Every year during the Great Fast, we are reminded again and again about the need for purification, to simplify our lives and for rid ourselves of all that would separate us from the love of God. We are called to live out the dying to our self-made image so that we can become alive in Christ. It is not that this is the only time in which we are called to do this (we are called to do so throughout our whole life), but it is the time in the year in which this aspect of the Christian life is highlighted. It is during Great Lent, one could say, we are called to fully appreciate our position in the world and to look up for the grace of God to lift us up from the mire which we have fallen.
Our sins have put us into the desert of the real. We must journey through this wasteland for our entire lives, striving for, hoping for, the promised land. The Forty Days of the Great Fast call this to mind by having us remember the forty years the Israelites wandered around in the desert with Moses. We have been given a new lawgiver — Jesus the Messiah, and he has given us the new and higher law, the law of love. And in his Sermon on the Mount, we have been given the finest representation of this law. If you combine the two greatest commandments with the Beatitudes, we have what could be seen as the Christian Decalogue.
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37 -40 RSV).
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:2-12 RSV).
If we are perceptive and examine what it is being said, we see that we are given a positive law, one which shows us the rewards for doing right, instead of the negative law of “thou shalt not” in the Torah. We are shown how to live — not by making demands, but by exhortation. We are shown where true beatitude, true happiness lies. Like the Law of Moses, this law helps us follow God. But this new law, the law of Christ, now shows us the way to eternal life.
There is something so simple about what he says. It would appear that following this new law of love should be easy. It is perfectly natural, it is perfectly reasonable. “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30 RSV).We are to live through the dictates of love, giving to God ourselves and receiving his love in return. Then we are to show to our neighbor (the whole of creation) the love which God has shown us as the most perfect way of showing our thanksgiving for God’s boundless grace.
However, because we have fallen into sin, what is natural is now difficult for us. We know what is good, but we desire, through the passions, something less than the good meant for us. We are conflicted. We are weakened through concupiscence. We must overcome the habits of sin and the passions which lead us to those sins. Indeed, we might even want to do good, but find ourselves so addicted to sin, we find ourselves doing that which we would rather not to do. The more we sin, the more it contaminates us, imprisons us into its hostile law, so that in the end we are slaves to it, and can repeat after St Paul, “Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me” (Rom. 7:20 RSV).
Christians are called to be meek and merciful. But deep down in us are great temptations — pride, sloth, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, despair, and anger — and they seek to destroy us from within. When we give in to them, we forsake the path of love; if we divert ourselves so much that we lose sight of Christ, we chance getting lost in the desert of sin and perishing without salvation. We must turn back and return to the narrow road of love; Christ will send people out to look for us, and he will look for us himself; he will lead us back, if we are willing, but we must turn back before it is too late.
But we are living in a society which has turned its back on Christ. We have cut ourselves off from each other, and become more and more isolated as we rush on to our doom. We suffer. We feel grieved. We are in a spiritual crisis and we do not know what to do. So we turn to those dark passions, and see what they offer. When we fall into their embrace, they give us a momentary sense of relief, but then we find ourselves even more isolated, even more hurt. Like an addict we return to them again and again, until, at last, we find ourselves angry all the time. We strike out against everyone — on the highway with our road rage, on the internet with intemperate battles against those who we have turned into an enemy to be destroyed.
Harken, Christian! Halt! Stop going on this path toward perdition. “Angry men become strangers first to themselves, then to all their friends as well.” Who is our enemy? Is it the one who has angered us? No. “Why hate the man who has grieved you? It is not he who has done the wrong, but the devil. Hate sickness but not the sick person.” We must strive to have a pure heart, to love others, whether or not they love us. “Amma Sarah said, ‘If I prayed God that all men should approve of my conduct, I should find myself a penitent at the door of each one, but I shall rather pray that my heart may be pure towards all.'”
Rooted as the vice of anger is in us, this is difficult. By ourselves, it is impossible. We are too weak. But through hard work supported by grace, we can overcome the passions and embrace the love which we are meant to have. “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-28). What makes them act ill are those same temptations which lie in us; they have given in to them; lest pride comes before a fall, we must understand that it could be us doing such evil. “If you do not want to suffer evil, do not inflict it, since the suffering of it inevitably follows its infliction.’For whatever a man sows he will also reap’ (Gal. 6:7). Reaping unwillingly the wickedness we deliberately sow, we should marvel at God’s justice.” Christ’s words show us the way around this great chasm of sin. We are to love the one who has hurt us. St John Climacus explains why: “If you want to overcome the spirit of slander, blame not the person who falls but the prompting demon. No one wants to sin against God, even though all of us sin without being compelled to it.”
When we respond to some sin against us, we must remember not to fall into that sin ourselves. If we believe it is wrong, St Basil is right in asking us why we would dare imitate it:
You are angered by reviling because you consider such an action wicked, yet you, in turn, imitate it as if it were something good. You are entertaining that which you consider reprehensible. Or do you scrupulously analyze the wrongdoing of another and regard your own shameful action as of no consequence? Contumely is an evil, is it not? Do not imitate it, them. The fact that another provoked you does not constitute an excuse.
As if St Basil knew of the consequential arguments which would be used to favor all kinds of evil, he warns us not to return evil with evil, because, if in such a contest of evils, we come out on top, all that we would have earned as our prize is greater guilt:
Do not, therefore, endeavor to cure one evil with another and do not try to outdo one another in inflicting harm. The victor in unrighteous combat is the more unhappy, for he bears away the greater share of guilt. Do not, then, return evil for evil and do not increase your debt of wickedness by paying it.
Obviously, as we remain contaminated by sin, and we continue to stumble on the path toward salvation, we must not despair. Though we must struggle against sin, when we sin all is not lost. As long as we keep pressing onward, and take Christ’s hand as he helps us up from the mire in which we have fallen, we can still be saved. As long as we reach out in love, love will be the anchor, for God is love. St. Herman of Alaska expressed this beautifully in one of his letters:
A true Christian is made by faith and love toward Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity, according to the word of the Saviour Himself. He deigned to say: not the righteous have I come to call, but sinners to salvation; there is more joy in heaven over one who repents than over ninety righteous ones. Likewise concerning the sinful woman who touched His feet, He deigned to say to the Pharisee Simon: to one who has love, a great debt is forgiven, but from one who has no love, even a small debt will be demanded.
This is why the two great commandments, love for God and love for our neighbor, must always be before us. It is in that love that sins can be forgiven. It is through that love we can become strong and overcome sin. We must strive for the love of everyone. St Maximus remind us that the path to this love is simplicity, of removing the desire to possess and dominate the things of the earth. “Strive as hard as you can to love every man. If you cannot yet do this, at least do not hate anybody. But even this is beyond your power unless you scorn worldly things.” As long as we hold on to them, they can get in the path of love. No wonder we are called to simplify our lives and to go away from the luxuries of the world during the time of the Great Fast. For then, if we put them away from us we can truly find the path of love in the desert of the real; we can follow it unhindered and come out, in the end, at the Paradise of the Real.
 St Basil, Ascetical Works. Trans. Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 448 [Against Anger].
 Syncletica in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 233.
 ibid., 230.
 St Hesychois the Priest, “On Watchfulness and Holiness,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 172.
 St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 156.
 St. Basil, Acetical Works, 453.
 ibid., 450.
 St. Herman of Alaska in The Little Russian Philokalia III: St Herman of Alaska (Platina, CA: The Saint Herman of Alaska Monastery Press, 1988), 168-9 [Letter To S. A. Yanovsky, June 20, 1820].
 St Maximus the Confessor, “Fourth Century on Love” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. Trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 111.