When it came to the Forgiveness Sunday, just before the first day of the Great Fast, last week ( I am still having trouble believing that the first week of Lent is already behind us…) I was struggling with what sort of fasting I would do this year. As I am going through Chemotherapy, and each day seems to present it’s own unique struggle I was really tempted to say to myself that I should get a free pass this year. However, knowing as a general principle that I always get out of something to the measure that I put into things, that did not seem like a good idea. I want to celebrate the Great Day of the Resurrection having worked to get closer to Christ, freely sharing in His suffering so that I may also share in his glory…(Rom. 8:17). The question remained as to how?
It really did not take much thought however as I reflected on the prayer of St. Ephraim. Fasting from “discouragement” or in some translations “despair”, would be a challenging fast for me over the weeks to come as I often find myself yielding to thoughts of giving up. “I can’t do this so I might as well just quit…” and going further “why should I bother no one cares anyways…” and on and on wading ever so slowly into a sea of discouragement and despair. Illness has a way of helping us see with clarity our limitations and dependance. This happens in very physical, and tangible ways–and like Christ carrying the cross we can find ourselves exposed, humiliated and face down in the dirt with no ability to get up without the assistance of others. In just one week I have realized how much I struggle with this issue and have realized how often I try to do things on my own strength. When you are the “Energizer Bunny” that can work to some degree–but in the long term it is always unsustainable. Eventually all of us get burned out trying to do things on our own–even if it is doing good things, things we ‘think’ God wants us to do.
A dear friend who suffered through a very difficult, life threatening illness told me that she sometimes wished to be sick again, not to be sick of course but because of the closeness to God that she experienced during that time. When she told me that all I could think of was how often I have longed to see this phase of my life in the “rear view mirror”. And yet when I think of it there is clarity that comes with suffering. It clears away distractions that the “energizer bunny” simply cannot get rid of–think of those clanging cymbals…
I would like to end with some thoughts on suffering that have helped me, I hope they also help you. These are the words of Elder Thaddeus of Vitonvinca, from a book entitled Our Thoughts Determine our Lives, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina CA: 2014, 186-7:
Often many misfortunes ball us, all because we have not humbled ourselves yet. When the soul is humble and bows down before the will of God, our suffering and misfortunes will cease. For then misfortunes and suffering somehow become dear to us. We will come to have a completely different understanding of life. We do not reason anymore according to the laws of this world. We see everything in a different light. Everything we look upon seems somehow brighter, full of love. Everything is good because it is pleasing to God. We are His creatures all that is created belongs to Him. He created all things for Himself, that we might be partakers of His Divine love and Divine peace and joy.
Am I there yet? No. Am I wrestling with discouragement and despair. Yes. Do I hope for the perspective articulated by my friend and Elder Thaddeus? Yes and I believe that is possible precisely because of the sufferings of Christ, who love us and desires only our good. Elder Thaddeus goes on:
You see, when a soul is humbled, when it submits to the will of God, the spirits of evil no longer have power over it for it is protected by the Grace of the Holy Spirit and hidden by the Divine Flame.
May we all experience humility and grace this as we continue the Great Fast,without giving up, by giving up, giving up and praying the prayer of St. Ephraim with faith.