This summer I had the privilege of serving two Orthodox youth camps, one in Idaho, USA and the other in Alberta, Canada. The spiritual theme of both camps was the same: “What’s in Your Toolbox?” The idea was to talk to the youth about the tools the Orthodox Church provides to help them grow spiritually and morally.
On the first day of the first camp, I asked the group—there were about fifty, fifteen to seventeen year olds—if anyone worked on cars. One of the fellows in the back raised his hand, so I went back to him and loudly asked him (so everyone could hear), to please describe a wrench. What he said was very interesting. He said that a wrench is a tool that you use to take off and to tighten bolts.
I thanked him and went back to the front and asked the whole group if they noticed anything interesting about his description of a wrench. This was a pretty cooperative group, so after a few guesses and a little discussion about what he didn’t say—he didn’t say what colour it was, he didn’t describe its shape, etc—eventually someone suggested that he hadn’t actually described a wrench at all, but he had told us what a wrench does, or rather what one does with a wrench. This was what I was looking for.
When asked to describe a tool, the first thing that comes to our mind is not the actual form of the tool, but what we do with the tool: what the tool is for. Now we were ready to switch gears.
When the church provides us with tools, we may be missing the point completely if we focus mostly on describing the form of the tools, especially if we don’t even mention what the tool is supposed to do in our life. Take for example fasting. Certainly fasting is one of the tools the Church gives us. It is one of the tools specifically mentioned by Christ in the Sermon On The Mount. It is an essential tool in our spiritual and moral life. But what does fasting do?
I have given many sermons and teachings on the correct forms of fasting in the Orthodox tradition. I could speak, perhaps even eloquently, for hours on the Wednesday and Friday fasts, the four fasting seasons of the church year and the various categories of foods that are not permissible on certain days. I could go into great detail about akriveia (strictness) and oikonomia (flexibility) in applying the fasting rules, and the importance of the pastoral discretion of your spiritual father in these matters. I could go even further and speak of the spiritual meaning of fasting, about how the true fast is to fast from hatred and strife, and how fasting is always linked with alms giving and prayer. I could go on and on describing this tool the church has given us without once even mentioning what this tool of fasting is supposed to accomplish in our lives, how fasting is supposed to change us—like a wrench on a bolt.
And so this is the question I posed to the young people at camp this summer: What are the tools the Church provides us with supposed to do? What are they supposed to accomplish in our lives. By this point in our conversation, the youth were pretty well engaged in the topic and we had a lively discussion. We finally came to the conclusion that the purpose of the various tools the Church gives us is to lead us to theosis, to make us more like Christ.
You could see lights going on all over the place. It seemed for many of these youth, it had never occurred to them that the various disciplines of the Church existed to do something and that fasting and church services and sacraments could be viewed not merely from the perspective of the church’s teaching about the right way to do them, but could be viewed from the perspective of what these various activities and disciplines are supposed to accomplish in our lives. And so, for the next three days we discussed how to approach the tools that the Church gives us so that they actually accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish in our lives.
Because we had three days left, I decided to group all of the various practices that the Church teaches us to do into three categories: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. Then using Jesus’s teaching in the Sermon On The Mount as our interpretive key, we would go forward and discuss what sorts of practices fall into each category and what advice Jesus gives us so that these tools actually accomplish in our lives what they are supposed to accomplish. Here is roughly and briefly what we came up with.
Regarding almsgiving, we came to realize that the term itself is misleading. Giving money is certainly a form of almsgiving and an important discipline of the Church—St. John Chrysostom, among others, points out that every Christian should give away at least ten percent of his or her income to the poor (this was at a time when the Church was supported by the state, as it is still in some countries; however, in much of the world this would include giving to the Church, for the clergy have no other support than the offerings of the people). However, the Greek word we translate almsgiving, actually has nothing to do with money. In one place almsgiving is the translation given to a word that could literally be translated ‘acts of service.’ But in all other places, the word almsgiving is the translation of a word that literally means ‘acts of mercy.’ Almsgiving is not so much about money as it is about mercy; it’s about showing mercy.
