After the Great Canon service. 5th Wednesday of Great Lent 2009.

A happy heart.

Fasting creates simple pleasures.

Lentil Curry, & cooking oil and onions.

“Yummy” Black Cherry soda.

The Theme of the Great Canon.

St Mary of Egypt.



It made my heart “enlarged”[1]  to see so many of you at the Great Canon service Wednesday night, and also surprising to me, so many at the meal we had in between Presantified and Matins. I also received by email from some that you were not able to come for various reasons, but the very fact that you wanted to come made it feel to me as if you were standing with us in prayer all the time.


It was also a pleasure to provide the main course for our meal, and to cook it with oil which was allowed Wednesday because of the rigor of the services. It is also allowed Thursday & Friday. It was even an added benefit to see that Raissa appreciated it. I assure you, I can do much better. I was disappointed in the lentils. I think the lentils were a little old and dried out. Although I cooked them for a long time, they did not get soft. When they soften, they take up the flavor of the curry so much better. When I get a chance, I will post the recipe.


It is such a simple but very satisfying pleasure to have a little oil in the middle of the week. It can be as edifying to not fast (or fast less) as to fast, but only if we fast in the first place! Self-indulgence is a great enemy to the soul. We are not against pleasure, or legalistic about fasting, as some non-Orthodox and even Orthodox slander our rules, but the temperate man actually has MORE pleasure than the indulgent one! When I was a kid, we did not routinely have soda at home, but occasionally, my mother would buy a six-pack of “Yummy” store brand Black Cherry soda from the local Jewell. What a great pleasure that was, as I LOVED Black Cherry soda. I am sure it would not have been so pleasurable if she bought me a “big gulp” of it every day. The novelty would wear off, and there would have been toxic side effects – I would not have learned about simple pleasures, and the high fructose corn syrup might have made me get fat, and predisposed me to diabetes. We have an epidemic of these afflictions in the Western world, because of the cheap, easy availability of toxic, tasty foods, such as high fructose corn syrup, and our addiction to them.


I made the curry with oil, but I actually rarely do. It is just as easy to sauté the onions in plain water or vegetable broth. This is actually healthier, and I do not really taste any difference. If the oil is allowed to get too hot (and this is really EASY to do), it breaks down, and forms many carcinogenic compounds, plus some of the really beneficial micro-nutrients in the oil get broken down by the heat and we lose their benefits. Anytime oil is heated a lot (such as frying) it forms toxic compounds (some oils are especially susceptible to this, such as most margarine). Over the long term, these compounds cause disease, especially cardiovascular disease. For this reason, I never fry, and only occasionally use only oil to sauté. Sometimes I use oil AND water, and keep adding water, so that the temperature of the oil does not exceed the boiling point of water (the chemistry course you may not  remember teaches us that when water reaches boiling, the temperature does not increase past the boiling point, unless the steam is trapped and increases the pressure of the “system”. Since my pan has a relatively loose fitting lid, the steam can at least partially escape, and therefore the gas pressure inside the pan does not increase much, and the temperature stays constant. See Boyles Law and the properties of water. Class dismissed!)


By the way, when you cut onions or garlic, wait 20 minutes before cooking them. This allows time for the enzymes to cause very beneficial compounds to form. In onions especially, these healthy usually sulphur containing compounds make you cry. As soon as the onions or garlic are heated, the enzymes denature, and the manufacture of the healthy compounds ceases, although, as long as the heat is not way too high or prolonged, the ones produced will still retain their healthy properties.


I think the main theme of the Great Canon is that we are broken because of sin. Our understanding of sin is so different from the West that I wish we did not use the same word. For the Orthodox, sin arises out of our brokenness and confusion. The greatest penalty of sin is the confusion and pain it causes us. This pain DOES NOT go away when we are forgiven! Our brokenness and pain will go away only when we stop being sinners – when we are freed of sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ became man in order to conquer sin, not just forgive it. We long for being free of sin – and if you listen closely, this theme is present in every line of the Great Canon.


I don’t like to be broken. I want to be whole. This is the entire reason that I am a Christian; there is no other way to become whole. I became a priest because seeing pain, the vast majority of which is self-inflicted, in others, makes me mad. My prayer for my flock is that they each feel acutely their brokenness and cling to Christ in every way to become healed. If you do not feel broken, you will not ask to be fixed; you will not be fixed!


I can think of no other prayers in our vast lexicon which express the feeling of brokenness better than the Great Canon.


When combined with the Life of St Mary of Egypt, which we read last night, we see the “before” and “after” picture. It can be our picture too.


St Mary was terribly broken and full of sin in her early life. Like most sinful people, such as the ones we see in the mirror, she was not acutely aware of her sins. I think we can surmise from her own description of her early sinfulness that she was actually completely unaware of her brokenness; however, by God’s grace, through the intercession of the Mother of God, beyond all expectation, she came to her senses and repented.


I always take great comfort in her words to St Zosimas:


“Know, holy father, that I am only a sinful woman, though I am guarded by Holy baptism. And I am no spirit but earth and ashes, and flesh alone."


