­thing tasty. It hap­pens that when this type tastes a dish he likes, he is so won over by its pleas­ant taste that he holds the food in his mouth, chews it for a long time, and regret­ting to part with its pleas­ant taste, he delays swal­low­ing it. This is called in Greek “lemargia,”–the demon of the throat. The oth­er type is assailed by the desire to eat a large quantity–he does not desire good food and is not con­cerned about its taste, but only wants to eat, whether the dish­es are tasty or not, and he makes no dis­tinc­tion. His is only con­cerned with fill­ing his bel­ly. This is called “gastri­mar­gia,” that is, the demon of the belly.

I will tell you also about the ety­mol­o­gy of these words. The word “mar­genin,” demon­ic pos­ses­sion, is the word used by Hel­lenic schol­ars to describe those who are pos­sessed by demons, and the pos­sessed per­son is called mar­gos. So when any­one has this infir­mi­ty, that is, a demon­ic com­pul­sion to fill the bel­ly, then their infir­mi­ty is called gastri­mar­gia, from the words indi­cat­ing demon­i­cal­ly-pos­sessed, and belly–that is, to be demon­i­cal­ly pos­sessed with regard to the bel­ly. And when the demon­ic pos­ses­sion regards only the throat it is called lemar­gia, form the words mean­ing throat, and demon­ic pos­ses­sion. There­fore he who wish­es to be cleansed of his sins must take great care to flee these kinds of glut­tony; they sat­is­fy not the needs of the body, but pas­sion; and if one sur­ren­ders him­self to them it will be account­ed unto him as sin. The act in law­ful mar­riage and for­ni­ca­tion is one and the same, but the aim con­sti­tutes the dif­fer­ence of the mat­ter; for one acts to con­ceive chil­dren, while the oth­er acts to sat­is­fy his love of plea­sure. It is the same in rela­tion to food: to eat out of need and to eat in order to delight one’s taste is one and the same act, but the sin is to be found in the inten­tion. Some­one eats accord­ing to need when he deter­mines for him­self how much food to take in a day; and if he sees that this quan­ti­ty of food he has deter­mined weighs him down and should be a lit­tle decreased, he there­fore decreas­es it. If it does not weigh him down, but is rather insuf­fi­cient for the body and his body requires a lit­tle more, he adds a lit­tle more. Thus hav­ing test­ed well his need, he holds there­after to a deter­mined mea­sure and eats food not in order to delight his taste but rather to main­tain his body’s strength.

How­ev­er, even the lit­tle food that some­one eats should be received with prayer, and he should con­demn him­self men­tal­ly as unwor­thy of any food or con­so­la­tion. He should like­wise pay no atten­tion to oth­ers who out of some cur­rent require­ment or need receive some com­fort in this regard, so that he might not desire com­fort for him­self, and in gen­er­al he should not think that the repose of the body is an easy thing for the soul.

Once, when I was still in the com­mu­ni­ty, I went to vis­it one of the elders–for there were many great elders there–and I found that the broth­er who was serv­ing him took food togeth­er with him. See­ing this I told him sep­a­rate­ly, “Do you not know broth­er, that these elders who, as you see, eat and make cer­tain con­de­scen­sions for them­selves accord­ing to their needs, are like peo­ple who have acquired store­hous­es; and after work­ing for a long time, they have stored there­in what they have earned until they have filled them. Once they have filled and sealed the store­hous­es, they begin again to work now for their own expens­es, and they col­lect anoth­er thou­sand gold-pieces so that they will have some­thing to use in time of need, pre­serv­ing what they have set aside in the store­hous­es. So also these elders, after work­ing a long time, have gath­ered in their youth trea­sure for them­selves, and hav­ing sealed it up, they have worked a lit­tle longer, to have some­thing in the time of their old age and infir­mi­ty to take from, and pre­serve what they have gath­ered as a trea­sure trove. But we have not even acquired the store­house itself. What shall we have to spend?” Where­fore we should, as I have said, when tak­ing food out of bod­i­ly neces­si­ty, con­demn our­selves and con­sid­er our­selves unwor­thy of any con­so­la­tion and even of the monas­tic life itself, and we should not take food with­out restrain, so that it will not be to our condemnation.

We have said this con­cern­ing restraint of the bel­ly. How­ev­er we must not lim­it our tem­per­ance to food, but refrain also from every oth­er sin. Just as we fast with our stom­achs, we should fast also from every oth­er sin; just as we fast with the bel­ly, we should fast also with the tongue, restrain­ing it from slan­der, from lying, idle-talk­ing, from belit­tle­ment, from anger, and in a word, from every sin that is per­formed by the tongue. We must like­wise fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things, not give free­dom to our eyes, not look at any­one shame­less­ly and with­out fear. The hands and feet should also be con­strained from every evil deed. Hav­ing fast­ed, as St. Basil the Great says, by a favor­able fast, remov­ing our­selves from all the sins of all of our sens­es, we shall attain to the holy day of the Res­ur­rec­tion, hav­ing become as we have said, new, pure and wor­thy of Com­mu­nion of the Holy Mys­ter­ies. But first let us go out and meet our Lord Jesus Christ Who comes to suf­fer, and with olive and palm branch­es let us receive Him sit­ting upon the foal of a don­key, enter­ing the Holy City of Jerusalem.

Why did the Lord sit upon a foal? He sat upon a foal so that He as the Word of God might sub­due and con­vert our souls–which as the Prophet says are like irra­tional and unthink­ing animals–to His Divin­i­ty. What does it sig­ni­fy that He is met with palm and olive branch­es? When some­one goes to bat­tle with his ene­my and returns vic­to­ri­ous, all his sub­jects greet him as vic­tor with palm branch­es, for palm branch­es are a sym­bol of vic­to­ry. Like­wise when a man suf­fers offense from anoth­er and wish­es to appeal to a some­one who can defend him, he brings him olive branch­es, cry­ing out and entreat­ing for mer­cy and aid, for olive branch­es are a sym­bol of mer­cy. There­fore we meet our Mas­ter Christ with palm branch­es for He is Vic­tor, for He has con­quered our ene­my; and with olive branch­es ask­ing of Him mer­cy, entreat­ing that just as He has con­quered for us, so we might con­quer through Him–that we might be bear­ers of the sign of vic­to­ry not only for the sake of the vic­to­ry He has won for us, but also for the vic­to­ry we have won through Him, by the prayers of all the saints. For to Him is due every glo­ry, hon­or and wor­ship unto the ages. Amen.

Abba Doroth­e­os