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Scouring Of The Shire

June 14, 2010

At  the end of the chapter in which the Shire is cleansed of the evil that had taken it over at the hands of Saruman. I like the fact that in that story people who are written off as weak, somehow find the courage to rise up and root out evil. It’s a great picture of God choosing the sick to confound the wise, or the mustard seed growing into a great tree. But that’s not the idea I want to share. At the end of the chapter, when everything has been restored and Sam is having kids, a few obscure events are written about. These events surround the character of Frodo. Each time an “anniversary” of a traumatic event comes, Frodo becomes inexplicably ill for a day, then becomes “normal” again. In one such case he is found shivering, clutching his chest in pain with one hand and grasping for dear life with the other the small, light-giving vial of Galadriel and saying something about finding no healing. Eventually that healing does come, but it comes in the form of him forever leaving the shores of Middle Earth, to live among the immortal elves in Valinor.

I can’t help think about this annual cycle of pains Frodo experienced is not entirely unlike our cycle of struggle, fasting, feasting, commemorating and celebrating in the Orthodox Church. I have yet to experience a full Church year, but already I’m beginning to get the gist of its flow in the life of the Church, corporately and individually. When I say, “get the gist” I actually mean that I really don’t have a clue, but I think I might have the slightest of glimpses into the cyclic life of the Ancient Church. I can say that I already have begun to notice it having an effect in my life. Nothing dramatic, but a shifting of my “phronema” or mindset, that is beginning to take root in my behavior as well.

The first and most obvious cycles are in the feasts and fasts. Feasts of celebration are preceded by a period of struggle in fasting. The two that seem to have the most mourning aspect to them are Pascha (Easter to my Western friends) and the Dormition of the Theotokos. I mentioned in the post on Pascha the deep sense of sinfulness and mourning over self that comes with the Lenten season of fasting. That sense of mourning intensifies as Holy Week gets underway, until that ecstatic release of joy when we shout “Christ is Risen!” on Pascha night. And though I can’t think of any other feasts that have such an intense sense of mourning associated with it, each of the celebratory feasts has some kind of preparation of fasting. Each of the fasts has a different intensity level, length, etc, but each is ended by a period of joy. Some of the fasts are broken with a week-long “no fasting”. Celebrated every year, is the story of salvation in Christ.

Beyond the annual cycle of celebration and struggle, is the weekly fasting on Wednesday and Friday. These days commemorate the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ, respectively. Each week we remember Christ by two days of denying our flesh with a fast.

Oh ya! What is a “fast” in the Orthodox tradition? Generally, it is the abstaining from all dairy, meat, wine (some say any alcohol of any kind) and olive oil. Why? It is simply the exercising of the will over the flesh. To deny yourself, in order to give greater heed to prayer, good works and alms giving. There is no inherent evil in any of those foods listed, nor is it expected that one would not do any of the good works listed on non-fasting days. It is simply a cyclical practice that helps shape us more into the image and likeness of our Lord.

Beyond the annual and weekly cycles, are the daily cycles. Daily? Yes, daily. We have the cycle of prayers in the morning and evening, meal times, etc. One of the other great practices, is the monastic practice of praying the “Royal Hours”. These are 9 am, 12 noon and 3 pm. They represent the hour Jesus was scourged, the hour He was nailed to the cross, and the hour He died. These are generally done in monasteries, but are sometimes done my “regular parish Christians” as well. This is never meant to be a legalistic or superstitious observance. Rather, it is simply a cycle meant to focus our hearts on and draw us nearer to our Lord, transforming us more and more into His image. The Orthodox term is “theosis”. As Peter puts it, we are becoming “partakers of the divine nature”.

Additionally, we have a “lectionary” or cycle of readings from the Scriptures. Generally it is a Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. During certain feasts and fasts there is the addition of a Prophet and a Proverb. I like this reading cycle a lot. If you are able to get to vespers or matins during the week, you can get a pretty good idea of how the Church interprets a set of Scriptures based on when the readings are, in conjunction with the Festal and Liturgical season. Along with that daily cycle of readings is the commemoration of a Saint or several Saints. Every day one can learn about those who have successfully lived the Christian life, and find an excellent example in them. The Saints are commemorated on the day of their death. I think it’s because most of them did not have a birthday that was well known and also because their death was their entry into the presence of Christ. Since many died as martyrs, these are metaphorically spoken of as athletes who were victorious.

What a wonderful cycle we have as Ancient Christians (I say we, looking into the future) in the life of the Church. I notice for myself, that I not only grow as an individual, but I grow with my parish, and indeed the whole body of Christ on earth. Not only us “who are alive and remain”, but the whole communion of saints who repose in the presence of the Risen and Glorified Christ. I become a part of something that has been practiced, from the very first Christians who were made into the Church on the day of Pentecost. One of the best things about this cycle is it’s practicality. It is never “enforced”, only encouraged. Our piety before God is never left to the individual in a willy-nilly fashion. We, as a Church observe these things together, at a set time, in a set way. I find it a comfort to have such a tradition. I am not trying to forge ahead with no other guidance than what I perceive to be the “leading of the Holy Spirit”.

Let me quickly add that the willy-nilly fashion is a product of my Fundamentalist/Evangelical upbringing and is fairly common in non-denominational churches. Maybe the problem of willy-nilly was my own. Many times, as I stated above, personal piety varied from individual to individual when I was non-denominational. Some of the more formal style churches tend to follow the cycle of the Church Year. One such such Church I know of for sure are the Presbyterians. I believe High Church Anglicans, Reformed (Dutch, Baptist and the like) and, of course, the Roman Catholics. The Western cycle is quite different than the East, as I have learned from an Eastern Catholic friend of mine, who is under a Roman Bishop.

As I become more and more immersed in the cycle of fast/struggle and feast/joy, I find a certain rhythm to my life now. It is a difficult rhythm, to be sure. But a struggle with 2000 years of foundation I can stand on. 2000 years of tradition to look to. 2000 years of saints to follow the example of. I have an entire Church in which I live my life on the journey toward salvation.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2010 1:29 pm

    Cool. Thank you. Just out of curiosity, how did you find this post?

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