Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Christian who suffered in Hitler’s Ravensbruck for her work rescuing Jews, shared stories of her life within those death camps. I recall one of her remarks, “We did not keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept us.” Some years back I was filming a television show with the local Rabbi and a member of his congregation (who was a Holocaust survivor). In the course of the conversation, I shared Corrie Ten Boom’s remark with him. The survivor roused herself out of her silence and whispered, “It was true!”
The story is profound – both for its triumphant witness within such frightful circumstances – and for its faithfulness to the mystery of God’s work.
Fr. Dimitru Staniloae (himself a survivor of torture for the Christian faith) observes:
The Lord offers Himself to us through commandments…. From Baptism the Lord is concealed in the innermost sanctuary of our being, stimulating us to carry out the commandments, by imprinting the traits of the Lord on our spiritual face. So they gradually become clearer under the impetus of His commanding force, which works from the inside out, which is nothing else than Jesus Christ, the one dwelling deeply within us, unnoticed at the beginning in a perceptible way.
We do not keep the commandments of Christ – Christ within us keeps His commandments and as we offer ourselves in union with Him, the fulfillment of those commandments becomes the virtues in our lives – conformity to the Image of Christ, who alone is true virtue. St. Paul describes this as a mystery: “Christ within you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
The Orthodox spiritual life treats asceticism (fasting, prayers, vigils and the like) as normative for the Christian life. Viewed from without, strangers to Orthodoxy think of our spiritual rules as “legalistic.” We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout most of the year (abstaining from meat, fish, wine, dairy and olive oil). We eat nothing after midnight when we prepare to receive Holy Communion. There are four general fasting seasons (Great Lent, Advent, the Apostles’ Fast, and the Dormition Fast). During those periods we generally fast as we do on Wednesdays and Fridays. Additional prayers are assigned during parts of the year (such as the Prayer of St. Ephrem). The services of the Church become more frequent and longer during fasting seasons with prostrations (kneeling and bowing to the floor) made within the Church. The Great Fast of Lent begins with all in the congregation (and the priest) asking forgiveness of everyone within the Church. Confession becomes more frequent.
Not one of these actions earns us anything and none of them is a law whose breaking is a sin. They are simply the rules of fasting which the Church has kept since the earliest days (the Wednesday and Friday fast is described in the first-century document, The Didache).
None of these actions earns us anything because we are not saved by such works. But neither is the grace at work in us a legal concept. Grace is the very Life of God dwelling in us, changing us from one degree of glory to another. Grace is the “Lord concealed in the innermost sanctuary of our being, stimulating us to carry out the commandments…”
We do not keep the Fast. The Fast keeps us.