How to Keep Dormition Fast?
Shepherd August 2011
HOW SHOULD We keep this Dormition fast?
By the Blessed & Ever-Memorable Archbishop Averky of Jordanville
THE FOLLOWING HOMILY is something of a period piece, written as it was over fifty years ago. However, although a few references may strike readers as dated, there is much of spiritual worth in the Archbishop’s words. Indeed, the state of the Orthodox diaspora and the mentality of its peoples has not greatly altered since Arch- bishop wrote this work. If that mentality has altered, and if the world has changed, it is sadly in both cases much to the worse. The Archbishop’s words are more pertinent now than when he penned them. Our readers will notice, and some might be offended by, his constant references to the Russian peoples, but one must bear several things in mind. First and most basically, he was a Bishop of the Russian Church addressing his flock of Russian people, mostly emigrés, which at that point probably comprised very few non-Russians. He is addressing them in terms to which they would respond. And take particular notice how carefully he phrases his expression. He never speaks of “Russian Orthodox people,” but always of “Orthodox Russian people.” There has been a tendency, one unfortunately greatly augmented in recent years with the euphoria in some quarters over the “re-united” (actually more-than-ever disunited) Russian Church, to represent Russian Orthodoxy as something essentially distinct from, and, grotesquely, even superior to, the Orthodoxy of other peoples. Few are the hierarchs and Church leaders in the Russian Church today who would have the sensitivity of Archbishop Averky to address the Orthodox Russian people, rather than the Russian Orthodox people. And, although his words are addressed to each of us as individuals, yet we can only bemoan the fact that his teaching was not heeded by the “uniting parts of the Russian Church” in 2007, which now so heartily congratulate themselves on their “well-being,” but have glossed over the need for real repentance.
TODAY, 1st August, according to our Orthodox calendar, we set out upon the Dormition Fast. For us it serves as a spiritual preparation for the Great Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, imitating her own fast, by which she prepared herself for her departure from this earthly life, and it lasts for two whole weeks.
Last year, 1959 [this sermon was first given on 1st/14th August, 1960 - ed.], the Assembly of Hierarchs declared this present year, 1960, a year of repentance. In connection with this, we have for a long time been considering reminding all the Orthodox Russian people of the Appeal of the Pastoral Conference, which was convened this year at the Holy Trinity Monastery:
“The Fast of the Dormition of the Theotokos stands before us,
by which customarily we prepare for the Great Feast of the Dormition
of the Most Holy Theotokos. Do we all always observe this fast in all its
strictness, do we all prepare and commune of the holy Mysteries of Christ
during this fast? The Mother of God weeps for us, having a presentiment
of the dread punishment of God, which we bring upon ourselves by our
own lack of concern, our own lack of repentance, our own stoney lack
of feeling. In this year of repentance, let us now observe this fast before
the Dormition as one of general preparation of all the people, so that we
might worthily approach the Communion of the holy Mysteries of Christ
on the feast of the Dormition. It is to this that our Pastoral Conference
now calls the Orthodox Russian people” (See Pravoslavnaya Rus’ - No 12, 15th / 28th June, 1960).
But what of us? Are we addressing everyone in this appeal or not? Are we entering upon this fast as our Holy Church teaches us, with increased prayers, with all-round abstinence from the passions both of soul and of the body, with the labours of true repentance? Will we prepare as is proper and as is appointed, and will we apply ourselves with feelings of heartfelt contrition, with a firm intention to correct our life, for the great Mysteries (sacraments) of Confession and Holy Communion?
Before all else, let us take a clear account of ourselves with that certain truthfulness, such as pertains to all healthy minded people; then following this, let us resolve to change our life from the very root for the better, upon which depends the whole course of our future, both here in this earthly life, and, what is more important, there in that life eternal which we all await.
It is true that, glory be to God, many of us, Orthodox Russian people abroad, make such preparation. They do so every year in Great Lent, and some do so in the other fasts, among which the Dormition Fast is numbered. But is this preparation, as it is sometimes done simply by received custom, by tradition, as something inherited from pious forebears, always a real preparation? - that is, is it really repentance, which is what is required of us, what God awaits from us?
