Brethren and fathers, the season of Lent, when compared to the whole year, may be likened to a storm-free harbour, in which all who are sailing together enjoy a spiritual calm. For the present season is one of salvation not for monks and nuns only, but also for lay people, for great and small, for rulers and ruled, for emperors and priests, for every race and for every age. For cities and villages reduce their hubbub and bustle, while psalmody and hymns, prayers and entreaties take their place, by which our good God is propitiated and so guides our spirits to peace and pardons our offenses, if, with a sincere heart, we will only fall down before him with fear and trembling and weep before him, promising improvement for the future. But let the leaders of the churches speak of what is suitable to lay people, for just as those who run in the stadium need the vocal support of their fellow contestants, so fasters need the encouragement of their teachers.
But I, since I have been placed at your head, honoured brethren, will also talk to you briefly. Fasting then is a renewal of the soul, for the holy Apostle says, Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward is being renewed day by day. And if it is being renewed, clearly it is being made beautiful according to its original beauty; made beautiful in itself it is being drawn lovingly to the one who said, I and the Father will come and make our dwelling with him. If then such is the grace of fasting, that it makes us into a dwelling place of God, we must welcome it, brethren, gladly, not grieving at the plainness of the diet, for we know that the Lord, though he is able to nourish lavishly, made a banquet for thousands in the wilderness from bread and water. Also because what is unusual, with enthusiasm becomes acceptable and painless.
Fasting is not defined by foods alone, but by every abstinence from evil, as our godly fathers have explained. And so, I beg you, let us abstain from despondency, idleness, sluggishness, jealousy, strife, maliciousness, self-indulgence, self-reliance; let us abstain from destructive desire which the many-shaped serpent lays before us when we are fasting. Let us listen to the one who says, ‘The fruit which slew me was beautiful to behold and fair to eat’. And observe: he says beautiful to behold, not beautiful by nature. For just as if someone taking a pomegranate decked out with a scarlet rind should find it rotten, in the same way pleasure feigns untold sweetness, but when it is plucked it is found more bitter than gall, or rather, than a sharpened two-edged sword which devours the soul it has captured.
This is what our forefather Adam suffered when he was tricked by the serpent; for when he touched the forbidden food, he found death instead of life. This too is what all they have suffered who from then until now have been similarly deceived by the dragon. For just as he, who is darkness, transforms himself into an angel of light, so he knows how to transform bad into good, bitter into sweet, dark into light, ugly into beautiful, deadly into life-giving; and so the all-evil one does not cease to lead the world astray at every opportunity. But let us at least, brethren, not be led astray by his manifold deceptions, nor suffer the fate of the birds who greedily approach what seems to be food and fall into the hunter’s trap.
Let us rather look on the outer coverings of evil as dung and when with the mind we have looked on evil in its nakedness we shall flee from it at once. In addition let us welcome the times of psalmody, be enthusiastic for hymnody, attentive to the readings, making prostrations according to the given measure at each hour; working with our own hands, because working is good and because one who does not work is not judged worthy of eating.
Let us bear one another’s burdens, for one is weak and another strong, making use of food and drink and the other necessities with moderation, so that there is no provoking to jealousy among evil people, but zeal in goodness. In everything be good to one another, compassionate, reasonable, obedient, full of mercy and good fruits, and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and thoughts. And now, may you be found worthy without condemnation to reach the supreme day of the Resurrection, but in the age to come at the resurrection of the dead to gain the kingdom of heaven in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be the glory and the might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
On decorating our incorruptible house through the assumption of the virtues.
Brethren and fathers, people in the world when they erect a luxurious house give themselves no rest at night and at the end of the day they toil and plan, labouring until they have achieved their object; and such is the longing that fills them that their mind is wholly occupied in this and in considering how the roof may be well-covered, how the floor, adorned with many different marbles with every other form of elegance, will offer lovers of fine sights the most pleasing appearance. But if someone were to wish to tear them away from that care, they would be most distressed, as though they were being seriously wronged. But we, when we are building not a corruptible house but an incorruptible, not one made out of stones and wood but one skilfully constructed from spiritual graces, how can we be idle and come far below these others in zeal? How should this not be the greatest of wrongs?