St Mary was part of the “hatch em, match em and dispatch em” crowd (seen in church on the day of their baptism, their marriage, and for their funeral). I have had some of these types of baptisms. I call them “bungee baptisms”, after the Dilbert cartoon where the “bungee boss” comes into the office as the new boss (attached to a bungee cord), only to be reassigned so quickly that is was as if he was never there. I suppose that is not the most pious way to refer to the problem of people that baptize their children and then never come to church, but sometimes I gotta laugh to keep from crying.


I have all these people in my dyptichs[2], although I never see them. I often think of St Mary’s words about baptism when I commemorate them . May the grace of baptism guard these dear children even though their parents cannot or will not show them a good example in the Christian life, and attend services and partake of the mysteries regularly.


I think our presence in all the services, and especially such ultra compunctionate ones such as the Great Canon, is always touched by irony.


Speaking for myself (but also knowing human nature and realizing that my weaknesses are by no means unique):


I stood in prayer reading a story about a woman who prayed with such fervor and detachment from worldly things that she stood suspended a “forearm’s length” in the air[3], while not only my feet but also my mind remained firmly rooted to the ground as I flitted from one useless, trivial thought to another.


I read verses in the canon that clearly elucidated St Andrew felt keenly his brokenness, while my inattention, shuffling feet and “counting of verses” showed clearly how broken I am.


I read poetic words of wisdom, and with some of them I simultaneously thought: “I have no idea what this really means, and I should!”


I read about St Mary laying on the ground for a full day and a night, watering the ground with her tears, trying to stave off lustful thoughts, and illicit songs and images[4], and the Internet brings these things to me as I sit on my couch, from the ads in my email or Facebook page. 


Truly, when we pray, in our thoughts and actions the words of the Psalmist are fulfilled:


“I believed wherefore I spake; I was humbled exceedingly. As for me, I said in mine ecstasy: Every man is a liar.” (Psalm 115:1[5])


So what are we to do, as we pray weakly, live haphazardly, and lie by calling ourselves Christians while not living in every way as one? There is only one solution, and we know it will work, because God has promised it will. Immediately after the Psalmist proclaims radically his sinfulness, he confidently replies to himself:


“What shall I render unto the Lord for all that He hath rendered unto me? I will take the cup of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord.” (Psalm 115:2)



[1] When I called upon Thee, O God of my righteousness, Thou didst hearken unto me; in mine affliction Thou hast enlarged me. (Psalm 4:1 Sept)

[2] The word means “list”. Every priest has dyptichs, which are lists of the living and dead for commemoration in the Divine Liturgy. It is important that we also have a smaller list for daily prayer for those we love.

[3] “And with these words she turned to the East, and raising her eyes to heaven and stretching out her hands, she began to pray in a whisper. One could not hear separate words, so that Zosimas could not understand anything that she said in her prayers. Meanwhile he stood, according to his own word, all in a flutter, looking at the ground without saying a word. And he swore, calling God to witness, that when at length he thought that her prayer was very long, he took his eyes off the ground and saw that she was raised bout a forearm’s distance from the ground and stood praying in the air. When he saw this, even greater terror seized him and he fell on the ground weeping and repeating may times, ‘Lord have mercy.’” (Life of St Mary of Egypt)

[4] “And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to fornication, how can I express them to you, Abba? A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience, and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me.” (Life of St Mary of Egypt)

[5] Psalm 115 (Septuagint numbering) is one of the Psalms we say in the “Preparation for Communion” prayers


  1. Father, Bless

    St. Mary of Egypt’s story moved me deeply and so did participation in the Great Canon on Wednesday.

    I know what you mean about the relationship between abstinence and appreciation. When I am not fasting, I find that I do best on a high protein, low carb diet. (By proteins, I mean good healthy, chemical free, free range meat, eggs & dairy and by carbs I am referring primarily to refined flour, sugar, corn syrup, etc..found in breads, pastas, sweets, soft drinks, etc..)

    I find that the first week I abstain from these things, I battle cravings for them. Then, after a while the cravings go away. After a while my appetite decreases and it only takes a small amount of food to satisfy me. In fact, I find that when I allow myself an occasional sweet ‘indulgence’ it only takes a very small portion to satisfy me. Not only has my appetite decreased but my taste buds have changed. When one eats sweets on a regular basis, the taste buds become desensitized, accustomed to the taste of sweet, and more sweetness is required to give the same level of satisfaction. After abstaining for a while, the taste buds readjust and it takes only a tiny bit of sweetness to satisfy a taste for sweet. When I am limiting myself to just a little sweetness, I find I become very discriminating in my tastes–no longer content with just stuffing my face just to satisfy a craving. I am then eating because I really enjoy the taste, not to satisfy an insatiable appetite and craving that has become unbalanced due to insulin resistance.

    There’s a spiritual metaphor in there, somewhere. 🙂

  2. Father Bless!

    Thank you for all your posts! It is hard for me to comment on posts because it seems that you say it all, and you say it so well. I remember being baptized as a 12-year old, not ever having been to a single church service before or after baptism, until thirteen years later. Would you explain more about how baptism guards us and what it really means?

