A Lenten Possibility

American culture throws up peculiar challenges to thoughtful and serious members of any traditional religious faith.

There’s the thoroughgoing confusion we have made between capitalism and democracy, which makes taboo any public questioning of the merits of our economic system, even during these times of financial crisis. (Which is more in keeping with the Gospel, the Wall Street credo “Greed is good!” or the idealistic if discredited “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?)

There’s the relentless opposition to serious reform of our health care system, even though some 50 million of us remain uninsured and others have to choose between paying for life-sustaining medications and paying for food. Nevertheless, the generosity of our citizens to victims of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince is without parallel—evidence of an instinctive altruism that, as public policy, goes back at least to the Marshall Plan.

Then there’s the gun sub-culture that puts firearms in the hands of children and adolescents; the abortion agenda that leads millions of women each year to terminate a pregnancy (that is, to kill a child in the womb), while the father usually remains cloaked in impunity; and the quickening slide toward euthanasia, not so much on compassionate grounds, as in the past, but because of “limited resources.” All this in a country that perhaps more than any other keeps its moral head above water by countless selfless acts of courage, generosity and kindness on the part of average citizens (as long as they are not afraid of being hit with a lawsuit by the recipient of their charity, as has happened, for example, to medical professionals who stopped to help an accident victim).

A great deal of this seems due to a dualistic perspective, here and increasingly in other Western countries, that allows beneficence and malfeasance, generosity and greed, personal autonomy and distain for the common good, to nestle side by side in the same mindset. This poses a distinct problem within the Church. Think of the caricature (all too real) of the pious CEO who religiously attends Sunday morning worship, then on Monday fires a quarter of his workforce, all in the name of “downsizing,” i.e., profit for those in power.

The problem, though, is not just economic. Similar inconsistencies exist where God-fearing and genuinely committed members of the faithful beat their children, commit petty theft at work, cheat on their taxes, and denigrate their neighbors. In the Lenten season especially, it reminds one of the biting remark, variously attributed to St Basil and St John Chrysostom, “You fast from meat yet devour your brother!”

Certainly much of this can be attributed to plain sinfulness, the “fallen” state that characterizes the existence of anyone and everyone. But a good deal of it seems to reflect cultural influences that lead us, usually quite unconsciously, into an existential gap or discrepancy between what we profess and how we behave, between the piety we exercise on Sunday and the wanton self-centeredness that conditions the way we relate to others during the rest of the week. The apostle Paul describes the problem magnificently in Romans 7.

Whether it’s the cultural ambiance or my own perversity, I find myself caught up in this same state. A beautiful Liturgy, including communion in the Body and Blood of Christ, can issue in a multitude of sins, just because I can’t deal very well with the demands of spiritual warfare. That’s what the Lenten season is all about: to help people like me re-establish a little equilibrium and sanity in their life. Many years of experience, though, have made clear how easy it is for me to fall back into the cultural dualism behind the behaviors noted above. Do Great Lent and Pascha really change anything in me, in my attitudes and actions toward others?

The challenge with all of this, for me and for many others, is to close the gap between what we profess and how we act. How do we allow the commitment we genuinely feel, during worship or in certain crises, to inform and shape our entire life? How do we emulate the New England shoe manufacturer who kept his workers on the job and paid during a time of severe economic hardship following a disaster? How do we devote time and energy to assuring the welfare of others as well as of ourselves, to caring for others as well as being cared for, whether those others are employees, family members or strangers?

This is one of the most important pastoral questions we face today, both in our Church and in society at large. One answer, that seems especially pertinent at this time of the year, is very simply to encourage inner stillness and prayer. This is a typical “Orthodox response,” certainly. There’s a temptation among us to respond to every crisis, every hard decision, with the glib counsel, “Just pray about it…” Yet that is precisely what we are called to do, in virtually every situation: from the Sunday Divine Liturgy through our interpersonal relationships throughout the rest of the week.

“Pray about it.” The Church offers us boundless riches in this regard, from elaborate liturgical rituals to the Jesus Prayer. When prayer doesn’t come, when we find ourselves crossing an arid wasteland, “out in the world” or in the secret of our mind and heart, it is enough to stand before an icon—to stand before God—in silence.

An old friend of ours worked for years as personnel director in a large Swiss sewing machine factory. His days were spent facing discontented workers, with their constant demands and often hostile attitudes. The chair sat in by those people who came to complain was set in front of his desk in such a way that he could look just past them, to fix his eyes on the back wall. There he had placed a crucifix. It was out of the sight of his visitors. He could see it, though, and as a result he could hold them and the entire conversation in the presence and power of the Cross. It made an impossible job more than tolerable, he said, and taught him to place everyone, including himself, in the radiant light of the crucified and risen Lord.

We can do the same. During this Lenten pilgrimage especially, we can “close the gap” between what we believe and how we behave, by adopting an attitude of continual prayer. Like our friend in the sewing machine factory, we can grow in service, in charity and in compassion, by calmly, patiently, yet persistently placing ourselves and each other in the presence of the One who is “everywhere present and fills all things.”