Can one really call it “preparation” to receive the dread Mysteries of Christ, when one comes late at the very start of the Divine Liturgy, expecting confession during the time of the Liturgy itself, and thus requiring the priestly ministers either to break off from serving or (if it is a concelebration) not to take part? Can one really call it “preparation” when it is done in a purely mechanical way without any deep self examination, without the self-examination which is required by the Apostle’s injunction (1 Cor. 11:28)?
How many come to confession nowadays without sufficient examination of their interior world, and even, as they themselves often openly inform the confessor, without knowing what they have to repent of. “I am sinful, like everyone else,” or “I am sinful, having the usual human sins,” they will customarily say, without the necessary understanding of the whole depth and weight of their sins, and, it follows, without the intention to leave off from, or change, their sinful life. And when they hear the prayer of absolution, they assume that all that is required has been done, and that with a conscience at peace they may approach the Holy Chalice, and then equally at peace, without any interior conflict within themselves, they continue with the sinful life to which they had formerly become habituated.
All this is not that true repentance, which the Kindhearted Lord, the God of those who repent, awaits, desiring that the sinner turn away from his path of transgression.
True repentance presupposes before all else a painstaking self-examination; an attentive scrutiny of one’s conscience, of one’s interior world, by means of setting against it the law of God; an assessment of one’s sinfulness, without those tiny quotas of some sort of self-justification; it presupposes brokenness of heart on account of one’s sins and a decisive rejection of them, united with a rm intention to make amends for one’s sins by the good deeds which are contrary to them, and not to repeat those sins any more.
“Repentance is a contract with God for the correction of life,”
says that great instructor of the spiritual life, the Venerable John of the
Ladder (Step 5). So, where there is no intention to correct one’s life for
the better in a fundamental way, there is no true repentance. The Greek
word itself, metania, which has been handed down to us without the
slightest shadow of change of meaning, and which is expressed in our
word ‘repentance,’ means ‘change,’ - a complete, fundamental change of a
person’s thought, feeling, and desires, i.e., his inner spiritual rebirth. For
this reason repentance is called a ‘second rebirth,’ or a ‘second Baptism’ (see the Order of Confession in The Book of Needs).
Behold, this is the repentance which the Lord awaits from us! He desires that we, Orthodox Russian people, change our lives in a fundamental way, to become, as it were, a new, a different people, better in all respects than we were hitherto.
With such repentance, such a fundamental change for the better, our present life, all our hopes for some better future, for our salvation, for the salvation and rebirth of our unhappy homeland, Russia, are vain.
And what are we, Orthodox Russian people in foreign lands, to repent of?
Oh, there is much that we should repent of!
First of all it is necessary to repent of the general sins of mankind, checking our life against the demands of God’s Law, even if only according to the Ten Commandments. (And for this it is necessary, of course, to know these Ten Commandments, something which - alas! - our contemporary generation cannot boast about). Many Russian people have completely ceased accusing themselves of sins, even those mostly clearly and evidently breaking these Ten Commandments, instead accounting the breaking of them as normal, widespread, and therefore in some sense excusable. They have no idea of the patristic saying that “the multitude of sinners does not save us.” Even if everyone around us sins, this does not serve as any justification for our own particular sins.
Furthermore, we have our own particular specific sins, for which undoubtedly God will call us to account, if we do not really repent of them.
Know that we, sons and daughters of Holy Russia, have the great good fortune to confess the one true, the one saving, Holy Orthodox Faith. Much has been given us. And to whom much is given, from him much will be required (See Luke 12:48).
Our most important and basic sin is that we have forgotten that we are living in foreign countries, in ‘far lands,’ and here in exile and in the diaspora, we have begun to feel ‘at home.’ Many of us, - alas! - many already do not want to take into account why we are found abroad, besides which, to be at ease in their countries and attempting to come to terms with their circumstances, we are merging completely with life around us, we are assimilating, slavishly imitating all the people among whom we live, only considering how in some way we might best get established and improve our material success, our well-being, in our new circumstances, and for this end we are ready to sacrifice our spiritual values, including even our Faith itself.