That other house harbors people who love the flesh and when it has passed through many masters it will be pulled down and deserted. The other knows that it welcomes the Holy Spirit, since we are a temple of the living God and the Spirit of God dwells in us, as the divine Apostle says. Moreover with those who depart from things here it leaves too and abides in heaven intact and eternal. What is the material of this building? The assumption of the virtues. Take first, if you will, as a foundation stone, the fear of God, since the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Next understanding, courage, sobriety, justice; and so with one attached firmly to the other and fitted together with the bond of love it will grow into a holy temple of the Lord, as it is written. Let us be building this temple, brethren, at every moment, and let us not fail to adorn it with the beauty of the virtues, so that we may have the Holy Spirit for its inhabitant, so that by the pleasantness of our life we may turn the attention of angels and men to ourselves. But since one of the virtues is self-mastery, and we are more closely concerned about this one, let us give glory to God that we have arrived at the one stadium for it.
Your faces have been changed from what they were before, but they shine with a fair change: the pallor that comes from self-mastery; your mouths have become embittered, filled with the bile of eating late, [The only reference in the lexica for this word is the Greek Ephraim, where Lampe translates ‘eating slowly’, but the meaning here is surely ‘eating late’, that is after Vespers in the late afternoon, when the only meal is eaten on fast days] but your spirits have been sweetened, flying on wings of hope. And these things are opposed to one another, and by mastering the one the other has become weak; so that we may rejoice for we are sided with the stronger. Perhaps some one will say that to eat every day is a failure of perfection. Not at all! Otherwise our Lord would not have ordered us to ask each day for our daily bread; the prophet Elias would not have been nourished each day in the desert by a raven; Paul, who dwelt in the desert before the godly Antony, would have received bread from God every day; Anthony the Great preferred as almost necessary eating daily to a fast of above a day or for a week.
And this is how it seems to me; for since our body is physically exhausted through its toil for the whole day, like a racing colt, and needs its rest, so necessarily the creator of our nature has arranged for it to be strengthened by its daily nourishment so that it might run well for the future, but not be exhausted and fading, which what they suffer who drag out their fast over two, three and five days. Nor would they be able to prostrate more frequently, not to join more lustily in psalmody, nor to accomplish their other services easily, unless something truly extraordinary happens. And so daily nourishment is not simply for the imperfect, but very much for the perfect by the traditional definition and canon. And thank goodness these things have been laid down by the fathers. And may you be granted again and again both health of body and strength of spirit to serve the living and true God and to await the last day, in which may you shine out like the sun as heirs of the kingdom of heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and to the ages of ages. Amen.
On not being stretched beyond our power in our works of zeal for God and about nourishing the soul with spiritual speculations.
Brethren and fathers, since every beginning is difficult, the first fruits of the fast corresponding to the change of diet and of works of zeal produce a certain difficulty and roughness; but with persistence and practice it is soothed and softened; this is why it is written, No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but grievous; nevertheless, afterwards it yields the peaceable fruit of justice to those who have been trained by it. And so let us too, who have been allowed to traverse the first week of the fast, become more enthusiastic for the future through experience, knowing that enthusiasm strengthens both soul and body, making what is heavy light and what is difficult easy. The opposite is true: idleness makes what is light heavy and what is easy difficult.
However let us not strive beyond our power in our works of zeal, but with our spiritual father keep a watch over our bodily health also. For what use is there in walking too hard from the start and falling down more quickly, rather than attentively keeping in view the extent of the dwelling. But since the day with exertion is accustomed to produce despondency, let us sustain the soul with good pursuits and spiritual thoughts, not with those of a worldly sort, in which are emptiness, confusion, wretchedness and bitterness, but in ones in which are sweetness and joy. I remembered God, it says, and I was glad.
Our mind then should be on God, on heavenly sights, on the beauties of Paradise, on the everlasting dwellings, on the regime there, where the souls of the just and of sinners are now, on how the appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ will be, in which, according to the sacred saying, the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up; then how each soul is going to take again its yoke-fellow the body, what a gathering that will be of every human from Adam to the final consummation, how great and fearful and more dazzling than the rays of the sun will be the face of Christ, what his voice that we shall hear, and last, what will be the final state of the just who are admitted into the kingdom of heaven and of the sinners who are sent away to eternal punishments.
These, brethren, are the things that we should be caring about and thinking about, with which we should be occupied, since we live out of the world, and since we have our home in heaven and our lives have nothing in common with those who live according to the world; with these it is possible to be moved to compunction, to weep and to be enlightened, both to lead a life of peace here and to have hope of attaining the eternal good things to come, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and might, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always and to the ages of ages. Amen.