Once we understand that almsgiving is about showing mercy, then we can see that there are thousands of ways we can practice ‘almsgiving’ even if we don’t have a dime to give away. Acts of mercy can be performed anywhere and at any time you perceive a need you can meet, a sorrow you can alleviate, or a pain you can help heal. It can be as simple as noticing who is lonely in a group and sitting with them. An act of mercy can be simply seeing a need, something that should be done and doing it. One of the important aspects of mercy is that it is something that one does not have to do. Forced mercy, is not mercy. If you have to wash the dishes, then washing the dishes is not an act of mercy, although washing the dishes without complaining may indeed be an act of mercy. However, if you don’t have to wash the dishes, if it’s not your job, and you nonetheless wash the dishes—without complaint and without drawing attention to yourself—that then is indeed an act of mercy.
Acts of mercy help deify us, help make us like Christ, because God is the most merciful One. When we show mercy, we are being like God and in some small way actually becoming like God. However, Jesus instructs us that mercy must be shown in such a way that “the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.” For almsgiving to work, for acts of mercy to actually accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish in our lives, acts of mercy must be done as secretly as possible.
For the tool of almsgiving to do what its supposed to do in our lives, we must strive to be quietly merciful, merciful in a way that does not draw attention to ourselves. Showing mercy is a spiritual exercise. The only ones who need to know that we are indeed showing mercy is God and ourselves. It’s best if no one else knows why you’re doing what you do. Of course, others will notice that the dishes are washed (to continue with that example), and they may even ask if you washed them. They may even thank you. There is no need to lie or make a fuss or say anything that will draw attention to yourself—a simple ‘you’re welcome’ will do. But only God will see that you pushed yourself, that you even forced yourself to do something you didn’t have to do, that you did what you did just to be kind, just to be merciful. And it is what God sees that transforms us.
Prayer is another category of tools that the Church offers us. Prayer is often the first tool that comes to mind when we think about the spiritual tools the Church gives us. In fact, in almost all lists of the these three categories of tools—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—the order is exactly this: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. However, when Jesus speaks of these three areas of spiritual endeavour, he lists them differently: first almsgiving, then prayer and finally fasting. It seems significant to me—as it did also to the Orthodox youth I spoke with—that when Jesus speaks of three categories of tools the Church gives us for spiritual growth, he speaks first of almsgiving, or showing mercy, then prayer, and then fasting. It’s almost as if one predicates the other. That is, a merciful heart is a kind of prerequisite for effective prayer, just as prayer with its contingent forgiveness of others is a prerequisite for effective fasting.
And just as with almsgiving, Jesus gives us a metaphor to help us understand how one must pray in order for prayer to be effective. When we pray, we must go into our room and shut the door. When Jesus spoke of almsgiving, he used the metaphor of not letting the left hand know what the right hand is doing. Jesus is not actually talking about physical hands, but rather about doing acts of mercy in such a way that they are not advertised, in a way that does not draw attention to yourself. However, in the case of going into our room and shutting the door to pray, the literal interpretation is so compelling, that we often fail to realize that this too is a metaphor. Private prayer is certainly an important tool that the church teaches us to use; however, most Orthodox commentators tell us that this is not what Jesus is referring to here.
What Jesus is referring to is entering into the ‘inner room’ of our heart when we pray. That is, whether we are praying at home or in Church, in private or in public, we pray to our Father in the secret place when we pray in our heart. This is the hidden place, the inner room with the door closed. When I pray in my heart no one knows except God and me. And it doesn’t matter where I am when I pray. I can certainly close myself into a physical room and say the words of a prayer, but that is only the beginning. It is only as my heart joins in with that prayer, when the words of my mouth somehow carry the thoughts, feelings and cares of my heart, that I have come to pray in the way Jesus instructs us to pray. Otherwise, we run the risk of praying with only vain repetition.
Please note that Jesus does not condemn repetition per se, but vain, or empty, repetition. The problem isn’t that we say ‘thank you’ too many times. The problem is that we say ‘thank you’ with our lips but not in our hearts.
