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No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

Now that Great Lent is upon us, the question sometimes arises about where we should put our spiritual focus.  There are two places we should certainly not put our focus—and only one place where we should.

       The first and most important place where we should not put our focus is upon the sins, transgressions, and mistaken choices of our neighbour.  This was the error of the Pharisee in our Lord’s parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18.  When the Pharisee entered the Temple to find favour with God, he stood and prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”  It is doubtful that the Pharisee personally knew many extortioners, unjust, or adulterers.  Almost certainly he was only referring to that class of people in the abstract.  But the tax collector he mentioned was different:  he did not say “or like tax collectors”, but rather “like this tax collector”. 

In other words, as he entered the Temple he was scanning the crowd to find and take note of sinners. Seeing the tax collector nearby was a kind of gift to him—perfect!  Some sinner to whom I can compare myself!  Someone to whom I am superior!  What a happy day!

This is the disease of Pharisaism:  a constant preoccupation with the sins (real or imagined) of others, so that one can feel superior by comparison.

Early in Great Lent, keeping the fast is no problem.  But, for many of us, by the fourth week of the fast we would just about kill for a ham and cheese sandwich.  It is then that when we see another Orthodox eating a ham and cheese sandwich that a little voice sounds in the back of our heads, saying, “God, I thank You that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers—or even like this guy eating a ham and cheese sandwich in Great Lent.”  Unless we silence that voice and remind ourselves that our focus should not be on the plates, dietary choices, and lives of anyone else, that voice will sound in our heads more and more often.  Our humility and our spiritual life will soon whither way under the constant burning glare of pride and the diagnosis will be final and official:  we will have become a Pharisee.  We need to save ourselves before the disease fastens its grip upon us, and refuse to put our Lenten focus upon the sins of others.

Should we therefore put our focus upon ourselves and our own sins?  Actually, no.  If your conscience smites you, then of course you should respond by repenting, telling God you’re sorry, and striving to do better next time.  But a constant focus upon ourselves and our struggles can also be deadly.

That is because we can quickly become fatally self-absorbed and self-deceived.  I knew a man who was always telling me how terrible his sins were and how black his soul was, when all the time he was in the grip of pride and prelest.  He was only saying how sinful he was because he thought that was how saints talked.  In fact, the first time he was rebuked for an error and a sin he left the church feeling superior.

So, after our conscience rebukes us for a particular sin (note:  a particular sin, and not sin in general.  Consciences always work upon specific and particular sins), we should look at ourselves and repent, and then quickly turn away from self-introspection.  That is because truly accurate self-assessment is impossible for us; it is like trying to take out your eyes to look at them.  We can never really know how we are doing spiritually over all.  Is our score 2 out of 10 or 8 out of ten?  Are we improving or declining?   We can never know by ourselves.  We are probably doing better in some areas than we think, and worse in other areas.  Best not to fash ourselves and guess; leave the score-keeping to God alone.

That was the attitude of St. Paul.  When responding to the Corinthians he wrote, “With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself.  I am not thereby acquitted.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:1f).  The Lord alone knows our true over all score, and He will tell us on the Last Day.  Trying to guess before that Day is not only futile; it is dangerous.  It may tempt us to despair or to pride.

If we are not to put our focus on our neighbour’s score or our own, where then should we put it?  The answer:  on Jesus Christ.  The prophet Isaiah spoke of our eyes seeing the King in his beauty (Isaiah 33:17), and it is this divine beauty that should be our focus—both during Great Lent and always.

For me the best literary expression of this divine beauty is found in C. S. Lewis’ book The Last Battle, a part of his Narnian Chronicles.  It centers upon the experience of a man called “Emeth” (significantly, the Hebrew word for “faithful”).  In that world there were two rival gods:  Aslan and Tash, Aslan the lion being the image of Christ, the true God and the Lion of Judah, and Tash being an image of the devil.  Emeth from his youth had been taught that Tash was the true God and that Aslan was the evil devil, and so all his life he hated the name of Aslan and strived to serve Tash.  Then Emeth passed through the door of death and found himself in paradise, the land of Aslan.  Emeth tells the story of meeting Aslan like this:

“Lo!—in a narrow place between two rocks there came to meet me a great Lion.  The speed of him was like the ostrich, and his size was an elephant’s; his hair was like pure gold and the brightness of his eyes like gold that is liquid in the furnace.  He was more terrible than the Flaming Mountain of Lagour, and in beauty he surpassed all that is in the world even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert.  Then I fell at his feet and thought, ‘Surely this is the hour of death, the Lion (who is worthy of all honour) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him’.  Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be king of the world and live and not to have seen him”.

This is not just the voice and witness of Emeth; it is the voice of psalmist, it is the voice of Christ’s Bride, it is the voice of everyone who has seen the King in His beauty.  In this age we see the King with our spiritual eyes, but soon enough we also will pass through the dark door into a place of light and our eyes will see the King in His beauty—the One whose beauty surpasses all that is in the world even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert.  That is why St. Paul wrote that to die was actually gain (Philippians 1:21).  In this age we can only see the King “through a glass darkly”.  Then we shall see Him face to face.

How then do we focus upon the King in His beauty in Great Lent?  By saying our prayers and reading our Bibles, by going to Lenten services and striving to keep the fast.  That is how we focus upon the Lord in this age.  St. Jerome said the same.  He taught that when we pray we are speaking to the Bridegroom and when we read the Scriptures the Bridegroom is speaking to us.

Note:  not “the Judge”, but “the Bridegroom”, the One who loves us as a bridegroom loves his bride.  Ultimately Lent is about love—not rules and suffering and duties and growling stomachs, but about love.  Through our Lenten disciplines we strive to draw closer to the Bridegroom, to hear His voice more clearly, and to see His beauty more and more.  It is said that beauty will save the world.  Indeed it will, for that beauty, crucified and risen, now sits at the Father’s right hand.  That beauty, on which we focus throughout Lent and throughout our life, even now calls us home.





Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.