Beginning a New Year

This week marked the beginning of the ecclesiastical year. The Orthodox calendar is based on the old Roman (and later Byzantine) taxation calendar, of all things, which began on September 1. I began attending Vespers at my Greek Orthodox church last August, so it’s been a little over a year since I began my inquiry into Orthodoxy. But this is the beginning of my first ecclesiastical year as a committed catechumen, and my Chrismation is probably not far off. Here are some reflections on my first year of Orthodox faith and some observations about the year to come.

Not long before the pandemic began, I started to keep a consistent prayer rule in the mornings. Most Orthodox Christians are private about their prayer rule, but because the majority of my readers are non-Orthodox, I thought you might be curious about my prayer life. Each morning after rising, washing myself in the shower, and getting dressed, I stand before the icons in the corner of my guest bedroom (a corner known in Greek as the εικονοστάσι [eikonostási] or in Russian as красный угол [krasniy ūgol]—the beautiful corner), light some frankincense, and pray. I begin by making the sign of the cross, invoking the names of the Trinity, and saying the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I then read a few short troparia, Psalm 51, a prayer of St. Basil the Great, the Midnight Song to the Theotokos (i.e., Mary, the God-bearer), a morning prayer of the Last Elders of Optina (my favorite), a prayer of St. Philaret of Moscow, another prayer to the Most Holy Theotokos, a blessing on Orthodox Christians and Christians everywhere, and a conclusion. Throughout, I repeat the refrain “Lord, have mercy” (Κύριε ἐλέησον [Kyrie eleison] in Greek). After I’m done, I sit in silent meditation and contemplation for between ten and twenty minutes.

My modest eikonostási: an icon of the Twelve Apostles and a famous icon of the Christ Pantocrator from St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai.

Needless to say, this style of prayer was very difficult at first for me, a former Evangelical and former Quaker. But it’s had an extraordinary impact on my life. Repeating the same lines each morning has an effect not unlike deep meditation with a mantra. Some mornings it feels like a much-beloved if sometimes tiring routine; other mornings, it has a profound impact on my state of mind, not unlike the effect of deep Pentecostal intercession or Quaker worship. I feel a deep sense of communion with God and (perhaps especially) with the saints and the two thousand years of Christians who precede me. This is not the dull repetition that I so often associated with liturgical prayer. It’s much more profound than I could have anticipated.

After the pandemic began, I started to fast regularly on Wednesdays and Fridays. For my Evangelical and Exvangelical readers: Orthodox fasting does not typically require you to abstain from all food. Typically Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and fish (excluding shellfish, which ecclesiastically are considered vegetables), dairy products, and oils. I haven’t worked up the discipline to fully abstain from oils on the fast days, but other than oil, I maintain a completely vegan diet while fasting. I also strive to eat more simply and consciously on those days. It’s admittedly not difficult for me—my wife is a vegetarian, and I very rarely eat red meat anymore, so switching to a vegan diet twice a week is no big deal. But the act of consciously fasting, even if it is not rife with difficulty, has been profound on me. I feel significantly more aware of my faith and of God’s presence on fasting days.

The real fasting challenge will come for me in November, when the first major Orthodox fast begins: the Nativity fast. I will hold to a vegan diet (again, excluding shellfish, which I don’t eat often) for the forty days before Christmas. As a proud American, I will take Thanksgiving off from fasting to celebrate our greatest civic holiday, but other than that, I’ll be fasting. It won’t be easy, but I’m committed to it.

In addition to fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, Orthodox Christians celebrate four major fasting seasons: the Nativity fast (November 15 – December 24); the Great Lent (forty days before Holy Week, and then Holy Week itself); the Apostles’ Fast, which begins just after All Saint’s Day (the Sunday after Pentecost) and can last anywhere from eight to forty-two days, depending on the date of Pascha (Easter), until the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29; and, finally, the fast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (which commemorates the death of Mary and comprises the first two weeks of August). All in all, it adds up to several weeks of fasting each year.

I do not write this post to brag or air my spirituality in public. I hesitated about whether or not to describe my prayer rule. I don’t want to be accused of doing on the street corner what should be done in private. But so much of Orthodox spirituality is mysterious to outsiders, so I thought I’d take this opportunity, at the beginning of an Orthodox new year, to share these aspects of my practice and my journey. If you have any questions or suggestions for future posts, don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment!

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