  3. Fether, Annie is absolutely right! As you know, no good deed (including your postsl) is left unpunished:-) – you receive it in the form of my unbearably long comment, so please pluck patience!


    Father, your description is so delicious, leaves the impression of some Pascha meal!


    “The greatest penalty of sin is the confusion and pain it causes us. This pain DOES NOT go away when we are forgiven!”

    This is what I feel. Even when I suffer my sin enough & feel repentance, and am forgiven at the confession, the pain of it remains, as well as the memory, the vividness. I’ve been once told by a priest that if God decides, not only the sin, but all my past can be erased…But in my present state of inner person I cannot fully realize that – i.e. that God is SO merciful. I once heard that when God forgives a person he feels it. Maybe it is so, but maybe only very righteous people can feel it. For me – even if He forgives, everyone forgives – I cannot forgive myself, and this impedes me to fully realize our Lord’s mercy. Once one of our priests said that restraining from a sin, keeping oneself away from it – is hard for everyone, but it’s not the same for innocent person (I mean the one who did not do this sin at all), and the one who did it, and got accustomed to it, for whom the sin turned into a sinful skill. It is of course possible for him, with God’s assistance, to give up a sin or his sinful habit, but even if he manages – there is also the space inside him, a route, which remains empty, and it will always remind him of itself, and require to be fulfilled. This father compared it this way: the river, running in one direction – as it happens with decisive people who did not take up the sin (or sins), it helps a person to keep up his integrity, get together all his efforts, maintain chastity. But when a person commits a sin, this integrity is, yes, broken, and there appear a special, allotted channel. And the more grave sins we accomplish, the more channels are opened, and the river starts flows there too. The chastity is ruined. To get it together & send it to the sole, united stream is enormously difficult. Even if a person manages to empty these channels, make them float in one direction, the channels, though empty, remain for ever. And the person will do twice hard job in his life – keeping the water all together, maintaining one right direction, and tracking these channels, always trying to prevent water get there…Thus we should think thoroughly before committing a grave sin – as we pay too much for this, very high price & for a very long time.

    When the Canon is read and we pray to St Mary…it always seems to me inconceivable. There are such saints that are inconceivable for me – like St John the Bishop, St Mary of Egypt. I first though it’s because of their extremely ascetic lives, they are both preachers of repentance, but not only this…I feel there is something else under all this, but it’s a mystery for me for now.

    ST MARY:

    “I flitted from one useless, trivial thought to another”.

    The state I find myself with “enviable regularity”. Strange, not only in the church or praying, but in some serious circumstances of life, tough situations, when all my thoughts & emotions should – as it seems – be concentrated on this event. But at that moments – strange as it might seem – many additional minor thoughts & recollections often crawl into my pooh head….

    I once heard the following expression: “A person is what he thinks about during the day”. Cruelly! But is not deprived of sense. If I admit it is so (well, I admit, no escape!), I am at a loss for words with which I can call myself? Besides, I was always convinced (since childhood) that “many” means “nothing”: many words (nothing said actually), many professions (that means he cannot do anything professionally), many friends (“hi”-“bye” relations), for example. Or when I read in a book that a certain Father had “thousands of spiritual children” – it makes me tremble, softly speaking. Or “that bishop spent days & nights in payers” (if anyone shows me this miraculous bishop I’ll give him a prize!:-) – of course, if this bishop retired. What I am driving at (sorry, by the very round-about way:-) is that many thoughts means no actually valuable thought. Means nothing. Emptiness. Zero, multiplied even by a multitude, remains a zero. Apologies, didn’t aim at frightening you – the consoling factor is that midnight will come not very soon for you:-)


    asking for your prayers – now & for ever,

    Natalia “the catterbox”

  4. Father, I am terrified at the stupidities I wrote. Please consider corrections:
    – St John the Bapist (hope St John will forgive me!)
    – “days & nights in pRayers”
    – “the chatterbox”
    – and sorry for “fether” !

    this is all I can track for today, as I have to wind up for today – I can’t stand the computer any more.


  5. When this message opened up in a preview pane of my Outlook email client (I could only see a small part of the top of the message), I thought Father sent us his new poem! 😉

    I actually read it slowly… with meaningful pauses… savoring each line… kind of like a haiku verse:

    A happy heart.
    Fasting creates simple pleasures.
    Lentil Curry, & cooking oil and onions.
    “Yummy” Black Cherry soda.
    The Theme of the Great Canon.
    St Mary of Egypt.

    Hense my response:

    A scent of spring in the air.
    Dirty puddles of melted snow on the pavement.
    The Metro train is crammed – can’t pull my Molitvoslov out.
    Swaying and shuffling with the crowd in a penguin motion.
    Jesus prayer to the rescue.
    The church is full – thanks be to God and Perestroyka!
    Great Lent in Moscow.

    Nat 🙂

  6. Here’s David H’s response:

    Curry bowl empty.
    So sad.
    Sound of tear falling.

  7. Nat A’s words are many and deep
    Nat H’s, deep and few
    David H’s are just funny.


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