And once we begin to pray from our hearts, we begin to change. And the change that Jesus specifically mentions has to do with forgiveness. That is, prayer from the heart reveals to us those whom we need to forgive. They are right there in our hearts waiting for us to forgive them. We find that so long as we are conscious of people in our heart whom we need to forgive, we can’t really pray at all, we can’t bring our offering to God.
Now forgiveness is a process (I have written on this elsewhere), and we need not be distressed that it is much more difficult that we thought it would be. Sometimes it takes years, decades or even a whole lifetime to forgive completely. Nonetheless, forgiveness is a process we must engage, or begin to engage, in our hearts if we are going to pray in a way that transforms us, that makes us more like Christ. For just as showing mercy makes us like God, so also prayer with forgiveness makes us like God, for God is not only merciful but also forgiving. When we forgive, when we even try to forgive, we are being transfigured by the grace of God into the image of Christ.
Finally we come to fasting. After acts of mercy, after prayer from the heart with forgiveness, now we come to fasting. Fasting is another category of tools that the Church gives us to make us more like Christ, to deify us. But as with the others, fasting, to be effective, must be done in secret. But what does that mean? How can I fast in secret when everyone in my family is also fasting, when the rules of the fast are well known and strictly applied?
Just as Jesus provided metaphors to help us understand how to give alms in secret and pray in the secret place, Jesus also provides us with a metaphor to help us understand how to fast secretly. The metaphor Jesus gives us is to anoint our head and wash our face. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how the Church fathers have generally interpreted this metaphor, so fool that I am, I will share with you what I think it may mean, which is what I shared with the youth at camp.
I find it interesting that we live in an age of such abundance, that it has become very popular to fast in extreme ways—only we don’t call it fasting, we call it dieting. We do it in the name of health or beauty or even politics (save the chickens!). We even fast just because our friends are. Fasting is so popular that every city in North America has at least a few restaurants that cater to a vegetarian or even vegan clientele, and almost every restaurant in North America has vegetarian and vegan options on their menu. And here is the amazing thing, it’s not a big deal. Oh sure there is often more than a bit of self righteousness that comes with the package, but you don’t hear your vegan friends complaining endlessly about what they can’t eat or fainting with exhaustion because they only had a bean burrito and an apple for lunch or hear them pining for the end of the fast so that they can have a donut and a steak. No, fasting (or dieting or whatever you want to call it) is something they have chosen because they think it is better than not fasting. They have had a change of mind.
Here, I would like to suggest, may be what anointing our head refers to. To fast the way Jesus recommends, we should probably just change our minds and accept that controlling our diet is good for us, that it is better than not fasting. And washing our face, seems to me, to refer to how we respond to those around us. This is particularly true when our fast includes limiting both the types of food we eat and the amount. Cutting back on the amount of food I normally eat can make me quite grumpy. Even on a regular diet I am grumpy, so when I fast I must be extra careful to ‘wash my face’ and thus speak kindly and act gently towards the people and animals around me. Fasting from food and yelling at the geese do not go together.
And here is an area where the Church fathers do have a great deal to say. That is, fasting is not merely about food. It is about all of the ways we say no to ourself in order to say yes to God. It is about fasting from strife, from anger, from inner rancour. Fasting is about controlling myself, beginning with food, but extending to all aspects of my being. We can fast by dressing more modestly—it’s something only we and God will know. We can fast by not buying something we want but don’t need—again, only God and I will know. And particularly, we can fast in ways that show mercy to others, limiting our pleasure, our will, our priorities, so that someone else can be blessed. And isn’t this what Christ did for us, laying aside his human will, his pleasure, even his needs so that he could bring life and salvation to us? When we fast, particularly when we fast in such a way that it benefits other, we are becoming like Christ.
And this brings us back around to almsgiving. Really, all three of these categories of spiritual tools are connected; they flow into one another. And all three have one goal, have one purpose, have one thing that they are supposed to do in our life. All the tools that the Church gives us exist to make us more like Christ.