Among us there are some who care about the salvation and rebirth of Russia and about returning to Russia and they even set up various types of political and patriotic organizations with this aim, periodically holding assemblies and organizing conferences. But in the majority of cases, they sin in that they do not desire to understand why such a dreadful catastrophe befell our homeland, and they continue to live aboard entertaining those very same thoughts and feelings, and with the temper which accompanies them, which once brought that catastrophe about. They do not desire to bring about within themselves that unique and saving fundamental change; they do not really want to repent. And therefore, for all their sometimes, maybe, very good and sincere intentions and efforts, they are left with still-born fruit, which leads to nothing and never brings anything positive, leaving behind for all only the bitter after-taste of disillusionment.
The whole life of contemporary Christians is in all ways completely contrary to that which true Christianity requires of us. At the present time, people, bearing the name ‘Christian,’ in the majority of cases, do not even think about what this name implies and they do not strive even a little to fulfill the Gospel precepts, but lead their lives in a completely pagan way. And for this reason it is now not possible for us to live ‘like everyone else.’ Now, more than ever before in the past, it is imperative that we bear in mind the teaching of the holy Apostle James: “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? And so, he who has his own ideals so that he might persuade himself and set himself at rest is he “whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4).
The present-day dissipation and light-mindedness of life in the world is so mindless that it cannot be reconciled with Christianity. These two things are mutually completely at odds. There is no such thing as a minimal Christianity, which might in some way be reconciled with con- temporary dissolute worldly life, which has made as its one purpose the achievement of the greatest possible comfort in life, along with every kind of pleasure and enjoyment.
He who wants really desires to repent must resolutely reject the evil worldly wisdom of the present times. Either / or! There is no midway, and there cannot be one. Either we are sons of God, or we are “sons of opposition,” “sons of perdition.” To constantly amuse oneself, going to restaurants and cinemas and other places of entertainment - all this is clean contrary to true Christianity, and these things he, who has firmly resolved to commit himself truly to repent before God, and not simply in an exterior or hypocritical way, cannot stand to do.
From this point of view, the incessant instances of the countless balls and suppers, events and entertaining gatherings, even when they go under the name of “benefits,” in which so much of our life in the diaspora is now submerged, especially here in America, goes completely against any true repentance.
The most dreadful thing is that in the life of contemporary people falsehood enters in and gets very firmly established there. Present-day Christians lie before God, they lie to each other, they even lie to themselves. The are always “playing a role,” attempting to present themselves as something they are not. They are concerned only with outward respectability, “neglecting the tabernacle fashioned by God.” as the Great Canon [Ode 2] expresses it.
And within this there is an even greater sorrow: that they do not even want to keep Christ’s commandments and without the least fear they out Church rules, and in doing so, they think, in a completely unChristian way, that they are justified in all their unbridled behaviour and by their own mind-set.
Self-love and pride literally infect everything - all of contemporary life.
But the most dreadful thing, of course, is that this is not simply sinning against morality, which to one to degree or another has always had its place in people’s lives, but this is the basic sin of the present day, which hitherto never manifested itself with such force, which never before enclosed people, even those calling themselves Christians, in such a broad sweep, which never hitherto so boldly raised its head, vigorously captivating for itself even those who, evidently, wanted to resist it, but also did not find within themselves the strength to go against the general flow.
This is the sin of Apostasy, or of capitulation.
And it is an all too frequent manifestation today. People call themselves Christian, sometimes even ministers of the Church of Christ, and in reality they are apostates. They have surrendered their souls to the coming Antichrist and they actively participate in his grandiose scheme, now underway throughout the whole world, - the preparation for the kingdom of Antichrist on earth.
And it is especially painful and bitter that many Russian people not only continue to live abroad with those dispositions which led Russia to Bolshevism, but under the influence of the foreign and heterodox environment around them they go even further, wholly engaging in the headlong course of the Apostasy. For such people repentance is particularly difficult. Without the special action of the Grace of God upon their souls it may even be unattainable.
This sin is particularly enticing, because it promises so much - money, career prospects, and all earthly good things, and at the same time it is very proficient at hiding itself under the disguise of an outwardly good appearance.
