Christian monastic life can be described as "white-hot Christianity", and monks and nuns in the Orthodox Church work intensely on their spiritual lives. They are practitioners of asceticism, a deep personal discipline of prayer, fasting, night vigils, and manual labor. As with Christianity in general, asceticism also involves the practice of love, mainly through intercessory prayer (for those who ask and for all mankind). They also practice charity in the form of hospitality, opening their doors to all who seek shelter and spiritual comfort.
Ordinary folks like us don't normally practice spiritual discipline with such intensity. However, during the season of Lent, the Orthodox are called to practice something closer to this white-hot Christianity. We are called to fast from certain foods, giving up not only meat, but also fish, eggs, dairy, and even wine (meaning all alcoholic beverages). Such fasting is to be accompanied by intense prayer as well. Indeed, fasting is not an end in itself, but an aid to prayer, secondary to it in importance. This means both private personal prayer and attendance at church services, of which are plentiful during Lent!
This may sound at best oddly interesting and at worst just plain weird to those who have read thus far. God loves us no matter what, right? If we are saved just by having faith in him, why go to all this trouble? But all this becomes much more understandable when we consider why Orthodox Christians do these things.
The answer has to do with the Orthodox concept of salvation itself. We think of salvation, not as being saved from something (i.e., hell), but rather for something - the eternal Kingdom of God where we will share in Christ's divine life. In order to do this in eternity, we must begin to work for it, and even experience a foretaste of it, now in this world. This involves becoming attuned to God's presence right now, by turning away from things that bind us to this world-our desires for earthly pleasures, and those passions that lead us into sin, such as pride, envy, and anger. Turning from worldly inclinations takes work-they have a strong pull on us! St. Paul says that we are to "work out" our salvation in fear and trembling. He also says that this work involves spiritual warfare. And yet he also tells us we are saved by our faith. In Orthodoxy, this means that saving faith is manifested by action, and that faith without action is no faith at all.
This being said, the ascetical approach of the Orthodox Church would be too ponderous for words except for one thing-that we take it up with an attitude of joy; and during Lent this is bound up with our anticipation of the great Feast of the Resurrection, Pascha (Easter). This is the celebration of Christ's Resurrection from the dead, his passage (Pascha, Passover) from life to death and into divine, glorified life, which He also promises to us. This is what the Orthodox mean by Salvation. This is what we celebrate at Pascha and prepare for during Lent.
At Pascha the white-hot intensity of fasting is replaced by the equally white-hot intensity of feasting in the joy of Christ's Resurrection. Every day we spend in the "bright sadness" of fasting makes our experience of the Resurrection all the sweeter, all the more real.
Father Walter Smith is pastor of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 601 S. Sixth Street W., Missoula.