He who actually, and not in words only, desires to repent, must exhibit full obedience to the Holy Church in all things - to her teachings and to her practice, to her age-old usages which are founded the sacred Scriptures and Holy Tradition, on the teaching of the Holy Fathers, those Pillars of Orthodoxy and strugglers for Christian piety. With resolution he must reject all those pretensions, which are so full of pride and self- confidence, which seek to ‘reform’ or to ‘correct’ things in the Church, or to ‘infuse’ some ‘new, living current’ within her, and so on. No kind of innovation, no kind of modernism should be able to find any place in our Church, more especially that modernism which follows the trends of the anti-Christian ideas of this present evil age, which, while they appear one thing, conceal any sign of their ideological aspirations, such as the ecumenical union of all faith confessions, or universal government headed by a one-world administration.
“Not all that glistens is gold,” says a good Russian proverb [and an English one too! - transl.] And we, the Christians must understand that Satan himself, when it proves necessary for him, can “take on the appearance of an Angel of light,” and therefore it is no marvel “if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor. 11:14-15).
He who desires actually to repent must, with all resolution, tear asunder the entangling nets of the contemporary world, which, with a determination which cannot be countered, drag all deeper and deeper into the abyss of Apostasy, from which there is no way out.
This we, Orthodox Russian people, must recognise within ourselves, if we are really seeking to achieve true repentance, if we sincerely desire salvation for ourselves and for our homeland, Russia, and with that of the whole of mankind, of the whole world, for as must be manifest to us all now, the fate of the whole world at the present time is closely bound up with the fate of our homeland, Russia.*
But woe to us, if within us there begins to speak a feeling of proud self-justification; if we do not begin to desire to recognise within our- selves all the various guilty things enumerated above. “Pride and self-justification,” according to the teachings of the Holy Fathers, “darken the mind” (Abba Dorotheus: Questions and Answers, question 82).
“Guard against pride and self-justification,” the great elder John the Prophet teaches, “for they impede repentance” (answer 82).
Unfortunately there are among us Russians, those who not only do not recognise the whole depth of their fall, but with a kind of incomprehensible delusion, even yield to some sort of unfounded delight, with self-esteem and trust in themselves and in others, assuming that everything is alright with them.
Such a disposition is completely alien to true Christianity. We must not congratulate ourselves, lest this bring upon us the most severe judgment. Lulling the conscience, into which groundless fantasies have entered, is the very greatest evil, which cuts off at the very root every possibility of true repentance.
Before all else, true repentance depends upon humility, a complete and unreserved humility before the commandments of the Gospel, before the canons and precepts of the Church, a readiness completely and without dissimulation to submit to them. True repentance is completely alien to any sort of pretence or claims of self-determination. It is an inexorable awareness within oneself of one’s own sinfulness. Only when it is such can it be active and salvific.
What then? Shall we embark upon this road of real repentance? Shall we thus observe the Dormition Fast which is upon us? Shall we resolve in the most fundamental way to change our life for the better?
Or, as before, shall we take life easily, disregarding all that has been said above, until we are struck at the inescapable dread hour of God’s retribution which is approaching, when instantaneously all our present “well-being” will fall away, and awful destruction shall befall us, not only a temporal one, but one eternal.** May it not be!
* This thought might strike some of our readers as odd or unrealistic. In fact, Archbishop Averky could have been thinking of two things. He was writing in 1960, when the Cold War was at its coldest. Politically the fate of the whole world then was very much bound up with that of what was commonly called Russia. However, on the deeper level, he was more probably considering Russia’s classic claim to be the Third Rome. This concept has, unfortunately, been bastardized by extreme nationalists, and is often presented as if it were a reason for pride, or some kind of national superiority. In fact, it was a calling to a ministry within the Church, that Russia should serve as a beacon of Orthodoxy to the rest of the world, and thus her fate would be very much bound up with the fate of the whole world. If she would lead in showing the way of repentance, then there would be hope that other peoples would follow.
** This, of course, might refer to the end of the world, but also applies at the time of death of every Orthodox individual, something we shall all experience.